Chapter 1.1. August 2006 – My first days in China

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Now, what’s been going on since I left Australia…

Firstly, the actual plane trip…I left Melbourne at seven-thirtyish am, stopped at Sydney, then straight to Guangzhou. Ten hours on a plane ain’t bad…you “sleep” for a while, read, get fed, then “sleep” again…like being a kid for ten hours. The in-flight movies were a peculiar combination of western and Chinese, for example some martial arts movies, then one of the Transporter movies – just action action action, blam blam blam aahhhh blam, that kind of stuff…the food was also a strange conglomerate of cultures…for instance, sugar-filled bread, which Brian told me to get used to…hmmmm, sounds ominous…

…something else rather ominous was the way Brian was describing the weather were about to enter – he said “remember that bit at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the bit when everyone’s face melts? That’s gunna be us when the plane doors open”…that description will always stick in my mind, not only because of its humourous aspects, but also its comparative accuracy…as soon as the doors opened, the sweat seemed to instantaneously leap from our armpits, as if it had instantly noticed that our clothes were actually better places to live than our bodies, and took immediate steps to move there. I had, I quickly realised, involuntarily and somewhat spontaneously adopted new habits of perspiration. Of course, it didn’t help that I was lugging around a ton of stuff, and wearing a leather jacket because I’d just left Melbourne’s winter…but it still came as a bit of a shock. Also, as I only truly noticed over the next couple of months, the actual air feels different over here.

As soon as we got into the airport, we went to a money conversion place, where we haggled over the rate (welcome to China, apparently). In an instant, all my Australian money (six hundred and fifty bucks) was turned into a wad of unfamiliar red notes. It felt strange carrying such a fat wallet around (about three thousand eight hundred yuan), but, hey, everything was strange to me now…and that was barely the beginning.

I don’t remember much of the first night, except that we got to Guangzhou around dusk, checked into a YHA, and called it a night…I remember looking out the window, and not being able to see a huge amount…but I could see it was a bustling, weird place. With an unshakable feeling of what the hell have I gotten myself into, I fell into a somewhat dazed sleep…

The next morning, I awoke coffeeless and groggy, and looked out my window, and tried, mostly in vain, to make a mental list of anything familiar. Yes, there were cars. Yes, there were people. Most of the cars had four wheels, and most of the people had four limbs. However, according to my first impressions, the similarities pretty well ended there.

For instance…the building across the road was covered in scaffolding made of bamboo…there were ancient-looking three-wheeled bikes piled storeys high with stuff I couldn’t figure out what was…buildings everywhere were covered in alien hieroglyphics…and there seemed to be, shall I say, not much in the way of road rules other than the vague notion that one side was meant to go one way and the other was meant to go the other…people, on vehicles or otherwise, seemed to be waltzing around each other like there was nothing particularly odd about the fact that they were disobeying every road rule that I’d been raised with in Australia (on reflection, this was a pretty accurate introduction). And I also noticed, even from this distance, that the place looked hot and dusty.

I then met up with Brian and his other half in the quasi-café in the rather lavish foyer area, and felt marginally more human after an overpriced, but really good Irish coffee. As Brian whipped out his Lonely Planet and started going over the day’s tentative plans, I droned out, slowly crawling into the sludgy rapids that would form the majority of my memories of the two days in this southern city…these sludgy rapids would continue into the memories of my first days in the city in central China that I now call home (Wuhan).

How can I put this…reaching into the quagmire of memories that coagulated in my brain…Guangzhou was pretty well like the deep end I thought it’d be. It was hot…there were a million billion people, carts, bicycles, scooters, pedestrians…and all the technology was old. Bikes, cars, buildings, construction machinery (in Guangzhou and Wuhan – I’m writing this after being in Wuhan for a couple of weeks). All the bicycles – including the ones that they stack a couple of meters high with stuff – all seem at least thirty years old, and thus have no gears. I still haven’t spotted a bike with gears, and so, considering how much they stack on them (they literally use bikes as trucks here), Guangzhou people must have leg muscles of steel. The taxis are also old…they remind me maybe of run-down Sigmas. All of them; they’re all the same.

They also use pull-carts and over-the-shoulder pole carrying stuff everywhere. It’s all so old…an example in Wuhan is right outside my uni, where they’re doing some road works…one thing they’re using is a tractor that’s so old that if it was in Australia, it’d be in a museum, a scrapheap, or recycled, anywhere…but here, it’s still being used…

Like I said, the two days in Guangzhou were a blur…it was all just a nebulous ocean of culture shock smacking me in the face over and over again, with a perpetual mental mantra of what am I doing here, what am I doing here, what am I doing here galloping through my head. As for what we actually did…well, I’ll try to scrape together enough memories to paint some kind of picture for you…please excuse the lack of causality and/or details…this is mainly because the whole experience was just a flood of alien input; I knew it was going to be strange, fine, but, let me tell you, nothing really prepares to for being thrown into an environment where you can suddenly read, speak and understand nothing, nothing at all, especially when there’s a billion people scurrying all around you, carrying on with their lives, doing things you’ve yet to even begin to guess at, and you can’t understand or talk to any of them. Sure, there were words like “bank” and shop names here and there in English, but well over ninety-nine percent of the written language was unreadable to me. Also, street names were all pinyin – which means I couldn’t pronounce them even if I tried (more on pinyin later).


After meandering somewhat enjoyably aimlessly around a park for a few hours, we had a beer at this overpriced café kinda place overlooking the Pearl River. It was here that I spoke my first Chinese word – mai dan – which means gimme the bill. Brian told me what to say, I got my pronunciation up to some kind of speed, and I went and got the bill. [1] After that, we had lunch and dinner at various places, with Brian and his other half seeming to adlib ok, with me looking perplexed and wide-eyed, just nodding whenever people looked in my direction, all the time sweating away in a brown leather jacket. I vaguely remember the first lunch…my two companions stumbling over the order, mainly pointing and using their minimal repertoire of words. I just sat bewildered, my confusion mounting exponentially with every utterance that I heard sputtering from any mouth anywhere near me. I just kept nodding with my eyes plastered with what must have looked like a portrait of perplexity.

Then we walked around the smaller streets, away from the main business areas (for instance, the western-style shopping malls)…the primary memories that I have from these places were the smells. I’ll mention this kind of thing later, I’m sure, but I’ll never forget this awakening of my nasal cavities…it was a whole new universe. Walking down these narrower streets (of which, of course, there are hundreds), I was accosted by smell after smell after smell after smell…some good, some bad…some wonderful, some hideous. To be specific…walking past a shop of herbs and spices of some sort, a cloud of exotic zest floated through my senses…barely ten steps later, an open garbage decimated my olfactory joy…just a few steps after that, the aroma of wok-fried food leaped out to greet my nose as I passed a small, bustling restaurant with neither door nor façade, and a cocktail of sweet chemicals buzzed their way into my brain…and, within just steps of this pleasure, my nose again fell victim to an open garbage or, worse, one of the similarly open, omnipresent public toilets…to illustrate this experience by quoting from The Simpsons, my nose was continually going woohoo! D’oh! Woohoo! D’oh! Woohoo! D’oh!…to those unfamiliar with The Simpsons, well, I can put it this way…my nose just didn’t know which way to turn. It didn’t know whether to jump in this new universe with unbridled zeal, or simply run for cover…there were just too many conflicting messages. I remember reading that book Perfume by Patrick Süsskind…the character in that book would have a field day…no, a field millennium in this place.

Well…I’ll try to remember more details later…we saw some bell tower, for instance…Five Storeys Tower I think it was…


Following a couple of days in Guangzhou, that more resembled floating around zombie-like than any kind of conscious living, we got on another plane for Wuhan (I was, of course, hoping that the plane wasn’t thirty years old as well). So, two days after the perplexing blur that was Guangzhou, we got to Wuhan airport around half past sevenish at night, and we met up with my new bosses (as a pretty interesting aside, I remember feeling a surreal sense of alienation at this point, albeit a really subtle one, since, at this airport, I realised that I’d gone from Melbourne winter’s short days to long hot summer days on the other side of the planet – interesting, eh?).

I guess this little meeting was another moment of my life I’ll never forget…as we got off the plane, and Brian recognised the new bosses coming towards us, I whispered to him…”uumm, how do you say ‘hello’ again?” “nihao” “what?” “nihao” “ cheers”. [2] We were greeted by a Chinese woman named Lily, who was a metre and a third tall maybe, wore thick-rimmed glasses, sported a hairstyle so innocuous that, weeks later, I could only remember it as being black, possessed a strangely edgy disposition which I would only discover later was simply part of her personality, and, most importantly, was now apparently responsible for all my legal doings in China.

Following my pitiful second attempt at bilingualism, and the growing realisation that my new perspiration habits were going to continue no matter which Chinese city I was in, we drove to the campus…and I think this is an appropriate time to introduce China’s driving in detail, because the driving skills of the guy who took us to the campus were, in retrospect, an excellently extreme example of life on the road here.

OK, here are Wuhan’s road rules as I see them. When turning a corner, don’t give way to anyone…assimilate into the traffic instead. If there’s no space, make one. Push in, even if it’s a bus or something that’s ten times your size. Lanes mean nothing here, nothing at all. No-one indicates when changing “lanes” (I put that in inverted commas because, like I said, they mean nothing). What this means is that drivers simply swerve around anything and anyone in their way – their only real prerogative appears to be not to stop. Zebra crossings also mean nothing here. If a driver sees you on a zebra crossing, he doesn’t slow down, he swerves around you. This is not an exaggeration, this is exactly what happens. Footpaths also mean nothing – all the time, carts, bicycles, scooters and even cars can suddenly appear, beeping their asses off behind you. There are intersections – pretty rare though – where there’s pedestrian lights…but even when they’re green, they can be, and frequently are, ignored, especially by buses and bikes. The people here seem to have developed what could be called a symbiotic relationship with the traffic – they are not afraid of the cars, and the cars are not afraid of the people…and, it seems, the cars are not afraid of each other. God knows what, but something seems to be working, because people don’t appear to be dying on a regular basis – what that is, I haven’t worked out yet.

However, getting back to my first trip to the uni…the main reason this trip was so, uuummm, how can I put it, memorable, is that this driver swerved into the incoming traffic a couple of times in order to overtake other cars, occasionally at around seventy or eighty k’s an hour…this guy simply seemed to have a deathwish. I remember looking at Brian while this was happening, and he was as wide-eyed as me, so I guess this doesn’t happen all the time.

Just a lot of it.

[1] In retrospect, this was a turning point in my life in China, or indeed my life in general…saying a word in an alien language – a noise that means absolutely nothing to you – and having the locals suddenly understand what you want, is an instantly odd kind of experience. Language really is a key, in every metaphorical sense

[2] I’d made it clear to the university that I spoke no Chinese, but, as time would tell me later, this wasn’t uncommon at all…but now that I look back on that first introduction, it’s just strange to me…the idea that I’d entered a country in which I didn’t even know how to say hello


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