On the Streets of Beijing
It’s my first time in China and my mom’s words are echoing inside my head: “One day my dream is to live in a big house so I can hang the laundry outside.” While the back alleys of China are comparatively different to the lush green backyard of a three-storey home that my mom had probably been envisioning, I can’t help but think of her dream as I stand beneath a clothesline of dripping short sleeves.
I’m in China on a cultural exchange program, the first week of which is spent in Beijing, exploring all the tourist attractions and breathing in our first impressions of the country. It’s been a couple of days and on this particular night, my friends and I decide to go for a walk after dinner, taking a detour through a back alley. I walk slowly, swinging my arms and letting the humid Beijing twilight fold in all around me.
It’s then that I notice the clotheslines to my left and to my right and high up above me, dangling out on apartment balconies, humming under the weight of a family’s wardrobe. I pause for a second and take in grandma’s floral shirt, a child’s baby tee, a pair of pants with no pockets, a pair of pants with too many pockets, and I feel suddenly struck by the intimacy of sharing in this family’s laundry. After having spent the past few days trekking through the Forbidden City and marveling at the Temple of Heaven, I find myself now with an invitation made unbeknownst to the inviters; an open invitation to glimpse into their personal China, and I feel somehow that this is just as sacred as the towers of the Great Wall.
The pocketed pants billow in the wind like the nation’s proud flag.
Outside our Dorm Room Window
The remaining three weeks in our program find us at a university with a group of Chinese students who have all signed up to spend their summer with us, practicing their English and learning about Canadian culture while we, similarly so, continue to learn more about Chinese culture. We are to eat together, sleep together, attend culture classes together and spend a copious amount of time learning each other inside and out.
The very first day upon moving into my dorm room (a brightly lit space with two bamboo mat bunk beds and a water boiler) I stand by the window and poke my head outside. I take a breath. Feelings of homesickness linger at the corners of my eyes and threaten to spill out at the thought of what looks like another long three weeks away from home. I take another breath and look down over the sill.
We are on the third floor and beneath me is a grassy yard with a long clothesline stretched from one end to the other. Today the clothesline is bearing a line up of cotton white bed sheets, a series of ghostly shapes catching the light of the sun. It looks like they are in an animated discussion, one bed sheet waving in the wind, the other winking in the shade of a tree.
University campuses are a place for dialogue and it fills me with wonder that in this new place, conversation seems to include laundry that sings in the sun.
In the Bathroom In the Dark
We are a couple weeks into the program and I’ve enjoyed more than my share’s worth of ice cream bars and green tea Pocky sticks. My new Chinese friends have taught me how to say the words “panda” (xiong mao) and “koala” (kaola) and the phrase “what is your favourite bear?” (ni zui xi huan shen me xiong?). I’ve ridden buses so crowded that I found myself shoulder to shoulder and knee to knee with strangers who didn’t seem to mind in the slightest and I had gotten my hands dusty with the flour from making dumplings.
It’s another day of cultural classes when suddenly the power goes out and the lesson slides fizzle from the screen. The electricity stays out for the remainder of the day and our friends go out and buy fifty red wax candles for everyone. We light the candles and stick them into paper Dixie cups, melting the wax along the bottom and standing them up all over our bedrooms.
My Chinese roommate and I perch our candle precariously on top of the toilet tank, setting the bathroom aglow with orange flickering light. My roommate is squatting on the floor with a basin of soapy water, washing her t-shirt, and I’m standing at the sink with a bar of Tide soap in my hands and a mini mountain of dirty socks. I have a headlamp strapped against my forehead, but I leave it turned off. The light from the burning embers is sufficient as I wash my socks, the soapy suds gathering around my fingers.
We wash in silence for a while. I reach up to tuck a strand of stray hair behind my ear and I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. My candlelit reflection stares back at me. I look at myself and hold this moment in my hands, alongside my bar of soap and pile of socks: this moment in which I am standing in China, in a dormitory bathroom, doing laundry by the light of a red wax candle, in the company of a new friend who, in the past two weeks, has taught me how to cross-stitch, play ping pong and enjoy 7 AM breakfasts.
I turn to my roommate and I say, “You know, I’m never going to forget this.”
“Why?” she says.
“I’ve just never done anything like this before.”
She pauses and lets her fingers soak in the soapy water of the basin. She laughs. “Me too!”
On the Clothesline In the Sun
I’m sitting with my Canadian friend on a big rock outside, sharing a package of strawberry koala snacks while waiting for her clothes to dry. Her tank top and maxi skirt are draped lazily over the clothesline, basking in the light, and we are doing much of the same, barefoot and catching the rays of the sun. It’s one of the warmest days we’ve had so far and only a few days remain before we are to pack our bags and say goodbye to China.
My friend and I talk about the surprises we’ve had in the past month, reminiscing on the laughter, the tears, and the struggles. One of the main difficulties that we reflect on is our encounter with the immovable force of the language barrier that we found ourselves facing over and over again. The simple task of looking for a place to buy apples and grapes or asking new people we meet what their favourite colour is suddenly becomes an affair of rifling through dictionaries and playing charades. At times I’ve felt more like an alien than a human being and I’ve wondered if it’s truly possible to connect with people who seem so far on the other side of an unshakeable wall.
The last of the strawberry koalas are polished off and I sit with my chin on my knees, looking at my friend’s drying laundry, and I see something universal in the way her clothes rustle with the wind. The clothesline stretches on and on and we are all washing and scrubbing, looking for a good and thorough cleanse, and then we wait in the sun.