After a long summer away from China – it feels like a life-time but was a scant three months – I am back in the polluted air of Beijing and picking up the strands of daily living. I have to admit I have found myself suffering from ‘blog writer’s block’ but I hope this post will break it…a word of encouragement would be welcome!
Whenever I am in the UK friends and acquaintances are curious to find out about my life here. If I had 10 kuai (£1) for every time someone has asked me what I miss when in China I would be sitting on a nice little nest-egg by now.
Of course there are many things I miss about the UK when I am here, and conversely there are lots of things about China I miss when over in Britain. Here are two little lists (items in no particular order) of some of the things I really miss.
THINGS I MISS WHEN I AM IN CHINA:
1. Clean air to breathe.
This is obviously a no-brainer and would head any ex-pat’s list. I have a Vog Mask – in fact I am now on to my second one – which I loathe using but it is essential. Every morning when I wake up I (like thousands of other Beijingers) check my ‘China Air Quality’ app to see what the reading is. If it is 100 or less I will open windows and venture out. 100-200 I will go out but with mask on. Over 200 I cancel plans and stay indoors. Earlier this year the British news media reported that it was over 30 in London and everyone got in a tizzy – man up Chaps! it was only 30. 100 is the nasty level from my POV*. Just remember to be grateful for air that you can breathe without thinking about it – too easy to be complacent.
2. The NHS.
The National Health System, for those of you who are not British, came into being after WW2 and was charged with providing free health care to all UK citizens regardless of their means, from cradle to grave. Whether it be treating something as mundane as warts, having your hearing tested, or a full heart and lung transplant, you do not pay. Over the years it has grown into a massive organisation – the biggest employer in the whole of Europe I’ve been told – and now gets as many brickbats as bouquets. But the re-assurance of knowing it is there should you need medical treatment cannot be underestimated. My family and I have been well served by the NHS, and still are. It provides me with the post-stroke medication I have to take every day, and I am truly grateful. Living in a country where there is no such system, and medical insurance is still in its infancy, has made me aware of what a jewel the NHS is. Sure it has lots of problems and needs a complete overhaul in certain areas, but we are very,very lucky to have it.
3. Sunday newspapers.
Of course I can and do subscribe to on-line access to several British newspapers; reading them on my laptop or iPad is a regular part of my daily routine when here in Beijing. However, there is nothing like having a pile of the Sunday papers to dive into whilst enjoying a lazy Sunday, sipping coffee, reading choice snippets aloud to one’s dozing other half, tut-tutting over the readers’ letters, idly filling in the crossword or attempting the fiendish sudoku – then finding one’s hands grey from handling newsprint. Reading it on a screen doesn’t even begin to compare. And you can’t use your screen to cover the table when the DH does his weekly shoe-polishing session!
4. Zebra crossings.
Crossing roads here in China is often bloody dangerous. Beijing is very modern and in the center of the city the traffic lights on major roads usually have the green man/red man indicators, and on either side of the thoroughfare there are pedestrian buttons you can press to stop traffic. These also show a digital display of how many seconds you have to cross the road. Sounds good. Ha! Traffic (which drives on the right here) is permitted to turn right even when there is a red light. So woe betide you if you are crossing at that time. Despite the volumes of traffic, most drivers opt for short bursts of high speed and then slamming on the brakes at the last moment as the optimum driving style. Bicycle riders, pedicabs, rickshaws, electric mini-vans do not think any of the regulations apply to them. Seriously, as a pedestrian you dice with death each and every day. If you are lucky there is a pedestrian overpass which requires climbing up about a million steps to cross the road and then another million back down (hard for me as I am wobbly and have to use a stick ). In the UK we have what we fondly call ‘Zebra Crossings’ – black and white stripes painted on the road geddit? – and for extra emphasis on either side of a zebra crossing is a Belisha Beacon. Legally pedestrians have priority (over wheeled traffic) on such crossings; once a pedestrian has set one foot on a zebra crossing on-coming traffic from either side MUST stop and give way to the pedestrian. And they do! it is wonderful, it makes life so much easier for pedestrians. China, you could learn from this!
5. Wine Gums.
Wine Gums are a type of sweet. They have been around for well over 100 years. THEY DO NOT CONTAIN WINE. They are a stiff fruit-flavoured jelly type confection and I love them. Each wine gum is embossed with the name of a drink – Champagne, Port, Hock, Sherry, Burgundy, Gin etc. I have never had a particularly sweet tooth, but when, four years ago, I had several strokes my tastes changed. Actually, my ability to taste altered dramatically. I have been told that this is not uncommon post-stroke. For some, their sense of taste goes back to normal after time. This has not happened for me. It is extraordinary how I now dislike anything sweet, and that doesn’t just include biscuits, cakes, desserts etc, but sauces with any element of sweetness, cereals, fruit yoghurts, ice creams. Chocolate tastes particularly foul. I have no desire for any of these any more. The one thing that has slipped through the net is Wine Gums, heaven alone knows why. So when in the UK they are a treat to enjoy, but I can’t buy them here. Maynards, get your marketing act together!
THINGS I MISS ABOUT CHINA WHEN I AM IN THE UK:
1. Foot massages
There is nothing so heavenly as a foot massage after a long day on your feet, or climbing, hiking, pounding the pavements, or for no reason at all. Here in China foot massages are very popular. You can get them anywhere and everywhere, in all towns and cities. You don’t have to go to a fancy spa, there are little local places, or a foot masseuse will come to you. In the UK there are people who practice “Reflexology” which is rather new age-ish, and slightly ‘alternative therapy’. Not here, foot massages are centuries old and extremely commonplace. They are also very social. I have been with Chinese friends to a foot massage parlor where we have sat side-by-side, chatting, drinking tea and whiling away an hour or so. There is a chain of extremely well run foot massage parlors called Liangzi, and I always like going to them, they are so kind and will let you sit and gossip for ages after the hour long massage is over.
2. Chinese food
It is really difficult to find ‘real’ Chinese food in the UK. Most Chinese restaurants serve what they think westerners like: Spring rolls (bought frozen in bulk from the nearest Chinese wholesaler), crispy seaweed (dried shredded cabbage bought in bags from aforementioned wholesaler), sweet-and-sour pork (lumps of pork in heavy batter with a horribly gloopy sauce), kung-pao chicken (chunks of chicken meat with cashew nuts and a mild chili sauce), stir-fried rice (containing yesterday’s left-over bits and bobs), the list goes on.
Nearly all the Chinese restaurants in Britain are owned/managed and run by Cantonese families who came over years ago. As a result many Britons think that Cantonese-style food – dumbed down for us guailo/laowai – IS Chinese food. It is NOT. China is a country bigger than Europe, there are as many styles of cuisine as in Europe. Swedish is not the same as Greek or Italian, and neither is Sichuanese food the same as food in Shanxi. There are of course some honorable exeptions to the average Chinese restauranters in the UK – Fuchsia Dunlop for one is breaking new ground. Alas as far as Scotland is concerned I’ve found nothing, so if I want jiaozi I have to make my own. Pot noodles anyone?
3. Hi-speed trains
We British invented the railways, they were part of the driving force that powered the Industrial Revolution and helped create an Empire. Other countries cottoned on and we exported railway technology all over the world, to Europe, India, America, South Africa and Asia and that helped all of them to develop. So it pains me to say that now, we in Britain, are being left behind. China is a vast country, Britain is not, but we should be up with the Chinese in terms of our railways.
I use the Gaotie 高铁(High Speed Rail) here in China rather than fly to many places. It is super efficient, goes like a rocket, is always on time and the journey is smooth as butter. You can stand a glass of water on your tray table and there will be nary a ripple even though you are travelling at 320 KmPH, and the loos are regularly cleaned during the journey . Contrast that with one of my recent (regular) journeys between Kings Cross London and NE Scotland, on what is called a ‘hi-speed’ line. There was Wifi to be sure, but the train vibrated and jiggled so much that any work requiring the use of a pen was well nigh impossible, the lavatories became disgusting after less than an hour into the journey. There were delays on the line and one could never be sure one would arrive in time to make any onward connection. However I will say that in both China and the UK the staff on the trains were friendly and helpful. Wake up Britain, we NEED proper high-speed rail on dedicated tracks – once the pain of gettting it built is over, everyone will embrace it. Hint – why re-invent the wheel, get a Chinese railway consortium to build it!
4. Affordable made-to-measure clothes.
In the UK, like much of the western world, we have become used to buying our clothing ‘off the peg’. The dressmakers, tailors and seamstresses of yester year are long gone. And although you can have clothes made to measure they usually cost a fortune. In many Asian countries, China being one, having clothes made specially for you is still possible, and at very reasonable cost. There are numerous skilled craftsmen and women who provide this service,and it has been a boon for me. I know what I like and what I am comfortable wearing. Being able to take a favourite garment to a tailor here, buying the cloth I like and having a ‘copy ‘ made is fantastic. When we first came to live here permenantly my DH had some suits and shirts made and I blogged about it. They are worn regularly and are still in tip top condition. When I know we are going to leave China for good, I think I will order a whole load of garments including a designer shroud – an item which would be hard to find on a UK high street!
5. No tipping.
I wrote a blog post about this when we first moved here, and it is still one thing that I find really pleasing about China. Recently I was talking to a Canadian friend who is a long-time China resident. She was talking about her most recent trip home to Calgary and how her father was shocked when she treated the family to a meal in a local restaurant and then left without leaving a tip (he rushed back in to remedy the situation). “I completely forgot” she told me. In the UK, most of Europe and north America tipping is mandatory – but the interesting thing is who gets tipped. Restaurant and cafe staff, hairdressers, taxi drivers all expect (and get) tipped..but does anyone tip the drycleaner, the butcher, baker or candlestick maker? No. It is a system I loathe, it’s demeaning, we’d be better off without it.
*POV = point of view