In 2002, I went to live in Daqing for 6 months – it’s an oil city in the north of China, near the Russian border – a flat, nondescript sprawling city of vast tracts of apartment buildings, pipelines oil rigs and very few trees – but my time there was one of the strangest, most dreamlike periods of my life.
The northern Chinese are more tall than the average Han Chinese, I assume because of the smattering of Russian blood within them, and they are a strange combination of sensitive awareness, mischievous humor, inquisitive friendliness, and outright belligerence – a combination which creates many surprises, because they seem an impossible mix of opposites.
They are extremely conscious of conforming with a social ‘norm’, yet most are highly eccentric and idiosyncratic individuals. They are obsessed with orderliness and rightness, yet there is a gentle and persistent chaos in everything, from the way they drive, to the way they do business. They can be so very affectionate, considerate and kind, yet also so cruel and brutally judgmental it is shocking. They have wonderful laughs, and wide grins that light you up when the appear, yet can be unbearably dour if some subtle social convention is unknowingly flouted.
But taken as a complete package, they are wonderful. I admired their self dependence, their pride, their mischief and their incredible resilience.
I arrived in June of 2002, on a 6 month contract to teach English in the schools, and this is the story of my first morning in that strange city. You see, at that time, in a city of around 3 million people, me and the handful of other Western teachers, were the only Caucasian faces to be seen, largely because, being a rather ugly oil town, Western tourists didn’t bother coming that far north.
So me and the other English teachers, sent by the Chinese government to compulsorily indoctrinate their people in the ways of our incomprehensible language, were the only red faces in town (to their sensibilities, anyway). We’d been hired by Chinese employment agents who’d been sent to America, Canada and Australia to find any ‘teacher’ who would come to this far flung northern town – and because the destination was so apparently unattractive, the only westerners who would come were a motley crew of drunks, reprobates and adventurers … and me.
Luckily on the plane to Beijing, I was sitting next to a Chinese man, who taught me the basics, of which I only managed to remember a grand total of seven words:
“Ni how…” (hello)
“Bu yow…” (no thank you)
“Bu hao…” (not good)
“She sheh..” (thank you)
“Bu dway…” (no) … though, interestingly, it is not an emphatic ‘NO’ like ours …. but literally, it’s a very tactful ‘not yes’, because there is no such word as ‘no’ in Chinese. Much too impolite. So rather than saying ‘NO’ they simply say, ‘not yes’ and tactfully leave you to assume the rest.
So as I passed through customs on Beijing, then navigated my way to connect with a plane to Daqing, I did quite well with my selection of seven words – largely because in Beijing airport, the signs all had English translations – which tended to make my proud utterances of ‘no’, ‘yes’, ‘good’ and ‘thank you’ to a little superfluous.
But when I got to Daqing, it was a different matter, because for the first time in my life, I was among people who not only didn’t speak English, but had had so little contact with foreigners (or ‘red devils’ as we’re sometimes known) they couldn’t understand why I didn’t speak Chinese – because in their world, everybody speaks Chinese – they couldn’t imagine anyone not speaking Chinese.
So, unlike Thailand or Indonesia, where everybody had a modicum of English to make things easy – the Chinese in Daqing just frowned as if I was an idiot, and talked louder Chinese at me, thinking maybe if they lift the volume, this babbling fool will understand.
Not only that, but everywhere I looked in Daqing, also unlike Thailand, there were absolutely no signs in English. None.
And because all the apartment buildings were built to strict regulation designs, they all looked identical, so any one part of Daqing looked exactly like the other
Which brings me to why I’m telling you all this … yes, I have a story to tell. My first morning in Daqing … which, though seemingly banal to introduce, was in fact a sublime and fascinating experience to live.
Because of the time difference, I awoke at 12.30 AM, so after laying about for a while, I got up and pottered about unpacking until I felt tired again at about 3 am, then slept some more until 4 AM when the sky began to pale.
I sat up in bed feeling disoriented, with the sound of Chinese voices passing by outside my open window, and my disorientation was not helped by what I saw when I looked out of the window – an old woman in pastel colored pajama’s running backwards down the middle of the road. With her head held high, and her arms pistoning in time with her leisurely rearwards trot, she looked as if this was the way she always walked.
‘Strange’, I thought, as I spotted another woman coming the other way, also in loose fitting pajama’s, and also running backwards.
It occurred to me that this might be a human version of the reversal of poles, where the water spirals down the toilet bowl in the opposite direction in the Northern hemisphere to the South – that perhaps this reverse phenomenon applied to people also.’
And then more people appeared.
I looked at my watch – it was only 4.30 AM, yet the wide road between my window and the building across the way was filling with people, many walking vigorously backwards as I had already seen, some just ambling backwards in the pallid dawn light. I got out of bed, and leant into the window to see more – a troupe of old people were doing formation Tai Chi exercises on the path to the left. And there, to the right, an elderly man and a very young boy appeared, the both of them goose-stepping like storm troopers in mufti, the man instructing the boy loudly, showing him how to kick his arms and legs high into the air.
But even with all the people passing, I kept thinking something was missing in this weird and wonderful sunlit morning – something about the background silence that was too complete. I could hear people’s voices and the pitter patter of their feet, but something was missing. At first I thought it was because there were no cars – because for some reason there weren’t – only people.
‘That’s why it’s so quiet,” I thought. But there was something else, something missing that I couldn’t put my finger on.
I went into the bathroom and had a shower then came back to the window again, then stood watching the people.
And it hit me.
There were no birds. No sound of birds. Not one peep, cheep or twitter.
Strange, I thought. I went over to another window in the lounge of my apartment – I opened it and listened, peering up into all the trees – still no birds.
Here it was, dawn, and no birds. In my whole life I’d never been anywhere without the sound of birds in the background. Cities, countries, everywhere – there had always been birds, somewhere at least – until that morning. No sparrows, no crows, no finches or doves. Birds were absent from that place, and I never worked out why, but it made the uncanny silence behind all that human activity unnerving to say the least.
And over later days and months, though I did see the odd sparrow, or finch, nevertheless, Daqing at that time seemed empty, not only of birds, but also flies, ants, bees … only cockroaches flourished in dark spaces in the toilets and halls. And as I said, I never worked out why. And no-one could tell me, though we theorized that the birds and insects had, perhaps, been killed off by some powerful insecticide the Chinese might have used at one time.
And then, in the soft light of the morning, music appeared – slightly distorted, reverberating against the buildings – the playschool scales of sentimental Chinese songs sung with heart-rending vibrato, pinned to the lilting 3/4 rhythm of a waltze, one song after another.
I looked out at all the men and women walking backwards down the street, their arms pumping in time with the music, then I looked at my watch – what is it, 5.00 in the morning, and they’re walking backwards and playing music?
What lunacy. But what a magnificent way to begin a day.
This I had to see.
Considering the little sleep I’d had, I felt okay, and the dawning orange sun was by now peeping above the trees on the other side of the road, so I decided to go for a run.
Out I trotted, a tall, a pale, exhausted and puffy faced foreigner in army shorts, t shirt and runners, and I began plodding through what seemed an early morning dream – a wide open road in which hundreds of plump rosy cheeked Chinese, immaculately turned out in cotton skirts, slacks and silken pajama’s of bright, beautiful hues, were stretching, moving through tai chi poses, windmilling their arms, karate kicking trees and fences, walking backwards …
And dancing … Dancing? Yes, at 5 AM, they were dancing.
Trotting further up the road I found the music I had heard before blaring out from a large public address system set up in the square in front of an office building. About thirty couples, twirling and spinning together in the early morning sun, waltzing the morning away like it was midnight on a cruise ship – precise little steps with their heads held high, gazing beyond each other with such blissful looks on their faces as they span forward, then back, then around, then forward again.
The innocence of this early morning joy – the earnestness of it, the serene beauty of this scene wrapped me up in a blanket and melted me on the spot.
Because you must remember, I had just come from Australia, where early mornings were redolent with befuddled resentment in the jostling traffic and rushing people, fueled by hasty cups of coffee and screaming traffic, the desperate sweat of joggers – I’d come from a place where mornings were formed by hurriedly throwing down breakfast in front of the radio blitting and blatting disaster and complaint, to join the river of revving cars on constipated roads, people struggling to work with all the other barely wakened and lonely human beings who never say good morning yet wonder why they feel so lonely and depressed.
And now here I was in … in a serene new place, a parallel world with a strange new kind of morning, standing in a gentle orange light of a morning sun, among an uncharacteristic celebration of a new day – wondering at the fathers goosestepping with their children, the couples whirling and swooping as they danced in the street, the music swinging and swaying with it’s bizarre Chinese melodies … and all of it so blissfully unselfconscious, as if this is the way it is, always.
So I began to run, and everywhere, in every street I passed it was the same.
Music and dancing beneath a soft blooming sun.
And as I ran, I became aware of this guy, a thin Chinese man in a suit that flapped and flailed around his bony arms and legs. And he was running too; an odd loping run with his over-sized shoes going clunk, clunk, clunk on the pavement and his arms pistoning wildly.
He ran just ahead of me and I thought at first he was running for a bus, but he didn’t stop – just kept on running, so I fell in behind to see where he was going.
But he kept on running, and I wondered where he was going, and why he was running in a suit. Was he getting his morning exercise dressed like that – and it was a nice suit too – dark pinstripe, pressed into neat creases.
When I turned off at the next crossing he was still running up the road, like some kind of manic cartoon character. And as I kept running up this road and then that road, the world was filled with more people swinging their arms, sniffing flowers, playing little stringed instruments, gathered around brewing pots of tea on charcoal braziers. And I felt like crying with the mad, lunatic joy of it all.
And over the days and weeks that followed it became clear that during the spring and summer months, this was the way the Daqingers began every day here – at 5 am each day the whole city became a big holiday camp in which the rosy emerging light of the sun was celebrated.
And now to the point of this long story.
Given my newly arrived and disoriented state, it is perhaps understandable that, in rushing out from the hotel to run through my first glorious morning in Daqing, I did not take account of where I was.
I just ran, turning this way and then that, passing old men swapping gossip, whole orchestra’s of violins and strange stringed things that sounded like rattling tins, choruses people singing in groups, their deep practiced voices in happy pentatonic scales – and in that wonder and amazement, with my head turning this way and that, I simply forgot where I was.
And I forgot how to get back to where I had been – wherever that was, for it was then I realised I did not even know the name of my hotel. I’d simply been delivered there the night before – and anyway, the sign above the door had been in Chinese characters.
Just as every sign in this city was in Chinese characters. No English anywhere.
Not only that, but I had bounced out of the hotel without any money or identification, or even a phrase book – and my seven Chinese words of yes, no, thankyou and no thank you were totally useless without the addition of other Chinese words for “Help”, or “Taxi!”, or ”I’m lost and I don’t even know where I’m lost from!”
I have never been so profoundly lost in my whole lost life, as I was lost that beautiful morning.
So with my heart beating, and sweat pouring down my face, I did the only thing I could do – I kept running, trusting desperately in the inherent order within any chaotic situation, that a solution will appear in its own time.
As the sun rose and began to burn I imagined in years to come I’d still be running through that city, with Chinese people watching me go by, and saying to each other: ‘There he goes again, that foreign boy, he just runs …”
“Why does he run?”
“I don’t know, for years he’s been running. He came here and started running and nobody knows why.”
Because how could I explain?
Even if I DID speak Chinese, I had no idea of the name of my hotel, or where it was, or where I was in relation to it – nor did I know my passport number, or even where Daqing was on a map of the world. I’d simply got on a plane two nights, ended up here, and then this morning, started running.
So I ran and I ran, past the orchestra’s, through parks of gossiping people, around streets of apartments that looked just like the apartments in the street before, through gardens where old men and women tended their vegetables, watching me pass as they enjoyed the sun.
For about 2 hours I ran, until the solution came … luckily for me, I remembered there had been a strange string band with a twangy instrument that had been playing near my hotel when I set out earlier that morning – I heard it once again from behind a block of apartments, so I made for it … and recognized my hotel.
And just as I appeared, the orchestra stopped and began packing up their instruments. If I had have been a few minutes later, I would not have heard that orchestra guiding me home.
And I’d probably still be running.
Thank god for synchronicity.