“No one told me China was the worst country in Asia,” the student from Nanjing tells us. “Vietnam shits on China. Thailand shits on China. Singapore shits on China. Japan positively shits on China.” He is excited to hear that we’re heading to Russia. “Russia shits on China,” he says.
Of course, the student from Nanjing wants to make a dollar and a cent in this world, which is why he has wound up, despite the shit it is apparently buried under, in China. He can already speak English and Spanish and feels that Mandarin will give him the trifecta: with the world’s three most-spoken languages under his belt, he says, he could do business almost anywhere. We meet him by accident in the lobby of our hostel in Harbin, which he is visiting for the skiing and the annual snow and ice festival, and he is quick to point out how much he likes the city. Demographically Chinese and architecturally European, with Russian-Jewish influences still lingering in the food and urban planning, there is certainly a lot to like about it. Its vibe is perhaps best described as Manchurian, which is another way of saying rather unlike the rest of the country, at least according to the student from Nanjing. “China is at its best when it’s at its least Chinese,” he says.
The student from Nanjing admits that he has been in the country a little too long. Everyone begins to turn against it after they’ve been here a while, he says. “One guy,” he tells us, “who had been living here three years, finally lost it one night when the owners of a restaurant treated him terribly and then tried to overcharge him for it. He refused to pay and they beat him up.” He shrugs. “He should have known better, but I know where he was coming from.” A British national, the student from Nanjing says that his first stay in the country was marvellous. In retrospect, however, he thinks that probably had more to do with the fact that he didn’t really study than it did with the country he didn’t really study in. His mistake was to think that playing hookey and getting drunk with pretty Chinese tertiary students meant he would like living here for an extended period of time. He’s now dating a Chilean and can’t stop going on about Argentinian steakhouses. “Buenos Aires,” he says excitedly. “That’s where it’s at.”
The student from Nanjing’s tirade takes place over a bottle of red in one of Harbin’s Russian restaurants. We have just returned from a visit to Ice and Snow World, the biggest and best of the city’s three annual winter festivals. We were picked up by a fellow in a minivan at three-thirty in the afternoon and dropped off at a McDonalds nowhere near the festival grounds. “The driver says there’s a pretty girl waiting for us inside,” the student from Nanjing translated, and the three of us went inside and ate fries. The pretty girl rocked up some forty-five minutes later and was not especially pretty. She ushered us onto a waiting bus and we made our way out to the festival. Another forty-five minutes passed once we got there, the increasingly stressed-out girl disappearing for increasingly lengthy stretches, and other tour groups heading straight on in ahead of us. When the now thoroughly exhausted girl finally appeared with our tickets, she informed us to be back at the bus by seven. We left the festival at ten to seven, but the bus was nowhere to be found. As the mercury headed south of minus twenty, we eventually decided to take a cab. “The driver says his company charges an extra two hundred yuan when he picks people up here,” the student from Nanjing translated. “He’s lying, though. He’s going to pocket it.” When we got back to the hostel and told the lady behind the desk that the bus had left us at the festival grounds, she called the company to see what the go was. “They say it’s still there waiting for us,” the student from Nanjing translated. “They’re lying, though. They left without us.”
His tirade over and his glass of wine finished, the student from Nanjing looks down at the empty place setting in front of me. “You haven’t got your food yet?” he asks. Both Mel and the student from Nanjing have long since finished eating. I shake my head and he shakes his in reply. “You should be thankful you’re leaving tomorrow,” he says. “Russia shits on China.”