Marvels of the Middle Kingdom

“Dad,” Andrew said, “how about you and Mum coming to Chengdu?” In 2005 our son was studying Mandarin at the Minorities University in this bustling Chinese city of 7 million souls, home of the palate-scorching, chilli-infused Sichuan cuisine, giggly girls and placid panda bears. In China such a city is considered to be middle-sized.

Our Chinese adventure started on the way to our Beijing hotel from the airport. Valentina and I were driven in a taxi along wide boulevards, lined like Moscow’s on both sides with Stalinist-style buildings, looking for all to see like illuminated layer-cakes. The evening traffic was slow, so we resigned ourselves to a long drive and quietly gazed around. Communication with our driver was impossible—he did not speak English and, in any case, ordinary Chinese are not encouraged to speak to foreigners. This idyll was rudely interrupted. The languidly moving traffic stopped again and the doors of a car two cars in front of us suddenly flew open. Out jumped four burly men wearing black leather overcoats, each of them carrying a hand gun. Leaving their car doors open, they briskly approached the car in front, forcefully opened all the doors and, shouting loudly (paying little attention to the driver, who got out as soon as the proceedings got under way), unceremoniously pulled two passengers out. These two passengers were spreadeagled on the bonnet of their car and frisked in plain view of everyone, handcuffed and bundled into a bus, which was waiting in the service lane.

We looked at each other but did not say a word. Valentina looked scared. Later on she said that I became pale even in the darkness of the car’s interior. Our driver, who had studiously ignored our presence before, suddenly came to life and began pointing his finger towards different buildings along the drive, giving us a running commentary in Chinese on the places of interest. The three of us did not care whether we understood each other or not—when one is scared any human company is reassuring. His face was mask-like, frozen with fright. His eyes were almost square and fixedly unblinking. His hands were shaking as he gave me my change at the end of the journey. So were mine.

Minorities University

Foreign students lived in a separate compound of multi-storey buildings, guarded by a smiling uniformed attendant. He smiled only at Westerners; Chinese received scowls. The house the foreign students lived in had large television screens in every gleaming lift. Mahogany wall panelling, panoramic windows with breathtaking views, bathrooms looking like temples to Aphrodite and Zeus, hardwood furniture—the setting was decadent. This expat beehive contained a number of Australian, American, New Zealand and Brazilian kids. They had a ball, quietly enjoying their VIP status and, for most of them, the luxury unlike anything they had experienced. It was something of an established tradition for every visiting parent to take everyone to the most fashionable place in town—the Mexican restaurant on the promenade. Well, when in Rome…

The sound of our son speaking Mandarin and being understood and answered by locals was music to our ears and a resounding confirmation of the wisdom of the investment we had made in his future. To have Andrew with his Mandarin skills guiding and supervising us was priceless. We saw foreigners getting into complicated situations owing to their lack of spoken Mandarin.

Our visit coincided with the intra-university games, which all students, including foreigners, were expected to take part in. When we got to the stadium where the opening parade was to take place, the group of foreign students had formed a separate column, holding up an enormous sign, with Chinese and English writing on it, which, naturally, read: “Group of foreign students studying at the Minorities University of Chengdu”. The audience enjoyed themselves; boys and girls were flirting, laughing and messing about, VIPs were sitting in their place of honour, excited Brazilians were dancing something exotic, Aussies were mischievously smiling at Americans and Americans, not to be outdone, were hugging everyone they could reach. Chinese, not used to Western expressions of friendliness, immediately went rigid and anxious in their embrace. After a while, the American kids realised that hugging a teacher is not within the Chinese code of polite conduct in public.

The most exotic, however, were the Chinese students. Recruited from the various minorities and regions of this huge country, they wore such an inventively unusual and dazzlingly colourful array of ethnic costumes that they resembled a congregation of extras in a Harry Potter movie. The parade started. The only group which did not march military-style were the foreign students. The rest were marching as if Mao himself were watching and choosing the best for officer school. The motto of the parade was, “China is open! China is part of the big world!” To prove the point, some of the Chinese students wore cowboy boots with wide brimmed hats and sang “Oh, Susanna” at the top of their voices.

Andrew had lined up some obligatory touristy things for us, feeling rather pleased to be in charge of his parents for the first time in his life.

The whirlwind of pagodas, Great Wall, Forbidden City, little pieces of old Beijing called hutongs—it was both fascinating and tiring. The most important discovery we made, however, was the Chinese people themselves, their warmth, their sense of humour, their tactfulness and generosity of spirit. Chinese pragmatism and tolerance of human foibles endeared the Chinese people to us both.

Chengdu People’s Park

The three of us went to a Chengdu people’s park. Andrew was uncharacteristically mysterious, saying only, “You’ll see” and “You won’t regret it” in response to our puzzled questioning. He was right—we did not regret the trip.

We came to a dancing place—about a hectare of asphalt, full of dancing couples under an open sky. Smiling, courteously distant to each other, partners were slowly waltzing, avoiding looking at each other so as not to embarrass their partner with a direct gaze. Valentina immediately declared that she wanted to dance with her son and, without waiting for an answer, went into the middle of the polite crowd. Andrew, uncomfortable under the watchful glances, took his mum’s hand and started to dance. The crowd began to applaud, saying something to red-faced Andrew and smiling Valentina. Two middle-aged women patted Andrew’s head and back approvingly. He translates what they said—“How nice to see filial piety from a Western boy.”

We retreated as soon as it was polite and went to another place, where about a thousand people were singing together in an impromptu choir. To our amazement, the song they were singing was a well known Russian song from the Second World War, “Katyusha”, about a young woman dutifully waiting for her beloved to come back to her after the war. Without thinking, we joined in, singing loudly the song every Russian learns in childhood. Our singing companions looked at us with surprise and delight without interrupting the song. After the song is over, we were surrounded by excited singers, who, with Andrew’s help, asked us how we managed to translate this Chinese folk song into a foreign language? How could I tell a thousand excited Chinese that it was a Russian song and that I know who wrote it, which movie it was performed in for the first time, and so on? We pleaded inability to speak adequate Mandarin, thanked our hosts for letting us share their song with them and swiftly retreated.

We moved to a quiet part of the park which is used for tai chi—a form of group relaxation, based on fluid movements focused on various parts of the body. Valentina immediately positioned herself at the back of the all-woman group and faithfully repeated all their movements. Suddenly, Andrew started giggling—he had heard the command of the group leaders and knew what was coming. On this command the entire group turned 180 degrees and Valentina, who did not understand that she was supposed to turn together with the rest of the group, found herself in front of a group of fifty Chinese women, who were just about to move their outstretched arms gracefully in another direction. Instead, they saw a Caucasian woman waving her arms in the air expectantly, looking with the great deal of interest back at them. There was a short pause. Someone at the back began to giggle, and the whole group burst into laughter and Valentina, flushed with embarrassment, retreated.

In another part of the large park was the main reason we went. It is called the bride exchange, a place where ordinary people go when they need a husband or a wife. We were doubtful—should we intrude in such a delicate and private place? Might we inadvertently insult and shame people who were engaged in such a personal pursuit? Andrew explained that as long as we didn’t read the signs people were carrying, we effectively did not exist there. The etiquette of the exchange is both simple and profound. Everyone openly wanting to find a life partner either carries or reads a brief self-description. However, some people, who might be shy or not ready to advertise, might first wish to familiarise themselves with the way the system works. That is why those who come here and do not carry or read signs do not exist as far as the exchange place is concerned.

The human side of this spontaneous and frank stepping-out, openly declaring oneself to be available in marriage, is overwhelmingly honest and egalitarian. In most instances what you see is what you get. There is no internet safety of anonymity where people can create any image they like. This was a place where mostly mature-age people were able to overcome loneliness and self-doubt, feelings of shame and shyness. It was a kind place, a pragmatic, honest place, a very human place. We were very subdued when we left.

Peking duck

Valentina decided that after almost three weeks in China she could explain what she wanted to a waiter in a restaurant. Naturally, to be in Beijing and not try Peking duck was an omission little short of a sacrilege. We went to the place for Peking duck. Andrew, wisely as it turned out, excused himself from “watching Mum making a fool of herself” as he delicately explained later. Never the one to be put off by obstacles, Valentina bravely plunged into a list of the delights she expected from her well-prepared Peking duck. She spent a considerable amount of time describing her wishes for the duck’s bones to be delivered alongside the delicious meat, as Hong Kong’s restaurants do. I watched proceedings with interest but did not interfere, even when I observed the ever-decreasing distance between waiter’s eyebrows and his hairline. At the end of Valentina’s explanation his eyebrows had virtually become a part of his hairline and his eyes, instead of being shaped in the Asian manner, had became round. By this time, instead of one unfailingly polite waiter, we had three or four, also with round eyes and no distance between their eyebrows and hairline. Having made sure their customer had exhausted her eloquence, they all drew their collective breath, and disappeared. Valentina, tired but victorious, looked expectant and confident.

Another person appeared at our table. It was chief waiter cum manager. Speaking slowly, clearly enunciating every word, he asked Valentina, puzzled: “Do you want duck’s bones?” “Yes,” answered Valentina firmly. The manager knew when he was defeated: “Very well,” he answered with a sigh and went away, shaking his head. The time went by. Our table became a centre of rather unhealthy attention—a veritable procession of waiters, kitchen hands, dishwashers and cleaners went by and took a good look at us, speaking to each other in whispers, giggling, shrugging their shoulders, looking puzzled and entertained.

The time had arrived. The head waiter appeared, holding a large dish above his head.  He was accompanied by, it seemed, the entire staff of the restaurant—cooks in their white hats, dishwashers, their hands dripping, looking out of the kitchen, apprentice waiters, security guards—all of them keenly watching the unfolding drama. The head waiter gingerly placed the dish on the table. We, as gingerly, looked inside. There, surrounded by artistically presented vegetables, was a duck’s skeleton, stripped bare of meat. The pause that followed was pregnant with meaning. The first to crack was our son. The rest of the restaurant duly followed.

After a delicious meal, which was organised in a record time with Andrew’s help, the head waiter refused to take money as “a token of our appreciation for the pleasure and laughter we were all given today”. When Valentina, suspicious of the exact meaning of this compliment, asked Andrew to translate, he changed the subject.

Xian, terracotta warriors

The sight of endless rows of armed warriors unblinkingly staring the future in the face, and ever ready to fight any demons threatening their emperor’s rule in the afterlife, is awesome and unnerving. I found myself intently looking in their faces, thinking that these were the reflections of people who lived at the time. The fascinating glimpses into the lives and mores of people long gone makes me appreciate the values of being non-judgmental and tolerant. For example—if not for the superstitions of the ancient Chinese and Egyptians, who believed that a man or a woman should be equipped in the afterlife with the tools and implements of their trade, we wouldn’t know so much about their lives now. We should be grateful to those, ignorant and superstitious as they were, who sent us this message from our shared past, even if this message was sent for all the wrong reasons.

When I looked at these warriors I thought—how similar humans are, whether living now or in the past. These terracotta warriors represented an infatuation with and a craving for power, which has not changed. The methods of obtaining it might vary but the essence of the hunger for power remains the same. The dying emperor, terrified of his impending death and, even more so, of the possibility of becoming just one of the multitudes, decided to equip himself with an army to be able to rule in the afterlife. Eminently ludicrous, we might say today. However, is it so different from the Mao’s famous dictum that “power grows from the barrel of a gun”?

We were leaving China, the country and its people we came to know, albeit marginally, and like. China of gleaming skyscrapers and open sewers, television screens in fast lifts and dirty restaurant dishes, smiling youngsters and anxious old people, ostentatious wealth, magnetic levitation trains and heart-rending poverty; China of traumatic past and of great future, wishing to be loved by the outside world and not yet knowing the extent of her strength. Good luck to you, our great northern neighbour. I am sure you will find Australians to be good neighbours, because our national motto is “Live and let live.”

Dr Michael Galak and his family came to Australia as refugees from the Soviet Union in 1978

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