Article by Rose English
As most foreigners quickly discover, the Chinese can drink. And it seems that no matter how much city folk can down, their country cousins could double it. To avoid sliding into oblivion at a rural banquet you must have stony willpower. To accept even one cup of rice wine immediately means you are obliged to drink two or you will bring bad luck upon yourself and everyone else at the party. Needless to say, once you’ve successfully tossed down two it’s obvious to everyone that you can drink so not to continue would be a flagrant insult which would mean everybody else would have to stop drinking. Your only hope of leaving the table alive is to stick to tea.
Later, when we had eaten our way through a dozen courses including the local specialty (a small, extraordinarily tasty badger), after the noisy drinking games and hearty songs and when even the Mayor couldn’t understand what the Chief of Police was saying and my partner literally slipped under the table, the banquet came to an end. Li Yi Bai, the Deputy Headmaster and the head of maths carried a semi-comatose Sebastian up to our new living quarters in the old monks’ cells located in the temple garden.
Our first week in our new mountain town home was a little difficult. Wing Dee, the Deputy Headmaster’s daughter and our daughter Lili bonded at once and insisted on spending days and nights together. For some reason, Wing Dee slept in the cook’s room next to the temple kitchen and not at home with her parents. I suggested both girls could sleep in Lili’s room next to ours in the garden but Lili said she preferred to sleep with Wing Dee on her narrow camp bed in the cook’s room. There was nothing intrinsically wrong with this solution; Lili and her new friend, who were 6 and 8 years old respectively, were delighted with the arrangement, the cook, a brusque character whose own bed was a wooden door propped on packing cases was also satisfied, and all our new neighbours who came to visit approved.
Sebastian and I were touched that Lili, our adopted Chinese daughter had been able to bond so quickly despite her limited Chinese. After all, it was precisely because we’d wanted Lili to bond with her fellow country people that we were in China in the first place. But with our daughter now so consummately engaged outside of mealtimes we rarely saw her. Sebastian and I were suddenly aware of being the odd ones out in a similar way to how Lili had been in England. We, the parents, were now the curiosity instead of our child. Before Lili could even speak, people would follow me up the street, mesmerised by the sight of a Chinese baby in a Caucasian’s arms. They reached out to touch her hand, her foot, caress her face. It was obvious that she was not my natural child so in a sense she was a child of the world and, while the attention was often intrusive, there was usually something moving and tender about the way people responded to her. While the motivation and response was not the same, the focus Sebastian and I now felt was absolute. When we left our temple home and walked through our rural town every eye followed us and every head turned. When we smiled our smiles were returned but without our Chinese daughter to dilute our foreignness we were aliens. A parent’s role is to protect and impart security and until this point I never realised how much emotional security my daughter had been giving me, at home or in China. It was a sobering experience.
It was now the end of the summer holidays and within a few days the children would go back to school. On the streets, squatting on their haunches in animated groups, they played cards. And down by the river or up in the hills they roamed in packs, boys and girls arm in arm, hand in hand laughing at everything, skittering like deer for no reason adults would perceive. Lili tells me now that no period of her life has yet been better than holiday time in China. “The Chinese are so warm, it’s hard to explain,” she says, “boys and girls all play together and the playing’s so free and rough and, I don’t know, fun, real. I like it in England too but my English friends are more reserved, things are organised, it’s not like in China, in China we just do stuff.”
The day before school started Sebastian and I were walking near the school gates when we came across Li Yi Bai sitting at a table selling exercise books and pens. Since the banquet, other than Miss Chen, the First Officer of Tourism who came to check on us daily, we’d spoken to very few people.
“I thought you had gone to Xi’an, no one has seen you!” said Li Yi Bai beckoning us over.
“We’ve been at the temple…reading a lot,” said Sebastian.
“And hiding” I said.
“Hiding from who—from me!? Sit down, sit down,” said Li Yi Bai pulling up wooden stools. “Forgive me it’s all my fault, I’ve been too busy to look after you.”
We politely objected but indeed we’d both missed his company; he seemed almost Western; he was so warm and easy. I’d mentioned at the banquet that I was interested in studying Taiqi and he’d promised to introduce me to Wen You Bing, a renowned tai qi practitioner who lived on the edge of town.
That afternoon I went with Li Yi Bai to meet Master Wen at his farm house in the hills.