An empty train station, pollution and a fake Apple Store

This week has been much better than last week. No emergency last minute lesson plans and my classes went pretty much to plan with students largely doing what I’d instructed them to do. For the first time I’m really starting to feel that I’m becoming an actual teacher imparting knowledge to people and facilitating their learning.
Yesterday Rob, Alistair and I went to the very northern metro stop, Bei Ka Zhan, just to look around and to see if we could escape the pollution that chokes the city. If anything, the pollution was worse. But we did find a big new railway station, Xi’an North, that I think will eventually have high speed trains to Beijing and Shanghai. Coming up from the metro platforms, the huge scale of this new development became apparent. The ticket hall just for the metro station is vast. In a similar style to Canary Wharf tube station in London, but with gleaming marble floors. Oh, and it’s about five times the size. Above that are 20-odd platforms for mainline trains, and above those an airport style terminal building about the same size as Stansted airport’s terminal building. Despite the grandeur, the only listed train departures were to Zhongzhou, and there were trains only about every half an hour.

The scale of these buildings brings me neatly on to my next point, the pollution here. The mainline station terminal building is so big and the air quality so bad that the pollution haze was visible inside the building. Outside the terminal I could just make out three tower blocks about half a kilometre away, almost entirely obscured by the thick smog. Down in the metro station, and looking along the length of the main concourse the pollution was again visible. Photos of the new station are on flickr, and the indoor smog is visible in them. One of the photos is heavily edited to try to bring out the aforementioned tower blocks.

After a month here I would have forgotten what a blue sky and clouds look like, except every promotional photo on every leaflet or billboard or brochure has a brilliant blue sky and puffy white clouds. Some are obviously photoshopped badly with a recognisable line between the sky and objects on the ground, while the rest must be photoshopped quite well because I can’t think when they could have been taken otherwise.

After the north station we went to the centre of Xi’an near the bell tower to look for a bookshop on Dong Da Jie with an English section. Before the bookshop I spotted an Apple Store and thought that’d be useful if my computer ever goes wrong. Then, remembering stories about ‘fake’ Apple Stores in China and that there are only five official Apple Stores in the country, I did a double take. I had to check it out. With my suspicious senses heightened we crossed the road to take a closer look. Seeing the store up close, my suspicions were confirmed.

From the outside it looks well done. It has large plate-glass windows and fairly standard Apple window display items, and it claims to be an Apple Store. From the outside it even looks like there’s one of Apple’s signature glass staircases. But the street outside still has cracked or missing paving stones and even an electricity substation obscuring part of the front of the building. Apple works with local authorities to make sure the street outside their stores is in good condition. Entering the store, at first glance it again looks legitimate. Except all the display items have black curly security cords, which I’ve never seen used in any Apple Store, the staircase uses structural steel, and the product displays are cluttered and not well focussed. The floor was polished stone, not the matt stone used in Apple Stores. The staff wore blue Apple-branded shirts with the standard lanyards worn by staff in legitimate Apple stores. It’s so well done that as I write this I’m still not 100 percent sure that it is fake, but checking the Apple china website confirms that there is no store in Xi’an. Some photos are on flickr.

After the “Apple Store” we went to the bookshop and found the English shelf. Alistair and Rob each bought a couple of weighty textbooks to learn Mandarin, while I bought the Dorling Kindersley book 15 Minute Chinese. Apparently in just 12 weeks of studying for just 15 minutes a day I’ll be able to ‘speak and understand Mandarin Chinese with confidence.’ I’ll report back in March…

On Monday night me and a few teachers went again to our regular restaurant on Barbecue Street. It was 9:30 by the time we got there, and I think they were about to close. Normally we order by pointing at the photos in the menu and the waitress writes down what we want, but this time the waitress refused to write our order and gave us the pad and pen. We chose what we wanted and I laboriously copied out the Chinese characters as best I could before passing the pad back to the waitress. We received what we hoped we’d ordered, but thinking back I’m sure the restaurant didn’t want our business so late in the evening and the waitress was hoping we would go away when faced with the challenge of writing Chinese characters ourselves just to order food. At another table Dave and Nick, two other western teachers from my school, were eating with Phoebe, one of the Chinese teaching assistants. They’d arrived earlier and were about to leave, but Phoebe found my attempt at writing Chinese hilarious, as she does my attempts at eating with chopsticks.

Whenever I’ve eaten in the same group as Phoebe, she’s laughed at me using chopsticks. I’ve used chopsticks back home in London plenty of times, and have always managed just fine. At first Phoebe was laughing at how I held (past tense) my chopsticks. So I learnt the Chinese way. Now I’m using chopsticks the Chinese way just fine and rarely have ‘oops’ moments. But Phoebe always finds something chopstick related to laugh at me about. On Sunday a group of us were eating at another local restaurant. Phoebe was quietly giggling at me dropping a piece of Tang Cu Liji, and as one of the dishes had peanuts in, she decided to show off by picking up a peanut with her chopsticks. Except she dropped it, so I laughed at her. The dish was promptly passed to me to try the same feat, and fortunately I managed just fine. One-nil!

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