Book of the Week



Title: Peony

Author: Pearl S. Buck

Published: 1948


Peony is a novel set in Kaifeng, China, in the 1850s. It is my favorite among Pearl S Buck novels because it propounds tolerance and looks beyond the borders of religion, culture and nationality. It gives a clear portrayal of how creating walls in the name of culture and communities can only bring them tumbling down.

The other thing that I liked was how Peony, the protagonist, develops into a wise and respected woman, an advisor to her former employers, revered by the people who she served as a child.

Peony, named after a flower that has mythological significance in both Greek and Chinese lore, starts her life at eight years of age as a bond maid in a rich foreigner’s family that had emigrated from Palestine a few generations earlier to avoid harassment. She was bought as a companion to the only son of the house. She learnt writing and reading while her young master studied. Peony, as expected, fell in love with her young master, David. However, knowing that she would never be accepted as a daughter-in-law by the family, she overcame her desires and helped her young master marry a bride who would bring him happiness in the long run.

Her mistress, an upholder of the Judaism in China, was keen that her son marries a Rabbi’s daughter. Both the Jewish women (David’s mother and future fiancée) loved what they believed to be Judaism as it was interpreted by their Rabbi. They believed that they were the chosen ones and superior to the ‘ heathens‘. Their religion drew borders and created only rifts with the local population. In the middle of the book, there is an interesting dialogue between the Rabbi and a liberal Chinese trader, Kung Chen.

“There is only one true God, and Jehovah is His name,” the Rabbi declared, trembling all over as he spoke.

“So the followers of Mohammed in our city declare,” Kung Chen said gravely, “but they call his name as Allah. Is he the same as your Jehovah?”

“There is no god beside our God,” the Rabbi said in a loud high voice. “He is the One True God!”

Kung Chen, a buddhist and an open thinker, is appalled by the Rabbi’s intolerance and tells David, Peony’s young master, “None can love those who declare that they alone are the sons of God.”

Perhaps, with this one statement Pearl S Buck has summed up the issue faced by many in the current day world, intolerance towards others’ beliefs.

I have not looked into the authenticity of the historical fact or the religious belief of those times. But what struck me was that this is an age-old truth. Intolerance only breeds hatred and violence, as it does in the book.

Earlier the Jews who came for refuge to Kaifeng were not intolerant. Over a period of time, the group grew smaller and became more rigid.

In the past, a liberal minded follower of the same Judaism had engraved on a plaque in the same temple where the Rabbi propounded his intolerance: “Worship is to honor Heaven, and righteousness is to follow the ancestors. But the human mind has always existed before worship and righteousness.”

It is the human mind, which helps us make choices. When we stop thinking, we lose touch with reality and become fanciful, as had the Rabbi and his daughter. After all, the human mind has been made by God who, probably, wanted us to think and take responsibility for our thoughts and action.

Peony by her actions generates the positive feelings of calmness, peace, harmony and tolerance whereas the Rabbi’s daughter generates passion, violence, intolerance and fear. She is so passionate and intolerant in her outlook that she comes to a sad end.

Peony, on the other hand, gains in social and spiritual stature.

I also love what the book does with Peony, a woman who might have become a concubine in the royal court of China. She defines her own position by her selflessness and opts for a more meaningful existence. She rejects power and glory for love and kindness, values that would make for a happier world.

Her role in the latter part of the book reminds me of a few lines that are often quoted and were written by Julia Abigail Fletcher Carney in Illinois around the same period as when this story was set…


Little deeds of kindness,

Little words of love,

Help to make earth happy

Like the Heaven above.

Leaving China


Chapter 9

Happiness is a subjective thing. People feel happy for different reasons and in different places. I found happiness among friends and people in Suzhou. When I left Singapore, I was convinced that I had lost the ability to make friends. It came as a pleasant surprise in Suzhou that I had not.

I found friends with no effort. People were appreciative of what I had to offer. China started out as a country which for me was shrouded in mysteries. The people who mingled with me had all come from different countries, including China. Perhaps, I got in touch with the positive energy within me. I do not know why and how it happened. Did it happen because I had started doing pranayama five days a week? Or, was it because I had no expectation from the people around me? Whereas, in Singapore, I did?

Perhaps, when we travel, we learn to accept things as they come. We become more open about people, cultural rituals, things and places. By cultural rituals, I mean social norms as well as the cultural heritage of a people brought up in a particular way. Imagine, when Marco Polo crossed over the Pamirs, through the Uzbek territory into China, how many different varieties of people, languages and cultures had he experienced? In those days you had no electronic translators. How did he grapple with the languages? His father, Nicolo Polo, could talk the language of Tartars, the account says. He had picked it up as he travelled across the continents! When we travel nowadays, we have our electronic equipment or little books with translated phrases to cope with foreign languages, cultures and people. We have our pre-conceived notions too and try to fit the country and people in that. For instance, in Singapore and Malaysia, often Indians are associated with vegetarianism and Bollywood. There are many in India who eat all kinds of meat, fish and non-vegetarian food and are not appreciative of the song, dance and culture of Bollywood, just as there are many Americans who may be vegetarians and non-representative of Hollywood! Pre-judging a person by the norms of a country or a race, I have learnt, is always inaccurate. Putting people into boxes of nationality and culture is an error I would not like to be guilty of. Can you factory produce people in pre-conceived groups with labels? Aldous Huxley actually wrote a whole book about it… Brave New World. He based the boxing, or rather the bottling of embryos, on intelligence levels and economic needs. Schools were set up and the products were educated to suit their stations and cultural needs in life. It was rather a bleak scenario he painted.

In contrast, I prefer Marco Polo’s outlook. He took life as it came. He travelled half way around the world and made his own conclusions and lived and roamed as an free individual. In Saba, Persia, he looked for the grave of the three Magi who blessed the newborn Christ with gold, frankincense and myrrh. He never saw the grave but, because he believed in it, he narrated with conviction.

What has come down to us is an interesting read, chronicling customs and history in a way no historian can emulate. It is an individual perspective, beyond borders, beyond nations, beyond space though mapping an era. Ruminating over world history, I feel after the national borders had been drawn by the power brokers of the world, we lost out on our ingenuity and wonder for the world around us. We spent our time worrying about acquiring wealth, exhibiting money and power and warring over property and boundary lines. That has led us nowhere because, for most common people, it does not matter. What does matter is we have food to eat, education for children, a fruitful and happy life. When has warring over borders ever made any common person happy? Yet, people are willing to sacrifice their lives for a concept that was an outcome of industrial revolution, a nation. It is, as TED speaker Taiye Selasi pointed out, not even a real thing. Why is it we cannot rise above these concepts and live in a world where our introduction is that of a good human being?

Most of the friends I made in China were just good human beings to me. The countries didnot matter. Something clicked for us in a way it didnot click for me when I looked for friends within the confines of the borders of my country of origin, my motherland. I had very less in common with the representatives of my country of birth that I came across in my journey through the world. And, yet, most people try to tie me down to a region. I have moved so often since I got married that if I kept looking for roots, I would feel bereft. I look for what I gathered within me from different places I lived in, travelled to, from people who impacted my thinking, from ideas that help me look for a more positive future…

Some of my friends, like Donatella and Heidi, pointed out to me that what was most important for being friends was that our heart remained in sync. Recently, I had an interesting discussion by email on education with Heidi and Joanna, a Chilean friend married to a Finnish. Joanna, a mother to two sons, one of them being a good friend of Aditya, had lived in Australia for eight years and now she is living in Suzhou. We could discuss the systems from Finland, India, China, Singapore, Canada and Australia. The outcome of the discussion showed that every country had strengths and weaknesses in it’s systems. I would have liked to pick the best of each for my kids. They cannot study in each of these countries but I have at least put them in a system which aims at bringing out the best in the child. It does have it’s hiccups but I would say that I cannot think of a better alternative.

I would like my children to think mankind and not nations. I would like them to be like sunshine, open, free and bright. And luckily for me, they and many of their friends do not think borders atall. Aditya in his English essay in the eighth grade called himself a citizen of the world. My sons speak five languages and have friends from all over the world. They know bad words in probably ten to twenty languages, including Korean and Finnish! That is a start!

In China, pasta is called Yi Da Li mian. The direct translation is Italian noodle. In China, we eat mian and in Italy, pasta, the difference in flavour is from the herbs, garnish and oil used. But, the staple is the same…Historically, there are number of theories about the origin of pasta. Some say Marco Polo carried it back from China to Italy. Some say it was Arabic and some even say, Greek. In China, noodles were eaten 4000 years ago, according to a National Geographic report in 2005. Either ways, the stuff remains most popular through the ages served in an Italian or Chinese way.

I started figuring out all this after moving to China. However, I had to leave China to figure out some more stuff… I had to be in Singapore, missing my friends and my life in China to write this book. I had to think and reflect on why I felt lonely and irritable after moving back and then find the answers.

I missed the vibrancy of life, happiness and the feeling of being a traveller through time…like Marco Polo. I wanted to continue in the society of optimists who made things happen with their positive outlook and enthusiasm for living! I wanted to live perpetually in a world without borders…

Leaving China

Chapter 2

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…

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.