Coming home can be weird. Especially when its to a place you know youll never quite understand.
I lived in Shantou for 3 years, from 2003 until 2006. Last year, I lived in Beijing. After a year there, I moved back to Shantou. As a foreigner, Beijing seemed a lot easier to comprehend – at least people speak Putonghua. But I never felt quite at ease there, the way I feel at ease in Shantou.
I came to teach at Shantou University four years ago. In those four years, much has changed and much has stayed the same. Shantou traffic still seems to exist in a state of utter abandonment from order – motorbikes still scurry after pedestrians, even on the sidewalks. The dialect remains as nasal and impenetrable to me as it ever was. The summer sun and languid air are still hot enough to melt your skin and clothes into a soupy mass.
People havent changed much either. I see many of the old faces within a week or so of being back. There is my friend, local business titan and tiny, all of five feet tall in spike heel shoes, still taking over the city with her business ventures – and broken-hearted over the latest foreign boyfriend. There is the restaurant boss, fat and jolly and cooking up exquisite dishes for a dollar or two. There is the guy on his bike who scours the campus for plastic bottles and old shoes, working from morning to night.
Interactions with people are still full of emotional ups and downs; high ones when they are successful and low ones when they are bad.
Im out with my girlfriend and we find a second-hand store. The boss is in his mid-thirties, friendly, kind. He has a scar seemingly designed by Hollywood, running from his temple down the length of his jaw and neck, and continuing into his shirt collar. His toddler son is toddling about, intrigued by us. We manage to get a table and chairs for 70 kuai, which is probably too much, but seems dirt cheap to me after a summer in the States.
The boss has a bicycle with a small engine and trailer hitched to it, and offers to take our goods up to school for 20 kuai.
“Id do it for free but that seat really hurts my ass,” he says with a grin.
When things get bad they get bad though. On another day, after walking around for hours not finding what were looking for, Ive had my fill of ‘hello’ and ‘laowai.’ When a group of tricycle drivers scream at me, I walk up to them and start going on in rapid-fire English.
“I dont understand, I dont understand,” says the main culprit.
“Oh you dont understand?” I say in Chinese. “But you just said ‘hello’ If you dont speak English, why say hello? Oh, I know –youre making fun of me.”
With that I smile broadly, give the guy the finger, and walk away.
This succeeds at nothing, of course, except for upsetting my girlfriend, who is Chinese. I get a lecture on how theyre not really intending me harm, theyre just well aughing at me. I say that I understand that: I dont think they are bad people, but what they are doing is wrong. When in Rome, take what the Romans do to you until you cant anymore.
“One question,” I say. “Do you think those people, the ones who shout ‘hello’ to make fun of you, the ones who shout ‘laowai,’ ever think about how the person they are shouting at feels when they do that?”
A pause. “No,” she says quietly.
“Okay,” I say.
These are the worst moments, the ones where you feel the gap unbridgeable. I wouldnt need to explain that in at least half the world, its totally unacceptable and fairly uncommon to publicly mock people for being different. She wouldnt need to feel she had to justify and defend peoples actions.
Long before you notice all the things that have stayed the same in Shantou though, you see all that has changed. If theres one thing thats true, its that the local economy seems to be booming. Luxurious high rise apartments seem to be going up everywhere. There are at least three stores I come across selling imported wine; a few years ago, there were exactly none. The city – much like Beijing on a smaller scale – seems to be under construction and open for business.
But actually, Ive never spent all that much time in the city of Shantou. Its really the university that feels like home. Despite the complaints of teachers and students alike, to me, Shantou U is one of the best places in China. It is quiet. There is space. The trees make caves of shade from the sun, and on clear days, the reservoir behind the school is filled with light. The whole place is ringed with small mountains that look like they are straight out of a traditional shan shui painting.
Its the beginning of another year, and the campus has started to fill with first year students. You see them trekking in, parents in tow, faces lit up. I can imagine how nervous theyre going to be when they sit in my class for the first time. It makes me smile. At the beginning of this past summer, I said goodbye to the first freshmen I had, from back in 2003. They graduated in July. Watching them go from petrified children to confident, educated adults was about as good as it gets.
Its what makes it worth it to be here, in this place that will always and not quite ever feel like home.
(Note: Ive deliberately done away with the apostrophe in this story, because the spacing issues are driving me nuts!)