Building Our Own Little Tribe in China; Our Race to Follow the City’s Day

Our Own Tribe

The clock is wound, the City is waiting,
Ready to begin its day before dreams have ceased;
Slowly the sun rises, the City is waiting, eagerly hovering, Breathe held, counting down…

  1. Breathing dew into the air
  2. Winding the engines of the city
  3. Gathering the bird’s songs
  4. Rays of light ordered to the windows
  5. Breath let out, it begins

For some, thinking of “my tribe” may bring forth hearty images of relationships, laughter, meaningful conversations; all in the city you now call home. Yet, for others, it is also possible that the very term implies an isolation from said tribe, for an abundancy of reasons. It could spark images of loneliness and confusion, more times spent alone than preferred, feelings of homesickness for what you once had or longing for what you wish could be. Even Goethe once wrote, “The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers and cities; but to know someone who thinks and feels with us…this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.”

Moving to China from a city of 10,000 people, to Nanjing, a city of almost 10 million people, I became miniscule as I fumbled to live in Nanjing’s day. Whether from a city of equal size to Nanjing, or from a city smaller than my own, the longing to connect with others eventually makes an appearance. While many foreigners want to, the questions on how to find some kind of tribal connection with the locals lies in surpassing language barriers, physical differences and cultural clashes. Coming from a city with only two main streets, to a city with a 24-exit subway stop, I latched onto the question, “Is it possible to make this place feel like home?”

Take a deep breath, for it certainly is, and simpler than you might think. Where do you live? Think beyond the city, but closer to home. In which area do you live? Walking to work in Maqun, do you see the same woman selling “baozi” (包子) every morning? Buy one. Going home to Laomendong, do you see the same store clerks standing outside their stores? Give them a smile. Passing by the group of elders watching a movie on the steps outside of HPC on Xuezelu in Xianlin? Join them. While it is possibly less stressful to avoid putting ourselves in situations where our ears may be greeted with questions we do not recognise, the gain from interacting with the local tribe just might be worth it. For what is a tribe? Is it defined by our ability to verbally express our deepest selves to another? Sometimes. Is it a simple act of recognszing individuals we become accustomed to seeing, with a simple smile or nod? Sometimes. Whether your Mandarin skill can take you on a journey to express the depths of your soul, or can simply help you to say hello, both actions are significant. Reflecting on my first year in China, it is the faces of my local tribe who initially answered my question.

Stepping onto the road which recognises the beat of my stride, “the milk-tea lady smiles”; turning the corner, “the egg guy” gives a no-smile nod; looking both ways to cross, “the walking-lady” gives a thumbs-up; reaching for a peach, “the fruit-lady” gives an encouraging punch on the shoulder; stapling the tests, “the printer-guy” invites me to a Christmas Eve dinner. With no words uttered, my tribe was formed. Start local, strive for consistency, the building up of a tribe takes effort, but the reward is high.