Of the films that are available in English, nearly all of them are either cheesy chick flicks (The Ugly Truth) or ridiculously over the top action films (GI Joe) and I’m afraid to say I lap both up as rubbish last morsels of Western culture. As day turns to a kind of weird, short night (possibly the shortest I have ever seen - remember we are flying against the sun; my last glimmers of European sunset would in a few hours be replaced by the bright white tundra of Siberia reflecting the morning sun) I soon find that the most entertaining thing on board is the on flight map, and after passing a sleepless two hours I manage to keep my drowsy mind active with this, as we pass over Ulan Bator and the Mongolian plains, by the vast expanse of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia before finally the image of the plane hovers directly over 北京 - Beijing.
Beijing welcomes me with a notorious grey haze of a sky and a muggy chill; the descent from the plane and onto real Chinese soil isn’t quite the bureaucratic rigmarole I imagined it would be, however. We, as white people, do have to provide the quarantine authorities with the relevant details of the countries we have visited in the last week (for me it is a detailed itinerary ranging from Krakow to Berlin to Paris to London. Interestingly the flight attendants made the same mistake I did with my Korean neighbour and did not supply her with these sheets assuming she was Chinese); and at passport control there are several large queues marked either “foreigner” or “Chinese” - but with a fairly casual glance at my passport, attached visa and proposed residence form the guard lets me through and I am in China at last.
At the airport I look out for the “Beijing Normal University International Students” sign as I have been told, and, sure enough, a group of Chinese BNU sophomores are there waiting for me. I am welcomed to sit down and have a chat to the three girls that have opted to help pick up BNU internationals from the airport, but am told (as their very first and only passenger) that I will have to await the next batch of internationals - a group of 韩国人 - Hanguo ren (this confuses me, as I had thought that the “han” in Hanguo was the han used to describe China’s majority people - the Han Chinese. The fact that the girl I am speaking seems to call them “green” people in English only serves to confuse me more. It is only when I find out that the flight is coming in from Seoul in an hour that I realise “Hanguo” is South Korea, and these mysterious “green” people are actually “Korean” people.) The Koreans and two Japanese who join us are not in the least bit talkative - the Chinese girls contrast my exhausted enthusiasm after a ten hour flight with the glum looks of the Koreans after what can’t have been much more than three hours. Anyway, a mere twelve hours after I set out from England, I already have some Chinese friends.
They send my baggage off by minibus to my accommodation and I am far too exhausted to be concerned about where it will end up. The only bags I have to drag wearily onto the coach that arrives some ten minutes later are the bags under my eyes - and soon after I am sat down on the bus these pull me off to the world of sleep. It is broken by the noisy traffic and the urge to see the sights of central Beijing - but by the time I arrive at my new home - the Liyun Aparthotel, I just about have the strength of mind to improvise some very basic Chinese and sign for my room. My bags having not yet arrived I head upstairs to see my new flat, await my new flatmate, and take a desperate toilet break.
I’m not sure if the Russians had been expecting me - I don’t think they were really expecting anything. So when they hear the patter of feet on their living room floor and flowing water in their bathroom I guess they must have been a bit spun out. I myself certainly feel spaced out, the room is seemingly empty yet clearly being lived in - assuming that I would be the first one in and my flatmate would arrive later, I begin to think I might have been allocated the wrong room. Some half hour later, as I head out to eat (a McDonald’s - I don’t have the confidence to order anything more complicated) two large suitcases will gather in the corner of the room, and the Russians will finally get out of bed from what will be an habitual mid-afternoon nap to realise they have a visitor. The visitor is sitting in what will turn out to be Jingshi square - which will happen to be the central point of the International Student Campus, eating his McDonalds. Having not wanted to venture any further than the relative safety of the campus I have sat down on a wall next to an old man doing what appears to be some kind of Tai Chi, with little dances and head movements. Clearly a regular here, the local security officer, wearing a fur hat gives him a wave. When the man does not wave back and the officer approaches I realise the wave is for the one different looking person there; the white man; the foreigner; me.
Presuming that I have already done something wrong in China after only three or four hours I jump up promptly and approach the officer. He asks where I am from and, when he finds I am from England, he insists on repeating the same sentence several times in English just to get his point across (an ironic one, stating that if I practice my Chinese by talking to people as much as I can I am sure to improve) - he is a friendly and almost timid chap, but, having heard the same sentence for the ninth time as the conversation dries out I bid him farewell and am on my way. I am quite chuffed I have befriended an authority however.
Befriending my flatmate, on the other hand, is going to be somewhat harder. I open the door to find a half-naked skinhead styling his - head? - and listening to a quite loud remix of Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance, as a result he doesn’t hear me open the door, nor does he notice me in the mirror. I knock on the already open door and the character swings round, demanding in Russian - I introduce myself, as does he, and the conversation is promptly extinguished. Shattered, I clamber into my fairly comfy bed, fall asleep and immediately forget the name, but for the sake of my thoughts christen him Yuri for the next week, which is almost certainly not his name. When I head to the bathroom for a shower later, I have to wait for a skinny brunette to emerge wearing little - who will turn out to be Yuri’s missus, and, whilst not an actual resident will be 6001’s honorary third flatmate.
Almost the entire following day I don’t talk to Yuri, and he only decides to talk to me to ask me to move my wash bag out of “his space” at the sink (his space turns out to be the whole sink). I instead have the equally difficult task of registering at the university. In capable hands this would be a simple procedure, but it is typical of me to forget almost everything I need, and ending up returning to the registration hall at least four times before finally succeeding. This subsequently drags on to become an eight hour process (filled of course with a midday power-nap), and probably would not have been completed had it not been for a Northern Irish third Year Full Time student burdened with the unenviable task of aiding the new Internationals - an impressively fluent Chinese speaker who I would know for the next day amongst fellow students as “Mr friendly”, and ever after as Clive - in this case his real name.
Not only has Clive learnt Chinese to a pretty much fluent extent, he also is fluent in the Chinese art of queue jumping and being rude to get things done quicker, and so by the end of the day I am sorted not only for registration, but for internet, cables, books and food shopping. This would turn out to be only moderate use of Clive - other students would use and over abuse him to buy Chinese phones, set up Chinese bank accounts and grill him over classes. If only Clive could have helped me with what was to follow the next day - the placement test.
After a shocking night’s sleep, interspersed by the Russians’ banter from midnight until the small hours - I find myself a victim of a rather artificially prolonged and convoluted jetlag, resorting to my normal sleeping hours of four in the morning until two in the afternoon (which is of course the rather more sensible eight til six Greenwich Mean Time) - I have the Russians to thank for this. As a result I climb out of bed an hour before my placement test, having done very little revision. It wouldn’t have helped anyway - the majority of my multiple choice answers are just educated guesswork. My former Manchester classmate enters late, and before I have even got past answer 30/100 has left the room, this will serve more as a testament to my slowness (the “educated” part of the guesswork - at least fooling myself that I am pondering each answer knowingly for a good couple of minutes). Being the penultimate candidate to leave the test I literally randomly check the last ten answers (deciding I have not put enough “D’s” in, answers 90-100 more than make up for this anomaly.)
As soon as I leave the deserted exam room, I am immediately whisked off into another, and placed in front of two teachers, a 男老师 “nanlaoshi” and a 女老师 “nulaoshi” (not dissimilar to our male and female teachers at Manchester - the man doesn’t say much and the woman asks lots of questions and asks me to read a paragraph written on a sheet, rather depressingly I am relegated from text three to text two, meaning, presumably that I have blown my chance to be in a higher study group). I am reassured by the fact that my new friend Nacho - a teacher from Brazil, was started on the same text that I completed with gusto; and that nearly everyone had guessed the answers. The test was impossible.
I head back to my room to find that my key-card won’t open the door and try to explain this without Clive to the staff at the desk. They understand immediately and tell me that I have until that weekend to pay my entire rent for four months of 10,000 kuai, and with my card I can only withdraw 2000 a day. Today is Thursday; I don’t fancy my chances. At that point I bump into Rosie and Hannah from Manchester, and am finally glad to have someone English in exactly the same boat as me to talk to. I am offered my first glimpse of Beijing life outside of the walls of BeiShiDa (the university).
Week 2 - (Already) Bored of Noodles