Summer Rain and Cigarettes

Cigarette smoke makes me think of China. I remember the way it’d fill up the room in my Uncle’s absence, then stay still, holding its breath for several hours. In the streets, in the markets, in the restaurants, there they’d be, the cigarettes clutched-clasped-dangling between people’s fingers.

Last summer we got caught by Mei Yu. The plum rain. The constant downpour of gloom that cooped us up at home. Monsoon season? I asked. No, responded Wiki: the East Asian Rainy Season.

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So I cut my hair. I painted. After the rain, I ventured outside in some grey oversized sweater (so poorly underdressed in a city where women tottered around in heels over broken concrete and construction) to photograph people, strays and the occasional chicken.

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Jiangyin, China

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Jiang Yin is beautiful (and for a million reasons).

There is a certain gritty you-do-your-own-thing feel to the streets of China. They’re usually crowded–the markets always are. People push and shove; after a while, you get used to it. Babies roam. Strays don’t give a shit. They trot and they stumble and play by the people, who pay them no notice.

Cigarette smoke lingers in the air: at home, in the streets, in the markets. There’s a “NO SMOKING” tacked on the entrance of the “grocery market” (if you’d call it that—it’s more like a giant meat cafeteria) but the butchers smoke anyways. I watch as the butcher chops our meat, takes a drag, picks up the RMB another smoker slaps down. I peer at the smoke wisps. Then I dodge them.

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The past week has mostly been spent with le fam. Over the weekend, my cousin returned from a neighboring province where he’s been working. Grandma says I’m prettier and that my skin resembles Putin’s (Thanks, G-Ma). My Chinese listening skills have improved and I can better understand Ma, Uncle and Grandma rattling on in their dialect. I take to sitting and quietly absorbing their conversations.

During the weekdays, when time seems to go by slower, I wander around the neighborhood. I photograph strangers. I take it all in. China feels like home. And then I wonder: can you fall in love with “home” over and over and over again? I think you can and I do every time.

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中国

On our first morning back, Jiu Jiu takes us to see a Buddhist temple atop a nearby mountain.

We pass by strays, wandering babies and people criss-crossing the dusty streets. The area’s a little messy–there also don’t seem to be any hard and fast traffic rules–so it can be a bit of a challenge to maneuver around, especially in a metropolitan place brimming with drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians all sharing the same roads.

For breakfast we eat noodles, this time at a slightly larger restaurant. Like yesterday’s noodle place, it’s a walk-in restaurant tucked beneath the apartment-styled homes.

Grandma comes over in the morning, and around 11:30 we hustle on over to her place to eat lunch. Even though she lives in the complex next to ours, her home is vastly different from Jiu Jiu and Jiu Ma’s. It’s simpler, less ornate, and not as modern as Jiu Ma’s hardwood-decked home: the walls are unpainted, the floors are made of concrete, and most of the furnishings are wooden and unadorned.


 

We go back to Jiu Jiu’s house. I lop off five inches of hair in the bathroom for no particular reason (other than that it’s bothering me). For the next few hours I scurry around the house waiting for time to pass.

In the evening and after dinner, I join the rest of my family as they chat in Jiu Jiu’s room. Their faces are lit by the dim light of Jiu Jiu’s lamp, and harsh shadows are cast over their faces as they talk about Serious Adult Matters. I skip around with my camera. Stacked on his desk and organized by year are small rectangular picture books that he and my ma used to read as children.

Around six or seven the jet lag kicks in, my body remembers that I’d woken up at 5, and I doze off to sleep.