Saturday, October 30, 2010

Chinese Impressions 2

The woman at the airline counter looked pissed off when I argued with her to be reassigned a window seat. I felt bad about being so fussy, but I really hate sitting along the aisle.

When I boarded the plane, my heart sank. I could see from a distance that there was someone occupying the seat I had fought for. I hadn't been in China long, but I had already experienced firsthand how the Chinese are not afraid of public confrontations. I mentally prepared myself for the inevitable argument.

When I got to my seat, I could see there would be no fight. It was an old woman, with her husband next to her, and she gave me an embarassed but hopeful smile.

"Am I in your seat? Do you mind if I sit here? I want to look out the window."

Lifang and Bawen were both natives of Guangdong province. They asked if I could help fill in their immigration forms. "No one from our generation studied English."

From their dates of birth in the passports, I did the math. She was 69, and he was 75.

"How long have the two of you been married?"

"Two years shy of our 50th anniversary," he replied, with unmistakable pride. They reached for the other's hands. It was unbearably sweet.

They used to do business in the region, but had retired long ago and were now heading for a week-long holiday in Phnom Penh. They tried to explain the type of work they used to do, but my Mandarin lacked the vocabulary to comprehend. I did, however, understand that it was large-scale, profitable work which required them to travel to different countries.

"Is Singapore still as beautiful as it was?"

"That depends on whether you think buildings are beautiful."

"Ah well, all in the name of progress. Guangzhou is also too big now. It's such a waste."

They told me to come back to China. I should find a job here, there are plenty of opportunities for someone who could speak English. I should travel and see the rest of the country. China is the most beautiful country in the world, and I had to see it all.

Just minutes before the plane began its descent into Phnom Penh, I found out Lifang was Teochew - the first I had met during my trip.

"I have a traditionally Teochew face."

She was delighted to have found another Teochew speaker, and didn't seem to care that my dialect was worse than my Mandarin. She grabbed my arm and whispered conspiratorially into my ear. It was wonderful.

The pilot didn't do a very good job during the landing - the plane shook a lot more than what I was used to. Lifang saw the look on my face, and she patted my arm as she leaned back in her chair, utterly relaxed.

"I don't have the same fears as you do. I'm not scared. Once you hear the wheels being released, you have nothing to worry about. Trust me."

She gave me a wink.

"We are old and experienced. We know these things."

Chinese Impressions 1

He was short and squat, and I was uncomfortable. Why had they assigned me the male masseuse, and not my male friend who was in the other room? "I'm happy to be able to serve you," he said to me in Mandarin as he arranged the towels on the chair.

There is always that awkward conversation to be had during a foot massage. It's a lot easier to avoid eye contact during the full body ones, but there is no escape when someone's seated right in front of you. How do you make small talk with someone who's holding your feet? I try my best, in any case.

We went through the usual routine - where are you from, what are you doing here, do you like China? He was very concerned about how cold I was.

"Bad blood circulation. You are too skinny."

I asked him about a tattoo he had on his arm. It looked like one of those insignias that members of a gang would have. "Everyone in my family has one," he said. "It means I have 'heart'."

He told me he had a friend who was in Singapore. I asked if he would try heading there as well, that it might be easy to find a good job in one of the many massage places we had.

"I don't have a passport," he replied. "The furthest place I have ever been is Shenzhen."

We passed some moments in silence before he spoke again.

"If you are in Singapore, can you make phone calls to China?"

For sure, I replied.

"I don't believe you. I don't see how it is possible."

I tried my best to convince him, telling him my parents called me daily from Singapore. I don't think he believed me. When the massage was over, he told me my liver was in bad shape.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Siem Reap

Siem Reap

I find it difficult to accept the fact that I'm actually working and being productive - not when I'm in a town like this, when everyday feels like I won the lottery and got sent on a dream holiday.

Siem Reap is beautiful to me because of its simplicity despite the multitudes of luxuries available. It seems like a contradiction, one which I've struggled with for all of five minutes, but I suppose such things resolve themselves in the end.

Of course, this is only because I've deliberately refrained from seeing things as they really are. The only relevant question I've asked was something about local salaries, but I don't think I really listened to the answer. In the midst of the beautiful restaurants and Pub Street there is reality to be found, but I don't quite want to see it yet.