Letter from Chengdu: Wet Rags and Remembering How to Walk

I’ve spent most of my time since arriving here at the beginning of the month doing what’s required to secure a one-year visa extension, as well as initiate my first stipend payment. That has necessitated lots of running around to different university, bank and government offices, where I am asked to fill out essentially the same form and coordinate with a different set of overworked, exasperated employees. The last step of the visa process is handing over one’s passport to the immigration bureau, which I did last week. My new visa should be ready on October 31. But, given that I presently have no other form of official identification to use for travel or accomodations, until then I’m essentially stuck in Chengdu.

That’s not necessarily bad. This forced time here gives me a chance to interact with faculty and students at Sichuan University, as well as to work on a couple of projects. It also gives me an opportunity to reflect on previous long stints here in China, and how and to what extent things have changed. On so many levels this experience feels fundamentally different than when I was last here three years ago, to say nothing of my first arrival in 2005. So much of that has to do with more recent exposure to ideas that have in many ways reinforced longstanding beliefs that, for various reasons, I found reason to doubt.

But then there are what a friend calls wet rags. These are the experiences that resurrect that familiar feeling of doubt, which may be best described as a creeping sense of futility. And living in China can often feel like one is constantly being smacked in the face with a series of wet rags. For example, last week I chatted with a graduate student here, Huang, about his personal experiences growing up in the countryside. He noted the foundational changes in his home village in the past 10 years ago since the onset of policy reform: community spaces and neighborhoods demolished and replaced by apartment buildings; the young and middle-aged vanished, leaving only children, the elderly and the infirm; along with this a lost sense of place, home and liveliness. But like many of us would when faced with the onset of something terrible and seemingly implacable, Huang tried to find the positive. “These changes are not all bad,” he said. “For example, I can now pay for things electronically with my phone. I don’t have to carry a wallet.”

One does not have to look hard or wait long for more wet rags. Last Thursday night on my walk back from the visa processing office I was propositioned by three middle-aged prostitutes who were working along the riverbank. That had me thinking about my chat with Huang, and about wider changes that push people into cities in search of work. And when that search fails, there’s no choice other than to do what’s needed to make ends meet.

This place, like pretty all places but maybe more than most, has a way of getting you down. Of wearing away at your spirit. Of forcing you inward towards those things that you feel you can control. Commutes spent in constant fear of the cars and bikes bearing down on you from all sides. The seemingly endless string of oppressively smoggy days. Roaches, rats and mosquitoes. Anecdotes and news stories about – and personal experiences with – scams that seem unconscionably callous. In conversation with a local I met last week, I asked why it is he thinks people in this country focus so much attention on their kids. “Because it feels safe,” he said. It is understandable why it can feel like so little else does.

And I can relate. When I think back on previous times here, I remember long stretches where the accumulation of wet rags sent me into a kind of pain avoidance mode. Declining invitations. Talking myself out of initiating conversations. Avoiding eye contact. Hurrying through interactions. Being back now and seeing things with relatively fresh eyes, I feel as though I can now spot that familiar feeling in others: a look of shell shock, a feeling of exhaustion and reflexive cynicism.

But of course there are different ways of seeing. Ways that invite everything experienced in a day – wet rags and all – into the frame of what is observed. Ways that try to meet life on its own terms, rather than dictating those terms. Ways that stave off the desire to create coherent, easily summarizable and thus easily dismissable grand narratives by looking for challenges, contradictions and messiness. One of those options allows for survival, while the other is actually living.

Yesterday the weather was mild and I decided to take the 45-minute walk to my favorite cafe. During that time I tried  to look at every person I passed by. Many of them chatted with their friends. Many of them were caught up on their own thoughts, or were looking at their phones. Some of them scowled at me. But every so often as they passed by someone would make eye contact and give me the sweetest smile, and for that fraction of a second my heart felt like it would burst, overwhelmed by charge it created. I don’t know what they were thinking, but I’d like to think that they were out trying to look, learn and engage, not in spite of but because of how difficult each day can be.   

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