"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...." is the beginning of Charles Dickens book, 'A Tale of Two Cities'.
If I were to ever write a book about my years in China, I would start it with a truncated version of that sentence. "It was the best of times" would be my beginning.
Shanghai was my port of entry, and Shanghai was the port from where I left China. In the middle, I lived in Beijing, and then I was back in Shanghai to pack and leave.
Time passes on, and I wonder if I will ever live in China again. It is impossible, however, to recreate what I experienced then. The raw emotion that I shared with some of the people cannot be recreated. The relationships have, in some ways, matured like a good wine. They are strong ties.
When I left, I was given a map of China, with the contours and body of the country consisting of soil from various parts of the country. It is a gift that transcends value. I have it with me, and will keep it as a memento of the times, and of a country that I remember with great fondness.
Myths were busted. A country full of people in Mao caps, a country full of people with inscrutable expressions, a country where the people hate Indians are but some of the myths that were busted.
They are a warm people who, like us, just want to get ahead in the world. Buddhism was propagated in China by an Indian sage. The Shaolin monastery, I believe, was founded by an Indian sage. Many accounts of ancient India have been written by Chinese travelers. It would be good if the people and the politicians would take a moment to remember the ancient ties.
Cultural sensitivity is something I learned there. There were boundaries, of course. Chicken feet is something that I never took to, and I remember my first sight of them - I pulled them out of my soup in Bo Ao in Hainan province.
"Yuck", I said to my hosts. "Cultural sensitivity has it's boundaries". While I ate turtles, I never quite got over the look of the whole turtles, as the dead turtles would stare me in the eye, daring me to eat them.
We argued about the merits and demerits of chicken feet, and my friends could never understand why I was repulsed by them. Luckily enough, one day, I told them that we, in North India, love to eat goats brains.
"Yuck", "Eeew", "How can you?" were just some of the expressions thrown at me, as I yelled in triumph.
"Now you see why I do not like chicken feet!!". It was my moment of triumph.
I learned never to challenge people from North East China - the DongBei Ren - men and women, to drinking contest. There was a time I saw a young, thin girl standing on a table, drinking from a pitcher of beer.
"Rajiv", I told myself. "This is no time to prove you are a man. Run for your life!". I fled the scene, tail tucked firmly between my legs!
The Chinese are a superstitious people, I learned. Much like us Indians. I read the four great classics - "Hong Lou meng", "Shui Hu Juan", "Xi You Ji", and "San Guo Yanyi".
I liked them all, except "Hong Lou Meng". I thought it was a tale for wimps. No one could understand why.
I gained weight, and I gained much more than weight.
As I watched the sun go down, I realised that I had gained a whole new respect for the country, the people.
I had gained friends.