Leaving China

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Chapter 6

It is funny the way we pack our lives in boxes and suitcases and move on… all our memories in our hand phones or laptops. I always think of John Denver’s song Leaving on a Jet Plane

All my bags are packed


I’m ready to go


I’m standin’ here outside your door


I hate to wake you up to say goodbye

The sentiment is similar, except the goodbye is to memories, places and people one gets attached to… As Heidi said, memories are always bitter sweet.

The relocation agents packed our home in boxes two weeks before our departure. Earlier, the boxes could be packed on the day the expatriates were leaving. The rules concerning expat repatriation had changed a month before we were due to leave. The boxes and my husband’s passport had to be submitted to the immigration for a fortnight. Earlier, instead of the passport, they were happy with a photocopy. We were asked to wait for two weeks without our essential household things. As a result, we had to move into a hotel. This was a learning that rules can change anytime, anyhow. We just needed to accept the changes and adapt.

When the movers came, Surya spent all his time with Ali in his home or inside our car. The movers packed and moved all our belongings out of the house except for the suitcases which had our essentials for a couple of months and the children’s piano. The emptiness of the house felt strange. We wanted to hand over the keys to our landlord at the soonest.

The Pearl River (a Chinese brand) piano had to be either abandoned or given away. Moving the piano overseas would cost more than buying a new one in Singapore. We wanted to give the piano to a child who would love it as much as our sons. So, we asked around and one of the expat families was happy to take it for their lovely four-year-old daughter, Saba. They were a Turkish American family with roots in California. David and Sabrina, the parents of Saba, had organised the movers. They lived within our compound and were very friendly and nice. Their house was about 500 metres from ours. But both the houses had staircases and the piano was delicate. We decided to organise professional help so that the piano would not be damaged. Sabrina organised a local mover. He promised to come at 10.30 a.m. Sabrina and David came over at 10.15 a.m. We waited.10.30 a.m. went by. We waited. 11.00 a.m.went by. They telephoned David’s secretary to call the mover as he spoke only Chinese and had been booked by her. She called back saying he said he was almost there. We informed the gate, we were expecting a lorry. Nothing came. Then, Shireen, Sabrina’s mother-in-law called up. The mover was in their house. Sabrina ran back to get them. After sometime, she returned walking! We were all surprised! We had thought she would come in the mover’s lorry. But, she came walking!

We all looked at her in askance. “He has not got his lorry. He is coming here…on his e-bike,” she explained.

As she finished her sentence, an e-bike drew up in front of our house. A tiny dwarf of a skinny man got off. He smiled, nodded and greeted us, “Ni hao.( how are you)?” We all greeted him back. He swaggered in as if he had come on a social visit to entertain us. He walked towards the piano. Aditya, our translator, told him we needed to move the piano from our home to Sabrina’s. He responded by saying that he needed ten men to lift it. When Aditya asked him about his lorry, he responded by saying the lorry would break under the piano’s weight!

We were astounded! He told us the piano could not be moved that day as he would have to get ten men and they were busy. He stayed for fifteen minutes trying to explain how impossible and unreasonable it was to move the piano that day itself. We needed to move the piano that day as I would be handing over the keys to the landlord the next day. So, the mover came, saw and left!

Aditya said, “This guy is bizarre. Only two of us moved the piano at school on a trolley.”

“But, we don’t have a trolley. And we need to move it today,” I said.

“We could do it by sliding the piano on a rug or a carpet,” said my husband.

The movers had taken our rugs and carpets away. Sabrina got two rugs from her home. We roped in Wolfgang and Mr Hu to help us. So, David, Aditya, Wolfgang, Mr Hu and my husband panted up and down and up the stairs of Sabrina’s home with the piano and rugs. It took quite some time and a lot of effort. It was fun to watch the amazing teamwork but I am not so sure that it was fun for the team to heave and shove so as not to damage the piano.

Shireen and Sabrina organised huge jugs of lemonade for all the movers. Aditya inaugurated the piano in Saba’s home. Now, we were officially ready to hand over the keys the next day.

IMG_0005The landlord came with his wife this time. They told us they would have liked us to continue as long as we were in China. They were very kind. They loved what I had done to the garden. His wife was thrilled seeing I had planted a Chinese flowering plant, called the Yue Liang Hua (the moon flower). She said this flower was associated with Shanghai, where she grew up. I knew this flower had a heady perfume and my driver often used it inside the car instead of a car perfume.

They were equally excited with the fishpond, where the koi had bred and now I had nearly two dozen fishes.

We had to stay in the hotel for almost a fortnight! And that was a long time for us. We are always more comfortable and happy at home. Staying in a hotel has always been a trial for my trio.

I recall the time Aditya first stayed in Sheraton in Hong Kong. He was four and did not like the hotel food. He asked me if I could cook for him. In Hawaii, when he was six, he threw up on an exclusive hotel meal in a six star resort, where we were having an official gathering!

Surya was not much better. When he was one-and-a-half, we were staying for a long weekend in Johor, Malaysia. He shook his foot so much in delight while seated on a high chair in the 24-hour coffee shop of the hotel that his shoes came off and landed on somebody in the adjoining table. Seeing the ruckus it created, Surya decided to fling his shoes every time he was put into a baby chair in the restaurant. It became a nightmare for us. The hotel staff was terrified whenever we entered the coffee shop. They put us in a corner table and emptied it of all cutlery and napkins as they didnot want Surya to exercise his throwing skills on their wares or aim his shoes at their customers!

When we moved to China, we had to stay a week in a hotel while our home was readied for us. There two-year-old Surya had discovered the joys of a rotating door. The doormen were terrified again and requested us to keep him away from the doors! Surya also protested being cooped up in a luxurious room where he had no freedom to practise his sporting skills. He also wanted to catch the fish in an indoor koi pond!

This time Surya was ten and Aditya seventeen-and-a-half. They were a little better adjusted in the hotel than eight years ago… except Surya had the whole security on my tracks when I got a little delayed in the lift one day. I had gone to get his swimming goggles when he discovered he had left them behind in our room. I told him to get changed and wait by the poolside while I fetched the goggles. The lift was a little delayed. The lifeguards and attendants stood around him when I returned to the poolside. It seems they could not reach me when they tried to call my mobile. And I had been gone only about ten to fifteen minutes!

We had a beautiful view of the Jinji Lake from our rooms. The sunset on the lake against the silhouette of tall buildings was spectacular. Aditya had a separate room. We spent our time doing last minute visits to different places, going for walks along Jinji and eating out. Most of our friends, except Salma had left for their annual home leave. Salma was also leaving Suzhou two weeks after us. She was in the process of packing her home in boxes too.

Leaving is always sad. But, this time tinged with sadness was a sense of relief. The wonder and acceptance that was evident in the local attitude towards foreigners when we came in 2006 was being replaced with a feeling that did not seem so friendly. Too many changes were taking place…

Leaving China

I spent eight years of my life in China and put it all in a book, In the Land of Dragons. This is a sequel to the last book, a little more about China and the world.

Chapter 1

I enjoyed my stay in China very much. And it would not be wrong to say, I miss my life in China, my friends most of all.

After eight years in Suzhou, we decided to move back to Singapore so that my elder son could do his National Service. This goal is being fulfilled but still that fleeting twang in my heart cries out for the life I had in China.

I had friends from all over the world… Initially, when I went, the expat population consisted of people who were willing to explore the possibilities in an ancient country that had newly opened it’s doors to the world. The local people were vibrant and curious about us. They followed us wherever we went, whether it was a market or a park.

Once, when I went to buy chicken from the fresh market, I had at least a dozen followers who listened intently as my driver, Mr Woo, tried to comprehend my order and translate it into the local dialect. As I knew almost no Mandarin then, my relocation agent, Diana, who was bilingual, telephonically explained the details to him. The driver and the local population knew no English. Between two degrees of translation, despite my attempts to explain what a broiler chicken was, I ended up with a shrivelled black chicken, which, Mr Woo patiently conveyed through Diana was very good for children! Diana believed the same.

It was my first and last attempt at buying chicken from the fresh market. The locals at the market were so amused by my expression of confusion as I tried to explain what I wanted that they started all pitching in to help me! They spoke the local dialect, Suzhou hua. The crowds kept increasing as the voices grew louder in an attempt to explain what my choice might be. At last, my driver shooed away the crowd of helpful and curious onlookers. They were like children and dispersed as easily as they gathered.

Initially, I was worked up by the absence of things that were easily found in Singapore but soon, I found myself adapting to things available in China. And everything was available. One just needed to know where to get it and have the means to pay for it. I started buying my meats from super markets that had been started to meet foreigners’ needs. Over the years, Suzhou did get flooded with a number of such marts catering to foreigners. They would get their meats from Shanghai. A few years down the line, from such a mart in a housing complex, I not only picked up chicken but had it cut to my specification. Of course, my mandarin had improved by then and I could converse a little with the locals.

I continued to frequent the fresh market for vegetables and fresh fruit and even learnt to haggle with the local shopkeepers. Crowds of curious onlookers ceased to follow me as I was accepted as a regular. It was good fun!

We moved about in a chauffeur driven car with darkened windows so that the curious onlookers would not be able to look inside. We were always kept in housing meant for expats, very comfortable and high-end. The relocation agents looked after our every need, to the point where I was irritated at times. We were told we were not allowed to drive or use local transport as all the signs were in mandarin and we could well be lost.

That is not the part that I loved. But somewhere along the way, I discovered women like myself. Living in Singapore for more than a decade, I had come to believe that I was incapable of having close friends as my interests were different from most women’s. In Singapore, people mix within their little groups, groups that are very focused on their areas of interest. Then, there are linguistic groups.

In China, I was mixing with women from all over the world who were homogenised into one group against the local population. The fantastic thing when I went in the early 2000s was that most of these women had an attitude with which they learnt to accept the differences among the varied cultures and make friends with people who had a similar mindset. The country or the skin colour did not matter. Neither did languages hold them back. An Italian friend of mine, Donatella, picked up enough English in Suzhou within a year to make friends with a non-Italian speaker like me. Of course, she knew a little English earlier but at the end of a couple of years she was in a position to tell me that she preferred Twilight to Harry Potter. I could not read Twilight for it’s lack of family structures but I loved Harry Potter and had read each book at least half-a-dozen times.

With her, I found our differences only drew us closer. Once when an Indian lady in Suzhou had saddened me by saying,” Oh! You have been out of India too long to be called an Indian,” Donatella said,”Why do you look for friends always in your race? Come, I am your friend.” And I did find an excellent friend in her. I had friends from many countries. I learnt from Donatella that friendship is beyond bounds, a meeting of hearts and values. I still what’s app with my friends from China but it is not the same thing as seeing each other face to face, holding innumerable, informal gatherings, visiting each other’s homes without prior notice, meeting for coffee or lunch and going for long walks or just going to a friend when one needs help.

How often have my friends helped themselves to mint from my garden! How often we have babysat for each other! I remember when my younger son had to stay overnight in a camp at school for one night, my Brazilian friend, Maria, and Pakistani friend, Salma, spent the evening in my home so that I wouldnot be over anxious. We all did for each other.

On an average day, one interacted with a variety of races and creeds. The best part of it was none of us noticed we did not hold the same passport or we did not have the same festivals. I learnt to love Brazilian cheese bread, Pakistani Kebabs, Libyan mutton, Swiss cakes, variety of coffees, French fruit wine, German wheat cookies, Finnish pancakes, Chinese cuisine,especially meat dishes from Xinjiang and learnt cooking a variety of cuisines too. A German friend, Beatte, and I made a cookbook for charity with contributors from sixty-five different countries! She was an engineer by profession but in China, she had to be just a mom and wife as did Donatella, who was an accountant by profession. In fact, most of us did not work as we were taking on the challenge of living and bringing up our kids in China. We were happy being moms.
The good thing about the friends I made in China was none of them looked for external approval to feel good about them selves. For us, our children and husband were most important. We did not face an identity crisis as housewives or homemakers. We were all open and willing to learn from China.

China had many things to teach us…both good and bad.