It’s 9am, I’ve dropped the small person at school and I’ve picked up my good friend and ‘fan yi’ (translator)…
When I say “I” — y’all know by now, I’m not actually driving, right?
I think we’ve established that driving in China, for a foreigner like me, would be particularly hazardous on all fronts!
So, it’s our hotel driver who battles through the elements for us: rain, bumper to bumper traffic in the shape of vehicles big and small – a symphony of horns and random street walkers – to an area of town I haven’t been in before.
We’re meeting ‘Elsa’ who so far, I’ve only encountered via text message.
I’ve got absolutely no idea what to expect, but the element of surprise is something I’ve become rather accustomed to in China.
In the name of ‘book research’ I asked around about interviewing some of the older locals. The ones who’ve really experienced the ‘changing China’ in all its glory: the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful!
Through various contacts, 93 year old War Veteran Wang Shao Wu is put to me as a potential interviewee. I politely ask Elsa whether he’s a good talker and how well he can hear. She assures me, he is old but he’s smart and can talk under water!
How can a girl say no?
Elsa suggests I bring something small from my home country as a gift! Ahhh now you’ve got me… I scrounge around the house looking for stuffed koalas and Tim Tams, to no avail, making a mental note to bring back Aussie souvenirs! Think about stealing small person’s stuffed toys but know it will potentially invoke world war three.
Decide it will have to be a combination of chocolates from Scotland and jam from Portugal… yeh.. I know…… Well I do hail from a Scottish clan!
And then fruits! The mighty fruit platter is one of the most prestigious things you can take to a person’s home in China! Forget about wine and flowers. Fruits will automatically elevate you to elite visitor status.
Arriving…in a slightly ramshackle part of town outside several blocks of apartments, Elsa informs me she’s running very late but we could meet some other “friends” there who will escort us in.
I’m not sure just how many people are coming to take part, but it seems we’ll have an audience.
Standing outside we are confronted by a couple of people wielding cameras who smile and look like our guys! They take us through some gates past a few people sleeping, we jump in a rickety old lift and arrive outside the ubiquitous red door…the entrance to their home.
Mr Wang and his wife greet us with open arms and big smiles. Of course, a loud cacophony of voices erupts at once, everyone speaking rapidly in Chinese. All I can do is smile, nod enthusiastically and offer my ‘fruits’.
In what is a typical Chinese home, it’s a simple three bedroom apartment. I find myself scouring the room, trying to soak in a life time of living! So many little things that make up this family’s home or as he later tells me, his “mansion!” Even though things are worn, cabinets broken, boxes double as shelves, trinkets and bits and pieces occupy every nook and cranny, this is clearly a home filled with love (lots of plants and a few bottles of Baijiu in the corner)!
We’re ushered onto a big, old, brown leather couch, ripped in places…but decidedly comfy. It’s clearly the centrepiece of the house – a coffee table sits adjacent, laden with bowls of sunflower seeds and of course the fruits and never ending glasses of warm tea.
Mr Wang keeps touching my shoulder and smiling. I can’t help but reciprocate….his demeanour is charming and friendly and language is no barrier.
I’m told again and again he’s extremely honoured to have us in his house, to which I obviously reply, it’s definitely the other way around.
He disappears for a few minutes while we are getting organised and reappears – his medals pinned proudly on his chest.
We sit down – me sandwiched between him and his wife….87 year old Nai Nai, as she’s affectionately called, which means grandmother in English. She keeps putting her hand on my knee.
Nai Nai keeps asking if I’m cold. I’m sleeveless and she’s concerned. It’s 30 degrees out though and there’s no air-conditioning in the apartment. I reassure her I’m just fine.
I set my phone to record and we’re away. (So much easier than a television interview!) Chao who has the arduous task of translating explains what we are hoping to talk about and it was as if the starter gun had fired and he was off… Elsa was right.
There was no stopping him, literally.
Born in 1924 this is a man who has seen China transform through the ages. A man who went to war against Japan in 1939 when he was just 15 years old. It was a time when China was on the brink of collapse.
He passionately tells us how he had just one pair of shoes made from straw and that when he joined the army, he was given the choice of a blanket or a big overcoat. He proudly tells us he chose the overcoat believing he could wear it during the day and use it as a blanket at night. Bonus!
He chokes up, telling me it was a time when Chinese people were afraid of nothing, so tough, united and determined to protect their country.
Winters in north west China are brutal to say the least, and his time as a soldier was cut short when he got frostbite… unable to keep marching, the local villagers kindly gave him a donkey to ride to the next post.
Then…. in what catches us all by surprise, he tells us how he went on to become a ‘singer’ in the army…. singing Qing Opera…one of China’s most popular forms of drama and music theatre that stems back more than a thousand years. At the time it was seen as a powerful tool in building cultural nationalism.
He became part of a special army unit performing around the country for the troops in a bid to inspire them.
In 1943, he was dismissed and it was time to return to normal life; that meant working in China’s famous Salt Bureau.
By now… Ye Ye (Grandpa) is on a roll… so I leave him and Chao to ‘talk turkey’ in mandarin.
I ask Nai Nai what she thinks the secret to a successful marriage is. After all she’s clocked up 60 years. On cue, she digs out some old photos and says it’s being kind, tolerant…and not quarrelling. She tells me that he was poor when she met him and her family didn’t agree on the marriage, but she married him anyway. (Extremely progressive, I think, in a society that still places great emphasis on parental approval!)
And the secret to longevity?…Having your children around, she says matter of factly. In fact, I find out one of her grandsons and his wife and five year old child – their great grandchild – also live in this tiny apartment with them.
I think to myself — along with people like Wang Shao Wu, family is the backbone of China. Whilst their grandchildren have enough money to buy their own house, they choose to stay with Nai Nai and Ye Ye and look after them. In China there still aren’t many retirement homes.
It’s expected your children will look after you in old age.
At 87 she says she tells me, she still tries her best to cook breakfast for her family everyday. I’m impressed!
I ask Wang about the Cultural Revolution in the sixties and seventies under Chairman Mao Zedong, he tells me how he was persecuted but he understands why it happened and that it was “for the good of China.”
I ask him about China opening up its economy to the world for the first time in 1980, was it a good decision? He believes it’s improved the image of the country and people’s lives greatly! He tells me that before this they would only eat meat once a year. “Food was rationed. Now China is getting better and better. His children have been to university, and they live in this great mansion,” he says….gesturing happily around him. He tells me before 1979, eight family members lived in a 12 square metre straw house.
At the time of our interview China is hosting the G20 summit for the first time in history. He’s elated.
Ultimately, he says, he fought for his country to be what it is today!
In his eyes, China stands strong, a stoic symbol of 5000 years of tradition and culture.
He’s recently had his story recorded in a book on the last of the Chinese soldiers and he proudly asks if I would like a copy. I would be honoured, I say. His hands shaking, he takes great care writing my name in Chinese characters.
He wishes me all the best in life and good health and wishes my country prosperity and happiness.
This is China.