Fuzhou is impermanent

More than six years ago and in an entirely different lifetime, I wrote about how impermanent Shanghai was.

The time has come for our chosen home during these pandemic times to shift as well, to uncurl like Neruda’s Cadena, leading us onward inexorably. Lately I imagine it like a chain of all those pulling for us to make it out of China. All those thinking of us and praying for us and holding us in the light. Thank you, if you are reading this. I really need the support and the feeling of people pulling for us.

This was written before we left China.

-in Approximately July 2022

There’s a myth in life about closure.

People think that they’ll get closure if they are able to see their loved one dead and gone, or if they get to finally say what for to their childhood bully, or if they got even with someone who hurt them. We think that closure will come when we suddenly get freed from our burdens and our difficulties and are just happy as we remember ourselves being, even if it isn’t true that we were ever all that happy in the past.

Part of the good thing about still having a travel blog, even though I rarely manage to use it anymore for travel or blogging, is that I have a record of how I was thinking and feeling in the past. I can see the ending of so many chapters of my life and the beginning of so many more.

As I’m writing this before we made it out, I have to tell you, it feels like we aren’t actually leaving. It feels impossible.

I shrank my broad, beautiful life to the dimensions of my apartment in Fenghu XinCheng near the MinJiang River, for so long and changed my internal feelings about travel so deeply that I can’t quite imagine how we’ll make it. I feel panicked cyclically throughout the day, coming and going like a bad smell or like the call of the cicadas outside. Some part of my brain is trapped in the immediacy of the postpartum period, in February 2021. I’m still there, in the apartment, alone with the baby a lot of the time. I’m still there, reluctant to go out at all. I’m still there, living as if on lockdown. I can still see the white towers of the neighbourhood across the street shining in the changing light as I sit on the couch for the whole day, holding the tiny baby who won’t breastfeed and apologising to him over and over about not anticipating his hunger cues enough to heat the milk at the right times. Watching documentary after documentary about the Himalaya.

It feels as if I could just take a taxi across town to our place and walk in the door, and a tiny newborn baby would be waiting for me. And this time, this time, I would somehow do it right. Because I’d know how to do it this time. I wouldn’t fail so much. I’d be able to relax about things and I’d probably be able to get him to latch properly and I’d be able to smell that newborn smell again.

But we aren’t there, and the baby is with me in this new apartment in Changle, and he’s much, much bigger now and walking and talking a little bit. He’s coming with us.

And we will make it. We will. All those people pulling us and making great, shimmering, golden chains of intention for our leaving across the planet. We will make it.

The truth: there is so much grief.

I have learned to sit in a room with the dreams and hopes that could now never be, for so long that they become old friends instead of torturers. I had to let go of my family ever seeing Rhys as a newborn. Let go of having the Cavalry ever arrive. Let go of being the kind of mum I always wanted. Let go of breastfeeding to natural term. Let go of having my husband in the delivery room. Let go of playgroups. Of friendships. Of meal trains.

And far more difficult things that come with being in exile. I’ve had to greive collective experiences I will never have experienced. Grieve my hometown, by two different kinds of fire. Grieve 1,000,000 Americans and 160,000 Britons. Grieve the institutions that I once took for granted. Grieve an armed insurrection that nearly threw my homeland into civil war (and still might). Grieve old friends lost to early and tragic deaths. Grieve from afar my only two remaining grandparents, and grieve that I was not able to see them again before they passed.

And now I must use those well-trod paths to grieve The China That Could Have Been. Because we are leaving, and it is almost certain that we will never return. And beyond that, the China I knew and loved is not this China anymore.

The China I knew was difficult but not impossible. It was a place of possibilities, especially if one was willing to work hard. A place where you could talk with people whose ancestors and yours had no contact for at least 50,000 years (if not longer) and discuss, at least privately, controversial topics like Taiwan, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and to a certain extent even Tiananmen. A place that you could travel and see ancient, important, human-history-affirming things. A civilisation that influenced the world as much as it drew from other places.

Also a welcoming place. A place that people were interested in you as a foreigner but not always in a negative way. A place that I felt safe in. Safe enough to even have a baby in a public Chinese hospital. I never doubted that I would be taken care of and that I would be able to get help if I truly needed it.

Things began to shift in February for me in a real way. I wonder sometimes if it was the unthinkable again becoming the Must Be Thought About (A land war in Europe in my lifetime????), another aberration in the always-false End of History narratives that festered in my adolescence. It felt like the world just moved and shifted and it wasn’t the world anymore. Again. Everything sideways.

Then in March we had a mini-lockdown, two weeks where no one was allowed on or off campus. The students all stayed and we had to do bi-weekly testing, or even daily testing. I have no idea how many covid tests I’ve had this year. It must be at least 70, but I’m not sure. The two weeks of “Closed-Loop Management” were surprisingly difficult. My brain folded inward and I couldn’t keep even basic tasks together. I asked for help with this, in an ill-fated message about using bulletpoints, and was told that I should work on my reading comprehension instead. After the first week I became weepy and exhausted, feeling the weight of the year I spent inside our old apartment and watching as Shanghai slid into what was supposed to be a 4-day lockdown.

April things got better for us in Fuzhou but watching what happened in Shanghai convinced me that the China I thought I knew was well and truly gone. If you didn’t pay attention to news in China at the time, I understand. It was so, so much worse than I would have ever imagined. And worst of all, it seemed completely pointless. The spread of the virus was not fully contained. People lost their livelihoods, their homes, and in some cases their lives. The public hospitals refused entry to even their own staff if the nucleic acid test number was not correct, leading to at least three fully-preventable deaths and who knows how many that we don’t even know about.

This was written once we were out of China.

August 2022

Still, we thought that we could stick it out. I bought more and more beans and pasta and hid them away, convinced that at any moment we’d be told we couldn’t leave our apartment for any reason. We filled out the myriad apps with our personal information, no real choice about whether we use it or not, access to work and public spaces and even taxis controlled by the colour of the QR code.

People kept asking us “Why don’t you just leave?” I got annoyed with it. We can’t leave. We make too much money. Things will be too hard. How will we get out? Things aren’t easy. It’s not just, you decide to go.

But then, we just decided to go.

Don’t laugh, but I knew a few weeks before it happened. I paid for a professional Tarot reading, and I got up in the middle of the night in Fuzhou to meet with her on Zoom. I explained my birth story, the situation, how trapped I had been feeling. She drew the Tower. And I knew.

“So, uh…” she said, “Are you sure there isn’t any way you can just go?”

We’ve been in survival mode for so long that I don’t even know how to take an afternoon off. I went to Westfield Mall in Stratford today, taking the Tube by myself for the first time since, god, 2016? To Tap East after a completely failed attempt to buy new clothing at H&M. THen a failed attempt to buy nutmeg at Waitrose. It wasn’t the visit from my dreams as a pregnant woman in summer 2020, when I dreamed I had won a contest at Waitrose and could buy £20 of whatever I wanted to eat. I got medicore sushi and sat on the stairs outside in the rain since they don’t have an eat-in area anymore due to Covid.

It’s taken almost this long for being in London to feel real. It’s not some dreamworld; everything is different and honestly, slightly shittier, since we left. But it’s strange to sit here in this brewery, which I used to sit in and try to write seven years ago. You don’t always think that the impermanence will come back around and you’ll break back through to an old haunt.

It’s starting to feel real now.

One day it will feel truly real.

But Fuzhou is gone. Probably forever. Not only because of the videos that emerged from the beach we’d holidayed at for two consecutive summers, ballistic missiles over Pingtan Island.

There are many reasons why I won’t be going back to China, and especially to Fuzhou. Part of it is my constant attempt to get through to my students, adapting and changing my tack endlessly, experimenting with personalities, pedagogies, and ways and means. None of it really seemed to work. My classes, the entire time I was in Fuzhou, felt essentially useless. And that grindiness is not easily washed away. I still want to be a teacher, but I hope desperately that I won’t return to that grinder.

But it’s more about that China That Could’ve Been. The China that could’ve been a world leader and not some isolated place. That China that could’ve adapted to the most difficult parts of its history (The people I knew were not naive; they knew the difficulties of the past AND the present. It’s just that in the past they were allowed to think about those difficulties in the first place.) The China that could’ve made poverty history for its inhabitants instead of making it just taboo to notice and mention, and therefore intractable. The China that would have been strong enough to be true to itself and its own culture while not shutting out the world or shitting on other systems or having to resort to the wholesale censoring of history and news to believe that they could justify their way of doing things.

You see, that’s what ended up happening. It got weirder and weirder. More and more became illegal. More and more was off limits. A culture that outlaws certain topics is not stronger for having done so; it’s fragile and breakable at the smallest things. China isn’t strong anymore. It’s just…policing it’s own people and trying to shut everything else out. And for those who say, “Well, duh…it’s China, of course it’s always been that way….” I have news that China was not like that when I lived there until 2021.

I said goodbye to China on the beach, on the 13th of July. That night, a supermoon rose out of the sea. I tried and failed to light an incense fire on the beach, and ended up burying my wares in the sand instead. Hundreds of bats rose out of the forest in the twilight, filling me with fear and wonder. They don’t know The China That Could’ve Been. They don’t know what China is.

And I don’t, either. Not even after five years total living there. China isn’t for me anymore. I’m out.

And now things will be different. It seems like an oversimplification, but I can’t stress enough how much my mind thought I was trapped there forever. Just trapped, watching the light change on those white towers across the road. Now, I’m not. I’m free.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s