April 11, 2011

From Hell to a Home

The tire treads hummed and the bicycle's basket rattled as I rode Hangzhou's dark streets at midnight on Thursday night. Past the empty bus stops and closed-up shops, past the noodle stands on the street corners, and past blocks of tired concrete buildings as I rode to my apartment.There was little more than the green lights of taxis and a handful of motorbikes on the roads. The usually inescapable chaos of this country was put to rest – if only for a few hours.

Lately I feel like most of my posts are gold-leafed versions of my real life here. Actually to be honest, I sometimes feel like my life in general is too good to be true. Everything – from buses, to communicating, to grocery shopping – is as extreme as it was when I first moved here. And mediocrity is still something to be cherished.

But now, I’ve etched out a life here. I have routines and habits and many neighborhood restaurateurs and shopkeepers, who I’ve been loyal to for more than six months now, recognize me.

Each weekend I’ve been in Hangzhou for the past two months has been much of the same: lackadaisically spending hours and hours with the same people, doing nothing in particular except enjoying each other’s company. We linger in restaurants for hours on end; a “quick” lunch is three hours. Sometimes we bike, sometimes we drink coffee – the only consistency to our agendas is the search of a good dinner.

I feel like there are few times in life that allow for days on end to be savored and withered away with no real obligation for much of anything. My group of friends and I are living the proverbial carefree and fearless dream that has been romanticized through decades of youth.

What it all boils down to is that none of us have any idea how our lives are going to turn out or what our next step after China will be. It’s not that we’re necessarily directionless; we just don’t know which direction we should turn.

We all realize our life here is temporary and that our friendships will be defined by distance in the near future. For now, we’re just trying to postpone the inevitable end. And for me, that end is coming in 30 short days.

China is abrasive; it’s difficult to deal with most days. I cringe every morning and afternoon when I get on my school shuttle bus and brace myself for an hour or more of jarring starts and stops. I’m still paralyzed by the language. Certain cultural norms still seem anything but normal. And for goodness sake, I miss the sky and real clouds – giant, fluffy white ones.

This past weekend, six of us went to an ancient water town in between Hangzhou and Shanghai. Wuzhen is one of a few villages along the Grand Canal that make up the “Venice of the East.” Having seen the real Venice in Italy, I have to say the eastern version wins.

It smelled better than the Italian city and although both are equally touristy, the locals of Wuzhen were easier to spot. Life in Wuzhen seemed more livable than a life in Venice… that is if you could handle the constant presence of red tourist group hats with their megaphone-equipped guides.

Though the crowds were thick for the first few hours, by late afternoon the town had cleared out. It was perfect t-shirt weather and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky (even though visibility was only a mile or so).
Ancient-looking structures (they’ve been restored) made from stone and ornately carved wood are the predominant feature of Wuzhen. Some are restaurants, others hotels, but many are actual homes. Sometime in the last 20 years, the Chinese government banned residents from tearing down their homes to modernize them. Homeowners are also prohibited from converting their house into a store unless it had been one before the law was in place. As a result of the preservation efforts, Wuzhen is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We wandered the narrow stone streets along the famous canal for hours. Alleyways opened up into small courtyards, each serving a different purpose. One was filled with vats of fermenting soybeans for soy sauce, another was a smelting yard for swords, and one was for rice wine.

There were multiple calico fabric courtyards showcasing the most famous craft from the 2,000-year-old town. The indigo printed fabric was a luxurious commodity during the Silk Road era. Today, bolts hang 30 feet in the air to dry, err, well more like to be played with by tourists like my friends and I.

Staying true to the random ways of this country, we ended up riding in a van back to Hangzhou. Worried we would miss the last train, we were wooed by a driver who offered the six of us a very cheap hour-long ride home. Plus, he dropped us off at our doorway, something the train wouldn’t have done (obviously).

I sat in the very back seat of a mini-van that was little more than a metal frame and body of a car with seats placed directly on top of the body. There was no insulation to speak of, and the aluminum can of a car would have brought certain death if it would have been hit.

We made it just fine, though. As we cruised down the same raised superhighway that first brought me into Hangzhou and which I have taken nearly every day since to and from work, I actually found myself feeling a little sentimental towards China.

Never ever would I have dreamed I would say that, but it’s true. Both China and I (along with all of my friends here) are going through rapid transformation, it’s like round two of adolescence. There are growing pains, awkward moments, and plenty of confusion. But give us some time, we’ll grow into ourselves.

Meanwhile, I’m going to soak up the sublime goodness of this odd little bliss that’s taken months to find.

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