Between about 2006 and 2009 we lived and worked in Beijing, Lotty in one International School (Beijing City International School) and I in the Western Academy Beijing (WAB). I was employed as what they called their Production Engineer, which effectively was the equivalent of what I used to do at the Roundhouse in London, in other words, I functioned as their Production Manager, being responsible for the sound and lighting crew of the school. As we had something like 7 venues to deal with, and as they tended to start each morning at about 8 am and finish some time in the evening – with rock concerts, classical concerts, film shows or whatever, we tended to work for about 70 hours a week.
I had a number of Chinese guys working with me, so I found it relatively easy to learn Mandarin (the Chinese dialect spoken in Beijing, and thus the official language of China), except that it is a tonal language, and the tone used can change the meaning of a word totally – for example, the word “Mar”, can mean the following:- Horse, Wife, Arrow and who knows what more? So if you happen to get the tone wrong, you could be saying something like, “I shot my wife at a straw target”, or “I would like to introduce you to my arrow”. When the Chinese use their tones, it is very subtle, and hardly noticeable, but for us Long Noses (Western foreigners) it is extremely tricky! Which makes a language that on the face of it is very simple and logical, incredibly hard to use properly, so I spent my entire time making that sort of mistake – oh well……
While we were living there, the number of cars increased exponentially. When we got there, most people still used bicycles, but by the time we left, every week another 10 000 cars were registered in Beijing alone! This, of course, caused huge traffic jams, sometimes they were up to 100 km long!!!!
Also, the Chinese hadn’t grown up with cars, the way we in the west had done, so they did the most extraordinary things when in cars, or even when simply crossing the road. For example, when driving on a motorway, if they happened to miss their turning, they were perfectly happy to turn around, and drive against the other traffic until they got to their turning, and then leave the motorway. I have seen the crew of a police car happily having a picnic on the hard shoulder of a motor way, and I have also seen a shepherd happily putting his herd of sheep across a motorway – altogether extraordinary!
Also, in all the cities, the two opposing lanes of the roads have large, and very secure, fences on them, to stop people crossing the road anywhere but at the places intended for them to cross – this because people tended to simply wander across the roads anywhere they happened to be – the results of many, many years of only bikes on the roads.
Another hang-over from the days of no cars (for the ordinary people), when an official is being driven somewhere, they have a total right of way, so all other vehicles have to give way to them and their hugely important passenger(s), and the military have even more right of way than the politicians – so if you happen to be driving in Beijing, watch out for large cars with special number plates, they have, and will take, an absolute right of way!
In another post, I shall dwell on yet more curiosities of life in Beijing – a city that I truly enjoyed living in.