It has been a long hiatus i know. However, in the mean time I have been busy setting up a new and amazing blog.
Do pay it a visit for all things China, sports, and politics.
See you on the other side!
Tales of an Englishman's adventures in the Middle Kingdom
It has been a long hiatus i know. However, in the mean time I have been busy setting up a new and amazing blog.
Do pay it a visit for all things China, sports, and politics.
See you on the other side!
Teacher's Day - 10th September 2011
10.09.2011 - 10.09.2011
8.40pm and the rush for the doors was akin to the supporters of a team soundly beaten by their local rivals; only the hardy few remained to witness the bitter end. Tables lay deserted of inhabitants with only the stains of food and wine to attest to the decadence of just a few moments earlier.
Teacher’s Day in China has no equivalent in the UK. From a few days out, artistic students graffiti the blackboards around the school with poems and drawings intending to display the high and affectionate regard they hold their teachers in. A day or so before, presents begin to arrive on your desk (a rather spiky cactus in my case – one is left to wonder its symbolism.) By the time the day itself arrives your desk is littered with cards and notes from various classes explaining how important you are as a teacher. Oh and the ego boost is also thrown in for fun.
Stemming from a re-establishment of the importance of teachers following decades of the oppression, Teachers Day is now an institution all over China. The biggest tradition, outside of the student’s rather overly sentimental accolades, is the teacher’s meal where all of the academic staff gather to celebrate together.
The host for this years bash was the ‘restaurant across the road’. Part of a 5 star western-styled housing development no expense was spared. Walking through the thick oak doors was like surveying a scene from the Great Hall in Harry Potter. A head table lay at the far end of the room with close to a hundred smaller ones filling the cavernous space between. It was only at that moment that I realized I had unintentionally been moving in time with some music I recognized. Struggling to recall the lyrics, they came in a flash as the chorus struck up and Anna launched into a full-blooded rendition of Cotton Eyed Joe.
After speech upon speech by increasingly senior members of the school, and a glass-breaking rendition of some Chinese opera music, wild cheers broke out as our Chinese friend yelled across the din that dinner was only moments away. And what a dinner it was, ranging from expensive and exotic seafood to crispy goose breast.
Being a veggie in China is no mean feat, especially at major dinners where the Chinese attempt to sate their lust for meat; so when Anna had a ‘veggie dish’ placed before her the shock was on the scale of ‘water-into-wine’ proportions. Desperate to know what it was so it could be re-ordered, a sea of blank faces reached for their English-Chinese app on their phone, triumphantly a phone was thrust towards her with its owner looking particularly pleased. The colour drained out of Anna’s face almost as quickly as she had drained the bowl of its contents, confused I reached for the phone… ‘Jellyfish Blubber’ was the hilarious, almost ridiculous, phrase that indicated Anna’s 17 years of vegetarianism had been shattered in the most stunning of fashions.
As with most experiences in China they often end where you would expect. Having eaten dinner the toasts began. Throughout the meal glasses of wine had sat untouched on our tables and when the principle launched into a speech declaring to one and all a Happy Teacher’s Day the toast seemed complete, the wine dispatched with. Not a bit of it. Despite wine being a luxury item suddenly access to gratuitous amounts was a simple as taking the smallest of sips from you already full glass.
In Chinese culture the act of a toast is important; it represents a persons status in society and also serves as an opportunity to cement friendships. Like a pyramid the most important and influential make their way round the various tables to ‘toast’ the underlings. After this process is well on its way, other people in senior management and academic positions continue the procession around the tables. Finally it is the chance of the masses, and a chaotic and frenzied period of drinking breaks out. Unlike the UK no wine is consumed between toasts, yet when it is consumed it is knocked back in one severe gulp, to fail to do so is a sign of disrespect to the other party (or parties) in the toast. As the night wore on the gulps were ever larger and the event that had started in almost stately elegance had descended into a free lock in at the local; that was until 8.40 when it was time to return to school.
As the best part of 600 inebriated teachers undertook the not inconsiderable task of walking 10 minutes back to the campus, a procession punctuated with occasional vomiting and public urination, a question had occurred to me; what of the 2500 or so students left behind at the school? Certainly every teacher had been at the meal and as it was a boarding school they was sure to be chaos left behind. Upon inquiring I was told that they had no idea of the teacher’s adventures, and had instead been told the teaching staff had an important meeting to attend and thus they must behave especially well. Unthinkable in the UK, yet as we wandered through the gates barely a sound was detected from the students; it was just left to ones imagination as to how even the most hardened drinker was going to explain away their state for the remaining hour of evening prep most had with the students.
Red eyes and silent offices the next day attested to the indulgencies the night before, and with it Teachers Day had served its end once more, as what surely must be the worlds most entertaining, if not bizarre, team-building exercise.
At some intangible point between the crush for the plane at Moscow (despite numbered seating and sequential boarding procedure), and the familiar ‘neutral-yet-stern’ look of the Chinese border authorities I had arrived back in China for a second year of teaching.
Barely a year has gone by since I completed my training in Beijing and headed south to be welcomed by Guangzhou’s stifling summer heat, and once again its sweaty embrace is clinging to me nearly as much as my t-shit is to my back.
If the weather’s atmosphere has been oppressive and hugely draining, then the opposite can be said of the new school.
Smiles and handshakes were thrown around with great abundance when our mentor (read; troubleshooter/lifesaver) Bin Li collected us from Guangzhou. Replaced momentarily with looks of disbelief and nervous laughter when he saw the pile of stuff me and Anna had with us, a quick phone call to a couple of mates for help ensured they quickly reappeared. Now nearly a week later the smiles still remain and only the faces have changed.
When light dawned on the Thursday our surroundings took on more shape than they had the previous evening. The school is situated next too a river flowing towards Hong Kong and the South China Sea. Bang in the middle between Gunagzhou and Hong Kong lays the city of Shunde. Made up of several different conurbations (as is often the way in China) Shunde still remains a ‘small’ city in Chinese terms despite a population of over 1m. The school lies 10km outside of one of Shunde’s larger centers, Ronggui, in an area that is owned, developed and named after the East Coast Development Company; in Chinese, Dongyiyuan.
Dongyiyuan is s strange place. Next to the school in one direction along the river lie a row of houses that would not look out of place in any American sitcom based in wealthy suburbia, yet in rural(ish) China they appear entirely alien. Head in the other direction along the river away from the school and you quickly reach more the traditional and disheveled housing associated with manual and agricultural workers.
Across the road from here is street upon street of American suburbia, and yet this is just the start. Travel a further 5 minutes down the road, pass under the high speed rail bridge and you reach row after row, street after street, mile after mile, of brand new housing, unused yet ready for occupancy. There are just enough construction crews milling about to convince you that life is possible beyond the bridge.
Back at the school students pour in for the new term, classrooms are cleaned, and the school quickly awakens from its dormant summer. Built only a few years ago things here are state of the art. Each classroom has full air conditioning and interactive electronic boards; the school swimming pool enjoys a roof-top location overlooking the river; and the gym with pull out seating puts many university facilities in England to shame.
Up on the 8th floor, overlooking the river and its incessant convoy of freight boats I am beginning to feel slightly lost. Yes this is China, the daily smog and groups of people in the local shops who stare and slyly take pictures of the two new foreigners are ample testament to that. But the attractive housing, the rooftop swimming pools, the high speed train network and the endless stream of Mercedes and BMW cars hints more to a China of the future than the crowded chaotic and old city I left just a couple of months ago.
Do not be fooled though, Shunde is merely the first minute representation of an expanding middle class with access to a disposable income, just round the corner in sleepy Xiaohuangpu the usual grinds of poverty are more than evident.
01.03.2011 - 13.03.2011
Back to reality with a bump; those post travel blues kick hard.
Even though I am technically still travelling in China, the first few days back from any trip are always flat and this time was no exception,
especially considering that this time there was no nice home-baking and paternal care (food/washing/taxi service etc.) to ease me back into real life.
Within 24 hours of landing at a wet and cold Guangzhou International Airport, I was walking to my first class clutching at a lesson plan hastily devised on the flight back. In fact, it was an article on the plane that had given me the inspiration. Speed-dating - and its rise in China.
Here was an interesting topic that not only allowed unrestricted practice for spoken English but also allowed a significant amount of cultural exchange. This was as close to the holy grail of ESL lessons as it is possible to get. After a quick pinch to check reality wasn’t suddenly about to ruin my dreams, I got planning…
Now if a relative or friend has ever uttered their mild disapproval at the heavenly mortal you now call 'relationship material', then spare a thought for Chinese kids. Teenage relationships here are actively 'banned', though not by law per se; rather by pressure from parents and teachers. And, as with many things in Chinese culture, this is linked to the expanding population.
Every year millions of students graduate from high school and look to go to university. The problem is that the number of ‘top’ universities in China compared to the number of high school graduates wanting to go to these institutions is hugely disproportionate . Entry into university is decided by one set of exams called the Gao Kao, at the end of your final year of high school and it is this score that decides your future education and, in many ways, your future full stop.
From the start of their three year long high school careers, everything is done with the Gao Kao in mind. As early as the first term of their first year at high school exams assess the students' progress; lunchtime help sessions are set up; and every aspect of a student’s performance is analysed to ensure they are on track. The pressure to succeed in the Gao Kao builds and builds for the next 3 years.
Like most high schools in China, the one I teach at is a boarding school, meaning that the teachers are in constant contact with their students. In this close environment, any relationships the students embark on are quickly spotted and noted. The teachers and parents alike fear that a relationship will harm the student’s chances in the Gao Kao, as it will distract them from their studies. Therefore, as soon as it is found out that a student has a boyfriend or girlfriend, parents are called, visits are made and very quickly the 'ban' is put in place.
This is a fair step away from the reality back home where, come year 11, most students have at least dabbled in matters of the heart. The idea of parents and teachers controlling who you see and what you do to this extent would spark outrage amongst Britain’s youths, yet curiously here it is accepted, as the consequences (failure in the Gao Kao) are too much of a deterrent.
Back to the wet Monday in early March...
When the first slide for my speed dating lesson went up with the word ‘dating’ in bold print the inevitable pandemonium and confusion broke out. After a slow start, the discussion on dating, particularly speed dating, was lively and often hilarious to listen too. You had the ‘good kids' extolling the virtues of school with no distractions, and the kids who had a boyfriend/girlfriend, or wanted one, suggesting social interaction could only be a good thing with a serious subtext of rebellion running along throughout.
What did become clear was that it wasn’t just relationships that were clamped down on in the name of the Gao Kao. Pets, the Internet and often friends were all things deemed to take up valuable study time and attention and thus were carefully controlled and limited or, in the case of pets, just banned outright. In fact, it often seemed that the only thing these kids were allowed to do in their free time was study and take part in extracurricular lessons.
It is not my place to judge this phenomenon, nor really to offer an opinion; the reasons for such strict control of a student’s free time are reasons that, as an English educated student, I could never understand and will never experience. What is clear is that many of these decisions, draconian and outdated as they might seem, are taken with the benefit of the student bang in the centre of them. However, when considering my own education and high school career in relation to China, it is impossible to ignore the sharp relief into which things fall.
In England, students appear a lot more socially mature compared to students of the same age in China. Often, friendships and social interactions are quite whimsical and immature here, whereas in England they seem a bit more developed and advanced at a younger age. Also, the students’ appreciation of the outside world is very limited in China compared to England. As the Internet becomes easier to access for the students in their homes (at school it is restricted as it is a ‘distraction’) then this will change; however, for now there is very little appreciation of the wider world beyond the school, let alone beyond China.
All of this means that students in China, even university students, seem young and naïve when compared to their western counterparts and this is rooted in population pressures. But, given the chance, they are socially vibrant and confident, as illustrated by the speed dating lesson where, by week two after the debating has stopped and they had to speed date for 40 minutes western style, every single class threw themselves into it with gusto and excitement.
15.02.2011 - 19.02.2011
After 5 weeks, the best part of 5000 miles and numerous adventures later, it was time for the final leg of the trip. The most exciting part: we had saved the best for last!
Siem Riep has been known to travellers ever since it was ‘discovered’ by the French in the mid-1800s. After missing a generation of travellers during the Khmer Rouge period, this thriving destination is most certainly back on the radar and is red hot once again.
Travelling round Cambodia everyone has one question: have you been to Siem Riep yet? It is not a question of ‘if’. It is ‘when’. As you hit the town (in our case after 12 of the most wearisome hours of our lives), the first thing you realise is that you are most certainly back on the tourist trail once more. Retired ‘cruisey-types’ were back (we last saw those in Ha Long Bay), as were the huge tourist markets along with inflated prices. Suddenly a fiver a night wasn’t covering accommodation – panic set in.
Considering we arrived at 10pm, with no reservation, to a bus station 5 miles away from the city, in total darkness and with no means of getting to the city apart from the crazy moto drivers, the fact we found a bed whilst remaining in one piece was satisfying.
By the time daylight had arrived and we had got to our new hostel (a bed was about the best part of last night), the city had taken on a different vibe. Whereas Phnom Penh was slightly edgy and unpredictable with some of Hanoi’s mahem, Siem Riep was a lovely, relaxed comfort zone. This is not to say it was boring, or that the street kids and social problems were not just as visible in Siem Riep but, as proven by the cruisey-types, it was certainly less intimidating.
After a morning of ruining our budgets at the amazingly touristy central market, where yet more amazingly addictive ‘tat stores’ were to be found, the afternoon (together with every other afternoon following that one) was spent at various coffee shops, juice bars and real bars, only adding to the relaxed and chilled feel of the city.
In all honesty, people come to Siem Riep for one thing. Yes, it is a lovely town, but without Angkor Wat it would still be a quiet farming town where tourism had yet to smear its greasy claws.
Please excuse the slightly cutting remark above but I hope that, once I have given you the background story, you will appreciate my slightly negative undertones.
Tourism in Cambodia is an emerging industry, bringing with it money and hopes of social mobility to millions of Cambodians. However, to say tourism here is commercialised moves beyond the descriptive realm to the one of reality.
Take the genocide memorial museum in Phnom Penh, possibly the most important historical sight in Cambodia, tourist or otherwise, and yet when you look closely you will find that a Japanese company owns the commercial rights to the museum. Yes, that is right, the commercial rights to it. It was thus no surprise to find that the lovely paragon of virtue that is Shell owns the commercial rights to Angkor Wat. To criticise the Cambodian government of selling their national treasures down the river for a quick buck would be churlish and hypocritical when you consider such topics as the UK fishing industry or the Premier League, but there is an important point here beyond the obvious.
Siem Riep is literally overflowing with rickshaw drivers wanting the pleasure of being your guide around the town and, more importantly, around the temples of Angkor Wat. At £10 a day it is a rich ticket for them and a vital source of income to the local populations especially the local, male, under-40 population. Shell, however, are rumoured to be introducing a new transit system around the temple complex that only licensed operators will able to work. Under the guise of improving ‘the visitor experience’, in one swift move Shell will undermine much of the local rickshaw industry, severing the financial umbilical cord that connects the temples to the local population. When hearing stories like these, it is hard not to suspect with large amounts of cynicism that Shell may just be trying to cream of a few extra dollars of profit, as no doubt there will be a significant charge for their new transit system.
Cynicism aside, the temples at Siem Riep are utterly incredible. Getting up early to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat itself was phenomenal and one of those rare once-in-a-lifetime activities that did live up to its billing. However, one temple above all others stole the show: Bayon.
As we approached Bayon over a stunning stone-carved bridge that passes under a majestic archway, the pile of rubble in the distance was an anticlimax to the sunrise we had just taken in at Angkor Wat. Even as we pulled up next to it there was little to recommend it. Then just as we were about to pass it over and leave, the sun hit the stone carved pillars to reveal the most stunning effect. Faces. Hundreds of faces. From every angle you are being watched by the most enigmatic eyes on earth. On every one of Bayon’s 52 stone pillars that make up the temple here, are four faces looking outwards to the four compass points, as if a king were surveying his kingdom. It was in utter awe and wonder that we passed two hours here struggling to take in, and struggling to leave, the faces that reach into your soul with each glance.
Two days of exploring the temples had ticked off all the ‘must-see’ ones off our list and had left us with some amazing memories: the Tomb Raider temple of Ta Phrom in the Jungle; the Banteay Srei 20km away with the most dazzlingly intricate stone carvings; the majestic aura of Angkor Wat; and, of course, the charisma of Bayon.
It was a fitting end to what had been a memorable trip, offering up a glimpse of the richness and beauty in both culture and nature of one of the most captivating regions on earth. If Vietnam has exploded onto the global tourism stage then Cambodia is not far behind, with both offering intimate and vivid examples of the good and bad of this attention. My advice, get there now before they become the Thailand of tomorrow!