The streets where they live . . .

Last Friday my first excursion as a tourist took me to the Presidential Palace. A steady, but gentle rain fell all day and did not deter my plans to get out and about. I wanted to get to know Nanjing on her own terms and walking seemed like the best way to do that. With map in hand, I convinced my good friend Tomas that we could easily walk the distance from the university. Funny thing about the official Nanjing map is the scale. As we maneuvered our way, block to block, I began to doubt my directions. I did not want to pull out the map and become a spectacle to the throngs of people maneuvering the wet sidewalks, slick streets and dripping trees. But after some time and no hint at where we might be, I did pull out the map to try and reconnoiter our location. A very friendly young man offered to be of assistance and we stood under my umbrella turning the map this way and that. I think perhaps he was more interested in practicing his English than offering insight to our location. I made several attempts to point out our destination, but he seemed to be rather clueless as to how we would get there. We offered many renditions of “xie xie” (thank you) and moved further on down the road.

My instincts told me we were still heading in the right direction, but more jokes about Mao’s Long March were cropping up with each step. One of the things that amazes me is the endlessness of the city: block after unbroken block of buildings in various states of construction and decay. New buildings going up next to crumbled structures older than the United States, gleaming signs flashing advertisings with the clarity of our most modern movie theaters next to handmade posters offering goods and services I cannot translate. The old and the new, the broken and repaired line up with a thousand faces filling the stores, passing me on the streets and streaming by on the roads. There is no horizon to see, no physical landmark that in the distance that gives me a hint of the natural order of the world. The haze is to thick to allow the sun to cast a shadow, no familiar breeze coming from a direction I know. The faces so foreign I cannot read their mood or demeanor and their language is a cacophony of sounds and syllables, inflections and tones falling around my ears and doing me no good.

I am anxious and excited as I walk the streets of Nanjing. There are few non-Asian people here, so wherever I find myself, I draw some attention. I am anxious because all of the tools so easily, if unconsciously, available to me are not available. And the instinctive tool I miss the most is being able to read the faces passing me. It is easy to recognize a smile no matter where in the world we are or anger or surprise, but there is also a subtlety to facial expressions relative to the cultures we come from, or more specifically relative to the cultures we are most familiar. I do not know Chinese faces well enough to tell whether or not the smile is sincere or sarcastic or whether the scowl is from anger or exhaustion. And it’s just enough of a mystery to keep me a bit on edge. I may be reading more into it because I feel exposed when I prefer some level of anonymity in unfamiliar situations. But the more time I spend here, walking to work, going to the grocery story, catching a taxi, the more the faces become familiar. In the absence of language skills communication takes place.

I am also very excited to be in Nanjing for many of the same reasons that cause anxiousness. It is by far more different than any other place I’ve been in the world. All of my senses are challenged on a daily basis. The noise of the traffic and the mechanical conversations of a thousand horns rarely stop. A walk down any street can expose the nose to enticing combinations of spices and foods being fried, steamed and baked in the stores and stalls that are everywhere. And in the same block you can encounter the smell of garbage and sick that forces you to turn your eyes away for fear of what you might see. For the most part I am amazed that a city as big, wet, and hot, as Nanjing is not dominated by offensive odors. My own beloved New Orleans has something to learn from Nanjing. We did finally arrive at out destination, somewhat soggy, but nonetheless relieved that a combination of instinct and map-reading skills served me well.

Dr. Dawn G. Marsh
Department of History
Purdue University


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