Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Take Off!

Yes, I am now back in the UK, although I still have a lot of China related photos and stories to share (some of which I was saving until I was no longer dependent upon my school for, you know, a right to remain in the country). So right now I am another fresh unemployment statistic, surveying a variety of prospects and considering where I want my life to take me.

I know what I don’t want, which at least I reckon is a start. My time in China, seeing how few opportunities many people have, and the determination of some to create the life they want despite incredible obstacles, has made me more single minded, more willing to risk people laughing at me and saying ‘you want to do what?’

And, slightly off topic, I snapped these seagulls last week while I was enjoying walking along the beach, something I have very much missed doing in the last ten months or so.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Beijing: Nine Dragon Screen

And finally, I did get to see the Nine Dragon Screen, resplendent with nine frolicking dragons on each side, chasing pearls through sea and sky and generally looking like they're having a wonderful time.
Even that early in the morning, I had to duck and weave to avoid accidentally including the heads of Chinese girls in my photos, many of whom seemed to be starring in an amateur mini photo shoot. I hadn't had any coffee yet - can you tell even from my memories?

Symbolically, I believe that the dragon represents the Emperor/Imperial Authority, and in a more extended sense, power, fertility, goodness, wealth, bravery, success, and no doubt other desirable qualities whilst the pearl symbolises knowledge. If you know of another interpretation, I'd love to know about it.
From the wall enclosing the screen
Visit other worlds with My World Tuesday.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Beijing: Beihai Park, take two

Eager as I was to see the Nine Dragon Screen, I returned to Beihei Park early the next morning. After a dispute with a taxi driver, who wilfully took me to the wrong gate, I paid my twenty kuai again, and headed for the Screen.

And thank goodness I had been tardy the previous day, as I was just in time to see the the Beijinger’s Beihei, crowded with people, some practising martial arts, ballroom dancing, calligraphy, sports and tai chi, others just taking the cool morning air.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Beijing: Beihai Park, take one

From Tiananmen Square I walked to Beihei Park. It was originally an Imperial Garden, so abounds with pagodas and such like.

Now it’s where the lucky residents of Beijing can come and loaf, exercise or canoodle, and where overheated and footsore tourists can chillax (ha, I’ve been waiting to use that word!) without feeling like there’s a need To Be Very Impressed.

I particularly wanted to see the Nine Dragon Screen, at the north entrance to the park, but I didn’t want to stampede past everything else to get to it.

I wandered about, exploring hidden nooks and crannies, and fondly remembering my first visit to the park in September, when we had all flopped around, exhausted, on the grass and played cards, and it seemed like we’d have forever until we went home.

The result of this leisurely, and slightly prematurely nostalgic, stroll was that I arrived at the Nine Dragon Screen five minutes after it had closed. I taught one of my Chinese friends the word ‘Doh!’, and this would seem to be its perfect definition.

The closed doors of the Nine Dragon Screen.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Beijing: Tiananmen Square

Despite having visited Beijing frequently since September, the closest I’d got to Tiananmen Square was speeding past it in a cab, on the way to dinner. The view from the cab suggested that that was enough: it was big and squarey and that was about it.
But last Friday, I decided to walk around the centre of Beijing and to stop of at Tiananmen, really just to say I had. It was big and squarey and that was about it.

I much prefer the old Tiananmen, before Mao went all megalomaniacal and tore it all down.

It was on the way to Tiananmen that I also realised Shijiazhuang has corrupted me. I’m still suffering from the ‘tuberculosis’ (actually some sort of virus, but TB is way more fun to say in a queue) I got in May. Everyone spits on the floor in the Shiz. And although I deplore it, being a hypocrite, I’d started to do it to.

After a coughing fit, I did the deed, just as two Chinese guys walked past. I don’t think they could’ve looked more horrified if I’d been taking a shit on the pavement. And then I realised that nobody spits in downtown Beijing. Whoops.

I’m glad to finally be able to take part in SkyWatch Friday again, follow the link to check out other skies from around the world.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Getting That Marshmallow Feeling

There were times teaching when I felt like I could bottle my classes as essence of banging your head against the wall. At the start of the year, each of my senior classes would present a wall of silent faces before which my perky little plans for discussions and games would wither and die.

The only way I could make them talk individually was to write a question on the board and then walk around the class to hear their responses, making it clear that I would stand in front of you for five minutes waiting for a one word response that was probably the same one word response that I’d gotten from 90% of the rest of the students.

And so I did this, again, and again, and again. Every time someone mocked their classmates efforts they got the rough side of my tongue. Even if a secret part of me wanted to shake them and scream ‘What is wrong with you? I know you can do this, just speak to me before I go completely insane!’, I stood patiently and waited for the answer that eventually grew to one sentence, and towards the end of the first semester I was getting actual answers.

At the end of second semester I did a lesson where half of it was a ‘free talk’ session. The Chinese English teachers told me it wouldn’t work, the students would be too shy to ask me random questions. But we proved them wrong. Apart from one class, I spent the week talking about all sorts of things, from Elizabeth I to tattoos to gay rights to Egypt to eating disorders. I felt incredibly proud of the students and myself, that we’d come so far and together exceeded the expectations of my classes.

Then I received two letters from students that are perhaps some of the best gifts I’ve ever received. This is one of them:

I really got a lot of benefits from you. I used to be very shy, and I become kind of brave with your lessons. And you let me know how to speak English so I’m brave enough to be the first one to make the speech in class 4. There are many more things.

Another student, who I’d normally chatted to for ten to twenty minutes every week between classes, emailed me to let me know that she had gained a prestigious university scholarship to Singapore, and thanked me for spending that time talking to her, which she felt had contributed to her success at her scholarship interview (which was conducted in English).

There were other words from other students too, all of them treasured.

It’s a very strange feeling to know that, in whatever small way, you’ve actually changed someone else’s life for the better, made them more confident of their abilities.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Going Away Party

Thursday was the very last time that I got together with all my friends in China. It had been raining on and off all day, which by the time we left the restaurant had turned into a summer downpour.

Taxis there were none, so we waded to the bar through the filthy water: when I got home I had to wash off a calf high brown tide mark. I like to think it was just mud, but given the dubiousness of the sewerage system in the Shiz…

Arriving sodden at the bar I didn’t really feel in the party mood, and probably would’ve gone home if I thought I could’ve got a taxi. Thank goodness I didn’t though, as it was one of the best nights I had in China – everyone managed to overcome the petty irritations with each other that had become more obvious as the second semester wore on.

You can’t actually see it in the photo above, but a great deal of entertainment was had by melting and burning gummy bears in the candle flames. Ah, the results of an expensive education!

It was slightly surreal to say goodbye to the people who have been my day to day companions for the last ten months, knowing that I will probably never see some of them again. But there was still excitement as we talked about the hoped for trip to Chicago I want to make next summer.

And the next morning I left the city for good on a train to Beijing.

I spotted this cat in the convenience store as we were buying some booze before dinner.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Coming Home

Thank you all for your well wishes for my journey home: I had a delightful last weekend in Beijing, a good flight, and since arriving home at about five yesterday evening have enjoyed a takeaway Indian meal with my family, a shopping and lunch trip to Brighton with one of my closest friends and cat adoration, all of which I badly missed in China.

Before I readjust to England, I wanted to record how my hometown, Worthing, looks through ‘China eyes’. On the way home from Heathrow airport, the first thing that struck me was how sedate the motorway traffic was, compared to the honking and weaving and constant near collisions of Shijiazhuang.

Then I noticed how intensely green southern England is at this time of year: it seemed like someone had poured a tin of green paint over the countryside.

And everything is so quiet. When I first moved to Shijiazhuang I thought the noise was going to drive me insane, but I’ve gotten used to the constant honking, the trucks going over speed bumps that rattle my apartment windows, the school bells and announcements, the noise of students, my neighbours banging their doors and yelling at each other on the stairs – and did I mention the honking? Now Worthing seems eerily quiet, the streets too deserted – where is everyone?

Walking to the train station today, the near silence actually started to make me feel quite oppressed and anxious.

I’ve always thought of my town as nothing special, and certainly parts of it are scruffy and, like so many places, it is blighted in spots by ugly brutalist rip buildings and unimaginative apartment buildings. But as I walked down the main street I realised how beautiful some of the buildings are, how blessed the location and how little anyone appreciates what we have here.

Oh, and I’ve had to restrain myself from spitting on the street, smiling at random children, saying ‘xiexie’ instead of ‘thank you’ and putting rejected food on the table in a restaurant.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Last Post from China

These guys are motorcycle cart drivers taking a break between jobs at 'rest point' on the way to the gym, where I often see them taking a nap, reading the newspaper, gossiping or playing a game.

Right now I'm doing the same, taking a quick break from the chaos before spending the next few hours finishing packing and cleaning up the evidence of my ten month stay in China. I am amazed at much junk I've accumulated, despite trying not to!

Tomorrow morning I will be heading to Beijing, where I'm going to spend Friday and Saturday exploring some parts of the city I still haven't seen, including, *ahem* Tiananmen Square. Then, if all goes well, I will fly home on Sunday. Expect a jet lagged post on Monday or Tuesday!

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Why I will never be visiting a Chinese bank again...

There are many reasons why I will be glad to get back to the UK, and the incredibly stressful experience I had at the bank this afternoon illustrates one of them.

I had wanted to transfer my Chinese money to my British bank account. This morning I went to the bank with my American friend and was told I had to go to another branch to transfer money to the UK, so I waited for less than half an hour whilst my friend changed her money and closed her Chinese bank account.

I had been told to go to the other bank branch at two. I arrived at ten past, only to find that the section I needed wouldn't open until half past. Problems mounted up: I had too much money to transfer, I couldn't exchange or transfer any of my money into sterling unless I had a certificate, but the bank clerk, who I will call Ms Ignorer, wouldn't tell me what certificate I needed, and kept asking me why I hadn't brought a Chinese friend with me so she could explain to them. Er, lady, because the reason you have a well paid job is to help international customers?

This went on for almost an hour: I kept trying to ask what certificate I needed, but she would cut me off halfway through the question and tell me 'It's not my fault, I don't make the rules.' Very true, but actually bothering to explain the rules to me would've saved us both a lot of time.

All the staff seemed very confused about bank transfers to the UK, so I said I would just exchange my money, as I had a feeling that my hard earned cash would've ended up brightening someone else's day.

In the end I had to half shout repeatedly, 'Listen to me! Let me speak! What does the certificate need to say? Do I need it from the bank, from my employer?' which made me feel like the stereotypical obnoxious Westerner but I think if I hadn't I'd still be there now. It turns out that to change Chinese RMB into sterling I would've needed a certificate from my employer to say that the money I had was my saved wages and not money that I'd earnt by being, say, a gun running, drug dealing whore. Oh, and in any case I could only exchange or transfer $500 worth of sterling at a time.

Then she grabbed an unfortunate and kind Chinese man who had come up to the desk to transfer funds himself. She told me (after I'd been there for an hour and a half) that a Chinese person could transfer or exchange as much RMB into sterling as they pleased and needed no certificate. They guy agreed to help, and repeatedly I told Ms Ignorer that I wanted to exchange my money, not transfer it.

I sat and waited for ten minutes or more, and only when they brought the transfer form up to me to fill in my bank number did I realise that, yet again, she hadn't listened to a word I said. And she kept ignoring me as I tried to tell that I wanted to exchange my money not transfer it, until I grabbed the form, turned it over and said as loudly as I could without shouting 'I don't want this! I don't want this!' in Chinese, and refused to let her turn it back over.

My Chinese saviour then exchanged my money, which took all of five minutes. After I'd thanked him profusely, I asked Ms Ignorer which section I needed to go to to close my bank account. Again, I'd told her that I needed to do this repeatedly, but had she paid any attention? Of course not, she looked totally surprised and asked me why I wanted to do that. Well, probably because I'm leaving the country for good this week, which is, strangely enough, what I'd told her when she asked me why I wanted to change so much money.

Thankfully, closing my bank account was as painless as the currency exchange mainly because Ms Ignorer had nothing to do with it. If she had bothered to explain the rules to me, instead of taking the unfortunately prevalent Chinese attitude of 'I understand this, so obviously everyone else does too and therefore I will not even listen to what the other person is saying', it would've taken half an hour rather than two hours.

Given the attitude of Ms Ignorer, from opening late to acting outraged that she had to do her job of speaking English to an international customer, I strongly suspect that she is an example of the rampant nepotism that causes so much resentment here. And I should add that she spoke perfect, fluent English so she didn't even have the excuse of not understanding me.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Ferris Wheel

Since my first week in Shijiazhuang I have meant to ride the ferris wheel at my local park, and since we have started to be treated to clear skies I've redoubled the intention. But, you know, riding a ferris wheel a five minute walk from you….there's always something more 'important' and pressing to do, or the weather isn't right. So on a blue skied day last week I realised that if I didn't ride it then, I probably never would.

It was only as my carriage started its ascent that I remembered that I'm scared of heights. There ensued an odd moment where I started to panic that, alone on the ferris wheel, I'd panic about being so high up. Then I told myself to get a grip on myself, and whipped my camera out to distract myself by taking photos.

Oddly, having a camera in hand completely negates my fear, and I can become quite intrepid. Occasionally, such as the time in Italy that I nearly walked off the top of an amphitheatre, I am reminded of why feeling a bit wobbly when looking down from a great height was probably an evolutionary advantage.

The view from the top was definitely worth it: from one side you can see across the park and even glimpse the mountains outside the city, and the other side there was that quintessential sight in modern China, the building site, and the high rises of downtown.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Travelling in Style

Friday, 12 June 2009

Big Beard Barbeque

Backstreet barbeques are definitely one of the things I will miss the most about China: cheap and delicious food and beer, consumed in a relaxed atmosphere where people frequently get so drunk they fall off their stools and men sit around topless, showing off their tattoos and pushing out their fat stomachs to show off their wealth. Although the moneyed middle classes aspire to Western ideal of toned, slender bodies, among rural born Chinese men, a big belly proudly announces to the world that you have enough money to eat plentifully.

Last week I tried out 'Big Beard' barbeque with some of my friends: 'Big Beard', unsurprisingly, the man in the  first photo, and really only needs a parrot to complete the look. We also had whole quails, which kept us all quiet for a few minutes as we manipulated the carcasses to get at the meat, getting very greasy fingers in the process. It was a wonderful, friendly evening, even if I didn't feel quite so chipper in the morning!

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Last Days in the Shiz

I am now into my last days in China: next Sunday will (providing the gods are willing) see my flying back to the chaos of Heathrow. As I am going to Beijing this weekend and the next, that is only 6 more days in Shijiazhuang, and so everything has taken on that heightened awareness that comes when you are aware that a clearly defined period of your life is ending.


It is strange to walk the streets that have become an everyday backdrop to my life here, and realise that very soon taking in the barbeques, people eating and playing cards on the street, the motorcycle cart men, the kids running about, the building sites, the cranes, will all be over and done with and the greatest probability is that I will never set foot in this city again once I leave it next Friday.
A note in answer to a question from my last post: I have been reasonably adventurous in my eating habits, having happily chowed down on sparrow and donkey, but I found I drew the line at sea cucumber and duck heads. I couldn't bring myself to eat dog either, although it is an uncommon foodstuff here in northern China and most of my students were horrified when I told them that a widely held stereotype about Chinese people in the West is that they all eat dog.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Qingdao: Market

I have become quite obsessed with markets in China, and on an overcast afternoon me and my friends strolled through the one closest to our hostel. There were a few noticeable differences from the markets here in Shijiazhuang: for starters, the amount of fish. It was also a lot tidier and well kempt - no one selling their veggies from a scraggy piece of old rug on the ground here! Oh, and I'd certainly never seen the deep fried chicks before either.
With the close packed stalls squeezed between old fashioned two storey buildings on cobbled streets, it was one of those places that seems as if it was designed to be a movie backdrop.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Qingdao: What to wear at the beach

I'm returning to the beach today in celebration of the fact that in two weeks I will be back (hopefully) visiting my own stony, seaweed bedecked seaside.


The dress code on the beach seems to be a cross between Islamic and semi-nudist. Chinese women prize pale skin, a symbol of not-having-to-work –in-the-fields-wealth, so wear tend to wear covering garb, and sit under an umbrella. As further protection from the sun, many people had pitched small tents, which would be crowded with people who were enjoying their time at the beach by sitting in a undersized opaque box. We saw only one Chinese woman sporting a bikini. As a side note, I suspect that the good they do their skin by not exposing it to the sun is rendered void by the skin bleaching creams that are so popular.


A lot of the men looked as if they had stopped off at the beach en route to the office, whilst others wore alarmingly skimpy and clingy trunks. The poseurs in the last photo – who would interrupt their sunbathing to do press ups – had trunks (or were they just underpants?) that went semi transparent when wet.


Little girls frolicked modestly in T-shirts and knickers, but their brothers went pant-less, wearing clothes only on their top half. I seriously hoped that they had applied sunscreen to the crown jewels that were happily waving in the sea breeze!


Monday, 8 June 2009

Summer Rain

I was off to the gym, and took a quick look outside to decide what to wear. The yellow pre-storm light told me I would be going nowhere, and sure enough a few minutes later I heard a crashing sound - the rain starting. I'm not sure if China has a monsoon or not, but the summer rains here are certainly impressive. Ten minutes later, there was over a foot of water in the yard, and my friend had to cycle back from the gym knee deep in water.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Qingdao: Shooting the Bride

It's customary in China to have a wedding album made featuring shots of the bride and groom in a variety of settings. Whereas in industrial Shijiazhuang this is done inside in front of a variety of backdrops, Qingdao provides its lucky couples with a series of picture perfect backgrounds. The most popular location was German concession era church of St Emil, and the square in front was teeming with probably 40 bridal couples plus attendant photographers and assistants. Watching the shoots in progress was far more interesting than looking at the church!
A little historical snippet to finish with: during the Cultural Revolution, it was ordered that the crosses atop the spires be destroyed. However, plucky/suicidal local Christians removed them first and hid them in the ground until it was again politically safe for them to be unearthed.