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, and the noodle-cookers as they took a break from 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 was always waiting on that stool.
Her eyes would wrinkle small: ni hui lai le! (You’re back!) Yes, ahyi, we’re back, we would answer. It became 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; no one is out on the streets just talking to you. And if they are, you might ignore them anyway.
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.
I miss the 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 doorstep. 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 stopping 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) that 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. 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. It has made me think about cities, how they lend themselves to that kind of isolation, how they 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.
Born in Singapore, Vivienne Tam immigrated to Canada at age fourteen, completed her undergraduate studies in New Jersey, and spent two years at a special-needs foster home in Fuzhou, China, giving her an avid passion for seeing the world and telling stories about the people she meets. She is currently an engineering PhD student at McGill University in Montreal, but a creative at heart, and she writes about finding beauty in unexpected places at www.beautyinthemargins.com.
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