One of the strange feelings about being back in Nanjing is one of stagnation, like nothing has changed and yet everything has changed. It feels like I’ve taken a time machine back a few years, to another world now foreign to me, yet it feels like time is standing still and nothing is moving forward. That is one of the most difficult aspects for me when I go back and forth from China to the US: on the one hand, everything is the same as I left it and life goes on as normal, seemingly as if nothing has changed. This is comforting on many levels. At the same time, I’ve had to say goodbye to countless friends each time I move, many friends that I haven’t seen in years. And inevitably, like all friendships, I’ve watched many of my friendships dissolve simply because of the time and space between us.
This time around, I’m back in Nanjing. I’m in the same house, in the same neighborhood, with the same roommate and same host family from my Fulbright research (when I was writing on this blog before). The same noodle shop is serving the same salty, soup with soy sauce and a huge slab of fatty pork. The duck blood soup restaurant is down the street, serving exactly the same food with the friendly auntie and uncle I chat with about their daughters’ marriage prospects (though one of their daughters is married now). The same street food vendors are selling fried tofu and the same scandalous shows by the city wall are attracting crowds of men. The same vegetable sellers are screaming about their products as they ride through the alleys in the morning. Their voices haven’t changed at all--they’re still screaming about their potatoes and bok choy in the exact same voice, intonation, and cadence as I remember. It’s kind of eery, yet comforting at the same time.
The same scrap collector gathers recyclable materials, and the same fights ensue between my neighbors. I go to the the same public toilet and shower house. The shower house auntie still remembers me, and we catch up about her son and my school work. The same people play mahjong for hours every day. The same old ladies are do their daily exercises of slapping various parts of their body in the pagoda by the river at 9 am everyday. The neighborhood is filled with the same sounds of motorbikes speeding past and cars honking their horns. The same busses barrell past at dangerous speeds. The same bicycles weave through the alleyway. The same bird at my next-door neighbor’s squaks out a few Chinese phrases. I eat the same spicy Muslim noodles and talk to the fruit sellers; I walk the same routes through town and the same markets. I eat the same steaming hot bowl of noodles, and dumplings, and spicy fried rice from the same carts that spring up early in the morning and late at night. I smell the same sewage smells. The read the same posters threatening the demolition that never comes.
And there are a lot of differences in the neighborhood too, of course. The neighbors next door lost their grandma but welcomed in a new baby 2 months ago. The other next door neighbors’ daughter is in 3rd grade now, and as independent and sassy as ever. My roommate Xie Rui has graduated and is working several odd jobs trying to keep ends meet--one tutoring middle school students and one working at a fruit stand--and finding herself bored with her jobs and her life. My host family is planning on moving into a new apartment next year. The houses on the other side of town have been demolished and a new ritzy tourist attraction with fake new “old” houses have been built, with shops selling expensive Buddhist decor, a Starbucks, and a German restaurant in their place. Some businesses have closed and new ones opened in their place, and the frantic pace of development brought on by building a new subway for the 2014 Youth Olympics has slowed a bit. There is still ongoing demolition in various parts of the neighborhood. My neighbors continue to wait eagerly for their demolition and the compensation that will come with that. One of the young girls down the street has moved to another city for work. The kids have grown taller.
And I’ve changed too.
I’m no longer a long-term resident here. It’s a different feeling, less like being around friends and family, and more like acquaintances. It’s awkward that way. Not with my roommate or my next-door neighbors: to me they are still family. But with everyone else. There’s a distance, perhaps more on my part than anyone else. I’m just passing through this time. I do hope to bring Xie Rui and Zhang Chongyang to the States someday, even if it’s just for travel. But I don’t have the same kind of investment in this place and its people anymore and that creates a natural drift. My research project has moved to the opposite side of the country, and my focus has changed from demolition and displacement to migration and ethnicity. It’s no longer my home. It feels like home, but… at the same time then again it feels more like I’m a traveler passing through on a journey, not like I’m settled here the way I was before.