Thursday, December 3, 2009

China - China Time

For our China meal I decided to try a new Chinese restaurant in our area called Cynthia’s. Ideally I wanted to go to China Town in Toronto but the day had become too hectic for us to make a trip into the city. Besides, John was exhausted. He had spent the night at a friend’s house and then spent the entire next day playing. He was now feeling the effects and we had hardly seen him all weekend. When Kevin and I tried to snuggle with him he pushed us away and told us that he didn’t do that anymore. “Well, you should have warned us about six months ago,” I told him, “so I could have made sure to get in extra cuddling time.”

To make it easy on myself I called the restaurant and ordered take-out. I then hopped in the car and took off for the restaurant. The only thing I knew about this place was from the flyer I got in our mailbox. I was worried. The other Chinese places I had seen in Oakville looked questionable, to say the least.

As it turned out the restaurant had a theme park feel - a far departure from the non-aesthetic take-out places that seem to dot every strip mall . Two life-size terracotta warriors stood outside in front like guards. The heavy, wooden front door opened automatically and inside I was greeted by friendly waiters and waitresses dressed in elaborate Chinese costumes. They certainly didn’t depict Communist China but a more romantic time in Chinese history.

Back home we ate Peking duck, along with tofu and spicy eggplant. The kids dug in, and devoured the duck – one of their favorite foods. We were a happy family, together again, laughing, and I wished I could freeze time and put it in a bottle. But things are always changing.

Sometimes the passing of time is most noticeable when we travel. The most striking example was when I first traveled to China in January 1993.

My mother, stepfather, a couple of traveling companions and I touched down into Kunming, China at sunset. The sky was glowing red and we could see mountains in the distance.

Kunming was a bustling vision of lights, tall buildings and roaring traffic. It was different than what I imagined. I had read about China’s drab sameness of everyday life, the fear and the pervasive bureaucracy. My traveling companions had not been back since the late 1970s shortly after China opened its doors to the West. From them I heard repeatedly, “My things have changed.”

We saw karaoke set up outside on every other street corner where young men and women trilled out what sounded like Taiwanese pop music, venders too intent on making a buck to waste time on politics, numerous publication stands selling Playboy-like publications, and young women outfitted in stretch pants and wearing stiletto-heeled ankle boots. One in our group muttered, “right revisionism” as we entered the vast, marbled lobby of our hotel and were greeted by a huge, neon Santa and the words, “Merry Christmas.”

Later, we ended up at a restaurant that was loud and packed full of customers sitting at simple round tables. The owner, a lively old woman with a squinting grin, seated us. She was elated when my traveling companions spoke to her in Mandarin. The food was excellent. One of the dishes had a strange spice that numbed first my lips and then my tongue. At the table next to ours, rowdy Chinese men crudely spat chicken bones on the floor by our feet. My traveling companions were delighted. This was the old China they had loved and remembered.

We took a 24-hour train trip to Chengdu. My companions who had traveled extensively in China in the past decided either our train was the most disgusting in China or train service had seriously deteriorated. This is when we wanted modern China. The government-run service was in sharp contrast to the more pleasant encounters we had with the private sector. When we got any service at all, it was surly and haphazard. The train was filthy; especially the dinning car and the bathrooms and cigarette smoke was so thick it made our eyes water.

My mother gazed out the train window and tried to make something of the vast countryside. She pointed to some mountains in the darkening sky, and searched for light to pinpoint human life. It was desolate. She mentioned how odd that was – China having a population of a billion. She tried to quote a Tang Dynasty poem that she had read, something about mountains in China where no one is seen but heard. I thought of Yunnan’s national minorities, in the remote and isolated regions of the province, whose lives had changed very little in the last hundreds, if not thousands, of years, still inaccessible by public transportation.

A year after my first trip to China my mom and stepfather moved to Beijing. “I want to see Peking,” my mother mused using the old name for Beijing. I knew it was the old Peking she longed to see that Westerners described as the “lingering city of splendor” – lakes and palaces, courtyard mansions, pods of camels and ancient trees. Even then, things were changing, its old society was disappearing with the onslaught of war with Japan and infighting between the communists and the Kommingdong. “I want to see the old city walls,” she said. She and I both knew that the walls had been torn down by Mao years before to use the material for air raid shelters. This was during the Cultural Revolution when angry bands of Red Guards tried to destroy all elements of the old society to rebuild China under a single communist ideology.

My mother complained about the constant noise of construction and what a pity it was that they were destroying the old hutongs. She loved to ride her bike down the old narrow alleyways with cobblestone streets lined with faded red gates that offered a glimpse of ruined courtyard houses and China’s past. She detested the nondescript apartment buildings they put up in their place.

I have traveled to China many times and my mother and I wrote a book about China called Hard Sleeper that journeys into China’s past. In our own way, we saw the old China.

In the book China to Me Emily Hahn wrote about her life in China in the 1930s. In it she said how she loved Shanghai but feared it would change. “Always changing, there are some things about it which will never change" she wrote, "so that I will forever be able to know it when I come back. No, they can’t take Shanghai away from me.”

So I must remember: we can freeze time and put it in a bottle. We store it in our hearts and minds. And now when I hug John I savor the moment but I will never forget what it was like to cuddle.

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