In today’s post, I will continue this eventful memory, by recreating who was actually waiting for me at the arrivals gate, and what I ate as my first ‘meal’ in China. I will also include some top tips that are relevant to today’s topics.
As I mentioned previously, I had just subjected a young man to an embarrassing strip search, discovered my phone, and was about to meet with Dick, who, from his emails, told me he’d be waiting by the arrivals area. After waiting for my luggage, which was a gigantic and immensely heavy rucksack, I lugged it over my shoulder, and like a donkey made my way to arrivals. Once there, I was on the lookout for a sign with my name on it, just like in the films, “cool”, I had thought to myself (like that somehow relaxed me).
As you can imagine, I, of course, was running a little bit late, only by ten or so minutes, (which I would hardly deem ‘late’, considering I was in an airport). At first glance, I couldn’t see my name being held up, so I began walking up and down the arrivals aisle in search of Dick (the man, not the genitalia), and in search of my name card also, but to no avail. I recall walking up and down the aisle as if I was looking for a criminal in a police line-up, but after failing to see Dick, I stood to the side with anticipation. I slowly watched the horde of awaiting people, grow smaller and smaller, as families and friends rejoiced in each other’s arms, and then leave. I, accompanied by some litter that was dropped by the crowd of people, was now all that was left; I was expecting a tumbleweed to roll on by, but instead, a piece of plastic blew in the air-conditioned draft (this was 21st-century emptiness).
Thirty to forty minutes had passed, and I began to wish that my delusions of murder and kidnap were true, so at the very least, I wouldn’t have been stranded there (as I stated previously, logical thinking goes out the window when you panic). And then, as I looked up, I saw what could only be described as a fat man, holding a coffee, with a beige stain on his white ‘fitted’ t-shirt. He had scruffy, receding hair, and his face was unshaven, also, if I remember rightly, he was wearing Hawaiian shorts. He said, “are you, Lee?”, in a strange non-Scottish accent, and I answered,
“yeah, nice to meet you. Dick?”
(you must remember that during my video interview, I had only seen his neck and chin) he responded,
“nope, I’m Donatello” (I’ve changed his name of course).
So, there I was, I had just been greeted by someone called Donatello, a man who looks as if he’s just finished a graveyard shift. Regardless of his appearance, where was Dick? I was supposed to be meeting Dick; I questioned this, and he responded by asking me to follow him, and as I did, he began explaining that Dick had sent him in his place and that I would meet with Dick in the next few days. You wouldn’t be wrong for thinking, “are you meeting the godfather?”, because at this point, that’s what it felt like. We continued walking for some fifteen or so minutes after we had left the airport, and at no point had he offered to assist me in any way with my massive burdensome bag; he did, however, tell me a lot about himself, primarily that he was from Eastern Europe.
We crossed the road and entered the metro, where he kindly bought me a “welcome to Guangzhou gift”, in the form of a metro card, so I could ride the subway to wherever the hell we were going. At this point, he had told me partially about the company that he, and now myself, worked for, but generally, he focused on what it was like to live in China. He illustrated life there by talking negatively about the people and their culture. So, essentially the first person in China I had spoken to, said, “I understand, this is China”, regarding me thinking my phone was stolen, and now the second person was telling me how rude everyone was; so, you could say that I had a preconceived notion about where I was.
Once on the subway, I had laid my bag by my feet to unburden my shoulders, Donatello suspiciously said, “be careful”, suggesting that it could get stolen, “let them try”, I had thought to myself, not because I’ll fight to the death for my possessions, but because I didn’t think anyone would get very far with my million-litre bag. He pointed above the subway door, and showed me the overhead map, he then showed me where we were headed to (it was the last stop), it was here that I inquisited indirectly, “Dick mentioned that I’d be staying in a flat with other teachers”, in an attempt to find out what everyone else was like, without seeming to question too much. Donatello seemed confused by this as if I had just told him the meaning of life, and then he said, “no idea, you’re staying in a hotel. That’s where I’m taking you”
This pleasantly surprised me, firstly because it was a hotel, meaning it was probably going to be nice, and secondly, the last thing I wanted to do, was to introduce myself to a room full of strangers, after travelling for nearly two days without sleep. I’m not a hermit, it’s just that I didn’t want their first impressions of me to be tainted by my exhausted pale appearance, cranky attitude, and hunched painful posture, essentially looking like a troglodyte (a caveman).
We arrived at the last stop, and as soon as I lugged my bag back over my shoulder, we were on our way again, and by this time, it was around eleven or twelve at night. We walked around the outskirts of the city centre in search of my hotel, and during this time, Donatello had told me about another teacher who was from the UK, even going so far as to impersonate him, as if I’d instantly recognise the impression and know who he was on about, “I want to watch the telly, the telly“, he said in mockery of the British English informal of television. This though somehow comforted me, as it made me feel like I at least had a connection with someone. Unbeknown to me at the time, this ‘telly’ guy would eventually become one of my closest friends.
To cut a long search short, we found the hotel in question, and as we entered the building we were greeted by the stench of stale cigarette smoke, mouldy walls, a dog chained up, and two receptionists, both of which were on their phones. “Social etiquette”, I had thought to myself when they remained seated and ‘unaware’ that we were standing right before them. They continued to ignore us until my trusty escort rang the bell, somewhat passive-aggressively; and as he did, they became quickly agitated and unfriendly. They both remained that way throughout the entire checking in process; Donatello could speak Chinese, so it wasn’t as if we were being ignorant.
One receptionist then chucked my room key onto the reception desk, where I was leaning from exhaustion, and with a deflated “xiexie” (thank you), we climbed the stairs to my floor. I was fully aware at this point that this hotel was not nice, believe me, I was aware. I remember so clearly, reaching my floor, and looking down the unlit, pitch black corridor, and thinking, “this looks like somewhere where you’d murder someone”, and as I pondered that, the lights began switching on one by one, as if in a horror movie, only in reverse. I continued down the corridor, and out of nowhere, a colossal sized rat darted towards me, staying close to the wall. It was so big a monstrous, it was as if a rugby player was charging towards me, I could actually hear it huffing and puffing. It ran straight past me, and then down the stairs in which I came.
Feeling slightly on edge by my temporary home (understatement), I entered my room with my new colleague, where he told me how to use the air conditioner, and after a brief demonstration, he said, “I’ll see you tomorrow”, and before I knew it, he was gone. I had no idea as to when he was coming back, nor did I know where I was meeting him, and most importantly, I had no food, and I had no water. Sleeping had to wait, as I needed to find someplace to eat (no, this hotel had no minibar, it really isn’t what you think). I hid my money and passport in the room and ventured outside, and on passing the check-in desk, I told the receptionists (with the help of a translation app) that a rat was roaming the hotel, to which they just looked at me blankly and shrugged as if to say, “and?”
I walked around in search of a shop or vending machine, but surprisingly, there wasn’t anything around. I didn’t want to go too far from my hotel, as then I’d probably never find it again, so I remained nearby and continued my search. After no luck of finding a shop, I’d started to give up on the thought of finding food, so I focused my efforts on finding water instead; it was then that I stumbled across an old man, seated on a bench next to an unplugged fridge, and inside, was bottled water.
I approached him, and asked, “how much?”, he kept his head down looking at his phone, and then grunted at me, I pointed at the water, and repeated, “how much?” He sighed and then looked up at me, and as soon as he noticed I wasn’t Chinese, he pulled out his calculator and told me a bottle was 50 RMB (about 5 pounds), clearly trying his luck, I responded with a, “no no no”, with a smile, trying to keep things casual. He gave up fast, and punched 10 RMB into the calculator (still expensive for China); I agreed, and he physically snatched the money from my hands and threw the bottle into my chest, as if that wasn’t enough, he showed me the back of his hand, and shooed me away as if I was a dog. Now, all that negativity I heard earlier is starting to have some credibility, right?
Heading back to my room, with my unrefrigerated water bottle in hand, wondering if, in fact, it was even water, I had taken my time to ensure I’d have a mental map of the area for the following day. Just ahead of me, were a few scattered, multi-coloured plastic garden chairs in the road, one of which, was occupied by an old man, and situated next to him, was another man stood in front of a makeshift barbeque, cooking. The old man glared at me through the steam coming off from his ‘meat’, as if he were a diseased, ravenous dog, he could have pissed in a circle to mark his territory for all I cared, I wasn’t going to eat his bloody food.
As a germaphobe, there was no chance I was going to be endulging in street food and especially since I had knowledge prior to this from my little book of, ‘what not to do in China’. Donatello had also told me a tale of when he had street food, and had ended up ‘coiling rope’, if you know what I mean, so it’s fair to say, I wasn’t going to try it, no matter how hungry I was.
As I am slowly revealing my poor excuse of a personality to you through my posts, I’ll just add to my already unimpressive list of idiosyncrasies, with mysophobia (germaphobe) and whilst I’m at it, I’ll chuck in misanthropy too. Essentially my whole life is just a worrying scribble of Greek named fears.
Skip a terrible night’s sleep, and it’s the early hours of the morning, I was supposed to be meeting my colleague, but as he didn’t state where or when, I decided to stay in my room, and wait until he came back. I recall sitting on the end of my bed, and just sitting there, waiting; he didn’t leave any contact information, and my phone wasn’t working either. I had hoped to use the hotel’s WiFi to contact Dick and find out what was going on, but of course, there was no WiFi. After waiting for a few hours, I walked around outside, and because everything was open, I could locate a shop, and find a place to eat.
This was my first real experience of embracing China first-hand, so I, of course, was very excited to integrate and submersify myself in this old and ancient land. The first thing I remember, was the heat, now, if you have never been to Asia, then you have no idea what I am talking about, forget your hot holidays in Spain, weather in China is insanity! Allow me to illustrate temperature, through the power of metaphorical language; firstly, the air itself, imagine an air so thick and riddled with pollution, that when breathing deeply, you can feel it stick to your cilia as if it were a black toxic yoghurt. Now, add in that 100% humidity, combined with some searing heat of 40 degrees, and this harmful concoction can only compare to sitting in a car on a hot summers day, with all the windows wound up, the heating on, and someone sat next to you, smoking, “you canny breathe!”
Being from England, my body could not handle the heat initially, then, shared with my experience of being watched and examined by almost every person I walked past, I had headed back to my hotel (being scrutinised for being a foreigner, is something I will talk about at greater length, in a later post). After washing away what felt like an oily ‘gunge’ from my face (pollution), I sat myself back down on the end of my bed, and it was then that I started to contemplate my choice to come to China.
I started to feel regret, I believe it was a combination of fear and worry, I felt a total lack of control, to the extent that I couldn’t even feed myself. The basics seemed unreachable. For those of you reading this thinking, “it’s easy, just find a shop”, you must remember, I hadn’t slept, I was completely isolated in terms of communication, signs are of course only in Chinese, and if you try to ask someone for help, they grunt at you. This really wasn’t a ‘touristy’ area, this was an old, old area, and by the looks of it, no one had ever seen a westerner before (that’s not an exaggeration).
It’s worth noting, that this initial feeling of being lost and isolated, doesn’t last long, in fact, you quickly find yourself bonding with people much faster in this environment; essentially, your friends become your family.
After waiting for a long while whilst perched on the end of my bed, there was eventually a knock on the door, and there he was, Donatello, all hot ‘n’ red, and ready to go; he asked me, “are you hungry?” (oh my god, the moment was here), “yes, very! Where shall we go?” I asked, and then what he said next still makes people laugh to this day, he said, “McDonald’s of course”, “of course”, I had thought to myself, “so be it”. Yes, my first meal in China, the land of rice, noodles and chickens feet, was in fact, a cheeseburger, a large coke, and fries, and I didn’t care!
Side note: McDonalds China have officially changed the company’s name to ‘Golden Arches’, receiving ridicule in China, as in Chinese, it sounds like a cheap rip off, like their alternative ‘Sunbucks’. A personal favourite of mine has to be terrible translation t-shirts! (they’ll be more posted in the future)
- Communication – If you’re planning to stay in China for a while, get yourself ‘WeChat’, China’s functionally superior version of ‘WhatsApp’. Every single person uses this app for paying bills, managing money, communication, booking taxi’s, and even for getting discounts in shops.
- Metro Card – This is an absolute must-have, as a metro card can get you from one side of the city to the next, super fast and super cheap. It is however very crowded and somewhat olid depending on when you commute.
- Street Food – Opinions are divided on this, but personally, I avoid street food at all costs. There are no hygiene precautions in place whatsoever, resulting in possible food poisoning and it was reported that there is a 38% chance that your street food, is, in fact, rat or mouse!
- Weather – I’ll share with you my ultimate secret weapon, the umbrella! Yes, the umbrella is used in Asia to block out the sun from burning your skin and keeping you cool, but I also use it to, a) conceal my face when walking about ( you’ll get a lot of unwanted attention being a westerner), and b) create a personal barrier with it by swinging it side to side whilst walking (personal space in China does not exist!)
In next week’s post, I will share with you how I was ‘trained’ to be a teacher, and the moment you’ve been waiting for, how I finally (and unintentionally) met the arcane Dick.