Huckster

Once, whilst out on a mountain biking trip, my friends referred to me as a “huckster”. It was a term that we had heard a few days back, and we took the phrase to mean ‘someone who attempts to do risky or dangerous things without the requisite skills or preparation needed’. A huckster would be someone who might ride over an incredibly technical section without really knowing what they were doing. A huckster might be someone else who is willing to try a jump without really knowing how. “Hucksterism”, in our books, was about taking risks and taking a gamble. Hucksterism was about having more courage than skills and about being open to jumping, head-first, into the void.

Often, I will get referred to as a huckster in terms of the other parts of my life. People have called me courageous or adventurous for the things that I have done. I am the kind of person who will, at the drop of a hat, leave everything that I’m doing to go all in on whatever I am invested in. For example, I really enjoyed being involved in some interstate projects that my friends were running, and so I undertook a 22 hour road trip just so I could be there. I’m going to be doing one of Tasmania’s most challenging and remote 10-day hikes in a few weeks and I don’t know if I’m ready for it at all. I realised a few months back just how out of touch I was with my cultural heritage, so I spontaneously went searching for my identity in China. And when I fall for someone, I have, without a second thought, given up countless plans, apartments, degrees and jobs in order to chase that loving feeling. It’s a thrilling, spontaneous way to live, and if for nothing else, I end up with some of the most incredible stories.

Recently, something along those lines happened again, but it was different. After one day of landing back on Australian soil after a short family holiday in Asia, I was asked if I wanted to accompany a new love interest of mine on a road trip to Queensland. The trip that we were going to complete was going to be nearly 4000km there and back and I would be gone for a total of two to three weeks. I had met this person only once before and I would be making a large financial and time investment. I would be very much entering into the unknown. And me being me, I did it. The next day, my bags were packed, my calendar cleared, and I was ready to go.

Most people wouldn’t have done something like this, but it comes naturally for me. I just really wanted to know how it would go and my curiosity was killing me. There is an old saying floating around from the 90s in Australia: “you never never know if you never never go”, and that’s always been my philosophy. Confucius also once said, “wherever you go, go with all your heart” – that’s why there is a heart tattooed on my wrist. And regret: well that is one thing I cannot live with, and so I needed to go. I needed to know. And I needed to have tried.

But something has been occurring to me more and more lately, and as I sit here alone, somewhere 1500km from home, my love interest gone after we became estranged from each other, things are becoming clear:

There is courage and there is courage.

The courage that I have to pack my life up and head indeterminately north is nothing compared to the courage that I need to tell someone how I really feel about them. The courage that I have to drive into the deep deep forest alone at night is nothing compared to the courage that I need to sit with my most uncomfortable emotions of vulnerability, fear, abandonment and insecurity. The courage that I have to walk up to complete strangers and strike up a conversation is nothing compared to the courage that I need to have when I allow myself to be really, truly intimate with an other. Those things, those matters of the heart, of one’s internal workings – goddamnit, that’s where I need courage. And often I don’t know if I can do it.

Instead, like the nervous person with their mountain bike at the top of the hill, I stall. I rationalise, explaining to myself why I don’t need to take the plunge and why not doing it would be better for me. I dramatise, making things look a whole lot worse than they are, blaming the steepness of the hill or the hardness of the rocks rather than looking at my own feelings. Eventually I talk myself down, telling myself that I don’t have what it takes. I run from the feelings of inadequacy amongst the unfamiliar and unknown and I am controlled by fear. I crave a known-ness and a stability and I am the furthest from a huckster. I get off of my bike and I won’t ever know what it feels like to have ridden down that hill. And I numb myself to the opportunities lost.

A friend and I were having a coffee this morning and we were talking about this, and about the idea of making the ‘right’ decision, of committing. How do you know what it is? How do you know who to be with, what job to take, where to live, what to do with yourself? What if you miss out, on that special other person, that place you should’ve lived, on your life? We both knew inaction was not the way to go – not making a decision consequently closes off all opportunity. But how do we go from here?

After feeling into it, we came back to this: you’ll never never know if you never never go. And you’ve got to truly go. You’ll never never know if you want it unless you start it, unless you enter it, and unless you are willing to go all into it, with all of your heart. And that might mean shutting off other options, but then again, how will you know what it’s like until you really really try?

And in this instance, I didn’t. I didn’t try. I got spooked and I stalled. I got nervous and I got scared and I grabbed for stability and security. I didn’t trust that perhaps, even if I wasn’t in control, I would be ok. I didn’t ride the difficulties and meet them only as they came up, like the huckster would. I was strapped down under so many of my safety measures, contingency plans, what ifs and needs for security and as a result, things ended before they could even start.

But this is what life is like, I guess. You go all in, you see how you go, and at any point, you can leave. Sometimes it’s sooner, and sometimes it’s a lot later. But in the end it’s better to have made a grab for it than to always wonder what it would’ve been like. And in my instance it’s better to have let myself feel something that was just slightly risky than to have stayed numb, distant and safe. As the year draws close to the end I’m left with my stories but also my what ifs. And so next year, then, is always another chance to do what you didn’t and what you couldn’t before.

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Leap into the Void, Yves Klein, 1960

Expecting a wall

Here’s a short poem about a new friendship that I’ve recently started. I’ve always defined myself through difficulty and through overcoming hardship but for the first time I’m realising that some things, like relationships, are perhaps meant to be easy. The struggle, the fight, that’s always been familiar – but perhaps it’s time to start doing things differently.

 

expecting a wall

I fall through

into this new space

 

it’s dark

and I’m uncertain of the dimensions

 

how far can I go

and how far does this go?

 

it’s a new space

contentment

negotiation

intersubjective co-creation

 

the silence rings in my ears

it’s so peaceful here!

 

no crashes, no bangs

no conflict, no walls

 

I’m not defined;

I define myself

and so do you

 

it’s unfamiliar

 

but I’m an adventurer

so I think I might stay

a while

On Sydney, and on choice

I’ve been missing from this blog for a while. In the several weeks of my absence, in terms of my physical location I’ve left China, travelled to Hong Kong, and then landed back in Australia. In terms of how I’ve been doing emotionally, well, let’s just say my first few days back in Melbourne were hard. Chalk it up to post-holiday blues if you wish, but it felt like something more. All of the signs of a depression were waiting for me in the arrival hall. As we landed down, I put on a coat in preparation for the cold weather and with it, layers upon layers of heaviness, angst and confusion. Welcome back to winter – white skies, dreary days, cold nights – and welcome back to your real life.

I really fell in love with China. I’ll be the first to admit it – I was bedazzled by the dynamism and the breakneck speed of that country. I loved slipping into the life of the younger, affluent generation there. I left behind my love for nature, for wholesomeness and for authenticity, and replaced them with the glittery lights of a rapidly developing city. Judge me if you will, but there was something so enticing about racing through the streets of Shanghai in my cousin’s sports car, out for a day of tailor-bought, costly and consumeristic fun. I felt like I had reached the land of the Great Gatsby, and I was hooked. It was so other to my life back in Melbourne, and it was something I (and billions of other people around the world) never had. Affluence. Hedonism. The power that comes with money. And so I cleared out the clutter of the old in my heart and made room for the new.

Coming back to Melbourne then was like crash-landing into the mortal world of my own making. I drove the streets in my dingy car, lamenting how ordinary things felt. I went out with friends and noticed how poor I actually was. I cleaned and cooked and walked the streets and took public transport – all the makings of an ordinary life – and felt unexcited by it all. I set my room back up again, and whilst the feel of my sentimental belongings reminded me of me, I noticed I felt different. I had changed. I began to question myself consistently with an intensity that should only be reserved for lonesome Sunday nights. What was I actually doing here? What was I passionate about? Why am I living in Australia? What is meaningful to me? I came up with nothing, and yet my faded memories and hopes of what life could’ve been like back in Asia continued to haunt me. I was losing touch.

Then an opportunity came along. I had been planning on going to Sydney for a weekend workshop only a week after my arrival home and I was rethinking the decision. “You’re ridiculous,” I told myself “you have no direction in your life and you’re just running around like a chicken without a head. Why do you need to go to Sydney? You shouldn’t go.” My inner critic was running the show, and I was listening. But then, I thought of what would be waiting for me there: self-development, a tribe of loving friends and acquaintances, escapism, foreignness, warm weather. It was just what I needed. I let myself off the hook and booked my tickets straight away. Because honestly? Fuck what I ‘should’ be doing. I judged myself all right: “you’ve just come back from six weeks away, you don’t get to complain” but in all that judging I had no better idea of what I should do. All I knew was that I was going through a rough time and I needed a little bit more of an escape. Excuse me for being human, I guess.

So on the way to Sydney I wondered about what I might find there. And upon landing I reconnected with my innate Melbourne hate of the city, and I loved every moment of it. Whilst outwardly complaining about the people, the city or the culture of Sydney, inwardly I secretly enjoyed the foreignness of it all. The challenge of trying to navigate someplace new, where even taking a train becomes an event to be remembered. And then on top of that, I found myself in a community. With the generosity of a friend who let me stay at her place, she lent me her knowledge and experience of the community she lived in too. And I slipped into that for a while – it was nice. And then more friends appeared on the scene, and I found my place in amongst them. That was nice too.

The workshop on the weekend was about rapport-based relating – how to relate to someone whilst valuing and nurturing your relationship with them, even through the tough times. It reminded me of a lot of the stuff I’d learned in my masters back in Melbourne and I gained a renewed appreciation for my line of study. I felt excited to get back into uni, and I remembered the reason why I was studying art therapy. I also deepened some existing friendships with acquaintances that I knew in Sydney. Getting to know these people better, I started to come to value my own personal relationships again. I started to remember why I loved working with, spending time with and being around people. They, in all their realness and authenticity, were such fascinating, beautiful and amazing creatures, and in navigating my relationships with them, I slowly started to see the superficiality of the friendships I’d seen in Asia. There, money and status often play a large part in how many friends you have. In Sydney I also had conversations with artists and makers and doers and innovators, and I felt inspired by their bold life choices to pursue a living doing what they loved, even though at times it was hard, shaky and unconventional. I reexamined my newfound dream to start working full-time, evaluating whether that would actually bring me happiness. Evaluating whether that was actually for me. And I had a lot of time on my own, and like the precious dance of two lovers getting to know each other for the first time, I was starting to get reacquainted back with myself. There was a reason why my scattered, crazy and over-abundant life was the way that it was, and rather than throw it out with the bathwater, I started to understand that there had been a method to my madness. I looked at my life more realistically, seeing the parts that I wanted to change, but also refinding the parts that I knew I deeply valued.

And so it is, that after a week away, I’m back, in Melbourne, for real. Sitting in my backyard under the sun this morning, I ate an abundant breakfast of home-cooked food from the communal kitchen and from the communal garden. Feeling the warm rays of sun on my face and the gentle wind through my hair, I started to gain an appreciation for the simple things again. Spending the morning connecting with friends all over the world, I remembered how much love I have in my heart for people. And sitting at my desk about to get ready for a day of writing for uni about therapeutic human relationships and about my subjective experiencing, I felt lucky again, to be me.

There is something to be said about gratitude. The word gets thrown around a lot but it is a special thing when you have it. Without it, trust me, life is grey. Nothing makes you happy and nothing ever could. I don’t have a do-it-yourself kit or plan to make gratitude enter your life but in my case, through time, kindness and space, it reentered the room. Feeling into what it feels like to have it back again, I nod in agreement. There’s a comfort and a familiarity in feeling that again. It feels like me. And my car may be dingy, my life ordinary and my wallet empty, but at least I’m content. It’s at the same time a lot, and yet not a lot, to ask for.

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This is probably not the place for words

In the sultry heat of the mid-afternoon sun I sit on a street corner of a small Chinese rural village using the internet of the local hairdressing shop. I’ve just had lunch with my grandmother and now I’m trying to make use of the hairdressing shop’s wi-fi so I can talk to some friends of mine who live overseas. No one is online, though, and so I set about roaming the web, aimlessly scrolling down my Facebook feed to see what’s happening in other parts of the world. Over other people’s posts about cats and breakups and France the cicadas chirp in unison and cars, three-wheeled trucks and pedestrians pass by. The young, stylish employees of the hairdressing shop invite me to come sit inside but I feel just right, out here on the porch on this summer’s day.

Whilst reading a literary review about a newly published book – the author is a young surgeon who was told he had cancer at the age 35 and this led him to discover his own personal answer to the ‘meaning of life’ – something compelled me to look up. Was it a sound or a sight caught out of the corner of my eye? I don’t know, but I looked, and what I looked up to see was the sight of a man and his bike in the middle of the road. He was obviously carrying something on the bike’s back rack – a large blue plastic crate four to five times the width of his bicycle, and it had come down. I watched as he bent over to turn the crate right-side up, and as he started to collect his belongings, his bike toppled over too. His skin was blistered red from (most probably) working all day in the sun. I watched him struggle, and inside me an internal conflict raged.

A sight like this in Australia would have me up before I know it, heading over to help the person in need. There’s no question about it. But China does something funny to you, or at least, it does it to me. Whether it’s the overwhelming mass of its peoples, the reservedness and lack of trust within its culture, or the common warnings heeded to me by my family – “be careful, you can’t trust strangers, it’s dangerous, it’s not like in the west, you’ll get scammed” – whatever it is, I’ve noticed that my open, caring, trusting, ‘leap into the unknown’ nature has slowly been worn down here. I’ve seen countless occasions of people needing help on the street and much to the disappointment of the Angela that I know, I admit that I’ve hesitated to help. I hate it, but it is what it is.

And so sitting here on this porch pondering this over like some kind of life insurance analyst – “he’ll be able to fix it by himself”, or “it’s ok, you don’t need to help everyone”, or “what are the chances that you do help and then this is a scam?” – a small part of me awakens and I remember just how difficult it can be to sort your shit out when you’re trying to fasten a huge load onto the back of your bike. Empathy kicked in, and further more: common human sense. I tell myself “fuck it”, and before I know it I’m putting my phone away and heading over to cross the street. I’m so angry at myself as I walk over to this stranger in need – “I don’t want to be a fucking distrustful, anxious coward, and this is not who I was meant to be”. On my way over I feel other people’s eyes on me, and more alarmingly, I feel my own: “what are you doing?” I hear another one of my own voices telling me, “we don’t do this.”

Brushing that worrying, nagging voice aside, I ask the stranger in Chinese, “would you like some help?” “You don’t have to,” he replies, out of courtesy. “No, no worries!” I respond, more confidently, and I take the initiative to bend down to help him lift up his crate. As we lift it up and prop it back on the rack, I notice how heavy it is. I also notice how it’s already pretty broken on two of its sides. It would normally have been thrown out and replaced if we were in the west. Held together by reused packing tape, I also see that it’s filled with what most people would classify as rubbish. Broken planks of wood and empty plastic drinking bottles and two brooms made of branches covered in lint and dust – perhaps he’s bringing it somewhere to collect some money, or perhaps he’s a street-sweeper. Seeing me notice what’s in the back of his crate, the stranger averts his gaze. Thinking back to when I first came onto his path, I wonder if he’s been averting his gaze ever since we met.

A feeling rises in me. I feel uncomfortable standing next to him – me, a privileged Chinese-Australian girl, sitting on a street corner reading about the meaning of life on my iPhone. Him, a rural Chinese man in his thirties or forties, skin not only blistered from the sun but also marked by a skin condition, clothes tattered and old, riding around with a broken blue crate full of trash. Upstairs I have a laptop and two cameras and bags and clothes which probably cost more than he’ll ever make in a lifetime. On hot summer’s days I can holiday in China and sit back and relax, not knowing an iota of the labour of the work that he must go through every day. I can’t help but notice the immense difference in where we come from and what we have, and my face flushes hot and red with shame. I remember another reason why so few people want to help each other here, or anywhere – it’s confronting. To bear witness to the shared, painful, vulnerability of our lived experiencing of the human condition – it’s hard. I want to avert my eyes and look away, numbing the feeling of pain and conflict and guilt, but I don’t.

“It’s ok,” I murmur, as he apologies for needing me to help him fix his bike. My limited vocabulary fails me and anyways, this is probably not the place for words. “It’s ok.” Carefully, I watch as he fastens his crate back on in that traditionally unique way that one does when you’re doing something in a makeshift manner. Without being asked I pull on the recycled packing tape to help him tie it down tighter. As much as my shame and guilt will allow it, I want to be present and be there with him. Even if just for a moment. Once both sides are fastened I stay until he’s ready to go. We don’t exchange words until he starts to ride off. “Go slowly,” I say – a courteous Chinese salutation at his departure. “Thank you,” he responds, and I say, “There’s no need.”

With that we’re both on our way, back to our own respective lives. I resume my place on the porch and watch the stranger disappear out of my sight. Turning back on my phone, suddenly I’m not so interested in what this thirty something year old surgeon has to say about the meaning of life. It’s not that I suddenly understand, or that I’m enlightened or anything. I just know that this small, lived experience was so much more powerful than anything that I may ever glean from a book. What it was, was a whole fragment of life, held in a moment. What it did, was it left me so much more questioning and alive.

Finding oneself

I’ve been spending the last few days in a small Chinese city by the name of Zhangjiagang. About 15 minutes drive from the clean and industrious city of Zhangjiagang lies the small rural town of Chenyang, and that’s where my mother comes from. In Chenyang I spend my time in between a traditional five-story cold concrete Communist house and a much smaller, dingy home overlooking a courtyard and a dirty river. The concrete house is where I sleep and that belongs to my uncle (my mother’s brother) and the house by the river belongs to my maternal grandmother. Her countryside house and my paternal grandmother’s Nanjing city flat are the two houses of my early childhood.

My maternal grandmother’s countryside home is dim with bare bulbs strung up in a makeshift way from the low cement ceiling. The floors and walls are slicked with grease from years of cooking for the family. A big Mao Zedong poster hangs proudly by the front door and beneath it a frame filled with photos of my mother, father and I from our faraway home in Melbourne, Australia. The main living area hosts a small wooden table that has been there for as long as I can remember. Off to the left lies a door which leads to my grandmother’s bedroom. A simple wooden slat bed with a mosquito net around it and a small box-shaped television by the foot of the bed is all that she needs. Another bed – my grandfather’s – also once occupied a corner of the room, but since his death four to five years ago it’s since been moved out and replaced with odd bits of furniture that couldn’t find their home elsewhere. Behind the house lies a concrete courtyard and a well. Here laundry is hung out to dry, salted vegetables are bathed in the sun to be preserved for another day, clothes are washed by hand, and small animals such as live poultry are slaughtered. The river which runs right beside the courtyard – once clean in my mother’s youth – is now filthy and filled with liquid waste and stray bits of rubbish. My grandmother is as short as she is warm-hearted (which, in this case, is very) and though well into her eighties, she still rises before six each morning to make her way to the local market to buy vegetables and other ingredients for the day’s dishes.

Coming back to this place always feels like a blast from the past. Chenyang always feels somehow the same. Each time I return I remember what it felt like to come here as a child. Walking the streets without a cause I’d go into the supermarket to buy Chinese snacks for lack of anything better to do. Stray cats would meander across my path and other village folk would take a second glance because I, a city kid from Australia, stuck out like a sore thumb. I’d pass locals sitting around on street corners on small wooden stools playing mahjong, cards, or talking the day away in a local dialect I couldn’t decipher. Bicycles and cars would drive by and you could hear the chatter of noise and the wafting in of random smells from the marketplace. This was the slow and unchanging pace of Chinese country life at my feet.

This time around however, you could start to see signs of China’s breakneck-speed development trickle through to a place even as remote as Chenyang. The shop beneath my uncle’s home is now a shiny, fashionable hairdressers’ run by young Chinese people with K-pop inspired hairstyles. The last time I was in there, they were playing country music from Texas. The local shoe shop has been replaced by a large pharmacy selling western medicine – pills and antibiotics for any ailment. Over the years cars have increased in number too and less and less bicycles grace the roads of this small country town. My grandmother and grandfather used to grow and raise all of their own food – now in the place of crops, the fields in which they used to grow their livelihood is home to a series of apartment buildings. And whilst my mother’s family and their neighbours used to be incredibly poor – only being able to afford a small ration of meat each week, now they live comfortably as China gets more and more prosperous. Chenyang is changing – that’s undeniable – and in some parts it’s for the worse and in other’s it’s for the better.

In comparison, a few days prior to the slow development of Chenyang I found myself in Shanghai being chauffeured around by my cousins. One girl and one boy, they were both in their mid-twenties and they came from affluent Chinese families. They lived together in a four bedroom apartment overlooking the river and the city, they both had Australian tertiary postgraduate qualifications under their belt, they had high-pressure careers in finance, and they drove luxury cars and spent money like it was no issue. My first evening in Shanghai they took me out to a restaurant on the 47th floor of a luxury hotel. The same night we went to a bar and drank and smoked and talked about sexuality. The next day I was with my female cousin, and we went from breakfast to the shops to massages to arcade games to dinner and finally to mahjong. I asked her if every weekend was like this and she said, “Yes, my job is tiring and long so I need to have fun on the weekend.” The next day was a Monday and so she was busy and back at work. I wandered the streets of Shanghai’s former French concession district and found myself having a traditional tea ceremony in an art gallery. Over small cups of puer the gallery’s young manager and I lamented the loss of old Chinese culture in the progress-driven baby-boomer era of contemporary China. He showed me photos of his mother’s old home in the countryside. After I left I walked along the treelined streets photographing the architecture which also held so much of Shanghai’s past.

A few days prior to that I was in Beijing. My days were spent taking in the sights by bike and my evenings were spent in the company of more relatives. In Beijing you get used to travelling down streets with big tall walls on either side, and who knows what goes on behind those discrete concrete barriers. Guards stand stiff by the gates of these places – a common sight, I realised, in this intimidating and impenetrable city. In the evening I sat with a cousin of mine in a noisy bar where we quietly talked politics. For me it was hard to ignore the fact that I was in the city where all of China’s big decisions were made. Evidently this awareness was apparent to her too. We talked about what it was like to be in your twenties in China, to hold and balance differing eastern and western perspectives, to juggle expectations of family and career and to wonder what the rest of the world must think of you and your country. Our conversation ended on the topics of expression, censorship and dissent and I was so grateful to have my mixed feelings about the city mirrored in someone else of my generation. The next day I met another cousin and she taught me about Chinese culture – about long-held beliefs about northern and southern Chinese men, about old Chinese proverbs and where they came from, about the history of the language we were speaking. She studied Chinese at a postgraduate level and so I listened intently to everything she had to say. Later that night I met up with a local I met in a shop – he worked at the trendy art precinct 798 – and we went to an art opening before checking out some Chinese underground punk rock and eating some Beijing street food. Leaving the monolith that was Beijing the next morning I was really impressed by just how culturally diverse and globally aware its young citizens were.

And tonight I’m spending the night at my aunty’s place. She’s been a primary school teacher for over twenty years in the small city of Zhangjiagang and over tea this afternoon we talked about family, politics and China’s next generation. We discussed Chinese familial expectations and parenting styles, and then we moved on to politics, sparked by the hot topic of the conflict between China and the US. When we couldn’t see eye to eye on the sides that we took, we went back to child-rearing and each used that as a metaphor to describe how we both individually thought it was right to govern a country. Coming from the west I believed it was important to respect the individual wishes of your territories – my aunt felt differently. “Your land is yours, and you can’t start allowing each dissenting voice to be heard. What happens when they all want to be heard? What do you do then?” When we couldn’t see eye to eye on that still I told her a western story that I often use to talk about perspective. “I guess it’s like we’re both in a dark room holding different parts of an elephant,” I said, “fighting about what an elephant looks like when we’re both in the right, we’re just seeing it from a different perspective.” In the middle of my story she nodded avidly, “Yes! This is a Chinese proverb too!” before preceding to say it. As she told it to me I was simply dumbstruck by how two such different cultures – the east and the west – could have two so differing styles of governing country and family but still hold such similar fundamental mores and values too.

And as I come to be aware that my time in China is coming to an end, I know I’ll miss hearing and seeing and being amongst such different experiences and perspectives to the ones I already know. With each new person that I meet here I am prompted to learn something new. With each conflicting viewpoint that I hear here I am challenged to find a common thread. With each sight of something that shocks, discomforts or alarms me I am asked to look inside and to understand why it is that I feel what I feel. All that aside this is a country that with each and every person, event and perspective, pushes me to feel. I can’t tell you how special that is.

With each day that passes I understand at the same time a little more and a little less about the world that I live in. I learn a little bit more about myself and my values, and I’m beginning to understand why so many people love to live in a place that is so different to the one they know. Like the rapids of a river, how magical and exciting and tumultuous it must be to be able to be a part of the ever-shifting current of a developing country’s social, political and cultural change. I see it in the younger generations and how their viewpoints on life, love and family are changing – just as rapidly as the technology and industry around them is too. It brings me hope for a future in China that might look more open, contemporary and conscious than what I’ve seen so far. And anticipating heading back to Australia’s developed shores I’ll know I’ll miss the dynamism, fluidity and the excitement of being a part of a country and a peoples that is still, I guess, in a little way like me, finding itself.

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Moving forwards

Today I’m leaving Nanjing. Sitting on the bullet train heading to my next destination, I’m editing photos that I’ve taken whilst I’ve been out on the town. Most of the photos that I’m editing in this batch are of the nightlife. I thought to myself that if the collection were to have a name, I would call it Nanjing Daze, because in a sense, that’s what it was. Constantly stumbling out of one contemporary urban Chinese experience into another, as I sit on the train and speed further and further away from the city that was my home for the last two weeks a daze is exactly what it feels like. Looking out the window now I can hardly believe that that experience actually happened. Watching the landscape roll by I am reminded that most of China is still made up of farmland, agriculture, skies and clouds. Only a few minutes out of the station the landscape changes from an immense and hectic urban jungle into spaciously organised rice paddies and food-growing fields.

Reflecting on my time in the city, there are a thousand things that I could say and write about, yet at the same time I don’t even know where to begin. Sitting at the dinner table yesterday I sat with my grandmother in the acknowledgement that time does indeed fly by. My gran (“nai nai” is what I call her) expressed her shock in a pause between eating: “when I found out that you had six weeks in China I thought you’d have so much time here. But now that we’re in it, it doesn’t feel like very long at all.” I nodded in complete agreement. “I guess when family’s involved, no amount of time time is ever enough.” Especially in Nanjing – I felt like I was slowly setting up a life there, but on a traveller’s timeline I didn’t have the days to live it out. We sat in the silence of this truth, finishing the last dregs of food from our bowls.

And this is where feeling overwhelms me. In Nanjing I got to spend time with uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews and grandparents. I learned how to play the guzheng, a traditional Chinese zither. I sang and danced to Psy and Nelly and Adele in fancy karaoke halls. I wandered into the buildings of Nanjing’s Southeast University asking students if they wanted to practice English with me. On a rainy summer’s day I went for a walk in ankle deep rain with a uni student, a new friend, talking in English and Chinese about life in modern China. I met a tired looking Russian man on the subway who wanted to start doing business. I tried to talk to other foreigners and got shut down. I learned how to make and recorded the recipes of the dishes I used to eat as a child. I rummaged through old photos and recalled small childhood memories I had already forgot. I went out to buy Chinese buns for breakfast in the morning from the local bun vendor. I went fishing. I went watermelon-picking. I walked through rice fields. I sat with my grandmother and cried. I visited a Chinese Wal-Mart. I got away with being a local. I cooked food for my family. I rode a bicycle everywhere a bicycle could go. I got drunk. I visited the memorial of the rape of Nanking. I took photographs and wrote in my journal everyday. I accessed Facebook. I smoked shisha. I learned how to play a Chinese drinking game with dice. I made friends. I smoked cigarettes whilst young male waiters waited on my every move. And I kissed a boy (my first Chinese boy) and for a while there, I think I fell in love.

And now, as the Chinese landscape speeds by so fast I can’t even fathom what’s happening, I’m leaving all that behind. Packing up my bag this morning, a little hungover and a little sensitive, I picked up mementos and souvenirs from my time spent here. Listening to country music, I had the blues. Knowing that I have to move on to new shores, a part of me resisted inside. The more and more I set up my life here, the more and more I didn’t want to leave. I felt that way about Nanjing, and from my seat on the train watching minuscule farmers work away in the rice fields as we zoomed past, I started to feel that way about China too.

But alas, so is the nature of travel. In a sense I grew up all over the world, and every time when it was time for me to leave for someplace new I gave respect to the nomadic blood that flows within me. Wondering if I could ever settle on just one place, just one job, just one person, just one thing, I packed up the last of my belongings into my bag. And sitting on the train reflecting on times departed, I’m already receiving a call from the people I’m arriving to meet. So I guess whilst I’m trying to figure everything out, for now, moving forward will have to do.

Nanjing Daze

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Family

***This post was written a few days back but I’ve only had a chance to share it now***

I went to go visit one of my aunts today. This aunt is the mother of my oldest cousin, and so I call her “da ma”, which means ‘big mother’ in Chinese. I went to her house because she is known for her cooking. Da ma is the best cook in the whole extended family and to me, her dishes always taste like home.

Da ma lives on the eleventh floor of an apartment located in a residential community to the East of Nanjing. Her apartment, shared with her husband, their daughter, son-in-law and grandson is littered with toys of all different shapes and sizes. Da ma and her husband (I call him ‘da bai bai’ – big uncle’) used to live in a dim, cramped little apartment in the centre of Nanjing, but after the birth of their grandson they moved into the suburbs to be closer to their daughter and her newly developing family. Da ma and her husband, whilst retired, are still very busy: early in the morning the whole household gets up, mum and dad head off for work, and the grandparents accompany their grandson to his kindergarten. After the bub is dropped off, da ma spends the rest of her day cleaning, cooking, and doing chores. At 4pm it’s pickup time, followed by several hours at the local playground or at a local art or English after-school class, and after that it’s time for da ma to make dinner for her busy, young, modern Chinese family.

I went to go find da ma because I wanted to learn how to make zongzi. Zongzi are sticky rice parcels wrapped in reed leaves and they are traditionally eaten for the Duanwu festival, which falls around May-June each year. You can have sweet zongzi, which consist of rice, red beans and/or dates dipped in sugar, or savoury ones: delicious soy sauce parcels of rice, stewed meat, nuts and salted egg yolks. Today we were making sweet ones.

I explained to my grandmother the other day why I wanted to learn how to make zongzi. I told her about how I had forgotten so much of my family’s culture while I was trying so hard to assimilate into Australian culture. I told her about how I regretted that. From the age of five, I grew up in Australia, Canada, Germany and the United States. I went to ten schools in ten years and all I wanted to do was to fit in. I readily gave up any connection that I had to my Chinese heritage. At art school I remember doing a performance piece in which I cut a whole bunch of red ties, red signifying my family and my family’s culture.

In my teens my grandfather was seriously ill – he lived in a hospital bed for about the last four or so years of his life – and I was too ignorant or distracted to really pay any attention to him. That and I didn’t have the ability within me to acknowledge or sit with the pain that awaited me when I would return to China to see him so helpless and so constantly close to death. A few years ago he passed away, leaving an incredible legacy of poems, books, memories and stories of his generosity, suffering, wisdom and kindness. Poems and stories which I could not read, and stories with people that I couldn’t understand. I felt the regret of not having gotten to know him better.

My mother’s father, my other grandfather, also passed away a few years ago. He sounded like an incredible man – district leader of his area and respected by many people from his village. When he died, a traditional Chinese mourning ceremony was held, and loudspeakers blared the wailing sounds of grief for three days straight. Visitors came from near and far to pay their respects and a large pile of fake paper money was burned to give him prosperity in the afterlife. I didn’t really know who he was, except that he had a friendly smile and that he had been extremely hardworking. After he died I was told that when he was young he rode a bicycle from his village in the country all the way to Shanghai. Back then it would’ve been around the 1960s, and with roads being what they were that would’ve been a real feat. At the time of hearing this I thought he sounded like an interesting person, but in all honesty I had no idea who he really was.

Feeling the guilt and the shame that comes with regret, I made a decision a while ago that I didn’t want that to happen again. I told my grandmother about how if I didn’t learn the recipes of my da ma, no one else in our family might. Zongzi was a popular dish that perhaps a cousin of mine could make, but others, some of which I also learnt today, weren’t. I told my grandmother: come the day when my aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents wouldn’t be here anymore, the recipes, stories, knowledge and the skills of my family would only lie with my generation. And seeing how distracted my cousins are by the new, dynamic, ever-developing China, sometimes it felt like the responsibility lay solely with me. Unable to hold back what I was feeling any longer, I couldn’t help but tear up as I said this. For some mysterious reason not completely known to me yet, it really struck a nerve. “I want my children and my grandchildren to have a taste of what it was like to be at the dinner table with you all”, I said.

And so fast forward to today, and I find myself sitting in the cramped and colourful kitchen of my da ma’s house. My da bai bai has been asked to film this understatedly momentous occasion, and in the footage you can hear him asking about my camera’s megapixel capacity and yelling out when he spies a fly on the food. My da ma had prepared the ingredients for this little lesson the night before, and we sit there folding reed leaves into cones and filling them with sticky rice. Once I get the hang of it, and once we have wrapped up all the rice, the camera is turned off and the sticky rice parcels are put on the boil. My da ma starts washing the bowls we’ve used in the sink, ready to get on with the day as she’s picking up her grandson soon, and my da bai bai returns to the kitchen with a pink electrified tennis racket to kill the offending fly. After a few minutes of swiping I hear a little zap, and the fly is dead. As the fly is disposed of I write down what I have just learned in the notebook of scribbles and memories that has accompanied me on my travels.

Soon after that I’m off again on my bike and heading off to my next destination. Da ma is busying herself so as not to be late for her grandson and da bai bai waves goodbye to me from their apartment building’s door. I entered their home full of questions and curiosities, and I left with another piece of the puzzle.

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