Imagining China, Pt. 2

The English Teacher

Colin gave all the girls in his class the names of women who had broken his heart (Jenny, Rachel, Magda) and the boys the names of friends who had died, (Steve, Matt, Damian). When he ran out of dead mates – it wasn’t right to have so many at the tender age of 42 – he named them after people he wished were dead (Roger, Chis, Sebastian).

He named the student he liked the most, a quick witted 15-year-old named Chen Ong, Julie, because although Julie broke his heart, she didn’t really mean to, and he thought it was only fair to name this larconic teenager, who was bound to go on to break a few of her own hearts, after the woman who came to him in the strangest of dreams. Every roll call was a walk down a memory lane of sex and sadness.

He also warmed to a slightly geeky kid  with a stutter he named Richard, after a bloke who had bullied him in high school. Richard was on the “wish he were dead” list – as far as Colin knew he was happily married and living in Katanning. But as this new Richard, whose real name was Ma Chao, earnestly took notes in class and perfected his English by obsessively watching an odd assortment of Hollywood films for a 15-year old boy (Titanic, The Color Purple and The Parent Trap were among his favourites), Colin warmed to him, and by association the name Richard, which for Ma Chao he shortened to Richie. This confused the student even more, who really wanted to be called Jack.

Giving the students English names was actually quite fun, but teaching English was not. Colin took the job to get away from where he had been. He hadn’t particularly cared where he ended up and as it turns out the universe dumped him in Beijing, a city that came in and out of focus, as if a giant lens was adjusting and readjusting itself on the metropolis, a characteristic which Colin felt meant it was a place that understood him more than just about anywhere else. On a Monday, he could wake up and see the buildings opposite his apartment block with hard edges and crisp colours. But on another day, a Thursday, for example, after a night at Lakers which was best left forgotten, he could wake up and the buildings would have soft outlines and be a comforting shade of grey – softened by the fog and appearing particularly sympathetic to Colin’s thumping head. Colin was the only person he knew who felt relatively kindly towards the Beijing pollution.

He took a deep lungful of it – car exhaust and dust, as he flagged down a taxi on Dongzhimen.

“Sanlitun” he said to the driver, who pulled away from the curb and started the short journey to the expat hang. Colin, when he did go out, usually preferred the dark alleyways and pokey drinking holes of the Gulou area. Where you stepped over Chinese toddlers playing with toys and their grandfathers playing Mahjong to get to a watering hole run by some American or Australian expat, a little slice of New York or Melbourne in old Beijing. Where you could sit at the bar and make friends with half the room by your second drink. But tonight was not for the dark corners of Gulou, tonight he wanted to get lost and the only place to do that was in the anonymous neon glare of Sanlitun.

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Imagining China, Pt. 1

The Dancer

Hong Tian woke before anyone else and threw her feet over the cot in the living room where she slept. She dressed quietly. She was pulling on her shoes when she felt the presence of eyes on her. She looked over to the doorway of the smaller bedroom where her granddaughter was peeking out from behind the door. “I caught you  Nainai,” Lan Yue giggled. She crept out of the bedroom and joined her grandmother on the bed, tucking her skinny legs underneath the blankets. Her bangs fell over her eyes as Hong Tian kissed the top of her head.

“Why are you awake so early my love?” Hong Tian asked her.

“Uncle snores too loudly, he wakes me up.”

“You should poke him to make him stop, you have school.”

Lan Yue nodded seriously. “We have a test today Nainai, in English”

“Are you good at English?”

“Yes, but only if I don’t have to speak it. Do you speak English Nainai?”

“No, but your grandfather used to speak Russian, they were our friends.”

“Oh,” Lan Yue brought her legs up to her chest and hugged them, as if trying to shrink the limbs that had grown faster than the rest of her in the past year. She nestled her head between her knees as she considered this new, surprising, piece of information about her grandfather.

Lan Yue had never met the man whose portrait hung in their living room, a stern, thin man in a Mao suit, but collected information about him like other girls her age collected stickers and swap cards. New intel was rare. When Nainai arrived in Beijing three years ago, one month after her husband had died, she had laid on the cot in the living room silent for the first week, staring into an invisable place. Lan Yue, then only eight and with legs of a more manageable length, had crawled into bed with her and stroked her hair and sung Chu Lian, an old song she had learnt in school. Nainai had smiled and said, “Your grandfather loved that song, we used to dance to it.”

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Five things I have learnt about sleeping in China

1) You can sleep anywhere.

On your rickshaw, at your office desk, on a park bench, if Ikea just has beds lying around, why not test them out with a quick cat nap? A few weeks ago, I went to a karaoke place with some friends. It was a small room, a lot of very loud people screaming at the top of their lungs. About two hours in, when things were really reaching a crescendo of drunken wailing, a Chinese guy turns up (he was friends with someone else there), sits on the couch, minutes later, out like a light. Amazing.

Sleeping at karaoke.

Sleeping at karaoke.

2) Respect the sleeper.

In Australia, if you dozed off anywhere other than in the privacy of your own home people would either wake you up, or shave your eyebrows off. Dems the rules. Not so in China, where sleeping in the strangest of places is completely acceptable and you can nap in public with no concerns that someone is going to nick off with your wallet or draw a penis on your forehead. The other day I was speaking to a colleague at the office about a work related matter when she ushered me aside, “Oh, we should talk over here, he’s sleeping” she whispered, pointing to a guy fast asleep at his desk, head tilted back, mouth wide open, quietly snoring. Which brings me onto my next point…

Midday nap

Do Not Disturb.

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The stories we tell

There is nothing the media and the public, any public, love more than a good sob story. A sick kid who needs an organ, the local teacher who goes beyond the call of duty, the hard-done by battler fallen on hard times.

Pundits, analysts and China watchers tend to focus on the country’s economic miracle, its complex politics and the impact these will have on the wider world.

As a journalist I have always been more interested in the human stories. They are often dismissed as ‘soft news’ but to my mind, the stories a country tells itself about it’s people can reveal more about a national mindset than any set of statistics.

And few places consume tales of woe with as much fericous enthusiasm as China.

Sick mothers, generous migrant workers, filial children caring for ailing parents – tales of heroism and self sacrifice are never in short supply.

But the human interest stories from China that make headlines in the West are often of shocking indifference and cruelty. Many will recall the story of YueYue, the 2-year old girl in Foshan who was run over by a truck and lay injured by the road, ignored by passer-bys until, finally, the 19th person to walk past went to her aid. Or the Daily Mail favourite, Eagle Dad, the father who forced his 4-year old son to run in the snow to toughen him up. Those stories made headlines around the world and fed into some unfortunate stereotypes about Chinese.

In China those stories prompted much soul searching and debate on whether the country was in a ‘moral vacuum’. But the big “human interest” stories of the past year, the ones that didn’t make headlines outside of China, paint a far more complex picture.

When Beijinger Fan Meng discovered his wheelchair-bound mother always dreamt of visiting Xishuangbanna in Yunnan province he decided to take her there. On foot. Pushing her wheelchair, Fan and his mother traversed the country, spending three months to reach their destination on the adventure of a lifetime. They were accompanied by the family dog, Butterfly. Continue reading

Adventures in a Chinese supermarket

I never make a trip to the United States without visiting a supermarket. To me they are more fascinating than any fashion salon.
 – Wallis Simpson
Instant noodle aisle in a Chinese supermarket - a culinary Mecca for uni students and MSG lovers everywhere.

A person buying ordinary products in a supermarket is in touch with his deepest emotions.

– John Kenneth Galbaith

Soy Sauce at The Wu

I love foreign supermarkets. Forget national monuments, you want to get a real insight into a foreign culture, check out where the locals buy their toilet paper.

There are two supermarkets near our apartment. The noodle and soy sauce asiles above are from the huge and weird Wu Mart (“The Wu”), which is a massive supermarket downstairs (think Coles) and a shop upstairs, selling everything from bikes to thermal underwear (think K-Mart).

Breathing easy in pollution capital

A few weeks ago DCR and I took a big step and did what many expats in China before us have done.

We opened our door to a new member of the family. An addition that makes us feel truly Chinese. Yes, we became the proud parents of… a Swedish air purifier. We have named him Lars. He’s so cute.

Lars sucks up the muck in our apartment and makes us breathe a little easier, which is nice, but you can’t stay cooped up forever, and when we do step outside we are quickly reminded we live in one of the most polluted cities in the world.

The pollution in Beijing isn’t just bad – it’s awful. Even on days when the sky is blue, which to be fair, is more often than not, there is a sharp acrid smell in the air. As I write this I can feel the tight sensation in my chest that tells me the pollution is particularly bad today. Saturday was the worst day for pollution in Beijing on record. The Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center ranked the density of Particulate Matter2.5 as being over 700 micrograms per cubic meter. The PM2.5 index is considered “off the index” when it hits 500. The World Health Organisation considers 25 micrograms per cubic meter to be safe. Continue reading

China LOL

It was a amateur stand up night in a Beijing bar and a Canadian guy had just bombed out trying to get the international audiance to laugh at the names of “wacky” sounding Canadian towns. The MC was about to wrap things up when a Chinese girl, conspicuous among the mainly laowai crowd, put her hand up.

“Come on up!” The MC beckoned her on stage.

The girl, who looked like she was barely out of high school, nervously took the mic, giggled shyly and apologised for her broken English. The crowd smiled, encouraging.

The would-be comedian spoke with an ernest seriousness.

“You foreigners, you come to China, and some of you, you have Yellow Fever bad huh?” She began. Giggles from the crowd.

“And us Chinese girls, we think of our friends, ‘oh, you date a foreigner! That’s so cool!’ so you must think if we date you we think you are cool,” she continued, earnestly.

“But I ask my friend, I say, ‘why you date foreign guy?'” She paused and considered the crowd seriously.

“And my friend tell me: ‘Because they have big cock!'”

The crowd was momontarily stunned, but after a breif moment she received the biggest laugh of the night – partly because it was funny, partly … well, because no one expected the Chinese girl to make a cock joke.

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Winter is Coming

It’s getting colder here in Beijing, it’s 11 degrees at the moment and over the next week the temperature is expected to drop by 14 degrees, not to,  by. That’s Cold.

With each dip of the temperature I shudder at the thought of a “real” winter. In WA, winter means ugg boots, red wine and whinging if it dips to 14 degrees – central heating and goose down jackets don’t really enter the equasion.

It is not, however, my first time living through proper cold weather, and as I haggle over the price of thermal underwear in Beijing, I can’t help but cast my mind back to the last time I had to seriously prepare for The Cold.

*Wavy screen dissolves into image of an awkward looking 17-year old in a school uniform filling out Rotary Exchange forms. It is the year 2000, and Perth, Western Australia, is sweltering though a record hot summer.*

All through high school I begged my parents to let me go on an overseas student exchange. Despite being fairly enthusiastic travellers themselves, the thought of sending their teenage daughter to some far flung place seemed to trigger something in the part of their brains that can only imagine the Worst Case Scenario. I would be stuck in the outskirts of some miserable German industrial town, (“You might as well go to jail for a year”) or South Africa, (“Like Perth but you can’t leave the house”) or America (“You’ll have to go to church!”).

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85% Pregnant


A really lovely thing about Beijing is the number of children and elderly people. That might sound like a weird thing to say, but I always found it really odd that in Manhattan everyone seemed to be between the ages of 21 to 50. The young and the elderly were…elsewhere.

In the parks, in the streets, outside my apartment block you can’t move without bumping into grandmothers minding toddlers, young families spending time together or groups of elderly men staring intensely at a game of Mahjong.

It makes Beijing feel like a real living city. And although it’s similar to New York in that most of the people who live here are orginally from somewhere else, it has a much more “family” feel to it.

As I get to know my Chinese workmates a little better I am increasingly less surprised when I learn they are married with a child.

At my former office in Australia the majority of my colleagues in their 20s and early-30s were unmarried and childless, here, the opposite is the case.

That said, it’s not so easy to get married in China. A recent newspaper article documented a growing trend for dating agencies setting up weekend trips for singles to get to know each other over a couple of days. In the West such a trip might resemble a Contiki tour on steroids, here the participants spoke of “brushing hands,” with a quickening pulse.

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Happy (Chinese) Birthday

A colleague at work is celebrating her 30th birthday tonight and brought cake to the office. She told me that in China, major birthdays for women are 30, 40, 50 and so on, same as in the west, but for men it’s a big one if it has nine in the number – 29, 39, 49 etc.

So now you know.

Oh, and the cake was a sponge with cream.