I’ve written about China several times since I’ve left the country, first out of awe that I got out alive, second because I keep going back to photos, like the ones below, of everyday life on the streets, and now, third, because I’ve just realized- I miss the place.
I left China last summer pretty darn happy to be done with the place, to spend a year in the states, to move onto Africa and content never to look back again. And I was fine (eating lots of tacos while back home helped) until I got to Africa, when suddenly everything seemed so foreign. And then, I started to miss the foreign things in China that, in retrospect, were so much more familiar than unknown: How to properly flag down a cab like a local. Ordering chicken feet during dim sum. Navigating crowds at 5pm at the Tiyu Xilu metro station (the horrors). Screaming “waiter” at the top of your lungs in a restaurant. Finding the best wet markets in all corners of town. Buying face brightening cleansers, because that’s the only thing there was. Observing the local fashion trends, oh! The fashion! It’s amazing how quickly the unfamiliar becomes familiar, no? I think of these things, and I can’t help by smile. Two years might seem short, but it is certainly enough to forever call a place home in one’s heart.
At the wet market in China
I recently took a visit to a local Chinese Market here in Dar es Salaam, and it brought back a wave of nostalgia. I had been on the lookout for some goods- tofu and hot sauce, to be precise, and was excited when a Korean friend told me about this little market not too far from home.
I’ve come to realize that no matter where you are in this world, there will be a Chinese population that will create a demand for a Chinese market. And with their savvy import and export dealings, they’ll find a way to get things like doban jiang (savory bean paste) or xia mi (little dried shrimp) or wei jing (MSG powder) to almost anywhere in the world. These are the important life lessons I’m learning by living abroad. I don’t know, maybe if you’re living in the middle of the Congo and find this to be absurd, let me know, I’d love to hear it.
Big Red sign for the market here in Dar
Surprisingly, it only took me driving up one wrong driveway before I found the market. Tucked away behind a blue gate erected with sheet metal, the market looked more like a construction zone than anything else. The building was a little single-story, u-shaped complex that housed a mini wet market to the left: One meat counter, one vegetable counter (right next to each other, in typical Chinese fashion, of course). And right across the way on the right: a small but well-stocked dry goods market. With a HUGE red banner across the roof that read (in Chinese): “China Red, China City”
The outside (minus the sign) blatantly screamed Africa, but there was no mistaking its identity from the inside. Shelves piled from floor to ceiling of cooking wine, pickled mustard greens, dried plums, instant noodles, plastic bath accessories, spiral bound stationery, and more.
But most striking was that smell. As soon as I stepped foot in the store, I caught that signature Chinese market smell, of soy and sesame and dried fish and plastic wrap and damp packaging, and who-knows-what-else-makes-up the smells of China, which instantly transported me back to Guangzhou.
You know, a lot of people complain about China quite a bit, and I find myself pretty defensive about it these days. You can’t talk smack about a home of mine, after all, and expect to get away with it. They complain about everything- The smells, the pollution, the hygiene, the food, the people, the crowds, the pushing, the yelling, the fighting, the language.
But there’s funky smells, bad pollution, oily food, smelly people, massive crowds, pushy elders, couples who argue, waiters who will fight you, and communication barriers all around the world. Maybe no other place has the perfect convergence of all these things in the way that China does (I’m betting India is close!), but in one form or another, they exist everywhere.
All I’m saying here is that at the end of the day, appreciate where you are, because it’s home to someone, and before you know it, it’ll be home to you, too. The things I miss in China don’t necessarily make me want to go back and spend the rest of my days, but they are certainly enough to make me consider living again in that crazy country one day in the future.
Do you think I’m crazy that the smell of dried fish and dirty packaging makes me nostalgic? I’m curious: What smells make you pine for a previous home?