08 - Week 0: Arrival | Scoins.net | DJS

08 - Week 0: Arrival


OK, so I spent what felt like two days on a plane. Sold the car on Monday morning, exacerbated by taking an hour to drive the 400m back to the M25. The problem was restrictions in the other direction, but the effect went back at every junction, no matter which way one wanted to go. The rest of Monday was spent already in transit, very slowly getting to Heathrow (1400), then finding the right terminal (not shown on the ticket, T2 as I had guessed), then finding where to check in – also not obvious. The flight left at 2120 so boarding was 2020. So I filled the time with some eating, some sudoku, more eating and found an internet hot spot to sit in or on so I could log on and check up on mail. No new mail.

Flight broken in Shanghai, PuDong. This time I remembered to do the transit checking to discover the gate for the next flight; this time I went and waited for luggage to arrive to be sure mine did not appear; yet again I got lost in the arrivals area, but I knew to go into the transit area, and then up to the third (“second”, in UK) floor to find the gates. Except gate 5 is not obvious when the signs show only letters. So I wandered up and down (this, I remember now, I have done before). Gate 5, amazingly is the gate furthest away, even further than Gate 1. You have to go past all the lettered kiosks (between, perpendicular to their line) to find the way to the gates, but nothing says so, in any language. I time arriving at the gate to fit with the boarding time of 1620 for a 1720 flight but the plane is delayed, and the assembled crowd is deferred and at 1720 we are offered ‘the’ flight meal. With chopsticks, so the majority of the Europeans are caught out with food not yet eaten when we are called to board at 1750. [PS: that does not include me, already up to speed with eating sticks; I noticed at least one chinese guy realising I ate faster than him; hunger is a great teacher.] We are about 40 mins late, eventually. Arrive Xi’an and I am whisked away as an International arrival, with a small lady with child to whom, to my amusement, it is assumed I am related. Incoming checking was trivial, partly because the papers to be collected were taken at Shanghai; I go through the green channel—no queue for me—and so I am first onto the concourse. But there is no Xiaolan ¹ to greet me, and when all are gone I parade slowly up and down the whole concourse to eventually and to great relief find her at another gate. Hence into Xi’an and, since it is quite late, no more meals (for another was served on the plane) and she drops me at school to a ‘standard school room’, a pretty reasonable standard of accommodation, bigger and more amenable than the rooms last week in Cambridge. (see Ineffective Invective) This ends Tuesday, having lost eight hours in the flight.

Wednesday begins with no breakfast because the first appointment is for the medical exam required to presage any residential permit. I need the residence permit before I can be permitted to bring my belongings into the country. Xiaolan drags me from pillar to post within a building whose only purpose is this testing, cutting through queues with scant regard to procedure or etiquette. The order of the rooms is not the order of the visits, of which there are maybe half a dozen: we need to redo my photographs, a blood sample is taken, a chest X-ray for the lungs and ultrasound for the middle abdomen (lungs to waist). Shirt on and off, but no more. The examination itself is done (exclusive, this) with ‘the officer’, who asks me height and weight, and about my sight correction (in English) – and that is it. All this takes until 1045 and next we do the Police Station, where a temporary residence permit is issued. I point out that this could more reliably be done at the airport, but that, it seems, would not cover the nationals. Of course, I would not recognise a need for that. By now I have learned my passport number and I am much amused that the tiny village of Stannington, where my birth was registered, is repeatedly accorded status where ‘England’ is probably what they want to record as place of birth. But this demonstrates the bureaucratic mind; never mind the point of the question, I want the information because the form demands it. “Where were you born?” is not the intended question, which would be “What is the place listed in the passport as place of birth?”. But the bureaucracy insists on asking the first question while wanting the second answer. In the same way the bank (later) wanted to know what is my salary and its periodicity (monthly). No, no, no: What they want to know is does that salary number represent a monthly figure or an annual figure… but the word salary means the sum you get paid each year without counting hours. So confusion is perpetrated and no doubt the word salary ends up losing meaning. Here, in effect it means monthly stipend, however calculated.

Then to lunch: clearly Xiaolan expects me to consume beer at every opportunity and is surprised when I point out that, having had no fluid since 2200 yesterday, this would not be sensible. She too has Yang Fei’s problem of ordering too much food, but we eat well and take an hour ‘off’ in school, where I repack and tidy my accounts. At 1330 we walk to the new flat for a 1400 meeting. Nice enough rooms, with two to greet (Vincent and Liu are the outgoing couple) and soon after that two ‘agents’ arrive, followed briefly by someone to read meters. Too many people and not enough answers. It transpires (a recognised feature of life, transpiration) that a year’s rent is expected, up front. I don’t have even one month’s rent on me, since I am supposed to be paying only the excess over the allowance. Ah, but what actually is to happen is that I rent as one arrangement and Dipont (wrong, it turns out, the school) pays an allowance to me (not to my landlord), monthly - as a separate arrangement. So I am to find 13x2400 RMB, and pay it to Vincent, before even my first paycheck – which happens to be Sept 11. Vincent is sharp enough in Chinese and in English to recognise that the date is not auspicious. I sign contracts: I am not going to do otherwise. There is enough space (both to sign a signature on the form and in the flat for living) and allegedly internet broadband, gas, electricity, hot water and air conditioning. It is as I described my wishes to be. Everything is explained only by doing it, never as answers to questions here, so proper planning is rendered impossible.

Next we went to the HSBC bank in Xi’an, not far at all from the Dipont office. More shenanigans. Opening an account is not a trivial matter. Money is enthusiastically welcomed from abroad, but taking it out of the country is not permitted, or maybe once a year if you ask nicely. I shall be moving far too much money to China and it looks already (writing this a day later) as though I will be left waiting for the day when it is permitted to move it back. Dipont [wrong again; the host school] only pays into the Bank of China, so I must have an account there, too. I opened an account at HSBC and must move an excess of £7000 [wrong, too: £50,000] into that account within the next month. Since I don’t yet know how restricted my internet banking will be, I do not know if this is a wise move or not, but not doing it seems more silly. One may yet find out. I am distinctly suspicious of motive and intent at the bank, but at least I could give them a mauling in English if necessary. So I finish here with an account number, but no money moved - why not is unclear, except that I wouldn’t be surprised to discover this apparent failure is the hint that I should not be doing this.

A brief visit to the office follows, where Xiaolan picked up mail, allowing us to collect my air-freighted bags and, by presuming upon one of the staff with a car, we take those two cases to the new flat, return to school for the other two, drop them off at the flat too and take ourselves (helper included) to dinner. Which, since he invited his new (and gorgeous) girlfriend to join in, is a neat move on his part and a decent return on his help.

So by 2100 I am in the new flat and can unpack. It is now I realise that the smell I had thought to be exiting children is strongest in the bedroom and reminds me of mice. Air con on high and struggling to cope with the heat. It might be the water, which is piped hot from underground.

Thursday, and the first order of the day is more money, so as to be able to pay two months rent in cash. The second ATM I find will work in English and will let me extract the maximum of 2000 RMB on my credit card. This, I discover later, is about £135 and has an attached cost through Visa of 2%. I really need to be able to check balances too and will explore to see if that is an option next time I try this, unless I can persuade the internet connection to work. Shopping for cleaning kit and a pillow comes to £4. Add on some cereal, sandwich material and an evening meal and the whole is….  How do measure the size of the bed to know what sheets I need? Answer; I know the size of A4 and I have some….

I keep feeling very tired – is this jet lag, or is it an avoidance reaction? I must ring Vincent and ask about internet connection. My system says it has ISP but not internet. That means I need an ISP address, I think. He gave me a username and password, but there is something before that to insert.

Slept for nearly three hours and rang Vincent. Discovered that there is a phone in every room (but since the norm is to use your mobile here, why?). He worked hard at finding the solution to the problem (ADSL should not need very much in the way of information to work; neither router present could establish any DSL connection). An hour later – an hour more, because I had spent quite a lot of time on the problem before ringing him on the grounds that some information was missing – a connection is established, because the weak link is the telephone connection. Yippee !!

Vincent is keen for me to integrate (not the maths sort; I can do that) and has several suggestions, among which is a guided tour on the weekend. I’m up for this.

Friday, day three, lost a large part of the morning catching up on email. Eventually I ventured out to try to buy a local mobile. Almost got myself lost and had to backtrack until I found an area I recognised. Shopping here involves far (far) too many staff and you cannot just browse; if you pause, then some assistant comes to assist. Sadly for them, I want leaving well alone. I still hate shopping – it is a necessary task, not a joy. I found several phone shops eventually, on the top floor of any department store (which look like office buildings, so I must be missing the clues). The assistants all stand far too close, almost touching and definitely inside my zone of comfort. At that proximity I cannot even begin to think of things to say in Mandarin because the discomfort disables the ability to think flexibly enough to even attempt a conversation. Xiaolan’s office companion said his phone cost 200 RMB and I should find lots at 400. The cheapest I found was over 500 and most were around 2000. So no, thank you, I’ll wait for an iPhone that I want, not have a phone that I don’t want. The locals won’t like that.

I ended up buying an ironing board and a bed-sheet from the supermarket where I have succeeded in all sales so far. No, I know they are not for phoning people. I was allowed the space to look at the ironing board, so was able to choose sensibly, but the bed-sheet was a different matter. On the principle I was likely to get this wrong I aimed to equip the smaller of my two beds, which is a metre wide. There is a helpful chart over the aisle and by the time I have stopped to study it I have four female heads in my armpits. Discomfort zone! I pick up one woman easily by the elbows and put her at a comfortable distance (oops); I point and gesture and am presented with something more than twice too big, then a bed spread, then a duvet, then something close and a demonstration with a nearby bed as to why the sheet I am holding is not the size I was pointing at. Best, this (older, the one I womanhandled) assistant proves to have been right. But what I really wanted was a little choice, some time to ponder and time to ask the questions I didn’t expect to have to ask. I had no such opportunity, because this sort of helping doesn’t help. I cannot cope (yet or ever is an unknown) with this level of interference. I now know how Father feels about shopping, but he has this level of agitation in his native English….

The department stores I walked around were practically empty of customers – but then the first floor was all make-up and jewellery, the second floor was all clothes, mostly female, and the top floor seemed to at least include blokes.

Apparently the vision of a bloke carrying an ironing board is fundamentally funny here. One guy almost fell off his bike for staring. I got the pressed shirt but not the joke.

Yesterday I found the food part of the supermarket. Upstairs, of all unlikely things. It would seem that the thinking is that by making one walk through the other goods to approach the till, one raises the chance of further sale. The heat is so great that I (for one) couldn’t stand the idea of mixing food-buying with other goods unless I do the other goods first. But the food buyers pick up a hand basket while the other goods buyers use a trolley. Partly this points to the difficulties of moving a trolley around upstairs (the ramp up is no problem), partly to the staffing levels – there’re just too many people in the way. I have joined a Facebook group called something like “I walk faster than you, GET THE HELL OUT OF THE WAY” which serves to let off steam in agreeable company. Walking here is a leisurely stroll: this may be to try to keep just below the sweating threshold.

The heat is worth discussion. This is summer, and the lowest temperature I have experienced is 26ºC in the hours before dawn. The humidity and the dust levels from local construction are both high. Air conditioning is on all over town, which lowers the temperature inside and makes outside warmer still. I think the day-time high is pushing 40ºC. I have, at the time of writing these last few paragraphs, just been for dinner down the street. I guessed from the photos in the menu what might be edible. Having previously experienced too much food and dishes I didn’t order, I only ordered two dishes tonight. One proved to be meat in a spicy sauce over a flame, with the tiniest bowl to bounce it in with chopsticks. Fine, except the meat has been butchered in the Gurkha style and is full of bones, so I end up putting a vast amount of bone around the rice cake that is what dish two turns out to be. I saw a photo of a biscuit as one might have with coffee; my idea of scale was off by at least 50% and I have a medium sized cake to eat on my own. By the time I have eaten most of both dishes I am bloatedly full, grateful for the accompanying green tea but unable to eat any more without embarrassment on the way home. I look up the phrase for where to pay and, using it, find that the whole meal is 45 RMB, very close to £3. The only detractions were that the building was not cooled so I have melted into my shirt and I have consumed my handkerchief too. I needed serviettes, lower temperature, company to share the food (with an additional plate of vegetables) and maybe a beer. Which would have raised the total to £5, perhaps. So food is cheap. However, the way the locals are eating, it will not be long before they lose their gorgeous slimness and turn into overlarge Asian Americans. ² Let us hope they can find a balance soon. ³.

DJS 20070803

1  I met Xiaolan on the previous trip, essays  01 & 05.

2   Unintended moment of hilarity in TopGear, when Clarkson bounces into the audience to ask a dazzling blonde for an opinion. On her reply he says, inanely, “You’re American, you can’t be American, you’re not fat”!  Yes, I know a lot of TG is scripted, but if that was acting, he is underselling his skills. It felt completely genuine, including that look I recognised as JC asked himself if he’d gone too far and whether they’d have to shoot that bit again. Or him.     [Re-reading this in 2023, that was a prescient comment]

3      If only to show them that their weight is rising.

Sunday, 5 August 2007



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