I first decided I wanted to come to China when we studied Chinese history at O level. Everyone else did the traditional WW2 gig, for some reason our teacher decided on an alternative path. We hurtled through the dynasties, paused for breath at the Boxer rebellion and rolled on to Mao Zedong (or Mao Tse-Tung before he changed his name) and Jiong Jieshi (the politician formerly known as Chiang KaiShek) before grinding to an abrupt halt at 2nd December 1949. It was if nothing of interest happened after that as far as the Oxford Examination Board was concerned. We still had time left so we padded out our knowledge with British parliamentary reform in the 20th century. I think our class must have had the most warped perspective of any examination candidates that year.
But, aside from being able to recite all the British prime ministers in the 20th century, along with their parliamentary majorities, it did leave me with a desire to one day visit China. It looked different, dangerous and downright confusing. Trouble was I couldn’t figure out how to pull it off. I didn’t want to teach English, I wanted to do science. I didn’t get a lot of help from talking to people who were born there. They either told me it was impossible or, given my qualifications, easy, but neither could provide a convincing argument to defend their position. I finally stumbled across a job in 2003 but the SARS outbreak put paid to that and I waited another year before trying again. I finally figured out the way to do it was to randomly email people at different Chinese universities and tell them I was looking for a job. When they said they couldn’t help, I would ask them if they could provide the name of someone else I might contact. To get me off their back they were generally happy to oblige. After 6 months of searching I finally got 4 interviews the same day.
Everyone opened with the same question “why on earth do you want to come to China?” I felt dishonesty was the best policy and rather than replying “I thought it would be a larf” I rattled off some tripe about the benefits of academic exchange between our countries. It seemed to work; by the end of 2004 I had a job lined up and a work visa lost someone in the mail. One unexpected outcome of the whole thing was that when my girlfriend, who wasn’t my girlfriend at the time, heard I was moving to China she said “can I come too?” . I replied “er, sure!” She quit her job and followed me five months later.
When I arrived in China early 2005. I couldn’t speak a word of Mandarin and was dumped in a cheap hotel while everyone cleared off home for Chinese New Year. It was everything I expected it to be, the university came up with every excuse for not paying me (they still owe me five months wages) and changed their mind about giving me startup money, lab space and an office. They effectively forgot I existed. I bought a bike at twice the going rate, and spent much of my time riding around and exploring the city. At the end of the year I attended a conference and was standing in line for lunch and a little Chinese guy turned around and looked up at me and said “you’re tall…” We got talking, he suggested I call someone he knew at a hospital in Wuhan and two weeks later I had a new job, new office and a new dialect to figure out.
I’ve now been in China five years. My Chinese still isn’t as good as it should be, but I can converse with everyone except the old geezers who sit by the side of the road and watch the world go by – they have a really fucked up accent that makes it sound as if they are speaking a completely different language. And I still have that same sense of confusion and bewilderment, that I’m viewing everything from the edge and not really following what is going on.
I went back the UK for a visit last month. Two weeks of western food, well behaved drivers and pedestrians not trying to start a fight at every opportunity, double glazing and a silence so complete I found it difficult to sleep at night. Every morning I would be the first awake, go downstairs to polish off a bowl of cornflakes and then head out for a bike ride on the Southdowns.
When I lived in the USA and came back to the UK for a visit I would view my return with a sinking heart, feeling a deep depression when I saw the flat landscape around Dallas FortWorth airport coming into view. But my return to China is always accompanied by a sense of anticipation bordering on an adrenalin rush. However, this time it was different. For one thing I arrived at a reasonable hour and my girlfriend was waiting to meet me at the airport. Secondly, and completely unexpectedly, when I rode my bike into work the next morning it dawned on me that I was viewing the streets with the same sense of familiarity that I view the streets around my home town in the UK. I realized I had missed the sights and sounds; people walking in the middle of the road blocking the traffic, little kids crouched around some object of interest and planning trouble, dogs and cats lazing in a doorway.
They say that you have truly embraced the culture when you are prepared to eat noodles for breakfast. For me, it was a decision governed by convenience more than anything else, but my first bowl of noodles had been on my mind since I woke at 4 that morning – bloody jet lag. As I rolled up to my local on my bike, the owners greeted me like a long lost friend and refused to take my money. But I still couldn’t understand what the old geezer sitting across from me was saying