By Erik Wennermark
The guys I play Dungeons and Dragons with love Dalian; they have been here for years with no intention of leaving. I found them via an expat WeChat group in my first weeks in the city. We meet once a week to eat potato chips in flavors like Numb and Spicy Hot Pot, Italian Red Meat, and Mexico Tomato Chicken. We fight kobolds and ogres and occasionally let slip one or two sincere observations about life. I keep it a secret from my D&D comrades that I suspect I won’t stay in Dalian for long, not because I don’t like it, it’s okay, but because I don’t stay anywhere very long.
During my last job interview I was asked: “How come you move so much?” I stressed that all contractual obligations were appropriately satisfied and pushed on to the next question. I am likewise cautious to express my lack of commitment to the D&D guys; I don’t want to disappoint them by breaking up the party on the eve of our next adventure.
My last move traded Hong Kong for Dalian because I wanted a bigger, cheaper apartment, and I wanted to truly say I’d lived in China, not some separate but equal facsimile. I achieved both goals. In the Miss Universe contest of second-tier Chinese cities, Dalian has a faded decade-old ribbon as the “Most-Livable” Chinese city and was rumored to be relatively smog free. The hot mid-August 2016 day I arrived the air was thick and smoky and I felt instant regret. The guy who dropped me off from the airport gave me a pack of Oreos and a bottle of water, pointed me in the right direction, and nodded good luck. The summer was gone shortly thereafter.
By virtue of Dalian’s geography, in its 150-year history (short by Chinese standards), a convergence of people and their competing interests have built and shaped the city: Chinese, British, Russian, Japanese, lately Korean. To the old powers, Dalian was a deep-water port of strategic and economic value; nowadays there are frequent flights to Tokyo and Seoul filled with businessmen of purposes uncertain and mundane to me: software, manufacturing, etc.
The British called the foundling city Port Arthur, the Chinese Lüshun, the Japanese Ryojun. It expanded up the peninsula, the Russians swept in and called it Dalniy, rubbing their chapped-red hands together as they gleefully surveyed the ice-free harbor. They laid the train tracks to frigid Harbin, linked the Trans-Siberian railway, and constructed the city square. Many of the old Russian buildings have been demolished or tackily refurbished and theme-park-ized into malls and apartment blocks; more rows of tall buildings to be filled with denizens shuttled in from the countryside to participate in the glorious Chinese future. The remaining touristic “Russia Street” consists of a rickety souvenir stand with Matryoshka dolls and plastic pistols set up on the street in front of even more dilapidated and weatherbeaten Victorian frontages. The Japanese came next and stayed for decades. Dalniy became Dairen. They left behind an affection for trams and a legacy of brutal massacre. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were turned to ash and the Russians returned, Soviet this time.
By the waterfront are more new empty buildings, a newly-constructed vacant wharf tourist/shopping complex. There is a monstrosity on the point that looks like a Swiss castle – via Disney, I guess. There is another castle: a hotel that takes up an entire isthmus, yet seems perpetually empty. The Sheraton is blocked off and crumbling in on itself. On the promenade the merry-go-round creakily spins while the white capped waves sink into the cold sand.
When the winter comes, the sky darkens like an oil monsoon, the smell too, coal heating smoke belching from myriad smokestacks. The AQI (Air Quality Index) reaches and pushes past 500; the index measures no higher, though by extrapolation the particulate numeral extends infinitely through my lungs and eventual human extinction. In my tall new apartment building the insulation is poor and the outside comes in. I tape a sheet of plastic over my windows and keep the curtains closed for months. Nonetheless a layer of soot covers the Ikea furniture. I rented the apartment furnished – with my feet perpetually twitching, I cannot bring myself to buy a bed or God forbid a sofa – from a young Chinese woman who lives in Shanghai, though Dalian is her hometown. Her taste in furnishings is conventionally attractive and terrifically unoriginal. A black fabric sofa flanked with black wooden end tables faces a wall filled with a massive black wooden entertainment center – in the gulf lies a black wooden coffee table – next to the end table there is a tall narrow silver floor lamp. I attempt to counteract the lifelessness with a raft of Walmart-purchased houseplants I fastidiously care for until my inevitable departure, when they will be bequeathed to another newcomer, also via WeChat. Hidden behind sheets of translucent air the sun has turned a sickly dull yellow.
According to Wikipedia, there are 185 Wanda Plazas throughout China. I am unsure how many there are in Dalian. Perhaps the city receives a special allowance, more than its allotted portion; it is the Dalian Wanda group – a real estate and entertainment global megacorp – after all. But there is little differentiation from the steamy window of a cramped bus and all malls (plazas) look the same. They are surrounded by tall new apartment complexes with empty new hot-pot restaurants on the ground floor, outside of which bored employees listlessly smoke. They house Western Big Box chain stores in the basement: Walmart, Carrefour, Tesco.
Taxis are cheap in Dalian, but I nonetheless opt for the bus when running my errands about town. It feels more inclusive somehow, pressed against a throng of my fellow travelers. Though it is a longer bus ride, I prefer CapitaMall Asia™ Peace Plaza to Wanda Plaza. The former has Zara, H&M, and Starbucks. There is a Subway sandwich shop in the basement. As an American, the basement Tesco is a novelty to me, though I generally buy my groceries closer to home.
A plastic Santa in the Walmart meat section plays saxophone in all seasons while lingering ladies harass my toothpaste or shaving cream or moisturizer selection. I don’t understand their entreaties or recommendations and run through the aisle sweeping sundry products into my cart, to pick through them later, unmolested, to find the right one. The workers in the Taiwanese dumpling chain where I often dine sit around a table in the middle of the empty restaurant and chat and eat and fold dumplings. I disturb their circle and point at my lunch, “Zhégé. Dàizou. Xiè xie.” The adjacent McDonalds is crowded with pudgy youngsters.
At some point, I get used to winter’s petroleum scent, get used to the thick air; no longer even notice, don’t bother with a mask. I start smoking cigarettes again. With my lungs already inundated, why not. Though the students are nice, the job is dull; my American supervisor is aggressive and demeaning. Outside of my D&D group I make few friends. I binge watch prestige TV. My Chinese language study is sporadic. At some point, I cannot enter the windowless underground of Tesco or Walmart without being levelled by a wave of despair. Rows upon rows of cheap consumer goods arranged under bars of fluorescence combine with life circumstance to overtake any attempts at self-care through regular exercise and yoga practice; my clothes smell like cigarettes, several tiles in my bathroom have freed themselves of their grout and fallen to shatter on the floor. My students are assigned research papers with the vague topic of “consumption” – not my idea – 99% are keenly supportive of the concept overall. I listlessly mark grammar.
When I finally tell my D&D group I am leaving, the Dungeon Master shrugs, “We’ll have to find a new player.” Our weekly host (Human Paladin) quickly moves on the conversation and my throat catches. When the time comes to say goodbye they present me with several gifts: a player’s handbook, a collection of dice and dice bag. We have a pizza party. My heart is warmed by this odd collection of misplaced men. From my next stop I check back on our chat group and am dismayed to see they have only played once or twice since my departure. I gather there has been some inner-group drama - the previous time we had lost a player was due to bruised feelings over a missed Thanksgiving Dinner invitation - they can be a sensitive bunch. I send a WeChat message encouraging them to resume play along with a gift of the latest official D&D text offering in PDF format, for inspiration. After a brief explosion of gratitude, the WeChat group again falls silent.
More than I would have supposed, I find myself missing the D&D guys. I even occasionally miss my life in Dalian. In the fleeting spring the trees on campus are at their most pleasant. Between classes I would sit outside and idly watch the yellow, blue, green. The Russian and African students would eat barbecue on the street, laughing and joking, the air smelling of cumin.
Erik Wennermark writes various prose in Tokyo, Japan. He previously spent one year in Dalian, and three in Hong Kong (if you consider that China). Find his short story collection Evil Men, novella The True Story of Yu Fen and other work online.