When you come from a small town, you tend to be scared of everything in the city. You’re trapped in a world that’s the polar opposite of your original. Growing skyscrapers, millions of moving streetwalkers and shouting car horns make you realize that the city is alive. When I first came to Shenzhen, I felt like it was all too much – I didn’t think I could learn how to navigate the city in my native tongue, how was I supposed to do it in Chinese? Luckily, my host family and friends were kind enough to help me ease into city life. They showed me how to use the metro, introduced me to WeChat (which is seriously an amazing app – it does EVERYTHING) and explained which attractions Shenzhen had that I could visit on my own.
Finally, the night arrived where I decided to explore the city solo, and I felt ready. I took the metro to a shopping centre called Coastal City and started to wander about the streets looking for something to do. I was drawn to all the tea shops and juice bars, wanting to try every single flavour of tea and combination of juice. Honey lemon tea and carrot and apple juice, anybody? But I tore myself away from all the vibrant pictures of delicious drinks long enough to see what else was on display.
I wandered into a cinema house and briefly thought of buying a ticket to see a movie, but realized again that I couldn’t read the names of the movie tickets they were selling, and decided to give the idea a pass when I imagined myself accidentally buying a ticket to the latest horror movie while under the illusion that it was a comedy. And I don’t get along with horror movies – Courage the Cowardly Dog and Scooby Doo already scarred me for life. I dwindled through Korean boutiques, Japanese souvenir shops and Indian curry houses. What amazed me was how many international stores China had. You could be from anywhere in the world and find a shop selling imported things from your home country.
I started to get used to being stared at and whenever I felt extremely uncomfortable, I would just stare back. They would then instantaneously look away, realizing how bitter their own medicine tasted. I also saw quite a few Westerners and was amused to see them avoiding eye-contact and scurrying in my opposite direction, upon discovering I was also Western. It was as if they had come to China to avoid the Western world completely and now that they saw me, they didn’t quite know how to react. I knew that greeting them would make them turn white with shock, so I greeted every single one. I was right.
After I had wondered throughout the entire mall, I decided to order dinner and head back home to watch a movie and recover from the cold. It was the coldest day of the winter so far and it was raining softly. I had straightened my hair, knowing that it probably wouldn’t last very long, and thrown on a knitted beret to keep my ears from turning blue. I left for Coastal City thinking I looked rather cute and French, but as I caught a glimpse at my reflection in the shop windows, I saw that I now looked like a French poodle. Ah, the joy of curly hair.
After finally managing to order a salad and green smoothie from a salad bar by only pointing at pictures and making frantic head movements to indicate “Yes” or “No”, I headed back to the metro station. Halfway to the train, a sign caught my eye: Nanshan Book Mall. Being the nerd that I am, I knew I had to find it. I turned on my heels and, with a determined mindset, charged back in the direction of the shopping centre. If I had bothered to look at a map, I probably would have founded it earlier, but I instead used the Saskia Method, which involved me running around in the rain in every direction. It took me an hour to find it, but as I gawked at the enormity of the building, I thought it was worth it. As I entered the mall, I saw the bursting shelves of books lined from wall to wall and the little cafes where you could drink coffee and read your book, I felt certain I was going to spend the rest of my evening there.
It took me ten minutes to realize that every book was written in Chinese.
To be fair, I probably should have expected this, but at that moment I wanted to scream with frustration. There were millions of books here and I couldn’t read any of them. After a few minutes of browsing, I left the store feeling quite depressed and lugged myself back to the metro station before I bought a Chinese book just because it looked pretty.