A week ago there was an article in the Guardian that gives an insight from one person’s experience of what it is like to be transplanted into a vastly different culture even when the circumstances are not traumatic, as is the case with a refugee. Below is a short extract, which stops at the point when it all seems an obviously good idea to come to the UK: for the full picture of how it turned out see link.
By the time I reached my late 20s, I was desperately looking for a way out of Beijing. From 2001 onwards, the city was consumed by preparations for the 2008 Olympics. Every bus route had to be redirected. Every building was covered in scaffolding. Highways were springing up around Beijing like thick noodles oozing from the ground, with complicated U-turns and roundabouts. The city was surrounded by a moonscape of construction sites. Living there had become a visual and logistical torture. For me, as a writer and film-maker, it was also becoming impossible artistically, with increasing restraints placed on my work.
The opportunity to leave came sooner than I could have hoped. I heard that the Chevening scholarship and the British Council were looking for talent in China. I had never heard of Chevening. Someone told me it was a large historical mansion in Kent. My mind was instantly filled with images from The Forsyte Saga – one of the most-watched English television programmes on the Chinese internet. The wealthy housewives of Beijing in particular loved the fancy houses and rich people dressed in elegant costumes riding about on white horses. So I applied as a film-maker.
Eight months later, after many stressful exams, the British Council in Beijing called me in. “Congratulations! You are one of three people in China this year who’ve won the scholarship! You beat 500 other candidates!” The English lady brought me a cup of tea with a big smile. She also handed me back my passport with a UK visa in it.
When I told my parents the news, they were rather surprised, but both thought it sounded like a great opportunity. “Your father says he is very proud of you!” my mother said. “All your years of studying now make sense.” Then she added: “You said the scholarship is from England. Do you mean Great Britain?”
“Yes. Great Britain,” I confirmed.
“That’s great. Greater than United States, right?” my mother said, drawing her conclusions from her Maoist education of the 1960s. But I knew that she had no idea about either Britain or America. The only thing she knew about those countries was that they were in the west. “You should take a rice cooker with you. I heard that westerners don’t use rice cookers.”
I remember very well the day I left China. It was 1 April, and the Beijing sandstorm season had begun. I dragged my luggage towards the subway, choking in the sandy soup. This was my chance to escape the world I had grown up in. But that world was trying one last time to keep me.
“I will be walking under a gentle and moist English sky soon,” I said to myself. “It nurtures rather than hinders its inhabitants. I will breathe in the purest Atlantic sea air and live on an island called Britain.” All this was destined to be nothing more than a memory. . . .
This is an adapted extract from Once Upon a Time in the East: A Story of Growing Up by Xiaolu Guo, which will be published by Chatto & Windus on 26 January. To order a copy for £14.44 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846.