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Letter from abroad: China

William Gardner on intercultural exchange in China, via The Great British Bake Off

My phone says it’s 4am, and the sun is definitely right over my head. It’s 37 degrees outside: the horizon a blurred band of heat haze and smog. The roads have ten lanes, yet the taxi driver treats his rear-view mirror like the evil queen in Snow White: glancing at it, but not really getting what it’s all about.

“Where are you going?”, he asks with a strong Beijing accent, through a mouthful of orange peel and cigarette smoke. I was already asking myself a different question: “Where the hell am I?”

The first couple of weeks were a bog of bureaucracy as I trudged around this new and impossibly vast city I had to call home. I collected countless tissue-paper thin documents, concluding with my ‘Residence Permit for Foreigner in the PRC’. This turned out to be nothing more than a big blue sticker in my passport—what was all the fuss about? With the ‘abroad’ half of my year away signed, sealed, and collected from the Aliens’ Exit and Entry Administration Office, all that was left was that other bit: the year.

Full of optimism, I started looking for a place to live. Walking into every new apartment I asked the same carefully pronounced questions: Do we have to pay for the gas ourselves? Is there internet access? Are kitchen utensils provided? Textbook.

“Yes…” a string of potential landlords answered, patiently, but nevertheless completely baffled. I soon found out our role-play material was aimed at students going to Taiwan in the ‘90s. Apparently, Beijing estate agents use a different set of jargon in 2017.

Outside of lessons, everyday chats with the family who run the local dumpling stand, old men drinking tea in bookshops, and total strangers in elevators are constant reminders of how friendly and interested people can be.

December came quickly, and I was having a rough day. My 9am class had been a waste of time and my Chinese seemed as stilted and laboured as ever. A bitter wind ripped through the frozen, grey city, pressing my uncomfortable pollution mask up into my eyes. I missed my friends and family, and the VPN wasn’t working—I couldn’t even look at the Facebook post my twin had tagged me in. I got in the elevator, grouchy, joining a little boy and his mother, who crouched down beside him.

“Look,” she said, “a foreign uncle!”

“Uncle!” He cried gleefully, staring at me.

I knelt down, “Look,” I said, “my Chinese friend!”

He did the ‘a foreigner just attempted to speak my language!’ double-take before bursting into a fit of giggles.

“You look like that… what’s he called? Harry Potter?”

She was right, I did need a haircut.

“He does!” He gasped.

And with that, my love for Beijing was back again.

Whilst visiting Mongolia for a week, the family I stayed with invited me to lunch. I accepted, albeit nervously, knowing that ‘vegetarian’ is a loosely-defined concept in China. However, an uncomfortable encounter with a ceremonial chicken foot was surpassed by drinking distinctly petrol-scented spirits with an old Mongolian man, and getting uncomfortably sozzled for a Tuesday lunchtime. But, it was all laughed away during an authentic and delicious meal, and I boarded the 15-hour train home in high spirits.

A few hours in, I was bored senseless and got my phone out to watch the episode of The Great British Bake Off that I had downloaded. After a few minutes, I realised the people around me were all craning their necks to see what it was all about. I unplugged my headphones and leant the small screen up against the window. My neighbours loved it, and bombarded me with questions. Unfortunately, my cake and baking related vocab was (and remains) rather limited. Describing Candice’s Danish pastry croque monsieur kites as “a bread, a sandwich really” made me feel rather incompetent.

I’ve travelled 5,000 miles, and whilst Oxford can feel more distant than just a plane ride away, I’ve rarely found myself lonely. I’ve arrived in a vibrant city full of friends and found places that I love.

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