The last time I wrote, I was just about to leave Mongolia towards my final destination, China. By now I was more than happy if I didn’t see another long distance train for a considerable length of time!
With everybody on the train in a similar ‘I can’t wait to sleep in a proper bed without the smells of body odour and regurgitated vodka and pot noodle dinners’ mood, the final leg of the journey was a much quieter affair. I was hoping this would be the ideal chance to learn some Chinese, but as we slowly trundled across the border in to China, my Chinese still consisted of ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, a few numbers and ‘I like it rough’, a sentence my phrasebook thought important to teach. It might be useful to teach this to my wife before trying to use it! Of course I digress.
We were met on the Chinese side of the border with a fanfare of classical music and an array of flashing neon lights. Maybe this was a Chinese ploy to take your mind off the fact for the next few hours you would be confined to a toiletless cabin whilst the train‘s bogeys (wheels) were changed (in order to ride on the Chinese train tracks) and the border control officials carried out their immigration business. During this process each passenger had the delight of having a red light shined on to their foreheads to check for any swine flu victims. Expecting this to be a stressful affair, I was very surprised by their lacklustre approach.
It was late morning when we arrived in to Beijing, a frantic, bustling place of a city. It’s size (with a population of some twenty-seven million people) is difficult to justify, even coming from a place like London. I thought crowded streets and a lack of personal space would be hard to adjust to, but when the majority of inhabitants stare at you like some ’Z’ list celebrity whose just come out of rehab, it’s actually a Godsend if you are an attention-seeking whore.
Minutes after arriving in to Beijing the true scale of a hideous lie hit home. Why, oh why did people let me believe that the whole Chinese population were only slightly bigger than dwarfs. Here I was expecting to be seen as tall, or at the very worst, normal, for the first time in my life. Instead I was heartbroken to realise they were in fact very similar to the size of people I came to accept as normal in London. Now I realise the world over I will be seen as short. Even the odd Chingrish sign (a severely depleted, dying breed of signage since the Olympics were held) couldn’t raise my spirits!!
There are a number of world famous British celebrities, but only a handful have managed to pierce the impenetrable skin of China. David Beckham is one, someone who I have strangely been mistaken for (don’t ask me……..I wouldn’t even pass for a shorter, stubbier version of this football legend) in Kenya. Why anyone would think David Beckham would be walking down a random rural path in the Kenyan hinterland is anyone’s guess. The other most popular British celebrity on the lips of the Beijing inhabitants was………………..Susan Boyle. "Vewy bootiful voice, but vewy ugry fass," was the overall opinions. Wise words from a population so indebted to fables and proverbs.
Giving justice to Beijing and exploring the city to its full potential could easily take weeks if not months. Unfortunately I only had a day, which involved whirlwind trips to Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City and The Great Wall (which contrary to popular belief, is not viewable from space). Alongside Machu Picchu, The Great Wall is probably the only place I’ve visited where photographs fail to do it justice. The size and history is formidable. After enjoying weird culinary delights such as shark, snake (meat and skin), scorpion and silkworms, it was time to catch my last train for the foreseeable future to the small city of Benxi, my new home.
Benxi can’t really be classed as small in the definitions I’m use to. With a population of 1.5 million inhabitants (and only a constant foreign population of six) , this was the real slice of China that I had been craving for, for close to a decade. Benxi is far more developed than I was expecting. The streets are lined with shops, restaurants and karaoke bars and the women especially are always dressed immaculately. With raising disposable incomes, local residents are affluent and shops are filled with the latest fashion trends and flat screen TV’s. Sadly, the hundreds of Chinese men and women riding up and down the streets on heavy duty black bicycles I had envisaged, have been replaced by a constant stream of taxi’s. These only add to the lingering air pollution over the city.
I know a lot of people would do anything to get as close to this air pollution as possible, so I felt very privileged when I was shown to my new, rented apartment on the 31st (and top) floor of one of the cities tallest buildings. Some days, the streets below are hidden by the smog. If the pollution wasn’t enough to get me all excited and jumping for joy, the constant smells of cabbage and sewage coming from the over-used and outdated apartment block piping certainly pushed me over the edge.
My first week in Benxi was spent observing English classes. I really can’t believe it’s been over two years since I was last teaching. This time around though things should be slightly different. With parents sitting in on every class, expectations are high. Your every move is scrutinized and every pronunciation questioned. Strange when you consider very few of the parents have any English learning experience.
With the countdown ticking towards my first official class and still with no practice lessons under my belt, I was happy to hear that I’d been summoned by one of the cities governmental departments to help in an examination they had. When I arrived though, it soon became apparent there had been a breakdown in communication somewhere down the line. The examination turned out to be a job interview and I was handed the arduous task of conducting the interview and choosing the right man for the job.
The first few applicants, obviously shocked at seeing a foreigner sitting before them, froze with terror and barely responded to my list of authoritative-like English questions. Luckily applicant number six (out of seven) was a lot more confident, strolling up to his chair in a dignified, confident manner. Applicant Number Six was obese and easily the fattest person I’d met in China so far. He was also one of the funniest. Starting his interview with the words, "I’m fat, but I’m happy," words you’d expect to hear in an ‘over-eaters anonymous’ meeting, I burst in to laughter at his attempt at British sarcasm. I was mortified to see no such response from Applicant Number Six nor the other eleven governmental officials on the interview panel.
If Applicant Number Six was feeling awkward about my misplaced laughter, he hid it well. Easily the best candidate so far, his answers wooed over the interviewing committee. After thanking him for his interview, I gave him permission to leave. Unfortunately, his weight issues, excuse the pun, came back to bite him on the bum. Trying to stand up, he realised that he’d somehow wedged himself in the chair, like some 1970’s comedy sketch. With the chair stuck to him, he quickly sat back down and spent the next thirty seconds freeing himself. Tugging ferociously at the chair to free himself, I wondered why no one helped him. Seeing the embarrassment etched over his face, I didn’t laugh this time around. Strangely, everyone else thought this was hilarious. I’m sure he wished a giant hole would swallow him up, a hole where his job chances had already fallen.
So now the teaching starts! I can’t imagine it taking long before the abuse from watching parents begins!