It is Monday afternoon and after the school run I go for a walk. L is asleep and his nanny is at home waiting for him to wake.
I love to walk. Before I had children I would walk for hours. Later, on long early-motherhood afternoons trying to get baby F to sleep, I wore out the buggy tyres pacing the city. No purpose or agenda, just to walk and look and think. When J and I first met in London nearly 8 years ago, we walked miles every day, avoiding the sweaty underground and enjoying taking the long way round, getting to know the city and each other. With two small boys we still walk everywhere but usually at a pretty slow pace with lots of chasing L when he chooses to go in the opposite direction. We don’t get very far. I do walk to work which is a 25 minute speed walk up and over the mountain on campus. I love the space it gives me between the classroom and home and I’m enjoying how much stronger my legs are starting to feel after a few weeks of going up and down hundreds of steps.
Still, that wonderful, aimless walking is a luxury that often gets sidelined. So I head off into the village that borders the campus. I look around the shops, not particularly to purchase anything but just to see what I find. In every shop I talk to somebody, just everyday chit-chat but immediately I feel more comfortable. A few short weeks ago I came to this area one evening trying to find a place to buy vegetables. I couldn’t make myself understood and failed to find anything to eat. I returned home miserable and annoyed with myself but thankfully not entirely empty-handed: having met a baked sweet potato vendor on the way home.
Today, I manage to ask people questions with no problems and I find a new, much bigger vegetable market than the one we’ve been using. I ask all the stall vendors about their wares and buy some smoked tofu, an exciting discovery for a vegetarian. I am amused at one man’s insistence that I must buy some carrots. Carrot in Chinese is (胡萝卜) or 'barbarian' carrot, a reminder of its introduction to China by early traders. The humble carrot is no exotic food to the Chinese now, but still in its name the legacy of the outsider remains. I don’t buy any carrots. At a spices stall, I find sesame seeds, a plethora of chillies and what I hope are chickpeas. The assistant tells me how to cook them and I am delighted that I can understand her. Having the time to stop feels like such a luxury and I savour it.
I continue my wanderings and follow the distant smell of incense to a temple. I climb to the very top of a pagoda without seeing a single soul and gaze out at the fields and the motorway whizzing by. Inside the icons are covered in material, under construction or repair I’m not sure. In the base of the temple I find a collection of statues in what looks like a vast wooden locker room. Some lockers have metal plaques on the front, others just numbers. In a country with such a vast population, this is a space effective way of honouring the dead. Each locker contains, or will one day contain, ashes in an urn. It is a peaceful place for rememberance and quiet reflection.
Following a path down I find an additional smaller temple where I discover a huge statue of the Buddha. There is nobody around so I kneel at the back and focus on my breathing and emptying my mind. I gaze up at the Buddha’s benevolent golden face and I feel all my tensions easing. My busy week and the 160 essays waiting to be marked are forgotten.
As I leave the temple a woman approaches and looks at me intensely. She looks as old as the Earth with a face so creased and wrinkled it could tell a hundred stories. We look at each other, I smile and say hello. Her face explodes into a grin and she asks me ‘Are you from Shanghai?’.
Heading back towards the university I stop for my first bubble milk tea of this trip. It’s been 4 years but the sweet hot milky tea with tapioca ‘bubbles’ is familiar and delicious. The waitresses are so delighted that I can understand them, that they rush to make me some free popcorn. They ask if I am the foreigner here with my family, I confirm that I am and a discussion breaks out throughout the cafe as to whether the children are boys or girls. I laugh and tell them my children are definitely both boys. To these cafe customers, my children are so unusual that they don't know what to make of them. (For more on being a small foreign child in China do have a look here.)