Monday, July 31, 2006

After Shanghai

Shanghai was, in the end, only Shanghai. Big buildings, neon lights and Western multi-nationals on every corner. A composite of every other big Asian city I've ever visited. A characterless Tokyo with a motorway of a river. In the evening we sat in bars full of Westerners, then passed round cans of Japanese lager on the promenade across from the Bund. Homeless people were curled up in the doorways, dark shapes under brightly-lit buildings, the unseen poverty beneath the conspicuous wealth. In the big cities China is no longer even nominally communist: the system merely remains as a means of control. I ended up drinking too much on an empty stomach and spewing mushroom slices up on the hostel floor. The next day I crawled baked and dehydrated around the Bund and Pudong taking photos and feeling nothing.

The most interesting part of the trip was the train ride home: an airport-like station with five floors and a huge glass roof; the peasant-faced man next to me who gnawed chicken legs in between loud mobile phone conversations, and the child's musical candle across the aisle that played a tinny version of Happy Birthday on an uninterrupted loop for an hour and a half. The uniformed staff swept cigarette ends off the floor with brushes made of twigs and gave loud sales pitches from the middle of the carriage for cheap bracelets and children's toys. I spent most of the time staring out of the window trying, and failing, to shut out the senseless commotion.

Saturday, July 29, 2006


Another Saturday morning.

A malign atmosphere pervades the teachers' room, largely due to the sudden necessity of writing student reports on top of giving tests, preparing lessons and teaching the kind of teenage kids who like to draw pictures of themselves shooting their teachers to death on the whiteboard. Some of the newer teachers have reached the end of their tethers - hardly surprising given the lack of support they've been getting recently. Shanghai couldn't have come at a better time.

I felt really tired last night so I left early and took the long route home up the few hundred steps to the Martyrs' Monument to see the setting sun, then right along the top of the ridge, where I stopped at a restored pavilion and watched the neon come on one by one as the day began to die.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Pay Day

Pay day was Tuesday, three weeks and five days after I first arrived in China. I was expecting to receive forty-five one hundred yuan notes stuffed into a fat brown envelope; instead I was handed a plastic bank card, deposit slip and pin number. This came as a slight surprise, possibly because the word bank had never cropped up in conversation before.

After moving to the UK, it took Katka a couple of months, two branch visits, a signature and four official documents before she could open a bank account. Here in China things are evidently a little simpler.

To mark the halfway point of our teaching contracts, ten of us are off to Shanghai this Saturday afternoon on an overnighter, returning late Sunday evening. Hopefully the city will live up to expectations. As usual, the organisation of transport and accommodation hasn't been entirely straightforward - if only the Chinese bank account principle extended as far as someone booking a hostel and sorting out bus and train tickets for me before I even realise I'm going to need them.

This week I've also managed to whittle my preparation time down to around two and a half hours, which means I'm now working eight hour days with an extra two hours on top for general time wasting, Internet surfing and eating. Life's a blast.

Monday, July 24, 2006

War Games

Saturday was strange. Very, very strange. We set off from Xiaoshan just after two in the afternoon for the forty minute drive to Hangzhou. Newly built apartment blocks had sprung up on either side of the dual-carriageway, many with Alpine style roofs or mini-pagodas and Eiffel Towers tacked on top. Rose bushes had been planted every few metres in the central reservation, stretching mile after mile after mile. Crossing the river, flat barges moved silently through the grey water like gunboats on the Mekong.

Then came the paintball. In stifling heat I sat through an hour long induction conducted entirely in Chinese, during which I gathered precisely two things: we would be carrying full size AK47 replicas up and down a hill, and we'd be shooting high velocity beebee pellets at each other rather than splodges of paint. My enthusiasm plummeted still further when the costumes arrived - camouflage trousers that ended at my ankles, a plastic GIs helmet and a Darth Vader mask with a few pin-prick size holes for ventilation and no peripheral vision.

We started the game minus half our body weight after half an hour's marching around and standing to attention practice, which the Chinese kids lapped up with worrying eagerness. Unfortunately nobody bothered to tell the foreigners what we were supposed to be doing, so I ended up still playing the first game as the second one was starting. In a blow to national stereotypes, the French girl quit after two minutes while the Pole fought off five hundred Asians in a desperate rearguard action before she surrendered and her home was razed to the ground.

The barbecue was pandemonium. A free for all involving fat Chinese rich kids, skewered raw meat, live shrimp, smoke and fire. I stayed in the corner cooking bits of tofu. The karaoke kicked off later, at almost exactly the same time as the heavy rain started. A 15 year old kid stripped off to the waist and started gyrating in front of the teachers. Another used his camera flash to strobe the dancefloor after the techno music started banging out. As we drove home huge forks of ligtning ripped through the night sky.

Friday, July 21, 2006


Another week down. Five more days chalked off. This time next week I'll be exactly halfway through my time here. Sometimes I feel that things haven't quite lived up to expectations: too much work at school and not enough to do in the city. But every now and then I see something that reminds me why I wanted to experience this country. Tonight it was four policemen travelling in an open sided white golf buggy, blue lights flashing as they trundled along the main road. On the pavement outside the supermarket hundreds of people were standing in front of a big screen showing a Hong Kong gangster movie with Mandarin and English subtitles. Inside, I watched as three layers of beaurocracy attempted to put out a burning cigarette in a wastepaper bin.

Tomorrow I'm going paintballing with forty-odd rich Chinese teenagers and the other six summer teachers. Tonight I'm going home to sleep.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

People Are Strange

More tales of the weird and the wonderful from China:

Middle-aged women doing step-aerobics on the steps of the Bank of China building. A shop that sells nothing but shoes for very small children stays open until 10.30 at night seven days of the week. Surprisingly, custom is scarce. KFC playing a muzak melodied Chinese language version of Jingle Bells on a Monday evening in mid-July. A dog refuses to piss in a bush so its owner spends thirty seconds waving her finger in its face before smacking its bottom twice. (I wonder if the one child policy has had some strange psychological effect on broody Chinese women.)

Xiaoshan itself remains almost iredeemably dull. Yesterday I noticed a student-made poster in one of the classrooms on the city's tourist attractions: many cars, some KFCs, many tall buildings, many people...

Book early to avoid disappointment.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Day Off

The beginning of week three.

Yesterday nine of us took the hour-long bus ride to Shaoxing, forty-odd kilometres, several million concrete buildings and one or two rice paddies to the east of of here. After walking along the canal banks in the rain we took a city bus to East Lake, where we squeezed into wooden boats propelled by gap toothed old men who pedalled with their bare feet and steered with long bamboo poles under low stone bridges and through green and blue striped caves. Hiking back from the far side of the lake, we passed a bamboo wood, green tea plantations and a tea house clinging to the rock face next to aubergine plants and oriental orchids.

Judging from the guide book description I'd expected Shaoxing to be a pleasant provincial backwater, a bit like one of those small towns in Northumberland that have a castle at one side of town and a river at the other, and very little else in between. I discovered that very few places on the east coast of China can be described as backwaters anymore - little Shaoxing accounts for almost 70% of the region's textile trade; plush hotels, western restaurants and their indigineous imitators like Kung Fu Fast Food and Winner Pizza throng the centre of town, while huge out of town textile supermarkets and foreign joint ventures congregate on the outskirts. The concrete in front of the train station almost gleamed.

Next weekend we're going paintballing in Hangzhou with a busload of teenage Chinese students. One more strange experience to look forward to.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

At Dusk

Seven o'clock in Xiaoshan. Nobody is at home. Old women sit on park benches and street corners fanning themselves with rolled up newspapers. Nearby, men play cards on plastic tables. The roads are full of taxis and scooters. In the big park next to the school teenagers rollerskate and play badminton, flicking the shuttlecock back and forth across the concrete. Cycle rickshaw drivers haggle over fares and crowds gather two and three people deep to watch ballroom dancers circle round the pavement. TV noise blares out of ground floor bicycle garages. On the hill behind the bus station, the pavilions are illuminated one by one.

Two Weeks Down...

Sometime around half past six last night I decided I could do no more lesson preparation of any practical value, so I left work early and headed downstairs to a family steakhouse for dinner. Eschewing the frog curry, I ordered a chicken steak package meal and a large beer. The waitress came back with a knife and fork wrapped in card and a large napkin, which she gestured for me to hold in front of my chest. I understood why when the food came, still fizzing away and spitting grease viciously in the direction of my light coloured shirt. The food was nice, the beer tasted like toothpaste.

Back home, it was way too hot to stay cooped up indoors so I changed and went straight back out to investigate the neighbourhood. I walked up and down sidestreets lined with hole-in-the-wall shops selling dried fish, men's polo shirts and, bizarrely, cleaning implements and hard hats. I found a pond overlooked by decrepit apartment buildings and a main road with a bridge made out of two eight-metre-high dragons, their mouths closing over a pearl in the middle of the water. Further on, a wide street had a dozen tyre fitters on one side and the same number of hairdresser shops on the other. I stopped at a convenience store, bought two beers, and went home to sleep.

Monday, July 10, 2006

World Cup

I didn't stay up to watch the final. The World Cup was a serious disappointment - and not just because of England's clueless coach and overrated, pampered superstars. How many really great games were there in the whole tournament? Three? Four? Fewer? Too many teams care less about winning than they do about just not losing. Things will get worse before they get better.

I left home just after noon with an empty backpack and no suncream intending to walk round the corner to the air-conditioned supermarket and back. Somehow I ended up hiking in the hills edging the north of town for the next three hours. At a small temple old women fed me sticky rice and fruit while female monks in black capes intoned rapid scripture in front of a seated Buddha. From the top of the hill Xiaoshan spread out in every direction, apartment buildings sticking up through the haze on the horizon all the way to Hangzhou, small neighbourhoods clustered at the foot of skyscrapers waiting for the wrecking ball.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

How To Have A Lie-in

At half past six this morning the noise started: bus engines; voices; car horns short and prolonged, alone and in chorus; bicycle riding hawkers with megaphones; stomping feet; squeaky brakes; aeroplanes approaching Hangzhou. Eventually I drifted back to sleep.

Then came the heat, accompanied by the shrill wail of invisible cicadas. The temperature went from bearable to cloying faster than a Ferrari does 0-60. You end up feeling as if you're saturated with sweat, like a sopping wet sponge that's been wrung out countless times but never fully dries.

My shirt was stuck to my back about two minutes after I left the flat just after eleven. Xiaoshan has wide pavements and traffic lights that count down in seconds. Not that it makes crossing the road any easier. If the customer is God in China, then the pedestrian is Cristiano Ronaldo. The green man was lit solid and the counter told me I had twenty seconds left before the colour changed, and still I stepped into two lines of moving traffic - cars, buses, motorbikes, pedal-rickshaws and cycles turning right into the street in front of me and, on the far side of the road, the same volume of traffic turning right out of it. In the centre you're vaguely safe - only motorbikes and taxi drivers veer across the middle of the road. Essentially, it's a leap of faith.

Even though I don't have any classes on Saturdays, we have to be at the school for six hours on top of the five hundred we do during the week. So far today I've sent three emails, composed one blog entry, listened to three CDs, ate one meal and prepared all of Monday's and half of one of Tuesday's lessons. This evening we're planning our first visit to the KTV - Chinese karaoke.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Thursday Night

I'm knackered. Every day I get to the teacher's room a little after 8am drenched in sweat. I teach three teenage boys from 8.30 to 11am, then eat takeaway food and spend the rest of the afternoon teaching and preparing lessons. Only once this week have I left work before 8pm.

Last night I went to the Taiwanese place next door and ordered food by the point at pictures on the wall method. I thought was ordering curry rice but apparently I'd selected the scrumptious processed meat and dry breadcrumb sandwich, a plate of fried dumplings and a large coca cola instead. Things got stranger on the way home: a middle aged woman let her dog foul the grass verge by the main road, then took its left paw in her right hand and walked the mutt upright across the zebra crossing as if it were a small child. Further along, at the top of the park that stretches along the side of Xiaoshan's Venice style waterway, an open air ballroom dancing class had attracted forty or fifty people, who were twirling about on a patch of concrete under the streetlights. I stood and watched for ten minutes, sipping tastless beer from a rapidly warming can, the weird scene backlit by red and blue neon, three quarters of a moon poking through the clouds, and a searchlight sweeping back and forth across the night sky. This is China. This is why I'm here.

Thursday, July 06, 2006


Xiaoshan boasts a staggering array of restaurants. In just a week I've already sampled noodles in soup, fried noodles, boiled rice, fried rice and sweet and sour pork. No claws, eyes, trotters, fish heads or frog meat for me, thank you. Last night we went to the posh place next door to the school, where I enjoyed my first bit of English speaking service from a nervous looking girl who'd obviously invested in a 1970s You Can Speak English In Just 40 Minutes book and tape set. Her most natural sounding phrases were 'Wait a moment, please,' 'Would you like to eat and drink anything?' and the mind bending 'Would you like the beer hot or cold?' (I went for cold but got luke warm anyway). My spaghetti in black bean sauce was a more interesting concoction than the Western muzak: three songs played in a loop for an hour and a half.

Today I'm back on the sweet and sour. With a side serving of rice. Boiled.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

End of week one

Today it's raining. Not drizzle or showers but real bounce back off the pavement and splatter your chin stuff. And given some of the things that you'll find on the street here, that's really, really not nice. Earlier this afternoon an elderly gentleman very kindly climbed into one of the two sinks in the school toilets and proceeded to pick foul smelling things from under his toenails and off the soles of his feet. This was still only the second most disgusting thing I've seen in the last twenty-four hours - beaten by the duck's beak and chicken claw sticking out of separate dishes at dinner last night. No more soup dishes for me.

Last night I attempted to wash my smalls in the ancient looking washing machine located on my balcony. This entailed me filling the machine with water from the tap using a length of dirty rubber pipe, flicking a switch to drain the water out of the bottom, refilling it using the pipe again, transferring the sopping clothes to the attached spin dryer, and then holding on to the machine while it threatened to jump out of the window. This evening I'll be taking my shirts to the laundry.

Monday, July 03, 2006


The dream is over. I watched the game in a Chinese disco on a big screen hung in front of the DJ stand. Loud Mandarin language pop boomed out, and two girls in shorts and crop tops danced on either side of the screen. Afterwards I wandered outside to see Cristiano Ronaldo's smiling face on a huge TV screen fixed to the side of a skyscraper. I can't believe that one of four very average sides will be World Champions this time next week. How much further forward are England for five years of expensive foreign coaching? Timidity and blandness instead of chaos and hell for leather, that's all.

Yesterday we took the bus to Hangzhou, a rich city swollen with half finished apartment buildings that resemble upturned packing crates. The journey was reminiscent of India - fumes and dust, dirty upholstery and karaoke videos playing at full volume above the driver's head. We passed field after field of advertising billboards - China's second largest crop after rice - spotlit from below and bearing pictures of urban development, Western consumer durables and Japanese high technology. After finding the city's famous West Lake we traced a route along the banks while the sun gradually roasted my skin, and then got hopelessly lost trying to find the bus station for the return journey.

I had planned an early night but it was too stifling to sleep even with the aid of a late night can of weak lager. The apartment is so hot that you have only two choices: leave the air conditioning on all night (too noisy) or turn it off just as you close your eyes and hope that sleep comes before the sweat starts flooding your body. Apparently cockroaches don't have the same problem.

This morning was my first lesson. Two slow Chinese teenagers with a combined vocabulary of five words. Fun and games.