Leaving China

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Chapter 4

One of the things I really wanted to see and saw only a glimpse of at Luoyang was the Huang He river. I had read about the Huang He in my teens and then in Coleridge’s poem, Xanadu. He called his river Alph…I have always wondered if it were the famed Yellow river…after all the poem had been penned while he was reading an account of China and fell asleep under the spell of opium…and then he spew out some of the most fabulous lines of poetry, immortalizing himself in the endeavour…

And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever

It flung up momently the sacred river.

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion

Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,

Then reached the caverns measureless to man,

And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;

The yellow river with it’s antique roots in the Tibetan plateau and gushing waters near Xian, the legendary cradle of the Chinese civilisation, was calm in Luoyang. It has been dammed by the government so that it ceases to bring sorrow to China. The Huang He has changed it’s course many times and flooded the lands within it’s reach much too often in the past. Now it has been harnessed to serve the needs of mankind. The river we saw is actually yellow and vast! We crossed the river on a suspension bridge. The bridge was red and broad and swayed as we walked! It was a long walk we had to take to reach the bridge. Sometimes, the river would disappear behind the walls that held it in place. But, what I found most fascinating during my walk to the Huang He were these tiny spotted red and black beetles that line the pathway. The beetles were unique and flat and did all kinds of gymnastics! They were fascinating to watch and I would have stopped for longer if my threesome had not urged me to move on as we had only limited time.

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The driver that took us around Luoyang dropped us at one end of the Huang He complex. He said he would wait at the opposite entrance for us so that we had a good tour of the whole area.  And I had thought we would have a stroll by the breezy river and maybe, there would be a bench where I could sit and gaze at the golden Huang He. Instead, we were back to hiking! We had to walk along the dam, cross the valley behind it, come out near the red bridge, cross over and walk some more to get to the other end, where our transport awaited us. Quite a walk, especially after the  Longmen Grottoes in the morning.

In China, one of the things that always fascinated me were the huge spaces that were given to everything. It was as if everything was big, even insects and beetles!

The distances were also big. But the people were tiny and slim. And the paintings and embroideries were also fragile and dainty…like the little embroidery of the cherry blossom that sits perched in my drawing room in Singapore. It was given to me by Heidi, the friend who filled into the gap left by Donatella and Anu. She came just after they left and we had a lot of fun together. The thing that brought us closer together was was we both saw the world as our home, borderless, beautiful and inviting. We had both lived out of our countries of birth for more than two decades, had our children where we resided. In her family ( two adults and four children), they held passports from three different countries. When they went to the immigration, they were often asked if they belonged to the same family. What bound the family together was not their passport or nationality but the love, care and concern they shared for each other. This is also what bound most of our friendships together.

Heidi organised a farewell for me with ten of our friends and well wishers. And, I think, except for two women, none of us shared a common country of birth and yet we were tied strongly by the bonds of friendship and love. Our countries were India, Pakistan, China, Switzerland, USA, Canada, Italy, Chile, Brazil. We thought of each other as family. When one of us was faced with any calamity, the rest stood by her. We were there for each other’s children and families. When we mingled, political or cultural barriers fell. And there were more friends we had from other countries who had already left or could not make it that day for some other reasons.

We helped organise events, not just socially but even for school together. We held charities and children’s parties. We helped out at school. One of the interesting lessons I had was that in charities in China, expat organisers were there to plan and execute the events but others decided where and how the money collected was spent. When the Japan Tsunami brought disaster to millions, we couldnot redirect any portion of the proceeds from our charity event to Japan but had to donate the funds to approved agencies within China, where they had been promised. Perhaps, it was divine intervention that made me realise nothing was in our hands. It left me feeling empty inside and vary of volunteering for charity!

When the typhoon struck in Leyte, Phillipines, we had better luck. Aditya and his friends fund raised in school and the staff organised to have it sent to the right sources. Perhaps, it was time for the youngsters to take over and for us moms to take a backseat and revel in the fact that our children could outdo us in most things! That was a good feeling for me.

Life in Suzhou was never dull.

When I had lots of mint and beans in my garden, Salma, Maria, Marta and Heidi had their pick. I was so proud of my flowers, fruits and vegetables. I used to distribute the beans among my friends. One day, Surya came home and told me, “ Mamma, can you stop giving beans to all my friends. Peter( Heidi’s son) was complaining his mother forced him to have some horrible bean soup for dinner! This way I will lose all my friends!”

“Why Aditya, you and Adrian picked the beans the other day and enjoyed doing so?”I asked.

“Picking is one thing and eating another,” said my little one. “ Adrian’s mother does not force him to have the beans but Peter is not given a choice. My friends hate it and tell me not to give out beans.”

“You don’t. I do.”I laughed.

The bean season, luckily for these young men had come to an end and they did not need to partake of these anymore. But, my friends had loved the beans. I was forced to distribute the beans as my kids were also protesting the frequent advent of beans on our dinner table. My driver made a wry face when I handed him a basketful. He was a nice, rotund young man who loved burgers, coke and fries. Later, he told me his mother liked the beans. Evidently, his father and he were pure meat eaters!

Only my ayi loved the beans. She loved the fact that they were organically homegrown. She had grown up on a farm and knew all about fruits and vegetables. Their land had been taken away by the government at some point and they had been given three apartments in town. So, she switched her job from farming to housekeeping.

In Suzhou, the land on which our bungalow stood, earlier was a marshland. One of my former drivers had his childhood home there. Again, the government, developed the land and gave apartments to the displaced families. Some of the Suzhounese had grown very rich trading on these properties. As a result, there is a sizeable wealthy population in Suzhou that is not too well schooled. A generation ago, they were farming and now they own multiple properties, drive Mercedes or BMWs and send their children to universities abroad. The wealth is new and these people do not know how to spend it! They have become the new breed of Chinese noveau riche. You see them worldwide, holidaying, buying expensive brands, gambling in Singapore casinos and reaching out where their ancestors may never have dreamt of treading. Some of them, however, still hold on to ancient practices like not using serving spoons while eating, spitting and hawking, things that have been highlighted in some of Pearl S Buck’s stories. The pity is that the some of the educated non-Chinese have started to ape their bad habits. Perhaps, they think they will become rich too, if they behave like the noveau riche from China.

One of the good things about my friends was one could tell them things directly. I could tell my Chinese friend, Amelia, not to use her own cutlery to serve herself at the table from the common plate but to use serving spoons. She could take it in her stride. She was married to a German and, therefore, living with the expats. She started out a farmer’s daughter and a factory worker and ended up an expat wife. Marriages among the Chinese and expats were quite common. Some of the men left their earlier families to take on Chinese brides. But there were Chinese women, like my ayis, who did not approve of second wives!

Amelia was a first wife and she had three very cute boys. I loved her youngest very much. He was the youngest guest in my farewell and spent his time well exploring under Heidi’s huge dining table every time a woman made a grab for him! After all, at about one year of age, he was the only gentleman at the lunch!

Heidi and I were very different individuals but I had this feeling of déjà vu with her from day one. Heidi has moved to Canada now. She and I continue in touch electronically but it is not the same as meeting for lunches and coffees. I continue to miss those and the involved discussions we had on all and sundry, especially on the need for a borderless world.

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