Guest Post: A Beginners Guide to China (by Juliette Cule)

Given Todd’s Blog provided me with the majority of my China information before heading there myself, I thought it would be fitting to close my first China experience with a guest post. And so I harassed him, and he conceded, and here we are! As he has so eloquently described our activities over this amazing month I thought I would go back to basics. China taught me a lot of lessons, so here are my top five Things I Learnt in China…

Be unprepared!

It may sound counter-intuitive, but I think the fact I was so naïve and had no idea what to expect was very helpful. I’m not convinced you can ever be prepared for China, but going with only the knowledge that ‘the language is hard, the food is good’ actually worked remarkably well. Friends recommended reading all sorts of books, practising the language, learning the culture, but I’m sort of glad that I didn’t. Everything and every day in China offered so many surprises and new things. As soon as we landed in Shanghai we were marvelling at the women tottering around in 5 inch heels – at the airport! Very different to us in our tracksuit bottoms recovering from a 10 hour flight. In fact, the Chinese fashion was something that fascinated the girls for the whole trip – what Cat described as ‘both very futuristic and very 80s’. It was hard to say exactly why their dress sense was so different, but it was somehow uniquely Chinese. Having travelled only in Europe, America and Australia, the concept of a country that only opened its doors relatively recently was bizarre, and impossible to stop comparing and contrasting ‘us and them’. The many similarities made me happy to be human and the diverse range of people we met, each with their own stories and quirks, made me excited to meet as many other humans as humanely possible. Go with no expectations, because China will exceed them.

Be always hungry…

This was the first half of my motto in China, and it meant that even when I was stuffed full there was nothing I wouldn’t try. It seems funny now that on the first night me and Cat looked on in horror/awe as Todd nibbled a duck’s head, when by the end we were loving a chicken heart stew and snacking merrily on chicken’s feet. Perhaps one thing to practise before you go is chopsticks – our first meal in China, a bowl of beef noodles (amazing) resulted in Bethan being openly stared and giggled at whilst she contended with her chopsticks – with her left hand at that! Very amusing for all involved (expect perhaps a hungry Beth, poor gal).

China definitely altered my view of food. In China it goes so much beyond fulfilling your basic needs – arguably too far, given the amount of food provided for us. Our entire summer camp was a whirlwind of the most elaborate and social meals I’ve ever had! The food itself spanned a range of unfamiliar flavours, and the Chinese also have an appreciation of texture that I haven’t encountered before. One of my proudest moments was simply eating a prawn without taking the shell off – something you probably wouldn’t consider doing in the UK, but for my Chinese friends the contrast of crunchy shell and soft meat was an important part of the experience. Not sure I’ll be sticking with that one though. Learning to spit out bones and crunch on feet felt kind of brutal, but also more like real food – I can see why the older Chinese find the concept of a slab of meat as disgusting as we find offal. The food in China looked like food and most of what we ate seemed far less processed than the junk I survived off at uni. I say most – the kids offered us various things that barely resembled food, and the girls ate some bizarre sweetcorn flavoured sweets. Whatever you say about Chinese food, they certainly are adventurous and inventive, which makes eating ridiculously fun and turns every meal into an experience.

As important as the food itself is the social side of Chinese eating – the famous hot and noisy atmosphere. Sitting at a round table with new friends to share new food is surely one of the best things in the world – whether it’s at a five star hotel, or in what looks like someone’s front room. Rather than enviously eyeing up someone else’s dish, you can spend the whole meal chatting about what to try and what to avoid (the root!!) and keeping an eye out for your or someone else’s favourite. I got very into the concept of putting food in people’s bowls, and Cat embraced the idea of topping up other people’s drinks, especially when she got hold of her own Mou Tai bottle – thanks for that! The constant toasting needs to spread to England. One of the first words we learnt was ‘gambei!’ (down it!) and I think it was the most used – it was the foundation of a lot of obscure anglo-Chinese relationships. I think even if you went to China nervous of the food and the chopsticks, you would quickly fall in love with it. I know I did.

…and never tired.

The second half of my motto was disputed by Todd, especially with its counterpart – sleep when you’re dead! I realise it’s somewhat unviable, but being never tired introduced Cat and I to our proudest invention – dumpling nights (we just really like dumplings). They began with the Olympics opening night – famously the best night of our lives. I’ll try and shed a little light on what Todd missed out on. This being our first time outside of the hotel on our own, we didn’t stray too far. The feeling of being alone in a completely alien environment, with this overwhelming language barrier is amazing. We headed to a small tent 10 metres away selling street food and beer. After enjoying our celebrity style welcome – lots of giggles and shy smiles and roaring laughter when we spoke some broken Chinese, we sat down with our beers. Sitting in this tent, chatting to a Chinese man in some sort of nonsensical combination of Chinese, English, body language and lots of ‘cheers’ was just the start of an increasingly surreal series of adventures. The feeling of no one in the world knowing where we were (OK, Todd could have made an educated guess but he was asleep!) in this random city in China (only a million inhabitants) is something that everyone should experience at least once. It resulted in a lot of excited conversations about how big the world was and how much of it we were going to see, the Chinese man nodding along exuberantly all the while. As for our safety – whilst I’m certainly not dispensing any advice, there was not one point where our ‘always say yes’ policy let us down. Maybe my favourite night involved meeting the dancers of a show we saw earlier that day and teaching them card games with very little shared language – luckily our knowledge of Chinese extended to jack, queen and king. After a lot of laughter and excitement from all parts, the dancers motioned that they were going to sleep and called over a friend who, it turned out, spoke reasonable English – could have been helpful during the cards, but never mind. He told us he owns a bar and he wanted to invite us for a whisky. After a small amount of muttering we decided we could always run away (smart girls, us) and we had to see it. Which was definitely the right decision – we entered a small, candlelit bar on the river with about 5 other young Chinese people. They all smiled at us and motioned for us to sit with them, whilst their friend started playing his acoustic guitar and singing beautiful Chinese songs. Luckily, instead of whiskey we were given a bottle of red wine – red wine! Heaven. I had to pinch myself at how lucky we were – no one knew where we were, but where we were was incredible. Cat and I had some amazing experiences this way on top of everything organised in the month, and after Bethan joined us for our final dumpling night I think she would also recommend the approach of never being tired and always, always saying yes!

Learn the language!

I certainly didn’t imagine that I’d learn any Chinese words beyond please and thank you, let alone want to continue learning it at home. We were very fortunate to be surrounded by English speakers (of various abilities!) and so day to day tasks were never too difficult, but the language was still one of the most fascinating parts of the trips. I’m used to being able to get by in a few languages, as lots of us Europeans are. To be starting completely from scratch was an amazing and exciting experience. From the first time we recognised a Chinese word or symbol to learning to haggle (very badly and with a lot of encouragement), the language is simultaneously one of the most engaging and mysterious elements of Chinese culture. It has to be said, Todd was invaluable in his patience and his enthusiasm, especially as he had to endure us regularly insisting he was fluent to most Chinese people we met.

Our time in China and particularly the teaching taught me a lot about communication. I learnt that people can communicate on a whole variety of levels of which language is but one. On the first day of the camp the prospect of teaching twelve cute but very blank faces random topics such as ‘English hobbies’ and ‘the internet’ was so daunting that I just sort of spoke English at them and looked hopeful , then troubled, then despairing. With the encouragement of my translator Yolanda – ‘you are boring, the kids are bored, and they do not understand’ – I was forced to consider other ways to get my message across. Cue a whole lot of dancing, drawing, miming, and some very unconvincing acting from Yolanda and I. The combination of British reserve and Chinese shyness started off as a massive barrier to our communicating, but as the kids and I learnt to put the fear aside in favour of being able to converse some genuinely magical (ok, not genuinely magical) and often hilarious conversations happened. As for Yolanda, once I got used to the incredibly straightforward way of speaking in China I fell in love with her directness and mostly her amazing giggle. I don’t know if I’m overly sentimental (although I’m not the one who cried saying goodbye to the kids) but I was amazed at the friendships we formed and the conversations we had with everyone we met, despite initially being worlds apart. I hope that when I return I can do as the Chinese do with any amount of English and proudly show off my Mandarin at every chance.

Have the means to return.

Two weeks after touching down on British soil, Cat, Todd and I reunited for a drink and a catch-up. Panicking about how much I missed China, I asked Todd how he coped when he got home the first time. His response was both reassuring and deeply distressing – ‘I booked a flight back the next week’. China is definitely addictive…just look at this blog! It was a truly amazing experience with truly amazing people. I feel very lucky to have seen a snapshot of China, and ridiculously excited to get started exploring more of this incredible country. I think the most important thing I’ve learnt from visiting China (aside from the lyrics to ‘Yesterday Once More’) is that if you ever have the opportunity to go, then always say yes.


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