Home Again

When I first arrived in China I had a handful of Mandarin words at my disposal that I’d collected from a fairly useless set of overpriced language tapes. “I am American” (which I’m not) “How much for the fish?” (which I don’t generally eat) and, perhaps the most useless phrase of all, “I can speak Chinese” (which I couldn’t, and still can’t if I’m truthful – which is something I generally try to avoid). After five years, the exact thought process that led them to include that last phrase still escapes me. Maybe the second set of tapes included equally functional phrases such as “Excuse me, but may I ask from which direction the first tanks came rolling into the square?” (which I can say, but still haven’t mustered up the courage to ask)

Anyway, as I first set off into the great unknown I was constantly getting lost, weaving through back streets and crossing main thoroughfares that all looked exactly the same. Some of the first characters I learned to recognize were those for North, South, West & East. For the first two months I walked about with a constant ache in my shoulder and neck muscles because I was so tense. Whenever I crossed the border at LuoHu and walked over the bridge and into Hong Kong, western toilets and signs in English and bloody Traditional Chinese that makes me feel I’ve learned nothing after all, I could feel myself relax, only to tense up again when I returned again a couple of days later.

It wasn’t just the language thing, it was also the knowledge that, whatever you were trying to do, most Beijingers were just waiting for an opportunity to fuck you over. If you tried to buy a bottle of water from a shop, the owner would try to charge you ten times the price. If you took the bus or subway people would migrate towards you and try to have a rummage in your pockets or bag if you took your eyes off them for a moment. It took me months to get my employees to give me a paycheque and when I left they still owed me five months.

It changed a lot when I moved to Wuhan. For one thing I got paid within two weeks, but it took me a while to twig that they weren’t trying to have a laugh at my expense at every opportunity; the locals were really trying to help me if I appeared lost. I think it had something to do with the relative visibility of foreigners in the city; when I arrived there were still only slightly more than a thousand in a city of more than 6 million and even now, as more foreign companies are moving in, I can go weeks without seeing a fellow alien. That’s due in part to all the foreigners living in one part of the city, but whenever I am in that area I wonder if this friendly attitude is going to change in the future as I see more and more foreigners shouting impatiently at shop assistants in English as if it’s their problem they don’t speak Chinese.

I went back to the US last month, my first visit in three years. Unexpectedly, I was having trouble understanding the Texas accent and was having to concentrate when speaking to friends. It was also my longest time outside China since I moved here and it felt a little odd coming back after almost a month in the west, but that might also be my fourth bout of jet lag in as many weeks as I took in the UK as part of the itinerary.

Once again I find myself on my own as my other half, who speaks Chinese fluently and constantly reminds me that mine is shit (although now she tells me this in Mandarin, so progress is obviously being made), is staying on in the US. The old tensions were no longer there, but I had mixed feelings when I arrived at the International Terminal at TianHe airport in Wuhan, it was all so easy when I was in Dallas. As I exited from the run down building I was immediately surrounded by hawkers offering me a cheap ride into the city pointing towards a collection of cars in various states of disrepair. “Sorry Lads, but I need a receipt for my journey” I said and headed towards an equally dilapidated collection of Citroens on the other side of the entrance that were distinguishable only by the flickering lights on the roof.

The journey into the city is pretty uneventful, 20 minutes thrashing along an unlit highway that passes through flooded farmland and half built shells of buildings. Day or Night, it’s all a bit depressing.

But then the highway abruptly ends at the edge of the city. The driver slammed on the brakes as someone wobbled out on a bicycle piled 15 ft high with cardboard, he edged his way around another local who had decided to stop in the middle of the lane to compose a text message on their phone. At the side of the road there were crowds of people gathered around a karaoke machine massacring classic Chinese Folk songs and next to them were two fat guys sitting on a wall in their underpants drinking beer from 20oz bottles. The small hole-in-the-wall restaurants were packed to capacity with people chowing down dinner and drinking more beer. Kids weaved in and out of the tables and into the road, engrossed in some complicated game.

And then a 4×4 in the middle lane with Army plates pulled across in front of us to turn right. As the driver locked the wheels, I almost hit the windscreen. He hurled a torrent of abuse out the window at the disappearing car. I won’t repeat what he said, but I was surprised to find I understood him.

Fuck, it was good to be back.

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One Response to “Home Again”

  1. janh1 Says:

    As you’re enjoying being back so much, I’d probably hold fire on that ‘tanks’ ‘square’ query for a little while yet… 😉

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