I found the consulate in Chengdu during my weekend.
I used the metro (huzzah!) but I got off too early and still wound up walking quite a ways. The consulate was closed (it was Sunday), but I got the information I needed to register. Nothing like seeing a wall ringed in thick barbed wire to make you feel like you are so.not.welcome – even my passport barely placated the guard. I remember when I had a diplomatic passport, and parted embassy patrols like so many armed curtains…
There was a Western pub nearby – the Shamrock. I’ll head there when I want a Guinness on tap and have an extra ten bucks to spend on it. There was also a Starbucks, but I was not headed for either place. I had read about a sort of library/café for expats – the Bookworm. And it held a literary festival there each March – wonderful timing! It was just a short walk from the Consulate.
Again, I find that I romanticize things too much. The café was lovely – the food was delicious, but highly priced. I paid more for tea, French fries, and an appetizer of grilled vegetables than I did for any of my entire meals so far. I immediately loved the shelves and shelves of books – the Bookworm boasts of 11,000 titles. But the atmosphere was a little…aloof. I sort of thought that because the expat community was small, that newcomers would be welcomed. At my most unrealistic, I think I thought it would be like Egypt in the 1920s. Like people would be playing cards and dressed like the Modern Major General (making all the expats British?)
Me (entering the cafe): Hello?
Modern Major General 1: Why, by Jove – an American! Come all the way to the heart of the Middle Kingdom!
Modern Major General 2: Tell us news of the States!
Well-dressed lady: Yes, and the fashions! How short are you Yanks wearing your skirts these days?
I don’t mean to say that I did not feel welcome, but I felt distinctly unseen. Perhaps it was because in Wenjiang everyone stares at me, and in a Western haven I was just another Westerner. And perhaps, if I go back regularly, things will warm up.
I sat there for a couple of hours, drinking tea and waiting for the sun to set. I listened to the general hum of English voices and accents – Australian, British, American, French (French people speaking English in China – globalization!). Not to be a dope, but I felt a little lonely watching all the pairs and trios. And those who weren’t in groups were on their laptops or smartphones, or deep in their newspapers. Were we not abroad? Chengdu is a growing global technological hub, so perhaps these expats were stuck with their noses to the grindstone, no different than back in the states. How sad, if that’s the case, to not be able to appreciate the breadth of the world.
Across the café, I see a young boy with his mother. He is trying to read a comic book – but it’s a collection of Dilbert comics. He’s not laughing, but I can see him trying to make it funny. He’s probably eight – he can’t possibly get the humor of inter-office hierarchies. Nearby, a man loudly lies to the woman who enters and sits with him. He’s been waiting about half an hour, but he tells her he only just arrived before she did. He never touches the expensive tea he ordered. By the door, a young woman is gesturing to a Chinese paper, explaining things to an older man who looks like he would just go climb a mountain for the weekend. He is clearly as interested in her as the newspaper.
I stick around for the literary conference’s speaker. I had been debating buying a ticket – ultimately I decide I’d like to see who shows up in the audience.
I had hoped that the speaker that day would have been lighthearted. Because it was International Women’s Day, the discussion was feminism and the gender inequality situation in China. Interesting, and naturally disheartening – the topic was the Chinese concept of “Leftover” Women. Leftover women are women who, by the age of 25, are not married. They “waste” their time getting post-graduate degrees and are too picky about the men who want to marry them. Except for that last part, I think the Chinese would consider me a leftover. I also learned about the great residential prejudice against women. I learned a lot, but it wasn’t a particularly uplifting lecture. I notice there seem to be several inside jokes about China, which I wish I understood.
Casting about during the Q&A, I find a well-worn romance novel next to me. Compared to the other books on the shelf, this one has clearly been read a lot. Isn’t that the best? There are classics on the walls, and tomes of knowledge, but the most well-worn covers belong to the bodice rippers and fantasy stories. Escapism – always escapism.
After the talk is done, I decide to be done feeling sorry for myself. I find the woman who looks to be in charge, and wait for there to be a lull in the conversations. Then I introduce myself. This is how it goes down (roughly):
Me: “Hi, I’m Jean. Just relocated – do you have a handout about your library? I really like it here. How does one go about borrowing the books?”
Woman: “There’s a yearly fee, and then you can borrow as many books as you want. Talk to one of the staff – they’ll be happy to help you.”