A diplomat's China tale

By Tim Collard
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, March 1, 2013
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I came to China as a British diplomat in 1989. For two years prior to that I had been studying Mandarin. It was not really my decision.

In 1986 I joined the British Foreign Office. I had a degree in European history and languages and spoke fluent German. Naively, I assumed that my future would lie in Western and Central Europe. But of course the Foreign Office had other ideas. This was not just out of sheer perversity, of the kind that all large organizations demonstrate from time to time. Their thinking was that, as I had a talent for languages, I should study one of the really hard ones, and they were particularly keen to send young diplomats to learn Arabic. (This is not just because of the strategic and economic importance of the Middle East, but simply because there are a large number of Arab countries, and so a large number of embassies need staffing.)

I had recently got married at this stage, and my wife told me in no uncertain terms that she did not want to spend half of her life heavily wrapped up in the fierce desert heat. So I needed to find another choice to prevent being forced into that course of action. Because my studies had been almost entirely Eurocentric, I knew nothing whatever about China, beyond a vague idea that it was a large place a long way to the east. But I pretended great enthusiasm for a career as a Sinologist, and was thus able to avoid banishment to the deserts of the Middle East.

I enjoyed studying the language, although learning the characters remains probably the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life. I had one major problem with my studies; my first son was born the week the course started, and he made it impossible to concentrate (or sleep at night). I began the two-year course with no children and ended it with two, as we had another son in Hong Kong where the second year took place.

I was to spend most of the 1990s in China, a total of nine years, in which my children grew up chasing cockroaches around the living room and learning Chinese songs from our ayi. Sadly they never really learned Chinese, as in the diplomatic compounds there were families from every nationality on earth - except Chinese.

I was always keen not to limit my acquaintance to other diplomats and foreigners; as I was in China I wanted to get to know the Chinese people, which in the late 1980s was just beginning to become possible. The criminal offence of "li tong wai guo" had been abolished, and it was possible to establish genuinely friendly relations with people, both those one met through work and those one met through the social life which was just beginning to take off in the newly-opened bars.

From the start I found Chinese people naturally friendly and approachable. Despite China's long isolation from the West, people seemed genuinely free from any inbuilt suspicion or resentment of foreigners, and happy to meet on equal terms. I learnt that it was very important to treat everyone I met with respect; the Chinese, like most people, don't like being condescended to by foreigners, and the British have to be very careful in this respect because of our colonial past.

This was particularly true in my job as a diplomat. Chinese diplomats were always highly intelligent and professional, but extremely concerned to preserve the dignity of their country. Debate was always tough, but open and honest and usually concluded with a friendly lunch or dinner. The impression I got at these meetings - which I have retained ever since - is that, so long as you treat the Chinese with proper respect for their nation and their culture, you can say anything you like, and I have always been able to be completely frank.

And, as a diplomat, there was always the danger of politics putting a strain on professional and personal relationships. The worst case of this was the terrible accidental NATO bombardment of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999. It was a very difficult meeting a few days later when I had to go into the China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs to make formal apologies on behalf of my government, and had to listen to a lot of fierce and entirely understandable criticism. In the preceding days I had been besieged in the British Embassy for four days by stone-throwing demonstrators angered by NATO's dreadful mistake. While I sat in my office dodging missiles, I was delighted to receive a phone call from a young Chinese couple I had met a few days before. They expressed sympathy for my difficult situation, and said they hoped I wouldn't be prevented from appearing at the dinner to which they had invited me that evening!

It cannot be denied that living in faraway countries imposes strains on family life. Sadly, a lot of marriages fail in careers like diplomacy, and mine was one of them. I got very much involved in China, its people and its culture, which my wife did not do to any great extent, and gradually we discovered that we had been drifting apart. This is a fate which can be very difficult to avoid, as one can never tell in advance how a spouse will adapt to a strange environment.

And so, in a development which is very common among expatriate men working in China, I acquired a new wife, a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine from Chongqing. We are still experiencing the eternal ups and downs of a cross-cultural marriage; I love my fu-qi-fei-pian and she enjoys a full breakfast of sausages, bacon and beans at the weekend.

Now I no longer work in China, but I have kept up a habit of visiting at least once a year, funds permitting. I still maintain a network of good Chinese friends, who are very important to me; some of them I have been close to for over twenty years. I never found it at all difficult to establish good friendships. In fact some of my Chinese friends are prepared to tell me secrets about themselves which they wouldn't tell to their Chinese friends! (Because a foreigner knowing your secrets doesn't make you lose face.) I have been there to support a young family when their son was born; I have acted as interpreter at a Sino-British wedding; and I have attended the funeral of a lovely girl who died tragically young. My friends and I know all each other's histories, and I find it very reassuring that, while the China I knew in 1989 has changed beyond recognition, the people have not.

Except in one respect. All my friends seem to have the most enormous children. The rapid improvement in nutrition in China over the last 30 years is really noticeable, especially in the north; medium-height parents are producing boys growing to 185-190 cm in height! It is quite alarming.

I don't know whether I will ever live and work full-time in China again. I am in my fifties now, and as a long-term expatriate friend once said to me, China probably isn't the best place to grow old in. (If one does not benefit from a Chinese network of family relationships, that is.) What I would like is a little house in the countryside, perhaps somewhere in Sichuan near to my wife's family, in which I would live for five or six months a year writing books and journalism, and spend the rest of the year in Scotland, which has now become my home. But once China gets into your blood, you will never get it out again.

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