editor’s note: this is the first installment in an ongoing series of anonymous confessions of life in Ningbo. this city can be a great place filled with many stories. if you have one you’d like to share anonymously with us, we’d love to hear it. we maintain editorial consent over everything, so that means we’re not going to publish anything “sensitive” or anything content we deem needlessly offensive, racist, sexist or in any other way intolerant.
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What is it like being single in Ningbo, China? It’s a cesspit.
If you spot a good looking foreigner wandering Tianyi Square, there’s probably only one or two degrees of separation between you and him and n-1 between you and his penis. This unsurprisingly only applies if you’re foreign and female. If you’re a local you’re probably swimming in it. Drowning in it. Please drown in it. But the degree goes from n-1 to 1. That’s right, you’ve already slept with him. You just can’t remember because all foreigners look the same.
Ningbo’s a small town for such a big city. If you happen to meet someone you like, first off, congratulations. You’ll soon find out why they’re really here and it will either be because they’re running away from something, China in their eyes is a giant juicy dumpling made of sexually-repressed Chinese girls and opportunities to make mad money, they’re aimless ambition-less hippies ‘teaching’ English and ‘seeing the world’ or they’re students. And probably one of the other things too. Secondly, you would do well to adhere to a tier system when it comes to date locations. Going for a quiet drink? Haven’t decided how much you like them or how much Chinglish you can stomach? Take them somewhere obscure that happens to sell alcohol. The next tier is Jiangdong’s Portman plaza area where you have your choice of bars but can avoid the crowds. If they’ve scraped through the buy-me-dinner-and-I’ll-make-you-breakfast phase, then you can take them to Laowaitan. But know that the minute you do, the rumour mill will be a buzz with Ningbo’s residents adjusting their mental map of the city’s sexual network.
My own relationship history in Ningbo is so ridiculous that people have told me my life should be made into a sitcom. Except then the whole world would be laughing at me not with me instead of just the half dozen friends I confide in. For a good while it looked as though I was going for twelve month-long relationships in a year but it’s just that the space between one-night stands and serious relationships has a great deal of gravity here. If a one-night stand isn’t completely awful, then you’re both aware that the odds are definitely not in your favour of finding this again so you’re likely to hit repeat and then it’s a two-night stand, then it’s double-digits and suddenly you actually know their name, have them on WeChat and are messaging them outside the hours of 11pm-5am.
But it’s hard to get to the other side of the spectrum which is a fully-fledged relationship because they’re leaving. You’re leaving. Next week, next month, next year, it doesn’t really matter. Nobody likes an expiry date so back you float into the friends-with-benefits, open-relationship status. If I had a dollar for every time I’d heard the phrase, “I really like you but I’m leaving” then I’d have, well, something close to twelve dollars. I bought that t-shirt. Then I wore it too many times, got angry, tore the sleeves off and now I’m using it as a rag to inhale alkyl nitrites through, alone in my room.
It has, however, been a curious insight into eminent departure’s affect on relationships. Americans seem to retreat and overdramatise everything, citing you as a possible obstacle to their painfully optimistic hopes and dreams. They make mountains out of the same bloody molehill that everyone in this place is climbing. Europeans tend to be more open to the idea of an easy out, because a steamy summer romance with an inevitable but blameless end date sounds like the easiest way to not have to break up with someone ever. Enjoy the time you have with someone even if it’s temporary because you have crazy chemistry together and it’s a small world and after China, you realise most countries are pretty small. You can have a capsule-relationship. You get all the best bits like the honeymoon period, the hand-holding and the sexathons until your genitals are blisters and avoid all the bad stuff. You never have to worry about getting bored of them, the niggling personality traits you love becoming toxic and annoying the hell out of you, the pressure of meeting the family or anything to do with the terrifying abyss that is the future. It’s got a goddamn bow on it.
In this city, if you’ve either managed to find someone who doesn’t have history with someone you know or you’ve mastered the art of jamming your fingers in your ears and humming every time someone says the word ‘ex’ then you deserve a fucking medal. Because everyone is someone’s ex but in Ningbo that person is probably a friend of yours.
I’ve learnt about people in a way I didn’t expect to here. I’ve had first impressions flipped so hard on their head that I don’t completely trust my instincts anymore. I’m having to reassess my own judgement, which for the most part hasn’t been challenged in twenty-three years because people are disposable when everyone speaks the same language. I’ve had mediocre sex with tens and fallen hard for sixes. I’ve been surprised by colossal chemistry and done things I wouldn’t have thought I could. Friends have stumbled over the line into something great, sometimes something awful and often something you can’t come back from. Dates that are actual dates and make me feel like an adult. They blow up. They fade out. And sometimes you learn that sharing a language isn’t enough and cultural differences are bigger than you anticipated. Or they’re just a twat.
I’ve been on the receiving end of some great one-liners in Ningbo. I mean, gut-wrenchingly heartbreaking at the time but funny in hindsight. “I’d really like to get to know you but I’m about to go to prison for two months.” “I got too attached to you and didn’t know what to do.” “What we did was the biggest mistake of my life.” “I knew who I was until you came along.” “I’ve decided to stay with my girlfriend.” “I’ve decided to stay with my boyfriend.” “I’m in love with you and I hate you.” “You’re my first Asian. Right?”
I’ve assaulted two people for kissing me even though I wanted them to. It’s been a pretty crazy year. Broken glasses, broken hearts, one-nighters, all-nighters, a lot of genuinely awful decisions and the kind of stories that you can only tell people you’ve either known your whole life or are never going to see again.
It’s a stupid, introverted, incestuous fucking city full of weirdos but I’m actually really going to miss it.