In 2013, I spent five months in Nanjing on a Hamer scholarship. At the end of my stay, I took some notes and reflected on the best and worst things about my time there.
- The internet
By very far, this was the worst component of my stay in Nanjing, and the one that most often caused anger. Frustration came in multiple form. Wifi not working at wifi cafes –outrageously slow, suddenly interrupted, with no clear reason. An expensive, yet unreliable 3G stick I bought, and replaced, with a card from the wrong region, so that I had to replace it again. And the annoyance of using a VPN, with sudden loss of signal. I wasted hours refreshing windows and waiting for pages to load, and every single day of my time in China, have experienced extreme frustration at the quality of the internet. It was a surprise: I actually came expecting better access than in Australia
- The weather
I arrived in a furnace, and left an ice-box. Two of the five months I spent in Nanjing had unbearable weather – too warm, too cold. In the end, I was unable to stay home. With just a low quality air conditioning unit, even if I left it on all night, the cold humid air did not let me concentrate on intellectual work. I spent extra money to go out in heated cafés, but experienced such cold on the street my mood was strongly affected. In the summer, it wasn’t much better. Not something I had anticipated.
- The road-works
They were building a new metro line in Nanjing when I arrived, very close to where I lived. And so, they were digging: works from 7am, the gentle sound of jackhammers. There was even a week-long water cut halfway through, because they broke a pipe when digging the ground. And the dust in the air. This was a nightmare.
- Online communities
The best things that happened to me in China came from online connections.
I attended a meetup of IT entrepreneurs organized that led to dinners, lunches, cafes, and new friendships. I connected with local gay people. By posting an ad on Douban, I recruited a local guy called Zhou. He put me in touch with an English practice group. Together, we ran an eventattended by the head of the Nanjing University business club who brought his friend Brian along: a recent graduate now working for Publicis in Shanghai. Brian introduced me to Kenny Choi, who opened the first co-working space in Guangzhou. I went there when I visited Guangzhou, and through him heard of a ‘walking’ event, which I joined. A sense of companionship and possibility.
I found a few stunning bookshops in China. The most striking was probably the Avant Garde in Nanjing: a gigantic bookstore built in an underground car park, with a large cross hanging from the roof. I spent hours there – as did many. For that bookshop, and many others in China, are less a store, and more a place to be. People stand or squat reading in the aisles, talks happen, there is a café somewhere. It is its own community centre. On my first visit, I noticed a young woman wearing a school uniform reading Kierkegaard with visible fascination. I mentioned this to a Chinese friend who said: ‘Well yes, when I was in grade 11, if you didn’t read European philosophy, you’d be bullied.’ It brought back to mind conversations I had with a friend in Middle School: he grew up in communist Romania, and migrated to France in 1991. He always told us how his friends, over there, would voraciously read the classics, and mocked our mushy consumerist brains.
Everyone knows the food in China is good and inexpensive. I would like to give a particular nomination for
- the fruit: from fruit shops to street-sellers, it’s excellent. Special mention to the dragonfruit.
- the little baked cakes – I’m not sure what they’re called. Some are filed with Gingko nuts, others with candied fruits, slightly savoury. Delicious.
- A Nanjing specialty: candied lotus root filled with sweet glutinous rice. Divine.