As I boarded the plane to China and took my seat, I was a little surprised to hear someone speaking English behind me.
Any other flight this wouldn’t have been cause for surprise. English speakers are common. However, this was a 10h flight to Qingdao, (pronounced not how I had imagined), and the plane was staffed by bowing air-hostesses, plastered with red and gold carpet, and had a passenger demographic that was a little on the Asian side. In fact, from the very moment I had sat down at the Gate 11 to wait for my flight, not one word of the Queen’s English had been heard.
So I turned round and looked over my seat, assuming as I did the innocent persona of a nervous type who checks the exits before takeoff. Sure enough, sitting right behind me, two young English guys were chatting away as only strangers can. I stealthily slid back down in my seat and listened in:
“Yeah mate! Did Europe! Visited all 33 countries, so now I’m off to China… always doing crazy things like that,” said one.
“Oh, that’s interesting” replied the other.
“Yeah! I just lay off work and go for long weekends. So I feel I’ve done Europe. Now I’m doing China. Should be wicked though yeah.”
I overheard a similarly depressive exchange when boarding a flight to Canada, when, two rows behind me, a woman said to her friend:
“Let’s see what the weather is like in Londres tomorrow… get in! Bit shit.”
Her friend piped up, inexplicably, with: “Oh my gad, is that a legit fing?”
In both cases the effect was the same: a desire was felt to jump out the nearest window. This desire was tamed by the realisation that jumping out the plane window wouldn’t have the desired effect – the plane was still on the Queen’s tarmac, and I’d be lucky to come away with broken legs. Mercifully, (considering I had forgotten my headphones and the in-flight entertainment provided by Deer Jet China was in Chinese), the two guys behind me did not talk much after that. I think one sussed the other pretty fast.
Touchdown and transition at Quingdao airport; then boarded a 2h30 flight to Hangzhou.
It was late at night by the time we flew over Hangzhou. Hangzhou is a city bigger than London which nobody from London has ever heard of. From overhead the city looked ever so muchly dystopian. Endless and enormous blocks of completely dark offices or apartments, illuminated inconsistently by enormous flashing neon billboards – think Blade Runner 2018.
Two things came at me the next day: the heat, and the traffic. Not much to say about the heat. It was hot. More to say about the traffic. I knew there would be things to say, when sat right outside my hotel was a bike with pink oven gloves on the handlebars. I saw endless streams of bikes, e-bikes, and spluttering petrol bikes with constructs the size of houses on the back made up of a thousand thin layers of cardboard and clenched together by red elastic strips. I’m sure there was a system to it, but I could not tell you what that system was (the rummy type which allows for cars to do u-turns in the middle of busy interchanges). It was only my first day in Hangzhou, and already I’d seen a man pull over his mini-van in the middle of what was essentially a dual carriage-way, get out, piss, shake off, and then drive off again without compunction. And all the while the horns blare for no obvious reason whatsoever – the people’s existential cry of “I matter”.
China has buses too, and I took one of these buses.
The bus did not accommodate very well for a person of my height (and I’m not offensively tall). I had to cock my head, and from across the bus a baby watched me like I was an exotic bird escaped from the zoo. As I got off the bus, a woman next to me spat on the street and narrowly missed the bus’s wheels. Even though she had spat without much animosity, and not exactly in my direction either, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had somehow made a cultural faux-pas and was paying the price.
I proceed to walk down the street, where I am enticed by a woman who was labouring over a busy cart. She was selling medium/small baskets of strawberries. I point to one and ask for the price using one of three Chinese phrases known to me. After much confusion, she eventually says something to the effect of ‘arrrgggh yuan’ (which translates as two yuan, and exchanges as twenty pence). I knew China was cheap… but this was dirt. I hand her a 50 yuan, expecting 48 yuan back, but her fannypack gobbles the note up and spits back 30 yuan in change. I wonder whether I had been cheated, because I was certain she had said ‘arghhh yuan’ and not ‘arrgggh shur yuan’ (which would have translated as 20 yuan). I thought back to the first meal I had had in China – noodles, vegetables, meat – delicious, and for 20 yuan too… so maybe she was having me on? If I had been cheated, though, I didn’t really mind; it was only my first day in China, and it’s all part of the oriental experience anyway, right… and (but how patronizing of me) the woman does sell strawberries for a living! It was the least I could do really; letting her take advantage of an ignorant foreigner like that… if that was indeed what she was doing, which she might not be. And 20 yuan wasn’t unreasonable either way. What’s that? – £2.00.
In my first week in China, I missed my first Chinese festival. It was called Tombsweeping festival; a festival where people remember their dead. I’m not sure whether anything much happens, whether it’s public or private, whether it’s celebratory or morbid, because it rained hard for the whole holiday and so I chose to spend it trying to cook some supermarket pork which had enough salt on it to wilt a snail on steroids.
It was with a stinking Chinese hangover that I clambered into a taxi one day to travel across the city to a medical check that was required by work.
I stepped outdoors at 9:00am. It was 26 degrees. The taxi was a microwave in motion, and I knew as soon as we stopped at the first obnoxiously red light that I was in trouble. But I arrived at the health centre without embarrassing myself, and met with a woman who was helping me through the day. I readied myself for what I thought would be a simple check-your-tongue-and-maybe-your-balls-sort-of-thing.
The health-check consisted of: measuring height, measuring weight, measuring BMI, an x-ray, a urine sample, a blood sample, checking blood pressure, an ultrasound(?), and an eye check. Each of these was done in a different room, and I was very grateful for this, because the small commute in between the rooms allowed me to flee, not once but twice, to the toilets, where I proceeded to throw up.
I had been there for almost two hours by the time of the final test: the eye check. By now, I had released enough bear from my body to know that the worst was behind me (or, more appropriately, underneath me). I could, therefore, appreciate with amusement an eye check which involved me trying to identify Chinese characters, when I could not have identified a Chinese character even with a telescope. When the old woman in doctor’s white rapped her stick against the testing board on the wall, I squinted, and then mumbled a yes, or a no, depending on how clear I thought they might be to somebody who might be able to read them. She was even more confused by my answers than I was, and I found out why only after I had finished the test – because they were not Chinese characters at all. They were in fact fancy horseshoe shapes, and they had been pointing in different directions. All I had needed to do was point correspondingly.
Given that the authorities now think I’m blind, it was fitting that, some days later, I managed to get myself lost within five minutes from my apartment (finding your way at 10:00pm, in a city which has a mono-aesthetic, when you can’t read any of the signs, is tricksome). I was saved by a lovely man with awful teeth who was clearly very high on something. Together, despite my lack of Chinese, despite his inability to operate a touch phone because of his shaking hands, we got me home with the help of Baidu maps.
This has been the first of some blogging from the central kingdom. Doubtless any follow ups with be shorter than this initial burst of enthusiasm.
There is still, even after centuries of poking around, a central mystery to China. It’s the one country which we will admit to knowing nothing about. We understand just how little we understand about it, compared to the lots of other places that we pretend to know lots about. So I will try to throw a porcelain plate through your computer screen and introduce you to my very own (is it invented?) Other.
My small one-and-a-half room apartment is number 908, and my floor is accessible by three lifts, two of which are operational at any one time. The lifts are shiny cuboids, scratched-up and with spotty floors, and they have electric adverts on the walls which shout at you in Chinese in the way that TV adverts used to shout at you in 1980s. Depending on which lift you take, it either tries to sell you an expensive car, an expensive suit, or a fruity yogurt drink for children. Each advert in each lift has a scalable bar code so that the impulsive purchaser can impulsively purchase while traveling between floors.
My block of flats is one of several blocks of flats which exist in a type of gated-community. These gated-off communities are ubiquitous and, at least in my area, not obviously socially-economically stratified. They are also gated-off in name only. Although they all have elderly security guards, these men do nothing but sit in their booths all day and play on their phones, and all the while people exit and enter as they wish, walking freely around the parking barrier. China has a lot of these security personnel; there are three or four of them at the place where I work. None of them do anything. I’ve never seen them stop anybody. It’s just a form of job creation. While my little community of six apartment blocks is pleasant enough, within a week of being given a bike it had become a stolen bike. I was told the CCTV would be checked. I expect that it hasn’t.
I am already used to the noises. An annoying one which fortunately is irregular, is the loudspeaker system. When I first heard it come on outside, I thought it was a police patrol out looking for a criminal, (perhaps they had spotted a devious-looking chap riding a rusty blue bike?), but I was soon told that the blaring announcements were relaying safety information: to close your doors, to be wary, to look for exits, (nothing about bikes, though). Other noises include the daily drone of military jets which fly low overhead. I am not sure where they fly to, or even why they fly at all, and can only assume that if the Chinese feel the need to patrol even over the Yangtze-Delta then the Chinese patrol budget must be hefty. The first time I experienced this noise it was the without question the loudest thing I had ever heard. I quickly got used to it. You do tend to get used to things quickly in China. For example, I can’t remember when the presence of rubbish in my life was novel, although it must have been relatively recently. My apartment complex – which has bins, even if they are overspilling and uncollected – is not as bad as most places, where crumpled pieces of trash lie in shallow piles in the street.
Blue-skys have so far been rare. Smog mostly. But, as somebody from Quebec told me, if you go higher up into the mountains it can pass for mist on Instagram and you don’t even need to use a filter.
From my apartment balcony, I can barely see the mountains most days. It’s only by the mysterious graces of governmental decisions which halt factory production, that I know them to be there at all.
I went to the countryside. I went with work colleagues come let’s-hope friends. Their names are (not): Sunshine, Slarty Bardfast, Curvy Boy 2000, A Representative Of The Capital Of Culture, and As Somebody From Quebec Told Me.
We went to Longing village. It’s a tea-picking village that has a noticeable difference in air quality. At its centre were basic houses which were sparsely painted, squat, and often doorless, and the tea fields rose up around this centre on the sides of the surrounding hills. The tea pickers were old and wrinkled women who wore the type of wide hats that you see in BBC documentaries called: ‘China’s Emerging Tea Monopoly’ (or something like that).
This was Slarty’s trip really. He had been hiking around Longing before, and the following comes entirely from him… Longing village is not the place you want to buy team from. It has a bad reputation amongst the tea-picking confederation of tea-picking villages of conning people, and of taking advantage of overly green foreigners like myself. The method of their underhand is to pick the big leaves which weigh more – when it’s the new and small leaves which provide the quality taste. Still, they seemed hard enough at work from where I was standing, and indeed they were: the typical working day lasts from 5:00am to 11:00am, then, from 12:00 noon until 4:00pm; and they rinse-and-repeat these hours come boiling heat or torrential rain (these conditions are common, but even a tea-husker villager knows that, big or small, the leaves need to be picked while they’re young). Other interesting insights from Slarty included stories concerning the poor education of Chinese villagers, and the myths which persist in the more rural areas of China. Don’t wash your bellybutton in case water gets inside you. And don’t bother brushing the teeth of children, because they’ll fall out anyway.
On the subject of poorly conceived knowledge, there are a couple misconceptions of my own which I should jot down:
1.) Turns out the blaring of the horns on the roads are actually just darn prudent. Without them, I would have seen many accidents by now (you learn this and other things about traffic from biking through the Chinese mess everyday).
2.) The oven mitts I witnessed on the handlebars of bikes are, so I’ve been told, not for heat, but for cold. Yet they wear them in 26 degree heat, so this doesn’t make any sense.
It’s been a month. Think I’ll have learnt Mandarin soon.
Maybe I should make this a more regular thing, what do you think? Oh, I don’t think anybody cares either way. I know that… but two in one month is a good start, right? Yeah but they’re already getting shorter. Maybe that’s a good thing though, maybe they’re meant to be shorter. Why? I don’t know… makes them more bloggy. Doesn’t matter though, does it, if nobody reads it anyway? Oh yeah. Also, you’re talking to yourself. I know, I know.
For my second countryside outing, I went an Outdoor Activity Centre which was by my standards just a village which had diversified to accommodate for corporate groups on day-trips. The village’s activity stations were spread out over a few miles of bamboo forrest and sloping hills, and included: a communal cooking area, equipped with a line of wood-stoked grills; a shop, where you can buy a 2% Chinese beer called ‘Snow’; a lake, where dingies and paddles rested; and a grimy zip line, which, after it had taken its victim successfully over the bamboo forrest, raced back up the hills at metallic speeds before it clanged into its mechanical home with a force of what seemed like too many Newtons.
The one other station was a hill which, cleared of bamboo, laid the foundations for four colourful slides which you went down on with a sledge. The slide was fun for the short while it lasted, but I wouldn’t do it again, and perhaps the locals knew that this wasn’t their most exciting attraction, because at the bottom they had made a fire out of bits of plastic as if that made it a bit more thrilling.
Back in Hangzhou, and someone spits on the street.
It’s getting hot. It’s 37 degrees and not yet the end of May. I’ve been told that while it won’t get much hotter, it will get more humid. Since I can remember, I have tended to wake up on my front in the mornings; the right side of my face crushed up against and my arms cocked underneath a pillow; but, here in the Chinese heat, I wake and also find that, filling up the crevices behind my knees, I have little lagoons of sweat in which a mosquito or fly had doubtlessly spent the night skinny-dipping. (Chinese mosquitos and flies have the time for that sort of thing – they’re lazier over here, more complacent, the upside of that being that they are more easily smudged.)
Everything’s hot. Even the office microwaves, which I’ll grant are meant to be hot, radiate unhealthily as they toil and grind their way through lunch, and I suspect they flirt with an explosive suicide. The very walls of buildings are also suffused with hot veins – if you plug your charger into the sockets for too long, the electrics in the wall will begin to cook your wires.
Outside my apartment, a little six year old girl slyly waddles up to me from the street. She asks me a question. I’m sure I don’t understand.
“Hello, whats your name?” She giggles and runs away.
Inside a shop, I ask, in Chinese, “Whats the price of this?” This time it’s an old woman who giggles at me, but likewise gives me no reply.
Beside where I work, a man stops me on the street, and I understand some of what he says:
“Do you know where the (and even if I could understand what he said here, I wouldn’t be able to help him, would I?) is?”
Yet to learn Mandarin.