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I am an occasional visitor to China.|
When I first landed in Shenyang airport in the year 2000 I was a mere twenty two years old. I was naieve and knew little of the nation that would change my life in more ways than I ever could have guessed.
Shenyang was big, my home city of Adelaide is only one point three million people, Shenyang was something like eight million. Every person I asked had a different number and I am still not sure what was right. It was also crowded, cold and the first ice was beginning to bite the air.
I spent a mere three months in Shenyang, teaching in a position I still tell people of to this day. Learning about the daily life of the people of China, eating noodles in corner shops, learning to ice skate on a soccer pitch covered in frozen water. Eating foods that are the stuff of legend in the town I grew up in.
The buildings in Shenyang then were getting old, the biting cold ate away at the paint and the roads were filled with little blue trucks, bicycles and rusting red cabs. I loved its vibrancy, the chill of the air, the kiss of snow on my cheeks. I dined and danced with the students from Russia and Denmark, ate banquets with the Chinese teachers and staff, learned about the city with my students who were only a couple of years younger than me. I learned that I could teach others and learn from them and I wanted to know more.
I returned to Australia and went back to University, I studied teaching this time, China had given me a passion for it that nothing in Australia ever could. I had first thought I would teach in Australia but I drifted again and did other things. In 2004, I felt a yearning for the country that had given me so much. A friend agreed to travel with me. We starting looking for work. Hundreds of jobs were there, all over China, grand Beijing, icy Harbin, Sophisticated Shanghai, I could have gone anywhere.
Fate, brought me back to Shenyang.
I did not know why I decided to go back, I did not know what drove me to visit the only place in China I had already been when so many other adventures awaited but I am glad I did.
Shenyang had changed, new, shining buildings were springing up on the outskirts of the city. Audi's and BMWs were taking their place on the roads as China's prosperity increased. Western fast food had reared its head in Tai Yuan street. I felt a pang of regret as I saw the noodle shop I used to eat lunch at had been replaced by a KFC. I saw that the clothes people wore had changed, fewer blue suits, more Adidas track pants and Nike hooded jumpers. Again, I felt a pang as if something had changed for the worse......but the people were still the same.
Warm, friendly, eager to say hello to a tall, pale foreigner. Happy to point me in the right direction when I tried out my incredibly awful mandarin. I felt at home.....half way across the world.
It was only two weeks into my stay when I had gone to a "Foreigner's Bar", called "Sophie's." When I met her. A young woman, beautiful black hair and pale skin, large luminous eyes and full lips.
24th September....9:43pm, I laid eyes on my wife for the first time. We chatted briefly, she made me smile, I gazed adoringly at her.
She left to see friends. I broke into a million pieces.
I put myself together again. This was ridiculous, there is no such thing as love at first sight.
I didn't even like Chinese girls. What was I thinking?
She had left and I would never see her again so get over it! I thought.
But half an hour later, she returned. Her friends had gone home and her KTV plans had been cancelled.
"I will sing with you." I said.
My wife to be, this beautiful young woman, smiled like sun breaking at dawn.
We sang all night, we shared breakfast, we talked, laughed and when morning came we went our separate ways.
Every free moment I had after that I tried to be with her. I took the half hour taxi trip into town, wandered with her through the shops, markets and food courts. Listened to her sweet voice as she told me about the city she had lived in all her life. I was smitten, enraptured and falling so far in love that I seemed swallowed whole by its warm embrace.
But time flew by, days, weeks, months and we knew that something must be done if we were to stay together. I could not stay for more than a year and she could not come to Australia as a student. It was too soon, too expensive, too difficult.
We decided we would be married.
I felt immeasurable guilt as I realised that this beautiful young woman would leave the home, family and city she loved so much for me, a simple man with simple dreams. I did not deserve to be so lucky, to have such fortune to meet her, let alone the chance to be with her for all my life. My heart ached in sympathy for her family, knowing what she had travelled home to tell them.
In the middle of the night my phone rang. I awoke, fearing the worst, it was my lady. What could be wrong.
"You must meet my father." She said.
"Of course, but why did you ring me now?" I replied, groggy and not understanding.
"No, you don't understand. We must see my father tomorrow. We must catch a bus."
"Huh?" I still was not understanding. She must have thought me stupid.
"Come to the bus station by 6:30 tomorrow. We must see him."
I feared the worst.
The next day I was at the bus at 6am. It was snowing. People milled around trying to stay warm. I looked alone and out of place. Was this the right station?
Then I saw her, wearing a canary yellow jacket and accompanied by her mother, concern creased her mother's features. She did not approve of this. Who could blame her? A foreigner, unknown beyond a few words, whose nature had yet to be proven. Stealing the jewel of the family away like a thief in the night. Words were exchanged and they did not sound happy. I saw the worry and love in her mother's eyes. She is a good mother.
The bus journey was long, time ceased to exist. The bus was cramped, uncomfortable and crowded with people who were surprised to have a foreigner hunched among them next to a gorgeous young woman with a steely look of determination on her face.
Eventually, we arrived in the town where her father was working. A van in the snow, a handsome cap wearing man standing and waiting for us, a scowl drawn across his mouth. Not a happy father.
We travelled in the van for some time, little was said. The tension was razor sharp. I said not a word, silence seemed better than brevity.
We arrived at the set where her father was working. Actors in costume drank tea as they waited for their scenes. We sat down in a small room together. My lady spoke earnestly to her father, he spoke back, worried, disappointed, angry.
I saw my lady's jaw set, the look of determination that cannot be broken by a thousand charging bulls and I saw her father's scowl break. Resignation.
She would have her way.
He brought me to his benefactor, a man of power, a man who spoke English well, my wife was dismissed. He would talk to me alone.
We spoke for hours, about my hopes, my dreams, the money I would make, my family and every question a father should ask about a suitor for his daughter. I answered them all. I was not rich, I have humble beginnings, I work hard. I love my family.
His mouth closed to a tight lipped smile. I had been accepted.
China would give me its greatest gift.
To be continued.