I am trying to read China. After a span of four years, with gaps, and I am still reading China. Understanding, comprehending will happen later. When do we read again, or re-read? When we do not understand, when it is difficult to comprehend. Someone wrote, “When we reread a book, we see more in ourselves, than in the book”.
China came by as a lesson (of life), which I didn’t choose, for me it is like a pre-determined curriculum book for grade 6. I read, I get scared, I run away from difficult chapters, I build some strength, I use some more will power, get back to my lessons, try to attempt a few puzzles, and am constantly terrified of failing. The fear settles deeper, this is one course I may not pass….
I moved to Shanghai in November 2004. Frozen by geographical disorientation, lack of confidence and chilly winds, I kept inside the house. Who can travel even a few miles without a pack of address cards in one’s bag? My initial response to all stimuli was to withdraw into isolation.
Basic interaction with the Chinese was so exhausting or frustrating, that I didn’t even keep an Aayi. What will I ask her to do? I might as well use my own muscles a bit, to kill time. We went for weekly grocery to Carrefour, which took hours to figure out products seemingly similar to home, yet not. We made lots of mistakes, tried to use some things because they cost money, and threw quite a few away, because they were totally unsuitable. We tried to eat out, sneaking to look at an agreeable plate on some other table, and point like a three year old, I want that! Most of the time, when it came to our table, it didn’t taste at all, as I thought it would. Weekdays, after sending my husband and son to work and school respectively, I turned inward with a pot of coffee, curled up in my blanket, read. Read the same magazines again, read the same books.
I read the Shanghai Daily, which almost reads itself daily. Bored, I turned to my diary, my old journal, and to little stories to entertain my little one. My journal looked sad. Fatigue was setting in, I slept, then got up, cleaned and cleared the house, had some more tea, then slept some more.
The need for daily necessities and a bit of exercise led me to the local wet market. After initial awkwardness with pointing out the vegetables and fruits, I chanced upon an agreeable vendor, who had a modern weighing scale and calculator for me. His cheeks were so chubby, that his already little eyes always seemed closed. He kept smiling (unlike others), and came after me holding plastic bags, so that I can just pick up and dump all the veggies I wanted. Then he would sort all, weigh each, calculate and write on a little paper, add up, smile widely and show me what to pay. I, of course, could not understand the names, just the numbers, and the final figure. No need to talk; it felt convenient to pay and walk out with my bulging bag. It went on this way. Another time, I entered the market, nearly choking while I passed the meat section, all those slaughtered animals hanging in frustration; and when I reached his counter, I couldn’t see him. Now what? I looked around again. Another vendor beckoned me warmly, you can come here, and then I heard shouts, shrieks, and saw him running up to me , smiling widely, his cheeks flushed, eyes closed. I figured out the boys were calling him out. I could feel these words, despite the alien the language – “Yo man! Your foreigner client is here! The mute girl! The one who pays without bargaining. Run for it you ass! What luck, you got a nice one there, huh!” How embarrassing! They all smiled at me, in a certain secretive way. Eve-teasing? It was extremely discomforting. For a few days after I didn’t want to go there. So the first task for my new Ayi was to buy fresh vegetables and fruits.
Physical and mental drain started affecting my health. I was despondent. My partner, in spite of his own adjustments with his new job assignment and busy travelling schedule, tried to keep me entertained and happy. I hate to admit for the first four months I was of no support to him. He encouraged me to join a Chinese language course. I was initially scared, but the staff at the school was warm, helpful, my teacher (Laoshi) a young beautifully dressed Chinese girl had a college degree in English. My classmates were a chatty Australian and a diligent German, who was struggling with her English as well. Besides lessons, Laoshi helped with urgent translations. We frequently convinced her to take our lessons at Starbucks. Three hour classes, twice a week, was the high point for the next few months. I do not remember a single time I went back with completed homework, many times not even attempted. Laoshi always forgave my excuses and patiently tried teaching me new techniques. Unbelievable! I had been a bright student all my life, and I turned in my homework/ assignments always on time, nicely done. It was embarrassing to realize that I could be a bad student. I had such a gripping fear, that I would not be able to learn. After four months, my progress was slow, compared to my classmates. We were to take a break and later rejoin for an advanced course to learn to read and write Chinese characters (Han Zi). , IN time , my Australian friend was to return to Melbourne, the German friend joined the University to study seriously, and I didn’t feel like starting the next level with a new group. Now with my supportive expat circle and survival Chinese, I confidently took a job, and that gave me an excuse to not go back for more lessons. However, the cacophony of my Chinese colleagues’ in the lunchroom and their indifference did make my life harder and the need to learn more important.
At times, we just decide to learn the hard way. I trudged on, continuing to read China, very slowly. I came to enjoy my job, travel within and outside China, the shopping experiences, night life and parties eventually forgetting the initial depression as I returned back to my bright self. I moved out of Shanghai, and am back in China after a gap of 2 years. I am trying to re-read China, and though I still see myself as a lazy, pathetic student, a slow learner, who struggles to retain the simplest details, I am like a tortoise, slow and, I hope steady.
Oh..Tortoise reminds me, my son was insistent on getting a pet. Allergies prevented the usual dog, cat or other furry creature and the thought of paperwork & trouble to transfer them into other countries scared us. A tortoise maybe? Feng shui tells us a tortoise slows down your life. I didn’t want to get any slower in my 30s, and I have no opinions or superstitions on such matters. After much thought we bought a lovely pair of turtles, Slider & Glider….