Oh Camellia sinensis!

Each time the kettle starts to hiss,

Oh praise Him! Alleluia!

Dihydrogen monoxide too,

Infuse their leaves the whole way through!

Oh praise Him! Oh praise Him!

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!


Even Aelianus would not go so far in his irrational prejudice against German wines.

Seen last year in the glossy magazine of the Nanjing-Shanghai express by jet-setting me.

Forty-five hours ago I set foot, for the first time of my life, on Chinese soil (or, for that matter, on non-European soil at all).  I would have written a brilliant and detailed essays on my reflection, indeed, I had written a witty and thoughtful piece of some 2000 words – which was eaten by wordpress. I a steaming with vexation. Nevertheless, a helpless and impatient second attempt; just jutting down my thoughts as they come (and no guarantee for spelling / grammar / language given).

1. Forty-five hours. Already I miss bread. Never would I have thought that I am one of those people who within a day pine for simple, plain European food. Or in fact, for simple, plain rice. Rice and noodles seem to be so much the staple food here, that at a really good dinner, you are given enough more expensive stuff to gorge yourself so that it would be lowering the tone to offer something as simple as rice. Today’s dinner, as yesterday’s dinner and lunch, were eaten at big round tables with a revolving glass plate in the middle. At the beginning of the meal, this plate contains eight (or nine, I forget) starters. One by one, eight (or nine, whatever) main courses are added. You turn the plate (taking care no-one just has their chopsticks in anything to serve themselves) and choose what you like. This enables you to avoid chicken feed, accusingly-looking crabs, thousand-years-eggs, pig’s ears, turtle and other not easily identifiable stuff without too much offence. In general, anything I had was very well cooked, but still there were some – surprises – as to taste and texture that made me rather careful the second day. I would not have thought how demoralising the uncertainty into what culinary experience one’s next choice of dish will plunge one can become after a while. This morning, at any rate, I already made a straight bee-line towards a lowly side table, ignoring all the tables with (probably) mouth-watering Chinese dishes, right, to find some sourt of buns, butter, little cream cakes, coffee and milk. I am never too adventurous before coffee, I have to say. Give me your steamed taro, if you must, but not for breakfast.

2. So far, we have spent most of our time in the hotel. It is a curious mixture of probably being one of the grandest hotels I have stayed at, with seemingly at least twice the staff one would expect, and yet sporting, spread over the building, non-flushing / non-locking / raining (probably some water damage somewhere) toilets. The rooms are furnished very tastefully, even if the elegance is somewhat faded. I could give balls in mine (but the very high-up window looks out on some service roof).

3. Jet-lag must be a myth. What knocked me down yesterday was a night with only four hours of fitful and uncomfortable sleep. In the ensuing haze in which I spent the day, my body could not have cared less what time it ‘actually’ was and took darkness outside and the completion of the third square meal that day as sufficient indicators that it was now night, even though it might ‘really’ be only 4 pm. It likewise slept like a stone and was no more reluctant to get up in the morning at 7.30 pa than it would have been had it not ‘in fact’ been 1.30 am.  I guess having an utterly random night-and-day rhythm even when one is not joining the jet set sufficiently confuses one’s body clock after a while to send it off with a frustrated ‘whatever’ whenever anything irregular happens.

4. The spaciousness of my room feels all the more decadent as flats are probably none too large around here. There are many pretty newly built large houses, some of which, however already have a somewhat lived-in look. Nearly all have outside drying facilities for washing, be the place for these ever so improbable. For all that, what we have seen looks all pretty European. One is nearly glad (in a way) to get the occasional glimpse in a curvy, narrow side street, or into a tiny shop stuffed with a seemingly haphazard collection of goods and apparently the family’s dinner table behind the last shelf. In the ‘picturesquely Chinese’ category there were also bamboo building scaffolding, tiny little food stalls, and transport bicycles laden with ridiculously large piles of cartons.

5. Though large roads have bicycle lanes that would put European cities to the blush – they are some four or five meters wide and entirely separate from the road, packed with both bicycles and motor cycles – roads in general are full of cars and mini busses. When we drove in one, I voluntarily fastened my seat belt. It is hard to perceive if ‘red’ means ‘go’ and ‘green’ ‘stop’, or the other way round. The people with whom I travel, being scientists, tried the empirical approach, but data were to conflicting to allow any conclusions. These colours nevertheless seem to have some significance, as next to each traffic light there is a countdown showing the seconds up to the next change of colours. Not many people seem to pay attention. Instead, blowing one’s horn appears to be the main way of negotiating; there are even ‘don’t hoot here’ signs.

6. Though Aelianus would say that, as a non-British, this is my natural state anywhere, I feel very much that I am a foreigner here. Never have I felt so obviously and so foreign a foreigner. It is not only the language – I have, at least, by myself, identified the signs for ‘fire’, ‘door’ and ‘China/Chinese’. I also fear with every step that I am doing something wrong. Come to that, I probably do. Ever heard that in some Asian countries exchanging cards is an important part of good manners in business settings? So did I, only I just remembered when I was offered one for the first time, and, for the first time in four years, was not in possession of any of my own (having just changed jobs, and waiting for my final certificate to put the ‘Dr.’ on them). That said, everyone is very kind and friendly, no-one made me feel the rude foreigner so far, but still.

7. Given the culinary, and other, stress, one is grateful not only for coffee, but even more for beer, even if it is some sort of Chinese Lager. However, even this has its pitfalls, since their seem to be rather elaborate toasting customs. Apparently, in a group of forty at three tables, in the course of the evening everyone gets up once, and speaks a toast not only at their own, but at the two other tables as well, and separately chinks glasses with everyone (moving around the table) before either everyone drinking a little, or everyone draining their glasses. During this ceremony, those not saying the toast either sit, or stand. This seems to be related to hierarchy, and I might have figured out eventually, had not the German  senior scientists sitting at my table, themselves clouless, apparently had confused even the Chinese sitting with us. Only two or three of the German delegation voluntarily made their round. A third one, as the youngest member of that delegation, was most politely invited by the Chinese host to do so. I guess I got through it quite creditably, though.

A commentary on this old story. Pass it on to your Guardianista friends.

“Culture” has commonly become the name for all those things we practice without really taking seriously. And this is why we dismiss fundamentalist believers as “barbarians” with a “medieval mindset”: they dare to take their beliefs seriously. Today, we seem to see the ultimate threat to culture as coming from those who live immediately in their culture, who lack the proper distance.