Who goes to China?
I suppose 26-year-old women about to lose their free PIA tickets (to the joys of marriage). It was really my parents’ idea and I acquiesced to it (the most aptly I have ever used the word ‘acquiesced’!). It is a seven-day affair and we are staying at my dad’s friend’s house. He lives here alone while his family lives in Pakistan and therefore has plenty of space to spare.
According to my dad who is visiting after at least 20 years – and general knowledge around the world – Beijing has transformed drastically. The airport was impeccable, systematic, quiet, neat. The sweet immigration officer barely looked at our faces as he stamped us through. Is it because he doesn’t know English or because he assumes we don’t? I wondered but gave him a ‘greatly satisfied’ rating. There were Likert-scale rating buttons outside each cubicle!
Stepping out into Beijing, even at the airport, it felt like I had suddenly lost the ability to read. There was hardly any English anywhere and the Chinese script felt a bit like the strange symbols word documents sometimes inexplicably transform themselves into. So this is how illiteracy feels, I mused, thinking about how prevalent English is on billboards and signs in Pakistan. Since I can read both English and Urdu, I can’t be too sure, but I definitely recognized the blessings of having an education. There is a deep confusion, a feeling of being lost and unsure when you can’t understand what is written around you (directions, menus, billboards, traffic signs). How easily we forget daily benefits.
The tall snazzy buildings, highways crisscrossing more highways, and expensive cars yelled out modernization. On an environmental note, the sky was weighed down with dense smog. Drained of all color, a haze hung outside, isolating the sun and making it look lonely. I saw people wearing masks and thought I would hate to live in a city where I had to wear a mask every time I stepped out of my house. ‘When I came here (perhaps around 35 years ago) there were only bikes and bikes,’ my mom said, looking at the congested traffic. There were still a lot of bikes – a variety of them, revamped to carry your groceries, a friend, a pet or a family of three, but definitely more four-wheel vehicles now.
There are also a surprising number of stray dogs and cats here, which is also common in Pakistan but less so in other countries I have visited. Strangely though, the stray dogs here are adorable and fluffy. I am dubious of the breed but these are not the strays from Pakistani alleys. They belong more to nice old ladies in apartments.
Speaking of houses, the one where we are living in is in a secure, lovely complex. But just outside a different world trudges long. Our first walk out was a bit of a disappointment. Dust followed us like the smoke running after cars, the sidewalks were broken and often disappeared suddenly. The traffic is rude and you are as likely to get run over here as you are in Karachi. Except here the chances of being run over by a Benz or a BMW are much higher. A general air of rundown poverty dulled all colors and made the air heavy. We were in search of a grocery store but found none within a two kilometer radius. We did, however, walk into a surreal neighborhood with street food vendors cooking all sorts of meat and vegetables on sticks. There were strange shops selling clothes, beer, shoes, a dim and dank warehouse-turned-store where an old man sat on a child’s plastic car and a dog strolled comfortably down the aisles.
Men played cards on squat chairs and I saw an adorable Chinese child on discarded sofas in a dusty lane. I snapped a picture and he looked at me so I waved and smiled. He got down from the chairs and took a menacing (as menacing as a three-year-old can be) step forward. He uttered a Chinese word which I obviously did not understand but had a strong suspicion was a curse. I tried smiling even wider and he scowled even deeper and said the same word again. I gulped, looked around to make sure there weren’t any angry adults around and quickly walked off.
Which kid doesn’t like being photographed!? I have never met a child in Pakistan who did not love posing in front of a camera. But lesson learned I guess. No regrets though because I think it made for a good picture anyways!
My mom and I wandered past some more food carts and saw a bag of buns. “Bread?” my adorable mother asked, pointing at the bag. The woman behind said something in Chinese and we smiled the smile of incomprehension. There was an exchange of amused Chinese words and then raucous laughter. When you don’t know the language and people around you laugh, you always feel insecure and think you’re being made fun of. And usually you are being made fun of.
Inwardly indignant we walked away and decided to head home. Not coming this route again, we resolved. Mean laughter in Chinese sounds the same as mean laughter in Urdu.
Another cute fact about this house is that there is no wireless internet. Actually, so far there is no internet at all. I don’t have a phone service here either so I am quite out of touch, digitally speaking. Mostly I am enjoying the peace disconnection brings, but every now and then it feels like I am missing a body part. Not something essential but something that is still integral to my existence … maybe like my left pinkie. Or a toenail.
I do of course have time to play cards with my parents. And cook aaloo gobi. And write. But I don’t know if I can continue to cook aaloo gobi for the next six days.