Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Hao hao hao!

If I'm perfectly honest, I was a bit worried that Christmas in Beijing would be something of a non-event: a day spent trying my best to put on a brave face and to not become too wistful about family gatherings going on back at home. Not so! Celebrating the festive period here has been a brilliant experience and whilst spending it half the world away from my family is not something I'd like to make a regular thing of, this has without doubt been one of the best Christmases I have ever had.


It was a lucky coincidence that Christmas day fell on a Saturday this year- had it been on a weekday, we would've been in lessons doing revision for our fast approaching end-of-term exams. Christmas eve's lessons were spent playing games and exchanging white elephant presents with our classmates, which ranged from the attractively decorated bottle opener I received (my teacher let out a squeal of amusement when I opened it, exclaiming that it was a really fitting present for me) to a packet of chicken's feet which luckily no-one had the misfortune of having to open. The day was made even more amusing by the fact that three of my best friends had decided to dress up as Father Christmas (or 'the Christmas old man' in Chinese') for the day, which garnered them a huge amount of attention, particularly from gaggles of female Chinese students who seemed to delight in the opportunity to have their photo taken with three Western Santas.


We also had a get-together in our halls the night before to do a bit of carol singing which was fantastic and got us all into the rowdy Christmas spirit, but unfortunately the maintenance staff didn't quite have the same appreciation for our singing and on more than one occasion we were shushed and told to move on. Looking back I can't really blame them though as I don't think any of us exactly has the voice of an angel and we were being very loud.

Just before Christmas, my friends Dan and Tom told me they were going to seek out the only microbrewery in Beijing and, being an avid beer drinker in the mood for a bit of adventure, I tagged along with them. As the brewery was situated a fair walk from the nearest subway station and with temperatures of around -8°c outside we decided that we would be daring and take a ride in a slightly dodgy-looking motorised rickshaw. These tiny vehicles are basically a motor-trike with an aluminium cover over the back and I very much doubted their stability over the bumpy hutong roadways with three people squashed into the back seat, but our driver seemed dead set on proving me wrong, turning corners at break-neck speed and zooming across potholes in the road with seemingly no regard in the slightest for the safety limits of his little cab. By the end of the ride my nerves were thoroughly in tatters and I had a newfound appreciation for the steadiness of the ground beneath my feet.

Unfortunately the brewery was not the easiest of places to find and we ended up wandering around in the dimly lit hutongs long enough for our toes to become quite numb from the cold. At last we came across a small sign reading 'Great Leap Brewing' and stumbled into the semi-warmth of a sparsely furnished bar. We were greeted by a young Chinese man who told apologetically told us that the place was closed as the owners were away, but he must have noticed our crestfallen faces and told us that we could come in for a drink if we wanted. We gratefully sat down at the bar and ordered our drinks- I had a delicious chocolate stout whilst the boys went for pints of pumpkin ale. The man (apparantly the IT guy although at the time he seemed to be tending to the large fridges chilling the alcohol) served us a bowl of spicy nuts and as we chatted for a while about the owners it transpired that they hailed from Cleveland, Ohio, which also happened to be Dan's hometown. Eventually we said our goodbyes and vowed that if we had enough time, we would pay the place another visit before we went home.


On Christmas day our group of friends decided to go to one of our favourite restaurants in the area, a Japanese place where you can pay 58 kuai (about £5.80) for all-you-can-eat-and-drink for two hours in a little private room with a low table. The atmosphere was fantastic and I needn't have worried about not feeling festive as the Christmassy feeling seemed to be shared by everyone. After having stuffed ourselves with sushi, tempura and fried tofu, we sat round giving out secret Santa presents and taking part in a quiz set by my friend Alex which, incidentally, our team managed to win. That night we went out to a Korean bar and drank huge shots of a spirit called soju whilst each of us gave short speeches (most of which left me with tears in my eyes) about how much we would miss everyone and how thankful we were to have found such great friends whilst stranded over here. The evening was rounded off by hiring a room in a KTV karaoke bar, highlights of which included tuneless renditions of Bohemian Rhapsody and a bold attempt from Alex to rap a section of Justin Bieber's 'Baby'.

What can I say- Christmas in Beijing has been an unexpected yet unequivocal success! Now to get our heads down for the exams looming in the near future.. but it's not all doom and gloom as we're currently finalising plans and booking flights to go travelling around China in a couple of weeks. Until next time- zaijian!

Sunday, 14 November 2010

An orange-tinted incident and other musings

I think with each new day I spend in Beijing I love this place a little bit more. I am now nearly halfway through my time spent here and already I am starting to get the odd pang of regret that the good times here won't last forever and that staying here is an experience that I'll probably never get to repeat again, or at least under the same circumstances.


My affections for this city are probably due in no small part to the friendliness and warmth of the locals here; whether chatting to the lady at our favourite little café serving baozi or asking a passer-by the directions to the subway station, all the while trying hard to decipher the gruff Beijing accent, we have always been made to feel incredibly welcome here despite our lack of any great competence in Chinese. It didn't take long for me to go from feeling a sense of fear and bewilderment upon arrival to realising that Beijing isn't really anything to be scared of and feeling that I could go wherever I wanted alone without being scared.


One evening a couple of weeks ago I was sitting in my room feeling at a bit of a loose end and mindlessly playing with my hair when I realised it could do with another splash of colour. I ambled down to Watson's (the Chinese equivalent of Boots) and came back with a packet of L'Oréal hair dye named something like Creamy Mocha, not having taken heed of the fact that the lady on the packet seemed to be of Chinese origin. After having put all of the strong-smelling dye into my hair it crossed my mind that maybe this product wasn't designed for fine, light-coloured caucasian hair but I decided to wait and see what the end result would be. Unfortunately upon washing the dye out my fears were reaffirmed as my hair seemed to be peculiarly lighter than before, and when drying it off I looked on aghast as my hair went from a dark auburn when wet to a fierce shade of amber when dry. It had also become dry as a bone and hideously static, which now means that stepping out of a car or taking off my coat and subsequently touching something results in myself or anyone involved getting a mini electric shock.

A few days later, after having tried and failed to learn to like my brassy mop, I plucked up the courage to make a trip to the hairdressers' on campus, thinking that my hair had probably suffered the worst already. I explained as best I could to a delicate-looking assistant what had happened, to which he smiled knowingly and asked 'do you know why the dye didn't work?' I nodded gravely and said that I'd realised it was designed for Chinese hair and he looked at me sympathetically, told me that he could help me and tried to talk me into paying for the most expensive hair colourant they had on offer. After telling him I was short on money, I settled for a more reasonably-priced colour and shortly after was whisked into a chair by a lady who told me a lot of things that I didn't quite understand and, probably before I could change my mind, was having another bottle of pungent dye painted into my hair. Whilst I waited nervously for the colouring process to take effect, a number of other employees of the place came up to me, either telling me more things that I didn't understand (I have become rather adept at the 'smile-and-nod' response in these kinds of situations) or trying to get me to pay for further lotions and potions to be put into my hair. When the time came for the dye to be washed out I was feeling more than a little dazed and my mind was racing as I wondered whether my hair could in fact have become even worse than it was before. Luckily the lady had done a fairly satisfactory job and so with a smile on my face I waved goodbye to Mr Delicate Hard-Sell and breathed a sigh of relief as I stumbled back out into the chilly Beijing twilight.


Lastly I thought I'd share with you this little beauty of a cake- for six kuai (about 60p) you can buy a masterpiece in the medium of icing and, although the sweetened cream to cake ratio was probably about three parts cream, one part sponge, I still managed to polish the whole thing off.

Saturday, 16 October 2010


Da jia hao!

Unfortunately it seems that once again this blog has been left slightly neglected, although I'm pleased to say that unlike previously when I didn't want to update on what a good time I was having when frankly I wasn't, this time my forgetting to do so has been due to my life becoming increasingly busy, exciting and, at times, slightly nerve-wracking.


So what have I been up to in the few weeks that have passed since my last entry? One thing our little gang has been doing is working our way through the famous sights in an around Beijing. This has ranged from exploring the oasis of calm which was the Back Lakes and the hutongs which gave us a fascinating (if slightly mocked-up) glimpse of the Beijing of yesteryear, risking life and limb pedalo-ing on Kunming Lake at the Summer Palace and braving the onslaught of 'hey lady, you want a bags? I have Louis Vuitton for beautiful lady!' at the Silk Market, a Mecca for cheap but unashamedly fake designer labels. Last but not least we went through the apparant rite of passage for all tourists in China and made a trip to that most famous of attractions, the Great Wall. Unfortunately we visited on a particularly hot day so walking along the wall itself wasn't an especially pleasant experience after a while, but what made up for it was the chairlift up the mountain which, although a bit dicey-looking, offered fantastic views, and the descent back down again, which comprised of sliding down hundreds of metres of metal track on a little toboggan which seemed to have the ability to reach scarily high speeds incredibly quickly! However even more scary was the driving of our taxi driver on the way back to the bus stop; I think the British police would have a field day arresting people for dangerous driving if they were operating in China.


One recently added facet to my life here has been my acquisition of a job. A few weeks ago I decided to take the plunge and reply to an advert regarding teaching six to seven-year-olds at a small after-school centre near the university. After having psyched myself up for the interview I made my way down to the centre, only to be approached by a young guy asking if I'd like to work tutoring teenagers at a different language centre. A little overwhelmed, I gave him my details and carried on to my interview. Upon arriving I was greeted by a lady named Polaris 'but you can call me Fish' (a slightly strange choice of nickname perhaps, but given that my Chinese name is Xiaoyu or 'little fish' I can hardly talk) and was subsequently told to plan and conduct a short lesson teaching food and drink vocabulary, with the other teachers acting as pupils. Feeling rather as if I'd been thrown in at the deep end, I held up some flashcards and, trying not to let my nerves show, attempted to teach my 'students' the names of various foodstuffs. I must admit a certain part of me died inside when forced to teach them the word 'candy' in place of 'sweets', but I realise that anywhere you go a certain amount of Americanisation (-zation?) is inevitable.

Anyway, I also went to an interview for the second job the following day which went in a slightly more straighforward manner, and ended up in the position of having been landed with two jobs in two days. I did for a short while consider taking both of them on but after some thought decided that it would've been too much to do long-term. Instead I plumped for the second job due to the fact that the first interview scared me slightly and that in general I felt more comfortable with the prospect of teaching young adults than small children.

Not long after my interview I got a call from my new boss telling me of an art school on the other side of the city that needed a teacher for their supplementary English lessons. Although slightly daunting, especially upon entering the room and receiving a large number of stares from my new students, my first lesson went really well under the circumstances and after the two hours I was left buzzing with the adrenalin of taking myself out of my comfort zone and finding that here was something I could actually be pretty good at. One thing that did help my cause was the combination of the respect that the Chinese have for their teachers and my students' apparant fascination with this young female westerner who had come to teach them the conjugations of 'to have' and 'to be'. After the lesson I was approached by a large female contingent of the class asking for my autograph and to have their photo taken with me; the male students instead decided to give me a classic 'I love you!' upon parting. I give my third lesson in a couple of days' time- hopefully I will manage to maintain their enthusiasm once (if?) the novelty of being taught by me has worn off.

Another new experience that I recently underwent here was my first time running with the Beijing Hash House Harriers, an eccentric expat club that describes itself as 'a drinking club with a running problem'. I mentioned in an earlier blog post that I had taken to doing a few laps round the uni's running track every few days but this, it seems, was no preparation for the full-on assault on the system that was last Sunday's run. At the pre-run meet we came across Hashers of various nationalities, although mostly American, who introduced themselves not by their birth name (apparantly a taboo in the world of Hashing) but with names such as 'Snot', 'Petting Zoo' and 'Lil Sai W***er'. The run consisted of following a trail through the hutongs laid down by the leaders or 'hares', complete with a beer stop and loud cries of 'on-on!', 'are you?' and 'open check!' to keep us all on the right path. What was most amusing was the looks on the faces of the local inhabitants who seemed incredibly bemused by this large group of foreigners rampaging through their backstreets. The run ended with us standing in a large circle armed with copious amounts of Tsingtao beer and singing various rowdy, sexist and innuendo-loaded songs which all ended with us taking a few large swigs from our bottles. The most amusing (and true) of these songs was the Beijing Hash Song, sung to the tune of 'Daisy, Daisy' and with the following lyrics:

Beijing! Beijing!
a wonderful place to hash
We have great fun
Dodging the shit and trash
Our skies are never clear
But we have cheaper beer
We like our drink, our singing stinks.
Welcome to the Beijing hash.


Lastly, it seems that I'm not the only person who, in naming this blog, has likened the multifariousness (I'll admit to having found that word with the help of a thesaurus) of life to a casserole; upon doing a quick Google of the title I discovered that the band Guttermouth has written a song of the same name, with a a chorus which goes 'the versatile diversity of casserole is similar to living life / The ingredients are things that you can't live without' etc. etc. Although not the most lyrically poetic of songs, I was very excited to find out this little gem of information.

Righty-ho, I think by now this post is definitely long enough so time to say my goodbyes.. zaijian!

Monday, 20 September 2010


I hadn't anticipated it taking quite so long for me to write my next blog post; unfortunately over the past couple of weeks or so I have been a little bit up-and-down due to a certain amount of homesickness and the realisation of just how long I will be spending in China. I think for the first week or so we were all fairly buoyed up by the novelty of being in Beijing and the inevitable 'holiday' feeling and not until after then did it hit us that we would all have to carve ourselves some kind of temporary life here. However, much as I dislike the term 'culture shock' (to me it sounds unnecessarily dramatic), I think that that was what I was suffering from and feel that now it is a period I have left behind, for the most part.

One aspect of China which I found very hard to deal with was the weather; for the first two weeks or so the temperature reached 30+ degrees pretty much every day which made it incredibly tiring to do anything aside from sitting in an air-conditioned room not doing much. Fortunately a few days ago the weather 'turned' very suddenly: Thursday had been sweltering but then that night the heavens opened and Friday turned out to be rather crisp, in Chinese terms at least. Not only has this change made life more bearable here, I think it has made this place a lot less alien to me to have some more British-like weather. One downside of the rain is that it sets off the alarms of all the electric mopeds which seem to be very popular with Beijingers. The other night whilst I was trying to get to sleep I could hear about three alarms all sounding almost constantly; needless to say after a while I was starting to hatch a plan in my mind involving hacking the things apart with a sledgehammer. Even now, with the rain not even coming down too heavily, I am relying on my headphones and the soothing music of Message to Bears to stop myself from banging my head against the wall in frustration at hearing the same shrill noise over and over again.

But less of that- I'm sure you didn't come here to listen to me whinging. With the novelty of having a temperate climate again we made our second attempt yesterday at seeing some of the sights that Beijing has to offer and took the subway to the Beijing Olympic Park. (Our first attempt, incidentally, did not go well: after going through the assault of an hour and a half on the subway we arrived at Tian'anmen Square to shortly after have to give up due to the unbearable heat and return home again.) Upon exiting the station we were suddenly hit by a feeling we didn't know we'd been missing since being in Beijing: a sense of open space. Even though the place is apparantly visited by 20-30,000 people a day, it still felt liberating and somewhat calming to be in the middle of such a vast expanse of space.

The stadium itself was very impressive; I'm still unsure about how pleasing to the eye the 'bird's nest' structure really is but it was certainly well worth the £2.50 I paid to look inside. It struck me as strange that the stadium has been relatively unused since the Olympics and the place certainly felt like something of an empty shell whilst walking around.

One thing that seemed strange at first but which I have since come to enjoy is the apparant novelty of white people in Beijing. Whilst standing outside the Bird's Nest taking photos my friend Emma and I would often turn round to find that there was someone else taking a photo of us! It took a while to get used to but we have come to realise that this fascination with Caucasians isn't anything sinister and is in fact fairly innocent and good-natured. Quite a few couples have come up to us whilst gesturing with their cameras; at first we thought that they wanted us to take a photo of them but then one of them would stand inbetween us whilst the other person takes a picture. Emma and I have also received a fair few comments telling us that we are 'hen piaoliang' (beautiful) which I imagine will do wonders for our self-esteem as time goes by! Despite our current lack of competency at conversing in Chinese, the vast majority of people here seem to be more than happy to serve a group of lost-looking Brits and everything is carried out in good humour.

A few days ago I started something which I never envisaged I would do before coming to China: running. My friend Jack is apparantly a keen runner and after hearing him talk about it I was inspired to give it a go myself and so, on Friday, he and I headed down to the BLCU sports track for a bit of a jog. I managed to impress myself by doing seven laps of an 400m track, not a lot relatively but I wasn't expecting much. This evening we went for a second run and, despite still having sore legs from last time, I managed another seven laps and next time I think I will try for eight. The feeling that physical activity gives you is just amazing and anyway, I think I need something to work off the extra calories that all this Chinese food is inevitably supplying me with.

Apologies that this post has been so ridiculously long; I wasn't expecting to be able to write so much! Zaijian folks!

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Define 'erinaceous'.

As time goes by, I have found myself more able to overcome my embarrassment at my grasp of the Chinese language, which, despite my fairly good exam results at Birmingham University, has proved to be fragile to say the least. I am now proficient in gesticulating in the direction of what I want and tentatively uttering '这个' ('this one') and after having got whatever I require, smiling and saying '謝謝' along with a slight sigh of relief. Unfortunately, even though the term at BLCU has now started and we now receive four hours' Chinese tuition a day, I cannot see this helping us much for the forseeable future due to the tedium and low standard of the classes we have been set in. It's not that we are far above our peers in terms of ability- some of my classmates have lived in China for a year already- but the tutors just seem to think that the incredibly pedestrian pace they have set is the right one to help us on the way to becoming competent at Chinese. This morning we had to sit through our classmates standing up at the front and introducing themselves numerous times, so much so that if I hear another '你是哪国人?' ('which country are you from?) I think I will cry.

That slight disappointment aside, I think Beijing and I are slowly making friends, albeit friends with the kind of relationship where the other person always proves slightly confusing to you but you still like them, all things considered. Until today I had never seen someone riding as a passenger on a push bike whilst standing bolt upright, an example of many things I have seen here which would seem stupid or dangerous to us in the West but which here are just considered handy ways of getting about life. One novelty I have yet to get over is the incredible cheapness of pretty much everything: the most expensive shop I have been to so far is probably IKEA, which I imagine is seen as a rather luxurious, aspirational brand intended for Beijingers who want to give their home that proper 'western' look.


Lastly, the four of us had an amusing but completely unexpected early-evening adventure last night: after having escaped the Cernet shop (which provides all the internet across campus) after two and a half hours of queuing, my friend Emma and I were dragging ourselves exhaustedly back to Building 17 when we were approached by an anxious-looking Chinese woman who asked us 'you English?' We nodded and told her we were, which seemed to make her day judging from the broad smile which crossed her face as she handed us a piece of paper each. It read, 'iPhone recording part-time job. Just 30-40 minutes' recording and the payment is 100 kuai' (about £10). Thinking this might be a nice little earner, we told her we'd be back in ten minutes after we'd dropped our laptops off. It then crossed our minds that this might not be all that it seemed, and so hoping for a little protection, we enlisted our friends Alex and Jack who also seemed keen to join in on the action. We rejoined our Chinese lady, who seemed very excited that we had doubled in number since she last saw us, and attempted to flag down a taxi. After a few failed attempts, we finally found one to take us to our 'studio', our lady telling the driver where to take us.

Upon getting out of the taxi we were pounced upon by a young man who had probably been told to look out for four bemused-looking English students. We were then led into a large office building, shown into the boardroom of an establishment with a name along the lines of 'Kings Data Recording Ltd', and told that we would be split off into twos with two of us doing the recordings whilst the others were taken by a colleague to have a bite to eat. Alex and I, feeling hungry at the time, decided to go for the latter, and were taken by the excitable woman to this fairly respectable-looking fast food restaurant next to the office block. She recommended us a beef dish which looked strange in the picture and even stranger in real life, but it was tasty and she was footing the bill so we couldn't complain. Our hunger now satisfied, we were led back up to the office, told to sit at separate desks and given an iPhone each. We were then given a list of commonly searched phrases to read out into the phone which ranged from the mundane 'weather in the West Midlands' to the mildly amusing 'search Bieber Fever' to the frankly bizarre 'define 'erinaceous''. We both struggled to hold back giggles at various points but the staff seemed satisfied that we'd done an adequate job and after having read out all of our phrases we were all handed our 100元 and, feeling that we'd done well for an evening which would otherwise have probably been spent in the bar, we walked out into the balmy Beijing evening with smiles on our faces.

The definition of erinaceous, if you had been wondering, is: 'of, pertaining to, or resembling a hedgehog.'

Friday, 3 September 2010

And so begins the Chinese part..

Beijing is, in short, the most insane place I have ever been. My first impressions of the place were not good; after exiting the huge and rather sterile airport late last night I was greeted by a warm smelly fug and a slightly dangerous-looking taxi rank with impatient drivers rushing up and braking just at the last minute and stewards ushering people across the melée in order to get into a cab. This, I realised was less dicey than what was to come: our taxi driver seemed to have a death wish and took us at break-neck speed along the expressway, weaving in and out of the other cars and hooting repeatedly at drivers to get out of his way. A few nerve-shattering moments later, we arrived at Xijiao Hotel, our temporary home in China whilst we sort out our university accommodation. The hotel, from which I am currently writing to you, is rather pleasant, especially so given that it is only costing us £19 a night. One thing I must share from my room is this slightly Enid Blighton-esque sign, which apart from being amusing shows how easily a language can be slightly mistranslated and how nuances can unwittingly be introduced to make a simple message sound strange or dated.


But anyway, I digress. This morning we decided we may as well bite the bullet, ignore our jet-lag and go to the university to register. The four of us assembled, bleary-eyed, in the entrance of the hotel and ventured out into a rainy, muggy and very busy Beijing in an attempt to locate Beijing Language and Culture University. After a long detour we realised that it shouldn't have been more than about ten minutes' walk from the hotel but if nothing else it was a good daylight introduction to the city. What followed next was hours and hours of tedious form-filling and waiting in queues, at times to be told that in fact we should've been in a different one. However, we can now say that we are registered students of BLCU complete with accommodation in the university's much sought-after international students' halls, Building 17. Knowing this fills me with a great sense of acheivement as I now feel that I am free to enjoy the experiences China has to offer without having to worry about the red tape any longer. And believe me, red tape is in no short supply round here!

Dinner was a rather haphazard affair; we decided to eat in the hotel's restaurant which, although in a very nice setting with even nicer prices, had a food menu purely in Chinese characters which we barely understood past the indications of what kind of meat they contained. (Speaking of meat, I have now broken nearly two years of vegetarianism in order to have manageable eating habits in China: apparantly they don't understand voluntary meat-free diets here and the only way to 'do' vegetarianism is to explain that you have a health condition.) Anyway, we guessed that the easiest way of ordering our food would be to ask the waitress for one pork, one beef, one lamb and one fish dish.. how wrong we were. The entire workforce of the hotel seemed to make an appearance at our table to voice their opinions on which dishes would please us the most and after a lot of bickering between the staff, four dishes arrived complete with two little bowls of rice. The meals were delicious, and even though I couldn't quite remember which meat tasted like what (I was under the impression that I was eating pork until I was told it was lamb), we had rather a tasty dinner. The only issue I currently have with Chinese food is chopsticks; it seems my many trips to Wagamama's in Birmingham have not provided me with enough training to use these ancient implements and I spent a lot of the meal getting rather perturbed that my food would not cooperate on its journey from bowl to mouth.

And so we are taken up now, where I am currently sitting at the desk in my room writing this post and sneaking past the Chinese government's blockage to visit Facebook. An update, I'm sure, will follow shortly, but until then: 再见!

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Welcome to the Land of Squiggles

Ahoy there! Doesn't 'The Land of Squiggles' sound an enticing place? It is in fact Dubai Airport, so named by me because of the rather loopy and mystical nature of the Arabic which unsurprisingly is all over the place. Although luckily for me it is also accompanied by English, a luxury I may not have once I arrive in China. I'm writing this post from a stand-up kiosk thing providing free internet so I shan't complain about the lack of chairs! I'm also very impressed with the air con in here, apparantly it's 38 degrees outside (it's half 4 in the morning!) so it's nice not to be roasting.

I've just been on my first long-haul flight which for a lot of you is probably something rather dull which is to be endured rather than enjoyed, but I have to say that I quite liked it. The selection of entertainment that Emirates provides in the back of the seats is amazing! It was also rather cathartic to be able to watch Family Guy whilst flying over Baghdad, that in the midst of all this alien stuff I can still have something familiar. Actually I say it's alien but this is probably nothing compared to what I can expect in Beijing!

I should probably sign off before I rattle on too much.. plus I think if I don't sit down I'll develop varicose veins sometime in the near future.

Friday, 13 August 2010

A Very Expensive Sticker

So today I made my second venture into London on account of sorting out my visa for China, this time only to pick it up and pay for it, much to my relief due to not wanting to spend too much time being made to feel like an inconvenience by the rather brusque assistants at the application centre. The visa itself cost £65, and when combined with my two train journeys into London came to just over £100. And what to I get for this expenditure of time and money? A small sticker in my passport telling officials that they can deport me if I'm still in their country 180 days after my arrival. I won't lie, I do like the look of my little sticker.. but apart from actually being allowed into China, I don't really get much out of it, and so having to spend so much money on it is rather irksome.

As I had no-one to accompany me on this trip into the capital, I found myself with an afternoon free to do what I please. After frantically scouring Oxford Street for an umbrella with which to shield myself from the deluge of rain and subsequently buying a cute little blue one with an owl print on it, I wandered round the streets wondering what to do with myself on this rare opportunity. I decided to visit somewhere that would almost certainly would have been met with instant dismissal by a lot people I can imagine visiting London with: the Tate Modern. Let it be known that I am not one of these pretentious artier-than-thou types; I was simply having a curious moment and fancied a visit to this most infamous of galleries to witness for myself the phenomenon of modern art.

I'm not sure whether modern art wants to be accessible or not; by the sight of the large flags bearing the words 'explore, discover, FREE' the place certainly did seem to want to make it clear to the public that all were welcome but I couldn't help but titter slightly upon reading the artist's dramatic and emotional interpretation of what seemed to me like a large red square with a purple line painted down one side. I browsed the galleries for a little longer and I'll admit that some of the exhibits were rather impressive: I enjoyed the stark photography of nude mothers holding their newborn babies and the twisted metal sculptures of headless bodies, but a lot of it did make me wonder why someone with so much artistic potential would choose a particular piece of theirs as their supposed magnum opus. Maybe I'm waiting for my third eye to be opened.

Feeling a little bemused by it all, I decided to start making my way home, but not wanting to go back the way I came, I opted to take a wander over the Millennium Bridge and find out what lay over the other side of a rather unhappy-looking Thames. As I ambled along in my own little world and tried to avoid the gaze of a tramp sitting in the middle of the pathway, I was caught by surprise by a foreign-sounding accent asking 'may I walk under your umbrella?' I took a brief glance at the young man, decided he looked harmless enough and held my umbrella out to allow him to walk beside me. As we chatted, I found out his name was Miraj and he was a student from Turkey who was currently learning English at LSE. We bade farewell after about a quarter of an hour when the rain had stopped and I had reached a tube station, but it struck me how interesting strangers can be and what a shame it is that in this country we so often dismiss others' company simply because it is easier to ignore them.

They say London is a place of new experiences, something I always found to be a little clichéd, but today has proved me otherwise and I am rather glad that I didn't shirk away from the rain and go home early as I could have done had I ignored my curiosity.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

A happy medium

I leave for my five-month trip to China in just under three weeks. As much as I try to pretend to myself that it doesn't, this thought makes me tremble slightly inside every time I am reminded of it. However this fear is somewhat balanced out by a sense of excitement about the experiences which lie before me. I have no idea what it will be like; saying that, given that my previous attempts to imagine how other things will turn out have been largely inaccurate, I won't bother trying and instead will try and prepare myself for any eventuality. Part of me feels ready to go but another part keeps reminding me of the things here that I will miss: my family, my friends, my boyfriend, my dog.. I think I just need to accept the fact that, as with many things in life, I will never feel entirely ready and in the end I will just have to take a leap of faith and hope that everything will be okay.

My primary concerns, however, are not whether I will make friends or the reams and reams of Chinese characters I will inevitably have to memorise- instead I'm currently more worried about the practicalities of it all such as sorting out my visa or my rather dire financial situation. I do feel that universities should publish a warning in their prospectuses telling would-be students of Chinese of the massive amount of organisation which goes into the year of the degree spent abroad- might have made me rethink my application!

I set up this blog as much as a diary for myself to read as for others to; hopefully in a few months I will look back on it and think 'what on earth was I worried about?' Although there is the strong possibility that I will also be thinking 'look at her back then, she had no idea what was coming' but if I don't try it, I'll never know!