Happy Christmas again


Beijing Life

Five weeks ago I decided to stop using brute force to kill the occasional roaches I would find sharing my kitchen and bedroom. So that day I went to the large household shop nearby, and bought some poison. ‘The Monarch of Genocide’ (announced in English as well as Chinese, a black cardboard box with a picture of little roachie on his back on its lid) comes in sachets, complete with small black plastic trays you can pour the powder into. Noticing that the pale yellow poison is identical in colour and texture to tofu milk powder (this could be of use to anyone in China seeking revenge), I emptied one small sachet into several trays. these I placed near the back of my fridge, near the gap behind my bed, behind my TV, and under a table in my bedroom, prepared to have to reapply the poison in a couple of weeks, as the instructions suggested. The next few days I could smell a slight but clearly potent odour. But I was not prepared for the deaths that followed. Every morning for about a week there were several small creatures on their backs on the floor, ready for the maid’s daily mop. I would pull back the fridge every couple of days and find more. During this time, I might spot a tough littl’un still alive. But after a few days the mornings brought no new dead roaches. Regretting my murderous actions, I have been hoping their descendants or cousins might come back – but none have been seen so far. Maybe I should take another look under the fridge, which must be the warmest place in my north-facing rooms, despite the turning-on of the central heating in mid-November.

At around the same time I appeared on Chinese national television not once but twice in the same day. The program is an English chat show, apparently watched by the millions (literally) of enthusiastic English students around the People’s Republic. Aware of the enormity of the occasion (our show’s audience must have been up there with Brookside’s and maybe even Coronation Street’s!), I wore my smartest clothes (as spotted at the three weddings I have been to this year, less the treacherous high heels). So I felt overdressed when I met the other two participants, English and American-Chinese undergraduates, who were in jeans. I had also put on as much make-up as I would ever wear, but found that it would not do, and before the filming I was plastered with orange and blue, so that I felt like a character in a Beijing opera. For half an hour we had a moderated discussion about what it is like to study Chinese, our knowledge or not of Chinese culture and customs. And then it was over. The show was aired 10 days later (CCTV1 in early afternoon, CCTV2 in early evening) and I could not believe how golf-bally my eyes are –but perhaps that impression merely reflects that I have now spent a considerable time in Asia! Unfortunately I could not wallow in my 15 minutes (it was that) of fame, as I was out-gloried that very day by a fellow student from my school, a tall handsome blond American male. On prime time TV (hundreds of millions of viewers?) he got to ask questions in English to some incredibly poor English speakers who were contesting to become TV presenters. That was hilarious. How he kept a straight face is beyond me - as they attempted to answer his simple questions; as they then said (in Chinese) to the judges and studio audience and cameras what they thought they had been asked and how they thought they had responded; and as the supposed English expert in the judges panel subsequently commented on their supposed level of English and awarded them ridiculously genero! us marks!

My study routine has been punctuated by visitors, too – first the arrival of Tim and Chris from Mongolia on their bicycles, as anticipated. When I requested leave from class to go and meet them as they finished their journey at Tiananmen Square, my teacher decided it was far too exciting a moment to miss out on. We had a little class trip, all going into the city on the minibus and subway together. We arrived in time, presented congratulatory flowers, and used our Chinese skills to persuade the wary policemen ever present in the square to actually allow Tim and Chris to bring their bikes onto the square. If they stood still for a moment they were swarmed. When their achievement was explained the respect and applause was unanimous. A local photographer who was on Tiananmen on the off-chance that something might happen, got them to pose decoratively in front of the entrance to the Forbidden City as the sun went down. Strangely, also on the square at that time was a Frenchman who had arrived in Beijing the evening before, also on a bicycle, also having started his journey in Europe. So he joined us for dinner back in the wilds of northern Beijing. The two adventurers stayed with me for a few days, and then hopped on a train to Hong Kong, from where they flew back to Australia. Boy did their sleeping bags stink (to top off a year sleeping out and bathing rarely in northern Asia, they had spent the night before arriving in Bejing literally sleeping in a ditch by a main highway, which cannot have helped). One night, after my friend Eliko and I took them for an acupressure foot massage (one of my favourite past-times here, and which I was hoping might have some deep-cleansing effects for Tim and Chris), we had a video showing of some of their trip in my room. I was most taken by the singing of a splinter sect of Russian Jehovah’s witnesses, deep in Siberia.

A few weeks later Amanda Roberts, a Canadian woman I had also met in Mongolia, came to Beijing for a few days holiday. Her visit was an excellent opportunity to re-visit some of the famous tourist spots. We had a lovely day (the last remotely warm day of autumn) with Eliko going to the ‘wild’ Great Wall at Huanghua Cheng, which I previously visited in early spring with Nicki and then again on my own on Good Friday. When the next round of visitors come perhaps the wall will be covered in snow. By then there may be the markings for a cable car, too, as the number of vendors had increased dramatically (from one in April) due to the popularity of Lonely Planet guidebooks. Also with Amanda, my appetite for Beijing Opera was whetted. We went to one of the shows put on for tourists. These have only a limited amount of the most caterwauling of the opera's sounds, the words being sung are put up on screens in Chinese and in English, you can see the performers putting on their makeup, and acrobatic feats are woven into the performance. So perhaps I am still unprepared for the extremes of the genuine article. But I loved the costumes and would like to go to a full-length real opera before I leave Beijing. But perhaps Michelle, Alexa and Pascal, who are arriving in mid-January, will not be quite so keen.....




School Trip to Shandong Province

After our first round of class tests on this course, we were rewarded with a school trip to Shandong province for five days at the start of November. This was a welcome jaunt – at least in theory. After an overnight train-ride and a large buffet breakfast (the first of an avalanche of more than ample meals) we climbed up a very large number of stone steps to the top of Mount Tai (Taishan), one of China's five holy Taoist mountains. Although my photos don’t show it, the day was unusually clear (a relative term I suppose: when we got to the top it was easy to see the thick layer of pollution that hangs over the ground below). On the way up we passed and chatted to a 60-strong snaking toil of workers lugging a huge amount of electric cable up the mountain!

The following day we went to Qufu, the town that China’s most famous thinker Confucius (Kong Zi) was born in. We visited the temple that was originally founded shortly after his death in the fifth century BC, and his descendants' palatial accommodation (several hundred years younger) just nearby. That evening full to bursting after another excessive meal (not that I can blame anyone but myself for eating so much) we were able to wander the streets of the pleasant town and see yet more of the weird things on skewers that the Chinese are happy to eat (have I mentioned that I have myself willingly (experimentally) eaten baby sparrow, chicken hearts, and tiny frogs, all on sticks, while in China this time? Once was enough.). But to my disappointment, there was no time built into the schedule in Qufu to visit the artificial wood (real trees, just manually planted rather than naturally seeded) that houses the graves of famous Kong family descendants. But that was because the morning had been devoted to visiting a ‘village’ – a fairly pointless and humiliating exercise from my point of view. Two busloads of foreign students brought in to look at (and photograph) family-less, and often unwell, old people in the public home they have ended up in. We then watched a little performance by some five year olds with rouge on their cheeks (more entertaining, and hopefully interesting for them as well as for us) and were taken (in our droves) into a ‘typical’ home. But we were given no information on the local economy, or agricultural methods, or…..

Suffice to say that by then (this was before Qufu) I was already feeling suffocated by the tour-group thing, which was being exacerbated by the megaphone-addicted greasy-haired and impatient group leader (I had got off on the wrong footing with him on the first morning, when I had asked him not to intersperse his rapid-fire Chinese commentary with Japanese translation, useful as that might have been for my Japanese fellow-students, as it was hard enough following along as it was….). I guess I will never travel mentally comfortably as a package tourist. Our final destination was Qingdao (a seven hour bus ride away – why we couldn’t have started the journey at 3 pm rather than 9 am, and so not wasted a day, I don’t know…), which I had already visited with my friend Kath for a weekend in June. Again, more time was spent milling and eating than doing anything useful. But I did enjoy breathing in the sea air, eating dried fish, and buying pearls at ridiculously low prices. And Laoshan, a mountain park with some pretty temples just outside Qingdao, has a lovely peaceful feel to it even when in a large tour group in mid-afternoon, so it must be superb to get there on your own early in the morning.



Thredbo Wedding

After the week in Shandong and Amanda’s visit, I was tucked up in Beijing swotting away with little alternative amusement except my new tiny transistor radio. Until last weekend, that is, when I went to Australia for the wedding of my friends Yvette and Andrew. The large amount of time and energy spent travelling from Beijing to Thredbo in the Snowy Mountains in southern New South Wales (via Hong Kong, Sydney and Canberra, by plane, bus, and minibus) was absolutely worth it. Lots of good conversations, a walk in the mountains with cool streams, grass and wild horses, a reminder of what clear air is really like, and the feeling of warm sunshine all contributed to the wonderful time. But the best bit of course was the wedding itself – which happened out in the open on top of a (low) mountain in the early summer evening. Not to mention the Balmain Bug pockets I had for my first course at the reception dinner back at the bottom of the mountain and the delicious rich chocolate cake that was the wedding cake. Nor Andrew’s efforts on the guitar for the first time in fifteen years…. And the final bonus of my trip was that I was able to meet my parents and some siblings for lunch in Sydney airport the next day before getting back on the plane to Beijing (this time via Singapore), they all being rather sleepy having just arrived from England, me being rather weary from my late night (I can no longer take it….). Anyway I breezed back into class at 8.05 on Monday morning, beating more than half my classmates who were only coming from dormitory buildings on campus!

By lunch I decided it was time to go home for a rest, however. Not least to get my strength up for Wednesday and Thursday this week, when we had the second round of ‘exams’. I did myself proud, in spite of (or perhaps because of) my break a long way from the books over the weekend. But our teachers coached us well in our revision, and the public exam on January 14th will be a lot harder. My biggest problem will be not knowing enough words to do well in the reading comprehension or in the ‘comprehensive’ section (where you have to pick the right word out of a list, all typically unfamiliar, or fill in the blanks with the correct character) which form half of the test, unfortunately (my scores in the listening and the grammar sections are ok usually). Though I still have a couple of weeks to cram vocabulary I suppose! I must admit my brain and body is ready to move onto the ‘next thing’, though I am already regretful of the absolutely certain fast rate at which I will lose the low level of literacy I have managed to achieve in Chinese. I have noble plans to continue studying on the side…. we’ll see.



Seasonal Activities

Between now and the public exam though is Christmas, my birthday, and New Year – the real start of the new millennium, a fact which seems to be far more widely acknowledged here among Asians than it has been among westerners. And what will I be doing to celebrate these events, in a land where not even December 25th (never mind my birthday) is a day off? Christmas Day I will not go to class. I plan to spend the day with Kath and some other westerners – ice-skating in the late morning, and then eating and drinking. She has just moved to Hong Kong and has come back to Beijing for the week with mince pies! They’ll be my first in three years I think. My birthday I am in typical fashion spreading over two days – with lunch in a local Chinese restaurant with my classmates, my two teachers, and a teacher from my former class, on Tuesday, and with dinner in a Thai restaurant in central Beijing on Wednesday evening with my friends here. I am going to celebrate the New Year at some black-tie do being held by the Australian Embassy at the Beijing Sheraton hotel – and Eliko and Maho, two of my classmates, are coming along too. It should be unlike anything I’ve been to before, that’s for sure, and undoubtedly a stark contrast to last year’s experience with Nikki and Kim, in Sinai!

Also this week, on Friday afternoon, we will have a ‘new year’s performance’ (there being no Christmas celebration here, we can’t have a Christmas Pantomime). Each of the ‘intensive course’ classes has fifteen minutes to do something up on stage, in Chinese. Our all-women class has written a short skit using the characters in our textbook, surely known and loved by all in the audience. I am playing ‘Bei La’ (Bella), an Italian woman fond of travel, who is known to her classmates affectionately as ‘the second Marco Polo’. She is always portrayed in our textbook illustrations as wearing tight tank-tops and high heels, with bouncing curls. So a quick visit to the hairdresser on campus on Friday lunchtime, for a ‘temp’ curling of my weighty locks may be in order.

When are you going to get the next news from me? Not for a while, probably. Maybe a quick one before I leave Beijing in a few weeks time, but after that not till March 2001, when I plan to get back to Kyrgyzstan to see my friends there for a little while. Planning the overland route I am going to take to get there is a good alternative to learning new Chinese vocabulary these days. I had originally thought I would go first to Guizhou, a province south of Sichuan. But the few weeks that I have between the departure of my friends in Shanghai and the expiry of my Chinese visa has meant that I am going to limit myself to just taking my time going due West, more or less – and so being able to stop and visit the places in Gansu, Qinghai and Xinjiang that I raced past in my rush to Beijing in March of this year. I will have plenty of opportunity to use my sleeping bag this time as it is going to be very cold, methinks.

Wishing you all a very happy Christmas and New Year. I will have no land address from a couple of weeks from now, so please keep sending me emails!

Lots of love



The tiles on this page are from a column in the Confucius temple in Qufu. |Click here to view the original photo|