Finally the moment has arrived. As I trundle off across the Pennines towards Manchester Airport, I realise this is what I have been working towards for the past six months. I am on my way to live and work in China.
The Qatar Airways flight to Doha is unmemorable, save for spending 45 minutes circling the airport waiting for permission to land, which annoyingly cuts down on the transit time for stretching one’s legs, this being one of the reasons for taking Qatar Air in the first place. I have kept back some UAE dirhams to exchange into Chinese currency at Doha Airport, since on trying to change them in the UK the rates quoted there are pure daylight robbery. Alas, Doha Airport has no Yuan at all and so I will have to rely on the small amount I already have to keep me going for the coming few days.
My second, connecting flight is on a 777 and I get a window seat. That means either trying to climb over two other people (who don’t speak a word of English) to go stretch my legs, or making do where I am. Qatar Airways’ policy is to keep all the window blinds tightly shut so that passengers can catch up on their zzzzs prior to landing, which means that despite not arriving until the middle of the afternoon local time, I totally miss out on the spectacular views of the Himalayas.
Beijing Terminal 3, built in time for the Beijing Olympics, is ultra modern – a far cry from Terminal 2 which is badly showing its age. And totally unlike the airport at Doha I have left eight hours previously, the toilets here are pristine. So clean you could almost eat your lunch off them. A whole army of cleaners follow you around wiping every surface you so much as look at lest you leave some mark in your wake.
The immigration queues are long, but efficiency and politeness are once again so much in contrast to those at Dubai airport which I have regularly suffered over the past umpteen months.
Once you have been dealt with by the officer and are handed back your passport, you are invited to press one of three buttons showing you thought the service you have just received was good / medium / bad. I am reminded of the motorway service stations in the UK which have big smileys outside their loos – but there it surely must be rare indeed for the good-button to be pressed at all. Not so at Beijing Airport!
After picking up my baggage, I wander out into the great throng of meeters-and-greeters and easily spy a large blue notice-board with ‘Mr Brian’ spelled out in LARGE WHITE LETTERS and cowering underneath, an intern from the company I am about to start working with. This is Yang’s very first foray to the airport to meet a foreigner and she is bashfully shy. But after first leading me to the wrong floor and then trying to go down an Up escalator, we arrive at the taxi rank and spend a few minutes cramming my two large suitcases into the small boot of the Hyundai Elantra taxi. But the taxi driver is obviously charmed by Yang’s smile and ignores the foreigner in the back of his cab while chatting her up for the whole of the journey.
The apartment that comes with the job is of a reasonable size, but redolent of university student accommodation. I am asked to sign an inventory list written half in Chinese and half in English. I can easily identify the ‘Rifrigerator’ and the ‘Bash Towel’ as well as the ‘Bustbin’ and ‘Bet’, which of course has its own “Mattess’. But I am at a loss to know what the ‘Pun’ is or, for a few seconds at least, the ‘Smoke-Extra-Ctor’. But never mind; this is to be my new home-from-home for the foreseeable future.
There is a bedroom, living room, kitchen, hall-diner and of course, a bathroom. Helpfully, in case I am not able to find it, there is a large notice just outside the bathroom …
… but I am left wondering what any visiting female friends might do, except perhaps sit there with crossed legs, as there is no equivalent notice for them.
Most mod cons are also provided, including a washing machine which has all its instructions in Chinese.
Later in the week I cause a huge amount of mirth in the office when asking someone which button controls the temperature of the wash. Chinese washing machines only use cold water, apparently. If you want a hot wash, you have to boil it on the stove!
The neighbourhood is also awash with restaurants of every description, with some even boasting a westernised name in addition to the Chinese name above the door.
The following day at the crack of dawn (well, 0830) I meet Yang again and we whiz off right across the city to the northwestern-most extremes, way beyond the Summer Palace on a 55 minute taxi ride to find a hospital which specialises in giving foreigners the requisite medicals before they apply for residence visas. Yang hands over a stack of the readies and I am given a large sheet of paper to fill in, together with a dozen barcode stickers after which I wander from room to room handing over my barcodes in exchange for having blood extracted, eyes tested, throat inspected, chest x-rayed, stomach ultra-sounded, prodded and poked and measured …. until I emerge at the other end with my sheet of paper covered in illegible signatures, offer up my passport for scanning, and wander out into the daylight once again.
As I had been told not to eat anything for 12 hours before the tests, Yang has thoughtfully bought for me four chocolate cakes, together with a can of Nescafe drink. But given the high temperatures of Beijing summers, my first attempt at unwrapping one of the cakes leads to a rash of brown stains on my shirt and trousers, so I give up the unequal task and slurp out of the tin instead.
The taxi driver we have hailed for the return journey obviously has no clue where he is and when I suggest to Yang that it appears we are travelling north west out of the city she has a long conversation with the driver who stops to ask not one, but three different groups of people how to get back into town before grudgingly admitting that he is going in totally the opposite direction. How do you know Beijing so well, Yang asks me? She obviously does not understand the principles of navigating by the sun, so I point out that we passed a signpost to the Summer Palace ten minutes back and she is well impressed.
On our return, I am informed that I now have the rest of the day off and that we will meet again the next day. So I set to exploring the immediate neighbourhood around my apartment block.
A seven minute walk away is a metro station with the catchy name of Huixinxijienantou. Ten minutes away a large supermarket. Another two minutes on, an even bigger hypermarket owned by a Japanese company which does its utmost to impress its customers by being Japanese in every way possible. I walk down the aisles of the crockery and home gadgets department and at every aisle junction a smartly dressed Chinese assistant bows deeply to me Japanese-style and says Ni Hao. At first this is quite quaint and brings a smile, but by the 15th Ni Hao it is beginning to lose its appeal. Should one bow back in return like the Japanese or ignore them like the Chinese? And why are they saying 你好 instead of こんにちは? It is all so confusing.
The next day at the requisite hour I meet Yang once again who takes me to meet my new boss. We talk about this and that for a few minutes after which I am led out into the main office, where I will work, to meet some of my new colleagues. They all talk in whispers – it feels a bit like a library – and later I am to discover that to allow for concentration, no one talks and everyone sends MSN messages to one another. Even a girl sitting immediately next me or opposite me will talk to me via MSN Messenger. Quite weird.
Everyone is called Chan or Chang or Chen or Cheng or Yang or Wang or Wen or Xing or Xin and so I am getting all these messages from girls all of 2-3 meters away from me but have no idea at all who has sent me what!
Later in the day I am wandering through another supermarket when my eyes are attracted by a special offer (the Chinese love special offers). A kilo of lychees for a mere 13元 (that’s about £1.40). I buy a large handful of them and am given a glance by the cashier as if to say is that all you’re gonna buy? Everyone else is cramming these lychees into large plastic bags as if there is no tomorrow. Back at my pad I tuck in and find they are absolutely scrummy. I should indeed have bought more.
Of course, China does have its downsides as well. Facebook is blocked here, as is the downloading of Yahoo Messenger (although I have it already installed, and find I can use it); IMDB is blocked for some unfathomable reason; and my blog site too is blocked – presumably because it is run by Google who are definitely out of favour with the authorities here. But I have worked out a way of getting these blogs up online, albeit that it does take a little longer to do.
I go for a walk near Tian an Men square which, naturally, is the first stop on every foreigner’s tour of Beijing. This is the only place in Beijing where Chairman Mao’s official picture is on display, and everyone appears eager to be photographed with the great leader looking over their shoulders.
I am approached by a pretty young thing who asks me if I am a visitor, if I speak English, that she is learning English and if I would like to pass some time with her by enjoying a coffee in a nearby shopping mall. But I have already read about this scam where unsuspecting foreigners are led to what looks like an ordinary café from the outside, but where they then find the bill comes to an exorbitant amount.
I decline gracefully, saying I am meeting someone, but I have to admit that she gets 100% for persistency. So you wait for your fren with me in café no? she asks hopefully. I tell her that much as I would love to spend some time helping her practise her English, it would have to be here on the street corner, not in a coffee bar and before I know it she is off practising her charm on another foreigner – this time an American who looks old enough to be her great grandfather; and off they go chatting away like old friends. Ah well, they say there’s no fool like an old fool!
One of the problems here for foreigners is that very few people speak English. Although it has recently become mandatory for schools to include it in the curriculum, it is difficult to find anyone apart from hookers, coffee bar scammers and the educated middle class who speaks much English. And this determines me all the more to start knuckling down and learning some Putonghua – the people’s language.
My thoughts drift back to school French lessons when we were required to learn all about ‘La plume de ma tante’. I open a text book which promises to teach Chinese the easy way with books and audio tapes… Lesson 1:
I somehow suspect this is going to take a little time….