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

Truths and Tragedy of Tiananmen. Chimerica: A Review

For a reason unbeknownst to me, last night I suddenly decided that I HAD to go to the theatre soon. As a sophisticated Londoner (hem hem) I would like to be able to say that spontaneous theatre (pronounced thee-ah-ter, dahling) trips are a twice-monthly occurrence, but sadly my budget does not normally allow it. Nevertheless, it was with feverish enthusiasm that I found myself scouring the West End listings at random, when I came across a bizarrely named play, Chimerica. I found out later that this was a portmanteau of “China” and “America”, though I was saying “chimera” in my head at first (typical).

Only the rave reviews made me stop and investigate, and that was when I felt it must have been the theatre gods who imbued me with the sudden urge to visit the theatre, because the timing seemed all but numinous. In my last week (yes, one week now!) before China, I randomly decide to go to the theatre and stumble across a play about, well, China! Not a common phenomenon in the West End, at least not in my consciousness (though to be fair, it is a play just as much about America).

Chimerica Top Price Ticket and 2 Course Meal at Le Caprice - only £75 Tickets at The Harold Pinter Theatre, London,

Chimerica, written by Lucy Kirkwood, covers too many things to fit into a post, but in the most elementary, simplistic terms, the story tells of an American photojournalist, who was one of the photographers to capture the picture of the “tank man” during the Tiananmen Massacre on 4 June 1989. Two decades later, a mysterious coded message in a newspaper renews his fascination for the anonymous, heroic figure and he begins an obsessive search for him, throwing the lives of friends, colleagues and strangers, both in China and the US, into disarray. On the way we get some insight into American and Chinese politics, the world of journalism, and lots more besides.

You can read the various reviews out there online to get the expert critics’ opinion (all effulgent) on the razor-sharp dialogue, slick production (great use of a round, rotating stage) and complex, multi-layered structure. You can trust that all these things captivated me, too. Yet what really struck me was the awful, heart-rending truthfulness and relevance of the portrayal of the Chinese characters’ lives: Zhang, the middle-aged English teacher living alone in his apartment in Beijing, widowed at the age of 20 at Tiananmen, and haunted by the spectre of his late wife and their former political idealism. His neighbour, a 59-year-old lady who looks ten years older, a former poster girl for the Party, dying from “Beijing lung”. The illegal immigrant couple in New York, who know something about the photo but just want to live in peace and get by. The young Chinese journalist who unwittingly allowed the secret message to be published in the paper, who is black-marked forever, and has to work as a stripper to make money.

All these tragic personages are testament to one, sole, solid, ringing, tragic fact: they are victims of a government that does not care about its people. That does not even pretend to. I found myself mutely applauding with the rest of the audience at the play’s abrupt and shocking end, trying to control my lacrimation. I left the matinée performance in a daze, my head filled with what I had just seen, only coming to when I came within inches of being run over by a rickshaw (his fault, not mine!)

Hours later, in the evening, when other things had taken over my mind, I found myself sobbing under the shower at the sudden memory of Zhang’s (played to perfection by Benedict Wong) almost childlike breaking down after both being tortured and reliving the events of the massacre. I knew then I had to write about it. This is a play that manages to be hugely funny (the audience were laughing out loud throughout), yet equally serious and moving; informative (you’ll learn a lot about modern China), sophisticated but accessible, political yet personal. It is a tour de force of sensitive, skilled and imaginative writing and performing. Plus it was nice to see some Chinese people on stage for once!

If it is at all possible for you, I urge you to go see this play. If not, as one journalist said, it will probably be studied in schools in years to come, so you might come into contact with the text anyway. Productions like this need to be seen by many; more than the limited crowd that has the means to go to the theatre in London. Writing like this deserves all the praise Kirkwood is getting. Stories like this might shake you up out of your ensconced, comfortable little world to count your western blessings.