China, Taizhou

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Everyone in Taizhou was friendly, even if, like anywhere else in the world, you don’t always know why.  If you get lost, your best bet for directions is to ask a college girl or a professional woman; they are the most likely to speak English well enough to give you directions.  Professional women are most easily identified by their black suits over a white shirt.

If you request your destination to a taxi driver in Chinese, they are more likely to take the direct route instead of boosting their fare with the scenic route. This saved me a couple of dollars every time I went to the train station. New train stations and airports in China are built on cheap land well outside their cities.  When I took a flight from Nanjing to Chongqing, I spent more time in the taxis to and from the airports than I did in the air.

The foreigners had divided into two cliques before I arrived, the Western Europeans and the Eastern Europeans.  The Western Europeans were an educated bunch, mostly teachers and engineers.  The teachers had a nice lifestyle on their above average Chinese salaries, but the engineers still had Western salaries so lived like kings.  We all went out to together dinner on Friday nights; once around the same table every person was from a different country (China, America, England, Denmark, Germany, France, Ireland, Argentina, Australia, and Spain) but of course we all spoke English.  The Eastern Europeans worked in the shipyards and were hard drinking barroom brawlers; the local cops treated them as gently as they could.

For reasons still unclear to myself, I was the only Westerner with more Chinese friends than Western friends.  Nine years in China and I never figured out why Westerners would go to China to hang out with Westerners.  Other Westerners seemed to treat English corners as a place to meet and decide which bar to go to; I went there to make friends and meet nice girls to help me shop, play cards, and chat in cafés.  Which is as far as it usually went.

It was in Taizhou where I first ran across one of the romantic ironies of my life.  I would be enjoying the company of Chinese (or later Muslim or Vietnamese) women because they didn’t expect me to smoke, drink, or do drugs to be cool/fun, but the women who were most flirtatious with me were the ones who wanted a Western lifestyle and smoked or drank themselves.

Since Taizhou was such a new city, the vast majority of adults were immigrants from other parts of China. That made it easy for the foreigners to try a wide variety of restaurants, but it also meant speaking Mandarin Chinese didn’t automatically mean the other person would understand you.  Since it was an industrial city, the walls aged prematurely from the smog. The most interesting people I met were from Nanjing, so it really was only a matter of time before I moved there.  The kick in the ass to get me to Nanjing was a shift in the politics at the technical college where I taught towards treating foreign teachers the way the administration treated their Chinese instructors, as interchangeable and disposable.  All four Western teachers quit.  Our direct supervisor was so humiliated that she tried to sabotage my getting a new job at Nanjing University, but while working in Taizhou for three years I’d built up a reservoir of good will and my Chinese friends in the foreign affairs department squashed her campaign.


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