There I was in China. I had traveled to the other side of the planet yet I still felt like I hadn’t jumped off. My new home of Shanghai just felt too familiar. Yes, it is filled with Chinese, but it still doesn’t feel like what China was supposed to feel like. There is something missing there. In six months, I had left Shanghai once; traveling an hour outside of the city to one of the famous canal cities. A friend had invited me to “get out of the city.” Tongli is rustic and beautiful, but we had only spent a rainy afternoon and night there. My perception of China was still modelled on Shanghai. Everything I thought I knew was based on the hustle and bustle of that megalopolis.
The pressure was building. The undercurrent grew stronger each day, yet to that point had not cracked the surface of the conscious mind. I was oblivious to the urges that had driven me to China and then restrained from providing any sense of comfort with myself or the world I lived in. Something was still missing. Chinese New Year would change all of that.
Living in China, Christmas break is non-existent. In fact many agreeable foreigners work on Christmas and then return home for a short Skype conversation with their families before heading off to the bars to drown their meekly masked dejection. New Years is much of the same. They might get the Eve off, but working on the Day isn’t uncommon. The true break comes in late January or early February with the arrival of Chinese New Year. CNY means an entire month off. It means major international cities, such as Shanghai, all but become abandoned. The migrant workers return to the countryside, some never to return, and the laowai (foreigners) abscond to warmer climes such as the Southeast Asia and the Philippines.
I had hesitated too long. The anxiety of travelling alone had prevented me from planning anything. Plus, the amount of information to digest is staggering; so many places to go, so much information to read about each one. It is like when you get a new textbook and you flip to the last chapter and think, “Oh my god, there is no way I will ever understand this!”
So CNY arrived and I sat at my apartment as my friends flew off to exotic destinations. Shanghai wouldn’t be so bad I reasoned. Plus, if need be, I could always choose to visit a friend from University who had suggested I come visit her in her hometown of Chongqing.
Mingting was a really funny nice girl. She had the stereotypical moon face but not the straight coarse hair of most Chinese. Her hair was curly and full-bodied. It made her head the size of a watermelon. She looked like a caricature drawn up by a loonie at the state-fair. She, another friend, and I had all been TAs for the same course a year earlier. We spent many long Fridays cooped up in a windowless room grading exams. By the end of it, we were always on the verge of insanity. Poor Mingting took the brunt of this cabin fever. She still hadn’t fully grasped the concept of sarcasm and so she struggled to differentiate between Quentin and I’s playful banter and anything serious. Q-ball and I took full advantage of this innocence.
One time during one of these marathon grading sessions, Mingting revealed to us that everyone was saying her name wrong. It wasn’t Mingting, but instead Mengting. Q-tip repeated it back for her in a feigned Native American accent, “Mouuuntain.” Mengting responded with her classic reaction to our misunderstandings: her body convulsed in slight shaking motion and her arms swung up and down while she released a plaintive, “Nooooooooooo.” We, of course, found these responses absolutely hilarious and so attempted at all moments of our confinement to elicit this response from our unknowing companion.
It was from Mengting that I derived my Chinese name. Once again, we were grading exams and bored to tears with the monotony. We decided it would be fun to give ourselves Chinese names. I don’t remember Quentin’s exactly. It translated to something like, “Big Purple.” My name came naturally, I just pronounced some Chinese sounding words, “JinnBAOO.” Mengting’s eyes lit up, “Oh, I like that name.” She then said we had to decide what it would mean. At the time, I didn’t understand this further complication.
Let me explain, in Chinese, each character (which is equivalent to a syllable) has a tone. There are four tones in Chinese. Depending on the tone used, the sound can represent different characters. Different characters have different meanings. For example, 听 (ting1) and 挺 (ting3) both are pronounced tee-ng. The first one is the verb to listen. The second is the adverb very. Ting1 means that it pronounced as if you are really bored: tiiiiing. Ting3 sounds like you are halfway through saying the word when you decide it should be a question: tiiNG. Tone 2 sounds very similar to tone 3. Tone 4 is very quick, like you were angry and said, “ting!”
When Mengting said we would have to decide on the meaning of my made-up name, she meant that we would have to pick the tone and character for the sounds. In the end my Chinese name ended up being Long2 Jing4 Bao4 or Strong Explosion Dragon (note: surnames are put first in Chinese). I even adopted my Chinese name for work. The students called me Mr. Long. If my Chinese was better maybe I could have got them to call me Long xian1sheng (Mr. Long) or Long lao3shi1 (Teacher Long). My Chinese was so bad when I arrived in China that they thought I called myself Mr. Long because of how tall I am.
Nonetheless, the Chinese got a real kick out of my name; they told me it was like being named, “Automobile.” They would ask me my name and then ask which characters. I would say Jing4 and flex, then Bao4 followed by throwing my arms out.
I wanted a Chinese name to mirror what the Chinese did when they came to America; naming themselves something like, “Mark.” They have a good reason to do it too. In general, people have a difficult time remember names that are either new to them, and/or from a different language. You might remember “Toni,” but you sure in the hell aren’t going to remember, “Jinwei.”
It is sad though, think of Butch from Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, “I’m American honey, our names don’t mean shit.” Chinese names, on the other hand, have significant meaning. For example, Mengting means ‘Beautiful Dream.’ However, they have the Lexus side of it too.
Lots of women are named something with xue3 (snow). They really value white skin in China. I guess they hope if they name their daughter Snow Angel that her skin will turn out like porcelain. They go to extreme lengths to protect their skin tone. If you are up for a good laugh google image “full-body swimsuit china.”
I had not seriously considered visiting Mengting because I am a terrible procrastinator with a sizeable dose of cheapness. My plans changed quickly with a few strolls and boring nights in the then abandoned Shanghai. I sent Mengting a WeChat message, “is it still cool if I come visit you?” “Of course! Did you buy your plane ticket yet? How long will you stay?”
We worked out all the details. A week into CNY, I headed to the Pudong Airport outside of Shanghai. Although, I was flying to visit a friend in her hometown, I still was nervous. Once in Chongqing, I would have to take the airport bus downtown. Nothing, not even my bi-weekly Chinese tutoring sessions, felt like they had prepared me to ask, “Where is the bus to downtown?” Shanghai has that discouraging effect on second-language learners.
Shanghainese might be the rudest people on the planet. If you don’t believe me, ask a Chinese friend. They will solemnly nod their head, “yes, it is true.” The Shanghainese excel at it. Experts. You can’t practice Chinese with them because the locals would refuse to speak to you. They would, without looking up from their TV or computer screen, shoo you away. My level of confidence with Chinese was at -15%. Subconsciously, I thought all of China was like Shanghai; filled with judgmental unhelpful people. I hated watching them smirk and tell their friends that they couldn’t understand me. I had grown so weary of the Shanghainese attitudes, that at times I would resist leaving my apartment to get food.
Mengting was going to be my crutch, she could handle all the interaction, and I could still experience what her hometown had to offer without feeling completely embarrassed. All I had to do was get downtown, and that seemed feasible. I felt like the embarrassment of asking someone in broken Chinese where the bus is was worth escaping Shanghai for five days.
Arriving at Pudong Airport, I tried to locate my airline. Their logo wasn’t helping and I didn’t know where to go, so I texted Mouuuntain. She responded, “Why are you flying to Chongqing?” Seriously, I naively thought, has she really forgotten that I am coming to visit? “I am coming to visit you!”
A brief, oh shit conversation later, I realized I had bought a ticket to the wrong Chinese city. Mengting lived in Kunming, which was a twenty hour train ride away from Chongqing. They weren’t even in the same province! A few months before, Mengting had visited CQ and sent me pictures about it. It was from that conversation that I had derived the idea she lived in CQ.
I guess I’ll just go home, I thought. And then the devil’s advocate responded, “Isn’t this what you have always wanted to do? I know, it seems scary, the worst shit is going through your head right now. But are you going to let fear control you? Fuck that! Go for it! Live, let the ebb and flow of life’s natural mystery move you.”
He was right. I had been drawn to China as if my destiny was going to greet me at the airport in Shanghai. “There you are Gavin! That is the detailed plan for your life.” It hadn’t worked out that way. Instead, they had rushed me to my new job and had me sign the contract before I even knew where I was or had a chance to consider the idea of jetlag. The devil had been waiting instead.
This, however. This seemed like destiny. I was meant to go to Chongqing and to slip away, to disappear into the crowd, to go to a place unplanned, with only my feet to guide me.
It is not like returning to Shanghai was a tempting proposition. The week spent there had been extremely boring and a bit sickening:
Waking up one morning, a remnant Shanghainese noticed all the people missing. He walked down the street and bought his morning soy milk. Then he went to the park where he normally spent the rest of his mornings mean mugging foreigners and Chinese alike. But something was missing.
The people had disappeared! Like an atomic bomb ringing between his ears, the messaged had been delivered. He had come: the dragon who would destroy the world. The man guessed, he must have started patiently. That way the people whom hadn’t been snatched up yet wouldn’t take notice. But, he had moved too slowly. The Shanghainese would mount a defense to safeguard their city and lives from the destruction of that vicious dragon.
He walked even quicker than normal to the makeshift firework tents that had been setup around the corner of the park. “He is here! Give me as many fucking firecrackers as 200 kuai can buy!”
Having obtained his arsenal, he wondered where he could light them off. He thought… Since they scare off the dragon, I should light them as near to my house as possible. I love my neighbors, but shit, I love me more. So in the alley next to his house he lit off his one thousand firecracker strand. He stood arms crossed, ears ringing, and smiling. He had done his job. Destruction had been staved off for the day. But what about tomorrow? Shit!
He didn’t want the people in the first firework tent to see him return for more. They would know he had miscalculated and he would be shamed. So, he headed to a different tent. “Give me 1,000 kuai worth of firecrackers, he said. “The damn dragon isn’t going to destroy my house this New Years,” he mumbled. “What?” Said the clerk. “Nothing, xin nian kuai le! Happy New Year!”
And so the sound of fireworks and mortars echoed constantly off the empty skyscrapers. The dragon, apparently, is afraid of the sound. I personally was offended by the sulfur haze that engulfed the city.
It was not unusual for Shanghai to have bad air-days but during the holiday it seemed cruel. If it wasn’t for the fireworks that crackled day and night, the pollution would have cleared up. See, during CNY many factories close down since all their workers have returned to the countryside. Without the factories, there should be no pollution. I am half tempted to believe that the Chinese are somehow attached to the gray sky. Maybe the dragon is just a legend. Maybe when a Shanghainese sees a patch of blue sky, he aims a mortar right at it. With everyone’s help, the patch work explosions can encapsulate the sky in an all pleasing communism. I mean, is it really fair if your neighbor’s apartment gets sunshine and yours doesn’t? To keep from asking these difficult philosophical questions, the Chinese just make the whole sky grey! Eh! That has to be it!
Leaving Shanghai meant leaving that sulfur cloud behind. Or least I blindly optimistically believed. Going turned out to be the right decision. I would learn that CQ wasn’t the China I knew. It wasn’t Shanghai. CQ had the ubiquitous pollution of China, but I would soon realize that the people, food, and culture differed on a Chinese scale from what I thought I knew about China from Shanghai. But before the beauty was evident, I would struggle to make paths lead to the destinations I had at heart.