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Friday, 26 June 2015

Dragons at the Great Wall

I was born in Pakistan, but my earliest memories are of China - clutching my father's trousers, hiding behind his legs from the people who had come to welcome us at the airport, a long drive in a big, black car in the dark, and our first few days there at a hotel where our parents practised what little Chinese they had spent months learning back in Islamabad - we were served 12 fried eggs for the four of us (my elder sister and I amazed, at what was to us, reckless abandon), cold water instead of black tea with milk, and my mother upon failing at all communication with the server, trying to explain that she wants lukewarm water for her daughters. And the most precious memory of all - my mother at a big public park crouching, then straightening, then crouching, and again straightening, while making rowing motions with her arms in an attempt to ask a pedestrian where we could find row boats.
I loved China, the hikes on the Great Wall where I thought dragons lived, listening to the ground in the Forbidden City, the white marble boat in the Summer Palace, the large animal statues that my sister and I would climb which I now see replicas of, at the Royal Ontario Museum, but which no one is allowed to touch, let alone sit on. Oh, yes, the rows upon rows of terracotta warriors in an underground tomb, that's where I learned that silence isn't just the absence of sound, but the presence of tranquility.
I had my first crush in China- an American boy named Edward- who I called Eggward because I thought he didn't know his own name.
It was where I learned racism, my own. Edward's elder sister and mine were friends and we were invited to their home for Christmas. They had a Christmas tree, all lit up, and a nativity scene on a table next to it, complete with a barn, farm animals, and the three kings. It was only upon being dropped to their apartment that I realized that my Egg-ward was American, until then I had thought him Nigerian because of his beautiful skin. 
Once our parents left my sister and I, in our silver Toyota station wagon, while they went to visit a shop, soon the car was surrounded by people peering at us two girls, their faces plastered to the car windows. They had never seen brown people before.
China is also where I learned that I can always trust my elder sister. Sometimes, she and I would sneak out of our apartment, and wander around Beijing, taking buses back and forth, but she would always, somehow, get us home. It's only now with the passage of time that I realize what a feat that was considering my elder sister was only eight or nine at the time, and neither of us knew more than a handful of words in Chinese - greeting, thank you, and some curses which we were rather proud of.
Many years ago, when my younger brother was just four, someone (a retired naval chief of staff who most people seemed scared of) asked him where he was born and he responded, I was born in Pakistan, but made in China. Ditto, baby brother, I was made in China too.

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