Published: June 11th 2011February 13th 2011
A friend once informed me, after I ordered a pint of tap water in a bar, that I was the tightest person he knew when it came to splashing my cash. My arguments that I was just more careful with my spending fell on deaf ears. In high school I attempted the ‘bed head’ hairstyle several years before it came to prominence. Again friends questioned my behaviour, believing I looked not too dissimilar to a wet toilet brush. There have been many times in life when I feel I’ve been misjudged.
Always priding myself on my positive attitude and the ability to look on the bright side of life, it came as a shock when a work colleague recently suggested I was negative and depressing to be around. I wasn’t being negative, just telling the truth and being honest. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt when talking about my time in China, there’s a fine line between honesty and negativity.
Looking back at the four hundred and fifty days of my time spent in this huge nation, of course there have been times when I haven’t been chirpy. When the inner workings of a foreign culture have gotten me
down. I’m not the type of person to walk to work in torrential rain on a Monday morning and thank God I’m alive. I agree more with Roy Walker’s ‘say what you see’ philosophy, feeling more at ease with being blunt and honest, than painting a glossy coat of excuses.
China has been an exceptional experience. I’ve learnt more about myself and my limits in China than possibly the previous twenty eight years of existence. It’s also been a time where I’ve become comfortable questioning people’s behaviour, even if it means bursting the happy little bubble I’ve been trying to hide in.
English school owners in China are notorious for their lack of respect and bullish behaviour towards foreign teachers. When first arriving, it’s easy to ignore these issues and believe your bosses’ explanation that this problem is your own inability of adjusting to the Chinese culture. In my case, it soon became evident that this ‘cultural difference’ was an excuse my boss used continuously. “Your toilet is leaking faeces all over the bathroom floor? That my friend is a Chinese cultural difference. Your heating isn’t working when everybody else’s in the city is? You know the answer.
It’s a cultural difference. Oh, you understand that I’ve just been mocking you in front of my friends? Don’t worry, disrespecting is all part of local behaviour.”
I’ve never moaned about these ‘cultural differences,’ only accepted and acknowledged they exist. Maybe they annoyed me more than they should sometimes, but that’s only natural when you wear your heart on your sleeve, and genuinely expect to be treated the same as you treat others. Looking back on my time in China, I certainly won’t let these opinions affect my judgement on this impressive, addictive nation. Like a shot of heroine, China knocks you to your knees, then has you coming back for more. Its complexity and size leaves no two experiences the same. It fascinates, repels, endures and disturbs in equal measures.
I’ll never get use to the constant spitting in every conceivable social location. Nor the lack of queuing, which instead is replaced by a frenzied pushing mob. There is also the notion of being materialistically judged on the money you earn and own. This greed, coupled with a lack of morals is something I detest. Of course this is the minority. The kindness, sincerity, sacrificial hospitality and
genuineness of every day Chinese people is a contrast to how many portray China on the world stage. It’s a place I’ll miss deeply. But the time has come to move on.
Nanning would be the last stop on my Chinese odyssey before crossing the border into Vietnam. Known for its greenness and favourable climate, I was shocked to see the city had become a popular place for elderly expats looking for young oriental wives. I stumbled on this by accident, entering a restaurant for breakfast after an early morning arrival in the city. Sitting in the corner, a group of old men spoke unambiguously in thick Glaswegian, Welsh and Cockney accents about the troubles and strife of being married to a Chinese woman. The British have a reputation for moaning at every opportunity. Here the stereotype was well represented. “She burnt my bloody dinner last night,” the dismayed Scotsman confessed, hand under chin, his battered, enlarged nose and red cheeks giving the impression of years of alcohol abuse. “I don’t even eat her food,“ the Londoner chipped in, before finishing with, “it’s all Chinese.” They all grunted in agreement as they reached the consensus that bacon sarnies, British
Sunday newspapers and well-ironed shirts were the main stumbling blocks stopping a happy marriage. As I slurped through my plate of noodles, their wives came one by one. As they arrived, the conversation quickly changed and forced smiles appeared on the husbands’ faces.
It can be argued that few women would agree to marry older, demanding men, who want nothing but a slave to complete their chores and to be waited upon hand and foot. But in China situations are different. Many of these women who marry older Western pensioners are divorced. Scorned by society due to their marital status, their outlook is bleak. Already reaching their forties all these women want is financial security and will make the necessary sacrifices to find it. Both sides receive benefits from the situation.
It took a few days to obtain my Vietnamese visa, time I spent doing very little. I ventured to a Chinese Wal-mart for the first time, a place I found fascinating. Missing are the obese, scooter-riding Americans. Replacing them, the diminutive Chinese fought over the promotional seaweed, fried chicken and various flavours of milk tea. In the evening I walked along the streets of a night market
and indulged in sparrow kebabs, slabs of freshly cooked crocodile meat and reeking tofu that would make the scent of puss-filled fungal infections seem like roses in comparison.
Hostels are always my accommodation of choice, as they offer the perfect climate for social interaction. Here in Nanning however I sought refuge most evenings with my wife in our hostel room. I have a few pet hates. People dawdling on pavements in front of me is one. Playing guitars in small social spaces to strangers who have no interest in hearing poor strumming is another. I will never understand why some people choose to lug a guitar around with them while on their travels, to whip out at every opportunity for an impromptu performance.
As I took advantage of the free wi-fi, a Norwegian guest entered the room with his very own plucking instrument, acknowledged me and then started to play. No one else was in the room. He looked at me for approval to his playing. I tried to stay focused on my laptop screen, but I could see his eyes longing for recognition. I gave it to him with a nod and a smile, a move that
only increased the awkwardness, as he burst into song, closing his eyes whenever reaching for the high notes. His long blonde locks bobbed from side to side. It felt like my very own personal, uncomfortable serenading session. I made my excuses and retreated to my room.
Once safely in my room I realised I no longer had a wi-fi connection. Thankfully, there was no need to return to the singing blonde downstairs. The Chinese might be good hackers, but they aren’t the greatest protectors. Wherever I’ve ventured in this nation, you are virtually guaranteed that at least one wi-fi in the vicinity will have the password 1234567890 or 0987654321.
With visa finally received, my wife and I caught the bus to the border. Rain lashed down as we slowly made our way out of the city. A fight broke out in front of me after one local reclined his chair too far back. I was certainly going to miss China, but there were no feelings of regret.
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