An older part of the newer part of Guangzhou took me in ’08. They called it Five Ram New Town and when twisting alleys gave way to nothing familiar I called it home for a year or so. A few years later the subway stations would burst through the ground and I would have had a closer option to catch a ride to work. But for the moment I could only follow the carefully prescribed steps my manager gave me. Follow the creek, cross the bridge, make a right at the T, meander through the residence areas through the gate at the vegetable venders, and down the night market alley all the way out to the main street. The entrance to the closest subway station would be just around the corner.
Some days we packed into a Bread Car – what they called the retro looking white vans – to ride out to Panyu for our class with the screaming 1st graders from whom we confiscated iPhones and other expensive toys. On others it was a bus to Zhixin with fields of apathetic high schoolers. Every other class I had took me through the back way, and so I got to know it well.
We didn’t know the name of the creek so we named Shit Creek for the sporadic raw sewage that drained into it. You had to walk quickly through that part especially in summer where the smell became something overly fragrant, and in winter when the air dried and lost the moisture we used to clog our sense of smell. I’d pass the internet café and the corner shop we’d drink cheap beers on plastic stools at, and when I saw the tea shop laden with wrapped discs of packed green tea leaves it was time to hold my breath and pick up the pace.
On the other side, when the smell was tolerable, you could find the best cheap hotpot around. I’d grab skewers of vegetables and meat to give to the cook and 15 minutes later he’d hand me a wide steel bowl wrapped with a plastic bag (so he wouldn’t need to do the dishes) filled with a steamy noodle soup swimming in peanuts and so spicy I’d stumble home sure I was drunk. During the day, however, it was an empty corner on the water with closed doors and closed windows.
Down the road to follow came a street often filled with kindergartners on their way to class crying their goodbyes or hugging their hellos from and to their parents, hair dressers with stylish photos of western models plastering the windows, and games of Chinese Chess played by two grumpy looking men and a circle of 25 bystanders staring avidly and occasionally offering suggestions. Next was a right and around past the toll gate always closed but never blocking anyone, through the spot where the road narrowed and children looked down from old 5 story buildings where they arm over railing kicked their feet into the open air watching me as I went, then finally out onto the night market alley – my favorite place in the city.
It was still bustling during the day, but it was best at night when old ladies with mud under their fingernails carried heavy tarp rucksacks over their shoulders to their usual place where they spread out vegetables all the way down the side street to the wet market 5 minutes away; when cobblers pulled out their stool to repair the busted soles handed through the iron walls turned to wares shelf; when the rest of the shops would open up their double businesses: the 2 yuan store where you could find shoes and all sorts of housewares at the cheapest prices in the city without buying in bulk, the pet fish store stacked high with tanks of different species of fish and random produce, and the yarn store where grandmothers bought spindles of colorful yarn and assorted knitting needles as well as phone accessories.
I’d seen them all when I was first exploring the area. But after a few weeks I just walked past them to my DVD guy. His name was Mr. Qian and I joked that it sounded like Mr. Money which was why he had so many DVDs. He was young and just started to get the worried eyebrow scrunch that new fathers got. He was strong and I’m sure he would have been very handsome in his youth. But those days he sat boredly in his little shop. During the day there was no shred of evidence he had the most impressive mobile movie collection around. At night he sat surrounded by plastic crates of DVDs wrapped in cardboard cases that didn’t fit the printing margins, English that wasn’t really English, and a re-sealable plastic sheath that had obviously been opened several times. He gave me 3 yuan for a movie when down the street people offered 5 if they liked me and 10 if they didn’t.
I was still remembering the sounds for the Chinese words I hadn’t thought were important in my high school Chinese class, so when I saw him I would practice the basics with him and he would respond in politely over-enunciated baby Chinese.
“Ni hao! Chifan le meiyou?” Hello! Have you eaten, he’d ask me.
“Xianzai hai meiyou.” Not just yet, I repied one time. I quickly realized my mistake but too late. I should have said that I had, as at 10 AM most normal people weren’t rushing off to teach 5-year old’s filled with a 7 Eleven breakfast I had yet to buy. But unthinking, I spoke the truth.
His expression scrunched up in puzzlement and then a face I’d since learned to tell apart from anger. “Zuo, zuo, zuo!” Sit, sit, sit, he ordered me. I helplessly obeyed and watched in dismay as he rushed off to grab several bowls of whatever the family had had for breakfast. It was steamed fish filled with bones, some boiled vegetables, a dish I could only distinguish some meat and a carby tuber in, and two scoops of plain white rice. He handed me the bowl of rice and a pair of chopsticks and set the other sides in front of me. “Chi, chi,” eat, eat, he insisted. I did pecking at this dish and that dish. The fish looked the best, but after a few painful bones in my gums I settled for the safer mystery dish and vegetables. Mr. Money sat with his hands on his knees watching me and smiling. I made some appreciative sounds and told him how good it was.
My stomach was still growling a little when I left but I said I was full. It was probably better than the plain white peanut butter bun, can of cold congee, and carton of sweet coffee drink I’d usually get. Cheaper too. I thanked him with overly polite Chinese and hurried off towards the subway.
Coming home I had more time to stay and chat as I usually did. His year-old daughter hid behind her father’s legs and he would coax her out encouraging her to say “Hello” to me. She didn’t the first time she met me. But I came by often and I’d make sure to say hello to her. After a few trips down the alley she’d return the greeting smiling shyly. I’d flip through his crates of DVDs piling stacks often 10 high that I would buy in one go. All the superhero movies I hadn’t gotten a chance to see back home, several new ones I knew were about to come out when I left the States, and many, many movies I’d never heard of but had interesting covers. My movie collection grew and grew and Mr. Money and his daughter got used to my routines. Soon his daughter would approach me and copy the scary faces and sounds I’d make to make her squeal and run away. Some nights she was off in a neighbor’s store looking at the fish or playing with the toys at the 10 kuai store. I tried not to act too sad when she was too busy to say hi.
It was a simple relationship. Mrs. Money was friendly but often babysitting or minding the day store. Mr. Money was warm and would strike up conversations about the movies I was looking at but was never a deep speaker. Little Miss Money was adorable and seemed to grow like a beanstalk, and also less and less amused by her big-nosed friend. They were the first locals I felt like I knew and could be welcomed into their home. They made me feel like I knew a secret of the city that none of my fellow teachers knew – a secret contained in the smiling silent eyes of a man who sold me DVDs. It was moments like this that carried me through the intense loneliness that sets in when any Laowai gets off the plane in this place – the moments of connection, though shallow and brief, which kept me from being alone in this 20-million-person city.
But I eventually found the bars and haunts that other foreigners frequented. I bought a bike and got lost enough to have a map of the city that existed in crisscrossing lines rather than the bubbles of subway stations I had actually travelled to a few times. I found friends who weren’t just friends with me because I was the only other person they could have a conversation with. Eventually, I left my underpaid kid-teaching job and my Five Ram New Town for the hipper and more fashionable Taojin area and an upscale training institute that catered to rich and highly motivated adults.
I’d lived several lifetimes in the city before I’d have occasion to revisit the old nostalgic corners and alleys I knew so well before. They’d changed of course. Nothing stays still in this place. But the alley was still the same. I showed my Chinese girlfriend around excitedly pointing out the same shops and stalls that excited me – her patiently smiling at whatever I seemed to see that she didn’t.
“It’s just up here,” I told her. “I used to come by here every day and buy DVDs back when people still bought DVDs. He’s, he’s just… There!” And there he was. Mr. Money sat in his usual stall his daughter nowhere to be seen.
“Nihao!” I called out to him. He looked up at me and I saw the light of recognition. “Nihao,” he returned the greeting. But though he clearly knew me, the crinkle in his eye was nothing like mine; his excitement a pale comparison to mine. He recognized me. But it was no miracle like it was to me.
I waved and thought about sitting down to look at his by now old and outdated movie collection but from the speed with which he looked back down at his paper, I decided not to. I moved on restless, hurt, and unsure why.
Of course he’d known so many other foreigners by now. The neighborhood was now bursting with them and my old company a short walk away. Though I might have been the first white person his daughter had met, I surely wasn’t the last. The novelty had worn off. We were passé.
I didn’t know then what he and his family meant to me. I’ve now been in this city for a decade or so. I know it’s alleys and districts better than our local students. I’ve been to so many bars, and clubs filled with loud and drunken foreigners. My Chinese has plateaued to a point that could only progress further with serious study, a court summons, a serious illness, or a very philosophical best friend experiencing an existential crisis. This place is no longer scary and exotic to me. It is familiar like Mr. Money was to me then. I’ve met hundreds of Mr. and Mrs. Money’s, just like he’d met hundreds of me. But for a time he was home, or a very small piece of it. And one of the first things you learn when you come here is you can never go home. One of the last things you learn from living here, though – you can always visit.