I feel like a bit of a traitor just taking off and leaving you like that but rest assured, while I’ve reached out to greener (fresher) pastures, you will not be forgotten.
I want to thank you for taking me into your arms two and a half years ago when I was wide eyed and let’s face it, more than a little petrified as I stood in the rain, peering up at your famous 1300 year old Pagoda, opposite our new home (the hotel), trying to understand its significance.
Your world looked anything but familiar to me, and that was (surprisingly) despite having lived in the oriental harbour city of Hong Kong for four years.
I smiled through clenched teeth and fought back tears as I tried to stay calm for my excited but nervous three and a half year old, who was yet to comprehend why her old world had been replaced by this new, raw version of the Orient.
Back then it felt like English was rarely spoken, even in the confines of the hotel, a conversation was, at best, challenging. I remember finding that one single foreigner working there and clinging to his words like bees to honey.
Outside of the hotel bubble, those early months felt like I was treading water, desperately trying to stay afloat. Routine was everything, yet we had none. A trip to two “international” schools set up for those few expats in town and wealthy Chinese had me anxious when I learned five full days in class was the norm for my Small Person, one of the few Westerners on the block.
A trip to my local hairdresser for an attempt at colouring my blonde hair had me in tears. Not because I’m vain (ok, maybe a little) but because it was then I realised I was completely alone and had no clue how to communicate my thoughts to a group of people looking at me like I really was an alien.
Our first visa run had me in shock as we were shoved this way and that, poked and prodded in full view of a very inquisitive audience.
A bizarre visit to the local doctor who asked me for advice on which drugs I needed and then wanted a photo together!
It was all indicative of everything we attempted to do in a bid to set up a life in China, in those early days.
Back then, I didn’t realise that while you boast the world’s second biggest economy and churn out much of the world’s goods not to mention the world’s most travellers ….. essentially much of you is still developing, still learning and still adapting to life in the 21st Century.
I soon found out that you are a nation full of contradictions.
Xi’an may have been your capital for 13 dynasties, but her lack of exposure to the modern world meant for the most part, you were still learning much of what the Western world had already conquered.
I learned that despite how far you’ve come, authoritarian rule is still your preferred mode of governing. Censorship is par for the course. A quick Google soon confirmed that, as did watching my television go to black regularly, simply because it was something your government wanted to shield us from.
Controls over things that involve people’s safety and livelihoods though seem minimal.
Smoking is still in force like it’s the 1970’s… when it comes to the roads, rules are few and far between and riding motorbikes without a helmet, with phone and at least three or four passengers (including children) is completely normal.
Pollution during those winter months is literally off the radar, at least north of the Yangtze River.
When you walk outside and it smells and tastes like an incinerator and pollution levels are ’20 times’ the healthy limit, you have no choice but to shrug, put your mask on and get on with it — as much as your head tells you, it’s a ludicrous way to live (and some locals will tell you to “go for a run, it’ll strengthen your lungs”)!
I’ve learned to strategically avoid those small wet patches of spit that litter the ground; and not to bat an eyelid when I see small (and big people) relieving themselves, mid squat in the middle of a busy footpath.
Fast forward almost three years and like a toddler emerging into childhood, I can appreciate you’re changing and developing at a rapid pace, perhaps unparalleled in world history.
English doesn’t seem as hard to come by, both spoken and written… but perhaps that’s just because I’ve added a little bit of my own Chinese into the mix to help with our communication. Those things that seemed incredibly hard are still incredibly hard, but perhaps our indifference or constant exposure to it, has made it all the more bearable.
They are now just “China moments.”
A city of nine million that had very few restaurants and bars outside those local watering holes overflowing with spicy noodles and bbq skewers now has an abundance of new hotspots of every flavour on every corner.
There is an element of the West weaving its way into society, rightly or wrongly and the nouveau riche are dividing classes like never before.
Despite the hairdresser telling me I’ve got “farmers hands” one day and am a little “alien” like the next, as he rifles through my shopping bags to see “what she buys”, we have become firm friends. That day I cried, clearly still etched firmly in his mind he tells me, as he bids Small Person and I farewell with bear hugs and promises to visit Australia.
Those hairy car rides to school no longer have me in a state of shock…. Frank (the driver) and I have settled into a comfortable daily routine. Every morning, come rain, hail, shine (or snow) he waits downstairs, standing at the car door, ready to greet us with a smiley “Zao Shang Hao” (Good Morning), helps to buckle Small Person in as she squirms and fidgets, and off we roar into the morning chaos…
Despite never having spoken a word of English bar “Ok” – he quite possibly knows more about us and vice versa than either party would care to. We know he likes to put on the morning talkback shows in Chinese while he fiddles with his beads all the way to school, weaving in and out of tuk tuks, two wheelers, and overcrowded busses, beeping the horn with gusto.
We know that after dropping us off, he’ll usually sneak in a cigarette at the bus stop until he sees me coming back and then does a six point turn in the middle of a crowded school street – traffic banks up, while I wait awkwardly at the side of the road, pretending it’s all completely normal. And it is.
We have reached an ‘unspoken understanding’ and perhaps an appreciation of each other. That’s evident when my girl draws him a goodbye picture and we give him some new beads.
Then there’s the security guards at the school gate that greet me with a big hello and goodbye every day, proudly in their few English words… and once in an unexpected downpour, run out to the car with me holding an umbrella over my head…yet still won’t let me inside the school gates unless my I.D is hanging around my neck.
My last week in China was no different to the entire two and a half years… unpredictable and challenging! If nothing else China, you are consistent in that nothing is ever straightforward!
A book interview with an American-English teacher in the north of the city; a lunch with school mums from China, America and Brazil at a kitsch Chinese restaurant, overflowing with statues, local red wine, a warm drink made from dates, Peking Duck and spicy noodles. All followed by a twenty minute wait in zero temperatures (outside the school gate) and then a regular school pick up that unexpectedly becomes the end of the school term, closing abruptly due to extreme pollution levels! This also unexpectedly makes it my Small Person’s last day, ever, so I’m forever grateful her teacher has the foresight to run out at the eleventh hour and get her a goodbye cake!
Then a farewell night out that ended at a “Gentleman’s Club” which isn’t as risqué as you might think!
Curious to see what it was all about…we enter the shiny, new establishment (one of many that has sprung up in our local neighbourhood) all in the name of checking out the “competition!” Chandeliers, leather sofas and karaoke (China’s other love). In the spirit of a ‘proper’ Chinese night out, we find ourselves agreeing to hit up the microphone with a few tunes. A dozen beers are delivered and then… as an added bonus, we’re treated to a line up of suitable men of all ‘shapes and sizes’ to choose from (including the token ‘foreigner’ who hails from Kazakstan)!! All for ‘company’ we’re told…or as we soon find out in between giggles, a university student to sit amongst our group, make strained conversation, drink our beer, smoke cigarettes and sing the odd Chinese pop song!
China, you will forever have me bamboozled by your extremes – from the overwhelming poverty that envelopes you, to the ever-increasing number of Rolls Royces cruising the streets; to the intense effort given to academic education yet lack of life guidance; to the seemingly selfish public acts yet incredible acts of kindness, to the strict censorship but overly flexible road rules; the human trafficking and domestic violence but feeling of peace and safety on the streets, to the emphasis on Guanxi (networking) and family but the inability to lose face…and those layers upon layers of ‘bureaucracy!’
China, both your complex and simple personality traits have made it possible for me to love you, yet loathe you – all in the same breath.
But just as you’re changing, I hope that I am too. Still fresh out of your grip, it’s too soon to tell how you’ve changed me. Only time will tell.
One thing’s for sure, you’ve taught me to be more open and tolerant and definitely not to sweat the small stuff.
I’ve learned that trying to understand cultural differences, nuances and a country’s history is not always easy but it is the key to understanding a nation and every thread that intertwines to makes up the fabric of your society is to be appreciated.
Your spirit and strength in overcoming a recent history of oppression and poverty is admirable.
As different as China can at times seem from the world in which we know, and as much as that old mantra, ‘survival of the fittest’ still rings true for many of you….there is no mistaking, you have a nation of people only too willing to show an outsider kindness.
And that for me, has counted for a lot.
(If only someone had told us what’s in the tap water sooner!) 😉
It’s not goodbye, it’s see you later!
This is China …. and you’ve stolen a little piece of my heart.