A land of contradictions
23.09.2006 - 22.03.2007
It’s hard to know what to write about my stay in China as this is just a Blog. I have mixed feelings about the country and it’s people but I did enjoy my time there despite only a little travel. So what I will show you is two parts of a book I am writing about my stay in China that I will finish one day (he kids himself). If you manage to read it all and want more then I should have a full Photoshoped version I can send you.
I’m sat at a desk in my room watching TV and eating cake here in China. But as I’ve discovered both here and in Japan, it’s easy to forget you’re in a whole other country. Although it doesn’t take much to remind you where you really are.
This piece was written after a 6 month stay in Tianjin, a city an hour and a half train journey south of Beijing. In brief my stay here is best summed up with the phrase Culture Shock. I will try to write with this in consideration and not fill it with mind numbing banalities.
I will start this report with how I started off here in the P.R.C. This is the first email I sent in China after I got settled in Tianjin.
Hello to all, this will be my last group email, after that I will try email you all individually.
I’ve finally got the Internet in my apartment so I have updated my website. Please take a look at my new photo’s (nothing exciting but it might help).
I guess I will start with my current situation. I live alone in a big apartment about a 15 min walk from work. It’s quite nice inside with a double bed (no futons in this country). The time difference is still 7 or 8 hours, so it's half past 9 now. I have a big Sony TV and a DVD player. There is a kitchen and living area too. I met my landlord the other day and he nearly killed us with a fan. I pointed to the ceiling fan for him to show me how to work it and he turned the dial on the wall. It was a bit wobbly and I tried to tell him so, but he kept turning the dial. Suddenly it just fell to the ground with a big thud about a meter in front of us. I was shocked and he just casually walked over to check it didn’t damage his floor!!!!!
That pretty much sums up the Chinese work ethic (its not about the people or service, its about going to work and getting through the day). In Japan this situation would be followed with apologies and an "are you ok" and some gesture to replace the fan. This guy just said "bu fan" - "no fan" basically meaning "oh well... tough luck"
Also the shower is right next to the toilet so everything gets wet, the water pressure sucks really bad, and the drain is small so the floor also gets very wet so you have to wait for it to dry before you can go back in and there is the most awful smell that emanates from the drain in the shower which fills the apartment with the smell of what I assume must be half the whole apartments human waste.
The buildings in a good location for things I need and has a nice river next to it but the building itself is dirty and you have to jump on the floor in the halls to get the light to come on. It’s also noisy.
All the same I’m happy with my apartment. I’m living in Tianjin (a big city) with lots of history. I haven’t looked around much because I've been very busy with work and setting up my new life here. But what I’ve seen is both great and awful. I can’t seem to make any judgements yet as it’s too early to say but they are mixed if I have any. Chinese cities are dirty, in disrepair, smelly (really smelly), crowded, and smoggy BUT, there are some really cool buildings, good facilities, efforts to make newer cleaner and more modern areas. I think there will be a good future for China.
The people are amazed by the presence of any foreigner even in a big city like this one. When I walk I must check I’m not naked or have an alligator on my head because that’s the impression you get as everyone gawps at you. They still spit as often as they wish (all the time), everyone drives like their only son is in the car bleeding to death and they must get to the hospital at all costs (in other words they're crazy) but the pedestrians are the same. The red and green stop signs are just a guide and are not taken seriously AT ALL!! I age one-year everytime I try to cross one of the many huge roads here. On the other hand they are friendly. One woman rang my doorbell to point out my keys were still in the lock on the outside and my students are really nice and helpful. In fact we just had a party at my school to celebrate autumn day and I played guitar for them and lots of other people sang and played games and we ate lots of moon cake.
There is allot of bike theft and I think crime in general and there are allot more security measures than in Japan. Speaking of Japan they do not like the Japanese (with good reason) but I think they must try a little harder to move on and forget the horrible past (same goes for Japan).
The currency is difficult to grasp for me. The highest note isn’t that high and there are many notes and coins (including old and new versions). They check notes very carefully to make sure they are not counterfeit (and I mean REALLY carefully).
Restaurants don’t really serve meals for one so you can’t go alone unless you want a big plate of one thing. The food I’ve had is great.
My school is called Witty international and it’s a Private language school like Nova (which means more money and better facilities). I’m paid well but work full time (40 hours). The schools much better than nova as I have more control of the lessons, I have my own computer in an office to prepare and organise myself, The building is really cool looking, the staff are great and the students are wonderful, we can see students out of school (which I’ve already done) and just chat to them around the school as they often stay there and study on computers or in the Conversation room. There are about 8 teachers altogether and some of them are part time. I am the youngest teacher by about 8 years but they are all nice. I plan to be there for 6 months and then change locations.
Oh, and I also get 2 free cooked meals a day and we have a water cooler.
I have 4 days holiday for the moon festival starting this Sunday but I'm not sure what to do yet. I’ve seen the older part of the city and it was great, with many cool things to buy. I also did my first bit of bargaining the other day. I bought something for 25 yuan and the start price was 60. But this is not even that great, so I need to get practicing. I have tried tai chi and its REALLY REALLY hard to remember the moves. One of my student’s granddads taught me and some other people. It was fun!!
My first few days were a bit crazy as some of you already know but I will break it down for you:
Tuesday afternoon: fly to Beijing (4 hours) old plane and terrible food
Tuesday eve: picked up from airport by agency guy (Chinese) who was a really fun guy (but he was 2 hours late).
Tuesday night: taken to apartment in Beijing (really cool but under used) watched run Lola run, drank Qindao beer and slept
Wednesday morn: went to train station and travelled to Shijiazhuang (long journey). Had some trouble on the train but my Chinese agency guy sorted that out with some scary eye work. The station was crazy busy also.
Wed afternoon: taken to agency office, am there for 20 mins before going by car to some place an hour or so away for a wire mesh conference.
Wed eve: arrive at conference building and take a look around and meet up with many people doing likewise.
Wednesday night: go to nice hotel and have fancy banquet dinner and sleep
Thurs morn: taken to conference building for official opening as VIP Guest of honour. I wear a badge and flower and we got a tour of nearby factories and stand on stage for long speech.
Thurs aft: go around conference pretending to be a wire mesh sales rep and get a thousand and one brochures and business cards (was fun).
Thurs aft: go to another big banquet meal and eat duck tongue among other things and drink bai jou, which is pure evil spirit wine.
Thurs eve go back to agency office and start looking at contracts and speaking to schools
Thurs night: eat my own weight in dumplings, sleep in a dive of an apartment on a wooden bed
Fri morn: decide on witty school and am sent there by bus straight away (took 4 hours).
Fri aft: met at station by 2 lovely witty reps and shown apartment
Fri aft: taken to witty and sign contract
Fri eve: buy stuff for apartment, drink beer, and collapse from exhaustion
Sat aft: start work.
So that’s what the definition of busy is!!! It was allot better than it sounds and I was always safe and looked after by someone. Along the way I met some really nice people and fell in love with a French Canadian girl who I went to the conference with.
I can see why people cant live here but I think I’m gonna be ok. I’ve already had allot of fun and there still so much more to see and do. I will get many great souvenirs, climb the great wall (its in my city), make many Chinese friends, become a better teacher, learn Chinese and try understand this complex culture. I could easily ignore the bad things and tell you the easy nice version of what’s going on but I want to give you the entire real story so you can picture the real china. The same goes for my photos, so far they are the edited nice versions but soon I will start taking photos of everything surrounding me "the good, bad and real ugly".
I am still using this email address and my home phone number is: 0086-22-28275837 (I’m not sure if it works so give it a go, but remember the time difference). My address is:
Hexi Qu Long Du Hua Yuan 9-45-522 (but don’t use this as its not so safe) please send mail and goodies to my school address, which I will give you soon when I get it translated into pinyin (English alphabet).
Ok that’s it then, please stay in touch and send me English stuff for my students to see. zai jian.
The walk to work
I step out into my apartment hall, call the elevator and lock my brown metal door. There are 3 elevator shafts and two of then arrive at my floor (the 5th). While I wait patiently for one of them to arrive I can see the old dirty concrete floor and the broken white powdery walls. There are old rusty bikes in the halls and dusty air with the faint smell of cigarettes.
The elevator squeaks its way to my floor and stops with a clunk. I step in to find a few people, one with a bicycle who is smoking, so I have to squeeze my way in and choke on the rancid air. It’s a short journey down but it always seems longer.
I get to the bottom floor, make my way around the people waiting at the bottom and step outside. As I take in the sights of the new day I often see bikes piled against the plastered walls around my large apartment block, red plastic bins over-spilling with garbage pushed against the walls next to the entrance. The next thing you notice is the overpowering sewage smell from the canal alongside my apartment.
I walk out of my apartment block passing the usual parade of people young and old and a small stall selling seeds.
As I exit my block I walk through a small car park with broken, uneven paving slabs onto da gu nan lu. This is the main road that leads to work.
Before I reach the main road I have to cross the small road next to the canal being very careful not to be hit by the cyclists and walk through a small concrete area built for people to relax in a few months ago that was never finished and is never used.
As I reach the main road I cross the canal where you will often see some men simply sitting, doing nothing, for seemingly no reason. You may also be hit once again by the rotten smell from the canal.
The canal actually looks quite nice, with a few arch bridges and the reflections of the apartments on the waters surface. During winter this freezes and again has a nice quality to it.
I walk alone to work mostly and it takes about 15 minutes. I often have my small black bag over my shoulder to carry lunch, flash-disc and most importantly some toilet roll as stomach troubles are common and loo roll is not supplied in any Chinese toilets be they public or inside an office or restaurant.
It’s about this time I can fully assess the weather. Just past the bridge over the canal it’s possible to see my office building. I know from experience how clear the air is by how clearly I can see my building. The sky is often blue and there is very rarely rain during winter. This illusion of seemingly beautiful weather is ruined, by the thick smog that hugs the city day and night and rarely lets up.
As I continue walking I pass a 24-hour teashop, wu fu pastry, a few restaurants and reach KFC. KFC’s are widespread across the city and act as useful landmarks but the food leaves a sickly feeling in your stomach.
I continue further and will pass many people all on their way to work, school or to see a friend or family member. The age range is a mix of old and young but the habits are the same.
I keep an eye on the ground to avoid stepping in the many pools of spit on the pavement, broken paving, rubbish and large holes in the uneven sidewalk.
This pavement was not there when I arrived so the few hundred fellow pedestrians walked alongside and dusty metal fence poorly nailed to the road. This meant mixing with bikes and cars and stepping over the crooked fixing mounts. To increase the uneasy feeling this situation provided, some people would travel in the opposite direction, so you had to pay full attention making it a long and tiring journey.
Now the path is finished to some degree and is shared by pedestrians on foot and cyclists. It is made from small, grey, paving slabs that are constantly being pulled up and put back poorly, leaving deep dips in the walking surface. On the side is a wall with space for flowers and trees, which have yet to be planted, leaving just dry dirt. The wall itself is made from larger slabs and is quite badly damaged already and parts have been stolen.
As I get about half way on my left I can see the busy chaotic road and to my right rows of small shops and restaurants.
Another thing I keep my eye out for are mini tornados. They swarm all over the sidewalk and pick up the dust in ready supply and swirl it around blinding you, forcing you to cover your eyes and mouth. The dust comes mostly from the areas outside the rows of shops as they are not paved and are in fact just dirt. This is a major problem on the rare occasion it rains, with cars spinning their tyres and people ruining their shoes.
As I look down at my own shoes that I cleaned just this morning I can see that they are dusty already. But I’m used to this now and continue to sing along to my Walkman as I briskly walk on.
After a while I come to a wide crossing that I cross like everyone else, ignoring the lights and slowly making my way through the bikes and cars until I reach the other side.
I pass the xie wa fang subway entrance and carefully pass the bus station exit.
A short while later I pass some young school kids playing football with a cheap broken ball and come to a narrower stretch of sidewalk lined with shops. The most noticeable are a dumplings restaurant, a salon with towels drying in the dusty air outside on racks and bikes and another food outlet dispensing out of a small window. The smell here is revolting and you can see them mixing the dough outside the shop on this busy dirty street although business is good and they are as busy as always.
I’m close to work now and I pass another wide crossing opposite a large bookshop and a few more stores before turning right onto a small street with a primary school. This I know from the noise of screaming kids and mothers waiting outside, but to look at the old, black stained, plastered building you wouldn’t have a clue.
I’ve reached my building now and carefully cross. I now must decide which entrance to use as they change often or are closed. I choose the underground car park entrance and make my way down a ramp. I enter corridor with a low ceiling and go up a flight of stairs into the main reception area with the elevators.
It’s filled with people waiting and a few of them put out their cigarettes and spit in the bin as they do so. There are four elevators and two of them go to the 27th floor where my school is, but one of them is broken today so we are forced to compete. Everyone crowds the doors as they wait for it to come down and rush in before the other’s have a chance to get out.
I came too late to get in this one and must wait a few minutes for the next one. But I cant just zone out now as I have to get in a good position near the doors or my spot will be taken by the constant steam of over office workers trying to get to work on time.
I get inside the elevator and am pushed to the back. It’s new and clean but the sweaty smell of the other people and the rudeness displayed make it tough.
Eventually I arrive on my floor and walk into work.