In addition to the amazing sights and various intangible cultural experiences, travelling in China provides with many other pleasures. For instance, realising that the picture you pointed to on the Chinese-only menu turned out to be a succulent Sichuan-style fish with a thick, spicy gravy and not pig’s intestines and gall bladder cold noodle soup. Or going on a street food eating binge and not getting food poisoning (to understand the deeper significance of this, you may wish to refer to my previous post about public toilets in China).

But finally, travelling in China exposes you to some of the most beautiful examples of creation, wait for it, a “stuff white people like” moment is about to hit you: Chinese babies. The only thing that is better than seeing a free range Chinese baby (and there are hundreds of millions of those roaming about out there) is seeing a fat Chinese baby or Chinese twins. Seen in the context of China’s one child policy, twins are like an almost-legitimate way of cheating, they are the Enron of the one child policy. If ever there will be a day when I come across fat Chinese triplets, I might not be able to control the Brangelina within me and will for sure snap one or two for the house in Malibu.

So imagine my surprise when on the plane from Lijiang to Beijing I was seated next to a Chinese family of three and, more precisely, seated next to the Child. Making sure not to appear too creepily excited, lest the family think I am a child molester, I looked around the plane to see who I will be sharing the honour of a three-hour Eastern China airline (member of Sky Team alliance, F Y I) flight with: an extended Chinese family of eight (no fat children) who seemed quite surprised to realise that there was no point in elbowing their way onto the plane since the seats were assigned (ironically, they were seated in eight different rows and during the flight they kept calling each other over to look from the window, much to the chagrin of their fellow Chinese passengers). Save for a delegation of 30 West Africans and Burmese Red Cross volunteers (don’t ask) on some kind of training trip or teambuilding retreat, there wasn’t much in the way of people watching in-flight entertainment to be had. So it HAD to be Chinese kid time.

Meeting halfway in the twilight zone where Chinese and Italian non-verbal communication intersect, the family and I kept gently nodding our respective heads and smiling whenever the eight-year old baby girl did something slightly out of line the way bored kids in closed spaces tend to do. Them non-verbally apologising for the inconvenience, me non-verbally saying it was no inconvenience at all. The moment the fasten-your-seatbelt sign went off, the mother pulled out a sheet of paper from a hotel notepad and gave it to the girl. On the slip of paper there was a list of English words with Chinese translation of items that are typically featured in a continental breakfast. For a people that is used to minimalist and sugary breakfast, Italians generally find continental breakfasts to be a bit of an extravagant concept; like bungee jumping, something that ought to be tried when given a chance, but also something you would not wish upon yourself everyday. So I could barely fathom what an obscure intercultural experience it must have been for the girl to toil away at the task of copying a list of items over and over: toast and butter, bread and jam, water melon and three slices of tomato, orange juice, milk tea, pancakes, omelette.

Whenever the girl got distracted the mother’s face would produce a highly disapproving frown that would guilt-trip the girl into some more copying. According to some English teachers I had met, Chinese schools had just started their summer holidays, yet a Chinese mother’s task to ensure that every second of a child’s free time is spent having a go at the “One Million Step Journey Towards Success” never ends. Even for someone like me coming from a mother-centred culture, Chinese mothers are a force to be reckoned with. Suffice to say that Chairman Mao himself was brought up by a Chinese mother.

In a country were success means being in the top percentile of a population of one billion, this psychosis about nurturing the Solitary Jewel of the Chinese Family into success is understandable. To be in the top ten percent of your class in Italy (average size 30), you need to be better than 27 kids. In China (average class size 60) you need to be better than 54 kids or else you can say goodbye to a place in a decent university. My mother’s aspirations for us was to raise well-mannered and curious young men who would go vote regularly, obtain a university education without impregnating anyone (if straight) or contracting a venereal disease (if gay) and hopefully be gainfully employed and live above the poverty line. Mrs Montessori was, after all, Italian. I wonder what she would have to say about the Chinese collective psychosis that takes shape in various forms of which violin lessons and weekend English classes are just a common example and whereby the future generations of Chinese citizens is formed, ensuring both the country’s ascent into success and the survival of the western luxury items’ industry and the financial solvency of the British higher education system.

The kid kept going back and forth between doing her homework and being mischievous and I just imagined myself as a nine year-old on an Alitalia flight, writing a list of Chinese breakfast items because Chinese is the language of tomorrow. A list far enough from my cultural bearing points to make the exercise monotonous and entirely futile: rice congee with preserved egg, steamed buns with bean paste, wanton soup, white rice etc …

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