Location: Jian’ou, Fujian Province, China
China is a country where everything changes and nothing ever really changes. Where the old meets the new and the future mingles intimately with the past. It’s been more than 2 years since we left China, but the country welcomed us back with open arms.
William Gibson once said something to the effect of: the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed. As a corollary to that, China is where the future is happening in real time. You can go there and watch a government and its people leapfrog over half a century of entrenched infrastructural decisions and come up with something that addresses their needs in a more innovative way.
With a quick overnight stay in Fuzhou, we took the newly constructed fast train back to Jian’ou for the wedding of our dear friend and translator (more on the Chinese wedding experience in our next post). Now Davi is an English teacher himself with an apartment, car, and a beautiful new wife who we were meeting for the very first time.
Those weren’t the only changes we needed to process. In the two years since we left Jian’ou the city has changed drastically. On the city planning side of things, we’ll say. On the human side, things have stayed basically the same… maybe a few less double-takes and cries of “foreigner” (“waiguoren”) when we walk down the street.
It is rare that we return to a place and are so excited to rediscover it. Of course, we visited all of the old haunts–the breakfast man, various temples, the school, and so on. But we also learned about some of the new places–the city put in a fabulous massage parlor, spa and bathhouse, for example.
WeChat has replaced QQ as the great social media platform. New and unfamiliar students fill the classrooms of Jian’ou No. 1 Middle School. Buildings and roads have sprung up across the city. Our school has not only reliable electricity, but added SmartBoards in some of the classrooms. There is a new car sharing service cheaper than a taxi for getting around town, and we still spent a lot of time in rickshaws. There is a coffeeshop that serves real coffee (not Nescafé!) and it is, naturally, inside a cell phone store.
When the wedding took us back to Davi’s parents village it was peak season for the orange trees. Orange and chestnut trees gave way to lumber plantations, since it is more lucrative and can sustain a farmer and their family. Sadly the chestnut trees have all been replaced with firs.
The biggest change was that we weren’t the only peculiar faces in town. Of course we had people on the street ask to take photos with us as soon as we got to Fuzhou, but our status as local celebrities had shifted. Instead of being the only foreigners people had ever seen, we were part of a cadre of people. And within that in-group, we were the big bosses; the first, the icebreakers, the prime movers.
We were both a little bit eager to compare our lives to the lives of the other foreign teachers. Since the infrastructure for them was more established than it was for us, we made different kinds of personal growth and change. It felt good for K to flex his mental muscles a bit and translate (rudimentary) Chinese when he could.
It was fascinating to hear about how well they have fared- the amazing art they’ve created and the closeness they’ve cultivated as a family. They have a tailor, an acupuncturist, and a maid who comes to clean the apartment twice a week. They met other English speakers around town and discovered a way to order takeout. We were so impressed.
Nevertheless many of the same challenges spring up. The health issues have not improved. Their beautiful baby girl (the talk of the town and coveted by Chinese grandma’s everywhere) had recently recovered from the measles, which has broken out amongst the children in town.
The biggest surprise of all was how at home we felt with these new faces. We began the new year with a synchronicity we never felt while we were actually living there. K likes to joke that an expat’s time living in China is between 4x and 7x normal time, so it’s as if we’d been friends with everyone for months. That meant we walked and talked easily about our artistic and intellectual pursuits. We gave a KTV tribute to all the superstars that passed away in 2016, a first for some of the people in our troupe. We tried some homestyle biscuits and jam, and some delicious french toast—delicacies we would have never cooked for ourselves.
From fancy hotels in Fuzhou to digging bamboo deep in the mountains of Fujian Province, we celebrated milestones with old friends and found new kinships in the unlikeliest of places. I can only hope the rest of the year is filled with this much joy and inspiration.