A Travellerspoint blog

China's Spiders Web

Guanxi

'Guanxi'

It’s the thing that runs all facets of Chinese life and, without it, you would be lost as just another nobody in the faceless mass of humanity that inhabits this extraordinary country.

In England, the saying ‘i's not what you know, it's who you know’ is seen by many as a negative yet omnipresent aspect of getting ahead. In China, ‘guanxi’ means the same; the attitude towards it, however, differs significantly.

‘Guanxi’ is a slightly intangible concept to explore; it can mean many things, though its central idea is fairly accessible. Essentially, it refers to your network of connections, your very own spider's web of contacts. In China, in order to get anything done or achieved, having good ‘guanxi’ is a necessity.

Whilst this system in Britain is perhaps regarded with suspicion, an old remnant of the ‘old boys club’ still polluting ‘the system’, in China, it is held in great reverence. People work tirelessly on developing their contacts and their ‘friends in high places’; a friend of a friend can help you do this; your friend at this office can help you do that; if you like, it is the grease that oils the cogs of society.

Nothing is more important in dictating the trajectory of your personal success than these contacts. Let me use a few examples to demonstrate what I mean:

1) A student of mine loves to travel and has the money to do so. Nothing out of the ordinary there. However, getting a visa as a Chinese national can be a pain in the backside, even getting the right permission to leave is hard. A friend of his father works in the right office and the paperwork, which takes most Chinese people a couple of months to sort out, takes him a couple of days. – Guanxi.

2) A doctor I tutor from the local hospital has recently set up a new unit at the hospital she works in. Despite taking a long time, the fact it was possible at all was due to having the right friends in the right places. – Guangxi.

3) A friend works in business and recently told me a story about trying to secure the right licences for his premises. Originally, he was told to expect a 3-month wait, after a few phone calls to friends in the right places it was sorted in 4 days. – Guangxi.

Although this sounds ominously like corruption, it is important to understand that it is a cultural, rather than monetary, phenomenon. In a country where you are as anonymous as it is possible to be, these connections, for many, represent a lifeline and a way to create social mobility.

This also relates into wider society in a more tangible way. When you arrive, it is incredibly hard to break down the barriers to become close to people. You feel as though people won’t go out of their way for you in the same way as people do in Britain; a simple example; asking for help with directions. Whereas most people in Britain would help if at all possible, many Chinese people wave you away. If you are not in someone’s circle of guanxi, then you don’t register on their radar in any way. Whilst there is a negative side to this, you quickly learn the benefits of the positive side too.

If you do find yourself inside somebody’s spider's web, then you are looked after and protected like a member of their immediate family; if you need any help or assistance it will be there without question. In many ways, this system is an intermediate step towards a social security system.

The social security system in China is very scarce, minimal in fact, so guanxi becomes increasingly crucial to your quality of life. With fewer children to support the family (as has previously happened in traditional Chinese culture), wider connections take on an increasingly strong significance in the support and success of a family. Guanxi, in many ways, is a cultural response to this gap and, although it has been present in China’s culture for hundreds of years, its current significance is hard to ignore.

For many, guanxi represents a tool for bettering yourself, be it getting into the right school, getting business done smoothly or even finding a English tutor for your kid. It is present in every part of life here and, although it would be wrong to pin the entire social fabric on this one aspect, it is impossible to ignore its importance.

Many people who come to China for the first time, or encounter Chinese people in their own culture, can often interpret them as cold and closed. This is understandable given the negative aspects of guanxi; yet Chinese people are some of the warmest and most protective people there are and if you are on the receiving end of any guanxi community then you will want for very little.

Long point short: if you are inside then you are part of one of the strongest communities around; if you are outside then don’t expect much support.

This is a basic intro to China's oil... guanxi.

Posted by Nomadlife 23:13 Archived in China Tagged culture business guanxi Comments (0)

Travel Dynamics

How tourism can affect a local community

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NINH BINH

With the first week rapidly disappearing into the past, our minibus roared into the small provincial town of Ninh Binh. Following the chaos of Hanoi, and the high volume tourist trap of Ha Long Bay to reach a town where you were once again considered a rarity was blessed relief and a nice reminder of our status in China. Certainly sleepy Ninh Binh on first glance appears to be a calm oasis in the madness that consumes the northern tourist trail in Vietnam. Only that is about to change…

The opening sentence of the guidebook goes along the lines of; ‘get to Vietnam now before it becomes the new Thailand – overrun with tourism to the exclusion of local culture and life.’ Having arrived in Ninh Binh from Ha Long Bay, possibly one of the great tourist sites on the planet, the warning had been loud and clear.

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With a new loan and grant from the EU worth up to 1bn Euros, the majority of which is specifically aimed at the development of the tourist industry in Vietnam; Vietnam as a tourist destination is changing at an inexorable rate.

After finding space in one of the 3 hostels in town the usual routine was followed and we figured out food, drink and the next day. Having spent the last two days in luxury on a boat, we figured a day cycling round the local countryside with a local guide would be the perfect tonic to any airs and graces acquired in Ha Long.

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Tina, our guide and inspiration for this blog, arrived at 8am bright and ready to go; needless to say we were neither bright nor ready to go. However, 5 minutes later and fuelled with Vietnam’s rocket fuel coffee we were on our way out of town on bikes considerably smaller and more hard work than they should have been!

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The ride was beautiful, as we eased through small rural villages with stunning karsts (yep still on those) surrounding us on all sides as we made our way along roads that ran flush with shimmering green rice paddies with smiling and friendly locals at every turn to keep us going.

About 2km out from our first stop, the newly developed (and currently ‘un-touristy’) Trang An grottos, the beautiful mask slipped to reveal the rather less picturesque reality. Suddenly the fresh air was replaced with fumes from the numerous heavy duty construction trucks and machinery that ploughed up and down the road with metronomic regularity. The stunning views were replaced with the ugly scares made by these machines. And Tina’s smile was replaced by a much darker scowl.

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Tina explained that one man was responsible for all the ‘development’ in this region and that its impacts were far from positive in many respects. It transpires that this one man is a well-connected business figure with strong links to the family of a very important political figure in the country and an extensive construction empire. Consequently almost single-handedly he is pushing forward the development of the areas tourism.

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On the surface development of infrastructure is positive especially in a country with a past laden with the destruction of such networks. The road which we now rolled along on was paved with good drainage either side and, unusually for Vietnam, was generously wide. Also we learnt money had been poured into the attraction we were headed to, Trang An, creating jobs and employment for some locals.

The region has been described by many romantic travel authors as an ‘inland Ha Long Bay’ and it’s not hard to see why. With a river flowing through the heart of the spectacular scenery there is no denying the beauty of the area. Only this is not the whole story.

Rather than delight in the future and the opportunity that the development of this area will bring to the town, and especially those such as Tina who are directly involved in the tourist industry, the vast majority here have a very negative view of the projects in this area, and in particular of the man whose construction company is benefitting extensively from the government’s desire to bring tourists to the area.

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Unlike the more established, and not to say crowded, Tam Coc just a few kilometres away; Trang An is mostly man-made. Tunnels have been blasted into the karsts and the flow and direction of the river has been engineered at almost every turn. Roads have been created from where tracks lay previously, and locals are being squeezed out at every turn. In the construction of the attraction, (ironically heralded as eco-tourism) numerous farmers and locals were forced off their land and it was turned over to the government and ultimately the construction company. Food prices immediately rose and according to Tina that trend is likely to continue as more and more productive land in the area is swallowed by the desire to bring tourists to the area and along with tourism comes inflation, much of which the highly impoverished local community is ill-equipped to deal with.

Whereas before no licence or qualification was needed to run tourists around the rivers of the area, many local boat runners, many of them women, find themselves in an increasing struggle with each other to secure an income and many have been squeezed out of their job as a result. Perhaps the most telling conversation we had regarded the pace of change in this area. Just 2 years ago, Trang An was nothing more than a small river with little to recommend it save one small area where boats could go. Today it is at the centre of a multimillion dollar project, fully networked into new roads, hotels and tourists.

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What is certain is that the pace of change in this area is extraordinary; however, it looks set to continue as the Vietnamese government embraces the exponential growth in the country’s tourism. It sees whole communities pitted against one well connected man, hardship for many, money for some. One thing the guidebook had right is go now while you can still find ‘real Ninh Binh’.

On a much less intense note Tina our guide is due to set up a hostel in the next few months to help support a local orphanage for the blind and deaf, as soon as she gets it up and running this will be THE place to go so if your passing through make sure you look it up and check in!

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HOI AN

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Three words sum up Hoi An perfectly; style, class and suits. In fact these words are often put together but usually in the more rarefied surrounds of fashion catwalks and style mags. A town famed for its tailor industry is a treat and a must see of any visit to this part the world.
We rocked up late afternoon after our bus from Ninh Binh decided to go really really slow and be really really late. First job was to hit the tailor shops; rumours of handmade, fully tailored, and high quality clothes had hit our ears and like most who pass through this small fishing town we were powerless to resist at least a peek at the merchandise.

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Armed with a good recommendation we headed to ‘Peace Tailors’ just outside the main drag and had barely made it through the door before an army of women greeted us with tome after tome of the latest fashion catalogues. Designs from Hugo Boss, Versace, and hundreds of other ‘names’ jumped out as we politely looked through trying to figure out if we had entered a bookstore or a tailors shop.

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The local culture of tailoring has evolved into a large industry in the town, and merchants pride themselves on being able to copy any item of clothing in any style. Inevitably the promise of an exact copy of any suit in any style I wanted, with top quality wool and silk for less that $90 grabbed me by the throat and dragged me into a sale. Words such a ‘future investment,’ ‘one-time opportunity’ and ‘because I want to’ flashed through my head as justification to the heinous crime I was about to inflict upon my wallet.

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All measured up and sorted we headed off the next day to explore what is surely Vietnam’s most striking town architecturally. Influences from former French colonial ism are everywhere, and (although I never thought I would say this) thank god they were. After the drab grey concrete boxes China treats me too, something with flair and style was welcome relief, as was the chilled atmosphere that engulfed the town. No one here is in a hurry, even the numerous (500 and counting numerous) tailors shops and the usual tourist tat sellers are friendly and relaxed and would rather have a laugh rather than harass you 24/7 like they seem to do elsewhere.

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My highest recommendation for this place comes in that if I could go back to Vietnam this would be the first stop. The people, the local culture mixed in seamlessly with tourism, and above all soul make this one of the best stops with my only regret being that we couldn’t stay longer.

All in all Ninh Binh showed the possibility of what might happen should Vietnam continue to throw itself directly at tourism with their skirt up. A disappearance of local culture, locals pushed aside, and unsettled communities. Hoi An proves that it can work, despite reaching a tipping point itself as more and more outside tailors come into to join the bandwagon, if it is done at a relaxed pace. Both cases prove one thing…tourism has hit Vietnam with its full force and there is little turning back to be done; like it or not.

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Posted by Nomadlife 00:25 Archived in Vietnam Tagged tourism hoi_an ninh_binh tailors problems_of_tourism trang_an tam_coc Comments (2)

Break from reality...

Guangzhou to Ha Long Bay

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It has been legendary among the expat teachers in the city; the mythical beast that was always there tempting you but then matched its allure only with a failure to appear; then one day without warning it had arrived. Chinese New Year had arrived and with it five weeks of freedom. Many expats were off to Thailand, Malaysia or back home, but for me there was only one direction to head, South East Asia.

THE JOURNEY

4pm rolled around on the afternoon of Saturday 15th of January, the hectic and overcrowded confines of the main railway station in Guangzhou was the setting for the first leg of our adventure, a 14 hour dash across the southern provinces of China to Nanning city just 3 hours from the northern Vietnam border. With pulsating crowds of Chinese all heading back o the countryside of the New Year (February 3rd) the noise, heat and smell was oppressive and by the time 2 hours had been spent queuing to get on the train the slim hard bed provided seemed like sweet relief.

Departure in GZ main Train station

Departure in GZ main Train station

En Route to Hanoi

En Route to Hanoi

Now Chinese trains are part of the most used public transport system on the planet, so travelling at peak time was only going to end in one thing, space invasion! After half an hour getting settled an innocent attempt to make friends with the elderly guy who had taken up squatting rites on the end of my bed ended in the next 6 hours spent making conversation. No problem here except that he spoke not one word of English consequently leaving me and Anna to explain our life story to him, and the gathering crowd, (who by this time were also using our beds as arm chairs for the story of the travelling ‘whities’) in our finest broken Chinese.

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6.40, and the train pulls in an hour late. Having braved the early morning communal squat toilets for a quick freshen up, and successfully ignored the sewage surrounding them thus keeping my stomach in check, we were ready for action, and we needed to be. Our connecting bus to the freedom of the border was due to leave at 7.20 on the other side of town. To preserve mother’s nerves I will refrain from the specific details, but when the driver finally understood we were in a hurry he was only too pleased to oblige with the half hour trip completed well under 20 minutes, every Chinese has a Schumacher in them somewhere it seems. As it turned out it all this drama was slightly unnecessary as several busses were leaving for Hanoi that morning with the first not departing to 8.30 we now had well over an hour to kill!

Having rolled through the spectacular countryside of southern China and northern Vietnam for the best part of a day, with giant limestone hills (karsts) rising out of the ground at every turn, the bus’s entrance into the hustle and bustle of Hanoi seems hugely out of place with the journey.

HANOI

The city was crazy. Mopeds and rickshaws flew in all direction at frightening pace. Horns quickly established themselves as the soundtrack for our stay as humans and animals converged regularly into the mayhem. In stark contrast to China people walked fast and with a purpose, the energy in the city was immediately palpable. In the middle of the chaos lay our hostel, a comparative oasis of calm in the hectic surroundings. With bags dropped off and a complimentary coffee tucked away we walked out the door into the wall of sound and energy that rushed to greet us.

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The energy was electric as we walked through the city’s old town area. Crossing the road became a genuine adrenaline rush and an almost impossible task as the narrow, buzzing streets contained little in the way of gaps to cross and after the first few times where we waited diligently for a gap to appear, the technique became clear… set off at a slow pace into the flow of traffic and let them avoid you…

Walking through the maze of streets and alleys that entwine in the old centre you are quickly struck by an oddity totally foreign to western towns and cities, each street sells pretty much the same thing. In a clear break from basic economic theory which says your business should find a niche, each street sells just one product. If shoes are your thing then there is no better street than Hang Be which sells purely shoes, Silk is on Hang Gai, and sunglasses on Hang Ngang.

Hanoi Street Life

Hanoi Street Life

Lanterns

Lanterns

One of the best things about Hanoi was a small restaurant called KOTO. Set up as a not-for-profit venture to provide some of Hanoi’s numerous street children with a way out of poverty, KOTO gives invaluable training and work-experience in the hospitality sector. This gives the young adults that work and train here the skills they need to break out of the cycle of abuse, neglect, crime and poverty. Apart from being a great cause, the food was also superb and it is well worth your support should you ever find yourself in the city.

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The brilliant water puppet show is another of the city’s treasures. Originating from bored farmers in the country’s rice paddies, the show uses water as a stage, as the master puppeteers control their puppets under the water to the accompaniment of live traditional music. The show tells many traditional stories and offered a glimpse into the traditional life of the past, even if the glimpse itself came through highly commercialised glasses.

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With only a handful stand-out attractions it is not long before most who visit discover Hanoi’s other great attraction, a café culture to rival the best in Europe. With the French bringing coffee to the country during its colonisation Vietnam has a developed and thriving coffee culture. Uniquely, the way of serving coffee here is to place a metal ‘filter’ above a glass cup of condensed milk, and allowing boiling water to drip very slowly through the ‘filter’ which is packed full of rich ground coffee (see pic.) The need for the sweet condensed milk is quickly apparent as the strength and intensity of the coffee is akin to eating a raw chilli, and the tea chaser provided as standard is a vital addition.

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Kites over Hoan Kiem Lake

HALONG BAY

With our time in Hanoi up the next stop on our trip were the marquee sights of Halong Bay, four hours to the east of Hanoi. While a four hour drive in a minibus usually isn’t worthy of note there was little usual about this trip. Warned on arrival into the minibus that ‘our roads are different to yours so don’t worry about the driving’ I guess it was inevitable that the next few hours of my life would include the constant sound of horns, numerous moments where all that the windscreen brought was fear as a lorry or car roared towards you, and finally that most usual of things, a cow strapped to the back of a scooter. Usual it wasn’t.

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Having got there in one piece (still not sure how) we boarded one of the hundreds of Chinese style junks that throng the harbour(that’s old wooden boats to me and you) and in some style headed out into the netherworld that lay consumed in mist just beyond the harbour wall.

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The escapism and surrealism that grips you is intense as the misty wall in front gives way to a faint outline of slightly darker grey. As we got nearer the grey would darken, and as we silently glided past the grey gave way to the greens and browns of the thousands of karsts that rise so majestically out of the water. It feels like you are slipping into another world as the mist then closes in behind you and slowly you are dragged deeper into the maze of karsts, with open water firmly left behind.

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The experience is everything in Ha Long, just getting into the middle of the mountains of karsts is worth the money alone. However, as with tourism everywhere there are things to keep you amused lest your attention should (if it were possible) drift from the stunning surrounding. In my experience very few of these actually enhance the trip but in this case the exception was found. By far one of the best things we did in the two days we were in the bay was to take a kayak out away from the boat to explore the deeper recesses of the maze. With the only sound breaking the clinging silence being the swish of the oars the tranquillity was absolute.

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And so as with every great trip it must end. Luckily for us this just meant the end of the beginning as our next bus (and my next blog) too us inland (at equally breakneck speed) to the small rural town of Ninh Binh. Of our time in Hanoi and Ha Long the poetic juxtaposition of the crazy city and the tranquil otherworld can be summed up in four much over used and clichéd words…

Once in a lifetime!!!

Into the Mist

Into the Mist

Posted by Nomadlife 00:08 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam hanoi nanning ha_long_bay koto Comments (0)

Teacher, me? You must be joking!!

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"You’d be mad to do it!"; "Give it 4 months and you’ll want to get straight out!"; "I wouldn’t do that if someone offered me 20 grand a week let alone 20 grand a year…" All statements from yours truly as various friends embarked on a career in teaching. As many of my friends will testify, teaching evoked about as much excitement from me as you get when you mention the words 'election pledge' and 'students' to a Lib Dem at the moment. So how is it that I find myself half way across the world doing just that? The truth is, I still have no idea but one thing is for sure, teaching in China is unique and unlike any other school system I have ever experienced.

If you read my contract (the English version, that is), I am required to teach oral English, with a strong cultural element to it, for 15 hours a week. The role could not be more straight-forward: 15 classes every week with a bit of extra razamataz thrown in here and there. Reading thus far you would be forgiven for thinking that, apart from the odd classroom story, there isn’t much to break a rather mundane experience. Yet you could not be further from the truth.

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Not two weeks into the job my phone rang and, as is the usual manor with phones, I answered it. It was my mentor. As he rambled off in broken Chinese and English, it slowly became clear that the school expected me to run an ‘extra-curriculum’ class of my own twice a week. He needed a full curriculum and marking outline by 9am tomorrow so the children could sign up for it that afternoon (this being China and also 10pm at night I was hardly surprised). Far from being annoyed or frustrated, I was excited! 2 hours a week to teach whatever I wished, as long as I had a clear marking structure…hmmmmm…

Street Life in GZ

Street Life in GZ

Garden in the Metropolis

Garden in the Metropolis

Earlier that day a student had approached me (in the early days, this was enough to make my day!) and had started to broach the rather controversial topic of Chinese foreign policy and Chinese politics in general. As I did my best to skirt around the topic, offering various examples from around the world, the distinct lack of awareness of current affairs struck me like a cartoon ‘light bulb moment’. On the whole, the Chinese can appear fairly insular as a people; a huge country economically, geographically and population-wise means that there is often little need to consider the wider geo-political workings of the world. Coupled with a large number of people working excessively long hours just to make a living, with a history of being politically conservative and internationally isolated, it is not hard to understand this phenomenon.

The Chinese student: spends most of their time (from 7am to 10pm) studying and working in the school; has huge pressure to succeed placed upon them by an enlarging population and, more importantly, their parents; from the age of 15/16 lives on a boarding school campus with highly restricted access to Internet and, thus, the wider world; is born into a society that is hugely respectful of a hierarchical system, i.e. parents and authority. In this situation, many students have had a very limited experience of the world outside their hometown, let alone outside of China.

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Although this view is more of a conservative estimate of the students' wider awareness, it holds true for many, especially in rural areas, as far too often I hear regressive views expressed in my class that have obviously come straight from the mouths of their parents (usually regarding Japan / racism / or China itself). It therefore made perfect sense to me that a current events class that concentrated on broadening students minds as well as teaching vital analytical skills was just what was needed. Thus ‘Current affairs and the media’ with Roger Golding was born.

Now the highlight of my teaching week, the lively discussion and debate on nearly every aspect of the media and current events is as instructive and rewarding for me as it is to the students, who are far from the shrinking violets I expected. Encouraging them to engage with the media and to analyse what they read, see and hear has led to great discussions on wider issues beyond the school gates. For example, half support the use of torture; half agree with animal testing; half want to stop drilling for oil in the Arctic; and every one of them supports protection for minority cultures as more are threatened by globalisation.

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In China, the realisation that success and English go hand in hand has very quickly been acted upon. Everywhere, being white and an English speaker is enough of a prestige to get you almost infinite offers to impart your knowledge at any point in the school system. So when approached by a friend of a friend to work in a local Kindergarten for a couple of times a week, I said sure, why not? Well, here’s why not: if the success of the extra-curricular class was immediate then the opposite was true at the kindergarten.

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Stepping through the heavy security gates on my first day, I was quickly hit with just how much the wealthy in China want their children to learn English. For a start, many of the parents are high-ranking army or government officials in the area. Walking to the classroom for the first time reinforced the slightly surreal feel to the experience. Something felt very strange, almost vulgar, as I passed room after room of cots and beds. It very quickly dawned on me why the parents outside the school were so eager to see their kids; this was a boarding school where the kids stayed Monday to Friday.

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Trying to keep the attention of 30 fifteen-year-olds is hard enough; harder still is keeping the attention of a class of 20 three to four-year-olds; verging on the impossible is teaching the kids English when they are only just starting to speak in their own language. It was impossible for the first few weeks but, slowly, as the term has moved on, the Tuesday and Thursday jaunts across town have become a favourite.
In the Kindergarten, it is not the teaching aspect that makes it so worth while, but rather the relationships you make with the children. They don’t care about, ‘How are you? I am fine, thank you’ or ‘Welcome. Please come in and sit down. Thank you. You're welcome.’ They care that somebody turns up each week to spend time with them.

Perfect case in point: due to the lovely bureaucracy in China and my enforced trip to HK, I missed a week at the pre-school. On my return, I walked into the classroom at the Kindergarten only to be met at the door by 25 little sets of hands and smiles waiting to fight over who hugged my leg!

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The impact of the English language upon China has been, and will continue to be, massive. It is one of the premier tools with which China is embracing the outside world, through films, music, TV and other forms of media, as well as through cultural exchange. Slowly, students are throwing off the shackles of their parents' views and ideas, and the weighty chains of history, and are engaging with events beyond their own borders, both personal and geographical. I have seen this change even in the short time I have been here, and the extra-curricular classes and the Kindergarten are two examples of this change. To be part of this period is an exciting prospect, as everyday brings a new realisation that, like any teenager, China is opening its eyes to the wider world, and one wheel on that vehicle of change can be found within the English lessons in every school across the country.

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Posted by Nomadlife 20:50 Archived in China Tagged china kindergarten students teaching guangzhou Comments (0)

A Christmas in the Orient

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Christmas, 2010. Or, as it will forever be referred to by those present, ‘Christmas in China.’ This isn’t some analysis of Christmas, looking at the cultural overtones of a capitalist Christmas hitting the shores of China. No, that was last week's blog. This is merely a look at how I spent my Christmas on the other side of the world.

If, like me, you refuse to draw too much from the few parallels this Christmas had with those spent in England, such as unusually cold weather and a full turkey dinner, then, this year, Christmas was almost universally different to any other I have experienced.

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Unlike any other Christmas, I was still at school in the week leading up to Christmas, this time as a teacher not a student but, like home, I had tinsel and a Christmas hat glued to my head all week, much to the joy of the students (joy or ridicule, you choose)! Christmas is only just on the rise culturally in China and there are far more significant holidays elsewhere in the Chinese calendar that attract the government’s attention when it comes to holiday allocations. Therefore, come the end of Thursday 23rd December into which I had packed most of my Friday classes, I was more than ready for my holiday to begin.

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CHRISTMAS EVE

Christmas Eve arrived and, as with most days, the alarm clock greeted me earlier than I would have liked; presents yet to be acquired, last minute shopping and food to get, emails to send, parents to call, all contributed to a hectic morning. Luckily for me, to the rest of China Christmas Eve is just yet another Friday in December, for if it had been England, you might currently be receiving notification of a heart attack rather than a Christmas update.

Midday came and went, and by 1pm Anna’s flat in central Guangzhou was full of our friends, both English and Chinese. In a true moment of multiculturalism, ‘Scottish Matt’, ‘Geographically complicated Amy’, ‘Midlander Adam’, and ‘Soft Southerner Luke’ met ‘Chinese Claire’, and we all met ‘Irish Dean’. Hats were compulsory, as was the Christmas playlist Anna had put together, all pressies for the Secret Santa had been acquired and we were ready to go.

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Following a hugely competitive, and close, game of boys vs. girls Christmas Carol charades, and a rather more relaxed Pass the Christmas Parcel, the next Christmas tradition to start was food. Mulled wine and ginger thins were followed by cheese and biscuits. Come late afternoon and after much discussion as to our final destination for Xmas Eve dinner, we found ourselves headed to the highly-recommended (and equally untraditional) Indonesian restaurant, Pan Dan. The food was amazing, the service even better, and it was all rather wonderfully topped off by half-price red wine from the shop next door, (corkage fee applies).

Having gorged on Randang Beef, Indonesian Curry, Whole roasted Garlic Chicken and other culinary delights, it was only right and proper that Starbucks should follow to cure varying coffee addictions. After a cosy few hours spent debating Luke’s documentary habit, various crackpot theories on the end of the world in 2012 (most of which would put the Wheetos professor to shame), and other delights such as politics and China in general, the time was creeping, and I mean this in the most truthful of ways, towards midnight.

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A surprise invitation from Matt’s friend got our small gathering moving towards the posh end of town where ‘Matt’s friend Rob’ lived. Overlooking the Pearl River and the financial district, the views from the flat - located on the 10th floor of the apartment block - were stunning. Following a free bar that would make any alcohol connoisseur feel inadequate, we bade farewell to Charismas Eve in the small hours.

CHRISTMAS DAY

Santa was only just leaving the rooftops of England when Christmas arrived in Guangzhou. Anna and I woke up and exchanged presents before getting on with the less-than-easy task of rousing the others, complete with Christmas hats and Christmas cheer. Christmas music went straight on and didn’t stop till Boxing Day.

The most difficult part of Christmas Day wasn’t the strange feeling of not being at home; it wasn’t even speaking to the family later in the day. It was trying to cook a full-English on just two hot plates, with little to no cooking equipment.

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The menu read as follows…

Fried Toast
Tea
Bacon
Scrambled egg with Philly cheese
Tomatoes
Baked beans
Freshly made hash browns
And … HP Sauce

The hash browns were prepared and then crisped up, as the tomatoes soaked in the oil bath that was the frying pan; the bacon did its best to disappear; and the fried toast was ‘crispy’ but, all in all, fully worth every mouthful.

After brekky (and having pushed the restaurant booking back an hour in order to feel less full come dinner time), we had a Secret Santa with Anna, Matt, Claire and Amy. The limit was 25Y (£2.50) and the results were spectacular. Two electric hot water bottles, a 5-inch, denim, dog key-ring, French chocolate, bright pink slippers and, best of all, two pairs of Kalvin Clien boxers for him and her, complete with personalised Yo-yo!

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In between all this, the award for funniest moment of Christmas came when having received a parcel from home. I excitedly began to rip open the jiffy bag; as I pulled out 3 presents and a card, I noticed they were all addressed to Anna and, rather confused, groped only thin air in the rest of the parcel. Confused, I asked Anna to read the card, assuming that this was some practical joke. Rather embarrassed, she confirmed that, yes, this was all for her and no, there was no joke (only the Royal Mail and China Post). Somewhat deflated from the previous moment's excitement, the subsequent hour of embarrassed apologies and non-stop wind-ups more than made up for it. (For those with a vested interest, the parcel is still MIA).

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Now, the next bit needs some explaining. Having trawled around the city over the past week, it was clear that a traditional Christmas meal with a veggie option and under 50 quid was going to be nigh on impossible; the Hilton was looking the best bet, coming in at a very tidy 60 quid. Enter Gail’s Place. With a set menu for £20 quid, all you could drink wine and soft drinks, and a great location and service, it not only ticked all the boxes but had fantastic food to boot.

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With many toasts, and copious amounts of wine to wash it down, the meal was close to perfect and it ended a great Christmas period. All that was left to do was to return to Anna’s, call various relatives and families and fall further into the festive spirit with the all time classic Xmas film of ELF. With a bottle of IKEA’s finest Mulled wine in hand, and Home Alone to follow, Christmas in China was certainly one to remember!

Posted by Nomadlife 22:17 Archived in China Tagged culture china christmas guangzhou south_china Comments (1)

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