Four ways China surprised me this week

You can predict it’ll be sunny on your birthday

Over dinner, our friends were discussing plans for the rest of the year.

“Well, at least I know it’ll be good weather on my birthday,” N said.

“How can you know?” I asked, “It’s four months away.”

“It’s National Day,” she replied with a smile.

Of course. After witnessing it many times, how could I forget? On special public holidays or after a long spell of bad smog, the Chinese government makes it rain, ensuring a dramatic switch to blue skies and sunshine within hours.

“I wonder if they can create wind?” DD said.

“You can,” I said, and we all went back to our steaks.

Young Chinese people have a flare for English

Granted, I’m sampling a highly motivated and intelligent group: teachers from our Chinese language school and sales managers at the English-language magazine I’ve recently started working at. But they – particularly women between 25 and 35 – can speak English with the kind of vocabulary range, accent and confidence that has bowled me over again and again, the latest instance with a new colleague I met this week.

This is all the more impressive when the answer to my question, “So, have you ever lived or studied abroad?” is invariably “No.” Given their generation and social standing, these women probably had no political connections or money that would have enabled them to go abroad, and little opportunity too, considering the limitations on foreign travel imposed by the government and visa restrictions in some destination countries that have hindered the average Chinese tourist until recently.

This means it was their determination and hard work that got them to this level – and, I suppose, the Chinese education system that exposes them to English from an early age and makes it a requirement for graduating university, as I’m told. But exposure and education do not in any way guarantee competence, as I – with a decade of French classes and an A* at GCSE – am living proof.

Taxi drivers want to talk to me

Taxi drivers, waiters and cashiers often don’t know how to deal with me; looking kind of Chinese – or Asian anyway – but not speaking the language to any level of competency (see above). They react in one of three ways. One, giggle. Two, look pissed off because they’re convinced I’m Chinese and showing off by speaking English because I’m with an expat crowd. Three, stare at me in the rear-view mirror and mutter angrily. Four, tell me that they know a Japanese word, which turns out to be “bakayaro”, loosely translated as “fucking idiot”, which may or may not be deliberately intended.

It’s perhaps understandable in an emerging economic power, where both plain facts and the regulated press tell you that your country is the most populous in the world and increasingly the most significant. Why wouldn’t you expect an Asian face to be Chinese, or at least speak Chinese, and be surprised and even annoyed when they don’t? Aren’t many white Brits and Americans guilty of doing the same? The key difference, of course, is that while English has established itself as the premier global language, in all matters of business, politics and social interactions, Chinese is still only spoken mainly by those who have an ethnic claim to it.

Nevertheless, as someone committed to living in Beijing for four years, I want to master the language, and consider it a moral and intellectual duty to do so. And yet, I’m often accosted with the same kind of shyness and fear of error and humiliation that I saw in Japanese children in Japanese classrooms in my previous life as an English tutor. Hiding behind DD and my talented colleagues (see above), I don’t come across many scenarios in the week when I’m forced to communicate. Such is the life of an expat, and the un-interactive set-up of the modern lifestyle.

And yet, despite all this, two days ago I found myself having a conversation with a taxi driver.

It went like this.

Driver: “something something something something na guo ren?”
Me: “Errrmmmm… riben ren.”
Driver: “something something something something ting hao.”
Me: (In my head: “Eh?”) “Xie Xie.”


Me: “Wo qu nian jiu yue lai beijing; wo hanyu bu tai hao.”
Driver: “Dao beijing, something something something something?”


Me: “Duibuqi, wo ting bu dong…”
Driver: (disappointed sound)


All I had managed to communicate in that 30-second exchange was that I was Japanese, appreciated his compliment that my listening was good, that I’d arrived in Beijing only recently which is why my Chinese is crap, and that I had no idea what he’d said in response. Later in class, when I related this to my Chinese teacher, she pointed out that he was more likely not complimenting me on my listening, but commenting on the good weather, both of which can be communicated by the words “ting hao.” I had to agree.

This, admittedly, is the kind of elementary, largely unsuccessful, conversation I should have been attempting months ago. I know exactly what I need to do: get over my shyness and speak, and get over my laziness and study.

Both, I find, are surprisingly difficult.

Chinese men look sweet with exposed midriff

The phenomenon of Chinese men (and sometimes women) spitting in the street always fills my heart with a kind of venom that’s best left undiscussed, but by contrast, their penchant for rolling up their shirts and baring their tummies in the midday heat somehow makes me smile. It hadn’t occur to me that one might look to their midriff to relieve heat – one usually relies on shoulders, legs and feet. And it certainly hadn’t occurred to me that this, known fondly known as the Beijing bikini, might make you look rather sweet in the fading light of dusk, and not unlike Winnie the Pooh.


It sometimes seems to me that the multi-lane boulevards, cloud-piercing skyscrapers and blinged up SUVs that dominate central Beijing have caught by surprise many of those who still live in the fast disappearing hutongs and those who travel long hours from the countryside to do manual labour. But they’ve refused to adapt their habits entirely to the modernising monster machine; they carry on shirt rolling, spitting, doing mass exercise routines in public, crowding around tiny table and chairs playing Chinese chess, taking naps on a piece of cardboard by the road, letting their toddlers poo against trees on the pavement through slits in their trousers. Some of these habits are lovely, others, admittedly, are not so lovely. But they seem so unfazed and so confident, and I like that.


Copyright © 2014 followingdrdippy

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