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Gareth is an Australian who has lived in JiangSu, SuZhou (Heaven on Earth) for a few years - he is a keen observer of the Chinese people, Chinese culture and the changes that are occurring in China at break-neck speed. He can often be found on his a nightly 'perch' in front of his bar in the famous Bar Street in Suzhou, talking to the locals in his bad Mandarin, teaching the 'flower-selling girls' English, eating street food and smiling at the local chengguan (neighbourhood police). Gareth also has several other businesses in China around Business and English training. His experiences have been varied and interesting and his years in China have taught him to be wary of promises but excited about prospects, not a bad situation to be in!
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Old Zhang

By Garreth Humphris
2507 Views | 2 Comments | 6/5/2011 2:24:33 AM

Today I spent a pleasant afternoon with Lao Zhang, drinking tea in his courtyard. He is a small, quiet man and I met him, quite literally, by accident about 9 years ago.

I had a 'habit' of exploring my new hometown by bicycle when I first got to Suzhou - I'd set out for a few hours on the weekend to leisurely 'find my way around' on an ancient bicycle loaned to me by my friend's father. It was an old steel-framed grandfather-style bicycle still on sale in China now, but relegated to 'old-fashioned' in other countries - all chrome and leather and hard steel - swept-back handlebars, a set of solid-lever brakes, wide steel rims and pencil-diameter spokes - a massive machine.

I was paranoid of 'losing it' to thieves, because apparently it had been my friend's parents wedding bicycle - in that time, a couple was truly happy to own a bicycle, a watch and a sewing machine - so I remained on it all the time, leaving my friend's home to return a few hours later, saddle-sore but happy.

I would explore by taking the back-alleys and walkways along the canals and houses in the city centre - to this day I can get through most of the old city without getting onto a main road! It is quite handy to be able to do this in busy traffic or if I need to go quickly around the place.

So one day I was on an excursion along PingJiang Lu, at that time a small winding alleyway between the houses and I went to turn into another laneway, over the narrow bridge and along a 'shoulder-scrape' pathway (walls leaning in toward the top) beside the wooden KunQu Opera House and out into the sunlight of the major shopping area.

But I missed, seriously missed, the corner, as my front wheel caught on a cobblestone and failed to negotiate the turn as expected! A wobble of the bike or two later and I was able to partially regain control of the machine - but only managed to careen into the doorway of Lao Zhang's old courtyard. With a clattering thud, I hit the doorstep stone, unceremoniously dumping my body over the front handlebars.

When I looked up, I had the concerned face of Lao Zhang staring down at me. I had narrowly escaped impaling him on the old roadster as he washed his clothes in the doorway sink, and he stooped down now, grabbing my legs and arms to make sure nothing was broken, mutilated or amputated.

He helped me stand up, picked up the bike and motioned me to a little table in the middle of his small courtyard. Luckily it was only my pride that was bruised and my confidence that was a bit dented!!!

Soon he was back, with a small ceramic teapot. And a couple of small blue and white teacups. From a thermos he poured water into the teapot and we drank tea and chatted for a few hours - he spoke very good English, having studied in Beijing as a young man and learning English at university.

Over the course of the next few meetings with him, I pieced together a rudimentary story of his life and trials in China over the last 60-odd years.

But as you know about time and friendship sometimes we don't make the time for friends as often as we should and sometimes we don't act like friends for the longest of times and, sadly, I hadn't gone back for a long while.

So I was walking down PingJiang Lu today, on my way back from a meeting when I heard a familiar English voice behind me...'Old friend, very long time no see, why have you not dropped by to see me for so long?'.

I turned to meet my old acqaintenance, a little more stooped, but still very lively.

"Do you have time for a tea?", I looked at my watch, my next meeting was 2 hours away so I replied, "Of course Lao Zhang, it will be nice to catch up with you again."

I grabbed hold of his shopping bag and we returned to his little courtyard house - it was so different now. The street has been gentrified and 'tourist-listed' so many of the old houses along the main alley have been modified into shops, teahouses and cafes.the people long gone!

Luckily Lao Zhang had managed to keep his house and courtyard intact but the old house next door is a bustling youth hostel and the quiet domesticity of the street is now a passing parade of tour guides waving flags and sputtering over handheld megaphones.

As we sat chatting and drinking tea, we even had camera lens from the tourist pointing in our direction and firing off at 1/100th of a second. No doubt a comical scene - a fat foreigner and a wiry elderly Chinese man drinking tea together!

But all this inconvenience paled into insignificance as I recounted to my friend the last few years of my life in SuZhou, my trials and tribulations in love and business and life...he would just smile and counter with a similar story of his own... A family member lost, an opportunity missed, a silly mistake!

As we sat in the twilight of the evening, the cacophony of the street slowly dying away and my last appointment missed, I couldn't help but wonder what would become of this scene in the next few years!

As I left the courtyard, I turned to Lao Zhang and said "Until next time!" to which he replied,"Don't make it too long, I'm an old man and I haven't many years left, you know!".

Yes, there is one thing about living in China, time passes too quickly for all the stories to be told!

Copyright owned jointly by Author and CyberCupid Co., Ltd. Breach of copyright will be prosecuted.
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#2011-06-05 02:30:18 by JohnAbbot @JohnAbbot

Garreth, this is you at your very best. What a clear and wonderful picture you have painted of a part of China nobody but an old hand, and a thoughtful old hand at that, can ever see. Of course Chinese can see it, but they can't see it through the eyes of an expat. I envy you your ability to paint these pictures in words the way you do. This was really special to me at a time when I needed a reminder of why I love China.

#2011-06-06 03:47:07 by woaizhongguo @woaizhongguo

As I think about returning to China, I am dreading things like the crowds and air pollution. But your story reminds me of the amazing people one inevitably meets if one spends any amount of time in the country and show some curiosity about one's surroundings. I would love to hear more details on what you talked about.

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