Friday

The China Years


I, personally, never had any problems with Wolverhampton.

However, that could have been because I was hopelessly in love during the year when I lived there. I even remember not minding when shop assistants referred to me as a foreigner and could not understand my accent. I came from Birmingham, all of fifteen miles away so it was understandable.
That was back in 1980 and Wolverhampton, in those days, was not at its best. The shopping centre looked like an impregnable fortress, the football club was ailing and the burgers being sold on the street were only edible with the addition of so much mustard that one bite exploded your nostrils leaving them frayed like a Hawaiian grass skirt.
But I liked it there. I liked Tettenhall Park where my lover and I would meet on summer afternoons and say soppy things to each other between kisses. I liked the Wolverhampton Wanderers ground where we would jump up and down in the stands - I so that I could actually see something over the male heads around me and he could jump up and down with fury as the opposing side scored again. I was even surprised when Gerald Ratner called the produce of his jewellery shops 'crap' because I was rather fond of the pretty little ring my lover bought me in Wolverhampton Ratner's to celebrate our soppiness.
So it was very confusing when I found myself standing in a Chinese city for the very first time and all I could think was that it was just as ugly and dirty and depressing as Wolverhampton. And then some.
Of course, I was not in love by then and it seemed that the possibility of any such experience in China was about as likely as the Pope having doubts about the virgin birth. So I was not going to get any help from any rose-coloured spectacles or any cosy little outings to the park holding hands and listening to the bird song. Firstly because holding hands in Chinese public places in those days was simply not done and secondly because they had eaten all the birds.
Sometimes, at a special Chinese banquet, I did come across a few of the sparrows which should have been gracing the sparse, dull parks of the northern cities. They would arrive shrivelled and featherless on a plate complete with charred heads and pathetic little feet and my Chinese hosts would delight in showing me how to crack the skulls open to get at the brains.
That was when they were not encouraging me to eat hundred-year-old eggs or sea slugs.
I remember returning home after my first visit to China, shaking the dust of that country off my feet and swearing that never, ever, no not even for a million pounds, would I ever go there again. I would rather spend my summer holidays in Wolverhampton, loveless and alone.
Which is, of course, why I spent six springs, summers and autumns travelling the length and breadth of China and berating the place right left and centre while falling in love with its paradoxes, idiosyncrasies and the sheer-bloody-mindedness of its people. A few months ago I went back to Wolverhampton. I wanted to see if I could find any echo between my memories of the two places. Not to my surprise I found Wolverhampton to be the smaller of the two.
I found a standard, ordinary pleasant town with a fairly good shopping centre containing all the usual suspects; the odd private and original shop, slightly better burgers and some fairly nice parks. The football team are doing quite well and the people are just as friendly as my love-hazed memory remembered them to be. Wolverhampton is a  perfectly pleasant place. From what I hear China has sorted itself out too and become an attractive place for tourists to visit. They can now go to the Holiday Inn and hardly know that they have left their home country. Long gone are the days when nobody spoke your language, the buildings echoed with the sound of saliva hitting brass spittoons and the menu was only in Chinese. They no longer mix pig fat with sugar and a little red dye and smear it on a fried egg when you ask them for some jam for breakfast. They don't tie their bicycles on the sides of steam engines so they'll be able to cycle home when their engine-driving shift ends. They don't tell you that you can't go and see a building because it's being reconstructed when you are both standing right in front of the said building and it's perfectly obvious that it's not.
They no longer assume that you are poisoning their livestock if you give it an apple core in passing. The train attendants don't knock your feet with a mop if you don't move out of the way in time. The children don't shriek in horror at the sight of a strange 'foreign devil' wandering through their villages. The Chinese simply think we're rich people who will buy their produce rather than aliens who might be going to eat their children. Well, good for them. I hope they are very happy. It's a strange thing to think that they are all now drinking Coca Cola, eating at McDonalds and talking on mobile phones. I don't think I'll be going back.
You see, travelling in China in the old days was not just difficult and confusing and scruffy and inconvenient. It was magical and unbelievable and a continual adventure where you never knew who or what you might meet or where you would end up next except that it certainly would not have a decent lavatory.

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