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First Assignment, First Love
Foreigners in China
Written by Cool Han

When most people think about events at Dongcheng district’s more than 140 embassies and diplomatic missions, they're picturing black-tie galas, stretch limos, bold-face names and photos accompanied by the front page headlines, cocktail parties where every discussion is bathed in foreign-policy nuance. They're probably not thinking about embassies and diplomats as tremendous cultural resources. That's why the chance to come to a diplomat’s home is so valuable.

Tayuan diplomatic mansion is a quiet and clean community behind the Canada Embassy. Security guard and foreigners of different colors are frequently seen in this area. Before stepping into the community, I was required to show my ID card.

The moment I knocked on the door, Zaman Mehdi just opened it with his call on: “Where are you now?” “I’m coming.” I answered him on the phone standing face-to-face to him. The dramatic scene lasted no more that one second before he smiled and made a welcome gesture: “Come in, please."

It was a chilly gray winter afternoon at Beijing. Inside the room, the space was suffused with orange colours possessing exotic flavors and an atmosphere of warm spring. Orange the furniture, orange the light, orange the wooden floor. The moment I observed the delicate carpet in front of the sofa, Maryam, Zaman’s wife brougnt me a cup of orange juice.Zaman’s four year old girl stared at me with her pretty eyes full of questions for a while, then began to talk with herself again.

As a third secretary at the Embassy of Pakistan in Beijing, Zaman Mehdi is quite busy. But it was Saturday, so he enjoyed his weekend with his family. Zaman’s garment aroused my curiosity. He told me it was a traditional Pakistani clothing which is called “shalwar kameez”. “Shalwar is the trousers and kameez, the skirt. Since Pakistan is a warm country, people prefer to wear loose clothes in summer.” At that moment, Maryam handed me a few fashion magazines which gave me a visual impulse with diversified latest designs of clothing. “These are all designed by Pakistani designers. It is a mixture of tradition and modernity.”

Our story dated back to a stone 20 years ago. A nine year old boy traveled with his father into the boundary area of Pakistan where he saw the Karakorum Highway (Sino-Pakistan Road) for the first time. “It was built jointly by Chinese and Pakistani engineers and workers. Because the building process was difficult, many people lost their lives. Once there was an accident where some people lost their lives, they would put a stone on it and put the names on the stone. There were some Chinese names which I couldn’t understand.” Zaman’s father told him that the stones were in the memory of these people, “one day when you grow up and learn some Chinese language, maybe you can come and read those names and you will know who these people are.”

I assumed that his father’s remarks influenced his future planning. Maybe that’s why he chose to become a diplomat? “You see, it is difficult to say that.” He paused for a few seconds and began his explanation. “To choose your career you should first know clearly about your own skills and what really fascinates you about your life. In fact, diplomacy is not my first career, I have other jobs like anybody else. But gradually I learned that diplomacy would be good for me, because I like traveling and I’m willing to know about other people and their cultures.”

Five years ago, he was known to his friends as ‘Zaman the engineer’ not ‘Zaman the diplomat’. “I worked in an oil refinery and a chemical plant for sometimes. And then I applied for the Foreign Service.” Using my poor imagination, I supposed that he changed his career because it was not satisfactory. “It was satisfactory, but then I realized that probabaly I like history more than mathematics, I like literature more than physics, I could finish engineering as a good student and I had a very good job and did it well, but I said to myself, let’s do something I really enjoy in.”

Zaman interpreted his theory of career choosing and future planning with his engineering, logic and penetrating mind. “It is important that you enjoy the work you do. Everyday you work for 8 hours, it means that every month you probably work 160 hours. Most of your life you are either sleeping or working, so if you are not enjoying your work, you will loss part of your life.” That’s reasonable and convincing. I nodded my head.

I wondered if his engineering background helped him a lot as a diplomat. He gave me a confident and positive “Yes”. “All things related to science I can understand them quickly and easily. What’s more, we engineers believe that engineering is about learning how to think analytically and how to calculate. In diplomacy you have to analyze many situations, such as the outcome and what you should do next.”

Like a teacher confabulating with his student, he shared with me his thoughts: “As you go on living and learning, you will learn more about yourself and something more than just your major. This process doesn’t end after your graduation from university, it is just starting when you graduate. I’m still educating myself. I’m now living in China, but China is so big. You can not say you are a China expert. Even in China, I have to learn specifically about something such as environmental problems or Chinese banks. As you go further, you should learn more details about other things. Four years later, if I go to another country, I have to learn more about it and its culture. This cycle never ends. Being a diplomat is not the end of life, you should keep trying to learn new things.”

I know China is Zaman’s first assignment, and I believe he made the decision using his analyzing and calculating method. “As a diplomat, your first assignment is your first love.” I never though he would use such a romantic and poetic way presenting his ideas. But he didn’t smile, and the earnest expression in his eyes told me that he was not kidding. “Yes it is true. The interest you take in your first assignment is tremendous, you are young, you are full of energy and you really want to learn and work hard to improve yourself. The way you do it, you will never do it again. That’s why people who go abroad for their first assignment call it ‘first love’”.

He first took an exam given by the foreign ministry in which he stood first. Then he was asked to choose any country in the world to go and start learning that language. He was offered Japan, Egypt, Germany, France, US and other options. Finally, he chose China. “There are lots of reasons. China attracts me with its civilization and history. It is a neighbor of us and we have very close relations. We will continue the full generation of good friendship between the two countries.”

During our talk, his wife was cooking in the kitchen. It’s about four 4 pm, teatime. Zaman invited me to the dining room. The smell of cooking permeates my nose. Maryam brought out some snacks and told me it was Masala, a Pakistani food. I tried some and found it very gorgeous. The tea had a pure and mild flavor. It was also of Pakistan taste, of course.

His 5-month-old boy in the cradle was singing or speaking, I believe. Or he just aimed at drawing our attention by making noise. Zaman assumed that his boy will learn “Anhui hua” (Anhui dialect) instead of Mandarin first since the “Anyi” who works in his home is from Anhui.

He himself had learned Chinese intensively for almost two years. “It took me one year to get used to Chinese sound. The spoken Chinese is not difficult to learn, but I think writing is the hardest one.” Not like those young foreign students who are eager to take HSK test, his focus is mainly on reading Chinese newspaper. “I can read and understand the political, economic, diplomatic sections but not the whole paper.” He thought his vocabulary was diminishing (though I don’t think so) because everyday he used the routine words. And he also told me something interesting: “I found not all the Chinese could speak in correct accent. I will immediately recognize it from his speaking if he is from the Sichuan province.”

The newspapers he frequently reads include Rinmin Daily, Global Times, Xinhua Net and Nanfengchuang. In his opinion, China’s media is very balanced. However, my idea differed from him at this point since I believe that only bad news made news. He shook his head and said: “No, it’s not like this. It is just easy to sell bad news. When you read newspapers or watch TV, it gives you an effect on your mind. Thus it is important not to make people feel bad about their life and make them lose hope. Media like BBC or CNN always report the bad news like crises or problems. But in China, I find newspapers also explain good things happening here. It is more neutral. ” Finally, I was persuaded by him.

Around the table, there was Zaman’s family: a young prosperous diplomat in his 30’s, a gracious and generous wife, one boy in the cradle, one girl eating masala. For a moment, I felt I was in a dream. It is the home of a regular family, not a diplomatic apartment hard to step into. We talked, we laughed, we shared our opinions and discussed our future plans. It was all about people-to-people communication, not politics. This helped me understand our different mindsets, which in my opinion is no less important than an Ambassador’s speech during a high-level visit.

By the time I left, it was still cold outside. But with Zaman’s smile, and Maryam’s malasa, I just felt spring was coming soon.

    大多数人一想到东直门使馆区那140 多个外国驻华使馆的时候,他们就会想象正装出席的盛宴,加长的豪华轿车,经常占据报纸头条的大人物和他们的照片,鸡尾酒会上不绝于耳的关于外交政策微妙之处的讨论。也许他们不会把大使馆和外交官看作是巨大的文化资源。正因为如此,到外交官家里一坐的机会就显得弥足珍贵。





    我们的故事从20 年前的一块石碑讲起。一个9岁的小男孩和他爸爸到巴基斯坦的边境地区旅行,在那里他第一次看到了中巴公路。“中巴公路是中国和巴基斯坦两国的工程师和工人共同建造完成的。由于修路的过程很困难,很多人都为此献出了自己的生命。一旦发生不幸,罹难者的姓名就会被刻上石碑,安放在出事地点。在一块石碑上有一些中国人的名字,但我看不懂。”泽曼的爸爸告诉他,立起这些石碑是为了纪念逝者,“将来你长大了,学会中文,再来看这些名字,你就知道他们到底是谁了。”


    5 年前,对他的朋友来说,他是“工程师泽曼”,而不是“外交官泽曼”。“我在一家炼油厂和化工厂工作了一段时间。然后就申请了外交部的工作。”以我有限的想象力,我猜那一定是因为对工作不满意。“工作很好,但是我后来意识到,也许比起数学我更喜欢历史,比起物理我更爱文学。学工程我是个好学生,有一份好工作,做得也蛮不错,但是我对自己说,‘我要做点自己真正感兴趣的东西。’” 泽曼用工程师那逻辑严密,充满洞察力的头脑阐释他对职业选择和人生规划的理解:“做真正感兴趣的工作很重要。每天你要工作8小时,这就是说每个月你要工作 160小时。生命的大部分时间里你都在睡觉或工作。既然这样,如果不能从所做的工作中获得乐趣,那么你将浪费你自己的一部分生命。”这的确有道理,也很有说服力。我不住点头。








    他经常读的报纸杂志包括《人民日报》, 《环球时报》,新华网和《南风窗》。在他看来,中国的媒体报道很平衡。在这一点上,我和他观点不一,因为我认为只有 “坏消息”才能制造新闻。他摇摇头说:“不是这样的。只不过负面新闻更好卖罢了。你看的报纸和电视都会对你的头脑产生影响。所以,很重要的一点是,不要让人们感到生活很糟糕,也不应该让人们失去希望。BBC和CNN这样的媒体总是在报道负面新闻,比如危机或社会问题。但是在中国,我发现报纸会报道一些发生在中国的积极正面的新闻事件。相比而言,它更中立。”

    在桌子旁边,是泽曼一家:一个30 多岁前途无量的外交官,他优雅而热情的妻子,躺在摇篮里的儿子,正在吃玛莎拉的女儿。有那么一刻,我感到我好像在梦里。这只是一个普通的家庭,而不是一处颇费周折才能进入的外交公寓。我们聊天,大笑,分享不同的见解,谈论未来的计划。这是人与人之间心的交流,与政治无关。这种交流让我更好地理解我们不同的思维模式和精神状态。在我看来,这和地位显赫的大使在高端访问中发表一篇演说有着同等重要的意义。



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