My September homestay family lives in an apartment complex in northern Shinan District. They are kind, hospitable and very friendly, a couple and their ten-year-old son—I am really enjoying my time with them. Living in the building is like living in a beehive—so many apartments—fittingly; the ten-year-old is a fan of honey. We eat breakfasts and most dinners together, which I really like, as they are lovely people, and I also hope my Chinese will get better as a result.
Our towering building is built against the base of a mountain, part of Fu Shan Forest Park. In the midst of the complex, there is a garden with a shivering river, pink lotuses floating on its surface. At nightfall, many adults and children come out to the garden. They laugh, chat, play, dance, run around and listen to music, and with handheld coloured lights, they trail luminous patterns and characters on the dark. The windows of buildings glow like jewels, and the moon hangs low, as large as painted in ancient Chinese artworks; full, round, golden, celestial.
There are many reasons why I decided to come to China for three months shortly after graduating university, reasons both professional and language-related. But perhaps none of those reasons would exist, and perhaps nor would my Chinese language skills, if not for stories I loved at a much younger age. So, for my first entry, I will begin with these stories.
When I was a child, one of my favourite books was named Dragonkeeper, which told of a slave girl who lived in ancient China’s Han Dynasty. Complaining all the while, she selflessly rescued an old green dragon from captivity and death in the mountains. Beset by dangers, she and the dragon travelled together on a long, difficult quest. Their twin journeys: his to find the ocean, a safe place for his child to hatch; and hers to find her own name and her own identity.
Every morning from my bedroom window in Qingdao, I look outside and see the craggy peaks rising high above, revealing twisting trails which seem to appear and vanish, intricately carved sculptures of fish and lions, jagged rocks, birds that wheel and hover, and trees that whisper and sway.
When I look upon the light and dark greens and blues and browns of these high peaks, all blending together like the hues of a half-remembered dream, I think of Dragonkeeper—the mountain range before me just as I always imagined in the story. I wonder if the girl and her dragon friend may have made their way, clambering and climbing, tired and footsore, among these mountains. If they came to Qingdao, perhaps they soon found the sea. (But first, I’m sure they took the time for a rest stop at Gaoshan, “High Mountain”— for what a perfect place for a dragon, after having curled up and rested, to take flight!)
On the mountain hike I took with my host family in Fu Shan Forest Park, I could just as easily imagine Sun Wukong, the mischievous Monkey King of the Chinese classic Journey to the West, leaping from peak to peak, treetop to treetop, soaring atop his cloud, spinning his gleaming magic staff, his grinning face coloured brown and gold.
When I was five years old, I read with relish a set of Stories of the Monkey King, coincidentally; the same tales most Chinese people come into contact with at a similar age. They told of the noble Buddhist monk Xuanzang who goes in search of sacred Buddhist sutras, and of his disciples; the food-loving pig-man Zhu Bajie, the stoic soldier Sha Wujing, and the Taoist trickster god, the Monkey King.
The Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin, and the Jade Emperor, sentence the Monkey King to act as bodyguard for the three other travellers, as penance for his past crime in Heaven—he had ruined the heavenly garden of the Peaches of Immortality belonging to the Queen Mother of the West. He is sworn to protect and defend the other travellers against a host of malevolent supernatural beings led by the White Bone Demon, who are determined to kill and eat the holy monk, and destroy the sacred scrolls. The stories were exciting, hair-raising, dramatic, emotional and funny—perfect for children. Tales of bravery, tragedy, redemption, which were all about fighting battles against hordes of demons using magic, weapons, wits and Buddha-esque compassion—what could be better?
Dragonkeeper and Stories of the Monkey King were my first experience with Chinese culture—I adored these stories, and I never forgot them.
Without them, I might not be here today.
It makes me very happy to have come to Qingdao, where I can imagine the stories taking place.