Some days I really have to pinch myself. I look around me with wonder and think, is this really my life?!?! I am living in Nanjing, China. I get paid to talk and play, to stick cut outs of shirts and dresses into scrapbooks, to talk endlessly about food and New Zealand and other places I have travelled to. I learn new words every day, and I laugh when other people laugh at me saying them wrong! I get smiles on the subway (yes, along with many stares!) just because I am foreign and weird looking. I make friends with people and get to learn about their lives while they get to practice their English. I live with my parents who take care of me and support me, even when I am grumpy, lazy and forget to do the dishes. And my Blondie is coming home in less than a week!
What has brought on this surge of gratitude?! I certainly didn’t wake up in this mood! This morning I crawled unwillingly out of bed. I had slept through my alarm and had to leave the apartment in half an hour for a private lesson with Meya at 10am. Thank goodness she lives only a few buildings down! I wrapped up in my new winter coat and braced myself for the cold. Meya greeted me in her normal bouncy and energetic manner.
We began our English lesson full of felt tips and glue stick as per usual. When we had finished, I popped my head into the kitchen where Eileen, Meya’s mother, and Meya’s grandmother were cooking lunch. It smelled delicious, and Eileen asked me if I would like to stay and have Chinese food for lunch with them.
To be totally honest, part of me wanted to run away. I am so not brave when it comes to eating unfamiliar foods, especially with Nick not here! And I gave myself a little nano-lecture in my head. I’m in China! Why not make the most of it and the most of every experience that comes my way?! So I said, yes thank you, that would be lovely. And while we waited for lunch to be ready, Meya and I read some picture books that her old English teacher had sent her from England. Books about stories I knew like “The Magic Porridge Pot” and “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.”
Lunch was served on the dining table which had a lazy susan built flush into the table top. First, Eileen served us bowls of piping hot fungi soup with bamboo shoots. The soup smelled SO GOOD, like rich mushrooms soaked and salted. Which was weird because the fungi/mushrooms in it tasted bland and dirty. The bamboo shoots were a new experience for me. Kind of crunchy and tasteless, but not offensive so I ate all of the pieces in my bowl. Next up was fish stew that they served with rice. The fish stew was in a big ceramic dish, similar to some of the ceramic casserole dishes my great-grandmother used to have. I could see a tail sticking out of the fish soup. I asked Eileen if there were bones in the fish, and yep there were! The grandmother put some fish on a plate for me and I told myself I had to try it. Given that I am terrified of fish bones and that even just feeling a fish bone in my mouth makes me dry retch. I was determined to be a gracious guest, no dry retching allowed, so I carefully shredded the fish with my chopsticks, an easy task since the fish was well cooked and soft. Thank goodness it tasted good! I was able to add the shredded fish to my bowl of rice, which made it much easier for me to eat. Meya’s family laughed at me carefully shredding the rice and picking out the bones. They were impressed that I could use chopsticks so well. “Just like me!” said Meya.
There were also other dishes of food on the table to pick from and add to my rice and fish. Duck liver, which I was NOT brave enough to try this time, green beans, a leafy green vegetable that I love, tomato and egg which is very popular here in China, and a type of Chinese turnip with green hot peppers. I love the green leafy veges here in China. The grandmother found it very amusing at how much I loved the green leafy vege that she had cooked, and kept turning the lazy susan so it was in front of me, with her motioning to me to take more!
It was a really lovely lunch, with Meya’s father and grandmother asking Meya to ask me questions, and Eileen asking whether I cook or not, and what I cook. I told them that I love to cook pasta, and that my favourite food is bread and cheese together.
Eating a meal with someone is so special. Watching how they eat and copying them so that I do not offend anyone. Having them notice the foods that I particularly like and then being offered those foods over and over again. Talking about how they eat and what they eat and what they like to eat, compared to me. There is so much to learn and it is so easy to communicate over a meal, even when you may not speak the same language.
When I left, I made sure to say thank you (谢谢 or “xièxie” in Pinyin) to the grandmother, and she put a lot of effort into saying “goodbye” to me in English! When you live in a country with a language barrier, it’s the little things that go a long way in creating goodwill, smiles and warm feelings. And it is this that I am the most grateful for. The efforts that Chinese people I meet make to speak my language, and the family activities and meals that they invite me to join.