China is not like Scotland.
Before you lambaste me for stating perhaps the most obvious geographical and cultural certainty ever uttered, let me explain. It is often easy to forget that you’re in a country that threw its arms open to foreign visitors less than forty years ago. Fed up of noodles and rice? Take your pick of McDonalds, Burger King or KFC. Coffee too sweet? Starbucks and Costa can meet your overpriced, not very good, “real” coffee needs. Need a new pair of jeans? H&M is around the corner. Walking around Shanghai’s French Concession is not very Asian; a ten minute subway ride from my flat is a full size make-shift Italian cathedral.
What is not easy to forget is that there are people everywhere. The city of Wuhan alone houses twice the population of my home nation. So, no matter how hard I may try to make this (frequently surreal) place seem familiar, the sheer number of its residents bring me crashing back to earth. Very soon, you start to realise that all those seemingly western things have taken on a very eastern glow: have rice with your KFC; your new jeans have a nonsensical English slogan plastered down the backside; buy t-shirts emblazoned with “OBAMAO” from within 19th century Parisian style architecture; there’s a cinema in the cathedral!
What comes with all this? Noise. A shit ton of noise. Noise permeates every waking (and, actually, non-waking) moment of life here. This morning (a Sunday) the man upstairs was drilling at deafening volume levels at 8am.
Traffic laws are very loosely adhered to here and so, because of this, periods of silence lasting around three seconds are punctuated with a refreshing blast of car horn. Now I BEEP will write BEEP every time I BEEP hear someone’s BEEP horn BEEP go off BEEP BEEP on the BEEP road outside BEEP my BEEP flat BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP…
Sometimes I will be strolling along, blasting insanely loud music – say, My Bloody Valentine, a band who require you to wear ear plugs at gigs – and it will be drowned out by incessant horning. I have even seen cars and mopeds give the horn to absolutely nothing in particular. It’s as if, having driven along in relative quiet for a little while, the person at the helm of the vehicle has realised that it has been some time since they let the horn off – so here’s ten solid seconds of ear splitting siren to make up for it. It’s hard not to complain, but it is the way of life here. Simple differences like that have been the hardest to acclimatise to.
Something else that occurs on a regular basis that makes living in China somewhat difficult is the general attitude. In my first months of living here, I began to think that, despite base Communist ideals of community and togetherness, that modern China had started to perpetuate an attitude of every man for himself.
It is extremely common to be bashed and violently jostled on the metro as people clamour to get on the overcrowded trains. People will not think twice about breezing past you, taking your shopping with them in a blind trance induced by empty seats, or simply nudging you off the train altogether. Queueing is a lost art here, and customer service has taken a walk. I started to believe that taxi drivers waving you off for no discernible reason and escalators taking on the role of funnel-esque death traps due to the inability of people to say ‘excuse me’ was just a sign of plain rudeness from everyone here.
I will admit to becoming pretty jaded with that. I feared I was becoming some bitter near-racist. I was saying things like “China is great but it’s just not like home. People are unfriendly”.
Of course though, I’m an idiot. One specific recent event has yanked me from my funk. Coincidentally, it also happens to be one of two reasons why this blog post is so late (the other being that computers fuelled by Windows 8 are terrible and you should never get one).
On Thursday 9th April 2015 my girlfriend passed out in our local Wuhanese branch of Forever 21 (Mao Zedong’s embalmed corpse is spinning in its mausoleum) and smashed her head open on the tiled floor as our visiting friend and I browsed the menswear section.
Whilst, clearly, Ruth is the person who suffered most from this event, needless to say, I was overcome with panic. I thought aloud, mostly in very sweary language: no one is going to help us, everyone will just stand around watching, this is not going to turn out well. Of course, despite a wound that looked like the mouth of a hungry extra-terrestrial on the back of her skull, she is on the mend and totally fine.
This is in no small part down to the wonderful inhabitants of Wuhan, Hubei, China. The staff immediately ran to her rescue. Sure, she drew an audience, but then where would that not happen? People, just out buying some new clothes, gathered round with genuine, human empathy and the desire to help. One man was so anxious to be of service that he phoned his English speaking doctor friend to see if she could assist with anything. As I spoke to her, not really knowing what was going on, she explained that her friend, there in the shop, couldn’t speak any English whatsoever but felt he had to help in any way he could. People were friendly and comforting and worried.
You see, China is a big place, with a lot going on. People need to work hard to get anywhere; daily life is a lot more difficult. Nothing is handed to the people of China. People have to put themselves and their families first before anything and anyone else or they will get left behind. It isn’t unfriendliness, it’s a necessity. However, when it comes to matters of great stress, people will do their utmost to stop ignoring and help.
It really puts in perspective what is actually important. Of course, smiling and good manners are a pleasant bonus, but when it comes to matters of real importance are people ready to be there for each other, in any country or culture? Witnessing this only makes it more baffling to me that back in Scotland, in Glasgow – often cited as one of the friendliest cities in the world – people can act so terribly to others who are not like them. Here, I walk into work in the morning and, even though I am visibly different to everyone else, I am treated like the most important person on the planet. The vice-principal at our school told Ruth that the whole cohort of staff respected her for returning to work so soon after such an ordeal.
China can be a frustrating and annoying place at times, but it is also one of the most vibrant and welcoming places I’ve ever been.