Socialising in a Post Pandemic Society

It seems appropriate that on the eve of the biggest event in the Chinese calendar; Spring Festival or Chinese New Year, I should write about the biggest events in the Christian and Western calendar; Christmas and New Year. Or should that be Western New Year? When I wish people a Happy New Year here at the moment, I don’t specify it as Chinese New Year, it’s just New Year. I am in China after all, and, well, we all know the saying.

Tangents aside, Christmas this year was weird. Weird as in, I was 6000 miles from my family. Weird as in, none of them were together for the first time in forever, I think. While my family, on the whole isn’t particularly religious, Christmas is the big event of the year where we all get together. Of course, over the years, there have been people missing. I distinctly remember running around the house with my phone on a Facebook call from my cousin who was in deepest South America. This same cousin was in India the year of the Boxing Day tsunami. I have also had to leave the festivities early due to working on Christmas Day or Boxing Day or both. My aunt, before retirement worked at the hospital and so couldn’t always get Christmas off. But in general, there was a core of people who gathered for Christmas wherever it was being hosted that year.

This year, surprising no one, it didn’t happen. And, to make it weirder, I actually worked on Christmas Day. Kind of.

Whether it’s in my contract or not, I can’t remember, but what I do know is, that foreign teachers don’t have to work on Christmas Day. School goes on as normal, but I do not have to be there, because it is recognised as the biggest holiday of the year. T

his year, however, the school, in its infinite wisdom, decided to hold its “English Language Show” on Christmas Day. And guess who was the lynchpin for this whole thing? Yup, the only native English speaker in the school.

But it was only in the afternoon, so I did not have to work in the morning. I was also offered Christmas Eve off as compensation, but I felt that I needed to be at school for the final rehearsals, as to be honest, the technical side of stuff still sucked, and the kids who were my co-hosts still couldn’t remember their lines, or come on at the right time.

Anyway, that’s for later. With Christmas Day morning off, I felt that it would be alright for me to go to a party on Christmas Eve. Icy wanted to come along with me. And this proved hilarious. It was a fairly low-key party at a friend’s house, although there were a lot of people there. Because there are next to no cases of Covid in the city, so it is safe. We sat and chilled and had a good time. It was something that I greatly appreciated I could do, as I was acutely aware that my parents wouldn’t be able to see the family this year, and that Christmas would be strange and quiet for everyone this year, due to the pandemic.

This was the first time I got to see Icy drunk and it was so cute. She is normally bubbly, but when she has had a couple of drinks, she gets even more so. And the funny part was that I’d probably drunk twice as much as she had, although I was possibly more hungover the next morning. It was the curse of red wine, which I’d bought a few cases of earlier in December, either for gift giving purposes or for purposes. Four months later, as I finish writing this, it was mostly for drinking purposes and I still have a case or so to drink.

Icy was flirting with a guy named Carlos, and he was flirting right back and I was encouraging it as much as possible, inviting him to come with us when the party disbanded, so that a number of people, including the host could go on to a club. Icy wanted to get a lift from her friends, so we wandered off down the street, and went to her friend’s shop. She made us tea and I drank a lot of it, in the hope that my hangover wouldn’t be so bad in the morning. It was a fruitless endeavor, but the thought had to count for something. But it was getting later and later, I was getting more noticeably drunk and trying to speak the little Chinese I knew (this is a feature for me in foreign countries) and I was also getting really sleepy, so eventually, after much tea was consumed by all, we piled into a different friend of Icy’s minivan type thing and they drove us home. I was just brushing my teeth and generally ablutioning, when Icy called me. She had been locked out of her apartment and could she crash at mine. I quickly tidied up as much as I could, hunted out the paracetamol and a glass of water to lay out for her in the morning as she still had to go to school in the morning, and then waited for her to arrive. I set her up for bed, and then went to bed myself, apologising for the permanently on light, that after multiple people hunting around the entire apartment cannot find an off switch for. It has been on ever since I moved in, as there does not seem to be an off switch. The only time it went off was during a power cut.

I slept poorly, and was awake before Icy. I shooed her off to school, late because I was hungover and thus not timekeeping well, and then opened my few presents, which was strange yet lovely. After a nap myself on the sofa and some general feeling sorry for myself, due to aforementioned hangover, I started cooking. I promised Zoey that I would cook for her, as we all had to provide some food at the Christmas party we were attending that evening. I cooked that most famous of traditional Christmas dishes: Mac’n’cheese. Luckily, I have practiced doing this before, and I had prepared by purchasing all the ingredients earlier. Unluckily I cannot make Mac’n’cheese without making a mess of the kitchen. It’s a biological imperative for me. I did not manage to cook for Zoey so we had to come back after school to finish up.

My Christmas presents slightly dwarfed my tree this year

But before that, I had to go and act not hungover at school in front of all the parents. I even got myself together enough to put make up to go to school and do my best host work.

Now, getting to this point had not been easy, and it had involved a helluva lot of arguing on my part. I had had to write the hosting script and help record every line so the children could learn it. They had put in a lot of work to learn it. Even if they didn’t understand what they were saying they had learned the sounds. And then the head of school decided that the order of the plays to be performed needed to be changed, and she did it a week before the final performance. And so gubbins here, who had worked very hard to put in a little subplot within the hosting script about trying to find their way home, then had to rewrite the whole script but in a way that would a) still make sense, both with the English and with the actual thread of the little story I had written, and b) not require the kids to learn any more lines. It was not easy, but by giving myself a whole lot more lines, I managed it. The kids would have to recite their lines in a different order but they didn’t have to learn any more.

I finished this on the Friday afternoon and on Monday morning, when I had spent the whole practice coaching the kids on what lines to say when, when we weren’t on stage of course, the head had the nerve to be upset that I hadn’t yet learned my lines. This was a low move, because I had promised that my lines would be learned by the performance, which they were, by the way, I didn’t have to learn only my lines, but also the kids’ and I had to be prepared to ad-lib should something go wrong, and the Chinese teacher didn’t even learn her lines but read them off a little cue card! In Chinese, her native language! And yet, admittedly also in my native language, I had learned 5 full pages of script, and where I could change it, should I need to!

As it happened, I needed this, as Cheryl wasn’t ready on time and I had to adlib a bit. Otherwise, the whole production went surprisingly smoothly, considering how disastrous the previous day’s rehearsals had been. But I vaguely remember from somewhere that a bad dress rehearsal was good luck or something, and that was how it normally went.

After a brief pit stop back at mine for cooking and wrapping presents purposes, we set off.

This party was even better than the night before, for one simple reason: there was a kitten! Charlie, the host, had given it to her friend for Christmas, and he had just received it. Its name was Chairman Miao, Cherry for short, and I was in love with her immediately. I spent a lot of the evening playing with her and letting her sleep in my arms, and generally fussing over this tiny little fluffball. I also drank cider and we played a strange game when it came to the Secret Santa stuff which gave me a vegetarian buffet voucher. Basically, names were drawn out of a hat, and you could choose a new gift, or steal a gift from someone else. That person could then choose a new gift or steal from a different person. And so on, until everyone had a gift. I made a mistake and chose the new gift rather than stealing a better gift from someone else, and so I was a little disappointed with mine, and I still haven’t cashed it in.

Zoey, Icy and I were all quite tired, and the party was winding down around midnight, so we went home. I messaged my mum happy Christmas and called her, and she said they were about to start the family quiz with my parents, my brother, his girlfriend, and her parents and I, being only mildly tipsy, but suddenly wide awake and aware that I didn’t have anything to do tomorrow, I asked to join in. It was great and I even won, while ridiculously tired. Also, my compiled quiz questions that I’d accumulated over lockdown in the UK came in useful, because I could use them on this new audience (many had been asked in other quizzes I did).

Because of all this excitement, and fortuitous placing of dates, Boxing Day and the day after were quiet and involved a lot of napping, as I think it was about 4am for me by the time the quiz finished. And I was back at school on Monday, because there is no rest for either the wicked or those who live in a country where Christmas isn’t traditionally celebrated.

I wasn’t too wicked though, as I only had to work Monday and Tuesday, and had Wednesday and Thursday off in lieu of the overtime I’d worked in the past.

Those five days (one day and recovery) will be chronicled in my next blog post.

Open Days

Being now the only foreign teacher in Montai, the buck has fallen upon me to pick up a lot of the slack that can only be fulfilled by being a foreign teacher. I am their dancing pony, their trump card, their ace up their sleeve, and as such, I am trotted out on all occasions that they deem necessary, even doing the dreaded overtime.

In fact, I accrued so much overtime that I got two whole days off just before New Year’s; they couldn’t pay me for the overtime, so I got time off in lieu instead. And here’s how I did it, although it is just a short episode this time.

First, I was told that I had to work on a Sunday morning in November as an open day. The school’s year of not being able to recruit new students, because of The Salmonella Incident was finally over and they were going into overdrive to make up for lost time. It was only when I was told about this, that I realised that this was the reason for the smaller and fewer classes. There is only one KC class when last year at the beginning on the year, pre-Salmonella Incident, there were four KC classes and a BB class. And I’m their shiny toy that shows that this school is better than the other schools, so I had to be there and do a demo class for the prospective new students.

This meant an entire day of planning the class and making sure it would be really good. I then was asked to do a trial run with our single KC class, which was never going to be an accurate representation of the demo class at the open day, as these children have had 3 months of classes with Zoey and so were a) better at English than any of the prospective new children would be and b) would not be afraid to get involved in class, as they’d been doing this for three months already. I was convinced that this whole thing would be a failure and yet there was nothing I could do to stop it, as my concerns, like many other times this year, were ignored.

But anyway, I did the practice class with KC, and it went relatively well. They knew the words I was teaching them, and they were confident enough to get involved in it. Connie, the head teacher, sat at the back of the class and looked stony faced for the entire time. After it was over, we went upstairs and she ripped into it. She thought it was too difficult, primarily, and we disagreed. We must have spent half an hour arguing back and forth as to whether it was too difficult or not. She also said some other stuff. I think. It was all in Chinese and apparently, she kept telling Zoey and Icy to translate but they didn’t because they didn’t agree with what she was saying. So, I sat there in blissful ignorance. In the end, we came to a compromise. We would do this lesson plan for the first demo lesson on Sunday, and if it seemed too difficult, we would have an easier backup lesson to teach.

We didn’t. Instead, we just plowed ahead with the original lesson, and it wasn’t too difficult, because the parents got involved.

I have to admit, I was pretty nervous about the demo lessons, and dressing as a princess on the day didn’t really help, except give me neck ache because my tiara was hefty (apparently it was also a cake decoration, but it looked like a crown so I rolled with it). I wasn’t worried about the difficulty of the lesson. I was confident that we could unroll the words in a way that meant the kids would understand enough. I didn’t have to worry about it though, because the parents sat behind the children and spoke for them, and I was able to get enough response that there weren’t any awkward silences.

In the end, the lesson wasn’t perfect but we made our own notes from it, and then in the second lesson of the day, improved upon it. Once that was done, I cleaned up the magic trick (yes, I did magic and Connie wasn’t even impressed. I mean, can she turn water multiple colours with no apparent source – hiding the blob of paint on the lid of course?), changed into my normal clothes and headed out to buy myself salt and vinegar crisps and cider.

We then had a two-week break, before we had any more demo lessons, and I, making an ass out of u and me, assumed that the next one would also be on a Sunday. I was a fool. Icy had said Saturday at least once, and on the Friday before said tomorrow, and I, being an ass, thought she’d got her English wrong, I was still in bed at 8.15am on Saturday, fifteen minutes after I should have already been at school when she called and asked me where I was.

I have moved that quickly very rarely in my life. But now I can tell you with absolute certainty, that I can get ready within 5 minutes, and the walk to school takes a mere eight minutes. I got off the phone at 8.17 and I was clocking in at 8.32. I’d arrived with time to prepare the magic trick and make sure everything was ready to go, and even quickly run through the lesson as well, before it even started.

Once again, I had two lessons, and they went better than the last time, even though I wasn’t a princess (it was too cold).

I had one more go at this and this time, I had three special guests. One was Zoey’s daughter, Jasmine, who couldn’t sit still and started crying a little bit in the middle of the lesson so Grandma took her out, and I also had a kid with the most impressive bump and bruise on his head I have ever seen. It literally looked like there was a golf ball stuck under the skin on his forehead and it was an impressive mottling of purple blue and black. What’s more, the kid didn’t even seem bothered by it, although I took efforts when I was gently bopping their heads as part of the headbutting to say hello part of my lesson, to bop him on the top of his head and not the forehead. And the last one was what I can only assume was an albino child, but I cannot be sure. He had blond hair, but his eyes were still brown. Admittedly, they were lighter than a standard very dark brown pair of eyes that are typical for Chinese people, but I was under the impression that albinism was an entire lack of pigmentation, so I’m not certain.

There were also a pair of parents, who may have been basketballers, or should have been. They were well matched too. The mother was at least a foot taller than me, and her husband topped her by a couple of inches. If you think that normal sized people sitting on child sized chairs is funny, this was even more humourous. Their knees were by their ears. It was a very exciting third open day.

Just before this, we were told that we only needed to attract a few more children and if we were able to, we wouldn’t have to have another open day. As it happened, we didn’t need another open day, so I guess we succeeded. I doubt it was me, although there are fewer actual foreign teachers in China at the moment, due to, ah, the, er, current pandemical circumstances. In the UK. China is fine and safe and very rigorous about making sure that it stays that way. So, they’re not letting UKish folks in anymore. Apparently, there was a 2-month window, and I squeaked in. If I’d try to come 2 weeks later, I wouldn’t have been able to. Yay me.

The entire time this was happening, there was some concern about whether or not I would get paid for it. I wanted to be paid for it. This was my precious weekend I was giving up. It finally turned out that I wouldn’t be paid, but I took take the time off in lieu later, which was fine. I ended up banking a whole day and a half, and combining that with the half day I worked on Christmas Day, I banked 2 days off. But that’s for my next post, where I depress you with the amount of socialisation I did with strangers over the holiday period.

Gotta Get Back to Montai

Now that my enforced quarantine was over, I had a measly 7-hour train ride back to Shenzhen. I was due in at half eight or thereabouts in the evening, so although the tentative plan had been to get my stuff from storage and move me into a flat within a couple of days, that was not what happened at all. Due to the lateness of the hour, I just got a Didi (Chinese Uber) to a hotel that Jennifer had booked for me, which was a small box room without any windows. It was fine. Small but perfectly functional. It was only booked for a couple of days. It also turned out that getting a Didi was difficult for me at the moment, because people were just not accepting my calls for a ride. Which was a full pain in the rear end. I hadn’t actually ended up using the app to get to the hotel, even though the driver and I were both on Didi, because it didn’t seem to be working that well. Although it was a bit sketchy, nothing happened to me and I was fine, but it wasn’t something that I really wanted to repeat.

The next day, I met up with Icy, the Chinese English teacher at school who was there to replace Hannah who had left the school to move closer to her hometown. She told me that she had asked the parents if it was okay for me to be there and teach the children, and that they were waiting for the response and hopefully I would be able to teach by the Friday, which would be the day before Halloween and would be the day of the school’s Halloween party. I wanted to be back at school by then. I had wanted to be back at school by the 1st of September so I was nearly two months late already.

On Friday, I wasn’t able to go back to school either. Apparently, some of the parents were still nervous that I had coronavirus, despite my multiple tests, that I had given Icy, and all the medical records from my quarantine in Zhengzhou. On that Friday, I had waited for Icy to help me get a taxi, as I had tried at least twice to get a Didi and no one had been taking the requests, but she told me just to ask the hotel staff to get me a normal blue taxi instead. I had waited all day for her response which meant that my Friday had felt entirely wasted.

I won’t say that it was exclusively because of this feeling of having wasted a day that I got up at 4 in the morning to join in with various’ friends Halloween parties on England time, but it might have been a consideration. It was slightly hellish especially as there was quizzing and drinking involved. But I did engage in this foolhardiness, and only after I was done, did I brush my teeth and head out to get another coronavirus test in Shenzhen, because, obviously, anything done outside of Shenzhen cannot be trusted at all.

It was a highly stressful day. It was not helped by the fact that I managed to forget my portable charger, so I had no way to charge my battery poor phone. My phone’s battery is a pile of shite, and I am not exaggerating. I need to charge it at lunchtime veery day and if I want to use it in the evening, I need to be charging it then as well.

I couldn’t get around in China without my phone. I need it for translation purposes, for paying for things. Pretty much for everything. People talk about how we’re addicted to our phones nowadays, and that is no different here in China, if not worse. So, I already started the day stressed, because I realized on the taxi ride to the hospital that I didn’t have my charger.

On arrival at the hospital, I asked multiple people where I needed to go for a Covid-19 test, and no one actually knew. I ended up asking someone, who may not even have been a nurse, because she knew as much about the hospital as I did, to talk to Icy over the phone (my phone), so she could explain what was going on. They had a conversation and this lovely lady then took me around the hospital, trying to find the right place.

Mysterious temple that was shut, and a fisherman

Eventually we did find it, and they were shutting for lunch. A two-hour lunch break. Which was great. All I needed to do was fritter away two hours of my time. Except that I had no way to do so, as my book, my podcasts, any way of entertaining myself was on my phone and it was already getting low and wouldn’t last two hours of entertainment. I went and found a cheap restaurant, which did a very nice soup and did something I haven’t done in literal years. I entertained myself, with my. own. mind.

Time traveled very slowly. I’d turned my phone off as soon as I figured out what food I was ordering and I wasn’t going to turn it on until I had to pay. So, I took one of my book ideas and noodled with it in my head. I wrote several scenes, except I had nothing to write with so now they are most likely all forgotten with very little staying in my head, and I watched my watch tick by so very slowly.

You had to use the stepping stones to get across

By some miracle I actually managed it, and not only that but when I got back to the testing site, my lovely lady from before had arranged for a nurse to look after me here and take me through all the steps as my own personal assistant, which I sorely needed. Finally, one gagging incident later, it was all over. After I called Icy and she spoke to the nurse, and determined I had to come back the next day for my results, which was a bit of a pain, but I could at least bring my charger this time and not be so panicked about the whole thing. If I had been Chinese, I could have got the result on my phone, but no such luck, of course. Being a foreigner always makes things more difficult.

Then came the exciting part of my day, that also probably would have terrified my mother if she’d have known about it. Outside the hospital they had electric bike taxis. It was the first time I’d seen them, and since my Didi wasn’t working, I couldn’t get a car taxi to take me. It took the guy who got my custom a long time to work out where it was that I wanted to go, but eventually, he and about three of his bike taxi buddies worked it out, told me it was free and off we went. It was a lot of fun and now I want an e-bike, much to Mother’s chagrin. She thinks I will be killed if I have one. I think I’m more likely to die after being hit by one while I’m walking around. Regardless of our little disagreement, I got back to my hotel room in just over half an hour rather than the 2 hours plus it would have taken me to walk back which was my only other option at that point.

I wasn’t entirely comfortable on the back of the bike, as evidenced by the stiffness my fingers from hanging on to the seat in front of me, but I was able to look around while the driver was pootling through the city. I saw a lovely park and even better, I saw an actual bank for my bank – Bank of Communications. This is very exciting as these are the people that I need to talk to so that I can transfer money to my English bank account and pay my bills that are still ongoing while I am out here.

The next day I got another taxi to the hospital and picked up my results within about half an hour. It was super easy, which I was not prepared for, judging by everything else that I have done since arriving here and living here the second time.

My negative. Blue marks are my pertinent information that I don’t think should be on the interwebs

This time, because I had my charger and an abundance of time, and a windowless hotel room waiting for me, I decided to walk back and take the two hours to get back to said hotel room. It was a lovely warm day, and I wanted to explore the park and the river that I had seen the day before on the back of the e-bike.

It was fantastic, and I really enjoyed it, although I did get a tiny bit sunburned, just on my face. It was warm and sunny, and while I got really tired from it, because I was not yet used to walking so much each day, I truly enjoyed my day. I found another cheap little restaurant for lunch and generally had a lovely time. The photos interspersed throughout this piece are from that day.

With all that done, I was finally allowed back to school on Monday which was great, although it wasn’t the last of it. It was strange though, my first day back at school. When I saw the students I had taught, they just looked at me in confusion. There was only one class that recognized me, and it wasn’t even my class! It was a class that Sean had taught last year, but hadn’t graduated because they were too young to go to school yet. After a few days though, all the kids warmed up and began to remember me, which was so lovely, and I really began to remember why I wanted to come back to China, despite all the difficulty getting here. This was what made it worth it.

The next weekend, I had to go to hospital with Icy for no reason – the school doctor had told us we needed to do some sort of test, but then the doctor who did that sort of test wasn’t there at the weekend.

I was still in the hotel room which was ridiculously humid, to the point that it broke my phone. I couldn’t charge my phone for 2 days and then the only way that I could charge it was through a wireless charger, which was very slow. I thought my phone was permanently broken, but once I finally got into my flat, which took three viewings and several missed school meals, I finally got a nice one, with a western toilet, no random holes in windows or walls, and a table to dine at, and type up blog posts at (literally my only criteria), and my stuff was finally delivered to me from storage, my phone started working again. The battery is still rubbish, but it does at least charge with a cable again, which to be honest is all I need. I still have nearly a year left on contract with this phone, and I don’t want to have to fork out for another one yet.

It’s a cone shop! Where they make cones! I might have got a little too excited by this

Icy and I also went to yet another hospital to get this random health test and this time around, they took blood from the back of my right hand. It didn’t go all that well, as my vein started blowing up in a very disturbing way. It looked like I had a pea in the back of my hand, and when I pointed this out to the nurse, she told me off and told me to put pressure on it. It still bruised massively and hurt quite a lot, but by this point the Chinese government have taken so much of my blood, I’m starting to wonder if they are actually vampires and just use needing medical tests as an excuse. It would also explain their aversion to the sun, and Icy’s need to constantly check that I’m not going to burn when I go out in the sun. I may be pale, but I’m not actually a ginger!

Bridge from the stepping stones

At the hospital (the 4th I’ve been to since October, and my 5th hospital trip), I was able to correct someone’s stereotype for the first time. The blood sucking nurse didn’t think I could be British, because I wasn’t blonde. and while blondes may have more fun (yes, I see the hypocrisy and I don’t care), I would not look good as a blonde.

So yeah, my first few weeks outside of quarantine weren’t exactly easy or fun, but they were eventful. and now I just have to make friends, because, while I was doing the flat viewings, I was told that there won’t be any more English teachers coming to this part of town. So that’s going to be fun.

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.

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.

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.