I have always been an extremely careful road-crosser. When it is painted on the road to “look right” I also look left anyway. The lesson of “stop, look and listen” which was drilled into us in primary school actually still circulates in my head every time I step off the pavement. Well, that was until I came here. I won’t deny that the first time I went out walking alone in the streets I was slightly traumatised at the madness that was the immense width of the roads, the illimitable number of cars and bicycles (Beijingers are big on bikes) whizzing by in every direction and the seeming disregard for traffic lights and any kind of highway code.

But I noticed that while I was dithering and scampering back and forth from the pavement, my fellow pedestrians were dauntlessly weaving their way through the traffic. I realised very fast that I was never getting anywhere until I abandoned my sensible British road-crossing personality for some brazen Chinese nonchalance, pronto. Chinese traffic is sheer chaos; throw in a huge population on foot, and rather a lot of pollution and you have to learn to get used to it very quickly or never leave the house.

Cars and bikes passing a hair’s breadth next to my bare flesh? Meh, I became desensitized by my second day. You just learn to take a very blasé attitude to dangerous road-crossing behaviour. Nowadays I take it easy crossing the road; if I see a car or bike coming toward me, I don’t even bother picking up my pace like I would back home. I constantly see people ambling casually along the length of a large main road without a backward glance while a car trails slowly along, inches behind them. Now, if a car is speeding toward me, beeping loudly, I’m more likely to give the driver some attitude than hurry myself. I’m actually becoming quite rude, but that’s survival in China, and I’ll save my deteriorating manners for another post…


I ♥ BJ

Photo on 25-07-2012 at 15.56

I think this T-shirt pretty much speaks for itself, and I hesitated for a long time before buying one out of sheer prudery.

The thing is, I don’t think most people here get the joke. How do I know this? Because I have seen several people (mostly guys) wearing it. Now, I know I shouldn’t judge by appearances, but they didn’t seem like they knew what they were sporting. Indeed, the other day when I saw a Chinese guy wearing one and asked a Spanish friend if he thought the guy knew the T-shirt’s meaning, the reply was a scoffed, “Pfft, of course not, look at him!” Not my words…

I suppose it’s not an English-speaking country, so the joke goes over most people’s heads. I bought mine at a stall by the Great Wall accompanied by above Spaniard who didn’t understand my hesitation, until I explained the double entendre. The French girl who sits with me in class had “I ♥ BJ” as the wallpaper of her iPhone. Needless to say, she didn’t know the hidden meaning either, until I translated.

So it’s not only the Chinese who don’t get it. I wonder just how many people around the world have bought one of these T-shirts home from a tourist site in China, and are wearing it in all innocence, thinking it simply means that they had a really (really) good time in Beijing?

I’m living in a nunnery

I live in a little dorm on campus, where we are under the constant surveillance of several small but severe Chinese ladies. We also, as I mentioned earlier, have a midnight curfew… this is something incomprehensible to me. I have never in my life had a curfew of any form, and now, at the age of 22, I am being told that I have to come home before midnight, or wait till 6am before I can enter my building. Apparently we are allowed to knock on the door after midnight a maximum of three times to wake the concierge and be let in before being mercilessly evicted.

It doesn’t end there. We have a reception which we have to walk past every time we enter and leave the building, and the ladies know everyone who lives here so any non-habitants are instantly recognisable. Today when I brought a boy over, the concierge actually asked for his PASSPORT, and said that they would return it to him when he left! When, after I had recovered from laughing, I asked why, she pointed to a sign on the wall outlining the stringent restrictions on visitors, including how they have to leave a form of ID at reception and be gone by 10pm. I couldn’t be bothered to explain (above all in Chinese) that he wouldn’t be staying for 10 minutes, let alone till 10pm, as we were simply undergoing the very unromantic exchange of toilet paper… Yet they said nothing at reception the other day when I had a female friend over for a few hours. Nunnery much?

Yet this is not strange for a Chinese university, where usually girls and boys are completely separated into different buildings. There are definitely boys living in this block, so I guess they’re easing the rules for the foreign summer school students. We are racking our brains to find ways around these constraints. We can crash at friends’ places where there are no curfews, but it’s hardly ideal. Maybe we should scout out some weak spots in the building, perhaps some large cracks in the wall or unlocked doorways through which we can sneak…

In the homeland, far from home

So here I am in Beijing, capital of the most populous country in the world, where I shall be living and studying Chinese for the next five weeks on an intensive course at Beijing Language and Culture University. I have been put in a class with a load of fellow bananas (yellow on the outside, white on the inside); in other words, people like me, who are ethnically Chinese but grew up in other countries and languages. What with going to class every morning and my own en suite room on campus, it’s just like being at university again… except I have an actual television for the first time in my student life, and a midnight curfew (!) for the first time in my entire life. More about that later…

China is big, to put it mildly, and though I come from a big city myself, Beijing is of ridiculous proportions: the density of the population is unimaginable. It does make one feel rather null and void as a human being, particularly a Chinese-looking human being. There are so many other people that saying one feels slightly insignificant doesn’t really begin to cover it.

Yet there is something comforting about looking around and seeing a load of other people who kind of look like you; it’s not a sensation I’m used to. You feel less unique, but more at home. It’s the white people who stand out here, though there are a lot of foreigners in Beijing, particularly the university quarter where I am staying. Anyway, it’s not that easy for me to blend in seamlessly with the locals when I am speaking English and/or French in a group of foreigners and people just want to take photos of them.

Though I am here to learn the language, with only four hours of class a day, a hugely diverse student community and a great big historical Chinese city to explore, studying is already starting to slip further down the agenda, and I haven’t even been here a week. This is not my first time in China, but I am still European (read: whitewashed) in many ways, so there are various amusing/confusing/surprising things that occur most days; I don’t think I’ll be short of blogging material.

Week one, and I can’t read or write Chinese, though people keep asking me to read things for them. Most of the non-Chinese students here seem able to read more characters than I can, though none of them can speak Chinglish quite like I can. It’s a start.