Last Friday, I took a six hour train ride to Chongqing (formerly know as Chungking). It’s a fascinating city with more than 3000 years of history. It’s also one of the biggest urban areas in the world, with a population of about 40 million. The old centre lies on a steep rocky outcrop on the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers.
It was the temporary capital of China during the war with Japan. This meant that American allies and foreign embassies were located here for a while. Right now the weather is very hot and steamy, like the famous local fiery hotpot.
I’m staying at the site of a former factory that has been redeveloped in the manner of ‘creative’ gentrification all over China and the rest of the world. It’s filled to the Brutalist rafters with people taking selfies and eating ice-cream.
I meet up for lunch with Koen and Bertrille. They are the outgoing Dutch consul and vice-consul of the Dutch consulate in Chongqing.
An urban planners paradise – or nightmare
The rest of my time I spend wandering up and down the steep flanks of the city. My legs get sore from clambering up stairs and down steep winding alleys. The dizzying drops in altitude provide interesting views up and down the different levels and through buildings and infrastructure. Some pockets of the city appear like an impossible Escher drawing, with stairs. There are elevated walkways, escalators and even a metroline crisscrossing around or through buildings and infrastructure.
After dark, the city’s warm and wet soupy atmosphere and skyscraper advertisiments glittering in the distance more closely resemble a collection of Bladerunner scenes.
This might sound as if the city is just too much to bear, but bodhi trees and other big tropical plants in parks and on sidewalks provide welcome shade and the overall vibe is very pleasant.
Brand new ancient Chongqing
Today I visited Ciqikou, the hometown of my friend Luofei. It is a half hour metro ride away from downtown Chongqing, on the banks of the Jialing river. He shares his childhood memories and pictures of the area in the early nineties via wechat while I’m there. It used to be a sleepy town – partly built on bamboo stilts by the rivers edge. Neighbourly life used to happen on the street and there was a strong sense of community.
Today, it’s an overrestored ‘ancient town’ with a Starbucks next to the electronic entrance gate and throngs of daytrippers. Ah, progress.
In my last months in China I want to travel as much as possible. I’ve joined another project with my online employer ModSquad and will only work 10-15 hours a week. I’ll have plenty of time to tick off my China bucket list. And, to work on the last two Dutch Culture Nights I will organize in September and October. I’m happy I have allowed myself so much time to process my thoughts and feelings about China as I’m preparing to leave.
I’m also starting to think a bit more about what it will be like to return home. Recently I’ve experienced a few instances of ‘westsplaining’, and I’m a bit worried I’ll run into more of that in Europe. It’s a term that has been coined a few years ago for western Europeans talking down to former Eastern Europeans, ignoring their lived experience and overriding it with their outsider ‘expertise’. Today I discovered the term on my own, for people with little or no experience of China apart from newspaper articles – and maybe YouTube – who are discounting or doubting my China expertise.
It left me wondering why – maybe they think I have been brainwashed by the local government? I think I can confidently say I am not. As is often the case with -splaining instances it’s a bit sad to feel you have to list your credentials when faced with someone who is poorly informed, devoid of experience yet overassured.
Maybe we can devise a game, where you start off with a number of credits based on your accrued knowledge. These all add up: I have researched and reported on the local Covid situation for more than year. Worked with a team of Chinese and international volunteers that fact-checked and translated all national and international news sources for veracity. Years of extensive reading of books, blogs and newsletters on China by domestic and international writers. My many conversations with foreign and Chinese friends and my professional relationships. And finally, my own experience of having lived in China for four and a half years.
My China credentials (and language skills) are nothing compared to the knowledge and experience some of my friends, or some of the writers I admire. But I definitely carry more China clout than some of the people who have been dismissing my version of China with baseless confidence. If anyone has more ideas on how to counter future instances of westsplaining, I’m happy to hear them.
It’s no day to be annoyed for very long though – the sun is out after a huge thunderstorm broke the muggy heat last night. I’m going to join the crowds outside and have an icecream. I’m going to pick Sichuan pepper flavour – because, naturally, in Chongqing even the ice-cream is spicy.