It’s been far too long, but I’ve finally edited and uploaded all my photos from Shanghai. Click the photo to view the rest of them. Edit: Something weird is going on and the photo will only link to a bigger version. Click here to see the rest of the photos.
It’s a little later than I expected, but I’m finally writing the second instalment of my Shanghai trip. This one’s all about getting to and from and around Shanghai.
I’ve said before that I really dislike flying, and much prefer to take trains whenever possible. By the time I confirmed my days off work and that I’d be able to stay with my friends in Shanghai my preferred trains were fully booked, so instead I booked train T166 to Shanghai for Thursday evening, arriving in the early afternoon on Friday, and train T138 back to Xi’an for Wednesday afternoon, arriving on Thursday morning.
I had nothing to do on Thursday before catching the train, so took the opportunity to head into central Xi’an, get coffee and watch the world go by before walking to the train station through some neighbourhoods I haven’t explored yet. There’s a really cool Starbucks by the Bell Tower, so I went there. It was quite busy, but not too bad. As I waited for my coffee I scoped out the different seats available, and of course when I finally received my coffee all of the available seats had been taken. I thought ‘sod it’ and went outside and sat opposite a pretty woman who didn’t even have a Starbucks mug. She summoned all the English she could and managed to ask if I spoke Chinese. I thought for a moment before replying ‘no’, and she then made a phone call. I only understood one word of her conversation – waiguoren – so I guess she was phoning her friend to say that some foreigner had taken her seat. I got my Kindle out and started reading a book. About fifteen minutes later her friend turned up and they went off together.
My train was due to leave at 9pm, and at 4pm I set off to walk to the train station. I was heading through some parts of the city I hadn’t been to before, so was quite curious. I discovered the Revolutionary Park, and again sat and watched the world go by while I read my Kindle. Eventually I tired of the park and continued towards the train station. I got there at about 6pm, so only three hours to wait. The scene inside the station building reminded me of news clips covering refugee crises. There were people strewn everywhere, sleeping on newspapers or sitting on tatty old suitcases. The light in the station didn’t help, filtered through small dirty windows in the roof leading to a dingy yellow light.
I found a plush waiting room that was empty, wondered why no one else was in there, and bought some snacks for the 16 hour train journey ahead. At 8:30pm I went to the gate to go down to the platform. My train was due at 8:58pm. At 8:53pm, as hundreds of people were still waiting, an announcement was made over the tannoy. I didn’t understand any of it besides picking out my train number ‘T Yi Liu Liu’, but from the reaction of everyone around I understood perfectly well what was going on. The dejected sighing and slumping of passengers despairing at their late train is the same all over the world. The electronic sign changed from 2058 to 2105, but I didn’t have a clue how they were going to get a couple of hundred people down from the waiting area to the platform and onto the train in four minutes. Eventually at 9:03pm the gates were opened and the stampede started.
The stairs to the platform level were by coach 2. I was in coach 15. I had a long walk ahead of me. At coach 13 I heard a whistle blowing somewhere behind me, so looked around and some doors were starting to close. I tried to board coach 13 but wasn’t allowed aboard. I legged it to coach 15 and hopped on board, panting for breath a little bit. I found my bunk, put my bag onto it, said a cheery “good evening” to my fellow passengers, and waited another 15 minutes for the train to depart.
The ‘hard sleeper’ on the train was surprisingly comfortable. The carriages are divided into 10 open compartments, each with 6 beds. I was on the top bunk, which I knew because I showed my ticket to a fellow passenger who pointed at the top bunk. There isn’t much space up there, but since I’d just be sleeping, it didn’t really matter. There was a feature I’d never seen before on a train – oxygen outlets by each bunk so people could plug in over the high mountain passes to prevent getting altitude sickness.
The journey was interesting. The train had started its journey in Lhasa, which explains the oxygen outlets, a day and half earlier, and there were quite a few characters on board. While no one spoke much English, there was one girl called Jing who spoke enough English for me to communicate. I think people watching is more interesting when you can’t understand what is being said; you have to rely solely on observing actions and movements and body language. As the train slowly chugged its way through the night towards Shanghai it quickly became apparent who had established themselves as ‘leader’ of the two last compartments; a big smily guy who was here there and everywhere and seemed to know everyone even if they didn’t know him, and who tried to talk to waiguoren even if the waiguoren didn’t understand anything he was saying. At 11pm the lights were turned out and everyone retired to bed.
I slept really well, there were no snorers and no smelly feet, and the gentle rocking back and forth of the train lulled me into a lovely soothing sleep. As station stops came and went the train gradually emptied out. A lot of people left at Nanjing, and then it was just me and a few others in the carriage. We were due in to Shanghai at 11:17, but we eventually arrived at 12:45. An hour and a half delay on a train that departed 48 hours earlier doesn’t seem so bad.
In Shanghai I found the metro and went to meet Andy.
Getting around Shanghai was really easy. The metro in Shanghai, unlike in Xi’an, is finished, but just like Xi’an, is really cheap. A single ticket is ¥2. By all accounts it’s a pretty nice metro system, the trains are big enough to stand up in and air conditioned (cough-London-cough), it’s clean, it’s punctual, it’s cheap, it’s goes everywhere it needs to.
Apart from the metro and the odd taxi, the only other interesting transport I used was a tuk tuk. My friend Neil lives in Songjiang, and it’s either a half hour walk to the metro or a few minutes in an electric tuk tuk. I hadn’t been in a tuk tuk yet, even in Xi’an, and they strike me as a very good idea. Electric so completely non polluting, small and nippy so they don’t cause congestion, and perfect for journeys that are a bit too long to walk but not far enough to bother with other public transport.
The journey back to Xi’an was much the same as going to Shanghai. Shanghai’s main railway station is really quite nice, it feels much more like a modern airport than a railway station, with light and airy waiting areas and loads of places to buy snacks. On this journey no one spoke English, but I didn’t mind as I was content reading my Kindle and writing my diary from the past few days. The train wasn’t quite as nice as on the way to Shanghai, the toilets were foul and there was nowhere to plug in my phone, but the bed was comfy and my fellow passengers cordial and once again I slept much better than I was expecting to.
Next up I’ll write a short post about a weird place in Songjiang called Thames Town, which is like a replica Milton Keynes in the middle of a Shanghai suburb.
I’m just back in Xi’an after a wonderfully recuperating few days in Shanghai. For once I’m not starting a blog wondering what I’ll find to write about, but instead wondering how to fit a great six days into one trip report. I think I’ll split the six days across three blog posts, each with a different theme. I guess you could call this blog the first of the trilogy, and it’s about Shanghai itself.
I arrived on Friday in the early afternoon and met my friend Andy who I did the CELTA with in Barcelona. He’s in Shanghai for a month of training before moving on to a teaching position in Ningbo. The first thing I did was head back to Andy’s apartment for a shower after the long train journey. Andy’s apartment is nice, certainly nicer than mine in Xi’an, and only a few minutes walk from People’s Square, the centre of downtown Shanghai.
My first impressions of Shanghai are inevitably in comparison to Xi’an where I’ve spent the past five months. Shanghai feels a lot more ‘liveable’ than Xi’an, but while I can see lots of obvious differences, at first it’s difficult to put my finger on how those differences all work together to create a more ‘liveable’ city.
Five minutes after I arrive at Andy’s, his new flatmates arrive. It felt a bit strange saying, in effect, “hi, welcome to your apartment, I’m just visiting as a mate of Andy’s, I hope you don’t mind if I stay the night!”. Anyway, they’re all very nice. After my shower me and Andy headed out for lunch and to see the sights along the Bund. For lunch we popped into a random corner restaurant. The speed with which we were presented with an English menu and served in English led me to suspect the restaurant was frequented by tourists, but I do enjoy saying bits of Chinese I’m confident with when ordering. The bill came to ¥57, and the waitress told us in English, so I asked “wǔ shí qī?”
The Bund is really lovely to walk along. On the west side it’s the old buildings from the time of the British concession and the broad raised walkway looks out at Pudong across the river. Pudong is a new development of skyscrapers creating a dramatic skyline. The area has a similar history and development goal as Canary Wharf in London – from poor run-down area to centre of a new financial industry – except Pudong is on a much grander scale than Canary Wharf. Andy is pretty new to Shanghai and China, and I was trying to explain some differences to Xi’an. As there were plenty of other westerners around I wasn’t being stared at anywhere near as much, and just as I said to Andy that I suspect fewer Chinese people are interested in having photos with westerners a couple of Chinese people came up to us and asked for their photos with us. After admiring the view from ground level on the Bund for a while we took the ferry across the river to Pudong to check out the view from a tall building.
The ferry dropped us seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and we had to walk quite a way to get back to the north of the peninsula. We checked out the price for the viewing deck in the Oriental Pearl TV tower, but it was ¥150; the Rough Guide from 2011 had said it was ¥60. We didn’t dare find out how much the viewing gallery in the Shanghai World Financial Centre was; the Rough Guide said ¥150, but the guide was out by almost three times for the Oriental Pearl. Instead we decided to try our luck going to the lobby of the Hyatt on the 56th floor of the Jin Mao tower. Andy was a bit concerned two scruffy young tourists wouldn’t be allowed in, but after watching too many episodes of Hustle I was pretty confident we could pull it off. “Just walk in like you belong here, look non-plussed like you come here every day”. In we went to the elevators and up we went to the 56th floor, and for five minutes the view was excellent, then we started to feel a bit self conscious so left before we were given no choice but to leave.
Also in Pudong is the spectacular new conical glass Apple store. We went in for a look and for Andy to consider buying an iPhone, but something to do with the warranty not being valid outside China put him off.
On Friday evening we went to Hengshan Road to eat western food for dinner and have some drinks. We found a nice Italian restaurant and the food was excellent, but we did have a bit of confusion with the waitress. Both me and Andy speak enough Italian to get by ordering food in a restaurant, I now speak enough Chinese to do the same, and in a western restaurant in Shanghai it was almost guaranteed the server would speak English. It turns out our waitress was Italian, and with three common languages between us our waitress at one point declared “too many languages!”
In a bar I tried to teach Andy the Chinese dice game that everyone plays. I don’t quite know the rules myself, so some of them I skipped over or made up to fill gaps. One of the bar staff came to our table and started playing with us. “Cool”, I though, “nice friendly communal dice game.” Except after a few rounds she announced that we’d lost and we owed her a drink. “Not a chance!” I exclaimed, “we don’t even know how to play!”. But Andy bought her a drink, so to make sure we were even I said “gānbēi!”, which is the closest Chinese has to “cheers!”, but also means “down it!”. She duly downed her drink and then walked off sulking. On reflection I think we all lost!
Saturday was a gloriously sunny day, so I went for a walk around downtown Shanghai and also to Century Park on the other side of Pudong. Walking through People’s Square – which is actually a park – I was struck by how many pretty young women with excellent English were approaching me asking me to take their photo with something in the background and then inviting me to go to a tea festival. There were a number of possible scenarios running through my mind. I discounted the first scenario – “I’m really handsome and all these women really like me” – pretty quickly. That left two possibilities: there really is a tea festival and people in Shanghai are really friendly; or there’s no tea festival and there’s some scam going on.
I thought there’s no harm in humouring them and agreeing to go to the tea festival and walking with them at least as far as the edge of the park. If they’re scammers of some kind I’m delaying their next victim by half an hour, if they’re genuine, well I got to practise my Chinese and them their English. It’s funny, this tea festival seemed to be in many directions outside People’s Square. The first pair of girls took me south east, the next, a group of three girls, north, and the final pair west. Each time I faked noticing the time and remembering that I had to go meet my friend for lunch back in the park. Later on I double checked with my friend Neil who has lived in Shanghai for two years. He said there’s definitely no tea festival. I later read in the Rough Guide of a scam in central Shanghai where pretty young women approach western men and invite them for tea. In the cafe the tea arrives, the women disappear and in their place some very large men and an astronomical bill turn up.
After frustrating the scammers for a bit I went to the Yu Yuan garden, an area in the old part of Shanghai with quaint narrow streets. It was reminiscent of a Chinese York, pedestrianised with old buildings overhanging the streets and thousands of tourists milling around. It has obviously been cleaned up a lot in recent years to appeal to tourists, but it felt a lot like the proper old China I picture in my mind from time to time. At the centre was a very pretty stone bridge over a pool with fish and turtles and it was nice just watching the world go by for a little bit. I was pretty hungry by now and I saw a nice place to get steamed dumplings, but the queue looked to be about an hour long. There was a pretty young woman near the front of the queue who smiled at me a couple of times, and I thought about giving her ¥10 to order on my behalf, but my mind was still half cynical from the scammers earlier on and half shy about approaching her.
Instead I went to Century park to look at the outside of the Science and Technology Museum (it’s a pretty nice piece of architecture) and also the Oriental Arts Centre, which is in the shape of a flower. Outside the Science Museum there was a wedding couple having photos taken and I sat and watched for a while as they struck weird poses. The strangest was the bride standing looking lost with the groom and all his male friends hiding around a corner ready to pounce. After the museum and arts centre I went to Century park and had a nice rest in the shade.
On Saturday evening I headed down to Song Jiang, a commuter town at the end of a metro line, where my friend Neil lives.
On Sunday me and Neil headed intro central Shanghai. He wanted to buy a Chinese textbook and I wanted to go to the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall. My major at university was human geography, focussing a lot on urban development, and I continue to cultivate my interest when I can. The Exhibition Hall is impressive, over five floors it details the history of urban Shanghai and the visions for its future. The level of detail was surprising. For instance, in one section are maps of the utilities serving Shanghai, from the water and electricity network, to internet and telephone routing points. A similar museum in a major western capital would probably shy away from displaying such information publicly on security grounds. The Exhibition also includes a tennis court sized model of the vision for Shanghai in the future. I was also intrigued by the lack of variety of visitors the Exhibition attracted. For the entire time I was in there I never heard anyone else speaking English. In fact, all of the other westerners were speaking German. Perhaps Germans (and the Austrians and Swiss) are more in-tune with and take a greater interest in how an urban environment can make a real difference to the happiness of the people who live there. That reminds me, I must read Alain de Botton’s book The Architecture of Happiness.
From the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall me and Neil went to the Shanghai Museum, described by the Rough Guide as perhaps the best museum in China, and in my estimation on about the same scale as the Urban Planning Exhibition. Neither me nor Neil were in the mood for antiquities and were cracking jokes whenever the opportunity arose. In the antique furniture section we mused about whether the Stockholm Museum will one day have an Ikea section.
Instead we went to the Blue Frog restaurant and bar for some very delicious burgers, and to the City Shop to buy cheese, and wine (for my leaving party in seven months), and HP Sauce, and Patak’s Curry Sauce, and Haribo, and various other western delicacies. The whole shop catered to the western ex-pat living in Shanghai, and after five months in Xi’an where the only readily available cheese comes as plastic slices for burgers my eyes were wide with wonder.
After the three days wandering around Shanghai I finally realised why it feels more liveable than Xi’an. It feels finished and there’s a sense that the urban planners and architects care. Xi’an feels like the builders completed about 90 per cent of the job then stopped and said “eh, it’ll do”. Shanghai feels complete and finished. In Xi’an the roads are for driving on and pavements for parking on; pedestrians have to battle their way through randomly parked cars and annoying sections of plastic chain delineating different car parks. In Shanghai the pavements are for pedestrians. In Xi’an most buildings completed (to 90 per cent) since the invention of concrete look like they came from the ‘big new book of slightly spruced up default communist concrete architecture’. In Shanghai almost every building is individually designed and has some aesthetic merit. Finally, in Xi’an the sky is grey and the sunlight dulled by the pollution. In Shanghai I exclaimed that I could see puffy white clouds in a bright blue sky, and I could breath the clean air in deeply.
So, that’ll do for Shanghai itself. I took lots and lots of photos that I’ll upload soon, but I’m still going through and organising them.
Last week I mentioned I was thinking of going to Shanghai during our upcoming holiday. Well, I’ve booked my train tickets and I’m off tomorrow. I can’t tell you how much I need a holiday and to get away from Xi’an for a bit. I realised the other day that since November when I arrived in Xi’an, the furthest away I’ve been was in January when I went the 50km to the Terracotta Warriors. Since then I haven’t been more than about 10km from the spot I’m sitting in now, in Starbucks. I think part of my getting down about petty annoyances is to do with the pressure cooker environment of having a small circle of friends in a small geographic environment.
I’m actually quite excited to be taking the train to Shanghai. Everyone said I should fly since “it’s only two hours”, but I’ve booked the train as it’s cheaper and far more interesting even though it does take 16 hours. I absolutely abhor flying. The whole process is tedious, and in today’s world of heightened security the constant harassment by personnel playing their roles in the theatre of security dehumanises the experience and adds a load of irritation to the proceedings, but there’s still something appealing about taking a train. And a two hour flight doesn’t take anything like two hours. When flying you spend ages getting to the airport, ages waiting while you check in, ages waiting to go through security, ages waiting to board the plane, then ages waiting for your bags once you “arrive”, then ages trying to get from the airport to the place you’re actually going. “But it only takes two hours to fly” people say. No. A “two hour” flight is actually closer to five hours of harassment by airport staff, security personnel and airline staff.
When travelling by train you go to the station, which is almost always in the centre of the city, get on the train, and then arrive in the centre of the city you’re travelling to. On the journey you see the world go by the window and feel it go by underneath. You see the landscape change and different people getting on and off the train at each stop. There’s something a lot more human about taking the train; travelling huge distances but still on a human scale and interacting with different passengers. In fact, when I went from London to Barcelona and back to do my CELTA I took the train instead of flying. It’s just so much more pleasant. I’m still a little excited to think that the train I’m taking left Lhasa at 11am CST this morning and I’ll pick it up in Xi’an tomorrow evening before it arrives in Shanghai on Friday morning.
I have no idea what I’ll get up to in Shanghai. My friend Neil lives there and I just found out that a friend from my CELTA, Andy, is also there at the moment, so no doubt I’ll catch up with them. As usual when I visit a place I’m less interested in having an itinerary of specific locations to visit then just soaking up the atmosphere and getting a feel for the place. I know I want to eat some good western food as I’ve heard it’s pretty good in Shanghai and I haven’t had a roast dinner in almost half a year. I also want to see the famous skyline from the Bund across to Pudong, and I’d like to go to the viewing gallery in a tall building to take in the view.
As I’ll be back from Shanghai this time next week this is just a short blog update but I’m sure there’ll be a double-bumper blog next week!
I started last week’s post saying how I’d been a bit down lately having gone through two of the worst “China days” I’ve had so far. As I’ve still been pretty down over the past week I tried to work out what the cause is. I realised that I don’t so much have “China days” as “school days.”
I’m a very organised person and I’m always looking for the most efficient way of accomplishing tasks. While in my previous job in London for a UK Government Department a new role opened handling only complaint letters from members of the public. No one wanted the job and my boss at the time had to choose between four people. We all had to give reasons why we shouldn’t have to do the job and as I’d been wanting to find a new job for some time my reason was that I’d leave if I was given the role. My boss decided to give me the role anyway in the hope that with my organisational skills and meticulous attention to detail I would at least put into place all the required procedures in the time before I left. I did, and as an added bonus the new job gave me the impetus I needed to quit and go off and do my CELTA and become an English teacher.
Anyway, I find it very frustrating when things don’t work or are done inefficiently with no apparent proper procedure. My current gloom seems to stem from how the administration and IT systems at school work, or rather, just doesn’t work. Every contact I have with admin or IT seems to be unnecessary tiresome hassle, and everything I do takes about twice as long and requires twice as much effort as it really should.
On Monday I nearly reached breaking point. I’ll leave the details, but even though it was just a minor annoyance, with all the other minor annoyances it felt like the second to last straw before the proverbial camel’s back broke. So on Monday evening I went for a chat with my boss and he reassured me that everything that annoys me annoys him too, but that this is China and that none of the foreign staff are in a position to influence the Chinese run side of the school. Knowing that made me feel much better until the next day when I had to battle against the next bit of unnecessary tiresome hassle.
One thing that did cheer me up slightly on Monday was having a meaningful conversation with a five year old student for the first time. I noticed that one of my Sunday students was at the school and that she has a family resemblance to one of my students from Monday evening. I realised that in class we’ve now done names, family members, ages, and importantly, third person forms of all of those. I asked her “do you have a sister?” and she replied yes. So I asked “what’s her name?” and she said Ella. I then asked “how old is she?” and she said she’s nine. I said that “I teach your sister” and she looked so happy. As well as cheering me up it must have done wonders for her motivation to learn English, to finally put together all that language into a conversation with someone instead of learning it in isolation.
Anyway, on to yesterday. I needed a day without any thought at all of school or work, just hanging out with a friend having a good chat and some retail therapy. So that’s exactly what I did. As the weather has now got much warmer I needed to buy some shorts and my friend Canny took me to H&M. We took a taxi so I have no idea where in Xi’an it is, but it’s just like H&M everywhere in the world. Even the prices are the same. I found the shorts I wanted and paid the, by Chinese standards, exorbitant price. ¥250 sounds like a big number, but actually it’s about £25, which actually is a lot in China for a pair of shorts. Canny said another day we’ll go to the clothes market where we could buy loads of clothes for the price I paid for a pair of shorts.
After H&M we went to Sa Ga, a huge electronics market. I’d heard it described like a department store for electronics and it kind of is. It’s the same kind of physical space as a Department store, with polished stone floors and lots of windows making it light and airy, and all the stalls are arranged like the cosmetics section in a typical Department store with individual branding, except that every stall is an individual retailer so there’s no central cash desk, and most stalls sell more than one brand of products. I wanted to check out the price of external hard drives as my backup disk is filling up. In Sa Ga the components and accessories are on the third floor, so we went up there and found dozens of stalls all selling exactly the same collection of products including external hard drives. All the stall holders want your business and promise the best price, but as they all buy their merchandise from the same wholesalers for the same price and have the same fixed costs for running the stall, the lowest price you can bargain down to is exactly the same at every stall. In the end I didn’t buy anything – I don’t need a new external hard disk just yet.
From Sa Ga we went to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. I hadn’t been there yet and actually as we didn’t go in to the pagoda itself I still haven’t been – Canny just wanted to find a touristy stall that does caricature portraits. But the area around the pagoda is nicely landscaped with fountains and trees making nice shady areas on the grass and it felt like a nice calm oasis to escape to from the frenetic activity of the city. We found the caricature stand and all the passers by, upon seeing a foreigner sitting at the stand, had to stop to take a look. They all seemed a bit disappointed to see that it was Canny being drawn and not me, but I was having fun trying to get Canny to laugh when she was supposed to be posing for a portrait.
After the portrait I was standing around waiting for Canny to go to the bathroom when a tour guide came up to me and asked “photo?”. Thinking that she wanted to take my photo and sell it back to me I said no thanks, but she was actually asking on behalf of her two Chinese clients who wanted their photo taken with me. Quite why I’m not sure, but feeling like a celebrity I – just a random foreigner – posed for photos with two random Chinese people. Canny had a good laugh at my bemusement of the whole situation, then suggested I go for a haircut in case the same thing happens again.
My hair had been getting pretty long and messy again, so Canny took me to her family friends who are hair dressers. They did both mine and her’s for ¥20, and going with someone who speaks Chinese meant that I had the opportunity to tell them what I wanted. Not that it mattered of course as Canny decided what hairstyle I should have. Fortunately it’s turned out pretty good!
Finally, we went to Xiao Zhai to look for cheap DVDs and shoes. I think we quite annoyed the shoe shop assistant though. We waltzed in, tried on a load of shoes and decided on what to buy. For the shop assistant to go to the effort of going to get the boxed shoes in the right size we had to pay in advance. So we paid for our choice, had them delivered, then both changed our minds and demanded our money back. I think they were quite pleased to see us leave.
Later on in the evening I went out to a bar called Vice Versa where my friend George was playing a gig. He plays guitar in a heavy metal band, so not exactly my kind of music, but it was a good evening all the same.
Finally, as we have a six day holiday from school coming up I think I’m going to take the train to Shanghai and see my friend Neil. Hopefully then I’ll have a load of photos to put on flickr and some travel things to write about instead of the tedium of my posts at the moment.
Last week I wrote a great blog post, but I decided not to post it as it is far too personal. By the time I wrote the post on Wednesday I’d been feeling pretty low for a week anyway and then I’d just come out of the two worst ‘China days’ I’ve had so far. Maybe if or when I write a book at the end of my year contract and I’m able to look back on all the experiences I’m having in a more reflective light I’ll include more details. For now though, last week’s blog post is between me and my computer.
But a lot has happened over the past two weeks. A couple of weekends ago it was ‘tomb sweeping holiday’. I’m not sure about the history and reasons for the holiday or what it entails, just that our schedule at school was moved around a little bit making for a very quiet and then a very busy week. The reason for swapping days around is that although it’s a national holiday and therefore school children have Monday and Tuesday off, they have to go to school on Saturday and Sunday instead, and so we moved our Saturday and Sunday classes to Monday and Tuesday. I sometimes feel quite sorry for Chinese children. Most of them are only children in a very competitive society and the pressure to succeed is huge. A colleague was chatting to his higher level class asking about their hobbies and daily routine. For those students, from Monday to Saturday getting up at 6am and to going to bed at 10pm they are either at school or doing homework. On Sundays they come to our school to learn English.
A week ago Alistair, my flatmate, returned from a trip back to England and it’s been nice having someone around the apartment again. He landed back in Xi’an on Tuesday evening and when he arrived at the apartment he discovered that, true to form, he’d managed to lose his key somewhere in England. If you find a key in England with Chinese writing on it then there’s a chance it could be Alistair’s. Anyway, I was in Park Qin with a few friends at the time, and as I was getting on quite well with the Chinese girls at the next table there was no way I was going home just to let Alistair in. Instead he came all the way down to Park Qin to borrow my key. As I then didn’t have a key we agreed that Alistair would leave it under the mat by our front door so I could get back in. There was a very real risk that after 12 hours of flights, seven hours of jet lag, a pint of beer and, well, Alistair being Alistair, he would forget to leave the key, so I phoned him half an hour after he left to remind him. When I eventually got home I found the front door wide open, which was a slightly more extreme approach to letting me back into the apartment than I’d expected.
A friend back in London, also called Alistair, is probably now shouting at the internet wishing I’d hurry up and fill in the rest of the story about the girls. Well, one of them was very nice, and apparently single, and she gave me her phone number, and then stopped replying to my messages after a couple of days.
Also over the past couple of weeks I’ve been playing a bit of basketball. In my apartment complex there’s a pretty decent basketball court open to everyone, and as Nick has a basketball me him and Andy have occasionally played a few games. They’re much better than I am – I realised that the last time I’d even bounced a basketball was when I was studying at the University of Miami for a semester, which was six years ago – but they patiently put up with my lack of skill and effort. They ended up playing with some Chinese guys who were on the court as me and Tina, Andy’s girlfriend, watched and supplied the ice cream.
My athletic pursuits haven’t been limited to basketball though, on Wednesday last week I played frisbee with Colin, Dave and Phoebe. I’m much more suited to frisbee: it’s slower and requires less running around and a lot less skill. We played in the courtyard of my apartment complex, and our aim was to keep a constant chain of throws going as we progressed from the inner to the outer circle in the pattern on the ground. Unfortunately there was a bit of a week link between Phoebe and Colin and over our many failed attempts we attracted quite an audience.
On Sunday evening the weather was so nice that me, Brittany, Andy, Dave and Phoebe decided to de-stress from our ridiculously busy work week by going to Bar Street and sitting outside while watching the Arsenal – Manchester City game and having a few drinks. We found a bar that had sports showing on the huge screen in the window and we persuaded them to put the game on. They put it on, but we didn’t like the seating so we went across the road to sit and drink at a rival bar instead. About half way through the second half a huge Toyota Landcruiser turned up and parked right in our view of the screen. By the time it had gone Arsenal had scored. How’s that for karma.
Later on at about 1am after Dave and Phoebe had left and Brittany and Andy were pretty drunk, we decided to go to Salsa, a big club near the Bell Tower. In Salsa I was tutored in the art of having a night out in a Chinese club without spending any money. There are still few enough foreigners in Xi’an that most local Chinese people are curious about us and want to talk to us and practice their English. It started with a dare. Brittany dared Andy to get an empty glass, dance up to a table with lots of people, pour himself some of their drink and then dance away. He completed the dare in fine style and we all ended up chatting to the people at the table. The only problem is that in China it’s very rude to refuse a drink when offered. That was fine for Brittany and Andy (“wahay, free drinks!”) but it presents a challenge for me as I’ve sworn myself off alcohol for the duration of my stay in China (yep, that’s still going). I worked out that the Mandarin for “I don’t drink alcohol” is 我不喝酒, pronounced “wŏ bù hē jiŭ”. But that uses three of the four tones and saying it correctly when shouting over the music in a club is pretty tricky!
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.
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!
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!
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.