Our Foreign Correspondent

Freddie Green 3 October 2013

Beijing is like a mad scientist’s experiment to fuse East and West gone brilliantly wrong. At night, with smoke rising from tofu stalls and sterile lights twinkling on shop fronts, it’s like a scene from a film noir flick. Only a lowered trilby and a husky-voiced narrator could make it more so.

I have thrown myself into the steamy cauldron of Beijing life. And steamy is the right word, given the city’s catastrophic pollution. My apartment offers unparalleled views of carcinogenic clouds, punctured only by the occasional glittering skyscraper. Such modern monoliths tower over creaking hutongs (traditional Beijing buildings), my usual stop for a hearty breakfast. It’s a compelling paradox, and one that has become synonymous with this country.

And paradoxes pervade in China. This nation that invented the bureaucratic state has now been processing my passport for several long weeks. I imagine the officials in their office, making a card tower from foreigner passports, or perhaps producing an elegant mosaic with the various pastels of the X,Y and Z visa pages. It’s a traditionally insular country, ever prioritising its own language. Yet, in my coveted conversation exchanges, my language buddy’s English will comfortably stretch to topics like racial tensions in Xinjiang. I nod politely, misunderstand, and laugh at a painfully inappropriate moment. My “Summer Holiday” vocab counts for little here.

Yearning to escape such stress, in a fit of intrepidness rivaled only by my gap year and “self-discovery” stage, my friends and I visited the Inner Mongolia grasslands. A frosty night in a “Yurt” and an infertility-rendering ride on a Mongolian horse made for “unique” experiences. But this was a precious chance to escape Beijing. Another day, in an Avatar-esque cliché, I might have declared with a worldly smile that “I had found my home” and opted to stay there. Sadly, my appointment at university with textbook character Chang and his vocabulary-packed adventures beckoned the next day.   

So, a month in China has been as much a workout for my language skills as for my respiratory system. But it’s popped my cozy Cambridge bubble, and graciously welcomed me in all its filthy, chaotic glory.