Changchun: a huge city in the north-east region of China (Dongbei), a city known (at least in China) for the massive production of cars and the Puppet Emperor Palace. Probably one of the most ugly cities you would ever go to. If you’d like to go there, because the reasons to visit Changchun are very few, especially as a tourist.
I arrived there in September 2015 to take part in a Overseas international mobility program. I could have applied to a university in Beijing, or Shanghai, or Nanjing, but I decided to apply to Jilin Huaqiao University because 1) I don’t like living in big cities, and I thought Changchun was the smallest among the ones I could go to (and I was wrong), 2) there were much more chances to go there than in other universities, and, most important, 3) I am strange.
I left home feeling I was taking a leap in the dark: I knew next to nothing about the university and the city. Besides I had met my italian mates only once or twice before leaving, so I didn’t know them neither. I didn’t know what to expect, but I felt like I was going to have the time of my life, the (hopefully) first great adventure of my life. And I was right.
Changchun is grey, ugly, with almost nothing exciting to do (especially if you stay in the suburbs, like I did), far, far away from Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Inner Mongolia, very warm in summer, damn, damn cold in winter (-25°/-30° C) and with a temperature leap up to 15° C between day and night, dirty, chaotic, with chinese people staring at you all the time in a harassing way like they were at the zoo admiring the most strange animal on Earth.
But my Changchun is something different. My Changchun is made of a small university campus in Nanguan district, a Walmart store in Xunchi Square and a very dirty, smelly and noisy commercial street called Jiangshan and its labyrinthic supermarket.
My Changchun is made of one hour long light rail and bus rides to city centre and train station, of 1 € (shared) taxi fares and of dangerous tuc-tucs, risky pedestrian crossings, people without helmet riding silent motorcycles in streets full of sellers who don’t give a f**k about their own safety until they’re done bargaining a big sparkling smartphone case.
My Changchun is made of absurd university rules and forced participation in humiliating dancing shows, of strange chinese words I’ll never forget (unsatisfactory bù jígé 不及格, developement – or pheasant, if you are Italian – fāzhăn 发展 and “In my opinion?” yào wŏ shuō 要我说?), of studying a lot (??) to pass the Ancient Chinese exam.
My Changchun is made of snow and mud, an heavy padded jacket, snow boots and almost freezed feet, low heated rooms and fast walks from building to building. My Changchun is made of sandstorms, runs under the heavy rain, incredible jumps to avoid puddles and painful slips on the ice.
My Changchun is made of the canteen’s malatang, chao mian, tieban doufu and shaomai, of korean spicy food, awful pizza baked by chinese chefs in a german Biergarten and stalls of unidentified types of meat, fish, ice cream, whatever, of guobaorou, huoguo and chunbing. My Changchun is made of lemon-flavoured water, imported tea (yes, in China. I really can’t stand chinese tea) and sardinian cheese, of sweet bread and peanut butter, of nut milk and mango juice, of fried scorpions and «What are you eating?» «I have no idea, but it’s super good… After taking all the xiangcai (coriander) away».
My Changchun is made of long nights chatting and watching movies, of sleepovers in the room front door, of late night awakenings to surprise a friend who landed at the airport at 1:00 AM, of «Why don’t the damn Koreans stop shouting around?» and very loud alcoholic parties, of the famous “You have to be in your dorm at 10:00 PM” rule and the secret back door. My Changchun is made of football games with chinese, korean, mexican, russian, spanish and portuguese guys ready to watch me scoring goals, of «It’s 1:00 PM, why is the dinner so late?», of the go-to-the-supermarket hobby, of tone-deaf karaoke choirs, of huge snowballs battles, of stolen doors.
My Changchun is made of italian mates who I needed to befriend because they were the only ones I had and who turned out to be some of the best people I could ever meet, of chinese girls who are so tough but not afraid to say «I love you», of korean guys who now have italian names, of “Li laoshi (teacher)”, “the Li laoshi next to Li laoshi” and “the laoshi whose office is next to Li laoshi’s office”, of the cute granny who sells the vegetables at the third canteen and of the nongcunren (country people).
My Changchun is made of this and much, much, much more. Most of all, my Changchun is made of all the memories I made in those ugly places with those crazy people. I went there to improve my chinese, and I found something so special and beautiful it can’t be told in words. It just can be lived.
(How to read the last two sentences: go apply for an international mobility program right now!)