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.