It was around 11AM when Stefanie – an old friend from my teaching days in China – and her daughter, Emma, came to our hotel. The initial meeting was a bit awkward – I don’t know if this is how it is for everyone. But for me, whenever I meet someone after a long time, in this case, more than 3 years, there is are initial moments of appraisal – how has the person changed? How have we changed in relation to the other person? Sitting in the lobby of Xuchang’s Saturday Business Hotel, old memories came flooding back. Stefanie had not changed a bit – she can still irritate you with her astounding lack of listening comprehension, but it is her daughter Emma who has transformed herself. From being a gawky, shy teenager who adored boy bands, here is a mature woman in her 20s – confident, assured, and definitely possessing better English than her mother.
Before long, it is time to leave. Stefanie has invited us over to her house, and her husband is cooking. Many of the Chinese men I have met here love cooking. Of course, I am not making generalizations here. It’s just based on my own subjective experience. Typically, most of the women I have met, especially those who are also working have husbands who help in the kitchen. Sorry, not help, but who cook. I remember Stefanie’s husband, Mr Wang, preparing the most delicious dishes before. On first impression, Xuchang doesn’t seem to have changed much. The same old Pang Dong Lai department store. Babies everywhere in this the most populous place in China. Yet, there is a certain peace here. An undefinable calmness that is missing in the bigger cities. I don’t spot a single VW Beetle, and the Mercs and BMWs are far fewer here than in Chengdu. No fast cars, no obvious signs of richness. At least, materially. Yet, I think I can always live here for the rest of my life. It’s a funny thing, this life. This money, both don’t make sense.
Stefanie’s house is just the same. We take a bus to her house, but it is on the way to her house that I spot the changes. Bigger roads. More apartments. More new buildings. Xuchang is expanding. It’s a mini microcosm of what China is becoming. Mr Wang is in the kitchen, as I always remember him as. Dressed in just a vest and trousers, he greets us warmly. He doesn’t seem to have aged, although Stefanie informs us that he is touching 50. To my eyes, he looks 35. There is a cake sitting on the table. It’s of course, Birdy’s birthday today. A host of dishes await hungry me. Candles are lit, the cake is cut – Chinese cakes are rather different from what I have known. A thick layer of cream, some sort of jelly sauce on top – you know that you are biting into a 1000 calories, but who cares? The food though is surprisingly bland. Perhaps Mr Wang was tired, or maybe it’s my memory which is tired. They don’t have the same zing to it. As is customary in China, we also have noodles to celebrate the birthday. Apparently, noodles indicate longevity. Stefanie is hilarious at times. “What egg is this?” she asks, pointing to the eggplant dish. Emma talks of life at her university – Henan Normal University in Kaifeng. She is majoring in Japanese, and it’s interesting to learn just how similar Japanese is to Chinese. “But the accent is different,” Emma says. And it is equally interesting to learn that Japanese has borrowed a lot of words from English, quite a contrast from Chinese, which laboriously creates a new word for each new invention. For example, a computer is a dian nao. I don’t even know what the word is in Kannada for computer. Or phone or glasses or table or chair or bus. In the middle, the gentle-man calls me. I am still puzzled by the 300RMB he paid on our behalf, and I invite him for dinner. It is to be the talking point of the day.
A couple of photo sessions later, Stef and Emma take us to the new campus of Xuchang Vocational and Technical College. The new campus is sprawling and impressive. We sit in Stefanie’s office and chat for a while. It’s a pretty hot day, and I am glad for the AC-conditioned comfort. And then it’s back to the train station to book the return ticket to Zhengzhou. It’s May Day madness and the only tickets available are standing only. It’s only 1 hour, and we are prepared, despite Emma’s concern that the train is not the fastest one. I laugh to myself – I have known worse trains. We make our way back to the hotel, relax in the room for sometime, and then I invite Stefanie and Emma also to dinner. By this time, panic and fear has set in. No, not in me, but in them. Stefanie calls Mr Wang who advises her that it is very unwise to meet the man for dinner. “It’s not safe,” she says, a concern shared by two friends back in India. All the more reason you must come with us, I say. They agree and as we sit in the hotel lobby, the gentle-man, who I know by now is Zhang You, makes his appearance. With him is another man. Heavy-set and wearing a faux leather jacket. As he enters, the first doubts start to enter my doubt. What are we doing? I wouldn’t do this in India, I know. But in China, it’s different. Zhang You could have done anything to us when he met us outside the train station at 5AM in the morning. He didn’t. He could have mugged us in the taxi we took to the hotel. He didn’t. And somehow, my instincts didn’t send any warning signals either. But more panic has set in. Emma turns to me and says “he invite you for dinner,” and after that it’s chaos. Apparently, they are not comfortable now. “But why?” I ask, surprised, as Zhang You asks them to come together. Despite repeated pleas, they refuse to change their minds. “Be careful, you know,” Stefanie says a 100 times. By this time, it is starting to irritate me. If she is worried about safety, she should have come with us, I think! They leave, and we leave as Zhang You hails a taxi. A little bit of fear has lodged inside my mind, although Birdy is more irritated than scared. More on what happened later in my next post….stay tuned. 🙂