Lost and Found in Fuzhou

I spent more than a year in Fuzhou, and it changed my way of think­ing in many ways.

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Text by He­lena Vil­lar Se­gura The au­thor is an in­ter­na­tional stu­dent from Spain who stud­ied at Fuzhou Univer­sity. She cur­rently stud­ies at Pek­ing Univer­sity on a schol­ar­ship from the Span­ish Of­fi­cial Credit In­sti­tute (ICO).

Itried to kiss the cheek of the young Chi­nese guy from the univer­sity who picked me up at the air­port when I first ar­rived in China. This scared him. Shy and em­bar­rassed, he re­peat­edly in­sisted: “bu,bu,bu,bu ” (no, no, no, no) and hid be­hind the girl who ac­com­pa­nied him. His English name was Leo, and he prob­a­bly thought I was crazy. Wasn’t I? Who kisses strangers? I quickly re­al­ized there were some ma­jor cul­tural dif­fer­ences.

With two heavy suit­cases and the hu­mid­ity of south­east­ern China soak­ing my body, I got into the car and went across Fuzhou, the cap­i­tal city of coastal Fu­jian Prov­ince, where my univer­sity was lo­cated. The scene of the city through the win­dow struck me: colos­sal gray res­i­den­tial build­ings ev­ery­where, one af­ter an­other, lin­ing the Min­jiang River. The to­tally un­fa­mil­iar ar­chi­tec­ture sur­prised me and re­minded me that I was far from home. But when I ar­rived at the cam­pus on the out­skirts of the city, I was sur­rounded only by na­ture: green moun­tains of dense veg­e­ta­tion in a sub­trop­i­cal cli­mate. I spent more than a year in that place and it changed my way of think­ing in many ways.

Just “ni­hao ” and a few other ex­pres­sions com­posed my Chi­nese vo­cab­u­lary those days. I tried to learn some ba­sics about the lan­guage be­fore com­ing, but my ef­forts seemed com­pletely use­less. More­over, the ac­cent was so unique there that even the sim­plest words sounded to­tally dif­fer­ent to me. An “F” would be pro­nounced like an “H”, “R” like an “L”, and so on. Some­how, I felt like a baby aban­doned in a new en­vi­ron­ment. My only tools were mime and im­pro­vi­sa­tion. Some­times they worked, some­times I got frus­trated, and most of the time I ended up laugh­ing at my­self.

First Day of Class

Since I had ar­rived in Fuzhou three days ear­lier, I hadn’t met many peo­ple. I was ex­cited about start­ing lessons and get­ting to know ev­ery­one. My class­room was in a brand new build­ing just next to a lake—very dif­fer­ent from the en­vi­ron­ment of my univer­sity back in Spain, which was lo­cated right in down­town Granada in a his­tor­i­cal build­ing.

I still had jet lag and couldn’t help but be a bit ner­vous. And on top of all that, I was re­ally late. I opened the door of the class­room, gasped for breath and said “sorry” over and over be­fore re­al­iz­ing there was only one stu­dent and the teacher in­side. She smiled at me. And a sixty-yearold Korean woman was my only class­mate dur­ing the first se­mes­ter at Fuzhou Univer­sity. At that mo­ment, all I could think was: “Where am I?”

Things, of course, got bet­ter. One or two new stu­dents would come and go. I would later re­al­ize that the Chi­nese teacher from my first day was the best Chi­nese teacher I have ever had. The old woman in the class was amaz­ing and had lived all around the globe, but would still show sur­prise and cu­rios­ity at any­thing I said. My learn­ing sched­ule was tight.

The teacher would ask you where you lived and what you had for break­fast. “Did you put on weight?” “When are you go­ing to marry?” “What was your salary when you worked in Spain?” Ques­tions were di­rect, hon­est and sim­ple and I got used to them. Pri­vacy wasn’t an is­sue for them, nor for me. As for im­prov­ing my Chi­nese lan­guage abil­ity, three years later, I am still work­ing on it.

Lost in the City

When I first ar­rived in Fuzhou, the city didn’t have a metro. At bus stops, only Chi­nese char­ac­ters spelled out the routes or stops, not even

pinyin (a sys­tem of Latin let­ters for read­ing and writ­ing stan­dard Chi­nese), mak­ing buses im­pos­si­ble for me to take. How­ever, show­ing an ad­dress writ­ten in Chi­nese to taxi driv­ers made it pos­si­ble for me to move around. The cost of a ride in that area was re­ally cheap com­pared to fares back home, so it quickly be­came my prime means of trans­port. But the taxi sys­tem had its own pe­cu­liar­i­ties. For me, nor­mally when you stop a taxi, it takes you wher­ever you need to go. How­ever, I quickly learned that here, the driver had the fi­nal say. And if it rained, it was al­most im­pos­si­ble to get a cab.

One day I went to meet some friends in an un­fa­mil­iar area. Lack­ing an um­brella, I got soaked search­ing for a cab. In Fuzhou it never rains gen­tly—wa­ter falls vi­o­lently, and thick lay­ers of mois­ture cover ev­ery­thing. I de­cided to take a bus. My phone was out of bat­tery. The ad­dress was in it. I missed my bus stop.

When I got off the bus in the mid­dle of nowhere, I was com­pletely lost. Wad­ing along the flooded roads, I was un­able to find any known place and ended up in a tiny dumpling restau­rant, anx­ious due to the lack of cash in my pocket. Fuzhou didn’t have many for­eign­ers, so ev­ery­one looked at me and said things I would never un­der­stand. They talked to each other cu­ri­ously, and then the old lady man­ag­ing the can­teen gave me hot wa­ter and home­made food, wor­ried that I might catch a cold. I man­aged to point to my dead phone and showed them that it was dead, and they smiled and gave me a charger. Feel­ing com­forted and grate­ful, I waited there un­til the rain stopped. With the phone pow­ered up, I could pay by scan­ning a QR code, and I fi­nally got a taxi that took me home. Since then, I wasn’t afraid of tak­ing buses any­more. Few For­eign­ers

The ex­pat com­mu­nity in Fuzhou was al­most neg­li­gi­ble, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing the city has more than seven mil­lion in­hab­i­tants ac­cord­ing to the 2010 cen­sus. Lo­cals were not used to meet­ing us. Nei­ther were we. Af­ter hear­ing so many Chi­nese peo­ple de­clare the pass­ing of a “laowai,” re­fer­ring to for­eign­ers, I started to say the same thing if I en­coun­tered a non-chi­nese face. I joked, but ev­ery­one in town seemed to no­tice if a new for­eign face showed up.

In my ex­pe­ri­ence, when you live abroad, you grav­i­tate to­wards friends in the ex­pat com­mu­nity. And the de­sire for the fa­mil­iar goes even fur­ther: If you find the chance, you would choose peo­ple who share your na­tion­al­ity, lan­guage, re­li­gion or any other com­mon fea­ture that can be­come the source of a sense of be­long­ing to a com­mu­nity. In Fuzhou, it doesn’t work that way. There are not many peo­ple who share ori­gins or cul­tural back­grounds. Con­se­quently, you of­ten find peo­ple from Egypt hang­ing out with Costa Ri­cans or Kore­ans. Aus­tralia and Spain seem like next door neigh­bors. France is best friends with Kaza­khstan. “Do you re­ally have Chi­nese friends?” Of course I do.

The au­thor at the front gate of Fuzhou Univer­sity on her first day of classes in China. cour­tesy of the au­thor


June 22, 2017: Gui’an Hot­spring Re­sort in north­east­ern Fuzhou, Fu­jian Prov­ince.

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