This Time It’s Different

I am slightly ashamed to admit that when I came to work in Hong Kong in my twenties I was not that into the people. At the time I was fond of saying that if you took the Taiwanese – all nice manners and cultured – and put them in Hong Kong it would be the best city in the world.

The other evening I met a German man who had travelled here from Dusseldorf solely to experience the protests. Political agitator, you may think. But he came because he was amazed at the behaviour of the protestors: their passive and peaceful approach to fomenting change. He spent a week talking to them and was leaving even more impressed.

In the past few years my experiences of HK, and the Cantonese Hong Kongers, have changed. I listen more. I smile more. I interact more. I have come to appreciate the people here as playful, mostly polite, and straightforward. Much of this has to do with my own approach. (My German friend said, baldly, “you’ve aged”). But some of it also has to do with HK’s post handover trials: abandonment by the British and subsequent soul searching, the Asia crisis, and SARS which prompted China to realise that HK was valuable to them, inspired the Closer Economic Partnership Aagreement and spurred Hong Kong to new levels of prosperity. SARS also precipitated an unprecedented campaign for the service industry to be more welcoming and, well, to actually offer some service.

Those efforts bore fruit. Hong Kong has become more “civilised”, the chorus of hawking that used to greet the dawn is more sporadic and less wide-spread, and people are more courteous in public places – albeit without the niceties of over worked manners.

But this prosperity and civility has come with tensions. As Hong Kongers have become more urbane and generally better off, so China has created more wealthy citizens, eager to experience the world and buy new toys. Of obvious fascination is Hong Kong: Chinese and yet…different. Hong Kong has become a glass and water theme park in which the rich and fortunate mainlander can escape the suffocating grey of the mainland.

The advent of trophy seekers from north of the border has been positive for HK’s economy. Tourism and retails sales have boomed and house prices have soared, decoupling from the stock market which, by comparison, has been stagnant since the financial crisis.

But despite the benefits to Hong Kong of slipstreaming China’s economy, the gaps between the city’s own people have widened. The divide between rich and poor has deepened. The prospects for HK’s youth have darkened as they struggle to compete with competition from the mainland. For the ten thousand or so university graduates produced by the territory this year, China is expected to produce around 7 million. Mandarin is mostly more desirable for multinationals using Hong Kong as a China springboard.

So as much as the Umbrella Movement is about democracy (and the students are at pains to stress it is not about politics), it is also, beneath that, about a desire for a better future. London’s rioting youth could tell them that democracy is not a panacea; the outlook for twenty-somethings in many countries is equally troubled. But at the very least, the students want a fairer system, and greater accountability for HK’s leaders. Despite the short term disruption this is causing, the majority should welcome that. If nothing else, they should be proud that their protesters are reminding the world how change can be achieved with dignity.

Travel is for what’s along the way

As a farewell present, one of my classmates gave me a book he has published containing the title above. I fail to translate it adequately but, more smoothly, it equates to “travel is about the journey.” I read the foreword when I got home after our leaving dinner. His former high school headmaster plaintively queried why China’s youth don’t find their own country interesting to travel around any longer and would prefer to go overseas. My classmate it turns out is one of the exceptions. He was also top student in China in 2009 and won local headlines in 2013 for his efforts helping migrant workers book tickets home from Beijing during overcrowded holiday periods.

Though I wouldn’t know this without the gift of his book, the gesture was not as self-aggrandising as it may seem. He sidled up to me at the dinner and asked if I had a bag handy as he had a present for me. This in itself was unexpected since we haven’t spoken much this year, partly because I sensed it would tax my ability to communicate on his level, let alone in Mandarin. He hovered until I had retrieved my bag and waited until no one else was within earshot to fish out the signed book from his computer satchel and give it to me, covertly. It is about his travels around China and his encounters along the road.

I took a bus into school to deliver my final paper today. In my mind I was going to take a taxi but my legs took me to the bus stop and I realised I didn’t want to rush the drive anyway. Why hurry? The bus journey has mostly been one of the great joys of these few months of study. ‘Mostly’ because of course in the pouring rain in freezing January it was slightly less fun, but then I felt I was missing nothing by cabbing it instead. Sitting on the top deck in the front seat most days, then, has provided me with time to think, read or just gaze out of the window at the scenery.

Thanks to this time I now know what I am missing by rushing from A to B; the minutes given instead to “doing” at either end feels stolen from a longer journey during which you have a bit more time to “be.” Sometimes as I stand at the bus stop and close my world down to the immediate surroundings, denying the knowledge of the road beyond, the village behind, the town at the end of the road, I think I could be on an island in the Philippines, or Malaysia, or Thailand – any one of those holiday places where I feel like I am at a resort in the tropics. My village bus stop is a resort in the tropics.

The stops along the way seem arbitrary to one who misses the narrow concrete paths snaking into villages hidden by the tropical forest. At the most frequented path heads cluster packs of mongrel chairs presumably donated by local rubbish bins. As we burst out of the trees the distant lumpen hills darkly separate grey sea from grey sky and in the foreground the sugar cube village houses spill down to the water’s edge. In a taxi it is still beautiful to wind through the forest but you miss the fish farms and the islands in the bay. I can honestly say I have begrudged not a minute of my time on public transport this year. Plus, I worked out, I “earn” GBP5/hour for not taking a cab. Great wage for just being.

From the sublime to the ridiculous: tonight I get into a big metal tube and fly over six thousand miles. At the other end I will get out into a different world and a different life populated by people quite alien to the world in Hong Kong. I will have passed over millions of souls and avoided interaction with countless cultures. I may see a few fish farms as I leave and the Thames estuary as I arrive (I’m on the wrong side for the Shard, rats) but in between the world below me will be brown, green and blue if I am lucky and white if I am not. One day I would like to take that trip overland. For now I shall just have to hope that the person next to me doesn’t snore. We travel for what is along the road.

Age Before Beauty

Last night after class I found myself somewhat unexpectedly dispensing relationship advice to one of my young classmates. This is either funny or tragic I suppose: I could hardly be considered a poster child for relationship expertise but I guess I’ve been through a few breakups in my time so at least I could empathise with her distress. Only on her second attempt, the first one binned her; now she is discovering that whether one is binner or binnee it is never easy. The good news is she is a pretty girl and I witnessed some Australians eagerly chatting her up on our first day at school last year: at least she will have options. I was sure to point this out since the angst of youthful love lost can often obscure this fact (not, I hasten to add, by saying “oh, get over it: you’re only 22”).

I have gained an appreciation of “the young” from my year of study. Happily I have also gained a greater appreciation of the experience and perspective that come with age. We had a brainstorming session in class the other week. It involved “coming up with” the major events of the 70-90s. Aside from my contribution that I was born at the beginning and they at the end, I realized that the “history” they were dredging up from their limited knowledge of unsanctioned CCP myth were events that I had lived through.

It’s not just their politically skewed education that dulls their appreciation of the past; I suspect young Western students wouldn’t really grasp the significance of the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break up of the USSR in quite the same way as those of us who lived through it. And even we were too young perhaps to appreciate it as much as our parents.

Just as my generation knows about WW2, we haven’t lived it: it is not embodied in our consciousness, it’s a collective experience handed down to us by our parents. My father often says that the US doesn’t fully comprehend war since generations of Americans have not had to fight on their own soil. It is always something that happens far away and unseen but for the TV images. Unless you have family involved it could just as easily be Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers.

This Chinese leadership is probably the last that will have a personal recollection of experiencing the Cultural Revolution as adults. Actually if you look at China’s modern history she has undergone a cataclysmic event every ten years or so this century. Since the founding of the PRC alone they have had the Great Leap, the Cultural Revolution, Deng’s Reform and Opening, Tiananmen.. It’s only my classmates’ generation that has not experienced major political upheaval. The jiulinghou (post 90s) will have a different outlook on life even than the balinghou (post 80s and the beginnings of the one child “little emperors”).

So far for the generation of my classmates the seminal event has been the financial crisis. For China it has been a coming of age, for the West a reality check. The collective trauma associated with this for the rioting youth in London is quite different from the opportunity to indulge their curiosity now enjoyed by my fellow mainland students. They don’t seem particularly smug or especially advantaged by their country having “emerged”, they are just confident youths, let loose into the world and able to learn about events such as Tiananmen Square with the detachment of time and distance.

Inasmuch as their own traumatic history is still denied, never mind suppressed, China has a way to go. But the fact that these young adults have the freedom to leave and explore the world from Hong Kong is progress indeed. The People’s Republic of China, like life, has definitely improved with the passage of time.

What’s in a Name?

Actually quite a lot, I realised as I was putting together new metatags for my site, one of which is “from Great Britain to Greater China”; an apposite summation of the shifts of the last two hundred years.

Last term I had to write an essay concerning the European (or British, depending on your viewpoint) industrial revolution. More specifically we were asked to comment on a few of the main theses addressing China’s failure to industrialise in the same era.

In the interests of not reproducing the whole essay, suffice to say that there are a few camps suggesting, broadly: a) European/British systemic and cultural superiority provided a unique crucible; b) Chinese ecological constraints skewed the economy in such a way that population and economic pressures trapped society in an agrarian model for far longer (Europe faced similar pressures but bailed itself out through recourse to resources plundered from its imperial conquests); and c) natural cyclicality gave the West a brief moment of glory in a world that had previously been, and will again be, dominated by the East.

I found that everything I read was so tied up in either trying to prove, disprove, or override the cultural superiority argument (Western scholars as prevalent in the latter camp as the former) it was hard to find a definitive conclusion. The answer therefore is no single argument adequately explains all facets.

The whole exercise had one fairly concrete outcome in that it put me off pursuing an academic future. Doubtless not every discipline indulges in the same kind of vitriolic slanging matches, but I would hate for my life’s work to be reduced to a public argument regarding how many skeins of silk equate to how many bushels of rice. I would have to care too much about too little for it to engage me for long.

There is something relevant to all of this in my passage through Europe this Christmas, although I am still grappling with the connections. It seems to come back to the cultural superiority debate. Bizarrely, I got culture shock on the tube into London due to the multitude of languages, shapes, sizes and colours of people around me. True, London is an unusually international city, but after the homogeneity of even Hong Kong, “Asia’s World City”, it struck me quite forcibly.

For all the West is in relative economic decline and some might argue that Britain is now Great in name only, the constant rebirth of London’s cultural identity enabled by mixing old heritage with new immigrant influences is indeed globally exceptional, even when compared with the American “melting pot” (and don’t get me started on segregation issues across the pond). China for its part tries to “Hanify” even their own Chinese ethnic minorities.

My Chinese friends seem baffled when I ask them whether or not a white child born in Beijing to European parents and raised through the Chinese education system speaking Mandarin would be considered Chinese, or allowed a Chinese passport. Perhaps until this ceases to be a strange question China’s culture will not have the open architecture that allows for worldwide embrace. Until then, China may remain merely “Greater” rather than definitively great.

Social Disharmony

I used to be a huge fan of Glee when it first came out: a bunch of supposed teenagers (the actors are all in their twenties and thirties) leaping about and singing songs of various cheesiness though the corridors and halls of their school. I’m a bit over it now – short attention span that does not last beyond two series – so it’s been all the more annoying the last few weeks to find myself on the set, but without the talent.

All over campus gangs of society gear-clad students (don’t ask me what societies – anything from skateboarding and particle physics to stamp collecting for all I know) have been assaulting my senses with handclapping, footstomping, choral shouting performances. This morning’s blue and white assembly leapt into formation as I emerged from the MTR, forcing baffled and startled commuters to scurry out of their orbit, with shouts of – shouts of what? “Voucher!”? “Batcher!”? Your guess is as good as mine. They were still at it as I rounded a corner 3 minutes up the road and mercifully out of earshot.

My mother has charged me with being crotchetty and old. Unfair, given I am turning 28 on Saturday (the eagle-eyed might spot that this is the same age as last year, but that is because at 27 I still wished to appear older. I am now comfortable with my age). To test this theory I asked my American control subject, a 20-something male classmate (the only American plus a minority male, but beggars can’t be choosers), what he thought about this ritual assault on the senses.

Actually, I didn’t have to ask. We were standing at the bottom of an escalator, innocently having a chat about his desire to study international relations outside the US (heretic, to his American classmates: who on earth would go abroad to study such a thing when the best schools are all at home? It explains a bit about Madeleine Albright, who surprised me on a few fronts in a recent telecast I saw, but I digress) when yet another gang of orange T-shirts and knee high luminous socks came clapping and chanting from around the back of the building where they had been skulking. We remained where we stood, continuing our conversation – me not wanting to appear crotchety and old and very much feeling it – until he broke mid sentence and said “Can we move? I can’t stand this stuff”. “Hallelujah!” cried I. Score 1 for my youth and tolerance.

I had been pondering for at least a week what he might think about these flashmobs. Given my Glee watching fervour in the early days, naturally I thought all high school Americans prance through a youth full of singing and dancing people, therefore maybe he would think it was normal. However I did have a nagging suspicion that, by university at least, even the Americans might be too cool for this stuff.

“Lame” was his word.

So it’s not just me being crotchety and old. Happy Birthday to me, youth preserved.

My Beautiful Life

One of my friends recently remarked that I seem to spend a lot of time running and arguing, so for something completely different I went for a kayak last week and I’m not going to write anything about politics today. However if you are sitting at a desk in the UK my ode to Hong Kong might be even more annoying.

The weather here has been quite stunning the last few weeks, ever since the super typhoon brushed past with barely a raindrop shed. Mid October and 27 degrees with blue skies every day seems almost wrong, but it hasn’t stopped me from working on the roof or at the garden table thus keeping my tan alive.

Last Thursday was a perfect day-in-the-life, following on many days which were also not too shabby. I woke, read my book in my student reading pit and eventually rolled out to greet the blue and green of a day warmed to just the right temperature and dry. Oooh, dilemma: to read in the garden or on the roof? The roof won by a few metres of vantage point but I discovered it really is impossible to read about China’s New Generation of Leaders with a mountain trail behind you and a beach in front. Try it.

In any event I failed and lest I be stuck on the roof all day dithering about whether to go up the hill or down to the sea, I turned to the Coin of Decision. The sea won, which is surprising since I’d have thought The Coin would know how much I hate sand but clearly it spotted a moment of opportunity.

So I packed my beach bag and headed down to the water to get grit in the pages of my book. The beach was utterly empty (as you’d expect in the middle of a working day) but for the little man hawking his kayak hours. In the interests of market research for visitors I grabbed a paddle and headed out to one of the many islands in the bay for even more peace than the beach offered. Shingle beach, blue sky, green islands, book on politics: bliss.

I managed an hour before the sand got the better of me and the (ancient) kayak chap broke my idyll with a paddle-past for a gawk at me sunning myself in my bikini. Most unusual in Hong Kong I have to say but I guess that was his aim since when I whipped on my sun dress he abruptly did a U turn. At least it galvanised me into action.

Back to shore and into town then, where I ambled through the back end of our village for a coffee. Down there the marine mechanic works up to his elbows in black engine grease next door to the Green Earth Society which sells everything from organic pet shampoo to neem bark toothpaste. It seems it is gentrifying a bit, given the interior design shops also squeezing into tiny shopfronts, but the engine man will always have work from the local fishermen, whose wares in turn hang from people’s windows and balconies to dry in the sun.

The place is Hong Kong encapsulated: rammed with tourists, flashy and dirty, luxury goods and grimy services, water and hills and lots and lots of noise and smells. Just perfect really.

New Perspectives

As I ran around our local athletics stadium last night, overlooked by a range of Hong Kong mountains, I thought of my urban concrete box in London. I’m just back from a weekend in the beautiful Cotswolds but it’s in one of the world’s most densely populated cities that I live 3 minutes from the nearest vehicular access and ten minutes walk from the nearest tarmacked road. The path I take home has passing spaces for people; wild pigs and feral cows rootle about in the undergrowth. It’s not how most people think of Hong Kong and this time around it’s all the better for me getting to enjoy it on student hours.

I bumped into a classmate on her way to the university library yesterday. She was off to dig out some books, excited that she gets to read so much in Hong Kong for which she would be disciplined in China. Given my own internet surveillance experiences and inability to buy anything vaguely critical about the CCP on my Kindle I shouldn’t have been surprised. In these days of Chinese abroad it seems somewhat Quixotic to ban books onshore, but she has friends whose bags have been searched as they cross the border at Shenzhen and any contraband books removed. I wonder how they choose their targets or indeed their books: in 1990 I bought George Orwell’s 1984 in the Beijing Foreign Languages bookstore and read it with a weird feeling like I was living the movie, but not in the good way you get in New York.

My friend seems to have had more than her fair share of Big Brother experiences: as recently as 2007, aged sixteen, she and a group of classmates on a school trip to Taiwan were shadowed by a Party spook. Subsequently at university she got hauled into the university dean’s office one day to explain what she had been doing jumping the Great Firewall via a VPN. She was only trying to get onto Facebook to say hi to her friends. Such a heavy handed response, needless to say, can have the opposite to the desired effect.

She went to university while Chongqing was governed by Bo Xilai. While he acquitted himself well in court and has a reasonable base of support among the Chongqing populace, she detests him. Under his regime, university students were woken at 5am to sing revolutionary songs before class; in the holidays they were sent down to work on farms. A new generation of students in the modern day receiving a Cultural Revolution education is a scary thought and explains why the moderates were so keen to get rid of him: he threatened the status quo both by his actions and his popularity with the common man.

My classmate says her peers are not very politically motivated and she can’t discuss politics with her parents as they are pretty pro the Party. She does seem to have some views of her own, unlike the broad swathe of students who have been deliberately depoliticised by the Party. Still in split pants they are taught “I love my parents, I love my country and I love the communist party”, enough to put anyone off more in depth investigation.

But in spite of their best efforts, or perhaps because of them, the Party is politicising some of this generation after all. Still, the numbers remain too few to make a difference. The girls in one of my study groups chorus “we are not critical thinkers”, rather like the followers of Monty Python’s Brian protest their individuality. Mostly, they are intrigued by the stories they are now hearing about torture and repression in their system, but not outraged and possibly even slightly incredulous. One of the few boys in class said he thinks China is too big to have a workable democracy.

So far, the improving opportunities presented to the Chinese society are working as intended: no one wants to fix what ain’t obviously broke. It also seems unlikely that the rampant corruption currently under fire will be the Party’s downfall even if they fail to stem it: ever since 1949 the leadership has had campaign after campaign to prevent that rot from spreading. Each time they fail by any long term measure but they always manage to find a way to shore up their legitimacy anyway, usually by injecting a few more economic sedatives.

I sit in my comparative politics class and make typically Western-biased comments about the Chinese regime, but it’s been remarkably tenacious and wins grudging respect from democracies – albeit often motivated by economic pragmatism – despite their ideological differences. With the US currently an example of how democracy doesn’t work, it looks like nothing will change in China any time soon.

Politically Correct

Two weeks into term and mainly I’ve been trying not to panic at the length of the reading list while choosing courses which will interest me but not increase said list unduly. Pity my classmates for whom English is not their mother tongue. The programme being modular and inter disciplinary we have our pick of any subject from Anthropology through Economics to Marketing including topics as diverse as intercultural negotiation and East Asian Film. Unsurprisingly a lot of them are going for the film options.

Aside from the content of the course, it’s been interesting to notice how some of the lecturers have learned to tie themselves in knots in order not to upset nationalistic tendencies. An anthropology professor told us last week how an American student had stomped out of her lecture last year when she suggested that the US was a fairly indiscriminate user of surveillance technology. He exemplified her observation that interpretations vary markedly depending on your perspective; her own impartiality slipped as she expressed Schadenfreude at the student’s imagined discomfort when Snowden spilled the beans.

Americans can be quite defensive but Chinese sensitivities can go to similar levels and prompted our history professor to “prepare us psychologically” for the topic of the Diaoyu islands when it arises. The course is Sino-Japanese history and he knows from experience that this territorial dispute is a tinderbox for the passions of the average mainland student. His groundwork included showing news footage of high profile Japanese who had made conciliatory gestures to China in recent months; a clear effort to show that they’re not all bad but I wish him luck with that lecture. He also set out early to debunk CCP mythology, starting by branding CCP histories from the Sino-Japanese and civil war era as propaganda. For good measure he stuck it to the KMT’s propaganda, too, though he pointed out that the latter’s version – in which the KMT beat off the Japanese while the CCP harassed their compatriot rivals – was probably more credible given that the KMT lost significantly more officers against the Japanese than the CCP.

My classmates have been as interesting as the professors. I’ll be choosing mostly politics and economics courses; in just the first two weeks the gaps in the students education of their own history and politics are striking. To be fair at the same age I wasn’t much interested in UK politics but in China there is a much wider reach of political and especially international relations awareness, not least due to a high degree of political indoctrination; the students know plenty, but it’s all the sanitised version. The politically apathetic have no knowledge beyond what they’ve been told and the CCP has done a very good job of creating a generation of politically apathetic students.

Unsurprisingly, if somewhat contradictorily then, many of them have raved about the Human Rights and International Relations course, which I had automatically written off: I’ve heard enough about China’s human rights record and its subjugation to economic opportunity. My classmates love it partly because the teacher, from what I can glean, is very energetic and engaging. I’m guessing they also find it fascinating because they haven’t come across much of the content before. The two slides about torture of a Chinese dissident in prison didn’t do it for me; I don’t need confirmation that the processes are inhuman if you happen to get on the wrong side of the bully boys.

One of my classmates however doesn’t want to take the course, purely for pragmatic reasons. She is a beautifully spoken, very attractive girl who read media studies for her undergraduate degree. She said she fears that if she learned the truth her illusions would be shattered, she would probably become a dissident and her career hopes would be ruined. Better that she does not know the truth so that she can maintain a politically correct stance for as long as she is reporting. When she’s done with that career though, she will open her eyes.

Another classmate said she wants to take the Sino-Japan relations history module because she’s particularly interested in the unique aspects of citizenry diplomacy that exist between the two countries: her grandmother was Japanese. Having spent a bit more time on international relations lately and despite the fact that maybe it should always have been obvious, I suddenly realise quite how conflicted an identity this must produce. We had a classmate at Tsinghua who was ethnically Chinese but raised in Japan by his Chinese parents who spoke Japanese and a Chinese dialect at home. He only spoke Japanese. I remember my forthright Chinese alter ego asking him wasn’t he confused culturally and which did he see himself as? He fell silent, looking quite upset. I wished I had been a bit more tactful about an issue clearly fundamental to his sense of identity.

He seemed to get on well with the local Tsinghua students – maybe the prodigal son – but my new quarter Japanese classmate told me she studied Japanese as an undergraduate module and her friends all strongly criticised her for it. She seems relieved she can now study what she wants without being judged unpatriotic.

I Am Never (Ever Ever) Coming Back…

Well, I’m back in HK again. Again. I’ve spent the few days since my arrival sorting out my visa, which unhelpfully arrived the wrong side of the border the wrong side my my arrival, and finding my way around my new digs. I say digs – a great friend has given me her son’s room now he’s overseas at university. I live overlooking paddy fields towards the sea, my commute begins along a path through the jungle and is followed by two bus journeys. From the top deck of the bus I see fish farms, mountains, islands, the sea. The whole thing takes an hour but it’s a world away from any commute I’ve had previously and it’s all for fun.

This week I’ve also attended two orientation classes at my new university, the Chinese University of Hong Kong. As several people have independently remarked when I’ve told them where I’ll be studying: it’s a very beautiful campus. Set in lush vegetation on a steep hill, it’s a bit challenging for a high summer day in the tropics and I found myself more disorientated than orientated by the end of a day trying spent to find my bearings in 3D.

The lecture hall was already full by the time I arrived, the welcome speeches introducing the university campus and learning facilities to postgraduates well underway in English. There were oohs and waahs when one of the lecturers introduced himself first in Cantonese, then English and finally Mandarin. I’ll be pressing three for Mandarin please.

If the predominance of mainland Chinese students at Wednesday’s sessions were not proof enough, yesterday I attended the introduction for the Masters course. Most of the hour was given over for the students to introduce ourselves. After the first girl had given her spiel I thought I’d count the mainlanders. Actually I’d have been less busy if I’d counted the foreigners instead: of the sixty or so on the course, around fifty are from China proper. All of them introduced themselves in English; I mixed it up by introducing myself in Mandarin.

The format had been “my name is [insert two or three syllable Chinese name here] but you can call me [insert English name here]. I studied xxx at yyy university and I come from [insert Chinese city here]“. I must confess I was a bit surprised that I didn’t get much reaction from my expertly delivered “Hello everyone, my name is Ke Ling but you can call me Lucy” (let’s face it, that bit should be expert by now). Sticking to script I continued that I had graduated from Cambridge at which a few heads finally turned and a waaah went up. It only occurred to me much later that maybe until then they had thought I was a strangely accented Chinese chick who couldn’t speak English.

We bonded over a buffet lunch and needless to say the lingua franca was Mandarin. Though my classmates probably all hoped this course would be a way to practise English, sheer weight of numbers means it’s going to be Mandarin between classes. I spoke with several classmates and they’re all so enthusiastic I’m looking forward to spending time studying with and learning from them, even if a few asked me what course I was going to be teaching… Still, I was quite chuffed that they seemed interested in signing up and given that one of our profs turns out to be exactly my vintage from Cambridge I suppose it’s an easy mistake to make.

Two recces down and already I know it was the right choice to study in Hong Kong. Sure, I could have found some Mandarin-speaking pals to hang out with in London but nothing like this whole classful of eager youth. So to those of you who put up with my waffling through my painfully indecisive decision process: thanks for your help.

Rush Hour

I have not lived very far from my place of work for about ten years. In fact I haven’t commuted any distance on a tube since I first left the UK to work in Hong Kong in 1997. These musings occurred to me as I stood pressed around by sweaty bodies at 7:30am on Monday morning, about halfway through my hour-plus underground journey to Peking University. It turns out I am travelling across all of Beijing from the south east to the north westernmost corner to attend my latest course, which makes me even happier that I opted for dorm accommodation at Tsinghua.

As I headed home from registration last Sunday night, after passing by my erstwhile digs to pick up my bike and drop into the canteen for an old times’ dinner, I already wished I could fall out of bed into my classroom the following day. The thought of getting home at 10pm only to have journey all the way back again at 7am was not a happy one. I can now see why I was depressed travelling twice a day between East Putney and my first job at St Paul’s: it is such a futile exercise, even assuming you are enthusiastic about the job once you get in.

The fact that I am “tall” enough here not to be wedged under someone’s armpit is a boon, but somewhat offset by the prevalence of garlic in the local diet. The humidity means I’ve had more than one sweaty armpit make the journey across my bare arm instead of resting itself on my head. Hard to know which is worse.

Still, fellow commuters, while displaying the customary single minded determination to reach their goal even at the expense of logic, have been quite kind. One young chap beside me, observing that I was struggling with the clips on my rucksack, gently removed my hands and clipped them up himself. As a seat emptied partway through another journey and I leapt towards it, both the girl closer to the seat and I hesitated and offered it to the other. Good job there was no third party close enough to take advantage of our hesitant manners.

I return home from class at 3pm which is “offpeak”, not that you would know it. The only difference is the absence of the rush hour yellow-shirted “Guides for Public Civilisation”. Their presence is specifically to keep order around the doors: without the referees the shang-ers (boarders) and the xia-ers (disembarkers) surge for the opening all together and it can be a bruising, if brief, battle. Given that other habits anti-social for crowded enclosed spaces have been successfully eradicated, such as spitting, eating and carrying live chickens, it’s a wonder that something as logical as allowing space to empty before you try and fill it hasn’t yet caught on. Maybe it’s in the same category as baring your sweat-smelly belly to cool down: it suits me so even if it’s not nice for everyone else I’ll do it anyway.

Mind you, I would rather be on the tube than in a taxi parked on the fourth ringroad. Two days ago I found myself caged with a bored taxi driver going nowhere. In a bid to keep myself entertained and preempt any advances I invented a husband in response to his questioning – stupidly, however, back in the UK. The tactic showed signs of backfiring when the driver slyly built up to asking what I do about my sex life when I miss him. The meaning was obvious enough but I’ve never studied the vocab so I am happy to say I could legitimately tell him I didn’t understand the question. He was too oppressed by the heat and fed up to pursue it. For 5% of the price and avoidance of awkward conversations I’ll be sticking to the tube next week.