From Shanghai I traveled to Hangzhou and then Huangshan by bus. I walked around the famous west lake Hangzhou rubbing shoulders with hundreds, if not thousands, of Chinese holiday goers. One girl walked with me for about 30 minutes, her mother mute a step or so behind us. She asked me all manner of curious questions, though what I best remember is her asking how often I bathe. Every day, I told her. She said she could go four days.
In Huangshan I ranged across the famous and mist shrouded Yellow Mountain until my lungs seemed fit to burst and my knees would give out. I walked one way, then came back the other. Though hills are all about ups and downs, I seemed to climb many more inclines than I walked down the declines. Sometimes I wondered why I did this, but I knew, of course. Because it was there, naturally. Because I was on holiday. And because my pride demanded I do this. And because it was pretty.
I lived quietly, contained in myself. On the bus to Huangshan I had met some French girls who I later bumped into on the mountain exchanging an amused “Ni Hao”, before seeing them again in a small bar at the foot of it. I had a quiet night in a homestay in Xidi, doing little more than respond to the locals ever curious about the tall, blonde, white skinned westerner. It was an old place, closer to the old times than anywhere else I’ve been. I walked down the narrow laneways, taking care not to get lost in the tangle of intersections. The sun set. The crenellated tiles on the roof stood out proud against the blazing sun. People, old women, children, smiled at me. I took picture after picture before I returned to the homestay, where I had a bottle of Chinese beer to myself and a dish of gelatinous pork in a dark sauce redolent of star anise. I had passed the pigs earlier, the house next door, unseen, smelt before they were heard.
After climbing the Tellow mountain I went to Tunxi, were I had dinner and walked around. I flew into Beijing again on a plane where I was the only person not Asian. I slept long and hard that night aching still from my exertions on the mountain 1500km to the south.
Awake I sent a message to a girl I had met when I first arrived in Beijing. We had met by chance outside the gates of the Forbidden City. Beset by people offering to guide me through the complex I had rejected all until I had been approached by Quan. She was not as pretty as one of the previous touts, but she seemed credible and smart and someone I knew within a moment that I could trust. She was a good guide and we got on well.
A few days later she took me to the Summer Palace. That afternoon we ranged through the hutongs sharing lunch, then a rickshaw, a long conversation over an iced coffee, then a performance of drumming in the Bell Tower (a highlight of my trip). Back at my hotel we shared a drink before we went out for dinner, where she opened up to me.
I already liked her. My first impressions of her had been correct, she was patient and honest, knowledgeable and good humoured. She had told me some earlier over our coffee, now over a classic French meal she told me all. Her father was a university lecturer. She had studied history and English. She had opened up an antique store for many years and made good money from it till the GFC hit. She had married, I knew that, and had twin girls now 7 years old. Now she told me that she lived apart from a husband who refused to divorce her. From her description of him he sounded much like we would call a no-hoper back here in Oz. She basically supported him as well as the kids, while she lived in a small flat.
In many ways her story was sad. Even before the kids had been born the relationship was over. In contrast to herself her husband had, as she described, ‘no pride’ – he was happy to sponge off her while his embarassed parents looked on. It was important to her that she was independent she told me, she had pride and was naturally enterprising. She had endured some rough times – including losing all her savings in the GFC – but was determined to march on. She cut an impressive, admirable and slightly sad figure.
With all this conversation we had become more intimate. I think she missed that physical contact, and the rare opportunities to open up to someone who would understand. We grappled a little before parting that night, promising to catch-up when I returned to Beijing.
And so there I was again, and keen to see her. I expected to have dinner then go back to my hotel. To my surprise she arrived with one of her daughters. That was that, I thought as we pressed on to a local Vietnamese restaurant. I might have been disappointed, but wasn’t. I discovered through the course of the meal what a delightful girl her daughter was. I had noticed this before, that the Chinese children were lively and whimsical, especially the girls. Was it something to do with being the sole child? In Tunxi I had sat eating my dinner outside watching children bowl up and down the street in front of me. Some would throw in an impromptu dance step, or show-off to an available adult, or else go for broke playing in their spirited way. I was enchanted.
Now I was enchanted again by Doodo (?), who took to me as much as I did to her. Like most Chinese children she was cute. She was curious and energetic and expressive, playing games with me across the table, and imitating some of the faces I pulled at her – I’ve probably introduced bad habits to her class room. She would sneak up on me then shriek and giggle when I discovered her. She seemed so bright and switched on for a 7 year old. More than once with a look of feigned innocence she would take my hand and the hand of her mother and put them together. Her mother was very proud of her.
Sitting, watching, interacting, I realised different things that I knew perhaps but had submerged. It didn’t matter that I wouldn’t bed Quan, if never really did. I was fortunate enough to find something else.
In the first instance I was reminded how humbling children are. There they are taking on life and living it as it comes to them. They delight in things we overlook, and are unafraid to express all that they feel, unlike their more guarded seniors. They live unfiltered, in their joy of the things around them and in and for their love of those dear to them. They receive it as if it is their due, but return it in spades without a second thought. Sometimes they are kind enough to share it with perfect strangers from across the seas.
I remembered how much I love children. How dear they are, and precious when they are yours. Amid all of this it came to me that I have so much love inside of me that just goes to waste. I felt full to the brim with it. This little girl brought it out of me, and made me remember what I really valued – and really wanted.
It’s a blur, but in the still centre of things, the place we revisit too rarely, there is the truth we leave behind – me at least – in joining the fray, in becoming part of the blur. I parted from them with that thought, refreshed in a way, and feeling as if I had taken another stop forward on the path to…?