I am actually writing this whilst sitting in a client meeting in Shanghai. I am running a workshop on observational research and the group I am working with have split into pairs to work through some exercises I have set them. Hence my one-hour break which is allowing me to write this piece.
This is my very first trip to mainland China and I have to confess to having been quite anxious about it. Colleagues had warned me not to take any internal flights due to poor safety records. I was told to do what diplomats did whenever they had to make internal flights — fly out to Hong Kong then back into the Chinese city you intended to visit.
So my anxiety levels rose when my client cheerfully informed me that she had already booked return flights from Guangzhou to Shanghai and back again. I had no idea I was going to be flying to Shanghai! My total length of my visit was going to be eight days.
Varinder, my wife, was very helpful, if a little too practical: “Have you got any life insurance? Have you got a will? Will I have to look after your mum for the rest of her life?”
The first thing that strikes the Iranian/European visitor on entering China is the abundance of Chinese characters written everywhere. It would have been virtually impossible for me to find the baggage or immigration desks had I not followed the crowds. It is really very easy to get completely, permanently, lost.
I spent one day in meetings in Guangzhou and was told to meet the client at the airport (domestic terminal) at 10:00 the following morning for the flight to Shanghai. I was up that night until four in the morning writing emails, calling Varinder in America (she is travelling too and is in Chicago as I write this) so I arranged a wake up call the next morning at seven.
I woke up with a start and I could see that it was daylight through the curtains. Next action was to bring my dead arm (I had slept on it all night) up to my face so I could see the time. It was 10 BLOODY 30 in the BLOODY morning! WHAT happened to my wakeup call?
The next few minutes would have made a great Mr Bean episode. All 220 pounds of me running around my hotel room with my eyes still shut trying to work out if I had even the slightest chance of getting to the airport on time. I didn't know which hotel we were staying at in Shanghai. I didn't have my client's mobile number and I was in a complete whiz.
Fortunately, within a few minutes of my doing the overweight- man- going- nuts- in- Chinese- hotel- room- show, my phone rang. It was the client. She was worried about me. Was I feeling okay? It wasn't like me to be late. I decided to come clean about sleeping through the alarm and said I would catch the next flight out which I duly did.
Incidentally — Guangzhou airport's domestic terminal is unlike any terminal I have ever seen. It looks like a giant fruit market with check-in desks at one end and fruit stalls at the other and in the centre too. People were milling around trying to haggle the vendors down in price. They were buying mangoes, bananas and other tropical fruit by the box load and proceeding to their departure gates. What a sight!
I had over one hour to spare and decided to have some lunch at the Chinese (what else?) restaurant on the next floor. Although my wife is a vegetarian she, so far, hasn't cramped my style. I was led to a table and was waiting for the illegible menu when I suddenly noticed these food trolleys being pushed around the restaurant by waitresses. At least I could look, choose and point the plate I wanted to eat.
I ordered duck's tongue, Chicken feet and duck breast. The duck's tongues, a whole plate full of them, were actually quite tasty but they each have a hard bone down the centre that has to be spat out. With a bloated and rumbling stomach, I squeezed myself into my aircraft seat and fell asleep before we had even taken off.
Shanghai is a modern city not unlike Hong Kong or Bangkok. It is the most cosmopolitan city in China. I spent my first morning being ripped off in the old part of the city by trades' people selling rubbish which I bought enthusiastically and ignorantly. I bought a Chairman Mao watch that has already broken (there is a picture of him on the face and his hand waves with each second).
Next I bought a cigarette lighter with a picture of Mao on the front too. When you light it, it plays a digital version of what must be the Chinese national anthem. The flame is like a blowtorch and will vaporise the end of any cigarette it comes in contact with. I am till deciding who to give it to at the office.
Last night I had an amazing, almost surreal experience. One of my clients mentioned there was an international film festival taking place at a cinema some 15 minutes away from our hotel. I asked if there were any Iranian films showing and she said yes (YES!).
To my surprise, three clients all insisted on coming along with me. I was slightly concerned they would find the film dull and boring. I am no film buff but the novelty of seeing an Iranian film in the People's Republic of China was to good an opportunity to miss — even if I did have three Chinese clients in tow. We bought our tickets, took our places in the theatre in time to see the credits end and the film start.
Subtitles were in English and the Chinese translation flashed on a large LED display below the screen. Before seeing the movie I had tried to manage their expectations by warning that they wouldn't enjoy it. I had no reason why they wouldn't enjoy it. What if it was too “deep”? What if it was simply too long and tedious? If it happened to be boring, would they think all Iranians were boring?
No, I am not being dim witted or simplistic. Culturally Iran is a million miles away from China and stereotyping is rife. I just didn't want them to think we all lived in muddy villages (if indeed any were shown) with village women wearing colourful dresses and men who needed a good shave. Not that there is anything wrong with men who need a shave — you know what I mean.
Anyway, the film started. To my shame I never found out what the film was called because a) all the information was in Chinese characters b) I missed the very opening credits and c) even though I can speak fluent Farsi I can't read it at all (blame my parents for my “bi savaadi”).
I will briefly describe the film: Schoolboy breaks classroom window. Teacher threatens him with expulsion from school unless he replaces window. Schoolboy borrows money from newfound friend to pay for glass. Schoolboy walks miles to a glazier's shop to buy glass. He spends ages walking back. He tries to fit window on his own. He breaks the window (at this point the tension in the sinema can be cut with a knife). He gets a lift on a moped to go back to the glazier before it closes for the day. And, oh — it is a very windy day.
The above is a summary only. It was actually a very beautiful film with amazing attention to detail and scenes which were framed with such style and freshness that Tarkovsky himself would have been blown away by them (if he was still alive). An hour-and-a-half later and we are back outside.
“That was such a beautiful film, Siamack. Are women allowed to work in your country?” Asked one client.
There were no women actors in the film and I thought she was going to stereotype us.
“Yes, we have women in ministerial positions,” Do we? I thought we did anyway.
“I loved the scene where the little boy sheltered from the wind and the rain inside a tree behind the pain of glass, and when autumn leaves blew and stuck to it,” Said another client.
I had to agree. It was indeed a lovely seen.
So there we have it. Siamack, the cultural wasteland, watching an Iranian film in China with a Chinese audience, who laughed, held their breaths and laughed again in all the right places. Obviously the translation into Chinese was very well done. Every one “got” the funny dialogue exchanges that were meant to be funny.
This morning, my client was still referring to the film. At lunch she told a few more colleagues about it. They all want to see it now — particularly the scene where the little boy is sheltering behind his glass pane from the rain and wind.
Tonight I fly back to Guangzhou and tomorrow night I'll set off to go back home to London. But I'll be alone because my beautiful wife is still in America. If you are reading this Varinder, come home soon my love, I miss you.
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