North and South

I’ve talked BJ and SH but what about GZ, the third Big City in China? Three days in Guangzhou, right down in the south of the country, and the differences between north and south could not have been more apparent.

One extremely annoying thing about travelling in China is that as soon as I leave Beijing my Chinese SIM card goes on roaming – yes, even though I am in the same country. Though actually, travelling from Beijing down to Shanghai is almost the same distance as London to Milan, so it practically is like going to another country. Certainly going from near-freezing temperatures in Beijing to temperate climes hovering around 20°C in Guangzhou, a further 900-odd kilometres south of Shanghai, smacked of a very different land.

Northern Chinese are certainly noticeably taller, whiter skinned and with longer noses. They are known for being robust and strapping; their heavier, more wheat-based diet (buns and noodles as opposed to small bowls of rice in the south) produce big, busty girls and heavy-set, muscled men; and all the better, for they must brave bitingly cold winters. Southerners are in contrast regarded as small, dark (no doubt due to the year-round sun exposure) and skinny by their northern counterparts.

In the south, the people take pride in being more polite and refined compared to those rough northerners, who like the fisticuffs. It’s true that while I am constantly being bumped from all directions while walking in the streets of Beijing, in Guangzhou, though we came close many times, nobody even touched me. A man actually paused at the top of a flight of stairs to let me walk up them first; I was stunned. I also found service people more friendly and polite, though people do seem to stare more in Guangzhou. Probably because I was about a head taller than most.

My short Guangzhou break really highlighted how big this country is (3.5 hour flight to get there), so no wonder there are big differences. Not to mention the fact that an entirely different language, Cantonese, is spoken in Guangzhou (though mandarin is widespread). There is, naturally, rivalry between north and south. In fact, the English stereotype of “northern monkeys, southern fairies” fits rather nicely for China, too; the rough ‘n ready northerners versus the softer southerners.

I was disappointed in the lack of things to visit in Guangzhou; Beijing certainly beats all other cities for points of interest, culture and history. Like Shanghai, in Guangzhou there wasn’t much to do but eat and shop. However I won’t deny that I felt more comfortable and less stressed out in Guangzhou – possibly because I had a friend to guide me around and speak Cantonese for me everywhere, too. Or it might have just been because people seemed more civilised. Or the lack of smog in the air. Or because I am simply a southern fairy at heart.

Advertisements

SH vs. BJ

Two bullet train rides and a total of 45.5 hours in Shanghai: this was my weekend, accompanied by my Yankee Beijing bestie and lodging with my German cousin who has his own Big Fucking International Business in SH.

The second capital, the Paris of the East, China’s Sin City and former coloniser central, Shanghai feels in many ways like China Lite for westerners. It was bizarre to see so much western architecture downtown, and of course Shanghai has a truly stunning waterside skyline (though let’s face it, not quite a match for Hong Kong’s, much as I love the Pearl Tower).

20131116_214314

My weekend was a blur of skyscrapers and swanky venues. It saw me on the 92nd floor of the famous bottle-opener skyscraper (home of the Park Hyatt Shanghai), some fancy restaurants and an opulent rooftop bar complete with jacuzzi and beds (neither of which we made use of I might add). Saturday night was on the strange side, involving a monkey-themed hip-hop bar accessible only through a bakery, followed by a pirate ship-themed club. This second was a true Chinese club experience, complete with a garish singer wailing on stage, flanked by two strapping, dancing white men, cuddly toys, food, flowers and all manner of bizarreness. A fascinating ten minutes we spent in there.

In the age-old battle of supremacy between Shanghai and Beijing, I am and always have been Team BJ (get your mind out the gutter!) This Clash of the Titans has opinion split more or less down the middle. Both cities have much to offer, but I lean toward Beijing for its more authentic Chinese feel (fewer skyscrapers and no Western pretensions…sorry), more chilled-out atmosphere (the vibe in Shanghai felt distinctly more superficial and hostile; people STARE much more than in Beijing) and CULTURE! As cuz put it, there isn’t much to do in Shanghai apart from shop and eat. I suppose you can stare at skyscrapers and go up them, but there’s only so much of that one can do.

Shanghai folk are famous across the country for being super-proud (i.e. arrogant) about coming from Shanghai; something Shanghaiers have freely admitted to me themselves. They turn their noses up at people from anywhere else in China as unsophisticated and poor. I feel Shanghai is sadly impoverished of culture and soul, but that’s just my opinion… I suppose overall Shanghai, as I said, is a less Chinese version of China, so is good for foreigners who are wary of having the full-on and probably more difficult experience that is Beijing, if you don’t mind the arsey Shanghai attitude.

Generally the air quality is much better in seaside Shanghai compared to inland Beijing (though still bad… it is still China) but unfortunately we appeared to bring the smog with us for the weekend, during which the air was very good in Beijing. The distinct advantage of central Shanghai was that… well, there is a centre. Beijing is so big and sprawling, it takes forever to get from one place to the next, whereas downtown Shanghai is more compact, so getting around felt less exhausting. Unfortunately the underground in Shanghai gets just as crowded as in Beijing, though there are fewer cars on the road.

One thing that truly makes me glad I live in Beijing and not Shanghai is… radiators. Shanghai homes do not have any. It is colder here in BJ than in SH at the moment, but I was freezing every night in my cousin’s apartment, whereas we actually have central heating here in Beijing, so I’m quite comfortable. Though the winter temperatures in northern Beijing drop much further than in Shanghai, Shanghai is by far the colder city for this reason. No thank you!

But it was nice to get out of town for a weekend; I benefitted from some convivial company and thoroughly enjoyed my stay in Shanghai. I might call the place shallow but it was a bit of a relief to hang out in some expensive, clean-looking places and feel a bit more comfortable. We are but weak westerners, after all.

10 unexpected things I love about life here

Lately I feel my posts have had a more negative slant, so in a bid to inject a note of positivity into proceedings (and out of slight fear that I might get deported if I don’t write something nice about the country soon), I present a list of things I actually like about life here in BJ.

1. The rudeness
Surprising, I know, considering I come from a nation famed for its good manners. But actually there is something liberating about people having ill manners. Or, should I say, different manners (let’s not get all colonial now – we are not better, we are just different). I mean, I still get annoyed when people are rude, but I do not often feel obliged to take the moral high ground or be passive-aggressive about my irritation as we tend to back home. I know I can easily get away with being abrupt or curt – it is everyday behaviour, almost expected. I don’t need to acknowledge shopkeepers if I don’t want to (though I do of course, if they acknowledge me. Which they often don’t). Not only does walking into people elicit indifference, it is actually an unavoidable everyday activity and generally requires no reaction except a side-step. It can also be amusing just how bad-tempered some people are, even as they are doing something kind like giving you directions. In short, all the hidden incivility, belligerence and boorishness that I have for so long repressed in the name of polite society is being unleashed by the lack of courtesy from everyone, everywhere.

2. The lack of self-consciousness
A vague link to no. 1, as some of this behaviour can be considered ill-mannered, but I personally love how un-self-conscious I feel here. For example, table manners are very different – non-existent in some cases. So I happily dig into my rice with my chopsticks and eat with gusto, and don’t feel bashful if I accidentally splash a bit of my soup noodles around. I can wear anything at all and it wouldn’t matter; there will always be someone worse-dressed than me, guaranteed. I wish my self-consciousness had dropped to the level where I could burst into song if I felt like it while walking around in public but I’m not quite there yet, though I feel a mixture of amusement and envy when I witness other people doing this with abandon. I also love how I can (should I choose to) amble around in public slapping and kneading my thighs, and that’s normal here. What? It’s good for the muscles and circulation. On the crowded tube people will just loudly say “move down the carriage!” or “I’m getting off now!” unlike in London where we apparently hope to communicate our wishes via telepathy to surrounding commuters as we mutely struggle and squish. People are practical and not precious about their behaviour here, and I like it.

3. When the air is clear
It does happen sometimes. Trust me, when the pollution is bad, it’s BAD, but when I wake up and check the Air Quality Index app on my phone and it tells me today’s level is “moderate” or even “good”, my spirits lift in jubilation and my heart feels lighter (not to mention my lungs). It is hard to describe the suffocating feeling when the air, all around, inescapable and all-pervading, it essentially poison, and likewise the supreme relief when the smog lifts and one can see the sky again. It is like going from apocalypse to paradise one day to the next.

5. The public tai chi/gymnastic ribbon twirling/dancing with swords
I like seeing people, mostly on the old side, unabashedly doing their daily exercise routines out in the open air. Especially when it is cool, choreographed tai chi, or involves props such as gymnastics ribbons or wooden swords. Though I do worry about their lungs, as their aged limbs slice lithely through the smog.

6. CHINESE BABIES
And little kids in general. Cutest in the world, though less so when they are defecating in a public bin or on the underground. Oh, it happens. A lot.

7. The flexibility
Wanna bring your own drinks into a restaurant? No problem! This club says it is charging entry? Negotiable. Too embarrassed to ask for freebies? Don’t be. Taxi won’t let five of you in? It’s ok, this hei che (illegal cab) will! The lack of rules can be frustrating but it can also often be turned to great advantage. Perhaps a legally dubious advantage, but it does simplify things sometimes.

8. The respect for old people
“There’s an old person here, give up your seat!” This is the kind of announcement you’ll hear on the bus by the conductor. I suppose it is necessary when there are so many people all around. In any case, in China respect for the elderly is palpable and very important.

9. The philosophical Engrish
The front of one of my notebooks reads “Pioneer: whatever you can do, or dream you can begin. boldness has genius, power and magic in it [sic]” Truly inspirational words! In fact, reading the fronts of notebooks in a stationery shop provides endless entertainment, not to mention profound insights into life and love. You will find many deep and meaningful messages in grammatically questionable English on stationery – quotes about love and loss, determination, youthful folly, you name it, they have it. I kind of love it.

10. Fwends!
Well of course I couldn’t forget my new dear friends who are my only source of comfort here (apart from Chinese food), without whom I would have no understanding audience for my ranting, railing and ravings about the petty injustices I face everyday, nor people with whom to party and laugh and commiserate our miserable expat lot. Though I do have one (one!) Chinese friend here who is lovely and provides some vital insight into the Chinese mindset, not to mention essential language practice. I have met and hung out with pretty varied groups in my time, but the people here have taken it to a whole new level. My social circle encompasses super-conservative, die-hard Christian Americans (I know you’re trying to convert me!) to über-liberal Europeans, and various odds and ends in-between, and it is a most fascinating social study. Plus of course sometimes one just needs a hug or a friendly conversation while far away from home in a very strange land, and I do love my new fwends for providing.

Please, I’m not Chinese…

This evening, sitting in the lobby of my residence with a white person on either side of me, an American girl came and addressed herself to one of my companions, saying she had to give out some flyers to foreign students. She proceeded to hand one to him, and then another to the person sitting on my other side, and did not even look at me. It was like I did not exist.

This offended me more than any Chinese person mistaking me for a Chinese person ever could, because usually foreigners can tell fellow foreigners apart, and besides, what would your average Chinese girl be doing in the foreign student dorm sitting between two blond boys, speaking in English? On reflection, maybe she was actually just being a bitch.

Being mistaken for a “real” Chinese happens with depressing frequency. I also regularly find myself sandwiched between two blonds; for example in the first week of lessons, walking to the classroom with my two blonde friends, some men handing out booklets on tourism in English actually retracted their booklets when they came near me, but hastened to hand them to my classmates. The irony being that neither of my classmates are actually English, but I am. I just said loudly, in Chinese, “why aren’t you giving me one?” and finally got my crappy validation and a crappy booklet, which I immediately thew out.

It’s tiring having to endlessly explain myself, and I know I am not alone. There are a few others like me, the “special” ones, who look Chinese and get all the extra aggro with it. Just this evening a Canadian Chinese friend was telling me how she was at dinner with some white friends and a Chinese boy came directly up to her and asked her in Chinese to translate some things for him into English. The presumption of it is astounding (not to mention rude… interrupting her meal anyone?) Firstly, those white people could actually speak Chinese. Secondly, why the hell should she do some shitty translation for a stranger?

I don’t mind when Chinese people ask me where I am from, or say “you are not Chinese, are you?” when I stumble over my Chinese. I gladly reveal where I am from, and in a big city like this it is not really met with surprise. I don’t mind acknowledging that I am foreign. What does bother me is when I am treated differently from my foreign peers, my equals, when I am standing right next to them, clearly one of them (and sadly it usually is very much a clear case of “them” and “us”). I also hate being made to feel that I somehow need to be surrounded by foreign-looking people to validate my shiny “foreign” status. I feel like I’m in a much, much milder version of 12 Years a Slave or something. I’m different, I swear!

All this is doing is making me extremely patriotic. This evening I actually said the sentence “England is the best country in the world. Excluding perhaps Canada and Switzerland”. It might have been serious, or a joke, I don’t even know anymore…

My possessions are getting weirder and weirder

It’s not that I really desired to own a water bottle in the shape of a giant red pencil, it just kind of happened… And my brightly chequered pencil case was the least garish or sweetly girly thing I could find. One of my favourite things to do in a foreign country is explore the unfamiliar aisles of a local supermarket, and our on-campus student stores certainly provide much rich fodder for contemplation. Unusual snacks aside, doing a spot of shopping for everyday use items today was a challenge. I physically could not prevent myself from wrinkling my nose in distaste at the prospect of having to actually buy some of the stuff.

Let me explain. I am someone of simple tastes, even by western standards. My favourite colour to wear is black (which is not even a colour), I like neutral tones and I generally avoid patterned things or anything too frilly, fussy or colourful. Yet fussy, frilly and colourful is more or less what everything is over here. There is a serious Asia-wide penchant for cute things (think Hello Kitty), and this invades even the most mundane of household items. Clothes shopping is draining for the sheer effort of finding something that is not adorned with some picture, garish ornamentation, or strange English. Even just buying a plain mug is nigh on impossible; there will be something or other printed on it.

I was obliged to buy a patterned pencil case, though a plain one would have been preferable, and after spending an unreasonable time staring at water bottles, I finally plumped for the one shaped like a pencil, for its practical qualities naturally, rather than its… interesting form. Of course when I use the word “weird” I am imposing my own western tastes and perspective on another culture’s. It is simply a matter of difference in partiality, and I find myself increasingly purchasing things I would not normally in England; though out of sheer necessity, rather than delight at their design. An alarming proportion of my possessions are now bright pink.

Admittedly my school notebooks all have some picture or pattern (and sometimes funny Engrish), though simpler designs were available. Back home I would never buy a notebook emblazoned with a picture of Tower Bridge, the Union Jack and the word ENGLAND on the front, but I saw it and couldn’t resist; there was something ironic yet oddly comforting in it. I’m actually starting to have fun. I also bought a, ah… a brown bin printed with a metallic gold fake Louis Vuitton style pattern. And I kind of like it – but in an ironic way, of course!

Sometimes, you just have to go with it.

Having a premature expat breakdown

All expats here have one sooner or later, I am told, but usually it happens after a number of months or years. Three weeks in, I think I am in the throes of a low-level China expat breakdown, right now.

I am displaying what are (I assume) the classic symptoms: generally hating everything, making gross generalisations about the country and its people, feeling rage and bitterness, finding comfort only in moaning about things with my fellow foreigners. My thoughts are going something like this: “I hate this place. I want to go home. I hate this place. I want to go home.” I knew that this country is governed by neither law nor reason and I prepared myself for the ridiculousness before I got here but my tolerance is wearing thinner and thinner as the smog gets thicker and thicker.

The trigger for this meltdown was leaving a hairdresser at 1.40am this morning, after a traumatic six-hour session in which my hair was dyed and washed five times because they messed up the colour so badly that I actually cried. Now it is in an acceptable state, but it was not worth it, at all, and not what I wanted. The people were actually very nice people, but terrible hairdressers.

It was definitely not a language problem because I could say what I wanted, plus I had a PHOTO. I knew already from previous bad experiences that it’s not a language barrier, it’s a stupidity barrier. They just don’t listen to you. This is why I brought photographs along… but OH NO even that wasn’t enough. A PHOTO breaks all language barriers, but the two massive, isolated, uneven blocks of bright yellow blond (with about an inch of brown roots) on either side of my otherwise brown hair looked nothing like the photograph. When, in my despair, I held up the photograph and tearfully asked them, again and again, if my hair looked anything like that, it was like they couldn’t hear me. They just kept asking what was wrong… er, HELLO? 

So, I feel like I’ve had it up to here with this place and its ridiculous ways. First, it fucked up my phone. Then, it fucked up my hair. Soon, it will probably fuck up my lungs and god knows what else to do with my health, considering I’m never sure of what I’m eating, or whether I can even really drink the bottled water. Nothing really terrible has happened, thankfully, but the accumulation of ludicrous, nonsensical occurrences everyday are grinding my determined patience down. I can’t even take a deep breath to calm myself down because I want to inhale as few pollutants as possible.

This is not a precious western princess’ tantrum because things are not as I like, and not going my way. I don’t have silly little complaints like “I don’t like the squatter toilets” or “Why are there no forks, only chopsticks”. I get shouted at virtually everyday by serving staff and it doesn’t even bother me (well, it does now that I’m having my breakdown. Shouted back at someone today). The loud spit-hocking sound amuses me more than anything; I share a room without complaint; I don’t throw a strop if I can’t understand some Chinese because I realise that’s my problem, not the Chinese people’s.

My frustrations are both everyday and political. China must be the only place in the world that is prejudiced against you if people think you are NOT a foreigner. The silly things that happen are not one-offs; this is the reality of living in China. The smog-ridden air is not a temporary issue. The inefficient, ridiculous and time-wasting administrative processes are here to stay.

Plus I don’t know what products they were using last night but my hair fucking stinks.

Choking in China

I woke up this morning with a smoker’s cough. I don’t smoke. Though this might have had more to do with the fact that the bar I spent my evening in last night was a gas chamber of cigarette smoke, there being no smoking ban in China. Still, the pollution levels last night rose to nightmare levels; literally the stuff of my nightmares, confirming that all my fears before coming here were true.

Looking at my Beijing air quality app on my phone, the current AQI reading is 367, labelled, “Hazardous: emergency conditions. The entire population is more likely to be affected“. Yesterday evening upon leaving class I was horrified enough to see it had gone over 290, but the number just kept on rising throughout the evening. It can be seen clearly in the air itself. No longer is the foggy mist something one sees on the horizon, obstructing views of far-off buildings. Now it is simply a fog in the air at ground level, hanging right in front of your face.

It is kind of difficult trying to breathe as little as possible. Today a wise choice would be to stay indoors, and not do anything that will increase your respiratory rate. Which is fine for me, as I plan to stay in and study but what if I had fancied doing some sport? Or just, y’know, taking a walk? I wore my mask last night; yeah I wore it on a night out, and I ought to have kept it on in the bar though that might have been a bit too weird. My first instinct upon seeing the PM2.5 reading and smog was: I want to go back to the UK. Give me overcast London! At least we know that the grey sky there is genuinely due to the rubbish weather, not pollution, and the air is positively “fresh” compared to here.

Yet even as I wade through the smog and keep my mouth resolutely closed, I am surprised to see nobody at all around me wearing masks. The Chinese people just seem oblivious. Perhaps they are so used to it that they don’t notice it or feel the effects? Or perhaps there is just sadly nothing they can do about the air that they breathe, and they must simply get on with their lives.

Digging my digs

I live in relative luxury here in my foreign student “apartotel” accommodation. The building is structured like a hotel, and my room is also like a hotel room – a twin hotel room. Yes, one thing I had been dreading for a long time was the prospect of having to share a room. The first dorm that I was put in was the oldest, dirtiest, dingiest block imaginable, with one ancient bathroom shared by the entire corridor. My roommate was a chatty Serbian girl, who was fun, but we both changed dorms at the first opportunity.

Now we have moved to a newly-renovated block on the other side of campus, where we still share rooms but we have our own bathroom at least, and everything is shiny and new – we even have a flatscreen TV! My new roommate is an older Thai lady, and I am so glad for it. The worst scenario, as a friend of mine put it, would have been “some loud, obnoxious 18-year-old”. My quiet, mature roommate and I rub along just fine, and it is actually kind of nice in some ways to know there is always someone there.

Despite the shared room situation, it’s the Savoy compared to Chinese students’ digs. They have about four people to a room, going up to eight sometimes, and those rooms aren’t big. If they are lucky their bathroom will be in the same building as their bedrooms. Otherwise, it’s a few minutes’ walk to a public bathroom in another building. That’s why I’m always seeing students walking across campus in their pyjamas and flip-flops, with plastic baskets containing their toiletries, and wet hair. So I am grateful for my opulent living quarters, for our easy-to-access bathroom, and even for the cleaning lady who comes in every morning to “clean”. This basically involves changing the bins and swiping a broom then a mop over the floor in the most cursory fashion; but I’m still grateful, and say “谢谢” every time.

Plus my block is right next to the canteens, which is a big plus. Especially as people seem to eat surprisingly early here – dinner starts being served from about 4.30pm, and the other evening while we were eating at 7pm in the deserted canteen, they turned the lights out over our heads, plunging us into darkness. I must also remember not to visit the nearby student supermarket at about 8pm, as that is apparently when all the students do some post-shower shopping and the place is rammed with students in their jim jams, stuffing groceries into their shower baskets.

Above all I’m just grateful that, unlike last summer, I don’t have a curfew.  

I just realised I’m illiterate

This is one of those instances when you come to a sudden, often unwelcome, moment of self-realisation. Luckily for me it is laced with ironic humour, but the fact of the matter is: in Chinese, I am illiterate. I am not even on a par with my fellow Chinese-learners who know as many (or as little) characters as I do, because I can speak Chinese “fluently”. It might descend into pidgin Chinese or Chinglish at times, but as long as the conversation doesn’t veer off into unfamiliar vocab territory, I could pass for a southern Chinese girl (southern accent thanks to my southern mother and Taiwanese father).

We all have to do a lot of adjusting here in China, and much of that involves modifying our own perceptions of ourselves. For my white friends I imagine it means getting used to suddenly becoming a minority, probably for the first time in their lives. I don’t know, I cannot speak for them. I know for myself, I am stuck in a weird kind of limbo. Sure in England I am a “minority”, and this has often resulted in negative treatment or situations, but I have never particularly felt that I needed everyone to know that I speak English, or to look white to get that across. Here, I feel like if I just looked like a 老外 (foreigner) it would actually make my life a lot simpler.

The sad fact is, foreigners are treated differently to Chinese people: better. Often with more regard and respect. As a foreigner, I feel kind of entitled to the same treatment – minus the staring and photo-taking, please. Am I not British after all, with English as good as (if not arguably better than some) English people? But of course everyone assumes at first glance that I am a local, and I am disregarded as one of the masses. It is quite sad to be treated as a sub-human compared to my fellow expats, when we are on the same level.

On a broader level I have a massive problem with the very fact that foreigners are treated better than locals. Is that not the reverse of my own country, and many others? Of course racism in any form is unacceptable, but it makes a lot more sense to take care of your own and shun outsiders, than the other way round. It is tragic that I am finally in a place where I blend in and look like everyone else… yet I am worse off for it. It is a result of a system that does not care for its own people, but reveres foreigners, and it’s sad.

Still. Used as I am to a democracy, educated as I have been to think for myself and critically analyse, privileged I have been to enjoy freedom of speech and thought all my life, and a First Class graduate I may be, here in China… I am an illiterate. My relative cerebral liberty and perception count for nought in day-to-day life, because all my cognition happens in English, and my lofty political ideals are not going to help me when I walk into a restaurant and can’t read the menu, nor when I am trying to do something as simple as sign up for dance classes but cannot read the timetable.

We have come to China, and we have no choice but to get used to it quickly. Whatever and whoever we were back home can disappear in a second, because at home we are not. The ugliest, stupidest loser back home can become a girl magnet here simply by virtue of being white. An (ahem) intelligent, educated girl like I can become a stuttering, illiterate fool. I know most of my fellow expats get annoyed when nobody speaks English, or when their heavily accented Chinese is not understood, but we should understand that here, we adjust to China, not the other way around. If we don’t like something, the entire country is not going to bend its back to suit our 老外 wishes. If I’m illiterate, I damn well better learn to read some Chinese.

An overview of the madness

My eleventh day in Beijing, and as expected all manner of madness and ridiculousness has reigned over my first two weeks. We have two days off school for the Moon Festival, so I finally have a moment to sit quietly and reflect. The worst thing that has happened by far was learning that my phone, which I had (unwisely) left in a small phone shop to be unlocked, had been locked to China, everything wiped from it and the functions all changed. Which, soul-rattling and tiresome though it was, is not actually that bad when you think about it. I’m still in one piece, my lungs still function, I haven’t had any food poisoning and now have unobstructed Internet access (Facebook! Yay!)

I could go on for a long time about the absurd bureaucracy, nonsensical processes, interminable waiting times and plain craziness that characterised my first week, which was composed almost exclusively of trying to sort out my school registration and general life (bank account, etc), and in which my only joy and relief came from eating Chinese food. But I won’t. It is the same story for all foreign students; we have all had our various woes and tribulations as we try to navigate the insanity of settling down in China. Indeed I have the distinct advantage of being able to (kind of) understand and speak Chinese, the lack of which makes life a lot more complicated for my peers, many of whom have been shocked by how few people speak English. Well, we’re in China dears…

My worst pollution fears were true but, probably because I am from London, I can’t say I feel any effects right now. Though there was that one day last week when the PM2.5 scale went over 200, and that I could feel in the air. It was the one and only time so far I put on my filtered mask. However, though the pollution is visible pretty much everyday, with a thick layer of smog hanging constantly over the horizon, I very rarely see people wearing masks.

There is much joking and commenting amongst us international students about the food we are eating, and whether we are really eating what we think we are. We have all read and heard too many horror stories about the food safety (or lack of) here to not be somewhat wary about certain foods (meat especially). At the same time, you gotta eat, so we’re stuffing our faces with… whatever it is, even as we darkly speculate. And anyway, it is pure joy to be able to eat Chinese food at every meal; it is delicious and cheap, cheap, cheap so this food dichotomy is something I prefer not to think about.

On the bright side, my teachers so far seem pretty decent, though the newspaper-reading class is going to be a challenge. The campus is in a really nice part of town; there are so few people in the surrounding streets and it is so peaceful that it almost doesn’t feel like China. This means that, unlike last summer, there are basically no bars and clubs around, and fewer restaurants, which says to me: fewer temptations and more study. In my old age I consider that a good thing. Also taxi rides are an almost daily occurrence, as the price is roughly equivalent to one ride on the tube in London (that’s with an Oyster card).

The need for me to learn Chinese has never been more urgent. Being surrounded by it everyday and being mistaken for a Chinese everyday, makes me realise how much I have to learn, and how awkward and retarded I sound sometimes, and how ludicrous it is when I ask a waiter, in perfect Chinese, to read the entire menu to me because I can’t do it myself (I did that last night). How preposterous it seems to turn to my white friend, mid-conversation with a Chinese person, to ask for vocabulary, or the meaning of a character.

There is still much more that needs to be written. I haven’t even got started on how sharing a room has been treating me, how I seem to be collecting Americans (they probably represent about 70% of the people I meet here), and how I can once again feel myself turning Chinese