Memories of 2003
It's quite common these days to find expats who have spent ten years or longer in Nanchang. Yet no matter how long we stay no-one ever forgets their first day. Here longtime Nanchang resident, Craig, recalls his first day...
September swings around as it does and I find myself once again in visa renewal season. I've always hated this time of year primarily because I have to pee into a cup and try to keep a straight face in the photo kiosk while a disembodied voice tells you earnestly "Please not to smiling". Yes, the dreaded medical exam where I fool them into thinking I'm human for another year as the mothership seems to be taking her sweet time getting here. (But then she might be stuck in traffic, this is Nanchang after all)
For those of you who have to face this merry dance each year you'll know what I'm talking about. What some of you may not experience is to look at your passport and realize that you arrived in 2003.
Yes, there was such a year, a more wild and primitive time when I staggered with two bags off the train into the Nanchang railway station (yes, there was only one). A refugee from the dreaded and soul crushing tedium of Graphic Design, where an all night workathon to meet a customer deadline might be met with "I don't like it, can you make it pink?" I was an English major damn it, what the hell was I doing in graphic design anyway?
I was supposed to have been working in Shenzhen but upon arriving I had been informed that I was being transferred to an "associate school". (I found out later this actually meant "sold up the river" and my "associate school" was an associate in the same way a kettle drum is associated with highly disturbed mongooses?.. Mongeese? Mongise? Anyway, one of those)
I had arrived in Nanchang with three Chinese phrases to my name. "Thank you" (share share), "hello", (knee how) and "I am a teacher" (wore shi low shoe).
I also arrived with the distinction of not having taken a pee for 12 hours since there are simply some places even a brave South African man from an upper middle class family will not tread and the toilet on a Chinese train is one of them. For some this might have been a problem, but, being a young man with supreme bladder control, all was well.
Emerging from the station through that fetid tunnel I found myself blinking in the sunlight of a Nanchang summer morning. An African by birth I thought I knew what heat was, but this was something different. It seemed alive, enveloping and gave one the awful foreboding that it could only get worse. The heat wasn't the only problem I had. I also had to concern myself with some men steering me towards a disjointed line of dark red cars with the friendly sign "Taxi" on top. To emphasize this point the man on my left was shouting "taxi, taxi" while the other was waving a red banknote in front and shouting in stilted english "one hundred, one hundred" I tried to explain to them, as best I could, that I was waiting for someone, but meeting no success there, I simply backed away "share, share! Share, share!" I clasped my hands together in front of me and bowed as politely as seemed appropriate. This seemed to amuse them immensely and soon I was surrounded feeling very much like a market goose waiting to be plucked. "What the hell am I doing here?" I thought holding tightly to my bag like a virgin to her virtue.
At this point Percy rescued me. He was late. I had never seen him in real life, but we'd talked over the phone in the last few days, so seeing him in the flesh was something of a relief, more so was being able to understand what someone else was saying since everyone else was inconsiderate enough not to understand English no matter how hysterically I shouted it
Within a few minutes we were in a taxi heading across town. "We have a pizza hut here, and a Walmart" Percy said with some pride as we passed the huge construction site that would eventually become Baiyi Square. "Cool" said I staring out the window, wondering again what I was doing here.
Nanchang back then was dreary, gray and very uninviting, and if you think Nanchang is dreary now you cannot fathom how much better it has become. Walmart on Baiyi Square was quite literally the only supermarket (at least by western standards) in the place. Coffee shops did not exist as such and it would be a year before Dio Coffee and Spr Coffee would appear to much excitement. There were lines that extended outside the only KFC and the chances of getting into pizza hut at lunch or dinner time was practically nill. The tallest building around was the one across from Baiyi Lake. I can't even tell you which as it has been dwarfed into obscurity by its highrising neighbors. Everything else was concrete, gray. And filthy "What the hell am I doing here" My upper middle class sensibilities were on overload.
"Can you speak any Chinese?" Percy was asking. We were heading up Yang Ming Road. Sure I could.
"Knee how?" I said confidently. I'd been using that one alot. "Share, share?" I'd had plenty of practice on that one too.
"You're Chinese is excellent" lied Pery so smoothly I felt hubris run amok.
"Wore shi low shoe" I blurted out with unearned confidence
"What?" Percy sounded suprises. I was a bit annoyed at that since I had been practicing this particular phrase on the train to the delight and encouragement of naby people in my section.
"Wore shi low shoe, I am a teacher"
"You're a mouse?"
"Yes, lao shu is a mouse"
It was actually rather funny... Much later though.
My day thus far had been a misadventure of somewhat gargantuan proportions, at least in my experience. It got worse. I was, after signing my year contract, taken to the apartment that I'd be living in. I was assured by Percy that it was the best district in the area, a government district where all the bank officials lived. Perhaps it was the best district... But once again I failed to lower my expectations. It was not my kind of place at all. The stray dogs, the broken pavements, the fat that hung like black, greasy candle wax from the kitchen extraction fans and dribbled down the porous concrete walls to form dark vicious pools on the packed earth covered in buzzing flies who were clearly feasting, did not bode well. Neither did the trash piled up outside the uninviting entrance to my building. Up 3 flights of stairs, very wary of touching the rusty banisters for support as I ascended
We entered through vault like doors, into the dimly lit tiny two bedroom apartment that I was to share, and turned left into the master bedroom that was to be mine. I was tired, sweaty, and my splendid bladder control was slipping. I flung my bag down and flung myself onto the bed ready to sink into oblivion. There was a creak, a crack and the bed collapsed in a cloud of splinter and soul rending embarresment (yes, this really happened). It was an apt ending to my first day in Nanchang. "Still" I thought from the door and Percy tried to put the bed back together "At least they now know I'm not a mouse."
Do you have any memorable experiences of your time in Nanchang that you'd like to share?
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