Sunday, February 18, 2007


A very happy Chinese New Year to everyone! May you have a fine year of the pig.

I have mixed feelings about not being in Beijing this time around. Last year was a great experience, helped by having a very good friend come to visit me. Parts of Beijing become spectacularly decorated and the sounds, smells and tastes are a true cornucopia for the senses. Something I would advise everyone coming to experience at least once.

Last New Year was a strange contrast of feelings. It seems like you're in a war zone, without any of the people around. For the first time in over a decade the government permitted the use of fireworks in the city and for two weeks people went a bit loopy. There wasn't a single pause in pyrotechnics for more than 30 seconds for two weeks, the consequence of which was sulphur dioxide levels through the roof and probably a few less feathered friends in the area (not that Beijing has a large population to start with from what I've seen) .

The flip side, as I say, was that most people had actually left the city, leaving it rather empty if you were lucky enough to find yourself in the right area. For anyone who has been to Beijing, I'm sure you can imagine that an empty city is a very strange place to be.

Come New Year some 150 million people take the trains and head homewards. The queues for tickets are truly atrocious, especially because most of the tickets are only released a week, or sometimes five days, before the date of departure. The trains are then crammed, with many people standing for up to two days if they're unlucky enough to have no seat between Beijing and Urumqi.

Given that I'm out of China, I thought I would try second best and so yesterday evening I headed off on my own to a Chinese restaurant, getting ready to inflict my poor language skills on whoever got in my path. This turned into a most confusing situation and the following took place at the counter with all the chefs and waiting staff:

Me: Hello (Chinese)
Waiter1: Hello (Japanese)
Me: You are all Chinese? (Chinese with a slightly cocky grin, waiting to greet them with a 'happy spring festival')
Waiter1: What? (Japanese)
Me: You are Chinese? (Slightly unsure of myself)
Waiter 1 calls over chef 1
chef 1: Hello (English, sounding equally unsure)
Me: Are you Chinese? (Chinese)
chef 1: Ah, wait a moment! (English, followed by calling waiter 2 from the room behind the kitchen in Japanese - I presume waiter 2 must be Chinese)
Me: Hello (Chinese)
waiter 2: Hello (English)
Me (losing my grip and realising that I can only communicate in English but trying one last time): Do you have an English menu? (Chinese - realising that if she does understand this it will be even more confusing)
Waiter 2 doesn't understand.
Me: Do you have an English menu? (English)
Passer by 3 (Passers by numbers 1 and 2 are too busy laughing to say anything) points to the pictures on the walls: English menu (English)
Me: Thank you (Japanese)
Chef 2: You are English? (English)
Me: Yes (English)
Chef 2: Where do you live? (English)
Me: Beijing (English)
Chef 2: You speak Chinese? (English)
Me: (head in bowl of mapo dofu) yes!
Chef 2 explains to remaining waiters, customers and chefs the situation and consequently everyone stares and laughs until I've eaten my poor approximation of Chinese food.

Anyway, a very Happy New Year!


Anonymous said...

Good use of multilingual skills Shockolate. You'll be pleased to know that your blog has just been added as my first favourite.
First couple of days going well here. Only set back so far was forgetting to put deodorant on this morning and having to last until lunchtime with my elbows firmly lodged in my side. Skills by me.

Unknown said...

It's my general attempt to confuse as many people as possible. Good skills from you too! I look forward to hearing more about the new job soon. May be online a little this weekend but can't promise when. Will try and catch up soon.

All the best, J

Anonymous said...

hi jon,
glad you seem to have a wonderful time in asia. nice posts, will be back more often.
happy new year!
--peng gao from tasi'05

Unknown said...

Hi Peng,

Thanks for stopping by. Yes, I'm thoroughly enjoying both China and Japan. Are you likely to be out any time in the next few months?

If the rumour mill is anything to go by, congratulations on the postdoc position.

A very happy new year to you!

All the best, J