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CHINA > Beijing

Once Upon a Time in the Orient

Stewart Collins

Article © 2011 Stewart Collins

T/T #124
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The term 'intense culture shock' springs to mind. Some days it drives me to the brink of sanity, other days it enchants me in the most wonderful of fashions. The levels of inquisitiveness and hospitality are charming. It’s the people that are making my experiences so unique and meaningful, turning this from a simple holiday, into a life altering journey

 

Modern Chinese town - click to enlargeIn one of my earliest diary entries I wrote: “the term 'intense culture shock' springs to mind. Some days it drives me to the brink of sanity, other days it enchants me in the most wonderful of fashions. The levels of inquisitiveness and hospitality are charming. It’s the people that are making my experiences so unique and meaningful, turning this from a simple holiday, into a life altering journey”.

Through all of the highs and the lows, my opinions would chop and change dramatically. That being said, one sentiment always remained a constant. The trip was continuously changing my life and the act of travelling was like an education. Every day I found myself learning new lessons about myself and the world around me.

The plane journey was long and the middle-aged Belgian tour group that encircled me was not exactly a barrel of laughs! Upon arrival the airport appeared eerily tranquil and I could only assume that this was just the calm before the storm. My only task was to locate the shuttle bus to Gong Zhu Fen and it was fairly simple by my standards. I was the only western face on the bus and the only English speaking person in what seemed like a million miles. I stood out like a sore thumb and the challenge ahead was beginning to dawn on me. I had a slight cold and apparently I couldn’t get network coverage in Beijing. I had no means of getting in touch with my contact Theo, some Chinese guy I had met online and agreed to Couch Surf with.

I knew very little about him, just that he was going to host me free of charge and that he was purchasing my onward train ticket prior to my arrival. The question had to be asked: “What’s the catch here? Is Theo in fact a dangerously unstable, balding, fifty year old Chinese psychopath with a fetish for young British lads?” Well no, he wasn’t. He was quite normal, and the sheer fact that he was waiting for me at the station was quite a relief, a breath of fresh air in all honesty. At first glance he looked a bit Korean, standing there with his military haircut and talking in an Americanized accent. It was all a bit of blur and we went on to take the Metro and a local bus to his hometown, Yuangang.

It was about forty minutes from the centre and I got the impression that Theo was as lost amidst the downtown chaos as I was! His town appeared traditional; it was where the real people lived. Women sold unusual fruits by the roadside, crazy rickshaw drivers threatened my life, and old geezers played cards in the middle of a dusty square. It didn’t seem like Chinese National week there. We walked by the Primary school that had been attended by three generations of Theo’s family. Generation after generation based themselves here, and the town was in some fashion, lost in time. Everyone starred. In time it would become slightly annoying, but at that moment it felt good in some egotistical manner of sorts. The female security guard glared at me with watchful eyes, and it felt like I was the only foreigner to have ever walked those footsteps. I was no longer just another face in the crowd and I intended to embrace the fact.

The town looked Russian in architectural style. High-rise apartment buildings were springing up all over and seemed strangely out of place. Like the masses, Theo was an only child and lived with his parents. The apartment was lightly furnished, simple yet quaint. I felt safe there. The parents didn’t speak a word of English but we soon became friends nonetheless. Language is often a barrier, but once in a while something beautiful tends to take place. Cultural differences become obsolete and friendships can transcend those linguistic and communicative barriers. Actually his Mum seemed to take pleasure in watching me eat. Food was a massive part of their lives and as I would discover, the Chinese would pretty much consume anything. Here I was, the uncultured English idiot, unable to use a set of chopsticks in an otherwise forkless house. I plugged away and after dinner we prepared to head out for the evening.

When we reached the centre we stopped off for a drink at a local bar. The atmosphere was wonderfully mellow, two men playing classical guitar music underneath a soft red light. Soon we moved on to another venue where we became the VIP guests of Theo’s friend’s rock band. In no time at all I was dancing in a dingy basement, listening to oriental death metal, and surrounded by rather large, longhaired, tattooed Chinese Goths. The rock genre was emblematic of rebellion, a rage against an otherwise restrictive and close-minded regime. They appreciated my tattoos and I didn’t feel like that tourist bloke anymore. I met a half Indian and half Cantonese guy called Gordhan. He lived in America, was raised in Hong Kong, worked in Beijing, and spoke the Queens English. Another guy was Walter, a Kenyan fellow also living in the city. It’s not everyday you see a black guy speaking fluent Mandarin! On a darker note (no pun intended), the casual racism of the Chinese was quite disturbing. Theo through the “N” word around freely as if it were the norm. I could only put it down to ignorance and a fear of the unknown. On the way to the next club we had to turn down offers of young student girls from rat-faced gentleman by the roadside, tempting, as they may have been…

It’s fair to say we all looked like scruffy messes, dressed in hoodies, hiking shoes and God knows what else. Bizarrely enough, we managed to wangle free entry and receive free drinks for the duration. The whisky and ice tea were flowing, in England the bouncers would not have let me within one hundred metres of the vicinity. It’s hazy from that point on, but I do remember chatting up some Chinese student, using Theo as my dance floor translator. Can’t say I’d ever done that before! I another entry I wrote: “I am seriously contemplating marrying one and bringing her home to England…” They had something us Brits seemed to have lost, a sense of tradition and moral values. Looking back, the Chinese girls were sweetly cute, however their male counterparts seemed intent on breaking new boundaries of rudeness!

Walking home through the Hutong at night was both atmospheric and beautiful. We stayed at a hostel and my dizzying jet lag could finally come to an end. The first day was a bit like a dream sequence that was playing out in front of my eyes. It was like an out-of-body experience and I’ll never forget it.

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