понедельник, 14 января 2013 г.

Impressions of China (part I)

Early in the morning of 18 December 2012 our family flew into Beijing Capital Airport from Novosibirsk - our first visit to China. The occasion of our visit was a family reunion for Christmas, however we also had the opportunity of discovering a new country, China, and a new continent, Asia. I would like to share some of our many impressions of this visit.

Beijing Airport is a vast, modern airport in the mould of Frankfurt, Schipol or Heathrow. The difference is that it is in China and as we stepped off the aircraft the first thing we noticed was the Chinese script. The first word we saw was exit, the second symbol depicting a door. Tired from a short night's sleep in the plane we made our way through the terminal through immigration, on the maglev train to baggage reclaim and then checked in for our onward flight. We eventually found a cheap Chinese restaurant and enjoyed our first local food (photo). Somewhat surreally the airport terminal is decorated for Christmas and the public address system playing English-language Christmas carols about 'figgy pudding' and the wonders of the Incarnation. That's globalisation for you!

Arriving in Jinan later that day we were met by my sister-in-law, Miao Miao, and were pleasantly surprised by the warm weather (after minus 40 in Novosibirsk!). As we drove along the motorway into the city the landscape seemed quite normal. As we drove into the city it reminded us somewhat of Istanbul with lots of modern-style mult-storey buildings with plenty of advertising. It was at this stage that we saw our first Chinese flag; the Communist Party does not dominate life with slogans and flags, but appears to govern under the surface. We started to try and make something of the signage, asking what various symbols meant. The upward-facing three-pronged fork means 'mountain' and is pronounced 'shan'. Unloading our luggage we walked to the flat where we would be staying. Again things seemed quite normal - not too many people, familiar-looking buildings and inside the flat nothing was too strange.

Later that day, having rested a bit, I went to collect my nephew from nursery with my brother. Along the way we stopped to buy a toy car. Lawrence is able to converse in Chinese. Already I was able to discern some words. Chinese comes across as a succession of staccato syllables with simple grammar. At least in conversational Chinese, understanding is acknowledged with the expression, "okay, okay". The nursery was quite similar to a Russian one, but more institutional with a queue mainly of grandparents admitted to collect their child in a managed way using a magnetic card. Our first evening out was at a noodle restaurant in a very plush shopping centre (built since Lawrence's arrival three years ago).

The second day of our visit we went into town. The buses are frequent, cheap and - outwith rush hour - not crowded. A plasma television screen provides advertising and a recorded voice announces the stops. Walking around one is aware of being the only non-Chinese and people do stare or take photos/video footage on their phones. We walked around the city centre, visiting a book shop, a bag shop and various other shops. The book shop had a vast selection of books, mainly by national authors, and various floors and departments. There was one table apparently devoted to political books with titles such as, "How the CCP governs China," and elsewhere a stand about the recent Party congress, but otherwise no obvious sign of restrictions. We walked down the traditional Chinese shopping street - narrow with two-storey buildings in the traditional style (photo). The street vendors food has a strong distinctive smell (frying fat?). Having purchased various small items we ended up in a restaurant called Dicos with quasi-western fast food.

What had appeared warm weather was already proving deceptive and we were quite cold walking around. In the end we were glad of the heating in a basement shop selling everything from hats and scarves to greetings cards and ornaments. We got back later than anticipated. By this time Lawrence was already having dinner with his friend, Jiao Li, and I joined them. The local custom seems to be to offer generous favours (in the case collecting from the airport) but these should be acknowledged and reciprocated (eg a meal out). The format in the restaurant was 'hot pot' - a boiling pot of water in the centre of the table heated by wood or coal into which one drops raw meat and vegetables, fishing them out when ready. Jiao Li is what I imagine is typical up-and-coming modern Chinese: married, in her early thirties and running a business providing extra-curricular activities for schoolchildren (including English). Embarassment and lack of practice made for something of a language barrier, however I was able to ask various questions and get answers. I asked about work and about literacy-teaching to children (learning the main characters occupies much of the first few years of school). She was interested to ask about my faith in God (Shang Di - the exalted Emperor in Chinese), something to which she aspired. She said that she knew believers of various faiths, although she said these were mainly older people.

We collected mum from the airport, arriving slightly late due to misunderstanding the arrival time. Driving back in the dark Lawrence conversed in Chinese while mum and I spoke in English. The hotel room offered by Lawrence's in-laws was extremely luxurious. Again this extremely generous favour was clearly to be acknowledged with various phonecalls made and so forth. Lawrence and I got a taxi back home, heading to bed after a brief chat in the small park near our flat.

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