Monday, 17 November 2008

Welcome to China

If there's one story I've resisted telling about my travels, because it's just too much of a cliche, it's the "Welcome to China" story. One reason that I've steered clear is that it appeared in a book I hated (in fact it was a chapter heading), Polly Evans' "Fried Eggs with Chopsticks", a 250 page complaint about how awful travelling alone is (admittedly I only made it 80 pages in before I gave up). Another is that the story is pure surface, a nice little tale about a friendly interaction with a Chinese, hinting at some kind of depth without actually containing any. It usually goes that a few weeks in to your trip to China, once you're comfortable enough to seem approachable to Chinese people without understanding enough of the language to have a proper conversation, someone (usually a man, given how shy many Chinese women are) approaches you for a chat. You stumble through the few Chinese sentences you can manage - I come from London, I don't speak Chinese, I don't understand - and then there's an awkward, but friendly, pause, both of you out of lines of communication. You both smile at each other, wishing you could go further, and then he says (big grin for this one) "Welcome to China". It's easy to slip this into stories about traveling, since it seems so meaningful and relevant the first time it happens.

So if it's such a cliche, why am I - a hater of cliches wherever I notice them - discussing it here, on my own blog? Well, two reasons really. In part it's because I've had two such conversations today, enough to make me feel doubly welcome in a country I've been in for nearly five weeks now, but mostly it's because of the circumstances of the second occasion.

I'm in Nanjing still, leaving tomorrow for Hangzhou, and decided tonight to check out the bar district proper (having failed miserably to find a whiskey on the rocks last night). On my third attempt (The first place: sorry, you can't enter. No I can't give you an explanation; the second: please pay us 200 pounds) I found an R&B club with a nice bar, friendly staff and cheap(ish) drinks. Whilst I waited on a Glenmorangie, the man next to me turned and smiled. "Gambei" he said, the Chinese equivalent of "down it", and pointed at the shot of his beer the waitress had poured for me. I smiled, took the glass, maintained eye contact (important here) and took the shot. We chatted briefly, and I received my whiskey. In the meantime the prettiest barmaid had finished work and taken a seat on my left, and as I drank up I watched her engage in origami with fascination. She remained locked in concentration for a full five minutes, and at the end she presented the most perfect origami swan I'd seen.

I was not to be outdone. "Get me some paper" I said, and soon enough I had a sheet in front of me. "Watch this" I told her, and the watching barstaff. I honestly wasn't sure what would happen next. A few folds had me a decent corner. "Are you ready?" I said - I didn't care that they couldn't understand, they would get it soon enough. I placed the paper on my head. "It's a hat". The barstaff laughed, the girl took the paper from me, turning it into real origami, an amazing heart which she presented to me. I laughed and gave her the thumbs up, only to be interrupted again by the guy on my right.

"Gambei" he said again, and I obligingly downed the rest of my whiskey. We smiled uncomprehendingly at each other, and he pointed at my jacket - a tailored burberry style raincoat I picked up at the fabric market for 50gbp. He touched one of the buckles on the shoulders. "Yingguo shwo shenme?" he asked - how do you say this in English? I told him, and he told me that in China only soldiers had these, and how to distinguish verbally between an infantryman's epaulet's and a general's. Truth be told, between the speed of his slightly slurred Chinese and the MC's attempts at English (shake der tass, shake der tass) I wasn't following him too well. Finally he pointed at his chest, thumped it with his fist and smiled. He spoke Chinese, but I didn't understand, and when I looked back with confusion he repeated himself slowly in English. "The Chinese military welcomes you" he said, which put me on edge just enough to order another Glenfiddich, and down it in one.

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