China: Asia on Hard Mode

I was back home in April and it was all Tokyo and no harp but that was needed to happen.

In theory, one of the great things about living in Japan is that you are so much closer to other great Asian countries that would be too expensive and too much of a time commitment to go from the UK. As well as Japan, I’m interested in Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong but in reality I was always too busy travelling in Japan or just enjoying Tokyo to make it out of the country.

So, what better to end this chapter than going home via China? A good friend lives there and kindly offered to let me stay with her.

China is Asia on hard mode. Yes, Japanese culture is difficult to adapt to, and living in a country whose writing system has 80,000 characters instead of 26 can be extremely challenging but, fundamentally, Japan is a 住みやすい (liveable) place. It’s clean, it’s (mostly) safe, people are polite, it’s rich, it’s free and the infrastructure works. In China you have none of that. Beijing reminds me a little of the post apocalyptic society in Akira or something. The city has risen from the ashes but the infrastructure isn’t quite there and you can see the scars of it’s troubled past if you look closely. Beijing is huge, sprawling and feels lawless. You have massive, futuristic screens on the side of buildings and hugely rich people throwing disgusting amounts of money around but the toilets don’t work properly and there are beggars on the street. The pollution is awful, the waiters are rude and people spit in the street.

But to be honest I found a lot of this liberating. I am scruffy, loud and politeness does not come easily to me so sometimes I feel like a perpetual smudge on Japan. After stressing out for 18 months over excessive politeness it’s kind of refreshing when service people just throw your ticket to the temple at you. Where Japan has its famous train etiquette, in China you see people talking loudly on their phones and laughing with their friends. I felt looked at in China – yes strangers do ask to take pictures of you – but I never felt judged for not living up to a high standard of behaviour. Which I do in Japan sometimes, to be honest.

My friend is studying abroad and she was the perfect host. She has ace local knowledge but China is still exciting enough for her to be able to put up with doing the tourist stuff with me. There’s a phrase in Japanese, 雨女, which means woman who brings the rain, which is literally my life. It’s the Welsh blood in me, don’t invite me to your picnic if you want to stay dry. Beijing is supposed to be sunny this time of year but I managed to bring the rain EVEN THERE and the weather was awful for the first few days. That didn’t stop us hitting the beautiful Summer Palace (the irony isn’t lost on me), before hiding from the rain by catching some Beijing Opera. We watched a play about Liang Hongyu, a woman soldier who fights side by side with her husband, obviously right up my street. It was a bit of a marathon – 3 hours long with no interval. I still enjoyed it though, despite being very stylised it managed to be incredibly human. The costumes and the fight scenes were stunning too.

opera cropped

The highlight of the trip was definitely the Great Wall which was a big one on the bucket list for me. We got together with a group of my friend’s course mates and rented a driver for the 2 hour drive, which is something students can afford to do in China because labour is cheap. Luckily my 雨女 powers had worn off by then and the weather was lovely – we even had some blossom!

2017-03-26 12.09.30-1

2017-03-27 17.43.15Other things I enjoyed were the Forbidden City, which I spent hours wandering around by myself. The Lama Temple as well was a beautiful and calming experience. We took a day to do something completely different and go the 798 Art District. The area is the site of state owned factories, including the eponymous Factory 798, that began to be taken over by artists in the early 2000s. The result these days is an area filled with galleries, street art, trendy cafes and boutiques; essentially stamping ground for Beijing’s hipsters. There’s also THE BEST GELATO IN THE WORLD, which is what I’m eating, ever so elegantly, here.
For the first few days my friend took me around the Beijing subway but by day 3 she thought she had skipped enough class and I was on my own. I actually really like the experience of navigating around a strange country by yourself, deciphering things when you don’t really know what’s going on feels like an adventure and figuring it out can give you a real sense of satisfaction. I enjoyed Chinese food although, yeah, maybe be careful about what you get from the street vendors. Gelato aside, Peking duck was my favourite!

Beijing is fascinating, exciting and I had a fab six days. At points I was enjoying it so much I began to regret choosing Japanese instead of Chinese. But knowing myself, I like fresh air and things functioning so Japan is probably a better Asian country for me to live. China seems a fantastic place to travel though and I hope to experience more of it soon.

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