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Observations on London, after a year in China

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I recently flew back to London on the day after the riots. The departure lounge in Beijing was showing rolling footage of London in flames. We arrived at sunset, after 12 hours without news, not knowing whether we were landing in war-zone or if calm had been restored. As we flew in low over central London, everyone peered anxiously out the windows looking for smoke, but people around me were mostly just realising it looked beautiful in the golden evening light.

London at Sunset

Hopefully that’s not flames

Anyway, a few observations about how Britain has changed in just a year:

Conversations

Starting every observation with “Well, in China…” probably gets boring rapidly for other people, but it’s very hard to avoid at first (and is partially the inspiration for this post).

A simple transaction in a shop will contain the word “Thank you” from both parties. Often more than once!

Talking about unexpected bowel movements is no longer an acceptable lunchtime conversation.

Food & Restaurants

The restaurant scene in London is still outstanding. The food and variety is still superior for now, but rarely value for money.

Unlike China, the relatively cheap food is terrible, and tastes rubbish. I’d still be happier eating food from a street stall in China (or anywhere really) than a street vendor in London. To be fair, there are places in London like Borough Market that have wonderful street food, but it’s by no means cheap.

Salads are more imaginative, but European vegetables are boring. It’s much more enjoyable getting your five-a-day in Asia.

The majority of British dishes are rich and delicious, but limited in variety, often being a plate of meat and two vegetables. I much prefer the Chinese style of sharing a wide selection of dishes amongst everyone at the table. Perhaps that’s why I can’t get excited about most of the Western restaurants in Beijing.

London does give time and space to babies and their (increasingly cumbersome) prams. Older kids in restaurants do tend to be better behaved than their Chinese ‘Little Emperor’ counterparts.

Noisy restaurants are just as noisy. Dirty restaurants aren’t anywhere near so dirty.

Eating in British restaurants rarely leads to unexpected bowel movements, which is good as there are very few public toilets left.

Clothes and Shopping

Every time we head into the countryside around Beijing I’m amused to see families on a simple walk kitted out in enough high quality hiking gear to climb the Matterhorn. Hiking clothes do seem to be becoming more popular in the UK, although I’d suggest that it’s more to do with money saving than practicality, as they tend to be low-end brands that wouldn’t keep you warm in the freezer aisle of the supermarket.

In the supermarket it’s still sad to see the number of people who can queue for a few minutes, go through the checkout, pack their bags and still be surprised they have to get their purse/wallet out and pay. Same for people reaching tube card readers and train station ticket inspectors, who then block the way whilst fumbling about in their pocket.

The well-dressed people in London do appear far more effortless than in China, and glide about, rather than the girls in designer dresses wobbling all over Beijing in their 5-inch heels.

People

It’s possible to walk around without being stared at constantly, and kids shouting “Hello!”

I suddenly realise quite how many homeless people there are in London, sitting around begging. I’m led to believe that the up to 200 million (since the earthquakes) homeless in China are seen less often as they a) forcibly moved out of the shiny areas, and b) busy collecting bottles for recycling or working in places I’m unlikely to see. Something I want to learn more about.

An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one
– George Mikes

Queues in Britain are well-mannered affairs – we can relax into our national pastime of queuing, rather than having to remain vigilant for people pushing in.

I thought that standing in my way everywhere I go was a uniquely Chinese thing, but it’s all over the UK as well now sadly. Wherever there’s a path narrowed by a door, street light, sign or passage, someone will be standing in it, no matter how much space there may be a few steps in either direction.

Almost everyone here speaks English so have to remember to talk more quietly when grumbling about people blocking my way…

On the plus side, British people do know how to get onto escalators without stopping, and know better than to get off at the top and just stand there having a chat, then look angry when people behind inevitably rise up and bump into them.

London Transport

London taxis are very, very expensive but at least they *always* know where they’re going.

The roads and cyclists in China are streets ahead of the roads in the UK. The drivers and pedestrians, not so much.

Absent-mindedly doing the Asian finger wave/not-point doesn’t work so well when hailing a London cab, and seems to amuse the driver.

Public transport is often empty outside of the rush hour. I currently have an entire train carriage to myself on one of the busiest routes.

On a hopefully unrelated topic, British deodorant is far more effective than the very expensive Chinese brand I’m currently wearing, and probably has less aluminium.

People accept delays and cancellations with a grudging resignation, and pushing and shouting loudest doesn’t get you preferential treatment.

The British are getting worse at blocking the doors on the trains and underground. I’m not sure what they’re hoping to achieve, as the train won’t leave any quicker. Chinese are far worse for blocking the way out of lifts (elevators).

Speaking of lifts, I frequently visited the first floor instead of the ground floor, after forgetting that the [1] button is no longer the lowest level…

UK Media

The bias against and racism towards China in certain press outlets is stunningly ignorant.

East Asia is far more informed about the West, than the West is about East Asia. The Council for Economic Development warns that over time, as the influence of Asia rises and cultures combine and integrate, Europeans and Americans will no longer understand how the world works. This TED video illustrates that point.

Conclusion

Be England what she will. With all her faults, she is my country still
– charles churchill (1731-1764) – english poet

Great Britain is my home, and I love it, but it does feel like many of the qualities that made it Great are declining. Manners are disappearing and people picked out as quirky or freaks by television producers are adored as celebrities and role models simply for being on reality shows. People are getting lazy: there are always exceptions, but too many people don’t want to work and spend more time whinging about things than fixing them.

Maybe I’m just getting old and grumpy. If I had a lawn, I’d tell them to get off it.

There’s now a follow-up post, after another year away

London photo by David Oganesyan

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Author

Since leaving London in 2006 I’ve travelled, worked, volunteered and lived in over 90 countries. Highlights so far would be driving along the Silk Road from Beijing to Istanbul, a complete circuit of South America and volunteering with Habitat for Humanity in Costa Rica. I’m currently back in Beijing, as a base to visit more of Asia and attempt to learn Mandarin.

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