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.

And Back Again

The last few days I have spent visiting a friend who is holidaying in the furthest reaches of Yunnan, southwestern China. The name means “to the south of the clouds” although so far I’ve mostly been in the thick of them. It’s hilly country on the border with Myanmar, closer to India than to Beijing or Shanghai, but none the less Chinese for it.

The economy here in Heshun village centres on jade and tourism. Both have been suffering since the new leadership ascended their thrones and cracked down on corruption. One of my tea time hosts explained: the government takes the people’s money, the Party takes the government’s money but at least under the old system the officials were spending it back into the people again. Now no one is buying his jade and with cocktails and imported beer at a staggering £15 a pop it’s no surprise that many of the bars are empty too, for all the village is still bursting with visitors. These visitors are normal people though and they don’t spend like the officials do.

My jade proprietor said cheerfully that things should get better next year since, to precis, one round of leaders won’t be able to undo centuries of habitual systemic graft. He asked me who are the richest men in the country. “Correct!” he yelled when I told him that the leaders are. I observed that western politicians are no less hypocritical than those here, our corruption just tends to be larger sums with less impact on one’s daily existence. “But you have two hypocrites from whom to choose. We have only one whether we like him or not”. His friend was more sanguine about the economic and political outlook. All democracies have to start somewhere: Britain was not always one and Taiwan is still only in its infancy. Change has come quickly.

Which is quite true of course. This area is similarly rural to the parts of Guangxi I visited twenty years ago, but where once were bikes, now there are countless cars racing past the paddy fields and through the narrow volcanic paved streets. It seems so normal in some ways I hardly notice the incongruity of driving in a sedan over a narrow hump-backed marble Qing dynasty bridge under a village entrance with flying eaves, but it is quite obvious the alleys weren’t built for cars any more than were Beijing’s hutongs. Somehow everyone squeezes through.

My university friend is quite a foodie, which is to say he is Chinese. As he walked me around the village on the first evening he pointed out his favourite places: “here is the soya milk shop. They sell out by 9am so we have to get up early as you must try it. Their handmade version tastes so much better than the other stalls”. “Here is the barbecue stall. Their grilled tofu is great”. The first morning we missed the soya milk (sold out) so I had something made from soya beans that looked like custard but was unexpectedly savoury and eaten with chillies, spring onions, sesame oil and a whole bunch of other condiments I couldn’t identify. My friend was terribly disappointed since this particular foodstuff was better tried elsewhere.

I haven’t been to the Chinese countryside in years and must confess I’d been rather dreading the whole idea. I’d been thinking that it would be great for my language, but couldn’t imagine anywhere that wouldn’t be arid and charmless, or overrun with tourists, or both. Thanks to my friend’s invitation I’ve been fortunate enough to experience not only a scenic part of China but also the full force of Chinese hospitality, which comes up in all language textbooks with good reason. I have even found the tourists very friendly and will now be immortalised in a few family albums around the county.

My host here, the owner of the guesthouse where we are staying and who, exceptionally, has fed us both lunch and dinner every day, asked me the other night a series of questions he had been considering: what do you think of Chinese people?; do Chinese people have no manners?; are Chinese people noisy?; do you like China? In summary, I told him: Chinese people are incredibly noisy and collectively have nothing resembling manners as the west would see it. I will never get used to open mouthed audible mastication and deep throated nasal clearance (I didn’t tell him that bit, mind you). But you would rarely find in the UK the level of hospitality and welcome I have had here. I love and I hate the place from one second to the next but somehow all the same I am hooked.