Leaving China

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Chapter 5

It was not such a bad thing after all…leaving China.

Leaving China was not something I really wanted to do because I had wonderful friends, many seasons, a beautiful garden, so many places to visit and home help of the kind I needed.

Eventually, I found my friends leaving for other countries. The people who replaced them were different. Maria still lives in the same house in Suzhou but every other week she tells me how sad she is to be left all alone. She says cannot find friends like the ones that have left. In Singapore,I have a few friends of old and I write about my new ones. It is more difficult to make friends here. People are too busy revving up the economy to find time for friends and family.

I miss the multiple seasons too. Singapore has only one season. In China, we had four seasons. I grew up in New Delhi and with four seasons. China was, therefore, fabulous with its seasons. Spring brought pink cherry blossoms and lovely blooms. Autumn was beautiful with another set of colours, warmer ones like yellow and red. Summer had cool white and mauve blooms and perfumes that were heady. Winters were often white or bare. The grass turned yellow and the frogs went to sleep. Fishes stayed in the deeper reaches of the pond. I really enjoyed the seasons and my garden.

When we went in 2006, the Beijing Olympic was close.The Beijing Olympic in 2008 meant clean air for China. The first time I went to Beijing, a few months before the Olympics, the air was really clean. Cloud seeding had worked wonders, I had heard. It was lovely to spend the whole day in my patio. I loved the hum of birds and bees and the colours of the flowers in my garden. Most of the year, it was pleasant enough in Suzhou to spend some time or the afternoon in my garden. We had bar-be-cues and endless number of outdoor lunches, teas, coffees, birthday parties in spring and autumn, and even in winters. Extreme heat, snow, rain or very cold weather had us indoor. However, then another thing got really bad and we couldnot step outdoor much despite the fine weather…that was the pollution index. Sometimes, it touched 400PSI. It was really bad in 2013-14, when we left Suzhou and returned to Singapore.

It was difficult to breath outdoor. We had air purifiers running at home to prevent us from falling sick. When I sat in my garden, I developed an allergic reaction and had itchy nose and throat and burning eyes.

This meant our outdoor activities drew to a close. Aditya, who loved cycling to far off areas with his friends, had to cancel cycling plans often and didnot feel happy about it. Football matches got cancelled. That made Surya sad. Perhaps, it was really time to leave China…Normal life was becoming difficult. Most of all, Aditya needed to do his National Service in Singapore before starting university. It was time for us to head back to Singapore.

We knew Singapore had very few places to visit compared to China. It was a tiny island. We knew this meant we would not be able to make any more trips to the Great Wall at the drop of a hat or go to Shanghai or travel to mysterious caves or explore gardens and temples in Suzhou… But, it was impossible to go hiking anywhere for the high PSI levels.

I knew I would also find it difficult to adjust to the lifestyle in Singapore again. People ate in malls, spent their free time in malls and some even lived in service apartments attached to malls. Local people, those who can afford, employ full-time maids. Cooking, housekeeping and child care gets delegated to these imported maids. Most of the Singaporeans seem to aspire for jet set careers and wealth.

In China, my housekeeper came in the morning and left in the afternoon. In Singapore, part-time help was very expensive and inadequate. If one kept a full-time live-in, they were imports from poverty stricken areas of Phillipines, Indonesia, Myanmar, India and Sri Lanka. They came alone, burdened by the baggage of missing their families and culture shock. I felt they were viewed as commodities. I didnot want such help. I have never understood why in most countries I have visited, local people clean the streets and public areas whereas in Singapore you have foreign workers doing the job. After my return, I find the foreign workers have been replaced by old retirees and some of them are really too feeble to work.

In China, the local ladies who work as housekeepers, or ayis, are very smart. They come on their own e-bikes and carry handphones. Some of them worked in a number of houses, cleaning, cooking and babysitting, and made a good living. My housekeepers were older, in their fifties, and had an eight hour day in my home. They were cheerful ladies who were quick to pick up work. In the first month, I fired four housekeepers, including one who insisted that she could clean the house with a dry mop! She didnot want to touch water in winters. The fifth one who came stayed with me for five years till she retired and went back to her home town in Xian. She and her husband had saved and built a two-storey bungalow. Her two daughters were working as a secondary teacher and a manager in the Nanjing Ford factory. Every time I heard of her successes, I felt very happy. The lady who replaced her was trained by her for a month. She was from Suzhou had two daughters, one a bank manager and another studying to be a math teacher in secondary school. The younger was an excellent teacher and even tutored Surya in Mandarin during her holidays. When I think of them I get a smile on my lips.

I had a university student majoring in Italian Opera teaching piano and singing to Surya. He had an excellent baritone and a very pronounced Adam’s apple. He was fluent in Mandarin and Italian and spoke very less English. He was a bit eccentric…suited my sons to perfection. He used to ask Surya to do push-ups when the cheeky imp played the Blue Danube forcefully. He said instead of a romantic river in moonlight, Surya’s playing sounded like meteorites falling on Earth! Sometimes, he wore mismatched socks because he couldnot find the matching pairs! He loved teaching Surya.

China had such a large spectrum of people of varied cultures.

There were the gentlemen who drove our cars, our official drivers. Mr Woo, the first one who took me around the wet market, loved dogs, shouted at beggars as he told me they were illegal immigrants, was very kind to my father when he was visiting us and relieved himself in bushes to the amusement and embarrassment of the female security staff of our condominium. He was replaced by the rental company. The next one who came stayed with us for a few months developed warts all over his scalp and suffered from indigestion and anxiety because his teenager son did badly in the Gao Kao (a once in a lifetime grade twelve placement examination). After him came a man who bumped into railings while parking and driving. He was replaced by another who slept all the time. The car never arrived for us in time most days. My husband even had to take a cab to work! Then he was changed and we had a driver who never knew the way to anyplace. He couldnot read maps and had no sense of direction. Finally, we got our dream driver, Mr Hu, twenty-eight-year-old. He was bilingual and could speak some English. However, he couldnot read much English but he spoke better than our relocation agent. He was a gaming addict who, I am sure, could have done very well if he focussed on his studies instead of gaming when young. He loved fast foods and married a waif-like woman who couldnot cook. They would go to his parents house for meals or eat out.

Young women not knowing how to cook seems to be a common phenomenon in China and Singapore. It is catching on in India too, I believe.

Another thing I loved in China and I miss very much in Singapore is children dropping in and out of the house. Surya’s friends ran between houses and played on holidays the whole day long! Aditya’s friends dropped in too. They studied, participated in robotic clubs, partied in one of the houses or went out.

I remember the time when Aditya and two of his friends had to film a little drama for a Theory of Knowledge tutorial. They wore beards and costumes and ran around the compound, hiding in hedges. They had a toy rifle as it was an episode with terrorists and soldiers. Salma’s eldest, Salim, was one of the boys. Maria, her husband and their lovely five-year old daughter Gloria came to watch as did Salma, Surya, Ali( Salma’s second son and Surya’s friend), Sana( Salma’s youngest daughter and Gloria’s friend). As the boys ran around, we moms took pictures and the younger brothers ran around inspired with nerf guns. Everybody gathered on my front porch as it was in my garden and around the club house hedges, they were shooting the movie. The older boys were very irritated with us but they scored very well eventually, thanks to our inspiration. Maria’s husband, Wolfgang, even fell on the floor himself to show them how they could pretend to fall!

I miss this kind of interactions in Singapore. I miss the children, my neighbours, seasons and my garden. But, most of the time there is clean air to breath (unless Indonesia has a forest fire and the wind blows the smoke fumes to Singapore) a beautiful view from all my rooms, access to Aditya while he serves his National Service and good schooling for Surya. That keeps me happy and going.

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