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Nancy’s Travel Diary

Saturday, 10 Feb 2007

Location: Beijing, China

MapOkay so this diary entry is well and truly overdue – the more I put off writing it the more daunting the task ahead seems but here goes anyway …

Well I’ve now been living in Beijing for nearly 5 months and I can say with certainty that is has been 5 months of laughs, tears, adventures and struggles!!! One can not experience China without going through a sea of emotions and experiences, that is what makes the country so appealing and interesting after all! Whatever my time in China has been thus far, I certainly have no regrets about coming! I have made some really good friends and have gained some invaluable teaching experience!

Since 2005 when I was last in Beijing, the city has changed drastically! The country in general is in the midst of a massive modernisaton drive and particularly with the Olympics fast approaching the country and its people have/are becoming more and more concerned with how China will be viewed by the international community. Their previous insular outlook is being discarded as rapidly as ‘modern’ China is being constructed! It’s quite unbelievable, whole streets are being torn down in a couple of days and huge office blocks/shopping malls/apartment complexes replacing them in a week! Already since I’ve arrived a tube line has been built and extended to where I live in Chongwenmen, a whole intricate network of Hutongs (the traditional Chinese alleys and quaint little houses) behind where I live have been pulled down, the fascia of the building I live in has been pulled off and replaced and the railway bridge next to my house has been pulled down, rebuilt and renovated about four times … if there is one thing you can say about China it’s that they can not only construct things incredibly quickly (and dangerously, they build with no protective gear whatsoever) but they also manage to make work for millions of people out of nothing!!! In any industry there are always about 10 people doing the work of one person. For example on a small scale you may go to the supermarket and there will be one person to show you where a product is, a second person to suggest the best one (always interesting when you have no idea what they are saying), a third person to tell you how much it is and give you a ticket to pay for it, a fourth person who is at a cashier usually at the other end of the supermarket, a fifth person (who is sometimes the third person again but is often another person) who takes your receipt as proof of payment and gives you the product, oh and usually on the way out there is another person who checks your receipt again and stamps it so as to check there was absolutely no way you managed to fool the other five sales assistants!!! I do like the fact that nearly everybody is working and there seems to be little unemployment in Beijing itself but it is quite ingenious the way the Chinese manage to make what would be one job in London stretch to the job of ten people … and of course this makes doing anything in Beijing pretty frustrating and always an ordeal!!!

Another side effect of this huge modernisation drive is that oftentimes it feels as though you live on one huge construction sight. Everywhere around you things are being pulled down, smashed to pieces and ripped from the foundations. In fact as I write this diary entry my bedroom door is being taken off at the hinges and a newer (in my mind uglier) one that can be opened electronically is being put in place of the reasonably good door that stood there when I left for work this morning!!! If there’s one thing Beijing’s not, it’s quiet!!! But this is not necessarily a negative thing about the city. Beijing has a certain vibrancy about it that makes it an exciting place and you definitely feel that you are in China at an important juncture in its history. These important historical changes can be detected perhaps most aptly by its changing architecture. On nearly every Beijing street you will see magnificent traditional Chinese buildings left over from the days of the Ming and Qing dynasties, mixed with huge, concrete government buildings from the days of Mao. These are now interspersed with steel and glass monstrosities being erected in an attempt to show the world that China too can be a genuine contender in the modern world. For tourists and ex-pats alike this is sometimes a sad sight and you will hear many Westerners moaning about how it is just not the same China it was 5 or 10 years ago (after all we want to see the quaint little China we saw in history books, right???) but to the Chinese these monumental steps towards being a modern nation are not only essential for China to take but also ones that most Chinese are ready and excited about taking – and who are we to judge, right?

I suppose another important step China has taken towards becoming a force to be reckoned with within the international community is to encourage as many Chinese citizens as possible to learn English! This is a step that certainly Beijingers take quite seriously. Nearly every Beijing taxi driver now has a book with key English phrases in his/her glove compartment (the fact that they have no clue what to do with it or what any of it means is beside the point!!!), Chinese and English sign posts are being erected everywhere around the city and the National History Museum now has some half-decent English translations (which I was personally pleased to discover after my last trip, when I was highly disappointed to find a whole, incredibly interesting history explained only in Chinese characters). Don’t be fooled though, the fact that there has been a concerted effort by the government to encourage people to learn English does not mean that most Beijingers’ English extends beyond “hello”, which they often shout at you as you walk, cycle or drive past them. All it means is that taxi rides can now be quite amusing as you comically and always theatrically go through the “Essential Taxi English” guide with you driver and that whenever you meet any Chinese people they all want you to be their new English teacher … I have about 2 dozen numbers of random Chinese people I have met and often drunkenly agreed “I teach you English, you teach me Chinese, yes?” (oh and just as a side point, it seems to be a fact that becoming a TEFL teacher abroad means that your English actually becomes worse and you revert to speaking like your students or what is fondly named in China as ‘Chinglish’).
I suppose this is where I should talk about life as a lowly TEFL teacher in China but I have managed to go off on a rant about China’s changing architecture for about two days and us poor (he he) TEFL teachers are just about to embark on a much needed trip out of China and are going to the Philippines so I will leave you with this for now and I will finish the rest of my diary when I return and I promise to actually write about something that might actually be of interest to you all.

Bye Bye xxx