Saturday, 8 December 2018

The Night Shift in Beijing

It's 00:38 in Beijing. The grey breathiness of air conditioning permeates the hotel lobby where I sit, tapping at my laptop. I have spent the past three hours marking assignments. To my left, an eerie deathmask gestures at me for silence from a bookshelf, and a humidifier exhales steam silently. There are two charming hotel staff at the faux-marble desk to my right, occasionally chatting; apart from these, the lobby is silent as the proverbial tomb. Perhaps more silent, since I'm pretty sure tombs get lots of creaking and settling noises.

To cut a long story short, I'm locked out of my hotel room.

I'm confident this is accidental, my betrothed having retired to our twin room when I started marking in the hotel café. The door isn't exactly locked - I've got the key - but the security bar was over the door, preventing it from opening more than two inches. Alas, it's also an actually good one, which even one of my slender wrist and flexible roomcard cannot flip open. So I have returned, somewhat ignominiously, to the lobby.

Explaining this situation is one of the weirder things I've had to do so far in China, but at least (once the idea was grasped) they have been sympathetic and helpful. Thankfully there's a toilet here and some comfy chairs. They offered to try and get me in, but on balance I decided staying up really late (until it's technically early, in fact) was preferable to waking my intended wife with the sound of splintering wood in a strange hotel in a distant city. She is a gentle soul and easily alarmed, and I would hate to upset her.

Right, let's see what we can get done tonight...

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

The First Fortnight

I have been in China a little under a month, but more importantly, I've now completed my first fortnight of teaching. Somehow.

The first few lessons were inevitably tough, but I feel like I do at least have some idea what I'm doing now. I've had the chance to clarify some really important things, like:

  • "What is the actual content you are expecting them to have learned in this course?" (A: Important issues like that are why we recruited foreign experts; you decide)
  • "how many students are in the class?" (A: at least twice as many, in all cases, as you were told to expect)
  • "how am I supposed to assess them?"

There are a lot of unresolved issues to deal with. I'm racking up incredible bills on my UK mobile, since I need to turn on roaming intercontinental data daily for vital things like checking vocabulary, navigating and getting fairly-constant messages from my employers. I still don't have my long-term work permit, which means I can't open a bank account, which means I can't get a Chinese mobile account, which means I can't register for basically any Chinese services because the government demands real-ID linking for most things and nobody accepts foreign mobile numbers.

The syllabuses were provided a couple of days before classes began, so I didn't have much time to prepare. Let's be honest; my first classes were outright bad. I like to think I improved quickly, but it's very much a case of frantically running to get ahead of myself, since I have even more classes starting soon.

It's the end of summer here, and I am only glad to have escaped "the hot part". I'm still constantly aware of just how warm it is for my delicate rain-fed constitution. Like wading through hot fog, or fumbling through a warehouse filled with heated silks; there’s a physical presence to the heat.

The combination of jetlag, workload, and the general mental pressure of coping with so many things at once has left me pretty exhausted most of the time, so let's call this one done for now.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

A change of career

Ten years is a long time, from a certain perspective.

Ten years and six months ago, I deposited my ID and left the building with that unique relief that comes from freedom.

If you’ve ever spent six months in the twisting out-of-town lair of a multinational credit card company, sat with a thousand other nobodies in a gargantuan drone-hall that is merely a fraction of the corporate sprawl; wearily tabbing between PDF and ungainly in-house system as you enter the meagre figures from raw, humiliating debt repayment proposals so they can be summarily rejected by the algorithms that dance for your soulless masters; subject to the same endlessly-looping company radio in any room or corridor you enter, as your mind slowly devolves into gruel; watching exploited colleagues on temporary minimum-wage contracts delude themselves into machismotic displays of break-skipping self-sacrifice before being summarily laid off as backlogs clear; passing from inky autumn morning to clinical fluorescence and back to the darkness of early evenings; finding respite only in the nigh-religious ritual of breaking free each noon for an hour of honest air and tranquillity regardless of thundering rain or bone-chilling cold, and granting atrophying muscles a desolate circuit of the palace of Mammon; finally slipping free of the uncaring hand and striding out into the heady air of freedom – well, you’ll know what I mean.

Why no, I haven't slept more than two hours before writing this. Why do you ask, imaginary made-up person?

In that particular case, I was departing for a voluntary teaching placement in China. During a previous job I’d noticed an advert for volunteers willing to teach at universities in China, and having studied linguistics (amongst other things) and enjoyed the TEFL module I took, this seemed like an interesting opportunity. Expensive, like a lot of these things, but worth it. I did a lot of research and took the plunge, so thankfully the aforementioned six months was leavened by knowing I had an out.

So in March 2008 I nervously set off for Xi’an, Shaanxi, central China. Home of the Terracotta Warriors and, of more personal interest, one of the places my dad had visited in the late 1980s as an invited lecturer, when China was beginning to open up more to foreigners.

That particular trip is another story for another time. Suffice it to say: it happened, there were ups and downs, and moved on to my next job with the vague feeling that TEFL wasn’t something I desperately wanted to continue with.

Seven years and a bit later, in Sheffield, I signed up for a language exchange scheme at the Confucius Institute, where I was partnered with a lady who turned out to be from Xi’an.

A bit shy of three more years later, I am preparing to leave my job in Sheffield and move to Xi’an, where I’ve been offered a place as an English-and-associated-stuff teacher in Xidian University. This will involve a huge amount of time, effort, emotional exhaustion, and indeed money. On the other hand, I’ll be able to hug my girlfriend without using an emoji.

Plus, maybe I can finally get another bowl of 鸡汤刀削面…

P.S. September 1st: The last year or so have been a soup of repeated minor illness, family stuff, work stuff and the huge amount of time that this move has required. Hopefully this will explain the complete dearth of posts recently. Hope to get back to it now I've actually hit Xi'an, but I do have entire courses to write, so who knows?

Thursday, 6 April 2017

April updates

I just wanted to flag up that there are quite a few posts queued up to finish, as I've been on a trip this spring. However, I'm currently adjusting to some new medication and have very little energy, so I imagine it'll be a while before I get to finish and post them. Apologies for the delay.

PROTIP: If you're missing your extremely irregular dose of this blog, you can soften the blow by looking at a picture of some cherry blossom while complaining at great length about inadequate bread.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

China 2017: Reunion

The visit to Xi'an was a big deal for many reasons. One of these was a chance to finally reunite with my old housemate, Squirrel. She works in Beijing, but we'd agreed to meet up and she was flying into Xi'an.

Due to some aforementioned problems, things didn't work out as planned. Squirrel had also been hit by delays, forcing her to arrive for a one-day visit rather than the intended long weekend. Meanwhile, the combination of sleeplessness and jetlag had left me with the curious sensation of having had my internal organs, skeleton and musculature replaced, in their entirety, with some sort of dough. Like a fairy-tale doll, lovingly crafted by a childless artisan and awakened to miraculous life by the touch of a passing sprite - one who blends the Johnsonesquely-inept bumbling of modern lore with the disconcertingly-amoral whimsicality of older tales - I moved as one to whom the human body is a new and troubling thing. Feet dragged. Arms moved with enebriate care, guided by a brain whose cogs whirred as slowly as the mills of God. My eyes had a tendency to drift shut even while walking, giving the outward impression that I was always listening to some quiet inner voice guiding my steps for an inscrutable purpose of its own.

Nevertheless, we finally met and there was much rejoycing. Also much apologizing (for blamemess lateness on her part, and for inability to use brain and so forth on mine). Our first priority, near enough, was to find a place to chat and also sustenance. For my part, extremely caffeinated sustenance.

Fancy cakes in the fancy cake shop. This one disconcerts me.

Additional fanciness.

Thank the geese and lizards, a purveyor of caffeinated beverages. My quest is at an end.

You might reasonably wonder why I have this photo. Look closely.

If you zoom in and read the writing on those cups, you'll notice a curious thing. The one on the left is mine. The one on the right is Squirrel's.

That's right. One of these cups has supposedly been made in the UK! This is very perplexing. Not least because the default assumption is that things like this are made in China, to be honest. But consider - if so, how did it get here? Does a factory in the UK churn out paper cups specially to be sent to China, where they can definitely be produced at a lower cost? If so, why are only some of the cups made in the UK? Is China somehow restricted to making only shorter cups, perhaps because they only have small cup-making machines? Do the staff carry out secret and extremely swift research, carefully matching customers to a country-of-origin cup from a comprehensive catalogue of international stock secreted away in a basement, as part of an elaborate mind game?

A Walk around the Walls

The caffeine proved largely ineffective, but still, it was better than nothing and gave us a nice chance to talk. We decided to follow up by actually letting Squirrel have a look around the city; and how better to do that than a stroll around the walls?

The moat surrounding the old city centre. Actually the second old city centre, since the original city of Chang'an was devastated and a much smaller version was rebuilt. After construction in 582, Chang'an was the largest city in the world! 84km2 within the city walls. After it got steamrollered during the Ming dynasty, it was rebuilt in 1370 at a mere 12km2. On the plus side this is much more convenient to walk around.

I'm not sure about the sticks, in both senses: what they're for, and whether they're a good idea. As far as I can tell they're purely decorative, since they weren't there most of the rest of the year! As an accessory, they look okay, but not stunning. Moreover, because of the repair work being done at the time, the pavement was already greatly reduced by the construction zone (you can see a barrier to the left of the pic) so these things sticking out everywhere didn't help much. There was a lot of stopping to let people squeeze past.

The man standing on the fence is part of a bucket chain (well, a big sign chain) helping to pass these huge boards over into the construction area. This is 建, which is related to construction, so it's probably just something about building works.

As they often do, a group of enthusiasts were practicing traditional music near the city gates. I have never managed to quite get used to traditional Chinese music; it's interesting, but as with Chinese architecture and so on, I don't have enough background and exposure to appreciate it. I can sit and listen for a while, but the differences from more familiar Western music are still a little jarring. But let's be fair, there are many types of Western music that I also don't like and wouldn't sit around for! This is not an isolated phenomenon of Chinese. Hopefully one day I'll learn to properly enjoy it.

This is just a hotel that has managed to impress me with its striking appearance. I bet they're well chuffed. Popping the champagne corks, elbowing each other and going "this is it, gang, we finally cracked the big time, that bloke said on his blog that our building is quite good!

As you can see, rather tight in places!

Park Life

After a while, the construction work largely blocked off both the walls and the pavement. Getting tired of awkwardly making our way through (some of us more awkward than others, and also not clearly registering his surroundings) we ducked into a small park on the south-western corner of the city walls.

I just like the visual effect. There are huge numbers of these bikes around the city, from a variety of companies with no compatability whatsoever, which is deeply inconvenient for the people who want to use them. Hooray, free market?

Here's the park, or the bit of it that isn't being ripped out and rebuilt.

I enjoy the look of disturbed-yet-restrained alarm on this statue's face. "Uuuuuuuuh guys I think we should leave right now okay?" as it beholds the gelatinous, fractal Thing emerging from the cellar door they carelessly left open.

The moat bank is being rebuilt.

This area has a lot of restaurants, many of them with pretty groovy designs.

Around this time I began to dimly realise we were actually in a park I'd visited years ago. My barely-functioning brain was excited but also bewildered by this.

We ducked briefly into this side passage, which leads to a number of more traditional-aesthetic restaurants.

A memory! I recalled this giant set of noodle-eating chopsticks from my first visit 10 years back, which means I've been in the park before. That time, I'm pretty sure I saw kids (and one of my fellow volunteers) sliding down a bridge.

Pensioners painting hanzi with water and giant brushes, yep, it all comes back to me.

In this corner of the park is a sad cautionary tale. Many years ago, a vengeful spirit arose near the walls of Xi'an, bringing misfortune to the local families. The spirit had a particular dislike of children, apparently despising their youth and liveliness in contrast to its own withered existence. A group of children defied their parents' warnings and stayed out late, picnicking on cold noodles and playing music; even singing songs mocking the spirit and daring it to chase them. As night fell, the spirit burst upon them and laid a dreadful curse, turning the children to nothing but bronze statues in an instant.

Although widely felt to be excessive, this regrettably fell within the scope of local bylaws and thus nothing could be done. The spirit was persuaded to take up residence in a mountain cave some distance away, where it would be left in peace, and the statues are tended to by the groundskeepers to this day.

Or possibly they are a group of bronze statues, but I mean, come on, I'm struggling to suspend my disbelief. Why would someone put a bunch of bronze statues in a park?

Nearby we found one of the common sights of the city, a group of people practicing dancing. This happens a lot - there are several groups who meet to dance on the university campus at night, by which I mean just out on the courtyard, not in a building or anything. The shopping plaza nearby has a veritable motley of competing dance classes every night. It's one of the things I enjoy about being in China. It can be noisy, and even annoying if you're trying to listen to something else; but compare it to the kind of drunken noisiness of a typical British city centre of an evening, or indeed a UK campus, and I know which I prefer.

The crowds are observing with intense keenness

One of the things I can't quite get over is how big everything is. China is massive, and everything in it is massive, it sometimes feels like. The serried ranks of tower blocks, marching in their legions across the landscape, are a very prominent aspect of this.

An orchard of apartment buildings, which look set to bring a fine crop come harvest-time.

Still time for planting more! A flat-farmer's work is never done.

At last, to our regret, the night drew on and it was time for Squirrel to leave. I was very sorry to see her go, and felt immensely guilty for having been a barely-comprehensible, mumbling, detached observer for most of the day. She didn't blame me for it, but it was a real shame not to make better use of a very rare opportunity.

My brain was, however, very glad of the prospect of being allowed, finally, to commend itself to the infinite abyss of sleep. We bid our farewells and promised to visit when we are in Beijing (which is bound to happen sooner or later, though it's hard to plan!) and reluctantly allowed her to go. Then, my dear TT kindly led me back to the hotel, pointed me in the direction of my room, and I lurched and stumbled and generally incompetenced my way, somehow, into the welcome embrace of a quilt.

"in the cosmos there is balm as well as bitterness, and that balm is nepenthe", but it turns out a hefty tog duvet offers a pretty good substitute when nepenthe is in short supply.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

China 2017: Muslim Quarter

When last we left our very unheroic hero, he had arrived in Xi'an a full day late, without sleeping, appallingly jetlagged, and in the early stages of adjusting to powerful mind-affecting medication, to find his hotel politely reporting they had never heard of him.

Well, you may say. Well. Well, well. Um. I mean, I had definitely made a booking, and had money taken for the booking, and I have a fair amount of confidence that STA Travel weren't scamming me.* On the other hand, these nice people couldn't find a record of my booking or payment. What a conundrum, you might say; rather a pickle, isn't it?

*they had of course used an intermediary, and in theory they could have been scamming me; but I was far too tired, nauseous and language-shocked to think of that.

Obviously I'm not about to do anything outrageous, like throw a tantrum, or burst into floods of tears, or demand to speak to the manager, or proclaim that I was being treated appallingly, or threaten to write to the Telegraph, or insist that they give me a room, or suggest that they might be wrong, or imply in any way that they might personally be at fault, or look cross, or sigh heavily. I must confess I do at one stage raise one eyebrow and show them my booking printout, but in my defence, I am very tired and assume this was all some simple misunderstanding, and no actual injury was intended; though I do of course later send an anonymous basket of flowers.

Anyway, I look sheepish and tug my right earlobe a couple of times, and apologise several times for troubling them, and murmur in an embarrassed way that there seems to have been some kind of mistake. These moments are when you realise you're abroad, because this does not send the entire staff into a frenzy of anxious activity; nor does a grizzled veteran named Pam or Tom emerge from a secret abode, plonk a brick-red cuppa down on the desk and stare thoughtfully at my passport for a minute, before rummaging in a hitherto-unnoticed drawer and producing a document that explains and resolves the whole affair. In Japan, too, this behaviour would probably have caused the silent flaring of emergency lights in a back room, from whence a crack team of customer service marines would have sallied forth to deal with the seething client before any kind of rampage could ensue. In China, for some incomprehensible reason, they appear to take my mild demeanour and friendly tone as an indication that I'm not stressed or irate about the latest in a string of exhausting failures, and we can discuss the whole situation at length.

My Chinese is definitely not up to this. I have probably never been happier to have a native speaker on hand to help. Between us we relay information back and forth for a good fifteen minutes, comparing different screens and sets of paperwork - I dig out my laptop and fire that up in case it helped (it didn't). Eventually they offer to give me the room, since I do seem to have all the right information, for which I assume HT's silver tongue and obvious trustworthiness is responsible. Personally I tend to have more of a "police are anxious to speak to this Caucasian male seen in the area" vibe. I agree to email my travel agent and ask them to provide more information so we can resolve this in the morning; one of those occasions where the 8-hour time difference causes problems!

After my very late arrival, HT suggests we go for a walk. We head to the nearby city centre; it has a concentration of interesting historical areas that I remember well from my previous trip. The sun is slipping lower in the sky, casting soft yellow light.

Here's my route: you can sort of follow along, although China and Google maps don't play well, so I suggest you use Baidu maps instead for street view exploring.

The underpass that encircles the heart of the Old City


Left: The central square by the Xi'an Bell Tower. Right: Archival footage! I took this back in 2008, at the same Starbucks. The lady is Joanne, who was on another volunteer programme. One day I'll get around to blogging about that trip...

Looking up towards the Bell Tower.

I believe this is a hotel and/or restaurant in the Bell Tower Square. Left: 2017. Right: A view from the bridge in 2008.

This man is creating elaborate pictures inside a bottle by very careful application of sand.

How many different kinds of shop is this? And more importantly, why? I count: shoes, bubble tea, whole coconuts, and dried fish products. There's nothing wrong with that, it's just... not a combination I would have predicted, you know?

Muslim Quarter

This district has a high concentration of Muslim residents; I assume this partly relates to Xi'an's historical role in the Silk Road, bringing traders from across Eurasia. It has all kinds of stalls and shops, and is a hotspot in the evenings. I've heard it's also a hotspot for pickpockets, so as an exhausted tourist I try to take good care.

It's also busy most of the time, day and night. There are plenty of souvenir shops here was well, and an excitingly windy covered market; but this time we don't go in there.

This is not particularly busy by the standards of the street.

Quite a lot of the stalls are dedicated to food. Below is an artisan making traditional sweets, kneading and stretching and twisting dough hung on a hook. It will be cut up and rolled in various combinations of nuts, spices, sugar and other flavourings. On the left you can see deep-fried squid and crustaceans, which are eaten like a lollipop.

These ladies run a sweet stall - quite a popular one as you can tell by the number of staff.

After a wander round, HT takes me for a meal. She recommends a regional delicacy called Majiang Liangpi (麻酱凉皮, Májiàng liángpí). These are cold noodles, served with a sauce based around black sesame. I try some, because it's not like I get the opportunity often. Unfortunately, between exhaustion and the unfamiliar taste, I find I'm not able to eat very much. I know sesame paste is one of the more acquired tastes in Chinese cooking, so I'd like to try and get used to it.

I think the green place in the centre is the entrance to the restaurant, but it's hard to be sure.

This is the upper part of just one of the buildings that line the Muslim Quarter. There are lots of these striking buildings near the city centre. I love the architecture.

As the evening sets in, it starts to get busy - people are finishing work, or deciding to head out with the children, and congregating here to take advantage of all the food stalls.

We decide to call it an evening, and HT kindly escorts me back to the hotel. On the way I take this photo, to help show off the sheer sense of vastness that I always get in China - the cities are so big, so tall, and although Japan was similar in some ways, Xi'an also has (unusually?) some big wide open spaces that highlight it even more. I suppose the areas of clustered tall buildings have a claustrophobic feel, whereas when there's a break in them, it gives you the space to more fully grasp the size of what you're dealing with?

I got way too attached to this function.