My husband and I experienced two truly extraordinary days last week, and I am still trying to absorb the whole thing. The reason was that he was one of 50 people from 20 countries being given the Chinese Friendship Award. This is China’s highest honour for foreigners, which is presented to the individuals as part of China’s National Day celebrations each year. Those who get this award are considered to have made a major contribution to the modernising of China and the welfare of the Chinese people.
I knew it was going to happen but I had completely underestimated what a very big deal this award is in China. All the recipients and their partners or parents were accommodated in the Foreign Experts Building hotel which is close to the 2008 Olympic stadia in north Beijing – even though we actually live in BJ we were expected to stay there, so we did.
The first morning after breakfast there was a briefing at which we were given the agenda for the two days, told which coach we were allocated for transport, what to wear and when to be ready. Early afternoon, all spruced up, we gathered in the lobby and were driven to The Great Hall of the People in Tian’anmen Square.
To get us there on time through the heavy Beijing traffic we had a motorcade, with police stopping traffic for us, and getting traffic lights changed to green so we could sweep by – I tell you, I could really take to this, having a motorcade whenever I go anywhere would really improve the quality of my life!!
Arriving at TGHoTP we all went through security and then walked along what seemed like miles of red carpet to the East Hall where the actual ceremony was to take place. Leaving nothing to chance, we were given another briefing on what would happen, and some of the awardees (is that a word?) were put through a little rehearsal so everyone knew what to do. Partners and parents were seated to one side of the hall. We were all served with green tea at our places, which had name cards in both Chinese and one’s own language. I was amazed that they had gone to the trouble of finding out my ‘Chinese’ name. Then the important bods came in (like nearly all senior politicians here it is hard to judge their age as their hair is a colour L’Oreal would probably call ‘Politburo’ Black). There were speeches of welcome, and then a key-note speech about why China needs and values foreign experts and then the medals and awardswere handed out by Mr Ma Kai one of China’s four deputy PMs. Everyone went up in alphabetic order within alphabetic order of nationality, so being from the UK, AMM was near the end of the line. For anyone who has gone to a British (or South African) school, it was not unlike a very high-powered prize-giving on Speech Day! Loads of photos were taken by the official photographers, and China’s TV stations were also filming it for the evening news bulletins. Everybody congratulated everybody else and then we were all bussed back (with motorcade) to a formal reception at our hotel where there were many speeches, much toasting and congratulating all round etc. By this time I was getting to know some of the other recipients, and another British couple who live in Shanghai joined us afterwards in sneaking out to a nearby cocktail bar for suitable alcoholic refreshment.
The following morning, we were taken to the Capital Museum – a rare privilege as all museums are closed on Mondays, and they opened it for 2 hours just for us. It is an absolutely stunning museum, if ever you are in BJ and have time for more than the usual big sights, this should be on your list of places to go.
After lunch we donned our smart clothes and once again motorcaded our way to TGHoTP. This time the security (which had been pretty strict the previous day) was even more rigourous. No cell-phones, no cameras, no video-recorders. We had to produce passports and each of us had an invitation in which was a micro-chip that put our details up on a screen as we went in.
Then off we set for the Hebei Room (China has 32 provinces, and 32 rooms in TGHoTP are named after them). We were all arranged on a special stand ready for a group photograph then the doors opened and in came Mr Li Keqiang, the Chinese Premier and second most important man in this country of 1.4 billion people. He shook hands with some of the recipients in the front row, then took his place for the group photo.
After which he gave a speech telling us where China was heading, how reforms had begun and would slowly get more and more, and saying how valuable a role the awardees had been in helping this process. After the speech he was half-way to the door when he suddenly came over and shook AMM’s hand and talked to him in perfect English for a couple of minutes, then turned to me and said he hoped that my having to stand during his speech had not tired me and shook my hand too – well you could have knocked me down with a feather, I was so surprised at him singling us out.
No time to think about it though, as we were hustled through to the Banqueting Hall. A huge room. No, a HUGE, HUGE, HUGE room. 209 tables each seating 8-10 people – so at least 2000 people were all having dinner together…and that doesn’t even include the top four bigger tables where the high-ups were sitting. Every ambassador (plus wife/husband) from every country you could think of was there, and a multitude of others besides ourselves. The tables were immaculately laid, and the food arrived speedily and hot dishes were still hot. How they managed it I have no idea, but it was an awesome demonstration of catering logistics. More speeches and several toasts later we were all motorcaded back to our hotel, and so to bed.
One of the very best things about this whole experience was meeting the other awardees. Such an extraordinary group of people from places as far apart as Syria and Sweden, the USA, Italy and India, and all working in such interesting and diverse fields – from a couple of world famous scientists, a pharmacologist, several engineers and an Australian who looked as though he was straight out of ‘Crocodile Dundee’ and who turned out to be the Coach for the Chinese Olympic and Paralympic swimming teams! There were five Britons being honoured, including the only woman to get an award – I felt so proud of her. Despite different backgrounds, occupations and nationalities everyone got on like a house on fire, and many new friendships were born.
It is not always easy being a ‘Trailing Spouse’, but occasions like this make it all worthwhile.