Each time I get a call from a strange number, I know it is from my cousin. At 26, he has been living in Europe for five years. He went there to study, supporting himself with part-time jobs. He has opened a small shop and says he sells cosmetics.
In the past, our conversations were accompanied by background noise. I could hear people talking in Korean, sometimes in Arabic and then Chinese. He said he was calling from a public booth. Now, he makes the call at home from his computer, which often delays his response.
When I got an "unknown" call last year, I was having a year-end meeting with my colleagues at a holiday village in Miyun, in the northeastern suburbs of Beijing. It was a recreational meeting and everybody was quite relaxed.
Our conversation began with my newly born daughter. Soon we moved on to differences in educating children.
My cousin has traveled all over Europe. It was business that has made him to settle down in Vienna. He says the nights are very long in Austria, and that the nightlife there is far from bustling. Every night, he stays in his 20-sq-m home, surfing the net for news on China, or to find Chinese films and TV programs.
When he saw Struggle (Fendou), a popular TV drama in 2006, my cousin was moved by the main character who always wore a purple Polo shirt. My cousin bought two shirts of the same style but he said he looked terrible.
I was puzzled. I remember my cousin being very handsome. How could he not look good? Finally, my cousin confessed that he had put on weight - tipping the scales at over 85 kg.
Spending so much time away from China has left deep marks on him, or, at least influenced his diet. He must be eating big chunks of cheese or butter. While chewing on these snacks, he has also chewed several brick-sized books by German philosophers.
During the long lonely nights, people have nothing else to do except read and ponder what is important, he said.
That night we talked for some two hours. Because I have Bluetooth, I was able to walk from the swimming pool back to my room, from the sofa to the toilet, from the window to my pillow. But upon breakfast the next morning, the "unknown" call came again.
In Austria, it would have been 2 or 3 in the morning. Obviously my cousin had had too much butter that night. We talked about British historian Arnold Toynbee, French philosopher Michel Foucault, Bin Laden, the Theory of Evolution, Mahayana. Then we moved on to the Shin Kong Place in Beijing, Lane Crawford in Shanghai, the beef hotpot from Chaozhou
Before I could tell him about my new camera, my mobile ran out of battery. I looked up to the sky, a clear morning was unfolding. I could imagine that in a dark room in Vienna, my cousin must have felt lost and lonely.
(China Daily 03/11/2008 page20)