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S2, Ep 1 Betrayed: The Staircase

betrayed beijing, china, christmas 1984 a barely credible cross-cultural story

Episode 1 of Betrayed: a Tale of Christmas Spiritual Pollution, Series 2 of our ‘The Truth Lies in Bedtimes Stories from See Through News’ podcast

Series 2, Episode 1 Betrayed: The Staircase

In Episode 1 of Betrayed, The Staircase, we meet two British language students, Calum and Robert, beginning a winter’s day like any other. It’s December 25th 1984 – they arrived in Beijing a few weeks ago and are on a Mission to Save Christmas…

Next: Episode 2: The Campus

If you enjoyed this series, please share it with others, and try our other stories.

Written, Produced & Narrated by SternWriter

Audio Production by Samuel Wain

Betrayed is a podcast by The Truth Lies in Bedtime Stories, from See Through News.

See Through News is a non-profit social media network with the Goal of Speeding Up Carbon Drawdown by Helping the Inactive Become Active.

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Transcript

Betrayed Episode 1 : The Staircase

Not having ever met anyone who didn’t enjoy Christmas, Calum was unsure how to respond to Robert’s rant. 

Hogmanay apart, Christmas was his favourite time of year. Whinging about its commercialisation, however reasonable, still felt wrong. Treacherous, somehow.

Then again, since he’d arrived in China, Calum had found himself reconsidering many things. 

In September, he’d waved goodbye to Mum, Dad and Morag at Glasgow airport. Three months on, that  felt like a former life.

Calum joined Robert at the top of the echoing concrete staircase of their new home, the Foreign Students Dormitory at Beijing’s Foreign Languages University.

As they descended, they went through the routine of pulling on gloves, adjusting hats and scarves.

Calum watched Robert’s breath turn to steam, as his new friend continued his now-familiar diatribe against the commercialisation of Christmas.

How Calum’s life had changed in the three months since the front door of his family home in Kirkaldy had clicked shut behind him. 

It had taken more than a week before he’d dumped his dusty backpack on the dustier mattress of his spartan student accommodation. 

Calum’s odyssey, by plane, train, public bus, and the back of a peasant’s donkey cart, had packed in more eye-opening experiences than his previous 19 years.  

Calum’s arrival at the dorm, clutching his backpack to his chest as the donkey clip-clopped its way from the campus main gate, farting rhythmically on every clop, had already been honed into a classic anecdote. But everyone had their own versions.  

In 1984, getting into China was far from straightforward, even with that impressive student visa that took up two entire pages of Calum’s passport, and a year’s worth of elementary Chinese.  

The year before, Calum’s move from Kirkaldy, his home since birth, to Edinburgh University, had felt like a big step. But it barely registered, compared to the great leap forward he’d taken over the past three months.

Take Robert. Robert was the first Londoner Calum had ever met, let alone considered a friend. 

They’d got on well enough during the first year, but had barely socialised beyond the classroom. 

Now that they were among a few dozen British students amid a billion Chinese, they’d found they had an awful lot in common. 

All that prickly English-Scottish banter, all the niggly national and class resentments he’d grown up with, suddenly didn’t seem so important.

It was hard to sustain any anti-English resentment when, as if emerging from a space pod on a distant planet, you find yourself representing The Rest of The World to the Middle Kingdom. Culloden, Bannockburn, the Highland Clearances – all those bitter betrayals evaporate when you parachute onto an alien planet.  

But as their teachers, their Party badges pinned to their lapels, constantly reminded Calum and Robert, they were the aliens. 

China might have been slowly emerging from a decade of hermetically-sealed self-harm, but it was still the world’s oldest civilisation, and they didn’t half let you know it. 

As Robert liked to observe, the Chinese were kind of schizophrenic about their country’s global status, oscillating  – that was the word he’d used, the first time Calum had heard it – oscillating between superiority and inferiority complexes. 

One minute their teachers would be banging on about their five thousand years of history, Robert would say, the next apologising for everything being so rubbish. ‘Luohou’, was the word they always used. It was a new word not just for Calum, but for all his classmates. The dictionary said it meant ‘backward’. 

Another word they’d not learned on their beginner’s course in Edinburgh was ‘laowai’.  They’d learned the dictionary translation for ‘foreigner’ – waiguoran – painfully copying out the characters dozens of times, the only way to retain any of this mysterious language. ‘Outside Country Person’ – waiguoren. 

But they hardly ever heard the word in real life. Every non-Asian-looking student in their Foreign Students Dorm was a ‘laowai’, translated as something like ‘a good ole’ foreigner’. 

As Calum and Robert’s Chinese had improved, they’d started to notice not everyone used this friendly epithet. 

Cheeky kids, bitter-looking old folk, even some particularly grim-faced Chinese students, would use terms like ‘Dà bízi – big noses – or ‘Yángguǐzi – foreign devils. 

Either way, whether they were from Britain or Bhutan, they were all lumped into the world of being Not Chinese. Others. Miscellaneous. Outside Country People.

This created a weird internationalist solidarity. Whatever friction that might have arisen from Calum and Robert’s different upbringings in small-town Scotland and public school London was overwhelmed by the day-to-day experience of being a foreigner in China in 1984. 

Or, as Robert liked to call it – and Calum now found himself saying too, even adopting the same Cockney accent – ‘Only The People’s Bloody Republic of Bleedin’ China!’. 

Calum and Robert had now descended the last step, and reached the ground floor entrance hall of the foreign student’s dorm. 

They dropped the flaps on their fake fur caps. The echoes of their footsteps on the bare concrete corridor became muffled.

When Robert shouldered open the double doors leading to the entrance hall, they barely heard them creak.

As the doors opened, and the guard came into view, tinny pop music leaked from the transistor radio on his wooden desk. Three months ago they’d been astonished to hear Chinese state radio – there was no other radio – playing Euro-disco on rotation. 

Now they barely registered it. The guard, there to register Chinese people entering, not foreigners exiting, glanced up, impassive. Foreigners adjusting their winter clothing no longer held any fascination for him.  Unlike his billion compatriots, less accustomed to such wonders.

Satisfied they’d minimised the area of their skin exposed to the elements, Calum and Robert pushed through the insulation suspended from the dormitory entrance.

The cotton padded curtains closed behind them. The Euro-disco cut out, and was replaced by the low hum of distant traffic, and the near hum of campus activity.  

There were leafless trees, but no birds, unless you counted the repeated patterns of the ankle-high  plastic moulded swans. 

They’d recently been installed as edging to campus’s flower-beds and grassy areas. The grass was all brown. The swans appeared to be mating, over and over again.  

Calum expected Robert to remark on this, as he had ever since the mating swan edging had first appeared a month before, but his companion had other things on his mind.

‘Isn’t this brilliant?’, Robert exclaimed, once they’d recovered from the subzero blast. Gingerly, they stepped onto the path to the main gate. It was gritted, but the hazy winter sun had yet to melt away  all the icy patches.

Calum and Robert’s tentative steps betrayed their caution at pratfalling in front of the whole campus. But anyone overhearing their conversation would have detected their sense of purpose.

Calum and Robert were on a Mission, To Save Christmas.

‘Just look at this!’. Robert gestured around them. ‘December 25th, just another winter’s day like any other. Bloody brilliant!’. 

In Episode 2, The Campus, we learn why Calum and Robert are venturing out into the cold.