Nanjing: The Arrival

I got off the plane to a familiar feeling: the damp chill that defined my childhood in Portland. Through a window, I peered up at the gray sky—yup, very Portland.

But the similarities ended there. As I walked through the subway station, navigating my way to Tianlongsi, I began to realize how big and bustling Nanjing was.

Being the site of war atrocities and the regal capital of various dynasties prior, Nanjing is a city of history and heritage. Nestled in the Jiangnan region, it was nurtured by the boom of scholarly culture and commercial enterprises, developing a distinct flavor that distinguishes it from its northern counterpart: Beijing.

After about an hour on the train, I made it to my intended destination: Tianlongsi station. It was then, just as I was exiting the station, that I remembered—I forgot to bring an umbrella.

I chuckled to myself. This really did feel like Portland again.

I walked through the chilly drizzle, reminiscing about my afternoon walks home from school in the chilly rain.

And in a sense, I was returning home.

I turned my head and immediately saw the imperial glazed tiles. Home.

I started walking towards the towering complex. How long had it been since I had visited a temple? Despite living in one for months at a time while in Los Angeles, I hadn’t visited a temple since coming to China. A random shrine here and there, sure, but nothing that felt like a temple. The temples in China do not feel like active spaces, but rather as passive landmarks poised to charge admission and sell incense to tourists. Faced with such a predicament, I typically just abstain from going, as I presume it will lead to more disappointment.

But Tianlong Temple is different.

I was greeted halfway down the street by a young temple assistant in his 20s, perhaps only a few years older than me. He took my luggage and brought me to my room, where I got settled. After receiving the Wi-Fi password and key card, we set off for a quick tour of the grounds.

Since the temple is still under construction, it’s not officially open to the public. However, there is a growing team of volunteers—all trained with the unmistakable signature of Fo Guang Shan’s impeccable service.

The first thing I noticed was that they were all well-versed in temple etiquette. Moreover, they had the perfectionism of any experienced temple volunteer. The altars, flowers, and bookshelves were all meticulously cared for.

Most nostalgic of all though was the moment we started evening service. The comforting scent of aloeswood coupled with time-old chants brought me home in a different sense—back to evenings in my childhood temple, where the sound of slow, melodic chanting was interspersed with the pattering of rain on the rooftop.

After we concluded, I befriended some of the temple residents, including two young monks from India. I’ve since become their go-to English conversation partner, since they haven’t met anybody who speaks English since arriving in China.

The next morning continued my nostalgia, as the sound of a wooden board woke me from my sleep—and sent a rush of adrenaline through my body. I jumped out of bed and dashed to the bathroom, preparing for a line of people trying to finish washing up.

Except I forgot that I live in a sparsely-occupied hallway.

Nobody was in the restroom, and the next guy who walked in groggily about 5 minutes later stared at me, confused as to why I was brushing my teeth so vigorously at 6:05 am.

The rest of the day went smoothly. In my spare time, I helped arrange some supplies for the office, and in the evening I went out to browse the nearby mall, where I found a delightful bookstore and cafe. While I didn’t buy any books, I was enticed by the sale that Muji had going on. Besides, I thought to myself, I need more clothes to survive this chilly weather anyways.

I came out with three sweaters, three button-ups, two long-sleeved tee shirts, one pair of shoes, a phone charger, and a bag of hojicha latte mix. All of these—especially the last item—are winter essentials.

I’m looking forward to my month here. Between the familiar cold weather, delicious vegetarian food, and clockwork routine, I’m hoping that this month will provide a conducive atmosphere for my project.

Nanjing: The Departure

A few months ago, I was debating where to spend my Winter Break.

Although school is out for roughly a month, Fulbright insists that we have to remain productive nonetheless, and so we’re not allowed to have too much fun. If we were, I’d probably be kicking back on a beach in Thailand—or meeting up with Pomona friends in Japan.

Staying on campus would have been pretty miserable too. There’s only one not-so-vegetarian-friendly dining hall open—with limited options—and barely anything open around the school. Besides, I wouldn’t have access to the library anyway.

If I were to spend my break trying to be productive in a non-academic environment, I’d want to spend it in a place where I can be fed, kept reasonably warm, and bask in the presence of friends.

Then came a message from a friend in Los Angeles.

“I’m moving to Nanjing,” he wrote. “Let me know if you want to come by for Winter Break. I can arrange for you to stay in the dorms.”

My friend is a monk, and his recent transfer to Nanjing helped me find a place to stay over the month-long break. However, he also warned that there really was not much going on, since the temple itself is still under construction.

Nonetheless, being in Nanjing would unlock a new region in China in terms of my research. I already predict that people here prefer green tea since it has more of a local connection. There are also a handful of tea-related landmarks—many of them doubling as Buddhist monasteries—which I hope will help me see how these mingle and present themselves.

And so, I wrote a proposal on why I should be allowed to spend a month in Nanjing, and after a few days, the embassy approved it.

Yesterday, I woke up bright and early again to ride the bus to the airport. Now, the bus only has a few time slots scheduled. I could either leave at 7:30 (and get there by 9) or leave at 10:30 (and get there by 12). My flight was at 12:20. Not having much of a choice, I woke up early only to get to the airport roughly three hours before boarding.

Fortunately, I had a friend with me.

After sleeping for the entire bus ride, we groggily unloaded the bus and waited in a McDonald’s. I had three hours before my flight, and she was waiting to greet a friend who had come to visit.

As we talked a bit in the restaurant, she mentioned that she and a few other friends had planned to come over for tea the night before.

In some earlier posts, I mentioned that my friend group primarily consists of international graduate students. I suppose that’s still loosely true, although the group has splintered off over the past few months. The once lively group chat has become silent, and the occasional prompt to plan an outing is typically ignored. Sure, it shouldn’t be too shocking for a larger group to split off into smaller ones, and it wasn’t like I had been left completely friendless.

Every so often, a friend or two would ask to come by for tea. It would always be a wonderful time, and depending on who came in, we’d either be chatting until 10 pm or 4 am, with topics ranging from Confucian theories on moral development to our own past instances of academic insubordination.

In the past week or so, the splintered friend group suddenly reached out after about two months of planning their own gatherings. I found it strange, but I humored their requests. I don’t mind playing host, after all. However, the person who often planned these never bothered to tell me about their plan to visit until they came to knock.

While I don’t mind playing host, some advance notice is nice. Sometimes they come in and I already have the kettle on (because I was planning on drinking some tea). But sometimes they come in and I have to scramble to get things in order, or drop whatever I was doing to entertain my unexpected guests.

But I knew that they had planned to come the day before. In fact, I received a message about having tea that evening. I would have welcomed them, but unfortunately I was in Putian and had far too many things to do that night.

However, I appreciated the advance notice.

Then I realized that my friend here sitting next to me was the reason why I had received a request so early in advance.

“SS (our mutual friend) planned tea a few times actually,” my friend, HM, mentioned.

“Oh? When was this?” I didn’t recall them coming over that often.

“A few days ago,” she continued. “We got there and your room was empty, dark, nobody was home.”

“Oh,” I was puzzled. “Nobody told me you were coming over.”

“Exactly!” she said with an exasperated sigh. “SS told all of us to just come because, ‘Oh, he’ll definitely be there,’ but she never bothered to check! So then we all showed up, only to realize that there was absolutely nothing going on.”

“Wow, that’s pretty sad.”

“Right? And that’s why this time, when SS told us we were going to have tea again, I told her she has to let you know we’re coming in advance. Otherwise, how are you supposed to schedule your evening?”

Thank you, HM.

While host-guest relations can be rather complex, a bit of courtesy on both sides goes a long way. While I won’t tell a guest they should leave, I hope that my guests will know to not overstay. Typically this goes well, although there was a time when SS showed up unannounced and stayed well into the night, doing her homework while I was trying to figure out how to get some sleep.

“What time do you usually sleep?” she asked.

“Preferably 10,” I replied.

“Nah,” she shot at me. “That’s too early for a college student.”

She stayed past 1 while I was completely confused about why she had shown up after sparse interactions for the past three months or so.

HM, on the other hand, lets me know well in advance before arriving—leaving me ample time to get snacks, choose a good tea, and clean up my room before her arrival. I was actually a bit disappointed to hear that the only reason SS asked in advance this time was because HM told her to.

After her friend came, we stuck around and talked for a bit more—debating the pros and cons of higher education in China, the inefficiencies of Fujian Normal University’s administration, and how age doesn’t always guarantee maturity. It was a nice shift from the usual topic of conversation, which—for the past few nights—had been focused exclusively on romance.

After they left, I waited around some more before finally going to my terminal to board the plane.

Next, I’ll talk a bit about my arrival in Nanjing. Despite this being my first time here, it feels strangely nostalgic.