Here and There

So I decided to take a trip back to Europe as I was missing my sofa, my own bed, my clothes, Monmouth coffee and European markets, not to mention friends and family with my niece fast growing up beyond the stage of unconditional affection. The final push was the chance to spend three days at Lake Como with some old friends and given I had been dreaming of continental culture this seemed too good to miss. Coming into Heathrow, I took the tube to Monument to round off my homecoming with the walk over London Bridge then through Borough Market. The weather was glorious and the views delivered spectacularly.

British queuing manners however did not. I caught the stalls setting up and arrived ten minutes before Monmouth coffee opened their shutters. In my fresh homecoming enthusiasm I attempted to strike up a conversation with the other person keen enough to be waiting already. He rebuffed my overtures and queue barged his wife and another couple in front of me, the two wives then making an upper class dash for the all you can eat baguette table despite having no challengers for the jam spoon. I thought queuing was supposed to be bad in China but generally I found them more polite and patient over there. Thankfully the coffee was smoother than the queuing experience and lived up to my memories; part one of mission accomplished.

I do love Borough Market but it’s an expensive habit and not really the place for a weekly shop but as a treat to myself I invited some schoolfriends for dinner to justify shipping in the high end goodies. The provisions came to over one hundred times a canteen meal at Tsinghua and while I know that’s comparing civet ingested coffee beans and nescafe I was slightly horrified. Food inflation regularly makes headlines in China but prices still have plenty of slack.

In China I did not miss the attitude of UK cyclists any more than UK queue bargers. To be fair I think I have mentioned before that I far prefer the Chinese system of merging and acquiescence; it is unsurprising to me that London’s shouty, aggressive racers probably have more accidents per capita than China’s two wheeled population. I guess there is an assumption of gentility and politesse in the UK that just doesn’t exist any longer. I have observed for many years that there is a hypocrisy about British manners with our slightly laboured “after you”; “no really, after you” approach. The Chinese have no such artifice: their attitude more “I am going this way. Move if you don’t want to be bumped into”. I have a bit more respect for this straightforward honesty. What you see is definitely what you get and there is no time wasted in dancing around doors.

Along with manners and prices my trip so far has left me reassessing a few factors I previously ranted about in China. Transport, while crowded, I found efficient: my 24 hour train journey from Beijing to HK went without a hitch and with lovely fellow passengers. The Heathrow Express outbound to Geneva for my Como visit could not manage 15 minutes from Paddington without breaking down as a consequence of which I missed my flight.

To cap it all, on the return flight we were told after an hour’s delay to our departure and an hour and a half in the sky that a technical fault with our decrepit BA plane necessitated a detour to Paris. I had thought we were flying the wrong way. I suppose I should be grateful that with BA at least our odds were better than with a local Chinese airline but the escort of two fire trucks and an emergency car as we touched down was more than a little unnerving, even if in the soit-disant first world they tend to overegg the safety side.

I shall not bore you with the detail of negotiating my way around the French work ethic in trying to leave Paris but the whole experience has left me more convinced that the glories of Europe rest firmly in its history. With the travails of the US this century and the recent bankruptcy of Detroit, it is hard not to conclude that the future is East. Even if, so far, it just looks like the winner of the ugly parade.

Goodbye To All That

I end my account of this sojourn in China as I started it: wrapped in a duvet scrunched up in the corner of a bed. This one is a top bunk in a soft sleeper cabin from Beijing to Hong Kong, the duvet now buffering against the airconditioning instead of the winter cold. In 14 hours I will be in Kowloon, having traced the same route I took on leaving Harbin almost 21 years ago.

I know I keep mentioning the years but I write it partly to keep myself honest. I have found that the Chinese cannot tell how old caucasians are so if it didn’t feel a little pathetic to pretend I could probably have got away with being in my early to mid thirties.

In part assisted by this phenomenon my five months here has embodied a weird sensation of reliving my youth while trying to work out what to do with my maturity. Most of my classmates and many of my teachers have been younger than me. The latter would often tell us we had much ahead of us given our youth while smiling apologetically at my raised eyebrow. The former would remind me of my age with comments like “oh! So you’re a year younger than my mother!” as we cycled back from a night out dancing together. It never helped that my main companion and study mate was a mature 26 to my immature middle age and that I was asked on dates by guys from 4 to 8 years younger than me, oh happy days.

It has consequently been hard not to feel much younger than I am while trying not to behave like a piece of mutton trying to gambol with lambs. My older friends ask how the mid life crisis is going; my young friends are too polite to say anything.

All told I have met some amazing people in Beijing. It’s not an easy place to live and most people are there for love – of the place, the people or the promise of history and culture, even if it sometimes falls short. I’ve found the young students unusually thoughtful and hard working in defiance of the negative media reports of youth today. The older expats have ranged from the novelist/rocksinging/international law lecturer through entrepreneurial wine dealers, bankers, journalists and members of NGOs and MNCs, almost always understated and often quietly getting on with society-defining work.

I still have no idea what I want to do when I grow up but I’m looking forward to the next stage of my youth 2.0: my Masters in HK. Not least I can prolong the charade of my second twenties a bit longer. While I study I might also investigate my current travelling companion’s suggestion: she reckons I should publicise myself on China’s dating show 非诚勿扰 (Only the Serious Need Apply). Even if I can’t find a husband apparently I might get a job. Now I just have to decide what age I want to market myself at.

Back to the Future

When I came to Beijing in 1992 with my father I recall him being particularly tickled by the elderly guardians of order on Wangfujing Street. Even in those days it was a well known shopping street given origins dating back through the dynasties and it was always crammed with sightseers. The sound of indiscriminate lung clearance was, and still is, a regular contributor to the orchestra of the city; the wardens on Wangfujing were responsible for ensuring that that street at least remained relatively gob-free.

My father had picked up the habit of chewing on guazi, sunflower seeds, still in their kernels, a snacking compulsion that remains popular in the countryside but this time I’ve hardly seen it in the city. The particularly skilled could pop an unhusked seed into their mouth and a few minutes later spray a spit-clean round of shell onto the nearest floor. Train compartments in hard seat were covered with the stuff by the end of a journey and streets in the cities were similarly adorned.

The Wangfujing officials were authorised to fine anyone littering the street either orally or manually and they were ferociously diligent. My father spent a good ten minutes trying to gesticulate and tease his way out of a fine but ultimately cherished the ticket he was handed at a cost of five mao (5p) for ejecting shells onto the street. It was a certificate of full immersion into the local culture.

These days you may have read about the pretty indifferent behaviour of Chinese tourists overseas from the mother who let her child defecate on the Taipei airport floor to the teenager who scrawled his name onto the Egyptian monument. But as many commentators have noted the behaviour is no better at home: it’s a question of education, or lack thereof, rather than a more cavalier attitude to foreign than domestic treasures.

So as I walked down the latterly pedestrianised Wangfujing Street the other weekend and saw a woman pull down her six or seven year old daughter’s pants so she could wee bang in the middle of the boulevard on the shiny ornamental paving slabs I thought back to the days of the rubbish monitors in the 90s. Perhaps they need to be brought back and behaviour might be improved on at least one part of the tourist circuit. After all: education begins at home.