Disclaimer: not mine
It's like nothing else on this earth to be a Nation. Nothing you know of, anyway - you're so old, and yet amongst them, you are unspeakably young. Egypt is almost four thousand years old, Iraq is around six (when he decides to count those pre-history years, which he sometimes doesn't, the vain bastard). And you're, what, going on three hundred?
England, dear old sometimes-friend and family, encourages you and your endeavors with a smile that sits just patiently at times, disapprovingly at others, as if your ambitions were a child's optimistic fancy. Canada's younger than you are, and you're great friends, pressed alongside each other like that - you wonder if he has to deal with this sort of thing too, the dismissive advocacy, the indulgence. You haven't had a good chat with Canada in a while now; sure, you have your semi-centurial thing, but you haven't properly spoken since – what was it, 1925? 1937?
It's not exactly easy to be a Nation personified - for one thing, you're just that: the Nation. Older than the people you encompass will ever be, knowing them from before their conception to their putrefaction beneath the earth and yet never the same between one moment and the next. Every one of them changes and you change with them - their habits, their views, their manifest destinies. It's all you can do to keep yourself pulled together sometimes - you know Italy's still got some serious schizophrenia going on from those two hundred or so years he was split down the middle; Germany's getting better, Korea's a mess. You're still stinging yourself from that laughable paper cut you insist constitutes a civil war - your European cousins scoff at you - four years and you think that's a civil war? But you can still feel it, rending you like a pair of horse carts (Or don't they use those anymore? Model-Ts? Toyotas?) pulling you in opposite directions.
And it's not like you can talk to the State about this sort of thing; don't know if it knows you exist sometimes, the pedantic paper pusher. Doesn't it know you're the one constant it's got to count on? Doesn't it know that you've been here markedly longer than it has, that you'll be here even after time crumbles its precious documents, its secret dossiers? You can still remember its birth, the uneven tear along your seam as it pulled away from old England and you stood by and bled for it. It was fifty years before you defined yourself clearly again, became something distinctly different and yet resoundingly the same as you'd always been. You'll still be there, centuries from now, a different temperament, a different form, part of something bigger or smaller - as long as there were people who call themselves by your name, you'd be there.
"The tea is here, America. You shouldn't spend so much time with your thoughts lost in the clouds; it will upset your appetite." China's ancient face is deceptively smooth. He's somewhat relaxed his attire for your visit; it's not a formal one, but it's not entirely social either – nothing between Nations ever is. You feel gawkily underdressed in your faded jeans and colorful t-shirt, fumbling with your tea in its small, bowl-shaped cup while China sits across from you, careful and peculiarly weary in his worn, high collared shirt and loose trousers.
(You remember a time when you were good with tea, exacting and precise with it's preparation and consumption, but that was a long time ago, back when you still sat at England's table and crushed his flavorless 'biscuits' into the bottom of your cup when he wasn't looking.)
"You're looking well," China says at last, his voice quiet but carrying over the racket and clamor of the Jiangxi alleyway behind him. Your waitress comes over and perfunctorily checks the water level in your teapot. You try to smile at her and notice that China doesn't even bother; you understand why when the girl hardly looks at either of you as she plucks the pot from your table and goes to refill it with the slightly greasy water from the heater inside.
"I'm sorry we had to meet in such a second-rate shop," China says conversationally as your waitress returns with your tea and a small dish of pickled vegetables. "It is exceedingly hard to find a good place so close to the New Year." Like most things China says, you can hear the neatly enveloped insinuation behind it: You should have given me more notice; it is inconvenient for you to just drop by like this; I can't possibly be a good host if you are such a terrible guest.
You smile reassuringly at him, though you know it'll make little difference. "It's a neat little shop, China. Very rustic. I quite like it, actually." You can't help but notice how the people who walk past your table don't even spare you a glance, although you are deep into the heart of the country and they should not be used to foreigners here. It is never comfortable for one Nation to step into the house of another one, even in relatively cordial visits like this; there is always that feeling that you are at your host's mercy, while at the same time, you find yourself picking up bits and pieces you didn't have when you walked in: the waitress has brought a basket of steamed dumplings now, and you're just slightly disturbed by how much easier it comes to you to pick them up with your chopsticks and pop them into your mouth.
China plucks absently at his food. "Of course," he replies agreeably. You get the feeling he's humoring you, but remind yourself he and his Asian siblings are just like that – it's just how they are and has nothing to do with that indistinctly smug condescension France treats you with, or the vaguely aggressive geniality that strains Russia's tone. China is formal, stiffly affable, and almost refreshingly direct in comparison to the elaborate, stylized politeness Japan offers when you visit: "Was there something you wanted to talk about?" China's fingers leave dusty marks on his teacup when he relinquishes it; despite his smooth nails and even skin, his hands aren't quite as clean as they were when you first met, back in 1800; his fingers not so soft.
"Huh. Yeah," you say, fishing around the bottom of your bowl for that stubborn bit of bamboo shoot you can't quite pick up. Give it five minutes. "Actually." China waits with a mild expression on his face for you to continue. Something about the way he sets his eyebrows reminds you of the way England used to look at you when you spent more time at his house than you did your own – it propels you to your previous, wandering train of thought. "Do you ever wonder if it's us, the Nations, who change and cause our people to change, or if it's the other way around?" you blurt. China blinks a bit, and you realize that he's probably not the best partner to be engaging in conversation of this philosophical sort – it's improprietous, for one; he's so infinitely older than you, for another.
"I'm not sure what you mean," he replies slowly. He's efficiently cleared his plate and lined his chopsticks parallel across it. "We are one in the same, Nations and their people. We change because we are them, as much as they are us."
"Yes," you persist, ignoring the cautioning voice in your head that warns this is not a topic to press in polite conversation. "But we're not the same thing, are we? I mean, I can't remember—" you swallow, your mouth going dry even though you feel no real excitement in this, no real panic "—I mean, our people are so different, just within us. If we are them and they are us, then which them is that? I can go between my coasts and pick up dozens of tiny, regional differences and yet still recognize every voice and face I see – they are all part of me, but I can't possibly be the complete sum of their parts because –" China stares at you, eyes wide and terribly incurious. You pick your way along the side of the street, between street vendors selling dusty vegetables and counterfeit wares, dodging bike traffic and trash pickers, alleycats and whiskers. You feel something sink in the pit of your stomach, not entirely sure what it is. "You know what I mean?"
China nods, his eyes slitting across his face. "We are ourselves, America," he says gently. "We function dependently, as a reflection of our people, and by no means do we reflect all of them, all at once. We hold them here." China makes a tiny gesture with his roughed fingertips. "We hold their present and past, and heaven allow, their future. But what we show in our forms and faces is indeed a collection of all of that." China moves his hands again and you suddenly feel – vividly – the scar across your belly, the ugly wound on your right shoulder that still bleeds and aches. "It is a law of averages," he continues. "You will change with them, but some of you will never change, or heal."
You suddenly take in the whole of China's condition, his darkened skin and tired expression, the dirt beneath his fingernails and his strange cobbled outfit of cloth shoes and military hat. "You're changing too," you exclaim, completely inelegant. "What are your people doing to you, this isn't –"
"It is not my position to question what is and what isn't, America," China says with equal measures of resignation, patience, and severity. "It is not yours to interfere. These are my people's decisions, and I will let them make them." He adjusts his hat, pulls a trendy, narrow-sleeved coat over his outdated shirt and says to you with an air of finality, "So will you."
He inclines his head with a slight bend in his back. "I've enjoyed your visit, America. I hope you'll come by again sometime soon."
"Yeah," you say, clumsily bending forwards in an awkward mimic. "Yeah, it was fun."
China nods and steps down from the curb, slipping into the churning masses of his people with an anachronistic grace and poise. A rusted truck blares its horn and people jump and scramble out of its way, shouting profanity at the driver who shouts indecencies back. You watch as China continues his course, resolute and unwavering, into the truck's bumbling path and disappearing like dispersed shadows as the traffic sails on by, completely at home.