Ich bin ein Beijinger

Out here, it's chopsticks or die

The Short Answer? China is smelly — January 12, 2017

The Short Answer? China is smelly

It’s been about 7 months since I got back to the UK from my stint in China. When I first arrived, everyone want to know “what was China like?”. I quickly discovered it’s difficult to sum up any year of one’s life, let alone one that happened in China, without launching into a small monologue, which I have discovered is not what people were after in any case. Unless the other person is genuinely interested in China or my year abroad, or one of my housemates who are forced to listen regardless of whether they care or not, I have to defaulted to this answer to the question, “How was China?”: Smelly.

Which is true. In the alleys there is a sweet, meaty stench and every so often you are hit with the reek of stinky tofu, which smells so pungent you wonder why anyone would put it near their face, let alone, actually consume it. Even the smog has a mustiness on the particularly murky days. And just when you think you’ve smelled it all, an acrid alley will open up from somewhere and give you a blast of novelty.

In any case, I don’t get asked a lot about China anymore. If I do it’s normally those who know well enough that I went to China, who put on a mocking tone and ask “Did you go to China?” any time I make any comment to do with last year/somewhere abroad/Germany/chopsticks/Vietnam/smog/my degree. Do I actually talk about China as much as Donald Trump? Mostly year abroad is fading from my memory like some lucid dream. It feels like someone else went and did all that, not me at all. I was here the whole time, stuffing newspaper in my shoes to try and dry them of Manchester rain.

My tasty China/Vietnam merch

A year abroad doesn’t set you up for final year in the way it should. Your language abilities improve a lot, of course. Having language classes everyday and being immersed ( or trapped ) in the language environment means that you are bound to get better at correcting when it turns out the “chicken snack” is actually “chicken feet”. But in terms of actual academia, it screws you over pretty well. There are lots of difficult things about living abroad for a year, but I’m not going to kid myself or anyone else; it’s kind of like a holiday. I didn’t do much actual “thinking”, and now I am expected to grapple with Chinese history and German linguistics after a year of speaking ( and acting ) like a child. Exams were easier, less was expected, the pass rate was 60% but the lecturers didn’t want you to fail. Life was easier.

Even the language skills disappear pretty quickly. It’s true that if you don’t use it, you lose it. I’m starting to think that maybe learning two languages wasn’t such a good idea, as keeping up with just one is a struggle in final year. My Chinese was damn good at the end of my year abroad, I thought. At the airport in Beijing on my home I had to deal with my excess baggage and spoke to a lady at the check-in desk who I had heard speaking English before, but when I struck up in Mandarin she graced me by not switching to English, even after seeing my passport. I must have been doing OK. Now I can barely summon the words to make up an excuse for my lateness.

I think I have demonstrated amazing restraint in not sharing my blog every time Facebook gives me a post as a memory. As well as Facebook’s forced nostalgia, I have a lot of moments when I wonder what I was doing this time last year and all that kind reflective nonsense. I suppose it was the “looking back and looking forward” of the New Year which prompted this sudden blog post, though mostly looking back at China, and not toward another arduous semester and the inevitable termination of my student-hood in June.

My “how long can I stand up here before I am politely asked to do one” pose. Photocreds: Angelica Shin (obviously)

Although life in Manchester and in the UK in general seems rather flat after 12 months in two countries, and I do miss the life I had in Beijing and the friends I had there, I’m not desperate to go back just yet. Some people get the China bug and want to live there at all costs. I’m not one of them. I have ideas to go back in a couple of years, for more than just a holiday, to work for something, or be a foreign correspondent or diplomat or do research for The Lonely Planet guidebook series, but we’ll see. If I go back to the People’s Republic one day, it won’t be the same as a year abroad in the middle of my degree anyway, and with the pace of change in Chinese cities most of what I knew will probably be unrecognisable.

So I don’t know when or if I will be back in China, but if I ever am, you can be sure I’ll blog about it.

Featured image: Makeameme.org

More than a Tourist — September 16, 2016

More than a Tourist

It’s that time of year when some students are about to head out on their year abroad, and when other students, like me, are soon to return to their home universities in the UK. I will be swapping the needle cold and soupy smog of Beijing for the soggy streets of Manchester.

Whether you’re going out or coming back there is a certain amount of excitement and also a kind of dull dread, perhaps more for returning to the “normal” than going off on the adventure. Nevertheless, as I become overly reflective about my year abroad ( it is nearly a full year since I left for China ), I think back on my time in the People’s Republic and how I tried to make the most of it. I did the backpacking thing and saw more than just my corner of Beijing, but to really crack China you have to become involved where you’re at. On the whole I feel that I did quite a good job of mucking in, but there are still one or two things I regret not having done more of.

It can be quite difficult getting to know the Chinese. You may expect the language barrier to get in the way, but there is also a huge cultural barrier, which is not to be underestimated. Making local friends can be tricky, but is ultimately worth it. If you’re at a university, then with a little effort you can get a lot out of what’s available. One thing I regret is that I didn’t carry on with the university societies. I began with inline skating and Kungfu, but tailed off on both. One of my social-butterfly type friends wrote for the university magazine and always seemed to be meeting up with native Chinese. Joining societies and being involved in university events provides the opportunity to meet the domestic students, and is less awkward than meeting people one-to-one, because you have a reason to interact. You won’t have best buddies straight away, but if you stick with it there will be a pay-off.

Another way to make local friends at university, and something I did stick with, is arranging language exchanges. At the start I wasn’t too bothered, but eventually pulled my act together, stuck up a notice in a cafe, responded to a few on the board, and found myself a language buddy or two. I’ve written a whole post about language exchanges on this blog, and the truth is that doing a language exchange gives you a lot, not just language practice, but local friends and the feeling of being an insider. Even if you’re not in China specifically to learn Chinese, it can still be worth pushing through the awkwardness and getting to know Chinese people in this way. China, after all, is full of people who speak Chinese and quite a lot of them want to learn English. You’ll get a lot from a language exchange, or your money back.

Throughout the year, a friend and I frequented one restaurant in particular on many a day when we were sick of the canteen food or just fed up with Chinese life. It was known affectionately among us foreigners as the “family restaurant”, and felt like sitting in someone’s kitchen with drinks piled up in the corner and the dumpling steamer piping out white clouds by the door, and was run by a couple and their 5 year-old daughter. By the end of year they knew where we were from, would ask us about uni, talk about learning Chinese, and they knew our regular orders, and where to deliver when we phoned. At the end of the year we bought them cigarettes, a bottle of Chinese spirit called Baijiu, flowers, and some jelly beans for their girl, and they gave us the bill for free as well as several dishes which we hadn’t ordered ( liver and peppers, anyone? ). We drank beer and talked at length in Chinese about our future plans and the English premiership and what China is like compared to Britain. In short, we were getting down with the locals. It’s worth playing the long game and becoming a regular. That final meal in a tiny kitchen eatery was one of the best moments of my year abroad.

As a foreigner in China, you’ll probably find that people ask you for your photo, or want to talk with you, or often they’ll talk about you. I’d often feel all British when someone approached me, but towards the end of my year, I decided to embrace it and seized the opportunities to speak Chinese. The Chinese will lose their minds if you say anything remotely resembling Mandarin. You won’t always feel like or have the time to, but if you have a couple of minutes, then speak to strangers.

Of course there’s classic tourist China, like the Great Wall, the Bund, the Terracotta Warriors, Yunnan, Tibet, temples galore and enough street meat squid to make your stomach turn. All those things are worth doing. In fact if you don’t do at least one of them, did you even go to China? However, if you really want to get the most from this country, then you have to face the cultural barrier, persist with the locals, get to know the Chinese, and make friends that don’t speak English. When I left China, I didn’t feel like a foreigner who had been living in Beijing, I felt like I knew what was going on, and that I was leaving more than just sites behind. I was something more than a tourist, something like a local.

This post first appeared on The Student Language Bureau

I only understand Train Station — August 3, 2016

I only understand Train Station

This is a literal translation of a German idiom ( “Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof” ) and in English is like “It’s all Greek to me”. Luckily I don’t have to use this kind of phrase too often because, unlike my Chinese, my German is fairly fluent and I don’t find myself getting too lost. Here are a few highlights of my German-speaking career.

    • Speaking German in a club while competing with some serious bass, understanding, and being understood.
    • Being mistaken for German for the first 10 seconds of a conversation, before my accent starts to creep in.
    • Saying “The feeling is mutual” at just the right point in a conversation.
    • Saying “he’s an oddball” in conversation and getting a round of congratulations for using a good word.
    • Being introduced with the phrase, “Yes, he’s from the UK, but he speaks German.”
    • Being looked at in conversation for the translation of a German word, which I can normally conjure from somewhere.
    • Learning to curse and actually insulting a German ( is somewhat accidentally ).

In spite of this rather impressive list, I still manage to make enough mistakes to remind everyone that I am not from here. Aside from the fact my accent isn’t flawless ( My excuse is that I’m trying to retain some of my exotic Englishness ), I have a tendency to create words that don’t exist, for example “Wohnplatz” while enquiring after a friend’s living arrangement. It doesn’t translate very well into English ( because there is no such word ), but it might sound a bit like “Have you found a new habitat yet?” I also referred to once of the typical Heidelberg sights at the “Spaghetti Tower” not the “Spaghetti Column”, which is like saying “the London Ferris Wheel” or “The Eiffel Spike”. Another classic error, which happens especially when I speak Chinese and less now with German, is when someone asks me a question and I don’t realise it’s a question and just nod and agree. And then there’s a stiff silence and I realise that I haven’t understood and we all laugh and go for Bratwurst und Bier.

People always say that children learn languages best, and that once you’re past a certain age it’s too difficult to learn a language. It seems that the reason children are good at picking up languages is that they aren’t self-conscious about getting it wrong. They follow patterns and miss the exceptions, or use a word incorrectly or in a strange context, they use simple sentence structures and everyone thinks it’s cute. Well, I don’t know if anyone finds it “cute” as such when I make mistakes, but I have to get over the worry of being wrong and in a way become like a child again. I try to say what I want, and if I get it wrong it normally doesn’t matter too much if I’m understood, unless I completely fluff it and get the vacant and slightly concerned look that native speakers are very bad at hiding.

In any case, I won’t be fumbling my way through the German language again for a while. This chapter of year abroad is also at a close. During my last days in Heidelberg I went to an open air poetry slam with one of my ( two ) friends, and sat out with the cool kids of Heidelberg while the poets did their bit. I didn’t understand all of it, but enough to find it funny. When I wasn’t sure, I just laughed when everyone else laughed. And on my last day I slugged my way through the final class and then played volleyball in the sun with some of the guys and gals from Life Church and didn’t get burned and probably injured my shoulder. Not a bad way to end the month really.

In the meantime, I’m back in the UK and finishing this blog post from home. No more Beijing, no more Heidelberg. My year abroad is officially over. I can’t say that I’ll miss sharing a room with 9 others, going to class for 9 o’clock every day, and having to cook everything out of a pan. It will be nice to enjoy home comforts, speaking English, having a room to myself, and perhaps also not having to be foreign. There’s no more jetting off, but the blog isn’t over just yet. There may be a couple more installments before I go back to university in September.

Until then, I’ll still be writing for the Student Language Bureau about life in China and what it’s like to study there and live there. And after that, who knows. Maybe a blogger has been born and there’s just no stopping me.

I am Heidelberger — July 24, 2016

I am Heidelberger

“Heidelberger” is the local brew, a kind of hotdog, and the term for the locals. I have drunk the pils, eaten the hotdog, and therefore consider myself a local of this humble town, although I’m not sure if the actual residents have accepted me yet. Now that I’ve been here nearly 4 weeks, enough has happened in my sedentary but not unpleasant German life that I can fill a blog post. (Warning: contains images of myself in a tank top and traces of China)

Pasta: After spending 10 months on a fairly hardcore rice-based diet, I’ve now switched to pasta as this is just about all I can cook in the hostel. Pasta with tomato sauce, pasta with beans, pasta with pesto, pasta with peppers, pasta with chicken, plain pasta. There’s been quite a bit of culinary experimentation as well. Pasta with melted Philadelphia and mushrooms, anyone?

Rice: I did actually eat some rice, but it was with a curry, which is quite different.

German skills: Have not significantly deteriorated during my year in China. A newly befriended German, Naele ( see below ), has even bestowed me with the honourary title of “Half-German”. I’ve managed to bring out several words which have impressed the natives, such as “ein Komplott schmieden” ( to hatch a plot)  and “Windbeutel” ( someone who talks on and on, lit. ‘cream filled puff pastry’ ) and “Klugscheißer” ( know-it-all, lit. ‘wisdom shitter’ ). One guy even commented ( after a few beers ) that I had no accent whatsoever when I spoke German, although it was probably the pils talking.

Sense of National Identity: I’m not as ready to admit the fact that I’m British as I used to be. It gets a certain sympathetic and knowing response from receptionists, my teacher, students at church, waiters, travellers I meet in the hostel, Angela ( Merkel ), pretty much everyone I come into contact with. I suppose this is post-Brexit life for the European expat.

My humble singlet

Tank tops: I have 7, and was planning on getting a lot of use from them. The weather has improved somewhat. Today was simmering around 30 degrees and I’m trying to decide if it’s OK to go to class in a garish red tank top that has “Vietnam Inn Pub Crawl” written on it. I think I will. In the meantime, swimming in the outdoor pool seems the only sensible way to cool off. Year abroad can be a real chore.

Friends: I can say with pretty good accuracy how many friends I have: 2. One is my main-man Emmett from Life Church, a Texan with a cheeky grin and a love for döner kebabs which rivals my own. And Naela, a scathingly sarcastic, “one-of-a-kind” Heidelberg native with a not-so-hidden poetic streak. Seems like these are all the friends I need at the moment.

No phone: I haven’t had a phone since I’ve been back, and the absence of mobile device is liberating. Once I got over the fact that I couldn’t pull out my screen every time I was in a slightly awkward situation or was just doing something on my own, I felt quite free. On the other hand, I don’t actually have enough friends in Heidelberg to merit a phone.

Life plans: “You study languages, do you want to be a teacher or a translator?” This is a fairly usual conversation, and I have no intention of being either. In fact, I’m not sure at all what I intend. Professional blogger and travel writer, perhaps?

Hostel weirdos: I am probably not the strangest person who has been in the hostel for a long time ( I think I’ll settle for second strangest ). There is a German guy who has been here much longer, and keeps telling me he is about to move out but doesn’t seem to have made any moves toward leaving. He showers with the door open and curtain pulled back, lopes around the hostel using the free computers and complaining about how expensive Heidelberg is. Is this what I have to look forward to?

Being trilingual: As I’m writing this I am switching between German with one of the other hostel veterans and Chinese with a tourist who is just passing through. I was worried that my newly acquired Chinese abilities were going to go the way of the dodo, but they seem to be holding up alright. Switching between languages isn’t always very easy, and often some linguistic abomination is born from my not-quite-native language skills.

Visitors: I have had Luke stay with me in the hostel for a weekend. He managed not to mention the war or anything else like that. This weekend I have Eve, who has left the UK in the middle of a heat wave to come to the humid and stormy south of Germany. At least there’s Currywurst.

Koreans: Are not just all over Beijing, but also all over Heidelberg. I’ve managed to impress with a couple of my very basic phrases. It seems that if there’s a language to be learned, then Koreans want to learn it. There’s quite a few in the school and a lot of Koreans have been coming through the hostel as well. Should have learnt that instead of Chinese.

China: Did I mention that I went to China?

Return to the Land of Bread and Sausage — July 2, 2016

Return to the Land of Bread and Sausage

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
The Last Bowl of Rice — June 8, 2016

The Last Bowl of Rice

I’m finishing this year much the same way I started it: saying goodbye to friends, camping on the Great Wall, and sunburned. It seems I cannot escape the sun’s wrath, much to the amusement of other, less pasty foreigners.

A group of us went to the Wall on the weekend before exams because why not do a massive hike and spend a night lying on a rock developing back problems. I was sat in the afterglow of the day hanging a foot off our tower, and because I’d been to the Wall at the start of the year, I was waxing lyrical about the passing of time and things coming full circle and how I felt like a different person and all that. You know, the kind of stuff that sounds great and profound in your head but just clumsy and obvious when you say it out loud ( or write it on your blog ).

Unlike at the beginning, however, I am bidding farewell to a different group of friends. Before I said goodbye in the UK, “see you soon, 10 months isn’t all that long”. Now I say goodbye to the friends I never expected to make in China, and not just for a year, maybe for longer, forever. Because of this, my feelings about this are quite mixed. On the one hand I’m dying to come home. It’s been a long time away, I miss a lot of people, I’m fed up with the smog, exams finished today so I have no reason to be here anymore, and I need the monotony of rice to end ( I am fast approaching the last bowel ). I may attack anyone who suggests going for a Chinese when I’m back. On the other hand, I will miss the friends I have here, and the little unreality that we’ve built as foreigners in this strange land. I will miss mixing beer and soju ( a Korean spirit ) and belting out Abba and the Kooks in KTV karaoke. I will miss cheap dumplings, crossing the road with total disregard, and the challenge of speaking Chinese everyday. Life in English seems just a little dull.

Class of 2016. Courtesy of Mike’s selfie-stick arms.

Saying that, life in English won’t begin just yet. Since I also study German, I’ll be spending most of the summer in Heidelberg in south Germany doing ( more ) language study. Baozi, Tisngtao beer, and KTV to Wurst, Pilsner, and the Euros. They say you get reverse culture shock when you come home, but what about from one foreign country to another? Although I leave China, and I have written mostly about Beijing life, I will likely write a couple of posts from Heidelberg, about the contrast and about how Europe is weird in its own way. After that, I intend to return to Britain properly, unless we vote to leave and I get stuck in Germany.

“Found myself” sat in this chair. Creds: Angelica Shin

In other news, I have not married a Chinese woman and I have not “found myself”. I don’t go in for that “finding yourself” stuff, partly because it makes the world all about you ( Vietnam is just waiting to give you a fish bowl and tell you who you are ), and partly because I think losing yourself is more important. You realise that a lot of the world doesn’t work the way that you’re used to, or that you think it should. And you learn that in somewhere like China you are a stranger and weirdo by default, and China doesn’t care about you. It swallows you in a single mouthful, pummels you with its language, crushes you with an angry hangover from fake alcohol, gives you dim-sum diarrhoea and then spits you out as a different person. You can love it or hate it, but you don’t come away thinking just, “meh”. China has probably changed me ( I don’t mind barging people or shouting at cyclists anymore ), but I’m not exactly walking around barefoot and unshowered playing a ukulele and talking about the journey that we’re all on. I haven’t changed that much, I hope.

Until I fly back, I’ve got to pack my life back into two cases ( including a small library and my skates ), get rid of a guitar, off-load my now broken bike ( he did well, poor thing ), deal with the mountain of loose change on my bedside table. And before any of that it’s the last performance at KTV tonight, which is why I’m hammering out this post in between episodes of the Walking Dead and mouthfuls of supermarket sushi.

The Crew

This will likely be my last post in China. Thanks to all the blog faithful. Your following does not go unnoticed, I see you in my WordPress statistics. Shout out to any Redcliffians reading, both teachers and students. Shout out my fellow bloggers who know the real struggle, especially Joe Haniff, who has taken a good few of the photos on my blog and was the original inspiration for starting the blog. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoy writing it. If you don’t, then you can blame Joe.

Next time I’ll be writing from the Western side.

Just being us
Make a Home out of Beijing — May 30, 2016

Make a Home out of Beijing

Sitting over a metal bowl filled with fried aubergine and eggs in a rowdy canteen, thinking that everything was too bright and noisy, and wondering why on earth I had decided to go to China.

That is one of the first memories I have of being in this country. I was still jet-lagged, I had arrived quite early so there weren’t many other foreign students in my position whom I could bond with. And I don’t even like aubergine, but my Chinese hadn’t been good enough to order anything else. I just pointed and hoped for the best.

In those first weeks, there was a thought that occurred to me every half an hour or so: “Oh, I’m in China. What have I done!” It’s a recognised phenomenon in the foreign student community. I was beginning to question why I had signed up for a year in Beijing. The language seemed impenetrable, the supermarkets were stocked with unknown brands and strange vacuum packed meats, the canteen food was a total enigma. The city is huge, and when I was on the subway I felt like an astronaut holding onto the outside of a satellite, and if I let go I’d drift off into darkness and be lost, forever.

Things have changed a lot since that first, unfortunate bowl of aubergine. I can now communicate with everyone I need to in daily life, I regularly get embroiled in Chinese conversations with strangers, I have my favourite beer-serving establishments, I ride the metro on autopilot. I know the city well enough to know if a cab driver is taking the long way round, I know that travelling an hour to go to a hidden restaurant in an anonymous alley isn’t a big deal, and I have discussed Taiwanese autonomy whilst hungover.

I’m not writing this to brag. I’m writing this to say that anywhere can become home. Even somewhere like Beijing, where you can’t drink the tap water, and traffic laws seem not exist, and coughing on the poisonous air is “normal”. At the start, I couldn’t have imagined being familiar with even a few of Beijing’s districts or holding a decent conversation in Chinese about something other than my family or my home town, even though I had studied the language for two years previously. But however you feel when you arrive, and you may well feel pretty awful like I did, you can make a home out of China.

Eventually you get used to life here, and even begin to feel part of it. I might actually miss a lot of things about China. And that is something I never imagined feeling when I was sat in the canteen all those months ago.

(This post was originally written for the Student Language Bureau and appears on their blog website)

Eating Alone, Getting Scammed, and Chinese Toilets — May 9, 2016

Eating Alone, Getting Scammed, and Chinese Toilets

Another slice of the daily life of an exchange student in Beijing.

Dreams coming true: I’ve always wanted to be able to understand someone talking about me and reply appropriately to give them a right shock. The other day I was riding the metro and one of a group of lads pointed me out and said, “Look, a foreigner”. I said in my most flawless Mandarin Chinese accent, “the foreigner can understand what you’re saying”. They laughed. Then they were silent.

Exams: The pass rate in China is 60%. Suffice to say I landed the right side of the line, if only just.

Bird’s Nest Stadium (Yes, Joe features in a lot of my photos.)

Eating alone: I’m not sure whether it’s being a foreign student in general, or being in China where this seems more acceptable, but I am now very comfortable eating alone, even in restaurants. As a foreigner, everyone thinks I’m weird anyway, so eating alone doesn’t make much difference on that front. In addition, people in China tend to do more solitary food consumption. Also, sometimes I am more sick of Chinese food ( see below ) than I care if anyone will join me for a meal, so I go alone in search of treats ( normally burgers/pizza/pasta/something not drenched in oil ).

Breakfast, the English way. Courtesy of June.

Chinese food: Is good, and I do enjoy. But I’ve been eating rice most days for the last 9 months, and I could really do with a Yorkshire pudding, or a trip to Greggs, or just a mug of gravy. I’m so sorry China, your food is good but I’m sick of it.

Getting ripped off: In a cab the other night. It’s a counterfeit banknote scam that happens even in official cabs. Let’s just say that I’d heard this was happening and still got caught out, and that’s enough detail. The wounds are still very raw. It is not something I feel comfortable laughing about just yet.

Rain: Is a rarity. It’s so dry here that you often get static shocks just off pressing the lift buttons. It’s a joy when it rains. I have been seen splashing through puddles and running through the standing water, until resigning to my British ways and complaining that “it always bloody rains”.

A friend traveling in the south of China found this in a hostel.

Chinese Banter: Is on fire. I regularly hold conversations with a friend of mine for a couple of hours, with the words tumbling out and the Chinese flowing and the laughs rolling. It’s a wonderful feeling, and doesn’t give me a headache like it used to.

Chinese Toilets: Realised that I hadn’t shared any photos of China’s infamous and widespread facilities. Although this looks like a sanitary abomination, I’ve been told ( and can confirm ) that a squatting to unload can be quite enjoyable. The Chinese sign on the left says “A small step forward, a big step for civility”.

Post: Seems to take on a greater significance the further it has travelled. I love getting post, but equally I am crushed when I’m told to expect post that never arrived because it gets lost somewhere over Kazakhstan. I have lost faith in the Chinese postal system.

First of the last: I’ve had my last haircut in China. I still blunder through using monosyllables to describe the style I want ( more importantly, I can describe what I don’t want ). Now that there’s only 5 weeks  of term left and my inevitable return, a lot of things will become “the last thing in China”. Before I come back in the future. Spoilers!

5000 Miles and Counting — April 24, 2016

5000 Miles and Counting

Everyday I come across the signposts that remind me I am about 5000 miles away everything familiar. I’ve written about these things before, some of which are quite small: checking the smog index the way you would check the weather, drinking watery beer and fake tequila, having to load a VPN in order to access good parts of the internet, the dusty air that sticks to your skin and the cotton fluff that’s all around and looks like snow. But just when you think you’ve seen it all, you walk past a mother with a child in her lap, holding up the boy’s legs while he empties his bowels onto a sheet of newspaper. This is the kind of thing that reminds me that I’m very much in China.


I’ve been to a fair few tourist sites in Beijing, and all over China, and I find I am more taken with the other tourists than with the place itself. Staged poses, leaning on trees, standing in front of painted walls, looking closely at the first of the blossom, these are the scenes that I live for. My favourites are: the two fingered Asian peace-sign gesture ( fairly common, nothing to write home about ); three or more people leaning into a selfie ( the more the better ); a large group of people jumping into the air in front of a historic monument ( Zhang Wei was out of time );  a boy laden with photography equipment and a “hello-kitty” backpack adjusting his lens in front of a lightly adorned girl who fusses over her seated posture ( a classic Asian date, and one of my personal favourite scenes ); couples in matching outfits ( much more common than you’d imagine ); him walking away from her, then strutting back while the shutter-sound snaps on her iPhone ( a recent spot ).

I’d also heard about the different standards of privacy but never realised quite how invasive Chinese culture can be. You won’t escape comments on your appearance from the lady from whom you have just bought a backpack, as she slips in a quick “你长得很帅”. Or my mother and sister who received numerous comments to the effect that they are very attractive. Something like “Yes, I’ll give you a discount. You are very pretty. Now buy the bag”. There’s no evading it in class either, where several of the texts centre on “love at first sight” or whatever, and the teacher insists on asking everyone if they are single or not. When she asked me if I have a girlfriend and I said no, she asked in no uncertain terms why. I don’t know, teacher, you tell me.

Parks and Recreation


Parks are the centres of much “Chineseness” as well. Large groups of women occupy the shaded concrete spaces and dance in unison to music pumping from an amp. Another common site in parks ( and other public spaces ) is people napping on benches. While assuming the horizontal for a snooze may be an indicator of homelessness in the West, it is perfectly acceptable downtime on the China-side. I have been known to partake of the open-air nap. Sometimes you see market-like crowds browsing sheets of paper which are laid out on the paving stones. On the sheets are height, age, location, and I realised that it was public personals. “Beijing girl, 23, 150cm”. Men and women peruse as you might an array of fruit or selection of scarves. We didn’t hang around too long for fear of getting hitched through a miscommunication. And you wouldn’t be in China if the cool stillness of a well-trimmed public garden wasn’t punctuated with the throaty suck of someone projectile spitting for the fifth time.


In spite of the strangeness of the city, this place feels more like home everyday, although I don’t think I could ever get used to a kid defecating in the street. There’s only 8 weeks left in China before I return to the West and have to re-acclimatise. Apparently reverse culture-shock is a thing. Just last night I was talking to a British guy who has been here 3 years. He said that after a while, China turns “normal” and the UK becomes the unfamiliar. I will have only been here 10 moths in total, but I’ll probably come back to find that Britain is equally as weird as China, I just never noticed before.

Don’t look down. Photocreds: Joe Haniff


Aren’t you fluent? — April 10, 2016

Aren’t you fluent?

One time when I was revising for a German exam, my mother asked, “Don’t you know all the words yet?”

As a language student, I often hear variations of this question. Sometimes people ask for a demonstration, like I’m a dancing dog, and depending how much I like them I might actually say something in German or Chinese, or I might just make up something that more closely resembles Klingon than any language I can actually speak.

The question really depends on what you mean by fluent. I can get by with some mainstream Chinese media aimed at language learners, a slow Chinese podcast, short conversations, and I manage in most of my classes, which are taught entirely in Chinese. But I can’t exactly discuss the applications of Confucianism in modern China, or the nuances of Sino-Japanese relations. The cafe is where I dominate ( latte ? mocha ? with a shot of vanilla ? ), and I do well in restaurants beyond just pointing at things, and I’ve become a pro at ordering train tickets. But sometimes I hear an accent so thick I have to ask if they know how to speak Chinese, and if they can then would they please.

Sean knows

There are still times when I feel like I’ve anesthetised my face and I eventually manage to drool out a syllable or three. But there are a lot of topics and contexts in which I feel quite comfortable. I talk about quite a lot of things with one of my Chinese friends, the differences between the UK and China, the difficulties of language learning, our nations’ attitudes toward immigrants, plans for the future. When we’re just talking and cracking jokes and making small talk we tend to speak Chinese most of the time, and only switch into English occasionally. I have made maybe three intentionally funny comments using Chinese, which excludes mispronunciations, like the time a group of kids laughed because I told them “I died and went to heaven” rather than saying “I went to the Temple of Heaven”. Funny, but accidental.

Recently I felt my language come into its own when I’ve been hanging out with some of the Koreans from my classes. Often, our only common language is Chinese ( still working on my Korean ), and it’s rude to carry on a conversation and exclude them if not everyone speaks English. I have had conversations before using German in this way ( a Brit, a Russian, a Spaniard, a Kyrghyzstani, an American, and a German, outside a bar in Heidelberg, all speaking German ) but I couldn’t have imagined doing it in Chinese.

Class Lunch
4 Koreans, 2 Brits, an Indian, and a Japanese. And only Chinese to speak.

For all the jokes I make about my Chinese level and all the nights I cry myself to sleep wondering why I have subjected myself to this language, I realise I’ve come pretty far in two and a half years if I can use Chinese to talk proficiently with natives about things that matter to me ( or at least, more than pets and my pencil case), and also use Chinese as a shared language instead of English.

On the plane to Beijing, I wrote in my journal ( shock, I have a journal ) that I could never imagine being an “insider” of this language. I couldn’t imagine  not trying to fight my way in, while Chinese just wants to spit me out. I think I’ll need longer than a year in China to really get it down, but it’s comforting to feel that I am on my way to cracking this beast.

Short answer: No, mum. I don’t know all the words yet, but I’m trying.