Memories of China

Today I feel a compulsion to write, but not to compose. I don’t want to think too much. I just want to shake up my imagination, let the words fall out and see what the result is, and often there’s no better way to kickstart the imagination than with a photo. I’d therefore like to share some holiday photos with you… thirteen years overdue, mind.

For my birthday I went to a Chinese restaurant with my parents, and conversation turned to the holiday we took to China when I was ten. Chinese is one of my favourite cuisines now, but then I was a very fusser eater and refused to eat any of the delicious authentic food surrounding me, instead repeatedly forcing my parents to take me to a pizza joint called ‘The Mexican Wave’ where we bought ten pence DVDs featuring wobbly Chinese subtitles off a shadowy stranger every time we went. I am annoyed with my younger self that I went to China and barely experienced China; also, that I barely remember any of it. When my parents reminded me of incidents they would spring back into my memory clear as day, but still, when I looked back at the photos I felt like I was looking at another person (and not just because of the little girl’s terrible dress sense, greasy boyband fringe and insistence on making a ‘cool’ face in every photo instead of just smiling.)

I started thinking about why my parents remembered China so clearly and I didn’t. Why is it easier for children to learn new skills faster than adults, and yet it’s more difficult for me to remember my childhood than it is for my parents to remember what happened to them fifteen years ago? It makes me sad, since childhood is (hopefully) the most carefree time of a person’s life. There must be a clever psychological explanation, but here’s the conclusion I came to: as adults we think too much. We analyse everything we see and do, imbuing these things with thoughts and emotions and connecting them with other objects of our experience – basically, trying to make sense of the world around us. On the one hand this is good, because the result is art and music and literature. On the other, we taint things with our thoughts. Children experience things directly and intensely, taking more wonder from what they don’t understand. Although this is great at the time, it means these experiences leave no impression in the form of thoughts.

I hope this is making sense. You’re probably bored, so… take a look at some pretty photos!

I didn’t remember any of this stuff until I dug up the photos today. How on earth could I forget what it felt like to chill out on the Great Wall?

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Or to wander around an ancient temple?

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Or to ride a cable car high above teal waters and surrounded by vertical rock faces? (I am aware that is a random person and not me. I am taking the photo, obviously.)

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We went on a rickshaw tour on a day when it was pouring with rain. I don’t remember where it was or what the tour guide told us… but I remember the sound of the rain hammering on the roof of the rickshaw, and I remember visiting the home of a local couple so we could ‘experience the real China.’ I remember sitting on their sofa next to their scrawny cat in a tiny house – no more than three rooms – and again, the rain hammering on the flimsy roof, thinking how rubbish this was compared to my house: where was their TV? Fitted shower? Where did they park their car?

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Looking back at this photo, the whole thing strikes me as odd: how did this apparently smiling, waving couple feel about having affluent tourists bombard their house with cameras and gushing sentiments about how ‘charming’ and ‘authentic’ everything was, probably on a daily basis? Did they get paid, and if so, was this the only reason they did it?  Or did they genuinely enjoy showing hospitality to tourists? I have no idea, but I’d love to know who they really were and what they are doing now.

Other memories come back to me, a series of muddled snapshots. I got upset when I saw a man begging on the streets of Beijing with no legs, and determined to give money to the next beggar I saw; when I did, I was disappointed to find him in possession of all his limbs, but shyly stuffed a note into his tin bowl anyway. At the Summer Palace several Chinese people asked to take a photo with me and my brother, because we were exactly how they imagined little English boys and girls should look. Apparently a little old woman stood stroking my hair for about ten minutes and I wasn’t at all bothered, but I think I was actually traumatised and have therefore suppressed the memory. I went to a market and watched my dad haggle with a stall owner for fake Beanie Babies, which I carried home in a bin bag. I went to a tea ceremony and watched my oolong tea turn the dragon on my cup from black to red with amazement. At Beijing Zoo, I saw a panda sprawled across the top of a tree and thought it must have fallen straight from the sky. I tobogganed down from the top of the Great Wall, but got stuck behind two old men going as slow as they possibly could. What else did I do that I have totally forgotten and have no photos of?

All this reminiscing has made me desperate to go on holiday, somewhere a long way away. Actually, I may very well be doing so later this year. If I do, I am determined not to think too much, to emulate that childhood wonder instead, to take hundreds of photos, to actually smile in them, and most importantly, not to eat any pizza. Unless I go to Italy.

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