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Home Time

17 Sep

He sucked on some more preserved mandarin peel as the coach hit a spot of turbulence. He hasn’t been home for a few years. In our time together, neither of us have visited each other’s homes because mine is in London and his is a mission to get to. Both of us were slightly apprehensive. He was concerned that a city dweller like me wouldn’t be used to the Chinese countryside. I was a little concerned about mosquitoes (their bites leave me looking like I’ve got a touch of bubonic plague) but I reassured him that I would be fine. It was only an overnight stay so I wasn’t too worried about creature comforts.

Waiting at the penultimate stop, a small town with wide streets and no taxis, we were informed that the bus we had been waiting for was not going to be running tonight. No reason was given. I guess the driver had better things to do than drive a couple of strangers up a winding mountain road. He (or she) was probably watching one of China’s many TV talent shows, preferably the one with small children screeching Peking Opera classics.

As we stood around pondering about our fate for the night, Wong (my fiancee) suddenly accosted a passer by with a pro wrestling power slap. A “huh?” was immediately followed by big bouts of laughter and warm hugs.
They bubbled together in the local Hakka dialect, which consists of one part Mandarin to nine parts mystery. I had no idea what they were saying. I guessed that they were talking about the good old days or catching up on news about so-and-so. The conversation inevitably moved onto the subject of how we were going to get to Wong’s home and the tone changed to something more serious as his friend ushered the tête-à-tête to the side of the road. After a quick um-dee um-dee, Wong waved me over to where they were standing.

“Ok?” He quizzed as he pointed to an old motorcycle parked next to a shiny red Nissan.

“Ok.” I responded. Night was upon us and we had no other option. Heck, I’ve seen entire families packed onto the back of flimsy electric bikes, I think the three of us should be “ok” on this bad boy. Sandwiched on two wheels between a complete stranger and my fiancee, we set out for Wong’s home. I was immensely tense as we started the journey because this was my first encounter with a motorcycle in China. Every time we went uphill the engine would splutter and threaten to cut out, while every time we went downhill I would see my life flash before me. Despite fearing for my life, I kept finding the words “there were three in the bed and the little one said…” rolling over in my head. I had to stop myself from laughing at the situation: we were supposed to get our marriage certificate in Guangzhou ten hours ago and tonight was supposed to a romantic affair.

The view from the back of the motorcycle was truly breathtaking. Waterlogged rice paddies shimmered in the moonlight while the bamboo covered mountainside undulated in the summer breeze. This was the China I wanted to see, not the KFCs or foreign style coffee houses – although I appreciated them in my moments of weakness. What I really wanted to experience was the China I dreamt of as a child growing up in working class London. Far from the blinding lights and pollution of the metropolis, we could observe the stars and inhale nature’s nocturnal perfume.

We gave the motorcycle a break at a small convenience store which sold pickled bamboo shoots in used cola bottles. The owners kindly let us rest our bones on their blue plastic stools. In front of us sat a pink bucket filled with water. I noticed something dark gray protruding from the water’s surface: a tail. There was a proper hunk of a fish squashed inside the bucket. It wasn’t moving, which was good news for the bucket.

As our escort finished his green tea, a man arrived wielding a meat cleaver. He scooped up the dead fish and plonked it by the hose at the roadside in front of our motorcycle. With cigarette gripped firmly in mouth, he proceeded to descale and gut the fish, using water from the hose to wash away any unwanted parts. He had ninja skills with the blade, not wasting time on unnecessary motions he moved swiftly and with purpose. We all watched him until it was time to get going.

We passed the man and his fish and continued with our journey. The moon was perfectly round and the sky was clear. Wong gently pressed his head against mine and at that moment the thought of a candlelight dinner seemed terribly contrived. Why would anyone want to be cooped up indoors on a night like this? Romantic dinner or otherwise.


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