There are three things that English people immediately think of when you tell them you are moving to Beijing, and two of those get mentioned. People always ask about the pollution and the language and I’ve lots to say about both of those things, believe me. What people are thinking about, but not talking about (unless you’re my friend Marcus) is people’s heights. The idea that Chinese people are short is one of those things that every British person both knows and knows probably isn’t true. It’s a silly, slightly racist, stereotype that we really should have outgrown, by now. It’s also, a little bit, true. I mean, not for everybody, obviously. There are a billion Chinese people, after all, so quite a few of them are really quite lofty.
So no, I don’t tower over people. In fact I’d say I know about as many Chinese men who are taller than me than are shorter, but that is a significant difference to the UK where I’d conservatively estimate that 7 out of 10 men are taller than me. I’d also say, based on nothing but observation, that the height difference is more marked in women than in men. Here’s an interesting photograph.
It shows Sarah ironing. We may never see its like again. I post it not (solely) to tease my wife but to show how low the ironing board is. This is the board at its highest setting. I can’t use it – I mean, I don’t want to anyway but – on the one occasion when I tried it gave me back ache.
What’s less well known about height in China, and much more fascinating, is the way it’s used as a sorting or grouping mechanism in Chinese schools. You see, there isn’t an alphabet*. So there’s no such thing as alphabetical order. So there’s no way of getting small children to line up for registration. So they line up in height order. Logical, enough. They continue to do this throughout education and into adult, working life. If you don’t know what’s going on, and for ages I didn’t, it can be very strange. Here’s a photo of the guards at school coming in for lunch. They walk in single file like this. It’s like a baffling, Far Eastern version of that Two Ronnies sketch. And they never change the order! The tall guy always gets to eat first, and he clearly needs it the least.
Next week, weather. It’s minus-ten here! Happy New Year, all.
*There is a way of ordering traditional Chinese characters, actually, which sort of works a bit like an alphabet and is used in the writing dictionaries and ordering libraries. It’s based on the “radicals” or the first few strokes of a character. I can’t explain it any further than that because I don’t know it. It appears to be fiendishly complicated, like so many things here. Certainly, school children wouldn’t be able to understand it and apply it to their own names in time for a school day to consist of anything other than the taking of a register.