I go to trivia on Thursday nights in a Mexican restaurant. The bar is loud, full of talking: English, Dutch, German. The beer is Belgian, and the questions are asked by a middle-aged British man in a fisherman’s hat. The guacamole is pretty convincing – real avocados were involved in its production, and cilantro is buried somewhere inside of the kitchen. The margaritas are margarita-y. Waitresses flutter by in Daisy Dukes and take your orders in pleasant, accepting English and ask if you want the burgers medium or well-done.
This is one of three Tex-Mex joints within walking distance of my apartment in mainland China.
It is hard not to have a strong heuristic for China in your mind: Great Walls down every street, terra cotta warriors planted on every street corner. Martial arts and noodles, ancient masters perched on craggy hills, people and smog and tight, contorted writing everywhere you look. Even with my previous visit to China, I had a fairly strong vision about what China should be. Ancient pagodas, old women with scarlet fans doing synchronized tai chi under moonlight, sculpted boreal trees in architectural gardens. Surrounding these tended, verdant patches of history would be enormous buildings, hundreds of factories under a soot-grey sky, marvels of the modern world.
There would be Chinese language everywhere, and not much else. There would be Chinese food everywhere, and not much else. Chinese culture. Chinese television. Chinese people. In a huge nation with a billion humans wandering around, you kind of don’t need the accoutrements of foreign culture, of foreign language: there’s enough of them locally to learn and explore and discover.
And, of course, I imagined the Chineseness to be unforgiving and merciless–get used to it or get out. Learn Mandarin, start picking up Chinese culture, keep your chopsticks close, and develop a taste for stinky tofu. China, I thought, wouldn’t particularly need me, and thus I wasn’t going to be given any allowances or forgiveness for my lack of language skills. I’m a foreign worker in a school full of foreigners, a quirk hire to a bizarre satellite entity, and outside of the protective cocoon of my workplace, I would need to get tough or get out.
This has not been the way of things. In my weird little corner of Suzhou, in this special industrial zone running on foreign investments, people have been ludicrously forgiving, and understanding, and also swimming in surprise English-language skills. Grocers, shopkeeps, waiters–people forced to deal with foreigners so frequently that they’ve picked up English and German and Korean just to make their own lives more convenient and smooth. There are two markets filled with import foods within walking distance of my home, a subway with English signage, restaurants catering to every taste. And, increasingly often, people who are positively, absolutely unimpressed with my foreignness and don’t give me a second thought.
There are times when I feel like I’m living on a strange island, on some tiny divorced section of space-time far away from China. A tectonic shift, some working of witchcraft, the warping of different dimensions severed this little chunk of Suzhou off from mainland China and ejected it outwards into the ocean. There it drifted, off past north and central America, picking up some cilantro and lime along the way. This little globule briefly became part of Korea, long enough to establish several Samsung factories, just before suddenly deep within Bavaria. It slid through Taiwan and took a detour through the Mediterranean before sailing directly through the Indian subcontinent and then returning back to China.
There are still Chinese things around, and Chinese people, and Chinese restaurants and buildings and temples and artwork. But less so than in other parts in China. More interspersed, more varied, more interrupted. It is China via Chinatown, in Toronto or California somewhere, interspersed with foreign banks and several Burger Kings.
China on hard mode, which is to say China without English-speaking restaurants or foreign-catering dentists or other frivolous luxuries not particularly pertinent to the Chinese people, is not far from here. I can see actual China from my window, a nation that I can walk to when the mood strikes. It’s a border I can cross by foot, a threshold I can journey through without a passport or my wits if I’m not looking.
Not far away are pagodas and gardens, bustling busy streets thrumming with e-bikes and scooters and cars. Streets bustle with thousands of people on foot and wheel, with humans calling for attention, with street vendors and shops and car honks.
Here there are menus without pictures. Here there are roadsigns and maps with only Chinese characters. Here there are people who have no reason to speak English, because why should they, and so they don’t. Here is China in its more China-y glory, a walk and a bus and a subway ride away. Here is China with no particular concern for my desperate, unwieldy needs; here is a China that’s been doing its business quite well on its own without tortillas and English-speaking masseurs and access to foreign toothpaste.
I go there sometimes, on weekends or in the evening, to walk canals and to be enveloped in seas of people. I exit a subway and enter another country, I enter the country I am already in, I remind myself that I am halfway around the world. I remind myself that the bubble I’m in, the specialized dome meant to corral me and cater to the needs of the foreigners, is just a bubble. That outside its walls lies a place as rich and varied and thriving as anything within. That I came here not just to live in a fishbowl, no matter how comfortable it may be in the water. That sometimes you need to play hard mode.