On Board the Friend­ship Bus

Kiwi film­maker Julie Zhu joins a group of Chi­nese grand­par­ents who bond over bus rides

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Front Page - BY IN­DIA HENDRIKSE FROM WWW. NOTED. CO. NZ

WE MEET AT TOFU SHOP, a small Asian gro­cery in Paku­ranga, a sub­urb in east Auck­land. Back­packs and trol­leys in tow, we make a dash for it across Ti Rakau Drive. It’s a funny thing, see­ing el­derly peo­ple make a dash, but nonethe­less, we do it, com­ing dan­ger­ously close to the cars hurtling along the four-lanewide road. I hold my breath and run with­out protest. Af­ter all, th­ese grey-haired folk do this three or four times a week.

It may not seem like an ex­cit­ing out­ing, but to hop be­tween bus stops, vis­it­ing their favourite Asian su­per­mar­kets, is a reg­u­lar ac­tiv­ity for th­ese Chi­nese grand­par­ents. For them it is a way to feel con­nected to a home coun­try they left long ago. Home is now New Zealand, and life is of­ten spent look­ing af­ter their chil­dren’s chil­dren. It’s a deeply en­trenched Chi­nese cus­tom: to be fi­nan­cially sup­ported by your chil­dren and in turn, help raise your grand­chil­dren.

Film­maker and first-gen­er­a­tion New Zealan­der Julie Zhu saw some­thing spe­cial in th­ese seem­ingly mun­dane group out­ings to Asian su­per­mar­kets. Her grand­mother, Fang Ruzhen, and grand­fa­ther, Zhu Wanli, are part of a group that main­tains vi­tal con­nec­tions to other el­derly Chi­nese im­mi­grants who are flu­ent in Man­darin and Shang­hainese, but whose lim­ited grasp of English makes it dif­fi­cult to con­nect with many of the res­i­dents in their adopted coun­try.

Zhu sees her­self as part of the ‘1.5 gen­er­a­tion’ of Chi­nese im­mi­grants, say­ing that af­ter she moved to Auck­land from China at age four, she strug­gled with her iden­tity. “Grow­ing up, when I was lit­tle, I was like, ‘I don’t want to be Chi­nese, I want to be Kiwi’. It’s only re­cently that I’ve un­der­stood what that meant and why I felt like that. It’s that pres­sure to as­sim­i­late and fit in and be the iden­tity that’s revered in New Zealand,” she says. Her short doc­u­men­tary about her grand­par­ents and their friends, East Meets East, is Zhu’s at­tempt to form con­nec­tions with her Chi­nese her­itage: “This is me try­ing to re­claim some of that.”

The doc­u­men­tary is shot in an ­ob­ser­va­tional style, with in­ter­views con­ducted in Man­darin and sub­ti­tled in English. Zhu’s grand­mother is the fo­cus. Ruzhen and Wanli moved to New Zealand in 2001 af­ter Zhu and her younger brother were born. Ruzhen says the many dif­fer­ent su­per­mar­kets they visit re­flect how im­por­tant it is in Chi­nese cul­ture to get a bargain. “To save money is to sus­tain the home,” she ex­plains, as we browse the Tai Ping Asian Su­per­mar­ket. “If there’s ex­pen­sive stuff, we’ll try to find a cheaper op­tion and then we save money so we can spend it on our grand­kids. The most im­por­tant thing is pass­ing your sav­ings on to the next gen­er­a­tion.”

The prices in Tai Ping Asian Su­per­mar­ket re­mind Wanli of home, while the bus trips give the non-driv­ing grand­par­ents in­de­pen­dence and a sense of com­mu­nity with the friends they travel with. “This su­per­mar­ket is quite clean and well-struc­tured for me to shop,” he says. “They have spe­cial prices for items ev­ery Fri­day, Satur­day and Sun­day.” He also has a lot to

say about the dif­fer­ence be­tween Chi­nese and West­ern views of money and fam­ily. “You can’t com­pare Kiwi peo­ple to Chi­nese peo­ple. When Kiwi peo­ple die they owe a lot of debt, but when Chi­nese peo­ple die, they don’t,” he adds, as we browse the aisles. To­day, Wanli’s bought gluti­nous rice flour to make home­made rice balls that are mixed with pump­kin. “They’re re­ally sweet. Next time, I’ll make some for you guys,” he smiles.

Wanli and Ruzhen also ac­cept their grand­chil­dren will live very dif­fer­ent lives and have dif­fer­ent val­ues to their own. “Our val­ues are from China, the world is chang­ing,” says Ruzhen. “Young peo­ple are so dif­fer­ent to us. We don’t think it’s bad, though. Their qual­ity of life is much bet­ter.”

The hard­ships this gen­er­a­tion of Chi­nese im­mi­grants face in­clude fi­nan­cial strug­gles. Yu Xuezhang says it’s dif­fi­cult for her and her hus­band to sur­vive just on their superannuation, for al­though they came here for their chil­dren, their chil­dren can­not af­ford to look af­ter them. “I have to pay rent, so it’s a lot harder to sur­vive,” she says. “I have a son and a daugh­ter and they don’t pay for me. My daugh­ter has lim­ited in­come so can­not look af­ter us. Our daugh­ter-in-law is not in a very good health con­di­tion.” In th­ese cir­cum­stances, the bus out­ings and shop­ping trips serve mul­ti­ple pur­poses: they’re a so­cial oc­ca­sion as well as a bud­get­ing life­saver.

Our morn­ing bus ad­ven­ture ends wi th Zhang Xi­ufeng hur­ry­ing us along, pa­paya in hand, and with soup for lunch on the hori­zon. We shuf­fle af­ter her – she’s clearly the boss – and catch the num­ber 500 bus back along Ti Rakau Drive, back­packs and trol­leys burst­ing with bar­gains.

The bus out­ings and shop­ping trips are a so­cial oc­ca­sion as well as a bud­get­ing life­saver

To watch East Meets East and other New Zealand short films, go to http://load­ing­docs.net

Yu Xuezhang care­fully in­spects the avail­able seafood

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