China catches a cold

Winter arrives in Beijing

My phrase of the week in my rather limited Chinese has been ‘ni leng bu leng? which translates as ‘are you feeling the cold?’. Chinese has this wonderful way of using paired, balanced phrases like this way of asking questions which are not only elegant but wonderfully convenient for struggling foreigners to remember. The answer to the question can be given in another classic Chinese phrase – ‘leng si le’ – ‘cold enough to die, but reduced to three terse, emphatic characters.

After an incredibly idyllic, balmy autumn which lingered deceptively on into late November, temperatures have taken their inevitable plummet this week. The azure of the autumnal skies has ebbed away to paler shades of blue, backlit by weak winter rays. And yes with the change in weather has come an increase in coughs and colds. I feel sorry for any children and their families suffering from the winter flu. However, contrary to the hysterical headlines in some western media, nothing out of the ordinary is going on, that is apart from the standard panic about ‘Chinese secrecy’, as if the COVID Inquiry in Britain isn’t showing where our concerns about government accountability in periods of genuine emergency ought to lie.

If anyone one should know about this so-called ‘pandemic’ it’s me, from my position as a Headmaster. Everyday for the last few weeks two or three students per class have been ‘bu shufu’ or as we might say in English ‘under the weather’. And yes it’s also true that they may have been to hospital, but that is simply because hospitals, not GP surgeries are the front line medical service in China. My teachers tell me complaining stories about waiting for hours with their child to be seen and I swap them exactly the same stories from the NHS!

And yes it’s true that you will see many more Chinese wearing masks than in England. But to panic would be to completely misunderstand mask wearing in China. In the west we’ve become used to a ‘reactive’ view of health. If something goes wrong we’re used to reacting to the illness by popping a few pills. No wonder pharmaceutical companies make such massive profits! China has a much more preventative approach to health care. Since the cold weather began my colleagues have been pressing a rich variety of herbal recipes on me to keep away the flu. And so it is with masks. The point of wearing a mask is not to protect you, but to protect friends, colleagues, fellow citizens from the infection you might be spreading!

This talk of the cold weather gives me the opportunity to tell one of my favourite people to people stories about China. This incident happened during my first Beijing winter. Like a stubborn foreigner, I laughed away the efforts of my students to persuade me to wear two layers of clothing or a hat to cover my ears.

Then one particularly biting day I was in the centre of Beijing with a Chinese friend. We boarded a bus and got separated. I ended up sitting next to a ‘laobeijingren’ – an old Beijing man. Almost as soon as we sat down he reached over his hand and placed it on my leg. Can you imagine this happening in England! Even without gender anxieties, we all value our ‘personal space’ far too much to accept contact like this from a stranger. Of course I didn’t want to offend him and his face was too wrinkled with smiles to mean me any harm.

I called over to my Chinese friend for reassurance. She is also ‘beijingren’ and she slipped comfortably into conversation with him in dialect. She smiled. ‘Don’t worry, it’s his way of telling you your trousers are too thin. You need something thicker for the Beijing winter. He wants you to be comfortable here.’ He gave my knee one last friendly tap and with a broad grin said ‘welcome to Beijing’, a phrase made popular by the 2008 Olympics.

I wonder if those responsible for the hysterical headlines about every little cough that comes out of China could manage the simple, sublime humanity of this compassionate man, a 君子, a junzi, in the Confucian tradition of a gentleman. His wisdom outthought any amount of ideology. What was I to him? Not an enemy, not a capitalist, not even a foreigner. I was a fellow shivering human animal with whom he could feel both empathy and sympathy.

Wherever you are now my friend, I hope the Beijing winter is kind to you. It would be an honour to meet you again now I can at least thank you for your kindness in my stumbling Chinese. Your kindness and the memory of your welcome has been better protection against the icy winters than any layers of extra clothing. Your kindness played a part in persuading me to dedicate ten years of my life to education in a country that could produce such human warmth in the face of the gathering chill of fear-mongering headlines.

Shichahai Lake in the centre of Beijing becomes a winter skate rink.