Destination China!


27th June 2004


Today I am headed off for a new adventure and a year on University Placement in China. I am a mature student in his late 40’s, and relish what may turn out to be a great challenge or extraordinary submersion into a very different culture. I am flying from Manchester airport in Blighty to Guangzhou, which until a short time ago I called Canton. I am in company with Neal, my new Boss, who is going out there to supervise the English Speaking Competition their company is holding in a city called ‘Foshan’.  I have absolutely no idea about what to expect, but have an apartment ready for my arrival, and will work office hours as office manager (9 – 5, Monday through Friday with weekends off). The pay is handsome, and I am very up for it.


I am travelling with Air France, and this is my first long-haul experience. The main leg actually departs from Charles De Gaul airport in Paris, so I have a short connecting flight from UK first. All goes well until I arrive in France, and find this to be the most atrocious and badly designed airport I have ever had the misfortune to visit. I also have four hours to kill, and absolutely nothing to do. The only restaurant available in Terminal 2 is offers self service at extortionate prices, everything is priced in Euros (Whatever they are?), and the food is typically canteen disgusting. Typically the French staff will only speak French to anyone hailing from England. I make a mental note never to set foot in this airport again! Having endured 3-hours of this alone, I then meet up with Neal for check-in and we get seats together.  The aircraft is fine, and the flight will be a leg of 12 and a half hours. That’s a long time!


On board, the staff that are not French will speak English, but the Native French still refuse to. My schoolboy French is a very long time in my past, but I do recall a couple of useful words and phrases. For a famous international airline, this is very ‘Not Good!) Within an hour we are served a decent meal, and drinks are complimentary. Things brighten as I think about adventures ahead and chat to Neal, who is a really nice guy. The plane is actually full of Chinese people who have discovered the servery does pot noodles. I think I may have one later, but in the meantime it seems Neal and myself are the only ones aboard interested in beer. We hang out at the rear and drink quite a few of them – well, the seat TV is pretty crap with only a couple of choices (Either in French or Chinese). This is an international flight then?


6-hours in, and I fancy one of the pot noodles, only to discover they are all gone. The only snacks they have on offer are stale croissants with some form of Jam. I then discover as this is a ‘night flight’, there is no other meal until breakfast. Sacré Nome! I am a large man and find difficulty fitting into the child-sized seat. Neal is very big (6’6” with good frame), and so he is still trying to work out how to fit his legs into a space designed for a dwarf. We endure the discomfort, as there is no other option, and catch a few winks every now and then. It is basically impossible due to extreme physical discomfort – talk about cattle-class!


We are due to land in Guangzhou at 7.25, so I am expecting breakfast to be served around 6am. No! Perhaps 6.30 then? No! The staff wait until after 7am to start delivering breakfast to a very full aeroplane. We are on decent already, and as my food arrives, so it is immediately followed by someone collecting the rubbish. Hang-on here! I haven’t even managed to open everything yet. The attendant comes round with seconds, and I grab a small baton and some extra cheese and spam. I hurriedly make sarnies of them, as the final table clearance is happening. This is one of the most stupid things I have ever encountered! Hello Air France!!!


I decide to never fly with Air France again either! Well, cummon! I’ve been starving since half way through this flight, and when they serve breakfast there is not time enough left to eat it. I am still munching on a sandwich baton when we land! This decided, I let it go, as new adventures await me this morning, and my very first time to The Orient.


We land at Guangzhou ‘Old’ Baiyun Airport, and I admit that in the back of my mind were interrogations by officious Customs or Military personnel. Neal has made this trip many times before and says it is a breeze. Along our route from airplane to Customs we pass by a guy in military uniform with a wicked looking machine gun cocked and ready for action. Feeling gallant, I nod and smile at him, and he gives me a great big smile in return. Now that was not what I was expecting! Customs is probably the best in the whole wide world. It is so quick and efficient I can’t believe we are through so quickly. Europe needs to learn from this example. Within 5-minutes we are outside, and slam straight into an oven! It is so damned hot here – Mist all Chucking Frighty! I have no sooner stepped out of the terminus door than I am sweating profusely. The odd thing is that all Countries have their individual smell, and this smells like ‘Home’. How odd?


We are greeted by Neal’s Chinese business partner and my real boss for the next year or so. She is called Rebecca, and welcomes me in grand style. I already feel like royalty.  We walk a few paces to her car, and soon luxuriate as the air-con kicks in. Both Neal and Rebecca don’t smoke, and as yet I have no idea whether China permits smoking? I later learn that about 1 Billion others do smoke – anywhere and everywhere!  I am jet-lagged and suffering from too much oxygen in my carbon-monoxide system, and Rebecca looses the plot regards driving out of Guangzhou. I must add, having suffered similar on repeated occasions, GZ is not an easy city to drive in – but then is far larger than London. Neal gives her playful grief, and I relax as this strange new world unfolds outside of the windows. I’ve never seen buildings like these before, nor experienced anything remotely like the world I see before my eyes right now. It is fascinating!


Eventually Rebecca escapes Guangzhou City, and we are headed for ‘Long Jiang’. I will be Manager of their English Language Training School here for the next year, and have absolutely no idea of what to expect. I don’t actually realise we have left Guangzhou and have entered Foshan; such is the density of housing and industry hereabouts. Then we drive for 10 miles past furniture factories, showrooms, and exhibition halls. Wow! And I mean, that is all there is for half an hour’s driving. Incredible!


I had presumed we would go directly to my apartment, but it was not to be. Instead we have to drop by some school for some reason? I scramble out of the excellent car, and see ‘security’ having a smoke just outside the school gate. Ahha! I immediately light-up, and my body is wowed by the heady rush of nicotine and carbon monoxide. Fantastic + it has been a very long time coming. I smoke virtually all of the ‘hottest’ cigarette of my life, and notice security has dropped his nub end on the floor. Rebecca insists it is now time to enter the school, and I still have no idea why we are here … something that I have later found tends to happen frequently in China.


Entering the playground and immediately surrounded by ‘small people’ saying ‘Hello’ in English; I see the most beautiful creature I have ever witnessed floating across the yard to greet us. She is called Jane, and is destined to be my Deputy Manageress for the next year! I think I have just died and gone to heaven! She is totally ‘Drop-dead Gorgeous’!


After greetings in perfect English, I enquire as to our roles. Well, it appears we are destined to share our daily lives in the office, and she will also be my companion outside of work – sometimes, like showing me around and the like. I am not instantly in lust with this girl, I am totally in love with her already! And in case you wondered - no we never did become romantically involved, although we still remain the best of friends.


We then endure some sort of stage show for half an hour, as Jane shows me around the school, and Neal and Rebecca disappear off somewhere. Whilst her natural beauty is more intriguing than my own craving for nicotine, I also welcome the others’ return, and to see my new gaff in China for the first time. We bundle back into the car and drive for 1-minute, before entering a lovely and secure housing complex. These are called ‘Gardens’ in China, and like American condominiums. Most of the buildings are around 18 floors high, and there is a centre for food, and swimming pools scattered around the place. My new home is Block 11, floor 13, and Rebecca is most concerned I may think ‘13’ to be an unlucky number. She has an alternative gaff arranged if I refuse the number. WTF? Floor thirteen is fine by me, and the gaff is excellent! It has two bedrooms, living room, bathroom and kitchen. It also features two balconies and is virtually fully furnished, including TV and cable with 200-odd channels, and air-con. I am totally gobsmacked! After living for 2-years in UK Uni accommodations, this place is a palace - Wow!


I settle down after Neal and Rebecca leave, and just wonder if my life has suddenly taken a new and very unexpected turn.  I shower, twice ‘cause it is so damned hot, and switch on the A/C. I am now ok for the nicotine, and marvel I have 3 English language channels in TV already. However, I am seriously jet-lagged, and am sort of ‘in-and-out’ of it for the remainder of the day. I don’t sleep, but am constantly napping, and dreams are weird. Maybe I am wrong, but China does actually smell of something … and that is culture.


Jane calls me around 6pm, but I am out of it and decline her offer of dinner. I need to impress this girl, and am not in any fit state right now. Clever Boy!


Then, all of a sudden, I am totally with it again!


I fancy a beer and something to eat. I call Jane, but she is in bed already. This confirms my suspicion that all eating and drinking establishments in China may close around 9 or 10 pm. It was almost the same when I grew up in England by the way! The time is now a little after 9pm, and I am ready for ‘adventures in China’! I change into my gear and head for the street. At the Garden entrance, I decide to head out right, and walk for 20 minutes before encountering a roundabout. It is obvious the town is left, so I head in that direction. Another 10-minutes brings me to a sidestreet I quite like the look of. It is very traditional, and becomes more run-down as I progress. People begin to stop and look at me, but I feel absolutely no danger. The street becomes an alleyway, and I note that shops selling “Gawd knows what” are open for business. By this time I have certainly walked a couple of miles, and it is still damned hot. Thirsty weather, and I have not passed a single place yet that offers beer. I am presuming still that they have these in China – but I simply don’t know. I press on regardless…


I exit the alley, and come into the canal side, which is full of restaurants … and people drinking beer and eating food. Ahha! I knew it would happen! I almost walk past the first one (There are maybe 20 along this street), but stop and look. Inside there are a group of boys drinking what has to be beer? Remember, I have no language here, and the culture is extremely different from the west. One of the boys says “Hello”, and asks me in good English to join them. I thank him but politely refuse, as I don’t know what the hell is actually happening here. I have the attention of a waitress, so point at a bottle of beer … and it comes to pass, and is extremely delicious and very cold. Wow!


The guys are still entreating me to join their table, so eventually curiosity gets the better of me, and I am made welcome. That’s just the half of it – these guys are great, and not into any angles or stuff like that. They simply want to know if they can drink me under the table. Hahahahaha! Cummon!


Andy (The English speaker) is very personable, and very helpful. His ‘Brother’ Hervey later becomes a very dear friend of mine, and we swapped pendants and did lots of ‘Boy stuff’, even though our linguistical communications were reduced to odd clauses. We understood each other implicitly, and shared some greatest times together.


The time is now after 3am, and I am pissed (UK for drunk). I have experienced one of the best nights of my life, and made new and lasting friends along the way. I also know that Chinese people are just the same as us foreigners, and I can’t wait for tomorrow – something that has never left me in this most diverse and interesting Country.


My new friends see me safely to a motorcycle taxi nearby, and not knowing the way home, I simply point directions following my route hereabouts. Eventually we arrive back outside my Garden, and he is granted special permission by security to deliver me to my door. And this cost me 20 pence! He then tells me I live at a place called ‘Mam Wha Fa Yuen’, and I write this down for future reference in Engerwishy (As I am damned sure I will be doing this again, very soon and often!), and he compliments in Chinese by writing down my address in Chinese characters. I now know where I live!


Returning to my gaff, I wonder if I am not the most fortunate human beamish on this planet. I totally love it already! I go to the balcony and stare up at the stars – they wink back at me, and are the same ones I know so well, so far from home


I already know I will be staying a while…..


Thank you Neal and Rebecca – between yourselves you changed my life … so much so that I am still here 7 years later.


Ah! The trials and tribulations of international travellers and new countries; but until you go look for yourself - you will only ever see what you already have in this world.


Your most honourable welcome – China!