“Biju, I’m going to show you some place hardcore. Some place really Chinese.”
We had already spent a late night at our local hangout and I am more than ready to go to bed. It’s late, but my friend cannot be denied. Grabbing my hand and shoving me into a taxi, I assume that we are going to find a local place to eat nearby, a comforting meal of late night barbecue cooked up to order at virtually any street corner in China.
But as the taxi meter counts steadily upward, I realize my friend is serious. A long time resident of China and a fluent Chinese speaker, his exploratory powers far outshine my own. As we pull into a chop shop to ask for directions, he tells me how ridiculous it is when people say that our city is small.
Xiamen is home to over 3 million people and covers an area of 1500 square kilometers. By Chinese standards Xiamen is a small town. But the tendency amongst foreigners (myself included) is to stick the easy-to-reach comfortable areas where foreigners tend to congregate. Bars, cafes, and the university are places that are safe and familiar, where foreign faces are expected if not common.
An intense conversation in Chinese with the chop shop workers results in the bewildered taxi driver dropping us off in what seems like the middle of nowhere. The cab fair reads 50 RMB. 50 RMB! I didn’t even know you COULD pay 50 RMB and stay on the island!
As rain dribbles through my clothes I lurch into motion after my friend in the dark as he barks at a series of sleeping shop owners at 3 in the morning in Chinese.
“What’s open?! Where’s the restaurant!?”
The shopkeepers start, muttering and motioning to keep going down the road, promptly falling back asleep as we pass.
It’s so easy to lean back and rest on your laurels as an expat. After all, we’ve moved, we’ve settled, we’ve found the places of interest in the guidebook or the expat forums online. We’ve plumbed the depths.
But sitting at that restaurant, eating the dog and pan fried silk worm larvae as my friend chats with the grinning restaurant owners, I realize again that I’m in a new country. There’s no end to the exploration and when you find yourself in a new culture, there are always hidden depths to explore.