Wednesday, May 16, 2007


Five months to go here in Beijing, and that thought makes me rather sad. Perhaps just two months ago I would have said that I thought it was the right time to be moving on. My plans are still firmly set and I am very much looking forward to making my way to Galicia to experience a new culture, pick up a new language and work in a different environment.

So, what has changed in the last couple of months? Nothing of any discrete alteration, just a gradual change which means that I feel more and more at home here and the comfortable, easy life of both a physicist doing what he loves and an expat living a semi-expat life makes for a fine existence. I still get an itch every few months and Beijing just gets a bit too much, the shouting, the spitting, the pushing and the pollution can get you down when you're feeling edgy or vulnerable, but I've been lucky to be able to escape, if only for a day on such occasions.

Now summer is here and Beijing becomes an altogether different beast. The chilled edge of winter cutting through to your core has vanished and this makes life infinitely easier. If only to be replaced by hungry mozzies and hot nights, I much prefer the latter.

One thing that has definitely changed is, as is so often the case, a matter of the language. On arrival in Beijing I knew perhaps 100 words and could use just a fraction with any comfort. One of the hardest things to understand was people's attitude to becoming my friend. I've had the same reaction from every expat I've met who arrived in China with a similarly small Chinese vocabulary.

I met many people in the first few months here who I would chat with for a few minutes or perhaps a few hours, on the street, in a bar or cafe or a friend's friend. On many occasions they would hook onto me as a best friend, and this frequently felt uncomfortable. Sadly it often felt like they wanted to be my friend because either I spoke good English and could help them, or they wanted to know about English culture, or they wanted me to help them to get a job. Of course this was not always the case and there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to know somebody for these reasons. It just felt uncomfortable and I found myself making promises to ring people or go to dinner with people and never did. I still feel bad about that and I also feel bad because there were genuinely interesting individuals who got bundled into the same mass of mobile numbers and name cards.

What has changed is unexpected but a real pleasure. At first I met people who were interested in me because I could speak English, I was rather unusual and almost like a new toy (part of this may be tied in with the one child policy but I'm not sure how speculative that guess is). As of the last few weeks I've started bumping into people in various situations and have spoken Chinese with them. Although it's bad, broken Chinese and about fairly basic subjects, the smile that I'm received with for being an expat who has made an effort and is interested in the people and culture is a very different smile from that which greets the expat who can help with English practice.

When I was taking photos of the strange metallic sculpture I posted last week I met another photographer there, from Anhui province, in the East of China. I told him I thought the sculpture was beautiful and and interesting piece to have on the street and we started talking about our backgrounds and life in our home towns. We must have spoken for half an hour, but it felt like a true two-way exchange, and I left feeling elated by having met an interesting person on the same level that I would in an English speaking country.

This has happened a few times now, on the street, in taxis and bars and it seems, naturally, that the warmth of the welcome to a foreigner who can speak the language is far greater than I had known before.

As I say I have several, though not a great many, Chinese friends and those in the department who I've got to know, I do not put in the same category as those who have latched onto me in the past after a few minutes of talking English. I would still like to build stronger friendships with those in the department.

Anyway, that, I'm sure is a great part of my increased comfort of living here. When I return to see my friends they should not expect me to be speaking fluent Chinese but simply enough to get by and have a basic chat with a stranger.

Of course I'm going to miss the food greatly, anyone who has read more than a few posts of this blog will know that it's a great obsession of mine, but I hear that the food in Santiago is excellent too and I shall continue to explore whatever I can get my hands on. (See here for a rather fuzzy photo of the Hunan bee pupae and bamboo worms I had last week - pretty tasty!)

The mix of Western and Eastern culture in the arts also makes for a fascinating time out here and a trip last week to see the first 3 hours or so of the Kunqu opera, The Peony Pavilion was in stark contrast to the experimental electronica, Chinese punk and techno which I'd seen throughout the previous week. It doesn't have quite the finesse and simplicity which so attracts me to Kabuki but the movement, the poetry of the lyrics (translated very well on subtitle screens) and the exuberant colours of the costumes make it a fascinating art form.
Peony pavilion 2
Peony pavilion
The voices are not easy for most Westerners but I find it substantially better than the Beijing opera, three hours of which would definitely be too much.

Anyway, a few reflections on recent changes. I would really recommend any expat who comes out here for any length of time to make as much of an effort with the language as possible. You will have a great time out here without any Chinese but you will love the place if you can truly integrate. I just wish I had learned this sooner and had more time to put these lessons into practice.

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