I should know better. I’ve lived in Africa. Not in a very long time, yes. But I’ve always re-configured my mind every time I’ve boarded a plane destined for Addis. Even before boarding. As I arrive at the gate, I adjust my expectations, by which I mean I lower them. Yet, there is always the surprise of expectations that rise again, seemingly of their own volition, when you’re not paying attention. Usually, I can squash them back down before anyone notices my shock and indignation that things are not/have not unfolding/ed as I expect they should, as I know them to have unfolded during the majority of my experience of life in Europe and North America.
So, actually, rather than lowering one’s expectations, hiding the crushing disappointment that comes from having stubbornly high and inadaptable expectations endlessly dashed becomes an art form, a special skill set, instead.
Any case, lowering, or hiding, embarrassingly Western (or “pampered foreign swine”, as it’s been hinted the Chinese call us) expectations is a given when it comes to travelling to Addis. Can’t speak for the rest of Africa, through I doubt the difference to be great. Please don’t take offence, my darling continent, my darling city. I still have the highest standards for you where it counts, where it affects matters of the heart, of the soul, high as the peak of Dashen.
But in China? Well, no, I can’t speak for all of China either. It’s too colossal.
But in Wenzhou? I’m quickly discovering that the same holds, contrary to…expectation.
It’s hard to say whether it is the language gap that makes getting anything done such a chore, hassle, uphill battle, whether it’s the so-called “hosts” I’ve been fated with, or if that’s just the way things work here. To get the simplest errand done you must make a minimum of two stops. At each stop, the person who could help you the most – he or she who probably beat the competition to get that particular sales job because he or she could speak English – becomes suddenly attacked with a case of severe shyness in actually practicing said language ability.
As if spending your days encouraging six to twelve-year-olds to use their English weren’t trying enough, now you must also do it with your shopkeeper. (A particularly tricky word for the kids to pronounce. Often requires breaking up into “shop” and “keeper” and turning it into some kind of game. Otherwise, it inevitably mutates into “shockpeeper”).
For every time that you venture out of your painstakingly cozied-up home to take care of one more life-easing business – buying milk, adding credit to your phone, exchanging money, setting up a bank account, getting an internet hookup by hook or by crook – expect disappointment.
Expect that it will not happen today, for any number of reasons, none of which can be directly communicated to you, for obvious reasons. The same holds true back home in Addis, where though, you have been told in so many words, the reason could be as simple as your very physical appearance not being to the liking of whomever meets you across the desk, the counter, the gate, or the plate-glass window.
It’s hard to tell how offensive my very physical appearance is here, both to the general population, and more specifically to rental agents – a set whose members I’ve had the pleasure of meeting over and over and over and over again, in the many-part saga that is my better-apartment hunt.
Quite a lot passes between them and my Chinese Assistant as they discuss the gap between my needs and their offerings from their one-room office-cum-shacks that open to the street. What trickles down to me in translation is but a fraction of it, the basics – price, bedrooms, location, and whether or not we can go look at it now. It being a business transaction, the agents can’t get their fill of staring at me at length, uninterrupted, and so must make do with occasional stolen glances, or mask their blazing curiosity in the pretense of partially directing their sales pitch to me.
I’ll never know if what they do show me, once we walk over to the apartments in question, is the absolute bottom of the barrel, or really what 3500 Y can buy, or if both are one and the same. Something is always missing though, always. There’s no amount of comfort money can’t buy, of course, but even with the enticement of a raised budget comes the demand to cough up a year’s rent in advance, unheard of in a city where the norm is six months in advance.
Gut instinct won’t let me trace the root of this particular life difficulty to the issue of my appearance, though. There must be some element of pride for the agent to claim to do business with foreigners, not so? Where there’s one, more will follow, and everyone knows they’re stinking rich. I flatter myself that it’s because they want to force me to dig into my concealed mountains of cash that they keep showing me shitty places. Sooner or later I will break, we all do, and settle for something better. (Note to self: add “stingy” to the “pampered foreign swine” bit.)
I insist on my niggardly budget, despite all. They must know, or learn, that nobody knows better how to do with less than us Africans. Nobody knows better how to roll with the disappointment, securely knowing that something better will come. It will go again, be sure of it, but it will come back around, sweeter for its’ second, third, fourth, thousandth visit.
So, with each threshold crossed in upcast countenance and re-crossed with the opposite, I enter into a zen zone, a well of sedation, a pool of patience, where I float in a state of no expectation. Oh how bottomless it is, I never expected.