A 4 hour car journey to learn the truth of growing up in China
It’s time for another day in China and oh how they are getting better and better. After my rainy visit to Thames Town the day before I was ready for another full of adventure. I managed to get a full eight hours after my jetlagged booze infused state while exploring a well-received replica of a typical English town with the occasional Chinese stall popping out of nowhere. This sleep had little effect however, the time difference had really taken hold and my body would tell me time and time again to stay in bed and sleep it out.
Nevertheless this is however strongly against my nature and even at home in England with ample time to take a ‘day off’ the idea of such a thing terrifies me. For me to have an entire day in bed without some form of wondering around or wanting to go outside is a rare occurrence and usually only arises when I yet again convince myself I’m unwell. Yet it almost always turns out to be due to not having had breakfast. To save myself from lying in bed wondering about all the things I could be missing out on I decided to head straight out. Besides although it was unlikely I could always sleep in the car for this wasn’t just an idle dawdle around the riverfront, it was time for a roadtrip! My Chinese friend Max and I had talked the night before and I wanted to learn more about authentic Chinese culture.
After a few trips out to Shanghai I also wanted to delve further into my friendship with Max. With friends you make abroad that speak less English it is often difficult for you to progress a friendship beyond common trivialities. Most conversation is generic and your bond with someone relies on what you experience together or through sign. Communication is a huge factor in building a friendship and the rest comes in time. Time builds consistency and trust, it is a factor that we hardly discuss but how often do we trust in others simply due to knowing them a long time?
In other cases it seems that information divides our loyalties. We form complicated stories in our minds to fathom our complex existence. This is something we form as an individual and the way we perceive the world is something no other could experience. However through this we gain the joys of being human, for without it life would be mundane and without meaning. It seems to me that the more you believe a person can understand your view or take interest in your realm of experience the more you begin to like them. By sharing intimate knowledge (or what we feel to be intimate and unique to us) such as our family, our desires, our aspirations and so on, we can’t help but care for those who would choose to spend part of their finite life appreciating these small parts of ours.
This being said I knew quietly to myself that without this exchange of information I would never truly learn what it was like to grow up in China. I would simply be forming opinions based on what I thought and not what I know. I wanted to learn what it was like for Max to grow up here and wished to get to know his family. We talked about it till late that night and decided to take a car out of the city and head for the Watertown where he grew up, here I would also be able to meet his mother.
We got up at the early hours of 9am, well I got to give myself some opportunities to shake off this jetlag. Realising that it was probably quite late to be heading out we quickly got ready and I grabbed my video camera as I was determined to make a youtube video today. We ran for a taxi, my camera in hand filming everything and headed for a car rental building. We sat bouncing around the small car through the streets on Shanghai.
Our excitement grew and I had no idea how long it would take, after all Max didn’t understand when I asked and our chauffeur consisted of a small Chinese man with a rather impressive moustache. He spoke few words as he powered on through the traffic, one arm resting out the window. My attention turned to the outside where I began people watching to pass the time with every person’s day seeming so vastly different from that of the Western world.
There was a sense of urgency in every direction as mopeds whizzed past, people darted across the road like scattered birds and men, women with children in tow attempted to sell their wares. Half an hour passed and we came to the foot of an imposing tower block which seemed an unusual place for a car rental but were in China so best go with it. Coming through the revolving doors we were met with a big grin by a man in a little security outfit, it was almost movie like. His appearance that of an American hotel employee with a opal green suit with buttons adorned on the sides, white gloves and a matching hat. He led us to the lift doors and said his farewells.
‘Is Max some kind of a big deal in China?’ I thought to myself. In we went and I was ready to start soaring up the looming tower when Jim pressed the button for the basement. Down we headed in what seemed the bumpiest lift ride I’d ever taken as I felt like a spider dangling on a single thread. The doors creaked open into an underground car park and within it row after row of identical cars. Each perfectly parked car was in rows of five.
It consisted of five cars of each type in a row starting from the smallest Chinese fiat equivalent all the way up to some rather flashy audis. I’m not a car guy so that’s about as much description as you’re going to get. Walking over to one of the middle rows Max unlocked the car doors with an app on his phone. They all clicked open and we got in, technology that could only be common in such a technological country as if hacking our way through.
I got some footage of the car driving slowly out of the parking lot and even recorded sound of the engine to add later. We twisted round floor after floor heading ever upwards before exiting into the rainy city streets and so our journey had begun. It wasn’t long before we were out of Shanghai’s heart and onto the main highway. We sped down the somewhat lawless roads, flashy city folk overtaking and swerving round cars in their business suits. The journey was a long one and took almost 4 hours to reach our first destination. This time was well spent however as we spent a long time chatting and learning more of each other’s home countries. I also filmed the conversation which chooses to be invaluable returning to it now.
Looking at it I realise the potential insensitivity I showed when asking some questions but I hope that none of them were offensive as I was genuinely interested and it came from a good place. Max remained in high spirits and talked openly with me, all questions answered without enmity. I learned a great deal during this time about what it was like growing up here.
He had spent his early life in the Watertown we were on the way to see and as he got older managed to work hard enough to get a job in the city. He spoke of home with such endearment it made me think of my life back in England, no longer distracted by travel highs I could reflect honestly and for the first time started to feel a subtle appreciation for home. After a few hours we settled into the journey, Max put on some Korean music which got us acting like young Chinese filming short clips for WeChat and it wasn’t long before I nodded off with my head against the seatbelt.
Max tapped me on the shoulder. ‘We’re here.’ That familiar line rang around in my head and I darted into an upright position to witness my new surroundings. Peering out the window I noticed how much it had changed. Skyscrapers and office blocks had been trading for small homes, some more shack that stone. Nature had returned and trees sprouted up between the pavestones. It began to feel like I had entered a more authentic China or what seemed to me a chance to see an older part of the country. We watched a small child in a onesie sitting on the back of a moped facing us and as I filmed he glared back at us with a big frown. We couldn’t help but chuckle and took the final turn down a small road and came to a stop.
Max almost forgot to turn off the engine as he quickly got out to knock on his front door. I had learned that he hadn’t been home in half a year, the busy city life had kept him from taking this trip sooner. Inside we were greeted by his mother, a tiny lady housed inside the small kitchen. I felt honoured to be welcomed in here, a foreigner with no right to experience the inner workers of this humble home. Out of respect I didn’t film anything of this encounter but I remember it well and without a word of English Max’s mother signed for us to sit at a small table in the kitchen.
Acting quickly on a mother’s instinct she knew we were hungry, she didn’t even need to ask and began cooking while chatting to her son. It wasn’t long before a high piled plate of dumplings was placed in front of me. Steam rose off the mountain of food and swirled up towards a dimly lit lamp swinging quietly back and forth above our heads. My stomach rumbled, I grabbed a set of chopsticks and dug in.
I took one bite into a large beef dumpling before realising how good they tasted and decided I wasn’t eating fast enough. Dumpling after dumpling entered my mouth never to return. I continued my way through this heaving plate occasionally managing to pause to dip the dumplings in some sauce presented to me in a set of small dishes. Accompanying this way a tall glass full of hot tea which the locals drink as the water here is not safe without boiling.
It takes some time to get used to always drinking hot beverages even in blazing sun but it went down well. About two thirds down the dumpling tower I had run out of steam, my stomach heaving as I opened up my belt by a notch. I sat defeated and a lot happier than five minutes before. I looked over to Max who had finished the whole plate and I worried whether his mother would be offended by me not finishing all of them.
She smiled and took our plates away before sitting beside us to chat. She spoke only her local tongue so Max translated back and forth for us. We talked for a while and Max was told that he needed to get a haircut like me as it would make him very handsome. It wasn’t long however before Max wanted to show me around his local town so we left through the flimsy hatched doorway and began to walk down to the riverfront.
Down the main street of this idyllic town a group of small children were playing cards in the middle of the road. They giggled to each other as they ran around the two of them laying down hearts and spades. It brought joy to me to see this unrestricted laughter, the children filled with an endless supply of energy. We got closer to them and they looked up at me with wonder. Who was this man? For this humble Watertown it is rare to receive many visitor let alone Westerners.
They crowded around me and began jumping up and down. They pointed at my camera so I began filming us together with some children waving and others running away to hide in the pillars of a central building. A warm welcome to this small town and one I would never forget but the journey was not over, the day only half spent. So I will return to this next week as the adventure continues!