city life
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Today i want to talk a bit about 热闹 (rè nao), which is a word i encountered in class a few weeks ago. There are several Chinese words i have encountered that describe feelings that do not really have an equivalent term in English, but this is one that helped to illuminate a particularly conspicuous aspect of Chinese culture for me. My books variously translated it as "busy", "noisy", "exciting" and "hilarious" (!?), but the closest i can come up with is "hubbub". The problem is that in English adjectives like busy or noisy tend to have a negative connotation. Chinese also has words for busy and noisy, but if a place is described 热闹 - literally, "hot noise" - it means it is filled with fun and excitement.

Anyone who has been to a Chinese restaurant overseas and watched a family or group descend on a table and laugh and shout and make a huge mess has seen 热闹 in action. The more clatter and chaos, the better. But the word isn't just used to describe a bustling place of business, it was also explained to me as a way to describe a commotion. For example, a public performance or argument or just a couple of old guys playing chess. When people stop what they are doing and cluster around to watch, it's because they are caught up in the spectacle; they are 看热闹 (kàn rè nao) - watching the renao.

This word helps me to understand why modern urban life here tends to celebrate its urbanness in ways that you don't see so much in other countries. Barkers standing outside stores with noisemakers. Roving electric trikes blasting electronic music and breathless slogans. Grannies taking over the town squares to dance every evening. Parks full of folks practicing screeching fiddle tunes. Raucous games of cards with crowds of onlookers and not-so-discrete betting. Red carpets and firecrackers and confetti. Plenty of cities around the world share this sort of hustle to a certain degree, but i feel like in China there is sort of a hyperactive reveling in it that is not so prominent elsewhere. People like the throngs, and when they're not there, the level of enjoyment drops.

It's odd, on one hand this is one thing i really love about China - the fact that people here so boldly embrace the public space. Everything is loud and lively and all business is public business. It strikes me as exactly the way cities should be, and exactly the sort of attitude people should have if we want to build a big, diverse, inclusive future. On the other hand, i also value solitude. Although urban life can you give an unparalleled sense of anonymity, true moments of peace and quiet are hard to find. This is one reason why i spend so much time walking the urban space, trying to find the road less traveled. If you walk enough you will always find involuntary parks or unpopular locations where you can imagine yourself on the ocean, or in the desert, or atop a mountain.



Sometimes i want to picnic there. As i have settled into a routine here in Shenzhen, i have found that - like everywhere else - lunch rush is a total shit-show. The most popular restaurants stack people outside on plastic stools waiting for a table. The smaller food stalls that i normally frequent are elbow-to-elbow. On weekdays sometimes i go with the flow, but lately on the weekends i just want to sit in silence reading the paper on my phone. It's tough to find a suitable spot, but today i took a walk and discovered an isolated dive in a cloud of dust opposite a construction site. I ordered 酸辣粉 (suān là fěn), which i guess you could translate as sour and hot noodles. It's thick glass noodles in a broth of vinegar and chili paste with bean sprouts and some token green beans and peanuts and sesame seeds floating on top. I read the paper. The 老板 (lǎo bǎn) or boss sat with her family eating a "proper" meal of rice and several small dishes. There was one other guest, watching a TV drama on her phone, slurping noodles with bok choy. Not exactly solitude, but it was relaxing.



I'm back in my room now. I can hear the renao out the window. I can hear it every day. I am just one floor up from a KTV - an all-night karaoke bar - so i fall asleep to it every night. In the morning the construction starts - ripping up roads for whatever reason, re-laying tiles, putting up another skyscraper, who the fuck knows? And the bikes and trikes start honking their horns, and the street vendors hawk their steam buns, and on and on. In my room i can write and watch TV and recharge for next week's onslaught.

It almost feels like i am working already, i am too exhausted to do anything "fun". Then i remember learning Chinese is "fun". This is how i have chosen to spend 大部分 (dà bù fen) - a large part of - my sabbatical. By the time i actually get to start work, i will have five months of continuous study under my belt. I am still a baby when it comes to reading and understanding this language, but just getting to this level has brought me a bigger sense of achievement than years of software development. My mom asked me in an email a while ago why i am wasting my time learning a language that outside of China has pretty much no use whatsoever. I dunno. It feels like less of a waste than my job. I love visiting new places, trying to grok them. Every day i come home spent. I don't have any fantastic adventures to relay to you. But each day i understand a little more. That's something that makes life worthwhile, i think.


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