“China is the factory of the world.” It’s a perfectly common statement to make these days. Plenty of people have said it themselves or at least acknowledged it, and yet, for the most part, I had only passively taken it into account until I heard it uttered out of the mouth of Mr. Liu. The 52-year-old father and former factory worker at a local “key-making plant” was on his way back hometown of Dazu when we met on the 9:30am-scheduled bus departing from Chongqing City.
“[Factories here] don’t only make keys,” he said while thumbing the twinkling steel key chain in his right hand. Between the municipal capital of Chongqing and the town of Dazu (located next to the Sichuan border) smog is continuously ejected from an array of factories producing small-metal commodities that shroud the road ahead in an opaque veil. “Knives, tools, rings, bottle openers —” they were all being molded and packaged somewhere behind the gloomy mist of soot outside our window, readied to feed the demand of rich countries in search of competitively priced goods made possible by cheap labor. Mr. Liu knew this, but he was readily going to lament about it. He had his wife, his daughter and a coat on his back; though it was the kind of gritty second-hand, dark-blue down jacket that is one stitch away from a rag.
Yet as engrossed as I was being within ear shot of Mr. Liu, (and thankful for having the best kind of company one could wish for on a trip into China’s hinterlands) I was not on this bus to discuss the backbone of China’s economic engine. Well, at least not exactly.
The Municipality of Chongqing was only recently split off from Sichuan Province on March 14, 1997, which explains why people in Chongqing speak a similar dialect to Sichuanese — often hard for Mandarin speakers to understand because of its vast incongruity with standardized tones.
Feeling more confident with my Mandarin despite the occasional blur of Sichuanese (or Shanghainese back ‘home’) that added substantial dose of static to what had become an otherwise smooth process, I had decided to take a day trip to the Dazu Rock Carvings and, more excitingly (especially to me), walk about the back roads of a town that exhibited a promising amount of adventurous opportunities for the wandering foreigner.
Before my departure, however, I needed to complete some very important matters. Like those of the neighboring province they had once been a part of, people in Chongqing reveled in a culinary culture that centered on the same notoriously spicy hot pots — widely known as the staple food of the region. The meal, which comes off as more of an activity to first timers, is as synonymous to Chongqing as mountain vistas are to Tibet. So much so that without trying a Chongqing-style hot pot, locals would be quick to bring up the lack of authenticity in your trip.
Two days prior to my departure for Dazu, I was fortunate enough to tic off this task with Jason Thalacker, an American friend of mine and old college classmate, along with a group of gaggling mothers that would be accompanying him. (He had recently befriended them on vacation in the southern part of the Municipality of Chongqing, and like any education-orientated mother would do, they saw Jason’s friendship as an opportunity to give their children exposure to English.) Jason had arrived in China around seven months prior with the Peace Corps. and, a credit to his experience, had already heard of the “hot pot street” which we would be chauffeured to.
Originally a karaoke bar, the private rooms of this remodeled restaurant now had circular tables slapped in the middle of them, though the velvety purple lounge sofas still remained as well as the flat-screen TVs. However, music videos were no longer the attraction here; bubbling pots of red and white liquid had become the objects of entertainment.
Try the tripe, try the ox tongue — oh, why not try the duck blood. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” I thought. Or — because this is China. 入乡随俗 (ru xiang sui su). “When in the countryside, follow the local customs.”
I’ve always thought that making an initial attempt to assimilate to new environments has played a large part in dressing down any anxieties. This is where all those lectures you had to endure during that treacherous early-morning philosophy course you took sophomore year come into play. “Think outside the box,” I often laugh to myself. “How about living outside of the box?”
Ask someone from Chongqing, and they’d probably tell you that Dazu is the countryside. On the contrary, though grassy knolls can be spotted down streets’ ends in the distance where gray concrete apartment blocks meet green farmland, this quaint town certainly echoes similar sensations felt and heard in China’s denser cities. Construction is consistently ubiquitous. Like the busy backdrops of these hubs, Dazu is accented by tower cranes that spin over city blocks like arcade claw vending machines readying to pluck up their next prize.
The bus stop where I was to bid farewell to my one-time travel companion could have been any other in the country. Throngs of people were lined up at two counters in impatient anticipation of their eminent voyages. The ground was cemented with the spit of ten-thousand avid cigarette smokers. And a cacophony of chatter waxed and waned in the intimate area that defines the difference between sound and noise.
The whole of my day could be described in a single — though multifarious — feeling: alienation. If I did not look into a mirror, I would not have seen a single foreigner that day. (Surprisingly, even advertisements were absent of the foreign models that are spread across billboards of every size in China’s eastern coastal capitals.)
I stood out. That can go without saying, though I choose to say it because the way in which I appeared throttled my perceptions through several stages. At first, my nerves spiked up as if made to reflex by the gentle prodding of a minute needle. This sense instigated a mostly defensive, detective-like manner: analyzing the sidewalk and passing faces while trying to judge how I was being judged. Unless engrossed in some trite amusement, (it was still Chinese New Year, so everyone was on holiday) pedestrians took notice of me either cautiously or directly. Those that displayed the former of the two would curiously stare out of their peripheries, anxious or perplexed by the white face in their midst. Yes, perplexing indeed. It is an odd word to use here because of its nature. Naturally I was also entwined by it. Perplexity. The confusion shown in their faces seemed to say: “Why?” It did not lack reciprocal conjecture on my part.
The initial tension I felt across my body soon gave way to a giddy spirit that added a more jovial stride to my step, as if my legs were being thawed from the ground up. I began accepting my surroundings and noticing more around me. The verdant trees that ribboned the streets here were dotted with red lanterns. A middle-aged man sat underneath one getting his shoes shined while his wife and daughter looked on. Dazu was a happy place, and there was nothing to fear here.
It was around this time I began to distinguish the more engaged onlookers. They greeted me with acts of astonishment: those befitting a leper or a famous foreign face freshly peeled of the cover of a glossy magazine; more often a mix of the two; a kind of horrible amusement that found no boundaries on either side of the spectrum.
One face (or rather two, but in memory they take the form as one) is indelibly printed into my mind. Following a crowd towards a street vendor selling spicy French fries — the spiciest thing I ate my entire two-week trip in Western China — I heard a tiny voice chime ‘laowai’ (foreigner in Chinese), a word that is repeated around white foreigners in these parts like a broken soundtrack. I quickly spun around to make out the source, more jocosely than out of investigation. Before me, a mother and her adolescent daughter stood side by side, hand in hand. The look they shared was one of horror. Taken aback to the point where gapping jaws were the only thing that could do their emotions justice. Eyes wide and cheeked creased, they themselves void of sound on that busy street, that’s how they remain with me.
For myself, except for the occasional abrupt ‘laowai’ or ‘hello’ would assault my consciousness from across the street, (Clearly showing the unsettling difference between being ‘helloed at’ and ‘helloed to,’ to note an observation by Jason Thalacker) I began to feel more and more at ease with the reality of my situation. I eventually grew to call this final stage acceptance.
Walking past a stagnant oil-ridden lake that shimmered like it was covered in plastic film; I got an altogether different kind of hello, neither ‘to’ nor ‘at’ me.
From just behind, perhaps at my seven o’clock, I heard a scratchy voice yell out a familiar phrase. “Hey, laowai!” it went. But then, as if wanting to perk up my attention, the old man from which the shout came added, “I haven’t seen a laowai in years!” He was standing at the dusty entrance to his well-swept apartment, a wide-open, white-tiled living room you could just manage to park a car in.
I’d like to tell you that we then sat down at his rickety majiang table where he spoke of tales about the last time he saw a foreigner, or about growing up in an adjacent mountain town or when soldiers on the Long March trailed through an area not far from here. But we had no such conversation. I had to keep walking and talking with others for now. We then parted ways with a quick wave, and I left Dazu the same way I left him. Glad that I had walked by.