Monday

The Princess Diana of Changchun.


I was royalty from the moment I stepped down from the train in Changchun. This was  an incredibly
important event for them and a true baptism of fire for me. I truly had no idea how unusual a white woman would be — or how powerful they would think me with the might and power of a prosperous Western city and the BBC behind me. Waiting on the platform were the Mayor and four other serious-looking Mau-suited men in grey and blue from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Introductions were made and hands were shaken. From then on it was a whirlwind of events, banquets, meetings and interviews as I was displayed to the whole city. I did the best I could to stop the panic showing in my eyes and the prayer ‘Dear God, don’t let me screw up,’ was constantly in my heart and on my lips.
I was paraded around schools, colleges, hospitals, factories, railway depots and offices. It began with the university; a large echoing grey building where I was welcomed in the traditional Chinese reception room with white-covered armchairs and a thermos flask of tea always dispensed by a woman. There would be wrapped boiled sweets and 3D pictures of trees made from wax on the walls and at least four men in Mao suits. This formula was the same with each and every destination. Each time the entire workings of the place were painstakingly explained to me with everything translated by Chen and after I had expressed full comprehension and gratitude for their kindness in letting me visit, I was given a comprehensive guided tour.
In the university, I saw students of all shapes and sizes in classroom after classroom and sat in on an English lesson. At the end I was asked to give a speech. I stuttered and stammered with no idea what to say but praised them and told them a little about home. I got a standing ovation for saying I hoped they would all visit Britain one day. When I asked Chen afterwards how I had done he simply said ‘The speech was too short.’ I realised that nobody realised that I was inexperienced at this; I was expected to know what I was doing.
I sat through piano recitals, watched displays of Tai Chi and dance and everywhere in public was met with detached courtesy. But in the ladies’ lavatories women clustered shyly around me staring at my pink skin and pointing at my clothing. Sometimes, one would reach out and touch my bare arm, shyly, as if to see if I were real. Most of the lavatories were only flushed by the occasional bucket of water, and many of them were filled with menstrual blood which took a little getting used to and made me everlastingly appreciative for British public loos. In one open loo which was just a drain at one side of a sloping floor, they stood and watched to see if I would pee differently from them. And then were perplexed that I didn’t go at all.
I learnt very quickly that I can be very stoical and that was a relief.
At the Children’s Palace, a school for gifted children, I had my portrait drawn in charcoal by a nine-year-old girl genius.
‘She is making you much more attractive than you really are,’ said Chen excitedly as he watched over her shoulder. I think he was trying to impress on me the girl’s great talent.
‘Have you ever heard of the word “tact?”’ I asked him afterwards. Chen had not and was most interested in the concept, carefully writing down the word and its meaning in his ever-present notebook.
‘I’m sure you understand that nobody here could think you were pretty,’ he said, cheerfully. ‘Your hair is a strange colour; your clothes are odd, your nose is enormous and your whole face is too big.’
I wondered whether I had explained the word ‘tact’ correctly.
At another school, I was treated to a piano performance of Chopin by a ten-year-old boy. He fluffed it, losing timing and hitting quite a few wrong notes and he stopped in the middle, his tears of shame making it impossible for him to go on. There was silence. Every teacher from the school was there, together with Chen and my entourage of four men from the city government, not to mention 30 children.
I feared that the boy would be in tremendous trouble for what had happened but I was also outraged. The piece was far too difficult. I looked around the room at a sea of impassive faces.
Something made me stand up and walk over to the piano. I watched myself do it in a kind of horror as I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Chen half got up and then sat down again. I didn’t even realise until he told me later that I had made a clear gesture to him to stay back.
The piano stool was quite wide and I was able to sit next to the boy, put my arm around him and tried to give him a paper handkerchief. I don’t think he’d ever seen one before so I had to mime wiping my eyes with it and indicate that he was to do the same. Then — and this was the miracle — I started playing the top part of ‘chopsticks’ very slowly while looking at him. Tentatively he placed his hands on the piano and played the lower part. We played together for probably a minute and then he stopped. I stopped too. We looked at each other; he smiled and, with me sitting there beside him, he began the Chopin again.
It might not have been perfect but it was quite good enough. And he even began to enjoy it towards the end because his face lightened up and his body began to flow.
When he had finished, I stood up and clapped as loudly as I could looking round the room and daring the audience not to clap with me. They did.
As I went back to my seat (there were other performers still to come) I hissed at Chen ‘he is not to be punished. Tell them!’ He nodded and said something to the head teacher who was sitting on the other side of me. I don’t know what it was but the man pursed his lips and nodded.
I don’t know what happened later; I have no idea if I made life for that boy better or worse, but I do know that I was always rubbish at the piano and that I don’t know how to play chopsticks.

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