The International Writers Magazine: Day 1: Evening
What China Is Like Within Twenty-four Hours of Deboarding the Plane
Between the four of us, we carried a year's worth of goods through the narrow, lively streets of old Hong Kong. Through the 9pm dark, our glazed eyes took in the flames rising from garbage cans, lit joss paper drifting up like butterflies into the air, and candles placed near the edges of doorways.
“It's the day to honour the ancestors,” my uncle explained. The strings of red lights and the hum of lit restaurant signs enhanced the mystery of moving people in the shadows, faces illuminated by light.
My aunt and uncle had challenged my husband and I to quit our jobs, sell all of our stuff, and try out teaching in China for a year. It was only after asking us if we thought our relationship would survive it, that they emailed us links and resources to prepare us for the transition. And just an hour ago, they had greeted us at the airport in Hong Kong.
At the airport, my uncle had dangled a pair of keys from his pinched fingers, and said, “This is because we're staying in Dr. and Mrs. Chu's deluxe suite tonight. I'm sure you guys are tired and would like to rest before taking the ferry out to meet them in Zhongshan tomorrow.” The Chus were our new employers, the owners of the school where my aunt and uncle had helped us to find employment. They were Hong Kong businesspeople who had taken advantage of China's Special Economic Zone and opened a few lucrative private English schools on the Mainland.
“They have a suite for visitors in downtown Hong Kong?” I asked, cheering up. “Yes. You get five-star treatment while you're in Hong Kong,” responded my uncle. I imagined a big fluffy bed, with clean cotton sheets and a red and black satin bedspread. There was a Siamese cat curled up at the foot, purring while we slept. I would be refreshed and ready to meet the school owners after a luxurious night of sleep.
The twenty-one hour journey had left me totally exhausted. The strong thoughts of regret at the airport in the hour before take-off as I stole glances at my complex husband wore away at my courage. I needed to suck it up and hide my crumbling faith in this companion. Exhaustion from dragging the weight of unpacked feelings around for several months prior, outnumbered the other minor things: the lack of food on the flight because we had neglected to check the “vegetarian” virtual box during our flight booking, the too-tight seats, the turbulence, the terrible gas coming from the passenger eating doritos, and the insistence on watching movie after movie rather than getting the minimum required sleep. But everything was going to be okay here, especially after a good night's sleep.
“Let's stop there for a little dessert,” said my foodie aunt, interrupting my thoughts. Her enthusiasm for a small restaurant on the next corner held a promise of satisfaction, and we swam through the haze and milling people to the cafe and heaved our hockey bags down at the foot of a table. The restaurant's mostly male customers chatted, smoked, hunched over a communal plate, and chewed with open mouths. Ashes were on the floor. Eyes were on us. Laughter.
My bones wanted to sink into my blanket of skin. My table companions were chatting but I couldn't focus on the words. My eyes fought from closing. “The ones at the bottom are the dessert”, my aunt explained. None of us could decipher the script on the dirty plastic sheet. I ordered the same as my aunt. My uncle, showing off, closed his eyes and pointed his finger at one, which he ordered. “It's a game I play in every country I visit.”
“You are not going to be disappointed, this stuff is totally delicious!” said my aunt.
When the food arrived, I was disappointed to be given a pinkish bowl of heaping tapioca. My uncle's runny eggs on rice with hot sauce didn't phase him, and he and my aunt ate their meals ravenously. I looked over at my husband to see him chewing steadily. I took a token taste and then put my spoon down. “I ate a lot on the plane,” I lied.
After the snack, we pulled the bags up over our shoulders again like tibetan mules and re-entered the glowing streets. I purposefully walked behind everyone. From my view I could see that my husband's hair was whiter than my uncle's, and that although he was twenty-five years younger, he was hunched and expressed strain in his neck and shoulders while my uncle strode calmly and with confidence.
We rounded a few corners before opening a metal door which led up a steep and narrow flight of stairs. As I ascended the tricky staircase, I maneuvered the weight of my hockey bag to shift myself away from stepping on a broom brimming with wet noodles, dog defecation and hair. My expectations of luxury quickly morphed into a rising temperature. Was I getting a fever? “Five star treatment...” the words resounded like a betrayal.
Key in hand unlocked the door and the light was turned on nimbly and with enthusiasm. The flourescent hum, bright clashing plastic coloured furniture, and our beds made up the main room. Two, smaller than twin, beds that children outgrow by age eight, were squeezed up to the walls, allowing for a three-foot space between them. “Which one would the couple of honour like to share?”
“Um, the one on the left?”
My husband kindly took the edge of the bed. I lay on the scratchy old sheets, with the anemic pillow as an insufficient gesture under my head. I eventually undid the disappointment and my mind filled with delight and wonder at the two things ahead: sleep, and my first day in China. My lesson of the evening was not to form high expectations about food or accommodation while in China, and I humbly bowed in my ignorance, to the forces which were to take over my life for the next year. Joss paper was probably floating up into the sky somewhere, and I prayed to the ancestral hours of the day to leave and let me be in peace.
Day 2: Morning
I awoke to skin as sticky as flypaper. The sun was pouring liquid heat through the small window. My uncle was already up and had made each of us coffee in the small adjoining kitchen. God damn his whistling, I thought. “Good Morning!” He said with such enthusiasm that I forgot my irritation. I am going to learn to be optimistic like him this year, I thought.
We sat up in bed and drank. “In about a ½ an hour we need to leave to make the next ferry to Zhongshan,” my aunt said. I hadn't undressed or brushed my teeth, and I didn't plan to go through the difficulty of opening my bag in the tiny room to find anything, so I decided against cleanliness and hoped that no one noticed the faint smell rising from my armpits. “You stink,” My husband quipped.
Soon enough, we had hoisted our hockey bags over our shoulders and were tottering down the small stairwell towards the busy Hong Kong street below. The city was in a sepia wash of morning light.
On the boat, I could not stop staring at the crowd of alike features. The sea of black hair was a shock, as was the stream of unknown chatter which filled the ferry air with choppy syllables and overlapping tones forced out like a symphony of hocking.
The previous night's sleep had been interrupted by intermittent noises and flashes of light, and I was grumpy, but the view from the little ferry was interesting. We pulled out of the Hong Kong harbour with its elegant architectural skyscape and pushed out into the expanse of choppy grey waves towards the mysterious other side, Mainland China.
We were greeted at the other side by a shy driver possibly of farmland origin, who used hand signals to communicate. He was small and his dark skin was taut over his thick bones like a baked chicken drumstick, and his mouth opened to expose rotting teeth. He had the radio on to let Chinese Opera elevate the mood inside the vehicle. As I looked out of the family size van windows, I drank in the pattern of people squatting on the sides of the road. Swish, swish, swish, were the sounds they seemed to make as we passed them. We stopped at a light. An old man smiled up from his woodcarving as he caught my blue eyes. Time slowed. I was here, far away, and the moment was suddenly alive with the colour of new experience.
It seemed that the driver had taken us on a route where we could see the craftmaker's district. I didn't have the energy to dig my camera out of my bag, which the driver had jammed into the back of the vehicle somewhere anyway.
“Is he taking us to our apartment?” my husband Chris asked my uncle. “No. We're going to the school for an orientation meeting,” my uncle said.
There was a two-second silence. “WHAT?” My husband asked. My aunt just laughed and said, “One thing you gotta learn right now, is to NEVER take anything David says too seriously.”
“They would have to pay us extra for that,” my husband said, humourlessly.
“How're you doing, Maria?” My aunt stretched back to ask me. I was being very quiet.
We were driving into a residential area/gated community guarded by an armed security officer. Once we were ushered inside by a calm, condescending hand gesture, we were greeted by sameness. All of the apartment buildings were spawned of the same clean tile exterior, glinting like teeth in rows, with rounded edges. I thought I smelled urinals.
“That's our apartment,” my aunt pointed to a building that was across from a patch of green space. There were mangoes hanging from the trees. That's nice, I thought, and couldn't help more images of elegance which floated into my mind, expectations of the interior.
My aunt took a key out of her purse and turned it in the lock. As the door opened, my uncle said, “Home sweet home!” The walls were Easter egg blue, and the flourescent lights rang with the sound of loosening filaments. I had never seen a brighter living space in my life. The burgundy velour couch sitting offcenter against the far wall could not have clashed more. There was an orange and green mat with fraying edges in the middle of the floor. The quaint Martha Stewart comforts of home were being beaten right out of me with giant proverbial chopsticks.
“Well, I'm sorry to be rude, but I'm feverishly tired. Where's our bedroom?”
“I'll walk you there.” My uncle led the way. “It's the master bedroom.” I didn't care that the entire room was painted bright pink. I sunk into the bed. It was quite a bit lower on one side. I rolled into the lowest spot and fell asleep. My husband balanced on the other end.
A very loud telephone rang shortly after I fell asleep. My uncle knocked on our door. “The Chus request the honor of our presence at the finest restaurant in town. Get up-- it would be an insult to not go.”
“Now. They are waiting for us at the restaurant now. So get up, and dress up a little. For first impressions.” My aunt and uncle were seasoned travelers and were used to taking on the responsibilities of cultural ambassador and public persona.
We got dressed quickly and walked down our stairs to be greeted by our driver. I wondered if he'd been there the whole time. I pinched my cheeks and tried on a fake smile. “How do I look?” I asked my aunt. “Ravishing. And hungry.”
We arrived at a clean, new tile building with a statue of a giant golden rooster in the front. “Have you been here before?” I asked my aunt. “No, but I've heard they serve golden eggs!”
As we walked in, we were greeted by about four people who responded to our foreign presence with the utmost of formality. Bows of the servants and serious faces greeted us at their respective stations in the restaurant. At the front door, at the foot of the stairs, at the top of the hall, and at the door to our private dining area.
The Chus were watching the television set, situated above and in the corner of the room. When we entered, they stood up. Mr. Chu was a small man who had an air of artificial self-importance. He stretched out his hand for a firm gentlemanly handshake and said, “Dr. Chu, MD. Prease to meet you.” My aunt was the only one his height, the remaining three of us towered over him. Mrs. Chu with her heels was a little taller, and wore pearls and had immaculate hair. Her pink sweater set was an elegant choice to go with her notably over-whitened complexion.
“Very nice to meet you, Maria and Chris! We have heard so much about you! So tell me, how was your travel?”
“It was uncomfortable and exhausting,” my husband said blatantly.
“But we're so happy to be here!” I offered.
“We have planned traditional meal for first meal in China,” Dr. Chu said.
He rang a buzzer on the wall and almost instantly a waiter brought in a cart and laid down a plate at each of our settings. I looked at the plate in front of me. There was a grey, sick looking bird, too tiny and whole to be considered food. The eye tried to look up at me in its braised-to-raisin state.
“Baby pigeon. A rare delicacy of South Chinese cuisine.” Dr. Chu beamed.
“We are delighted!!” Said my uncle, looking at me out of the corner of his eye. I felt the pressure to forget my vegetarianism for the sake of etiquette. I put on the plastic gloves which accompanied the meal, picked up the poor baby bird, and bit into its wing. Tooth against bone. I realized then that I had not seen any pigeons milling around the public spaces since Seattle.
“We always give baby pigeon to the foreign teachers when they arrive.” Mrs. Chu strained against botox lips to smile. “It is a very popular dish for foreign teachers.”
“Well, it's very unique. We really don't have anything like this in Canada,” my aunt offered.
“Tastes like chicken!” Said my uncle.
“Smells like cheese,” said my husband under his breath, of my uncle's sense of humour. I kicked Chris under the table, a little bit grateful for his sarcasm in moments like these.
The moment where my hands were in the gloves and my mouth was on that frail plucked bird were long and uncomfortable. All eyes were on me, and I tried to disassociate myself from what I was doing to this poor animal.
“Mmmm! Delicious!” I was not sure what point in the game we were in. Was I being tested, or was this in fact a most regal treatment? Whatever the case, I did not feel any sense of my new employers' kindness.
The next dish was mixed vegetables with some white gelatinous chunks of meat stirred in. I scooped a small amount onto my plate with the western cutlery the Chus had provided us with. “Did you ever try chopstick?”
“Yes, I grew up very near Chinatown in Vancouver, and so my dad taught us to use them when we were children.”
“Many foreigner use chopstick wrong.” I was getting a good sense of Mr. Chu's personality.
“Maria and Chris, do you want beer?” Mrs. Chu asked. “Yes!” we both said in unison. There was the kindness. There was the hope.
Back at home, my aunt went onto the computer, and my husband and uncle smoked a cigar out on the deck. I stripped off my clothing in the bathroom and turned on the shower. A very small stream of cold water came out.
“You have to turn on the red switch!” My aunt yelled in to me as soon as she heard the water running.
“Thanks!” The liquid soap was pink and smelled like artificial roses. I took a very short shower and then stepped out in a bathrobe that had been hanging on the back of the door.
“Maria, come into the living room, won't you,” my uncle interrupted my traverse to the bedroom with a cup of tea. “Sit down on the couch,” he said.
My husband was still smoking out on the deck, watching the bats fly in the evening air. I sat with my legs curled up under me. There was something unabashedly grounding about a hot shower.
“We have one week before we all start teaching classes. So tomorrow Kate and I are taking you on a trip. We found a place we think you'll really like. We have to leave early to take the bus there. It's going to be a long journey.”
“Where is this place?” I asked. In spite of myself, I loved my uncle's never-ending energy and zeal.
“It's a surprise. Our lips are sealed. But you are going to love it, I promise.”
Had I, in the past twenty-four hours, been given a reason to believe my aunt and uncle's promises? And had I any assurance of experiencing anything here which fall into the category of “loveable”? No, but I was here in China to see if my definition of what was loveable was ready for flexing. Could I adapt to embrace more experiences, more people, as loveable? Maybe tomorrow would hold the answer.
© Fiona Marion Jan 2011
Fiona is an ex-pat Canadian who teaches English in the countries she finds herself in. She is currently preparing to move to Germany, after spending the past six months in Brazil. You can read her travel blog at www.bloodpearls.blogspot.com.