Last night, I had a bad experience.
I discovered a great bar on Qingdao Lu, not far from where I live. I started going there every day, spending hours reading or talking to the barman. The place has been around for over 17 years, and is a favourite with local writers, artists and musicians. They play jazzy Chinese music from the 60s, the barman’s a painter, and the waitress is working on a novel.
Once I brought an Aussie friend here. He found out the room upstairs had a KTV machine, and organised a singing party last night. I was glad: I’d brought these wonderful people new customers, and found my friend a nice venue for his party. Connecting people has always been one of my greatest joys.
The singing party started very nicely: friendly conversations, most of them in Chinese, some light singing, and a civilised mood. Then another crowd arrived: a Chinese girl dressed in a leopard print dress and pink shoes, and her stern long-haired friend. They spoke English only – showing no concern for those in our group who didn’t understand it well. They selected vulgar pop songs. And they messed up the sound system, pushing up the volume and upsetting the balance.
The warm local jazzy vibe was gone, replaced by the blaring atmosphere of expat bars and night-clubs. Conversations were lost among ‘I can’t hear you’s’. My brain was cluttered by a mild competitive tension in the air, the very loud music, and the bad singing of long-hair side-kick. Deciding the mood was never coming back, I picked up my hat, and left, angered and disappointed by that sudden turn of events.
Since I fled that obnoxious party, I’ve been feeling a deep sense of melancholy. This bar had become a replacement home here in Nanjing, and the people in the crowd are some of my closest friends. This should have been the safe space where I can relax and I enjoy – instead, it brought me profound discomfort, and only the mildest mitigation. No wonder I feel sad: I find myself homeless and friendless now. I’m mourning.
Of course, this is all the result of high natural sensitivity. Some of it will pass. But the feeling of pain last night, and sadness today, are nonetheless real. I did experience physical aggression on my ears. I did experience a clear shift from a safe supportive space to competitive indifference. And I’ve lost a measure of trust in the people who were there with me.
Lack of trust has been a recurring focus of my reflections during this trip – and I will write more about the question. I think this recent emotional experience is a good place to start. I said I lost a measure of trust in the people who were there with me last night. Trust, at one level, is the belief that a person has a clear intention to minimize your pain and maximize your well-being, in the short and long run. In other words, trust implies a belief that other people will not simply walk over you to push their own agenda without prior warning. Trust implies a sense of shared interest – whereby maintaining the relationship matters more than satisfying the desires, passions or appetites of the parties present.
Why did I lose trust last night? I was enjoying myself, when the panther lady changed important elements – the language in the group, the type of music played, the sound intensity – without any prior consultation. I changed behaviour – became passive – then I expressed discomfort – no solution was offered. The place had become hostile. Therefore I left.
I hear the butch voices that say ‘don’t be so soft’ or ‘why do you care so much’. Everyone fight for themselves and the loudest roar will take the prize – fine, I can roar as loud as anyone – but if I have to roar, and fight back – what energy remains to meet and connect people, advise friends, build networks? And why should I bother, if the result is I just to build uncomfortable settings for myself? In other words, I believe that competitive behaviours, authoritarian decisions and loud environments will result in a loss. The sensitive ones – who may well be the smart ones and the caring ones too – the ones that bring people together and make them joyful – these will walk away.
The feeling doesn’t really matter. I’m solid, and I’ll smile again soon. What worries me more is how much got eroded last night – how long before it grows back. And more importantly, how much is eroded every day by similar blunt attitudes and environments.
So there it is, the cause for my sadness: I mourn the things that might have been last night, the connections not made, the tender discussions not had, all that got lost in the noise, trampled under pink shoes and the vulgar swinging of a leopard-print dress. The projects aborted. And that layer of trust I lost.