People are strange when you’re a stranger

Faces look ugly when you’re alone.  – Jim Morrison

“Waiguoren.” I first heard that word whispered from a blank face on a speeding subway shuttling early morning commuters through the bowels of the city. Outsider, foreigner, stranger to a culture with a firm belief that Zhongguo is the middle of the world. 

Since that first sweltering midsummer morning I have trodden and cycled the cobbled streets and tarred roads of this five-hundred-year-old city day and night. I have seen the strangest sights and experienced the deepest loneliness as well as the greatest joy through freezing snow, baking heat, hunger and novelty. 

A young city in a five-thousand-year-old civilisation. A city wherein one can go weeks without ever stepping on unpaved earth. A city wherein one might see no stars for nights on end, outshone by the neon brilliance that replaced the fireworks of old; ablaze with newfound wealth and power. Still, when you spot the familiar constellations you are delighted to see them from another wind direction, from an opposite pole, turned upside down.

The city drones endlessly, like the electric hum of the leaky refrigerator in my apartment on the 25th floor in downtown Tianjin. In my daily commute to street level, I often have to choke down my pride when people see the lone foreigner in the descending elevator and trip over themselves to get back to safety before the closing doors lock them inside. I have done it so often it has become my new reality. A city where my English means little to me in the wet and dry markets, coming and going in taxis and trains, ordering food at restaurants. Yet, they pay me top dollar to teach it to them and their children. A commodity is what I am, useful but expendable.

But slowly I have started to discern the subtleties of this once seemingly homogenous society. As the world spun once and then once more around the sun the threads started separating into noticeable strands. A country with one and a half billion people as diverse in culture as the different countries of Europe. Even the language, although Chinese, is so percolated with regional dialects and accents that people from the North of China find it hard to understand the people from the South. In the North they eat noodles, in the South, rice. In between, the smells of all the herbs and spices from the North, South, Northwest, Northeast, Southwest, East and Central China. 

That is how it started for me. With my nose. No country smells alike and smell taps into the most subconscious, primitive parts of ourselves. Clove, Aniseed, Fennel, Coriander, Ginger and Sichuan pepper. Walking by little hole-in-the-wall restaurants, the aromas invite you into the different corners of China. Soon the flavours and tastes and different cooking styles got to me. As I started sitting down at little chairs next to small tables I started to discover the different flavours of beer and Chinese spirits (Baiju). I discovered the myriad of ways to prepare Tofu. I learned the difference between Chow mein and Lo mein noodles and I learned to eat small portions of food from little bowls with chopsticks (Kuaizi).

When you break bread with people you can’t help but notice them and that is how I got to feel more at home. I saw warmth and eagerness to understand me, and tolerance for my foreign ways. Over time you find your favourite people and restaurants and soon you start learning the names of the major roads (Lu) and streets (Dao). 

There is always something about a city next to a large river, and Tianjin is no exception. I spend many hours next to the Haihe – the artery that has provided the city with wealth and prosperity over centuries.  Haihe literally means Sea river. Most beautiful at night, most shy at dawn. Frozen in winter, sluggish and murky when the sun is most high. Along it I often find the real people. The old China. Fishermen just living contentedly.

In the huge shiny shopping malls, I find the new China. A newly revived nation enjoying its opulence. Any brand of Western clothing and cosmetics as well as huge local clothing and retail brands. China loves the world, but one gets the feeling that China doesn’t really need the world anymore. Bustling, trying to get ahead, working around the clock. It is not strange to have a haircut at midnight and buy street food at four in the morning. One night I saw a couple painting their kitchen at half past three in the morning. Delivery food gets delivered on electric scooters 24-hours a day. Diligent, with an extraordinary work ethic and stoic acceptance of fortune and misfortune.

Yet, beneath it all lies an all-pervasive ideology of modern Chinese socialism that believes it best for the citizens that everything is centrally controlled. Access to information is guarded by the great Chinese Firewall and all online transactions and communication is openly monitored. This quickly begins to feel claustrophobic – one morning I wake up aching for the smell of the Karoo after a rainstorm.

The Karoo or the Highveld under a big blue sky where you can be what you want to be or not. I remember Lambertsbaai and the shady streets of Paarl on a hot January afternoon. The smell of Kelp in Fishoek, the cold waters of Scarborough. The black mountain streams in the Knysna forest and the Southeaster blowing around my house. The long white beaches of Muizenberg and the rain in the Newlands forest. I remember the stars around Sutherland and the bleating of hundreds of sheep outside Carnarvon.

I remember the electricity of Ellispark with a test match crowd packed to capacity. I remember drinking ice-cold Black Label with my favourite allies around a wooden fire. Chops, steak, wors and pap.

I remember the Pepper trees in Cradock and the Willows in Parys. In my mind’s eye I am descending Oliviershoek Pass into Natal and Outeniqua into George. I drive the Du Toitskloof Pass to Cape Town and then I break down. I shed a tear for everyone and everything in the most beautiful country on earth.

I listen to Fokofpolisiekar, Die Radio Kalahari Orkes, Gert Vlok Nel, Koos Du Plessis en ek weet. This is not my place. This is not my home. I need to walk without shoes on African soil. I need to smell my people, I need to smell my trees and my sea. I need to be burned by the African sun and I need the rowdiness and craziness of South Africa. The music will take me home.

Feature image by Cristina Kirstein

All other images by André F van der Berg