A Final Farewell

23 Jun

Just over a week ago I was strolling along the wide Beijing streets in the sunshine; now this Scottish islander is back by the shores of the Atlantic.  Already my time in China feels as if it happened in another lifetime – it’s amazing how easily you slip back into your old way of life (although sandwiches and clean tap water still seem slightly exciting, and I’ve been craving some good quality noodles for the past few days).

While my tales of Tianjin over the past ten months have touched on travel, teaching and trying to navigate daily life in the Middle Kingdom, there were always things I felt I should steer clear of.  In fact, we were told frankly at the start of our year to avoid all mention of politics and religion, and never to talk about the “Three Ts”: Taiwan, Tibet and Tiananmen.

I covered the first one early on, in an accidentally amusing fashion.  For a lesson on travel and holidays I had stuck a large world map on the board, in the hopes of making the lesson more colourful and interactive.  My 17-year-old students seemed really interested in the map – I’d made the right choice.  Then a Chinese whisper went round the 50-odd students, until one boy stuck his hand up and spoke into the silence: “Teacher, why is Taiwan a different colour from China?”  Feigning ignorance, I left the classroom at the end of the lesson envisaging swift deportation.  That did not happen, of course, but with student “monitors” in every class, there to help you as well as report on you, I was definitely a little nervous.

The second topic was unavoidable in my second semester of teaching, as I was given a new class of Tibetan students, in their own classroom and own building, separate from their Han Chinese counterparts.  Luckily nothing remotely controversial ever emerged; instead I listened to them as they spoke in their native tongue in between activities, and talked about how they all want to go back to Lhasa in their “future plans” conversations.

The third was never mentioned, unless in whispers between British friends.  One might think that in an authoritarian country, politics pervades everything.  In a way it does, but you could easily go through life in China unaware, or at least uninterested in, political happenings.  For those without the magical VPN, internet news blackouts and problems with Google were frequent; the rest of us kept up with Chinese controversy over the Nobel Peace Prize, Ai Wei Wei’s detention and the Arab Spring through Western newspapers.

For a student of International Relations and a self-confessed news junkie, life in China was fascinating.  Suddenly the things I’d been writing about as midnight approached in the university library were no longer theory but reality.  The threat of (nuclear) conflict between North and South Korea seemed much more real last November, as I read about the shelling that was taking place no more than a few hundred miles from Tianjin’s port.  China’s crackdown after the uprisings in the Middle East was even closer to home, the most visible example taking place on Wangfujing shopping street in Beijing, an area I’d frequented on weekends to the capital.  And then of course, there was the inexorable, much commented on “rise of China” and its juggernaut economy.  I’d read about it journals, textbooks and newspapers, but living in Tianjin you literally saw it happening.  China is rising, in every sense of the word.  Massive malls line the high streets in city centres; cranes cut the skyline at regular intervals, constructing the concrete symbols of China’s growth; the new middle classes display their wealth at every opportunity, in the form of designer handbags and flashy cars.

Despite the seemingly high-profile nature of politics in China, there is another reason it didn’t feature in my tales from Zhongguo: it simply wasn’t that large a part of my daily life.  It was always hovering in the background, but encouraging shy students to speak, engaging the ones more interested in Chemistry homework than conversation, perfecting chopstick skills over a bowl of rice, practising Mandarin with the taxi driver as he swerved from one lane to the next – everyday activities were always higher up the agenda. Life takes over, as it does wherever you are in the world.

The last year has been an extraordinary experience on every level, and I expect I will always feel some connection to this country of contrasts.  While I can’t rule out any future Asian adventures, for Tianjin Tales, it is the end of a digital road.

再见中国 – Goodbye China!

13 Jun

As I write this I am sitting at the British Airways departure gate in Beijing Capital Airport, an hour away from leaving China.  Sometimes a few days in China feels like a lifetime, but the past few weeks have disappeared so fast that they barely registered.

My last two weeks in China were a hot pot of activity, as I tried to squeeze in packing around all the things I wanted to do before I left.  There was still some lesson planning to do, which I did in my usual spot in Starbucks, as thunder clapped and lightning flashed through the window (June is the rainy season up north).  I went on a mini shopping spree in the sprawl of market stalls and halls that is Dahutong, in the north of the city.  I caused a bit of a commotion on the subway when a little boy on the subway started pointing at me and excitedly squealing “Meiguoren!” (American!) as he walked past me; I smiled and corrected him in Chinese.  I strolled along the HaiHe river in the sunshine and hurried along bustling Nanjing Lu.  Then there were my last ever lessons at the 4000-full high school; saying goodbye to my students and walking out of school for the last time was one of definite nostalgia.

My last weekend was spent back where it all began, ten months ago today: Beijing.  I doubt there is a better end to a year of ups and downs, laughs and tears, travel and teaching, than with friends at a dance party on the Great Wall of China.  In true China style our coach did get lost on the way up to the mountains, but we shrugged a “TIC” and got down to dancing under the stars in the shadow of the most famous wall in the world.  Yesterday I visited Tiananmen in the sunshine, had a lunch of dumplings with some old grannies near Qianmen, said farewell to friends, and then it was over.  My flight boards shortly – for now, zaijian Zhongguo.  It’s been an experience!

Art Attack

27 May

Chinese paper cutting is an art form you see everywhere during festivals and holidays.  When I returned from Spring Festival, the windows of nearly all the apartments in my block were adorned with red paper-cut hangings.  Now I’m the owner of my own version, hand-made and gifted by a fellow teacher:

What a nice reminder of my year (of the Rabbit) in China!

Stories from the Seaside

24 May

I’ve already declared my love for the Paris of the East, but there is just enough travel love left over for what is sometimes known as China’s Switzerland.  Qingdao – a city of more than two million people that manages to feel like a small, easy breezy seaside town – was the location for a recent long weekend with some friends. 

Qingdao’s old town is littered with red-and-yellow colonial German architecture, winding cobbled alleys and plenty of street food.  Sloping down the hill from our hostel (a cool converted observatory) was a food market serving everything from fresh fish to fluffy chickens and fried bread.  Every few feet we spotted kegs of beer on the sidewalks, and saw locals walking with a jin of Tsingtao swinging in a plastic bag.  A bag of beer in one hand and a baby in the other – I wish I’d caught that one on camera!  We made it to the new town too, home to sleek and shiny seaside skyscrapers, but it’s the old town that has all the character.

In true holiday style, most of our time in Qingdao was spent scoffing seafood and sunning ourselves on one of the city’s six beaches.  Gala – mini clams lightly fried with chilli – is a Qingdao treat that we had for nearly every meal.  There was an abundance of watermelon (not the exploding ones that have been in the news recently) and of course the requisite Tsingtao.  To top it all off, there was also an abundance of brides.  Yes, my favourite bridal crews were out in force, using the sun, sea and sand to their every advantage and leaving us all thinking: TIC.

This lovable city was voted China’s most liveable one in 2009, and I can certainly see why – part of me does envy our ELA friends down there. Qingdao has definitely won over this wàiguórén with its charms.



A Night at the Opera

12 May

This year’s May Day weekend was memorable for many reasons.  While the rest of the world were watching weddings and breaking news headlines, my friends and I were in Beijing, taking in not tiaras, but the famous Beijing Opera.

A version of traditional Chinese theatre that encompasses percussion, drama, dance and song, the Beijing Opera is not on everyone’s tourist to-do list, often falling behind stalwarts such as the Great Wall and the Forbidden City.  Having already crossed most of Beijing’s sights and sounds off our China to-do list, we decided it was time to check it out.

At the LiYuan Theatre we were followed by the smell of (expensive) popcorn as we trekked up to our seats in the balcony.  With no programme – in English or Chinese – we settled in for an evening of refined music… or so we thought.  What followed was definitely unexpected.

First came an acrobatic argument.  From what I could gather from the subtitled screens, there were three men in a dark room trying to fight with one another; after half an hour of protracted and impressive on-stage posturing, one said “Oh! I didn’t realise it was you!  Why didn’t you say so? Let’s go to the back of the inn and have a nice conversation.”

Then the “opera” part of “Beijing opera” began.  A delicately dressed woman dancing with ribbons appeared on stage, singing at a painfully high pitch.  While her dancing was lovely, my favourite parts of her performance were the wonderful subtitles.  We all know auspicious clouds are the highest class of transport.

The third slice of the show returned to the acrobatic drama of the first; this time with the traditional painted-face characters of the opera taking to the stage.

And that was it.  The ending was abrupt, the curtain was drawn, the lights were brightened, and the four of us were left trying to make sense of what we had just seen.  Our dramatic verdict? Definitely worth it, if only for the amusing confusion that puts Beijing Opera up there on the TIC list.

The Charms of Chinglish

5 May

After almost 9 months in China, there is still one thing that gets me every time: the accidental language merger known as “Chinglish”.  Whether the new vocabulary ellicits a smile, a snigger or downright confusion, you can’t fail to notice it.  Here are a few more gems I’ve found since January…

Spotted in a supermarket in Hangzhou.  No need to return your unwanted items – get them torn up instead.  Or so this sign seems to suggest…

Because the railings are just as important as the relics, you know.

At first glance this sign seems to be a silly mistake – a substitute that somehow missed the relationship between “four” and “for” – but there is likely a deep-rooted reason for the unexpected laughs this Beijing beauty salon brings.  The Mandarin for the number ‘four’  (sì) sounds scarily similar to that for ‘death’ (); because of this, the  number four has the same reputation in China as the number thirteen does in the UK.  Mobile numbers, apartment blocks, hotel floors – people will avoid having the number four in their lives at all costs.  “Beauti5All”: in a country where small razors are used to shape one’s  eyebrows, you need all the luck you can get when it comes to being  beautified.

Here you have it, my personal, all-time favourite example of Chinglish.  Proclaiming its warning proudly at the side of the stairs, this sign in a McDonald’s in Beijing’s Chaoyang district makes me laugh every single time!

Nĭ chī le ma?

25 Apr

Have you eaten yet?

When I realised I had hardly mentioned food in this blog over the past eight months, I was surprised at myself – not only because I love my food, but because food is such a large part of our lives here.

Think of the absolute basic, every foods you have in your home in the UK.  Bread.  Milk.  Cheese.  I thought these essentials of my daily diet would be essentials elsewhere – but I was wrong.  I went months without breakfast before I realised that the Japanese supermarket in the city centre imported cereal; it was another few months before I found bread that was not as sweet as spoonful of sugar.  Yes, we should try and adapt to cultural differences, but I just can’t bring myself to have rice, noodles and soup for breakfast.

Breakfast aside, I do love the food here.  I miss variety occasionally (and have had a few cheese packages sent from Scotland) but once you know what (and how) to order, you can eat all sorts.  While not brave enough to eat scorpions or intestines, this fussy eater has re-trained her taste buds.  Spicy Sichuan squid.  Freshly fried noodles from street stalls.  Hot pot – where you boil the noodles, vegetables and meat in a bubbling soup – is my meal of choice at least once a week.  And let’s not forget the dumplings.  Jiaozi, baozi, fried, boiled, steamed – the list of them is endless and so is my appetite.

Street food might look scary, but it’s a safe bet it will be some of the best food you try here.  Food from ‘holes in the wall’, where windows and front rooms are opened up to the world as fast food joints, tends to be tasty.  The ‘chicken burger’ – fried chicken in something akin to a fried pitta bread – from a window near my apartment is a personal favourite when in a hurry.

Eating is also a social occasion.  It is very unusual for me to stay at home and eat (and no, not just because I can’t cook) but because it is cheap, easy and so much more fun to eat out.  We hardly ever order a dish for one – you order a few different communal dishes (dàpán), then use your chopsticks to pick and choose what to eat with your own bowl of mĭ fàn (rice).  It’s a great chance to eat, drink and catch up with friends after a long day.

Then there is, of course, dessert.  Cadburys and Reeses might be in short supply, but Tianjin is famous for its bakeries.  Whether it’s the decades-old Kiesling bakery at Xia Bai Lou (I have a penchant for their chocolate shortbread-style treats) or the pricey cheesecake special at Black Swan in the centre of town, those of us with a sweet tooth are well catered for.  I for one am inclined to agree with an old Chinese belief that we have two stomachs: one for food, the other for sweets.  What a perfect excuse to eat even more chocolate eggs this Easter weekend!

These are a few of my favourite things.

Delicious dumplings!

San Li Tun street food.

Squirrel fish (it tastes a lot better than it sounds).

I’m a regular at this noodle outpost.

Dunkin Donuts, China-style.

Frying up a feast.


The Brides are Back in Town

18 Apr

Back in November I mentioned the big business that is wedding photography here.  The wedding photographers and wannabe models must have been in hibernation during those minus-twenty degree days, because the spring sunshine is seeing the return of the brides-to-be in bridezilla meringues, scarlet silks and preppy polka dots.  As a postscript to my earlier post, here are some more recent couples caught on camera:

See these white blobs? They’re identikit beach brides on GuLang Yu.

It must have taken her a while to haul this dress up the Great Wall!

This woman didn’t smile once – maybe she is of the same opinion as the women interviewed in this New York Times article?

This couple were really cute; they were so excited about having their photo taken, and were more than happy to chat away with the nosy foreigners (that would be us!).

Life Through A Lens

11 Apr

Staring – not a sly glance, but a full-on, locked-eye look – is not unusual here.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite; staring might be bad manners back in Britain, but that’s not the case in China.  It was unnerving in the beginning, back in August when I was navigating my way around Tianjin, but I barely notice it these days.

A step up from staring is snapping on a camera.  If you happen to be acting the tourist in the Forbidden City or by the Bund, you can guarantee that someone will be taking a photo of you.  Whether they do so surreptitiously or blatantly, on their mobile phones or with a paparazzi style zoom lens, people will be snapping a shot of you.

Some will go that step further, and want to be in the photo with you.  Why anyone wants holiday photos with a complete stranger I’m not entirely sure, but I prefer this to the sneaky snaps, as people are usually incredibly friendly about the whole thing.  My parents were treated like minor celebrities when they visited the Forbidden City; one blonde friend had a gaggle of school girls shyly ask for his photo in Beijing; I awkwardly stood through a string of photos with strangers on my first visit to Shanghai.  We routinely joke that there are hundreds of photos of us on QQ, the ever-popular Chinese instant messaging site.

They say if you can’t beat them, join them. So, taking tips from the best, I’ve turned the tables and have been doing some people-watching of my own…

They’re Lovin It

6 Apr

McDonald’s, that is.  I’ve written before about how consumption of branded, luxury goods is growing faster in China than anywhere else.  Just as popular – if not much more so – is the consumption of fast food.

While the home of Ronald McDonald is not a place I frequent in the UK, I have eaten there more times in the past 8 months than I have in the last 8 years.  When you’ve had your fill of rice and noodles, McDonald’s is the only place for plain, familiar food.  There is literally a McDonald’s on every corner, and every branch is always bustling.

The first McDonald’s store in China opened in Shenzhen in 1990, and there are now 1000 stores throughout the country – a figure set to double by 2013.  Sales of BigMacs, fries and the rest of the fast food family now represent the largest McDonald’s market outside of the company’s home country across the Pacific.

To understand just how popular McDonald’s is over here, take a look at these photos:

Yes.  McDonald’s delivers.  The bright red is helmet hard to miss (my mum thought a fireman was rushing through the fast food joint) and the scooters mean they can compete on the rollercoaster ride that is a Chinese road without the food going cold.  McDonald’s is planning to bring the Drive-Thru to the Middle Kingdom in the near future, but why bother going to the Big Mac, when the Big Mac can come to you?