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The prospect of a year abroad in China inevitably raises many questions. Hannah Bolton spent a semester in Beijing (北京) and provides some survival tips for anyone heading there in the future.
1) Develop tunnel-vision
Traffic laws and vehicle regulations don’t seem to exist in China. Consequently, you feel like you’re constantly stuck in a game of Frogger (if anyone remembers this classic 90s computer game) and every attempt to cross the road involves a dice with death. My advice would be to follow locals for the first few days and then after that you miraculously develop an egotistical superhuman complex where person versus car reaches a whole new level. The only way to get about is to have complete self-assurance that the car ploughing towards you – regardless of the green man and a red traffic light – will stop if you show enough courage and plunge yourself across the road. Even the simple tasks seem to be a challenge! No one said a Year Abroad would be easy. But a Year Abroad in China is on a whole other playing field.
2) Invest in a mask
I cannot describe how crazy the pollution levels were when I arrived towards the end of February. The sun was barely visible through the thick, choking smog, even at midday, and a low hanging curtain of grey vapour just made you feel so miserable.
At the end of February of this year, the city reached staggering levels of pollution according to the Air Quality Index (AQI). The highest level recorded for this toxic smog was 16 times higher than the World Health Organisation’s recommended upper limit for ‘hazardous or unhealthy pollution levels.’ At its worst in February it was regularly around 475 AQI. To give you a comparison, London’s average AQI is somewhere around 40-50! Lesson learned after a few wheezy days: BUY A MASK!
3) Don’t get into illegal taxis (黑车)
Firstly, always look for a meter and licence in the front of the car.
Secondly, if the vehicle looks like a crappy, beat-up kidnapper’s paradise, then it probably is. The legal taxis are generally blue and yellow. As a rule of thumb, anything black or white is generally just your average local trying to make extra money on the side through gullible tourists. There won’t be a meter and you run the risk that they may be armed with a cricket bat or pointy object to make sure they get the result they want if everything goes pear-shaped!
4) Gracefully accept celebrity status
Of course being blonde and blue-eyed makes you stick out like a sore thumb in China. Sight-seeing never remained uninterrupted by inventive photobombing, sly-yet-not-so-sly shots from afar or full-on paparazzi-style camera snapping. I have to admit it is both flattering and equally embarrassing, as well as just plain strange. I can’t help but wonder where my face will end up: grinning on someone’s living room mantelpiece? Stuck under a fridge magnet?
5) Accept that the Chinese fail miserably at breakfasts
Before going to China I LOVED BREAKFAST. Sadly, in China, breakfast (早饭) is something of a myth. The first meal of the day is just horrendously wrong on so many levels. Over-cooked rice, salty stir-fried veg, and RED BEAN steamed bread or 馒头, which without a doubt is THE worst thing I have ever tasted in my life. No toast (!) cereal is a rip-off and a rare find, and certainly no porridge. As you can see, I reached my wit’s end as far as breakfast was concerned!
However, every cloud has a silver lining. The food in general is bob on. It’s cheap and so tasty. (10p/1元 for a bowl of rice and on average £2/20元 for a huge dish of food).
by Hannah Bolton
The UoB Linguist Magazine
Guild of Students,
University of Birmingham