China: A summary.

China: A summary.

“What’s China like?”

Of course, any person who has been to China gets asked this all the time by people who haven’t. Could you begin to describe it? Surely it’s impossible.

I can never give a coherent answer to this question. Sometimes, if I think the other person might be able to relate, I don’t try to answer it. I simply try to describe an image. I don’t know why on earth this image summarises China for me so much, but …it does, and I can’t escape that! So…here you go:

It’s around 2pm. The sky is bluer than usual, but retains that ever-present tinge of grey. The air is not great, but it could be worse. It’s 30 degrees C, and it’s loud. Engines and blasting horns, but to me it’s faded into an endless buzz.

The highway I’m cycling along is about to curve around to undercut another larger highway that stretches across it, a hulking grey mass. All I can see in front of me is an enormous bridge and the dull sky. But my attention is focused on the foreground, not the backdrop. I’m the only person on a bicycle in this part of the highway right now (which is unusual in itself). There is only one pedestrian.

A man. Slight, quite small. His skin is dark, dark like a worker who has spent his life in the paddies, and his face drawn sallow from years of poor nutrition. He is dressed in a grubby white polo, and his black slacks are grubby, faded and ripped.

Despite his wasted appearance, he stands erect on that corner beside the roaring highway, and seems to have been there for hours. It’s hot, nobody is stopping for him, and still he stands. He points towards the cars. Clasped in his outstretched arms, he holds a rough, whip-like stick. Tied to the stick is a piece of string. Hanging motionless from the piece of string (of all the things it could have been) …  massive, stolic, majestic and sad-looking, but very alive… is a turtle. There is a LIVING turtle, dangling from the fishing rod of a poor man making his living on a busy highway in the suburbs of Beijing in the dry, harsh and dirty air in unforgiving heat, and it is considered entirely ordinary.

I continue on my way.

Bizarre. To me, it’s bizarre. To others, it’s probably normal, boring even to some people. But that’s social construction for you. Seeing this in the UK would be considered totally weird, bizarre, unheard of. In China, it’s normal.

Do you have an amusing or weird snapshot of a place you have visited, a culture you have experienced? Do you have a funny story? When you came back to the UK, did you have trouble describing your travels to your friends? Let me know in the comments!




Was it all a dream?

Happy New Year! And with the celebrations underway I felt the urge to write a quick update!

I was in China this time last year. I spent an entire year there and now I’m back. Obviously lots of people ask me ‘How was China?’ in curious, surprised or even incredulous tones, and… and I’m ashamed to admit it, but I don’t really know what to say!

“It was … amazing.” I say, with feeling. Fair enough , anyone can understand that. But they say ‘Really? You don’t seem to think so!’

“Amazing!” The first syllable sounds loud and clear, enthusiastic and brimming over with pride. The second sounds sentimental, wistful, but maybe a little sad. And the third syllable is almost lost as my speech descends into a satirical…. snigger. That’s what throws them, the snigger. I feel only I can understand that snigger. It’s the snigger of disbelief. The questioning ‘Was I really there?’ ; the doubtful “Does it exist?” and the nagging “Was it all a dream?”

How can I explain this? It’s because I find that China is so…removed from England, so fundamentally different to what I know, that I cannot begin to describe it. It is another world. And when someone asks me ‘How was China?’ I’m thrown. I’m asking myself the same thing. How IS China? What is China? Why is China?

Unfortunately this all means that I don’t have much to say about China, and my memories of it don’t really come to me in everyday life unless I’m considering it really hard, because I can’t map them onto each other. My life in China cannot overlay my life in England. I was a different person there. A person that the ones in England just don’t know. The ones in China, the ones from China, they have met Crimson China, Grace from China. But they don’t really know what English Grace is like. They say that when you speak in a different language you are a different person. This is certainly true for me.

I hope I can meet Crimson China again some day.