Dubai: A stunned silence followed by a warm smile. That’s the reaction Gaoli Liu receives every time she meets someone new in Pakistan.
The surprised reaction has nothing to do with her appearance, but rather the language she speaks: Urdu, with a tempering of Mandarin.
The 37-year-old anthropology scholar, who is also called Zahra by her friends, has made Pakistan the focus of her academic pursuit and now hosts a travel show titled ‘Agla station’ (Next station), introducing people to the hidden gems around the country.
Clips of Gaoli speaking Urdu in the television show were widely shared on Twitter, with many users complimenting her on her language skills.
Gaoli’s master’s degree thesis focused on Punjabi women’s folksongs and she said that in 2013, it was the first and only degree thesis on Pakistan folk culture in China. By the end of her field work for her Ph.D. degree, she was told that a producer was looking for someone to host a travel show on television.
Speaking to Gulf News, Gaoli said: “I had already booked the return ticket at that time, but the idea was very attractive to me. My basic purpose at first was going around Pakistan, especially some of the places where I have never been to, such as Balochistan and the northern areas. The TV programme was also happy to find me because their original idea was simply to get someone who is Chinese and show them the country. They adjusted the programme according to my situation and since I can speak Urdu and also know the regional culture, I became the host and introduced people to Pakistan."
Off the cuff
The travel show has become an extension of Gaoli’s personal journey through Pakistan, with most of the show being an unrehearsed, natural interaction with the country’s people and its heritage.
I tried to show the real Pakistan to people
“I wore no makeup, and wore my own clothes. Even the Pakistan flag I hold in my hand used to hang on my wall. All my luggage, even my cat, was around me in the car during the one-month journey. I tried to show the real Pakistan to people.”
While her Urdu skills are still at a basic level, according to Gaoli, she is eager to improve her conversational skills and on the lookout for studying Arabic and Urdu further.
A deep connection
Her love story with Pakistan, however, started almost a decade ago. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, she enrolled as a volunteer and had to learn Urdu to interact with the Pakistani visitors. That is when she was given the name Zahra.
I am extremely interested in folk culture and meeting different people. While learning Urdu, I started to think about Pakistani culture, which is totally unfamiliar to the Chinese. I decided to explore it and introduce this rich culture to people.
She said: “Our Pakistani professor gave me the name Zahra because it is a tradition in China that when you learn a new language, the teacher would give you a name used in that language. Because I like the Z alphabet, I requested the teacher to give me a name that starts with ‘Z’.
“I am extremely interested in folk culture and meeting different people. While learning Urdu, I started to think about Pakistani culture, which is totally unfamiliar to the Chinese. I decided to explore it and introduce this rich culture to people,” she added.
She then quit her previous job and prepared for the graduate school test, ultimately getting a master’s degree from the South Asian department of Peking University along with a separate degree in international human rights.
I signed a declaration that if I died in Pakistan, it is my own responsibility and then left for Pakistan.
During an internship with a barrister’s office in Hong Kong, Gaoli connected with the Asian community there and was inspired to start her field work in Pakistan. In 2011, that request was not easily processed by her university.
“My request was fiercely opposed by the university for the reason that would be too dangerous. Also, my purpose of studying local Punjabi culture seemed nothing important compared to studying classic Urdu literature, for example. I signed a declaration that if I died in Pakistan, it is my own responsibility and then left for Pakistan.”
With $500 to spare, she arrived in Pakistan in 2011. While that amount of money was nowhere near enough to sustain her during the fieldwork, Gaoli discovered another endless resource – people’s hospitality.
From a taxi driver, who drove her around Islamabad asking his friends if they could accommodate her after her money ran out, to women at a hostel who were more than happy to have her squeeze into their accommodation, Gaoli fell in love with Pakistan and its people.
“To go to the heritage museum in Islamabad – Lok Virsa – I used to call the taxi. The driver was a very honest and helpful person. When he knew that I did not have anywhere to stay, he took my luggage on the top of his small taxi and went through all of Islamabad, asking his friends if I could temporarily stay at their place,” she said.
What surprised her further was that the driver’s friends were people of simple means - shopkeepers, tea hawkers and guards, yet they all tried to help her. She finally found an arrangement at a women’s hostel, and even then she was overwhelmed by people’s friendliness.
“The ladies in the hostel warmly shared their rooms with me. I moved to many different rooms and stayed with different people. Lok virsa staff were also very caring – they treated me with food and tea. When I got severe diarrhea, one of the staff their took me to his own home and asked his sisters to take care of me,” she said.
Her experience in the city of Lahore was also very similar: “I had never met those people but everybody helped me without any personal agenda. Even if they are poor and have one roti [flatbread], they would like to give me half. The famous writer Premchand in his novel used to ask, ‘Duniya ka sab se anmol ratn kiya hay [What is the most precious stone in the world?] I found the answer in Pakistan - it is this love, where the guest becomes a part of the host’s home.”
I had never met those people but everybody helped me without any personal agenda. Even if they are poor and have one roti [flatbread], they would like to give me half.
With China’s belt and road initiative, there has been an influx of Chinese in Pakistan. However, Gaoli felt that pure understanding and friendship happened at the cultural level.
“Personally speaking, Pakistan is also my homeland in my heart. This show is not only a show of Pakistan but also a short summary of my self-growth with Pakistan, I want to express my sincere thanks and love to the country and people.”