Being an expat in Shanghai, Suzhou, or Nanjing comes with varying degrees of anonymity. The foreign communities in those places are large enough where a person could relatively fade into the background. This is clearly not the case in smaller towns like Liyang, Yixing, or Changshu; members of those communities all likely know each other. As for more medium-sized cities like Changzhou, the answer is somewhere between those ends of the spectrum.
I have heard more than a few people accuse Changzhou of being clique-ish. That there are actually multiple small communities or circles, and they largely do not interact with each other. For instance, the Germans allegedly all band together, as do the English teachers. The Russians are … very Russian. Certain bars represent community centers for certain expat circles. There may be a grain of truth there, but it’s still not altogether accurate. The reality is actually closer to the silly game of The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
Well, this begs the question of what actually is The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon? I’d wager a lot of Americans know this, but for non-Americans and non-Canadians, some explaining may be in order. Kevin Bacon is a very talented, very prolific actor and has been one for decades. The idea here is that you can connect Kevin Bacon to just about any other English-speaking actor by looking who his co-stars are and what other projects those coworkers were involved in. The game posits that you can connect Bacon to any other celebrity in up to six projects. Ala: “Bacon stared in this project with ACTRESS, who went on to make a movie with BlahBlah ACTOR, who collaborated with SO-IN-SO. It’s a way of drawing a very tenuous line of connections. Also, it’s like a parlor game that cinephiles and movie nerds play, and Kevin Bacon himself was horrified by this at first.
However, this very silly game is also a very apt way of describing an expat community in a medium-sized Chinese city like Changzhou. Everybody definitively doesn’t know each other, but you can play the Six Degrees game with any foreigner and draw a line through mutual connections to somebody else. I actually got to thinking about his while eating at a private Brazilian BBQ event in Wujin.
This event was held at Kaffa, which is normally a purveyor of Indian cuisine. It’s next to Xintiandi Park in Hutang.
I had never actually had Brazilian BBQ before, and so this was a highly educational and eye opening experience when it comes to food.
This type of BBQ seems to rely heavy on beef, sausage, and salt. Dear lord, salt is dumped on everything before it hits the grill. Even afterwards. The salt makes a lot of sense if you consider the very hot climate of Brazil and the need to actually keep the grilled items from spoiling after cooking. Me? I really don’t mind salty meat; in fact, I love it, as that’s a big part of brined and cured cold cuts you can find in Jewish delis back in New York, Philadelphia, and New Jersey. In short, I was absolutely loving the food these Brazilians were introducing to me. But to be honest, something else was on my mind.
In Changzhou, I am very well known to be an antisocial person. This is not because I hate people or think I am better than them. It’s just a defect of my personality — I can’t work or glad-hand a room, and I will not, to be honest. And while I was very happy to be munching on cuts of steak while sipping beer, I realized that I hardly knew anybody in this crowd with the exception of maybe three to four people. I kind-of forced myself to be a bit more social, and I was grateful that I did so.
My closest friend got me into this private event as her plus-one. However, looking around the alien-to-me crowd, I did notice some familiar faces. That got me to thinking. Yes, I didn’t know the majority of the people there, but I knew people who knew other people — hence the Six Degrees of Expat Separation in a place like Changzhou. It’s another reason while I still like living here, after all these years. It’s not the anonymous rat race of a place like Shanghai, and it’s not a tiny microcosm like what you’d find in Yixing or Changshu. Changzhou is someplace in between. You may not know everybody in town, but you are likely connected by mutual friends who know other mutual friends.
As for the Brazillian BBQ at Kaffa, maybe I have enlarged my social circle by a little? Those are some good people who enjoy good food. I look forward having a chance to sharing steak, sausage, and beer again with them soon.