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Monday, May 27, 2024

Adapting in China

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By Talibeh Hydara

In 1998, when war broke out in Guinea Bissau, we were taken back to The Gambia. When I say WE, I mean myself and dozens of my siblings. We were a complete football team, numerically speaking. It wasn’t safe anymore for the kids as we could even hear gunshots from the capital. I was less than 10. My mum and dad stayed behind, braved the danger and tried to remain there. I was handed over to my grandma like a pot of tobacco to raise and my twin sister was with my elder sister. It was a strange place to grow up at first. There were lots of kids and some of them wasted no time in testing if I could fight. It was survival of the fittest. I had to learn to stand up for myself, developed love for football and, rather surprisingly, fishing. I loved swimming. I loved finishing. I loved chasing crabs. When I grew a bit older and braver, I used to occasionally spend the night at the river with my uncle. We would throw a cast net and cross to the other bank, start fire and camp around it. One terrifying night, my uncle was asleep and I heard a wolf howling. I woke him up about it but he insisted that it was far; that we were in no imminent danger. But the howling got nearer and louder. He then suggested we get on the canoe and paddle to the middle of the river, just to be on the safe side. We did. Not more than 15 minutes later, we saw the wild animal creep into our camp, sniffing around before retrieving into darkness. We decided it was best we forget about fish that night and return home.

I’ve lived alone before. It was challenging. But I loved it. I had privacy to walk around naked in my room and sit or lie wherever I deemed fit. There is nothing better than displaying your imperfections and appreciating them in your comfort zone without accusatory eyes from judgy people. Living alone gives you that! It was a small room-and-parlor three meters from the compound gate to a community cemetery. When the rains came, my house would flood. Water would force itself out of the drains, fill the bathroom, bedroom, parlor and eventually the veranda. If the rains found me in the house, I would helplessly watch as water formed a little river in my house, submerging items. Then I would pick a bucket and start scooping it off. I would do that for hours until it is finished and then I would start moping the floor. However, if the rains started while I was at the office, I would find some of my stuff floating in the house and the carpet would be sleeping under the water. Knowing a wet carpet, it would be heavier than Mangshan Mountain. Sometimes I would think the dead people in the cemetery didn’t want me there. It was tough to adapt but I did….until I didn’t. I evicted myself from the house (I didn’t even wait for the landlord to do it), which is a walking distance from my office and I now live at a place which is so far that I join three different commercial vehicles before I reach office. That required another adaptation but it’s a story for another time.

Like Sundays; a day I usually relish back home. Not because it’s a weekend; it’s because I actually work on Sundays but it means less traffic, less stress to get to work, less movement of people and the commercial drivers are at their most generous. I would go to work very early on Sundays, before anyone wakes up at home. There’s a local dish in my country called ‘mbahal’ which I almost certainly buy every Sunday from a Baddibunka woman at Westfield. I would drop my bag on the desk, fill my bottle from the tap, make a cup of tea, open my foil plate and start eating the ‘mbahal’. It’s one of my favorite local dishes. I can eat it all day, everyday, for hundred years and I wouldn’t have enough. There’s this myth about the dish that when you eat it until you’re satisfied, you dont have to eat again that day. You just have to keep drinking. Each time you drink, it feels like you just ate. It’s a starvation dish, if you know what I mean. Not just regularly drinking after eating, you gonna have to be drinking, at least sipping, while eating. Otherwise it could just cramp in your throat and you might vomit and start all over again.

I would eat ‘mbahal’, wash it down with water and then sip my tea. I can drink one cup of tea for four hours and take at least 30 minutes between sips. By the time I finish, the tea would be colder than ice. And I’d still drink it. I was happy to find cold tea famous in China. Hallelujah! After eating, while sipping tea, I’d get online. First things first, I would check my mail. Twitter. Facebook. YouTube, which I cannot go without. I would also check the latest episodes of the TV series I am watching. I would download all of them for my weekend binge-watching. I’d be at the office sometimes more than 2 hours before the next person comes. It gives me time to eat, fool around the internet and stretch, before work-proper starts.

I have missed all that in Beijing. I’m usually confined in my room here (weekends and evening) either in bed or on the couch. There is television which I use to charge my power bank. The rest of the things in the house give me hotel vibes; white bed sheet, white pillow, white blanket. Pulling up the white blanket sometimes makes me feel like a corpse shrouded for burial. I think I should get a coloured bed sheet and blanket, just to feel alive.  

China is different in so many ways. The lifestyle. The conversations. The interactions. I hated mathematics at school but I have been calculating my every word here, every action or inaction since I arrived. I have gradually shelved my usual free-spirit mind and become a little quieter and more reserved. I feel like I am losing my sense of humour. I am trying to adapt but I still cannot replace hot water with normal water. I just cannot. And like in The Gambia, I drink from the tap or well or rain, whichever is more accessible. A colleague of mine once told me to start drinking ‘natural water’. He meant bottled water. I refused to let that slide. He drinks from a processed bottled water. I drink from an unprocessed well water. He still has the temerity to describe his water as natural, not mine. Well or rain water and bottled water, which one is natural?  

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Last few weeks though, I picked up a rather refreshing routine. Since my room is on the 15th floor of a 16-storey, I am privileged to have a really good view on either side of the building. The futuristic GalaxySoho and a string of nice structures on one side overlooking the traffic while the CITIC Tower, the tallest in Beijing, and CCTV complex on the other side. Nothing beats sitting in front of the CITIC tower and marveling at the architecture, the glittering flashes like a plane in the sky and the greenery displayed on rooftops as Spring waved goodbye to Beijing.

I’ve been gallivanting around China for two months. I’m going to more places than Chinese themselves. It’s a privilege. I’ve been on the high speed train. I visited temples and tech giants. I visited mountains and lakes. I visited towers and nature reserves. I even saw a suspended monorail train in Wuhan on television. Just call a sky train. I feel like by the time I return home, it would feel like I came from 2040; that I time-travelled from the future and found myself stuck in the past. The past being The Gambia.

It is difficult to pick up routines straightaway in a new environment. It takes time. It takes patience. It takes efforts. Back home, I sleep very early. If I am awake by 10PM, it could only mean I close late from work. If not, I sleep earlier than chickens and wake up earlier than angels, if they actually sleep. I’ve become an owl in China! I am usually on top of things in The Gambia, regularly reporting breaking news and triggering online debates especially on Twitter. Now, I am eight hours ahead of The Gambia and that, ironically, makes me way behind everything. Moving from a country where people call and text to verify information with me to moving to a country where I am just, well, TALIB. I cannot follow events in The Gambia. I cannot even watch football because each time my beloved team Manchester United plays, it would be around 3AM here. It’s hard to keep up. I fear for my return. I would be a completely different person, struggling to reintegrate into a society I was born and raised in. But return, I must!

I have struggled, even though it might appear quite the opposite to some people here, to fit into a whole new system and way of life. I walk to the highway to haggle over fares for taxis in The Gambia. When I have little cash, I call a driver. The only driver whose number I have. He would over charge me but at least there is convenience. When I am broke, which happens all the time, I fall back on to the public transport system. Here, everything is done online. I always hire a cab, instead of using the cheaper alternative, which is the subway. I don’t like the subway for two reasons; it is enclosed, no windows, no views, just sit or stand in the belly of a big anaconda gliding underground. It is creepy. It is also crowded and despite Chinese and their unbreakable love affair with their smartphones, attentions are mostly directed to me (and my kind) whenever I hop on. The journey becomes awkward from there on. I would be waving and smiling at those who stare too long, and taking a selfie with the brave ones who ask. It is a daily struggle, which I am enjoying to the fullest because when I return home, no one would give a rat’s ass to my presence. So, each day, I wear a big smile and joke around. It is China, after all. There are millions of things to smile about. The only part I still haven’t really struggled in is the food. That is because I can happily live wherever there is halal meat, chicken and rice. Two months down, two months to go.    

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