Where Else to Start? (2009)

I always presumed I would begin my very first blog entry along the lines of “where to start?” but it turns out that the answer to that question is fairly simple. Out of everything that has happened to me in the past few months, watching Barack Hussein Obama becoming President of the United States of America was by far the most significant, memorable and deeply moving. Like the millions of others who were waiting in anticipation to hear the election result on 4th November, I was moved to tears when I learned of Obama’s victory. It is such an extraordinary time to be living in and, while on the one hand I find it almost unbelievable to think that it has taken so long for such progress to take place, I can also hardly believe how much has changed over the past century or so in both the U.S. and across the world. There are so many things that I like about Obama; he was a law student like myself (he went to Harvard, and later taught Constitutional law at Chicago University), he is the first African American president, the first bi-racial president and once described his extended family as a “mini United Nations”, he speaks Indonesian and plays basketball, he has a gift with words and his baritone voice is both appeasing and uplifting, he showed off his dance moves on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, he has promised not to smoke in the Whitehouse, he is a Christian, he has a charismatic, stylish wife and two beautiful young daughters (the first young children in the Whitehouse since the Kennedys), and he was deservedly named TIME magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’for his “steady march of seemingly impossible accomplishments”. In the words of Linda Lyndell: what a man, what a mighty, mighty good man.

中国, 我爱你. During the winter holidays I went back to China for just over 2 weeks. It was such a fantastic trip. My first experiences in China quite honestly shaped my life in more ways than one, and so it was wonderful to be able to return and have some time to immerse myself once again in the culture and surroundings that I have missed terribly in the past 16 months.

北京 [Beijing]:I went to visit my old colleague, and flatmate, Shushan in Beijing first, and it was so nice to see her again. The last time we met up was over a year ago for my 19th birthday so we had plenty to catch up on and I was eager to hear all about her second year in China so far. She now studies Politics with Chinese at Leeds University and this year she continues her course overseas. Beijing has such a unique vibe, quite unlike the rest of China. It is an incredibly diverse, vast city and despite evident influences from the West, from Subway sandwich and McDonalds fast food chains to English words scattered amongst the traditional Chinese characters almost everywhere you look, down every hutongor around the dinner table inside any local family home you can still find yourself at the very heart of China. I personally didn’t notice dramatic change or any inconvenience to daily life as a result of preparations for the Olympic Games in the capital, but I did however love the new express train from the airport into the city centre and the swanky new Subway carriages which make the heaving underground railway a little more bearable! An average 3.4 million Chinese people ride the Beijing Subway everyday. I guess it’s nothing on Moscow, where metro ridership can reach over 9 million passengers on a busy day! Wow.

成都 [Chengdu]:It was great to see Beijing again, but it was indeed very busy so Shushan and I took a train down South on Boxing Day to Chengdu in Sichuan Province. We were on a soft sleeper train – fairly luxurious compared to what I was used to during my travels as a Project Trust volunteer! There was hot water on tap for our instant noodles and flasks of flower tea, plus many other passengers eager to make friends with us! One of my favourite places in China, Chengdu is lively, metropolitan, warm (for most of the year) and friendly. We met up with our friends Richard (UK), Lily and Michelle (Chengdu) along with some of theirs. It was so much fun and hard to leave because I wanted to stay so badly!

The impact of the Great Sichuan Earthquake in May 2008 was still clearly etched on everyone’s minds with whom I spoke to. Some of my close friends re-told terrifying stories of being in class, at work and home when the earthquake hit and worse still of the rescue efforts and reconstruction that followed. One evening we were eating dinner in a hot pot restaurant when a little boy came up to our table with a basket of newspapers he was selling in aid of his school’s earthquake relief appeal. I am sure there wasn’t one person in that restaurant who didn’t buy a newspaper and I saw a couple of men ruffling his hair as they sent him away with a few notes stuffed into his hand. As children are of immeasurable importance in Chinese society, one particularly devastating outcome of the earthquake was that over 7,000 schoolrooms collapsed and, as a consequence of the one child policy, many parents lost their only child. The local officials have lifted this family planning policy restriction for such families who now wish to register an “illegal” child to legally replace the deceased and will not be fined for any unregistered children who died in the earthquake. Watching that little boy in the hot pot restaurant reminded me of my students and the children in the area I had lived in, in Gansu province, and it really hit home, not only the tragedy that all these people have been through in the past few months, but the resilient Chinese community spirit and patriotism that remains even when everything else has been stripped away.

Chengdu was an interesting leg of my journey, and one which overall I thoroughly enjoyed. It is amazing how such a disaster can bring people together and perhaps, in a somewhat paradoxical sense, can bring a place back to life.
Chengdu Street Food


Local lady buying her greens from a street seller in Chengdu.
Local lady buying her greens from a street seller in Chengdu.


庆阳 [Qingyang]:We managed to get a great last minute deal on flights and so left Chengdu on Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve for the non-Scots amongst you) and made our way up to the North-West of the country, to Gansu province. There is a tiny airport in Qingyang itself, but we chose to fly to Xi’an first and then take a car to Gansu. This is a journey Shushan and I know only too well because during our year in Qingyang, Xi’an was the nearest big city and escape to what we jokingly dubbed “civilisation”. Qingyang is probably more civilised than Glasgow… but it’s surprising how much you come to miss cheese, coffee and sandwiches when you simply can’t get hold of them. Similarly, when I went to see Coldplay in December Chris Martin told the crowd that their song “The Hardest Part” describes how much he misses Tunnocks Teacakes while on tour in the U.S.A. I can completely relate to that feeling. However, I’m dubious as to whether he was telling the truth or not, because the following night my flatmates reported that he related the song to how much he was in need of a haircut.

The road to Qingyang was smooth, and speedy. What was once a tedious 5-7 hour journey just over a year ago now takes only 3. China is changing, and the one thing they certainly excel at is fast and efficient construction. I can’t imagine many other countries in the world could be as prepared for the Olympics as I know China is, or that can practically erect whole skyscrapers overnight and then tear them down equally as fast. It was always a bit of a shock when Shushan and I would walk through the local streets in the evening to a restaurant we liked, only to find it had gone, and not even just the people and decor but the whole building – bricks and all!

Returning to Qingyang felt surreal. When I left my projectfor the final time in July 2007 I honestly thought I might never return to the town. I went through some of my hardest and happiest times throughout my gap year there so leaving was both upsetting and almost a relief at the same time. However, on going back, I instantly realised that I have such a special connection with the place and the people who live there, and now think that whenever the opportunity arises I will always go back to Qingyang. I’ve said it before, but I can’t thank my students enough for being such an inspiration to me. They worked incredibly hard at school and I am so proud to say that many of them are now following their individual dreams at various universities and colleges across Mainland China, and one or two even hope to go abroad within the next couple of years. For the ones that haven’t been so successful, they are in my thoughts and prayers and I’m certain that everything will work out well for them in the near future.

Two Qingyang men having a chinwag on the roadside, they collect anything recyclable from neighbouring flats which they can then sell for a little bit of money.


Two Qingyang men having a chinwag on the roadside, they collect anything recyclable from neighbouring flats which they can then sell for a little bit of money.
Shushan takes a look at the students’ exam results, which are publicly displayed on the main road outside the school gates.


Shushan takes a look at the students’ exam results, which are publicly displayed on the main road outside the school gates.

西安 [Xi’an]:I can’t think of a better way to describe my reaction on returning to Xi’an than that of overwhelming happiness. I believe that there is no other feeling like being reunited with friends you haven’t seen and have missed every day for a long, long time. Shushan headed back to Beijing because she had an essay to write so I stayed in Xi’an for a few nights by myself. This was the first time I’ve travelled solo and I loved it. I’m not sure I’d want to be alone for an entire trip, i.e. for several months, but you do meet so many interesting people being on your own, and this point in time in particular provided a great opportunity for me to quietly reflect on everything that’s happened over the past couple of years since I left China and started a new stage in my life at University. As well as seeing old friends, I met up with an ex-student, Kevin, from Qingyang who is now studying English at Xi’an University (one of my top students). We had a great time and it was lovely to hear news of some of his classmates and how they all got on in their final year before they graduated from middle school last summer.

Xi’an is as beautiful and fascinating as ever, and although most famous for the Terracotta Warriors and amongst the “foreigners” in surrounding rural areas as “the place with the Starbucks” or “the place you can buy cheese”, there is so much more to this city than that.  Xi’an oozes style and has embraced the pace of modern life, but at the same time it has not lost its authenticity. Above all, there’s an atmosphere in the streets, in the shops, restaurants, markets, hostels, cafes and bars that I just love. I found it harder to leave Xi’an itself this time than I did China but I don’t doubt I’ll be back again soon!


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