Last November I travelled back to London after a year in China, and was intrigued by all the differences, in both the city and me.
Last time I flew into London it was in flames. This time it was the 5th November and the sky was coloured instead by fireworks. Admittedly, they looked a bit weak in comparison to the all-out craziness of Chinese New Year in Beijing, but still a welcome sight.
People – Bad Habits
A recent thread on an American voting website listed the traits in people that instantly make you think less of them. The top ten answers were pushing onto public transport, treating wait staff badly, stopping in a group in a busy walkway, parking your car or your shopping cart inconsiderately, driving with high beams on constantly, using public restrooms and not flushing, parents ignoring unruly children, eating noisily, lack of pleases and thank yous, people on speaker phone or playing music in public, the list goes on.
Whilst these are irregular annoyances in much of the world, in China this is day-to-day life. More than that, the majority of the top 100 annoyances in America are simply commonplace in China and culturally not considered at all rude by the majority of the population.
It may explain why so many Westerners have a hard time in China, and Chinese people are often thought of as rude or unmannered when travelling abroad.
Friends returning from Malaysia and the Maldives are horrified at the behaviour of Chinese guests in hotels, particularly around buffets and mealtimes. One Parisian hotel has completely banned Chinese guests. Even their neighbours in Hong Kong are protesting in the streets about the habits of the recent influx of Chinese visitors (but less about the influx of money).
Probably due to this, living in China does wonders for the patience. Everything in the UK seems so easy and everyone so polite and considerate.
It’s not you, it’s me
This abundance of manners highlights the changes in me. A few times I catch myself barrelling down narrow hallways, getting ready to push people aside, or one time digging around in my ear whilst having a conversation with a taxi driver.
Eating lunch with friends I have to remember not to drop the unwanted bones on the table, or their nice clean tablecloth.
Rather than starting “Well, in China…” I’ve changed to use, “Well, at home…”. This has led to people asking questions about China, rather than me comparing everything without prompting. This is probably a good thing.
Food and Restaurants
London still has a much better variety of international food, even from countries close to China such as Vietnam and Thailand. Korean food is still much better in China though.
Fresh food prices have become ridiculous in the UK, whilst restaurants seemed cheaper. Some reasonably staple items like a bar of chocolate seem to be 40% more expensive. Looking at a Chinese restaurant menu, simple dim sum or noodles were 15 times the usual price in China, and clearly not handmade fresh to order.
It’s good to see regional Chinese restaurants opening though. Now there are Sichuanese or Xinjiang-style eateries, rather than the generic Cantonese.
Clothes and Shopping
Unlike food, clothes prices in the UK seem to have reduced considerably. I bought a cheap pair of formal trousers, and whilst they weren’t exactly tailored wool, they were reasonably well made. Probably by a sweatshop in China.
VPN still required
Internet providers in the UK have started blocking certain sites for promoting illegal downloads. As an experiment, I discovered the VPN I use in China to bypass government censorship also bypasses the UK blocks perfectly.
The day after the conference finished, I was invited to a lunch for bloggers. This was held at the very smart Guoman Royal Horseguards Hotel and and highlighted the gulf of difference between service levels in Beijing and London.
In China, the poor wages and lack of tipping culture has led to some of the surliest waiters imaginable, even at high-end restaurants in the capital. In London, everyone was welcoming and attentive, whilst barely being noticeable.
China’s shop and restaurant staff are more concerned with completing whatever they’ve been instructed to do, rather than take note of the needs of the customer. A simple example would be staff blocking supermarket aisle to restock the shelves, rather than enabling the customers to browse the products.
The Olympic Effect
The best changes in the UK seems to have come about as a result of hosting the Olympics. I travelled daily on the DLR amongst conference attendees from around the world, and their excitement at seeing the Olympic landmarks was clear. Even the Londoners seem a bit more upbeat about living in London.
Most encouragingly, people are following Olympic athletes (and other real achievers) as role models instead of reality TV celebrities. Viewing figures for shows such as X-Factor are in steady decline and talk shows have more accomplished guests than someone famous for applying vajazzles.
Last time I visited I was a bit depressed by the changes in the UK, but just a year later the whole country seems a bit more upbeat. It’s still way too expensive, and terrible value for money, but I like it more than I did.
The next few months will be spent in the US before visiting the UK again, so I’m keen to see the differences between there, the UK and China, and trying not to start sentences “Well, in the US…”.