Me with a real Chinese person! This is the first photo of me in China. It was taken in early October 1988, at Beijing’s Silk Market (now a massive shopping centre notorious for selling fake goods) and I was filled with intense joy at having carried off the strangest trick of my life: getting on a train in Oslo, Norway, and getting off in mysterious China, where I planned to stay – for a week.
In retrospect, I realise the guy was probably a money changer hoping to get some business out of this stranger who had rushed up and put him in a headlock. But – haha – I had already changed money that morning. Oh, the heady days of the foreign exchange certificate (FEC), when one FEC yuan equalled two yuan on the black market.
Doubling my money was one of myriad little joys that filled my first months in northern China. Learning a new language and writing system, discovering fantastic food – and leaving stodge and dairy behind, together with quite a few kilos – and most of all, the rock-star reception I got everywhere I went, made me feel wildly, crazily alive.
The other photo was taken at a university campus in Nanjing. I remember looking for a background crowded with people for a photo to send to my parents, but had inexplicably ended up in the only place in China with no one about. That is, until I saw a bunch of students waiting docilely for their teachers to arrive for a class photo. I took my photo amid much hilarity, and ended up chatting to them for an hour in my 10 words of Chinese.
That photo sums up the China experience for me: slightly surreal, with lots of attention (which I now admit I need) and, most of all, an extremely warm welcome from almost everyone I have met. But, oh, how I wish I had used my camera more! I took hardly any pictures of China when she was still beautiful.
In this column, which ends this week, I have tried to show you China through my eyes and encourage you to make it your next holiday destination instead of some resort in Thailand or the Maldives. I doubt I have succeeded, but what is my life if not an uphill battle? I teach Cantonese, for Pete’s sake! Besides, a downhill battle is no fun.