Back to China (First of Two Parts)

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Canton, December 1971. The author (center, tallest child) with nursery friends. She is the daughter of Antonio “Tonypet” Araneta and the first Filipina to win as Miss International, Gemma Cruz, a granddaughter of National Hero Jose Rizal.

The sky was gray with drizzle; the day was warm. Like the hundreds of people around us, we held umbrellas over our heads. We were standing in Tiananmen Square looking at the imposing entrance of the once-Forbidden City.

It was the first time my eyes beheld the gates of the Forbidden City, but that was not the first time I’d been there. As my father enjoyed reminding me, I had been there already—40 years before.

In 1966, my parents traveled together to Peking, known today as Beijing. My mother was pregnant with me, her first child. Since then, it seems as if China has never been too far away from my mind.

From siopao to silk pajamas, things Chinese were always part of my childhood in the Philippines. I recall China gave me my first poignant, albeit rough idea of snow. As a young child growing up in a tropical country, snow was like mysterious décor that would adorn signs and posters during Christmases increasingly dominated by an American Santa Claus. But in the winter of 1971, my parents traveled to Canton (now Guangzhou) and took me with them.

My mother had a chronic illness and wanted to undergo acupuncture, which was banned in the Philippines at the time. I remember being with her in a hospital room, and being told she was going to be given a dose of snake medicine! A vial of the medicine was also given me to take, not because I was ill but as a preventive measure, or so I understood.

I looked at it for a few moments. Just the thought of it coming from a snake made me think it was repulsive, but the nurses gently insisted I take it. I took a little sip. It tasted horrendous! When I thought they weren’t looking, I went into the bathroom and emptied the rest of the vial into the toilet. Then I walked out and showed them the empty container, saying I had finished the medicine.

All of them, but one, just stared at me. The more cunning nurse went into the bathroom and peeked into the toilet. Then she said something to the other nurses, who then all exclaimed “Ah!” I must have forgotten to flush. The nurses didn’t scold me, but my mother did say something stern to me when she found out. I was five then.

While my adventure with snake medicine was taking place, my father was on his way to Peking to visit a friend. When he came back he brought with him a thermos full of snow. By the time opened the thermos, the snow looked more like crushed ice than Santa Claus’ fluffy, magical aura, which was sort of disappointing. Somehow, though, my father’s word that it was snow was enough.

Holiday trips to Hong Kong were also part of my fun childhood. I treasure many happy memories of double-decker bus rides, Peking duck dinners, and abacus-wielding saleswomen. And you know how one compares notes with another as to where one was on such-and-such a fatidic date? Well, the day the world lost John Lennon, I was in Hong Kong.

During my adolescence and early adulthood, China’s presence in my life receded a bit as I lived on the other side of the world, in Mexico. Trips to Asia were few and far between, and dedicated almost exclusively to family in the Philippines. But on my 40th birthday, my father took me back to China.

For eight very warm days in the summer of 2006, my father, my husband, our two children, and I embarked on a tour that included several of the more popular tourist destinations in China. We stood in the drizzle in Tiananmen Square, walked through the courtyards of the Forbidden City, and admired the lake and gardens at the Summer Palace.

In awe we beheld the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors. We enjoyed the Hua Qing hot springs, the Wild Goose Pagoda, and snapped photo after photo throughout the Li River cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo and back.

All this we did in a constant state of amazement. We were mesmerized by the beauty and diversity of the artistry and craftsmanship of the Chinese, as well as by their determination and industry. Yet, we gathered our most meaningful and enduring memories during the times we were off the tourist schedule.

Late one night in Beijing, my husband Juan and I called on some friends, Hector and Monica, who had moved to China from Mexico City a few years before. We agreed to meet in one of the city’s parks, where we could sit at a table in the picnic area and have a drink, while our children enjoyed the wide open space to run around in.

After greeting each other and reintroducing the children to one another (the last time they had seen each other they were toddlers), we sat down to exchange updates. Shy at first, the children were soon at ease with one another, climbing rocks and trees, giggling, shrieking. A few minutes later, they were running around our table in ever-widening circles, which eventually took them beyond our sight.

It was already dark and there were no lights beyond the main paths and the eating area where we sat. Juan and I kept craning our necks in an attempt to keep an eye on them. I stopped participating in the conversation in order to make sure I could still hear the children’s voices in the distance.

When Hector and Monica noticed our apprehension, they firmly assured us that there was nothing to worry about; that, despite its size and being a capital city with millions of inhabitants, Beijing was safe for children running around in a park at night.

It took more than a few minutes and several reassurances for Juan and I to relax and continue enjoying the evening with our friends. The children, eventually tired of running about, perched atop a nearby rock, chatting like magpies. The three of them had all been born in Mexico, so they all spoke (Mexican) Spanish. But Hector and Monica’s daughter, Sabina, had been living in Beijing for three years and was more accustomed to speaking Mandarin.

I had spoken to our children in English since they were babies, so they were also fluent. The three of them spoke to each other in Spanish, but my children would suddenly exchange a phrase or call out to me in English. Sabina would shriek something out in Mandarin when she got excited and couldn’t wait for the words in Spanish to come to her. Like a cage full of very animated birds, their multilingual prattle filled the warm night air and made the world feel like a cozier place.

Print ed: 09/09


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