Words By: Molly Schmidt
The first thing that comes to mind are the trains. I had never seen so many people in my life. And they were not polite. These people had not learnt about the whole ‘personal bubble’ thing we did at school when Mrs P. made us stand with bits of string around us marking off our ‘personal space’. It wasn’t nice to breathe on people or step on their toes. It certainly wasn’t nice to push your sweaty arm into a small girl’s back, or dig your elbows into her ribs. When the train came it felt like being dumped in the white wash at the beach — my feet didn’t touch the ground and my stepdad had to grab me under the armpits to stop me going under as everyone surged forwards to fit into the tiny carriages.
I remember the way everyone ran, everywhere. And everywhere we ran someone had something to offer us. Under the red lanterns at the markets there were dumplings, silk scarves, exotic fruits, plucked chickens hanging beside tiny birds that had been roasted whole and every DVD ever made. As we walked past handbags and watches, sunglasses, jade pendants and toys made out of brightly coloured tin, we were greeted by shop owners who ran beside us asking “What you want, what you want?” My stepdad Hamish grew tired of this one afternoon, and replied with “I would really like a pink elephant.” To which the shopkeeper replied, “I get! I get you! Wait there!” while waving his arms excitedly.
I first saw them on the train. They walked in stunted steps, jagged, like windup clockwork toys. They leant on the knees of passengers. Some of them crawled. They held paper cups in their hands, and those who could shook them.
Most of them were children.
One boy’s arms ended in pink stumps, a thick layer of wrinkled skin where his hands should have been. A small woman had thin legs that curled outwards, like a spider’s. The little girl who walked behind her looked about the same age as me. Her good hand held her worn paper cup and her other thumped the handrails of the train. She had taut skin stretched across the place where her left eye should be, and the other one was crying. I remember lifting my legs onto the seat and hugging my head between my knees. I wanted to know where these people slept, if they needed our help and if I could give them all my holiday money.
We were told most of the child beggars worked for gangs, or had been maimed by their parents to encourage people to give them money. It was best to give them food they could eat quickly. One afternoon I slipped a jade lucky charm I had chosen at the Shanghai markets into a small boy’s paper cup. Looking at his runny nose and his huge sad eyes, I had never felt so lucky in my life. Outside the skyscrapers flashed past, and the Pearl Tower stretched towards the sky like a rocket. So this was China.
I will never forget the first woman who touched my hair. I was happily walking along with my ladybug backpack on, licking some form of frozen something on a stick (we never really knew what we were eating in China), and she came straight towards me crooning and took a strand of my blonde hair in her small hands. Now back at home it wasn’t nice to walk up to a stranger and stroke their hair, and this woman was invading my personal space bubble a lot. I smiled without teeth for her camera and then reached for Mum’s hand and we hurried away laughing uncertainly.
I learnt that people with different hair colours or facial hair are a bit of an excitement in China, a country in which 91 per cent of the 1.3 billion people are Han (ethnic) Chinese.
Unfortunately, back then my hair was so blonde it was practically white, and after a few days of strangers turning their heads as I walked past, wide eyed and cameras at the ready, I began tucking it under my hat.
Something I really loved about China were the pockets within each city where the pace slowed and people drew within themselves to enjoy silence and serenity. The Humble Administrator’s Garden felt like the most peaceful place in the world. We caught a bus to Suzhou, out of Beijing, to spend a day wandering amongst ponds of koi fish and lotus flowers, admiring the ornate buildings with polished bamboo furniture and carved rooves. It was a place of complete balance — for every curved archway there was a square doorway. We sat amongst the ancient bonsai trees, sipping chrysanthemum tea.
When we stood on the Great Wall of China, I looked behind me and all I could see was the Great Wall of China. I looked in front of me, and all I could see was the Great Wall of China. As far as we could see we were the only people, and as we walked along the dusty stone, I felt so far away from home.
I remember watching a little black dot in the distance grow larger and larger until that little black dot was a man. Eventually we came very close to this man, and my stepdad joked about how the dot-man looked like a man he used to work with. We laughed because obviously a man he used to work with wouldn’t be walking along a wall in a strange land like we were. But then the man started saying hello, and looking at Hamish in a very strange way and then Hamish started laughing and then so did the man, and Hamish said, “Well would you believe it, this is Richard,” and Richard said “Hello!”
And that is how at eleven years old I learnt that the world is very, very big and also very, very small.