What surprised me most about the village was how people sat by the streets and watched. It seemed like they had nothing better to do.
Men with white singlets, limp cigarettes hanging out the sides of their mouths. Grandmothers with plump babies bobbing up and down in their arms. The noodle-makers across from the noodle-cookers as they took a break from stringing noodles across the wooden poles or dunking them in large metal pots of steaming chicken broth.
It was like the world was out on the streets watching you.
There was one particular grandma who sat on a stool outside the apartment next to ours. And whenever we came back from work, scurrying through the crevasses of the village back to our little enclave, she would always be waiting on that stool.
Her eyes would wrinkle small: ni hui lai le! (You’re back!) Yes, ahyi, we’re back, we would answer. And it became sort of a tradition – her announcing our return, us affirming that we were, indeed, back.
I think what’s hard about cities is how we isolate ourselves in these constructed bubbles. We sound-proof our world, wearing headphones as we walk through the streets so we don’t have to talk to anyone.
Everyone’s in their own world, doing their own thing – and no one is ever out on the streets just talking to you. And if they are, they’re homeless and you ignore them anyways.
No one just sits on the streets to watch the world go by. No one has the time for that.
So, I miss that about the village. I miss slow-walking, and seeing.
People going about their daily business, selling fish and fried doughnuts. The man who always brushed his teeth at the door of his house, and if you walked by the market at the right time, you would catch him rinsing his mouth onto the streets.
The kids who shot water guns at each other as they splashed in puddles, and the hairdressers who left their sliding glass doors open, hair snippets mixing with the motorbike dust of the streets.
I miss being able to chat with ZhaoShiFu, the guy who delivered our gas, tanks strapped to either side of his motorbike, or RuHuang, the cashier at our local store, who always commented (no matter how many times I saw her) on how I had lost weight and how did I do it anyways.
Not that you can’t do that here, in a city. But there is a fear that people are out to get you, so don’t talk to people on the streets. No, hurry back to where you are safe and comfortable, that little self-constructed bubble of yours. And hurry to where you need to be, be in a rush, because where you need to be is more important than the places in between.
Since living in a city this past month, I’ve been sensing this under-current, one that has probably contributed to my unexplainable sense of loneliness. But it has made me think about cities, and how they lend themselves to that kind of isolation.
How cities differ from villages because as opposed to the fear, there is a certain magic in the village – an unspoken trust and openness, a simple perhaps naive belief that there is goodness in each person.
It’s a magic that draws the children out onto the streets, and fosters conversation between the most unlikely of people.
I wonder – if the village culture can ever be transplanted into a city, or if the city will forever be a place of busyness, isolation and distance.
I wonder what kind of culture my children will grow up in, or how I can contribute to a culture I would want my children to grow up in.
I wonder these things – as I walk this city I now call my own –