I knew no one in Beijing and did not speak a lick of Mandarin. I was venturing into the unknown, completely alone. Well not completely, luckily I had used what few brain cells I have, and opted to go through an agency to organise the endeavour for me. This meant as I was leaving the airport I only had to recognise a sign with either my name or a logo, which was only barely achievable after a 5, 000 mile journey lasting around 15 hours.
Once being greeted by the ImmerQi representatives I was taken to my accommodation by taxi. 5 minutes into the journey I completely understood the road laws, or otherwise lack of, in China. Luckily, I had spent a lot of time in Mumbai and so I was mentally prepared for that. I was shown my room and was told what told what few basics I needed to ensure my survival until the next day for my orientation. I managed to reset my body clock fairly easily with a couple hours of sleep and then I had a whole evening, my first evening, to myself in my new home. My landlady took me around the local area, showing me shops and trying to converse with what little English she knew.
My first evening in Beijing and hunger strikes! I wanted a meal. I wanted something that was hot and freshly cooked. I wanted Chinese food. So, taking a stroll to the shops where my landlady had shown me earlier in order to pick out an eatery filled with local cuisine in order to satisfy my taste buds. “Ahhh, here’s a local fast food joint” I thought “They’ll be cheap and authentic, exactly what I need.” I look through the window of the restaurant only to see that everything on the menu above the counter is filled with these coded hieroglyphics. A series of shapes and squiggles that could only, for me, be called “not English”. I spent a couple of minutes deliberating whether or not I should go in anyway. I have specific dietary requirements in that I only eat halal food, and I know that pork is very popular here (which is forbidden for me).
I imagined a scenario in my head where I attempted to gesticulate to the workers there I wanted to eat anything, so long as it was vegetarian. I consulted my mandarin handbooks and thought about just showing them the line that said I was vegetarian and hope for the best. Instead, I sunk my head, turned around and went home. All I wanted to do was eat, it shouldn’t have been so hard. I passed a grocery shop that was still open on the way home and went in to see what I could get hold of. A bottle of Evian on the shelf in front of the door, “At least I know what that is” I thought. I saw some junk food and picked up a can of Pringles, the only one that didn’t have some kind of meat flavouring. That was my first meal in China. Water and Pringles (see picture attached).
The next day I went to the offices of ImmerQi for my orientation day. Here I was taught about local behaviours and habits, in addition to the mentality of the Chinese toward certain ideas and notions. I was also taught how to avoid various social faux pas and just generally how not to put my food in my mouth (this was around the time that my program manager forgot to take his card out of the ATM, unable to reclaim it from the bank until the next week, I made a mental note: the money comes out first here). This was incredibly helpful, arming me with the essential knowledge needed in order to better understand the people of this country. This country which would be my home for the next four months.
After this I was taken for a meal (I had a vegetarian full English) and shown around a couple of places in Beijing. This was very helpful and I was grateful just to be around people who understood what I was saying. English is surprisingly uncommon here, I would have thought that a large metropolis like Beijing would have more English in shops, adverts and speakers generally on the street. The closest country I’ve been to geographically, and possibly culturally, is Thailand, which is full of English speakers. A word to the wise: China is not Thailand.
In the evening I decided to try my luck again with dinner and went to a local shopping mall recommended to me earlier and looked around for somewhere that served hot food. Unfortunately I could only find a McDonald’s, which again, didn’t have English on the menu. Luckily, there are pictures. That was my dinner on day two. A day and a half in Beijing and still hadn’t eaten any Chinese food. Well, I had 178 days left on my visa, I was sure I’d get around to it.
My first week here, food and language were, by far, the two biggest factors I had to struggle with. To be surrounded by 20 million people and still feel alone is a type of isolation I hadn’t experienced before. Simply surviving here requires work, it took me a lot to recognise Chinese characters and work on my pronunciation, but I’m getting there. I’ve learnt how to order food and my Mandarin is improving day by day (Wo bu chi rou (I don’t eat meat) = lifesaver). I’ve made some friends and I’m experiencing Beijing in my time off. Sometimes I still think about what I’m missing back in England and what the first thing I’ll do is when I get home. To me, Beijing is not home … yet.
By Sameer Choglay – China Internship Program Participant 2013 – 2014