60 - Visiting Britain

Visiting Britain when you live abroad is an odder experience than you might imagine. Yes, you’re going home, but then you probably think you had some pretty good reasons for leaving. My trips back in the summers of 2008 and 2009 left me with the same feeling each time—what a wonderful country. With most countries around the world I have had the same reaction, followed by the caveat, “...pity about the people that live there”. Britons try very hard to fit that same sad label. Oh yes you do.

August 2008’s trip was remembered for the complaining, primarily. I would arrive somewhere to fill the tank or the stomach or a bed—n general, to spend money—and what I heard from the customers, and all too often from the staff, was an endless ritual of complaint. The weather, the state of the nation, the nation state, the neighbours, the football, the family; you name it, it got the treatment. My working definition of a good hotel (café, etc) was where the staff didn’t, where they presented a cheerful face to the world, where they allowed your (my) own enjoyment of the country free rein and in turn made their job more enjoyable. Recursion does not necessarily involve more swearing...

August 2008 was also while the Olympics were being held in Beijing. The excitement in China was tangible. There were screens everywhere, including on the local buses in Nanjing. Huge screens that were usually used for advertising would be set on one of the national channels covering the action. Talk was about the Olympics: not about the sport, but about what it meant for China. Much of what was said was absolute crap, but I (now) suspect that applies to any nation as we steadily lose any ability to think for ourselves. The belief in China was (and largely still is) that having the Olympics would change (and has changed) the world’s view of the nation and therefore (they think) bring increased prosperity. It has proved true that the nation feels good about itself in a way that it did not, say, three years beforehand. The high point of the whole affair was the Opening Ceremony (and please see my comments on Sports Days); this is consistent with ‘face’ issues here (see Issues of Face). Only first place will do in China; second is nowhere, compromise is nothing. This is totally at odds with everyone’s individual life. The same odd thinking is what causes all but the most experienced to compete flat out until they cannot continue, with no regard to past experience, to intelligent thought; some sort of cultural imperative takes over. So a typical 1000m race (on a 400m track, so 2.5 laps) will have at least one (idiot) running to the line from the off as if the whole race is 200m long. On reaching the line he/she will act as if this is the finish, performing for the camera(s). One metre after the line reality hits and they (note the singular ‘they’) slow down as if hit. On the next lap, someone else will behave the same way. In between whiles, but most often near the start, anyone who can do so will strive for a moment in / at the front. It would appear (no one will talk to me about it, I must be stamping on all sorts of conventions) that being first at any point in the race is sufficient to gain kudos, credit, face, whatever. This is then consistent with the actions of those who realise they cannot come first (often discovered on the last lap)—the spectacular collapse, often just before the line. It’s all about “me, me, me” and I find it very difficult to get this to fit with the other activities of Chinese in general. There is a dichotomy between extreme selfishness at an individual level and immense co-operation when many are in the same situation. Read my comments on driving (see Traffic) with that in mind; I now see that most of the time the selfishness continues, but the effect (of not losing tempers) looks like wonderful comradeship. The modern face of communism, perhaps?


Typically, a commentary that is on the face of things about Britain is just as much about China. And so it should be, for you read this to put my observations of China into context. If my comments on Britain ring no bells, then either we see (and maybe live in) different worlds, or at least one of us is some sort of idiot. I know I’m mad; I live in China.

In August 2009 I was back in Britain. The trip for the month worked out at about £200 per day, as it did again in February ‘10—i.e. expensive. What I heard this time in ’09 was a similar level of complaint to the previous trip. What I experienced was a gorgeous summer: there was sunshine every day—I was very sensitive to this, having had white skies throughout the stay in Xi’an and blue skies but rarely in Nanjing. There was occasional rain, but only briefly. I had a wet day in the hills (thanks again, Pete) that was all the more exciting for that, but the day before was idyllic and if the subsequent week was a bit grey, I still saw some blue every day all month. Yet what I heard was moan, moan, moan.

Yes, Britain is an expensive place to live. On the other hand, you have some wonderful facilities you take for granted, you have access to all sorts of things not available elsewhere and if everything goes wrong for you the State will pick up the pieces.  Examples: I couldn’t get used to shops being shut. In China, if I’m awake, there are shops open. If it is Sunday I cannot tell the difference (yes I can; there is slightly less construction noise). In Britain you have free medical services; in China triage takes place first, then you pay, then you get treatment: no pay, no treatment. Life is cheap, here.

Britain has leisure. France has even more. China doesn’t recognise it. You either play (sport, music, whatever) at a professional level or you don’t do that (well, you don’t admit to it), you do something different, usually called a job. Not-working is anathema,  it is wrong, it is suspect. Conversely, of course, the level at which most work is done is very low and all sorts of activities become ‘work’, including eating and drinking. Education is perceived as the cure for everything, it opens all doors—but then (here) the proof that you have an education lies in the paper and not in the performance; the exception is to do with who you know and what you can buy—there are many incompetents in powerful jobs who bought their way (not fought, bought) to that position, not unlike Britain in the eighteenth century (I’m thinking of Wellington’s era). Britain has television, sport, clubs, societies; its people have pastimes and hobbies. If you don’t (if you choose not to), that is your choice and I feel a little sorry for you (which is stupid, why should I? I’m in the same position here from a different set of choices). Here there is no such choice. A few (as a %) take exercise—that takes many forms, from tai chi, performed anywhere (really) and at any time (really), through ballroom dancing (I’ve seen this at 08:00 outside on a Sunday), aerobic dancing (imagine a thousand people in a grid pattern, with a speaker system blaring in the remote distance, sometimes with a solitary figure on a podium or stage up to 150m away). Energetic, sweaty, exercise is rare. We (go on, wonder) have a track nearby and the majority walk around it (many go backwards, see Looking Both Ways); those that do run are not going to wash afterwards. So people like me (that’s a count we can do on one hand) with British values of ‘exercise’ are so rare that I could sell the space on my chest for advertising.

Go on. Laugh.

DJS 20100513

There’s more to write, but this is a publish-and-be-damned moment... I’ll get back to it eventually. Possibly on other pages.
Related essays: Issues of Face. Looking Both Ways, Sports Day.

© David Scoins 2017