Just Like in the West

by Richard Harrold

It was hot in the dingy little room to which I’d been invited, and the last thing on my mind was eating.  A cold drink would have been welcome, but all they had was Tang – a fizzy orange drink made by adding boiling hot water to some powder (cold drinks were not popular in China, or at least this part of China – for I was already learning, some twelve months into my stay, that China is more of a diverse universe than a single country).

The room was one of probably two, or perhaps three, that made up the home.  In some places it would long ago have been condemned and pulled down, so dilapidated and dirty it was.  But here in Tonghua in the northeast province of Jilin, it was home to my student, Joanne, and her mother.

Of course, Joanne wasn’t her real name, but all my students (I had two classes of about seventy students each) had demanded Western-style names.  When I’d tried to accommodate this request I had quickly found I started to run out of ideas.  At least ninety percent of my students were female, and that meant I’d had to think of about 125 girls’ names.  I had contemplated letting the students choose their own Western names, but after one girl chose the name Hitler, I had swiftly put a stop to that idea!

Normally, I hadn’t accepted invitations to visit students at home.  Accepting an offer from one student would have meant accepting from all of them – and there simply wasn’t time to make 140 home visits in one school year, but Joanne was different.  For a start, she lived in the city itself.  Almost all the other students lived many hours away by rail and came in to college as boarders, only returning home at the end of each semester.  These homes were mostly in small towns and villages in the countryside.

Another reason was local students like Joanne were overwhelmingly those who had been accepted into the college as “auditors”.  Technically, they weren’t even allowed to speak during lessons; the assumption by the college authorities seemed to be that merely allowing them to sit and listen in while the foreign teacher taught would allow them to absorb the lesson by some form of cognitive osmosis!  This always struck me as unfair.  The auditors were almost all older students who had missed out on an education when Mao closed China’s schools and colleges down in the Cultural Revolution.  In places (and northeast China was one of them), the Cultural Revolution had lasted ten years.  A student in his or her mid-thirties in 1987 would probably not have had any education after the age of twelve – unless you counted being forced into the countryside to learn how to plough at the hands of rough peasants with no love for city slickers.  Many died.  Only the tough or the lucky got through.

Joanne was rare in being both.  Her toughness had seen her through the worst of the Cultural Revolution.  She learned to swear and to smoke the rough cigarettes beloved by peasants.  She told crude jokes and made them believe she was one of them.  They even let her drive the tractor – which was the most enviable job you could have since no one had even seen a private car, never mind owned one.

Now, in the early summer of 1988 in the stifling humidity of Jilin Province, Joanne’s and my lives’ paths had crossed.  She was one of a very small number of workers at her factory (she made padlocks) to be released as a day student to learn English at the local teacher training college where I was employed.  That had brought her into my class the previous autumn, and now a few months later I had run out of excuses not to accept her kind offer to “honour her mother and herself” with a visit.

It was strange to be thought of in this way; no one in England would have told me that my coming to visit them would be an honour!  But it was quickly apparent that the people of Tonghua regarded it as something special to know the foreigners.  We were curiosities in a way, even celebrities.

Whenever I walked around Tonghua’s streets, I always felt that life must be like this for Mick Jagger.  Although there were 300,000 people in the city, they all knew who I was as my arrival had been shown on television.  Richard, the other foreign teacher, and I were the first westerners to work in the city since the People’s Republic of China was founded, and we could go nowhere without people calling “hello” to us from their bicycles or hailing us by name from passing buses.

We, of course, never knew who they were, so the conversations were always one-sided:

Neige guojia de?  (What country are you from?)

Ah Yinguo de?  Ling ling qi! I (Ah England –  James Bond!)

There was little variation.  Occasionally a Chinese girl would ask me coyly if I was married.  When I replied no, most would generally follow up by asking me how much I earned.  Sometimes instead of James Bond they would say Rolls Royce, Mrs. Thatcher, the queen, Shakespeare or Brian Robson (Manchester United’s star player and the England football captain at the time).  Once I was asked what Karl Marx’s grave was like.  All Chinese know that he is buried in London.  When I replied that I had never visited it, my questioner was astonished and refused to believe me.

But Joanne’s house was a completely new experience.  I sat on a fold up chair.  Joanne’s mother sat on a stool.  Joanne busied herself in the kitchen getting the Tang and arranging the fruit I had brought with me as a gift.  There was no other chair, but there was a kang – a stone platform on which the two would sleep come the evening, and the table was close enough to the kang to enable it to serve as a seating place for a third diner.  I wondered as I sipped my Tang and tried to make small talk with the elderly lady sitting opposite me, what dinner would be.  Hopefully, something light as the humidity was an appetite killer.

After what seemed an age, dinner appeared.  Joanne and her mother had a soup with some stringy bits of meat in it and a few chunks of tofu.  I had a chipped, cracked and none-too-clean plate on which was the oddest assortment of foodstuffs I had ever been served.

There was a soggy pile of what looked like raw potato that had been grated with a cheese grater.  This was soaking up a red paste that on closer inspection proved to be raw Ma Ling tomato puree scraped from the tin straight onto the plate.  A little pool of cooking oil was testament to the fact that an attempt had been made to fry the potato mess.  Two pieces of bread flanked the tomato puree like wilted sentries.  They too were coated with oil

In pride of place in the centre of the plate was a single cut of roast beef.  It was the only thing on the table that looked remotely appetizing, but I didn’t eat beef; hadn’t touched meat for four years or more – and had doubts I could even stomach it after so long.

Why on earth was Joanne serving me this mess when she and her mother were sipping quite palatable, if poor, soup?  I couldn’t understand what was happening.  Then came the words that twenty-five years later and on the other side of the world, I can still hear as clearly as if the old lady were sitting here next to me.

“He xi fang yi yang, shi bu shi?”  (It’s just like in the West, isn’t it?), she said – the eagerness in her eyes yearning for confirmation.

I looked down at the raw grated potato, the miserable pieces of over-fried bread, the tomato puree and the single piece of beef that I knew would have cost them a week’s wages.  Suddenly I saw what they had thought this mess to be.  Never having seen a hamburger and fries – or even a photograph of one, they had guessed what this archetypal Western dish must look like from a description in Joanne’s English language textbook.  The bizarre mess on my plate was their attempt to serve me a meal they thought I would be missing after so long away from home.

Something moved within me.  I took up my chopsticks and tucked in, humbled at the realization that it was I who was being honoured, not them.

“Dui! Feichang hao chi!  Zhende he xi fang yi yang”, I managed to say through a strange choking that had gripped my throat – and which had nothing to do with the taste of the hamburger.

“Yes, it’s delicious!  It’s really just like in the West.”