As mentioned in my previous post, I spent three months in Beijing during autumn 2012, under the pretense of studying Chinese (Note: I’m a Malaysian Chinese, but grew up learning Malay and English). Prior to this, I’d never been to Beijing and only visited China once, around Shanghai and Hangzhou.
Even before my trip, I was already learning the hard way about how things work (or don’t work) in China. One of my key tasks was to arrange my accommodation. It was easy enough to book a nice hotel in Wangfujing, the city centre for the first few days before school starts, but when it came to trying to book accommodation on university campus, I was getting nowhere. Even though my rubbish Chinese was part of the issue, the main problem was the inefficiencies at the university.
First of all, there was no email or online booking system, so everything had to be done via phone or fax. Secondly, you can’t assume that someone will answer the phone just because it was working hours; half the time, my calls went unanswered. When I finally managed to get someone on the phone, I was told curtly that there was no room available. After a few more attempts, I finally got told that there is a room available but I had to fax in my details. I did as instructed, but never got any confirmation so I just had to hope for the best.
I flew into the airport at around midnight and was surprised to see that it was still very crowded. I spent ages queuing at immigration and then joined another long queue for the taxi. During my 1-1.5 hour wait, I lost count of the number of time that someone snuck up behind me and cut queue. I got annoyed and tried to position myself and my luggage so that no one could sneak past but it was no use – the locals had no qualms about pushing me out of the way.
When I finally managed to get a taxi and we arrived at the hotel at close to 2am, the driver did not offer to help me with my luggage. As I struggled to get my huge 20+kg luggage out of the car boot, the plastic cover of one the car lights fell out. The taxi driver started making a fuss about it, saying that I broke it even though I suspect that it was actually already broken as I could see some tape on it. He demanded that I pay for the damage and miraculously, a handful of locals appeared out of nowhere and surrounded us. Even with my limited Chinese, I could sense that they were trying to help the taxi driver and pressure me to pay up. As he wasn’t asking for a lot and it was in the middle of the night, I gave in and handed over the cash. So this was how I arrived in Beijing – tired, annoyed and harassed.
I spent the next few days touring Beijing with my family who had flown in from Malaysia. The aggressive locals, crazy crowds and greyness of the city made me ask myself ‘What have I gotten myself into?!’ more than once. But there was no turning back and it was all part of the adventure. My next task was to get my room on campus. My sister and I went to the university which was in Wudaokou, the university district about an hour away from the city centre. The good news was that I’d been allocated a room. The bad news was that even though I already had low expectations, the state of the room was shocking. When they opened the door, I walked into a room that was dark, stale and smelt like a damp, old cupboard. When I drew the curtains, I saw dark spots all over the room. Upon closer inspection, I realized (to my dismay and disgust) that there were tons of dead insects on the floor and plastered on the wall and even the ceiling.
The state of the room made my skin crawl and it looked and felt like something from a horror film. I asked for a different room but was told that I had to go back to the admin office and start the process all over again. With a sigh of resignation, my sister and I went back to our hotel to draw up a plan. The next day, we headed out to the university again with more resolve. At the admin office, I kicked up a fuss and insisted that I get a better room. Luckily, I succeeded (yay, first victory in Beijing)! I was given a room right next to the entrance of the building and facing the basketball court. Even though it was noisier, I was glad that the room didn’t smell as bad and there were only dead insects on the floor. It’s funny how everything is relative. In London or Malaysia, I would not have put up with this but in Beijing, getting a single en-suite with a bad smell and dead insects on the floor seemed like a good achievement. And it was – later on, I found out that local students stay in dorms with six to a room without en-suite facilities. So us foreign students had it pretty good. Stay tuned for the rest of my adventure in Beijing. I promise that it’ll get better J