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China, 4: Tea and toast


Continuing my 1985 diary of my trip to China. Here, I get a taxi and have some chocolate biscuits.

Walking out of that door into the main departure area was like a blow in the face. Behind me, plush calm, in front, dusty heaving chaos. Everyone in thick padded coats and peaked hats and luggage piled everywhere. I had given up all hope of seeing Cheryl at the airport. My plane times had changed so much. I had difficulty in working out how long the trip had taken me, never mind how I was going to get to the languages institute where she and Elspeth were students.

I practically dropped the gin, when I saw her at the departure gate.

‘Where the bloody hell have you been?’ she said. (She’s from Yorkshire, so that’s quite a warm welcome, especially since she’d been waiting there, on and off, for three days.)

‘I’ve got gin,’ I replied, as we gave each other a hug.

She had got hold of a tame taxi driver who, when we got outside, had disappeared. After about 20 minutes he returned in a sky blue job similar to a 1950s Morris Oxford, which clanked up to the airport entrance. This covered the 15 miles to Beijing at a pace that would have put a funeral cortege to shame. Still, we were glad even of that when half way there it stopped dead. We were just considering the prospect of a bracing walk when the driver managed to start it again. ‘Thank God,’ said Cheryl with some feeling.

Peking was dark, foggy, cold and the buildings stretched on for miles. Finally we drew up at some gates that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a remake of the Hound of the Baskervilles. The taxi wasn’t going any further. This was the institute compound. Large grey blocks. Thick wadding curtains covered every doorway. Even the tree trunks were wrapped in wadding. The air smelt of cabbage, but it was clean and cold and crisp.

The guy who designed the institute had obviously had a lot of concrete and not much imagination; it was just a square box really, separated into small square rooms with a lavvy at the end of each floor. The place was home to students from all over the world. One Jamaican lad I met said to me, ‘Most other guys put up pictures of girls in their rooms. I’ve got a poster of Caribbean vegetables. It’s so beautiful. I just look at it every night and dream of home cooking.’ He looked at me hopefully. ‘You didn’t bring any mangos, did you?’

Cheryl and Elspeth’s room, though, was quite cosy with bits of material and rather kitsch posters of the great Chinese leaders stapled all over the walls.

‘Trouble is,’ said Elspeth, when I complimented them. ‘Everybody else thinks it’s cosy too; it gets quite crowded at times.’

I put my backpack down and presented the girls with my other, heavier bag. ‘There you go, courtesy of the food hall at Marks and Sparks.’ They zip it open and fall like starving vultures on the goodies that spill out. Marmite, chocolate, camembert, smoked cheese, apples, chocolate digestives and chocolate; I had just filled my trolley with everything I could think of that you might not get in China. And it was practically vaporised. A German guy and a bloke from Denmark bagged the Bavarian cheddar with little grunts of delight. The gin made a very satisfactory glugging sound when it was opened. And, get this, I had remembered tonic water, and a lemon. Brownie points galore for me. One of the lads tugged out a cardboard box. ‘What is this?’

‘Tea bags,’ I said.

‘You brought tea, to China?’ he said.

‘Tea bags,’ I replied. ‘You know, for a proper cup of tea. With milk.’

They began to laugh. ‘You English,’ said one. ‘What would you do without tea?’

‘Tea and toast and Marmite,’ said Elspeth, dreamily. ‘Bloody marvellous.’

About elainecanham

I started blogging because I'm a writer, and I thought I ought to. Now I realise that I blog because I like to; even when I can't think of much to say.


14 thoughts on “China, 4: Tea and toast

  1. Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful! You said it on purpose – I’m the guy with all the concrete. Elaine – keep this going; it’s fantastic.

    Posted by Bruce Goodman | February 18, 2015, 8:27 am
    • Thanks, Bruce. I’m glad you like it. I was just wondering whether to keep on. I can see it getting a bit confusing with me talking in the present about stuff that happened so long ago.

      Posted by elainecanham | February 18, 2015, 10:19 am
    • They say to be successful and understand one should aim ones writing to the intellectual level of a seven-year-old. However, I think writing the past in the present tense lends an immediacy to the story. If a reader gets confused about it they can always just look at the accompanying photo instead.

      Posted by Bruce Goodman | February 18, 2015, 10:01 pm
  2. Blimey, midnight feasts in the dorm room. I thought those went out in the 50’s. I’m so glad you had your priorities right with your gin and tonic.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

    Posted by davidprosser | February 17, 2015, 3:19 pm
  3. What would you do, indeed. My grandmother, the 1/4 of my past that is British, drank her tea that way. Every day, round 4, with milk (she put it in AFTER the tea) and graham crackers with butter on them. It wasn’t until I started meeting fellow bloggers from across the sea that I began to understand that she wasn’t just a freak who put milk in tea.
    Milk in tea? So weird.

    Posted by naptimethoughts | February 17, 2015, 2:33 pm
    • I’ll have to try marmite. I’ve heard it’s an acquired taste.

      Posted by naptimethoughts | February 17, 2015, 2:34 pm
    • My mother drinks hers with lemon, because she can’t bear milk. And some teas do taste better that way, it has to be said. But bog standard tea needs milk. What is a graham cracker? Is that like a cream cracker or a water biscuit?
      Marmite is lovely. Although there are plenty of people who would disagree. The ad slogan for it is that you either love it or hate. And that is pretty well bang on. It’s yeast extract, and its natural home is thinly spread on thick buttered toast.

      Posted by elainecanham | February 17, 2015, 7:54 pm
  4. Thank goodness you didn’t forget the tea. Have a wonderful time.


    Posted by Loretta Livingstone | February 17, 2015, 1:54 pm
  5. Goodness gracious. Food from home. The way to most people’s hearts are through their stomachs. 🙂 😀
    What were the lavvys like?

    Posted by Let's CUT the Crap! | February 17, 2015, 1:22 pm
  6. That was very grown-up of you, Elaine, bringing a care package to students in China. I was not as nice or mature in my 20s. Although having said that, I did bring several packets of rashers to Israel once on request. Not my finest hour.

    Posted by Tara Sparling | February 17, 2015, 11:27 am
    • Ha ha! I wish I’d been there. You can get vegetarian bacon, you know. Maybe they’d have been all right with that.
      I don’t know that it was grown up, I’d had lots of letters from them about the marvellosity of cheese and how they were dreaming of chocolate; it would have got the trip off to a very bad start if I hadn’t turned up with something edible. And, I’m ashamed to say I didn’t just sit nobly back and let them eat, I got stuck in too.

      Posted by elainecanham | February 17, 2015, 12:26 pm

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