Machuria is Calling

Americans in China was the theme for This American Life last week.

It was interesting and refreshing to hear perspectives of one of my very favourite podcasts on my newest home in these wanderings. China is complex. It’s big. It’s fascinating. It’s so very far away, in the minds of people in the US. It’s that vaguely scary or at the very least bizzare China of the US media.

I especially identified, somewhat weirdly, with the stories about the man who’s been living here for more than seventeen years and currently lives in a village called ‘Wasteland’ in the North of the country. It’s very different from my experience of a mere 39 days, of course. He lives in the interior and shuttles between there and Hong Kong, where his wife is a lawyer. His stories about the village made me long for a village in China, for a way to escape this giant metropolis and see what it’s ‘really’ like out there.

Is this the 'real' China?
Is this the ‘real’ China?

Shanghai, in all its glory and LED-clad sparkle, doesn’t always feel like CHINA China. It sometimes feels like demi-China…like the historic influences of the French and their lovely little concession have seeped into the very soil. The crops that grow now are more outward-looking. There are proper hospitals and ubiquitious Starbucks. There is even one in our neighbourhood, down by Lianhua Road Station where few expats seem to venture. It’s always busy.

The writer who lives in Wasteland evoked the desire to escape because the China he spoke of is the one where my Mandarin would grow by leaps and bounds and not by baby steps. I’m a bit of a spectacle on some streets in Shanghai, but I’m sure that I’d be an even bigger one in Wasteland. I’m interested in rural China, and living there…it calls to me like Patagonia once did.

He spoke about wanting to have a card with shorthand on it, to answer the inevitable questions that come up in every conversation with those who live in and around his village. Among the answers:

“I am American.”
“I am 1.85 metres tall.”
“Yes, I can use chopsticks.”

Is this the 'real' China?
Is this the ‘real’ China?

Despite being in Shanghai, I want to make a card that answers similar questions. Even in this strange blended land where being a foreigner is not exceptional (except to a three year old on her father’s shoulders, visiting for a tour of Shanghai from somewhere else who points at you and shouts “WeiguoRen! WeiguoRen!!”), I often feel the need to explain my presence. Especially down where I live, in Minhang.

My card would go something like this.

“I am American, but my husband is English.”
“I am 1.85 metres tall.”
“I am new to China.”
“My natural hair and eye colours are what you see.”
“Yes, I can use chopsticks.”
“I will pose with you for two pictures, and only if you ask before taking them.’

I would add a tear-off section that could be given back to me, saying, “Teach me a new phrase in Chinese.” Then I could learn a bit more.

Cool neighbourhood we walked into, down a close alleyway. Amazing!
Might be closer….

I now have my full-blown residence visa and my passport is back in my possession. I need to get out of Shanghai and see ‘real’ China. Real China.’ It’s easy to fall into the idea that Shanghai is not China, somehow. Maybe I’ve only been circulating in the parts that are not. Maybe if I went down more side streets and spent more time in the small shops near my apartment instead of Expat bookstores I would have experienced it by now. But then, it’s easy to fall into the idea of a ‘real’ place. ‘Real’ India is an ever-present quest for some tourists in that country. You hear them talking about it in hushed tones, over the clicking of their DSLR cameras…”I want to see REAL India. I want to photograph this village so that I can show my twitter followers the REAL India.” Not to mention that it’s a bit uncomfortable to take the photo of an unsuspecting nine year old girl in her parents’ courtyard.

Or “real” America. I want to see Toto and amber waves of grain and the Washington monument. Or ‘real’ France. I want to stand under the Eiffel Tower eating a baguette and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. Or ‘real’ England, where Stonehenge is in London and I can eat jellied eels all day next to Parliament.   Something about these ‘real’ places is the stereotypical; the film-based, the expected. We want to go to the places we pictured in our minds.

Maybe this is the 'real' China?
Maybe this is the ‘real’ China?

But still…that piece made me want the ‘real’ China. I long for it. I want to take a bus to the middle of nowhere. I want to hear dialects whose names I’ve never even heard of. I want to eat food I never even conceived of. I want to get away from the thousands of Starbucks. I want to go somewhere that people have no idea what pizza is…I want them to tell me the things that they know about this world. I want them to help me to see how life once was, before it changes forever.

I want the hard things. I want the squat toilets. I want the quiet at night. I want (or maybe even need) a cold, quiet wind in the wilderness.

Maybe I’ll be able to get it soon. I can now travel in China, after all.

2 thoughts on “Machuria is Calling

  1. Glad you liked (I think you liked?) the Wasteland story. I liked listening to it, changed some of my perspectives. I know you’ll find that quiet place, keep your eyes up on the horizon, don’t mind the small stumbling stones around your feet!

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