Tag Archives: Changsha

Something to Declare?

happy-chinese-new-year-card-lanterns-lucky-rope-chiness-word-mean-happiness-52000842

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.

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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.


The Snake Shop

garter-snake

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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Chinese Spring Festival Story

Or…

Weird China Experiences No. 11782327

A couple of years ago when I lived in Changsha, Hunan Province, I woke up early one morning during the annual spring Festival holiday to the sound of my then-girlfriend sobbing and complaining loudly of period pains. She didn’t want to take the Neurofen I had with me, having a natural aversion to western ‘drugs’ and instead insisted only a chicken would alleviate the pain. But not just any chicken. This had to be a black chicken ‘raised on corn and permitted to roam free,’ which I took as meaning free range. This is TCM. Traditional Chinese Medicine.

I’m not a believer. Personally, I think its success is mainly down to the placebo effect. But there was no way I was arguing about 5000 years of history with a girl on the blob. I’m not stupid. And who am I to judge? So, I gamely volunteered to go out and try to find a black chicken that had been ‘raised on corn and permitted to roam free,’ not having any idea where I was supposed to find such a thing.

When I set out on my quest it was a cold, misty morning, and the city seemed almost deserted. Yet by some weird coincidence, as I rounded a corner, I came across a black chicken tied to a lamppost with a piece of string.

black chicken

I stopped and looked around for the chicken’s owner, but there was nobody in the vicinity. The chicken appeared to have been left there for me to find. I was just debating whether or not I could get away with nicking it when suddenly, a little old lady appeared out of the swirling mist. She didn’t speak any English, and I only had very basic Chinese, so we communicated mainly through grunts and wild gesticulations. She asked if I wanted the chicken. At least, that’s what I think she said. I replied in the affirmative and money changed hands. Quite a lot of money. Around 60 RMB, if I remember correctly. That’s about £6. A lot of money for a scrawny chicken in China. No doubt the asking price was inflated because I was foreign. Normal practice in these situations is to haggle, but that only winds me up and often proves a big waste of time, anyway. It was cold, I was tired and a bit freaked out. I just wanted that fucking chicken so I could go back home. I handed over the money, and the little old lady untied the chicken and gave it to me.

Now I was stumped. What the hell do I do with it? Do I pick it up and carry it, or lead it home on a piece of string?

I started to walk off, giving the chicken some mild verbal encouragement. I have no idea why I did that, it just seemed appropriate. After I had walked for a couple of minutes, I realized it was still alive. I didn’t want to be the one to kill it. I’m no vegetarian, but I like a degree of separation between me and my meat. Even if my girlfriend was the one to do the deed, the short journey back to my apartment would be ample time for me to bond with it. I turned back. The little old lady was still in the same spot. Just standing there. When I approached she looked at me questioningly, said something in Mandarin, and took the chicken back. She made a chopping motion with a hand. I nodded, and she disappeared around a corner for a few moments, only to reappear moments later with the chicken in a plastic bag minus its head. It was still warm and twitching.

I proudly took the chicken home like a returning hero, where my girlfriend made soup with it. Despite our mini-bonding session, the black chicken that had been ‘raised on corn and permitted to roam free’ tasted pretty damn good. Weirdly, though, not only were its feathers black, but so was the skin. The meat was a kind of mottled grey, and even the bones were covered in a black chalky substance that came off on your fingers. I don’t know if the soup had any effect on the period pains, but at least making it kept her occupied for a while!

Chicken soup


27 Again!

I’m not religious in any sense of the word, but I do believe in something. I just don’t know what. Everything that happens in life can’t be a result of a happy accident. For evidence of this look no further than Mother Nature, where everything has a purpose, a reason to exist. I believe the signs are there if you look. Or maybe if you know what to look for.

My fascination with the number 27 is well documented, on this blog and in articles I’ve written for various publications over the years. I would like to give you with an update, or a postscript to my last 27 blog. In summary, for whatever reason, this particular number has some resonance in my life, and the pattern continues.

I spent five years working as a teacher in China. It was a wonderful experience, but I knew, deep down, that it wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing with my life. One of the reasons I was so sure of this was the sheer absence of THAT number in my life, which cropped up at irregular intervals in my life as if the universe was letting me know I was on the right path. There were still a few occurrences when I was home visiting for the summer. But in China, nada. Which I found remarkable in itself.

There was one incidence a while ago…

I don’t often tell people about my 27 obsession, for fear of sounding slightly bonkers. But I did tell a girl I met recently. Most Chinese people are, by nature, quite practical and pragmatic. So this girl was instantly sceptical, and put it all down to coincidence. A fair point. But she was as surprised as I was when I pointed out the date on which we were having that particular conversation, which I hadn’t realized until that moment. It was 27th October.

A couple of months ago job opportunity came up in London. It was the kind of job opportunity I had been waiting my entire life for. Without needing to be asked twice I ripped up my teaching contract and booked a flight from Changsha back to the UK, via Beijing, where I planned to say goodbye to an old friend.

On the way from my apartment to Changsha airport, the number 27 came back with a vengeance. Suddenly, it was everywhere. The taxi I was travelling in was stuck behind a bus for much of the journey, which had the number 27 in its license plate almost as if leading us through the traffic. At one point the taxi stopped at some traffic lights. I glanced out of the window and saw a shop I hadn’t noticed before. The shop was called ‘I Am 27.’

Quick as a flash, I snapped a picture.

DSCN3593

The journey continued, and later that day I found myself in Beijing. My friend wanted to visit a particular restaurant in the Hou Hai area. I agreed. The restaurant was one of those places where you order food at the counter and are then assigned a table number. Yep. You guessed it, our table number was number 27. To my mind, another sign that I was on the right track.

Another photo opportunity.

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When I arrived in London one of the first things on my agenda was getting a new smartphone. I went to Carphone Warehouse. There, I chose a phone and could then select a number. The first number on the computer-generated on-screen list ended in 27. It wasn’t the only number available, there was a whole page and probably more. But the fact that this one was first struck me as significant. Naturally, I took it.

Another intrinsic number in my life, for many reasons, is number 9. Number 9 is, of course, 3×3, 3 being the original Magic Number. 3x3x3 is… 27

The office where I work is on the 9th floor.

My new address, however, is not number 9. Nor is it number 27. Its number 229. If you subtract 2 from 29 you get…

Of course, you could argue that the only reason my mind picks out all these 27’s is that I am consciously looking for them, and you may have a point, but still, there are an awful lot of 27’s in my life. I’m always on the lookout for the next sign post…


Going Back to China.

Back to work in a few days. Bummer. Goodbye friends and family, hello unknown.

On September 1st I have to get up at 06.30, travel to Cardiff by car, get a coach to Heathrow airport (London), take a long-haul flight to Shanghai PuDong airport, get a public bus to Shanghai Hongqiao airport, take a domestic flight to Changsha, and hopefully meet up with a representative from my new school who will then drive me to my apartment on the outskirts of the city.

All in all the journey will take around 28 hours I guess, providing I make all the connections and don’t die in a fireball somewhere.

I’ll be honest, the thought is a little daunting. Before a long journey I get apprehensive. So many things can go wrong. Adding to my trepidation is the fact that I am starting a new job in a new school in a new area. I have been doing this for 5 or 6 years now, and it seems I spend most of my life ‘settling in’ and walk around in a permanent state of mild culture shock.    

I work as an ESL teacher in China, which I will blog more about in the future (I pwomise!). I don’t pretend to be a real teacher. My job basically amounts to entertaining disinterested Chinese university students and being the token ‘foreign expert,’ that gives an educational establishment added credibility. I actually have a foreign experts certificate issued by the Chinese government which assures me that I am, indeed, an expert at being foreign.

People who pursue this pseudo-career are usually faced with three employment options:

1: Volunteer work. This, in my book, is an instant no-no and geared toward exploiting graduates who need work experience. The parents invariably pay the schools, so why should the foreign teachers be expected to work for free?

2: Private schools. These offer a higher salary, usually 10-13,000 RMB (£1000 – 1300) a month, sometimes more, but you have to work up to 40-hours a week and usually have to pay for your own apartment, transport and everything else. In short, its like having a real job.

3: State-run educational establishments (schools, colleges and universities). These offer a lower salary (on average around 5000 – 6000 RMB, or £500 – 600) but as part of a ‘package’ that also includes a fully-furnished apartment, travel expenses, visa fees, health insurance, return flights back to your country of origin, bonuses, and sometimes even phone, internet and utility bills. The main advantage is a much lower workload, and lengthy summer and winter holidays. It isn’t difficult to pick up extra part-time work to make up the difference in salary if one is so inclined.

Having experienced both sides of the coin, I decided long ago that option three suited my needs better, mainly because the general life hassles are minimized and I get a lot more free time. During the 2-month winter holiday I usually do some travelling around mainland China, and in the summer (when I often change schools, and sometimes cities) I go back to Wales to spend time with friends and family.

During the holidays is when I can apply myself fully to writing. I don’t pretend to be a professional.  I’m semi-pro at best. I don’t make much money teaching, and I make far less writing. But one thing I have learned on this epic journey is that life is about much more than money. It is a sad fact that if I made more I would undoubtedly waste it on stuff I don’t need. A truly fulfilling life should focus more on personal happiness, freedom, independence, setting and achieving goals, and making a difference.

Chris Jay of Army of Freshmen once said, “If experience can be considered a currency, then I am a rich man.”

And I agree.

Probably the worst thing about living and working in the PRC, apart from the general weirdness of it all, is the government-sanctioned internet censorship. Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, You Tube and most blogging sites, including WordPress, are blocked, which makes social networking a constant game of cat n mouse. For this reason, combined with my own general laziness, my blogging over the next nine months or so may be a little sporadic, so please try to stick with me!

 

 


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