This weekend I had a few small experiences that reflected life in China back to me. Nothing dramatic, just small moments that made me smile.
I had dinner with my sister and her partner, and it was wonderful to see them both! Of course, I took them to a Chinese restaurant that feels homey to me. The lady who took our order didn’t bat an eyelid at the fact that I was speaking Mandarin. She even asked a clarification back in Mandarin. It was lovely to be understood and accepted as a Mandarin speaker. We had delicious soup dumplings (上海小笼包), bo cai that reminds me of hotpot, and a bean shoot/sprout mix (银芽豆苗) that felt like home. And of course the cheap tea that tastes like every homestyle restaurant in China. Plus when I flipped the teapot lid I got a refill without asking. Such a relaxing experience!
The next day while sitting on a train I eavesdropped on a conversation in Mandarin between a group of older Chinese. Three of them, a couple and their friend, had migrated to Australia. The couple spoke to each other in a dialect I couldn’t understand, but in Mandarin to the others. Their friend spoke with a northern accent that felt homey to me – I’m guessing he’s from Hebei province. Another lady politely interrupted to ask them some questions. She was visiting her children and considering whether or not to settle here – she’d been in Australia six months but wasn’t convinced it was the right place for her. There was some talk about relating to their children. One of the women said she found it easier to get along with her daughter, because she talks more – her son doesn’t want to talk.
Their conversation about life in Australia was interesting. One of the men said the biggest problem is not speaking enough English – that people look down on you, don’t talk to you or even acknowledge you sometimes. Another said the problem is pride – that they as Chinese are too proud, that the Australians can also be proud. It reminded me of conversations I’ve heard among expat friends struggling to get around China because of language difficulties – how frustrating it can be to not be able to communicate, to come across as less intelligent or capable than you are. I considered chiming in but I wasn’t sure how they’d take it. I’m pretty sure the woman sitting opposite me worked out I could understand them, or at least suspected – I kept smiling in the right places.
After the train I stopped at a Chinese grocery store. There were some familiar things, some unfamiliar things, lots of Chinese writing and ingredients. I bought a few things – including lobster chips, honeysuckle tea, and glutinous rice snacks with black sesame filling. At the checkout I was asked if I wanted the receipt and I said 不用 (no need) without thinking – and I don’t think she even noticed that I’d spoken in Mandarin! My next stop was a bakery, where the two shop assistants spoke Mandarin to each other while one was ringing up my purchase. One apologised to me (in English) for a silly almost-mix up and again I spoke Mandarin without thinking, this time saying 没事 (no problem) and again it went unremarked. It was strangely nice!
Later that day I cooked another one of my purchases from the Chinese grocery – frozen dumplings. They were bilingual and made in Australia – so a pretty perfect match for me, right?! I chose pork-and-cabbage dumplings (one of my favourite flavours) that boiled up nicely. They weren’t anything overly special but they were the real thing. I ate them with chopsticks and let the flavour take me somewhere else.
Good dumplings always make me miss Beijing, and various restaurants I’ve eaten them in over the years. The restaurant outside the west gate of BLCU where I was first introduced to 水饺, and the schoolfriends I went there with all the time. That place was demolished years ago. The place across the road from the Nanhu post office, where I ate with many close friends over many years, and where I had at least one “reunion” meal with students visiting during a break from university studies overseas. That place has been closed for quite a while as well, and probably demolished. And then there’s Baoyuan, its menu of incredible diverse fillings, and its colourful selection of wrappers. I still daydream about my favourite of their dumpling fillings – pork, red cabbage, rice crust (and bean shoots?) in a purple wrapper. Mmmmm dumplings….
Later that night there was also some silly facebook commenting in Chinese, about a friend’s photographed plate of cheap and yummy looking asparagus with garlic, how it was making me hungry, and how she needs to come to Australia to visit. A little thing, but a nice extension of my China reflections.
One of the things I appreciate most about my new life here in Sydney is that there are lots of moments like this – meals at Chinese restaurants, snippets of Chinese conversation with classmates, hearing Mandarin spoken about me almost every time I’m out in public… It really helps me feel connected on the days homesickness lifts its head.