When I first moved to Shanghai in 2007, It was never my intention to find myself a partner. I wasn’t implacably opposed to the idea; it was just that I couldn’t foresee the circumstances in which it might happen.
However, that all changed rather quickly. Not long after I arrived, a British colleague’s Chinese wife told me that she had a friend who would be ideal for me and that I definitely had to go out with her. Anyone who has ever been badgered into doing something by a Shanghainese woman will appreciate the barrage I was under, and so unsurprisingly I acquiesced. Anyway, I really wanted to do my best to experience fully Chinese life, and dating seemed as good a way as any as doing this.
Lila (not her real name) lived in Beijing, however. At first, I thought this might be something of a problem but quickly discovered that flights between Shanghai and the capital are frequent and cheap, and so this wasn’t going to be too much of an issue.
To cut a long story short, I went up to Beijing, Lila came down to Shanghai a couple of weeks later, and before long we had become a couple. Lila worked for a US conglomerate in Beijing and I had just started my new job in Shanghai, so moving was not really an option for either of us. However, in the end, the distance didn’t present too much of a difficulty as I would generally fly up to Beijing on a Friday afternoon/evening and return to Shanghai on Sunday night (in fact, the hardest part of the journey was aways the appalling queues for a taxi at Hongqiao Airport late on Sunday evenings).
Having a Chinese girlfriend enriched my stay in China in so many ways. My Mandarin improved so much more quickly than it otherwise would have without Lila’s encouragement – she would patiently run through my character flashcards with me, answer my endless (and often mindless) questions, gently correct my appalling grammar, and generally urged me to use Mandarin as much as I could. I should add, however, that this was entirely a one-way street, as Lila’s English was impeccable.
We travelled together throughout China often, and as well as going to the places one might expect, we also went off the beaten track a good deal. I know this would have been considerably more difficult without Lila by my side, handling the many frustrations that one encounters when trying to get about in China.
We ate out together – a lot! Being with Lila meant that I ate food that I would never have had the courage to order on my own (even when my Mandarin got good enough to read menus for myself), and discovered some rare treats, as well as some dishes I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. One of the sweetest, most mild-mannered people you could ever hope to meet, Lila became absolutely ferocious in restaurants if she thought the food or the service wasn’t up to scratch, and more than once she got into blazing rows with waiters and then the next moment would return to chatting with me in her gentle, melodic voice as though nothing had happened. This was hugely entertaining, but more importantly it was through our many dining experiences that I came to understand the central part that food plays in Chinese culture.
However, most significantly, I got to know Lila’s mother and her extended family. Lila’s mum lived in a very old flat in a fairly unimpressive part of Beijing and I saw a side to life in China that I suspect many never get to experience. We had many fascinating conversations about life under Mao and how much things had changed in China – almost without exception, she considered the changes over the last twenty-five years or so to be for the better. Foreigners often find it hard to understand why Chinese people are so phlegmatic about the many frustrating (but generally petty) inconveniences that life in Shanghai or Beijing throws up, but ultimately it’s because they have very often seen far, far worse.
Spending Chinese New Year in Beijing with Lila and her family was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my entire time in China. Watching very elderly men and women delightedly messing with extremely lethal firecrackers in small, confined courtyards, and the sheer terror I experienced when a rogue firework almost took my head off will live with me for ever. As will the food – the seemingly endless food – and the variety-style programmes on television that everyone was glued to and that seemed to go on for days. It was a wonderful, if at times tiring and baffling celebration, but was something that I wouldn’t have missed for the world, and that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to experience if it wasn’t for Lila.
Things ultimately didn’t work out between us in the end, much to my regret, but the couple of years we were together were very special, and I am absolutely convinced that without Lila my years in China would not have been anywhere near as enjoyable or interesting, nor would I have come to have the understanding of the people and culture that I do. I owe her a great deal.
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