Learning The Western Alphabet

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That morning I had studying to do, five pages of intensive reading to learn by heart before the class in the afternoon, but I smile sweetly when they ask me to take the Foreigner to the Acupuncture Clinic. The leaders have decided that I should be the Foreigner's Minder, and the Foreigner wants to see some acupuncture, so I have to take him. I don't understand why he wants to go, he's not even ill. But I don't question it.

The hospital is on the far side of the university campus, on the lower slopes of Yue Lu mountain, and as we walk along the path between the blocks of flats everyone stares at us: why is a pretty young student like me walking next to this tall, big nosed, pink faced Foreigner? One peasant woman drops her basket, and vegetables roll all over the road in front of us.

'What are those long green things?' he asks, watching her as she scrambles to pick them up. Has he never seen bamboo shoots before?

'Why do you want to see acupuncture?' I wasn't planning to ask, it just came out of my mouth, in English.

'China is famous for it. I thought it might be fun to see.' Fun?

'It's for when you're ill, in pain,' I say. 'Not for show.' How could something so old fashioned and ordinary be special for him?

The hospital smells of herbal medicines, a sharp green smell that reminds me of childhood illnesses and my mother's cool hand on my hot forehead.

'God awful smell,' he says.

In the clinic a nurse is treating the neck of an old woman suffering from rheumatism. Under her short, roughly-cut hair, they stick out like knitting needles from a half finished sock. As the nurse manipulates them, pushing them further in, the old woman sighs with the familiar pain.

I try to make things easier by saying, 'They don't have acupuncture in England.' The nurse mutters, 'Big nosed barbarians!' She pushes in the needles more forcibly, twisting them like those poles with spinning plates at the circus. There is a groan behind me and the Foreigner, green as the young bamboos, falls back on to the wooden floor boards, just missing the corner of a large metal cupboard. What if I'd injured him on my first morning as Official Minder? As I wait for his eyes to open, the nurse carries on angrily pulling out and replacing the needles in the brown, worn flesh.

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On her parents' grey concrete balcony there's just room enough for two low chairs, made of yellow bamboo, roughly cut and split. I like the ethnic look but they are far too small for me. There is no way I can fold myself up to fit in them, so I have to sit with my legs out in front of me, my size 11 trainers almost as big as the chairs themselves. She laughs at my awkwardness, her own legs and feet thin and tiny as a child's. When she goes inside, the wire meshed door bangs behind her. I can hear her talking with her mother: their voices are loud and screechy in contrast to their tiny birdlike bodies. She comes back with a plate of 'Lucky Rabbit Milk Sweets', and a white porcelain mug with a lid. Inside it, in the greenish water, a few leaves are unfolding like leeches.

'Special tea from Jiang Jia Jie, but no milk! So sorry,' she laughs. I've been in China long enough to know it is embarrassed laughter. She'd insisted I come round to meet her parents, even though I wasn't very keen. I knew that visiting people in their homes was disapproved of. I'd been told that 'people would be too ashamed to show a foreigner their low living standards', that was how they'd put it to me. So I expected it would be awkward, and I was right: her father nodded at me and then disappeared immediately into the bedroom, while her mother is still hovering smiling uncertainly in the hallway that serves as their kitchen, with its line of brightly coloured flasks. She would have taken them down to the boiler house that morning like all the other women round here: standing in a queue for the day's supply of hot water for the endless green tea.

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