Friday, April 27, 2007

Southern Comfort

Out the window there’s nothing but the green drooping shadow of the hills that surround the college – no neon signs, screeching horns, or artillery-style fireworks. Most mornings, there’s just the sound of birds twittering in among the green. This morning the kindergarten behind the building is blasting happy music. Even at its insane volume, there’s something comforting about it: the fact that its main purpose is to entertain four-year olds seems to give it a pass on the annoyance chart.

It’s good to be back at my Chinese laojia, my hometown: Shantou University, just outside the city of Shantou, which lies near the top of the southernmost Chinese province, Guangdong.

As a city and a place, it’s an unusual one. It’s one of China’s five special economic zones, the cities opened up in the 1970s to foreign-style trade and investment. But it’s never been anything but dead last among the five cities: local corruption abounds. Another obstacle to development is language: the people here speak what essentially is the Basque language of China. Even Chinese people who are not familiar with the region don’t recognize Chaoshanhua as a Chinese dialect, thinking that its speakers must be from some other Asian country. There’s a kind of sleepy slowness to the city, the area, and the university itself. The kind that make you think that rapid development might just never catch on here.

There have been encouraging signs, however. A few days ago, a massive event for development was held at the Shantou port. The Same Song tour, featuring mainly Hong Kong and Taiwanese stars of the highest level, got packed in with the event, and Shantou was suddenly beamed into millions of Chinese homes. The concert was followed a day later by a fireworks show that reportedly cost in the millions of US dollars.

And the university is making the kind of progress that makes you believe in big quick evolutionary jumps. For much of the time I was here – three years in all – little seemed to happen. Now, in the space of six months, we have facilities heretofore unimaginable: a Mac lab, 40 new computers, an entire expanded wing.

But the best kind of progress comes in the form of human development. Even though I’ve only been gone for five or six months, running into the students I taught sort of makes me feel like Gene Simmons at a Kiss reunion concert; I am that adored rock star. I can understand the best moments of what it might be like to be a parent at these times. One guy, a senior I’d had since he was freshmen, simply came up to me and wrapped his arms around me in the most natural of bear hugs; the only thing odd about it was that it’s not something people really do here. “We’re lucky to have had you for so long,” he said.

In this humid southern climate that reminds me so much of my other home, Florida, on the far side of the world, there creeps in the inevitable sense of change,of it being time to go. I may end up back here for one more school year, but that will surely be my last. And then I’ll drive out the school gates for the last time, four or five years from the day I drove in, and my green-draped southern Chinese university will fold itself up in my mind into the hazy dream-like quality of memory.

Photo by Liang Qing

1 comment:

Jie said...

hi. i am a Shantou native currently studying in HKBU. it so happens my major is international journalism..
was looking for blogs on Shantou and reached your page. that's one beautiful picture. i used to play around the campus when i was kid,
i really miss home. Shantou lacks the vibration but i like it that way; i love how different it is from other modern China cities, for better or worse. although it may be a somewhat selfish thought.
i'll keep coming by. btw can i e-mail you on journalistic topics for school assignments? don't know your research area but some professional help from my homeland would be nice.