Three Things after Thirteen Years in Beijing

It’s four months and 13 days since we moved back to Britain from Beijing after thirteen years on the other side of the world. Here are three things that strike me in my new old homeland.

1. The sky is frequently grey but always beautiful. Okay, you think I’m mad. But unless you’ve stepped outside your door and felt the pollution catch in your throat, felt it billow its way down to your lungs, stepped back inside deciding not to go out after all because you’ve developed a strange attachment to being able to breathe… Unless you’ve pulled back the curtains in the morning to find that you can’t see the building opposite because it’s shrouded in chemical gloom for the fifth day in a row and wished you could just retreat to bed all day… Unless you’ve landed at Beijing airport and felt your soul sag at the dishwater that is the sky… well, you can’t get it. I don’t blame you. The state of the air in Beijing, and indeed most of China, is so fundamentally unnatural that it makes no sense.

2. Democracy is ugly but better than the other thing. The noise and mess of public debate here is deafening after the strangled silence in China. Politicians screwing up, human error gone wild, people shouting at each other, real anger, real distress, real issues… We stagger along the tightrope and it feels dangerous. But I suspect it’s much safer than that other thing. Don’t believe the hype about China’s rise. There’s no model to emulate, no lesson to learn. (If I wrote this on a blog in Chinese, in China, it would be deleted.) So you’re really going to waste tax payers’ money sending a fact-finding mission to China’s schools? To the same schools where problem-solving is positively discouraged? Where discussion of history, of religion, of politics is forbidden? Where an internet search gives you censored results? Seriously? Learn your times tables off by heart. There, that’s it. It cost you nothing.

3. Twelve year old girls shouldn’t have to be scared of men harassing them on the street. Because, at least in London, that seems to be a major concern. As they leave the school gates, adolescent girls are nervous that they’ll be whistled at, afraid that a man twice their age will try to strike up conversation, worried that a car will draw alongside and follow them home. They don’t know how they’ll deal with it if it happens. Ignore it? (Which feels nauseatingly like acquiescence.) Confront? Film? How do you tell harassment from real danger? We adults – men and women – have no answer except to shake our heads in shame and agree that it shouldn’t be like this. Harrassment is not new. Revelations about cases of historic child abuse – things going on when I was growing up, things done in secret, things kept secret for so many years – tell us that what we’ve left behind was worse. But to me, it looks as though a struggle for equality and respect, having achieved some level of acknowledgement and acceptance is now encountering a nasty backlash from an angry minority who are determined to signal to girls that they deserve no respect. Since when did feminism become the ‘f’ word?