Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Wonder Years - Part One

It is with great pleasure that I present here today the first ever guest post on this blog.

C. showed up on my Facebook page a couple of weeks ago. We haven't met for 20 years, ever since we left Tongji University in Shanghai. Now I like to make fun of Italians -rephrase: we ALL like to make fun of Italians ;-)- but the crowd at Tongji was super and I have the fondest memories for several of them: there was "la mama", loud, noisy, good-humoured and caring; there were two priests, one of them as crazy as they come in that line of business; there was the even more crazy architect ... and of course there was C., studax par excellence, speaking beautiful English in a satin-soft voice, getting sometimes worked up over certain things and still giving you that don't-worry-tea-is-almost-ready kinda feeling. C. was impossible to get angry at ...

When she posted a picture on her FB page of an evening with a Chinese friend we had both attended 20 years ago, I rushed to my photo-collection of that era and dug up the same picture, only now with C. also in it, as opposed to hers which she had taken. The two pictures were like two Mandarin ducks and it kinda triggered a feeling of China melancholy (which I already mentioned in my comment here) with both of us. That's when I asked her if she would be prepared to write a post for this blog, reminiscing on what China, as we lived it during those two years at the end of the eighties, has meant for her and how she experienced it. The result of that question is what you find here. Go on and read it: the conclusion of her post is both surprising and inspiring, I would say.

But this reminds me that I also asked A. to do the same. Yes, another Italian, I'm sure you would excuse me if you knew her :-) A. was a bit like the "lone prospector", walking into our university from time to time from faraway Beijing when she needed to be among friends. One day I took her to Suzhou and that's how we met. So A., if you read this, the invitation is still open. Notice I titled this "Part One" ? Hope yours is coming up next !


When I left for Shanghai, September 13th 1988, I had no clue of what was expecting laying in wait for me there as I had never been to China before, and what I found was certainly beyond any imagination.

What saved me from an untreatable choc was that I was very curious and liked to see all the seemingly funny things that happened around me: I took an incredible amount of pictures with my pocket Minolta camera in and outside the campus to remind me that everything was real!!!

Thinking of it, what impressed me the most was the poverty and the filth you stepped onto everywhere: remember the little river that ran close to Tongji on the way to town? It was at times blue, other times pink but never the colour water should be! And what about the butcher that piled frozen halfs of pigs on the sidewalk before putting them in storage? You’d better cook meat very well-done!!!!

But at that time nothing seemed to matter: Shanghai was just recovering from a Hepatitis epidemics when we arrived, and we kept eating food from the roadside stalls all the same because the food there met our taste; the food from the campus canteen was something VERY different.

Everyday was a discovery and we were always the centre of attention. White skinned, fair haired, with blue eyes, smelling of something between milk and cheese: we might even scare the simple Chinese people who’d never seen a Westerner.

I had a few Chinese friends, though, I had met through other acquaintances (I don’t even remember how) and I experienced their friendliness and hospitality, their shyness but also their will to give you their utmost, even tough they might have to accompany you somewhere far to go to the toilet (some houses didn’t have a toilet) or they’d have to give you a few blankets to survive in the cold of their houses when you were invited for dinner. How could we refuse to eat even the occasional unpalatable looking food when offered with such sweetness ? Sometimes I didn’t even know what was lying on my plate!!

Our Chinese life was lived inside Tongji for most of the time: knowing it, I am not sure my parents would have agreed to let me live alone in such a student’s building as Tongji’s, with no adult control whatsoever!

We were young, we were extremely free, but in the end we didn’t do much wrong.

No one got into big trouble and we learned to accept different points of view (the Japanese together with the Germans, the French, the Italians......), and especially to live close to a huge male Muslim population, which was not always quiet.

We also learned fear and anxiety though, when they suddenly asked us to leave in a hurry because nobody knew what was going to happen after Liu Si (Tian‘an Men’s massacre). Then I was really scared and I witnessed the control Chinese authorities had on media: no radio, no tv, no newspaper said anything about it. We could only guess and listen to BBC World-service or VoA (if it worked out). Or go out and read what students wrote on sheets hanging from the few buses still running.

Shanghai was certainly not like Beijing, but it changed deeply during that awful month.

I was not ready for all I went through there. I lived it, but I hardly enjoyed it, as my first effort was to survive the loneliness and the distance from my life in Italy. I guess I was not mature enough.

And it was very difficult to feel part of my previous life when I came back: I felt different, I was different, extremely different. If living anywhere abroad widens your mind, living in China first makes your mind burst and then widens it to an extent you cannot ignore!

But the greatest difference I found in myself when I came back after the second year was that I had completely lost my faith in God. I was not able to follow anymore my Christian education, and remember: I am Italian and the Vatican is my next-door neighbour !

I don’t regret it at all, it was a sort of Enlightenment: I found out I could be good and merciful and proud of myself even without mass and prayers, and that I was free from all of that.

I still feel like that and I think that I’ve done much better for me and for the world around me because I lived in a place where Christ is still largely unknown.

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