I have arrived in Beijing Airport after my long flight, which felt a little shorter as I was surprisingly upgraded to ‘premium economy’ (no, I didn’t know that existed either). I didn’t even ask, I didn’t even plead at the boarding gate – all I did was scan my ticket and a little receipt came out – NEW SEAT. PREMIUM ECONOMY 22K.
I sat down next to an older German man – who was persistent about his need to move seat to one where he could stretch his legs a little better – he recently had an operation. I thought this was just a plea to get into first class, yet he was happy when he switched with the young woman in the seat behind me. She laughed out loud at the British movies about royals she was watching with Chinese subtitles. I smiled.
After the flight I went to the toilet in the airport – my first ever Chinese toilet break – how exciting. One toilet is a hole – the other two are ‘normal’ ones, but with a little more water in them and when you press the button everything whooshes away in rapid speed and then it slowly starts to fill up again. Yes, I know, the excitement has only just begun.
I fill in my boarding card – the type of my visa, where I am staying – nothing unusual. I walk through another seemingly normal control check, yet I peek behind my shoulder and I see the staff looking at a heat scanner, to see whether the visitors are ill.
I then walk past the glass lift, to see a man with a straw hat on, almost like a museum piece with his frozen look in the still, see-through lift, but he was just going about his business. Maybe I wouldn’t stick out as much as I thought – I didn’t pack any oversized straw hats with me.
After collecting my things – consisting of nervous emotional baggage and some other items, I then boarded the airport train into the city, which was in fact a bombardier train, ‘another great British business doing well abroad outside of Europe’ i imagined Nigel Farage saying in a speech. However, what was most bizarre is that this airport train, had no luggage racks, and no place for luggage, meaning every other seat had a massive suitcase on it. Fantastic British design, I thought.
I then went to Beijing railway station, I was impressed by the large halls of the metro stop, the people management, and that a member of staff is present at the start of every escalator.
I returned above ground to beautiful blue sky. But this is China? Where is the pollution? I thought it was always black, always raining and difficult to breathe, but actually – it was wonderful. The street vendors were out in force, the people queuing to get into the station, and to get into the ticket office – the holy grail. I looked to see the 30 cashiers, with a long, but straight queue at each one. A little neon sign said: ‘English – Cashier 16’. I joined that queue and there were three american students there, all with internet. I turned on my WiFi, yet none would connect, and those that did needed a Chinese phone number. Shit. I turned to the hipster Americans , after all the US and the UK has this special relationship right? Especially in China, right?
‘you got WiFi?’, I asked.
‘Nope. I’ve got 3G’, said the guy in the Kobe Bryant jersey (who was clearly old enough to know better). Stupid yanks.
Half an hour later, I arrive at the front of the queue, and buy my ticket for around £18 off the woman, and I am her last customer. She turns round her sign, and everyone behind me crashes into the queue adjacent and hopes to recover their place – some are lucky, others not so much. I realise i’m at the wrong train station, so I have to get on the metro again just a couple more stops. I queue again to buy a ticket for the metro for around 30p. In this outside queue, there are many people giving leaflets to people: a metro map, with a taxi number on it. The men, who are mostly disabled, are mostly successful in giving it away to the public. All of the men work for different companies, you can tell by the different colour of the glossy paper, yet when one person takes one, and they are reading it in the queue, another man strolls past and puts their leaflet on top, and does the same to the next person. A simple sales technique, that’s for sure.
I get to Beijing south railway station, still without WiFi, but I find a McDonalds, I get a happy meal ( I know, I’m just like every other Brit on holiday – but fear not, I’m ashamed of my first meal as well). I have WiFi, I phone dad, to say hello, and that I’ll be on my way to Jinan soon enough. I have the urge to change my ticket to an earlier time, which means another queue for information, and then another queue for exchanges. The only earlier train I can get is in first class, so I take it. I get on, they offer me a bottle of water and some biscuits, but the hostesses walk by selling mini tubs of haagen-daaz, yet I resisted. An hour and a half later, I arrive at the massive Jinan railway station, I go to reception, I ask do you have WiFi? No. Are there hotels? Not near here. Great. I get a taxi for around £3 and I show him the address for my university, he drives me there fascinated that I’m different. Smiling at me and talking to me – knowing full well I have no idea what he’s saying. So he resorts to saying English words. London! He shouts three times, after I decipher the strong Chinese accent. I smile and ask him about football. I say Wayne Rooney, Manchester United, but I get a response from David Beckham.
We drive along the large motorway-like roads, with constant beeping of the horns from all drivers, just letting everyone else know they’re there. I arrive at the Uni, but as it has just turned to darkness, I think it’s a little too late to start to try to find my accommodation, so I get my phrasebook out and ask the taxi driver for a hotel near here. He looks around, and points at one, and we say our goodbye. I walk across the road, past the bustling street markets, through the mopeds, that never stop, and walk into the hotel, they are eating, but they send their son out, who speaks English, to tell me they have family staying but there is a posh hotel down the road. I go there and check in, with a little haggling and after the receptionist phoned up all her friends to come help her understand me, or at the very least come and look at the foreigner, Peace at last. I skyped my parents, and googled where to go, wait – google is blocked so I ‘Binged’ it instead. What a sad state of affairs.
I fell asleep, but at 11:43 I woke up. I panicked and thought I have to be out of my room in 15 minutes, so i got up put all my stuff in my suitcase, and then opened my curtains to see darkness. My jet-lag was messing with me, it was only midnight, so i just went back to bed.
The plan today was to find my building in the university. It’s a big campus, on a hill, with a couple of athletics tracks, tennis courts, but dominated by big concrete buildings. I ask some Chinese, with a little help from my phrasebook where my building is. They look at me – say something in Chinese with little emotion, and then go about their daily business, which admittedly is very little help to me. Nonetheless, I find the international building, a big tall concrete block with a couple of international flags on it. I go inside, the door is locked, but I was through the cafe on the side. I go up to all four floors with my suitcase in hand and still I find no-one. Then, I see a young black man, the first one I’ve seen in china. I ask him do you speak English? He looks unsure. I ask him ‘parlez-vous francais?’ He nods. I never knew how grateful I would be to have studied french, for it to be my saviour in the middle of an empty building in China. He says no-one is here, so he will take me to the right place. We walk down stairs, and he gets on his moped. He puts my suitcase on the front and i’m on the back, as we drive around pedestrians and on the Chinese main roads to the other side of campus, trying to understand his Cameroonian accent whilst driving at high speeds. It turns out i’m at the wrong building, but a Korean guy takes me to the correct one, where my accommodation is.
I walk in and there are some Mexicans, wonderful Mexicans who welcome me with open arms, they’ve been here a while, they know how tough it is…and we go out for a Chinese meal in a restaurant, they give you a piece of paper to write down what you want, and then I get to test out my rusty skills with chopsticks, which actually aren’t too bad among foreigners, but i’m sure i’m an amateur amongst the Chinese. I get them to order what they like, as they know best: they’ve been here for two years, they came for six months, but they continued to stay as they liked it so much. We take almost half of the food we ordered in doggy bags for later, and I have made two new Mexican friends and a Korean.
I then go shopping, to the local supermarket, which I find on baidu maps (note that it’s not google) and walk there with my bag in hand. In the supermarket, there are many assistants wanting to sell you things, you can’t go down an aisle without someone offering a free sample, or encouraging you to buy a more expensive brand. I smile at them, and once they see the blank look on my face, they move on to the next person.
I walk home to find that my door lock is broken – I’m locked out of my room on day one. Fuck. So the wonderful girl that is the student assistant gives me the key to an empty room for the night and the Mexicans give me something to sleep on. I planned to go to a party that night, but since I didn’t have access to anything in my room, I called it a night and went to bed.
I was woken by a knock at the door, by Alesia, the student assistant, to tell me that my room has been fixed and that my new flatmate has arrived. How exciting. His name is Matt, has a beard and glasses and looks exactly like one of my music professors, and bizarrely he studied music. Maybe they’re related. We make small talk and talk about our journeys, and then we decide to go to shopping, I need some bedding to add to my shopping from yesterday and he needs to start afresh. I find out, he’s from the midlands, Sutton Coldfield in fact, he likes trams, and he thinks Jeremy Corbyn is a good thing. I think i’m gonna be alright. I tease him for the fact that he’s been staying at the Hyatt for 3 days to settle in, and he tells my that his father’s PhD is in Latin. We go into the shop and get some bedding, the same sales assistant greets me in the bedding section like an old friend, she comes again to try and help us, and I’m surprisingly good at communicating with her. Matt, who speaks a little Chinese gets a little hung up on understanding everything, but you’ve just got to go with it, and that’s what I do. After we buy all the stuff, we navigate the shop, we walk past the self service rice, with all types of different grain. Then we went and looked at the fish, fresh, frozen and alive. You can also buy live turtles and live frogs, how do they eat them, I wondered. They wouldn’t just have a pet store in the fish section next to all the other food would they?
Before we unpack our stuff, I decided to wipe over the room with a sponge, and brush up and mop up around our petite room which is en-suite and has a desk, a built in wardrobe, two beds, two chairs, a flat screen TV (with no input) and a fridge/freezer. Cleaning the room turns out to be a good decision seeing as there’s a lot of dust around. I then move the fridge, to clean under it, and a lizard appears out of nowhere on the wall between the map of California (no, I don’t know either) and the flat screen tv. Matt is not getting involved in this. I run downstairs to ask my Mexican friend what to do, he doesn’t bat an eyelid. Pick it up and chuck it out or just let it live alongside you, he says utterly bemused as to why i’m perturbed that there’s a fucking lizard on the wall. I go back upstairs, Matt, stood frozen looking at the lizard waiting for me to do something. So, I decide that I would empty my box full of washing capsules, and try put the lizard in the box and then chuck it out. I was successful, even if the lizard was damn quick.
After that, we ate the leftovers of the food from yesterday, some beautiful fried aubergine with spices, sweet and sour pork, stir fry beef, and some dumpling things, but i’m not entirely sure what they are. It was all nice. I ate most of it, as my roommate, sat me down and broke it to me that he’s a vegetarian, and he’s going to see how it goes in china, as it may be too difficult for him. So he nicked the aubergine, and I had the pork.
I did a bit of Skype in the lobby, (there is no internet in my room, but the lobby WiFi is near perfection. I used my VPN (it hides my IP address to avoid the blocking of websites) to access my Facebook for 5 minutes, before it disconnects. Then, Libby arrives, she’s the third out of the four Brits who are coming to arrive, so we welcome her, we go shopping for bedding, again, I buy some fruit, and we go out for dinner with this Chinese girl. We get to one of the many university cafeterias at 6:30, it’s like an empty warehouse, with a service counter in the corner, so we wonder over, and I get rice, beef and peppers with a spare rib. There are some chillies in with the red peppers, ooofft. It’s empty because it’s 6:30, everybody eats at 6, sometimes a little earlier, and lunch is at 11:45/12. We were the last ones to eat. Weird foreigners, the dinner ladies thought i’m sure. You go and give your money to one lady who gives you tokens, and then you give tokens to the lady who gives you the food. The Chinese girl we were with was lovely. She felt so free to talk about taboo subjects in china, because she was with foreigners, she complained about the lack of Chinese morals, her views on abortion, and how the character of Sheldon in the big bang theory has drastically changed from series 7 to series 8. It went dark early, around 7/7:30ish and we walked back to the residence, to talk in the lobby with some other internationals. They told us the water might be off for the next two days, (they turn it off randomly, but don’t worry, the maximum was only for a week) and that the Chinese people are sometimes a little weird. For example, we are sitting in the lobby of the international residence. There’s a guy there reading the paper, a friend asks him where is he from. China. Who are you waiting for? No-one, he says. He just wants to get the wechat of some international students. So we give him our wechat and he shakes our hand and leaves. He’d been sitting there for at least an hour. A day in the life of an international student. I haven’t even mentioned that when you walk around, groups of Chinese girls (it’s only been girls as of now) come and talk to you in the street, ask for a picture with them, and your wechat to practise their English, I am always willing, and I’m sure it will help with my Chinese as well.
The Mexican also said sometimes we all eat in the lobby by the window, and that chinese students come and watch, because they’ve never seen foreigners eat before. ‘It’s a bit like a zoo’, he laughs.