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China Blog-First Impressions

China Travel Blog

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To date I have spent three months working in China but failed to share any of my experiences and thoughts with friends and family, despite having learnt so much in my time here. I came across the following Chinese proverb, The palest ink is better than the best memory and realised (somewhat belatedly) that I should begin reminding myself of everything I have hitherto experienced and discovered from this fascinating country, even if I cannot recount everything.

I start at the beginning. I was picked up from my hostel and driven four hours in the back of a Toyota 4x4 to Shijiazhuang in Hebei province, south of Beijing. The roads were congested, but moving, and surrounding me were many of the western car brands that congest our roads too. Once outside of Beijing and en route to Shijiazhuang I got my first taster of Chinese culture. For close to four hours I had to witness the atrocious driving abilities of every road user. Three lane motorways were regularly used by motorists to determine the duration they could keep their cars on top of the white lines as opposed to in between them; overtaking could be done in the fast lane, slow lane or hard shoulder; indicators are academic or knowingly used to confuse foreign passengers, speed limits were competitive, and much to my displeasure all this was compelled by the lack of any seat belt. (Safety and Personal Hygiene will be the subject of another blog entry).

Sat next to me on this journey was Nadia who was picked up at the airport before me. Nadia is an English teacher, but not from an English speaking country as you might expect. Rather, Nadia is from Belarus, a Russian speaking country. My instance reaction was bewilderment for this is a significant aberration when you consider the importance Chinese universities place on recruiting native speakers (as well as the students who expect it). Having said that, Nadia's English is very good, a semi-fluent speaker, having studied English at university and worked in the USA. Nadia is 24 and has blonde hair. The blonde hair is significant because she is the only person with hair that colour and this makes her the centre of male(and female glances) wherever she goes. It is very humorous to watch as you try to count the number of people with fixed glares, but Nadia, obviously used to this behaviour having been teaching in China since September is oblivious, or used to the commotion that follows her as she goes about her everyday life (a serial shopaholic).

I learnt a great deal about what was expected from me as a teacher, the city I was to adopt for one academic semester, and the other teachers on this four hour car journey. There are a total of 11 teachers working in a capacity identical to mine at Hui Hua College.  Like Nadia, Wig, 24 (real name Ludwig) is not a native English speaker, but being Swedish his English is obviously outstanding and superior to most English speakers. Wig is the only teacher fluent in spoken Chinese, miraculously learning the language since his arrival in September last year. The remaining teachers are split between Americans and Britons. On the former side we had Rob and Rowen, from Colorado and Boston respectively. Rob and Rowen (from herein RR) are an item, extremely friendly and genuinely committed to the well being and the welfare of their students. Living in their apartment is Steve, a  friend of Rob and the old man of the teaching community. I say old, but really is only in his late 20s. Steve has been working at Hui Hua for three years, and is planning on marrying his Chinese fiancĂ© this summer before hopefully moving to the states with his new bride. Steve speaks slowly compared to other English speakers, which is not surprising given the time he has spent here and how often we are asked to slow down our speaking when in conversation with Chinese students.  The last  American is Adrian,  who  seldom makes  an appearance with the other teachers and  refuses to eat vegetables.

The Brits make up the largest group. There is Ricky, in his late 20s, a former Deloitte employer who gave up the job several years ago in search of a more satisfying career. He is due to go back to Warwick University to study sociology in September. The only female Briton is Ruth, 31, a charming Christian Evangelical from Newcastle. Ruth came to Hui Hua after receiving a message from God, and gave up her job as a dietitian in pursuit of fulfilling her Divine commitments. Next up is Ric, 24, from Manchester. Ric is Jewish and has been here 15 months. Last up is James. James is sullen and rude. He ignores all teachers, keeps his head to the floor when walking past you, does not say 'hello', has music blasting from his apartment, and is in his late 30s/40s.

What hit me most on the journey from Beijing was the poverty I had witnessed on either side of the motorway, and how this compares to the growing evidence of wealth that Beijing reportedly has. The fields were full of crops, but I saw no trees in what I understand to be countryside, houses were basic brick structures, there were no cars and farming equipment consisted of anything you could use in your hand. Every square inch of land was being used to grow food and therefore make as much money as possible. Of course my understanding is severely constrained by the fact I was only seeing things from inside a fast moving car, but the contrast between dusty fields and high rise apartment blocks speaks volumes about the divide within this socialist (and apparently equal) society.

I was hoping my time in China would reveal a lot more about the mentality of the Chinese people. The very different lives people have is something I have read for years prior to my arrival in china. Stories which criticise China are ubiquitous in the media, there are reports on its growing economic position and its strong political and military presence which some believe to be conducive, others destructive, to world peace and stability. China is important, more so than Britain, and I wanted to learn what the Chinese think, how we are different and come to my own conclusions about the future we face with China. Educating myself about these people is the best way to make a sensible conclusion, which I had not been able to do back home. But neither do I expect to go home knowing that much.  It is widely known that despite having 800 million Mandarin speakers, Chinese citizens find it impossible to understand one another, with the abundance of dialects and accents that exist. China is vast and the people are very different. I do not expect my time here to shed light on all of China, it will probably give me only a limited perspective, but one which I still think is important.

As the car pulled up outside my apartment block inside the university campus, the dreariness of the place instantly hit me. The rain, afternoon darkness and cold may have had an effect but all I could think of was Orwell's 1984 and Communist Russia. This is just how I imagined these places to look like, and was not at all pleased these thoughts came into my head, as I have read 1984 and know how it ends and who the enemy is.

As I entered my own apartment I received a wonderful Chinese welcome, which still greets me on a daily basis. My apartment was horribly unkept. When you are in China's seventh most polluted city, buildings both inside and out need cleaning on a regular basis. unfortunately I had to endure a night of sleeping with dust and dirt, and ended the night in my sleeping bag, which was probably the cleanest place to be that night. Walking around the apartment I was but for the cleanliness extremely impressed. I had a TV with one English channel, balcony, fridge/freezer, microwave, water-cooler/dispenser, hot plate for cooking, Internet and computer, bathroom with warm water, shower, washing machine and a double bed. As I walked around the apartment and looked out the window to the front of the apartment, in front of me was another construction site, this time 6 huge 28 storey residential blocks were being built. Further evidence of economic growth in urban areas whilst rural communities are left behind. I went to bed that  first night hoping I was not making a mistake.

One week later my apartment was clean. I had scrubbed the floor, washed  every surface, cleaned the fridge, put everything in the washing machine, dusted as much as I could and cleaned the floor again. Ruth was wonderful taking me to the supermarket to help me stock up on some essentials. I bought bed linen, cleaning equipment, cooking equipment essentials and food. Some of these items I had expected to already be provided but like I have come to understand, Chinese people typically conduct their business by doing the minimum as opposed to the maximum. Another words, I was given a pillow but no pillowcase.

My first week at Hui Hua I did no teaching, which pretty much forced me to clean my apartment once again. I had to endure the comical experience of a health check up (which I paid for) as a prerequisite to start teaching. I had to give blood, a urine sample, eye test and ultra sound to the perfunctory nurses on duty. The health clinic had many other visitors too, notably the fearsome Police Academy brigade in their badly fitted uniform.

Everywhere I looked and experienced in my first few weeks helped to strengthen my conviction I was living in (one of) Orwell's novel. I will do my best to explain what gave me this impression. The first was noise.  For the first couple of weeks, and on some occasions even now, I was woken up by some very loud noises. The first culprit is the university. At 6.30 am, Monday-Friday the radio is broadcast on loudspeakers around the campus. From what I understand, they (the students) hear propaganda. The national anthem is played and up to date news is provided for thirty minutes. It would not surprise me if every university student in the country was to hear this anthem of nonsense on a daily basis. Whatever the students felt, a 6.30 wake up call was too early for me and in comprehensible for when I was a student.

The 6.30 daily alarm is now programmed into my internal clock and I will sleep through the gibberish without waking. The second source of noise is arguably a lot worse. When it comes to fireworks and big bangs, my body clock is far less successful in disregarding these sounds. Fireworks are often set off by the Chinese do warn off evil spirits in the event of somebody's death. Someone is dying all the time in China by the sounds of it, and it seems to me that the Chinese compete to see who can buy the biggest nerve shattering firework. It might not be an exaggeration to say that some of these wake up calls are louder than explosive devices used in Iraq. Some have the effect of making you jump, your heart race and the building to shake. The strangest aspect of all this is how I have never seen a firework in the sky or be set off from the ground.

In Orwell's novel he describes how there are regular explosions, believed by the people to be the enemy dropping bombs, in order to justify the actions of the government and to install fear in the mind's of citizens. It is this climate of fear that people give their tacit support to the government in the belief they are doing everything possible to destroy the enemy and thus the source of these explosions. I imagined myself as one of those people in Orwell's novel. Of course to Chinese people, the noise they are constantly exposed to they do not hear. They do not react to noise, and if you do point it out their reaction will be 'I did not notice'. Quite extraordinary, but I was beginning to understand more about China and its people. Namely, the Chinese are completely unaware of what goes on around them, but the extent to which and how significant this was I was not yet aware.

Orwell is synonymous with Big Brother. China is widely known as the Big Brother State. My first few weeks here and my access to information was extremely limited. The BBC website, my first port of call for information was banned. So too was Wikipedia. Youtube, newspaper websites and other such western websites were slow or severely impacted by the censors in China. I wondered just who was watching me and even now when things have changed I still have these fears. Thankfully, there are ways around these restrictions. There are websites which allow you free access even to the most incendiary material (try anonymouse.org). Fortunately, the Internet has been the only arm of the Chinese censors that I have come across. Big Brother has not affected my life in China as it has the people that live here. However, although I am not directly controlled by Beijing, many others are, notably my students. The effect of the propaganda machine on the lives of the Chinese, where it matters most, has been very successful (on the surface at least).

China has a reputation of being a beautiful country, but I have not yet seen any evidence of this. The cities are bland and what I believe to be typical of Communist countries. When I first arrived into Shijiazhuang I drew instant comparisons with all the movies and documentaries I have ever seen about communist Russia. Every direction I looked, from the sun in the sky to the pavement, I was convinced that this is just what  communist countries look like. Every building was a rectangle. Tower blocks litter neighbourhoods and individual houses do not exist. The pavements are full of people and gates surround all premises. Patterns are common in the pavements and in public squares. This however is the closest Shijiazhuang  gets to anything remotely associated with architecture and elegance. Style, design and comfort are not important here. Now, why should I be surprised? This is of course a Communist country, and has many strong similarities between itself and the former USSR. But there was something about seeing this city that made me uncomfortable. its efficient use of space (the best complement I can give this city of 2 million people) its not something I envisaged. China is a country with 5000 years of history, and all around me is evidence of 50 years of concrete growth. Where had all the culture gone?

I was not going to discover anything historical in Shijiazhuang. The city is typical of China's economic ambitions, growing very fast, and is a centre for the pharmaceutical industry, a plethora of factories from various polluting industries and textiles. Money for the people of Shijiazhuang is understandably their priority, so the regular pollution filled sky is a balance they think works in their favour. Neither does the ugliness of their city effect them. In this vast concrete jungle, trees are so hard to come by children might think they do not exist. I saw no green. There were no grass patches. The new buildings were grey from the concrete, the older ones black from the pollution. It was cold and radiators were churning out heat, which made me feel darker. To think that only two weeks before my arrival I was sunbathing on a beach in New Zealand. How green that day was, and the contrast to the grey one I was now expecting to live in for what would be several long, long months. Pollution, and the grey sky which helps to turn the sun red during the day and which can reduce visibility to zero helped me to accept that I was a bit naive before my arrival into China. I had to accept that this was the real China and is a scene repeated throughout this vast country. I did not like what I had seen, but I was going to try and make sure I can continue to operate as I always had done. I was just hoping unlike Orwell's protagonist Winston Smith I was not going to be betrayed.
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