New Perspectives

It's official: I'm huge in China.

By this, I don't mean that the average Chinese person knows about me; I mean that I am quite literally enormous in size terms here.

I remember this from my last trip here five years ago: the shops that seem so full of promise - wonderful clothes at reasonable prices; except you then discover that the only size that will go anywhere near you is Extra-Extra-Extra-Large.

I discovered this the hard way, after purchasing a top in my normal 'go-to' size (medium)in a great hurry, only to find that only approximately one inch of my right wrist (it's smaller than my left) would go through the arm hole.

You only have to look around to see why: most Chinese women are tiny. They are like minuscule, utterly beautiful dolls, with exquisite, high-boned faces, rosebud mouths and miniature bodies clothed in minute, but perfectly formed, fashion items.

It's no fun being in a city where every single person is smaller than you, and always looks as though they stepped out of a fashion show. It's particularly awful to realise that in this country of 1.386 billion people, I'm a standout, simply for being mountainous.

This issue of size got me thinking this week: the women here might be tiny; but everything else is huge. The buildings, the cities, the roads...and even things that are secondary - the mosquitoes (biggest ever, biggest bites) the thunderstorms (cowered in my bed through one last night) the roads, the traffic jams, the roadworks (whole areas of the city disabled in one go) the shopping malls...and everywhere you go, thousands and thousands of people.

One of the things that many of these people do, is play the piano: apparently ten million people in China learn the piano...and I think there's a good chance that I will have heard most of them by the time I leave. I have been told that it's 'the Lang Lang effect' - in admiring imitation of the great Chinese pianist. Or maybe it's an educational tool, or a way out. Whatever it is, it's certainly big business; and the sheer volume of pianists emerging through their system is humbling in the extreme. Some of what you hear is rather akin to an assemblage of steel pistons hitting metal panels at very high speed; but there have been extraordinary and very moving moments. Two experiences thus far come to mind: one girl in a flouncy dress, like a foamy macaroon, who performed with the maturity and musical vision of a seasoned concert artist; and she was ten. Then, a boy, dressed in a mini-dinner jacket and bow tie, who played difficult music with complete understanding and humility; but then, at the ripe old age of twelve, I should have expected that I suppose. The whole gamut runs from the sublime to aural agony. Concussion by finger is quite a thing.

Everywhere I go, there is noise...on a huge scale. The roadworks outside the hotel go on from five in the morning till ten at night. Seven days a week. There's a new metro station being sunk into the ground, and it will probably be finished by the time I leave Shenzhen. I'm just trying to imagine that happening in the UK. Well quite...

Then there's the piped music: at breakfast yesterday it was Jingle Bells. Today it was the Moonlight Sonata on an electric piano. In the metro station every morning, it has been a John Barry theme from one of the James Bond films - I can't remember which one, and it's been bugging me ever since; but the great thing is, I have to hear it another twenty times before I leave, so maybe I'll work it out.

The issue of dress is interesting here: the girls often arrive to perform in 'meringue' dresses, miniature versions of 'My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding' outfits. Even the very tiny ones wear makeup - rouged cheeks and coloured lips - which has the disconcerting effect of making them look even more like dolls. Their hair is done up in intricate plaits or complicated buns. The boys don't wear makeup; but they do a good line in haircuts: often

shaved up the sides of the head, with a quiff on top of the head. Like a small, Chinese Elvis. In fact, when I lived in Tonbridge, there really was a Chinese Elvis in Tunbridge Wells, who used to do Christmas parties in the local Chinese restaurant. I think of him fondly about twelve times a day.

My issue with size has not been helped by (what I hope is) the strangely contorted lift mirrors: the entire lift in my hotel is made up of reflecting glass. Not ideal for those of us bordering on paranoia, because on the one hand you imagine Big Brother sitting somewhere viewing you as you hurtle up and down the thirty five floors of the hotel; and on the other, you are forced to view yourself as a squat, grotesquely distorted being for several journeys a day. I made a comment about this to one of my colleagues the other day, and she said 'God I'm pleased you've noticed! I thought I was the only one who felt like that!'

The third member of our party said 'Ah! If you stand facing the lift door with one leg facing the left door and one leg facing the right door, it all falls into place - left leg looks enormous, right leg seems about normal'.

It's amazing what keeps you going on a long overseas tour.