Scratching the Surface

Fiona Kamal

© Copyright 2021 by Fiona Kamal

Photo of Houhai lake in Beijing.

Niamh and I are both gazing abstractedly at the postcard scene before us, where red-fringed rickshaws buzz like flies around laughing, visor-shaded tourists, and the odd delivery van snails-paces it across crowded flagstones, driver dangling an ash-loaded cigarette patiently out of a wound-down window.

It is only ten in the morning, but already the sun is searing the back of my neck above my t-shirt, and the air is beginning to acquire the tang of dust and suffocation it will carry in the full heat of noon. The lake shines like pewter, little motor boats rippling its surface. Small children take turns at the tillers under the indulgent gazes of parents and camera-phones, their elated shrieks carrying across the water. The light makes everything unnaturally vivid, like an old, technicolour movie from the ’50’s. I almost expect Deborah Kerr to appear twisting a parasol, which, at this point, I am ready to forcibly wrest from her feminine grasp. The patch of shade from the single plane tree behind us is pitifully small, and shrinking by the moment. We are politely taking turns to stand in its relative cool.

We can go there for lunch later,” Niamh says, nodding at the shi-shi two-storey restaurant across the narrow street, where the aroma of fried jiaozi is already wafting on the air, along with the bell-like chime of canned Chinese music. I agree enthusiastically, though we both know that this is a function of polite optimism - when lunchtime rolls around we will be too busy filming improvised dance routines to take a break. We are standing in a prime spot next to the Silver Ingot Bridge, where Houhai Lake gives into Qian Hai. A stone’s throw away is the iconic Drum Tower with its Disney dream of Chinese architecture - tiled grey roofing with jaunty upswings at the corners like a layer-cake of Dali moustaches, topping the imperial red and gold of its upper floor. For most of today we will watch assorted groups of our chimeric students entertain bemused locals with clumsy, enthusiastic K-pop moves as part of the school’s attempt to “enrich” their education. Their mission is to complete a set of “creative challenges” against the TripAdvisor-perfect backdrop of Houhai with its dusty hutongs and traditional craft stalls.

Chinese by birth but international by dint of their parents’ ambitions, their expensive education and their addiction to social media, the kids in our school have been fated from birth to go far. Our kindergarten teachers are cajoled by anxious mothers to have their toddlers read faster, more fluently, to calculate before they can dress themselves. From the age of four they have been headed for the Ivy League or Oxbridge. It is a commonplace amongst the teaching staff that most of them are fully bilingual before they’re potty trained. Niamh and I have been on this trip each year for half a decade and both our thoughts are wandering in the same direction now, this final trip before we both leave China for good. We are both thinking that we have no idea what China actually looks like.

We know, by now, that it certainly doesn’t look like the carefully curated scene before us. The Beijing authority has torn up most of the traditional hutongs in the rest of the city, replacing them with shiny shopping malls and grid-planned apartment buildings, moving their residents out to the edges, to custom-made dwellings they could not usually dream of owning. The picturesque roofs before us, with their cylindrical clay tiles that channel both the rain and the Beijing heat down into the alleyways are nearly impossible to maintain now - few of the skilled craftsmen with the know-how are left. Walking from the bus this morning, down pungent dusty side streets where laundry was strung from wooden-shuttered windows, we passed an old lady sitting on a white plastic stool, in the sun. She nodded at our noisy, gaudy-hued crocodile of school children with the unsurprised expression of one who must have lived through Japanese invasion, civil war and the Cultural Revolution, and now sat at the end of a street where neon bar signs had sprung up, heralding the incursion of drunken westerners. What would she have said was the real, authentic China? Somethings half-remembered from her childhood, another fabricated half-truth?

My first year on the Houhai trip I was entranced. I fell for it all - the brightly coloured nick-nack shops selling fans and cheomsangs, street sellers hawking sugary bintanghulu, the imposing hauteur of the Drum and Bell towers that presided over it all with prefectural propriety. I brought the family here to experience “traditional Chinese culture”, the same summer I took them to see the Chinese state circus. It took me a while to see the performative spell casting, the acrobatic juggling of appearances, in both. Gorgeous silken colours and delicate embroidery of surfaces that obscure the hard grafting for survival, the desperate focus it takes to balance individual prosperity - cold, hard cash - with lip service to the idea of community and culture.

If you squint hard enough you can just glimpse them, the daily lives of “ordinary” Chinese people. They don’t appear much in my enchanted little bubble, the school community with its pampered western teachers and well-heeled parents who are more at home in an international departures lounge than any particular city or country. There are the drivers, who ferry us safely about the city to the restaurants and clothes shops that cost several multiples of an average citizen’s monthly wage to frequent, but they make only polite, pre-rehearsed small talk from a script gleaned of language tapes listened to in the lull between jobs. There’s my ayi, who laughs and acquiesces to my children’s increasingly spoilt demands, tutting at the profusion of their clothes she has to launder, and shaking her head when we drink cold water in hot weather. Between us, she and I pantomime questions and instructions, circumnavigating the desert of our linguistic division, but our shared pool of around fifty words doesn’t stretch to me seeing much of her life outside our flat.

Occasionally, at the doctor’s or ballet school I meet a mother whose social class is more like mine would be at home, and if the wait is long enough we might exchange a few knowing smiles, a word or two about our children’s ailments and their antics, and for a moment I feel perhaps as though there is a real life here that goes on beneath the faux-gold glimmer of the moneyed class, and above the dirt-market, desperate scrabble of the un-moneyed one. A place I might really live, if I really lived here. But I have come to see, by now, that I don’t, really, and I never will. I am simply on a very long tourist visa, one that allows me the illusion of being a local, for a while.

A few weeks from now I will have packed up our lives here into two large shipping containers and sent them off across the ocean. We will leave behind the pretence that we ever really lived in this city, and it will fade, in time, to the memory of an extended holiday. We will join the ranks of my students, who don’t really know where they’re from, only where they are headed to. In Vancouver, ironically, I will know more Chinese-born people as friends than I have in five years in Beijing.

The first group of students arrives. They tear open the envelope with their task inside it, giggle and shriek as they choreograph a clunky ensemble routine. The logos on their shirts are western, their accents from somewhere indeterminate on a flight path to New York. At the end of their dance they freeze-frame, making bunny ears and Korean crossed-finger heart shapes while we snap them for the group chat. They shamble off to their next challenge, chattering in a mix of Chinglish and Korean, scattered with American slang to make them sound cool.

They are headed somewhere as strange and familiar to them as it is to me. I follow them with my gaze, as they saunter past the opaque waters of Houhai Lake, its silted depths hidden beneath a reflection of cloudless blue sky.

I have just begun writing in earnest after meaning to get around to it for thirty years. It’s not that I didn’t do anything in that time. I spent a lot of it in university libraries studying English Literature, and then a lot of it in classrooms teaching English Language and Literature. I have done so very, very much laundry, some shopping, and a fair bit of cooking. There have been holidays, back in the days when one could do that. I lived in Beijing, China, for 5 years where I taught English at an International School, and those experiences formed the basis of this piece. I have three daughters who love reading and a husband who doesn’t. I’ll read anything I can get my hands on, from cereal packets to Joyce. Hopefully, dear reader, as I believe one says in these circumstances, you are as voracious and indiscriminating as I am, and will find my piece on HouHai Lake, Beijing at least mildly more interesting than breakfast food packaging. 

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