A few weekends ago, like I do many weekends here, I took the train down to Taigu to visit the Shansi fellows. As usual, we were hollering at each other at dinner over Tsingtaos and noodles, when someone brought up once again how they couldn’t imagine how I could stand living in Taiyuan.
“What do you mean?” I shouted, banging my beer on the table. “I’m going to have my honeymoon there!”
I shouted that for dramatic effect. Taiyuan is not for lovers. A Taiyuan honeymoon is even more absurd than an Ohio honeymoon. At least in Ohio, you’re guaranteed clean air with your game of cornhole and your footlong hot dog. A Taiyuan honeymoon would probably consist of a visit to the provincial museum to be reminded of Shanxi’s glorious mercantile past, a dinner full of at least three different types of noodles, and a smoggy walk down Liu Xiang, Taiyuan’s brightly lit shopping district. The area is crammed with young couples—girls, faking their melancholy in fluffy skirts, leaning on wide-eyed skinny boys who carry their purses. A Starbucks opened there a few months ago. I think it’s right next to the 李先生 (MISTER LEE) beef noodle chain restaurant, although I’ve stopped keeping track of the various chain restaurants. Their signs all look like they use the same font, and they often have mascots with men who look like ethnic Colonel Sanders.
On bad days, I would tell you that the only bright side to a Taiyuan honeymoon would be the reassurance that your marriage can probably sink no further. The city gives a dull first impression. Facing the train station is Yingze Boulevard, lined with mid-range skyscrapers, honking cars, and big-bellied men advertising rides to surrounding cities. Someone told me that part of the street had collapsed in March, perhaps related to land subsidence due to nearby mining. Supposedly the Shanxi millionaire coal barons live in Taiyuan. Sometimes while waiting for the bus, I try to peer into the tinted windows of the luxury cars zipping by for glimpse of the slick-haired men inside. Taiyuan can feel sprawling: when I want to buy cheese, I have to commute by bus for almost an hour. But it can also feel like an overgrown village, with its slow daily pace; almost everybody takes an afternoon nap. Even though I am surrounded by foreigners because I live in the foreign student dorm at my university, the city has few of them and even fewer establishments that cater to them. This makes for better cultural immersion but inevitably becomes stifling. Sometimes I just need to throw back a (western) beer and pretend I’m not in China.
When I first arrived in Taiyuan, I was determined to forge a fulfilling social life. Chris, one of the Jamaican exchange students downstairs, took me to the guitar school across the street. We formed a hodge-podge band with Li, the guitar teacher, and a few of his guitarist friends. I played on a decrepit keyboard while Chris played the bass in Li’s office, which was a giant studio with an electric drum set and many guitars hanging on the walls. The guitarists would take turns playing with us while the rest of them chain-smoked and drank tea on the sofas in the corner of the studio. Usually Chris led, but sometimes he’d make me pick the chord progression because he would get bored with himself, I think. I would get nervous trying to remember the jazz standards I’d learned at Oberlin and resort to playing blues derivatives or “Autumn Leaves.”
One time after rehearsal, we went to karaoke, which meant that everyone except Chris and I sang Chinese-language pop songs and chain-smoked on the sofa in our private room. I tried to get Chris to sing Beyonce with me, but we didn’t know any of the same songs. Instead, I sang Christina Aguilera’s new single because Jing, one of the younger guitarists with a haircut resembling jets of water from a fountain, had told me that he thought she was “sexy.” At dinner, he once took out his iPad to show me photos he’d saved of her. I was not sure whether to be offended. He and Chris would often make pidgin sex jokes by incorporating hand gestures and snippets of Chinese and English phrases, so I thought that maybe we could bond over some crude humor. But the music video turned out to be too sexual for him, or maybe he thought I was too much of a girl to laugh at my dirty jokes. Most of the video consisted of Christina, in false eyelashes and leopard print tights, grinding on various male hipsters before she killed them in an explosion of glitter and neon paint. I sang awkwardly while Jing smoked his cigarette, his eyes averted.
We stayed out until 3 a.m., which confused me because several of the guitar teachers were middle-aged men with families. Li dropped Chris and me off at the school gate. Because it was so late, the gate was locked, so we had to climb over it to get to our respective dorms. As I put on my pajamas, I pondered whether I had found my community in Taiyuan. I fell asleep smelling like an ash tray.
After about a month and a half, it became evident that the members of our band did not have the same taste in music. The guitarists liked Chinese pop and occasional cerebral crap; Chris liked R&B, and I realized the impossibility of learning bluegrass tunes with a keyboard, electric guitars, and an electric drum set. I also could never hear myself playing over the loud guitars and would instinctively lean my right ear over the keyboard before realizing that all the sound was being emitted by an amplifier across the room. Soon after that, I left for a conference in Beijing, and on my return to Taiyuan, I never played with them again.
This spring, my adviser introduced me to one of his students, a girl named Xiao, who helped me collect heating data for my research. Xiao was from a county near Linfen, and she was a very composed and wise 21-year old. We would meet in the school cafeteria and have two-hour-long conversations over bowls of rice congee and fried dumplings. I am not a huge fan of rice congee, but I became a huge fan of Xiao. She was the most articulate student I’d met in Taiyuan, and we would talk at length about politics, feminism, and literature. I also noticed that she somehow made fluffy lace skirts work for her.
The first time we met, she had just taken a Mandarin exam. Because China has so many dialects, many of which are mutually unintelligible, students are required to pass a Mandarin exam.
“How did you do?” I asked her jokingly. She was so eloquent with her literary references and fancy conjunctions that it was making my head spin.
“I did okay,” she replied, smiling.
We would talk intensely about history or politics for a while, but then I’d make a stupid joke about her love of congee or my lack of cultural sensitivity, and she’d laugh and say “嗯, 明白”—which was her equivalent of rolling her eyes and saying “…Right.” After each of our congee-fueled evenings, I would have to restrain myself from texting her because I wanted to ask her to hang out all the time. Her texts were full of disgusting emoticons along the lines of ~^^o.O, but along with her fluffy skirts, I forgave her for them. She was my spring beacon, shining through the Taiyuan smog.
However, after about two weeks, I realized that I did not illuminate Xiao’s life like she did mine. She had exams all the time, and we stopped hanging out, which I tried but failed not to take personally. One night, after we had rescheduled coffee for the third time, my neighbor, Bastian, invited me to go out with some Taiyuan friends and his friend visiting from Germany. Bastian was determined to show his German friend a good time. He had procured three giant bottles of liquor for the night. While pouring shots of Smirnoff for the six of us, Bastian, who is half-German, half-Taiyuanese, explained that his uncle, who works for a construction company in Taiyuan, has a giant cabinet full of western liquor for entertaining possible business partners. Thus, he supplies Bastian with large quantities of alcohol. This is convenient because liquor is an essential part of the expat diet. I took several shots and decided to abandon common sense for the night.
The night would be my first and only clubbing experience in Taiyuan. We took a cab to Bonbon—“the only club in Taiyuan that plays good music,” James from Jamaica described it. He later expounded that that meant it was the only club in Taiyuan that played English-language music. Everyone purchased the all-you-can-drink Budweiser special and started chain-smoking. I had never seen any of them smoke before, but being in a club makes all vices seem like a good idea. For the third time that night, Bastian offered me one of his very slim, womanly cigarettes, and this time I didn’t refuse it.
I spotted a Chinese girl smiling at me from a nearby table. In retrospect, it might have been because I was with a large group of foreigners. She was wearing a black-and-white-striped top and had a bob haircut. She had very pretty eyes, which was enough for me. I approached her table to pretend to have a conversation. The dance music was so loud that she could scarcely hear me even when I was shouting in her ear.
“Where are you from,” she yelled into my ear.
“I’m an exchange student at TYUT,” I shouted back.
“TYUT, huh,” she said.
“Yeah,” I yelled back. She raised her Budweiser to me. We drank to each other.
I pretended that she was another beacon, shining through the beery mist in my brain. I allowed myself to forget my doubt about her sexual orientation and asked her to dance. She refused me but offered me a cigarette. The Budweiser was clouding my judgment, so I allowed her to light it for me. While I was trying to not choke on the cigarette, I turned to her guy friend, who I’d determined was gay because he’d asked me for Bastian’s number.
“I like your friend!” I yelled at him. “What’s up with her?”
“Just talk to her!” he yelled back.
With her friend’s blessing and Budweiser coursing through my body, I decided that the best way to see if she liked me was to try to sit on her lap. She immediately jumped out of her seat. I still had enough sense to be mortified, so I ran off and started dancing behind Bastian.
After I recovered slightly from the sting of rejection, I skulked back toward her table to find that she and her friends had left. Trying not to feel dejected, I decided to take a cab home alone. I figured that I had used up all my luck for the night, and I’d definitely drunk my money’s worth in Budweiser. I emerged from my cab, managed to climb over the locked school gate, and stumbled into bed. I fell asleep smelling like an ash tray.
The next day, I think I had lunch with Kate, a fifty-something-year-old English teacher who lived two doors down from me. This past year, Kate has jolted me out of my downward spirals and has served as a voice of reason.
Coincidentally, Kate was an Oberlin graduate. Back in the U.S., she’d been a tax and estates lawyer in Chicago, but she had been teaching English in Taiyuan for the past two years. She’d come here because as a Baha’i, she wanted to help create and support the budding Baha’i communities in Shanxi. She was the chillest person I had ever met. After graduating from college, she had been a Watson Fellow in the Caribbean, and I think she had rid herself of expat anxiety then. She tried to learn Chinese when she first arrived, but by the time I’d met her, two years into teaching in Taiyuan, she’d resigned herself to only knowing basic phrases and communicating mostly through amiable body language. She was comfortable with comprehending 10% of most conversations she had and managed to be present without having to open her mouth. She laughed off insensitive or racist comments and completely overlooked common Chinese habits often repulsive to expats, such as public spitting, strangers shouting nonsensical English at her, and nonexistent traffic etiquette. While I am leaving Taiyuan for Tucson after less than a year here, Kate recently committed to teaching a fourth year in Taiyuan next year.
During our conversations, she spoke barely above a whisper—I always leaned in to listen.
She told me, way back in the beginning when we first met, the secret to living here: “You can be pissed, or you can be amused. I choose to be amused.”
I made a note of her words in my journal but could have done better to keep them in my head.