Finding yourself unexpectedly alone in an alien land is a sharp reminder that cultural experiences are more intense without company. There’s no western filter where the strangeness of things is discussed and diffused in conversation with a mate. It’s just you and the natives.
How I came to be abandoned in Beijing is simple, he got a better offer: a siren’s call. The persuasive bitch had stirred up the Indian ocean for the ‘swell of the season’, creating wave after perfect wave along Indonesia’s coastline. He was off, and I was on my own, which is a strange thought in a city of 19 million, within a land of over 1.3 billion people.
So I went from sharing a suite in the respectable Novotel Hotel to smelling traveller’s farts in a room full of bunk beds in the bars, clubs, sex shop and embassy district of Beijing (funny that they should all be lumped together).
I found myself standing on the street in a smog so thick I couldn’t see more than 150m ahead, surrounded by swarms of Chinese people munching barbecued kidney and tripe skewers as they rushed here and rushed there, with neon signs above and below me flashing foreign characters and in a bit of a daze I thought, what now?
With a belly full of wanton soup and after a Chinese foot massage I booked an overnight train
ticket to Xi’an where the world famous Terracotta Warriors are found. The trip by rail is about 1,200km (14 hours) – a stones throw by Chinese standards; it plonks you even further land locked in the middle of the country, where I find myself now.
Between Beijing and Xi’an there’s been plenty of opportunity to put charade skills to the test, to get utterly confused about everything from where I am to what am I eating, and due to the complete lack of conversation, do a lot of people watching.
This is what I’ve learned about the People’s Republic and the Chinese:
1. Everyone holds their chopsticks differently. From where I sit and watch in the restaurants, there are no table manners rules against the awkward handling of sticks, slurping, burping and no one laughs at the ’round eye’ when food flicks across the table (they just politely bring her a spoon to eat with instead).
2. It is rude however, to eat everything on your plate. If you’ve enjoyed your meal, you may show appreciation by leaving some food on the plate.
3. Taxi drivers avoid western passengers. Apparently we’re more trouble than we’re worth. Shouting doesn’t appear to hasten English-Chinese translation (or relations) and waving money in their faces won’t help either.
4. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the quality of craftsmanship in anything from state-owned buildings to nick-nacks does not appear to be great (it’s Made in China). Even in flash hotels I saw gold gilding on fake columns slapped on haphazardly, banisters on public stairs aren’t securely fastened and rust is leaking from thinly reinforced concrete.
The attention to detail is missing and it gives the impression that if you scratched beneath the ‘western surface’, Asia is still there.
5. I wonder if westerners might be good luck in restaurants or something because whenever I’ve sat at an empty eatery I’ve seen a passerby take note, do a double take and then come in for food. Within ten minutes the place is half full. The restaurateurs smile at me, appreciatively.
6. In this part of China it pays to watch out for the sichuan/szechuan peppercorn that is ubiquitous in meals. It leaves a lemony, zingy, tingly sensation that sticks around for longer than you really want it to. Otherwise, I’ve learned to point to the menu and hope for the best.
7. The Chinese take cat naps with ease, wherever they please. It’s not uncommon to see even well dressed Chinese lying or
sitting on newspaper, dead to the world on the side of the street, under bridges, on public transport or underground pedestrian crossings.
8. Most coffee shops don’t open ’till midday. In a land of green tea drinkers, coffee is a new, western-influenced novelty. If you’re a coffee for breakfast person like myself, look out for American chains like McDonalds and Dunkin’ Donuts that open early.
9. The supposed severity that once came with ruling with an iron fist hasn’t left its mark on young lovers, who are publicly affectionate and openly romantic. In my experience I’ve found the Chinese to be direct, accommodating and caring.
10. China’s renowned family planning practice, known as the one-child policy, is in full swing and in Beijing and Xi’an at least, it has been rare to see many kids on the streets.
11. If you do spot a toddler you’ll notice that they wear pants with a big open slit at the crotch. Parents simply hold their kids bums down and legs up while they go to the loo over any rubbish bin, gutter or just on the sidewalk.
12. Street cleaners will follow you in eagerness to pick up your trash, if not kids’ poo.
13. The Chinese don’t queue. You have to throw yourself into the current and go with the flow.