Ayi and I

Striking friendship in the Daqing oil fields – by Sam Duncan


I arrived in Daqing, a city in far northeast China famous for its oil fields, at the beginning of September, and the nights were already approaching freezing point. Employed by an “educational consultancy” firm to work as a foreign teacher (basically a money-making scam) in a local combined primary and middle school, I was met by Mike, a Chinese guy who had lived in Ireland for almost a decade and now spoke English as fluently as a leprechaun.

On the cab ride from the bus station to the school, oil pumps sped past, while the sun set behind them in a sky full of billowing clouds. After three years in China I was excited to start a new job in a new city. “It’s absolutely fabulous,” Mike told me about my apartment in his thick accent. “Massive, two bedrooms, the TV is a little old but it’s a Sony and must have cost the owners more than 10,000 yuan. Grand it is.”

When we arrived at the aging six-storey walk-up, I discovered it was the worst place I would ever spend a night in, let alone live in for a year.


The House by the River

My grandfather and his generation – nonfiction by Karoline Kan


My grandfather was already an old man when I came into the world, in a small county town near Tianjin. He was bald; he had to hold the radio very close to his ears when he listened to Peking Opera; he wore a pair of glasses when he read the newspaper and often stopped after reading a few lines, complaining that “the simplified characters lose both the meaning and the beauty of the language.”

The only property my grandpa owned was a countryside house near a river. In the summer, soft wind blew into the house and the ladybugs lay on the brown wooden windowsill. Through the window you could see trees with blossoming flowers, dragon flies resting on wide grass leaves, and across a river the rice field was a waving green sea. Grandpa would narrow his eyes, point his fingers to the field and say to me, “look, that land used to be ours. A long time ago, before your mother was born, even before the PLA liberated this place.”

“You’re lying,” I told him, standing on a chair to catch the ladybugs so I could put them on grandpa’s white beard. “Then why aren’t you rich anymore?”

Grandpa laughed. “Sometimes being poor is luckier than being rich. You’re too young to understand.”


Red memories

Touring a Chinese Cultural Revolution museum – by Jesse Field


Lack of planning, pure and simple, left me with a day-long layover in Shantou, a city in northeastern Guangdong province which is home to China’s only museum devoted to the Cultural Revolution.

There’s something creepy about setting out in pursuit of trauma tourism. Tripadvisor’s top picks for attractions in Shantou include parks, a Teochew mansion, and a ferry ride out to Nan’ao Island for beach vistas and seafood. Why should a newcomer in town for only one day skip these fine locales to see old pictures of Chinese society tearing itself apart? Chinese nationals are justifiably frustrated when foreigners take a one-sided interest in China’s mistakes. The truth about the history of nations and peoples requires multiple contexts.

The trip to the museum is awkward and somewhat difficult, even if you speak Chinese.


Children of Tiananmen

Coming to terms with 1989 as a young Chinese – by Catherine Wang


For a long time, the only significance 1989 held for me was that it was the year when I was born, in the coastal city of Tianjin. By the time I went to university, I had heard about the other thing that happened that same spring. The term used for it when I grew up was not “June 4th”, let alone “Tiananmen square massacre”, but more simply “the student riot”.

“When did our youngest son get married again?” my grandfather would ask my grandmother, when he was flicking through the family photo album.

“The year of the student riot,” grandmother would reply, as if it was just another incident to mark the passage of time.

As a child, I didn’t take it too seriously either.


Qi soup

A Chinese American rediscovers TCM in Beijing – by William Poy Lee


When she escaped China by marriage in 1949 and settled in San Francisco, my mother made eight promises to my grandmother. The seventh promise was to cook the traditional qi soups for her family to protect their mind-body balance and inner energy.

Along with every other American in the 1950s, my brother and I ate Campbell’s most popular soups – chicken noodle, cream of tomato, mushroom, split-pea. But at home, we also gulped down smelly, weird tasting Chinese soups – cow brain with ginseng, turtle, ox tail, four herbs chicken (from a live chicken, throat slit and defeathered in Chinatown). 

As we ate, Mom explained the rationale to us in ways that made no sense at the time.