It’s 6am and the cold sweeps into the arrivals terminal with each agitated hiss of the automatic doors as they open. Outside the air is thick with fog and there’s no sign of the sun. It’s hard to believe I was waving goodbye to bright, sunny, and hot Australia just sixteen hours earlier. Nanjing seems worlds away from the life I left behind in Sydney.
“Are you Chris?”
A pretty Chinese girl approaches me hesitantly. She has a folded up piece of cardboard in her hands. I can make out my name on it.
“Sure am,” I reply as amiably as I can muster after spending five hours with my knees up under my chin thanks to China Eastern Airlines having clown sized seats. I quickly shrug on my 25kg pack and shoulder my two carry on bags. They total another 11kg. I am the mother-fucking hulk.
We hail a cab and we ride in silence. The cab drivers here are protected by a cocoon of plexi-glass. Chinese pop songs and the tap-tap of tires riding over joins in the road are our sole accompaniment.
The fog clings cloyingly to the earth. Or is it the other way around?
When the smoky tendrils pull back their ethereal roots, will the world fall away?
I exist in that strange place between sleep and waking. Ideas that seem sane and rational quickly devolve into nonsensical flights of fantasy. It’s realizing their oddness that ultimately jolts me back awake, but never for long.
What few shapes loom out of the shifting mists would be perfectly at home in the work s of H.G. Wells. Cell towers and cranes are given menace by their cloak of rolling clouds.
After fifteen minutes or so the fog has begun to lift and we are m
oving through less ominous settings. High rises flank the road and soon our lonely taxi is joined by other cars and an ever growing horde of motor-bikes, electric scooters, and push-bikes.
Nanjing is a city of 8 million, but it doesn’t seem so intimidating in the early morning light. I’m not sure what I expected, but there is a lot in common between Nanjing and the cities of Gwangju and Busan, where I lived during my time in South Korea.
Tina, who I learn is the foreign teacher liason at my school, ushers me through deathly silent halls and eventually to a door that will mark the entrance to my domain for the next 365 days – give or take a week or so.
My first impression is one of pleasant surprise. After spending all three of my tenures in South Korea crammed into something more resembling a shoebox than a living space, I’m gob-smacked by having not one but three rooms. There’s a rice cooker, water cooler, hot plate, and big double bed all saying ‘hi’ as I explore. Hell, even a desk was a luxury I usually had to plead for in South Korea.
“Here is your electricity card,” Tina explains, “You put credit on it like a mobile phone“. She also advises me on how to turn on the heating, where I can buy groceries, and when I should show up on Monday morning for orientation.
The door closes, her heels echo down the hall, and I’m left alone with a big bag full of clothing and a weird sense of deja vous. I’ve done this all before, but I’m suddenly that scared 23 year old who curled up into a ball and sobbed on his bed upon first arriving in South Korea four years ago.
The Olive Branch
I while away my first few hours in China fitfully dozing and watching old episodes of Bob’s Burgers. But before too long my feet are itchy and I’m feeling brave enough to venture out on my first reconaissance mission.
Soon enough I’m back in my apartment with two ramen bowls, a pack of toilet paper, and a blueberry muffin. I am a superstar.
A second visit – this time a little longer – sees me return with toothpaste, a bottle of Pepsi, and the understanding that the grocery store nearest my school does not stock cereal or the components required to cook a meal that doesn’t revolve around ramen.
I’m curled up on the couch wishing the heater actually projected heat when I remember that my good friend Anthony (from Art of Conversations) has a brother living in Nanjing! A few expensive international texts later and I’ve got plans for my first Saturday night in Nanjing. Great success!
The cab ride over requires only minimal involvement from a friend on the phone and soon David is thrusting a cool Tsingtao into my hand and leading me up to his apartment for some home cooked stir fry and a tour of an apartment that looks much more like ‘home’ than mine currently does.
And then we were off to Jimmy’s, one of many foreigner owned bars in the area. Beer is drunk in vast quantities; a quirky Chinese girl informs David and I that we are ‘dogs amongst puppies’; and a chunky British girl makes moon eyes at me. I’m delighted to learn that not only is beer in China cheap, but they also stock favorites such as Franziskaner (a magnificent wheat beer) and Aussie staples like the good old Crown Lager.
It’s a far cry from the wild and debauched nights out I enjoyed in South Korea. A scant dozen people are in attendance and the atmosphere is far from raucous, but I have a good time all the same. Myself and two Davids drink more beer than I care to recall and discuss our experiences teaching and living in China.
Obviously I can’t contribute much on that last point…
Soon we stagger out for spicy street food that inexplicably includes fish fins, fish mouths (these are actually delicious), and some great Han cooked lamb kebabs served up on burned naan.
Unlike Korean street food stalls which exist in quiet alleys or on the sidewalks, this one literally clings to the edge of a now quiet street where tables and chairs have been scattered. Three separate businesses operate close to one another and cover pretty much all of your needs. There’s even some cheap Chinese beer to wash down our mouth-incinerating late night snacks with.
It’s 2am and the long flight is weighing on me. We return to my place to find that the gate to the facility has been locked. Unable to figure out how to contact anybody within the school, I adopt the smart tactic – having David #2 boost me over the two meter high gate. I teeter precariously on top, gather myself, and then land gracelessly in a heap on the bitumen below.
“Let me know if this is the right place,” David #2 shouts as I jog towards the building. A security guard nods to me as I approach. I turn back to wave, trip on an uneven bit of ground, and fall. My knees and hands are grazed twice in five minutes. Winning.
But then I’m slumping into bed with the Royal Rumble and some ramen for company and all is well. I’ll deal with the hangover tomorrow.
My first day in Nanjing has drawn to a close. The verdict? Loving it so far.