China Adventures – Pre-coronavirus

Now that term was over, I had a week to prepare the flat for Lauren to come and visit. Ever since I found out that I was moving to China to take this job, Lauren said she was going to come out and visit me, and we would have a grand Chinese adventure.

Finally, she was able to afford to come out, and we were able to plan it with the idea that I would fly back to Shenzhen at the end of the trip, at the same time that she would fly home. But that’s the end of the story. The beginning was procrastinating cleaning the flat until the day she arrived. And I also managed not to pack for the trip away either, because I can’t work unless I have a deadline, and the deadline for packing was still a couple of days away.

Lauren was arriving at a stupid late time on Friday, because time zones mostly, and an incredibly stressful for her layover in Chengdu (see this link for my adventures there with my parents) and I had arrived at the airport before her flight even landed, due to the fact that if I’d tried to arrive later, the metro would have stopped running and I’d’ve been stranded somewhere in Shenzhen and it would have been quite difficult and more expensive to get to the airport.

After picking Lauren up, it was time to get back and get ready for bed, as she was tired from long distance travel, and I was tired because it was past my bedtime. It didn’t stop me from nattering Lauren’s ear off in the Didi on the way back, and she was game enough to make it seem like she was listening, even if she was nodding off a little bit.

The next two days were days of chilling. we got our nails done; I took Lauren to Brew, my favourite pub in all of Shenzhen, because of a) the light show, and b) it was Western food. And while Lauren was in China to experience some parts of the Chinese culture, including the Chinese New Year, and probably Chinese food, she also wanted to see what I did and where I would go and what it was like in my part of the country. While I don’t get my nails done regularly, I thought it would be nice to have pretty nails for our adventure. On Sunday, we went for a walk in the local park and we got a massage. I let Lauren go first, and I took the second lady that became available. And boy, am I glad I did. It was the most painful massage I’ve ever experienced, and the way the lady was acting, it was quite possible that my back was an entire mass of knots and that there wasn’t any unknotted muscle left. She pressed very hard and had very pointy elbows. Lauren had expressed concern about the massage because of her back and it not being what it used to be, despite operations, and if her lay were to press too hard, she would have to speak up. Luckily, she didn’t have my masseuse. And luckily, I don’t have back problems.

At some point during this time, Lauren asked me what I knew about the coronavirus. I said I hadn’t heard of it. It was barely in the news at this point in the UK, and it wasn’t even a thing in China at all. But she was a little worried about it, and because we were going to Beijing, which is known for its poor air quality, I took my mask along. It was a good job I did, too.

After a weekend of ‘splorin’ my hometown (so to speak), it was time for the adventure to begin for real. We flew from Shenzhen to Huangshan and the Yellow Mountains.

Because we were flying for a few hours, we landed late-ish at night and were taken to a hotel close to the airport, to begin the adventure proper, proper the next day, which also happened to be my birthday. Lauren had been a gem, and had carried various gifts’n’bits from my parents and relatives over, rather than try to rely on the Chinese postal service (my mother had sent a parcel at the beginning of December and it arrived on New Year’s Eve) and she also brought balloons and bunting to decorate the hotel room with. Birthdays are a very big thing for her, and I appreciate that (even if I didn’t seem to because I was overtired at the time).

First order of the day was a little gift from the hotel to say “Happy Birthday.” It was a nail care set, of which I’m very appreciative, because my nails are always pretty bad when I haven’t got large acrylic and paint on them. Our hotel for that night was also upgraded to the best one in the area of the Yellow Mountains that we were staying in, paid for by the company we were travelling with, as a gift for my birthday as well, which was very nice.

Second order of the day was Xidi village, which is a very old village, where the residents still live according to their traditions, and in a traditional way. Lauren got squicked out by the killing of a chicken, and all the corpses of chickens and fish being dried out around the village, but honestly, watching it, there wasn’t much if anything to see. Luckily for Lauren we arrived a couple of days after the ceremonial pig-slaughtering, but there was still blood on the floor where it hadn’t been washed away by the weather yet.

However, they did still have Wi-Fi at the local shop and café type place, because everywhere needs Wi-Fi, right?

The residents were all getting ready for the Chinese New Year, which meant cleaning their houses, although a few were practising their very specific crafts and selling them. A young teenage was very confused when we asked to see his feet, but that was because he was using a traditional warming method, which looks like an old wooden bath with a raised seat. The person sits on the seat and in the basin below they put hot coals and a grate and rest their slippered feet there to keep them toasty. It was very warm and I was tempted to try and join him, because, as Lauren had laughed at me a couple of days earlier, I was finding 20°C in Shenzhen chilly, and the weather in Xidi was hovering closer to 5°C. I was cold.

We also saw where the women still do their clothes washing in the stream that runs through the village, as shown by the bottle of clothes soap affixed to the wall next to the very precarious steps that lead down to the stream. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quick enough on the ball to get a photo of that, but we did see other villagers drying their crops for future use, and making the most of the sun, as it was a nice day and the rest of the week was forecast to be rubbish.

We were ushered out of the village quickly and to our surprise the driver came to pick us up. We had hoped for a bit of time to wander around and maybe pick up a souvenir there, but we hadn’t explained this to Jerry, our guide, and so we didn’t and were instead whisked to the Bamboo Forest and Mukeng Village, which happened to be a very exciting place, where the film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, was filmed. At least, the scene where they zipwire across a bamboo forest was. I don’t know. I have yet to see the film, but I am planning on seeing it at some point now. Since I’ve been to the live set. Mukeng Village was similar to Xidi, except it was half way up a mountain and more difficult to get to, and they produced tea. I saw my first tea plant, and honestly, it looks like a little box hedge. And that day was the day they were washing their bedding. Which held a lot more fur than in the hotel. It was interesting and it seemed like a nice simple life that they had there.

Once we were done here, it was time to venture into the Yellow Mountains proper, and go to our hotel. It was mid-afternoon, which we thought was a little early, but Jerry reminded us about the hot springs and we got excited.

The hot springs were what they said on the tin, and we were lucky that they were open, because the week before Lauren flew out, we had been told that they were closed because there was no water in them, since there was a drought in the area and there hadn’t been enough rain to fill them up. It had rained since, but not all the pools were full, so they weren’t at full capacity yet. We decided to try the “Ore” pool first, which we thought looked somewhat low on water, but by this point we were up a mountain at four-thirty or so in the afternoon and only wearing swimming costumes. If it was warm, we would lie in it just to warm up.

It was full of little balls of clay. We stepped in it and shrieked a little when we sank up to our knees, much to the amusement of the family that were already sitting there. I, being me, manged to get the little balls in my unmentionable areas, forgot about it, and caused a potential slipping hazard when I went to the toilet later and they all spilled out of my swimming costume (except for the five or six that somehow managed to make their way into the lignin of my costume). We got our revenge though as we got to laugh at the next hot springs goers that came along.

There was also a Lemongrass Pool, yellow and smelling of lemongrass, a Rose Pool, with rose petals, a mixed flower pool that was a toasty 41°C (all the others were around 37°C) and too hot for Lauren, a Chrysanthemum Pool, a Red Wine pool (not drinkable I’m afraid), a Ginseng Pool, and a Milk Pool, where we channelled our Inner Cleopatra’s and then got talking to some very curious Chinese children. With their broken English and my broken Chinese, we were able to have a limited conversation but I really like it when we can make those sorts of connections.

After two hours of sampling all the pools, save for one, we were very pruney and rather hungry, so it was time to head back to the hotel and dry up. Lauren, because she is a star, had brought a cheeky bottle of prosecco with her and we had that before dinner. It was just as well; dinner was a little disappointing. There weren’t many options; just the hotel we were at, and maybe another hotel across the valley and further away than we wanted to travel, so it was the hotel restaurant we went to. Then when we got there, the waitress didn’t like that we ordered a load of dishes and said we were only allowed to order four. So, we did, and then I burned all the nerve endings in my mouth because of how spicy it was. However, the fried rice was delicious and we gorged on that along with the bottle of red wine we’d bought for dinner, so much so that we took the wine with us back to the room to finish while lying on our beds and rejoicing in their softness. After all it had been a long day.

The next day we were up early as well, because we had to go up a mountain to look at some amazing views. We had been under the impression that we were walking up the mountain, which would take three hours, but when we got there, Jerry bought us tickets for the gondola. So that’s the way that we went. Even going up the hill in the gondola was pretty incredible and I got excited by the small amounts of snow that I saw while on the way up. At the top of the mountain, as soon as I could scrape enough snow together for a micro-ball, it was thrown at Lauren.

The views were absolutely stunning and genuinely the photos do not do the mountains justice. It turned out just as well that we went up in the gondola rather than climbing the mountain as after only a couple of hours of being up the mountains, the clouds came down and we could barely see ten feet in front of us. We retreated for a tactical hot chocolate and Jerry advised us that we would be unlikely to see any more that day, and in his experience, it would start raining quite heavily in short order. So we beat a hasty retreat back to the gondola, and realised that we were happy not to have eaten at the hotel where we’d had the hot chocolate, because we saw all the porters carrying everything up on their shoulders. They were aged and the packs looked very heavy and Jerry told us that they were paid a pittance, but they’d rather work than fade into old age, and they were still trying to support their families. It looked a horrible gruelling job and they had very little chance to rest. Apparently, the pay was based on the number of loads they carried, so they just had to keep trudging up the mountain.

Because the day had been cut somewhat short, Jerry offered to set us up at the hot springs again and we sprang at the chance. This time, I took my phone with me into the pools in a waterproof casing, and it was a good idea, because we also decided to try the fish pool. They had those fish that eat your feet but you could sit in the pool and have them eat all our dead skin.

By the gods, they tickeled. And we had a lot of dead skin to eat with us. It was akin to torture having to stay very still so as not to scare the fish away so that they could do their jobs, but also the urge to twitch the tickle away was incredibly strong. We also sampled the other pools again as we had to make sure they were just as good as the day before, then returned to the hotel for another evening of slightly disappointing food. I decided to take some of it away with me, as there was no way I could finish it and Lauren was a little underfed, because the noodles that were supposed to be for both of us contained meat.

The fish had done their job though; our feet were silky smooth, and our legs felt smoother too, even though neither of us had shaved. It was great.

Day 3 of the adventure proper was a travel day; it was time to head to Beijing. This was the day we found out about the coronavirus from Jerry. This was the first time it was mentioned to us beyond what Lauren had told me. But it wasn’t concern at all. It was just that there was this virus that people were getting. There was no suggestion of any sorts of precautions being taken on the train when we got it, even though we were the province over from Hubei.

But first, we had requested that we have a chance to go souvenir shopping, because we hadn’t had a chance yet. Jerry took us to his friend’s tea shop where we had the tea ceremony and sampled the tea so that we could buy some for our families, even if I couldn’t deliver it home for a while. Luckily it would be good for a couple of years because I asked and checked. I was appreciative that we had gone to this place, because the lady’s family owned the tea farm where she got the tea and it was a thirty-minute drive from the shop to the farm. The shop was in the old part of town, which also included a famous bamboo carving shop, where Lauren and I got some lovely bookmarks. And we saw an ancient pharmacy that was around five hundered-ish years old. And we were finally taken to a famous artist’s shop and no joke, the artist looked like he had stepped out of a Chinese film set a hundred years ago. He looked great and I was awed by the quality of the paintings in the shop.

Once we’d finished there, we had a bit of free time to explore the old town before we had to go to the train station. There I found out that my suitcase was broken – one of the wheels came off, and that the oily noodles I’d saved from the night before had leaked all over the bottom of my hand luggage bag. Luckily, they hadn’t soaked into much. The worst casualty was my face mask, that I wanted to wear in Beijing if the air pollution was really bad. The bag and the mask stank of oil. I was able to use a plastic bag to protect the rest of my stuff from the oily bottom, so that I could tend to it once we got to the hotel after a six-hour train journey

The journey itself passed well enough and we were met at Beijing train station by Tracy, our new guide. It was too late in the day for us to eat even, since the restaurants were shutting early due to the Chinese New Year, so we had instant noodles in the hotel room, after a quick drink at the bar, so that we could have an early night for our first big day in the capital of the People’s Republic of China.

The next day, we met Tracy for an exploration of the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City, but the first thing that she did was give us face masks, because of the coronavirus. She wasn’t too worried about this, but the company wanted her to be better safe than sorry and we agreed. So we wore them, and instantly disliked them. Let me ask, do you know what the smell of your stale breath is like? It’s not nice. And it’s something that both of us got used to very quickly. The worst part is when you take the mask off for pictures, then have to put it back on again, because after a time you go nose blind to the smell, but taking if off re-sensitises you.

The Temple of Heaven was a beautiful temple, and very old. It was a sacrificial temple, where the emperors of the Qing and Ming dynasties would come annually for their prayers for good harvests. It is one of the oldest buildings built in the column style that it was, and it is all entirely symbolic. There are 12 columns for the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac. It is also unique in that while made entirely of wood, no nails were used at all in the construction of it. It is typical of China, in that it was not in very good condition and got meticulously restored in time for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, where it played a somewhat important part.

Once we were done there, we headed for Tiananmen Square to see Chairman Mao’s mausoleum and also the Square itself, but it was all closed off, as there were government buildings there as well, and the governments was in session, having lots of important meetings.

The Forbidden City and Summer Palace were just as awe-inspiring and a second film was added to my “To Watch” list; The Last Emperor.

This was where Tracy left us, but we wanted to see the temples and pagodas on the man-made hill behind the city, made because it was good feng shui to have the river (also man-made) in front and the hill behind. The views from there showed off nigh-on the entire city, and although the day was very clear, you could see the famed pollution, lying as a layer of brown before tapering into the blue of the sky

After this it was time to head back for lunch, as we were to see the Kung-Fu show that night, and we hadn’t eaten since lunch. We were so hungry by the time we got there, we attacked the sunflower seed provided to us by the restaurant, and to our great surprise, we really liked them. I introduced Lauren to the joys of fried pancakes, and she was given the largest fish I have ever seen as her meal, and my duck nearly didn’t come. When it did, it came with precisely half its head, just the same as the rest of the duck was sliced in half. However, it was a most delicious duck.

I nearly didn’t make it into the Kung Fu show. Due to the efficacy of my hat at keeping my head warm, it was a little over the accepted temperature allowed into the theatre, but a couple of minutes de-hatted and I was good to go, even if we did have to spend the entirety of the show marinating in our own stale breath smell. It was an incredible show, and the few pictures I dared to take did not do it justice, so I gave up and just enjoyed the experience instead, especially their fantastic feats of acrobatics and fighting – which, to be fair was most of it. I was surprised that the majority of the speaking in the show was in English rather than Chinese, but of course, it was for the tourists so it made sense and did enhance the show as such.

The next day was truly an early start as it was a long way to the Beijing Wall, and we wanted to beat the crowds. And so, we did. We were also told that the Forbidden Palace had shut and so we had been lucky to have gone the day before.

The Wall is awe-inspiring in a way that words cannot capture. We were there on a beautifully clear day, and could see the Wall for as far in either direction as the mountains would allow, including a watch tower on the sleeping man’s chin.

To get down from the wall, we could have taken the cable car back, but there was a faster and more fun option; tobogganing. While the signs said not to stop, it was unavoidable as unfortunately, we were caught behind a slow person who kept holding up the line of people behind them. But it was still fun when we did manage to get up to speed. On the way back from the wall, we had our first bit of coronavirus related bad news. The Terracotta Army in Xi’an was shut and so we wouldn’t be able to go and see it. We were also told that the Wall had stopped letting people on at midday that day, but because we had arrived at ten, we’d been okay.

We also stopped at a small rural town, to see the marketplace and see a little bit of more common China. We saw a lady selling bagsful of sunflower seeds, and on mentioning to Tracy that we’d discovered them and liked them the day before, she bought us about a kilogram of salted sunflower seeds and 500g of plain ones. I still have some plain ones left. Yes, a month later. There were a lot of sunflower seeds.

For the rest of the afternoon, Tracy had arranged for us to have a massage each, which ended up with the both of us having our feet bathed in “medicine” by the masked masseuse. It looked like tea. It could well have been tea. It was interesting to say the least and the massage itself was much gentler than those in Shenzhen.

After the massage we headed out for food, but because tonight was the night of the New Year and the big New Year show was on, everywhere shut very early. The only place that was still open by the time we stirred ourselves after the massage was McDonald’s. but we had the evening of TV and once again some spectacular feats of gymnastics and other abilities by Chinese people in the show. We also had sunflower seeds and cards and it was a very good night, even if the food was subpar.


End of Term – Reflections on a Year

After being wiped out by the long series of holidays, the end of term was coming up fast. So fast in fact, that we didn’t have long to rehearse for the end of term production. This time around it was Robin Hood, but not as you know it. Robin was flamboyant, while Maid Marian had hairy legs and an attitude problem (I was Maid Marian). Robin chased the Sherriff of Nottingham around the theatre while Benny Hill played, and the Village People were followers of Marian, who danced about her money problems to the tune of Abba. It was gloriously awful and as such the children loved it.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the only English production we had to do. I was coerced into re-writing “The Three Little Pigs” – as in, the version that Lulu the teacher found was so awful that I just had to re-write it for the sake of my sanity. It was still awful, but at least I wasn’t going to go insane due to the bad English and inconsistent plot. It was just the simplicity of the English and conversely its difficulty that caused me headaches.

The first order of service was to write the scripts and have us very experienced copy-editors check it for good English (spoiler: it wasn’t very good English even after we had at it). Then we had to have the children record the pieces. This caused me many a headache, mostly because you can only repeat a sentence so many times, for the kid to get it wrong the same way each time (no matter how many times you say it, Annie, “baby” is not pronounced “Beebee”!).

The kids cried. The teacher nearly cried. I cried laughing. While writing this, I have just re-listened to the recording of “The Three Little Pigs” and my kids are fantastic at English, but while recording, during the first couple of takes, “sticks” became “dicks” and “bricks” became “pricks”. And I have the maturity of a thirteen-year-old boy. I caught those however, and was able to coach the children through the pronunciation. However, I did not catch that I, the narrator, on at least one occasion, said, “The three little bigs…”. Yes, I’m embarrassed. And once I’d heard it once, I couldn’t unhear it. And I couldn’t re-record it, because putting the whole thing together had been many nights of unpaid overtime for the Chinese teachers. Re-inserting a bit of my speech would have been too much effort for them.

My other KB class had a confusing Aesop’s fables style story about a tiger and a fox. The fox convinced the tiger that he was the King of the Forest, because all the other animals were scared of the tiger, so the tiger ran away. There was also a weird subplot about an enormous radish that the fox, the rabbits and the horses were obsessed with. It was very confusing.

My BB class teamed up with KC5 for their performance, which meant Matt was roped into playing a very sad lion. I was the narrator again, which meant I didn’t have to go on stage in a lion costume. I just got to see two-year-olds be very cute in little lion costumes.

All the other classes did English play-type things to fairy tales. One class clearly ripped us off from last semester as they did Snow White, but I wasn’t involved in any of the other classes, so I just got to watch them at the end of year show.

And then in a flurry, it was the end of term. It was different to the last time, in that none of the kids (as far as I know) are leaving. There was no crying as I left, because they would all be back next term. It was just a goodbye and see you soon. Of course, if I had known that the coronavirus was lurking, I might have behaved differently, but I am no psychic and there was not even a hint of it yet in Shenzhen. It had barely left Wuhan at the time, and certainly wasn’t public knowledge.

But the end of term did signal the end of the year for me. But, as I have already stated in my previous posts, I have decided to stay another year. I have fallen in love with the children, and although the school leaves a little to be desired in the way of communication, it is a good place to work, and I couldn’t bear to leave yet. As my parents said in August “You’re not done with China yet.” And I’m not. It’s a beautiful country (current viruses (Viri? Virodes? Viruseseseses?) aside) and there is so much left to explore. Not to mention the proximity of other countries on my bucket list; Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Indonesia, etc. why not explore them while I’m here. I’m a lot closer and so it’s a lot cheaper to travel from China to each of these places.

I currently plan on staying until July 2021 (once I get back to the country after the virus has wrought its destruction) and seeing my current KB classes graduate before I come back to the UK to start my PGCE. China has taught me many things, and I have learned much culturally and personally about myself. And it has finally found me a career I want to pursue. I want to work with young children as a teacher. I will have my fill of the East then I will return to the UK and its glorious western food, and go back into education to become an educator myself.

But first, bring on another crazy adventure filled year in China! I’d say throw your worst at me, but as that is currently the coronavirus and I am currently in quarantine over it, you’ve already done that, so let’s try throwing your best at me instead!

It’s the Hell- I mean Holiday Season!

This semester I have finally come to learn what is meant by the holiday season. And by holiday season, I mean the average Christian(ish) American holiday season. I am holidayed out. And not in a good way.

While this semester has been weird in and of itself, due to the historic Salmonella Incident, and all its repercussions, we also as a group felt like we didn’t have enough time to teach everything we have been told to teach, especially as every couple of weeks (or so it felt), another holiday came along to ruin our fun.

First was Halloween. We were given warning and had enough time to gather together plenty of Halloween based words to teach them. We also had to dress up ourselves, unfortunately. But we rose to the challenge. And actually, it was fun, even our usual degradation of dancing in front of the kids. Who all turned out to be adorable in their little outfits. They really got into the spirit of it, even if it was in much more of a US way of any outfit goes. By my count, there were approximately ten Elsa’s, a couple of Anna’s, a plethora of superheroes; easily enough to form the Avengers and the Justice League, a minion, a cupcake, and a couple of demon things.

I personally was a Generic Female Superhero. The school wasn’t going to spring for a Supergirl costume, so instead of the S on the front, it was a diamond shape with the word “Superhero”, written inside. Just so they company who made it could prove that it wasn’t actually a Supergirl costume and it is in fact a total coincidence that it looks almost exactly the same. I was also a ghost for a brief period. Yes, I did wear a sheet and a mask. No, I couldn’t see. Yes, it did fall off during the dance show. No, I don’t have pictures. I’m glad you didn’t ask, so I could give you all that information unsolicited.

On the day, as well as the unrecorded (thank goodness) show we put on, we also played games with them on the playground rather than have a normal day of lessons. I spent the entire morning and afternoon picking up ball pits balls, because I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but young children are very bad shots. And they are even bad shots when the bucket they are aiming at is only two feet away from them. And these balls are really good at rolling a very long way. By the time I finish teaching here, I am going to be a broken vessel. At least that’s what my back was telling me.

Because we have to prepare the words a week before we actually teach them, it was literally two weeks later that we were preparing for Thanksgiving. Which only Matt knew anything about, since he is half American. But we managed to cobble a few words together and teach them about it. Luckily, we didn’t have to do any more than that, which was good, because Christmas was just around the corner and preparations for that and the end of term were in full swing. Hannah didn’t understand why I started playing Christmas songs from the 1st December, because even though she is most up-to-date when it comes to Western traditions, she thought Christmas was just one day, like Halloween and Thanksgiving. When I explained to her that it was more like Chinese New Year, she understood a bit better.

Even with the Christmas music, it didn’t feel like Christmas. The entirety of December, all of us kept saying how it didn’t feel like Christmas was nearly here, for the precise reason that the Chinese don’t celebrate it. For the Scrooges out there, who claim that Christmas comes too early to the West, head to China. It doesn’t come at all. I went shopping on 23rd December, because I hadn’t had a chance to do so beforehand, and the shopping mall was just as busy as any other day, and not packed with manic shoppers with a glint of desperation in their eye and a ready elbow for shoving if another person dares to lay hands on the generic soap that would be perfect for their cousin’s teenage son. The Chinese don’t exchange gifts at Christmas, as evidenced when I gave all the teachers that I work with scent diffusers wrapped with tissue paper and a Christmas card, one of which was still in the classroom unopened when we went on holiday for the Chinese New Year, three weeks later. I gave all the kids a funky pen (most of which I wanted as they were cool pens), and the kids repaid me by being little monsters. Obviously. They wouldn’t be children otherwise. I tried to make it a fun and relaxed lesson, especially as I had worked them hard the day before to get a good video of them singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” to my family, but they messed around at any opportunity they got, so I ended the lesson early instead and spent five minutes telling them off, which resulted in a ten minute lecture in Chinese. Not what I intended but there wasn’t really anything I could do about it at that point.

Christmas Day was in and of itself weird too. I woke up early, intentionally, having prepared myself a stocking the night before, and sent a picture to my Mum.

My Christmas stocking!

Then we headed off to a Children’s Disabled Orphanage, or something like that so we could bring a bit of cheer to some disabled children. It was a very weird experience as we were given a tour and didn’t have many opportunities to actually interact with the children, which made the entire operation feel somewhat “white saviour”-y.  when we did get to interact, the children loved bubbles, and the bright spark (not me) who thought of that was a huge hit. High-fives were also in great demand for some of the more abled kids and I hope that we were able to bring them joy, but I can’t tell.

The thing that gives me hope for this, that it isn’t just white saviourism at work, is that this is only the first year that this is happening and that there are other opportunities during the year to do something similar. So, the slightly bad taste I got from it will hopefully be reduced as the group that organised it gets more practised at this sort of thing and in the future will have a better idea of what to expect and how we can help them.

After we had finished at the orphanage, some new friends of ours, who turned out to also work for the same company as us, went for some drinks with us. It wasn’t the easiest to find a place, and once we did the only options were beer or water. The place didn’t even have any Sprite. So, it was a bit of a dud for me, but par for the course for China.

In the evening, after an invigorating afternoon nap, we headed to Brew, a Western style pub nearby for our Christmas dinner. Honestly it was a bit of a disappointment. The turkey and ham were fine, and the mashed potato was delicious, but the veg were more like coleslaw than anything else and were cooked Chinese style. However, my glass of bubbly went down very well while I was on the phone to my parents, who eight hours behind, had just cracked open their first bottle of the day as well.

It was an unusual sensation, talking to my parents over the phone at Christmas, rather than being with them, and while I enjoyed, I much prefer to be in the same room as them, even as I have just signed up for another year here.

However, Christmas cheer prevailed and we all ended up getting a little tiddled, some of us more than others, although it affected us in different ways. I have the clearest memory of the end of the evening, but I was the one worshipping at the porcelain altar at 2am. Ah well, such is life.

Let me tell you, teaching children who don’t have an off switch, let alone a volume down dial, while hungover is not a fun party. The only benefit I can see is that I have done it once. I have ticked that particular experience off my un-bucket list and I don’t ever intend to do it ever again.

Finally, New Year’s Eve. The plan had been to go to Hong Kong, for the fireworks, but we found out the fireworks had been cancelled for fear of protesters, and in fact there was a large amount of protesting going on that night. So, we hit up a different party, once arranged by Westerners that wasn’t too far from our place, about fifteen minutes by taxi. After some pretty hefty drinking games pre-party, we made it just in time for midnight and counted down with the room. There was much kissing and hugging and general revelry for the rest of the night, including some slightly drunk calls to our families, bemused as they were in the past and it wasn’t the New Year for them yet. Wine was spilled onto my new top (RIP), a fight was nearly had and regrettable decisions were made. So, it was a normal New Year’s Eve party.

We got home around 3.30am and at about four I decided I needed to sleep. Like Christmas Day, we had New Year’s Day off, but I am terrible without sleep, so I headed back to my place, promised our new friends Courtney and Luke that I would send them directions, so they could crash at ours, since their place was about two hours away. I had a drunken conversation with Lauren, as it still wasn’t the New Year for them, then on the verge of passing out, I sent Luke and Courtney directions and a pin to where I was. At twenty past five, they called because they had got lost. I slipped some clothes on, found them and brought them upstairs, fully ready to pass out properly now.

But Fate hates me. At 6.45 IN THE MORNING ON NEW YEAR’S DAY the building fire alarm went off. It was obscenely loud and woke me up. Courtney and Luke didn’t stir, even when I poked them because I thought we should probably go outside. I wish I had the ability to pass out like that. I went out to both balconies on either side of the apartment and looked up and down and didn’t see any smoke and (Don’t Try This At Home) took the elevator downstairs in my pyjamas because I didn’t really feel like walking fourteen stairs while being deafened.

Questionable safety choices aside, it was a good job I did, as I was joined by 1 (one) other man in his pyjamas who looked as sleep deprived and befuddled as I did before another man in a suit rocked up and took us in the lift back to our flats, while he went all the way to the top of the building to turn the alarm off. It was a false alarm and there was no fire. Someone had burned their toast (except toast doesn’t exist in China. *sobs*). After fifteen minutes, it finally went blissfully quiet, but funnily enough, by this point, I was very awake. So, I spent the entirety of New Year’s Day alternating between napping and wishing I rehydrate via intravenous drip.

At least I didn’t have to work. That would have been pure torture.

Hong Kong Disney Part 2 – I’m now(t) a Pro(tester)

Early December and it’s Alice’s birthday. Since she arrived in China, she has wanted to go to Hong Kong for her birthday. We all signed up for it, and as the weekend drew closer, we all got a little concerned. The protests in Hong Kong, where we would be staying for the whole weekend, had been getting more violent and more violently responded to. We heard that the MTR would be closed at weekends and that taxis were therefore astronomically high. Alice had invited some Chinese teachers along, but they declined because they were worried about the protests. In the week before I left my mother told me she wouldn’t tell my father until after I’d been so he wouldn’t worry. Hannah, the head of English worried for us and repeatedly told us to be safe.

Nothing happened.

We arrived on Friday night, having split immediately after work, and even having got permission to leave work early for once. Our train to Hong Kong was booked for an incredibly tight margin to get to it on time. I might have thrown my suitcase in front of me to make sure I got on the metro. It might have lightly collided with someone. I did apologise, but desperate times called for desperate measures and I really don’t like running. We had to run anyway but I wasn’t to know that at the time.

And we made it to the train on time. Sweating and out of breath, but on time. It would not be a repeat of the weekend we didn’t go to Hong Kong.

Once in Hong Kong, Anya and I (who had a different Airbnb to the others) got lost because Google Maps might now be allowed but it got confused by WeChat. We had an all you can eat Korean, but because the others had arrived forty minutes before us, they’d already eaten all they could eat and were impatient for us to finish so they could go and look at some neon lights. I told them that the neon lights were all around, (because I’ve been to Hong Kong before and therefore, I am a pro) but they wanted to wander. I called off, because I have a hurty knee that hurted more after running and standing and it was nearly midnight already. I got lost trying to get back to the Airbnb because all the roads looked the same, and had a lot of neon.

The next day we were up bright and early for Disney. So bright and early that we arrived before the gates were opened. This was the opposite of when Lucy and I came. We did many things that were different to my trip and I saw a different side of Disneyland. I met Olaf (this was just after Frozen II came out so everything was Frozen in eighteen-degree-heat), and Iron Man, and we saw a show after hanging out with one of the cast members for a few hours. She was illegally pretty, and super talented to boot. She couldn’t go on any of the fast rides, because then she would scream and wanted to make sure her voice was in tip-top condition for the show, but I was happy to sit with her occasionally as I’d been on all the rides before. I got myself a new t-shirt and hoodie because the hoodie was on mega sale and I like having clothing of the place I have been to. I know I am going to use/wear it and so it can’t be a waste of money. I also got new Anna and Elsa keyrings to replace the Mulan one I lost when my flat key went walkabout. And I had a lovely time. It was a different time but that’s because I was with different people and that made it more interesting.

It was quite late in the day when we called it quits at Disney and headed back to the Airbnbs to change and pre-drink for the big night out. Anya and I stopped at Mark’s and Spencer for the most important pit stop of the whole weekend.

The pre-drinking was important. I didn’t realise quite how much until we arrived at the bar, and adorable place called the Iron Fairy and we found out that it was at least a tenner a drink. That’s in English money. We were being charged at least 100HKD for a drink. It was insane and I didn’t buy anything. I had one drink bought for me, and I stole a hat, but that’s a different story, and I had a good night out while sober. I had not pre-ed hard enough. This meant that by two am I was flagging, and decided to leave at two-thirty. Sean decided to join me, because despite his cheeky TC outside the Iron Fairy, he didn’t want to buy another drink just to get into the dance floor of this new place, and water didn’t count. So we got an expensive taxi back to my Airbnb and then Sean apparently drunkenly yelled at Kieren for the five minutes it took them to walk back to theirs from mine for not getting the taxi to their door after dropping me off.

Anya slept at the other Airbnb, and got a little lost making her way back the next morning. Folks were feeling rough. I was laughing. I enjoy getting drunk as much as the next person, but due to the prohibitive costs of the drinks and not being drunk enough to say “sod it” on arrival to buy the drinks anyway, I felt chipper if tired the next morning. And I took great delight in it.

Once anya was back, we left our baggage there, since we could, and went exploring in the local area shops, before our lunch at the Hard Rock Café. And I found more Tubi-grip since I actually have two hurty knees, and I just have to apply the one Tubi-grip I have to whichever knee hurty the most, so now I can apply to both hurty knees.

The food at the Hard Rock Café was delicious and not too expensive and they were very understanding of our need to take all of the leftovers home with us.

On the way back to the train station, we passed a lot of native Hong Kongians, and a high proportion of them were wearing dark clothing, but we thought nothing of it. We were tired and wanted to get home. I wanted to get into bed with my cheese puffs and eat them until I fell into a cheese-puff-induced-coma.

It was only the next day when we saw the news about the protests that weekend that I thought we might have passed the protesters on the way to the protest, but that was literally as close as we got to any protests, and honestly? Despite all the fears, it was kind of what I expected. The bonus is that those fears are keeping tourists away from Disneyland, which is all the better for us! It was a wonderful weekend, so thank you Alice for suggesting it and for inviting me along!

Schooldiering 101

A couple of weeks after the wedding, with actually no warning whatsoever -as in some of us who planned ahead had planned our lessons for the week – we arrived at school on Monday morning along with the kids, and we noticed that those who had them were wearing cute little army togs. This did in no way prepare us for the sight that then came through the gate. Actual army men. In actual combats. Of course, still nothing was said to us about it. No one told us why they were there, what they were doing, how it was going to impact us.

We tried to go to our lessons as normal, which for me, meant going to BB class, and revelling in their cuteness. I then went on to try and find my class, and found both of them on the playground, properly dressed up in soldierly uniform, and watching a demonstration from the soldiers who were there. there was goose-stepping, there was martial arts and there were orders being barked and thrown about the place.

We were a little nonplussed by the show, and by the enthusiasm shown by the kids, who were UP. FOR. IT. But I was personally relieved that I wasn’t going to be teaching them today, even though we were supposed to be starting a new unit, and we didn’t have much time to teach it. Later in the day, when I found out that we weren’t teaching the KB or KA classes for the whole week, I was a little more concerned. That would mean that the unit we were teaching would have to be taught in two weeks in order to have enough time to teach the other units in the amount of term we had left.

The rest of the morning and the day were spent with the kids doing drill. I can confirm that doing drill is not fun when you have an attention span of more than five minutes. It turns out that watching drill is even less scintillating. At least I had a nice view though.

And I was very impressed with how the kids were acting. Other than one or two, who got yelled at as their attention was brought swiftly back to the present and the soldier in their face, they all were very keen to become miniature soldiers.

It didn’t take me veru long to see what this whole exercise was. It’s the same as the CCF, ACF and ATC in the UK, except less overt. When I was in the CCF, it was quite amusing to see active soldiers telling us that they weren’t here to recruit us, before telling us about all the interesting parts of their life as a soldier. So they weren’t actively recruiting us, but they were making sure that we knew that the army was a viable option and that it would be a lot of fun if we joined. By the time I got to university, proper recruitment was in place.

This was somewhere in between the two. China is well known for its displays of martial might. The recent 70th anniversary celebrations that caused Beijing airport to be completely dead for my parents, and grounded all planes for the military fly-by is a perfect example. To have these displays, and to quell any protests that may occur, they need many many people in the army. And how do you recruit? Well, show small impressionable boys how much fun it is to be in the army (and girls too, they were not excluded from this week of activity, but they were noticeably less excited by the prospect).

Drilling is not the way to do this, although you couldn’t tell with Harley and Enzo, who could well end up in the army in the future, but the next few days’ other activities certainly were. They had a display on how to attack a building from other soldiers, and they were allowed to handle the rifles they had brought with them. We curious English teachers were allowed to as well, and they were plastic. All the parts were functional, but they could not be used for actual firing. Or so I thought.

After I impressed the soldiers with my handling of the weapons, and laughing about how I was really bad with a pistol because I was having too much fun being an action hero (true story), we went to the other playground, and the children were allowed to shoot water gel pellet thingies (technical term) at little targets using the modified rifles.

Honestly their weapons handling and weapons’ safety was awful. I know they weren’t firing anything that could cause any harm, but those pellet could probably still sting, and as someone who has been in the army, your weapons’ safety is drilled into you so much that it becomes automatic. Even with a plastic rifle that can’t be fired, I still have to tell myself multiple times that it’s alright to point it at someone. The ones with water gel pellets in? absolutely not. They were not going to be pointed at anyone at any time, except the target, which, when I had a go, I shredded.

The kids also got an opportunity to put up a tent. It was a popup tent, and honestly, we should have them in the UK. Truthfully it wasn’t quite popup, but instead of having the poles separate, they were attached to the canvas in a sort of spider formation at the top, and folded in on themselves.

I’m pretty experienced at the camping thing. I can put up my tent in 10-15 minutes, depending on how much help I get, and who the help is. The way this tent is constructed would reduce that time so much. And when you’re putting it away it’s much easier to fit back into the bag. It’s a miracle and I want one.

At the end of the week, the kids had a presentation for their parents which was boring until it got weird. The children all did their little performances where they turned left, right, open order, dressings and all other simple military stuff. Then the parents were asked to make a very big circle, and they were all handed a rope. They spread backwards so the rope was tight, pulling it and leaning off it. THEN THE SOLDIERS MADE THE CHILDREN TIGHTROPE WALK THIS ROPE. I was confused and speechless and these are small children who are walking along a rope that’s five feet in the air and I know you’re strong and can probably catch them but why? They also made the teachers do it too, which was hilarious. I mean, also maybe unsafe. And hilarious. The teacher of my KB3 class, who had been flirting with the soldier commonly known as the fit one all week got to cling to his arm as she teetered along the rope. It was all very bizarre.

It was an interesting yet boring week, as we had nothing to do but watch, and I had a feeling like they were recruiting way too young. But I did make a new friend. Who I still speak to occasionally. Yep, it was the fit soldier. They wanted pictures with us, because they don’t get to see or interact with many white people. The fit soldier was proud to show me that he had been to Thailand and Vietnam as he still had money from those places in his phone case. I still had a fiver on me from the wedding, which I showed to him and it took a while to work out how much it was worth in yuan. I tried to give it to him, but he wouldn’t take it, so I guess at some point, he’ll have to come to England. The Chinese really don’t travel that much outside of China, and with its size and variety I don’t blame them. But that really would be a coup for him.

Time Zone Shenanigans (and a Wedding)

Early in the month of November, I took three days of emergency leave. There wasn’t an emergency; there was a wedding. But I didn’t have wedding leave. So, it was emergency leave that I took.

It was a crazy five days (the three days bracketed the weekend). I flew home, taking off at around one on Thursday afternoon. I had had the good fortune to be able to book direct flights to and from Heathrow from Shenzhen International Airport. Due to time zone shenanigans, after a fourteen-hour flight, I landed on Thursday evening. The flight had been normal-ish but Shenzhen air has a grand total of six films available. Five of them are Chinese, and on of them was Dutch. They did have four episodes of a David Attenborough documentary (my diary is annoyingly sparse on the details) and four episodes of Spy-Cam. I’d finished them all by half way through the flight.

By the time I made it across London, I had no idea whether I should be awake or asleep, and my nagging suspicion I’d had since I’d woken up that morning that I was getting a cold seemed to be confirmed.

So of course, I had approximately, not enough sleep. Because by the time I went to bed, my brain thought it was time to get up, I slept poorly. Plus, I’d forgotten how cold England was, (it still being around 25-30 degrees daily in China) and had had to forage around in the middle of the night for a pair of socks.

The next morning, my cold did seem to have abated slightly and I was hopeful that it would be a mere sniffle rather than the full-blown craziness I’d already experienced twice since the beginning of September.

Sean and I made our way to deepest darkest Dartmoor, with a quick stop in Exeter to say hi-bye to my brother (in case I didn’t see him that weekend at any other time, and since I wouldn’t be back in the UK for nearly two years if all went well), and pick up Lewis and Heather’s wedding present.

That night was great. I drank Strongbow Dark Fruits cider and played games with my closest friends, some of whom I’d not seen for a long time, and by the time I went to bed, my brain was so exhausted, I was completely befuddled. I had a few jokes with Alex, who had flown in from Philadelphia and was experiencing jetlag in the other direction, as to what day/time/country we were in, over the course of those few days.

I slept beautifully, right up until about 5am. Then I woke up with a raw throat, and a dripping nose. And I knew that on the day of the wedding, my cold had fully arrived.

I made an emergency trip to the village shop that stocked essentially very little, although there was just about enough to supply me with Lemsip and we all got ready for the wedding, dolling up in our Saturday afternoon best.

The wedding itself was beautiful and I may have shed a tear or two. It may have also been my eye watering from the fact that I felt like I was dying, but who can say? We stepped outside for a very chilly couple of photos, and I was pleased and gratified that the Hobbit House pictures were the first on the list. Plus, it meant I could get inside and to the mulled wine more quickly.

I spent so much of the day feeling so ill, that I mostly drank J2O rather than alcohol and I think I drank my weight in it. I also confused many people with my Lemsip as they thought it was a funky cocktail. If only. I did have a wonderful day, even if I couldn’t fully enjoy the beautiful English food, having lost my appetite. But at least at this wedding, I can remember the best man’s speech better than the one in August!

I’d spent the morning talking about how I could curl up in a corner and have a nap if needed because jetlag, but what actually happened was that the playlist was chock full of Certified Bang-gers™ so despite the cold, I danced the night away and had an excellent time

Carriages were at one, and once we got back, I would have headed to bed, except for the fact that for the wedding I’d got talons, and I couldn’t remove my contact lenses with them. Matt was my hero, and helped me out, and then I cried as I said maybe goodbye to everyone. I was being picked up earlyish in the morning by my parents as I was flying out the next day and I wasn’t going to see them in the flesh possibly for a very long time, and I wasn’t sure if they’d be awake in the morning, as the party seemed to be ongoing in the garden.

The next morning, I was once again awake nice and early, and it turned out I had very little voice. I felt better, but I’d spent all night singing along to the Certified Bang-gers™ which had left me with a croak. I had enough time to pack up my belongings and sort out what I was leaving with my parents when they deposited me at the airport, especially as they were to be giving me plenty of stuff to take back with me.

My parents got lost picking me up and typically there was also no signal in the village that we were next to so it was a bit of an ordeal to get them to the right place, but eventually we managed it. I had no time to get upset as I said goodbye as their being lost had delayed them and we were on somewhat of a limited timeline, if I wanted to see Benedict (brother) and Becci (his girlfriend) before they had a llama experience.

We linked up with them and headed up Dartmoor for a romp around the Tors, and although Benedict and Becci weren’t geocaching at the time, we found a number of caches, which was exciting and we explored the remains of a medieval village that had survived up there when they were all but cut off from the world.

After a quick hot chocolate, and a quick lunch for the B’s, they set off for their llama experience, and we set off in search of a roast lunch. We didn’t have to go far, and it was delicious. And my last real English meal for a long time. I can get Western food here, but it is rather limited and won’t ever compare to real English food until I get back to England.

Then it was time to go to Heathrow. My adventure was over. I had yet another long flight, with a suitcase fully stuffed with my mum’s added extras and I still managed to forget things, as it was a little manic getting everything ready at the airport.

On Tuesday, five days after I’d left, I was back at work, and it was like I’d never left, except that the dry air of the plane had left me with actually no voice, and I couldn’t teach at all that day, as I could not speak above a whisper. I was also completely confused as to time it was and what time-zone/country I was in.

The Salmonella Incident

As I stated in my previous vlog post, we had an unexpected week off school just before the week we had scheduled off for China National Day, and my holiday with my parents. This was not explained to us when we first found out about it. On Sunday night we were told that we would have Monday and Tuesday off work because the school was closed. There were sick kids with a fever and vomiting. None of us were ill, so we wished them all the best, wished we had known earlier so we could have travelled and got on with relaxing and enjoying the extra time off.

On Tuesday evening, Hannah (the head of English) told us that the school was closed indefinitely and we would be told when it would open again. As she had told us this late in the evening, we assumed that we’d be told at the same time when the school would be opened. We were also still not told what was going on. On Wednesday night, the agency contacted us and asked us if we were “safe.” Our response was “yes, why?”

At this point we were very confused and starting to think that we wouldn’t be at school until after the week long holiday, but we couldn’t be sure. The only extra information that we knew was that there were children in the hospital.

Honestly, I wasn’t too worried about this. I had had two days off school the precious semester with a very bad cold and Hannah had asked me if I was going to go to the hospital. The way that the Chinese react to any illness seems to be to take medicine and go to a doctor.

On the Friday, the school released a statement over their WeChat (China’s answer to WhatsApp, Apple Pay and other stuff) account and we found out that there had been an outbreak of Salmonella at the school. Please see below the poorly translated screenshot I took of this statement.

We were, understandably shocked, surprised, and thankful that none of us had caught it and we hoped that the kids would be alright. We also knew that we wouldn’t be at school at least until after the holiday.

Over the course of my week’s holiday, I kept an eye on the school’s statements as they showed the entire school being decontaminated but we didn’t find out anything more until we got back to school on the 8th October and found out the rest of the details in a meeting with Hannah.

That day at school was in and of itself a very strange day. It was a propaganda day to show how great and safe the school is, even if we didn’t know why. The kids didn’t have to come in until later than usual as they weren’t eating breakfast there. but otherwise everything at the school was back to normal. Except we ate at the nearby hotel. It was a huge operation, getting all those children 100m down the road in a safe way.

And then we had the meeting after school.

Two hundred children got sick. Ninety odd ended up in hospital. The teachers got sick too. It was caused by contaminated egg in the sandwiches that the children had as their afternoon snack. The sandwiches that I’d declined because I was full of Pringles (thank the Pringles god). I was very close to having Salmonella myself.

The parents had been angry at the school for not releasing any details until the midway through the week, when the school found out the details. A lot of parents pulled their children from the school. They protested outside of the school gates. The school ended up offering compensation and to pay for the hospital fees for all the children and teachers. and once the school was up and running, they hired some workmen, with some very interesting health and safety practices to add a foot of fencing on top of what they already had around the school. By interesting health and safety practices, the magnesium soldering was done with the main soldering guy wearing a pair of cheap sunglasses, while hanging off a ladder.

The kitchen staff were all fired. There would be no food cooked in the kitchen until November. There were very few kids back at school. No more children could be invited to attend the school until next year.

The effects of this were felt for weeks. In a way they are still being felt, although we are back to a new normal. We teach multiple classes again, in separate classrooms, when we had taught multiple classes in one room for that first couple of weeks. My KB3 class had had 1 student, Jonas, the first day, and 2, the second. It didn’t creep back up for a couple of weeks. Now there are sixteen kids. And in KB4 there are 22. Before the Salmonella Incident, I had had 28 in each class. BB went from 18 to 9 (although each and every one of those nine kids are the most adorable).

For a month we had to ferry them back and forth to the hotel twice a day. For a month we had to eat truly shitty take away Chinese food. There wasn’t a crispy duck pancake in sight. It was so bad that when the new kitchen staff arrived, they were applauded as they walked through the throng of teachers out to greet them.

Now, the food is decent, (as decent as mass produced canteen food can be) and we are back to teaching our classes as before, if slightly smaller. We may not have any new kids for a while, but things are a little more normal than they could be.

Here is a link to a local news article. It has as much information as we know.

“Welcome to China!” – Parental Panda-monium

After altogether too much holiday, including a surprise week off (explanations and details to follow in the next post) we had yet another holiday at the beginning of October. In this holiday, even though it was a mere month after the kids came back to school, we had week off for the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. This was an important year, too, as it was the seventieth anniversary of the founding.

Because I would in fact have a whole week, rather than three or four days like most other Chinese holidays, other than the New Year of course, my parents decided that while they probably had had enough holidays for one year, they could also probably do with another, and so they made their way to the modern city that is now my home. But because the official birthday of PRC is 1st October and coincidentally the first day of the holiday, and we weren’t anticipating a week off beforehand, they arrived on the 1st, and got delayed in Beijing while all flights were grounded for the official military aircraft flyby, that coincided with the rest of the parade that showed off China’s military might. This meant that they were delayed landing in Shenzhen, and so we missed the fireworks over Shenzhen Bay, which were, according to Séan, spectacular. Alas, such is life. Instead we had dinner in the hotel, then my dear father fell asleep over a much cheaper bottle of beer, in the street bar just outside the hotel. To be fair to him, they had been travelling for 24 hours, had covered approximately 6000 miles, and then eaten too much food. For once I’ll let him off the hook. And to be truthful, none of us took much rocking that night.

Day 2 dawned bright and early for me (because I’d set an alarm), but as neither of the jetlagged ones stirred, I let them sleep for an hour. Which they then berated me for as we were supposed to go up a very tall building that day and wanted to make the most of the day. I suggested that we explore our closer proximities than the very tall building then, such as the beach, and so, loaded up on an almost full English, and suncream, we headed for the beach, which was just nearby.

We think there was sand there. But honestly, we’re not sure. There were a very very very many people and getting to the sea was akin to an extreme sport. We made it and then, a) being the only white people on the beach, b) being the only people walking while knee deep in the sea (it was warm!), and c) once we’d landed and set up our base being the only people who actually dared to swim without a flotation device, commonly known as a rubber ring, we attracted a lot of stares, and I nearly became the third wife of my dad’s new best friend, aka, creepy green shorts man.

Once we’d finished slow roasting and my dad had made it clear that I was his daughter, not his wife, and that I would not in the near future become the wife of creepy green shorts man, we made our way to look for some lunch.

Tempers and temperatures (Jane Austen’s rejected novel title) ran a little high, and lunch wasn’t quite what we ordered, once we’d found the Chinese equivalent of a greasy spoon and Mother had got her fill of gazing into a squatty potty, but it was decent enough and more importantly, not expensive, especially the beer. I should note that at the beginning of this holiday, while in theory I knew what “two beers please” (I don’t like beer and thus drank my body weight in Sprite) in Chinese was, by the end of the holiday, I knew exactly what it was in practice as well. My parents might even have learned it as well.

After lunch we went for a wander which just so happens to be my parents favourite pastime of holidays. Just having a look around and seeing what’s there and seeing the people doing their everyday thing. It’s not my favourite thing to do but I was with my parents and just spending time with them so I was more than happy to tag along, as I normally am.

Dinner was once again not what we expected. We’d seen a nice-ish looking restaurant – having survived one iffy looking eatery, we didn’t want to push our luck – but it turned out to be a buffet and because we were looking to eat at the scandalously late time of 7.30pm, it was nearly closing. It was a race between us and the staff as to how much we could get on our plates before they took the serving trays away. It was a nice enough dinner, but not exactly what we planned. After dinner we thought it would be nice to go back to the beach when it would be quieter. We were wrong. It was not at all quieter.

Day 2 dawned brighter and earlier as I was not so foolish as to be thoughtful and after bamboozling my father with the speed in which I could call a Didi (Chinese Uber) and have it arrive, we were off to the aforementioned very tall building, also known as Ping. It is the 4th tallest building in the world, the tallest office only building in the world, and has one of the highest viewing platforms in the world. It would have been taller, but something about flight paths and planes and other such minor safety concerns brought its height to below 600m. the entrance to Ping before we even got in the fancy lift was pretty futuristic, even though we are now technically living this future. There were lights that responded to sound, but like fireworks, not clapping to have your bedroom light turn on. There was also a live interactive map of the commercial district of Shenzhen and other gadgety things.

Going up was relatively anti-climactic. We were travelling at 10m/s meaning we reached the top in less than a minute, and all that happened was that my ears popped. You could barely feel it.

At the top, the views were pretty spectacular, although I made sure not to go too close to the edge. My dad was happy to stand on the glass that said “Don’t jump” and “No more than 100kg” and while that meant I was safe, why push my luck? Instead I opted to go first on the VR rollercoaster.

It was one of the scariest things I have done in my life, and I have jumped out of a plane more than once. You sit on a little platform, have a seatbelt and a VR headset. You’re shown to be on a rollercoaster and the platform moves in conjunction with what the headset is showing you. The VR doesn’t look totally real yet, but that didn’t stop me from feeling like I was about to fall when the rollercoaster carriage you seemed to be in looked like it was about to tip off the rails. No matter how hard you gripped the platform you were sitting on and told yourself you were safe, you didn’t feel it. The mind is a powerful thing, but its downfall is that when 2 senses are telling you one thing, no matter how much you argue with yourself, your body believes those senses, and you really think you’re plummeting to the floor.

Photo credit: Sandie Davis

After this harrowing experience and a little bit of tourist retail therapy to stop my hands from shaking, we were on our way to the next place. Except we weren’t. Because I got us a little lost, so we were actually heading in the wrong direction. Who knew that six-month-old memory could be faulty? After several too many false starts, we finally found our way to Shenzhen Museum, via my being convinced for a hot minute that I was in the Matrix, to find it was packed, and had a very long queue. We decided that it was in our best interests to stand in a smaller slower queue to then see that we needed our passports, safely ensconced in the hotel safe for access to the engineering museum, so we gave up museum-going as a bad job and headed for the pub.

I took them to the nearby Western bar that had beer and more importantly, cider and Mac’n’cheese, happy hour and the unexpected bonus of a rugby match on the TV, in other words it was a triple whammy win, which was exactly what I needed after so many disappointments and annoyances from that afternoon of repeatedly being wrong.

The icing on the cake was Ping’s light show and the ladies in mirrored outfits handing out pink plastic devil horns, and doing a little dance for us.

With happy hour over, we headed back to the hotel to pack and prepare for the next stage of our trip – Chengdu and pandas!

On arrival in Chengdu, we were met by an informative and chatty young lady called Molaii, who told us that if we wanted them, she could wangle us some tickets to see the Chinese opera and show that night. We wanted them and it was all set up. It included a complementary ear cleaning or massage. We chose the massage, and all loosened up, we were mesmerised by the show, a lot of which hails from thousands of years of traditions. My favourite was the two stringed instrument player who was also having a lot of fun on the stage, Mother’s was the puppetry. Other highlights included hand shadows, face changing and a pantomime-esque performance.

The next day was pandas! We had an early start because the best time to see pandas is when they’re eating breakfast, otherwise they’ll be sleeping. If only I could do that. We saw many many pandas, including three little black and white fluffballs. We still haven’t decided if Domino (our black and white cat) channels his inner panda, or the pandas channel their inner Domino.

Pandas started dozing, and we were off, to the old markets, also known as Wide and Narrow Streets. they were a blend of old and new, and rather what I imagined Diagon Alley to be, a mosh pit of colours, sounds, smells that invaded the senses and required eyestalks for true appreciation. Luckily both the parentals were wearing brightly coloured tops and easily spottable in the hubbub as we moved at different speeds and kept getting separated.

Then we went to a fancy gardens and my parents threatened to find me a Chinese husband in the lover’s quarters where parents do the speed-dating for you (and have been for hundreds of years) before it was time for them to be refined and have tea in a tea garden. I had my ears cleaned, and they itched for hours after. The little bit of fluff at the end just tickles. I would not do it again, because it was uncomfortable in a way I didn’t like, but I had to have a go while I was there, so I did.

As our tea cooled in our bellies, and my ears felt assaulted hunger clawed at us so it was a good job our next stop was yet more old streets that included an area that sold an enormous variety of street food. I wasn’t quite bold enough to try the local delicacy of rabbit head, or cockerel mohawk, but I did find some decent food, for us to happily munch as we wound our way through the streets, heads swivelling so much they were liable to unscrew and fall off.

By now it was only about three in the afternoon and when Molaii dropped us off at the hotel, she told us that we’d be advised to eat earlier so we avoided the rush and gave us the location of a hotpot place nearby that she recommended. We took the recommendation and made our way there. Our fumbling and inexperience with the whole concept of hotpot no doubt gave the staff at the restaurant much laughing fodder at the “silly white people who don’t know how to eat hotpot”, but we had fun, broadened our cultural horizons and tried a local dish. I have had hotpot before, but every place is different and this one was not the same as the one I’d had before so even I was a bit befuddled. But me managed it, and, having learned from previous mistakes, I used good old Maps to get us to a local monastery. As I explained to my parents on the walk, the maps normally gets us within sight of the attraction we wanted to see and then we could make it up from here, and guess what? I was right. We found the Wenshu monastery just as it was getting dark and the Huawei phone camera beat out our traditional ones in capturing low light images as we wandered around and explored the quiet Buddhist haven. There wasn’t anywhere we could leave a donation for the monks to thank them for allowing us to bimble around their home, which was a shame but I supposed it shows the Buddhist way of eschewing personal property so cannot really be faulted.

After this and a little bit of souvenir shopping, we were all tired and had yet another early start the next day, it was time to go back to the hotel for bed.

Our final day together was as early if not more so than the rest, as we were going to a panda sanctuary to muck out and feed the pandas. Which is exactly what we got to do. The panda’s poo is green, if anyone is wondering, and only slightly smelly. It often gets inspected to make sure the panda is healthy, and the panda likes to poo in the most awkward places to clean up.

We also got a chance to smash bamboo which was very cathartic, as you had to slam the bamboo onto the ground to break it up for the pandas to eat (they are spoiled pandas – I doubt they have an on hand bamboo smasher in the wild) and if there is someone who annoys you, you could just imagine their face as you hurled the branch to the ground with all your force. Perhaps worryingly, my mum got very into it and was a very efficient smasher.

Lunch included, wait for it, bamboo shoots, and then we had yet another wander before we got to feed the panda for a second time. As the pandas settled for their naps, we were taken back into the city and left to our own devices again. Tonight we tried retail therapy and were rebuffed at the opera house as I hadn’t bought my souvenir on the night we’d been at the opera so I’d need to buy another ticket, which I just wasn’t going to do, so we retailed (after another hotpot, which we made less of a hash of) in Wide and Narrow and had another chance to explore it.

Then it was back to the hotel to pack and sleep and the next day more serious packing happened and because I had a pesky thing called work, I had to fly back to Shenzhen while my parents continued up to Xi’an, Beijing, and the rest of their grand Chinese adventure.

I had nearly a week with them, and yet it felt like no time at all. I enjoyed spending time with them, even as we had mishaps and “not quite what I expected” moments almost the entire way through the holiday. But as the friendly Did driver who spoke next to no English said on the way to Ping: “Welcome to China!”. I personally wouldn’t have it any other way, as it’s part of this unique country’s charm.

Two Holidays in One Week

My whirlwind first week back at school was over quicker than I anticipated, and all of a sudden it was our second week. Anya, yet another new teacher had arrived and we knew that we had a day off at the end of the week. And Tuesday was Teacher’s Day. I didn’t know anything more than this but I thought Teacher’s Day would be interesting, you know, seeing as I’m a teacher and all. Hannah told us we would have a dinner in the evening.

So we came in in the morning of Teacher’s Day, the same as usual. We go through our usual routine, and when the kids start coming in, they are carrying bunches of flowers and so on. This was cute. what was cuter was when they started giving them to us, and saying “Happy Teacher’s Day.” This continued throughout the day, except that it wasn’t only flowers. There were also chocolates (yum) and inappropriate George got me Hello Kitty soap. Is he trying to tell me something? And the notes that came with the flowers were all very cute as well. Ridiculously so, in fact.

In the evening, there was a dinner in our honour, where we were told we could go home early and pretty ourselves up, as we would be eating dinner and then performing for the other teachers there. Any excuse to show off their performing monkeys. I wore the same dress as at the wedding because I’m nothing if not frugal and that dress is too pretty to only wear once, although this time, I forewent the Spanx. I wanted to be able to move for my dance, as it was pretty active. We were also thoroughly coached on how to say Happy Teacher’s Day in Chinese, which we only learned because we broke it down into syllables that we could remember. The fun thing is that as I’m writing this piece, almost two months later, I have independently learned the word for happy and I know the word for teacher and while happy is in there, teacher is not. And I absolutely cannot remember the phrase. I learned it for long enough to pronounce it on the stage, and then promptly forgot it. As I do with most of the Chinese I learn. Some of it is sinking in, but not very quickly. Although apparently Chinese is one of the most difficult languages to learn, even if that is mostly the writing aspect of it.

Language tangent aside, we ended up being bored out of our minds, as some bloke we didn’t know decided to give an hour-long lecture, without any props and because we don’t understand Chinese, we couldn’t even count his tics. Not that anyone cared that we all ended up on our phones, as even half the Chinese teachers were on their phones. And we hadn’t even been fed properly yet. We were fed at the precise moment when we were called to perform, of course.

We danced to “I like to move it.” We’d practised for all of twenty minutes the week before, with about ten minutes practice that afternoon, to make sure we hadn’t forgotten it. The thing is, we hadn’t prepared this song for the Teacher’s Day Dinner, as we’d only been told the day before that it was happening. This was a dance that we’d found on YouTube and simplified so the kids could dance to it for their morning exercise. That was it. It was an incredibly easy dance to a catchy song. Pro-tip: it would seem that Chinese people like that sort of thing, as they all clapped and cheered for us in a way that they did not for the other teacher’s who did a beautiful and complicated dance using fans and umbrellas that they’d been practising for days. But what really took the roof off? Us stumbling through the Chinese that we’d been coaxed to learn earlier that day. All the teachers loved it, and we were able to bask in the adulation for the thirty seconds it went on. And suddenly always making friends on the Metro when I’m doing my Chinese lessons makes sense. They appreciate that I’m trying. In this far flung part of the world, where English is finding its way in, and becoming universal here as well, where parents spend a fortune on their two-year-olds learning English because they can see it’s a solid financial investment, people see you trying to integrate into their way of life and they appreciate it.

The rest of the week was the new normal of far too many lessons to teach, but we were getting used to it. And then for the Moon Festival, we had the Friday off. On Thursday afternoon, my KB3 class had a moon feast that primarily consisted of fruit and Moon Cakes. It’s worth trying a moon cake, just to say that you’ve had it, you’ve tried it. Kind of like everything else I’ve tried in China. But I wouldn’t have it if I could choose it. In fact, despite being given several as a gift on Teacher’s Day, they ended up in the bin. They are, an acquired taste, I believe, given how much the Chinese seem to like them. The kids kept trying to give me more moon cake. And all I wanted was grapes and a yoghurt. I couldn’t even have the yoghurt as there weren’t enough to go around the kids, and they always have priority.

They also all wore their traditional clothing, in one form or another. Which was adorable. Tiny people in traditional costume is never not crazy cute.

Anyway, because we had the day off on Friday, we decided to visit Window of the World, which happens to be a theme park type place in Shenzhen that I hadn’t yet managed to visit. It was a lot of fun, meeting up with folks and visiting miniature versions of all the world’s most famous monuments, even if we were all melting like the unaccustomed-to-the-ridiculous-humidity-expats we were.

And that was it. Two holidays in one week. How spoiled we are. And don’t let us get used to this.

Feeling the Love

Landing in Hong Kong did not mean that I was home and dry. I landed at about seven in the morning. I didn’t get back to my flat until around eleven. Everything that happened in Hong Kong was fine, despite the niggling fear that I’d had that the airport would be shut due to the protests and so on. But that all passed very smoothly, and I got to the train station to go back to China without any issues. The border into China was more stringent than the last time I’d come through. The guard told me that my passport was old and I don’t look like it anymore. To prove that I was who I said I was, I took my hair down, and my glasses off. And tried to imitate the half dead look that I have in my passport photo. This was not as difficult as you’d imagine, since I’d just come from a fourteen hour flight and had not slept much, and after the facial recognition software, along with my fingerprints, and my telling him that I was working as an English teacher in Dongguan, he finally conceded to let me into China. Yippee. Only two hours of travel to go. I finally made it to the flat, after running to and from a very helpful taxi man as my phone had no credit and so I had no way to pay him, while I had money in the flat, and I collapsed onto my as yet unmade bed. I shot off a message that I was at the flat and so could let the new people in, should they need it, before I spent the rest of the afternoon alternating between sleep and more sleep, with my phone right by my ear, just in case the new people needed to be let in.

No one arrived, and it was fairly late in the evening, when I had finally woken enough to make my bed, when I was told that their arrival had not been smooth and so they would be staying in Shenzhen for the night. With that I went straight to proper sleep and effed myself over for the next week.

The next morning was genuinely the latest I’ve ever slept in, while in China; about 10.30am and I was shocked, but it didn’t matter, because other than sweeping up the bits of ceiling that had relocated to the floor, not living in the flat for six weeks meant that it was still pretty tidy. And the new people didn’t arrive until later in the afternoon anyway, giving us just enough time to have a long chat in the living room, about the fact that their luggage had been left behind in Moscow, among other issues they’d had on their arrival, that I was privately thanking my lucky stars that I hadn’t had, before we went to dinner and I was closely grilled about all aspects of China over the exquisite sweet and sour pork.

Matt and James were so tired that although their luggage was arriving later that night, by crunch time, they were both asleep and I was suffering the side effect of jetlag where I couldn’t sleep, so I kindly stayed up to accept it. I hadn’t needed to as Matt snored on the sofa up until Richard’s arrival at 2am, but it was safer that I stayed up because if Matt hadn’t woken, there may have been problems. Imagine waking in the morning and finding out your luggage was back in Shenzhen because you’d got lost in the land of Nod.

A couple of days later, I was at school, getting paid to do Arts and Crafts as I put together the first two morning conversation boards of the school year. I was really looking forward to seeing my kids again. I hadn’t realised how much I missed them, until I was at the school and they weren’t.

Although the afternoon held some love for me. My KA kids, my graduating class, some of them were at the school to do something. I’m not sure what; maybe pick up some artwork, or see their teachers, or something. I didn’t know and I didn’t care. Nothing makes you feel loved like a child’s voice yelling “Kiki” before you get a head pressed into your stomach of a child that you weren’t sure you would ever see them again. I might have teared up slightly, even though Kevin still hadn’t learned my name after six months. And it wasn’t just him. Seven or eight of my kids were there, and I just had to hug them all, even the ones who didn’t want to hug me.

Before I knew it, Sean had arrived to take our teacher total up to four, and it was the first day of school again, and I had the sweetest surprise on the way into school, as Sophy saw me on the way into her first day at big school, and she also gave me a hug, and a little conversation, before she went off, looking so grown up and smart in her school uniform. Matt thought it was incredibly sweet and it made my heart swell up too.

My first day back at school was something like that all day. The kids that recognised my white mug greeted me enthusiastically and I was attacked when I walked into the now KB3 classroom by the children. George, darling inappropriate child, had clearly done something while he was on holiday as his hair, that has a life of its own and sticks up regardless of length (I swear at one point it was nearly six inches long, and stuck straight up at the back still, like a Chinese Harry Potter), had a shaved head, and shiny pink skin across about half his forehead. Cookie and Lily were tragically absent, although I had known they would be, and in their place were five new boys, vastly skewing the boy/girl ratio in the classroom, which had favoured the boys in the first place. But such is life.

I also was tasked with looking after the babies. This was the BB class, the two-year-olds, and a KC class that were also new as they had not been BB the semester before and so had been callously abandoned for the first time at this scary and unfamiliar place. I had the most experience, so they were put under my charge to teach, which I did not do the entire first week in any case, as I spent the entire time hugging the crying ones and feeling like crying myself.

There was much crying. That little girl in my arms still hasn’t made it through an entire day without crying.

The whole week was both gratifying and frustrating. After six months of living in China, I can understand when a crying child tells me they want their mother, but that doesn’t mean I can conjure a mother out of thin air for them. It also doesn’t help then when you’ve just about rocked them into calmness, the other teachers decide it’s time for a new activity and this sets them off again (dragonfruit has never been so upsetting). There are some that just won’t be consoled either. And those that kept trying to escape the classroom. Those that are traumatised by drinking water. And those that are actual delights who couldn’t care less that their parental units have left them here and are just happy to be playing with all the shiny new toys that they have.

The last thing that happened during this rollercoaster of a first week was that after 2 days of school, James decided that he couldn’t take it and scarpered during one lunch break. He didn’t tell anyone he was leaving, just packed his suitcase and took off. while Matt and I napped, as I was still suffering jetlag and unable to sleep at night which meant I was at lunchtime instead. We only found out that his suitcase was gone when we got back from school with him having not turned up for afternoon lessons. It was completely unexpected and a fun surprise to wrap up the week.

And then my first week was over and except for the mildly excessive affections of my old class, it was like I’d never left, except for having a large number of children’s names to learn again. Despite the officiousness of the border control man, I have felt truly welcomed back to the school and it’s helping to cement some of the more difficult decisions that I have to make over the next few months.