Tangled yarns from London's passers-through

013 : Panthea Lee in the Arrivals area, Terminal A, Hongqiao Airport, Hongqiao
Born in 1983 in Taipei, Panthea Lee currently works as a Jane of a couple of trades. Why Shanghai? I didn’t believe in plans. She digs the following Shanghai bits: detachment from the (my?) real world, the speed at which things move, village life in a big city, “Opportunity”, the fact that seemingly everyone passes through town at some point. She is, however, a bit miffed by detachment from the (my?) real world, the speed at which things move, village life in a big city, "Opportunity", the fact that seemingly everyone is only ever 'passing through town'. For more info on Panthea Lee you should send an email or visit her website.

image: Burnt Phrases (Flickr)

“Hundreds of eyes continued to dart around me, hundreds of eyes continued to pass me over.”

His skin reminded me of those sweet potatoes I bought from street vendors, sandpapery and coarse-brown. A juicy mole dangled from his chin, and from that spot of soot sprouted one solitary hair. White. Wiry. Posture proud, it arched its back just so. Just suggestively so.

I ogled the come-hither curl, unable to turn away. Suddenly, it launched into a spirited jig. Up and down it heaved. And then, as if on cue, the soundtrack: a warbling ditty of phlegm-fired barks.

I shrank deeper into my seat and nuzzled the window.

The flight attendants began the emergency procedure demonstrations and I returned to my book. My neighbour, however, was spellbound. Brows furrowed, mouth ajar, he tried to memorize their every move. He tugged at his seatbelt. He unbuckled and rebuckled it. He looked for his lifejacket, seemingly unconvinced that it was indeed under the seat in front of him. He squirmed. He shed his coat. He fidgeted with the buttons on the armrest.

Ni zai du yingyu.”

I looked up. Eh?

Ni zai du yingyu.”

You are reading English.

“My daughter also knows how to read English,” he continued, his Putonghua[1] gingered by a provincial pulse. “She spent six years in America!” The sprig of hair wagged emphatically.

“Oh,” I smiled, “that’s, uh, great.”

“Six years! She went to work there, to make a new life. And she worked very hard but, you know, it’s too hard in America. Everything is difficult. So now she’s come back to China. That’s why I’m going to Shanghai – she won’t come back to our village, but she’s sent for me. She wants me to be with her.” His back straightened six inches.

For the rest of the flight, I was treated to The Yu Family Saga (unedited, unabridged, 2001-08). The betrayal of filial duty as the rogue daughter set out for foreign lands. The radio silence. The heartache. The now-imminent reunion, only 1 hour and 43…42…41… minutes away.

We hit the tarmac.

“Well, it was very nice to meet –”

“Are we here? Great! You can meet Xiao Bai[2].”

I started fumbling for excuses but it was no use. The decision had been made: we were in this together. And so, together, we entered the terminal. Resisting the dash for cabs, I inched along stiffly with my new friend, silently cursing our glacial pace as he, eyes wide, drank in every detail of Hongqiao[3]. Seeing the automatic doors that marked the threshold of Arrivals, I halted. Mid-stride. I was inexplicably tense.

And then we were before them – a mob of placards and waiting, doting loved ones – exposed and ready to be claimed.

Hugging his bulging rucksack, Mr. Yu strained his neck and combed the crowd. I pretended that I, too, had someone to look for. Someone who would be waiting for me. (It wasn’t so improbable?) I tugged at my skirt. I fixed my hair. Did it again. Eyes ran over me, and moved on. I wished one set would stop, even for a second. Hell, would mistake me for someone else, for someone they wanted.

Just one person, just one second.

I locked eyes with a young, clean-cut man. He smiled, I brightened. I then noticed his sign (“Not you, love.”). Flustered, my eyes shot down, my heart deflated. Hundreds of eyes continued to dart around me, hundreds of eyes continued to pass me over.


It was her! She charged at us, all outstretched arms and tears. And then she embraced my companion, and together they stood, wrapped up as one.

I turned, walked to the end of the taxi queue, and waited my turn.

referenced works

  1. Putonghua (literally translated as “common speech”) is the official name for Standard Mandarin in mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau. In Taiwan – and colloquially in Hong Kong – it is known as Guoyu (or “national language”); in Malaysia and Singapore, it is Huayu (or “Chinese language”). Although all three terms refer to, essentially, the same language – Standard Mandarin, with regional variations in vocabulary and pronunciation – the actual terms carry socio-political connotations.

    In the early 20th century, the Chinese government tried to standardize the Chinese language into one uniform dialect. ‘Guoyu’ (or “national language”) was to be the official language, and it resembled formal, classical Chinese with a phonology based on the Beijing dialect. Opponents argued that a single Mandarin standard was unjust, as it would make second-class citizens of all those who spoke regional variations of Chinese and were unwilling or unable to assimilate. The term ‘putonghua’ (“common language”) was thus favoured by these critics and other left-leaning intellectuals as an alternative to the elitist ‘Guoyu’. Proponents of putonghua called for the development of a common language, one that equally recognized all the varieties of Chinese, though they were unable to say just how this ideal common tongue was to be achieved.

    Although alternatives to a national standard language were never seriously attempted, in 1956, the Chinese government – after years of language reform debates – adopted ‘Putonghua’ as the official term for Standard Mandarin. This was the only concession the Communist Party granted its language unification dissenters, for this designation still referred to the same government-approved standard of Chinese the critics had so fiercely opposed. Today, Taiwan still uses ‘Guoyu’ to refer to Standard Mandarin, while ‘Huayu’ (or “language of the Chinese”) is used in communities with populations of overseas Chinese. The latter term refrains from choosing a side between Putonghua and Guoyu.

  2. ‘Xiao’ means “little” in Mandarin, and, in China, is often used in front of a person’s given name as a term of endearment among family and close friends. Similarly, ‘lao’ or “old” is used to address elders, placed in front of their family name as a sign of respect. Nicknames for more distant friends or for acquaintances (ie. those in the workplace) are often created by putting ‘xiao’ or ‘lao’ in front of a person’s surname.

    If, for example, a girl’s name is Yu Bai – ‘Yu’ would be her family name and ‘Bai’ her given name – close friends might call her “Xiao Bai” whereas colleagues may call her “Xiao Yu”. They would refer to her father, however, as “Lao Yu”.

  3. Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport (IATA code: SHA) is one of two airports in Shanghai, the other one being Shanghai Pudong International Airport (IATA code: PVG). Before Pudong opened in October 1999, Hongqiao – “Rainbow Bridge” –  was Shanghai’s main international airport. Today, the only international flights operating out of Hongqiao are to Tokyo’s Haneda and Seoul’s Gimpo airports. Hongqiao Airport is located in west Shanghai, in a relatively suburban area; Pudong, by contrast, is approximately 30 kilometres to the east of city centre.

location information

  • Name: the Arrivals area, Terminal A, Hongqiao Airport
  • Address: Hongqiao Airport
  • Time of story: Afternoon
  • Latitude: 31.198056
  • Longitude: 121.336389
  • Map: Google Maps


  1. Haw Flakes in San Francisco, US thinks: Interesting story. I, too, hope to grow a longevity mole with the single solitary hair.

    Btw, I wasn’t sure if you were transcribing what you heard, but I think the standard spelling for “你在读英语” is “Ni zai du yingyu”

    I was born in the states, but there’s a part of me that wishes for that bite mark signifying the unbreakable bond back to the motherland. (But really just a result of the standard battery of inoculations in CN/TW/HK)
  2. Panthea in Shanghai thinks: Thanks for reading, and for pointing out the pinyin error. My pinyin is horrible — I grew up learning bopomofo — and my Taiwanese tongue means I always speckle speech with extra h’s. Hard habit to break! But have since corrected the misspelling in the text…

    (PS: I was born in Taipei and have that ‘bite mark’. Though, must say, the longevity mole is much cooler. One day, one day…)


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