As a Waigoren living in China, you quickly learn that there is one necessity needed on all outings into the city that is as important to a year-long tourist as a good pair of walking shoes or travel-sized hand sanitizer--it is a state of mind, perhaps an apathy, a distance or just indifference to the visual chaos surrounding you. Step outside the apartment gate and the entire world, on some days, can seem to attack your eyes. Indecipherable characters, graphics that in no way relate to their advertised product (why is a fat man with a baseball bat on the packaging to my chocolate cookies?), building after overcrowded building spilling out into tiny alleyways that have no directional rhyme or reason, face after strange face staring at you on the bus, on the street, in the market, everywhere....it can be a bit much for two little eyes to take in all at once. Especially if you haven't had your coffee or coca-cola fix in a while.
If you don't keep your wits about you, it can feel as if you're standing on a street corner with the whole world spinning around you in a distorted panorama of funhouse-mirror swirls. There's a panic that can arise deep in your chest, a lump in your throat, a pain against the base of your skull that is caused by nothing other than looking down a street and seeing absolutely nothing familiar to the eyes. Your eyes dart from one image to the next in rapid succession--searching in vain for something they can identify--anything that, when they shoot it to the brain, will return a response of a word, a definition, a memory, an understanding. When they do come across that something--they seize on the image, soaking it in, proud to show off the awesome one-two punch of the visual-cognitive process that we so often ignore.
It's what we call "a sight for sore eyes."
And it was in search of such a sight that I hopped off my bus two miles ahead of my stop several days ago. Weeks before, a wayward taxi brought me home via an obscure route--much to my annoyance at the time. The meter was already 7 kwai more than usual and I was seething at the delay when all of a sudden--my eyes were arrested by an entire row of familiar looking stores outside my window. And these weren't the chinese-attempting-to-seem-western-enough-to-be-trendy stores that fill the shopping areas of Hankou (the downtownish part of Wuhan), these were real Western stores. Sure, I didn't recognize the names--but they looked like anything you'd see in Nashville along West End Blvd--cute little independent shops and restaurants that have a great 'walk in off the street' vibe.
There was a Joe's Bar, Sylvia's Patisserie, a Cleaners, Red Rose Beauty Salon, a Mocha Coffee, Sports Goods, Stationer, and Le Lotus Bleu Bar and Restaurant. They had decorated storefront windows and individual entrances. The store signs used simple, elegant fonts and clean imagery--no Chinese characters. A boardwalk path and iron park benches completed the ambiance. My heart lept while my eyes tried to soak it all in as we sped past.
It seemed I had found an oasis. But I tried to temper the rush of excitement and discoverer's pride with a hard dose of cynicism. After all, there are over 50 Americans in Wuhan through our program, and they instantly shared with us the Western get-aways that exist throughout the city--Mr Mais coffeeshop that serves great tacos and lattes, Giano's American/Italian restaurant, Aloha Hawaiian restaurant, Metro, Wal-Mart, and Carrefour shopping plexes etc... It was unlikely that they would not have already found this place. Plus, there are plenty of places in Wuhan that pose as Western-style restaurants or shopping areas but are as American as Wendy's mandarin salad bowl combos are Chinese.
So when I had some free time on a Friday evening and couldn't stomach going an inch further on my sardine-crammed bus, I squeezed my way off the bus and began walking toward what I was hoping would be my western Mecca. It was a lovely fall night and my path took me down a tree-lined street that ran alongside one of Wuhan's many lakes. I could see my destination on the other side of the lake, the storefronts casting a golden glow on the water. I daydreamed of Joe's Bar being run by a friendly American grandfather type, serving sub sandwiches to ex-pats who just wanted a place "where everybody knows your name." After a brisk 25 minute walk, I was there.
My eyes felt that same relief of gazing at something known, familiar, definable. They rested on the shops and I felt peaceful. My pace slowed to a stroll--I wanted to savor this discovery. I ambled up to the first shop, the Patisserie--the door was locked, it must have closed for the evening. No matter--I'll just look in the window, I thought. But no, it turns out the windows were more like display cases--there was a wall that closed them off to the rest of the store. I moved down the street.
Store after store--locked. Window after window--enclosed. It was only 6:30--but Joe's was dark. Hmmm--I guess I'll have to come back during the daytime. Then I looked closer.
At Christmas time in the States--department stores decorate their shelves with Christmas presents. Do you remember as a child the first time you realized that they weren't real? Underneath the shiny wrapping and curled ribbon was a styrofoam cube. Or in the bakery section of Kroger, did you ever dare that one time to stick your finger into the icing of the displayed wedding cake, only to rub plastic? For the sports fans--you know the way you felt when you heard of Sammy Sosa's corked bat, or McGuire's steroid use (I don't know what I'm talking about here)? For music fans--when you found out that Milli Vanilli was lip-syncing...
I was prepared for the possibility that these stores would use a Western look to market their Chinese product. I was not prepared for blatant fraud.
It took a few seconds for it to all sink in. My oasis, my beautiful, urban shopping street was a sham. The doors led to nothing. There was nothing but a hard concrete wall behind those window displays. Nothing. Taking a step back, both literally and mentally, I looked around and began to piece things together. The background of the street, which I had ignored until this point came into sharp focus. There it was--I was standing in front of a high-class apartment complex called Le Park...the elaborate entrance to which was made to resemble a typical street in the US or Europe.
I felt like I had been slapped in the face. My eyes were suddenly stinging with tears. I was hurt, silly and a little ashamed. Why would they do this to me? I had believed in this place--I had hoped in it. Why had I let myself be fooled? How could they justify this?
And then I got mad. How dare they! The fakes, the liars, the cheats! I wanted to spraypaint SHAM! and CHARLATAN! and other more un-printable words in graffiti across their elegant sans serif store signs. I wanted to start an LA-style riot and throw bricks through the windows. I felt duped, hosed and swindled. And I wanted revenge.
There's a quote from somewhere that I've always remembered: "What happens to the broken-hearted? They move on, baby." And of course, so did I. I turned around and made my walk back along the lake until I could hail a taxi to bring me home. And in reality, I suppose that I'm glad that globalism hasn't spread its tentacles all over my city with Western enclaves at every corner. I suppose that I like going for blocks without seeing anything reminiscent of home. I suppose that this is something that I actually moved to China to experience. I suppose.
Once back on campus, I went to a street-restaurant and ordered chao fan (fried rice) for dinner. The cook is an older, white haired man who likes to hear me try to speak Chinese. He always says enthusiastically "ok! ok! ok!" when I order. And this time--he remembered my name.
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