Stranger In My Heart

By Mary Monro

Retracing her father’s heroic escape across China in World War Two leads his daughter on a gripping voyage of discovery about him, China and, inevitably, herself.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Contemplating Memory Lane

No exciting news to report as the book is still with the editor. Here is an excerpt where I wonder if my trip to China will really conjure up the spirit of Dad:

After much email discussion with various tour operators I eventually decided that My Odyssey Tours (MOT) offered me the best option. They had chosen an interesting itinerary that allowed me to retrace Dad’s steps and do some sightseeing along the way. They provided links to the websites of almost all the hotels and when I looked them up and cross-checked with Tripadvisor, they all seemed excellent. MOT were very thorough and clear with their instructions. They were able to help me to get a visa and supported the entire process – I found their whole approach very reassuring. I was cautious about using a tour operator based in China whom I had found online. As it turned out, MOT were faultless from start to finish and I would highly recommend them to anyone considering a trip to China. Finally, I was all set to make my trip in the spring of 2013. I would spend a few days in Hong Kong and then take the train through the New Territories into China. At last the obstacles were falling away and the road ahead seemed clear. I felt as prepared as I could be and excited at the prospect of learning more about my father and about China.

Paradoxically, I was also becoming anxious. I have grown accustomed to pre-trip anxiety over the years and now regard it as a normal part of the process, but it is still an unpleasant experience. I can feel shaky and unwell, often leading to digestive upset and disturbed sleep for the first day or two of the trip, ably assisted by the sudden change of diet and the jetlag associated with long-haul travel. Usually I am self-aware enough to chastise myself and tell myself that I will soon feel better, but sometimes I get so immersed in stress hormones that I can’t maintain my detached observer. My visit to China was never intended to be a ‘holiday’ and I suspected that it might uncomfortably stir the sediment of my grief. My hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis took full advantage, or, in layman’s terms, I felt really wobbly.

It also occurred to me that the trip might be a failure in terms of rediscovering my father. Seventy years is a long time and China’s development since the war has been phenomenal. Would there really be anything that could connect the present with the past? Was I deluded in thinking that I could share experiences with my deceased father? How would the landscape that I saw mysteriously transmutate into a deeper understanding of this man who was more or less a blank sheet to me?

Landscape can have personal meaning for us – rolling green hills always make me think of home and the Shropshire hills, for example. But this is only one aspect of our interpretation of landscape. At a deep, evolutionary level we read landscape in terms of navigability or threat or cultivability, so that all of us feel more comfortable with an open vista than an enclosed space. We know that lush greenness and large leaves imply a different ecology than grassland or desert. We recognise elements of the landscape that can nurture us, providing food or shelter or raw materials for manufactured goods. Then there are culturally differentiated interpretations. The jungle dwelling peoples of the Amazon basin react to the rainforest quite differently (home!) to visiting Europeans (danger!). In China, landscape is reinterpreted formally in their garden designs and artworks, with deep symbolic meanings for features ranging from rockeries to pools.

Dad remarks that he always thought Chinese depictions of hills were fanciful until he saw the karst landscape at Guilin. As he journeyed through this terra incognita it must have been a delight to have a sudden chime of recognition, as artistic vision translated into solid reality before his eyes. When he visited Kunming and Dali in western China, later in his travels, he would have been struck by the similarity of the Himalayas and the Alps – both young, jagged, snow-capped mountain ranges. The unchanged nature of rural China would help me to see the world through his eyes and perhaps my emotional responses to landscape would be similar to his. I definitely have his mountain-loving gene, his delight in wild flora and fauna and his curiosity about the history and culture behind the built environment.

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