Xenia and the Woman from China

Submitted into Contest #96 in response to: Write about a character who has to rely on the hospitality of strangers.... view prompt


Friendship Creative Nonfiction Happy

Several years ago I went to an Exhibition in London called ‘Get a Life’ which had representatives from every possible walk of life suggesting new job opportunities, new lifestyle ideas, all kinds of things that went from the sublime to the ridiculous. I was so depressed I found the Exhibition really boring. My head shook from side to side constantly and I wore the expression of the completely beaten and downtrodden woman. No, nothing appealed. Towards the end of the day just as I was about to leave the Exhibition I was suddenly grabbed and the woman said ‘Ever thought of China? We’re offering jobs? Can you teach?’ I shook her off me still thinking how impossible everything was. I was trapped. Trapped by my own invisible bars.

A few weeks later my Company demanded all staff attend a meeting at 4.00 pm. I remember sitting in the darkened lecture theatre as the HR manager spoke of redundancy and I could just about stop myself from screaming with excitement. I knew my face had broken out into a huge smile which I fought hard to cover up. People nearby were crying and saying ‘I love my job’. At that point I knew I was going. I did not love my job, in fact I hated it.

After redundancy I was hired by a Chinese University. With a work permit and a contract you were welcomed into China and looked after by your employer. Part of the contract was a paid return flight to your home country plus a sparsely furnished flat, with the luxury of air conditioning and a heater, (both of which had never been serviced and functioned really badly). On the university campus, home to 90,000 people, only the foreigners had AC and heaters. I arrived in April 2008 and it was the one year when the weather was so clement, the teaching arrangements so perfect, the foreign teachers so delightful I honestly thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Yes it was vastly different from London. For instance no classrooms, hospitals, shops etc had any heating or air conditioning at all despite the summer highs often reaching well over 40C (104F). Nanchang was one of the five ‘furnace cities’ of China, and the summers contrasted sharply with the freezing cold winters. But I noticed none of this during my first three months as it was just a laugh a minute. I was sleeping well (having been troubled for years with sleep this was a godsend); eating well (I loved Nanchang local food); my small amount of excess weight began to shift; small get-togethers were arranged in different people’s flats - I never wanted it to stop. 

The reality was that China was really challenging with very few Western goods, the mattresses on the wooden beds were only 2” thick and the floors were concrete; great when it was boiling hot but freezing in the winter, the showers were only capable of providing a few minutes of hot water and rapidly replaced by absolutely freezing cold water. During my initial 3 months we didn’t have one of those unexpected electricity cuts that lasted hours and hours; and for some reason I failed to notice a complete lack of coffee and tea shops. The only chocolate available was a frighteningly expensive miniscule Snickers bar. What was actually happening that I totally failed to notice was that ‘I had what it took’ to live in a third world country. I was told stories of foreigners who flew all the way to China, arrived on the Campus briefly looked around, and promptly received news that a close member of the family was on death’s door necessitating the foreigner to beg for time off to return home - and was never seen again. This apparently happened regularly. The foreigners who were left after the willowing out of the ‘wimps’ were either complete nutters who never mixed with anyone at all, or conversely were jolly adventurers who looked after each other - obviously I was the latter! 

In my sweltering or freezing cold flat was a space where Freddy my emptied suitcase resided. I had no idea that Freddy and I would, for the next 11 years, be very close companions. Freddy might change in size and colour but no matter what he looked like, he was the guardian of my entire wardrobe, my precious stock of make-up, deodorant and perfume - Freddy was my trusty travel companion. At the end of the three months decision time came. I was invited to sign a contract for a further year (all contracts were negotiated one year at a time). Despite no deodorant, no electric toothbrushes, no floss, no bras bigger than a 32AAA I found myself signing. As soon as I signed I knew it was goodbye to my London flat and a decision was required on my goods and chattels. When I looked at my poorly furnished Chinese flat and thought of the constant screams of laughter, the feeling of being loved and wanted by new friends from all over the world, I realised that my kind of happiness could not be achieved by a high salary, maintaining a flat in Central London, buying up to the minute styles that the fashion industry kept churning out and I stupidly kept buying. I think I just ‘dropped out’. My brain said ‘No more, give yourself a break, enjoy life for God’s Sake’. When I returned to the UK my family couldn’t understand that I was leaving the land of my birth and that I had returned to the UK for the long, long summer vacation in order to get rid of my flat. 

How challenging was my new environment going to be? In London if you had money you could solve anything - not so as a foreigner living in China. For a start I couldn’t speak a word of Chinese - and yes, I did try, but not a word was retained in my head. A word could have an identical spelling but with even a small mispronunciation I could transform a simple word like ‘manager’ into ‘brothel keeper’ which left the cafes rolling with laughter.  If there was a ‘clean’ version of a word or an ‘unacceptable’ pronunciation I never failed to use the latter. My loud clear voice could be heard innocently shouting out ‘Hi Mother Fucker’ to one of my favourite students walking towards me, instead of what I had intended - his family name.  I soon gave up all attempts at Chinese. So I now lived in China with its stinking toilets, filthy canteens and cafes, hospitals that stunk and seemed to be crawling with god-knows-what; you’d think I’d be desperate to get back to the luxurious comfort of London? No, not all. I was really surprised how I didn’t want to say goodbye to Nanchang. Every day was a challenge and it just made me buzz. What had I gained? Friends. Friends who were as foreign as myself, from all different parts of the globe and all possessing ingenuity, guile and determination to succeed with wit and humour in a land so completely different from anything we’d ever come across before.

I eventually arrived back in London and spent that first summer packing up, so that by October ready to return to China I effectively had nowhere to live in the UK. I had sold, donated or thrown everything. A few boxes of things I thought I held precious had gone down to a friend’s attic in Wales. My photos, trinkets and papers remained in Wales for the next ten years until I eventually threw away all those possessions too. The relief of never having to go back to my London office ever again was physically palpable. Freddy and I were alone setting off to continue our adventure.

For the next ten years or so I arrived in the UK with Freddy and that suitcase and I trailed around different areas of the UK totally at the mercy of some kind person offering Freddy and I a bed and hospitality. I strangely never felt homeless, although that was exactly what I was. Throughout my whole history Freddy and I were never without a temporary home. Freddy was a great traveller. He came to London, Manchester, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Dublin, and various large cities in the USA and Europe. In fact, where ever I had a long-standing friend, Freddy and I, weighed down with souvenirs from China, went off on our travels. The only bit of travelling Freddie and I hated was when we were separated at the check in. When I reached my destination I would run to the carousel, eyes peeled and wait with the anxiety of a mother separated from her very young child. I can’t describe the uncontrollable joy of watching Freddy bouncing happily along the conveyor belt clearly none the worse for his journey. As I hauled him off the belt I would pat him heartily on one of his sides as if I were welcoming home the beloved family pet. He was all I had.

A few years before when living in Pimlico, London I was introduced to two friends, Patrick and Linda, who frequently came to dinner at my friend Mary. When returning to the UK from China my first stop-over was always at Mary’s who used to kindly turn over her sitting room to me. Shock, horror, Mary wrote and told me she was leaving the UK and returning to live permanently in the USA. I felt like I been punched in the stomach - no where to live!  But instead of finding myself homeless, Patrick and Linda stepped in. Bizarrely despite hardly knowing them at all, it was through Patrick that I was in China in the first place. Due to various reasons Patrick had helped organise my university job but it was not until I was happily squatting in their spare bedroom and eating evening meals together that we began to get to know each other. 

So where are my own family you might be thinking? Aren’t these the people where the woman from China would obviously be staying? My sisters had lived vicariously through me during my London years which in their opinion were exactly how a single woman in a good job should be living. Out for dinners most evening, knowing interesting, successful people, having the right neighbours - Parliamentarians, Royalty, a sprinkling of Lords and Ladies - yes this gave them plenty to bore the neighbours with. In the beginning years of my time in China I would regularly go and stay with them and on occasion they would come to me in London. China frankly was a mystery to them. Giving up all my belongings, my flat, my job in order to gain happiness and contentment was totally beyond their understanding. My new friends in China didn’t pass muster. These people didn’t have money, prestige or status. I slowly began to spend less and less time with my sisters. As the years passed and it became obvious I wasn’t coming back permanently to the UK they began initially to complain about Freddy. Freddy cluttered their houses, Freddy took up far too much space, Freddy brought dirt and disorder into their perfect homes. The complaints then moved on to my chatting about China as my voice interfered with their total devotion to Soap Operas and cut into their detailed gossipy tales of what the neighbours had been up to. Living and working in China was clearly very boring. They had expected me to give up this life of galavanting in Asia and return to the UK quietly chastened by my experiences and settle down to the TV each night. We finally had a massive row over which country I lived in and said farewell and have never contacted each other since. The truth was that I had changed so dramatically from the woman who had left for China all those years ago and frankly my sisters found me uncomfortable to be around.

When P&L bought a really superb, posh, ex-pop star’s flat based in Pimlico (I still considered Pimlico home, despite living in China), the two of them took me to the new flat, flung open the door and said: ‘This is your new summer home - we hope it’s ok for you’! For a woman who simply turned up each summer with Freddy, totally reliant on their hospitality, this was just amazing. P&L eventually moved to a small farm in Edinburgh to look after Patrick’s parents who were now in poor health. They left the London flat empty and when I returned to London, the Property Manager would calmly hand over the keys of a luxury flat in Central London; the exhausted, grubby, woman just off the plane from China, would then disappear down the road clutching the keys and dragging her only possession of any value - Freddy,  

P&L had family and friends who would also come to London in the summer. I would meet and greet the guests and I’m sure anyone could easily assume I lived there permanently. I knew all the neighbours and visited them for coffees or had lunches together. I arranged the plumber, the electrician, and anything that needed seeing to during the summer months. Patrick’s American niece, who was in her mid 20’s, clearly seeing me in the role of “Mrs Danvers”  asked if she could she invite a boy she’d met to come over in the evening; but not to worry he wouldn’t spend the night! I personally considered that I had the morals of an alley-cat but not revealing my hand, said nothing and played my role perfectly. Everyone seemed to accept that whilst I was in the flat I was the person in charge. I would sometimes look in my bedroom and see Freddy standing guard over my meagre belongings and pinch myself.

I also stayed at the farm in Edinburgh and it turned out all the neighbours knew of me, some relatives of the neighbours had actually stayed with me in London and everyone treated me as if I were a close relative of P&L’s. They all knew about China and my plans for Thailand. The time in Edinburgh was just blissful. I picked plums, collected eggs, picked tomatoes from the greenhouses, ensured cute little Thomas the hand-reared guinea fowl wasn’t in any danger round the excited dogs, but in particular ensured my own safety round the Black Rooster who was determined to exterminate me, head down and charging as soon as he saw me. 

By the time I would leave the UK each year I had renewed friendships, slept in many different beds located in most of the major cities of the UK, plus had sat cuddled up tightly to all of my friends’ pets, and had been clambered all over by their children or grandchildren. 

I eventually retired and moved to Thailand. I still keep in close touch with all my friends who are so very generous with their hospitality. I know that as a potentially homeless woman I am without fail always offered a big welcome and a lovely comfy home in which to nest. 

P&L who always seem to have such fond memories of Freddy and I arriving at their homes, were the family who took me with their three dogs to Heathrow Airport, to give me the big send off and wave goodbye to me on my first flight to Thailand, and wishing me all good luck.  

When I initially boarded the plane for Thailand I had three nights booked in a hotel but no other accommodation waiting for me. I was starting my new life in Thailand from scratch.

It was the first time I heard real concern when Linda said ‘You’ll be alright won’t you?’ 

‘Of course.’ Freddy sat by my side patiently waiting to be checked-in. He knew the drill. 

’You come straight home if there’s a problem.’ and then as I slowly moved forward to check-in, they wave and smile and say, ‘See you next year’.

June 04, 2021 15:46

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