Saturday, August 22, 2009

Understanding China

Nathan Street, Hong Kong

My first visit to China. A bit of a culture shock that hit right through the heart. Even though I blended easily with the homogenous Chinese population, I felt like an outsider looking in. Partly because I cannot speak the language. Partly because I grew up in a multicultural island and Canada has been home to me for over 30 years. Cities I visited, Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Shaoguan, and Meizhou, felt like never-ending Chinatowns.

Danxian Mountain, Shaoguan

With the kind help of relatives and friends who live there, I immersed myself into Chinese lifestyle, eager to feel the pulse of this country. As the trial-by-fire visit progressed over three weeks, it became easier to adapt to the shouting style of talking, lack of concern for aesthetics, different sense of hygiene, and overwhelmingly generous and self-effacing sense of hospitality. Slowly, the essence of Chinese culture seeped in.

In Shaoguan, it was a moving encounter with the family of Siv Lan, a half-sister who moved to China before I was born. I could only communicate with her in Creole while she translated for the rest of us. She and her husband conveyed their joy of seeing me by feeding me all day, taking me shopping, and went out of their way to accompany me to Meizhou.

Musician in Lychee Park, Shenzhen

Life in China seemed to be all about working, eating and shopping until I witnessed the most exhilarating part of the culture, something that I could finally identify with. In many parks and open spaces, people danced and played music openly, expressing themselves without inhibition. A free form of entertainment and relaxation for a huge middle class society that seemed to be everywhere, on the streets, restaurants, packing trains full, even willing to stand for a 5-hour ride. At times, I felt as if I was in a Fellini-inspired movie.

Dancers in Lychee Park, Shenzhen

Rivers that run through cities like Shaoguan, Guangzhou, and Meizhou infused a soothing, meditative pace against the effervescence of busy streets. And the mountains were awesome, the way they imposed their calm presence against jutting skyscrapers, rice paddies and countryside lush with tropical vegetation. Often shrouded with mist, they spread their ethereal melancholy across the landscape, reaching a part of my soul that yearns to paint flowing watercolours and write sad poems.


Along the Han Jiang River, Meizhou

Rice paddies, Meizhou

The trip was really a sort of pilgrimage to understand my ancestral roots. Even though China is described in details by my father in a story he wrote about his life, it's always been foreign, a nebulous entity to me. Being there brought a new awareness and appreciation for father's childhood environment. There were emotionally-charged moments when I walked through the village of Pak Koon in Meizhou where father grew up until he moved to Mauritius at the age of ten.

One of the entrances to the house where grandfather lived. Also where uncle Lin Fengmian, the famous painter grew up.

Even though the house had whiffs of mouldy smell, was run down, virtually abandoned, used mostly for storage, with garbage strewn all over, dust covering every inch, I felt a strong connection to its quaint architecture, its courtyard, tiled roofs with peaked corners, and the numerous rooms that grandfather, his brothers and their families occupied.

I could imagine it fully inhabited, a happy place instrumental in forming the father I knew, a traditional man who always put the extended family's needs above his own.

The old part of Meizhou

I had planned to be in China in October when, I was told, the weather is most pleasant. But I moved my trip so I could join on my third week, the film crew of Alain Gordon-Gentil and David Constantin, the co-producers of Venus d'Ailleurs, a series of documentaries on immigration to Mauritius. China is the last in the series, and I was thrilled to be invited to participate.

Even though I did spew a few expletives at having to endure the suffocating heat, sauna-style in which the body sweats without moving, it was truly amazing to discover Meizhou, not only through father’s eyes, but also those of the documentary crew. To dive not only into my Chinese roots but my Mauritian ones also.

Film crew at work in ancestral home

The crew was very professional, yet very spontaneous, and with such a wonderful sense of humour, which I do miss a lot. They were so funny that Jack, the serious, helpful, efficient Chinese government official accompanying us, even relaxed and smiled.

It was neat to watch Alain Gordon-Gentil and David Constantin’s creative input, cameraman Mahen Bujun’s deep concentration, sound technician Bhimsen Conhyedoss’s quiet efficiency, and assistant Pascal Pierre Louis’s enthusiastic readiness with equipment.

And what a relief to have translator Charles Ng Cheng Hin help us find our way through Meizhou, a city that speaks only Chinese, even in 5 star hotels and restaurants. When he wasn't with us, we had to resort to sign language or drawings.

This music is very much how I feel about China. And this quote defines my visit, an introspective journey that may take a while to digest and fully understand:

"Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don't resist them - that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like. "
Lao Tzu

Au revoir les amis. Saying goodbye to the little family away from home. From left to right: Bhimsen, Pascal, Alain, David, Charles, Mahen