IT is almost six years to the day since I made my trip to China. It’s nice to see the Chinese president and his glamorous wife paying a return visit this week. I wonder what they think about Great Britain in 2015.
Will they go home with the impression that England is a land where it is quite normal for people to eat their dinner wearing white tie, tails and tiaras?
Will they think for a moment about the thousands of lives that will be affected by the loss of steel industry jobs in Scunthorpe and Redcar – and I mean the individual people, not just the workers as a means of production?
Will they question the questionable cheering of all those Chinese students in front of Buckingham Palace in their shiny new red T-shirts?
Will they look out of the window of their limousine and ponder about this multi-cultural country, consider our glorious empire-building past and remind themselves that the fortunes of a particular nation can be all too fleeting?
I ask this because it felt like that I had arrived in not just another country, but another universe, when I stepped off the plane at Shanghai airport. I’d been asked to go because in those days I taught at the University of Huddersfield. The public relations course I helped to deliver was in hot demand by the Sino-British College, a leading educational establishment in the city.
The hook-up between Huddersfield and Shanghai was just one of several international partnerships the university was fostering; overseas students are valuable to British universities because of the revenue they bring. When our head of department asked for volunteers, my hand shot up. I admit that I was seduced by the verysound of the word “Shanghai”.
It conjured up visions of the exotic Orient, a sail-boat laden with vivid silks, blossom trees and chaps in white linen suits. When I arrived though, the first thing that hit me was grey. A big sea of grey. Breezeblocks, breezeblocks and more breezeblocks against a backdrop of smog. This was at the height of the Chinese building boom. Offices, apartments and shopping centres were going up everywhere and at the rate of knots. In the week I was there, I saw almost an entire street of buildings demolished and the footings go in for the skyscraper which was to replace them. The speed at which the Chinese do things should never be under-estimated.
This impatience also applies to students. I wouldn’t wish to generalise here, but the common stereotype of Chinese youngsters sitting neatly and silent in rows taking down notes is not one I recognise. For a week, I delivered four lectures a day to 84 students. Admittedly some of them had a shaky grasp of English, but some of them certainly didn’t. And not many of them were prepared to sit quietly and listen. The amount of chatter and dissent was more vociferous than anything I had experienced in years of teaching in England.
These students demand the very best. And this includes an education which will give them that all-important killer edge in the world of commerce. The offspring of one-child families, they have an incomparable sense of entitlement. Expand this personal credo to a nation, and you begin to understand why the Chinese believe that their time has come to be taken very seriously indeed.
This is where I began to learn the true meaning of “globalisation”. It is not a one-way street in favour of Westerners. It’s not carte blanche to assume that English will be spoken everywhere either. In Shanghai, I was flabbergasted to find that English was hardly spoken at all. If it hadn’t been for my ropey skills at charades and a hopeful smile I would probably have been stranded and starving at the airport before I even got to switch on my first PowerPoint presentation.
I heard rumblings from my class that they should have been taught in Chinese. Shanghai has a colourful colonial past; there are French-inspired buildings, English dishes on the menu alongside bullfrog for breakfast, but today it believes in itself, in its own right. Chinese people are defined by pride. Dent it at your peril. Why do you think that the British Establishment has pulled out all the stops to welcome President Xi Jinping and his former rock-star wife Madame Peng Liyuan? Anything less than a full State welcome with gold carriages and all would be seen as an insult.
When I look back now to my own eye-opening trip, what is my abiding memory? Well, I saw the blossom trees, the vivid silks in the market, and even met a couple of chaps in white linen suits. What I remember most though is the arrogant young man with the gelled-up hair, who lost his temper one humid afternoon and demanded to know why a woman from – and I quote – “a hick town in the north of England had come all the way to China to tell me what to do”. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions about globalisation from that.