Recently, I’ve been crankier than normal. (We’re back in Hangzhou, by the way.) Blame it on seeing the light (blue skies and Costco card) at the end of the tunnel: we’re moving back to the States in 3 months and all the little everyday annoyances of life in China grate more deeply. They are bee stings when they used to be mosquito bites. Every person who yells, “Helloooo!” and then asks his friend, “Maybe it is not a foreigner? She didn’t understand me,” every person taking a picture of my child without asking; every man whose cigarette I secondhand smoke or whose spit I involuntarily absorb with my shirt as I pass by; every cab that doesn’t stop; every car that doesn’t slow down as I cross the street with a stroller; every trip to the grocery store that reeks of dried fish and pesticides; every grey day. It begins to trip you up if you’re not careful, and lately I’ve been getting riled up, too. That is to say, I’ve been losing my patience with people. A lot. I’m not proud of it, but sometimes it feels like the only way to make myself heard when there’s a constant hum of equally impatient humanity, and we are alien to each other in too many ways to count.
Tonight, as I was trudging back from the grocery store with 4 gallons of imported UHT milk in my backpack, I chose to walk along the West Lake. It’s a few minutes’ longer walk, but I looked at my watch and knew that I’d get to see the fountain show on my way, so it’d be worth it. Eleven times a day, Hangzhou’s West Lake has a glorious fountain show, complete with soaring, ear-splitting music and, at night, colored lights. I used to take Owen to see it every single day, until we got really tired of it. But tonight, I was feeling nostalgic.
The first sprays of water began as I rounded the corner of the lake and approached the jam-packed fountain show viewing area. Everyone was eating. Cotton candy, hot dogs, ice cream, syrupy hawthorn berries, spicy crabs impaled on sticks. Everyone was taking videos or pictures, watching the show play out on the screens of their phones. I watched the fountains as I walked, smiling a little at the familiar grandiosity of it. The moon was out, the lights and the pagodas on the hillside glittered.
And then I was blinded by a laser. One of the shops along the lake sells lasers, and they advertise them by pointing the beams straight through the trees at eye-level, so anyone walking along is instantly stricken by the lights and, I suppose the marketing strategem goes, wants to buy one. Anyway, I staggered for a minute, and when my vision returned I saw a sight that jolted me: a middle-aged foreign couple, perhaps Americans, standing on a low stone wall that surrounded an elm tree. They were locked in a sweet date-night embrace, their eyes flashing the reflection of the fountains, and they had a look of shared, beguiling wonder and amusement on their faces. Suddenly, I remembered what that felt like, being new to China. Feeling bowled over by its suddenness and flash.
They looked like vacationers, not expats, and I envied them deeply for a few moments their smitten Hangzhou sigh. Then I was nearly run down by an e-bike.
Pay attention, Bayley!