In order to read the local newspaper in Beijing, China, a person has to know a minimum of 3,000 Chinese characters. Upon making the move in 2005 for my dad's job, I only knew about 11. My parents dangled promises of a big school with a pool and the prospects of new experiences. Dad always preached that the more languages a person learns the smarter they became. But, all I could think as we boarded the plane was that jerk Maddie at school was finally going to get my spot in my group of friends. Purgatory was where we were going, not China.
My dad’s friend from training, Johnny Kwan, a tall and wiry man, saw to our introduction with the land of majesty: Beijing Duck. The most exotic thing I ate in western restaurants was the occasional steak and mashed potatoes. Whenever I recount this story to friends, we are the Parkers from A Christmas Story and my mother and I scream as the Chinese staff chop off the head of the duck abruptly. However, I spent most of that dinner weighed down by jet lag, and staring into the empty eye sockets of the baked duck head. Our trip to a furniture department store solidified my new reality. Fatigued, I kept trying to find a display of some kind to sit on. But, every surface was covered in bodies. Fully grown men in grimy jackets were completely passed out and snoring on pink frilly child beds. And the crowds. The hoards of Ottawa would flow like a stream between buildings. In Beijing, they were still, like a lake, but bogged you down rather than parting easily. The city was filled with things I recognized but were backwards somehow. Pizza had shrimp and odd vegetables on it; DVD’s would have shadowed figures walking across the screen during the movie; like a copy that someone made with only two thirds of the instructions.
We lived on the 15th floor of an apartment complex across from the Canadian Embassy. There were three bedrooms in all. My parents and I each claimed the ones the farthest from the other. Johnny insisted we get a house keeper or in Mandarin, an “Āyí” meaning aunt. At first my parents resisted, my mother was a stay at home mom who preferred doing things her own way, but they eventually saw the benefit of having someone who knew the area. Her name was Qui Jiao, a short woman with a meager frame and an enormous smile. She spoke as much English as we did Mandarin and to my dismay, at first only cooked Indian food. Qui Jiao had two daughters, the older 13 and the younger 11, but no husband, just her sister who worked for Johnny. The girls lived with their grandmother in another part of the country; somewhere with a nice school, Johnny told me.
The living room is the room I recall the most vividly; or rather, the television and its stand. Being an only child, I gravitated to electronics. I could watch other people interact and build imaginary relationships with characters that flitted across a screen. It also distracted me from the ever-present fog that hung in the sky just outside our window. Most days we couldn’t see to the ground, and if we did it was just as grey. A dulled vibrancy I couldn’t grasp and didn’t care to.
I attended an American school. It jutted out between farm fields after a 45-minute drive and had everything an upper middle class child could want. Ranging from kindergarten to the 12th grade, there were four gyms, a pool, a cafeteria the size of two of their gyms, and a gift shop. I was surrounded by kids of varying backgrounds and I warmed to none of them nor them to me.
My mom was always there to walk me home from the bus stop with our Āyí in tow. It would stop at the far entrance of the apartment complex from which I had to crest a small hill and walk under an overhang of branches. One day my mom couldn’t come and I can’t remember why, but Qui Jiao did. She stood against the grey of the air and buildings in her dark coat, a hint of fuzzy pink poking out the top. It was raining, lazy, and scattered but she ran to me and ushered me under her umbrella speaking quickly. I said nothing as we climbed the stairs but she filled the silence with her smiles.
Once inside, she sat me on the couch and handed me the remote then rushed off to the kitchen. I often never knew what she looked like from the waist down; her legs were more of a vibrating mass of atoms than solid flesh. She came back with a warm mug and insisted on watching me take the first sip. Expecting hot chocolate, I nearly spat out the hot water but swallowed it and grinned shakily instead. Qui Jiao’s eyes wrinkled at the corners and she patted my head then scurried off to the kitchen. I didn’t touch the water again.
In Autumn, we went to visit Qui Jiao’s home. Leaves floated in the breeze being the only indicator of nature in a terrain of cement. We were dropped off by the taxi in a flurry of dirt and smog in front of rows of one level houses. Their walls were faded and held rigid roofs that stuck out suddenly at the bottom. The people that passed between them almost disappeared amongst the houses and soil. Qui Jiao took my hand firmly and lead us down a row briskly.
At the end of the road, her place was the second one on the right. She opened the door for us and we nodded respectfully. I bent to untie my shoes as we entered but my face met with a cloud of dust where I stepped. The floor was compacted dirt. I backed up into my mom who gently pushed me forward, whispering to me that yes, we were in the right place. The room was lit my a single exposed bulb attached to a crooked ceiling fan. Across from the door was a beige couch half covered in folded clothes. In the corner was a small black, metal, coal stove that my dad later told me was also her heater. On it lay a plastic plate, a rusted pan, and a tea pot with one cup. Next to the couch sat a weathered wardrobe made out of plank wood that could have served as a second room. And, yet, it was all remarkably clean.
Qui Joa cleared the couch and had us sit on it with my father sitting on the armrest. With the same fervor, she had whenever she cooked at our home, she set to making us tea. I watched as she crouched over the tiny stove and jabbed at the embers with a metal poker, her yellow V-neck sweater glowing under the light of the flames. I leaned into my mom’s shoulder.
A loud noise came from the room next to us and she looked over her shoulder apologetically. We shook our heads and grinned with assurance. I drank the tea quietly as my dad spoke broken Mandarin with Qui Jiao, she would nod enthusiastically and he would chuckle. As the conversation died, she turned to me and held up her hand, signalling to wait. She slipped into the other room and came back producing an ankle length skirt. I looked from her to my parents as she gestured to me.
“She wants you to try it on, Pheebs,” said my dad.
“But I don’t need a skirt,” I said, taking it anyway.
“Just try it on, you might like it.” My mom kissed my forehead and I was given the room.
Angling myself so that the skirt didn’t touch the floor, I stepped into it. The zipper required some coaxing, but the fabric was able to hug my body appropriately. Excited with the new gift, I glanced around to see how it fit but there was no mirror. I tried spinning in it but a small dust cloud gathered around my shoes so I gave up. I played with the pleats, my nails manicured from earlier in the day. Looking around the room, I felt sick and lost. I wanted nothing more than to beg my parents to take me home where we had carpets, beds, and showers. But I gave the room another once over then called my parents and Qui Jiao to come back in. They fawned over me and commented on how much older I looked. I amused them for a bit by spinning some more before taking my parents aside.
“I can’t take this skirt,” I said quietly.
“Why not, honey?” mom bent to me.
“She has two daughters; don’t they need them?”
“Well, Qui Jiao sends them some of the money we pay her so they can buy their own clothes,” said my dad.
“But it doesn’t–she must need it.” My eyes shifted to the floor.
“It would really make her happy if you accepted it, Phoebe,” my dad said, fixing me with his gaze.
Qui Jiao was thrilled that I decided to wear it the rest of the visit.
The smog not only rolled into the relationship between me and my parents, but my father’s lungs. Latent Tuberculosis activated in the six months of our time in the capital and the three years we were scheduled for was cut down. We moved back to Ottawa so frantically that we stayed in a hotel for months before finding a home. I asked my parents about Qui Jiao as we boarded a plane for the second time, “Will she be able to find another job?”
“Yes, she’s going to be taking care of a family. They’re very nice, dad and I met them earlier this week.”
I sighed and my mom ruffled my hair, “It’ll be good to be home.”
At ten years old my parents uprooted us from Canada to China. I climbed the Great Wall, ate shark fin soup, and walked through the Forbidden City. But all I can remember is a person in a dirt room, with a coal stove and a heart of gold.
Phoebe Strike is a 21-year-old snarky college student with a strong love of comics, good beer, dry humour, and old movies. She’s an aspiring fiction and content writer who enjoys writing humour pieces as well as slice of life. Her plan is to hone her skills in whatever writing industry she can get her hands on.