Kiwi actor Harry McNaughton knew before he left for Beijing that staying in the huge Chinese city was going to be far from his comfortable life in Auckland. But what the former Shortland Street star wasn't prepared for was how the three-week trip changed his entire life.
Although he's hardly an introvert when he's at home, Harry found himself well outside his comfort zone during his visit to the Chinese capital, where he was performing in Man in a Suitcase – a New Zealand-written play based on the gruesome 2006 murder of a Chinese student who was found dismembered in a suitcase that was discovered floating in Auckland's Hauraki Gulf.
Far from home, Harry happily embraced the different way of life in Beijing. “I ate a sheep’s penis,” he grins. “I thought, you know, ‘When in Rome, why not?’ If you’re going to have a Chinese experience, you should do it properly.”
Along with the delicacies on offer, Harry’s experiences in Beijing have changed the way he sees the world. “We’ve got such a privileged view of the world,” Harry says.
“You don’t realise how western your views are until you’re in a place like Beijing. I didn’t. There are just so many other ways of doing things in the world, and it’s really cool to realise that. I was in a place where no-one spoke English, but there's no apology for that.
“In lots of other countries, people try to understand you and they try to help, but in China the language barrier is rock-solid. It's fair enough that they expect you to make the effort though. It's awesome because it makes you realise you can't expect everyone here to speak English."
Despite only knowing a few words of Mandarin – "I knew one phrase which means, ‘I don't want it.’ That was the most helpful thing I've ever learned!” – Harry fully immersed himself in Chinese culture during his brief visit, a challenge he loved.
In a brave move, Harry travelled to Beijing without his partner or any of his friends. But instead of being terrified, Harry found his independence was a blessing as he navigated the city. "I forced myself to go exploring and try new things," he smiles. "I loved being intrepid and trying to find my way around, but I liked it when things didn't quite go to plan. I got excited when it got difficult!
"I tried to get train tickets to Shanghai, and it was a four-hour ordeal. I couldn't make the ticket lady understand the type of ticket I needed, so I ran around and recruited a bunch of people who knew different words in English. “I had a team of four translators in the end, and they'd stopped talking to me and started talking to each other, trying to figure out what I wanted.
“Meanwhile, there was a half-hour queue behind me and I'm trying to say sorry, but I couldn’t 'cause I didn't know how... Anyway, I eventually got a ticket. That was awesome."
From the sheer size of Beijing to the "crazy traffic you just have to step out in front of if you ever want to cross the road," and the different behaviour of theatre audiences, Harry was in awe of the different way of life the vibrant city has to offer.
"Performing there was really cool. Contemporary theatre has only been around for a generation, before it was just propaganda and opera, so audiences haven't been to much theatre and have no idea of etiquette. People would text all the way through. Just walking down the street, with people spitting everywhere and the squat toilets, it makes you realise how sheltered and lucky we are."
Harry's also gained an appreciation of Chinese food, and it doesn't stop at the sheep genitalia. "I tried to eat as much crazy food as possible. I had cricket, brains, intestines, throats. Scorpions? Delicious! Tastes like chicken," he laughs.
"I really want to do more Chinese cooking at home, now that I know a little bit more about it. Actually, I'm just happy being home in general. "I've been away for almost six months in LA and Christchurch, so I'm just happy to spend a New Zealand summer at home with my family. I want to take more jobs back home and just chill for a while in New Zealand.”