Through Chinese Eyes
Liu Hong Cannon gives a perceptive account of first impressions of the UK. The article first appeared in SACU's China in Focus magazine 1999.
Just as China and its culture can be fascinating for the British visitor, so the is full of surprises for the Chinese. Hong Meihua shares some observations or ner first trip to the UK to visit her daughter, and her English son-in-law.
Going abroad is such an unattainable thing for a Chinese person, the sort of thing one can fantasise about but not be able to realise. To me it was just a wild dream. But the opportunity incredibly befell on me, who had been looked down upon since my birth for being a child from the wrong family background. My father was an active Nationalist Party member. My uncle was in the Nationalist Navy and eventually left to go to Taiwan. I, as a consequence, was blacklisted during the Cultural Revolution. After 1976 I was completely rehabilitated and the reforms enabled me and other ordinary Chinese to have a better life, but I still never imagined that I could ever go abroad. Moreover, all the things I had heard about foreigners were negative: the Opium War, imperialism, the invasion of Vietnam, the Korean war.
My daughter went to England with the help of an English friend and married an Englishman in 1993. I became an in law with an Englishman. The foreigner my daughter married was a real 'big nose', and the news was really explosive for some time. The strongest negative reaction came from her grandmother, my husband's mother. Ever since my daughter went abroad, her grandmother had complained and warned me that I had to make sure my daughter came back for marriage, that she must never marry a foreigner. Whilst my side of the family was a bit more open minded, still, for a long time, it was hard to accept this reality. My husband and I worried that because of economic, cultural, ethnic and other differences, my daughter marriage might not be an easy one, or might even not last long.
For a long time after hearing of the wedding in England, we had not dared tell grandmother. But in September 1993, a mere month before my daughter and her husband were coming for their Chinese wedding, we had to lay our cards on the table. One day Yee Man's aunt told her the news, the next day my husband and I showed her the photographs of the wedding in England. She held the photographs, cried and said to us: 'She will never come back now'. But at the end of September when Yee Man, her husband and his family arrived they created such good first impressions on us that my mother-in-law's attitude changed completely. Through the 'Chinese wedding' and through Yee Man's explanation we gradually changed our views, especially after seeing my son-in-law's family, his parents. Yee Man's grandmother said she could see that they wore 'from a proper family'. In Chinese there is a proverb: 'When you buy a pig you have to look at the pigsty'.
My daughter and son-in-law met my son and me at the airport. As soon as we were outside we were greeted by green grass and colourful flowers, as if we were sailing on a green sea. On the way to the petrol station, we stopped to go to the toilet. The toilets were very clean and the fittings were like those of posh hotels at home. They told me that all public toilets were clean and well equipped like that, and free of charge. I hardly saw any pedestrians or cyclists the whole way through. I only occasionally saw sheep on the green grass. I did not hear any horning sounds from the cars, and everyone rushed pass us in a great hurry. My daughter told me we were on the motorway.
Although I had been through an 11 hour flight, when we got home I was not at all sleepy.
My daughter lives in a village in the South of England. The nearest town is about three miles away. There are about 200 families, many are farmers, some are peasants growing wheat, sweetcorn, but most do animal farming, sheep and cows. Many people work in small industries locally. Some are professionals in nearby towns, lawyers and journalists. They are the so-called middle class' who can be quite haughty. I don't find the concept of middle class clear to define, maybe it does not refer just to one's economic situation, but to a mixture of professional social status, educational level and other things.
My daughter said that English people are very nostalgic people. No matter what, the older the better, including houses and furniture. They like to live in a still and quiet environment, and therefore prefer to buy a house in a village if they can afford it. In her village there is a church. Many English people are Christians. My daughter and her husband are not Christians, but six times a year she goes to the church to do voluntary work, including cleaning the church and changing the flowers. The church needs cleaning everyday. My daughter said it was voluntary, but she believes that since she lives there, it is her duty to help. Tomorrow it will be her duty day, she asked me to go with her. There is no shop or restaurant here. Once or twice a week, they will need to go and buy food at the nearby town.
27th May, Monday. Rain
After dinner, they took us to the nearby countryside for a walk. Because of the rain we all got very muddy. A long narrow muddy road was supposed to have nearly 3,000 years of history. Although it was summer, it was cold. On the way we met several people on horseback, and some men jogging wearing very few clothes. My daughter and son-in-law waved at them. Waving at total strangers is something we don't do at home.
An english village (Turville, Buckinghamshire)
29th May, Wednesday. Cloudy
I woke up before 5am. It was so quiet. Apart from birds singing I could not hear anything. I had nothing to do so I went out walking. If it wasn't for the tarmac road I would have felt like I was in a forest, hearing the birds singing, and smelling the fragrance of the flowers. Occasionally a car drove past me. I saw a lady walking a dog. When I came back it was nearly 6 o'clock. My daughter poked her head out of the window and waved at me. I shouted: 'Don't catch cold'. She quickly signalled me not to shout. It turned out that people here generally get up late and were asleep and one must not shout loudly in the morning, especially during weekends.
The village is very beautiful, small houses scattered around amongst flowers. Everybody has a green lawn and flowers surrounding their houses. Behind each house there is a bigger garden, and flowers hang out of the windows. Everybody keeps dogs or cats. My daughter's cat eats meat from a tin. It costs them nearly £5 a week, a lot of money.
An english garden
Today my son-in-law needs to go to work. We quickly ate breakfast, soy milk with corn flakes and toasts. My daughter drove him to work and asked me to have a ride to see the scenery. I did not wash and wore the casual things I wore at home. After we got there, my son-in-law insisted on us going in; we could not disappoint him so I had to. He said it was still early, nobody else would be around. It turned out there were already quite a few people. apart from the guards, the secretary, there were two others. They all said hello in a very friendly way. I didn't know whether to feel angry or tolerant, but my son-in-law did not notice. When we got home, me and my daughter laughed at this. I was a bit nervous riding with her. She had only just begun to drive a car a year ago, and she drove quite fast. The country road is narrow. At first I dare not talk to her for fear of distracting her, but later on I saw she was very confident so I relaxed too.
© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) reprinted from SACU's magazine China in Focus 6, Page 17, March 1999
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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