Our Foreign Correspondent

Freddie Green 31 October 2013

As I bite into lobster claw, I’m unable to avoid scattering the shrapnel of shell across the table. It’s fine, I’ve grown used to embarrassing myself at meals in China. I’ve already sweated out approximately a quarter of my body weight thanks to the scorching peppers laced upon said lobster. Therefore, distributing seafood entrails across my Chinese friend’s new shirt can offer little more humiliation. My attempt to “integrate” is having mixed results.

But I have a friend, and that’s a good sign. For better or for worse, I’m trying to escape the bustling Western bars of Beijing, replete with affluent businessmen and music that would make Cindies look alternative and “low-key”. We’ve got things in common and we do get along. The only issue is, he’s got an appetite, and a pricey one too.

I’m being treated to meals on a regular basis, most of which would be wildly out of my normal price range. Returning the favour will, no doubt, be punishing for the student loan. Most recently, I was taken to a lavish downtown Beijing restaurant, where my friend insisted I watch our chosen fish’s untimely slaughtering, “to make sure it’s fresh”.  I’m yet to figure out how to happily spend time with him, that doesn’t involve crippling bills and fish executions.

And this is crucial because, once in Beijing, making good Chinese friends is not a straightforward affair. More than once, I’ve come to the sad realization that current friendships have been built on a mutual desire to learn the other’s language, but little else. And I’m not the only one like this. The world’s most populated country can be a lonely place.   

It’s a bizarre problem too. You’ll find a Subway store at the foot of the Great Wall and (until recently) a Macdonalds within the Forbidden City. Yet, while Western food giants and Chinese cultural icons stand side by side, their respective peoples do not. The expat community in Beijing lives happily, drunkenly isolated from the rest of the city. It’s a humming, cosmopolitan world, full of fake alcohol and fascinating characters. But it’s an addictive one too, and I’m trying to go cold turkey. 

For that, a few more fish might have to die along the way.