Two years ago, Barclay Bram moved to Dalian, a city in Northeastern China, to learn Mandarin. There, for one summer, he lived with a Chinese family who spoke no English. He wrote an account of that experience for Aftertastes back in November. The following is a sequel to that story, when, two years on, Bram found himself living in Shanghai as a British Council Scholar, about to finish his studies at Fudan university.
I always promised Frank that I would come back to Dalian. My scholarship was ending, and I was soon leaving China for New York. This was one of the few chances I had to make good on my promise. More than that, part of me had this burning curiosity to understand the family that had taken me in those years ago. I waited until I felt confident enough that I would really gain something from the experience, that my Mandarin would be fluent enough to move past pointing at things and naming them. We now had a common vocabulary.
As our taxi pulled up to Frank’s home—a modest two-bedroom in a housing project near Labour Park—I asked him if Dalian had changed much in the past two years. In the seven years that I had been visiting China, Shanghai’s tallest building changed three times. Dalian, which had grown comparatively slowly, still boasted a respectable 7.3% growth rate in 2014, which means that, compounded with the 9% growth of the year before, the city’s economy had grown by 17.3% since I was last there. But Frank merely shook his head: no, not much had changed at all.
I sat on the sofa and Frank grabbed his phone. It was a Chinese brand, Opo, and looked exactly like an iPhone, except boxier. He lowered himself onto the sofa next to me and took a selfie, which he immediately uploaded to his WeChat account, the Chinese version of twitter.
We waited for his wife to return home, and after a round of hugs she disappeared into the kitchen. The reassuring hiss of vegetables hitting the wok signaled that dinner was ready. Maybe Frank had a point; in his share of Dalian, nothing had changed at all.
Dinner was a feast of vegetables drowning in sauces, chicken legs, noodles with soy-stained mushrooms, cloud ear fungus cooked with spam, and some crustaceans—which I couldn’t eat, because I’m still allergic.
The food was not what I missed. Sitting at the table with the dishes arrayed in front of me, Frank’s wife pointing to and explaining each one, I was taken back two years. The scene was exactly the same, except this time I understood her explanations perfectly: the mushrooms are a northeastern specialty, the chicken legs have been slow cooked for hours.
Learning a language is like focusing a camera. We point the lens in the right direction, and gradually bring clarity to the world. It takes trial and error. We overcompensate and have to dial back, but the world emerges. Here, the blurred shapes become a family around the dinner table.
Catching up, we went through the standard questions: how were my parents, what was I doing in Shanghai, what did I want to do with the two days I was in Dalian? They showed me photos of recent trips. Frank had been to Chengdu to visit some relatives and brought back a photo album that consisted almost entirely of photos of himself. There he was: in a temple, standing next to a bridge, in a chair, wearing a lifejacket. In all the photos he had the same expression, somewhere between stoic and content.
As I flicked through the album, which had the repetitious quality of a modeling portfolio, Frank suddenly darted from the table, returning moments later with a selfie-stick, his new prized possession. He held it aloft, and as we all self-consciously adjusted ourselves in the screen he cried out 拍照 PAI ZHAO, “take photo.” He said this every time he took a photo, which I found hilarious; the tick of a retired man with his first smartphone.
I walked back into the kitchen and grabbed a can of LuLu, a sweetened almond milk that I hadn’t seen before and haven’t seen since. In the orange glow of the kitchen’s single bulb I remembered sitting in the same spot two years earlier, at 2 a.m., on Facetime with my parents. They told me that my godmother had died. It had been ten years since I last saw her, though she called me a few times each week. She had a drinking problem. Sometimes she would slur her words and be incomprehensible. I would grow frustrated and not pick up her calls for days or weeks at a time. Often she was perfectly lucid, and in her sarcastic and cold manner, put me squarely in my place. She was an intangible presence in my life, a sonorous milestone there at every stage, until she wasn’t.
In Dalian I had no phone signal and only occasionally logged onto the Internet. I couldn’t get onto Facebook or Gmail. It should have been an intensely lonely time for me, cut off from friends and family and living in a new environment where I didn’t speak the language, yet it never felt that way. In losing my godmother, I had in some way replaced her intangible presence in my life with the physical presence of my new Chinese family.
“In the orange glow of the kitchen’s single bulb I remembered sitting in the same spot two years earlier, at 2 a.m., on Facetime with my parents. They told me that my godmother had died.”
The next day the sky was a lurid blue without a single cloud. The pollution counter on my phone registered lower than London. Frank proposed we head to the sea. We drove past Labour Park, flanked by the Kempinsky hotel and the most garish restaurant I have ever seen; a vast four-story behemoth with neon lights and a gothic exterior rendered in black, gold, and red. It receded in the rearview mirror as the cab headed to 东港新区 East Port New Area.
We arrived at a concrete expanse that stretched towards the sea. All around us, skyscrapers in various states of construction loomed and cranes swept cold arcs through the sky. There was a large conference center that looked like the Millennium Falcon. Jazz music played from speakers suspended on lampposts.
The whole area had existed less than a year. Not much had changed, at all.
Frank pulled out his video camera and started walking towards the ocean, taking in the container ships and cranes and gangways for offloading cargo. He even held a small radio next to the camera, providing his own soundtrack, even though it clashed with the jazz from the public speakers.
I left him for a few moments to take some photos of my own. When I looked back he was standing with his selfie stick, shouting PAI ZHAO 拍照 into the sea air. I laughed and joined him, watching our beaming faces in the screen as he snapped away. It was then that I realized the phone was voice-activated; he never pressed a single button. Each time he said PAI ZHAO 拍照 the camera took a photo.
In the distance I noticed a few strange buildings, clustered by the water’s edge. I asked Frank what they were and he told me they were single-family houses. Incredulous, I set off in that direction, Frank walking along behind, the occasional PAI ZHAO 拍照 letting me know he was following.
There were maybe twenty enormous chateaus, French in style, with Grecian columns, enormous windows, domed roofs, and spires. They too were in the midst of construction, although incongruous among the empty ribcages of half constructed skyscrapers that surrounded them. Each chateau could easily fit a few dozen families, though they were to be sold as single-family homes. Behind the properties ran a stagnant canal, which meant the overall effect was as if someone had tried to 3-D print a model of Venice, and through mapping and digitizing it, had completely removed all its history and life. The development was such a pan-European confusion that it could only ever exist in China.
I couldn’t get my head around the idea that someone would spend a small fortune to buy a mock-European palace in a brand new business district on the outskirts of Dalian. On one house hung a banner, 幼儿园 kindergarten. I pointed it out to Frank. “See, these aren’t houses at all.” He shook his head. “Barclay, us Chinese, we’re very 变通 flexible. If we can’t sell a house, we rechristen it a kindergarten, but,” he said, sweeping his hand in the direction of the chateaus that seemed to continue in perpetuity, “not all of these can be kindergartens.”
Later I confirmed that the houses had been built for the super rich. Since Xi Jinping came to power and enacted his campaign against corruption, however, no one dared to buy something so flashy. Even those with clean money—if such a thing exists–didn’t want fingers pointed in their direction. The cranes swung idly in the background and the strange jazz music danced on the sea breeze. The houses would remain empty for the time being.
My final night I decided to invite the family for a meal. There is an app, called 大众点评 Dazhong Dianping which translates something like “the masses give commentary” and is, essentially, the Chinese version of Yelp. Considering my kitchen in Shanghai consisted of a hot plate and a bamboo steamer, it was my bible.
I selected a few places and showed them to Frank. He deemed Chongqing Hot Pot too spicy and Korean barbecue too unhealthy. Mama’s North Eastern Delicacies was too far on the other side of the city. I was running out of options as I scanned through a list of restaurants that all served seafood, the local specialty and my anaphylactic shock inducer. Frank and I couldn’t agree on anything. I suggested he text his wife to get her opinion, but he shook his head as if that were impossible.
“What about that place with the black and gold frontage, attached to the Kempinsky?” I asked.
His eyes lit up. “It’s very expensive,” he said.
“But I’m inviting you guys, so who cares about the price?”
He considered this for a moment and said, “yes, but I still do not feel comfortable making you go somewhere so expensive.”
“It’s fine, I insist.”
万宝海鲜肪 Wanbao Haixianfang, the restaurant, had seen better days. Though still opulent, with floor-to-ceiling marble and a chandelier in the lobby the size of a small bus, it was largely empty, another victim of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. Prices have been slashed. Meals that once cost one 万 or 10,000RMB ($1,600) were going for a fraction of that price. It would be risky for an official to be caught here, potentially career-ending or worse. The scarlet lights that decorated the outside seemed forlorn; more red-light district than regal.
Frank called ahead and booked a private room. We arrived before his wife and son, who is a policeman and was still on duty. The room was gold, with chintz curtains that gave a gossamer sheen to the view of the parking lot outside. There was a plastic mural of fish on the wall behind me and an outdated Sony TV, as deep as it was wide. The fading daylight cast shadows in the wrinkles around Frank’s eyes. It was 6:00pm. The Chinese eat early.
“We didn’t talk about the economy. We didn’t discuss pollution or the complexities of a collectivist culture embracing capitalism… We were in a nice restaurant, so we talked about how nice it was.”
That day, before dinner, I was at Frank’s home. He was busying himself on his phone, and I was reading. Then suddenly he ran to his bedroom and removed a picture from the wall that must have been close to a meter and a half wide. It looked like a school photo; well over a thousand people sat staring grimly into the camera. He pointed to the man in the centre. “Mao Zedong.” He then drew his finger all the way up to the top left. “My father.”
Frank’s dad was once the head of Liaoning Province’s salt production, a major state enterprise, and had therefore been invited to a few of the larger meetings of the Communist Party. The photo was taken just before the Cultural Revolution at a meeting of over 7,000 delegates from every corner of China. In the photo, Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s successor, sits two seats from the Chairman. Liu Shaoqi, the former head of State, sits to Mao’s right. Military leader Lin Biao, sits in the front row. Many of the people in the photo were later purged in the revolution. Liu Shaoqi was placed under house arrest, starved of both medicine and food until he died. Lin Biao died mysteriously in a plane crash while trying to flee China.
Frank’s father had also been “struggled against,” the euphemistic term for being violently beaten—sometimes to death—in front of hundreds or thousands of people for not being revolutionary enough. I asked Frank if he had survived, and he said he had. He had been forced to wear a big placard denouncing himself, but by the standard of the day he had got off fairly lightly. For Chinese of a certain time it is almost impossible to find someone who did not have a close relative or friend who was struggled against. The horror of that time sits like a jade pendant, warm to the touch, but rarely discussed.
Waiting for the rest of the family to arrive, I considered further discussing Frank’s dad. Then, I thought better of it. It seemed like the kind of thing that should be offered, not sought. Instead, Frank told me some juicy gossip about the restaurant: how some officials had spent upwards of 10万, nearly $16,000, eating here in the past; how the parking lot used to be so full that the cars would park in the first lane of the highway, and if it wasn’t a big name European car, “you could forget about it.”
The family arrived and we descended the vast marble staircase to the main lobby. Wanbao’s name means “10,000 Treasures Seafood Restaurant,” amply represented by the floor to ceiling fishtanks from which diners chose their meal. The family ordered abalone—the sea-cucumber specialty beloved by Chinese— lobster, conch shells, clams, needlefish. I, of course, ordered some steamed vegetables.
The food arrived and overflowed the Lazy Susan. I had come back to Dalian with the vague notion that language would somehow bind us closer together, that it would peel back the layers of inferences and provide me with some kernel of truth. Two years ago I had watched the family go about their daily lives, but because of the language barrier, it was like watching a movie with no dialogue. Two years on, the barrier removed, we talked: about how great the food and service was, how amazing the private room was, how nice the entrance looked. How well the fish had been prepared, how delicate the lobster. We didn’t talk about the economy. We didn’t discuss pollution or the complexities of a collectivist culture embracing capitalism. To the extent that I had come to uncover some deep truth, it was just this: that my Chinese family is a family like any other. We were in a nice restaurant, so we talked about how nice it was.
Barclay Bram is a writer now based in New York.