Becoming Local


By USHA SANKAR

GOING CHINESE: A foreign tourist trying on a traditional Chinese-style dress at the Xiushuijie Market in Beijing

Time does fly. As cliché as that may sound, I can’t believe it is now nearly six months since I arrived in Beijing. What a ride it has been.

I remember the first few morbid weeks. Having chosen to live in a suburb close to the airport because of its proximity to my children’s school, the sight of a vast expanse of land from my drawing room was enough to drive me into a few hours of depression. There were daily bouts of tears and rage. I could barely stand staying at home, but the prospect of going out was even more daunting.

Just 10 years in tiny Singapore had wiped out memories of 20 plus years in big, bad New Delhi. Anything that required me to walk for more than 10 minutes stressed me out. I had forgotten what distances meant.

Communication was another disaster. I had convinced myself that I could never get a grip on putonghua and felt I could see through our two-year stay with some expressive gesturing. How wrong I was!

The first time I tried that with my driver to indicate I wanted him to stop, he alternatively turned down the radio and raised the air-con temperature. Can’t blame him, he was merely following the trajectory of my wild arm swinging!

Back then I used to amuse myself with some pseudo conversation in Mandarin. When my driver would launch animatedly into some description about a place, I would barely manage to latch on to a fandian (restaurant) here or a shichang (market) there. But the moment I just parroted the word, the poor man would believe I was in complete comprehension and saying dui (yes), would launch another 100-word per minute description. I soon tired of the game and realized I had to learn something in a formal setting if I was to survive here.

The first few weeks of Chinese lessons were painful. But even as I made some progress, I found it was barely effective on the roads. And a well-meaning American friend had drilled a real fear of getting the tones wrong. An innocuous statement like “I want to polish my shoes” could turn into something quite bizarre with the wrong tones.

Two months into my stay here, and after several rounds of fruitless job hunting, I told myself I will focus on counting down the two-year stay and that would make things easier.

And then, things began to look up. I abandoned my fear of tones and spoke as much Chinese as I could and people would stand. I forced myself to look around the city and explore it on foot, by bus and the subway. I memorized the names of fruits and veggies and ventured into wet markets instead of buying overpriced, less than fresh stuff at my compound’s Jenny Lou’s.

I learned to notice and appreciate acts of kindness, big and small. As when my ayi (housemaid), realizing I don’t cook meat at home, takes her packed lunch outside to eat if it contains meat. Or the time when, soon after my arrival here, my whole family got caught in the heavy downpour of last summer inside a local mall that quickly filled up with water. At that time, we were car-less and language-proficient-less and at least an hour’s drive away from home. But for the help offered by a young CCTV programmer who spoke a little English and willingly accommodated four dripping wet foreigners into his nice, clean car and drove us for more than a hour to a subway station, I have no doubt we would have been washed away to Inner Mongolia!

And then there is the weather. While in sweltering Singapore, I longed to live in a cold climate. But nothing quite prepared me for just how cold Beijing could be. I am exhausted just by the preparation for a walk outside and believe the effort expended in putting on all those layers itself is enough to burn the required calories. Then there is the food. The cold does prime my appetite but being a strict vegetarian I have little choice but to slave in my kitchen and satisfy it. In all these years, the only time I have regretted my vegetarianism is when I pass by Beijing roadside stalls selling sizzling hot eats that I know I can’t partake of. But then, where else can I find this absolutely tantalizing array of all my favorite fruits?

I can recount many more ways in which I am finally becoming xiguan (accustomed). But suffice it to say here that from previously thinking “Oh no still 18 more months here,’’ I am now saying, “Oh no only 18 more months here!’’


The author is from India and works in Beijing