Places in the Heart: Why I Love China

When someone asks me what is my favourite country in the world, my reply comes in a beat. China. Eyes widen, eyebrows raise in surprise. Why would I love a place that plays ‘sly games’ with India? A place which cripples you completely if you don’t know Mandarin? And, of course, a place where people eat ‘dogs and snakes’ and a vegetarian like me might just die of starvation?

Because China taught me life lessons that go beyond the classroom. In 2006, I was still getting used to my grandmother’s absence, a new job that was good but, which wasn’t particularly grabbing my attention, and a once-close friendship that was hanging on shaky hinges. Life was beginning to chafe.

And that’s when China happened. My now soul friend, Smitha, urged me to apply for a Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) position in China universities. I was mortified at the thought of teaching a class of 60 students, a nightmare for an introvert like me. But she encouraged me, inspired me, and after multiple applications and much verification, I was ready to fly out to this tiny little town where I was to teach college students to speak English. That was the beginning of many beginnings.

There’s a First Time for Everything

Travelling: My deep connection with China begins with the fact that it was my first voyage outside India, and a long duration at that. Sure, I had gone on plenty of trips with my family. Two or three weekends away with friends. But never anywhere for months together and without my family. In China, I discovered the joy of travelling, meeting people, exploring new places, eating food that was so different. That’s when I knew that I was a traveller at heart and that it was more than just a getaway for me. Travel was what made me truly happy.

Teaching: I had never dreamt I would ever teach despite the fact that many people in my extended family were teachers. My great-grandfather, my grandmother, her brother and many more relatives, close and distant, were and are all teachers. But combined with the fear of addressing a bunch of people and a general disinterest, I had never given teaching a second thought. And here I was, helping college students, no less, improve their English skills, teaching them to open up and express themselves. Many of the students became comfortable with me and would come up and talk to me outside class. It was this stint that instilled some confidence in me and boosted my personality.

Me with some of my best students

Being on mute: I knew that not knowing how to speak Mandarin would make life difficult. But I wasn’t prepared for just how much. Initially, I felt overwhelmed as I discovered that language was useless. For the first time, I could not just speak and get what I wanted. I could not even read. Everything was in Mandarin. I felt like someone had pressed the mute button on me. I could not just walk into a restaurant and order food or go to a shop and buy bread. Overnight, my miming skills were tested and perfected with Google Translate or Pleco or Hanping being non-existent.

Being vegetarian: Until I came to China, I was used to ‘pure vegetarian’ darshinis (local eateries in Bangalore) where I could take my pick of delicious dishes. I was used to going to restaurants that had menus with a separate section for vegetarian items that ran into at least three or four pages. But in China, I had to make myself understood first. Many times the concept of vegetarian food included seafood. So, to make myself precisely understood I took printouts of the names and pictures of vegetarian dishes that some kind souls had put up on the internet. Now, even though I was limited to those few dishes, I could at least flash those names and get something to eat.

Biting cold: Sure, Bangalore had misty mornings and chilly evenings, which would make me shiver and pull out my sweaters. But the temperature had hardly gone below 15-16 degrees. Anything below that would make headlines. China taught me what it was to really feel cold. Temperatures dropped below zero regularly and the first time it was a huge shock to my system. Never before had I felt numbed like this. Especially when I visited the annual International Ice and Snow Festival in Harbin and it was -18 degrees.

In Harbin
In Harbin

Beautiful snow: Even though I would shiver through my layers as I walked to the college every morning I would hope that it would snow. I had never liked the cold (I still hate it) but I wanted to feel snow and play in it. Finally, one dull, grey morning I woke up to soft, silent flurries of snow. I stood at the window and caught some flakes. I still remember that magical moment when I saw the design of a snowflake up close and thinking to myself about how beautiful it looked.

The kindness of strangers

My many firsts apart, it is in China that I have really “depended on the kindness of strangers” to borrow half of Tennessee Williams’ quote. There are multiple instances where I have been pulled out of sticky situations by acquaintances or just strangers. Strangers who I have never seen after that and their faces are but a faint etching in my memory. But their generosity is not and continues to be some of the strongest memories I have. Here are three of the most vivid instances that continue to reaffirm my faith in people when am feeling low.

Rescue in Emei Shan

While on a trek in Emei Shan, one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains in China, my friend and I got horribly lost in the mountains. Of course, there were well-laid out steps and there weren’t any animals. But it was pitch dark, freezing, and there was nobody or nothing around. With our Petzl headlamps showing the way, we continued to go down the steps in the hope of reaching one of the monasteries whose lights were twinkling tantalizingly close. But then we spotted the little wooden shack, a little to the left.

Our rescuer

On our way up we had stopped at a small shop that sold hot noodles for weary climbers among other knick knacks. Now, we stood in front of its closed shutters and debated waking up the smiling old lady with whom we had interacted. With no other go, we did just that. She opened the door and somehow through our gestures and the handful of Chinese words that we knew, we conveyed our situation. She immediately understood and asked us to wait. She got dressed, came out, and led us behind her shop and took us down a few steps. We emerged on to a small ground surrounded by a building on three sides. Turns out it was a lodge run by a friend of hers. She spoke to her friend, got us a room, where we just collapsed out of gratefulness and exhaustion.

In the morning, we woke up with sore legs but fresh minds and resumed our downhill trek. We went to her shop but it wasn’t yet open and we didn’t want to wake her up again. I never got a chance to thank her again or say a proper goodbye but I will never forget her for rescuing us from being frozen in the middle of the mountain.

A place to stay

The second time I came to China, I was eager to visit my friends. They were in a different town and I decided to take the train and go there. I reached early in the morning, while it was still dark and I couldn’t find my way to the hotel I had in mind. While I was wandering around looking thoroughly lost, a young man walked up to me and asked me something. I managed to understand that he wanted to help. I showed him the address that I had and he said he can help. He called a taxi and urged me to get in. I was hesitant but I went with my instinct which said he genuinely wanted to help. In about 10 minutes we reached a hotel and he went up to the desk and spoke to the receptionist. In a few minutes, he had got me a room and even paid for it. He walked me up to where my room was. Again, I had horrible scenarios playing out in my head that involved bloody knives and fist fights but I went along. He stopped at the door. I offered to repay him. He totally refused, took my number promising to check in on me and went away with a wave and a smile.

We met once more during the visit where I met him and his friends for dinner. And that was the last. I don’t even remember his face but I will never forget him for his kindness.

Ride to the doctor

When I was living as a student in Chengdu, I frequented one of the many small eateries near the university for my meals. One of them was a restaurant specializing in noodles from Lanzhou run by a family, from the eponymously named place, consisting of a grandmother, her son, his wife and a son who was about 5 years old. The grandmother and wife became friendly with me and, after a while, would chat with me on and off. I would smile and practice my Mandarin with them. They were the only Chinese my friends and I were friendly with and talked on a regular basis. So, it was to them that my friend ran to when I fell horribly sick from food poisoning. They offered to help immediately and I somehow hobbled down to their restaurant from my dormitory. As the grandmother watched, her daughter-in-law wheeled out a bicycle and gestured for me to sit behind her. I was hesitant but I didn’t have a choice. She took me to their family doctor who was just round the corner, a five minute ride away. Between my friend’s explanation, my gestures, and the lady’s translation, the doctor figured out what was wrong and gave me a set of 4 to 5 medicines, tiny little pills, and asked me to take them for a week. Gratefully clutching the medicines, I again rode back with the lady as my friend followed walking.

I took the medicine as soon as I reached my dorm. It was like a transformation. I immediately felt better. By evening, I could sit up and read. The next day I felt perfectly fine. I was cured in a matter of 2 days and I went back to the Lanzhou family and thanked them profusely. They smiled and waved their hands to show that it was nothing. For the next few days they regularly enquired after my health. Unforgettable people.

It’s not that China is perfect. As I walk the streets of Beijing now, on my umpteenth visit to this country, I still look at signs and boards and stand puzzled trying to decipher what they are trying to say.  The language is an unending sea of characters and is always a struggle despite reaching HSK Level 3. Vegetarian options are not always easy to find and when you have to deal with the system to get things done it’s plain frustrating.

But I am also assailed by nostalgia and the tons of memories that make me smile. It’s not the same without my friends but it’s no less enjoyable as I make new memories. And after all, it’s the country that gave me confidence when I had none, and the courage to face new situations. It gave me friends, and adventures. It embraced me at a time when I was lost. It gave me heart. That’s why China will always be close to my heart.

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