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.
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.