A while has passed and now I have lived near half a year in the city called Changzhou. I have travelled the nearby cities well enough to lose my camera while drunk. Would you like to see some stellar pictures of Hangzhou? Well, I can tell you some pretty swell things to Google. If you’ll give me a thousand words or so I’ll paint you an odd view of Changzhou.
Here is what you must understand about Changzhou: it is middling. It is the burning embodiment of average raised up on an Eastern heavenly mandate. I can hear you wiki’ing in the distance this city along the Yangtze and wondering aloud how four million folk in a place with three thousand years of history could ever be average. That is China for you. That density and age make for a notable place is an American notion I carried for probably pretty long and dropped maybe three months after living in Changzhou, Jiangsu, China. Density and history are near everywhere where I am now.
Jiangsu is a notable province in China. Look no further than Jiangsu for behemoth megacities, former capitals of long-lasting dynasties, mountains, rivers, and beautiful gardens all along banks and the slopes. When you look just don’t dig at exceptional in Changzhou. Just so you know the dynasty that sat capitol on Changzhou – metropolis formerly known as Wujin or Piling – only lasted around a year. There are rivers and canals in Changzhou, but they don’t compare to Suzhou – the Venice of Asia. There are woods and parks in Changzhou too but the city known for lakes and trees – Hangzhou – is two hours away in Zhejiang province. You will find plazas and historic streets in Changzhou but understand that in Nanjing the plazas memorialize massacres potent and lingering ugly on the sticky start of the 21st century and in Changzhou the plazas are right outside of amusement parks. The historic streets in slim little Wuxi stretch out for a while in devotion to old kingdoms enshrined in classical literature. Here I have to be fair because Changzhou has a historical boulevard sprung up from famous ancient literature too – only it is just one block of one street lined with some very high quality comb shops.
Here is where I get brutal and desecrate my hasty made Chinese home like I am a dog with no shame. The unexceptional nature of Chanzhou is welded straight into its name. Chang (常) means ‘average’ or ‘common’ and Zhou (州) used to mean ‘prefecture.’ Zhou might just be the most common thing to fix to the end of a Chinese city name. If you got one solid character on deck to describe that riverside Chinese city you are building you just slap zhou on the other end and get business moving. What this means is that Changzhou was deliberately and consciously named Averageville potentially as early as near 600 AD. That name fits all five fingers and lines tight right around the wrist of this place.
This is where I tell you that I am not being mean, that I am actually being loving in my honesty. This is where I profess my love for the average over a long and slipshod drawn comparison of two average homes I have known. I have judged Changzhou for being boring, dull, and riding the median line. I have made my fair share of jokes, calling Changzhou “too chang” for the cool things other cities have, but the ugly truth is that my hometown has no room to talk. Let me confess – Indianapolis is the American Changzhou.
The linguistic lineup should strike immediate. Though Changzhou does directly translate to something like “Averageville,” indirectly it may as well translate indirectly to Indianapolis. American naming conventions are far too furiously erratic to name a place Averagevile, but Indianapolis comes close to that mark. Polis being the Greek part of city, Indianapolis is effectively Indiana City. Even at its historical root it would have meant Indian City which is impressively more generic than the current iteration.
One of the funny things that happen when I introduce myself to Chinese folk is most guess I live in Shanghai. I say I am not, and they say, “No! Maybe you are in Nanjing?” When it becomes clear where I really live they just ask why. What am I doing here? Why am I not somewhere else? It is funny to me because when I meet a curious sort of soul in Indianapolis – maybe an odd foreigner or just a transplant – I ask the exact same. Hey, why are you here? Nice to have you and all but Chicago is three hours up that way. Did you consider Memphis? Minneapolis? Both Changzhou and Indianapolis sit in the intersections of more interesting locations and leave you wondering whether folk are just wandering through. For me it does beat living in the far rural fringes where everything feels distant.
Don’t get it too twisted. These two cities may lack in naturally interesting things but they have their ways of recuperating. Amusement parks are one prominent answer. Changzhou has three amusement parks right inside of it. The first and foremost is the actually renowned Dinosaur Park which combines exhibits of fossils with a small collection of rides and a massive assortment of intriguing dinosaur-based entertainment and scenery. It is hard to describe and you’ll have to see the pictures below, but the makers of Dinosaur Park must have feared that giant Jurassic lizards were not draw enough so they decided to couple it with an odd medieval theme. All the statues of dinosaurs wear fantastical armor or a kind of generic court clothing. Further into the park the aesthetic turns to gears and a color-saturated steam punk setting. The statues are all over the place and a deeply strange fusion that is just too curious to begrudge. By the end of the day I wanted all dinosaurs to wear armor. Dinosaur Park costs quite a lot and only has one really solid roller-coaster, but it is worth a visit to see the strange conglomeration of dino-themed water park, amusement park, museum, theater, strip mall, and children’s center. Never did I feel quite so strangely at home and detached from the face of the Earth as at Dino Park. The over priced gift shops and restaurants shacked up with rickety roller coasters and nearly fluorescent children’s attractions are in the Midwest as much as Florida. It is just that in the Midwest they are not near as famous.
Changzhou’s second park is a personal favorite and a bit underrated. For a notably cheaper ticket you can make it into a theme park centered on a history you won’t find in the US – though the commercialization of it may feel familiar. Called Yancheng Park, it actually has a proper park with some interesting history just alongside some pretty cool rides, and you can read my larger two part story on it here and here. The third and last is CC Joyland – a regular old theme park – that I have not visited and cannot guide you through. A cynical side of me screams that these quiet places have to twist up ugly plastic shapes to make fun.
Yet, there is a soft and sincere side of Indianapolis and Chanzhou dwelling inside the regular parks and it can soften any cynic no matter how pretentious. Hongmei is Changzhou’s biggest and most known park, with a massive reconstructed pagoda right alongside a small lake. It has a wonderful little viewing pond where flowers gather and shine underneath the sun. I found a dead turtle there and took several pictures. Outside of the water and the temple Hongmei did not strike me as having much but I have been spoiled because almost every Chinese city has at least three very good parks. In fact the reconstructed pagoda at Hongmei’s center is one of the largest in the world and deserves its own due. On top of it you can see the grey haze of rapid industrialization settle on the beige, brown, white, and light reddish identical apartment complexes spread out into the endless horizon.
Another park called Xintiandi sits right near me and has no famous attraction to speak of. Though people don’t know it, to me it feels much more artfully constructed and definitively more modern. Xintiandi opens with a large black obelisk that touches the sky and has a meaning that I have not pieced together yet. Little pools of water in between the main walkway after the obelisk lead up to a large pond or small lake that reflects the newly built malls, offices, and apartments of the Wujin district. To the side there’s a wide grassy plain where people sit and play with families. I have seen grandpas flying kites with grandkids, grandmas gathering in multiple groups in different sections of the park to dance together, parents and children seeing talent shows, and runners getting their daily exercise in at Xintiandi. When I come back up from the large white slab that is the Golden Eagle mall to the south of Xintiandi I walk across a bridge with translucent hard glass planks. Little kids stare down at the lazily moving water. I have seen more than one set of wedding pictures taken on that bridge.
The black obelisk at the entrance of Xintiandi reminds me of the Veterans Park in Indianapolis. It is just a small stretch of green maybe two blocks wide in front of the ever large public library but it opens with a black obelisk thinner than at Xintiandi but lined with gold. In that park I have also seen wedding pictures. Children have tried to sell me school drive candy and sometimes I accepted and hopefully pushed them another dollar closer to a prize toy. I have seen middle aged people practice tai chi together and had one man tell me how it helped him beat his cancer. I do not know much about science but I’ll believe that quiet and passionate spirit can triumph it.
I have ran up the clean marble steps of the World War II memorial in Indianapolis and looked outward at the slight bunches of traffic accumulating. Laced underneath my own breathing is the gentle hum of engines gently whirring in stillness as they sit at lights. The way the white noise picks up into a managed roar as green replaces red sounds like bubbling rapids. I have never known living in anything but city and for me the hum of distant cars feels like river water constantly overturning and lapping up against itself. When I am stepping steadily through Xintiandi or even just walking past the dancing old ladies on the way to my grocery store the noise of constant motion dimmed by distance slides subtly underneath the noises in the foreground.
Maybe you look at me like I am trying to escape the serene hum of small cities. I have never made it a secret that I’d love to live in the West Coast where the sun always shines or Chicago the sights are endless. In college I skipped the Midwest without two thoughts and settled into the stunning marble of D.C. In China I studied in the unbelievably immense urban sprawl of Beijing and when I sought work I aimed for Nanjing – the glorious former southern capitol of a few notable Chinese dynasties. I ended up here in Changzhou, my Chinese Indianapolis.
But I am not too aggrieved and I am not trying so hard to escape. I said facetiously to a dear friend that Indianapolis had prepared me for urban mediocrity. It was facetious but it was not false. Indy prepared me by making me love the average as it appears in the friendliness of neighbors and the slick sound of cars coming and going. Changzhou does not carry the art and culture of Shanghai and Indianapolis does not carry the art and culture of Chicago, but there’s plenty that feels great in the average and plenty that feels average in the great. The people in average places will drop what they carry to help you. Average places can pause and slow pace because nothing in their identity seems pressing. In smaller cities, communities will hold you tight because for all that ‘standard’ doesn’t do it also doesn’t ask that much of you. In NYC, DC, Beijing, and Nanjing life has slapped me in the face with strangeness but in Changzhou and Indianapolis I’ve squinted and found near as much of it. In Changzhou people try to know me and I try to know them too. In Beijing I was another unfamiliar face.
Well hell, screw the East and the West I was born in the middle and I’ll probably end up interred in the quiet dirt there too. Some days I may want a more glamorous metropolis but where I live will never change where I was raised. When a big city swallows me up none of my hometown identity will die. The churning pearly white skylines of modern metropolises can’t scrape the small city simplicity off me so I might as well learn how to find the bright spots in the dimly lit cities I have come to call home.
~Austin R Ryan