Banking Bureaucracy

Another week another blog. Just like how in my early posts I always moaned about being ill, it’s now becoming a bit of a theme that I’ll start a blog post lamenting that I haven’t got anything interesting to write about.
The past week has been pretty standard. Work from Friday through to Tuesday, and occasionally going out for the odd (non-alcoholic) drink in the evenings. Yesterday it rained again and now everything is nice and clean and fresh. After last week, when we were experiencing a cold snap, it has warmed up considerably. The sun is struggling its way through the pollution, the trees and bushes are just starting to come out with green buds, almost no one is wearing a coat and for the first time I’ve heard birds chirping away while fluttering between the trees. Spring is definitely here.

I’ve now been here long enough that I’ve saved a bit of money; enough that it’s worth sending it back home to my account in the UK to save without the risk that I’ll accidentally spend it on something unnecessary. So this morning I went with Jennifer, the school’s admin assistant, to the bank to transfer [an undisclosed sum of money] back to my UK account. Apparently it’s only possible to transfer money overseas from the Bank of China, but my Chinese account is with the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank. First we went to the Bank of China to see if it’s possible to send it from my SPD Bank account directly. It isn’t. I have to give the money to the Bank of China in cash. But, as there’s a daily limit on the amount of cash I can withdraw at a non-SPD Bank ATM we had to go to the nearest SPD Bank to withdraw the money in cash.

I can’t remember the last time, if ever, that I’ve held so much money in cash before, although maybe when I worked at a computer shop in my student days and someone would pay in cash I might have held a similar value. Except the highest value note in the UK is £50, while in China it’s ¥100 (about £10) so this felt like a lot more money. After walking the couple of blocks back to the Bank of China with a huge wad of cash, Jennifer found out what we needed to do next. We could only send the money from a Bank of China account, so Jennifer had to open a new bank account. Since I’ll only need to send money home maybe once more, but Jennifer will in future assist many more western staff members in transferring money back home, she opened the account in her name and we paid in the [undisclosed amount]. Then we had to convert the balance from RMB into GBP. The Bank of China gave a pretty good rate – I only lost about £2 in the conversion against the actual current market rate.

Then we had to actually arrange the transfer. Twice Jennifer filled in the form wrong, but we got it right the third time. The lady behind the counter was very insistent that my name on the form had to be exactly as it is on my account in the UK, and we debated for about 10 minutes over whether my name includes “Mr”. In the end we decided that it does, as my statement from my UK account includes Mr, and we didn’t want to fill in the form for a fourth time. So then we were finished? Not quite. I still had to pay the transfer fee of ¥200 (£20). I though it would be taken out of the amount being transferred, but it had to be paid in cash as an additional fee. The problem was that I’d just handed over all my cash to be transferred to the UK, so I had to go to the ATM again to withdraw enough for the transfer fee.

In total it took about two hours. I’ve left myself enough money in my Chinese account to last until the next time I’m paid at the end of April if I spend only my daily budget and not any more. Unfortunately I’ve now realised that with the weather getting warmer I’ll need some summer clothes. I’ll have to be extra frugal over the next few weeks if I’m going to manage with the money I’ve left myself.

In other news, our new teacher Rosie has left to go back to the UK. She was only here for a couple of months, but she’d got quite ill and actually spent almost a week in hospital. Due to her symptoms, when she was first admitted to the hospital the doctors gave her a spinal tap to test for meningitis. In the UK the doctors would have used language like “we’re going to take a sample of spinal fluid to rule out the possibility that you’ve got meningitis”, but of course the nuance is completely lost in translation and comes out as “we think you’ve got meningitis”. I can’t imagine how scary it must have been to leave Europe for the first time and end up in a Chinese hospital having spinal taps done, which is a pretty major procedure.

Anyway, if you’re reading this Rosie, we’ll miss you!

Since Rosie had been off sick I’d covered her Tuesday evening class to some four year olds. By the second week covering her class I’d just got them to like me and, you know, not cry when they saw me. At the end of the class on Tuesday when Amy, the teaching assistant, told them that I would be their teacher permanently from now on, two of them started crying again. I bet they wouldn’t have noticed if no one had told them! But I really like the class so it should be good fun once they accept me.

Over the past few of months most of the teachers from the different branches of my school have been studying for the TKT (Teacher Knowledge Test) qualification. It’s an additional qualification to the CELTA, and it’s offered as part of my employment contract. This particular course started running before I arrived, so I was too late to complete the first three general modules, but I did take part in the Young Learners module. The workshops discussing the theory of teaching young learners have been really helpful and I’ve already been putting that theory into practice. A couple of weeks ago all the teachers got together for the exam. We had to do the exam in biggest room in any of the schools while one of the Directors of Study put his Cambridge University Exam Invigilating training into practice despite the various sarcastic comments. Some time in May I should find out the result and hopefully add another teaching qualification to my CV.

Writing in Starbucks and Learning Mandarin

Once again I’m writing in Starbucks. Public places seem to be the only place I can get a substantial amount of writing done. Somehow when I’m at home and in silence I get distracted by every little thing and it progressively takes more and more time to satisfy each distraction that I end up not writing anything. But in a public place with the world going by around me the constant background buzz and little temptations of distraction allow me to slip in and out of concentration so easily that I actually end up writing more. At the moment I’m sitting by the window watching people rushing around outside trying not to get too wet in the rain. I can only remember it having rained three other times in the four months I’ve been here. Just as Scandinavians in London must look around them in amazement when it snows, coming from a place known around the world for its rain I find it quite compelling watching how the Xianese react whenever it does rain here.
I was hoping that the cold weather had finished. A week ago it was warm enough that I went out without a coat for the first time and it really felt like summer was just around the corner. On Friday the heating in my apartment was turned off. It’s controlled by the building management instead of me, but over the past few days with the more recent cool weather I’ve had to use my electric heater for the first time since it was really cold a month ago. I’m told that Xi’an has five months each of winter and summer and only a month each for spring and autumn and that winter turns to summer sometime at the end of March or beginning of April, so I hope that this is the last cold snap before the warmer weather arrives to stay.

As everywhere in the world, Starbucks is full of people with laptops eeking out a coffee as long as possible while taking advantage of the free internet. As it’s raining today it’s busier than usual and there’s that strangely pleasant artificial humidity from the heating combined with lots of slightly damp coats. Sitting in a comfy chair in the warm could potentially make me sleepy but the sporadic blasts of cold air when the door opens and the pretty girl sitting opposite me at the next table making occasional eye contact is keeping my sleepiness at bay. It’s times like these that I wish I spoke more than a few words of Chinese.

I’ve finally started taking some Chinese lessons with one of the teaching assistants at school, Emily. They’re only for an hour a week so I don’t expect to make quick progress, but it’s a start. The first thing I’m working on is the sounds and tones. Mandarin is a tonal language and has four different tones. In English and other European languages we use tones to add meaning to the same base word, but in Mandarin what I would think of as one word can mean four different things depending on how it’s pronounced. The four tones are flat (ā), rising (á), dipping (ǎ) and falling (à). Take the word ‘ma’. In English it always kind of means mother. We could pronounce it in different ways to add meaning to the base word. “Mā” would mean mother without any extra meaning, “má” might be a question about someone’s mother, “mǎ” could be asking a question of my mother and “mà” might be expressing exasperation. But in Mandarin “mā” means mother, “má” means toad, “mǎ” means horse and “mà” is a scold.

After four months of hearing Mandarin in the background I can now pretty much pick out the different tones even if I don’t know what the words mean. Emily has been teaching me the various sounds in Mandarin and we’ve been practising the tones. She’s also teaching me pīn yīn, the Romanisation system for Mandarin so I can read her notes and make my own. It’s a slow process but it’s good to be on the other side of the teacher-student divide remembering what it’s like to learn a language instead of teaching it. One thing that should make learning easier is that Mandarin has fewer tenses than English and no irregular verbs. The verb ‘to be’ in English could conjugate as ‘am’, ‘are’, ‘is’, ‘was’, ‘were’, ‘being’ and ‘been’. In Mandarin it’s just ‘shì’.

In other news, on Saturday it was my birthday. As I had quite a few classes on Saturday and seven hours of classes on Sunday starting at 9am, we decided to go out on Sunday evening instead. The evening was very enjoyable. We went to the Delhi Darbar restaurant on Yanta Xi Lu for an Indian and then to Park Qin. We had planned to go to Loco/Song Song after Park Qin, but everyone was understandably tired after the weekend teaching and we were still having a good time in Park Qin at 2am anyway. In my Sunday afternoon class to a group of students I absolutely love I started by asking what day it was. They all answered with Sunday, but I kept pushing them for different answers. Eventually one of them twigged and they then took guesses at how old I am. The answers ranged from 21 to 40!

On Tuesday I had a new class at a local kindergarten. I used to teach at a local secondary school which was quite good fun, but the planning took a full day and the teaching was over after just three 40 minute classes. The planning for the new Kindergarten class takes about 10 minutes, but the “lesson” itself to 19 three and four year olds is very hard work. Fortunately I have Amy, one of the TAs at school, and the kids’ regular kindergarten teacher in the classroom with me.

Last week I wrote a bumper blog update which was a bit too long. This week I’ll leave it there and hope more people actually read to the end this time!

An Update on Teaching

As I’m writing this on Wednesday morning, hopefully, for the first time in a month or so, this week’s blog update will be on time!
I thought this week I would write an update on teaching. The main reason I’m in Xi’an is because I’m a teacher, and becoming an English as a Foreign Language teacher is part of my longer term plan to escape the UK and see more of the world. So as you’ll appreciate, my success or failure at being a teacher is quite important to me. I think the last time I wrote about teaching was a couple of months ago, and then I was just starting to find my feet and beginning to feel confident that I might make a success of it. Since then, I’m happy to say, I think I have improved considerably as a teacher.

On the third of February, Martin, the main Director of Studies at my school and a very experienced teacher, observed one of my lessons to make sure I’m progressing adequately. Although I was reassured that it was a positive observation to help me improve, it was still pretty nerve wracking. I had to prepare an in-depth plan for the lesson. My usual lesson plans now contain just the aims and homework, procedure and timings. For this lesson I had to note down the student-teacher interaction patterns and the purpose and aims of each individual part of the lesson. It was about as detailed as my lesson plans when I was studying for the CELTA (Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults) in September.

Martin observed my Friday evening class to 11 year olds, which is a class that’s always a bit more difficult than the others and never seems to get going properly. There are only eight students in the class – two boys and six girls – so it’s difficult to get a lively atmosphere. The boys and girls steadfastly refuse to work with each other, yet the boys are weaker students and would benefit from working with two of the stronger girls for a bit of L1 learning peer support. Fortunately the lesson itself went more or less according to plan and I thought it was perfectly acceptable if a little bit dull. I commented to Martin afterwards that it was probably a good lesson to watch as I felt it was quite typical of all the lessons I’ve taught. Overall the feedback was positive and the areas to work on were really helpful. My main point to work on was bringing more energy to the classroom to engage and motivate the students more. This point is something that would continue to be an issue going forward.

The past five or six weeks of teaching have been a bit of a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs. I realised at the end of January that my teaching ability had somewhat plateaued. I’d learnt enough through day-to-day teaching to plan and conduct perfectly adequate although uninspiring lessons, but I hadn’t learnt or used any new activities or teaching methods in a while, and my lessons were becoming a bit stale. While I wasn’t content with myself to let my teaching ability stagnate, a couple of things happened that kicked me into putting in the effort to improve.

Kitty, the teaching assistant for my class to five year olds, commented that she needed to teach me some more activities to do in the classroom. I replied with an enthusiastic ‘yes please!’ But also, in a more concerning turn of events, I started a new class that parents complained about.

The first lesson of a new class is always hard work. The first ten minutes is a parents introduction where I stand up and thank the parents for choosing our school, explain the course outline, when tests are, how we grade students, what the students should bring to class, the online learning resources, etc. I show them the text book, talk a little bit about the language the students will be learning, and explain that if they ever have any questions, they’re more than welcome to talk to me or the TA before or after class. I then invite them back in five weeks for the demonstration class where they watch half an hour of a lesson. It is, by it’s very nature, a bit dull. The rest of the lesson is also hard work. I have to try to learn the students’ names, work out their personalities so I can try to create a rapport, show enough discipline that they respect me and do what I tell them yet not too much that they don’t want to come back for the second lesson, all the while trying to actually teach them some English.

My new class is to a group of 12 seven year olds. They’re starting at the very lowest level. The aims for the first lesson are to teach “What’s your name?” and “My name is…”. One of the selling points of the school, and something that parents expect, is that the lessons we provide, especially to younger students, will be fun and lively. But the parents for my new class left my introduction very unimpressed. At the mid-lesson break I saw some of the parents in the centre director, Sophia’s, office, and wondered if everything was alright. Later on I happened to catch Martin and asked what it was about. “Everything’s fine” he said, “the parents just had some more questions”. A week later, after my second lesson with the students, Sophia called me into her office and very nicely explained that she ‘has full confidence in my teaching abilities’ and that she ‘understands that I’m a new teacher inexperienced at teaching children’ and ‘don’t worry, we’ll deal with the complaints from the parents.’

So everything wasn’t ok with that class, and I didn’t need the parents to complain to know that. I knew that the lessons for that class could be so much better, they were bitty and didn’t have much flow, and they were too teacher centred and not enough fun either for the students learning or me teaching. So I talked and Martin and we decided to co-plan my next lesson, which turned out to be a huge help, but I also asked to observe some more lower level classes to get more fun teaching ideas.

When I arrived here in late November I observed several lessons by other teachers, but I’d always been looking at particular aspects of teaching rather than simply different activities to use. I’d looked at classroom discipline, teacher-student interaction, language grading when giving instructions, that type of thing. So I observed two other teachers’ classes to students of the same age and ability as my new seven year olds and my five year olds, and picked up lots of new activities so my lessons will have more variety, and also new teaching techniques so the students have more fun in lessons.

I’m happy to say that the next lessons for the new class have been much better, and after the parents demo on the fifth week apparently the parents commented that they no longer have any concerns.

My lessons with Kitty to the five year olds have also been a lot better. The students seem to really like me and when they see me before class they shout “teacher!” and run up to me and hug my legs. It’s weird and cool at the same time!

Going back to my observation and a little bit of teaching theory, adding energy to a lesson will usually add fun as well. But anyone who knows me will also know that being enthusiastic and energetic are hardly my strong character points, and so this is particularly difficult for me. The technique I’ve discovered is not to bring the energy myself, but to entice the students into providing their own energy. Usually this is through slapstick comedy. Once the students are laughing and having fun then they start to exude their own energy, and if they’re having fun then they’re also engaging with me as a teacher and so with the aims of the lesson. Additionally, as the students are by now enjoying learning, any discipline issues completely disappear, and the only time I need to exert greater control is when it gets a bit lively. From then it’s a virtuous cycle and it takes less and less conscious effort to conduct a fun, lively and effective lesson.

Indeed, last night I had to cover a class for a colleague who is ill. The class is to four year olds and she’s said that they’re a very difficult group of students. I had a great time though. From the moment I walked into the class and made a funny face and made fun of one of the students who was walking slowly like a zombie to his seat I had them on side, and for the rest of class I had them all laughing along with me while we played games to teach them English.

The main ‘down’ over the past week was an unfortunate incident during break time involving some of my students, a ball and my boss. In almost all of my lessons now I have a ball. For younger students it’s such an effective learning tool. I use it mainly during whole class activities to indicate who should be talking at the time. Pass it around in a circle asking and answering a question, or pass it back and forth across the class so the students decide who has to speak next. It’s so obvious who has the ball that there’s no confusion about who’s turn it is. Additionally, invariably the students all want to play with the ball so are more eager to have a go, but to do so they have to actually say something in English. I also find that holding the ball and passing it between my hands or bouncing it on the floor even when it’s not in use for the lesson itself makes me a bit more active and helps with the energy level. So a very useful tool and one that I’m never without in a class now.

But one time in my Friday evening class I left it in the classroom during the break. That was a big mistake. As I went back to the staffroom, the students decided it would be a great idea to play ball games in the corridor. The first I knew about it was hearing my boss, who had just walked out of his classroom, shouting at them. As he passed me in the staffroom he suggested that I don’t leave a ball in my classroom during the break.

After the break I went back to class and asked what happened. I started a bit annoyed and became angrier as the full story emerged. It turns out that they’d managed to throw the ball and hit my boss in the face. The rest of the lesson was conducted with me scowling a lot and the students sitting in sheepish silence. They all got extra homework that night.

I could write more – I’ve written a few bullet points to remind of more things to write about- but as this post is approaching 2,000 words I think I’ll end it soon.

More generally though, about six weeks ago we got a new teacher at the school. Since then I’ve no longer felt like the new person and I’ve also felt a lot more settled. It’s always difficult changing jobs, and changing career is even harder. With a new job you just have to learn how things are done differently in a new workplace, but with a new career you have to learn the new career while learning a new environment. It doesn’t help that I’ve come to a new job in a new career in a new country! Having said that, I’ve also just realised that in a week I’ll have been here for four months, which means I’m a third of the way through my contract. There have been times over the past four months that I didn’t think I’d make it this far, but the time has gone surprisingly quickly and I’m a little bit proud of myself for sticking it out this long.

While I just wrote that I’ve ‘stuck it out’ this long, that reflects my predominant thoughts on the past four months and I’m a lot more positive now. I’m actually quite looking forward to the next eight months. To use an old maxim, for the last four months I survived, but over the next eight months I expect to thrive!

Ex-pat Etiquette or Going Native?

I wrote a version of this post last week but didn’t publish it because I wasn’t happy with the writing or wording, and it didn’t communicate my thoughts clearly into text. Straying way off-topic, I somehow ended up writing about race and ethnicity, which is a potential minefield and had nothing to do with the topic. I spent so long editing it to try to avoid even the slightest hint of impropriety that the post was bland and vague, no longer resembled at all what I was originally writing about, and didn’t even communicate what I wanted to say. I realised that the post couldn’t even be edited into something resembling my attempt at the quality writing that I aspire to, so here’s a post that no one saw (apart from two friends who I emailed it to asking for advice) completely re-written to elucidate my real thoughts.
I’ve found myself in the past month or two subliminally staring at foreigners I see in the street. In doing so a curious part of me wonders if I should say hello – after all the ex-pat community here is very small and getting to know new people would be welcome – but ultimately my British reserve gets the better of me. But this brings me to another point, what is the etiquette for saying hello to obvious ex-pats? Do we all stick together with a sense of camaraderie, or do we accept that if it weren’t for us being away from “home” we probably wouldn’t even notice each other, and so ignore each other? I’ve only been an ex-pat for a little over three months, so I’m still getting used to this new situation.

A case in point was a couple of weeks ago in Xiao Zhai, where I was at a different school for a training session. After the course I walked along to the cheap DVD shop, and heard a couple speaking English to each other. My ears pricked, and I was about to say hello when a feeling of weirdness came over me: if I’d seen them on the street in London I wouldn’t give them a second glance, and ultimately I studiously avoided acknowledging them any differently to any of the other people around me.

As I mentioned, this has been happening for the past couple of months, and I think it has something to do with a vague sense of loneliness and homesickness. I’m not really a lonely person – I’ve always been perfectly content with my own company – but I miss my friends back home and I do sometimes wish I had a wider circle of friends here in Xi’an. While the other teachers at my school are great and with some I expect we’ll stay good friends for a long time after this job, on occasion I feel a bit as though we’re a group of friends only because we work at the same school, rather than people who found each other randomly and choose to be friends. This dilemma is compounded by the fact that making new friends in a city where I have no common language with the vast majority of people is not easy.

So that’s me wondering about ‘ex-pat etiquette’. Then last week before I wrote the first version of this post, I had a realisation that maybe it’s not about ex-pat etiquette, but perhaps about me ‘going native’.

One of the first things I noticed when arriving here was the staring. Local people would stare at me as I walked along the street. It’s not done in a rude or negative way, just a curiosity of who I am and what I’m doing here. Sometimes people say “hello”, which is usually the only English they know. Depending on my mood I might reply with a cheery “hello!” or say hello in another language to confuse them a little bit, or just ignore them. While back home the stares would be considered highly impolite, here it’s really not, it’s just perfectly normal curious behaviour. My realisation was that this is the behaviour that I have started to show, and so I wonder if in a tiny little way I’ve ‘gone native’.

So there it is. Hopefully over the weekend I’ll have time to finish writing about laser quest for Nick’s birthday and also an update on teaching. It could be an interesting post: my students this evening found a ball in my classroom during break time, and while playing with it in the hall managed to throw it so it hit my boss’s face. Cue an exasperated and grumpy teacher, and a set of very subdued students for the rest of the lesson.

Lantern Festival

Last week it was Lantern Festival, the 15th day of the Chinese New Year. Chinese New Year festivities began on the 23rd of January with a new moon, and 15 days later the festivities ended on the 8th of February with a full moon.
It’s a terrible indictment of my laziness that I wrote that paragraph about two weeks ago, at which time it actually was Lantern Festival ‘a week ago.’ Somewhere over the past month life in Xi’an has come to seem completely normal. Trying to write for the blog every week now feels like if I were in London and wrote “today I took a bus to Greenwich to go to Waterstones and buy a book, then I went to Tesco to do my weekly food shopping.” To me it feels boringly ordinary, although I have to remember that (hopefully) it’s actually still interesting to people back home, and just because I’m now settled enough for almost everything to seem not worth mentioning, actually when thinking about life here there is still so much to write about.

So, Lantern Festival. It’s the final festival of Chinese New Year, when lots of people let off lanterns to celebrate. This being China, lots of people also let off fireworks and firecrackers, but that’s almost every day of the year. Apparently the loud bangs of firecrackers scare away the evil spirits, but I think in the modern world it has more to do with the fact that men like to set off explosions. For Lantern Festival me, Brittany, Colin, Nick, Andy and Andy’s girlfriend went to the south gate area to see the sights, eat some street food, and eventually find a bar for a drink. The lit up dragons were stunning and everyone was having a good time. In the plaza by the south gate there was in impromptu choir and such was the atmosphere that between Chinese songs we were hard pressed not to accidentally start singing christmas carols.

We walked up through the south gate past all the food stands. There were people selling all sorts, from strawberries dipped in caramel to individually shaped caramel animals on sticks and steamed rice cakes dipped in sugary sauces. We found our way to a bar on bar street where we experimented with various dangerous ways of playing with sparklers indoors. Fortunately no one was hurt, but me and Andy were both sober after he took up a challenge not to drink for a couple of weeks.

Later on, Dave and Phoebe arrived, and soon after midnight we let off a lantern that successfully avoided the trees, electrical cables and buildings, and which we watched soar off into the distance.

Since the Lantern Festival three weeks ago I haven’t done much. We have a new teacher at school called Rosie, I’ve got some new classes at school, and I’m finally getting into a routine and feeling at home in Xi’an.

I’ve written a second half to this post, but I haven’t posted it yet mainly because the writing is crap, but also because it doesn’t quite reflect accurately what I think. As it’s written though, it shouldn’t take more than a good redraft to sort it out, then I’ll post it as another shorter post.

Anyway, I think that will do for now. Apart from the second half of this post, next week maybe I’ll write about laser quest for Nick’s birthday and a more comprehensive update on teaching. Sometime soon I have a special treat for James and Louise back home who work for Transport for London: I’m going to write a detailed account of the metro system here in Xi’an!

A Haircut and a New Name

I felt at a bit of a loss of what to write on the blog last week. I normally try to write at least once a week, and it’s usually on a Tuesday or Wednesday, but it’s now the following Monday and while I’ve managed to find the motivation a few times to sit down and write for an hour, I’ve mainly sat staring at a blank page lacking inspiration for an interesting tale to write about. While I can recount amusing anecdotes from a while ago, to fluff up more recent tales into a full length post somehow seems disingenuous, so the following tales are from sometime in the past few weeks.
For the past eight years I’ve had all but one of my haircuts at the same place in London, Ego Hair on Noel Street. I don’t really know why I haven’t been elsewhere; it was the first place I had a haircut in London when I moved there for university and it just became my regular place for a haircut. I quite enjoyed having a friendly chat with the staff while they attempted to tame my ridiculously thick hair. The only times in the past eight years that I didn’t have a haircut at Ego was first when I lived in Miami for half a year as a student on my university exchange and second when I decided to try using clippers on number three to have ludicrously short hair. The haircut in Miami was terrible, and the short hair experiment lasted as long as it took me to grow it all back.

So it was with some annoyance that I accepted that I really needed a haircut, and I half-heartedly took advice from friends and colleagues on where to go while I futilely hoped that the problem of having to have my increasingly long hair cut in a country where I don’t speak the language would just go away. The recommendations were a place in the local mall, ‘Yes I Do’, that Nick had been to, and a place in a department store near the Bell Tower that Dave had been. I didn’t fancy a trek into the centre of town, so went to the local place. I’ve walked past it many times and it always looked busy, but I had no idea how they’d cope with mine and with me not speaking a word of useful ‘getting a haircut’  Chinese. Nick recounted his tale of going there, saying that by the end of the hour it took to cut his hair there was a group of people outside watching the waiguoren get a haircut, but it only cost ¥50.

With some trepidation I headed off to Yes I Do, mentally preparing a plan of action in case it all went horribly wrong. I’d taken a hat with me just in case and I reasoned that ‘there’s a huge Walmart upstairs where I’m sure I could get some clippers to try having a shaved head again’. With the nǐ hǎos out of the way and me pointing at my hair to explain that I needed a haircut, people sprang into action. I was ushered towards the back where I had my hair washed, then to a seat where I presume the stylist asked questions like “what would you like doing” and “how long would you like it”, but I just heard “blah blah blah blah”. My response was always to shrug and signal with my hands and fingers where it should be shorter and about how long. Eventually, after a good 40 minutes of very one-sided small-talk and every unoccupied employee coming over to see what was going on, my hair was getting to be the right length in the right places. With a double thumbs up my stylist finished his work and ushered me back towards the back to have it washed again.

It’s actually not at all bad and I’m not sure why I was so apprehensive.

The other amusing anecdote from the past few weeks is my new Chinese name. Canny, the teaching assistant in two of my classes, said that I should have a Chinese name. I agreed, and said that it should sound similar to Jon so that I can remember it. Canny asked if I wanted it to be meaningful or cute, and I asked if it could be both. As Canny was thinking of Chinese words that sound similar to Jon and are both meaningful and cute, she remembered that whenever I replace the water bottle on the water cooler I just pick up the new 20l bottle and carry it over, whereas everyone else rolls it. She therefore decided that I should be called 壮壮 (zhuangzhuang), which mainly means ‘strong’ but also ‘robust’, ‘magnificent’ or ‘grand’. So far so similar to Jon and meaningful. So what about cute? Well, 壮壮 is the humorous nickname people give to children when they’re a bit fat.

This has been a short and late blog post. Hopefully normal service will resume soon, and I’ll blog again tomorrow or Wednesday with a full length post.

Terracotta Warriors

I’ve been in Xi’an for over two months now, but I’ve only just got round to seeing the Terracotta Warriors. Neil is visiting and really wanted to go again, and it seemed like a good opportunity to go as well. After I got home from work at around 1pm we went to C’est La Vie for lunch. C’est La Vie is a pretty good bakery/pastry place and it’s where I regularly buy baguettes. Actually, as it has a French name I should call it a boulangerie/patisserie.
We then got in a taxi to the train station to get bus 306 out to the warriors. As Neil was chatting to the driver he jokingly asked how long it would take and how much it would cost for her to drive us all the way to the warriors. She said about 40 minutes and ¥140, and Neil bargained her down to ¥120. As the bus would take over an hour and it was already the afternoon, we decided that ¥60 each (about £6) was a price worth paying. It was the first time since arriving in November that I’ve left the city, and seeing the countryside and mountains and the clear(er) air perked me up a bit.

When we arrived at the entrance to the warriors it wasn’t obvious where to go. We seemed to spend a lot of time walking through areas of tatty gift shops, and I got the impression that the official tourist complex has been progressively encircled by more and more commercial chancers. Eventually we saw the ticket office and the entrance to the complex, and almost immediately we were pounced upon by tour guides. The one that got us had an excellent technique for stopping us. I’ve spent a third of my life living in London, perfecting the art of ignoring people on the street who are determined to talk to me, but somehow I couldn’t walk on past her. All the tour guides were wearing official uniforms, and our tour guide said “stop and wait please” in a stern voice while glancing behind over her shoulder. The uniform, stern voice and inference that there was something going on that we had to wait for induced me and Neil to stop, by which point she had us. It was ok though because we’d already decided to get a guide. At ¥100 for two hours it seemed like a reasonable deal.

The ticket to enter was ¥110. It felt a bit expensive for China but it’s the Terracotta Warriors, one of the eighth wonders of the world, so they can charge what they want. After buying a ticket we headed towards the entrance gate, but our guide had other ideas. “You can either walk 2km to the warriors, which takes half an hour, or you can pay ¥10 for the electric car.” Knowing that we had the guide for only two hours, we decided that it was cheaper to pay for the electric car ride than waste ¥25 of tour-guide time. For the fourth time in about 20 minutes I opened my wallet and handed over money to someone. But our tour guide was lovely. Her English for the pre-rehearsed lines was good, although she did struggle a bit when we asked her questions for which she didn’t have scripted answers.

We finally arrived at the first building of the warriors. Wow. This building’s amazing, a bit like the roof of St Pancras station in London, only bigger. Oh look, and warriors made of terracotta, they’re cool as well.

Alright, I’m being deliberately facetious. The Terracotta Warriors are amazing. I’m not sure my writing ability can do justice to how cool they are, but I’ll write a little bit anyway and upload photos once I’ve edited them. Life size and each one an individual, there are hundreds of them still standing exactly where they were placed in hidden underground chambers around 2,200 years ago. Archaeologists estimate there are around 8,000 warriors in total, most of which have not yet been excavated. Everyone that worked on creating the army was killed in order to keep it a secret, and it clearly worked because it wasn’t until 1974 that they were rediscovered by a farmer digging a well. Our tour guide said that the farmer was paid ¥0.5 by the government, and that we could meet him later. I assumed I’d misunderstood but nodded and said “oh right” anyway.

After the first, and most impressive pit, we went to the second pit which is much smaller. In the building were two gift shops. The first sold photoshopped photos of your face as the face of a terracotta warrior, and there were some wonderful mocked-up examples including Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Vladimir Putin. The second shop allowed people, for a fee, to take photos of themselves next to replica warriors. My wallet was already feeling quite violated, and I agreed to its wish to stay in my bag.

After the second pit we went to the main official gift shop. Our tour guide gave us the low down on how much the different sized replica warriors cost. I said I was only interested in the full size replica, a snip at ¥17,000, but didn’t think I could fit it in my hand luggage. Our tour guide than suggested that we might like to buy a book about the warriors and have it signed by the farmer who discovered them. I’d done it again, misunderstanding that we’d be meeting the farmer who discovered the warriors. Then the tour guide said “there he is” and pointed to an old man sitting behind a desk.

I simultaneously felt two emotions: discomfort and deception. The man was clearly on display, as though he was just another curated exhibit in ‘the Terracotta Warriors experience.’ Was he there by choice or coercion. Was he happy to spend all day signing books for tourists and posing for photos. Then Neil said the other thing I was thinking. “In China I’m never sure whether to believe things. For all we know he could be anyone, just the person currently employed to be “the farmer” on Wednesdays.” Good point Neil.

Anyway, then we went on to the third pit which is currently completely unexcavated, giving the feeling that we were looking down at very precious bare earth. In this building there were some warriors in display cabinets, and Neil and I couldn’t help noticing how trendy the warriors’ shoes are and that they’d sell well in TopMan. It’s safe to say that we’d reached the limit of how much serious history we could consume for the day.

Our guide pointed us in the direction of the cinema before leaving to snare some more tourists. The movie about the warriors was so awful it was funny. I think it must have been produced in the 1980’s, and still ran on the original film. Most of the audience left within five minutes, and the rest were either laughing or looked annoyed at mine and Neil’s attempt at a humorous running commentary.

Despite feeling like people saw us as walking cash machines I actually had a great time at the Terracotta Warriors. I’d definitely recommend it as a ‘must see’ for anyone visiting China.

We decided to get the bus back. I was a little ashamed about getting a taxi to the warriors, almost as though we were tourist arseholes throwing money around like it doesn’t matter and not caring that we were insulated from the real China. I much preferred the bus, seeing the landscape pass by slowly and stopping here and there to pick-up ordinary Chinese people going about their daily lives.

As we passed a girl cycling I had a sudden realisation that although I know infinitely more about China than I did when I arrived two months ago, I’ve only just scratched the surface. The girl looked to be in her 20’s, riding a worn-out bike slowly yet purposefully. She was wearing a smart pink coat and although she was looking wearily at the road ahead she appeared content.

What does she do for a living. Where was she coming from and going to. What’s her home like. What are her hopes and ambitions. Who are her friends and family. How does she fit into Chinese society.

Apart from the first, those are questions that I’d struggle to answer even for the Chinese colleagues at work that I know best, and I had a sudden pang of frustration that I don’t have more opportunities to interact with and learn about ordinary Chinese people outside the bounds of teaching at a private English language school. I said as much to Neil and we talked philosophy for the remaining hour on the bus back to Xi’an.