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Letter from Beijing

by PARAMJIT KAUR RAI

 

How does one do seva in Beijing?

Home is found in the people, stories and, yes, sometimes broken sugar-pots that help moor us in unknown waters. It is also found in the values and traditions instilled on many a Sunday afternoon in the gurdwara during the younger, formative years  -  in my case, at the old Pape Street Gurdwara in Toronto, Canada.

Living in Beijing, China, now for nearly a year, we are enthralled and yet, at times, like most newcomers in an unfamiliar environment, challenged to find the good in a situation. 

Last September my family, consisting of husband and two young ones, then four and two, moved from the close quarters of small-townish Guelph (in Ontario, Canada), a short drive away from nearly fifty family members in Mississauga,  to Beijing, where we were just one small family among a city of approximately 13 million.

Almost immediately, things that I had taken for granted back home became objects of wonder and took on near-sacred meaning, precisely because they were no longer in easy grasp.  The objects that embody a sense of home, safety, security and familiarity are indeed fetishized.    

For me, that seems to be in the cooking utensils that were brought over from Canada when we left last September.  One was a Paderno stock-pot, useful for making dhal, rice, and macaroni and cheese. The pot was also a kind of talisman, reassuring because of its familiarity, similar to ones used by my sisters and mother to make dhal and rice for the family. 

Comfort comes in the form of things broken, unmendable and thus old enough to be considered friends. 

One such object for me is a ceramic sugar dish: the airtight variety with a rubber sealant keeping the freshness in and moisture out. The kind of sugar-dish you buy at Canadian Tire or Zellers, with the wonky handle that doesn't quite join or seal the lid unless you jiggle it a bit. 

While visiting last October, only a month or so into our move here last fall, my younger sister was trying to  close the sugar-pot and said with exasperation: "Did you bring this from home?"

"No," I said, "I bought it here, just down the street." 

"It‘s just like mummy's, broken and irritating", she said. 

"I know," I responded. "That's why I bought it, it reminded me of home". 

Two objects, my cooking pot and sugar-pot. Two mundane objects and yet imbued by a significance surpassing their monetary value.  Most important to me, as we were out of our own milieu  -  albeit seeing as we have moved to four countries in four years, because of my husband's work, the notion of home is questionable at the best of times.

Living now in Beijing for nearly a year, with routines in place, the mundane becomes once more merely mundane.  The sugar-pot is less comforting; more annoying when it refuses to conform to my desires to firmly put the lid over the container. 

*  *  *  *  *

For the children, aged 3 and 5 now, security comes in different forms. Objects do take precedence, but in fact, it is the stories that we tell them that give them a sense of belonging.  Home then to me seems to be embodied very much in the way that we hold onto, shape, and indeed are shaped in turn by our memories.  These and the relationships that the kids have with them gives truth to my mother's saying that "all that is left of someone is their stories." 

You can also invert that and say that our lives are an embodiment of our memories.  Much joy and merriment is had by the children as they recall past birthdays, rituals, and the presence of guests joined together in a celebration of their special days.    For them, their community is currently scattered around the world, places such as Canada, England, Holland and India are either home, or filled with people who offer love and familiarity and definition to their world.

Growing up in the east end of Toronto in the 70's, home was physically a much smaller place,   I can recall how driving to Mississauga at one stage early on felt like we were venturing into unknown territory.   Safety for a young Punjabi girl at that time was very much defined by the familiarity found in gatherings of like-looking and -sounding families. 

Two weekly rituals which helped provide that safety net were the Sunday afternoon visits to the Pape Gurudwara, and the movie nights at one of the local cinemas showing the latest films from Bombay, accompanied, as always, with a coke and hot samosas during intermission. 

Such events added excitement, and, indeed, order to our lives, that during the week may have been filled with a different kind of ritual: that of out-maneuvering the gaze of racism. Getting safely from home to school was always a quietly triumphant act. Not to brag, but to breathe a sigh of relief upon entering our street was a joy. 

The visits to the Gurudwara, apart from helping to teach myself and two sisters how to make perfect payrres for rotis, were also lessons in how a sense of community and oneness develops over time. With many of the interactions taking place around the langar hall, food remains extremely important in our daily lives. 

It was in the context of visiting the gurdwara that the notion of seva, doing good works not for any tangible immediate benefit, was gradually taught. There was many a day when the heat of the langar kitchen was to be avoided, however over time and with age, I began to understand the importance of everyone doing as much as they were capable of, including young kids who would be guided in handing out steel glasses and napkins by very proud parents.

Here in Beijing, there is no gurdwara, so the idea of teaching the children about volunteer work is a bit more difficult, as it requires me to try and explain concepts of "rich" and "poor" to the kids, which is not the easiest thing to do. 

Thus far, we have used Christmas and other holidays, when there have been requests for gently-used toys to be donated to orphanages and children's homes, as a vehicle for explaining the joy in giving without expecting anything in return.  This is, of course, a painstakingly slow life-lesson to be taught over time.

My son's response is always, "But we can't give away our favourite toys". I concur.  In this simple statement, he captures the eternal dilemma faced by the "haves" who don't really want to share all their spoils with the growing number of "have-nots" in our world. 

Looking back, while I remember the many hot summer afternoons when all we could think about was playing in our pool or in the sprinkler, I now value the time and effort my parents put into teaching us about the joy of giving in the gurdwara. 

And it all began so simply, with the serving of tissues, one by one to the sangat, in preparation for karah parshad!

Conversation about this article

1: Surabhi (Malaysia), June 19, 2007, 6:46 AM.

I can truly identify with this article as I have tried making homes in two different countries after I left India. Very well expressed, I must say. God bless all those who leave the places where they grew up and still carry the roots within ... so well symbolized in this article by the broken sugar-pot. Thank you!

2: Ranjit Singh Sidhu (Chiangmai, Thailand/Ipoh, Malaysia/Oxford, England), June 21, 2007, 7:25 PM.

A letter full of meaning and depth. It is wonderful to read how you are trying to keep the young ones in touch with reality. The have-nots are amongst us and some we see and some we miss. In China, as in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and India, the countries I visit frequently each year, it is the same. Teaching our little ones to give with their own hands is so vital in their upbringing. This winter, some of our grandchildren will be visiting India for the first time and I hope to share this experience with them. Keep writing, please. It inspires us.

3: Gursimran Singh (Beijing, China ), March 04, 2014, 8:28 PM.

Paramjit ji: We came across your letter while surfing on the net. My wife and I have recently moved to Beijing. Just wrote to check if you guys are still in Beijing, and whether there are other Sikhs in Beijing.

4: Simran Gupta (Kolkata, India), August 01, 2015, 1:12 AM.

What a beautifully written article. My daughter is going to Beijing for three months and the first thing I always do is to check if there are gurdwaras or Sikhs where we are moving. Gursimran ji, are you still in Beijing? Paramjit ji, this is a fairly old article. Are you still there?

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