I wanted to feel exhilarated. That’s the reason I upped and left and came to China. From the moment I opened my eyes in the morning until they closed again at night, I wanted to see. Abstract images float around the surface of my retina and bounce off its shine. Nothing is absorbed. I wanted to see and hear and smell and touch life. I wanted to confront my own mortality as an insignificant fibre of this world. So I came to China. I packed up my belongings, I boarded a plane (well, three), and moved to the other side of the world, to a place where I could neither understand nor be understood. Where I had to rely on my basest senses to navigate. And for nearly two weeks I’ve been waiting for that boulder to slam into me and plaster the words YOU’RE IN CHINA!!!! on my forehead, but no boulder. A quick adjustment and suddenly I’m living life as before, eating and drinking and walking and watching Emmerdale. Life as I already knew it. I was starting to feel a little cheated, until I braved the bus for the first time by myself. Exhilaration? Check. Adrenaline? Check. Mortality? Check.
Warning: This post contains several unnecessarily poetic embellishments. And the picture below is of some dried herbs.
So the bus drivers here are crazy. In the UK we think bus drivers think they own the roads. Here they do. They’re the dons of public transport, laymen car drivers quiver and bow down to them. They drive straight into oncoming traffic, plough on at zebra crossings, a roar of the horn the only thing stopping pedestrians’ heads getting cosy with the windscreen. The poor guys on bikes pulling big carts behind them don’t seem to stand a chance. They don’t wear helmets, and are brave in their winding in and out of moving traffic, but they skid to the kerb when a bus comes close. Life on board a bus is just as hectic, and I stood and swayed with the masses, clinging to the rail above my head, wondering briefly about the sweat patches under my armpits caused by sheer fright and adrenaline. I stood slightly squat as though I was skiing through the alps to absorb some of the momentum of the bus, but as the hand rail was quite high I was sort of dangling from it, clutching with my fingertips. Fellow passengers absorbed more than my knees did. Careering through the streets of Harbin (pronounced ‘Har-been’), I watched as people went on with their lives. Old people buying vegetables at the farmers markets you see on every street corner. Mothers calling for their children and they skip away happily. The odd dog trotting alongside the bus, conditioned to the risks. Street signs, shop signs, announcements, everything was in Chinese. Suddenly, for the first time, I felt like I was in China, and during the 7 min busride it dawned on me the magnitude of what I’ve done and where I am. I alighted the bus with new eyes. I floated around the fabric market, looking at fabric (what else), and feeling a bit like I’d been drugged. It was a weird feeling.
Anyway, I’d come to the market to find a crochet hook, and a crochet hook I did find. The next thing was some wool, but I couldn’t find this for love nor money, just expensive thick cord. I settled instead for a ball of off-white twine. The plan is to dye it or lace ribbons or thread between the crochet loops to liven it up. It’s quite coarse so it’ll make a strong little rug for the laminated floor. It’s currently about 35cm x35cm, and the colour of a dirty mop head. But it’s nice to sit in the evenings and occupy my mind whilst I’m watching the soaps on youtube.
Part of the excitement of the bus ride was getting out of the campus. I can walk the 20 mins to the shopping part of town but because you’ve walked there, you sort of feel like you’ve not actually gone anywhere. Suddenly I can go anywhere in the city for RMB1.00. It’s so cheap and easy and not dull that it’s madness not to. Today me and Tom are going to Central Street to see St Sophia Cathedral. This is downtown, the Russian tourist heart of Harbin. I can only assume I’ll be drinking vodka and brawling all day so I’ve had a massive bowl of porridge to see me right.
The lessons continue, and I’ve heard on the grapevine that after Spring Festival (Jan – end of Feb), we might be teaching proper classes. Super excited for that, because I’ve been feeling pretty disappointed with that side of things. I’ve got my lesson pretty much memorised now, my main problem in these classes at the moment is trying to keep the students engaged. 2hrs is a long time, and to be fair most of them pay attention and respond to my questions easily. But all around the world, you’ll always get those too-cool-for-school kids, and here it’s no exception. It turns out that in China, you’re accepted into a uni, then the uni decides which major you will study. They don’t really get a choice, and coupled with this the students are forced to take English lessons. I press the point that ‘if you want to learn English to pass your exams, excellent, well done, you’ve done it! But if you want to then be able to use that English later in life, you’ll need to practice. That’s what I’m here to talk to you about bla bla bla’. Wading into their class and putting my English stake in the ground and telling them that English is a global language that they need to learn makes me feel like a colonial warrior waging war on their native tongue. My trick, to show them that I’m on their side, is to show them the Welsh flag. As I slowly unfold it, a full arm span, without fail it elicits gasps and excited chunnerings and the electronic shutter of cameras snap-snapping away. It’s my way of saying ‘Hey, I’m not English either’, or ‘hey, Wales has a dragon on its flag, aren’t I cool?’
So on Hallowe’en, I get a text at 6pm from a number I don’t know. It’s a girl from the International Office, asking if I want to come to a Hallowe’en party with some foreign students. The plan was to have a few drinks then go to the pub, then a club. This was the first whisper of any sort of nightlife in Harbin. Straight away I started mentally planning an outfit, turned the hot water on for a shower, and drinking a litre of water. But, could I go?? It dawned on me that a) I brought nothing to wear for a night out, b) I didn’t have alcohol, or a gift for the host, and c) I had classes on Friday starting at 8am. I weighed up the options carefully, and glancing down at the ball of twine and my 35cmsq crocheted creation, I texted back that I’d be there. I flew down the 5 flights of stairs out of my building and began scouring the shops on campus for alcohol. The more I texted this lady, I realised that it wasn’t going to be a traditional Chinese get together, so I could probably forgo the formal gift-giving. I went for a crate of Harbin beers, and shared this with Thomas. Together we met Long, and she showed us to the International Student building across the road from the campus. Present were Russia girls, a couple of Finnish, a French guy, plus some Koreans, Chinese and an adorable Japanese lad who reminded me of Gus Gus from Cinderella. Present was also a large quantity of Russian vodka. With classes in the morning and a plan not to be carrying home any leftover beer, I just had the one vodka. Won’t do to be mixing too much.
We took taxis to an Irish pub close to the biggest uni in the city, HIT, and were subjected to the standard mix of The Pogues and 90’s Britpop. There we had more beer. There was a Hallowe’en party going on inside, full of Americans, British and Australians. It was so weird after weeks of Chinese faces and Chinese voices to be somewhere you could speak with anyone you chose! They were all English teachers at HIT, about 40 of them altogether. I met a guy called Neil from Leicester, and we discussed geography (‘so, heeere’s Wales, right? And heeere’s Leicester? We’re neighbours!’), fashion (‘What about an English flatcap is Halloweeny Neil?’) and philosophy (‘Why are you still doing this at the age of 37??’). We all then moved onto the club across the road, crazy danced to lots of C-Pop and saw an even bigger mix of nationalities. I felt oddly comforted by the pockets of black and Indian men lining the walls watching proceedings, feeling like I was back in Rosies or Yokos. I left at 1.30am, jumped into a taxi with my well-rehearsed instruction of ‘LIN DA!’ – the local name of our uni. RMB12 and 15 mins later, I was dropped off at the entrance to the campus and walked the half mile back to my building. Awks moment when I couldn’t unlock the front door, and the building manager grumpily woke up and opened it for me. I had angered the beast, but I reasoned that if he’d only get a little WD40 on the lock he’d have had an uninterrupted sleep, so who’s to blame, really? The 6am start was pretty grim, and at 2pm I finally got home and went straight to sleep.
So last thing, I’m hopefully getting a Chinese tutor! I’ve learnt numbers 1-10, which is pretty much all you need because after that it’s ‘ten-one, ten-two, ten-three’ etc. So that’s how I managed around the market. But Micah, my neighbour, has a student in her final year who wants to get into teaching, and as she hasn’t done it before it should be pretty cheap. The hope is I’ll know enough basic words to do a little travelling in the new year without relying on my well rehearsed puzzled expression or their knowledge of English…