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by Nicholas Klar

First published in its original form in 'Jet Streams' - January, 2002
Is the sun now rising over China?
In France in the late 1800’s there appeared a peculiarly localized illness that only lasted a few years. Young men would disappear from Paris, then turn up quite a few weeks later in Moscow, completely unable to explain how they got there. Probably some of Napoleon’s men felt much the same way in the winter of 1813. Then again, the winter was so cold it was most likely impossible to feel anything. Our moves have been somewhat more calculated and, at most times, we’ve generally been aware of what was happening in our particular dimension.
At the time of upload it will have been nearly three years since we washed up on the (rather polluted) shores of the Huang Pu (Yellow River) that, after a reasonably lengthy journey from inland Wuxi, discharges itself into the Yangtze River and East China Sea. Along the final stages of the Yangtze Delta you find the rapidly re-emerging metropolis of Shanghai. This is the city that possesses the famous ‘Bund’, a store of legendary 1930’s tales, a towering new skyline, and an economic base that accounts for more than 20% of China’s fast growing GDP. Here we came to this great city to take up international school positions via a stint back home in Australia.

Distance wise it’s only a relatively short way to my former residence in the little town of Omi on the Japan Sea coast. Two and half-hours by plane and then the train ride. Just about as quick as the journey from Sapporo or Nagasaki. Culturally there are similarities too, but inaka (rural Japan) was never like this! Each day instead of a leisurely ride up the hill and under the railway line to my chugakko I find myself dodging crazy bus and taxi drivers plus fellow cyclists (some carrying all manner of bizarre loads), following the ladies with ‘night soil’ carts down back alleys and wishing for one of those wonderful face masks to keep out the pollution.

But there are benefits too. So many people speak at least a smattering of English. I can communicate with the vast majority of fellow staff members - Western AND Chinese. There are malls, foreign food stores, English language papers, local markets, any kind of restaurant you could hope for. In fact I think we eat at more Japanese restaurants here than we did back in Niigata. And there’s a Starbucks (and a Lawsons) right opposite the school.

But, the curse (and/or blessing) of the ex-pat, so many things are still the same. I fumble through my broken and basic phrases to many of the locals. I stare at the writing trying to discern characters (oh, for katakana and hiragana in Chinese). There’s nothing to watch on TV - unless you can afford to rent a place in one of the mega-expensive ex-pat compounds with foreign satellite TV. The bicycles, shirts and shoes (but not the doorways) are generally all too small. I have to cope with the occasional culturally shocked and/or dysfunctional westerner. The checkout ladies using three bags for two items. Impossible travel agents that can’t release prices and won’t confirm. Bizarre pizza toppings. Men peeing in the street. And don’t even get me started on the bureaucrats.

For many Japanese the people and places of China evoke bitter/sweet memories of what Japan once was or seems to be losing. With many poor, but seemingly happy. People with a strong sense of community. Industrious, intent on putting what is behind. Building a better way for themselves and the generations to come. A people with a destiny, self-belief, knowing that they will one day achieve a standing in the world that is rightfully theirs.

We love living in the Middle Kingdom. We have traveled widely and then started our family here. Everywhere one goes there is new construction and new things to see. Things can change almost in a matter of days. The progress is truly amazing. Shanghai will surely be one of the great cities of the 21st Century and we plan to stay as long as we can.

But regardless of any of this Japan is still always in our minds and hearts. Margot Fonteyn once remarked that,
“Traveling carries with it the curse of being at home everywhere and yet nowhere, for wherever one is some part of oneself remains on another continent.”

One day we will return ‘home’ again, or maybe to some other exotic location. Then I’m sure we will miss China and inevitably compare what is the same and what is different, what we miss, all those things we are happy to have once again, and what we are glad is behind us. Such is the lot of the traveler...

Till next time....
This article is part of a series relating to our lives abroad. For more articles click here.

Related article: Jumping off the Dragon

© 1992-2006, Nicholas Klar, PO Box 280, Brighton SA 5048, AUSTRALIA

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