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Tuesday, 30 September 2008 02:00

Drinking from the Dragon's Well

By  Karina Magdalena Szczurek
When Alex Smith, a "tea, travel and writing" addict, is told that the greatest novel ever written, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, came from China, she becomes obsessed with the country. She remembers her first encounter with China in her Grandma Connie's blue Chinese lounge rug and her brown Willow Pattern teacups. Not surprisingly then, years later, it is Grandma Connie who comes to her in a dream, telling her that she has never been to China herself, but would have loved to travel there and find the illusive pearl of the mythical Chinese dragon. In the dream, she invites her granddaughter to search for the pearl and the perfect story.

Soon after, Smith decides to follow the dream recommendation of her grandmother. Short of cash, she first invests in a Cambridge course in teaching English as a second language. With the certificate in hand, she applies for a job as an English teacher at the Hubei University of Technology in the city of Wuhan, home to eight million people.

Drinking from the Dragon's Well is Smith's account of the time she spends in China and Taiwan: travelling, drinking tea, teaching English and searching for the pearl which will bring with it the perfect story.

Before Smith leaves Cape Town for her great adventure, she submits her masters' dissertation to at the English Department at UCT and delivers the manuscript of a "skinny Spanish novel" to Umuzi, a local publisher. The latter was published in 2007 under the title, Algeria's Way.

The China Smith discovers from the beginning of her journey overwhelms the senses and her descriptions of the sights, smells, tastes and sounds she encounters masterly capture her experience. Passionate about words, she realises "fully how my world had shifted on its axis and that in this new universe I was an anonymous illiterate, and that was unnerving." But she is not disheartened and attempts to learn, in spite of many difficulties, as much Mandarin as she can during her sojourn in Asia. Smith's attitude towards the language reflects on her willingness to give as much as she takes, because teaching English to Chinese students turns out to be a taxing and disillusioning task, yet she gives her best to make the experience worthwhile to both sides.

Life in Wuhan is also no joyride. Mind-bogglingly huge, the city is impossible to negotiate without a map, but maps seem only to be available in Mandarin. Dust and pollution are everywhere, the living conditions in the flat assigned to Smith leave much to be desired, and finding food which she can eat (as a strict vegetarian) proves to be a major undertaking.

Smith writes a postcard (one of many) to Grandma Connie: "Hot, humid, mossies hissing, raining, bleak and lonely…Not sure if I'll survive. It's worse than I imagined. Not a single flower survives on Campus." Writing becomes Smith's "escape from the Wuhanness of Wuhan."

Things begin to look up when she meets Sam, a young American teacher, the hero of her story. The relationship which develops between the two of them forms a kind of informal backbone of the book and is a joy to follow. "Kisses, tea, and good stories are all I really want", says Smith and for most of the book she tries to evade Sam's bolder advances, but then the dramatic, funny, and romantic "fall of the kettle" occurs, an episode in which more than a kettle falls to the ground.

During her stay in China Smith travels to Xi'an to see the Terracotta Warriors, to Shanghai where she drinks tea in a "sky-scraping glass palace with a pineapple-crowned roof", up the Yellow River in a slow boat with no foreigners in sight, to Beijing where she walks to all the sights in snow, and to the haunting ghosts of the Great Wall of China. In the end, "in an hour of necessary madness" she breaks her contract with the university and escapes the cold, misery and loneliness of Wuhan in winter to relocate to Taiwan where she not only finds an English map to guide her through Taipei, but a map of all teahouses in the country. She continues teaching English in Taiwan where she learns in return about the complicated relationship between the island and the mainland.

Drinking from the Dragon's Well is a book of many pearls. It is one itself, the one Grandma Connie must have had in mind when she appeared in her granddaughter's dream. The writing is intelligent and light-hearted, a combination which carries the reader easily from page to page. The places and people Smith encounters during her travels on this vast continent and captures so charmingly in her book will linger in the reader's memory for a long time.

In her work, whether her short stories, her play Lovebirds, the "skinny Spanish novel" Algeria's Way, or Drinking from the Dragon's Well, Alex Smith confronts otherness in a way that is both incisive and compassionate, and by doing so, she bridges differences and forges understanding which is crucial to our cohabitation in a globalised world. Her readers will eagerly await her next book.

Drinking from the Dragon's Well
by Alex Smith
Umuzi, 2008
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