The first breath: stepping into my fieldsite and home for the next year

wuhan - 2009

My entry into China this time couldn't have been more seamless. No lines in customs. Luggage came right out. Walked into the arrival area without even having to go through a suitcase scan. But I shouldn't speak too soon. I have to remember that Shanghai is like New York City - whatever happens here - good or bad -  cannot be representative of an entire country.

I hopped on an overnight train to they city that I will be based in for the next year.

The minute I arrived in Wuhan, I am thrown into the China that I have been more familiar with - loud, pushy, and dusty.

The sun is barely able to find its way through the smog during morning traffic.

I jump into a taxi and tell the driver my address. He answers back in the local Wuhan dialect. Damn it. I'm now reminded of why it's so much easier to live in Beijing where everyone speaks PutongHua. I try to confirm with him that he understands me, but I think he was trying to do the same thing with me. We don't get too far, but after a few head nods and loud reiterations we get far enough for him to pull away from the station.

Peaking through the dusty windows, I can see half-built highways propped up like lego toys with little  costruction workers with plastic hard hats drilling into the foundation. Pink signs for abortion hospitals with friendly females nurses freckle the stream of advertising going by along with the occasional ads of white guys promoting English language schools. A mix of older and newer buses crowd around bus stops with people chasing them down before the driver turns away.

eating on the streets

I lean back on my seat and completely give my body's weight to the taxi, allowing myself to bounce at every brake and to sway at every turn. I breathe in deeply, imagining all the dust and particulates being absorbed into my nasal passages and blood stream. I lay my had back knowing that my hair is now touching the head rest that thousands of heads have touched. The taxi driver opens his window all the way down to spit and leaves it open. I breathe in the fast air coming in even more deeply and become hypnotized by the amount of construction that we are still driving past.

The air was thick of change. This all seemed too familiar. And then I realized why - this was exactly what it was like to live in Beijing pre-Olympics - before the world discovered China and before the Chinese put on the largest campaign to accommodate an international audience from anti-spitting campaigns to toilet paper availability mandates and gastronomic censorship of dog fare where any Westerner would be visiting. The Beijing that I have known since the mid-nineties that was always under construction has disappeared into wide, clean, and orderly streets. But I have found a version of it in the middle of China - my dear home for the next year.

Here, no one tries to make the city work for an international community - they make it work for them. You'll get your toes spit on the street if you don't step aside quickly enough. You'll also see pictures of whole barbequed dogs on restaurant signs even with a lightly charred upright tail as if it were alive still and waiting for you to pet its fur. And you'll be surprised to even find a place with toilet paper.

The taxi driver sees a few meters of empty space so he shifts the gear and lurches forward, bringing a handful of air into our car. I close my eyes and breathe in the fresh dusty air. Breathing out, I say to myself that this where I will be for the next year. And then I start sneezing and coughing. My eyes are stinging from the air. My nose is itchy in places I can't reach. You may think that it's my body rejecting all the crap that I just breathed in, but I see it as my body adjusting to the city. Soon I will be able to breathe all this dust in and my eyes will no longer sting.

I feel so happy to be here - to witness a city growing in front of my eyes is an honor. It's a chance to peer into the sieve and to see what happens below the surface. When a city is being torn apart and rebuilt, that's the best time to step inside. Soon this bubble will close up, and soon order will reign like it does in other completed cities. Soon, people will be more self-aware and more suspicious of any attempts to be understood. Soon the construction sites will be zipped up and you won't remember that thousands of little human fingers operated machinery to put up the walls, to hammer in each nail, and to lay down each tile. Soon that image will just be the cover of a lego construction set.