Writer Thanh Le Dang has recently embarked on a journey to China to find her roots and to document the experience from a British Chinese perspective
It’s been exactly one month since entering the middle kingdom and my journey begins at London Heathrow T3 with a very upset stomach, a very upset stomach indeed. Loaded with Imodium and drinking a poisonously pink looking bottle of Peto Bismo, I feel abysmal! Anxiety is exercising me into a cold sweat. Ten years of pipe line dreaming to venture into my motherland is becoming more real. I’m weakly clutching onto my boarding pass; my one way ticket to China. I’m actually doing it. Fear is spreading through my aching tummy and I’m feeling ill-prepared. It’s a combination you see; fear, stress…but more than likely it’s that dodgy chicken bake I had from the Greggs the day before at Lewisham shopping centre. Everything’s dodgier down south. Airports make me feel guilty, nervous, like I’m making a narrow escape and I’m in need of emergency travel ‘Take me, carry me away from this desolate waste land’ I cry. And finally I’m safe, after many many toilet stops I’ve made it onto the plane.
Bright red lips on a beautiful flight attendant speak to me, 普通话(mandarin). My first BBC (British born Chinese) hurdle – meal choice options. I think she said beef but I just can’t be sure, a pang in my stomach diffuses the words pouring out from her mouth. The sensual red of her lips move again this time in slow motion, she’s throwing me another life here, must try harder…noodles? Noodles pooh-dles! My stomach ties itself into a knot and I think… I just let wind. The Chinaman beside me heckles; I’m rapidly losing ‘face’ I give in, I’m a fake, a weird kinda off banana, yellow on the outside with an off white, ‘yellowy’ inside. Umm I’ll take the pork, why am gambling my little stomach away in the air like this?
Okay, seat belt sign is on and is firmly pressed on my lower ‘Ooww!’ And, I’m ready, nauseously so, take off already! I’m coming for you China, romantically chasing a home for this strange fruit, any healing space for this British banana? I’m coming, come rain smog or shine and…finally, we have take off!! Phew and breathe and release…Err…我可以用 厕所了 吗？ (Can I use the toilet now?)
I’ve arrived. Showered down and emptied out (quite literally). Adjusting time zones and feeling weak but clean. There’s nothing like faraway family for refuelling sick refugees. I’m sitting watching CCTV (China Central Television). It’s the local news, my dear uncle plays Cantonese interpreter to his poor ‘FOB’ (Fresh off the boat) niece,
‘A man gets stuck in an air ventilator in some hotel. His body is found a year later.’
Suddenly, I’m feeling nauseous; where in the world have I landed? My Canto heritage has brought me to Nanning. Capital city, South China, in the Guangxi province, famed for their dogs, cuisine that is. Everything is always dodgier down south.
Nanning feels different, newer, since my last visit once-upon-two years ago. On the bus down from the airport, big shiny green English letters welcome me and tell me proudly that it is ‘The green green city’. Nanning enjoys a subtropical climate, boasting fruitful plant life with a plethora of different species; they even have botanical garden to show it all off. I wish I could tell you how great it is but I’ve been saving that trip for a less stiflingly hot tropical day. But, Lonely Planet guide (clutching at straws) says it’s worth the visit. Bordering Vietnam, Nanning is mostly used by backpackers as a stopover town, local life is untainted by passing westerners; you can count western restaurants with three fingers. No, the people are of Nanning are too busy racing towards the new.
The green green of the city is sharply juxtaposed with shiny high rise buildings in a fast building metropolis; you can feel change everywhere around you. We get off the bus at the last stop terminal 琅东车站 ‘This is a new area in Nanning everything new and clean…’ My far away cousins have in the last two years, finally fulfilled their Chinese obligation as good son and daughter and bought my aunt and uncle a ‘Ping Fang’ (one level duplex) on the Third floor of about at least 15 floors, ‘There’s even a swimming pool for residents’ my aunty boasts. With very few buildings built before the 60’s, the people here strive for modernity. On these dusty grey roads framed in carefully planted pretty flowers of greenery, there are both male and female labourers working overtime night and day. As the city promises a complete underground train subway system by 2017 which, strategically places this capital city firmly in a race against other provinces, Nanning is definitely a contender for the best new City with air that is actually quite clean; 17th in the running in the whole of China, thanks to the city’s green green preservation. On my first taxi ride in the city to one of the much awaiting gourmet luncheon feasts, I sympathise with the poor Canto taxi drivers with the long closed roads and the impending transport competition.
Okay so I’m probably not ready for this but on day two I embrace in my first real meal; Dim Sum. My aunt is keen to show off the clean new shopping centre. Gucci, Rolex, Burberry sit firmly, looking pretty but empty, while the locals happily enjoy the new 商场 (shopping centre) for its free air-con and the canteen style food chains including your Mac Ds and posh end restaurants. We are at what feels like a four star restaurant hotel like setting, with big hanging chandeliers and a huge dining space. This is quite possibly the biggest restaurant I’ve been to. Everything is so BIG in China I honestly think it’s bigger than America in most things, okay maybe not the Dim sum but everything else is BIG. The Dim Sum is bite size and divine. The next day I’m thoroughly suffering from the gluttonous high cholesterol meal but after a few days of hibernating in moderately controlled air con apartment I’m almost back on my feet. On an over bearing beautiful sunny day I’m feeling ready for a stroll in the park.
I’m at a grand looking park which my uncle has recommended. At the entrance there is an old style Chinese tiered building, many storeys high. It’s certainly grand, and a strong lure to part with the twenty RMB entrance I’m about to pay. As I buy my ticket there is an offer for a train trolley ride you often find in fairgrounds, for an extra whole fifteen RMB. Ppprhhh!…Don’t be silly I’m going for a stroll in the park, I’ve already feeling conned having pay for an entrance fee, it’s just a park after all.
The square of the entrance is well crowded. I walk across to the nearest path away from the crowd. Maybe I took the wrong path, I don’t know if there’s such thing in a park, but I’m walking on a long long stretch of paved road that is neatly lined with trees. Sweating, the heat is getting to me and I forgot that I needed to buy some water before I came in. I pull my ticket that refers to picture that promises a lake with pagoda and then, I discover there’s actually a map of the park, a trolley train line crosses my path and I’m finally getting the scale of the space of which I have just entered.
I get to my first destined in what the map calls a ‘scenic spot,’ a bridge over water. There are a lot of people and I jealously look at the flasks hanging off of their bags as they gulp at their water and herbal teas. It’s certainly scenic with a style that re-visits old China, it’s a bit like the Summer Palace of Beijing but actually smaller. Nice but there’s no drinking water to buy! I carry on to another longer paved road, heat in my face. I refuse to follow the Chinese and use an umbrella as a parasol on a sunny day, this tan needs working on (my name is pronounced Tan after all). I’m feeling faint, this stroll in the park that I imagined is turning into a march for hydration.
In my next picturesque destination I’m joined by a trolley load of people. This is it, I’ve reached the destination of the picture on the ticket. I sit by the lake on some rocks with about ten other people. At that moment, quite spontaneously, this old Chinese guy pulls out a flute and begins to play. This feels too romantic and staged to be true! I happily stay put admiring the view like I’m supposed to…until my thirst gets the best of me and I have to depart from the sound of the old man. After walking for miles , I find it. It’s a bit like an outdoor food court with convenient stores offering sausage on sticks and pot noodles. There’s now music playing from at least four different places here. I buy two bottles; one mineral and one 王老吉 (they drink this like coke out here and I’m addicted, I act like it’s good for me because it’s so old/herbal/good for my hot chi but it tastes suspiciously sweet). I take my cool can of red tea and look for some grass to collapse on. I enter a big bit of green lawn; there is a crowd almost like a village of people. And you know what? It is! A small village of maybe 20-30 people, sitting around in a circle clapping their hands as one person sings. Its so sweet and encouraging painfully so. They’re public singing here and there and not even drunk, it’s the people, they are so very liberal. Later on I found that it’s actually a public Chinese holiday, maybe that explains the masses here. A Chinese guy wearing a cowboy hat gets up, the crowd goes wild cheering and clapping along. Wait, I recognise this song, no wait… it’s the Chinese national anthem. And it’s sung pretty badly. Yup I’m definitely in China. Feeling really English now, I’m yearning for my personal space so I walk off to the ‘Chinese friendly Thailand area,’ (something gone wrong in translation here) a smaller bit of lawn on a hill. I’m finally by myself, distant sounds of Lady Gaga blare from speakers near the kid’s playground but I don’t care anymore, I devour my tea and relax. Yup I’m definitely in China.