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


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