I bought a book of poetry today. It’s a volume of 150 poems, each four lines, with the English and the Chinese side by side. Since then, I’ve been thinking of the poetic side of life here.
Some basic info about the city:
-Nanjing is almost always grey. We had one blue sky the other day after a rain. It surprised us so much we took pictures of the light space over the skyline.
-It is either humid and wet or humid and hot. These are the choices of weather.
-There is heavy pollution in the sky, so that anything more than 100 feet away or so looks a bit hazy. The tallest skyscrapers are always a little dim. Looking down a straight road, the end of it is obscure.
-Although newer buildings buck this trend, most of the city is made up of utilitarian communist architecture. Concrete predominates. This lends the town a uniformity of appearance where many different parts of the city look fairly similar.
-It is quite common for people to stare at us. I think the etiquette surrounding this must be different in the US, because people aren’t bashful about it. Often, someone will continue to check me out even when I have noticed them noticing me. It’s a bit disconcerting.
Together, the plain architectural uniformity and the hazy air produce an effect that makes it seems like the city is receding into the background. It reminds me of the “brown fog” of London in T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” I feel at times like we are living in a dreamscape. This is all the more the case, I think, because of the degree to which the West romanticizes the East. Even now, nearly a month in, China retains a surreal glow for me. In this way, my time here has been somewhat akin to how many experience Paris. It makes me recall travelers and writers who have spend their whole lives under spells like these. It’s an enchantment in the old sense of the word: a hex that binds you even as you are aware of its power.
Today it is raining. The city is splashed with color, because everyone in the street uses a bright umbrella. The bicycle riders, similarly, wear colorful ponchos. They contrast the concrete and the grey sky. The ponchos and umbrellas reflect in the water on the ground, casting luminous shadows.
This mistiness only extends so far, and moments of clarity pierce through the fog. Especially loud car horns, conversations, and the smell of fried noodles (among other things) all pull me back from the floating reverie that I’m apt to fall into. Ultimately the unusual events to my eyes, like synchronized dancing in the park, mingle with more familiar city scenes, like couples walking together, pedestrians rushing to catch a bus, or street venders selling their goods.
It is both surprising how similar Nanjing is to Philadelphia—even many of the same stores are now in China—and how acute some of the differences are. A rooster’s crow woke me the other day, but only that once. I keep taking it in, and am newly impressed every day.