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The city in which I was born

I never really thought of the city in which I was born as a grand metropolis; it didn't even hit me that I grew up in a city at all, spending my middle school and high school years in American suburbs. I would remark that I'd like to live in New York or Chicago and people would ask me what I knew about living in cities. A second would pass and I'd say "Hey! Listen here, you! I was born in Tianjin!" They'd stammer and back off, as if surviving the urban jungle from infancy, especially a foreign one, warranted me a certain kind of respect. I don't remember Tianjin as being particularly unforgiving or difficult to navigate. It is certainly a huge expanse of land and humanity but its size wasn't striking in my mind or memories; it simply was. What I remember are small pockets of communities and activities linked to each other by times of day and days of the week. Some mornings my mom would take me down to breakfast in the park next to our apartment building. A white tent would be erected for a few hours every morning and the plastic tables and chairs would be filled with people slurping up hot soup served in real porcelain bowls and spoons. The serving station held an old iron pot filled with broth brimming with hearty vegetables and fat dumplings. After breakfast, my mom would take me to elementary school on her bicycle. When I was growing up, the only cars in the streets were taxicabs. Personal automobiles were luxuries in the 90s; it took me years of motion sickness to adjust to riding in cars, buses, trains, and boats in Canada and the States. Back then, the roads were chock full of bicycles. We pedaled everywhere. You'd think it'd be safer but some riders were just as aggressive as drivers are now. One time I wandered out into the middle of an empty street, fell, and a man on a bicycle full on rode over my back. My grandma rushed to my side and picked me up. I was howling. She turned on the poor fellow who had gotten off his bike to apologize and tore into him. Other ladies who had witnessed the incident joined the fray and formed a circle around this beleaguered guy. I was eventually placated with some ice cream and the man was allowed to leave unscathed.

Most days after school, I was picked up by my grandparents. I'd spend hours at their apartment until my mom got off work and picked me up to go home. We actually lived just down the street from them. My dad left for Newfoundland when I was four and we didn't see each other again until I was eight. It was the classic immigration story. He worked all day and went to school at night until he earned enough money to bring us overseas. My grandparents played a huge role in my upbringing. Aside from bestowing their time and care, they were professional tailors and made all of my clothes-winter coats included. I didn't own a single article that was store-bought. They were fantastic at what they did and worked right out of their apartment. A separate room held sewing machines, cutting tables, bundles of fabric...the works. Men and women from their neighborhood came for bespoke suits and silk dresses. Summers in China are actually excruciatingly hot. All that pollution. My grandma would tone down the sophistication for clothes more befitting of a little girl. She would knit me pink sweaters and sew ducks and flowers onto all of my dresses. She even made all of my shirts and pants from scratch. On the alternate weekends I'd spend with them, we'd buy groceries from street vendors. Down the main thoroughfare outside their building, people would lay out scraps of cloth or pages of newsprint on the ground and display bundles of vegetables, piles of fruit, and seafood on ice. I don't remember frequenting supermarkets very often as a child, if at all. Nowadays, both exist and thrive in tandem. The above photograph is a street market. They're not paragons of cleanliness, so a thorough washing of produce is in order after purchase. Grocery shopping was definitely a lot more exciting weaving through a crowded maze under the sun than through metal aisles under fluorescent lights. The only drawback was the missing frozen desserts!

Aside from work and life in the city, my grandfather practice tai chi every morning with the other elderly gents and ladies in his neighborhood. They met at the same time every morning in the courtyard of some red brick high rises. My grandpa even had a sword he'd whip out from time to time. It was a heavy thing! I'd hover around the edges, not daring to disrupt their silent concentration. They moved as one somehow, with no leader calling out the steps of their choreography. Or perhaps my memories are fooling me.

I don't know why I waited so long to go back. I visited once when I was twelve. But between the ages of eight to twelve, it felt like nothing had changed. I was still a kid. My cousins and I reconnected easily. We spent that month and a half running wild through the streets until we felt as if our hearts would burst and our skin would ignite in the city heat. My grandparents were still alive then. My mom and I would shuffle from one set to the other, just as we had four years ago. The next and last time I returned, I was 25. Tianjin wasn't my city anymore, and China wasn't my home.

Being fluent in conversational Mandarin wasn't enough. I couldn't understand three-fourths of what strangers or even my own family spoke to me. I couldn't have navigated by myself in public without being flattened by a car in Tianjin's insane traffic. And the traffic in Tianjin was terrifying. Imagine the transportation food chain in America as being pedestrians on top, then bicyclists, then vehicles. Well, when in China and you're a pedestrian crossing the street at a green light, a car making a left turn will most likely speed up and honk at you simultaneously. You'd have to run out of its way. It's considered rude to honk your horn here, but drivers in China honk at the slightest provocation. It's a way of speech. Cutting and weaving around other cars is how you get ahead, and preferably you honk as you whistle past the vehicle that was in front of you a moment ago. I was...not surprised, exactly, but reacquainted with Chinese culture. Spending most of my formative years in friendly U.S. suburban towns suspended my need for street smarts. I mean, not that I really had any to begin with! People in Tianjin aren't afraid to be combative, if they feel that they've been wronged. One time in Beijing, a bus pulled up to the stop, opened its doors, and was immediately flooded with bodies. It was kind of like that scene from World War Z when that army of sprinting zombies crashed and bottlenecked against a doorway, chasing after people. That hard and fast. I mean, that rectangular torture box was packed with people in every seat and inch of aisle all the way pressed against the front windshield. Passengers even crowded the steps leading down to the doors. The conductor yelled for people to stop getting on and tried to close the doors on some of them. A man exclaimed angrily from the back that he closed the door on his child and a screaming match ensued between these two strangers across a sea of heads. I...decided to wait for the next bus.

The subway was no better. I can deal with crowds. But even in crowds, people try not to make physical contact with each other. When the train doors slid open, riders knew to push everyone in front of them all the way back to the other side of the compartment. People stood for however long they had to pressed against each front and back, full length. If you're unfortunate enough to be bringing up the rear and your destination is about 10 stops away, you know to begin to slowly maneuver yourself through the crowd or else you won't make it. Later I learned that I visited at the worst possible time. Early October, Chinese citizens celebrate national...week? It's technically National Day but the founding of the People's Republic of China is celebrated 1 October through 7 October in what is called the Golden week. Chinese people take advantage of this holiday and travel to various tourist attractions within their own country. Add in foreign visitors to the already formidable native population, and places like the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven...get a little tight.

The city itself, however, was breathtakingly grand. The buildings, the streets, the river...all seemed to be spaced achingly far apart. Everything loomed large; I couldn't wrap my eyes around it all. The modern China was built to overpower cities of the West. New York, Chicago, Baltimore...can't compare to the sheer scale of the coastal cities of the PRC. Tianjin sprawled, and it wasn't done growing. Identical residential monoliths were being constructed as I walked beneath them; the cranes made salutations in the sky. Your childhood home is supposed to feel smaller upon return; mine expanded beyond comprehension.

I was also intent on discovering old China for myself...whatever that meant. Aside from home, school, and our regular social haunts (the palatial front steps of the hotel across the street from our apartment where locals would sit and play on hot summer nights, neighborhood parks, nearby restaurants), I never had a chance to explore my own country. I never walked the Great Wall or been outside of Tianjin. I wanted to see for myself the traditional architecture of ancient China, its temples and gardens. But nothing resided outside of the framework of the new. Preserved building styles were set against the reality of high rises and motor cars. Karaoke bars and souvenir shops took up house inside the buildings themselves. What did I think I'd find inside? An early 20th-century bedroom frozen in time? Food carts and trash receptacles populated the grounds. It was impossible to lose myself in something that never was, and was no longer, mine.

In the midst of it all, there were the people. Regular men and women who sat through menial jobs, important jobs, just like anywhere else in the world. Going back was an awakening. I wanted to be enchanted, and I was for the most part. I wasn't rediscovering anything; I was discovering my birthplace for the first time. I realize now that I left too young to have been able to grasp the real China. I thought, in my most secret thoughts, that I may have been able to impress my family with being a U.S. citizen, speaking English, and having democracy as my norm. But no one I spoke to had a burning desire to visit the West; not like I did for China when I first learned I'd be going. China is a vast land full of wonders; its people couldn't cover it in a lifetime.

Veronica Zhang