11:29 am: I am in limbo. I am sitting in the office, not because I’m supposed to be working today, but because I literally have nowhere else to go. I checked out of my hotel yesterday, and then I left my friend’s apartment where I had crashed for the night—I was hungry, she had left for work, and I had no key, so once I left I couldn’t get back in. I am supposed to move into my apartment today, but my roommate has been vague about the timing. Does today mean noon, or does it mean six o’clock at night? The Chinese word for “homeless” flashes through my mind: 无家可归(wú jiā kě guī), literally “no home to return to.” This word seems to fit better than the English “homeless,” because after all, I do have a home, in Vermont. I just can’t go there right now. I am hoping—praying, even, to the gold-plated God of China—that I will have a home here in Nanjing too. I hope that my rent agreement doesn’t fall through, that my roommate texts me back, that the roof doesn’t leak, and that at this time tomorrow I will be nicely settled into that little pink bedroom I found on ganji.com. Right now, however, my Nanjing home does not yet exist. I have only one home, and I cannot return there.

12:08 pm: My roommate texted me back. She gets off work at 3:30, and she’ll take me shopping this evening to buy blankets and other necessities. Phew. I heave a sign of relief as I suddenly realize that I have a free afternoon. I decide to take the metro to Xuanwu Lake Park, which looks like a nice, big splotch of green and blue on my Nanjing city map. True to its reputation as one of China’s “Three Furnaces” (三大火炉sān dà huǒlú), Nanjing is blistering hot today—97°F. But when I arrive at the lake, a stiff and refreshing wind is blowing, slicing through the air like a hot, dry knife. Although the temperature is still just as hot as it was in the middle of the city, it doesn’t feel as hot, somehow. It’s like using meditation to cure a headache; taking Tylenol numbs your nerves until the pain disappears, but meditation, so they say, numbs the anger you feel towards the pain in your head. Although the pain is still there, your brain simply stops dwelling on it. On a hot day like today, sitting inside and blasting the AC would be like popping painkillers; walking through a hot dry wind is like meditation.

Since today is a random Thursday afternoon, Xuanwu Lake Park is peaceful and startlingly quiet. Now and then a tourist moseys by. A few shopkeepers sit at stands selling knickknacks and soda, chatting quietly with one another while they eat their home-cooked lunches out of plastic containers. I see one old man wearing a bucket hat and crocks, standing all alone and flying a kite tied to the end of a fishing line. I amble along the side of the lake admiring the rocks, the trees, the water, and the dusty city wavering across the lake in the distance. When I turn around and start walking back, the old man is still there, his stringy kite dipping and bobbing in the hot wind. 

4:28pm: My coworkers and I drag all my luggage out of the office, across the street, down a block, and then up the six flights of crumbling concrete steps and into my new apartment. Although the building itself is old (and has no elevator), my apartment has been newly renovated inside. It is bright and sunny and sparkling clean. My roommate is very friendly, in that touchy-feely Chinese way that is alternately annoying and endearing. She wants me to unpack RIGHT NOW so she can see what I’ve got in all my bags, and when I finally convince her to take a break from packing and go to Walmart to buy some sheets and other necessities, she clutches my arm like a little girl as we walk through the streets. But later that night, after she has washed off her makeup and changed into pajamas, I am startled by how old and weary she looks. I think about the long hours she spends working in retail everyday, exerting energy to become that wide-eyed little girl wearing oversized empty glasses-frames and whimsical suspenders. I suspect that this is not who she really is. There’s a word for this in Chinese—撒娇sājiāo, a set of behaviors for girls that makes them appear innocent, impulsive, and naïve. You’ve probably seen this before: picture a Chinese girl complaining in a whiney, nasally voice, slapping her stoic boyfriend with her Hello Kitty purse. Yes, there is a Chinese word for this. And yes, it is largely an act. My real roommate isn’t the girl who insists on walking to the right of me because “that’s where the girl walks”—she is the person who patiently shows me the light switches around the apartment, explains how to lock and unlock the door, and reminds me to unplug the water heater at night.

At last, I go to sleep on my new Walmart sheets, listening to the rain beating down on my huge, red-curtained windows. For a while, my mind is running with the things I still need to do. I need to buy a mattress pad, because this bed has rock-hard springs. I need to buy a bedside lamp, shampoo, and an umbrella, and I need to clean out the dusty desk in the corner of the room. But for right now, hey—at least I have a home to return to.

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