My sister: “You still smell like China.”

After a brief layover in the UK to send my postal vote, have a pint in euro-skeptic Wetherspoons, and eat a pork pie, I’m now back in Heidelberg in the south of Germany doing a language course at a place called a Pädagogium. I say “back” because I was here last summer before I started the blog and as fate would have it I’m here again.

I may not be in China anymore, but some things haven’t changed: I’m in a foreign country, everyday I have to speak a language which isn’t English, and I don’t belong even though I sort of know what’s going on. That’s about where the similarities end. Beijing is a neon-splattered, skyscraper-riddled 20 million-strong sprawl submerged in smog. Heidelberg is an Oxbridge-like university town on the River Neckar, nestled in the surrounding hills, and overlooked by a gothic castle straight from a fairy-tale. It has 150,000 resident, the shops close on Sunday, and jay-walking is illegal ( you can actually be fined for it ).

“Don’t be too ready to listen to stories told by attractive women. They may be acting under orders”, and other useful advice.

Although I still get quizzical looks when I speak the local lingo, I’m significantly less foreign here in Germany than in China ( where there’s just no hiding ). When I have conversations, I see the other person thinking “this guy doesn’t look un-German, and he sounds kind of German, but he’s not German.” My German is good ( and much better than my Chinese ), but I think my accent must sound a bit strange, and sometimes it slips and I am exposed. Sometimes it slips off altogether and I come out with a big Bristolian ‘rrrr’ and surprise even myself.

Despite my variable German accent and changeable Chinese ability, I am actually going to lay claim to the title “trilingual”, as I passed the HSK 5 Chinese proficiency exam, which means I’m officially a Chinese speaker and have no excuse to be rubbish at Chinese anymore. I have found, however, that I tend to mix my languages somewhat. Normally the smaller words catch me out, like “thank you”, “also”, “yes”. I’m nodding and saying “dui, dui, dui”, not “ja, ja, ja.” I have thanked several people at counters in Chinese. I’m also used to being a lot more direct. In Chinese, if you want something, then you just say it. In German you need all this conditional and please, and indirect nonsense. Getting waiters’ attention is the worst. I want to shout across the restaurant when I’m asking for the bill, but that would probably go down about as well as urinating on the floor in the shape of a swastika. Much to learn in re-adapting to life in the West, I suppose.

Yet in spite of warnings, I didn’t experience the traumatic, identity crisis inducing reverse-culture shock I had been expecting, and indeed hoping for. I was planning to get a lot of blog material from the ensuing fallout and existential breakdown. The things I noticed about the UK tended to be much smaller: the air smells earthy and wet, the clouds look somehow different, the streets are tiny and always empty, it seems. The water tastes better. I am suddenly struck with thirst and then realise that I can simply drink from the tap, which doesn’t normally cross my mind because I’m so used to buying bottled water. Perhaps the strangest thing is being able to understand everyone. When there’s a constant Mandarin buzz in the background, you get used to phasing it out because you don’t really understand. Now I find myself overwhelmed because I can understand every word that people say. Also, I’m used to seeing Chinese people everywhere. Now there are just a few here and there, and I feel like a share a bond with them. They are my people.

Last year when I was here I was living in some God-forsaken prison-turned-student accommodation next door to a brothel. At the moment I’m living in a youth hostel, where everyone is breezing through on their backpackers’ holidays interrailing across Europe, and I’m that guy that spends too much time at the kitchen table on his laptop, never seems to be moving out, has a massive case and enough food to wait out the apocalypse, and generally just unnerves other travellers by his constancy. If you’re wondering who that guy is, he’s probably doing a language course at a nearby institution and was too late in applying for the school’s accommodation. But it’s not too bad. The rooms are spacious and airy and bright, there’s a kitchen ( with only hobs, meal suggestions are welcome ), there’s a lounge, and you can buy beer at reception. And downstairs is a casino rather than a bordello.

I’m trying not to be that guy that starts every sentence with “When I was in China..”, but it’s kind of difficult, because I was in China and anything of interest that has happened recently took place in China. You can expect a couple more updates on happenings in Deutschland, and a few indulgently introspective pieces on the nature of doing a year abroad and some other pseudo-philosophical rubbish.  Anyway, the blog lives on, shan’t be giving it up just yet.

Big Rock
Just sitting in more high up places. Creds: Jonny Vaughn