A woman stands outside a shop in an alley in Sheung Wan in Hong Kong, China. Picture: Reuters/Thomas Peter

Autumn is rather chilly in Beijing and one has to dress warmly especially if the invitation is to have dinner with a friend. Shaolong, a classmate and friend, has invited me to meet up at a local mall. Shaolong has an English name as well. It is not only in Africa that people have an English name in addition to their own name and, as with many languages, but Shaolong also has a special meaning. The Chinese just think it more practical to have English names, as China grows faster and faster into becoming a leading country in the world. 

We must meet at the mall. Invitations to people’s homes are rare, if not non-existent. Maybe because space is so limited in a city that plays home to 25 million people. Most social gatherings, therefore, entail a meal at a restaurant or karaoke spot. As a result, eating out is relatively cheap. Of course, the fancier the place, the more delicious the cuisine, the more you pay. Again, as in most cultures, Chinese people have a deep appreciation for sharing a meal. When invited out for a meal it is because they value the friendship and the company.

Traffic in Beijing is a nightmare compared to South African cities. You have to plan an hour for travelling and punctuality is a must. Do not arrive too early, lest you be thought of as starving. Never arrive late, it is an insult to the host. The bus works better these days. In my first semester, it was by the underground metro to go anywhere. Yet by metro one does not get to see the city and it is a bit more expensive with a bigger crowd. 

A bus ride generally costs around R2 with a normal journey entailing no more than two bus rides. The transport system is integrated which means you can use the same card on the metro and the bus. We thought of having this idea back home. Sadly, as with so many great ideas it became stuck in the political will phase. 

As one who has lived in Europe as well, public China is much more like Africa. We do not mind bumping into each other nor do we hesitate to ask people for help or people providing help. Chinese people are friendlier and always willing to help. The older ones will assist you in improving your Chinese while the younger ones will want to practice their English. 

By the way, Chinese people do not speak Mandarin; they speak Chinese or Cantonese. Often people would ask me how good my Mandarin is and I have to explain that Mandarin is rare and more complicated. We will speak the language of the people, declared Chairman Mao. Mandarin characters are much more intricate and were used by the ruling elite, the Mandarins, in old China. One only has to see the difference when using the translate app on a mobile phone, an app that often comes in handy. 

In the bus or metro, adults give up their seats for children and older folk. There is a deep respect for children and older persons. Back home one can understand why for the older folk but generally children must stand up so that the adult can sit. 

It was one of the beautiful things that this culture shock experience taught me. During the occupation by the Japanese, the colonizers treated Chinese women and children terribly. As a result, there is a deep respect for women and children in China. 

There exists, what I like to call, Chinese feminism. A Chinese girl would think nothing of becoming hysterical or going into a loud wail publicly if her partner upsets her. The philosophy is: do not think that you can treat me the way you like. The poor guy just sitting there feeling embarrassed because in Asia shame is a cardinal sin. 

The other side of this Chinese feminism is that it is generally expected for the woman to make the first move. Unwarranted attention by men is therefore almost rare because men know that it is the woman that must initiate and if she doesn’t then, o well, we have to just move on swiftly. 

Shaolong is at the restaurant already and checks with me whether what he has ordered is fine. The food served here is authentic Chinese food not like the commercialized Chinese food they serve back home. South Africans generally only know châomiàn spelt chow mein, fried noodles, or fried rice, châofàn. Yet Chinese cuisine is much richer and, of course, depends on what region ones come from in China. 

We agree that we need more of these kinds of interactions between Chinese and South Africans at this local level. Friendship and learning to know each other will teach us how diverse we all are but more importantly also just how much more we have in common. The coldness of autumn, therefore, evaporates as the warmth of friendship and laughter, with help of the food and báijiu of cos, strengthens these two brothers once separated not by a bus ride but by thousands of miles. 

* Seale is currently pursuing his PhD in Sino-SA relations in Beijing.