We’d been told this would happen, but I didn’t quite believe it until I saw it in flesh and wood. After going through the line for diplomats at passport control, we walked out into Arrivals and there he was, the driver who had come to collect us, holding a wooden sign with a Union Jack pasted proudly on it. I don’t usually put myself in situations where Union Jacks come out except in irony, but since we’re here in Beijing on a mission for Her Majesty’s Government I better get used to seeing more of them over the next four years.
It’s now 3am on our second night and I’m wide awake with jet lag. I’m writing this on the sofa in our transit flat in a 28-floor complex housing diplomats from around the world, a neat target for terrorists looking to pick a fight with a bunch of countries. We’re here for a few weeks until we find a place of our own and it’s very comfortable, with security gates, a shopping centre with Western brands next door and access to the swimming pool at a nearby luxury hotel.
One thing our flat doesn’t have though is a kettle which, in a kitchen furnished with Western amenities including a teapot, appears to have been an oversight. Other than boiling water for tea in a large pan on the hob, there have been a few things we drummed into our system in our first two days living in China.
The first thing is that traffic doesn’t necessarily stop at red lights. Roads – even multi-lane ones – don’t always have lights for pedestrians, and cars barely slow down as you attempt to cross the road. So it comes down to a battle of wills between driver and pedestrian, lost all too often by the latter if last night’s news footage of a mother and toddler being hit and flung down the road is anything to go by. I was already a nervous pedestrian in London, squealing whenever I crossed the road at a spot without lights, so this will dial up my swearing to new heights.
Yesterday we went to the British Embassy, DD’s workplace, to get issued with our passes. There we were told not to be surprised if we find a Chinese person in our home every now and then, and to not leave out too many empty whisky bottles in case the Chinese authorities see the opportunity for a new recruit. If this means we’ll try to be more tidy, it must be a good thing.
Lastly, I’ve seen that I need to get going fast on learning the language. Being Japanese, I’m mistaken by the locals as Chinese, and I get embarrassed every time I meet someone. DD had a similar problem recently when we were in Israel on holiday. His short dark hair and black-rimmed glasses make him look like the missing link between Woody Allen, Louis Theroux and Where’s Wally, and being mistaken for Jewish he got spoken to in Hebrew wherever we went. Now, I’m the one that feels like I’m letting people down when I have to reply in my very English English and turn panicked to DD, whose Mandarin is doing a great job so far of chatting with taxi drivers, opening bank accounts and complaining about broken air conditioning.
Lots of lessons learned, fried food consumed and Tsingtao beers drunk – it’s been an entertaining 48 hours, and now I’ll see if I can get back to sleep.
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