The worst part about being an expat was that our friends moved out of China every now and then. The saddest thing that happened to me was when two of my closest friends moved out of Suzhou within a week of each other. Donatella moved back to Italy. Anu moved back to Finland.
The two of them used to have these interminable arguments about the advantages and drawbacks of the European Union. It was like listening to delegates of two nations exchanging an interesting set of views. And we used to have these discussion over cups of coffee at my dining table with fantastic Italian cottage cheese cake and channa masala( spicy chick peas). Anu, whose name sounded very Indian but was actually Nordic, could finish half a kilo of channa masala on her own. In winters, we had these huge luscious strawberries which we could not stop munching.
And when it snowed in 2008 in Suzhou, it was another story. Suzhou had not seen the likes of such snow for more than fifty years, we were told. The highways were closed. There was not enough equipment to clear the snow. So, roads were closed. We frequented each other’s homes close by. Schools closed down. The children had snowy day holidays. They loved it. Donatella’s sons, Antonio and Leonardo, and Anu’s son, Kalegh, and daughter, Maya, and my kids made igloos and held snow wars with each other. They were joined by Bob. Bob’s American dad made a huge snowman. And his Chinese Mom, Heather, provided a huge orange carrot for a nose and charcoal for eyes. We contributed a streamer of tinsel for the scarf and Anu found an old cap. What a fancy snowman that was! My kids, who were seeing snow for the first time, learnt how to make the body and head of a snowman by rolling snow. The snow in Suzhou is very wet and slushy. We had to dry their boots and snow wear on the floor heating in our homes. The floors were heated by hot water pipes under the floor board.
If the floor heating used gas to warm the house and water, one could face issues in winter. China government rations gas in winters. So, if heating the house and hot water consumed the rationed gas, one fine day the family would wake up to a cold home with no hot water and no cooking gas. The government allowed extra gas only after a special application was made for it. But, the application had to be made especially and there would be a brief patch of discomfort.
Mind you, the majority of local population did not have access to air conditioning. My ayi (home help) told me that they would spend most of the time at home in winters under the quilt watching TV. I discovered Bollywood movies and Indian serials were very popular with the Chinese. They were all dubbed in mandarin. I, personally, do not much like Bollywood culture or the tedious family dramas, be they western or Indian.
Television programmes continued being an issue for foreigners in China. The legal TV only includes CTV (China Television) network. They have many channels with programs from all over the world, except it is all dubbed Chinese and edited by Chinese for the Chinese. So, most of us over the years didnot exactly take to it. There was only one bilingual channel. The rest of the programmes from foreign networks were relayed by very expensive dish antennas that intermittently worked and stopped working. One could do very less about it. This was a commodity that was not made for the common man.
The other issue was internet. International social media was not available easily throughout. Sometimes, even gmail or yahoo mail were difficult to access.We used VPN (Virtual Private Network) to access social media and, at times, gmail or yahoo mail. However, China did have Baidu (equivalent of Chinese Google/yahoo) and it’s own version of Facebook and Twitter… All in mandarin.
There was an intermittent market for illegal CDs churned out by the dozen. One CD could contain twenty movies. Occasionally, these shops cropped up. Eventually they were raided by the local authorities and were forced to close doors. In these stores, you could even pick up movies that were newly released in theatres! There was no concept of copyright among these traders.
I found it amazing how freely some of the locals could borrow and adapt from every culture. From scientific inventions to movies to handbags and Gucci suits … Everything could be had in China and made in China. A Prada handbag could cost anything from 50 to 5000 rmb. Vendors offered ‘Rolex’ watches from 10 to 10000 rmb openly at roadside cafes. They walked from table to table offering their wares. Copyright remains an official protocol enforced by government agencies.
Nationalism and copyright, two off shoots of the eighteen century Britain, have had two extreme opposite reactions among the locals.While nationalism was embraced and national pride is evident among many, communism had preached common property for the last fifty years. So, everything was treated as common.
Once the water hose from my garden ended up as common property and disappeared from my home. Another time, one of my garden chairs stepped out for a walk as in Edward Lear’s poem The Table and The Chair. It must have gone for a walk as my younger son, Surya, spotted the chair in the store room of the club house in our compound a few years after it absconded from our garage. It was in rather a derelict shape and we didnot think of reclaiming it. Lot of things, including skateboards, scooters and chairs that we expats had misplaced over the years and security guards had hunted in vain were in the store room of the club house, a common area. They had all come to life as the table and the chair did in Edward Lear’s poem and found their way at the end to the store room, where the life force had quit their inanimate forms. All these properties had been shared in common. However, my missing garden hose was not there.
I must say this that nothing big or expensive ever went missing from my household. Some of the workforce that came in to service the homes in the gated community just helped themselves to what they needed, like the hose or the chair that went missing from my garage. Now, with the exposure from a more consumerist world, sometimes there are reports of thefts of laptops and cash. One of my ayis once told me that no one locked doors in China even forty years ago as there was no concept of theft and, in my opinion, privacy.
Privacy is a concept that has been totally wiped out there. Sometimes, foreigners like us, suffer from lack of privacy in China, be it in changing rooms or in public toilets. I remember the concept of common property is so strong in China that I had people wandering into my garden through the hedges to admire my koi fishes or flowers. Occasionally, they would help themselves to flowers, plants, oranges and beans that grew in my garden. I tried to chase them out. I called in the security but that made me feel like the selfish giant from Oscar Wilde’s stories, the guy who chased children out of his beautiful garden. However, I was forced to act the selfish giant as I found that some of them threw cigarette stubs or spat into my garden!
Expats of the older school were more tolerant than newcomers who often felt offended at the attention meted out to them by the locals. And this seemed to increase with the passage of years. Some of the women were fairly vocal about it at expat gatherings.
People who came in just before we left had a different outlook. They had come to China, the affluent country, to make millions and create empires. People who went in earlier approached the country with a sense of adventure. We wanted to explore the world, not just make a living.
Travelling through China had been a dream I had since university. I was always intrigued by the walls that cut off the rest of the world from China till the opening up in the nineteen eighties. I loved Pearl S Buck’s novels and the shroud of secrecy that seemed to protect the country from any external intrusion. It was like a mystery waiting to unfold, like a good thriller…