SO THIS IS WINTER’S FINAL SALUTE TO FOG-DRAWN DAYS AND CHILL-WEARY NIGHTS. DORMANT TREES LONGING FOR THEIR SPRING, WALKING WOOL-LADEN JACKETS THAT DANCE WITH THE FROZEN DECEMBER-FEBRUARY SKIES…ALL CAST IN CHINESE CALLIGRAPHY.
Nanjing, People’s Republic of China. January 30, 2005. Sunday.
Brown cedar leaves desperately holding on to weather-weary branches. No snow today, but the world hangs suspended in white and gray, disturbed only by the sudden re-emergence of black and brown coats rushing to escape the climate’s wrath.
And four hundred US dollars less 56 from excess baggage.
After drinking in all 60 minutes of road travel- passing by almost empty highways, alien billboards, afternoon bicycle traffic and gray old tenements decorated with hanged laundry (the latter reminiscent of Singapore apartment buildings)- the city downtown suddenly bursts to life.
Or the true colors of China seemed to have reappeared after hiding anxiously along. Resplendently fashionable indeed in Black and Red. Lanterns, lucky charms, neon lights. Huge Chinatown that merges black-clad people, bicycles, mopeds, cabs, cars, buses and skyscrapers that promise a new shape of things–the specter of modernization. For now exclusively spoken and written in the language and letters of the Middle Kingdom.
Yet you cannot deny smelling the rabidness of change in the air, its scent almost palpable. Not just because its Chinese New Year. Or that a new season beckons. But because the Sleeping Dragon has emerged, its blazing eyes awake with anticipation for its upcoming stellar role in the global market. Outside, a bookstore announces “The Man Who Changed China” and Deng Xiaoping’s enigmatic face sprawled in the cover. The rest is lost in symbols that await translation.
“Ni hao ma,” welcomes the concierge. Realizing I just smiled and nodded, not knowing the formal response, he kindly shifted to “Hello, welcome to Jinling Hotel. Name please?” But this is definitely not the kind of Chinatown back in my hometown Manila.
This is another world.
COMING TO CHINA, NOTHING PREPARED ME FOR THE MYRIAD MYSTERIES AND ADVENTURES I WAS ABOUT TO UNCOVER. NONE OF THOSE PREVIOUS STOCK KNOWLEDGE GAINED FROM MY UNCLE’S ART MAGAZINES AND LIVING NEAR CHINATOWN WOULD EQUAL THE HANDS-ON IMMERSION OF BEING THERE AND LIVING IT. NANJING—AND CHINA IN GENERAL—IS DEFINITELY NOT THE KIND OF CHINATOWN BACK IN MY HOMETOWN MANILA.
THIS IS ANOTHER WORLD ENTIRELY.
Strange and difficult at first, I had to content myself with territorial routines while adapting to the Mandarin-speaking populace. When I wanted dumplings back home, the words siopao and siomai would easily do the trick, easily earning a visit to franchised Chinese restaurants or to Eng Bee Tin at Binondo.
Now, while these gustatory gems are everywhere, I had to resort to the point system and sometimes body language just to get my fill. Getting the correct filling is a hit-and-miss affair, but hey it’s turning out to be fun, really! Ask me now and I can even tell you where to get great baozi and jiaozi with your favorite meat and vegetables. I had no idea how rewarding it became not to be tied to Mickey D grease-and-carbo combos, KFC Zingers, and expensive hotel chows.
Slowly earning my badge of courage and itching to explore Nanjing’s historical landmarks and scenic spots, my guides came in the form of a copy of Map magazine, the hotel tourist map and collated index cards of translated words and places. In a month, my palate feasted with its discovery of Xinjiekou’s and Hunan Lu’s wealth of gastronomic delights. My travel itinerary expanded with the inclusion of monthly hiking at Qixia Mountain, strolling by Xuanwu Lake and other hidden historical sites, including my favorite Jiming Temple.
Altogether, they started to complete my picture of Nanjing while continuously leaving me in awe with the city’s fast-changing landscapes as more modern structures take over older residences and buildings.
Eventually, the wanderlust in me scaled beyond the walls of Nanjing and stepped further into nearby Shanghai (very cosmopolitan, with The Bundt as one of its main tourist attractions, the city sizzles day in day out), Hangzhou (instantly romantic, idyllic and beautiful with its legendary West Lake and other natural wonders), and Suzhou (a taste of old China, some of its parts still preserving architectures and garden settings of the past, capped by a boat ride along a riverbank that some say is comparable to traversing the famed canal in Vienna, back in Europe).
As summer fades out and paves the way to autumn, my Chinese friends and I bid our adieu by visiting Guilin. There, more than the unbelievable beauty of the city mounted on gorgeous hills and riverways, it was our host-family’s hospitality that left an indelible mark in my mind. It’s like we’ve come home, each of us treated like we’re part of the family. The family matriarch even reserved the two rooms that each of their daughters would normally occupy, no matter how we insisted that we would gladly take the two couches in the living room.
Our palates got acquainted with the exotic and truly addictive fried bee larvae, the unforgettably delicious Guilin noodles that would wake us up during breakfasts, the specially prepared red wine that the family has been keeping for eight years, and therapeutic dishes of freshly caught wild chicken. In my limited Mandarin vocabulary, I could only exclaim hao chi, hao he, and bao le savoring each sensation from each bite and sip of the welcome feast before us.
We came back to Nanjing nostalgic with thoughts of our wonderful vacation and our newfound family. The sudden autumn chill welcomed our return and with it the promise of the season’s brilliant red, golden brown, chrome yellow playfulness. Trees have started shedding their leaves, the pavements now carpeted with the crunchy assortment of fallen foliage from cedar, holly, pines and other deciduous and evergreen broad-leaf trees that used to festoon the city with green garments.
As each of the four seasons passes, Nanjing and China has taught me how strangeness can grow from a mere outsider’s curiosity, an adventurer’s appetite for exploring new worlds, a student’s hunger for knowledge, to become a son of humanity’s larger family. In the end, I learned that these are some of the things that will never get lost in translation; in whatever languages they are spoken.