26th June 2015

Where do I start? The experience was different from anything else I’ve done before. It’s a challenge to put it into words. Most of all I am anxious that you understand that when I talk about things I find bizarre, incredible shocking etc. I’m commenting on my own naivety, I’m not trying to pass judgement.

The very first moment I want to share with you was stepping out of the cabin door in Beijing airport. I stopped at the top of the steps to take in my first sight of China. It was hot but other than that just a common or garden international airport. For a second or too I felt that there was nothing to mark out this moment other than a general sense of anticipation and excitement. Then the smog started to make an impression on me. What my brain had instantly interpreted as weather … foggy was in fact smog. So my first overriding emotion stood on those steps was sadness; sadness for the people who had to live and work in it, sadness for the enormous effort it would take to change things, sadness that we are all having such a negative impact. For me this was the most powerful and telling example of what we are doing to our planet I’ve ever witnessed. With the trapping of an advanced technological society around me I’m not going to be a humbug and decide that “they” can’t have what I take for granted and enjoy, but oh boy how are we going to sort this out?

The rest of that stopover was overshadowed with the pressing need to get through crowds and security to make the connecting flight. So as I looked around at adverts and signs which had a fair share of English on them I could easily have become fascinated by the Chinese characters and much more but there was no time to stop and consider them. A lot of the advertising was global in its iconography and design. Stuff I had seen in many places before, different but the same. What I was becoming aware of was that for the first time in many years, possible ever, I was actually in an alien environment one where I could take nothing for granted, one where my inbuilt confidence might be dented, one where my skills may not be sufficient to keep me safe, one where I was one person amongst thousands and one that could not speak a word of the language of the country I was in. A sudden sense of fear, enveloped me. An awareness of the unanticipated challenge to a cultural and political arrogance I was not actually aware I had been carrying. Xin and his father perhaps didn’t realise the importance of the support they gave me at that moment, it wasn’t just about getting from A to B quickly. I guess I would have muddled through but perhaps not …

The flight to Fuzhou was pretty unremarkable but it was fascinating to find my self watching BBC nature documentaries on the overhead display panels. At Fuzhou it was hot, much hotter than Beijing. It was great to catch sight of Mark and Vanessa waving thorough the glass panels. As I walked out with my luggage a young man dressed in smart uniform and white cotton gloves crisply saluted me and the other travellers. What a lovely touch, how welcoming I found it. Then the air-conditioned coach journey through the evening to Wanda Plaza in Fuzhou in an air-conditioned coach of one’s dreams. Full of people chattering ten to the dozen about things I was unable even to guess at. The unashamed stares of people who perhaps hadn’t been expecting to come face to face with a tall, rather too well-built, bearded Englishman in a Panama Hat and bright red braces. The way that when I returned their stare and smiled nearly all of them grinned back and nodded their heads. Then getting out of the coach, back into the sticky heat (about 28 degrees) and the city darkness. Lights everywhere. And wow the mopeds and motorcycles buzzing all around me blowing their horns, the riders and passengers (yes passengers! 3 or 4 to a bike!) shouting at pedestrian, laughing and shouting conversation to others, the car horns blaring. But most of all the excited chatter of the young Chinese who claimed this place for their own.

Panoramic view of Wanda Plaza at night
Panoramic view of Wanda Plaza at night

Again it was comforting to know that I was not on my own. I had companions who would guide me and keep me safe as long as I listened to them and didn’t allow this melee of sights, sounds and feelings to override my common sense.

We arrived at the hotel. Vanessa did all the talking, she even helped the hotel receptionist sort out what needed to be entered on the hotel booking system. Then the sense of relief (when that came I was surprised that anxiety had been lurking) when I saw the hotel room. It was different but it was also familiar. This was a small spot I could make my own for these next couple of weeks. Once we dropped my luggage we walked back up the road and it was my first real encounter with urban China. Student Street …