This post has been sitting in my drafts for a while. It was written in bits and pieces over the past few weeks, but it was mostly written tonight as I watched the video clips I took in Nanjing and jogged my memory about what had happened during the trip.
I’m on the airplane flying back home from Nanjing. These past eight days in the beautiful city have been breathtaking. I never did think that I would visit China before I turned 23, an age at which I assume I would be given full independence. When Papa gave me the permission to judge a tournament in China, I was so shocked because he is usually very strict about us travelling overseas without an adult companion. Perhaps, knowing that I was travelling with Isabella, and was attending a reliable tournament assuaged his concerns about my safety.
I’ve had very limited interactions with those from the People’s Republic of China, but prior to my trip, my sample size of approximately n=7 people has exposed me to some of the sweetest and most hardworking people I know. Singapore does have a toxic perception of foreigners, and those that are from the PRC are often labelled as rude, self-centered and unaware. The media taints the lens through which we people, and sometimes I think we forget that those in Pakistan, North Korea, China, Nigeria etc are all people who we can easily connect with. Though we may have a language barrier, all it sometimes takes is a smile to break the ice. Travelling gives one fresh, grounded perspectives based on empirical evidence not inaccurate, hate-fuelling and attention-grabbing headlines.
I went to Nanjing with an open heart and an open mind. It was more than what I had expected it to be. I loved it. Of course, I know that I have only seen a few sides of the huge China. I do know that the country has a lot more depth, character and personality than what I had experienced.
When I first landed last Tuesday, my ex-debate student from DHS, Tong Xin, picked me up with her cousin and her aunt. Despite not knowing me at all, Tong Xin’s relatives were so kind to me. What touched me even more was the hospitality and warmth they showed towards my best friend Isabella, who even Tong Xin did not know! Tong Xin’s family was so sensitive towards my dietary requirements that they immediately drove us to have dinner at one of the best Halal restaurants in Nanjing. I expected us to order ala carte, but instead, we were brought to a huge table… and out came over 15 different dishes. I had the opportunity to sample authentic Chinese cuisine, and by the time we were done with dinner, I was bursting. In fact, there was so much leftover food because they had ordered enough for ten people!
It seems to be a practice to share food communally at the dining table which features a turntable. Everyone then uses their own chopsticks/utensils to get the dishes they want. I am usually not comfortable with sharing food and drinks with someone (aka ‘saliva conscious’), but I did my best to adapt and embrace different cultural practices. Isabella, of course, would give me her knowing, teasing look whenever she caught my discomfort throughout the trip when we had to sit around a table to share food. Most of the time, I would defiantly look back and spoon food into my mouth.
(Over the years, I’ve become more open to sharing from the same plate, cups and utensils as my peers. It has taken me a very long time to get over this phobia, but I tell myself that after all, it is just an issue of mind over matter. I must admit though, even today, I feel squeamish when I see saliva threads in people’s mouths.)
After dinner, we were told that Tong Xin’s family had prepared an apartment for us to stay at for the next three nights. Their cousin was even going to stay with us as they didn’t want us to clean up after ourselves! I was so immensely touched. They had gone above and beyond what was needed to make us feel welcome, and for that, I am thankful. Isabella and I shared a cozy little room in the apartment. The first night, Tong Xin was in our room till 1am, and we had a great chat about life, expectations and funny stories. By the time we were done conversing, Isabella and I were so exhausted that we fell fast asleep, enjoying the natural “air-conditioner” (but not before we fought over whether or not we were each getting an equal share of the comforter).
Day 2, 30th March
We woke up exhausted, and I had reheated dumplings from our dinner the night before. We were originally supposed to head out with Tong Xin’s Aunt to the Purple Mountain, but alas her grandchild fell ill and she had to take care of him. We adapted, and recalibrated our plans for the day.
After some planning, we put on our warmest of clothes and we trudged outside. Actually, more like I trudged outside for I feared the cold. Unfortunately, I had packed for the wrong season… and pretty much the whole trip, I felt chilly. Fortunately, I got lots of hugs from friends, and I mostly quite easily distracted myself from the cold.
The first thought that hit me when we went out in the morning was how beautiful the apartment complex. It was crowded, yes, but there were colourful flowers blossoming from the trees around me. Every direction I turned to, I would see little kids with the rosiest of cheeks filing the air with their innocent, silvery laughter. It was a fifteen minutes walk from the apartment to the metro station. I felt a warm, fuzzy feeling as I walked hand in hand with Isabella. I think Isabella and Tong Xin were amused at how excited I would get at the little things I’d see along the way… like the bountiful, juicy fruits and brightly-coloured vegetables we would see at the countless fruit stalls we saw in the residential areas, or how I’d linger my gaze slightly longer at the gorgeous men and women we would pass by. I even took a Snapchat video of a morning workout dance near the metro station. We saw a few of these mass workouts near the densely populated areas. I was so tempted to join in!
We took the metro down from Tianruncheng to Yunjinlu station, which was around an hour-long journey. Yunjinlu is walking distance from the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. The location of the memorial hall, Jiangdongmen, is one of execution sites and mass burial places of the massacre.
The hall itself has a funereal feel to it. At the entrance, there was a sale of flowers for those would would want to pay their respects to the victims at the burial site. As you take in the macro view of the memorial hall, you will unmistakably see a large marble wall engraved with ‘300 000 Victims’. Architecturally, a lot of grey marble was used. At the outdoor exhibits, elaborate statues and group sculptures were accompanied by very heartbreaking quotes. Isabella and I quickly found ourselves both mesmerised by the exhibit, yet deeply saddened by the tragedy of the past. I would highly recommend going to the memorial hall for the experience. There is a lot to learn from history, and I’ve recently been very interested in South East Asia’s history.
After our approximately two hour tour, we were famished. So we flagged a rickshaw and asked the driver to take us to the Bugis-street equivalent of Nanjing. Alright, just kidding. I have absolutely no idea what my two Chinese-speaking friends said to the driver. All I know is that they asked to be brought to a street that locals patronised. We wanted to have a non-touristy experience.
We did a little bit of shopping (for amazing yet affordable shoes) before we had lunch. What I loved about my visit was how easily I could find Halal eateries. It made my trip ten times better to have access to authentic, scrumptious, mouth-watering, Halal Chinese cuisine. Otherwise, my backup plan was to go vegetarian, which I did do at times because Isabella deserved to have her authentic dim sum experiences too.
We then took a metro to the night market to enjoy the cool breeze and have street food for dinner. I wish I could pen down how I felt, but it’s hard to document an experience in words. I tried to find a qibao by my size, but I couldn’t find one that fit. We explored the night market, bought gifts for our loved ones and got a little lost towards the end. By the end of the day, we were so exhausted. We took a metro back and had dinner at an amazing Halal eatery opposite the apartment (best fried rice I’ve tasted). The moment we reached home, we took a shower and plopped onto bed. We had a midnight snack of the sweetest of strawberries and freeze-dried durians (but nothing beats fresh durians). As always, Isabella and I had our nightly heart-to-hearts before we fell asleep.
I woke up freezing cold! Why? Isabella had hogged the 3/4 of the comforter. Waking up with numb toes is one of the worst feelings ever. I had absolutely no desire to even get out of bed. It is in these moments when I realise how vulnerable Man is to our primal needs of adequate shelter, food and warmth — the mind can think of nothing else when such needs aren’t met.
To warm myself, I had a bowl of reheated lamb soup noodles from the night before. Coupled with furry shoes and warm clothes, I felt rejuvenated. After breakfast, Isabella and I were deciding what to do for the day. We both needed to complete some work, and we needed a strong WIFI signal so that our VPN could function. We then decided to check into our hotel earlier and not stay another night at the apartment. Although we were provided with a twin bed room, we invited Tong Xin to stay with us. We packed all our things and took a taxi to central Nanjing. After we took the taxi, we realised that we got overcharged for it. From that ride onwards, I was asked not to converse in English. Of course, since I don’t speak Chinese, I just kept mum in most of our subsequent cab rides (except when I silently tried to Snapchat heh).
Unfortunately, our hotel wifi was not strong enough for Isabella to connect to Google Documents. We were a five minute walk away from a mall, so we walked over and camped at a little cozy cafe to leech off their WIFI. Before we did that though, we checked out Uniqlo and H&M to satiate our inner consumerist child.
At the cafe, we tried so hard to connect to the WIFI but it failed us. So, Isabella and I just ended up laughing at the hilarious English translations of the desserts. We ordered a “Very Stone Fruit with Starlit Chocolates” which was just a bowl of shaved chocolate ice with nuts and raisins. No, we did not get stoned. As disappointed as we were that we couldn’t do our work, we managed to cheer ourselves up by acting silly.
Sometime in the middle of our expedition that day, my neck began to ache so badly that I could not even move it. In the cafe, Isabella gave me a massage but it didn’t alleviate my pain. After a little more consumerism at the mall, we left, hoping to find a massage parlour nearby.
Right so this is an amusing story… it was around 8pm and my neck was immensely painful. We were pretty desperate to find a place to help, so we entered the first reliable-looking massage place we could find.
BIG MISTAKE. As posh as it looked, it was actually a “men’s-only” massage parlour. Isabella and I were looking around the receptionist area as Tong Xin conversed with the staff. After Tong Xin told us that they quoted an exorbitant price to us, we were just about to walk off when, and I quote in Isabella’s words, ‘a busty lady with messy brown hair walked out (without underwear) in a short skirt and told us she could give us a discount.’
We hurried out of there, terrified yet highly entertained. Traumatising, but so memorable.
Thankfully, a few shops away we found a legitimate spa. Tong Xin and I had a hour-long massage. I had a wonderful masseur and in the time with her, I tried my best to converse in my broken Chinese and barely understandable sign language. While we weren’t able to hold a full conversation, we smiled at each other enough times for me to feel myself warm up to her. Amazing what smiles can do to break the barriers between people.
I left with a neck that didn’t hurt too bad, and my soul full of positive energy.
Back at the hotel, Isabella and I realised that we hadn’t eaten, so we headed out to get food. Isabella got rice at a hawker, but I was out of luck as my halal eatery had closed by then. So, I went back to the room, heated some instant porridge, then joined Isabella at the lobby where we had our usual heart-to-hearts. These are the little moments that I know I will treasure, regardless of where we end up in life, Isabella. Also, Isabella is so cute — she always holds my hand when we cross roads, or are walking alone somewhere late at night. She justifies it by saying that I might get run over or kidnapped, but I think it’s because she loves me.
We had around six hours to spare before we had to begin our judging duties. We went shopping, where Isabella and I spent almost ALL of our money.
We went back to the hotel, where we were greeted by Enqi! This trip is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to interact with her, and to get to know her personality. It was as though we were long-lost triplets… Enqi gelled so well with us, and we cracked the best inside jokes all the way.
April Fool’s Day was honestly very uneventful. I got 0 pranks. Well, maybe one, where I genuinely thought someone had bought me a ring to propose to me. Hahah.
In our conversations later that night, I asked Isabella why we didn’t prank each other, and here’s the gist of what we said:
In agreement: Yup, let’s just not prank each other heh.
We ended the night recording silly Snapchat videos, and fell asleep cuddling and arguing over whether we both had an equal share of the comforter.
We judged, debated and had great fun with each other, as well as with the beautiful students and judges we met at the tournament.
I was so impressed with the learning curve of the students I judged there. On the first day, I watched a team debate in their first three rounds and saw a remarkable improvement from their first to third debate. It made me so proud to see them push to do their very best. It also warmed my heart to get a hug from that team at the end of the day.
We even sang at break night. Isabella sang an Indonesian song, while I sang “Tum Hi Ho”. I’ve really gained a lot of confidence in myself over the past year or so, and I have come to embrace myself without the constant nagging fear that people are judging me. Truly, as long as I’m happy and as long as I’m not hurting others, I don’t care about how my actions would be judged. When I was 17, I don’t think I could have said that.
Overall, my experience in the Chinese debating circuit was wonderful. It felt like home, where everyone was warm, receptive and hospitable. However, just as all debate circuits are, I do wish people didn’t judge themselves based on their achievements. That does not matter, it really doesn’t. What matters is whether you made friends and learned something at the end of the day…
I felt so sad leaving behind a place I’d come to really like. I do believe that one grows best in a disruptive environment, and getting out of one’s comfort zone is crucial to our personal growth.
Whenever I travel, I am reminded of how small I am in this big, blue world. It gives me a bigger perspective of life. I’ve never wanted to simply chase paper, or to restrict myself to only ever understanding my little red dot.
While part of me did dread coming back to the stresses of decision-making and the realities of life, I came back revitalised, happy and ready to brave the days ahead.
Also, I wept so much on the plane back after watching 12 years a slave. Please watch it! It moved me, and it really made me think about slavery/modern day slavery/terrors faced by people around the world. The lady seated next to me stared at me as though I was an unusual creature for I was crying so much hahah.