Kicking over the traces.


Each night I attended a banquet at a different place in Changchun, being celebrated as a foreign
dignitary and eating clear soups with meat and vegetables, 100-year-old eggs, sea cucumbers, sweet-and-sour pork, chopped chicken, river fish that seemed to be 70% bones, chopped duck complete with bones, bean curd flavoured 20 different ways, all kinds of mushrooms including one type that looked, rather amusingly, like mini penises, pak choi and other green cabbage-like vegetables. Some of it was delicious, some of it took quite a while to get used to and sea cucumbers are definitely the food from hell. Bravely I ate as little rice as I could.
Desserts were fresh fruit or little cakes made to look like Western cup cakes but made with a strange, tasteless custard. Sometimes we had fresh lychees or red tinned cherries which I came to love for their sweetness and tang.
I ate only with men. Women would serve us but the concept of equal opportunities in the businesses I visited seemed to be limited to the work floor and not to celebratory dinners with foreign princesses.
The drinks were canned orange juice, beer, Mau Tai — a kind of clear rocket fuel — or very sweet wine. Probably fortunately for me Chen wouldn’t let me drink the Mau Tai. I think it wasn’t meant to be suitable for women. I don’t like beer and I couldn’t stand the wine so I did, at least, keep completely sober which almost certainly limited my capacity for conversational errors. There was, of course, the never-ending tea. I don’t think I could have survived without that tea.
All through the week, Chen chaffed and worried over me and I worried and chafed back like a dog on a lead. I longed to speak to the real people as well as to the officials and to eat real Chinese food instead of the magnificent banquets of 10 or 12 courses. I wanted to hear someone laugh over something silly, to understand a Chinese joke or two and to be told that I was doing well. I tried to teach Chen some English jokes but he couldn’t understand the concept. He was born earnest and he thought it was his job to tell me whatever I was doing wrong. I so, so wanted him, just once, to tell me that I was doing something right.
I wanted to explore the markets alone instead of being escorted around the department stores in an entourage of ten. I wanted to talk to the people who actually worked in the truck factories and embroidery factories and on the steam engines but it was not permitted. I did my best and was incredibly ungrateful and horribly lonely.
I found out that I was wearing all the wrong clothes and, given that this was the 1980s with shoulder pads and bright emerald boiler suits I think, in retrospect, Chen was right about that. Had I been 20 years older and dressed in more classic style I would have made more sense to them; but as it was, one official believed that I’d turned up at his factory in my pyjamas.
At last, Chen and I took the overnight train back to Beijing. I heaved a sigh of relief at the idea of being back at the Peking Hotel and hopefully being allowed a day on my own to wander as I pleased before being put on the airplane to head back home. I wouldn’t be meeting Dad as he and Mark were still two weeks away from heaing home.
When Chen told me that we were going to the very basic Railway Hotel instead and that he had a full itinerary for me for the last day, my heart sank. I endured rather than enjoyed the Heavenly Temple and the Empress’s Gardens and that evening I sat in my tiny, plain room with no lavatory even on the same floor and cried tears of exhaustion and disappointment. At 9.30 pm I cracked and climbed out of the window and went AWOL.
For three hours I wandered around the streets of Peking alone, meeting nothing but polite curiosity and kindness. Using sign language, I brought a bowl of noodles and meat from a street vendor, I watched a tumbling show, I spoke to dozens of young people who wanted to practice their English and toured the Friendship Store — the shop for foreigners which in those days filled with furs and silks and jade — until my heart sang. I tried on sarongs and kimonos and spent money joyously. I loved China!
Back at the hotel, after midnight, I crept in by the front door. Chen was sitting at reception, his dour face grey with fear. We looked at each other and he sprang up with relief. I felt dreadful. The poor man must have been sick with worry that his charge had gone missing .
“I’m quite safe,” I said. “I have been talking to the young people.”
He nodded and bless him said nothing but ‘Goodnight’ as I passed. What could he say? I was the foreign princess and he was simply grateful that I had come back unharmed. If I had not, he would have been disgraced forever. God knows what nightmare scenarios he had been picturing.
I went to my tiny room wondering how he had known I had gone but, of course, I was hardly inconspicuous. I felt wracked with guilt but was still glad that I had had my own adventure. It was such a relief to kick over the traces and find a little of China on my own.
I had no idea that I would ever be coming back — let alone again and again — and when the time came to leave I was heartily relieved. It had been a true baptism of fire.
Goodbyes were said courteously all round and reassurances sought that I had had a good time. It had been an amazing time, whether or not I had enjoyed it was hardly the point. What an opportunity!
On the plane to Hong Kong, the air hostess asked me if I would like a drink. I said, ‘yes please, a gin and tonic.’
She looked at me with an experienced eye. ‘How long have you been in there?’ she asked.
‘Two weeks,’ I said.
She smiled and said, ‘Have a double.’

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