Thursday, 30 July 2009

The British Seaside

Yes, this photo was taken in July. Yes, it is meant to be summer in the UK. And yes, that is a pier you can see.

Or what's left of Brighton's West Pier, after a series of fires and storms. The last fire happened after plans were put in motion to rebuild it. Someone who took exception to this tossed a molotov cocktail or summat onto the pier from a speed boat in the wee hours one Sunday. And so it remains, if you need an antidote to too much candyfloss.

Skywatching around the world.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Is it time to get ice cream?

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

I Suppose I'd Better Give This a Title: Cultural Confusion

Sisters and their pet dog in the market, Shijiazhuang
Reading Esther Garvi’s post about the misconceptions that many people have about Africa, immediately brought to mind some of common misconceptions many foreigners have about China , and the ones I came across talking to my Chinese students and friends.

About China:

1) The biggest misconception has to be the one child policy. Whilst everyone I met in their twenties was an only child, most of my teenage students had one, and occasionally two, siblings. Parents would have to pay a fine, and the child wouldn’t get free education and healthcare , which in any case was more or less nonexistent. The only people that seemed to have to adhere to the policy were soldiers, who would get dismissed if they didn’t.

2) Chinese people don’t like pets. Well, despite pets being described in my Mandarin course book as ‘an unwelcome bourgeois habit’ (want to come round and tell that to my cat?), pets are incredibly popular, and often devotedly cared for. My students told me that most Chinese people treat their pets like children.

3) A whole family living in one room, even if they were reasonably well off. Perhaps 30 years ago, but it doesn’t happen now, at least not in Shijiazhuang, unless you are a migrant family on the bottom few rungs of society.

4) And how can I not mention the dog eating? When I told my senior students that a common image of China is people chowing down on a Chow, there were gasps of horror and I was told in no uncertain terms that it was very cruel to eat dogs, and that it was something only done by the Cantonese.

About the UK:

1) Men don’t wear bowler hats and carry umbrellas.

2) London is not foggy.

3) British people don’t hate Chinese people and think they are ‘less’ than British or white people. I was astounded when I realised that in Shijiazhuang, students are actually taught this. That I clearly didn’t hate my students caused quite a few of them a certain amount of angst as they had to try and process the fact that the reality of what they were experiencing differed considerably from what they had been told and unconditionally accepted.

I did have to agree that we British are obsessed with talking about the weather though!

I also made friends with various people who served in the military in various Middle Eastern, African and Asian countries, which made me realise what an absolute crock of shite the media peddles about non Western countries.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Brighton Beach

My brain is still feeling somewhat virus mushy, so I thought I'd share some photos I took of Brighton beach last week. Which one is your favourite?

Sunday, 26 July 2009

The Face of Swine Flu

I have managed to miss most of my first week at work because I have swine flu, which I'm pretty sure I caught at the JobCentre when I went to sign off. But I can report that Tamiflu really does work, and as I haven't died or turned into a crazed zombie I think you can all safely disregard the somewhat deranged claims circulating on the internet, posted by people who perhaps could do with more (or less?) drug usage themselves.
Nomral service should resume tomorrow!

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Painted Backdrop

This was the view from the end of Worthing pier earlier this week. The light and the sea were both very unusual – I thought it looked like a backdrop painted on silk.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009


Tuesday, 21 July 2009

McJob Moment

One very random thing that I found myself doing in China was talking French. To Chinese people. Who spoke no French and by the time I realised what I was doing, were looking at me like I was clinically deranged. Which was probably fair enough.

What did I find myself doing today?

Some French teenagers came into McDonalds. They barely spoke a word of English, so I thought I'd help them out by speaking to them in French.

I spoke to them in Mandarin Chinese. They looked at me like I was clinically deranged. Which was probably fair enough.

Monday, 20 July 2009

The Restaurant

The Restaurant was the first place I ever ate in Shijiazhuang, less than 12 hours after getting off the plane. I remember my first horrified, jet lagged, culture shocked reaction: all I could see was shabbiness, grubbiness, and an astonishing lack of hygiene.

I couldn’t eat much of the food that visit, and I couldn’t imagine that by the time I left I would rather eat there than at a fancy, expensive restaurant. I couldn’t imagine how I would sit, back in the UK, and fondly remember the beer poster decorated walls, the friendly family who ran it and the delicious Sichuan dishes, that I despair of being able to find here outside of Chinatown.

I miss being able to text or skype a friend for dinner or lunch, and then five minutes later ordering our favourite dishes, perhaps kung po chicken, perhaps vinegar potatoes and garlic green beans.
Baijiu anyone?
It was one of the few places I could happily eat at alone too, as I knew the owners would send any drunk Chinese guys who were ‘being friendly’ away with a flea or two in their ears.
I remember how surprised I was in the first few weeks when I saw men knocking back a bottle or two of baijiu at lunchtime, and our own students, even the thirteen year old ones, enjoying a beer or two or more. (The school did, however, have to stop turning such a blind eye to student drunkenness after some of the junior students tried to set fire to the school in a drunken stupor.)

Vinegar potatoes.

I was amazed too, at first, that you could buy a big bottle of beer for the equivalent of 3p. Although seeing as one of the refrigerators was used to store staff clothes, you couldn’t always be sure of getting a cold one.

Kung po chicken. My favourite.

We liked to mix our dishes with our rice, unlike most Chinese people who prefer to have their rice plain at the end of the meal

Disposable chopsticks. You could get round ones (like these) or square ones. We much preferred the square ones and were quite miffed if only round ones were available.
You might not believe me when I tell you that the photo of the fish tank was taken at its cleanest. When a customer ordered fish, the chef would come out from the kitchen, reach his hand in, grab one and take it, still flapping pathetically in his hand, to its doom. If the fish managed to leap out of his hand, it would writhe on the floor, sometimes managing to cover a surprising distance before being recaptured. Every time this happened, I would have to stifle the urge to scream and stand on my chair, which is probably slightly strange. Once, after a particularly spirited struggle between man and fish, my friend was horrified to find she had a patch of fish scales in her hair.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Smelling the Roses

It seems incredible that it’s been exactly one month since I hauled myself back through UK immigration, after having contributed to BA’s economic crisis by gorging myself on their wine and snacks.

I only unpacked my big backpack last week, and I still have a huge pile of souvenirs lounging in a chair downstairs, which needs to be sorted into what I’m going to keep and what I’m going to give away. I still haven’t made an appointment to see the dentist, not because I don’t like going, but because I haven’t been able to remember their phone number.
But I also seem to have managed to pack quite a lot in four weeks. I’ve visited the doctor FOUR times, and after a course of antibiotics and a course of oral steroids, my ‘tb’ no longer makes me sound like I might need to be quarantined in the interests of public health.

I fitted in a five day break to Bath and Bristol, in between setting up my unemployment benefit claim, and slaving over job applications which has resulted in getting a summer/weekend job in McDonalds, and a full time position as a Cover Supervisor at a local high school, and a voluntary position as Branch Press Officer for Worthing Samaritans. I’m feeling ridiculously excited at the possibilities I have to learn new skills and generally worthily improve myself.

As well as learning how to use the digital SLR I blew most of my saved wages on, I’m soon going to tackle to process of setting up a WordPress blog for the Samaritans, whilst learning all the advertising and publicity ropes.

Now, if only the sun would shine again…

Saturday, 18 July 2009

How to Look Foreign in China

In Shijiazhuang, all Western foreigners looked alike. Brunettes were surprised to hear that they had fair hair: after all, Westerners have blonde hair so as long as your skin was white your hair was blonde. Similarly, green and hazel eyes all blur into one blue haze.

The allure of blue eyes to a Chinese female provincial teenager cannot be overstated. I would find that my normally timid students, who would sometimes stare in the opposite direction to me rather than make eye contact (I believe this is some sort of mark of respect rather than a symptom of avoidant personality disorder), would fix my with a slightly maniacal stare before announcing to me ‘Your eyes are so blue.’ Quite often this nuggest would be repeated several times, as I mumbled something like ‘erm, yes, thanks’ (I mean, really, what can you say?) as the conversation stumbled along the line between endearing and creepy.

One of my older students even went as far as to wear a pair of blue contacts. Worn over her naturally almost black irises the effect was startling to say the least. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I was more reminded of something from a horror film than anything else, and after all, rare are the women who can honestly say that they were free from fashion faux pas at the age of seventeen.

Thankfully, voodoo isn’t native to China, as our blonde locks (even mine, which are more of a indecisive light browny colour when au natural) were quite the temptation to young students. Not only did I have to tell them that they could not pet my hair, and no, I didn’t believe that they had done it ‘accidentally’, but I actually had to tell some of them not to remove stray hairs from my clothes. Another one of my friends had a student request a hair from her, which she loving pasted into a scrapbook beside her signature.

This perhaps makes them sound odder and me meaner than really was the case. Certainly in Shijiazhuang, often people’s natural response to something unusual was to want to touch it, unaware that this is completely shocking to the Westerner on the receiving end! Also, lacking disciplinary authority, many of my classes, especially amongst the younger students, teetered along the borderline of chaos, and allowing any sort of liberty would result in them collapsing catastrophically.

Similarly, there was a standard image of what Westerners looked like, and no matter your personal appearance, I found that this imaginary prototype Westerner had a far stronger effect on Chinese people’s minds than the individual foreigner standing before them. Surprisingly, this was true not just in Shijiazhuang, but in the polyglot Beijing Silk Market, where the shoppers are almost exclusively foreign and most of the sales assistants speak English of a quality that would make many a Shijiazhuang English major envious.

At home, I am reasonably petite, at five foot four, I wear at size 10 dress and a size 4 shoe, meaning I was around the same size of a lot of Chinese women my age. One of my students once voiced positive outrage that I was the same size as her. However, this didn’t stop shop assistants invariably bringing out shoes or clothes a couple of sizes too big to start with.

On my last visit to the Silk Market I wanted to buy a trench coat (which has already been well used in our British Summer). The assistant insisted that I start by trying on the largest size first, which made me look like I had been assaulted by a parachute. Even then, we had to work our way laboriously through various degrees of L before finally hitting on the very happy Medium.

My small and narrow feet were the subject of scrutiny when I first started working at the school. Amazement at how ‘tiny’ my feet were (by laowai standards, perfectly normal by Chinese ones), dragged on for the first month or so of my appointment. To begin with, I was quite flattered, but after a week or so I began to have wild fears that someone was going to break into my apartment in the dead of night to chop my feet off (or, at the very least, take a photograph) for the local museum.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Suburban Bliss

Skywatching from my back garden for Skywatch Friday.

Detective Mittens

I was introduced to Detective Mittens by my mother and brother, who have become understandably obsessed. And now so have's hoping for a sequel.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

By the Waterfront

...or playing with Photoshop

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Finally...The Exhibition

The exhibition was roughly split up into four areas: the room of Banksy’s paintings, a room of installations with an animal rights theme (no photos of this as the low light, flash restriction and moving objects did not lend itself to decent snappage), the lobby, filled with the burnt out ice cream truck in yesterdays post and statues, and then the upper galleries of the museum which were sporadically littered with added objects and subverted paintings.
Although I was vaguely aware of Banksy, and his hilarious ability to highlight the petty and self righteous bureaucracy of various agencies, I hadn’t really paid much attention to him, and would never have visited the exhibition if it my friend hadn’t suggested it.
Now, I’m a confirmed fan. His works attract your attention and make you laugh, which I think is valuable in itself. When did laughter become a totally unacceptable response to art? I remember the filthy looks me and (the same) friend got in the National Portrait Gallery when we came across a portrait of Sir Francis Drake, trussed into a salmon pink, frilly get up, and the dissonance between what that image says to us in the 21st century, that basically he looks like a bit of a pansy who is probably going to get a good kicking, and the reality of him being a chancer and a pirate, engaged in the dangerous activity of poetically-politically courting Elizabeth was just too much, and we dissolved into laughter.
But after that, little thoughts come unbidden into your mind, little thoughts about big things. He seems to manage, with an appearance of effortlessness, what a lot of modern artists fail to do, with a great deal of self indulgent pomp and waffling and postmodernist justification.
This image was one of my favourites, although perhaps a tad depressing to have as a print in the living room.
These are two of the subverted paintings that were inserted into the art gallery section. Some of them seemed a bit samey, or had a hint of done by numbers about them, but I loved these two, Agency Worker and Flight Into Egypt.
I liked the sudden, shocking reminder of Agency Worker that the anonymous peasants in bucolic English pastorals, for some reason Contable in particular was brought to mind, were not only real humans, but often, far from living in a rural idyll, had to survive shoddy living and working conditions, considerable insecurity and the threat of destitution. How often though, are these people almost invisible to us when we looks at pastoral paintings.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Looking at You, Looking at Banksy

Although the Banksy exhibition had taken over the whole museum, there was only one small room crowded both with his paintings, and people looking at the paintings. The hoardes of people gathering around exhibits and very Britishly politely waiting and shuffling forwards to peer at them was quite incredible, the only time I’ve seen anything comparable was when the Terracotta Warrior exhibition was on at the British Museum. I no doubt got in a lot of people’s way, as I found looking at people looking at the art quite fascinating.

I had to turn my flash on my camera off though, Bristol isn’t really infested with people whose faces are melting.

This was my world, go check out some others.
Tomorrow I will have a selection of my favourite of his photographical works. Finally, I hear you say!

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Queuing For Banksy

Last Monday, my friend and I went to the Bristol Museum vs Banksy exhibition. We had assured ourselves that the queue, on a chilly Monday morning, would not be too long. Unfortunately, we were suffering from the same mass delusion as the other few hundred people waiting to get in.

And being July in England, men wore T-Shirts, women flimsy dresses and cropped cardigans, as we shivered under a cloudy sky and sporadic showers. Apart from the small smug minority who’d come prepared for a Biblical deluge, complete with knee length pac-a-macs, sou’westers, umbrellas, and in some cases, a lunch box of home made sandwiches and snacks, suggesting that perhaps reports of the queuing time had been over exaggerated.

It wasn’t that bad – about a 45 minute wait, but obviously, we managed to be in front of a possibly the most caustically irritating people there. They were a late thirtysomething couple, divorcees with children, who were at that awkward stage where you’re having sex but not yet a fully established couple.

And I know that they’re having sex because apparently the woman didn’t realise that if you’re talking in quite a loud voice people standing a foot in front of you can hear everything you’re saying, or, more likely, she did know and was indulging the kind of attention seeking ploy that is tedious in a teenager but mortally embarrassing after the age of 25. My mind recoiled from the images conjured in it, like a foot from an ill placed slug.

The guy repeatedly remarked about how she’d told him there wouldn’t be a queue, in a way that was, on the surface, a joke but you could tell underneath he was pissed off and didn’t want to be there and was only doing because he still felt the need to impress her and that in three months time it’d come up in an argument, ‘what about that time you made me stand in the rain for 45 minutes to get into that bloody art exhibition.’

She, however, appeared to be experiencing a queue for the first time. As behoves an English queue outside a museum, everyone was very well behaved, needing no telling to keep to one side of the street or not to cut in or jostle. This did not stop her trying to peer on tip toes towards the front of the line, wondering where the line went (I had to restrain myself from turning round and telling her presumably the entrance after she said this five times in twenty minutes), whether people were cutting in, whether this was the right queue (no, this is the queue for people who don’t want to see the ground breaking art exhibition and instead want to peer at fossils in the museum vaults), why were people all bunched up ahead (where the queue was snaked around the museum entrance), whether the entrance was on that side or this of portico.

By the time we’d got to entrance I’m not sure if I was glad or sad that you can’t carry firearms here.
A twenty something man also attracted my attention because he was wearing a university society T-Shirt, which in the UK is normally a sign of being remarkably socially inept, and had an aura of being extremely peculiar. The kind of person who isn’t aware that his fellow students don’t avoid him because he’s different per se, but because his different in a way that suggests it’s only a matter of time before he’s arrested for flashing people or having dodgy pornography.

I felt justified in my initial judgement when I happened to find myself looking at the same painting. ‘Dogging!’ he loudly and lovingly exclaimed, actually, actually rubbing his hands together like a cartoon Dickensian villain, with a fervour that was enough to make me move rather swiftly to the other end of the gallery and leave him with a remarkably large amount of uninvaded personal space.

(If you don’t know what dogging is, and can’t work it out from the picture, don’t google it.)

More Banksy, and less sarcastic commentary, tomorrow.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Chinese Saturdays

I still have lots to post about China, and have decided to start ‘Chinese Saturdays’. There were many experiences that I wanted to share on my blog, but it was quite unwise to whilst I was still in China, as doing anything that was seen to ‘bring the school into disrepute’ was a fireable offence – which for me would’ve meant losing not just my job, but also my apartment and my visa. And although getting deported would certainly make a fascinating blog post, it’s not quite how I wanted my stay in China to end.

Inevitably, some of these are going to be quite critical of the behaviour of some Chinese people and some parts of the Chinese educational system. This has caused me more than a few second thoughts – although there were moments when I cursed the day I decided to go, I developed a strange fondness for Shijiazhuang, the ugly, hustling, adolescent city that it is, and China in general, and feel slightly guilty about writing negative things about the place. But…I started my blog originally because I wanted to describe my everyday life, and it was not all dogs eating noodles. So… goes….

One of the most delightful things about being back in the UK, is being able to walk down the street without attracting attention. In Shijiazhuang, I used to cause people to fall off their bicycles, small children to cry or hide their faces and, once, a small girl started jumping up and down, pigtails flying, pointing and screaming ‘Meiguoren! Meiguoren!’ at the top of her voice as she spotted me through a bus window.

(Meiguoren means American, most people in Shijiazhuang assumes a Western foreigner is American.)

Sometimes it could be comical, sometimes, as with small children, it could be quite sweet. A few people genuinely just wanted to say hello. But the vast majority of the time it would be annoying at best, threatening at worst. Mostly it would come from a group of men, who would stare bug eyed at me as I walked along the street, then would all start to alternate cat calling ‘Helllllllllllllllooooooo’ or ‘laowai’ at me and snickering wildly.

Then there were the times that people on a bike or a car would be staring at you so intensely that they’d nearly run into you as you waited to cross the road.

Walking through the housing estate by my school and then eating at a barbeque place with a male Chinese friend, he commented on how ‘conspicuous’ he felt with me, that everyone was looking and making comments. He was astounded when I told him that this was the least attention I’d ever got when out and about.

On paper, it’s hard to capture the grinding effect this has, when you can’t go to the shop across the road, or to the gym or the supermarket or the park without being stared at and harassed, treated more like an escaped circus freak than a fellow human being. Or when everything you do is a mini diplomatic exercise, and you’re hyper aware that whatever you do or say is being judged, often against an already prejudiced view of foreigners, and foreign English teachers and British people in particular.

And that’s even before you have a conversation…

Photographs are 'recycled' monumental communist statues as seen at 798.
Edit: This is a snippet in response to Roseki's comment. Despite what guide books say, based on my experience, female foreigners are actually considerably safer in China than male foreigners.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Royal Crescent, Bath

We were lucky enough to visit the Royal Crescent when the sky was rather satisfyingly dramatic.