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Made in China, Good for Woman

Written By: Diana Arya on March 6, 2011 No Comment

Guangzhou

I have left my current residence in Oslo to spend a week in Guangzhou. I feel as though I’m starring in my own version of the film Inception, an American living in Norway conducting educational research in China. What will serve as my “kick” into familiar surroundings once again? Perhaps my move abroad almost two years ago has permanently submerged me into an alternate reality. My mind has recently staged a constant juggle of English and Norwegian, and now the third ball re-enters the act. I struggle to recall the words and phrases that came so easily 20 years ago as a student in Beijing. My host and her family enfold me in their warm greetings and my gaze scans the red lanterns hanging from the trees that guide our way to the restaurant. Everywhere I look displays a reminder of the spring festival from the previous week. Lights of every color mark the absolute truth that I am no longer in Oslo. The frost-coated austere beauty of Norway is a stark contrast to the view I now behold, but I am neither shocked nor disoriented. I welcome this new bustling landscape as I would an old friend who doesn’t hesitate to embrace me with full vigor.

The restaurant bursts with even more color and we make our way to an empty table in the far corner. Tea is first to arrive, and the skilled server holds the pot behind his back to let the three-foot long, tapered spout rest along his shoulders. Piping hot water bursts into our cups filled with eight various “treasures” that include the best fruits and flowers that Guangzhou has to offer. I close my eyes as I take the first sip. This is my first cup of tea in China since my last visit long ago and I’m not disappointed.

This is good for woman, my host explains as I nod my head. This phrase is familiar to me. For the Chinese, tea is medicinal. But not just tea. My host explains the benefits of the soup presented in a simple yet elegant ceramic pot. The turnips and vegetable based broth contains the phyto estrogens that will replenish my exhausted body. Even after two servings of the soup, my stomach waits in protest as a platter of yams, broccoli, bokchoi and countless other flora is placed at the center of our table. A menagerie of dumplings follow suit and I reach for my cup in attempts to refrain from pouncing on the buffet in front of me.

As one course after another makes its appearance at our table, my mouth takes turns engulfing the victuals and reacquainting itself with the formations and tones of Chinese words.

Wo shuo de bu tai hao, I explain as I take another bite. My near-native execution of the phrase belies my meaning . . . how could someone who doesn’t speak too well execute this comment almost perfectly? But as I continue to search for a lexicon that I have inadvertently hidden from myself, my linguistic weaknesses are exposed.

Wo zhu zai Seattle for sex år, I explain, and then realize that my present company will only understand half of what I said. They’ll know I lived in Seattle, but a Norwegian would have to interpret for them in order to learn for how long. My head begins to ache at the possibility that all my attempts to speak Mandarin will be constantly riddled with Norwegian words. I stop speaking and take a deep breath and shake my head. Everyone around the table chuckles in empathy as I try again.

Wo zhu zai Seattle liu nian. There, now they know I lived there for six years. Heads nod along with murmurs of approval. I begin to feel more hopeful that my Mandarin will find its way back to me, weaving through the freshly planted Norwegian.

Perhaps the “kick” will come soon, but for now I rest in my submerged state of an American girl in Oslo returning to China for the first time in 20 years. I watch the words of various origins filter in and out of my mind, knowing that in time (hopefully before I return to Oslo) I’ll figure out what I need to say.

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