Dear L., since I left China I experience recurring bouts of nostalgia for this far-away land. Nostalgia doesn’t step over the threshold of my heart nonchalantly, but knocks first gently at the door. It could be a sight of a Chinese tourist lost in the streets of Belgrade or the front door of a restaurant embellished with characters and lanterns. I would resist it. I would press with my whole body against my heart’s door, I would seal my ears so as not to hear its luring voice and I would keep my world shut tightly against intrusion of nostalgia. It would retreat first, but as soon as I lose my vigilance, it would be back again. It would crawl through a crack or a keyhole unnoticed, while I am busy in the kitchen, trying to prepare noodles or fried rice. It would come softly towards me and sing into my ear an old Chinese tune or show me a vision of foggy mountains and endless roads, while I am taking my afternoon nap. And that would be it – I would be hopelessly trapped in its embrace. I would lose peace of mind and dream about birds over rice fields or the neon lights of Shanghai.
Nostalgia kept on visiting me with regularity in the course of the past two years until I stumbled upon a magical cure against it. The basic ingredient of this cure was, ironically, China itself.
No, I haven’t been to China without sending you a note. The photo that you see is not China at all! I am still here, in Belgrade, getting my nostalgia pill in the local Chinatown.
To tell you the truth, I have been to various Chinatowns before and the one in Belgrade has nothing to do with any one of them. It is a far cry from its cinema version in Roman Polanski’s film and it has nothing in common with its siblings in London, Paris, Kuala Lumpur or New York. Despite its name, the Belgradian Chinatown is not a quarter of the city where Chinese people live, but a place where they sell Chinese merchandise.
Basically it is a chain of huge malls on the outskirts of the city stuffed with everything Chinese – from noodles, pots and clothes to hardware and dusty dildos. Almost all vendors are Chinese and they speak exclusively Mandarin or their respective dialects with a tiny pinch of Serbian. No English though. To express my wishes I had to rummage through my memory palace really good, just as I would have done in China.
When I enter the place I find myself in a cacophony of sounds, colors, smells. Wherever I walk, I pass by rows of shelves rising up to the very ceiling and I step over boxes and more boxes filled with various goods. One floor is topped by another one, and even when you are out of the store, the goods seem to follow in your steps, sprawling along the curbs. Workers move along narrow aisles with their loads, droning to the shoppers to give them way. Children run around and play with a ball, while their parents deal with goods, customers or a bowl of noodles. And the noodles, as well as other typical dishes of Chinese cuisine are made just around the corner in a Chinese buffet.
I was in Belgrade but at the same time far away, as if transported to some city in China. I was tired of all the hassle around me, of this wide space filled with colors, textures, and people. I was irritated by slurps and belches and I was bored with uniformity of all these goods. And above all I was depressed by the sense of foreignness to all these foreign people around me. It was a perfect imprint of my emotions in real, nowadays China.
When I stepped out of the Chinatown and reached the bus stop, I realized that, luckily, I was still in Belgrade. That’s how, my Dear L., I found the magical cure for my nostalgia. So now, whenever I start longing for anything Chinese, I just get on a bus and go to Chinatown.
Who knows how long it will stay here. As far as I know, the local tax policy toward Chinese vendors has changed and they think about other destinations. But as long as I am here and the moment of the Chinatown lasts, I take my magic pill and find myself happy to be where I am.