Monday, May 12, 2008

This is family, too

In my two and a half weeks here, family members have treated me with a level of esteem bordering on reverence and a courtesy that could be confused with deference. I'm wholly undeserving of this. If this weren't China, I'd use the word "spoiled," except here this sort of behavior isn't all that atypical; we're talking about people insisting on paying for everything in spite of my neverending objections, friends offering to drive me places at their inconvenience and favors small (downloading American movies) and big (offering to let me stay in a million-RMB apartment... this I politely declined by reason of unworthiness to inhabit such a place). The attention embarrasses me. I'd repay these kindnesses with everything I had, except I have nothing save this body and mind which tells an occasional joke with the accompanying smile. The feelings expressed through this type of behavior really can't be elaborated upon. Love goes beyond saying, if ever there were such a time it should go unsaid.

Last Thursday afternoon, Zhang Peng's girlfriend of six years, Anqi, took me shopping at Xidan. Like Jiuma, she's quite the haggler. She told a salesperson she was a clothes seller herself -- it's true, she has a little store of her own -- and got the price of a shirt cut in half, from 80 RMB to 40. Later she bought a wig that was originally priced at 580 RMB for -- I need to pause here for dramatic effect -- 80 RMB. I couldn't believe the store would try so blatantly to rip people off.

I don't do her nearly enough credit with the following picture, but here's Anqi at dinner later that night with Zhang Peng and me:

Sunday was spent with Zhang Wei, an old family friend. She and my mom have been close for a long time, best friends since elementary school. Zhang Wei and her younger sister Zhang Xin (currently living in Australia) have known the Zhang family for so long that we consider them family, and vice versa. That their surname is also Zhang is purely coincidental, though if you believe as the Zhangs do, coincidence is a synonym for divined.

A short list of kindnesses Zhang Wei -- who I used to call "Fat Auntie" when I was small, a nickname my mom (I think) gave her, which she loved -- gratuitously bestowed upon me:

1. Bought me lunch at a famous noodle house that, unlike most other famous restaurants in Beijing, is known for its food and not its age. A relative newcomer in the dining scene, Old Beijing Zhajianmian House shows all the signs of being here to stay, from the service (there're guys at the door who greet you and bow as you exit) to the decor (a painting stretches across a wall in the back room) and, of course, the food, most notably its namesake dish, zhajianmian (mian=noodle, zhajian is a type of meat paste). We ordered that, as everyone does, plus a few other dishes: broiled beef, broccoli, greens, soup, dessert roll (I don't know the name for half this stuff), some sort of fruit drink and a kind of meatball that we couldn't finish. Here're some pictures:

2. Bought me an umbrella and clothes -- expensive name-brand clothes -- despite my insistence that I didn't need any. Truth is, I'm very happy about the long-sleeved shirt and Nike cross-training outfit I received -- it's just hard to say thanks to somehow who absolutely insists on buying you something, despite all your objections and pleas that you're not "just being modest." I tried making a deal with her: I'll let you get me this shirt if you agree you won't buy me anything else. She shook her head and actually said she was becoming angry with me.

3. Would not accept my answer, at dinner at KFC's, that I couldn't possibly eat any more. This is the Chinese, selfless and generous to a fault.

In the afternoon we visited her father, a veteran of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Because he was in a Veterans Hospital, I couldn't get in without an ID. Knowing this, Zhang Wei claimed I was a high school student who didn't have an ID ("Who in high school carries IDs?"), and when asked what school I attended, she said, "No. 65." And so it was. Which brings up the question: could I really pass for 17?

Yeye -- as I'm to call him -- is in the hospital preparing for some minor surgery, though at his age no surgery can be considered minor (my laoye -- maternal grandfather -- also a veteran, died of a "minor" operation to clear some fluid in his stomach, at a ripe old age). Without any grandkids of his own, Yeye has always considered the Zhang family's children to be his as well, and as the eldest I may have a special place in his heart (I'm followed by Mingyu, Fang Fang and Fei Fei). We talked a little with the flat-screen TV playing CCTV news on loop. Then Nainai (his wife) came in and offered me tea and fruit. I sat next to the room's big windows and looked from my 11th-story view at the scene below and above, the blue sky which was only the second blue sky I've seen in Beijing since arriving, while eating a papaya and slice of kiwi. When we prepared to leave she insisted I take home a helping of grapes, which she said they could no longer get around to eating because their appetites have diminished.

Love as a word can only begin to describe the bonds that keep individuals together. It's something more powerful and real, stuff of evolution and less like the theme that drives the plot of Disney movies. I'll be damned if the thing isn't that which makes us mortal, reminding us of what we have, what we'd cling to lest we too fade into a tragic void -- appalling for our nullity in the grand scheme of things -- and find nothing can comfort us but a good cry. Even then they don't come back.

POSTSCRIPT: Another display of kindness from the same day: I bumped into an old friend as I was delivering grapes to Xiao Wang and before we could catch up, I asked if he knew where I could find a China Daily (I needed to look at an ad in Friday's edition for an English teacher at a company called EMC). Instead of directing me, he offered me a ride, even though it took him five minutes to back his car out of the courtyard (there're too many cars, making parking impossible) and he hadn't eaten dinner yet.

We talked about various things, caught up as best we could: he's still attending school in New Zealand, I'm still in New York; he's started his own business selling hotel furnishings, I'm diddling around; etc. We first met four China trips ago, when I hadn't yet begun high school. It happened when my aunt noticed me watching a group of kids playing soccer and went up to them to ask if they could include me. I'll never forget what Xiao Tao said to me in the waning days of that summer, after I told him I'd be back at a future time: "Yes, but we'll have grown up by then." And we did, and who knows whether we're better or worse for it.

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