it’s been five years, nearly to the month, since i bid china goodbye. it was a rough parting – one i don’t often talk about. after spending the greater part of my adult life learning chinese, travelling in china, teaching in china, making chinese friends, returning to china and generally showing an interest, this place ate me up, spat me out and then let the door hit my ass on the way out. a near miss with deportation that was, more or less, not my fault, meant i feared i might never come back.
but hey, every hardened traveller needs a war story like that right? details, yes there are details but if you want them you’ll need to buy me an in-person beer to get them.
suffice it to say, i was wracked with nerves and excitement on the flight from heathrow to beijing. i wondered how my chinese had held up over so many years, which have flown by with little chance for practice. i wondered if i still had all that inner fortitude that it takes to travel around china. the honking, the smells, the shouting people and sweating in unmentionable places. i wondered, basically, if i could hack it. after all, i am now an old, happy, married lady and not the wet-behind-the-ears 20something with a small but well-formed taste for danger i once was.
some observations, after five years.
1. china has not actually changed that much.
people love to bang on about how china is a land of contrasts. paradoxes on every corner. mobile phones and water buffalo! hey, i have used that line (more than once). it’s all true, and of course china is in massive flux. that said, things are still pretty much business as usual here. chinese people are still chinese, they have always been chinese, and whether political/economic ideologies come and go (which they’ve done many times in the vast 5000 years of chinese history), the people carry on. there are fundamental things that make an easy in: chinese people are pragmatic, inventive, love a good joke and sharing a laugh and a meal with friends. they love to know how china compares to just about anywhere else and they love a bottoms up.
the high streets of china are still the same – grey brick interrupted by vertical lined brick to help the blind people that never seem to surface. walking down the street still presents the same olfactory onslaught of trash, coal fire, jasmine tea and exhaust. yes, there is now craft beer in beijing (oh thank the lord) but like putting on a familiar old coat that’s just a little too small after years of wear, china remains at once a comfortable and an uncomfortable place to be.
2. the adage (cliche?) comparing language to riding a bike is true.
i have worried that i was ‘losing my chinese’. let’s be honest, there really aren’t that many places you can use mandarin in modern day life in the west. sure, you can pitch up to the odd sichuanese restaurant in london, say xiexie and hope they reciprocate, but that almost never goes anywhere. when i went to taiwan in february, i madly studied up on the plane, fearful for my chinese, but the reality was that in a group tour there i had very little chance to bother with the local language (so sad).
but boom, land in beijing and it’s like your mind changes to another mode. you go into china gear and that’s it, everything floods back with the heavy context that blue communist trucks and innumerable hanzi signs and shoe shops blaring loud music and sweaty taxis bring. good news folks, learning a language doesn’t mean you have to do it everyday; that info will happily sit at the back of your brain until you next need it.
this brings me to point three.
3. china with a smartphone is UH.MAZE.ING.
five years ago, there were no smartphones in china. in fact, my little non-flip, colour screen samsung phone was pretty state-of-the-art back then (i am still using it right now for local calls). then again, google and twitter weren’t blocked back then, so it’s a give and take. still, having my iphone handy for free wifi moments and offline mapping has been, quite frankly, unbelievable. the navigation can’t even compare with five years ago. so, i suppose, that’s one thing that has changed immensely for the better. tip: google maps is blocked without a VPN, but if you load it up with your VPN it will still track your GPS offline. meanwhile, apple maps is not blocked (handy).
4. chinese beds are still hard as FUCK.
i have bruises. need i say more?
and i will leave you with this fifth and final point.
5. chinglish still reigns
despite all the press about china gearing up for the ’08 olympics by training its taxi drivers to speak english, a) most taxi drivers i encountered in beijing still didn’t speak english and b) chinglish is still everywhere. long may it live.