Get Married

I’m a lucky man. That’s what I would say if any of this were remotely true.

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As a young millennial, in a world where jobs come up short (in length, pay and almost everything else), it’s tough to find a job. In my hometown, there’s nearly 30% youth unemployment. It’s almost a case of right time, right place, and waiting for others to fade and retire. My tale includes a little bit of luck, while walking right into a tragi-comedy.

On my opening day as a trainee, I wasn’t the only Brit. There was another British guy, but he was half European – he could blend in much better than me. We had a presentation from an Irish woman from HR. She offered an open invitation to all the Irish trainees for a coffee. An older Serbian says to me ‘Don’t worry, I know what it feels like to be in a crumbling union’.

6 months later, I’m not a trainee anymore. They’ve given me a job – until March 2019 thanks to a guy retiring. I have to finalise the details with HR. I’m not greeted with a warm Irish accent on the phone anymore. They go through my details line by line. Name, Address, Date of Birth. She stops. I can hear her gasp through the phone. She momentarily switches to mumble in French.
“You’re from the UK?” “I’m from England.” I said that without realising that’s much worse from being from the UK. She changes my contract to end in March 2019. “Will it be a problem?”, just asking for the final stab to the heart. “Well, if I were you, I would get married. Very soon.” I laugh – but she’s not joking. She suggests to look into Irish Citizenship, as well as underlining her wish for me to get married a further two times.

I arrive for my first day in my proper job, and it’s a welcome event. The opening task is to stand where you’re from, it becomes clear this time, I really am the only Brit, although a French woman joined me but that was almost out of pity. For one short millisecond, I knew what it felt like to be Nigel Farage, but I reconciled myself by remembering I’m not Nigel Farage.

The week after, I went to a press conference about Brexit, with Michel Barnier and David Davis. An experienced journalist walks by and mutters into his phone ‘Let’s get this shit done, and go home.’

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One week on, Macron may have won, but fear is still in the lead.

I saw the jubilation of Macron supporters firsthand, but then it became obvious we’re going back to the dark days.

The crowds counted down the seconds to 8pm in the square outside the louvre in Paris, and they cheered as it was revealed that Macron had succeeded in defeating the extreme-right candidate, Marine Le Pen. However, it wasn’t until well past 10, after a long, multicultural, and multi-ethnic cast of dancers, musicians, DJs and MCs had graced the stage with songs in French, English and Arabic. That really showed it to Le Pen, eh? Some commentators in France have alluded to this being a political point, when actually, it’s just a fact of french society, that these multilingual and multi-ethnic songs are mainstream in France today – or maybe, just maybe, in-between becoming president and delivering his speech, Macron gave the DJ his preferred set-list. Macron did walk on to the European anthem of Ode to Joy, and yes, that did indeed fit into his unashamedly pro-European manifesto.

When Le Pen did her speech, they turned off the big screen – which wasn’t really in the spirit of the words of Macron ‘listening to all of France’. But we did get to see an American musician tell us that ‘Emmanuel is the Truth’. I presume he hadn’t been following the #MacronLeaks hashtag on twitter then – but that’s a little unfair.

Even with my cynicism, it was a lot of fun. People dancing, singing the national anthem, and the three activists, face painted with a different European flag, carrying the neon signs of ‘Hope beat Hate’ was truly inspiring. It gave you that warm fuzzy feeling inside and most of all – hope. It felt like an Obama rally. The dullest point of the evening was when Macron arrived and delivered his speech – mainly because two hours before he’d delivered the same speech (word for word, and with the same blank face emotion) on television that was beamed to the big screens as well. The woman behind me screamed it with much more passion than he did.
The backdrop for this event was the impressive glass pyramid of the Louvre, compared to the restaurant/chalet on the eastern outskirts of a park in Paris, that was home to Marine Le Pen for the evening. By their presences, you could tell who had won, well before the exit poll. Le Pen was spotted at her party dancing, people laughed, but she’s done pretty well. 1 in 3 voters in France voted for her – not bad for a party who does have a few image problems particularly when it comes to holocaust denial. The last time the Front National was in the final round of the presidency was with Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie in 2001. They have since doubled their vote. They may not have won his time, but if the goal was normalising extreme right wing politics – they have truly succeeded. A poll after the election said that a majority of people voted for Macron because ‘he wasn’t Le Pen’. A passerby told me she voted for him because he was a president for France. She originally voted Melanchon.

The next evening, I had met a friend for a kebab opposite gare du nord station, and on the television we all went quiet to hear the headlines that ‘hope had won’. The arabians serving us, had almost certainly voted for Macron. Almost instantly, a huge amount of police vans went by, and closed the road, there were screams and people running out of the station. There were a few more policemen with machine guns than normal. ‘Stay safe’ said the owner, sighed the shop owner with a face of resignation. He’d seen this before.

It turns out there were three ‘people of interest’ for the terrorism unit, but the police returned empty handed.

The next day, I took the bus to Brussels, on Europe Day (fun fact, if you work at the EU institutions it counts as a national holiday). This is the day Europe celebrates the founding of the European Union.

On the bus, I woken by the sudden slowing down as I saw in front a small Renault Clio in blue and white stripes in front which had the sign ‘suivez-nous’, follow us. And so we were taken off the motorway, onto a little village road, and pulled up next to a little shabby blue and red building. Border control, between France and Belgium. Border Control on Europe Day – a little ironic.

In the middle of the motorway is a tall concrete artwork – symbolising peace.

We were all removed from the bus, with all our luggage and put into a little room. The woman in the headscarf was first, she put her luggage through the scanner, and was asked quite a few questions, then was the black mother and her 16-month old child.

‘He was taking photos’ said the policewoman, pointing at me. The woman clutched her gun as I took my phone out of my pocket. I had taken a picture of the small old building they were using, and that was enough for some more questioning, and the stern policemen forcing me to delete the offending picture before I could leave. 

One week on, Macron may have won, but fear is still in the lead.

Brexit as a stagiaire.

I’ve been working at the European Commission for over a month now, and it’s great. I even had a security conference to not post anything about the inner workings about it on the internet. If you’re reading this, then I’ll probably be in jail by now.

It’s fascinating in Brussels, because it’s such a big institution doing big things. It does so many things, and employs so many people, that you understand why change is slow, change is gradual, and it makes you appreciate what is there already and what improvements need to be made. For example, where I work, they do international cooperation with countries all around the world, making real change in peoples lives, and it’s really quite nice. i’ve lerant things I never thought existed. They talk about ‘White Papers’ that will change Europe forever. Little do they know nobody cares. However, there are moments I witness during work hours that I call ‘Nigel Moments’, moments where you think I wish Nigel Farage was here to witness such shocking things you find out. ‘You really spent HOW much on facebook advertising during the economic crash of 2009?’ I thought to myself.

It’s not all bad. They do a lot of good things, that will probably never see the light of day. There is always and underlying tone to everything I do, I say, and wherever I go. ‘I’m from England, unfortunately’, I say awaiting the laughs, some do partake, but most just do it out of pity, as they (as well as I) am pretty sure it means I won’t be getting a job like theirs in the near future. Once people realise I’m English, it changes the way they look at me. There’s definitely a sense of pity in there somewhere. In my sector (so, the floor of my office), I’m the only native speaker of English. It helps. I get to read through every important document that passes through as I have to grammar check it. Having read this far through this post, you now realise how laughable it is that I’m the final point of call for a grmmar cheque. I’m also the official Brexit spokesperson in my office, any sort of news even a little bit related to Brexit, the office asks me my official opinion. If only they know how unpatriotic I am and how little I know about what goes on, because I’m in Brussels. However, I do work at the EU, so it’s pretty obvious isn’t it?

On Wednesday the 29th of March, or as some people ‘affectionately’ called it ‘B-Day’ was the day Britain triggered article 50, to leave the European Union. I, being a little cocky and arrogant, thought I could walk into the press conference with the European Council President Donald Tusk. Yeah, right. Nonetheless, I took a late lunch break, and I walked over to the building, showed my crappy pass that says in clear capital letters STAGIARE just so the security guards make you go through security (none of my co-workers do) and check my haircut is the same, and well, I smooth talk the security guard, by asking him where the press conference is, and he politely tells me where to go. Like directions and everything. I walk in, and sit in the centre seat at the back next to the awaiting cameras. The previous meetings I’d been to with important people reassured my English colleagues that English will remain the dominant language in the EU, which is lucky for lazy English people. However, I thought this was about to change, because I looked in the Interpreting booth, and I could see English, German and French. But, I was wrong, everything was in English. Even the French spoke English. I had the misfortune of sitting in-between some of the English written journalists.

The two on the left, sounded so posh, and so aristocratic, discussing the intricacies of the triggering of article 50 it was almost like a comedy scene. If only they wrote 1% of what they were saying, the news might actually be a little more informative, but i couldn’t find anything of the sort. To my right, was young-ish man with an ‘accent’. You know, someone from the villages, like Manchester (I imagine the men on the right thinking that). From what I gathered watching him during the time I was there, he had one mission. Be negative about the EU. He made it seem like a breeze. He did a radio interview before, making the arrival of a letter sound like a bombshell that the EU was not ready for. It was so unprepared, the same man was at the organised press conference response 15 minutes later. He was alongside his producer and camera man, both of them clearly bored the ‘man with the accent’ with technical information. Donald Tusk walked onto the stage he said his prepared two minutes speech, which was quite emotional. ‘What else can I add to this? We’ll miss you.’ It was one of the more emotional moments in politics, he seemed like he cared, which is rare in these sorts of occasions. The minute he was off the stage the man beside me was back to it. ‘May has caught them out’ ‘May is stronger than EU combined’ ‘EU trembling at knees because Brexit’. It was like this man was on a different planet to me. Maybe it’s because I’m in the ‘Brussels Bubble’.

I walked outside, to see the 7 TV cameras all lined up in a row, ready for the six o’ clock news in their respective countries. My favourite was one TV channel’s political correspondent asked a simple question to the present off air, and he replied ‘I don’t know, I just read the lines’. One reporter (who should know better) kept on walking over to a delivery van to check his appearance in a removal van’s wing mirror. But most surprisingly, this high tech delivery, with all these wires and satellites, is that the most important things, news collections, countdown to going live, is all almost down to mobile phones. Journalists know just as much as we do, but they just have a really nice camera.

I went back to work, from that exciting lunch. I was hungry, but I’d seen history be made. On the 29th of March, 1936, Adolf Hitler received 99% of the votes in a referendum to ratify Germany’s illegal remilitarization and reoccupation of the Rhineland, receiving 44.5 million votes out of 45.5 million registered voters.

Who knew referendums were such a bad idea?

Don’t turn off the water

Day 4

My roommate was up bright and early. He was going with the other Brit with a Chinese friend to check out Wal-Mart and get a sim card. I stayed in bed and then I decided to brave the bathroom for my first shower. It’s a fantastic power shower, the heat and everything. It’s perfect. But there is one problem. The drain for the shower is on the other side of the room, with the toilet in-between, so when having a shower it creates a permanent puddle in the bathroom, which is a slight error in its design.

By the time I’ve gone downstairs to use the WiFi in the lobby, and done some admin, my roommate arrives back having been unsuccessful. Wal-mart is closed on a Sunday in china, but in the US (you know, the land of the free and all that) it is always open on a Sunday.

I decide I should try to register for the university in the student union, as, that is why we are here after all. However, I have been trying the past few days, but each day, the reply is ‘try again tomorrow’, I have my fingers crossed, that today is, err, tomorrow. We enter the building, and a lady escorts us into her room, and finds our names on the register and ticks them off. So they do have a record of us existing, that is refreshing to hear. She says we need a Chinese name, in Chinese characters. She repeats my name over and over again and pauses, she writes two characters, and shows them to me and says ‘wau-ker’, with a falling/rising tone in the middle. I was born again. Like every other person I meet, before I leave they ask for my WeChat ID and I give it to her willingly.

We wait in reception, with the China Communist Party flag hanging, and I take my picture with it. The passing Chinese students laugh. Bloody tourists. Then, we move on to the next room, I walk into the room with my friends, to see some french students are trying as well. They are in deep conversation with a Chinese lady (in Chinese) to get a room all of the four can sleep in, or a room for two each. She can’t help them, and so, they depart. So then I sit, she takes my passport, and I have to write my name on a list. One column for English name and one for Chinese name, I get her to write my new Chinese name, as I don’t want to write my own name wrong for the first time, I think I need a little more practise. She tells us this isn’t official registration, this is just letting them know that we are here, I presume registration, will be tomorrow.

It’s time for lunch, and a Korean girl who was there at the same time joins me. She’s wonderful and charming, and called Gippeum, with a bounce to it, but her English name is Grace. She has been to England, and tells me about her love for Harry Potter, the English accent, and that it is well-known that English men, are gentlemen. Well, I do try my best and we’ve only just met.

Brexit gets a passing mention. We are all disappointed and a little anger remains, but we all come to different conclusions as to whether it will happen or not. Those who voted leave will suffer the most – we all voted remain, and left to go to china.

The ‘other Brit’ I mention is Libby. She’s done things like this before, she’s been to India with the British Council, as well as countless other places she likes to mention. She’s from

Somerset, and unlike the others, have no connection to Wolverhampton. She has chosen to live in a different block to us, but still, it’s only 250 metres away.

This evening, the final Brit arrived, making it two girls and two boys, the fantastic four one could say. Dominique is wonderful, her smile beams across any room she walks into – I know this because she is the only one I’ve met before China. She was at the meeting about going and we introduced ourselves then. Tonight her smile shines a little less so than usual. She has arrived without her luggage as her airline have lost it. She confides in our little English-speaking group.

She has arrived with little more than her passport, phone and money, so we then go to the bustling night market to get her some bedding to sleep on. Gippeum comes along, as she knows where the 9.99 yuan store (yes, you guessed it, a 99p store) and man, do us brits love a bargain.

We have some street food, a bit of chicken on a stick, and some tofu in a cup. Gippeum asks me how old I am, and that in Korea, if you are older, you are treated as you are wiser. She tells me that she’s twenty-three, and I say I’m twenty-one, but when we say our birthdays, they are not that far apart. She was talking in ‘China years’, for the Chinese calendar, which (I think) makes me twenty-three as well.

We get to the 9.99 yuan store, and I find the perfect instrument to clean our bathroom floor when it floods. I walk back to the dorm, and one of the Chinese students tells us that the Water will be turned off for three days, in the entire campus for engineering works. Great.

Day 5

I had my last shower this morning for a while before they turn the water off at midday. I fill up a bucket of water to live off before they turn it back on again.

Me and my friends decide to try to get a Chinese sim card today. We’re worried about our communication skills, but as we are about to leave, my Korean friend who directed me to the correct place on my first day walks by. He offers to help us get a sim card, as he has nothing to do apart from avoid packing for his flight tomorrow back to Korea to renew his visa. He walks us far across the campus down to a basement supermarket with a mobile phone stall. There is no queue, but there is a crowd. We eventually get to the front and the Korean (Son-Gwon-Lee) talks the talk and gets us all sim cards with a ten pound deposit, as well as some mobile internet. As if he hadn’t done enough, he then takes us out to lunch. We walk to a massive, brand new shopping mall, and go to a traditional Chinese hot-pot restaurant. We have an individual hob on the table for each person, and they come with a pot of broth and you order the extras to boil in your pot: pork, lamb, shrimp, sweet and non-sweet potato and noodles to finish off. You have a pot of sauce (of which you create yourself) to dip your boiled food in to cool it down and eat. It was wonderful, but in my first few days I am having a baptism of fire in using the chopsticks, trying to get slippery shrimp out of a pot of boiling water with steam flying in your face, It’s fair to say I’m improving. We come to pay the bill, and for 4 hotpots, every single extra you can imagine, and drinks, its

201 yuan (around £20). Son-Gwon-Lee then whips out his phone to find a 200 yuan voucher leaving us to pay 1 yuan. We paid 10 pence.

As the water is still off, I go and buy a 4 litre bottle, you know for necessity. After carrying the bottle on our walk in the 30 degree heat, I have a little daytime nap, before I get to grips with my girlfriends visa.

Me and the brits go to dinner and I have some dumplings before off to my favourite supermarket to get some more bedding (None of them can cope with the hard beds. They are buying more mattresses and padding by the day.

I sit in the lobby of our residence, for the WiFi, and see everybody pass through to video call their family and friends from back home. The Uzbeks are the most connected to home. They are here video calling on WeChat as well as everything else. They get me to say something in Uzbek and I am a star. I think it’s because of my perfect uzbek accent. Bizarrely, they are all arsenal fans, and they know little English, but they know what I mean when I say Olivier Giroud is rubbish. ‘Liverpool number one’ I say to them, and they reply in pantomime style with ‘no no no, Arsenal number 1’.

I talk to a few of the mexicans, Alejandra is one of them who took me out to lunch when I arrived, and is utterly charming, but she does it with such grace, I feel when I try to follow-up I always come across as a little to eager to please. However, she introduces me to the Chinese ‘yogurt in a bag’. It’s around the same shape and size of a mozzarella bag, and it is surprisingly refreshing. I go back upstairs to find my roommate binge-watching family guy on DVD. I always make him jump when I walk into the room because he has his earphones on.

Day 6

This morning is the campus tour for international students, given by three chinese female students. One with a camera, and the others at each end of the group. They want us in two lines, one boys, one girls, we all look a little bemused, and the order soon fizzles out over the two-hour, 6km walk in the burning sun on the humongous campus. There are many buildings for different subjects, as well as a hospital, 9 canteens, an impressive library and a couple of supermarkets and basketball courts along the way. This is not even mentioning the huge blocks of accommodation for students (and non-students) and their 8 bed dorms (with their classmates), public showers and communal kitchen. The international students are treated like gods compared to the home students. We walk around, and the photographer gets us in perfect group photo spots, that will almost certainly be used for their next ‘diversity’ brochure. Alisa, the international student coordinator gave me a painting, she had painted. A beautiful painting of flowers, it was greatly appreciated, and it hangs on the wall next to my bed, so I see it when I wake up in the morning. I walk, with a spring in my step, to the chinese test, having quickly looked up some key chinese words, and had a skim read of the words needed for HSK Level one. I arrive a little late, and in the small classroom, with no teacher present, around half of us are standing. So, some of us, are moved into what looks like a welcome room, with some pictures of important people and some shiny golden flag masts with numerous countries represented. We are given the exam, which is all in Chinese characters, meaning most of us can’t read it, (you are level 3 out of 6 levels if you can read characters…), the teacher seems a little bemused, and gets a Pakistani

student in the other room to explain to us what we need to do in the exam, in English. This just made the Koreans more confused. We write our names on the paper, and leave, that was an interesting 20 minutes. Dominique went to the airport which is two hours by taxi away but her near 4 1/2 hour round trip turns out to be successful, to pick up her lost luggage, she bemoans the lack of clothes she has had with her, and I didn’t even notice. I went to the canteen. I also went to the supermarket, I bought some fruit which I could eat later. I went and sat by the athletics track in the evening to watch the dancers, the people doing tai-chi, the walkers, the runners, and the lovers on the grass in the middle. By the time I’ve read the last of my newspapers and magazines I got on my flight to china, it’s pitch black, and there are more people, the hustle and bustle continues till late, and the locals are, as always, fascinated by me. Some even come and sit next to me and talk to me in Chinese, and even when I convey to them that I don’t understand. It seems to only encourage them, or at the very least, offer me a cigarette. With a warm handshake and a smile, I leave to go back to the residence, to talk to some of the westerners, who are still bemoaning the fact that we don’t have water. I go up to my room, and I find that my bucket of water has been decimated by my roommate, he used the toilet and used my water to flush it down. He didn’t realise it was my water, he says.

Day 7 Wednesday

I wake up to the sound of a drip on our bathroom. I have never been so happy to hear the bathroom leaking – the water is back on! I feel clean again, and I fell like I can do a lot more and be a little less smelly.

Alejandra, takes me and the girls to an international school, who need some English teachers. It’s the top floor of a huge shopping centre. Alejandra works here once a week, teaching one to one, but I think that they want us to do groups. Alejandra is wonderful, the ways she talks to us all, like she’s known us for years, and at the same time that we are all new and exciting to her. Many of us lose the hope and optimism of our youth, but Alejandra gives off the aura of joy for the rest of us. She gives us a short tour of the shopping centre, which is four floors, and includes an indoor market, numerous kids play areas, and a full size ice rink.

The international school is on the top floor in the corner. ‘SIN China International Education. The receptionists are very happy to see us and guide us through to a meeting room to meet the boss. Amanda, is everything I imagined her to be. She is tall, elegant, in a long formal black dress and looks like a boss. She looks a little stern, but when she walks into our room, to see our foreign faces, she looks like she has seen her new-born child. We are offered a platter of mangoes (locally sourced, we’re told) and watermelon and a drink of ice-cold water. Alejandra translates what Amanda says to us, although she does understand what we are saying in English. She asks us to talk a little about ourselves to hear our accents, and we all pass with flying colours, not that there is much competition, we will be the only English people who work here. I am relieved that the brummie inside of me didn’t come out to play. We are taken into another room, where they show us what they require from us, teaching us a demo class. Every move we make, acting out, smiling, listening, there is a camera at hand to take a picture of us. After the induction, and they have all added me on WeChat, I soon

see that me and my compatriots faces, are the new faces of the international school. They clearly see us as a goldmine, even if none of us have experience of teaching English. They give us the taxi fare to get home, but, being the bad students that we are, we get the bus home and save the £1 for a rainy day. On the bus tv, the news is constantly rolling, which is sometimes a little perturbing. They showed a massive car crash on a bridge from the viewpoint of a car camera, at the exact moment, we were going over a bridge. Perhaps they should think that through a little bit. The next news item is that the heroic Olympians have arrived back in China, and that the even more heroic Paralympians have departed. Some things never change.

For my evening meal, I go to the canteen with matt. I eat chicken and rice, he gets a ramen, which, he destroys with half a ton of chilli powder. He later wonders why he feels a little under the weather….

I am feeling full of energy after the return of running water, and I want to get a little fitter. I accompany mexican Jonathan to the gym, who is taller, stronger and older than me. But most of all, he feeds and takes care of all the dogs who live outside our residence. So much so, they follow him everywhere he goes. In order to walk around in peace, I meet him on the main road, as instead of going through the main door past the dogs, he jumps out the back of the building from the first floor (it’s not really that high, but high enough for me not to do). He has a six month subscription, but he gets me in as a taster session. We walk upstairs in the warehouse-like building, and find all the machines and equipment, on a red and black carpet. A short, but incredibly muscular chinese man, walks up to me and introduces himself in english. His English name is ‘Rock’. I smile and say ‘you mean The Rock?’. ‘No, there’s another guy called that, so I’m just called Rock’. I say my name, and like a lot of Asian men I have met, they say ‘Paul Walker’, who was the star in the Fast and Furious franchise. Yes, that’s news to me as well. He gets me pushing heavy things, surrounded by all these muscular Chinese men, that is a little odd, as one does not normally see Chinese people fine tuning their abs, let alone any Chinese bodybuilders in Wolverhampton.

I return back to the residence, to see Alisa, the residence assistant. We sit and talk for hours about our anxieties and our futures, as well as what a terrible news network CNN is, and what the west thinks of the South China Islands. At least you guys just build most of the land, whereas the Brits normally colonise, I joke. We talk about the similarities of Ying and Yang and French Philosophy, the difference between the body clock of a Chinese student and a Brit (they get up at 6am, not 6pm), and most devastatingly, she is leaving her job to go and live in her old student residence with her friends, so she can focus on preparing for her masters (which is two years away) and her future career. She gives me a gift, and she tells me about the ‘normal’ chinese residence. It is an 8 or 9 bed dorm, with many dorms on each floor, with one kitchen to share, and public, cold water showers. Maybe us internationals should stop complaining about our difficult roommates and think ourselves lucky.

Thursday

Today is orientation class. I arrive a couple of minutes late, but I’ve missed nothing. They put on the Powerpoint, telling us that we should go to class, not to get a pet, not to party all

night, not to move out of the residence without telling anyone, and not to padlock our door. They say this with a little too much gusto to suggest this happens a little too often, and that there are few consequences that go with it. Also, the scholarship will be a month late. Who doubted it?

I get some street food for lunch, a bread roll with chicken and what looked like noodles, but as my friend informs me, potatoes. It’s all very nice. In the afternoon, we go back to the international school to deliver our demo class, that they requested us to learn, we each perform in sections, but I’m always first up, so the others learn from my mistakes. It’s all quite tiring, but whatever we do, the Chinese love us. We celebrate our success by spending the taxi fare on mango bubble tea.

I get back and I do some washing, and two friends, one from Zambia, and one from Nepal, join us for dinner. We go to the canteen and I get what I think is Chicken on a stick, but could be tofu, or something in-between. Dominique a vegetarian, is a little perturbed.

I play badminton with Alisa, and we have a wonderful time. I will miss her when she leaves the residence. The Uzbeks think I am flirting with her by spending a little too much time with her, but it is just me being charming, I’m sure. Me and all the Uzbeks have partners, but I make a joke about getting a Chinese girlfriend for the time we are here. They said they prefer the Koreans, but they then proceed to tell me that they are Muslim, live in a Muslim country, and that they will marry their girlfriends, and that they are celibate. Their views on the world are fascinating. Their views on homosexuality are quite disconcerting and their view that their dictator is a modern-day ‘Ghandi’ maybe a little off the mark. However, their unadulterated love for the music of James Blunt does make me smile, and they are impressed with my knowledge of Uzbekistan and their ever-shrinking sea (I know, I spend too much time on Wikipedia).

I access Facebook for the first time in a while, to see all these notifications and see all the wonderful people wishing me luck. It does stop me from lying awake listening to the ever constant drip in the bathroom.

My first few days in China

Day One

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.

 

Day Two

 

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.

 

Day Three

 

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.