On Visiting the Very Famous and Poorly Reviewed Library in Tianjin
The internet’s most famous library is a mall attraction. I knew from the blog reviews that there would be no books but rather an elaborate wallpaper stretched thinly over serrated metal. A mirage- the suggestion of ideas as a backdrop to the real spectacle of modern engineering, architecture, and money. So I didn’t come to Tianjin today expecting to be disappointed or dumbfounded. I came, like my fellow pilgrims before me, to snap the Instagram, like the photographs that have become so widely famous over the internet, and maybe have lunch in the adjacent McDonald’s Cafe. This fiction is why I have woken up at 4:30 to haphazardly brush the cat hair from my travel clothes. To engage in the illusion of the miraculous. And perhaps also to spend the day with my notebook, alone but surrounded by strangers on this overcrowded tour bus. This is where I am now. The Egyptian family behind me switches from French to Arabic to English as the small boys count birds’ nests out the window. “Une. Deux. Trois.” As the jovial couple in front of me play Spanish music videos on their phones. As the South African friends to my right flip back and forth between Afrikaans and English as they complain about their bosses.
My extroverted friend, with whom I passed up a generous trip to Xi’an in order to be here today, is exacerbated by me. She would rather spend her holiday rolling an absurdity of a pink metal suitcase from 4-star hotel to overpriced foreign restaurant, merrily gossiping all the way. Let me be clear, I also love my 4-star hotels, my overpriced foreign restaurants, and, even more dearly, my gossip. But today I have taken myself out for the pure pleasure of being invisible. Of being surrounded by others yet completely without.
As a former New Yorker, I am someone who has grown to love the anonymity of a crowd. I love the freedom to dance, and rap, and spit, and look no crazier than the next dumb American; dancing, and rapping, and spitting one door down from me as we board the same green-line train. But since I moved to China, anonymity has been hard to come by. Being the spiky red-haired foreigner that I am, I cannot go running, get lunch, or do my shopping without undergoing immense speculation. “Look at that foreigner using chopsticks! Look at that foreigner buying her groceries. Look at that fat American jogging. See how their fat jiggles when they step.”
More than most other people, I hate the attention of strangers. Where my extroverted friend enjoys chatting with the driver, where she luxuriates in the attentions of waiters and store clerks and hair stylists, I burrow directly into the floor. I chew through the linoleum with my own teeth. I make my home in the damp warmth of the crawl space.
Mostly, these days, I don’t go out. I stare out the window and think about running, but can’t stand to bear the surprised looks of my neighbors as I jiggle past them in my neon leggings. I carefully calculate my meal times as to avoid the security guard in the food court who stands over my shoulder and watches me order in Chinese as though he is watching the execution of a harrowing surgery. But being in a crowd of foreigners shields me. The crowd itself becomes the spectacle, and me, just an invisible particle within it. So I can relax when the parking lot speakers suddenly change to Backstreet Boys for our benefit- not mine. I can deflect when the security guard speaks slowly, and with sweeping gestures so that we can understand her-not me. And when the gaggle of us becomes loudly irritated at not being allowed to bring our food into the library, I know it is their irritation that will be remembered and not my embarrassed scurrying back through the exit.
And I’m sure we will be remembered for our irritation. Because when the security guard in the library pulls us out of the line and begins pulling Snickers bars and half-eaten sandwiches out of our bags, we look as though we are on the verge of tears. We gaffe impertinently at the convenient and free lockers we’ve been directed to use. We cut the line on our way back through security and terrorize the clerk into letting us do so. And if the clerk is miffed at our belligerence, if the law-abiding line-participants are irritated at our slight, if we have just reinforced a thousand negative stereotypes, we are not bothered. Their irritation and protests roll off of us since we have made no real attempts to learn their language.
We don’t catalog the opinions of those we have carefully selected not to hear. Instead, we care more about the opinions of each other. We are hypersensitive towards each other: our strange family in a strange land. We are united out of otherness, and so we strain urgently for commonality. As though it were life or death, which at times, I’m sure, we feel that it is. For example, when the Russian and Brazillian women with whom I’ve stored my bags, converge to complain about the inauthenticity of the attraction and then pose to take the requisite photos of each other, I feel compelled to say something suspiciously negative about China. Everything is a copy of a copy. Something about consumerism and commercialism and disappointment. But even as the words leave my mouth I know they sound ridiculous. For what exactly is an “authentic” experience if not for this? The cultural output of a country rising from ash. Evidence of an organized and artful tourism economy. Western food cultivated to our every taste. This too, says something substantial about the “real” China. Did we come here looking for poverty? For food trucks and plastic benches like we saw on Parts Unknown? We asked to see the world, and then thought “oh, no not this one.” We asked to see behind the curtain and are appalled at the clean machinery pulling the strings.
This reflection makes me feel superior to my new Russian and Brazillian friends. How thoughtful I am, how easy it is for me to see the world with clear and unaffected eyes. I am basically enlightened, master of all things zen. I will not engage in their feeding of criticisms.
They don’t give me the chance. Just as quickly as I’ve orchestrated my internal posturing from comrade to superior they slip effortlessly into Chinese. The conversation has moved on and left me ass-up directly on the outside of it. Suddenly I am small. These two women have just transfigured into the cool polyglot icons I desperately hope to be. I am ass-over-head, upside down again. I make a break for the bathroom just as they exchange names.
I feel relieved as soon as I walk away. Suddenly I am myself again. The peaceful ambivalence I felt about seeing the library is wholly restored.
Being this far from home makes me a ship with no sails and no oarsmen. Other people are the waves that hit me sideways and head-on. Constantly demanding, “tell us who you are or move over!” But of course, I don’t know who I am. I can’t be around other people without being sucked into the bay. I find everything impossible to ignore. I can’t help but bend to suit the winds of those around me. That is how I ended up here after all: in China chasing a dream of some kind of living, at a tourist attraction I knew would misrepresent things. A directionlessness that tells the story of direction.
I decide to walk. Up and down the corridors I walk, red-faced, feeling embarrassed for no reason, wishing I could disappear entirely from view, yet wanting to be a part of everything. The sunlight streaks through the skylights and warms my hair. I reach for the Nutella sandwich in my backpack. Every once and a while something sweet happens: a child smiles at me or I overhear a cute joke. Every once and a while an eager-looking man leers and I remember I am an animal, scrambling for cover. Where should I go next? Now that I have chosen to be alone? I break off from myself and decide to write. I feel relieved.
Hailey Neal is a writer and teacher of writers who, in the most aggressive snowbird campaign in human history, splits her time between Beijing and Vermont. She has her bachelor’s in professional writing and her master’s in education. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in From Whispers to Roars, The Closed Eye Open, Ember Chasm Review, The Finger Literary Journal, Tempered Runes Press, and the Beautiful Cadaver Soundcloud project. Alarmingly, she had to look up whether to capitalize “professional writing” for this bio. If you find any other typos in here, this is a test.