Category Archives: China

Little Virgin Boy Pee Eggs

Today is Chinese New Year! That means it’s time for another China story from the vault. I’ve posted quite a lot here about China, like the time I ate brains and the time I got to be Bad Santa. There was also the snake shop, and when I got pulled in Shanghai airport and some beefy security guards tried to take my cheese off me. No way, mister! Even the most mundane things, like getting a haircut, take on a whole new meaning in the Middle Kingdom.

In 2009-2010 I lived in an extremely inhospitable northern industrial city called Tianjin. I imagine it was a bit like a Chinese Middlesbrough. I only went there to be closer to a girl I was dating, who then promptly dumped me for another dude leaving me alone, miserable and stuck in a job I hated. Said job was teaching English in a primary school. It wasn’t the teaching I disliked. it was the kids. There, I said it. It’s probably hard enough trying to educate children that young when you speak the same language, but at least then you can reason with them. If you don’t speak the same language, forget it. It’s like fighting a war with no weapons. Every class was anarchy.

Eventually I hit on the bright idea of rewarding the good kids with lollipops, hoping the naughty ones would see what they were missing and fall in line. It didn’t quite work out like that. Instead, every kid who didn’t get a lollipop threw an epic temper tantrum. Mostly products of the one-child policy, they were a mass of Little Emperors. They broke me. Regularly. I would cave in and give them all lollipops just to shut them up, costing myself a small fortune in sugary bribes.

One of the few things I liked about this school was the little breakfast stall stationed outside, selling a selection of traditional local food, along with some more normal fare like boiled eggs and corn on the cob. I stopped by there most mornings. It was cheap, and saved me time.

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There was a lot I didn’t like about the school. But the worst thing were the toilets. Toilets in China are gruesome places at the best of times. But in the school there were no locks on the doors, because the little shits would shut themselves in. That meant whenever I used it, I had a swarm of kids around me pointing and laughing. It was enough to give anyone a complex.

I noticed the boys all peed in buckets, which struck me as a bit weird. But lots of things struck me as a bit weird in China, and the buckets of piss just blended in with all the other weirdness. People would come in sporadically, carry the full buckets out, and come back with empty ones. Presumably, they were emptying them down a drain somewhere. I didn’t know, and frankly, I didn’t care. I didn’t think much about it. Until one day, when I was talking to my teaching assistant and he told me something that first confused me, then horrified me to the core. The school was selling the pee. Those people who came in to take out the buckets of piss were actually paying the school for the privilege.

“What? Who would buy buckets of pee?”

“People.”

“What people?”

“Like the people at the breakfast stall where you go in the mornings.”

“Why?”

“Tong zi dan.”

“What’s that in English?”

“Not sure. Little virgin boy pee egg or something.”

He explained that in some regions of China, Tianjin included, urine from young boys, preferably under the age of ten is harvested. It is boiled, and eggs are soaked in it for a few hours. Then the shells are cracked, presumably to let the pissy goodness inside, and it is boiled some more. The practice has been going on for centuries, and is tied to TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine). Eating little virgin boy piss eggs is said to reduce high blood pressure, stop you catching a cold, and relieve joint pain, and I’d been unwittingly eating them for months.

I’ve never been able to look at a boiled egg in quite the same way since.


Trigger Warning #6

I am pleased to report that my short story, Little Dead Girl, is included in Trigger Warning #6deadgirl-945x945As you can probably gather, I wrote Little Dead Girl when I was in living in China. I tried to convey some of the isolation and disassociation you feel when immersed in a different culture, and the surreal sense of  unreality that permeates everything you do. The artist who illustrated the story, John Skewes, captures the mood perfectly.

Little Dead Girl was yet another story based on one of my fucked up dreams, probably inspired by the evil Little Emperors I was teaching at the time. Believe me, some of them deserved to be kicked down a flight of stairs or three. To this day, I can still remember the dream vividly, and it still gives me chills.

You can read Little Dead Girl for free HERE

 


Something to Declare?

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Today is Chinese New Year, 2016 being the Year of the Monkey. Therefore, I think it’s time for another weird China story from the vault.

On September 11th 2011, the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks (which was nerve-wracking enough in itself) I made the journey from Wales back to my ESL teaching job in China. After getting a lift from my dad to Cardiff Central I got a National Express coach to Heathrow airport and then endured a gruelling 10 hour flight to Shanghai Pudong, where I had to get another bus to another airport in Shanghai so I could make a connecting internal flight to Changsha city, capital of Hunan Province. As you can probably imagine, by that point I was tired, stressed, and not in the best of moods.

I dragged my 24 kg suitcase to check-in at Hongqiao, where a nice young Chinese lady slapped a sticker on it and sent it through an arcane-looking X-ray machine. And then an alarm went off. Uh-oh. A couple of burly ‘security operatives’ appeared and whisked me away to a little side room where my suitcase was waiting, sitting on an oversized metal table. One of the security people motioned to a monitor where several ‘suspect’ items were highlighted, and told me to open my suitcase. He then put on some rubber gloves and proceeded to rummage around in my personal affects, placing several of my possessions on the table for further scrutiny.

The first was a police-issue extendable baton, bought for 20 RMB from a street seller in Changsha the year before. Whatever your opinion on this, in my view living alone in a foreign country where laowai (foreigners) are often targeted, necessitates some form of personal protection. Besides, it was pretty cool.

“Can’t have,” said one of the young customs officers.

“Okay, no problem,” I replied, sheepishly. Fair cop, guv.

The next item was a 5-inch switchblade knife with a retractable spring-loaded blade, kept for the same reasons as the baton (although this one doubles as a handy household tool). They are illegal to own in some places, and certainly illegal to carry. The customs officers opened the blade and admired it for a few moments, tested it was sharp enough, then stuffed it back in my suitcase and told me it was fine.

What? Are you sure? I wanted to ask, but of course didn’t. Besides, things were about to get weird. The next things pulled out of my suitcase was a meagre collection of paperback books.

For reference, the titles of these were as follows:

Horns, by Joe Hill

Breathless, by Dean Koontz

Full dark, No Stars, by Stephen King

Bookie Wook 2, by Russell Brand

Country Driving, by Peter Hessler

As the security personnel picked their way through the pile, flicking through the pages and breaking the spine on at least one (I hate that) vague notions ran through my mind. The Chinese government dislike Peter Hessler, an American who lives in China and writes almost exclusively about his adopted country, and often ban his stuff. Could this be the problem? Or could it be the fact that in 2008 the Chinese government banned ‘horror’ (whatever that means) in reaction to Steven Spielberg pulling out of his role as advisor to the Olympic committee on political grounds?

“Why do you have so many books?”

“I like reading.”

“Really?”

“Really. Why else would I carry so many books half way around the world?”

The customs officer considered this and, apparently satisfied, moved on to the next item, which was a pound of Cheddar Cheese.

“What’s this?”

“It’s a pound of Cheddar Cheese.”

“What is it used for?”

“It’s cheese. You eat it.”

“When?”

“Erm, whenever you want.”

He made a ‘yeah, right!’ face, picked the cheese up and started bending it and sniffing it. ‘Did you pack this yourself?’

“Yes I did. I packed my suitcase myself, and this is definitely my cheese.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“About what?”

“The cheese.”

“Yes, I am quite sure this is my cheese. Is there something wrong with it?”

“I’m not sure you can take this on the plane.”

“Why?”

“No why.”

“So I can take a knife on the plane, but no cheese?”

“Knife no trouble in suitcase.”

“So will the cheese be trouble in my suitcase?”

“Maybe.” He gives the matter some thought, stroking the few wispy hairs on his chin.

“Look, I would really appreciate it if you let me take my cheese on the airplane. Of course I will put in my suitcase, and not get it back out until I get to my apartment.”

“Okay. We trust you.”

I hurried off and hid in the departure lounge before they changed their minds. Angry, confused, and bummed at losing my baton, but happy I got to keep my books and cheese. Happy New Year, China.


I want to eat your brains!

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What is it with zombies and eating brains?

I’ve always been curious about that, and to a lesser extent, what brains might taste like. At a hot pot restaurant In Beijing recently, I got the chance to find out.

Don’t worry, it wasn’t a human brain. At least, I don’t think it was. As far as I am aware, it was a pig’s brain.

I’ve been lucky, or unlucky enough to eat a lot of things during my time in China that aren’t considered pleasant to the spoiled Western palate, including chicken’s feet, duck’s windpipe, pig’s ear, cow penis, meal worms, and scorpions. The brain, however, was the hardest hurdle to overcome. When various body parts are chopped up and cooked, they could be anything. But a brain looks just like a brain.

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It’s common knowledge that sometimes, eating brains isn’t a good idea. That’s how mad cow’s disease happened. But it does have some nutritional value. Specifically, it contains a lot of DHA, an important Omega-3 fatty acid, which isn’t surprising as the average brain 29% fat. Brains are also very high in cholesterol.

In China there is a general idea that ingesting specific parts of animals has a positive effect on the corresponding area of your own body, which may or may not be true. The same belief manifests itself in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine). Living in China made me much less picky about my food. But still, this was a new experience. As the cooked brain finally emerged from the boiling pot dripping hot oil, I was filled with a strange mixture of trepidation and nervous excitement.

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The consistency was as you’d expect, soft, spongy, even a little creamy. Weirdly, though most of the taste was masked by chilli peppers and spices, to me it tasted a bit like a boiled egg. Overall, I don’t think pig brain, or any other kind of brain, is something I’d like to eat on a regular basis. If eating brains is a dietary requirement, I’d make a shit zombie.


What’s in a Name?

This week is Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival. Confusing because in the West it’s neither New Year or Spring. Anyway, this is the Year of the Sheep. To celebrate, here is a little glimpse inside Chinese culture.

During my time as an English teacher in China I met, and tried my level best to engage with, probably a couple of thousand students, with very mixed results. The vast majority were 18 to 22 years old and had limited English capabilities, even though most had been ‘learning’ the language since they were kids.

Not many classrooms have heating. This one didn't.

Not many classrooms have heating. This one didn’t.

To aid their education, the students are encouraged to take English names. It is supposed to help them identify with the language and more importantly, makes things slightly easier for foreign teachers. Most of the boys named themselves after basketball players or footballers they idolise. Every class had at least one or two Bryants, Lebrons, James’ and Davids, in which case I had to give them numbers after their name to differentiate between them. Bryant 1, Bryant 2, Bryant 3, etc.

There were also the customary smattering of cutsie girls names; Amy, Janet, Mary, etc. As mundane as they are, at least these names can be considered normal. However, a fair percentage had some pretty ridiculous names. Every foreign teacher will have come across this, and could probably supply their own expansive lists.

I know its childish and immature to make fun of people’s names, but these are not ‘real’ names. More often than not, they are just random English words the student likes the sound of. Some change their new, ‘names’ regularly, while others stick doggedly to the same non-name until they realise how stupid it is then get another one. Others kept forgetting their English names and didn’t respond even if you did remember it.

Welcome to the bizarre world of Chinese student’s ‘English names.

name-change-blackboard

Boys:

Aubrey, Casper, Cookie, Heaven, Blind, Black, Bing, Bet, Boss, Tail, Mars, Lemon, Wolf, Poseidon, Kite, Felix, Jonny X, Winter, Wisdom, Note

Girls:

Delete, Lenovo, Kitty, Emple, Emperor, Shiner, Five, Six, Seven, Turkey, Fairy, Darling, Momo, Panda, Canary, Funny, Flower, Volume, Crayon, Yoghurt, Soulmate, Dolly, Rainy, Sunny, Dolphin, Blossom, Nonchalant, Sin, Cipher, Bamboo, Jammy, Kamy, Lark, Oren, Oscar, Tequila, Wonderful.

The award for the most ridiculous name of all, however, goes to… Lube. The poor, confused thing. And a special mention should go to the most questionable CHINESE name I came across:

Wang Ke

Weirdly, as much as I protested, Wang Ke was one of the few that flatly refused to get an English name. Priceless.


One Night in Moscow

 

That title sounds a bit romantic, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, my one and only night in Moscow was anything but romantic.

It’s not like I even planned it. I was en route back to the UK after a holiday in China and flying with the Russian airline Aeroflot (who should rename themselves Aeroflop). I had to fly from Shanghai to Moscow, then transfer to a London flight for the final leg. With stopovers it meant a total time of around 14 hours, compared to 10 or 11 hours had I flown direct with Virgin or British Airways. The pay off was that return tickets to Shanghai from London via Moscow with Aeroflot were £475, compared to £700+ for direct flights.

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Smart, right? I had two hours to make the connection in Moscow. However, my plane was late leaving Shanghai and I missed the transfer. Thinking about it, I shouldn’t be surprised. Despite being one of the busiest airports in the world, the air traffic control at Shanghai Pudong must be wank because I can’t remember ever leaving the place on time. On this occasion, there was a 2-hour delay, due to ‘congestion.’ That meant I arrived in Moscow nine hours later, at around 18:50, just as my London flight was taking off. Motherfucker.

Struggling to subdue waves of panic, I went to the transfer desk at Moscow Sheremetyevo airport and politely waited in line, with every other passenger who had missed their connection, to be told what to do next. When my turn finally came, the rather stroppy and stressed-out ground crew woman looked at me as if I’d just slapped her across the face and barked, “You sit! Sit down!”

So, I sat. I sat down. With about a dozen other passengers who were all meant to get the same flight as me. In the ensuing group chat, several harsh realities came to light:

1: We had indeed missed our plane

2: We were stranded overnight in Moscow

3: None of us had any Russian money

4: Or a visa.

This all meant that despite the extenuating circumstances, we were all in the country illegally. One thing was certain, we were Aeroflot’s responsibility so they were going to have to sort us out. There was a flurry of phone calls and emails telling our loved ones and bosses explaining what had happened, then we all waited a bit longer. About an hour later we were moved to another part of the airport, where we waited some more. Eventually, we were escorted out of a back door by a couple of big, hulking dudes in suits who looked like they were in the KGB and onto a waiting bus. Things were getting interesting.

Even in June, it was cold, miserable and wet outside. Glimpsed through the bus window, Moscow was exactly what I had expected; grey and depressing, with coils of barbed wire and electrified fences everywhere. No wonder half the population was permanently pissed on vodka. The bus took us directly to a nearby hotel. Do not collect £200. Do not pass go. When we arrived, we were given a short lecture by an Aeroflot employee and told to stay in our rooms and not leave under any circumstances. Everywhere else in the hotel, and especially outside the hotel, were strictly off-limits. We were reassured by the promise that each room had a free bottle of water in it. That’s okay, then. And just to make sure we wouldn’t think about slipping away (as if!) a guard was posted in the corridor outside, whose only serviceable English seemed to be “Nobody leaves!”

With fragmented images of the film Hostel going through my mind, I retired for the evening. The room was actually quite nice. I had a bath, watched Police academy in Russian (surreal) and the World Cup game between Spain and Australia. At some point a very disappointing ‘dinner’ of warm salad and bland vegetarian lasagne arrived. It was like airplane food, except I wasn’t on an airplane. They clearly couldn’t be bothered catering to everyone’s individual needs, so they gave us each the most inoffensive (or cheapest) thing they could find.

When I woke up in the morning it took a few minutes to figure out where I was, then the bedside phone rang and a voice told me to get my things and meet my companions at the end of the corridor, when we would be escorted to the breakfast room. This turned out to be a meeting room on the ground floor, and breakfast was a bizarre combination of bread, milk, honey, and Swiss rolls. There wasn’t an egg in sight, let alone a sausage. After breakfast we were taken back to the airport by bus, and normal service was resumed after a very bizarre interlude.

Growing up during the Cold War, my perception of Russian people may be a little skewed. In my mind they were all shadowy criminal-types who were always plotting something and never smiled. This idea is probably a result of too many 80’s action movies. The strange thing is, based on my Russian experience, this perception isn’t a million miles away from the truth. I’m sure not all Russians are stoney-faced and dour. There are probably a lot of happy, content people living there. In fact, I distinctly remember the guy on the front desk of the hotel cracking a smile once. Unfortunately however, happiness seems to be at a premium in Moscow, never mind romance.

Leaving on a jet plane...

Leaving on a jet plane…

 

 


The Snake Shop

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Between 2007 and 2013 I was an English teacher in China. Now, I still receive lots of bizarre messages and have some quite random conversations with ex-students. This one, with a girl called Sarah from Changsha, Hunan Province, is of the most entertaining I’ve had in a long time. Not only is it a perfect example of a classic communication breakdown, but it highlights a few endlessly fascinating cultural nuances. If I sat down and tried, I couldn’t make this exchange up.

S: Hello Christ, long time no see!
M: Yes, long time. How are you?
S: I fine. And you?
M: Fine, thanks. What do you do now?
S: I have own business in Shenzhen.
M: Great! What kind of business is it?
S: Snakes. Sell snakes. Snake shop.
M: Cool! Do you have any photos?
S: Yes photos. But why?
M: It’s interesting.
S: Snakes interesting?
M: Yes!
S: So strange. Just snakes.
M: You sell them for food?
S: Of course food. What’s wrong?
M: Nothing. It’s just a little strange for us.
S: Sell snakes?
M: Yes, and eating them.
S: You don’t have snakes in you country?
M: I think we have snakes in the UK. We just don’t eat them.
S: Why?
M: I don’t know. Call it a cultural difference.
S: So what do you eat?
M: Not snakes.
S: Just you dinner?
M: What? Er, I guess so. And breakfast and lunch.
S: So strange. Why have snakes but not eat them?
M: I don’t know. We don’t have many snakes, and I guess people would rather eat other things.
S: Oh. Wait. I make big mistake.
M: What?
S: I mean snacks. Not snakes. I sell snacks in snack shop. No snake.

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