She told me her name today – in fact, she wrote it down in Chinese characters on the back of an old receipt – but I forgot it almost instantly. The strange sounds and tones of this new language are still very alien to me and just don’t seem to settle comfortably in my memory. I’m told that this will change with time. We’ll see.
The first time I saw her I was a bit intimidated. She was tall – more so than most of the women here – with long, dyed-red hair pulled back in a harsh ponytail and small, narrow eyes. She stared at me inquisitively, almost glaring, as I tried to make sense of the menu on the wall, which of course was in Chinese with no pictures, and when I pointed at my choice (random) she shouted it through to the kitchen without returning my smile. Was this how it was going to be here?
Still, they were damn good noodles.
A couple of days later I went back to the small restaurant (the place is nothing special, by the way, but it’s just outside the college campus so it’s an easy choice for lunch after work) and she was there by the door again. Hair scraped back and in denim jeans with zips at the ankles. Mid-thirties, I guessed. Ni hao, I said, and she nodded in reply, this time with an almost-half-smile.
I’ve been in this city for two weeks now and every day it feels a little bit more like home. The grid of wide, clean streets are becoming more familiar; I recognise landmarks, faces. I have a new white bicycle which lets me explore further than I can on my feet, and the sky is a perfect blue almost every day.
The next time I visited the restaurant she saw me walking up the street and came outside to greet me. Ni haos exchanged,she waved me inside and laughed as I pretended to read the Chinese menu. This time while I waited for my noodles she brought me a pot of jasmine tea.
The small restaurant is always full of students, noisily slurping noodles and shoveling rice with chopstick superpowers. Here, and in this part of town, I don’t get stared at the way I did in India. There’s a bit of rubbernecking, sometimes, when I go further away from the campus, but here people smile, say hello, teacher, and even – bliss! – completely ignore me.
Today I went to the restaurant again. The woman with the dyed-red scraped-back ponytail grinned and waved. Hi, she said. As I scrutinised the Chinese hieroglyphics on the wall she thrust her arm round my waist suddenly, pulling me close. She hovered her hand above my head, and then hers: we’re exactly the same height, she said without words. We were – almost to the centimeter. We looked down at our feet; mine in old sandals, hers in yellow Converse, and she took my hand and drew a 4-0 with her finger on my palm. I drew a 4-1 on hers.
She brought over a pot of tea and poured me a cupful. I had rice today, not noodles. And before I left she told me her name and I forgot it almost instantly. Bye bye, she said from the doorway. My first Chinese class is next week.
Susanna is a writer, photographer, teacher and Bollywood addict from Scotland. She lived in Delhi for two years where, amongst other things, she studied Hindi and cultivated a dangerous chai habit. Now she teaches English at a university in Inner Mongolia and continues to make semi-insightful observations on life overseas.