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A Letter From China
Image: Jonno: Crossroads; which way to go? - Click to Enlarge Infrequent, irreverent, and irrelevant snapshots of daily life in China
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A Letter From China


What bigger secrets lie between a people and their rulers, a man and his obsession, or between a daughter and her father?

Rhiannon and I have many secrets we share, like her use of my Smartphone when she plays games. Siu Ying knows fine well what we are up too, but Rhiannon doesn't realise. Often when Mummy is preoccupied, she’ll come through to my office and “Shhh” with her finger to her lips, before taking my mobile and hiding under my desk. It is a very large desk, and she hides right at the back, out of sight.

She can now turn on the phone herself, find the game she wants, mute the sound as applicable, and plays away. I find it ever so amusing, although Mummy is not so impressed. However, I am happy to let her learn the technology at her own pace, the games to me are irrelevant. She no longer activates unwanted things, like mobile data, which costs a small fortune.

The turning point came when she managed to activate negative display, so all the colours were inverted. I mean, all of the colours on each, and every screen. It is a Samsung Note 2, which I inherited from my wife, although I would go back to my old Nokia, if the sim card would work. Anyway, I spent a lot of time trying to understand what had happened, and how to correct it. One would imagine something of this magnitude would be under ‘display’, or another global setting perhaps? No. Eventually I Yahoo’d (Cannot Google in China = banned), and after some extremely complicated answers, found the solution. Samsung in their often Microsoft-like wisdom, had decided to hide this function somewhere completely irrelevant. I followed the on-screen prompts, and five seconds later, the phone reverted to normal. Shame the Samsung website and instruction manual didn't cover this. Ho-hum!

Since then, Rhiannon has been a lot more careful about which buttons she activates, and to the point I no longer worry about her using the thing. We do plan to get her an iPad or similar, but there is no need for the moment. When we do, it will not have a sim card or connectivity, and may not be the latest model either, after all, she isn't five until Christmas. That stated, she already knows how to use my mobile better than I do, and like learning languages, starting young, to me, is key. This is why she will probably get the iPad, so that she learns her way around Apple Mac software, as well as Android, and Windows.

Regards spoken languages, Rhiannon is taught mainly in Mandarin at school, and she brings home large prompt cards with characters on for practicing, and recognition. Our twist is that she can switch between answering in Mandarin, Toisanwah, or English, depending on which language we use.

Her numbers are coming along well, and she already knows how to count up to 100, although the higher numbers are a work in progress. She can also write them up to 10, but these are English numbers, not Chinese ones. This time she can speak them in four languages, English first this time, followed by Mandarin, Toisanwah, and additionally Cantonese.

Strictly speaking, Toisanwah (Taishanese, but locally Toicern wah) is a dialect of Gongzhao wah (Guangzhou hua) Cantonese, but the link is extremely tenuous. For instance, number 3 is quite easy: three; sam (Cantonese); san (Mandarin); and clam (Toicernwah), pronounced with a celtic ‘cl’ sound. Number 9 is more interesting, being: nine; gao, jiu, and gew respectively. My point here is that noticeably frequently, the Toisanwah pronunciation is a mixture of Cantonese and Mandarin, hence ‘gew’.

To much extent, this part of Rhiannon's growing up is preordained, she will be fluent in four world languages = she already has a job waiting in the international world.

Secrets, Hmmm. What other secrets do fathers and daughters share?

We both love pizza, and hate standard Chinese rice; it is always thoroughly cooked rice, and about the same size as the grains. It swells in the stomach, bloating the eater, and making them feel full, for a short while. Mummy now realises this, but doesn't know about the Heinz ketchup, yet. Mummy thinks I bought it for myself, but we know different.

Then there are the trips to the local shop, where we return home with what is acceptable by the matriarchs. However, often a ride on the sheep machine outside sees a bar of chocolate, or bag of crisps consumed by ‘you know whom’. I don't do it very often, but it does happen occasionally, and why not?

There are other curiosities that Mummy has accepted, though does not understand. For instance, Rhiannon loves baked beans and toasted soldiers, which she also loves to dip into runny fried eggs; a total no-no for all Chinese. When I make chips (Fries for American readers), I always add an extra spud, so that ‘little fingers’ get their fill; one of the uses of ketchup mentioned above.

While we are eating, her perched on my lap, at my desk, other things slip past the adults of the home; we watch Shaun the Sheep in Mandarin, or sometimes English. I have all the series’ on YouKu (Chinese You Tube), and they are as popular as the modern American Boonie Bears cartoon with ‘daw-ta’. Can you guess what her favourite movie is?

Believe it or not: Godzilla. These are the Toho films from Japan, and her first was Godzilla vs King Ghidora. Mothra was in that one and I must admit, I worried about her having nightmares. Nope! Loves it. She is always asking me to show Godzilla films, and now has my DVD's. Our game is to stomp around in unwieldy fashion with our arms out, and blow pretend radiation breath. However, I can access the lot online, her favourites being Son of Godzilla, and any of the space aliens ones. Normally they are in Japanese with both Mandarin and English subtitles, although I have a few dubbed into Cantonese. You may not realise, but the Mandarin character set is one of the five major Japanese font types.

Her other favourites, are movies featuring Jackie Chan, Jet Lee, and especially Bruce Lee. Sometimes she prowls into the office in Kung Fu mode, posing in Bruce Lee and making chicken squawks; I know a fight is about to happen to me. She has already asked to take ‘gongfu’ lessons, but will have to wait.

Nevertheless, waiting continues to be something Chinese people accept as a part of their lives. The other morning I was a bit peckish, so went down to the sic juk restaurant for a bowl of rice porridge. I sometimes order different things, like dumplings, or go to the other nearby eatery for chow mein. However, the 'sik-juk' eatery knows my standard order, and all I have to do is say ‘sic juk’ or ‘juk-juk’, and they bring my personal preference. Afterwards, I went to the local corner shop and bought stuff, whatever. Milk probably, definitely soda crackers = delish', and likely crisps.

This is largely by-the-by, except that when I returned home, Mama was waiting to greet me. Siu Ying's mother never warns us of her coming in advance, she just arrives when suits her best. We get along fine, always have done, but it is interesting to note that now we have bought our own home outright, her attitude to me has subtly altered. Her husband, Baba Rong still heads the family of course, but he is getting older, and has passed much of the family burden onto his eldest son, Dai Lo, meaning ‘Big Brother’ or ‘Number One Son’. Yes, Chinese do use these clichés as a daily fact of life.

The curious thing is that, I appear to be the next in charge, something I may have alluded to before in recent missives. I am not one given to respect status, c’mon, I am a child of the 60's, so it is rather strange for me to receive undue respect simply because I am a home owner.

After a cuddle of welcome, mama insisted on taking my shopping bags, remember, she is a couple of years older than me, something neither of us has a problem with, regards marriage to her daughter. I tried to protest, but she physically ripped them out of my hands, and carried them home. You see, she considered this to be her duty. Strange perhaps, but true.

Ah yes, now I remember, it was a Monday, and Mama occupied herself, as she does, mainly watching TV or napping. She collected Rhiannon from school, and took her the next morning. This continued for the rest of that week, and then the next. Like yours truly, Mama seldom leaves our home, so we spend a lot of time in close proximity to one another, although an open doorway apart, as it were.

I admit to wondering if Mama had moved in, like forever, and mentioned this in passing to my wife, but perhaps my words were more akin to, “Doesn't she have a home to go to?” similar, I did not have a problem as such, just a niggle. Mama departed a few days later, which would be a Tuesday evening. We settled back into our normal routine, me usually waking Siu Ying and Nonni each morning, before finishing my work, making dinner, and going to bed, normally before midday. I am very much a night person, as some readers will attest to.

Siu Ying’s Birthday was on the Saturday, and Friday saw me work into the afternoon, before hitting the sack. I have a lot on these days, more on that later. I came aware, but groggy, of voices in the main room; two monkeys and Yee Lo, or Number Two Brother. I guessed they had descended upon us for the Birthday Party.

I get on well with Yee Lo, and he knows enough Cantonese so we can communicate. That stated, I have never worked out his own marital situation, because his wife, who speaks a little English, enough so we can communicate quite well; lives and works in Gongmuen, that's Jiang Men City in Mandarin, and about 90-minutes away on the bus. Yee Lo lives at the parental home, and looks after the daughter.

The wife will often spend a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and evening with us, when her family is also with us of course. Otherwise she only appears for festivities, and it just seems a bit odd. But who am I to say?

They obviously found enough time to be together, because she is now heavily pregnant with their second child. Cantonese families I know usually have between three and five children, so I have zero idea what Beijing believes their one-child policy, now reviewed, has got to do with real life down here.

I remained groggy, slept more, and finally woke up around midnight. There was no sound, and all others were asleep. I took coffee to my desk, and in time, got to work. I was not surprised when a door opened around six a.m., but I was surprised to receive a wave from Mama.

The day happened, and later our friend ‘the fish’ arrived to take us to our planned party at Siu Fai Yuerm, or the Little Sheep Restaurant in Hoipeng (Kai Ping). Everything went well, that is until we parked the miniature charabanc outside the restaurant; which was shuttered and most definitely closed forever. Damn!

I do wonder, why it was me that was the one to walk over to the door and try to discover what was going down. Was this closed for refurbishments, or ‘gone’. Siu Ying came to my beckon, and confirmed, gone; and after visiting the shoe shop next door, expounded, gone forever.

We were both pissed-off, this was a mighty fine restaurant, and part of an international chain. I promised to take her to the one in Foshan, insisting we book a table in advance, if only to know the place is still open. Time drifted, and Siu Ying spent ages on her mobile, I knew she was talking to Dai Lo’s wife, a native of the city.

In time we got back in the charabanc, and headed off, somewhere unknown. I knew when the driver became unsure, and a few blocks later we pulled over so more directions could be obtained. This took about ten minutes, and as I understood it, meant we had to turn around and go either left or right at the traffic lights behind us. I guessed it was left, but I was only hearing one side of the conversation, which was in Toicernwah.

I was ready to chill with a cold beer, but instead, we headed on up the road. My first concern came when we passed a turning point on the otherwise dual carriageway, and came to a stop at the lights, ready to turn left. I knew this was not it. The lights were on a very slow timer, still set for rush hour, with one lane taking preference at a time. Yawn.

Almost five-minutes later, we got green, and turned left. After half a mile, we pulled to the side, and Siu Ying again rang her sister in law. The conversation was brief, and with fag in one hand, and mobile in the other, our driver swung us across the road, headed back whence we came. I already understood it, but he needed to keep speaking, until we came to the traffic lights, again, this time turning right.

Remember what I said above, as I understood the original phone call? Well, we passed where that had occurred, and turned left at the next set of lights. I knew it. Within a hundred yards, we hit some sort of night, street market that spanned the main road with wide streets either side. The flow of pedestrian and motorcycle traffic was across, not forwards, so this hiatus took a long time to safely negotiate. In part, this was somewhat compounded, by some idiot in a posh car, deciding to complete a U-turn in the middle of the junction, which was beset by railings of temporary, but substantial proportions.

Once this twenty-three-point turn was completed, I jest not; we got underway. Great, I knew we were close, because we were in ‘restaurant street’. The only problem was, ‘which one’? I mean, there were large restaurants on either side of the road, and all looked more or less appealing.

We pulled over so there could be more phone calls, when I noticed a curious thing, a sign above one eatery that had a picture of a sheep. Now, people may consider me dumb, but given my wife's predilection for ‘hot-pot’, I knew where we were headed. It took another five-minutes for my assertions to be confirmed. Ho-hum.

The restaurant was ‘OK’, meaning not bad, but not excellent either; much less than the Little Sheep, but better than others we have tried in the past. It took me a while to work out how cheap it was, and given chill time, and a few bears, we had a great night.

Remember about ‘secrets’? Well wouldn't you know, but I shared another with my daughter during that meal. Several actually, even if she was sat across from me, bonds are like this. The first came in the form of succulent lamb bites, real meat that tasted like heaven. There was a second rice bowl that regularly appeared to my side, held by daughter, and she got her fill. Cool.

However, the coup d'état, and the reason we may well return, is because of the rice. Cantonese eat rice at the end of the meal, to “Fill up the far-lands” as my mother would say. English may well dip bread into gravy, or ham-fist a chip-Buttie = same sort of thing.

Wow! This was not sticky-rice, nor Toisan rice, which Yee-Lo is great at. Neither was it plain rice, but a sort of sticky rice, without the sticky. I loved it, and so did ‘daw-ta’. I went hungry on it, as she consumed three full bowls of it: Shhh! (Secret scoops from my bowl to hers). Brilliant!

We all know; there are no real secrets here, just ways’ of lives. At times, indulgence and forbearance walk hand in hand, but with responsibility. Strict discipline or proactive encouragement, which is it to be? Not me; all I want is for my Rhiannon to be free within her own mind, and grow up and ask the question: “why?” repeatedly.

Within layers of obfuscation, real secrets lie, waiting to be revealed; all one needs to do is ask the right questions.

I’ll leave you with an abstract lyric from Joni Mitchell:
“Things that you held high, and told yourself were true,
lost or changing as the days’ come down to you—its down to you...“

My mission, as father, is to ensure Rhiannon is ahead of the game. I know in time, I will tell her some more ‘secrets’, ones others than myself would prefer hidden from the facts of modern, public, globalised life. There is an Outlaw within us all, I know mine well; so I encourage my daughter to find her true self, and her calling in life; from free will, and maybe one I don't like?

I doubt that will ever be a problem; wherein lies the deeper significance of the secrets held of, and between, fathers and daughters.


This work including text and associated photographs is Copyright of Jonno Morris (Unless stated otherwise), and may be reproduced for personal and private use under Collective Commons 3 Licence. An email would be appreciated in such circumstances, as would a reference.

You are not allowed to use this information to make money from my work - regardless of how fancy or well paid your lawyers may be.

Some artistic licence has been used arbitrarily in some of these Letters, and whilst most facts are in essence correct, some personal and literary interpretation may have been employed to greater or lesser degrees.
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