Work in Progress

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Notes from the Edge of the Continent

Note #1

Once before, when very young, we’ve made this plunge head first into a foreign culture/language leaving communism and the country of our birth behind. We wanted to test ourselves against  the West.  It was like giving yourself over/up to the care of others – complete trust is necessary.  Self confidence and trust.  We must still have some faith in the human race left in us to do it all over again and here, in China, of all places.

To put your mind at ease, here’s my first note from the very edge of this enormous continent.  Yes, coming here and committing to staying for three years, is at our age risky at best, but it is also a grand and rare adventure that is happening to a pair of old geezers.  We had to take our chances.  This is a one-in-a-lifetime deal.  So here we are.

              The city is by Chinese standards rather small, only 2.5 million, but beautifully situated on two small islands in a large bay. Parts of the city lay on the mainland surrounding the bay.  We are to live on the larger island which is straight across from Taiwan.  I’m told that on clear days you can see from the beach the outlines of the first islands that are already under Taiwanese jurisdiction.  The city is called Xiamen and it is our second day here.  Today I’m to meet my cleaning woman – Xiu-Lian.    Apparently every foreigner in China has one.  I heard that she is expensive -12RMB/hr.  which is $1.50 – but she is slow and operates mainly with rags and soapy water.  She also wishes to have heavy rubber gloves for protection from harmful chemicals.

On the previous day we purchased with the help of Rannie (Rannie Wu will probably become a fixture in our lives, so much more about Rannie later.) an array of cleaning products.  Unfortunately Xiu-Lian does not know how to use them and we cannot read instruction on the containers – everything is in Chinese.  At first it seems to me that Xiu-Lian is incapable of making the mental leap from reading instructions to application, later it becomes clear that she just simply doesn’t know how to read.  Rannie tells me that she comes from a small village near the border with Vietnam.  In small villages, Rannie says, no one takes trouble to educate the girls.  It’s not worth the time and the money.  This seems like a good starting point of a conversation about social mores of China, but there are more pressing tasks at hand and I promise myself to come back to this subject later. Presently some cleaning tools we have purchased just yesterday – broom, squeegee, mop – break.  I examine the damage, the stuff is  cheap and no wonder, it’s all made in China.

Rannie, who officially is E.’s secretary, really has multitude of functions.  She is our personal assistant and our language crutch.  She studied English and now is reaping the rewards of her foresight.  All we know about Rannie comes from her employment application. She is a widow. Her husband died in an accident (?) about two years ago, and left her with a teenage daughter.  She must be about thirty five (her daughter is fourteen).  Later, when we become more cordial with each other I will ask her what had happened.  She is intelligent, quick, and very sensible, but not very strong on looks.  Small, skinny, mouse’ish hair, dark and straight, of course, in a short page-boy cut.  Thick glasses and no make-up.  E.’s co-workers and other American expat executives we’ve met hire young Chinese girls mainly for their looks, which rarely go with brains.

           The evening is warm; we stand on the balcony of our apartment which is on the twenty seventh floor. The building is located at the edge of a lake surrounded by a public park. We listen to the music drifting up from the speakers mounted in the flower beds below.  The high rise apartments across the lake are outlined in neon lights flashing in hundred colors.  The views of the city and the bay are really what made us fall in love with our place.  Our place for the next three years.

Chinese New Year festivities are still going on (It must be the longest holiday on record.)  The end of the festivities is marked by the Lantern Festival beginning this coming Sunday. The park below is still decorated for the New Year.  We listen closely to the music and recognize the melody from our youth.  It’s a Russian tune “Podmoskownyie wieczera” known in the West as “Moscow Nights.” We start humming – it’s a lovely song, but for us it also has unpleasant connotations of Russian presence and influence on our early lives and, of course, communism.  The song ends and the next piece they play also sounds familiar: “This land is your land, this land is my land, from California to the New York Island.”  Derek, the plant manager at Kodak, says Chinese are equal opportunity opportunists.  They will take from anybody, anything they can get without asking.