Getting to know China
Liz is a 24-year-old who has decided to take a break from city life and visit one of the most mysterious and colourful countries in the world.
Liz decided to spend her gap year somewhere out of the ordinary. After finding work in a primary school in China, she has tried to get her head around a country full of surprise and contradiction.
I hesitated about writing you my tales of clichéd cultural observations and superficial interactions in a foreign land, but it seems to be doing wonders for Sofia Coppola so I thought I might as well.
I appear to be in China, unless I'm just going around in circles in Chinatown. I don't think I'm in Chinatown because I don't remember ever seeing boutiques there called 'Sane Dandy', 'Sunflower Youngman', or 'Wanko'.
When I arrived in China I managed to get a job in a primary school (called No1 Primary School). The kids are crazy, but cute and fun; plus I get to name them if they don't already have an English name. We get kids turning up with names like Happy, Evergreen, Ice-cream, Go Go, Yellow, Eagle, etc, but I only insist on renaming them if they've christened themselves something like, Helen or Lily and are male. I also persuaded a lovely young girl who had called herself Ratty, to choose a different name.
It's good here. Delights and surprises are to be found at every turn. The little details of design, decoration, accident and decay. A lot of the buildings are plain and dirty, made beautiful by a bright banner here, a lantern there, stencilled characters everywhere. I can while away hours in the supermarket, trying to guess if things are animal, vegetable or mineral; filling my basket with bamboo toothpaste, aloe vera yogurt and pineapple beer. Other days, I see cosmetics, which thicken one's eyebrows, whiten one's skin, or cure its 'horniness'. I've been steering clear of the markets though, in fear of coming home with several puppies and bird flu.
It sounds crazy, but it often reminds me of parts of Europe here. Maybe only I could possibly perceive parallels between Europe and this unique ancient culture, but the facts are:
"We get kids turning up at school with names like Happy, Evergreen, Ice-cream, Go Go, Yellow and Eagle."
2.The sewers stink
3.There are lots of old men in suits sitting around playing cards and chain-smoking.
I'm looking forward to getting a bike. It seems like it'll be heaven riding around a place where the bicycle is actually respected. I've seen some amazing stuff being carried on bikes: entire van-loads of gas cylinders; plastic toilet brushes; water coolers; cardboard boxes; gardening tools; bamboo poles; a couple of kids and a grandparent all strapped onto the back of one bike ridden by a 12-year-old girl.
I think I'll feel safer riding than walking on the footpath, which is all over the place. Multi-dimensional, interactive, and resplendent with open manholes down to the sewer. As for crossing the road... yikes. Cars go through pedestrian lights even though they've gone to all the trouble of animating the little green man so you can't mistake what he's on about. And then there are the taxis. Working on the assumption that all Caucasians need a taxi even if they don't realise it yet themselves, they're always stopping in front of me, honking madly and trying to back up over my foot when I'm trying to cross the road to get to the bus stop.
Sometimes I feel like Alice in Wonderland. Like the day I saw an unassuming door with the word 'coffee' on it and wandered in. An exquisitely groomed, uniformed waitress rushed to greet me and led me up a big, brassy staircase, past a grand piano, into a room filled with cane swing-seats hanging from the ceiling by plastic ivy vines. I pointed to 'flat white' on the menu, and she brought me something that tasted like lukewarm International Roast with a big whirl of gassy-tasting whipped cream on top, followed by a bill amounting to the cost of a week's groceries.