“I’m really glad you took us here, thank you.”
“Yes, it’s really pleasant, isn’t it.”
It was my parents’ first visit to China, and after a few days running around the busy streets of Nanjing, I thought a day-trip to Yangzhou would make them happy.
“Is this the same tea we tried yesterday? It tastes a bit different.”
“Yay, yesterday was Osmanthus tea, this one is just green tea, I’m not sure what kind.”
They were enjoying themselves, at least reasonably, but I was exhausted. They didn’t speak a word of Mandarin, and I had to organize everything.
“Get the last cake, mum.”
“No, you have it – I’m finding them a bit heavy, and I need to leave room for tonight.”
The culmination of their journey was coming soon: a big introduction dinner to my future in-laws. Below the gleeful surface, that’s all we were thinking about.
“Should we go?” I suggested, biting into the last gingko-nut cake.
We stood up from the wooden table, and resumed our stroll across the canals of the Slender West Lake area, crossing over arched bridges, wandering through bamboo groves, or gazing through circular moon-gates at the distant pavilions. Then, exhausted from so much beauty, we got a cab to the station, and arrived just on time for the 5h05 train back to Nanjing.
We sat opposite a loud group of country people who kept staring at us for most of the trip, repeating the word ‘laowai, laowai’, and laughing. They reeked of cold tobacco, and spat sunflower shells all over the floor. My mother did a regal job of ignoring them, but I could see my father passive aggressively looking out the window. His goal was probably to shame them into silence, but his behaviour had absolutely no success.
Chen Jie came to pick us up at the station, and escorted us back to Gulou. My parents had 15 minutes to refresh. ‘That should be enough’, said my mother, ‘I’ve already chosen my dress and shoes for tonight’, but I could see that my father was annoyed at having to rush. ‘We’ll be waiting in the lobby’, I said, hoping that would encouarge them to do their business quickly.
‘So will you go to Yangzhou again?’ asked Chen Jie. She was wearing a slim black top with thin straps, revealing her slender round shoulders. Her hair was attached in a ponytail, and her eyes shone their black magic back at me. ‘You know I love it there. Maybe we should go for our honeymoon.’
She gave me a mock-smack on the arm: ‘You said Paris.’
I laughed, and held her in my arms, while she mock-pouted – meanwhile pressing her body close to me mine.
‘Do you think your parents will arrive early?’ I asked.
‘That’s OK, you don’t need to worry.’ She replied. But I knew she didn’t mean it: 7h30 was late for a Chinese dinner, and I didn’t want my family to seem impolite.
The trip to Yangzhou would play in our favour though. Chen Jie’s father was working for the local government there through the nineties, before he got transferred to the regional capital. According to the family mythology, he played a crucial role in protecting historical parts of the city from destruction – which made him a retrospective hero when authentic Ming dynasty temples started to push up the price of nearby commercial real estate.
By 7h10, my parents still hadn’t made their way back to the lobby, and I started feeling murderous instincts. I could picture the Chens alone at a large table, and their impassive smile.
‘Maybe your parents are tired, and they needed some rest’ said Chen Jie.
‘They’re fine,’ I replied, ‘they just don’t have a very good sense of time’.
I started dreading the coming dinner. Would my father sit brooding all night, or make obnoxious remarks about China? How should I react if he did? Play filial son, and shut up, or politely contradict him, at the risk of us all losing face? Chen Jie was generally my guide through these arcanes of cross-cultural politeness codes, but when it came to my family, I couldn’t dream of asking her directly.
They finally came down at 7h15. ‘It’s my fault’, said my mother, ‘sorry: I had my dress on, and then I made a big stain with my lipstick.’ Chen Jie smiled ‘It’s OK, you can be late in China.’ My father though it was the perfect moment to press his point: ‘See – you’ve been rushing us for nothing.’ I cringed.
We finally made it only ten minutes late. The Chens had insisted on taking my parents to ‘Grandma Xiang’, a new traditional Jiangsu restaurant on the top floor of the Golden Eagle shopping mall. ‘Are we going to some sort of food court then?’ asked my mother, slightly perplexed, when we stepped onto the escalator past a Starbucks, and emerged into aisles of menswear. I explained, again, that the best places in China were often located inside shopping malls: ‘I guess it’s just the way they do it then,’ she said, and on we went along stalls of jade jewellery.
For better or worse, the place was remarkably noisy – hot and loud, as the Chinese say. The waiter escorted us to a window table where the Chens were waiting for us. There were two small cups of green tea on the table, and a small plate of sunflower seeds, untouched. Everyone shook hands, unsure how much physical contact was appropriate on a first meeting. Then we all sat down, foreign parents facing Chinese parents, while Chen Jie and I took both ends of the table, so that we could informally translate through the dinner.
The dinner was painful, but catastrophe was avoided. Conversation rolled over first impressions of China to the canals of Yangzhou, then to modest insights into the Chen family mythology. High-speed and low-speed trains featured – the pace of urbanisation – and heritage conservation. Then the food arrived: salted duck in thin slices, sweet lotus root, stinky tofu. Mrs Chen remarked, impressed, how agile my mother was with her chopsticks, and Mr Chen, cheerful, called for a bottle of Baijiu.
My father fought over the bill, as I instructed him to, but the Chens had already made a deal with the restaurant. We duly thanked them, promised a similar feast when they came visit, and shook hands – this time with slightly less embarrassment – outside the doors of the Golden Eagle shopping mall. Chen Jie walked her parents back home, while I escorted mine in a taxi.
‘Chen Jie’s really lovely’ my mother said when we got back into their room. ‘How long have you known each other now?’
‘It’s been almost a year, but we’ve only been seriously dating for five months.’
‘I can’t believe you’ve been gone for so long’, she commented.
My father walked up to the window, and looked outside.
‘You know,’ I said, ‘there’s many Westerners dating Chinese girls, but I’m lucky with Chen Jie. It means a lot that we’ve just had this dinner. Generally, Chinese families are not too keen on their daughters marrying a Westerner.’
My mother was looking at me, smiling.
‘But I think it went well today.’
‘Did we make you proud at least?’ asked my father, turning around. My mother laughed – ‘oh, don’t tease him.’
‘You did a good job, dad,’ I replied, and he went over to sit in an armchair opposite me.
My mother was boiling water now, and shuffling around the kitchen:
‘So, do you have a date for the wedding?’ she asked?
‘Not yet – but we’re thinking next year in Spring.’
‘Are you doing it here, or coming back home?’
‘Probably here – and then Paris for our honeymoon.’
She nodded: ‘We’re just getting used to it now, but soon we’ll be experts.’
Then my father said: ‘I never thought, when you were little, that you would take us to China.’
I wasn’t an early sinophile: I studied French in high school, and had no particular interest in Asia beside kung-fu movies and pork dumplings. Then I got this scholarship to spend a year in Taiwan, and that’s when it really started.
‘It’s a fascinating country,’ my father was putting on his serious news-analysis face, ’I mean, it came out of nowhere – Japan, yes – but China? And then suddenly, it’s all everyone’s interested in. But you’ve already studied the language, and now you’re introducing us to local aristocracy.’
My mother made a little loving noise, and I smiled back at him.
‘Seriously, I’m wondering – are Chen Jie’s parents actually powerful? I don’t really know what anything means here.’
My mother laughed: ‘Richard, It doesn’t matter. I think they were really nice people.’
But I still thought I should reply something: ‘I think they are – but I’m not too sure. I’m just figuring things out as I go.’
‘You’ve always been adventurous,’ he said. ‘Remember that time we were camping in the mountains, and there was a river nearby: it was so cold, you were the only one mad enough to go swim there – and you kept mocking us for not following you; then one day you got caught in a whirlpool, and I had to jump in and rescue you?’
We gave each other a warm smile of affection, then started exchanging memories of past holidays together.
‘Water’s ready,’ said my mother, ‘What would you like? Lipton teabags from the hotel, or that nice green tea we bought today?’
‘Don’t open the pack mum,’ I replied – ‘I’m happy with just a teabag.’
Then I beckoned my father to the window: ‘Come, I think we can see my apartment from here. I’ll show you.’
NOTE: This story is the fifth in a planned series of #52, recomposing my memories of a term in China through fiction. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. This story was written with the help of DraftQuest. Image and story are copyright @julienleyre.