She leaned tentatively over her steering wheel, as she peered through traffic, squinting through her musky lenses. Her hair was oily even in the cold spring, and her fringe hung sparse and low, brushing the top of her spectacles every time her nose wrinkled up in another squint.
“Actually,” she said in Mandarin, as she ducked toward the dashboard even more, craning her head to look left and then right again for oncoming traffic as the rain kept falling - pitter patter.
“It was always my childhood dream to be a nanny. But life never gave me that chance.”
Introducing Xu Yan. Senior accountant with a local provincial magistrate. Multiple property owner. Successful working woman. My Airbnb host.
Smoke swirled around his cigarette and rose up like up like vixen vines around the plants that neatly lined the balcony. She eyed him with admiration, as he squatted akimbo around a big flowering pot, checking the soil intently.
“Isn’t he handsome?”
She said, nudging her chin in his direction, the pride rising in the crow’s feet that gently lined the corners of her eyes. She took a half sigh and leaned her hand against the side of her face.
Smoke hung heavy across the house whenever her husband came back from work. He hardly spoke to her, she to him the conversation would go, short, staccatoed. She seemed used to his indifference, dictating the terms of their interaction with what she wanted to say. Often, the interaction was in their local dialect, and she sounded like a mother bird chirruping at her ward.
But all he looked like to me was a walking bad omen. He never smiled. Almost snarled at me the first night at the dinner table, as she cooed and set steaming dishes on the dining table, beckoning us to eat. I realised quickly on that he did not want me to be there, that he did not like the idea of Airbnb, and that even worse still, the room that I had rented, was probably his, and he now had no choice but to sleep with his wife in a smaller bedroom at the back of the house.
Welcome to China. The Motherland. A labyrinth of a country to navigate. Its difficulty was part negated by being Chinese myself, so blending in became at least that little bit easier. As players on Tour constantly moving between cities as foreign to us as the roads we meander through, we look for spaces we can quickly nestle ourselves into, because match day preparation always takes priority. To do this, though, looking for the right accommodation is key—but the quest is often a complicated one because it is a delicate balancing of many parameters. Distance to courts, safety, budget, and basic amenities like WiFi, kitchen, laundry and supermarket access are vital to tennis players. Add in China, where everything is in Mandarin, most accommodation options are offered online, and electronic payment systems only accept local credit cards… it all easily becomes a nightmare to navigate.
Luckily for me, I found a homestay option relatively near to the courts that fit all my criteria. It was hosted by a lady who was obviously new to the whole Airbnb hosting experience, as she had had no previous visitors on her profile. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but the room she was putting up for rent seemed decent and spacious enough. Most importantly it had a kitchen, which she was willing to let me use as a space to prepare my food.
Eating is a very integral part of training, and in accommodation searches on Tour, one big requisite is whether that place has kitchen access. Food is medicine—and if you are sensitive enough, the energy and feeling that different types of food give you, are very distinct. Your body’s energy level is very different when you eat home cooked food, compared to grazing on fast food three days in a row. When you’re able to better regulate the quality of food that goes into your system, you are effectively using biochemicals to reduce the digestive stress you put your body under. This in turn, helps with emotions.
The smoke was really too much to bear. It hung low and heavy, a thick cloud in the living room that permeated through the long corridor connecting to my room. Here, it crept in through whatever sliver of space there was between the doors, and extended its long sinewy fingers into my lungs. Every time I whiffed smoke, I found my body tensing up. Most of my physical repulsion probably came from my intense dislike of her husband, who was as repugnant as the smoke he spewed.
He was a young, rather tanned good-looking man with muted, downcast eyes that sat behind silver-rimmed spectacles. Every day when he came home in his thin, short-sleeved office shirt and monochrome black pants, he brought with him a sour scowl that stood by the entrance, as he took off his shoes and slipped into home slippers. Here, he would give a very short, low grunt as he came in through the door, what I supposed was really a primitive hello. On the first two days of trying to smile and say hello as our paths crossed in the house, I quickly learnt that many times, what people say, or how they respond to you, is really more a reflection of them than of yourself.
I learnt how to ignore him after a while. It was almost as if she knew how uncomfortable I felt, because she took active steps to cushion the space.
“Sarah, what would you like to have for dinner tonight?”
“Please, don’t worry about the dishes, you need your rest.”
“Do you have enough blankets in your room? Is it warm enough?”
There is this concept in psychology about how the brain swings like a pendulum between spaces of inward introspection and external focus. These natural swings are polarities to the effort of focus. When we overthink situations, it is often because we move towards that deep abyss of introspection. We obsess about how we ourselves are feeling towards particular situations. One quick coping mechanism to this wallowing, is to switch one’s preoccupation, to something narrow, specific, and external. Bringing your consciousness to the here and now is a proven mechanism in dealing with lapses in productivity. In this case, instead of focusing on how annoying I found this secondhand smoke in the house, Xu Yan distracted me with her smiles, her constant concern about my comfort, and the genuine warmth she emanated.
I didn’t quite understand why a woman of her stature would have tolerated a man treating her like that. But perhaps, it was really not for me to judge. What she did seem to want to cling to, as she brought an old photo album out one night after dinner, was how she chose to create her memories.
“This was me when I was young,” she pointed to a photo of a young woman in a pure wide grin, arms loosely draped around a fellow schoolmate. Turn of a page. An older Xu Yan, her arm locked loose around the elbow of a man with a moustache. Here, she looked a little more mellow, a little more tempered. “This…” the register of her voice went down an octave, “was my first husband.” The words left her lips as her eyes flitted up to her current, young one, squatting by another flower pot, inspecting another patch of soil. She saw the surprise in my eyes, and smiled hastily, looking away as she thumbed a few more pages to stop at a chubby little boy in a kindergarten’s graduation hat.
“My son,” she smiled.
You could tell in her eyes she was reliving the memory of that day.
“Where is he now?” I asked.
“In high school, in another city.”
So she was alone, here. She remarried. She exercised her freedom to create her own happiness. The thing that hit me most was why we were so quick to look at others, and judge one’s entire worth through one, singular action. Why is society so quick to attach shame?
She opened her heart and her home up to the world. She chose how she wanted to live, treat and love people around her. There was no shame there.
One thing Xu Yan found mesmerizing was how I counted my calories and weighed virtually everything I ate. A lot of players don’t think too much about diet, but my strength coaches have always emphasised the importance of proper and adequate nutrition. It is my job to listen to them. Often in the execution of it, I am met with incredulous, often mocking stares by people unacquainted with the long journey of increasing strength, essential for higher levels of competing excellence. Eating well is the foundation to all of this, and meal prep is often a full endeavour, in support of this effort. Xu Yan was most interested in learning about calories and how I had to spread my macronutrient count across carbohydrates, proteins and fats.
To support this, she not only offered to take me to the market to get what I needed, but insisted on cooking literally every meal, tinged with her own touch of extra nutritious local ingredients.
“You can just pay for what we get at the market,” she nodded her head, smiling shyly as my eyes bulged at her generous offer.
“Don’t worry, I really like cooking. I have time tomorrow to visit the market. Would that work with your training schedule?”
Stepping into the local Chinese wet market is always a feast for the eyes. Makeshift canopies line long streets into a warehouse-like ubiquitous building. Cured pigs’ heads, with skin brown and pickled from days of salting, hung next to mountains of corn, freshly picked from the fields. It was always a riot—a cacophony of the senses as sellers peddled their produce. Carrots were so deep and bright orange, my eyes actually hurt staring at them. Harvested broccoli glowed green and happy. Aerated tanks filled with mini lobsters and strange crayfish were laid patiently on the floors. The only meat on stand, were from bigger animals impossible to kill on market grounds. Beef, pork. Everything else was live and waiting to be slaughtered.
Xu Yan educated me on the government-farmer system as we slowly walked through the market, my eyes wide and rapt in the wonder of it all. And almost, as if to guide me in the right direction, she held onto my arm gently, like a nanny with her ward.
Feeding China was a gargantuan effort the government took seriously. Encouraging existing farming systems to support the grassroots was key to self-sustenance. For this reason, policies encompassing extensive medical and living benefits were extended to farmers to encourage them to continue in their trade. Pre-emptive measures had to be put in place to incentivize the next generation from the lure of city work.
Every day, farmers touting rattan baskets on their backs, would take the local train to this market to sell their vegetables. Because their scales of production were so small, this often meant that their produce was also organic. But because they had no stall space, it often meant they had to lay their carefully grown produce by the roads on thin tarpaulin mats, or tout it to passers-by in bags whilst walking the length of the market. Either did not seem to do the value of their produce, any justice. I remember an old, hunched over lady who slowly approached Xu Yan as we stopped to admire an old school edamame grinder at one of the stores. Her head was wrapped up in a black turban, and she wore samsui pants and layers of cotton to keep her body both warm and cool in that waning spring. Years of toil were etched on her face, and she entreated Xu Yan pleadingly, opening the mouth of a plastic bag filled with bursting greens. Xu Yan turned, patiently looked through her produce, and bought a bag. It was twenty Singapore cents for half a kilo.
“Why did you buy from her?” I asked.
“Was it because you pitied her?”
Truth be told, it was painful just looking at that old woman slowly walking through the market, pedaling her wares.
“Yes, partly,” Xu Yan replied.
“But it was also because her greens were really fresh. And it’s hard to find goji berry leaves. Organic at that!”
Xu Yan never allowed me to wash as much as a bowl during my entire stay with her. She would shoo me out of the kitchen, prohibiting me from helping her prepare ingredients, disallowing me from cleaning up after. The focus was always on the food, and every meal had beautiful clear boiled soup—a staple, mouthwatering feature. I got the chance to try delicious broths made from pork ribs, to organic chicken, to fresh beef tripe. Each so fresh, all it took was a little ginger and a bit of salt to elevate its taste into an other-worldly stratosphere.
Like a loving mother, Xu Yan would cook and then urge me hastily to eat. I learnt that meals were always best appreciated hot in China because apparently it helped with digestion. I could never quite keep up with the speed with which they ate however, and so she would stay and sit with me, even after I finished, as I continued slowly chewing my rice. She would worry whenever I packed food to the courts, repulsed at the thought of me eating cold food.
“Isn’t that really bad for your stomach? Are you sure it can keep?”
“How about you just have a small snack and I’ll be home by then with a hot meal waiting for you?”
Xu Yan was way more than just a host. She found every opportunity she had, to show that she cared for my safety and general well-being. She charted my bus routes meticulously by pen and paper, with strict instructions of where to alight and how much to pay for the bus ticket. Grudgingly, she showed me how to use her washing machine after I flatly refused to let her wash my clothes. By the time my period came and I had to get some sanitary pads, she drove me to the supermarket, parked, and then as we crossed the road, reached out to hold my hand like it was the most natural thing to do.
Holding hands or touch in our Asian culture is an act laden with meaning. Solitude is also a big part of Tour life. In this strange mix, thousands of miles away from home, it meant the world for someone to reach out, and actually show she bothered. That she cared.
How do we love people? How do we show them that we actually, truly care?
Perhaps it is in the way we smile at others. The way we reciprocate a better energy to our loved ones. It is the way we pat a back, hold a hand, give a hug. It is, perhaps, moving beyond the ego of the ‘I’, to, perhaps, truly understand the other in the ‘you’.
On my last day in Qujing, Xu Yan, familiar with my dietary restrictions, knew I had a long 30-hour journey ahead of me to my next Tour stop in Japan. She planned me an entire meal menu, which she then carefully packed in containers for me to bring on board. She weighed every item and wrote down the corresponding grammage so it would be easy for me to log it into my calorie counter. And then, food packed, luggages strapped, we hustled our way to the train station.
I was late and Xu Yan, skittish and anxious I’d miss the train, hurried me along the station terminal towards my gate. The train guards stood by with austere faces, clicking their tally counters over the sea of us passengers. Here we were—yet another one of thousands of passengers they witness say goodbye to each other. Every. Single. Day. But for the countless blur of people others may see, our individual experiences are actually, if you think about it, only made of one. One chance encounter. One experience. One, singular brush. And because of that, in the freshness and briefness of those moments, it is up to us to soak the fullness of that moment in. To encapsulate, perhaps what the legendary 20th century modernist writer Virginia Woolf calls streams of consciousness, it is important to remember that even as we stand in that moment, we are ultimately but a microcosm of all the history of thought, heart and head within us. And it is the currents of that very history, which guides our actions in the present.
We stood at the gate. It was so rushed, so brief. “Goodbye, Xu Yan!” I looked at her, as she hurriedly pushed the lunch bag towards me. I struggled with my big 15 racquet bag and this new additional weight. 30 hours of home cooked food, packed with love. In that moment, I stooped down, opened my arms, and gave her a big hug, and two hasty, embarrassed kisses on her cheeks.
“Thank you for everything,” I said between my kisses. “Goodbye, goodbye!”
And then I turned, holding onto the handles of my luggage. I could feel my heart literally steeling itself for the next, unknown solo leg ahead. There was no time to think.
“I have a train to catch,” I reminded myself.
“I need to focus,” I said.
Convincing myself, and yet feeling the acute pain of this one stranger’s goodbye, as I hurried on, blinking tears away.
Sisters of Sarah
Sisters of Sarah is a story series in collaboration with The Best of You movement, born from the lives of some truly incredible women Sarah Pang, a Singaporean professional tennis player, met while travelling the world playing Tour. This project is an overture to helping one another realise that there are deeper dimensions to people than just the jobs they do.