Returning to Guangzhou

So it’s come round to that dreaded time of year again when my life gets transplanted to Oxford, meaning that all my worldly possessions have to be sifted through and hauled into boxes. One nice side-effect of this process, however, is rediscovering useful stuff which I had previously buried into some obscure folder I never use in that dangerous “this is a nice, safe place” state of mind. This time round, I unearthed some scraps of paper which I had scrawled travel notes on while in Guangzhou, Kaiping and Macau (from my recent summer trip). Here goes:


I left Xiamen last night, and in true environmentally-unfriendly style, I took the hour and a half’s flight to Guangzhou, situated in the far south of China, a stone’s throw from Hong Kong. On the flight I was accosted by a 11-year-old boy, who took me in as his big brother, teaching me a few words in Cantonese (the local dialect there – Mandarin is spoken as well, but the locals’ native tongue is Cantonese, very different) – but I can’t remember the majority of what he taught me. He also emotionally blackmailed me into recording a video of me and him on arrival in Guangzhou airport, possibly the most embarrassing thing I’ve done in a while. It consisted of the two of us making ‘peace’ signs to the camera, him saying “we are super friends” and then giving me a high-five – it was just too hard to say no! Another highlight on the timeline of our relationship was at the baggage reclaim, when he pointed enthusiastically and shouted “Oh look James, it’s another foreigner, looks like he’s from India”. We parted company on good terms, despite the embarrassment.

ANYWAY. Impressions of Guangzhou: I’ve been trying to think of this all afternoon, but haven’t come to any conclusion yet. My day started in the ultra-modern area of Tianhe and the New Guangdong Provincial Museum, which despite initial disappointment, ended up to be really good in its exhibitions of the history and nature of Guangdong. The area around the museum was packed with glistening skyscrapers, but the Martyrs’ Memorial Park area felt grubbier and slightly more characterful. The area around the Guangxiao Temple and the Mosque Dedicated to the Prophet, even more so. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day was the Cathedral of the Sacré-Coeur – a Western-style old building nestled among typical, grey, dreary and oh-so-Chinese residential tower blocks, with clothes drying out the windows.

Then, an even more unexpected appearance: a boisterous and passionate sermon being delivered to a room full of African expats. I was in China, yet had flashbacks to a trip to Zambia I made when I was younger. Down an alleyway I wandered through a bustling market street with chickens crammed up in cases and being snatched up for the slaughter, old ladies scrubbing clothes in the streets and an army of bicycles fighting against the surge of pedestrians. The Pearl River waterfront is hardly Victoria Harbour or South Bank; I dare say that neither will Guangzhou as a whole be likely to win any aesthetic prizes anytime soon. Finish off the evening with a stroll through a busy fishery/market thing and a bowl of noodles served by some Henan people (who noted that I apparently look like I come from Xinjiang (Central Asia)?!)

So a pretty mixed bag from GZ. Definitely got its empire of glitzy glass edifices, historical substance, cosmopolitan culture and buzzing market life. Yet none of these impressions have proved to be strong enough to define the city for me. Maybe that’s a good thing (everyone loves vibrancy and variety), maybe it’s bad. Either way, despite only exposing myself to a day of its sweaty and stifling smog, it doesn’t ooze that more-ish quality that other cities can boast.

I’ll come back if I have to.

P.S. I’m mourning the death of my Lonely Planet paper cover, which has been in shreds for a few weeks now.

To be continued…

5 Things I Miss About China

Dodgy “Chinglish” translations should also really be on this list…

It’s more than a month since I arrived back to the UK from Beijing, and in the typical fashion of a freshly-returned, well-travelled and irritatingly nostalgic bore (if you hate reading solipsistic indulgence, don’t read on), I’ve been musing over what I miss the most about expat life in China. I could also say that these are aspects of China which I’ll be happy to be reacquainted with if (hopefully, when) I return at some point in the future, in whatever capacity. These are just five things which I thought of really quickly off the top of my head, I suppose in some sort of order of how much my life is simply a misery without them.


5.        TRANSPORT.

Some love two-day-long train journeys, or the cities’ occasionally pungent subways, or the buses, and some loathe them. I had some really memorable nice train journeys (such as the 35-hour train to Xinjiang in the far west), although I also (as I imagine any commuter would say) found the twice-weekly subway journey to my English teaching job mind-numbingly dull. Yet the ease and cheap price at which you can get around both Beijing and China makes a laughing stock of the UK. I’ve never experienced a line closure, strike or delays in transport anywhere in China. A single-use London Underground ticket costs about £4. In Beijing, it’s 20p. That’s all I’m saying.


This is probably the most unexpected one on here, but striking up a conversation with a total stranger (or having one started for you) is by no means uncommon, especially if they somehow pick up that you can speak a bit of Chinese. They can strike at inconvenient or stressful times (such as one example of comparing tuition fees in China and the UK while we were trying to haul heavy bags through a bus station), which sometimes makes you want to strike back with a good kick, but it’s all part of the experience and, most of all, 9 times out of 10 it’s out of well-intentioned curiosity and interest for your life.

(A side note on conversations – and something I’ll also miss – is being able to talk about people in English in crowded places on the assumption that they probably won’t understand. I wouldn’t recommend this 100% of the time, though, after a few embarrassing experiences.)

3.         PRICES.

It’s not as cheap as it used to be, and in certain places it’s all too easy to get ripped off (*cough cough the Silk Market*), but everything is generally cheaper in China than in the UK. Transport (as I’ve already mentioned), food (as I’m about to mention) and services are all significantly cheaper than at home, which left us more money to go on trips exploring the China outside of Beijing.


This really would have been at number 1 if it wasn’t soon to be taken down because of some strategic business reason. Basically I downloaded a huge amount of music (with any artist or album already released for a few months available), for free and legally. I still have no idea how the whole funding/copyright issue worked. If it were still around, then it would probably encourage me to become one of the first people ever wanting a VPN to China rather than out of China (which is what many Chinese-based expats do to circumvent Internet censorship and access Facebook, YouTube etc.).

1.         FOOD.

Obviously this is the main reason I’ll come back to China. If the bland anglicised nonsense that we Brits buy at the local takeaway is good, then the real thing is mind-blowing – it’s a huge variety of food cooked in all sorts of ways and in all sorts of sauces, from filled steamed buns (包子baozi) and dumplings (饺子jiaozi) and big oily crepe-like things called 煎饼jianbing to fried noodles and spicy home-style tofu. There are the chickens’ feet as well, for the real adventurous types. Some people are put off Chinese food when they come to China (and fair enough, because it’s really different), but I honestly can’t say how good the real thing is. The best thing of all – we ate out in restaurants pretty much daily, and it rarely crept above £2 per head.


It’s great being back in the UK now for lots of different reasons, although I’m finding it hard readjusting to being extorted on the trains, not having my blonde hair scrutinised and fondled by strangers, the moral dilemma of “do I or do I not pay for music”, and Marco Polo’s bastardisation of noodles. It’s nice to know that all these things will be reversed when I go back, hopefully sometime soon.

The Return…

So yeah, the blogging thing didn’t end up working for much longer after about May, although it had a fair run.

I did a whole load of getting around China in July and August (Sichuan with my sister who came over from the UK, Nanjing, Huangshan, Hangzhou, Mount Sanqing (especially awesome!), Wuyishan (meh), Quanzhou, Xiamen, Guangzhou, Kaiping, Macau, HK – so yeah, quite a bit). Memorable experiences:

  • Pandas in the Panda Research Base near Chengdu in Sichuan (standard, really)
  • 4 hours of strenuous steps up Huangshan, freezing camping overnight on the top, misty but spectacular sunrise, crowds, 8 hours of up and down to the bottom of mountain
  • Mount Sanqing, camping without a pillow but with a yowling cat outside keeping us awake all night, freezing, but waking up at 4am to see the sunrise, above the clouds, spectacularly blue skies and an awe-inspiring walk along a stone pathway clinging onto a completely vertical cliff face. Pretty much the most memorable experience of China.
  • The Guangzhou smog and heat
  • Days/nights out in Hong Kong, followed by kicking back on the beaches with white sand and clear water, as well as a day hiking the MacLehose Trail to sections of isolated coastline.

So yeah, this year has overall been a great experience and, even though I feel that it’s all been a whirlwind of travelling, there’s so much more to see and do in China – and I’m determined to go back. Most of all, the south west (the typical “Chinese” scenery of Yangshuo, and especially Yunnan province). Further delving into Xinjiang (in the north west) and, although currently difficult, Tibet are on the list as well.

The situation with me now is that I’m preparing to head back to Oxford in about two weeks while currently running a marathon trying to catch up with the work that I should have done in China instead of exploring the country. I’m going to carry on posting China-related stuff, fingers crossed.

“Cut Off the Foreign Snake Heads”

First, take a look at this video which has recently been making waves across the Chinese blogosphere: In short, the video depicts a British man, wandering around drunk on a busy street at night, who after allegedly attempting to rape a Chinese woman is launched upon, beaten unconscious and kicked by some passers-by. The police come and the British man is taken away. He is most likely to be charged and deported back to Britain.

Second, read this translation of a comment made by journalist Yang Rui, the host of the Dialogue television programme on the Chinese state broadcaster’s English language channel, CCTV9:

“The Public Security Bureau wants to clean out the foreign trash: To arrest foreign hoodlums and protect innocent girls, they need to concentrate on the disaster zones in [student district] Wudaokou and [popular drinking district] Sanlitun. Cut off the foreign snake heads. People who can’t find jobs in the U.S. and Europe come to China to grab our money, engage in human trafficking and spread deceitful lies to encourage emigration. Foreign spies seek out Chinese girls to mask their espionage and pretend to be tourists while compiling maps and GPS data for Japan, Korea and the West. We kicked out that foreign bitch and closed Al-Jazeera’s Beijing bureau. We should shut up those who demonize China and send them packing.”

Yang’s commentary was made via his Weibo account (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter), which can be found here (in Chinese), if you’re interested:

I reacted to each of these examples with contempt. The video of the British hooligan is sadly an example of what a small but considerable group of foreigners get up to when overseas, not just in Beijing, but also in other countries around the world. His actions are inexcusable and retribution for his actions are something which I believe no-one would disagree with. The quotation made by Yang Rui is sadly an example of how a small but considerable group of die-hard nationalists can react to foreigners’ inappropriate behaviour by exerting prejudice against all foreigners and encouraging xenophobia, rallying the troops to carry out an epic crusade against the wicked aggressors and to purge them from the land.

It’s like we’re back in the 19th century, the time of the Opium Wars, the Sino-Japanese War, gross concessions made by China to foreign powers, and what some Chinese refer to as the “century of humiliation”. When foreigners commit atrocities in someone else’s country, this is the dynamic which arises. The actions of certain individuals are suddenly taken by influential people and portrayed as some evil agenda of whatever group they tend to come from, or rather any outsider. “Foreign snakes”, “foreign trash” and “that foreign bitch” draws no distinction between anyone who is not Chinese and, as such, Yang’s message seems to coalesce all foreigners into one entity, tarnishing them with the same brush without any understanding. Foreigners carrying out crimes, human trafficking and espionage in China may exist, and the problem needs to be addressed, yet I’m certainly none of those, and neither is anyone I know. What is most worrying, though, is how a public figure, under the control of the state broadcaster, can be allowed to make such inflammatory comments to incite prejudice, and probably not face losing his job.

Consider also that recently the PSB has, following the arrest of the British man, announced a clampdown on the illegal residence of foreigners in the Chinese capital. The China Daily published under the headline “Beijing to clamp down on illegal aliens” that foreigners who illegally enter, reside or work in Beijing will be subject to new inspections and that the public will be mobilised to report such illegal aliens: Fair enough, foreigners need to play by the rules, and so should everyone. What’s interesting though, is that this is a knee-jerk reaction to the incident with the British man; and that’s not me implying that, the incident is mentioned explicitly in the report. Furthermore an individual’s nationality, their ability to provide correct papers and their potential to commit crime are all suggested to be intertwined factors.

The PSB announcement is reasonable, yet I don’t feel the same about the words of Yang Rui. The above quotation is through translation and, of course, this is not especially loyal to the cultural mindset behind his words, yet the generalisation and demonization of foreigners is something I feel is wrong, whatever language it is expressed through.

This is no criticism of China. Neither is it a criticism of the Beijing authorities’ (frankly understandable) stance on dealing with unruly foreigners. Yet let the words of Yang Rui be taken as a case-study on how vehement nationalists from whatever nation can use generalising as a weapon against a perceived enemy who is, in the vast majority of cases, very capable of behaving himself.

The Let’s-Embarrass-the-Foreigners Competition

The extracurricular life at Peking University could rightfully be described as ‘dead’ or at least ‘uninteresting’. However, as the International Office’s conscience may be weighing heavy for failing to include the international students in any sort of campus social scene, all the classes of foreigners are invited to take part in the ominously-named “Foreign Students Performance Competition”. It was probably a covert excuse that the staff had concocted to make the silly foreigners prance about on stage making fools of themselves behind the veil of “cultural interchange” and improvement of our language skills. It all has to take place in Chinese of course (because the judges were our Chinese teachers), but it promised a good laugh nonetheless.

Since our Oxford group has been pretty much self-contained since the beginning of the year (with only fleeting contact with any other souls in the building where our classes are held), this was an opportunity to embrace with open arms – be it an opportunity for social acceptance, or rather an opportunity for social suicide. Many of the classes were inevitably going to do boring things – i.e. “comedy” sketches that invariably just weren’t going to be funny. We didn’t like to slam the competition before we had seen it, yet we were determined to stand out. What better way than to work on two things that the Chinese judges could relate to: Mulan and Justin Bieber.

After spending a few days obtaining the music from the Internet, choreographing the dance routine and getting our heads around the lyrics, we prepared to take to the stage. In the hall sat all the foreign students, many of whom were Korean, clad in silly costumes (we played it safe with red t-shirts, black trousers and one of us wearing a wig), and chattering away throughout all the performances. They of course had a light-hearted approach to this whole spectacle, contrasting from the intense concentration on the faces of the dozen-or-so judges lined up at the front.

The majority of the performances were sketches, some of which were fairly funny, in face. It also turned out that we were not the only ones to have thought of Mulan, yet Justin Bieber was a safe bet for being unique. We had downloaded Jackie Chan’s Mandarin rendition of I’ll Make a Man out of You and a karaoke version of Baby, and were armed to the teeth with flimsy paper shields (of course with emergency lyrics scrawled on the back). We were last up. The choreography on the Mulan song comprised of lots of jumping and kicking, and Bieber gave way to lots of cheesy “oooh”s, an altered version of Ludacris’ rap, two girls being lifted on to guy’s shoulders and phrases to the general meaning of “Beijing, I love you, you’re my home, I’ll cry so much and I’ll miss you when I’m gone”. For many of us, quite some irony, here.

We got a nice big cheer and round of applause at the end and eventually ended up ranking in second place, although the whole thing was pretty much an everyone’s-a-winner situation. It was all great fun, despite the fact that Baby is stubbornly remaining in my head and refuses to budge. It wasn’t too harsh a social suicide, yet I fear that among the other foreign students, I’ll forever be remembered as the one who looked like a bit of a prat waving his arms around in the air singing “Beijing, Beijing, oooh, Beijing, Beijing, oooh”. And if the organisers wanted to laugh at foreigners, they certainly got what they were looking for.

If you have me on Facebook, it’s already been let loose on there.

Should You Teach Your Kids Chinese?


As promised, it’s been a fair while since I’ve put anything up here, thanks to the fact that, over the past month, visitors have been flooding through our doors and we have been busy taking them around Beijing, as well as heading to Shanghai and Suzhou. I’ll write up something about Shanghai / Suzhou soon (hopefully!), but I’d like this post to be about an article which a friend linked me to.

The article (which you can find here: was published in the Economist’s More Intelligent Life section, and to briefly summarise its argument, the Chinese language is not close to becoming an “international” language because of one aspect: the writing system. Therefore, the fact that Westerners increasingly want to open themselves up to Chinese speakers by learning to speak their language is, according to the writer, in vain, as English will remain the world’s most dominant language for the foreseeable future. As a student of the Chinese language, it got me thinking about how internationally useful my degree will be in the coming decades, and though I completely agree with the writer’s statement about how Chinese is not close to overtaking English, I think there are a good few more factors to this.

I think that a huge barrier against Chinese becoming an international language is surely that it is contained to one country. In contrast, there is an “English-speaking world”, and English has its roots firmly buried in numerous influential countries, and therefore spreads to countries with lesser influence. While Chinese are expanding their influence around the world, as we always hear about in Africa, Southeast Asia and Central Asia, their cultural or linguistic influence does not follow. Why? Because many of these countries already have de facto “second languages” due to historical reasons – Central Asia has Russian, and Africa has English and French. Why would a Zambian miner have to learn Chinese to interact with the mine’s new owner when his country’s main operational language is English? The languages of British, French and Spanish colonists were able to catch on in the past, but the world has moved past that stage now, and the Chinese (or anyone else, for that matter) will be unable to roll up and insist on establishing their language as supreme. In this way, the need to learn English and other truly world languages is unwavering.

Returning to China itself, I think that foreigners would find it difficult to “break into” China and appreciate it with the same ease that anybody could, for example, settle in to Europe or America. There are countless aspects about China which could potentially put off foreigners from wanting to work or live in China: everything from people’s unspoken codes and customs and detailed cultural references, to the political system, lack of civil liberties and human rights record, right down to the urban problems of cities like Beijing (for example air pollution, traffic and overcrowding). Don’t get me wrong, living in Beijing is great, but ask the man on the street to choose between American/European cities and Beijing, and there is no competition. China cannot attract foreigners, such as worldwide academics or long-term business people, with the same pull that America or Europe can command. Not solely because the language is difficult, but also because China doesn’t have a highly “liveable” reputation overseas. If that can change (which is itself dependent on a host of other factors), then maybe the true shift to the east can begin, but if China cannot exert itself favourably in the minds of foreigners, I don’t think that Chinese is going to become a truly “international language” to rival English.

In terms of the Chinese language in particular, I think the tones are also particularly off-putting. In a tonal language like Chinese, the pitch of your voice when pronouncing a certain sound can alter the meaning, and represent a different character. There are four tones in Chinese, and if you say the incorrect tone to a Chinese speaker, chances are that they will have difficulty understanding. It’s quite hard work for a new learner to be confronted by not only the characters, new sounds and new concepts, but also the tones. In this respect, European languages and their absence of tones are definitely a more appealing option for prospective language-learners.

A side point I also wanted to mention is how I slightly disagree that if Chinese switches to use an alphabet, then the world will immediately be able to learn Chinese. The reason I disagree with this is that I personally find the character system to make it easier to memorise and retain vocabulary. For me, at least, the visual element of a Chinese character creates a link between the concept (i.e. the thing I want to say) and its pronunciation. Part of this is because in many characters, there are actually visual particles which act as a prompt for the pronunciation. Sounds complicated, but take the following as an example.

Note how these two characters look incredibly similar.

  • (pronounced – meaning “wave” or “ripple”)
  • (also pronounced , but this time meaning “spinach”).

They are both pronounced identically, but the 艹component on the top of the second character distinguishes the meaning from the first. 艹 is one of many “radicals” (these building block components, here counting for semantic value), which in this case means “grass”, and sometimes by extension, “plant”. And then you see that the meaning is “spinach” (thanks to the “plant” meaning of 艹), it’s pronounced , and it all makes sense. It’s also interesting that the three dots on the left-hand side of the first (and thus the second as well) is the “water” radical, which helps lend the first character’s meaning of “wave”, or “ripple”. It takes a while to get into the rhythm of learning and understanding characters this way, and I’m not denying that learning characters is a hell of a lot of work, but once you’re there, the process is sped up significantly and the target of 6,000 characters is not as much of a mammoth task as it initially seems.

The reason I went through all of this is to illustrate that if you’re just presented with , you’re presented with a huge amount of possible meanings (which are now represented by 波, 菠, 玻, 播, 拨, 剥, 饽 and others). While the character system certainly isn’t without its flaws, it provides a distinction between words which would otherwise just be represented by Roman alphabet letters. Therefore without Chinese characters, so many words which are homophones but also different concepts would merge, and the whole thing would be a lot more confusing.

I’ve just noticed what a lengthy essay I seem to have written, so I’ll keep it short. There are a few points which I think will give Chinese a hard time in becoming a world language, such as the current position of China in the world, existing prevalence of English and the tones and, of course, the difficult character system. However I disagree that the whole problem could be removed if the Roman alphabet were instated. The standing of Chinese in the order of world languages is more nuanced by other factors, and so if the authorities (of course, tied to one or two states – another distinction from the relative autonomy of English) wanted to promote Chinese internationally, they are going to have a hard time. And I’m not going to pretend to know the answer to that one.

What’s coming up…

So the next few weeks are going to be go-go-go in our household. This is what’s lined up:

  • This week, friends from the UK are coming to visit for two weeks. We’ll be spending time taking them around Beijing and then we’ll go with them to Shanghai and Suzhou.
  • It’s going to be another mountain climbing trip, but this time to Huangshan. The scenery there is meant to be notably better than Mount Tai, and it’s a climb which requires camping at the summit, as well.
  • For the first week of May, there’s a toss-up between South Korea and Xinjiang (far western, Muslim China). I’ll decide on which is most affordable nearer the time.
  • At some point among all of this, there are murmurings that some of our group may take a day-trip to the Ming Dynasty Tombs, located just to the north of Beijing.

Of course through all this mayhem it might mean that I’m stretched for time to write this blog, so apologies in advance.