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.

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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!

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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.

Kiyosumi Gardens: my oasis during my first few days in Tokyo

Gorgeous isowatari stepping stones in Kiyosumi Gardens
Gorgeous isowatari stepping stones in Kiyosumi Gardens

Three weeks ago today, on my second full day in Tokyo, I was jet-lagged, dislocated and very, very anxious.

I had been for a meeting with my work the previous day and I knew I had a lot to do to get set up in Japan – a bank account, a phone contract, health insurance, registration with my local district office – and that I needed to do these things to allow me to be able to work, which I needed to start doing quickly as funds were very low. The problem was that I couldn’t start any of this until we had a place to live. My boyfriend had found a flat that we really wanted but we were waiting for the agonisingly large amount of paperwork to clear. Have you ever been in a hotel on the other side of the world where you barely speak the language, waiting for an estate agent to process the paperwork which will allow your life to start, terrified that they are going to refuse you and you will have to start the process again? I don’t recommend it (who am I kidding – of course I do if it gets you where you want to go). Every day I would go to the hotel reception and say ippaku tomaritain desu ga… refusing to  what would happen if they said no and I was turfed out onto the street with my huge suitcases.
Unable to take sitting waiting for news about the flat any longer, I went for a walk, hoping to find a green space to clear my head. I wandered in almost a random direction in the August heat and humidity, found a park and experienced the sound of Japanese cicadas. They are loud. I can understand why so many haiku poets write about the noise – it’s intense.

I wandered through the park, came to some gates and realised I had accidentally come across one of the most beautiful traditional gardens in Tokyo. Kiyosumi Gardens most likely originally belonged to wealthy merchant Kinokukiya Bunzaemon during the Edo period. They were then owned by a feudal lord and the founder of Mitsubishi before being donated to the city of Tokyo and opened to the public in 1932. Today they are a beautifully kept oasis for anyone who needs to escape the intensity of Tokyo – and my frenzied mind certainly needed some calming.
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After paying a mere ¥150 to enter, you will come to an exquisite view of the pool and its three small islands. I loved walking across the isowatari – stepping stones set into the water. The wildlife is very tame so koi carp and adorable little turtles will come and say hello to your feet. A traditional resthouse appears to hover from the water, juxtaposed by the urban Tokyo skyline looming in the background which I think only enhances the view.

My first few days in Tokyo were intense – periods of overwhelming activity and anxiety-ridden waiting combined with moments filled with a sheer love of Japan. Walking around Kiyosumi Gardens I experienced the latter and I’ll always have a soft spot for the gardens as an elegant oasis in my frantic first days.

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Baggage has emotional baggage – on packing up my life to move to Japan

One of my most hated tasks is packing.

It has everything in a task that I despise. As a rule, I like tasks to be like a brick wall. Structured, logical, perhaps heavy, but divisible into smaller distinct parts. Packing, however, is like a massive, spongy mass that you can’t get a hold of. Chaotic and pulsating like some evil mutant mould. It is boring without being mindless. It is ambiguous – you can’t just do it, it’s full of tiny little micro-decisions. It’s very difficult to know how long it is going to take so it seems infinite – like mutant mould engulfing every section of your life.

When my university flatmate and I were undertaking this unpleasant task when moving out of our Leeds flat we would play “X or packing,” and we discovered that there is very little in the world that I would rather not do.

How I see packing. But more evil.
How I see packing. But more evil.

“Clean toilets or packing?”
“Clear up vomit or packing?”
“Have sex with David Cameron and never have to pack again?”

Understandably, the prospect of having to pack up my life to move to Japan for a year was making me vaguely nauseous with dread. The most difficult thing was the “emotional element.” The prospect of travelling across the world is an emotional roller coaster and brings out strange reactions in people. I have discovered that I am surprisingly emotionally attached to many of my clothes.
“Awww there’s the skirt with the rip on it from that time I went out to my University’s awful clubnight and had a stand off with a bush on the way home.
“I won’t be able to go on awful clubnights with my friends for a WHOLE YEAR and if I don’t take this skirt the memories will die!!”
It’s not just clothes that have emotional baggage either, bags too. I found it extremely difficult to part with, for instance, the bright yellow bag given to me by the girls I worked with in London, despite it being very tatty now. Baggage has emotional baggage, who would have thought.

Surprisingly, despite these obstacles, packing up for Japan wasn’t as traumatic as I thought it would be. Although the following may be overly simple for people who actually have their lives together, I thought I would share tips that helped me, for the benefit of my fellow packing-phobes.

1) Make a list. Actually write it properly. Do it well in advance and do it on the computer so you can add to it when you remember. Put it into sections, like clothes, toiletries and documents and include everything, even really obvious things like pants. Then it helped me to have a two tick system – tick once when you’ve got something out and put it in your ‘to take’ pile; and again when it’s actually in your suitcase.
2) Be as ruthless as you can. Especially with clothes. Instead of coming over misty eyed about some top you bought from Camden market aged 15 that never suited you, why not look at this move as an opportunity to shed some clutter? I combined my packing with a clear out and I was genuinely a little disgusted at the amount of clothes I own. It’s kind of nice now because I’ve taken only my absolute favourite and useful clothes, so it’s easier to decide what to wear in the morning. Granted, I need to stock up on some things but part of the fun is shopping in Tokyo – once payday comes at least! Also, you should save space in your suitcase for other things…

Photo credit: Best Western Plus
Photo credit: Best Western Plus

3) Don’t neglect: tools, things you won’t be able to get in the country you’re moving to and things you can’t buy there. Boyfriend and I have been thankful several times a day that I brought my penknife. Stocking up on Yorkshire Tea and Earl Grey was also a strong move.
4) Start early. Traditionally, I leave my end of term packing to some crazy 3am-the-day-I’m-leaving kind of time with excuses such as, “Well I need half of this stuff before I go anyway so there’s no point in starting when I have to brush my teeth six times before then!” or “Well it’s so horrible I may as well shove it into a few short stressful hours to minimise the duration of the pain.” That won’t cut it this time. The day you leave will be stressful and emotional enough, if you only start frantically shoving pants into your suitcase the night before, you may go over the edge. Refer to aforementioned list and start at least a few days before with stuff you definitely don’t need – I started with jumpers, which felt weird in August, but I am here for a year after all. It also helped me to plan what I was wearing on travel day to make sure that those clothes were put aside.

And remember the old mantra… passport, visa, phone, purse. Everything else can be worked out!