This blog is a recount of an almost typical day of dealing with the women in my life.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate …

My Chinese god-daughter Sunshine meets me at the tacky old bus station I remember so well from my stay in Shaoxing nearly four years ago. She has taken time off work just to make sure her Western dad will find his hotel OK, even right up to escorting me to my room. Now here’s the thing straight away on the topic of views of women. Sunshine escorting me into my room worries me as I know how conservative and snooping Chinese can be. (You are your brother’s keeper is an unspoken motto.) She could easily be perceived as a prostitute and not as the radically innocent soul she is, who once told me with a mild blush she has never been out with a boy and has never been kissed by one. That has not changed and she is now 23.

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date …

I have known her for four and a half years and I vividly remember the day when she adopted me as her godfather, recounted in my memoir, due out early next year. In the evening I meet up with her and my other god-daughter at a favourite Hunan-styled Chinese restaurant — the food is spicy and causes you to break out in beads of sweat, just how I like it. As we sit there the silent chair next to me aches with emptiness: Marion, the chook, should really be here but she is still teaching back in Shanghai. “Oh I wish Marion was here,” I exclaim. She would be gushing with questions about Star and Sunshine and enthusing over the different dishes, ravening one dish down or turning her nose up at another. Never any half-measures. Chookie had enjoyed the wonders of the cuisine here several times when we were living in Shaoxing, especially a fish flattened and charcoaled in a latticework of leeks and hints of garlic and other spices I did not know but the fragrant, buttery mouthfuls had a similar way of splashing on the palate as chilies and masala.

“Yes, chorus my two girls ‘oh we so wish Mom was here!’ and I feel a twinge of, what? envy? inadequacy? and kind of wish I hadn’t mentioned my better half. But I realise again everyone, especially the young, simply love my warm-hearted, sparkly-eyed wife and take to her first, and I would always be the large, grouchy second. I look at their faces glowing with memories of Marion and their mouths soon split into worried grins as they see me trying to hide a crestfallen face. The conversation, held in their awkward English and my awkward Mandarin — turns to relationships. Sunshine seems to really want a boyfriend and is concerned about her appearance — the heat is literally blistering in a China summer, more humid than anything I have experienced in South Africa — and she has a few tiny heat blisters on her forehead.

“How do I look?” she asks, pointing at her forehead, which is her dead giveaway that she would like to find a catch.

“You look pretty,” I say with a grin, “Are you looking for a boyfriend?”

Sunshine nods, surprisingly unabashed. Written over her face is no desperation, just a gentle bewilderment as to how to position herself to be caught by a Mr Right. She does not and will not go to pubs or places where you can dance.

… Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines
And oft is his gold complexion dimm’d…

“Well,” I say brightly, knowing what Sunshine’s answer will be, “I am going to that new pub I have heard about here in Shaoxing”.

“I am told these are bad places,” she inevitably says, a worried look creeping over her face. Star has no problem with the idea of a pub, though I know she won’t drink anything alcoholic. My main reason for going is that I know it will be well air-conditioned as it is a Western bar, unlike this Chinese restaurant which has the air-con on low and is still humid, and also to meet other Westerners.

Sunshine is enormously influenced by her parents and a long tradition of austere chastity.

… But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest …

I take photos of them and worry at how thin Sunshine (on left, in pink and white outfit) looks in the screen of my digicam.

The flattenening effect of the photos in the dimly lit restaurant creates a doll’s head effect. 

img_1798-1.JPG

“You should eat more!” I exclaim, truly concerned. “Then you will have a nice boyfriend!” I laugh, teasing her.

Later, in the pub, among a mixture of “foreigners” and Chinese, we drink yards of soda water. The aircon in the pub is heaven after the mosquito-riddled, steaming drizzle we had walked through: I feel as if I am sitting in an icebox. The girls look uncomfortable after a while. “What’s the matter?” I ask. “We must go home now but we don’t want to leave you here on your own.”

Mei winti” I say in Chinese, meaning, “no problem, I can speak to many people here, Westerners easily speak to one another.” This is so true: there are so few of us still in China (for example, the official statistic is that there are 35 South Africans in Shanghai, China’s most cosmopolitan city with a population guessed to be at about 22-million). Star readily gives me a hug; Sunshine does not shy away but cannot bring her self to put an arm around me, she is that conservative and “chaste”, if the latter adjective is the correct term in context. “Love you, my dad” belongs in text messages, emails and birthday cards to me. Suddenly words have a purity the hands and arms sully.

… Nor shall death brag thou wanderest in his shade
When in eternal lines to time thou growest …

So sure, here is the volta. I find myself unable to think of what it is inside of men that they treat women in a certain way. For some reason it is beyond me. I look at my Chinese god-daughters, Sunshine and Star, who feature in chapters of my memoir, Cracking China, due out end of January next year, and just cannot imagine anyone violating them.

I for one am glad there are outspoken women like Helen Zille who outline in detail the crimes done to women and their limited choices in a severely oppressive patriarchial society: “for far too many [women], life’s opportunities have been shut down well before their 20th birthday. Multitudes have dropped out of school. Large numbers have become pregnant by fathers who will never support them or their children, so that both they and their babies are doomed to stunted, impoverished lives”

Helen Zille is a necessary character in the SA political scene, a courageous voice of conscience and I sometimes think it is just too lonely a path the few like her travel. At home I look through the photos of my god-daughters. I am particularly proud of this last picture at the Shaoxing pub; they are so happy, relaxed with me, radiant.

starsunpub1.JPG

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Author

  • CRACKING CHINA was previously the title of this blog. That title was used as the name for Rod MacKenzie's second book, Cracking China: a memoir of our first three years in China. From a review in the Johannesburg Star: " Mackenzie's writing is shot through with humour and there are many laugh-out-loud scenes". Cracking China is available as an eBook on Amazon Kindle or get a hard copy from www.knowledgethirstmedia.co.za. His previous book is a collection of poetry,Gathering Light. A born and bred South African, Rod now lives in Auckland, New Zealand, after a number of years working in southern mainland China and a stint in England. Under the editorship of David Bullard and Michael Trapido he had a column called "The Mocking Truth" on NewsTime until the newszine folded. He has a Master's Degree in Creative Writing from the University of Auckland. if you are a big, BIG publisher you should ask to see one of his many manuscript novels. Follow Rod on Twitter @ https://twitter.com/Rod_in_China

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Rod MacKenzie

CRACKING CHINA was previously the title of this blog. That title was used as the name for Rod MacKenzie's second book, Cracking China: a memoir of our first three years in China. From a review in the Johannesburg...

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