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.

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.

Fun and Games

It’s been a while since we’ve talked, mostly because I’m coming up to the end of term exams and I signed up for an extra external exam just for good measure. That’s my excuse anyway but in truth maybe I’ve just lost inspiration. Almost four months of rice+canteen food, the ability to smell where the loos are at one hundred paces and room cleaning every other day which deposits more long black hairs on my floor than it takes away blonde ones are taking their toll. I obviously haven’t had a sanity check trip to the hutongs for a while.

For a quick boost I’m going to wind back to the other weekend, when I left Beijing’s most expensive coffee and brownie intending to head to the Lama Temple. While it is a decent distance from Houhai and plenty of rickshaws were touting for tourist business I generally prefer to walk through old Beijing. It’s easy to get off the beaten track and see a bit more life that way. The crowd mentality seems to be strong with the Chinese tourist flock and they seldom go off-piste: groups of ducklings following a flag or umbrella toting mother duck crowd the main sightseeing routes. Strike out at an angle and the streets are empty but for a few residents.

So en route to the temples I went via Gulou, the drum tower I previously mentioned. I should take back my comments about it not having been built into a traffic island. As with Beijing’s Friendship Store a trip to Gulou in the 90s was hardcore tourism to remotest Beijing. What once presided over hutongs jostling at its foundations now sits behind a wide crossroad with cars, bicycles and pedestrians following the usual “Beijing rules” of traffic order.

Stepping around the back I suddenly found myself in a community square hosting what looked like Games Day at a care home. Clusters of mostly elderly residents bent over tables and benches, perched on their collapsible stools. They played cards, mahjong and hackey sack and the atmosphere at the tables varied from hushed concentration to screeching friendly squabbling. The oldest players and wheelchairbound spectators could have been any age from 80 to 100; the most agile hackey sacker was at least 65.

On the 'ead my son!

On the ‘ead my son!


At the nearest table the oldest player was winning as I approached; I watched the group for a while and she won a few more rounds. One of the players in his 60s got a call on his mobile during a game. Somehow this coincided with him holding a winning hand which he played out while still on the phone, folding up his chair to then race across the square to whatever emergency, all in the space of about a minute; impressively spry work.

The next table over were playing mahjong with at least as many spectators attending. The rounds passed quickly and with concentration but for an outbreak of hilarity when one of the players tried to claim a stray hat from the table behind, having forgotten she was already wearing hers. Winners were awarded 20p each by the three losers but no one was far enough ahead to have made their dinner money yet.

The final group of players assembled while I watched and were highly competitive, grumbling at and ribbing each other for playing badly or letting the same chap win too often. I watched them for so long they invited me to play but I declined on the grounds that I was afraid that the group’s noisiest member and harshest critic would probably have a go at me for poor play. This incited a round of finger-pointing and “You see! You’re so rude!” directed at the player in question at which point it seemed prudent to make my exit.

Like fathers like sons.

Like fathers like sons.

It was far too late for the Lama Temple by then but I got more local culture out of my hours in the square. Once exams are over and I’ve learned some insults I may head back and join in the games.


I’m sure this TLA already exists for my intended usage but in case you can’t work it out it is not (for the investors among you) an Open-ended Investment Company but rather Only In China. I’ve become somewhat inured to most OIC experiences which is unfortunate but I’ve got one stored up from today which has inspired me to pay attention and compile a list for later publication.

The OIC for this post however concerns my most recent trip to the hospital. As a consequence of the dratted lingering cold I have been quite hard of hearing for over a week now, persisting far longer than would be the case with a standard British cold. So I made my fourth trip to the hospital yesterday morning to see an ear nose and throat specialist.

Dr Ji pulled at my earlobes and squinted down into the depths of my eustachian tubes using only an over the eye round mirror with a hole in the centre. According to Wikipedia this is a pretty standard piece of medical equipment despite now being obsolete where most of my esteemed readers are from. Although I have been around a while and I had my fair share of childhood ear infections I cannot recall ever having been examined with one before. Maybe that is because I have been around a while mind you.

To complete her investigations Dr Ji stuck a pair of dividers up my nostrils, prising them open for a good look, and did the usual wooden spatula on tongue and say ahhh thing. Aside from the spatula everything else was made from stainless steel and retrieved from a steel tiffin for use after which it was dropped into a steel mug for sterlisation (I sincerely hope).

She gave me quite a turn by telling me, bluntly, that my eardrum was sunken in. Thank goodness for the internet since this is apparently quite common after a cold and usually rectifies itself naturally, however she didn’t tell me this at the time and, rather, suggested I go to the best large local hospital for a hearing check up. Only when I looked quite disturbed did she go and fetch the standard ear examination magnifying glass with a light built in for a further examination. I don’t know why she didn’t just use that in the first place but I’m guessing it was someone more senior’s toy (or perhaps less skilled) since it lived some way from her consultation cubbyhole.

This achieved little beyond confirming what she already knew but it gave her time to suggest that she try an alternative remedy. It took a few attempts to explain but I finally realised she wanted me to go and buy a bottle of mineral water from downstairs and come back to see her. Duly armed I returned, expecting her to perform some sort of flush. Even as she put tape around the nozzle of a straw attached to a squeegie ball I had no idea what she was going to do.

It wasn’t until I had taken a mouthful of water as instructed and held it until told to swallow while she shoved the straw up my nose and squeezed the ball that I understood the mechanics of her remedy. I was sufficiently shocked as the eardrum reflated not to go with her suggestion that she give it another go, even though it did have some sort of discernible outcome. My right ear momentarily returned to full capacity while my left ear enjoyed the pressurisation slightly less.

Regrettably full functionality in the right ear was fleeting and turned out to be accompanied by feedback at high frequency sounds; my General Chinese teacher’s voice, which I usually enjoy for its precision, is now decidedly uncomfortable. Evidently the feedback remains and the tinnitus I usually manage to ignore is also ringing away at full volume. Left ear hearing about 85%, right ear 75% plus 10% tinny dolby stereo effect.

I am confident that all of this is temporary and if someone had just given me some decongestant then I’d have been fine ages ago. As it is I have had all sorts of mineral and floral remedies. Not knocking them as I’m considerably better off throat wise. I just don’t think I’ll be going to see another ENT specialist even at Beijing University’s reknowned hospital. I fancy my chances better with a bit less intervention.

Hospital Pass

I took a trip to hospital last week to see the doctor about a very sore throat, the hospital being the only place on campus we can see a doctor rather than an indication of severity of affliction. Mind you one week later and I’m still so bunged up I can’t hear properly and every morning is a coughfest. I feel a pollution rant coming on; suffice to say that while I’ve had lingering colds in the UK, there’s been nothing like the persistent feeling of congestion I have experienced here and I’d be willing to bet that’s because my lungs aren’t getting any fresh air to clean out all the gunk.

The upside of last week’s visit was that it was timed perfectly to coincide with the flowering of the peony beds by the lake. At 9:15 on a Saturday morning there were already numerous families out admiring the flowers and an impressive collection of photographic equipment at hand to record the moment. I didn’t know peonies have such a sweet fragrance, which must have been quite strong if I was able to appreciate it. I was also fortunate enough to catch dance practice in the lake pavilion: on one side a group of women went through a traditional routine while on the other couples were waltzing to the same Beijing opera aria, conveniently in three time.

Peonies with special Chinese characteristics

Peonies with special Chinese characteristics

Scratch and sniff not enabled

Scratch and sniff not enabled

Waltzing with special Chinese characteristics

Waltzing with special Chinese characteristics

My hospital visit reminded me a bit of the only hospital trip I made in New York a few years back: multiple checkings in and payings of account along the way until you were ejected at the other end clutching several boxes of pills. Here I had to pay my 40p consultation fee, have a chat with the doctor in a room with three other consultants and their patients (good job it wasn’t anything embarrassing), go out to the girl in the hospital entrance to check my temperature (yes, she really did mean stick the thermometer in my armpit), back to doctor, over to cashier again for medicine fee (£7.50), over to dispensary for pills and then, in my case, back to doctor for clarification on dosage.

The other upside beyond peony and culture appreciation has been the addition of a new realm to my vocabulary. I now know a few more ways to say “dose” in Chinese than I thought possible – the language is quite specific about the difference between a pill, a round pill, a pellet and a tablet, but then I suppose I’ve just illustrated that English can be too. My favourite however has been 鼻涕虫 or “snot bug”. In my current state this could easily refer to me but it is in fact the colloquial term for a slug. I love that Mandarin says it like it is.

Backstreet Diver

Every time I come into the hutongs I breathe a sigh of relief and I remember what drew me to Beijing in the first place. Today I took a cookery course in the old Gulou area. Walking to class at 9:40am down Luogu Alley feels a bit like walking down Portobello Road at setting up time. A few early tourists are catching the shop keepers and stall holders arranging their collapsible tables, or lining up for jian bing: pancakes filled with finely chopped leeks and various thin sauces spread on with a paintbrush, finished by the addition of a piece of deep fried batter. The whole is then folded and the crispy batter slab filling expertly broken up with a few chops of the spatula without piercing the pancake. It’s not exactly a balanced meal but I’ve had it for lunch more than once and it’s surprisingly good, especially with added pickled veggies. This morning was a bit early for that though so I forked out an inflated £2 for a Nutella pancake instead. Given that the traditional version costs about 50p it’s a nice niche that canny kiosk has carved out.

My class was tucked away in a residential courtyard or siheyuan. This might bring to mind an open courtyard with four buildings on each side and traditionally that was the high end set up. Now they are more like gated warrens with every square metre occupied by small rooms squashed together.

It is a dilemma for those who want to preserve the traditional hutongs: they are overcrowded and often dilapidated. The electrical systems wouldn’t get any safety certificate back home and most of the dwellings don’t have bathrooms. I had to use one of the public loos a few weeks back and was surprised to find a row of unscreened holes in the ground. Why waste money on partitions, I suppose, but I hadn’t seen anything like that since travelling in the countryside on my year off.

Sparky's dream

Sparky’s dream

Without trying to pretend that there is romance in a communal bathroom this enforced intimacy might contribute to the friendly family feeling in the hutongs. I rolled out of the class into more back streets, heading down dead ends and chatting up the locals about the beautiful roofs. It feels so peaceful to me and the character of the winding alleys is so intimate after the huge multilane ring roads. One of the residents demurred however “not peaceful any more: too many people”. All said with a smile and a cackle of “English!” when I said where I am from.

Far from the madding crowd

Far from the madding crowd

I intended to head to the Drum Tower, now surrounded by bustling redevelopment, though thankfully not on a ring road traffic island like some of the other old buildings. I got diverted instead to Houhai, the lake behind the Forbidden City. It is teeming with Chinese tourists. Never mind Bond Street, the Chinese are touring their own country like never before. I tagged onto a group following a flag in one of the preservation areas. A little old lady from Hubei was in the group with her son (who took the obligatory photo of the laowai with his mother) and her grandson. The lucky old bird has another two children, a boy and a girl, though they were both too busy to join the tour.

Houhai - pedalboats Beijing

Houhai – pedalboats Beijing

I still love the people here. It feels unusual for them to be snappy, grumpy, rude or shifty. Even the cabbie this morning, who took me the wrong route to my class, stopped the meter early and apologised profusely when he realised he had taken me the wrong way. And that from a guy who was quite bolshie and aggressive with the other traffic and really seemed quite scary at the outset.

Trawling the tourist areas comes at a price though. I’m now eating a £3.80 brownie while sipping a £3.00 flat white. It’s a rare treat, but for pretty much London prices it’s still not quite London quality.