Qingdao: sailing city.

Qingdao is made for sailing. The coastal city boasts a long and attractive shoreline fringed by numerous islands which await exploration under sail. Summer temperatures soar into the 30s and invite days by the sea and refreshing swims in the ocean.

The city hugs the shoreline roughly halfway between Beijing and Shanghai, and successfully avoids the congestion and heavy air that besets so many other large Chinese cities.

Anyone who has visited China, and anyone who loves to sample imported beer, will know of Qingdao. They will of course know it by the name Tsingtao, which graces the labels of the most popular alcoholic beverage in China. The drink is made in Qingdao, and has been since 1903 when German migrants established breweries throughout the city. German influence is still evident in the architecture of various sections of the cities central districts

Tsingtao and Qingdao are different names for the same city. Simplified Chinese has used two different systems since it was first written using letters instead of Chinese characters. Tsingtao is the Wade-Giles system and Qingdao is the Pinyin system.

A city known for its beer has to have a beer festival, and it does. The multi-day festival focusses on beer, and the consumption of said beverage, but also includes amusement park rides for the kids and a number of other attractions to keep visitors entertained all night…so they stay and drink more beer.

An undeniable connection to beer explains the city’s unofficial motto: ‘He pijiu, chi gala’ – which roughly translates as:

Drink beer, eat shellfish.

Gold medals were contested in Qingdao in 2008 when the city hosted the sailing events for the Beijing Olympics. In recent years, the port city has hosted numerous rounds of the Extreme Sailing Series which showcases elite sailors on some of the fastest sailboats in the world. The marina of Qingdao offered an ideal setting for days of fast and exciting racing close to spectators and cameras.

Qingdao: a city for sailing.

Does China need to invade Australia?

The drums of war are beating. Australia is preparing for war with China as politicians and senior bureaucrats warn of armed conflict with the emerging superpower. Citizens are stockpiling weapons or boycotting their local Chinese restaurant and the tabloid media is disseminating fear to increase sales.

But would China ever invade Australia militarily? Would it ever need to?

China’s global ambitions are undeniable. Its construction of islands in the South China Sea and its actions in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang indicate plans to expand its influence. Counties throughout Africa, the Caribbean and the South Pacific are also being heavily courted, and China watched on with glee as its major rival self destructed under the disaster of Trump’s presidency. Boris and Brexit must also have pleased Xi Jinping.

China will not need to launch a military attack on Australia because the land Down Under is following Britain and The USA down a path of self destruction. China simply needs to wait and pick off the weakened state when the time is right.

Numbers

China can dominate Australia numerically. Millions of Chinese people comprise the diaspora which has created entrenched communities in Australia, as in other countries. Chinese people came to dig for gold in the 1860s, and since then to seek better opportunities for their families. Chinese influence will continue to grow as the number of migrants, students and tourists from China continues to grow.

Economics and trade

Chinese dominance of Australia will be achieved primarily through economics and trade. China is Australia’s biggest trading partner – and statements from Beijing remind Australia that it is the junior partner in this relationship. Indeed, when the Australian government made ill-timed and thinly-veiled racist comments towards China recently, Beijing imposed restrictions on Australian exports, and many Australian businesses suffered significantly. Some of the comments mirrored those of former US president Donald Trump, and were deliberately designed to appeal to the same demographic: ignorant, racist, narrow-minded, bigoted, lowly educated citizens whose influence has grown in Australia in recent years.

Australia has itself to blame for this situation. Australia has a ‘dumb’ economy. The nation exports almost nothing that requires a university degree to make, and its exports consist mainly of natural resources from mining, and the products of agriculture. Australia’s refusal, inability or reluctance to diversify its economy has made it dependant upon China, and this grants China economic control. It is also another reason that China does not need to invade Australia militarily.

One economic opportunity Australia continues to squander is renewable energy. Intelligent countries, including China, recognise the future economic as well as environmental opportunities inherent in renewable energy, but Australia remains fixated on fossil fuels which will destroy the environment and the economy.

The abundant sun light which attracts so many tourists to the land Down Under each year, especially from China, could be captured as solar energy and even exported for profit, but the fossil fuel industry controls the current government, and the semi-literate Australian mainstream believes the government’s rhetoric about the need for fossil fuels in Australia’s energy market. This is a situation entirely of Australia’s making, and one which weakens the country and makes it susceptible to Chinese dominance.

Education

Academia and intelligence are not prized in Australian culture. This is the reverse in China. Public education is poorly funded in Australia and more money appears to be stripped from government schools each year, especially under a conservative government. There are young Chinese people, studying at Chinese schools in China, with higher standards of English literacy than native-speaking Australian students studying at schools in Australia. Many Australian students don’t read, and won’t read. Their parents don’t appear concerned, the students are not concerned, and both major parties continue to strip money from public education and to further damage literacy rates across the country. Numeracy rates also continue to fall in Australia, and without succumbing to national stereotypes, China’s prowess in mathematics is well known.

In addition, many young Australians lack resilience. Too many primary and secondary students are diagnosed with stress and anxiety disorder, ADD, ADHD and myriad other academic or behavioural conditions. Some students genuinely suffer from these conditions, but many don’t. Australian society has allowed the over-diagnosis of these conditions, and a generation lacking resilience will inherit this country, making it ripe for the picking from a country that does not allow the same exceptions for its students.

A solution to this problem is to fund schools adequately, and to increase wages for teachers – as a starting point.

In a globalised world, Australia is weakened. Young Australians now compete for careers with youth from across the globe, including China, and need to form habits of resilience and dedication in their daily lives in order to protect their own futures and the future of the country.

Universities

Disrespect for academia extends to tertiary education in Australia. Public universities are inadequately funded, and this has further weakened the country. Universities are subsequently forced to operate as businesses and chase international fee paying students, most of whom come from China. Lecturers are pressured to award qualifications to international students even if they fail, because universities rely on their continued income. University staff tell tales of students from overseas, and from Australia, who lack the necessary English literacy skills to pass a course, but are awarded qualifications regardless because the universities need the money. The result is a decline in academic standards which will eventually devalue the qualifications international students have paid a fortune to receive. Soon, international students will seek degrees in other countries, and another lucrative source of income to Australia will be lost. This is a situation of Australia’s making.

Poorly funded tertiary education creates another problem for Australia – brain drain. If the country’s best and brightest are denied opportunities for research in Australia, they will take their intelligence overseas.

Historical pragmatism

China is not a coloniser. Not traditionally anyway. History reveals China’s focus on establishing trade and extracting resources from other lands instead of colonising those lands. Colonisation requires the invading power to manage the lands they invade and to manage the government, as well as transport, health, education, communications and other public services, which all require personnel, money, time and effort. China knew it could still enjoy the economic benefits of dominance over other lands without having to deal with the mess of governing the country. It is likely to do so with Australia.

Three superpowers in three weeks.

The Australian government has managed to upset three superpowers in the space of three weeks. Comments from the prime minister and senior minsters or staff have provoked negative responses from China, India and the United States, and the results could be very harmful to Australia.

China.

The threat of war. Senior government figures provoked China with comments about imminent armed conflict. Former Liberal minister Christopher Pyne, Senator Jim Molan, Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo, and even Defence Minister Peter Dutton made comments suggesting Australia is already, or will soon be, engaged in some form of direct conflict with China. In contrast, an article by Ewen Levick appeared in Australian Defence Magazine in March this year entitled:

War with China is not inevitable.

Average Aussies don’t know who to believe. They also might not understand the true motivation behind the comments, but China does, and Australia’s largest trading partner has already responded the best way it knows how – economically.

India

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that Australian citizens attempting to return to Australia from the COVID-19 hotspot of India could be issued massive fines or sent to jail. Many Australian citizens were born in India, have family in India and hold dual citizenship between the two countries. Australian citizens have access to Australia’s health system, and could be treated in Australia after completing mandatory quarantine, but they are being forced to remain in a country in the middle of a crisis, and are placing more pressure on India’s overburdened health system. This has not just angered Aussies in India and back home, but upset the government of India, which is battling to bring the crisis under control.

The United States

The Australian government set itself at odds with The USA when it refused to follow plans to reduce carbon emissions and protect the natural environment. New US president Joe Biden has publicly stated an ambition to actively reduce carbon emissions in the US in the near future, but Australia has refused to match these efforts. One specific policy which will harm Australia is the carbon tariff. The tariff, or fee, will be imposed on any goods being imported into the United States which have not been produced using more environmentally-friendly methods. Goods that are produced using fossil fuels will thus be worth less, and those businesses will lose money. The European Union is proposing a similar plan.

Ironically, this will adversely affect traditional Coalition voters, whose businesses will suffer due to the tariffs. Australia, rightly or wrongly, has a very close relationships with the United States, and cannot afford to alienate the superpower.

Upsetting other nations is inevitable in international diplomacy. Upsetting other nations is also justified if those nations are acting in a way that clearly contravenes the interests or the accepted values of the nation making the comments. China, for example, needs to be called out for its actions in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang. In this case, however, the comments are calculated, but careless, and are deliberately designed to appease specific sectors of the Australian population.

China. Anti-China comments appeal to the racists. Australia is a racist country, and anti-Chinese racism has existed since the gold rush in the 1860s. The Liberal National Party coalition taps into this anti-China sentiment because it is dependant on the votes of the country’s racist underbelly. Warning Australians of the threat of war is also a convenient way to justify enormous spending on defence, and observant commentators noticed that the comments were made close to ANZAC Day, which commemorates fallen Aussie soldiers and is the nation’s most sacred day. Ironically, however, the public comments about China have adversely affected trade with China and this severely disadvantages Australian producers of beef, wheat and wine, who would normally vote for the Coalition.

The USA. The prime minister rejected the US proposal in order to appease the fossil fuel industry. Australians are now cognisant that the fossil fuel industry owns the Coalition.

India. Racism, or damage control? Threatening to imprison Australian citizens returning from an Asian country is clearly racist, but the proposal could also be an attempt to save face. COVID-19 quarantine is ultimately a federal government responsibility in Australia, and it has been handled very poorly. The COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been even worse. Many Australians are staring to see through the government’s COVID-19 publicity stunts, so the threat to fine or imprison citizens could be an attempt to appear tough and decisive on border control and biosecurity.

Some of the Australians trapped in India have no Indian heritage. They are cricketers, chasing big money in the lucrative Indian cricket competition. A few of the cricketers have criticised the government’s stance. Will the words of some Aussie sports heroes be enough to the change the government’s stance?

For a government that is nothing but publicity, photo opportunities and marketing, this is a massive public relations faux pas. Will it persuade Australians to stop voting for the Coalition at upcoming elections?

Image: Aditya Joshi

Discounted patriotism.

What motivates people more, savings or patriotism? Are people more driven by love for their country, or the chance to save money?

We were on our way to the KTV centre for an enjoyable few hours of massacring popular songs in Chinese and English, and we decided we could only do so with a substantial supply of snacks. Thus, we detoured via the main shopping strip of central Qingdao to quickly fill our bags with some tasty morsels.

Just days before our singing sojourn, tensions had risen between China and Japan over the disputed Senkaku or Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. Both countries fiercely claim ownership of the archipelago, and regular statements from either government create controversy and wide-spread media coverage in the two proud nations.

Citizens on both sides of the East China Sea commonly react with patriotic fervour and denounce the opposing nation and their culture in personal conversations and across social media. Some patriotic citizens call for boycotts of the other nation’s stores, products and cultural influences, and this had occurred in the days leading up to our karaoke trip.

Toyota and Honda claimed arsonists had badly damaged their stores in Qingdao, while Panasonic and Canon shut some of their stores in major cities. Japanese citizens throughout the country stayed home in fear of retaliation during large-scale protests, Japanese schools cancelled classes, and some Japanese restaurants were seen covering their storefronts in Chinese flags.

Despite this, we were on our way to karaoke – a famous Japanese export.

In Qingdao, the Japanese store Jusco had been attacked and damage was done to its facade and sections of its interior. The store was forced to close for a few days to carry out repairs and to protect its employees. When the worst of the protests subsided and the store reopened, it still showed the scars of the attack.

As we approached the shopping precinct with empty bags and empty stomachs, we discussed which store we should visit, and based our choice on expediency, products selection and price. We could have ducked into Carrefour, but it was crowded and famously expensive. We could have chosen Chinese stores Da Run Fa or Jia Jia Yuan, which offered much the same stock and price, or we could stock up at Jusco.

As we neared Jusco, we saw many locals streaming in and out of the store with bags full. We were confused, after days of patriotic statements and anti-Japanese sentiment, until one of my local colleagues discovered why the store was full.

“Look, everything’s on sale!”

Without hesitation, my colleagues left their patriotism at the door before rushing into Jusco, collecting some tasty delights and smuggling them into the karaoke bar.

Hangzhou.

Hangzhou is picture postcard perfect. The popular Chinese city south of Shanghai boasts beautifully manicured gardens bordering its expansive lake, and the fragrant blossoms of its seasonal flowers lure visitors from far and wide.

Sunlight dances off the rippling waters, and the surrounding gardens offer a kaleidoscope of colour in the warmer months. Drops of fresh snow on West Lake convert the majestic body of water into a winter wonderland.

West Lake invites wandering. Stroll along its banks and admire the flowers, or stop to picnic at its shores. Waterborne craft ply its waters for an immersive experience.

Evenings promise yet more visual splendour. During warmer months, the lake comes alive at dusk with a wonderful light show featuring shooting fountains and an uplifting soundtrack.

Nearby Xixi National Wetland Park offers yet more beauty. The vast network of marshes, lakes and ponds plays host to a multitude of birds and wildlife and holds enough treasures to entertain visitors for hours or an entire day.

Of course, when something is so beautiful, it must be protected. This explains the abundance of public advisory billboards scattered throughout the city.

Billboards featuring cartoon like characters warn locals and visitors to avoid unsavoury habits such as smoking, spitting, bribery and traffic violations.

The anti-smoking message isn’t working. China is awash with cigarette butts and the stench of cheap Chinese tobacco. Smoking is banned in many places, but tolerated everywhere. Spitting is just as prevalent, and ignoring traffic violations seems to be something of a national sport.

The bribery billboard is interesting. The message is sound, but the Chinese man in the image seems to be accepting a bribe from a foreigner. Does this mean that only foreigners would dare offer a bribe in China? Also, the foreigner has red hair. Are red heads less trustworthy?

The only message that appears to be cutting through to its audience is this one:

Chinese people are extremely patriotic. They don’t always obey the law (see above) but they are fervently patriotic and will defend their national honour with passion and vigour.

At least in the case of Hangzhou, they have something of which to be proud.

Democracy and the future of major sporting events.

Will major sporting events soon be held only in non-democratic countries?

International sporting events such as the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup may take place only in countries without genuine democracy as governments in democratic countries struggle to justify to their populations the exorbitant cost of hosting these events. Authorities in non-democratic countries, on the other hand, do not need to justify anything to their subjects.

The citizens of democratic nations are increasingly aware of the enormous financial costs and disruption required to host international competitions. The same people are also aware of the lack of funding directed towards more immediate needs in their countries such as schools, universities, hospitals and other infrastructure.

Do major sporting events make a profit?

The question is not so much whether major sporting events make a profit, or if they benefit countries in other ways. The question is whether governments can persuade their populations that the events make a profit or benefit the nation.

Can governments continue to justify the construction of enormous sporting stadia when government schools are underfunded?

Can governments continue to justify accommodating the world’s athletes when hospitals are underfunded?

Can governments justify spending $118 million on opening or closing ceremonies when public transport is insufficient or non-existant?

Brazil highlighted this contradiction recently. The country hosted both the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016 despite a struggling economy, a broken public health system, grossly underfunded public schools and crumbling infrastructure. Many educated Brazilians are still waiting for the promised economic and social benefits of these two events. Many South Africans have undoubtedly been asking the same questions since 2010.

Volunteers

Have you ever volunteered at a major sporting event?

Would you volunteer at a major sporting event?

As everyday people learn more about the corruption and lavish lifestyles of the officials at major sporting organisations, surely they will be less inclined to jump into a garish uniform and stand for hours outside a train station directing fans to venues – for no pay.

Many volunteers have thankless jobs. They never see a moment of sport. The never see their sporting heroes in person. In return, they get to keep their uniform and receive a generic thankyou letter from a random politician. Major sporting events cannot go ahead without an army of volunteers. Could FIFA or the IOC afford to pay every volunteer at one of their international events?

Rulers of non-democratic nations, meanwhile, are better able to persuade citizens to volunteer.

Patriotism

Patriotism drives many volunteers to offer their vital services, but will it be enough in the future?

Patriotism drove young people to volunteer for the army in World War I for example, but many of today’s youth do not share this patriotic fervour. Can the same shift in attitude be applied to the sporting sphere, and would young people choose to volunteer for a sporting event?

Volunteers at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games spoke of their national pride, and continue to reference this as a motivation and reward for volunteering at the games. I myself experienced some of this patriotism when I volunteered. That said, I volunteered in the media, with the best seats in the house, at the Athletics, and spent the games interviewing athletes. I also sat on the finish line, a few rows back, when Cathy Freeman won gold. Most volunteers were not so lucky.

Patriotism also persuaded many Brazilians to eventually support, or at least stop criticising, the hosting of the 2014 World Cup. The government was canny enough to know that the country’s obsession with the world game would eventually silence many of its critics. This enthusiasm surely waned when they lost 7 – 1 to Germany on home soil.

The public is also much more likely to congratulate or tolerate a government’s decision to host a major event in that country wins. Winning elite sporting competitions also costs a lot of money.

Patriotism will still persuade many citizens to support international competitions in the future. Australians were elated to hear that their country will share the FIFA Women’s World Cup with New Zealand in 2023, but by that time will Australia still be a democracy?

A quick internet search reveals that many major events scheduled for the next five years will be held in countries such as Japan, Switzerland, France and Italy, which are universally accepted as democratic. Other events will be held in the USA, but as long as Trump is in office can the USA claim to be democratic?

It’s worth noting that all of these counties were awarded the competitions before the COVID-19 pandemic. When the total financial and social cost of the virus is calculated, will citizens support any future bids for major sporting events?

Authority

Non-democratic countries don’t need to justify anything to their subjects. China, Russia and the Gulf States are now hosting many of the world’s major sporting events and their governments operate unencumbered by public sentiment.

China has hosted many major sporting events and will do so in the near future. They entered this space by hosting the 2008 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and have hosted various forms of Asian Games. The Winter Olympics are set to be held in Beijing in 2022 and the country has been the venue for prestigious events in Basketball, Swimming and Athletics in recent years.

China is not a democratic nation.

Russia is an interesting conundrum. Russian athletes were prohibited from competing under the national flag at many recent major events due to widespread state-supported doping, but the country still hosted events such as the Winter Olympic Games, the FIFA World Cup and the 2015 World Aquatics Championships in Kazan.

Russia is not a democratic nation.

The Gulf states

The Gulf states are attracting sports administrators to their nations. Their geographical location and air transport hubs make them enticing locations for staging international events, and their oil wealth allows them to cover the costs. The oil money also affords their people a very high standard of living and a subsequent tolerance of government policies.

Qatar is determined to become a sporting nation. They have invested heavily in sporting academies and sporting infrastructure. They host major events and hire foreign experts to train their homegrown talent. They are set to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup and have promised to keep players, officials, fans and the media comfortable despite the stifling desert heat. The air conditioned World Cup is bound to cost an absolute fortune, but the oil rich states should have little trouble convincing their subjects to bear this burden.

Having worked at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, which was the first major event of any kind held in that country, I can attest to the enthusiasm, pride and excitement Qataris will feel towards football’s greatest tournament in two year’s time.

The United Arab Emirates has attempted to position itself as a favourable tourism destination through hosting international competitions in sports such as Rugby Sevens, Tennis, Golf, Sailing, Equestrian and Road Running.

The flow-on effect

Financial costs and benefits are not the only factors for governments to consider when deciding to host a major event. Flow-on effects must also be taken into account.

One flow-on effect is the increase in sports participation after a major event such as the Olympic Games. This is not true. Many first-world countries which have recently hosted major events are seeing an increase in childhood obesity every year.

Major events lead to an increase in sports participation immediately after the games, or an increase in participation in particular sports. If a national hockey team or basketball team wins gold, those two sports will most likely attract more members. But many of these sports were probably mass participation sports in that country anyway. Norway wins Cross -Country skiing gold because of the popularity of that sport. The same can be said of Speed Skating in The Netherlands, Rugby Sevens in Fiji and Table Tennis in China.

Facilities

Sporting infrastructure is touted as a positive legacy for a host city or country. Many venues are reused as specialist or multipurpose sporting facilities. However, A quick google search reveals a multitude of facilities in many countries left to crumble after world’s best athletes have departed. Some of these abandoned facilities were used as recently as the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 and the Rio Olympic Games in 2016.

Evidence of this wastage, and the tactics used by governments to justify the initial construction, will surely make citizens of democratic nations more cynical and less inclined to support bids for major events in the future.

E- Sports

Is it cheaper to host E-Sports events?

Competitions still often take place inside sports stadiums but there are fewer competitors at fewer venues who seem to require less equipment. Competitions consist of a few ‘gamers’, their elaborate computer game equipment, copious energy drinks and some broadcast equipment to display the action on a big screen and to livestream to audiences around the world. The fact that E-Sports competitions take place electronically means that they can be enjoyed online. Does this make them easier and cheaper to host?

E-Sports must be an enticing options for governments in the future because they are enormously popular. The most watched Youtube videos are those featuring computer games and gamers.

Are we looking at this the wrong way?

Instead of asking whether only authoritarian regimes will host major events in the future, can we cite the hosting of an international sporting competition as evidence that a country is not democratic?

Persuading the powerful

Finally, how many countries will be able to afford to ‘persuade’ the sports officials who decide which country hosts the upcoming sporting extravaganza?

Nigga, why did you lose?

“Nigga, why did you lose?”

The athlete stared in disbelief.

His hulking, dark-skinned frame slumped on the barriers separating the journalists from the media. Muscles bulged from every limb under his USA team kit and sweat dripped from his face, down his neck and over the sinews and protruding veins of his finely-tuned physique.

Did he just say that, read the expression on his face. The sprinter glanced from right to left to scan the reaction on the faces of other media in attendance and confirm what he had just heard.

Maybe he’d misheard. Maybe the physical and emotional exhaustion of an Olympic semi-final had caught up with him. Maybe the disappointment of failing to qualify for a final that he was good enough to win, and the realisation that years and years of training and sacrifice had amounted to nothing, caused him to misinterpret the question from the Chinese journalist.

But no. He had not misunderstood the question. The American (whose name I don’t remember) would leave the Beijing Olympic Games with bad memories, and this would be one of them.

The local reporter hadn’t meant to use the N word. He hadn’t intended to question a black athlete by using the word which has accompanied years of racism, oppression and discrimination throughout the world, especially in the country whose flag sat emblazoned on the athlete’s singlet.

The N word he had used was “NaGe” or “nage”. This Chinese word translates as ‘that one’ into English, and is used to connect sentences or phrases, or to fill a pause in conversation in everyday Chinese communication. It serves the same function as ‘um’ or ‘like’ in English. It is used a million times a day by Chinese speakers and has absolutely no racial or offensive meaning in English, because it has no meaning in English.

Unfortunately, when it is pronounced in connected speech, it sounds exactly like the N word, and that is what the athlete heard from the reporter. It was simply a very unfortunate example of a word being lost in translation.

It's hard to be subtle in a second language.

The second mistake the reporter made was asking a blunt and direct question to a visibly upset Olympian.

The meaning of the question was appropriate, the wording was not. The journalist was tasked with gauging the athlete’s response to his poor performance. The reporter was supposed to find out how and why the athlete performed below his usual standard and thus failed to qualify for the final.

The reporter could have asked:

“Tell us what happened out there”

“You would have expected a better result, can you explain what happened?”

“Obviously that’s not what you hoped for, is there a reason for your performance?”

Maybe the athlete was ill or carrying an undisclosed injury into the race. Maybe he was excessively nervous or had over trained in the days leading up to the event. We might have found out why, but not by using the words the local reporter used.

To be fair to the local journalist, he was not actually a journalist. By his own admission, he also didn’t know much about sport, let alone Athletics, which is the most prominent sport at multi-sport events such as the Olympic Games. The local reporter was a university lecturer, in a subject far removed from sport (Engineering from memory) and had somehow landed the role of mixed zone reporter in the Bird’s Nest.

After the incident, I tried to explain to my colleague how that word is problematic, but a lifelong habit is hard to break in a day, and he was not the most receptive of the local staff.

I couldn’t help thinking, how can a country of more than one billion people not find a handful of reporters who understand sport, understand the media and have a firm grasp of English or other languages?

Other reporters eventually leapt in and steered the interview towards an explanation for the unexpected performance, then the athlete slumped off to the changerooms to commiserate.

What did the athlete say in response to the unfortunate question?

Nothing

Image: Chau Cedric

Pizza…with garlic bread and a heart check.

I was starving. I wasn’t very happy either. I’d just hopped off my second crammed, smelly, humid bus ride after returning to Chengyang from Qingdao where I’d tried to renew some paperwork.

Hours and hours of sitting and waiting in noisy government offices, being herded from one counter to the next and trying to understand the officials with my rudimentary grasp of Mandarin had taken its toll on me.

All I wanted now was some food.

I walked towards a local restaurant bursting with noise, locals and cigarette smoke, then past another and another offering the same menu and the same atmosphere. After my battle with officialdom and my lengthy, arduous bus rides, I couldn’t quite face a noisy, smoke-filled restaurant and more exposure of my linguistic shortcomings.

Pizza

I saw the sign and settled on this venue for lunch. China might not be known for pizza, and Chengyang is more famous for Korean BBQ than for Italian fine dining, but my mood demanded something familiar and filling.

I poked my head through the door and was welcomed by the friendly owner and the sight of some locals enjoying a hearty meal.

This’ll do, I thought

I gestured and pointed my way through my order and had communicated to the owner that I desired garlic bread and a supreme pizza. Exactly what constitutes a supreme pizza in China I wasn’t quite sure, and I didn’t care. I was hungry.

The garlic bread arrived and disappeared simultaneously. I didn’t register its taste or texture, just its journey to my rumbling stomach.

With my appetite partially sated, I surveyed the small restaurant and observed a primary school child struggling through her homework, a young couple exchanging loving glances and another young couple glued to their phones. The remainder of the patrons were locals happily devouring their pizza and chatting to the amiable owners.

Just before my pizza arrived, I noticed something odd. Something I’d never seen at a pizza restaurant, or any restaurant. One of the owners, and a middle-aged couple, were locked in a serious but amicable conversation, which ended when the couple appeared to give their consent.

I was intrigued.

The owner moved toward the kitchen with a determined posture, and disappeared. He emerged a few minutes later with a contraption of some sort. Obscured by the comings and goings of the restaurant I couldn’t quite make out what he was carrying, and only noticed the diners roll up their sleeves.

I then saw the owner attach his contraption to the arm of the husband. It was a blood pressure monitor. Exactly the same as the ones used in doctor’s surgeries. The owner was measuring the couple’s blood pressure.

Why?

I wasn’t expecting gourmet pizza and I wasn’t expecting a Michelin hat at a local restaurant on the outskirts of Chengyang, which is on the outskirts of Qingdao. Still, I didn’t expect this couple, and subsequent diners, to be having their blood pressure checked, AFTER they had finished their meals.

What was it about this pizza?

Before I could contemplate this conundrum any longer, my pizza arrived.

It looked OK, but should I eat it?

Does it induce heart flutters, high blood pressure, a stroke?

Why were the owners testing the blood pressure of people in a restaurant. Do they do this every day, is it part of the service?

My mind was racing so fast that it made me hungry. It seemed I had no choice.

I took a bite and it was…edible. Very greasy and cheesy, but edible.

I managed to fit in mouthfuls of pizza between moments of doubt, and I clearly lived to tell the tale.

I wasn’t, however, offered a blood pressure check.

And I didn’t order desert.

Image: Chad Montano

Famished in Gulangyu.

I nearly went hungry in Gulangyu.

I was feeling rather peckish so I wandered into a local restaurant. It was full so I assumed it must be good.

I took a seat and perused the menu and thanked my lucky stars that the menu contained pinyin and I could read the letters, instead of having to just guess at the meaning of the Chinese characters.

By this stage of my journey through China I had learned to point at a menu and say

“Wo yao Zhege”

“I want this”.

When I did this with menus comprised entirely of characters, I had no idea what I’d ordered and I was served some interesting dishes. To this day I still don’t know what I ate.

It’s one reason I sought out the Uighur restaurants in China. No, not out of political motives. It was because these restaurants served heaped plates of cheap, tasty food, and because they had numbered pictures on the wall which I could point to and say,

“Wo yao Zhege”

At one of these restaurants, the friendly young son showed me his homeland on a world map, and I showed him where I had travelled from. Then he explained that he didn’t actually speak much mandarin, as it was not his first language.

“Tha’s ok,” I replied, “neither do I”

At this particular restaurant in Gulangyu, however, I was confident that I would know what I had ordered and was about to consume.

Would I opt for jirou or nuirou?

It was normally a choice between chicken or beef, much like meals on a plane. At least, it was for someone as linguistically hampered as I.

Having decided on the chicken, I now had to get the attention of the waitress. I’ve never been very good at this and still feel a little uncomfortable doing it, no matter where in the world I find myself. But, my stomach was calling, so it had to be done.

I knew that it was uncommon to signal with the hand or a raised arm in China. I thus tried to meet her eye. This was hard in a restaurant full of hungry visitors who had her running this way and that, taking multiple orders at a time – and not writing them down. She raced between tables and to and from the kitchen and appeared to be the only staff member on duty. Most likely, she was the only family member on duty.

I tried to politely and subtly catch her attention and order my lunch, but it wasn’t working, and with every passing minute my stomach rumbled more impatiently.

Then it occurred to me. The only way to complete my order was to do what everyone else was doing – just yell it at her. Shout your order across the room, over the din of a busy restaurant, even with a mouth full of food. There is little time for niceties in a country of one billion people.

But how was I to do this?

How could I make myself understood with my rudimentary vocabulary and stunted pronunciation? How would she even hear me?

I was devising a strategy when she approached my table to take my order. I think she either felt sorry for the ‘weiguoren’ who had been sitting dumbfounded for at least ten minutes without ordering – or she wanted the table for someone else. After all, if I wasn’t eating, I was costing the owners money.

Thus she approached my table and frantically asked me what I wanted, while three other tables were demanding more food and ‘pijou’ – beer. I stuttered and stumbled through a few words of mandarin but she didn’t understand. She asked again and I couldn’t make myself understood any more clearly.

Then she walked away.

My third attempt was no better than the first two and she simply couldn’t wait. It wasn’t her job to guide me through my Chinese language learning journey with patience and understanding. It was her job to serve the surrounding patrons who were yelling orders at her with growing frequency and impatience.

Now what do I do?

Will I go hungry?

If I can’t order a meal, how do I eat?

Do I go to another restaurant and risk the same outcome?

Do I got to a corner store and buy a packet of biscuits or two-minute noodles? If I bought noodles, how would I heat them?

My mind was racing and my stomach rumbling.

Just then, my saviour arrived. A young Korean woman arrived at the table and observed my plight.

“Do you speak English?” she asked

“Do you need some help?”

Yes, clearly

So, a young Korean woman took my order in English then translated it into Chinese, and I did manage to eat. I also had some company for my meal.

I felt inadequate and embarrassed. Not just because I’d failed to order a simple meal, but also because I had to be saved by a Korean who used her second and third languages to order for me.

I enjoyed my meal because my new found friend had managed to order a particular sauce as well as the ‘ji rou’ and ‘fan’ – chicken and rice. On a previous occasion, I had ordered beef and rice, and had received just that – strips of beef and white rice. It was bland to say the least.

I didn’t go hungry and enjoyed a tasty meal in good company.

Without the language of the host country or region, it is possible to travel, but it does detract from the experience. If I hadn’t been saved by a friendly Korean, I think I would have found some way to eat – I hope so.

It did make me wonder, without a mastery of mandarin, what is one to do in Gulangyu?

One would most likely wander the pedestrian only island and admire the mix of Chinese and European architecture which distinguishes this small island from other cities in China.

Gulangyu was actually an international settlement and became a busy, open port in 1842 when the Treaty of Nanjing ended the Opium Wars. Today it is more heavily populated with interntational tourists and locals, who pop across for a day trip or a weekend on the ferry from Xiamen.

The warm weather and salty air also lend the island a distinct atmosphere, and it is pleasant to wander around the island and watch the fisherman at work, and appreciate the role of the sea in supporting the people who have lived here for thousands of years.

An ascent to one of the lookout points affords a view of the island back to the skyscrapers of Xiamen.

The Great Wall of China.

The Great Wall of China is steep. Surprisingly steep. We all know the wall for its length, its historical significance and the fact that it can be seen from space, but its difficult to appreciate its steepness until you actually visit.

The winding fortification snakes its way over hills and mountains along China’s northern border and is traversed via paths and steps connecting each of its guard posts.

Walking up and down the paths and steps at the Badaling section of the wall is hard work, especially when northern China’s summer heat combines with Beijing’s famous air pollution to constrict the lungs. However, a leg and lung busting mini-hike is worth the effort because it allows the visitor to separate themselves from the hordes of tourists who descend upon one of the world’s most famous landmarks every day.

In actual fact, you don’t have to venture too far from the main entrance at Badaling to escape the crowds, and on a good day you may find you have the wall to yourself for a moment.

At this point you can contemplate the construction, appearance, history and significance of the wall.

Struggling up along the sections between the guard posts prompts visitors to wonder what it must have been like to have been stationed on the wall as a guard hundreds of years ago.

Would guards have lived in a constant state of fear of attack from enemy invaders? Somehow I don’t think this would have been the case at many sections of the wall. The topography alone would have thwarted any genuine attempt at invasion, and the height of the wall would have allowed the guards to see the enemy from miles away. The scale of the wall surely removed the element of surprise from most enemy combatants and this must have been a deliberate feature of its design.

It seems that boredom would have been a major threat to the guards. Staring into vast nothingness for hours and hours, day after day, and having nothing to do even when their shift ended – if it ever did.

I also wondered how they ate. If they were stationed on a remote part of the wall, were they provided with a set amount of rations sufficient to sustain them for the duration of their ‘shift’? Where and how did they cook? Where and how did they go to the toilet?

Actually, I know the answer to the last question. They did it in the guard towers, just as certain visitors are still doing today. Tourists left little reminders of their visit in most of the guard towers, which might explain the presence of this sign.

Regardless of how the guards fed and entertained themselves, or stayed sane, a posting to a remote section of the Great Wall was probably not a highly-prized assignment.

The guards fared better than the builders of the wall,, however. It is a well-documented fact that the workers who died during the construction of the wall were buried inside the wall.

The views are impressive and expansive, at least they would be if the haze of pollution cleared long enough to enjoy them. One has to wonder whether visiting in winter would afford better views as the summer haze would have dissipated. Either this or making the effort to visit other sections of the wall which a re further away from big cities and their choking pollution.

Other sections of the wall can be visited from Beijing. They are said to be in various states of disrepair, but are less crowded than Badaling. There are of course hundreds of section of the wall still standing along China’s northern border, and these could in theory be visited with time, money, a strong grasp of mandarin and a sense of adventure. Walking the entire wall required all of that and seemingly a solid grasp of logistics, because the wall is made up of many unconnected sections.

Would you do it?