Asia-Pacific Nius

2 September 2011

China: First impressions dispel big city myths in Beijing

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Yvonne Brill recounts her first three weeks in China. Despite raw potato and berry syrup, it was easier than expected. Photo: Yvonne Brill.
2 September 2011

In a city of 19 million people, it can be easy to become lost in the crowd, just another one of the masses. Coming from a city like Auckland, with a population of around 1.4 million, the sheer number of people in Beijing is mind-blowing.

But the differences between Auckland and Beijing do not end there, obviously. The language and cultural gap between the two cities is massive, and when I told people back home that I would be living in Beijing for three months, the reaction from many people was one of great interest. To many New Zealanders, China is still an unknown entity.

No great walls
Most of the people I spoke to had heard about China’s reputation for restriction - like the one-child-per-family policy, internet censorship, and human rights violations against political dissidents - but not so much about the spirit of the country itself. While I have only been here for three short weeks, the first impressions I have of Beijing are positive, and many of the issues raised as possible barriers have proved easily surmountable.

One of the main issues raised as a challenge was the language barrier. The issue was two-fold: some people were concerned that it would be difficult for me to navigate a city with street signs written in Chinese characters, and the other that I would not be able to make myself understood to Beijing’s locals.

In fact, many of the street signs that I have encountered are written in both Chinese characters and pinyin. Pinyin is the translation of Chinese characters into the Roman alphabet. It was developed by the Chinese government in the late 1950s, and adopted as the international standard in 1982. The word pinyin translates literally to mean "spelled sound". Often signs for major roads or landmarks such as subway stations or well-known tourist attractions are even written in English.

Signs of openness
In 2006 authorities announced Beijing would adopt a bilingual standardised approach to road signage that includes the use of English terms such as road, street, avenue and bridge. The same goes for signage in the subway, with announcements for each stop being broadcast in Chinese and English, and LCD screens bearing the name of each stop in both Chinese characters and pinyin. It seems the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games has had lasting impact on the improvement of signage (and English translations) around the city.

The second, and larger, issue regarding the language barrier was that it would be very difficult to communicate with locals. I was warned that the majority of people do not speak an ounce of English. However, my workmates tell me that children in Beijing begin learning English in primary school, so it is possible that many in the younger generations have had at least some exposure to the language.

A 2006 paper by Jian Yang at Seattle University estimated that 200-350 million people in China could be placed at some point along the language scale from beginner/learner to fluent/proficient speaker, but acknowledged that most were not “proficient bilingual users of the language”.

To put that into context, from a population of 1.3 billion, it’s around 23 percent (I have to admit, doing that calculation with all those zeros was an exercise in counting and recounting!) So while it’s likely that many of the kids learning English through school do not end up passing the beginner level (after all, I minored in Spanish for my undergraduate degree at university and these days could barely introduce myself to a new acquaintance), in my experience the language barrier is not as great as you might think.

Straightforward navigation
The people here have been incredibly patient with me as I flip madly through my phrasebook trying to find, and then pronounce, the appropriate words to cobble together a sentence. Many have played along with my charades as I attempt to act out phrases like "Beef or pork?", "How much does this cost?", and "Can you top up my mobile phone for me?" So far, at least, I have managed to navigate day-to-day life - always with my trusty phrasebook, of course!

I was told by some Chinese people living in New Zealand that those in their homeland were very straightforward and would not hold back personal comments that may seem rude by Western standards. Of course who knows what people might have said about me, thanks to my almost non-existent Chinese I am blissfully unaware, but so far, the only comments I’ve had have been positive – especially the old lady in my building who kept repeating ‘piaoliang’ (beautiful) while gesturing at my face and giving me the thumbs up. This was one "straightforward comment" I was happy to receive!

The people here have made the navigation of this vast and foreign city far more manageable than I had thought it ever would be. Their kindness and patience have transcended the language and cultural barriers, and so I have been able to settle in to life here in Beijing surprisingly quickly. It’s the little things that make what could be a daunting and frightening change of lifestyle manageable and exciting.

It’s the man who, after being accosted by me in the street after midnight because I found myself locked out of the residential compound, escorted me to the guard gate, chattering in Chinese as I sheepishly muttered “wo bu dong” (I don’t understand) during breaks in the "conversation"; the man at the local bread shop calling out "Xinxilan!" (New Zealand!) whenever he sees me; the old man in my building who saw I was struggling with the heat and began fanning me with his fan as we waited for the elevator together; the couple who shouted out "Hello! How are you!" as I was walking down the street, and who, after practising their English on me, kindly provided directions to the store I was trying to find; my workmates who are so supportive when I try out my newly learned Chinese phrases on them, and patiently correct my terrible pronunciation. Just little things that make you smile and feel part of the community.

Sorting out queues
Having debunked some of the main "issues" that were of concern before travelling here, there are two particular characteristics of life in China that I had been warned about and that, so far, have proved to be true. The first, that queuing in an orderly fashion is not a given as it is in New Zealand. At first it might seem like this is unfair or uncivilised, but upon reflection, it could be seen as kind of liberating; especially if you are good at pushing to the front.

From what I’ve experienced, there is no aggression in the crowd, people just all seem to go at once, like mobbing around a ticket window, and you get served if you can reach your arm out and have the seller take your money. There is no "Hey, I was here first!" if you get in before someone who was there before you, just accept that the mob is the status quo, and go with it. If you wait around, you don’t get served. The key is to get amongst it and squeeze in to any open gap until you find yourself at the front!

The second relates to the chaotic roads. The attitude people in Beijing have to orderly driving seems somewhat of an extension of the attitude they have to queuing. The traffic in Beijing can be alarming. A seething mixture of cars, buses, trucks, scooters, motorbikes and push bikes fly down major roads at great speeds, honking horns, swerving, and weaving in and out of lanes with little or no indication.

Add large intersections, and large bike lanes that pedestrians have to cross in order to wait at the traffic lights in to the mix (you don’t wait on the curb as in New Zealand, you wait literally on the road itself, sandwiched between the motorized traffic and the push-bike traffic) and it’s a recipe for trouble.

As a pedestrian, crossing the road is an exercise in caution, and after experiencing a mad taxi ride on my first night in the country, I think I will be sticking to the subway for the time being.

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THE VIEW FROM BEIJING Yvonne Brill is currently on an AUT exchange at China She is one of three recipients of the 2011 Pacific Media Centre international internships in the School of Communication Studies, supported by the Asia New Zealand Foundation. She joined China for three months in August. Yvonne is also on an OPA postgraduate studentship and attached to the PMC as Niusblog reporter and social media editor.

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The Pacific Media Centre - TE AMOKURA - at AUT University has a strategic focus on Māori, Pasifika and ethnic diversity media and community development.