Bye Bye, Beijing – The Good and The Bad

Alright, I know, I haven’t posted a blog in two weeks. Some of you care about that, I’m sure, but hey – here now!

But I won’t be ‘here’ for long, as I am leaving Beijing tomorrow. It feels like I only just arrived but it’s been a full eight weeks, so it’s time for me to head over to Hong Kong, pick up a visa and fly to Ordos. I’m going to miss this city so much – I’ve really fallen in love with it. It has its bad points, sure, but Beijing is so busy, it’s full of life and it has so many good things going for it too.

Good – Transportation

I’ve already talked about the sheer number of bike rentals around the city, that are so cheap they’re practically free, but if you need to travel far there’s also buses, the subway and taxis.

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An example of an ‘authentic’ taxi – photo from City Weekend

 I haven’t taken a bus on my own because talking to people still seems like a lot of hassle, but my journey to the Great Wall involved using a public bus and it cost 6RMB (£0.70) to go 60km. Back home, I can’t even get the bus to the next town over for that price! On the way there it was comfortable, there was enough leg space and air conditioning. The way back was a bit different due to the amount of people making the trip. We got stuck in traffic for over an hour whilst crammed into the aisle with other tourists, but all in all, it wasn’t a terrible experience.

Then there are taxis. People tried to put us off taking taxis when we first arrived because a lot of people get scammed, but I’ve never had a bad experience – either with the official cabs or the unlicensed cabs. It’s usually pretty simple to flag one down and although some don’t want to stop for foreigners (the language barrier), those that do are very patient and helpful. Even late at night, the cab fare home hasn’t been extortionate (the most I’ve paid is 45RMB (£5.30) at four in the morning) and the drivers are always friendly.

As for the subway, it typically runs from 5am until 11pm, which isn’t always convenient, but a journey anywhere in the city costs about 4RMB (£0.50). My journey to work took 40-50 minutes and I never had to wait more than three minutes for the next train. Sure, it gets crowded in rush hour, but where in the world doesn’t? It’s actually quite impressive as you think you couldn’t possibly get another person in, only for four more to push on in. I think it’s partly due to this close proximity that everyone is polite when it comes to shuffling on and off the trains. It’s just a shame that the slow walkers who stop at the top of escalators to check their phones ruin the flow.

Good – Social initiatives

A really cool thing about the subway is that the carriages have TV too. Late at night it tends to be playing ‘Shawn the Sheep’, but during the day they play through lots of public service announcements. The most common one is for blind people – showing libraries that have books in braille and audio books; a little ant construction worker who helps blind Tony Stark not to get run over… that sort of thing. There are messages about increased disabled access and there was even a video trying to eliminate some of the stigma attached to depression – which would be considered pretty forward in Western countries, never mind China. There’s a lot of anti-smoking posters too, which I was shocked by. Beijing’s starting to implement a lot of the laws we have in Europe about where you can and cannot smoke and it seems to be going down really well. I don’t know how long it’s been going on, but when I came here I was expecting a lot of indoor smoking and in fact, it’s almost exclusively reserved for bars and clubs.

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Image from China Daily – just such a shame I can’t find the Iron Man one

However, some of the social initiatives could be damaging. The government is currently bricking up the hutongs in order to keep the backstreets under control. This means that any shops, bars or restaurants they find undesirable get their doorway bricked up. It happens overnight. It seems to be dividing citizens too, as some understand the government’s desire to make the city a safer, more reputable place, whereas others see it as ruining the lives of those who own the venues whilst taking away from Beijing’s culture. I personally think it’s a very sad thing, but there are two sides to every coin.

Good – Clean Streets

Okay, I know this is going to shock a lot of people, most likely including the expats that have lived in Beijing – but hear me out. The streets might be dusty and trash gets thrown anywhere – but it never stays there for long. I’m embarrassed to recall the streets in the UK littered with cigarette butts, covered in chewing gum and the more-than-occasional dog turd. Chinese people may feel free to throw things on the ground, but it never stays there for long – they hire a large number of street cleaners to make sure the mess doesn’t pile up. I keep reading ex-pat articles talking about faeces on the streets, but I’ve never seen it.

Bad – Public Toilets

To start with, I am impressed with the sheer number of public toilets, you’re never that far from one. However, the term ‘toilet’ may be loosely defined. Nearly every toilet here is a squat toilet and that’s something you can get used to, but public toilets don’t always have dividers. There’s just a row of four squat toilets, with no bins for toilet paper (or any toilet paper, for that matter) and no hangers for your bag. If you want to hold hand with the person next to you I’m sure it’s ideal, but there’s a few too many inconveniences to the public toilets for me.

It extends to shops and public buildings too. Often the female toilets don’t lock, so you’re squatting, trying to keep your clothes off the ground, your bag precariously perched on your knee whilst you try to keep the door closed. It’s risky, but if you’re quick to wipe, you can probably grab hold of the door again before anyone comes in.

And as a side note, I really miss flushing toilet paper. Women have a lot of reasons to need a bin in the bathroom, and I have seen all of them up close and personal. I have long legs. Trying not to knock the toxic waste of a basket with my knee is an ongoing challenge.

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An example of a hutong toilet – image from the Daily Mail

Bad – The Spitting

Actually, it’s not the spitting itself that bothers me anymore, it’s the big throat-rattling performance they make on the lead up to spitting. It’s everywhere, including indoors.

Bad – The Beijing Bikini

This one isn’t actually all that bad, it just took a while to get used to. Men have a habit of lifting their tops up so that their bellies are out, making a ‘Beijing bikini’. I’ve seen lots of different types do it, but the usual suspect is a middle-aged man with a gut large enough to block his view of his own feet.

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The ‘Beijing Bikini’ – image courtesy of The Beijinger

Bad – The Lack of English

I feel bad saying it – how dare I expect them to speak my language – but English is spoken by a helluva lot of people. Getting about isn’t so bad because they have pinyin (pronunciation) over the characters but tourist sites don’t have English. Museums don’t have English. How am I supposed to learn about your culture if there’s no way for me to get the information? Sort it out.

 

As with anywhere, it’s a love-hate balance, but for me Beijing comes out on top. #IloveBJ

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The Internship: Part 1

 

I’ve been an intern in China for two weeks now and wanted to share a little bit of what I’ve been doing, as well as my initial perceptions of the Chinese work ethic. As a disclaimer, I’m sure it differs industry to industry and this post is only based on my experience and the experiences my fellow interns have shared with me.

I was forewarned when I started that my supervisor wouldn’t be present for the first few days, so was expecting a light workload, but boy was I surprised. There were only four people in the office, as the time of my arrival coincided with everyone else’s holidays and visa runs, so the first week was quite intimate. My supervisor had left one of the girls a short set of instructions telling me to look through the public file to familiarise myself with the company, the website and setting my task for three days.

That three-day task was actually completed in three hours.

At first, I wasn’t sure if something had been lost in translation and I’d be receiving a new task each day, but unfortunately that was the total of what I was given. I had to plan 5-8 blog posts – not even write them, just come up with titles and subtopics. Okay, fair enough, they have no understanding of who I am, what I can do, so it’s quite acceptable to underestimate an unknown intern. But… it didn’t get better.

I planned them paragraph for paragraph, doing a bit of background research for myself and it still only took the first afternoon. As it turns out, I had also done too much, as the blogs should only be around 500 words each and my topics went too in depth. I found this out when my supervisor returned, “wow, you’ve done so much” and I started writing them up. I wrote two in the first morning as these are only short blogs and take less than an hour each only to be told, “wow, you’re so quick!” which is when I started to realise that just because you’re at work for nine hours a day doesn’t necessarily mean you are working for nine hours a day.

Not one to sit and twiddle my thumbs, I have been working on an online communications strategy in my ‘spare time’. This has been quite useful, because although I get the feeling the supervisor doesn’t want to see it, it gives me something to do. I’ve been asking for more tasks and usually get told that there is nothing to do, or if I can wait fifteen minutes they’ll give me one. Fifteen minutes seems to mean 2-3 hours.

This started to improve somewhat in the second week. I now get asked to help research projects! Some are interesting and give me plenty to work on – finding out about the company, the target audience and competition in order to brief the design team – but some aren’t even marketing. I’ve been asked to come up with designs for a client to put on their wall and this is not my area of expertise. I’m not a designer and even when reliant on Google images, I didn’t understand the brief. They want something ‘cool’, but not like that. ‘Modern… you know, something… modern.’ I spent the best part of a day trying to understand the image that my supervisor clearly had in mind, wondering why she didn’t just do it herself as she clearly wasn’t going to be happy unless I got the exact thing she wanted.

Mainly, I’ve gotten good at sitting around and pretending that I’m busy. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not dossing off as all my tasks are completed, it’s just that there isn’t enough work for me. I’m using my downtime to write those articles, which are still just sat in a file on the shared drive because they need to be translated into Chinese before we can post them. I’ve been finishing that online communications strategy that the supervisor doesn’t want to see. I’ve been working on my dissertation at work.

It’s a little demoralising, actually, because I have so much more to offer. The other day, I was given one task at 5.55pm. That was my first task of the day and do you know what it was? Finding an image of a pretty person eating a burrito.

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Finding an image of a pretty person eating a burrito is actually a lot harder than it sounds, but it’s also incredibly funny. Here’s one of the gems that I came across.

Everyone in my office naps and the supervisor doesn’t mind. It genuinely seems like the emphasis on ‘good work’ is just about showing up – which, even then, my office isn’t great at. For the first week I arrived on time, only to wait in the corridor for 30-40 minutes until a keyholder decided to come in.

I thought it might have just been me, or just my company, but it seems to be affecting the whole of Beijing. A colleague said it was the same for her at first, she had to adjust to the slower pace of life. It’s not that these people are lazy, they’re just really slow.

Except for the girls in our building, they very well may be lazy. It’s very rare to get a cubicle in the bathroom because people from the other offices disappear into them in order to have a smoke or play on their phone. I’m pretty sure even the cleaner uses her time in there as an unofficial break.

My friends all have similar stories. For example, when a receptionist was asked “Do you not want to do this and become better? People are unhappy with your work“, she responded ‘no, I’m fine like this.’

At a different friend’s office, he goes in around 10am, has a 2 hour lunch and leaves at 4pm. Even when he’s there, he barely has any work to do, so he’s in the same boat as me, just wasting a few hours less of his day doing nothing.

Then there’s the intern working in a hospital who pushes a button and waits for the machine to finish. That’s his whole job.

So, my impression is that the Chinese aren’t good workers. They’re happy to show up, because that’s how they get their money, but I don’t see any pride going into their work.

I know I’m wrong to generalise, and I’m sure this doesn’t apply to every individual in this nation. Certain sectors such as construction are probably a lot more hard-working and even though my experience of wait-staff is one of frustration (I’m looking at you, Taqueria), they seem to put the effort in.

Tourism is Forbidden

Trying to make the most of our last days before work started, we opted to do some mid-week sight-seeing. The Forbidden City had been on the list for a while and doing it when there weren’t going to be as many people seemed a smart move. I read up on it before hand this time, not getting caught out by a lack of English signage and was a pretty good tour guide if I do say so myself. Listing off years that things happened, highlighting interesting architectural points and even throwing in some Mongolian trivia almost made up for the fact that we barely saw any of it.

Yeah, you read that right. We spent a good three hours walking around the Forbidden City and still managed to miss out on the calligraphy, the ceramics, and the Palace Museum. It’s a big complex okay? A big complex with a one-way exit policy. We left through the North Gate, not really realising that it is the official exit, and once we had left we weren’t allowed to return. The boys will probably visit again as their student ticket was only 30RMB, but foolish ol’ me left her ID in the UK and is a little too tight to dish out 60RMB twice just to see the bits I missed. Maybe next time I’m in Beijing.

It was at this point that we got a message from Sami asking where we were. He was helping out Ayodele get some footage for her vlog and had arrived maybe two hours later than the rest of us.

We sent him a message to let him know that there was absolutely no chance of finding us, as we had accidentally gone through the North gate and we weren’t allowed back in. To which dear Sami asked “What, are there exits?”

We were in creases. Of course there were exits. What he actually meant was something along the lines of ‘oh, we don’t leave through the same place where we came in?’ but it was at this point that Sami became immortalised for the phrase “I don’t know… it’s China, man!”

Once we’d established we were never going to see Sami at this rate, we headed up Prospect Hill (Jingshan Park) to get a good look at the city complex. It’s quite a peaceful place, quiet, and there’s quite a few old people just doing their own thing.

 

That was Thursday. I returned on Saturday with Ayodele, as she was determined to do some tourist attractions in her last weekend. She’d offered to front my ticket (or half of it), which made the idea of returning to see the bits I had missed a lot easier on the wallet. Only, things didn’t quite go as planned.

We arrived on a lovely day and joined the crowds out of the tube, but our journey began with an English-speaking Chinese man luring us into a side room to sell his calligraphy. It was alright, as far as calligraphy goes, but he was probably the least interesting artist in the room. We had no intention of buying and only went with him so as not to be impolite. On reflection, looking at his artwork and then turning him down is probably a lot ruder than ignoring a stranger on the street. Oh well.

We went back to the entrance, over the bridge and under the picture of Mao, we went through the different entrance courtyards, but the ticket office didn’t seem to be open. Maybe I’d missed it. We milled around a while but couldn’t find anywhere to buy tickets, although the place was heaving. We figured it must be free, and if it wasn’t someone would point us in the right direction, so we did as everyone else was doing and moved to enter between the guards. They stopped us.

“Where is your ticket?”

-We don’t have one.

“You need to buy a ticket.”

-Where can we get one?

“You can’t get one. You must leave.”

We watched as the guards ignored everyone else ducking between them to get to the entrance, regardless of whether they had a ticket or not. Maybe it was a Chinese-only day? We scoured the crowd for other foreigners, seeing if they had a prized ticket clutched in their hands or were just as miffed as we were. Defeated, we headed back the way we came.

“No, you can’t go this way, you must go ahead.”

Erm… what? Again, we watch as a string of Chinese people make their way past the guard yelling at us. It’s okay, turns out there’s an exit on the left in the second courtyard. That we also couldn’t get out of. We asked again, ‘where do we leave?’ and they pointed us to the main gate that’s already rejected us. Well, damn. Maybe Sami’s comment wasn’t so stupid after all. We spent a good twenty minutes trying to get out and it felt like going two steps forward and one step back each time. We resorted to waiting for the guards to be distracted, moving past as quickly as possible, only to be stopped by the next one. I really hope those other foreigners we saw had tickets, otherwise they’ll be trapped there forever.

We then proceeded to queue for another 30-40 minutes to get into the National Museum of China. This is something that could do with better direction, let me tell you. There were three queues: the first one took you up the stairs to the little plaza out front, which then has its own two queues facing opposite directions. Surmising that one must be the ticket queue and the other was not, we were further confused to see everyone had a ticket of some kind. We got on line whilst we figured it out and an overheard (but not understood) conversation in Chinese had someone pointing at tickets and moving to the other line. Okay. So it is the ticket line. Just to be sure we phoned our friend who had already passed the trials to find out there’s another door for foreigners. We found it, and actually, I’m glad as there wasn’t a queue for that one. We joined the line heading into the museum, went through security and… had to turn back. “You must get out now,” as the security lady’s ominously translated phone message told us. A camera tripod counts as a selfie stick and has to be stored in the cloakroom. With no idea where the cloakroom was and with no intention of queueing again, we played dumb until a security guard escorted us back down past all three queues to a hidden office beneath some stairs.

The museum was the first time I became aware of actual propaganda. The censorship is a little more noticeable, but proactive propaganda has only really manifested itself as a sense of civic duty. Walking around the museum, however, there was some beautiful wording, which would have made me feel like scum if it weren’t so ridiculously over the top for a government organisation:

 

We left around half four, with not enough time to see the Ancient China exhibitions, but with enough time to get in some last-minute gift-shopping at the pearl market. The first time we were there Ayodele was young and naïve, paying 300RMB for two dressing gowns, but this time, she was on her game. Pyjamas for her brother? 80RMB. A jacket for her father? Something like 100RMB. Two Michael Kors knock-offs and a Herschel back pack? 90RMB each. She had really upped her game in such a short amount of time – I think the indignity of the dressing gowns fuelled a rage that could only be sated by true bargaining.

I, on the other hand, needed to buy a new purse and fell victim to a nice store attendant and the glittering hope that I wouldn’t have to check every purse on every stall. It had the same layout as my purse, a similar pattern (Cath Kidston) but as soon as I over-paid for it, I regretted it instantly. I hate it. It doesn’t feel right, it’s ugly, they didn’t even bother putting a lining in it. I’m using it – my old purse is too damaged to fix – but I’m not happy about it. But oh god, is it ugly.