First Impressions of China

So it’s my third full day in China. I don’t think I’m suffering from much culture shock at all. Things are obviously different to back home, and I expected them to be different, but somehow nothing is how I expected it to be. In truth, I’m not quite sure what I pictured when trying to visualise Xi’an, and so how it differs to my expectations.
My journey over here was fine. My train into London arrived only a minute late, then I got the tube to Stanfords to look for a map and have lunch with Alistair. I got to Heathrow in plenty of time and checked in, then wondered what to do for a couple of hours in the shopping mall airport. I bought some water and sweets for the flight, and put my remaining 12p in cash into a charity box. My flight left right on time, which gave me hope for making my connection in Beijing; I’ve read that it takes a minimum of 2 hours, and I have 2 hours 20 minutes to do it in. The flight arrived into Beijing 10 minutes early, and I rushed off the plane, through immigration (took about 30 seconds, UK Border Agency could learn a thing or two…), to baggage claim, through customs, checked my bag into the connecting flight, upstairs and through security, and 20 minutes later arrived at my gate. And relax for two hours.

In Xi’an, Harry, the school’s admin assistant met me, and we went straight to my apartment on the 25th floor of a building near the school. Dave, another teacher from the school met us there, and I had a couple of hours to settle in and have a shower before a welcome dinner with all the other teachers. During that time, the electricity in my apartment went off. Apparently it’s a prepay system, and needs to be topped up, so I went to Dave’s apartment for a shower before the dinner, while Harry tried to contact the landlord to get the electricity card to top up. While I was shattered after the long journey, it was really nice meeting everyone from the school and eat my first proper Chinese meal.

On Thursday I had a day off to settle in, so I slept off some jet lag and then in the afternoon went with Nick, another teacher, to the centre of Xi’an to see the muslin quarter within the city walls. It was really interesting, and very reminiscent of the small ancient streets in Istanbul. We had a late lunch there, at a restaurant where the centre of the table is a hot plate heated by a flaming cube of wax. When the food came, the waitress cooked it for us at the table with clouds of smoke and steam. Delicious, and for two of us it came to ¥50, about £5. Nick also showed me essential places near the school such as Starbucks and Walmart. In the evening two American teachers at the school were having a thanksgiving party, so two days after arriving in China I celebrated my first ever thanksgiving.

Yesterday I had a very busy day. Harry collected me at 8:30am to get through all the admin that needs to be done. We went straight to the medical centre to check that I’m fit and well enough to work in China. After a blood test, a chest x-ray, a sight test, blood-pressure and heart rate checking, an ECG printout, and receiving an ultrasound scan (I’m not pregnant) I got the all clear. Then on to the bank to set up an account and get a debit card, then to the police station to register as a foreign resident worker, and finally to buy a mobile phone and sim card. By that time it was 1pm, and we just had to sort out my electricity (it ran out again). Harry took me to the office to top up the card, but it was closed until 2pm. He had to be somewhere else, so gave me instructions on what to do. At 2pm I went to the office, handed over the card and a ¥100 note, and asked for ‘diàn’. Back at the apartment and there was still no electricity. No time to troubleshoot though as I had to be at school for a meeting and my induction at 3pm. The school is really nice and modern, and the other teachers and staff are lovely. I got the full tour and shown to my classroom. I also asked about electricity, and it turns out I then have to insert the card into the electricity meter somewhere in the building, which I found when I got home. I now have 1.6 somethings of electricity.

I’ve written all that about what I’ve been doing, but not much about the city itself or my first impressions of China. Beijing airport was, as expected, very modern and shiny. Xi’an airport was a bit ordinary compared to Beijing, I guess not dissimilar to Newcastle airport in size and grandeur. Teaching still seems to be a respected profession – on the plane from Beijing to Xi’an I was talking to someone who was redesigning the airspace around Xi’an, which I think is pretty cool, but she was very impressed when she said I was an English teacher. From the airport the traffic was crazy. Lanes don’t mean anything, and overtaking happens wherever there’s the tiniest of spaces. The speed limit I think was 110km/h, but overtaking a police car on the inside at 130km/h was apparently perfectly acceptable. On my second day I nearly got run down by a truck with no lights on, but a quick sprint had me safely on the pavement looking a bit sheepish.

Entering Xi’an itself, and I immediately noticed the scale of the buildings and the pollution. The air is so thick I could almost taste and feel it. It hasn’t been foggy while I’ve been here, but visibility is only about a kilometre. The speed of development in China is breathtaking, there are construction cranes and part finished buildings everywhere, and the density of people living 25 stories into the air means there are no quiet spaces. The part of Xi’an I’m in, to the north of the ancient centre, is quite modern, and has emerged in the past 10 years as an economic development zone after the local Government buildings were moved here. There is a curious mix of modern wealth and traditional poverty, butting up so close to one another that the disparity in incomes must be one of the greatest in the world. Fancy restaurants with car park attendants supervising Mercedes, Audis and Range Rovers are next to backstreet food stalls, people driving sparkling new 4×4‘s mix with others pulling hand carts. Glancing at the modern streetscape and comparing it to a modern part of any city in the UK, or particularly America, and I don’t feel that far from home, but when I look closer at the signs and brands I realise that I’m effectively illiterate in this country.

That brings me to another point; almost all important signs are in Chinese and English, and aspiring international brands use both, which I think shows a forward thinking attitude. English is the current language of international business, and Chinese (with almost 1.5bn speakers) is certainly part of the future. But I can’t imagine anywhere in the predominately English speaking world adding Chinese characters to the same extent as English is used here.

The muslim quarter, within the city walls, is more like how imagined traditional China to be, narrow streets with shops, restaurants and food stalls spilling out into the roads, an assault on the senses with sounds, smells and sights battling for attention.

So far I really like it here. I’m not homesick at all, and I’m still excited about adventure of getting to know a different culture.

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