In Langkawi

It’s early afternoon and I’m sitting in the cafe section of the bed and breakfast I’m staying at in Langkawi. It’s open on three sides, and the heat of the day seeps in, held at bay only by the quickly whirling blades of the ceiling fans. Directly in front of me is a small pool in direct sunlight. Beyond that is bushland rising into hills and to either side the two wings of accommodation, stark white, peaked roofs, contemporary Australian in style (I say Oz because the owners here have a strong Australian connection). As it is a funky place funky music pipes through the speakers, and by my left hand is a glass of cold water, beaded already from the heat. I feel a siesta coming on – I’m on holiday after all – but I’ll finish this first, just for you.

It is warm here, much warmer than KL. I have theories about this. KL is like a lot of Asian cities. Most days are cloudy, though rarely overcast. There seems always to be a haze, which makes for pretty sunsets at least. The temperature generally is in the low 30’s, but it rarely feels that warm to me. Because of the overhead conditions, the heat is diffused and is barely noticeable. It is only later when your shirt is damp and clammy that you feel any discomfort. 31 in KL feels much like a 27 back home.

Rarely in KL do you feel that direct heat that is characteristic of home, of Melbourne at least and those other parts with dry heat. In summer at home, there are days you are wary of exposing too much skin because the heat feels so direct. You sweat more freely, but with the dry heat, it is quickly evaporated. It feels hotter but cleaner.

It seems characteristic of many Asian cities, densely populated in semi-tropical zones, and with minimal controls on smog. Hot, moist, humid. Singapore in my experience is the cleanest of the lot, and outside of Vietnam, Laos, and northern India, the warmest. It doesn’t get any hotter than KL – the temperatures are similar – but it doesn’t get the haze, and so it feels much warmer. I remember when I stayed there I would go through a couple of shirts a day minimum. I had only to walk out the door to feel like I had sprung a leak. It was very unpleasant, and given the humidity, I was condemned to a wet shirt until I found air-con to dry in.

Langkawi feels similar to Singapore. The temperature is probably the same as in KL, but with no more than a few scattered cumuli in the sky it feels a good deal hotter. The humidity is less that of Singapore I would guess – in the 70s rather than the 90s – and more comfortable by that margin, but you can definitely feel it.

The good thing in a place like this is that are plenty of places to swim to cool off, and plentiful cheap cocktails to keep the insides at a pleasant temperature.

I arrived yesterday afternoon. After checking in I went for a walk. I found myself at a small beach where I sat and had a cheap cocktail while looking out over the ocean through the fronds of the palm trees, George Benson strumming his guitar in the background. It felt good to behold the sea. It’s one of those questions sometimes asked: are you a beach swimmer, or pool? I always muse on that, though given a perfect world the answer is always the beach.

I’m fussy. It needs to be a nice beach after all. And neither too busy or too crowded. Preferably it’s a surf beach – I’m an Aussie after all – where I can feel the tumble and roil of the sea, can feel it exuberantly pick me up and set me down again. The ocean is not to be wallowed in. And I guess the water temperature has to be just right.

After my cocktail, I stripped off my shirt and went for a swim. Technically a surf beach there were no waves to speak of, just a sudden but small swell that barely broke upon the beach. It was delicious in though. Ideally, I might have adjusted the water temperature down a degree, but better too warm than too cold. I swam out a bit then came back. I looked at the palm trees and the yachts at anchor and a girl in a black bikini and after 15 minutes I got out – it’s boring if you can’t body surf. I had a very cheap beer while the sea dried on me and then set off again.

Through the afternoon I walked the full length of the main beach before stopping for a late lunch. I followed that up with a couple of 2 for 1 Mojito’s staring out over the horizon. Nearby me a couple from eastern Europe drank icy cocktails and seemed tense until they had a long pash. Over yonder was a family group from China, even in a place like this carrying their characteristic flasks of tea. And four American girls in swimwear they might have inherited from their grandmothers discussed the things that teenage girls do all over.

I started back. I felt tired, a little sunburnt, and a bit weary. I stopped at a massage place and after a bit of wrangling agreed to a ‘strong’ massage. After convincing them we would all be more comfortable with the air-con on I lay down for my massage to begin.

On this occasion, it was a male – dark-skinned, very slender, no more than 21 but with a moustache Errol Flynn would be proud of. He started on me, inquiring as he went as to whether it was ‘too strong’, or ‘more’. Not for the first time in Asia I felt little more than a big lump of meat. I lay there inert and pale-skinned while he dug his strong fingers into my flesh. For his size he was strong, obviously well practised at exerting all his meagre weight in his craft. Occasionally the very slightness of the locals here makes me feel indelicate, at the very least.

I must have been more than double the weight of the kid last night, and probably a good 8 inches taller. Earlier in my visit to KL I’d had a massage with a jolly Thai woman who had said I was “too much big”, and laughed, “too much strong.” It’s often at times like that that I feel most foreign, and slightly embarrassed, not by my size so much, as by being served, and at the sheer healthiness my size represents. I become aware of a privilege which I haven’t really earned.

Naturally, I soon get over that, as I did once more last night. I left there feeling more creaky than I had arrived, but thinking to myself that it was a ‘good creakiness’. Back at the hotel, I had a lime juice, a G&T, and a chat with the bartender. Later I had a light meal and a chat with one of the owners, a very affable gay guy who had spent half his life in Perth, a few years in Melbourne (which, predictably, he loved), before returning to Malaysia to run the restaurant here.

By 10pm I had my light out. Maybe it was the heat or all the walking I did, or simply the fresh air, but I was bushed.

Today it was breakfast sitting where I am now. Then a walk and a quick swim and a light lunch. Siesta time looms, but first, I think, I should check out the pool.

I’m here…

Here I am sitting in an air-conditioned chamber on the ground floor of the hotel/apartment block I’m currently staying at in KL. I’m here because it is the only place within spittin’ distance where there is wi-fi. Not surprisingly then I am joined here by others surfing the net quietly in their bubble, some looking like students catching up on homework, others with earbuds listening to their favourite music as they type, and a table of men speaking some middle-eastern language enjoying the cool.

Yes, I’m in KL again. I’m here because it’s convenient to be here. I’m here because I had a flight credit I had to use inside 3 months. I’m here because with mum’s house now on the market I’m better off away. I’m here because it’s good to get away from a few of the things bogging me down in Melbourne. I’m here because it is good and oddly heart-warming to meet with friends again. I’m here because there is work to be done here. I’m here because I’ve got to be somewhere.

I arrived yesterday. I set out from Melbourne early in the morning, dark still, no-one about except the odd crazy walking the dog, standing in the street in the damn cold waiting for a taxi to take me to the airport. About 10 hours after that I emerge into a bright and warm country far from home. I walk along the concourse feeling hot in my Melbourne clothes weaving my way through the swarm of tourists and taxi touts and people just standing about. I drag my bag along with another slung over my shoulder. I ask directions and eventually find the Skybus I had booked from home. “Bus?” they call at me. I nod my head, begin to explain that I had already booked but they wave me on board unconcerned, as if they had been expecting me. There are people everywhere.

The bus fills and then sets off. Next to me is a woman in a headscarf. Everyone bar an elderly Englishman (I don’t know that he’s English, but he looks it) and me, are locals. The bus careers down the freeway, turning now and again so that the hot sun shines in one side of the bus, then the other. The air-con is feeble and the curtains are swiftly pulled across the windows to keep the sun at bay. After sitting in a  plane for over 8 hours reading and listening to music I do nothing but sit there.

Just short of an hour after we reach the terminus, KL Sentral. I ask about, looking for a train to where I want to go. Everyone looks at me blankly. I scan the boards myself then think fuck it, I’ll just get a cab. I find the same problem though. The girl I buy my prepaid taxi voucher from knows where Avenue K is, but the taxi driver somehow doesn’t. KLCC I tell him, Petronas. He shrugs his shoulders, his English as good as my Berhasa, and heads vaguely in the direction of the Twin Towers.

In the end I have to show him the way, going by scratchy memory and vague sight. That way, I tell him, left now. He goes left as I tell him, but when he reaches a place I know across the street from where I aim to be he keeps on going, as if he now knows better than I do. I have to direct him back in a large loop persisting through his dull doubt. Up ahead, I say, then left at the lights. But he wants to turn left everywhere now though, into the driveway of one grand hotel after another. No I say, keep going, to the end, the intersection, the voice trailing off in futility.

I’m obviously loco, a dumb gringo, or whatever the local equivalent of that is, but finally he accedes. As we approach Avenue K I point it out to him triumphantly as if to say there, I was right wasn’t I? He eyes the large sign depicting the place and then says slowly as if it all makes senses now, ah, Jalan Ampang!

Civilisation at last.

Chinese men/women

One of the oddest things I observed in China was the difference between men and women. I arrived with an open mind, ready to observe and absorb as much as I possibly could. One of the first things I noticed was this difference, which at first presented physically – they look different – but afterwards the differences seemed to go further than merely skin deep.

Not long after I arrived in Beijing I had someone explain to me the different ethnic groups of China. By far the largest group was the Han, but there were also the Mongols, from whence many of the Chinese emperors had come. Around the borders there were different ethnicities, and throughout the country many different physical types – the taller, more robust, Mongols, the round faces of those living near the coast, and so on.

Obviously there are great variations then, but by and large Asian women are reasonably attractive, and Chinese women no less. I walked the streets looking about me. As a heterosexual male my eyes were drawn to the women, but I observed also the men going about their business. To my surprise I found the men seemed different from the women, almost made different it appeared. Of course there are every type, but the women were finer boned, delicate, obviously feminine; the men trending towards the portly as they aged, their skin more coarse, their frame stubby. It seems a strange situation where they both come from the same stock that on the one side they can be pretty, and on the other often downright ugly. God knows how many times I saw a 6/7/8 rated woman walking down the street with a 4/5/6 bloke.

It’s not always the case of course. There are good looking Chinese men, and occasionally very good looking men, but there are far fewer in proportion than there are women. A lot of Chinese men start off well, but age far worse that their female counterparts. A lot of that is how they look after and present themselves. In youth there appear many fresh faced guys who look destined to be attractive men. In the many taxis I caught in my travels I would look upon the identity card fixed on the passenger side sun-visor and generally observe there a young man with a smiling face and a full head of hair. Not bad. Turning to my left I would then look upon the same man 10 years on, balding, pot bellied and poised to spit out of the car window. Not good.

Though there is a distinct physical gap, there appears a gap in attitude also. I probably spoke to twice as many Chinese women away than I did men, and before you go and tell me that’s because I’m a randy male the truth is that the women were so much more open to conversation, and so much more curious. I can’t explain it, but in general the women seemed more spirited, and often with a cheeky perspective to share. The men seemed generally uninterested, and turned inward.

How do you explain this? Well, I have theories, some of which I’ll get to later, but the leading idea right now is that the women are more outgoing because they have to deal with Chinese men. Chinese men appear often as sexist, close-minded and bad mannered. It’s not necessarily personal, but cultural. They inherit a philosophy where women come second, and are treated as such – even though many will readily admit that at home the missus rules the roost. In comparison Chinese women see western men as more gentlemanly and considerate, rightly or wrongly. They are open to the possibility then, and curious to discover when western men become available. They cop some bad press for this, but is there really any wonder?

My friend Fong went to China about 18 months ago to teach English. She’s an ABC – Australian born Chinese – and actually had to learn Mandarin again before going there. She is an Australianised Chinese then, with a very modern sensibility. She’s quite assertive, even for a western woman, and outrageously so for an Asian. On her return she described her romantic adventures to me. She’d been with about 14 men while away, and not one of them Chinese. This she explained dismissively – Chinese men were ill mannered and uninteresting, and furthermore she scared most of them. That I could understand – she scares plenty of male caucasians too. To a Chinese man looking for a submissive partner she’d have seemed terrifying.

I found much of this disturbing while I was in China. So many men appeared as chauvinistic oafs with terrible personal habits and insubstantial personality. I found myself stopping so many times to take in the unexpected. Once in Hangzhou I was at the bus station to go to Huangshan. Every transport hub in China has the x-ray machine in which you must place your bags before proceeding. I was approaching this at the same time as a girl of about 16. I gestured for her to go ahead of me, which is how we’ve been brought up, to which she responded with a surprised and delighted smile, so unused to it she was. Fancy that! But before she had a chance to proceed a group of four Chinese men about 20 years old jumped in front of her without a thought, one even unconsciously shouldering her aside. How typical it was.

I know I sound disdainful. Often I was. I remember another time waiting in a queue for a taxi at a railway station. It was a long, but orderly queue. Then, as I’d observed previously, one guy who had joined the queue at the back sidled up to the front and pushed in. Though everyone else was observing the courtesies of the line no-one demurred as he stepped in front of them, except me. I’d seen this maybe 8-10 times before, and each time a bloke. This time I’d had enough. Somewhat futilely I yelled out to him in English, “hey, the line starts back here.” He looked at me uncomprehendingly. Others looked at me too, understanding I think, but unwilling to make a fuss. To them I was just an eccentric gaijin. They were used to this casual rudeness and accepted it.

If no-one ever protests or complains nothing will ever change. By and large Chinese men have it good, and know no better. I remember in Shanghai speaking to a young bartender there. He was a university student by day, and complained with a smile that Chinese universities are no good because all the students play on their PS3 or Xbox all night and barely bother attending class. He also said that when he gets married and has a child he hopes it will be a girl. “Why?” I asked him. Because boys are too expensive. He went on to explain to me how boys are looked after by their parents, and properly set-up when they venture out into the world. “That doesn’t happen with girls?” I asked. “No,” he said, smiling.

Maybe that makes the girls more spirited and self-sufficient, and the boys complacent?

Though I wished it different I struggled to take many Chinese men seriously. Some of that was purely superficial. So many times I would look at them and think they were no bigger than a 15 or 16 year old back home. For the most part I was a good 5-7 inches taller than the average. They seemed like boys to me. And while that seems a trite observation often their maturity seemed to match. It’s often the case that men mature later than women, but in China there were few men under 30 I met who had the gravity of true maturity. They seemed lightweight, when so many women seemed full of interesting substance.

There were exceptions of course. In Beijing I spent an evening at a very cool cocktail bar (Mei) chatting with the owner while he mixed a succession of very interesting cocktails for me. He was urbane, intelligent, obviously ambitious, and very curious. He plied me with questions all night and the conversation zigged and zagged in different directions. In Shanghai I had a similar experience with another cocktail bartender. On the train to Shanghai I met a software developer, and at a restaurant the manager who was full of ideas. They seemed modern men, models for the new China. They were exceptions though. For every man like this I met half a dozen vibrant women. The women are freer I think, without the pressure of expectation and therefore more open to ideas and opportunity, and more curious about what may come.

Am I being harsh? I’ll let you be the judge.

Wikipedia: slight definition: having a slim or delicate build. Wikipedia: slight definition: having a slim or delicate build.

Real Chinese food

Did I mention that the food in China was great? Travelling there I was full of trepidation about the food. Chinese is not my favourite cuisine, though that’s more likely because of the bland, generally Cantonese skewed dishes we get served up at our local take-away joint. I had the idea in my head though too that it would be somehow confronting. Though I never consciously pondered it I feared I might come across a market with cute little dogs stuck in cages. Or else happen across the generally smelly and practical wet market you see across Asia.  I wondered to if the food itself, closer to it’s roots, might not be too unfamiliar to me, and challenging to swallow.

If you can imagine eating it then it’s probably here

As it turns out none of that occurred. I saw live ducks for sale at different places, and turtles in markets and by the side of the road, but nothing near as full-on as I feared. For the most part the difference in the food from home was well in China’s favour. I remember once being unpleasantly surprised by the presence of large, roughly chopped bones in a chicken dish, but that was mere inconvenience – the dish was delicious. In fact pretty well everything I ate was delicious. Should be no surprise, but it was about a hundred times better than the Chinese tucker here – and not once did I see a lemon chicken, beef and black bean, special fried rice or a number 46 on the menu.

The fact of the matter is that the Chinese we eat has been westernised to fit in with our generally blander palates and more delicate sensibilities. We get a narrow band of food in general, with the exception of some pretty good restaurants. China is a bloody big country, with different ethnic groups and regions all with their own particular specialties. For the most part we don’t get exposed to that here. Sure, we tuck into our spring rolls, like our dim sum, and delight in the variety of dumplings we can get here; we get plenty of Cantonese food, Sichuan cuisine is pretty well known, plus we get other bits and pieces from all over – I guess the greatest hits package. What we don’t get is the vast range of different food available in China, and little of the street food. It’s a lot to ask that we might be exposed to so much variety maybe, but really, we’re missing out on a lot.

Chinese love their food – in fact one of their common greetings translates to “have you eaten yet?” – but are also pretty matter of fact about it. I guess when you’ve got over a billion mouths to feed there’s not much sense in being squeamish about the available food sources. And so besides the conventional chicken and pork, beef and fish, there are plenty of other options that Chinese swear by – turtles obviously, and reputedly dog, donkey quite commonly, as well as a variety of insect life – beetles, centipedes, cockroaches, etc. There’s sheep penis (though, as a friend pointed out, more correctly ram penis), and the various nether reasons and entrails of lots of different formerly living things.

Sheep penis? Anyone?

I steered clear of all of that stuff. I’m all for adventure and believe one of the great delights of travelling is the food, but this mouth doesn’t need a penis in it, let alone a bug.

My adventure was largely with the street food, which was great. Dumplings obviously, but also fried noodles, a little shallot pancake the locals have for breakfast, a spicy chopped chicken wrap sort of thingy, and skewers, generally lamb, cooked over a small metal barbecue, as well as little sesame buns, and so on. All this is cheap, very popular, and generally delicious. I was happy to get by on street food.

Still, I ate out most days, and had some cracking meals. My favourite Chinese cuisine is Sichuan. I like it hot and spicy, and I sought it out while I was over there. I had plenty of meals chock full of Sichuan pepper and chillis. When I wasn’t having that I tried regional favourites from all over China, and found I liked the food from Tibet and close-by – but really it was all pretty good. The only doubtful meal was when I was in Xidi, where I got served a dark, liquid dish containing chunks of potato and glutinous hunks of fatty pork belly in a sauce redolent of star anise. It wasn’t bad, it was just a bit fatty for my taste, and I’m not a big fan of star anise.

Bottom line is that I return to Oz and Chinese food now is now one of my favourites – but the Chinese version, not the bland counterfeit we get too often here.

Sichuan in Shanghai

Bai, Dai & Miao folk food

Mr Sri’s famous, delicious, and very filling dumplings

Stage 4: the acknowledgement

To travel through foreign lands, and particularly when you’re by yourself, is to live with your senses heightened to a pitch. That’s why you’re there after all, to see, to hear, to smell, to experience all that is around you in all its immediacy. You take in the colour, the variety, the difference, absorbing it all as part of the rich experience you aim to achieve.

By necessity your senses are sharpened simply to get by. Foreign languages challenge you, as do strange customs. Aware that you’re a visitor – and stranger – in these parts you look to navigate yourself through the tricky straits. For me there is pleasure and satisfaction in that. In itself it is part of the experience – not just the seeing and doing, but the being. Many times I feel almost like a computer taking everything in, my head swivelling to take in the different sights, to listen to the different sounds and to smell the different places. Snap, snap, snap goes my mind, freezing the moment for further contemplation. All together these moments build into a rich mosaic of experience and reflection.

For me every bit of the external journey is reflected internally. I’m not a dumb machine that simply records, I assess, analyse, measure and weigh. I compare against what I know, I conjecture and ponder and sometimes over a beer will  discuss with a fellow traveler or a curious local. While much of that will be categorised and filed in time within the travel experience, some becomes more personal.

The travel experience is different for everyone simply because everyone is different. Two people may look at the one artefact and odds on they’ll have different reactions because they have different histories. Traveling gives explicit cause to explore those differences, to feel and then investigate the things that resonate within us. The experience sometimes is like setting off a chain of dominoes not knowing how they will fall.

I set off on this trip seeking to set off a few dominoes of my own. For want of a better term I jetted out of the country with a ridiculous amount of baggage burdening me. I hoped, and planned, to sort out much of that, to find clarity, seek understanding, to resolve action. For my general health I wanted to live instinctively again, by my wits, and to indulge my senses. This I did.

I return with little resolved of what I intended. I found my mind was not there; I could not shift or shape my thinking into the necessary places – the ‘resonance’ was elsewhere. What happened instead was inadvertent. My experiences shaped my thinking, my feeling. Small things became greater in my head, like a stone cast into a pond of still water. I saw, I reacted, I considered, and came slowly to a different understanding.

I have described previously some of the moments which became forces in my mind, slowly and subtly corralling my mind into a different way of seeing. While I was active I was fortunate that my mind engaged in the action; long afterwards my mind still followed the sinuous trail laid out before it.

The fourth of these stages is by far the most innocuous. It is typical perhaps of this process that after the buffeting of the different forces they are resolved quietly in the stillness of my own mind.

That night in Beijing – just last Tuesday – I left Quan and her daughter and returned to my hotel. It was about 10, and I was not ready for sleep. Instead I turned on the TV and tuned into the hotel’s Apple TV menu and selected a movie to watch. Except for occasional glimpses of HBO TV in China had been crap – strange comedy shows, po faced newsreaders, the occasional western movie dubbed into Mandarin.

The movie I selected was The Grey, a movie I knew I would like. I love movies like that – The Edge is another favourite. I was surprised though at how good this movie was, less the triumphant Hollywood story of man versus wild, and more man versus himself.

There was much that was familiar in the story. For a start it recalled to me the days I used to go hunting. I never hunted in polar conditions, nor was a I ever stalked by wolves, yet there was something in the raw portrayal of men in the elements which recalled memories. I missed it. I don’t miss killing things, I miss being out in nature like that and feeling its heartbeat all around me, strong and pure and vitally real. We get too far away from that living in the city, everything packaged and provided for. There was a moment in the beginning of the film where the Liam Neeson character watches respectfully as a wolf he has shot slowly dies. I knew that feeling. It has size.

More than that I felt something in the movie resonated with me personally. I have this baggage, for days things have been happening, now in the quiet of my room I watch the action on screen as my mind ticks over and I recognise things there that belong to me too.

I spoke of archetypes the other day. We are thins thing and that, and seek to live up to some inner standard, portray to the world a certain face. The fact is that each of us is made up of different things, we all have different faces. The social side of my character had in the last few days connected with different Chinese girls, a couple of Emirates hosties on a break between flights, a svelte and sensual Siberian studying Mandarin, plus the usual bevy of bartenders. That was easy enough, but there’s a flip-side.

The Liam Neeson character was quietly haunted. Though he was strong and capable he was not the typical Hollywood hero, his frailties were on display. We all have frailties, just that some of us hide them better than others. I watched and thought about myself, the self really most present these days even if most private: the stoical, melancholy, resourceful self who refuses from macho bravado to be cowed. That was the self watching this movie, the self most often behind the eyes seeing the world about, the self sometimes so weary from the struggle that I wonder how much fight I have left. Somehow to watch this movie was reassuring.

The next day was my last in China, though my flight was not due to depart until 2am next morning. I visited the Temple of Heaven to do something in the morning, but felt traveled out. I mooched around, wandered here and there, my bags packed and sitting in the corner of the hotel reception.

Mid-afternoon I ended up back at the hotel. I chatted to the Siberian. I had an iced coffee. I checked my email. I wondered what to do.

In the corner of the room was a bookcase stuffed with paperbacks in different languages. I plucked a  slim book out, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, of which I’d seen the movie version and been greatly moved. Over the next 90 minutes I sat on a couch and read it from first page to last. As with the movie I was moved, less by the pity of his situation – which is terrible – than by his attitude, his perspective, his elegant and humane intelligence.

I must remember this I told myself. I was tired and about to fly home to a very uncertain future. I knew that hard times were ahead, and likely some pretty ugly. I had steeled myself to it, had typically told myself that they were things that just had to be dealt with. It was a rigid perspective though, a standard to be measured against. Now I looked up. Well and good I thought, but look to other things.

I found myself then looking past all the challenging moments ahead to who I am and who I want to be: what life do I want? What is important? There came to me these things buried away fresh and new to me. That’s who I am; that’s what I want. The episodes of the previous days had helped loosen these if only by agitation, by giving glimpses of what I might want, of what I knew I didn’t.

Early on in the trip I’d climbed the Great Wall. There were sections so steep to be spooky – near to a 60 degree incline. The girl I was with was scared by the prospect, and struggled to complete it. I had felt little fear, but was surprised always to look back at what I had climbed and discover how precipitous it was. I had managed it simply though, by small steps, by maintaining a steady momentum, and by looking directly at the ground. It seemed an apt metaphor for what I had before me, and a sensible strategy.

One day I’ll look back and know how tough it was. For now I have to manage the climb. Beyond it though is other vistas, and long life, and opportunities that I can only imagine. There’s nothing to stop me, unlike poor Bauby, and that’s what I have to remember.

Stage 3: the surprise

A Qing-era Chinese ink painting depicting Huan...

A Qing-era Chinese ink painting depicting Huangshan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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…?

Stage 2: the reversal

A couple of days after the episode with the Shanghai girl I was walking through East Nanking road – the big shopping thoroughfare in Shanghai – when I met another two local girls. I was in a good mood. I’d just been in a chopstick shop browsing through their wares when I exited right into their lap. The girl who spoke to me first was  in her mid-thirties, more portly than the average Chinese girl, and teasing – she too wanted to walk with me, to practice her English.

The other girl was younger, and prettier. She looked upon the situation with amusement, surprised at how brazen her friend was, but quickly joining in. She was an attractive girl and she had this thing with her tongue. She would say something cheeky or a little bit provocative maybe and her tongue, curled into a u-shape, would dart between her lips instinctively, as if to challenge. It was a gesture that was both flirtatatious and girlish. It got my attention.

We walked down the mall. As previously I wondered if this might be part of another scam, but as previously I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and the time of day – no harm in talking, right? In any case it felt more innocent and natural than on previous occasions. Perhaps because of that I allowed them to join me when I sat down for a coffee. We exchanged conversation, information, what it was like to live in Shanghai; what they were up to this Chinese holiday; what it was like to live in Australia.

We moved on, by this time Nini, the younger girl, had gravitated to me. She gave me her number. I like you, she said. Call me. My guard raised. What was she after? I asked her that. I told her of my other experiences, how I felt that many Chinese girls just wanted to get something from me. Not her, she said. I just want to enjoy life she said, live in the moment. You’re a nice man and I want to share some time with you, that’s all. Will you call? Maybe, I said. Her tongue poked out. With you everything is maybe. Call me, 100%.

A few hours later I called. For much of the time in between I’d ummed and ahhed about whether to ring or not. I had reservations, sure. I wondered if it was on the level. And even if it was, and I chose to go out with her, aren’t I living the cliched role of the western man in China?

What the fuck, that was my ultimate response. What do I care what people thin? Cliche or not, I would choose to do I wanted to do, so I figured. I wanted to see her I realised, though not because of any great desire for her. I was a visitor, for want of a better word, a tourist. I was a solo traveler, and while not lonely I welcomed company. Even better if that company was local, someone I could speak to about the place, the culture, the life about us. And to share it. Sharing is fun, and the reason I travel is to broaden my perspective. If my perspective could be broadened by a pretty girl from Shanghai, then why not? And so, deciding that it was probably legit I made the call.

We arranged to meet on the Bund, by the observatory, about a 3 minute walk from my hotel. Nini arrived, but with her was another girl. I wanted to visit the Jinmao tower in Pudong, on the far side of the river, and a bar their on the 87th floor. We took a taxi, and up the ear popping lift we went. I sat there with two attractive Chinese girls feeling a little uncomfortable while the second girl prattled on and Nini watched me wistfully.

We left after a drink and I suggested that the other girl leave us, which she did, noisily. Nini took my hand and led me to the nearest subway station. We crossed back, to a rooftop bar I’d visited my first night in Shanghai, then to dinner. We talked best we could. Nini’s English was basic, but good enough to manage a simple conversation. International politics and atomic theory were probably subjects beyond us, but then we had better things to discuss – and do.

We ended up in my room and on my bed. The usual sequence of events followed, but more joyfully than on many other occasions. She was a beautiful and passionate woman. We fucked for an hour or so, and for much of it she was vocal. There’s little more encouragement a man needs than a receptive audience, but there were times the groaning and moaning and whimpering and calling out were distracting to me also. What were the neighbour’s thinking?

We went out again after sharing a bathtub and then parted.

She sent me some messages through the night telling me how much she liked me – love was the word she used. It troubled me. the next day I traveled to Suzhou and then one of the canal towns. She texted me again wanting to catch up that night and reiterating her feelings. She missed me she said. I read in silence, before finally responding to one of her messages: how could you miss me? You’ve only just met me.

We met again on the Bund. It was a warm night, the crowd passing thickly about me and the usual touts offering sex to me. No thanks. Nini arrived, skipping to me like a girl a gap toothed smile on her face. She put her hand in mine and we walked back along the Bund.

We had dinner, the conversation sparse. I told her I was leaving. She couldn’t love me, and not just because I was going. She hardly knew me. She listened, her eyes widening, then telling me I was kind, I was nice, that she did love me. I knew I couldn’t go back to the hotel with her, though clearly that was her desire. That would be wrong, and I felt the situation prick at me. I told her that when we left the hotel we would have to go our separate ways. She looked heartbroken.

We  parted outside. It was one of the hardest things I’ve done for a long time. It was like tie-ing an adored pet to a post and walking away. I said what I could before turning from her, and offered her some taxi money to get back home to Pudong. She refused it.

I realised I had got things wrong. For 24 hours later I felt terribly guilty, as if I had been the one taking advantage of her. I appreciated the irony of it. I had been suspicious and fearing the worst. Perhaps there was justification for that, but that was not how I wanted to be. I had stood apart, watchful, and in the meantime this girl had proved herself to be sincere and loyal and true. Too late I understood, when the damage was done.

In the days after I wondered what I should have done differently. Been more trusting I guess, though I understood why I had not been. WAs that excuse enough? Not really. But what would that have changed? She’d have loved me still, as she continued to claim in messages to me. And I still would have had to leave.

Should I have not made that call? In hindsight you might say it was a mistake. But then that is who I am, how I live, particularly when I travel. I want those experiences. I understood then, as now, why I dialed her number. Should I have not taken her to my room then? That would have left it a lot cleaner, but then I am not a monk, either here in Oz or away. To think I would stop and say no seems ridiculous. What that says about me as a man I don’t know, and don’t care over-much. I know in the same situation I would do the same again, as I have many times before.

What do I learn then? I pondered that. Was there a lesson in it? Or just another load of experience? Does it make for more wisdom?

For all the mess that entailed the episode was good for me, if that counts. In many ways this was the antidote to the previous experience. Some of that persona felt validated, or restored at least, even if only temporarily. It was not as bad as I thought it might be, nor perhaps as bright as I might choose to believe. That at least I felt to be true. I had been buffered from one experience to another into a kind of middle way which seemed truer than the extremes I had veered between. Ultimately some belief in human nature via the pure heart of Nini was returned to me. I felt grateful for that: I want to believe, to think the best of people when I can, to see the glass half full and filling.

As for Nini. I am sorry for her. She is young; though she believed it was more it was an infatuation she had for me. As I told her she will get over it; she will find a nice boy who lives in the same place as she does. I wish her happiness and love.