Life lessons from a hutong
In the early 1990s my father relocated to China where he worked the last part of his career in a joint-venture company before retiring back to Sydney. He was in Beijing for about seven years, living in a multinational apartment complex and soaking up the new culture and often strange environment.
In the middle of his stay I was fortunate enough to travel to Beijing to spend two weeks with him. I had not travelled much before this and approached the discoveries and challenges with great excitement. It was a period when China was hastening its emergence from behind the bamboo curtain and part of this was the bid to host the 2000 Olympics. There were millions of bicycles, few cars, and high-rise developments abutting hutongs, or narrow laneways and streets lined with very old, single-storey (often humble) residences and shops of all varieties.
I enjoyed many experiences in Beijing including walking on the Great Wall (amazing for me who had studied Chinese history at school), visiting the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven. In stark contrast to this I ate a hamburger at the first McDonald’s in Beijing, enjoyed afternoon tea at the Australian Embassy, and even participated in a Thanksgiving dinner with American community members.
Cabbages were stacked everywhere and coal dust wafted through the atmosphere because the black rock was the predominant fuel used for warmth. A visit by dignitaries associated with the Games bid saw the air clear for a time when burning coal was temporarily banned.
On one excursion into the hutongs I came upon a shop that sold bric-a-brac, and fossicked through tables of old coins, jade artefacts, books and other items. The woman behind the counter was very friendly and through broken English, and my almost non-existent Mandarin, we realised we shared the same birthday. I was stunned by this revelation, because to my eye she looked so much older than me. I was forced to reflect that her life and mine were almost at opposing poles. She worked long hours in the shop and had undergone significant hardship; my life had been one of privilege in comparison. I can still see her wizened face and broad smile. Our interaction taught me more about international relations than any of my other experiences in this vast country. Send your 400-word contribution to Follow the Reader: firstname.lastname@example.org. Columnists will receive a Braven 405 Bluetooth speaker with a lightweight, durable and waterproof casing, 15m wireless range and 24 hours of play time; $129.95. More: braven.com.au.