Tibet in 2010 – Going home

2010 is the tenth year I have been living in America, the fifth year I have been working with the same company, and one year after a very difficult time in my life.

The year started with a rushed move, adjustment to a new home, a bad cold that left me physically weak, and the hard thoughts that left me emotionally drained.

Last year when I planned my sabbatical, the travel route was totally different, for a reason that no longer existed. When I finally got some mental capacity to re-plan everything this year, two things came to mind.

Number one, visit friends and families. For ten years or even longer the interactions have been scarce. Living in a foreign country consumed majority of my energy and social bandwidth.

Number two, go somewhere to see the raw nature. Nature has always been my best friend. The sunshine, flowers, rolling green hills, trees in the wind, white cloud in a blue sky, birds, waters…time and time again its wonders brought me peace and happiness. This time, I need to go far and beyond to be healed.

On March 31 I set out on a flight to Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s public transportation and services were as amazing as I remembered. When I got to the hotel in Kowloon, my friend Isaac was already waiting in the lobby. How great was that! Spending time with his wife and kid (who has the most unusual English name Chinese parents could possibly give to their son – Jose ;-), eating in authentic local restaurants, biking in the pouring rain, shopping – all these made Hong Kong so much more personal compared to last time when I was a total tourist.

My dear old friend Faisal, who is still fashionable, still very cool, and still so very popular with girls, had to squeeze me into his incredibly busy holiday schedule and divide his time between a girl friend who was visiting from Jakarta and me. No complaints :-). It was good just to see him, knowing he is enjoying his life as he is always able to.

Judy kept our promise of trying to meet up at least once a year no matter where we are in the world. Berlin, Dublin, Amsterdam, London. Hong Kong was our excuse for hunting good food. We were on a mission, walking hours for the most authentic clay pot rice. Yet surprises came when one least expected. While waiting for the famous bamboo noodle place to open on morning, we had the best plain porridge in a tiny restaurant.

After my 2007 trip to Hong Kong, Hong Kong’s remained in mind as the view of lights from the Victoria Peak. This time, a bowl of white porridge.

Judy was kind enough to see me off boarding the train heading to the Shenzhen and Hong Kong border. The train was packed with Hong Kong people going back to mainland and pay respect to their ancestors during the Qi Ming festival. Plenty warning had been given about the number of people crossing the border and the inevitable long queue. So it surprised me as well as my Auntie that I cleared the customs in less than twenty minutes. I then waited for almost an hour for Auntie to drive from the other side of the city to pick me up.

Since my mom does not have any sister, my mom’s best friend is like a real aunt to me. I stayed in her apartment looking out to the ocean, playing with their two lovely dogs, being spoiled again by good meals one after another, chatting with her son talking about his newly married life, taking long walks with her and listening to her stories. “You thought many things had changed over one or two decades. “ I thought to myself on the bus from Shenzhen to Guangzhou. “Yes, many did. But there are always some things stayed.”

Arriving at the Guangzhou Bus Station was a shock. From driving myself in US to being chauffeured around in Hong Kong and Shenzhen, I now had to fight my way out through the crowd, dragging two suitcases, and find a taxi. The relaxed mind suddenly went on alert. Old memories of the risks living in this city jumped back. When I was a college student here, it was considered one of the most unlawful cities in the country!

Maybe things had changed over the years. The ride was short and uneventful. I arrived at Judy’s mom’s apartment on a quite street in the city center. In the evening Judy and I caught up with Frangelica for dinner and had a long girls’ chat. The next morning, Frangelica’s friend picked us up and drove us to the university where we studied together. Judy and I had not seen this place for years.

The ride to the university really made me realize how much Guangzhou did change. In the past, the road to school was dusty, roamed with motorcycles looking for business. Good business it was. The nearest bus stop was still ten minutes away from the school. With ten RMB and no hamlet, you jumped onto the back of the bike, holding tight to the driver and your luggage, and braved through the dusty road. Now the road is wide, well paved, with green belt. No motorcycle was in sight. The school felt much closer. It was indeed as the campus had expanded.

The new campus looked distantly familiar to Judy and me. We couldn’t even find our dorm. As it turned out, the old dorm was torn down and a new one was built on the same spot. Nowadays students had much more space, compared to a normal sized room shared by seven of us. The bathrooms were modern and therefore more “humane”. There were even washing machines downstairs! Talking about washing bedding by hand in the old days.

Though we did miss some of the old charms. What I missed the most was the volleyball court. The court had a wall which we practiced tennis against. A small stream lined with keen-deep grass ran behind the wall. For beginners, half of our practice was spent on trying to locate the lost balls flew over the wall and fell into the water or grass.

After a delicious lunch, Judy had to catch a train to Hong Kong then a flight back to UK. We saw her off at the school gate. I said when she got into the cab, “South Africa, next year!”

I stayed additional two days in the university. More university sightseeing (almost everything was new to me), more meals, more friends, more talks…The bed in the school hostel was hard, the walls dirty, the room smelled of cigarette. My room number was exactly the same as our old dorm number! One morning I woke up and looked out of the window. In front of one classroom, under a tree, a student stood with a book in her hand, reading aloud. At that moment I seemed to see the image of myself all these years ago.

After a week on the road, finally, home. I was delighted to be picked up from the Shanghai Hongqiao Airport by my parents. Mom and dad got back from their US trip only six months ago. There was not so much strangeness that usually came with a long separation. They’ve gained a little weight. Still chatty. Meal was always ready when I walked in.

Even since the beginning of the trip, there was one question I dared not to think, or ask. Mom answered it on the ride home. After fighting cancer for over two years, my cousin Yiru passed away on April 3.

When one was young, one could be purely happy. The noises of life’s harshness were merely unrecognized. At this age, we learned to live in between. There are always silver linings. There are always distant clouds.

For the days and moments when my world is sunny, I thank my friends and families. Yiru, you were very brave. May you rest in peace without any pain. Your little boy will be loved by all of us.

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