A Travellerspoint blog

The case for national pride

How patriotism has been the biggest star at the Asian Games

Track Cycling - Asian Games

Track Cycling - Asian Games

Patriotism is so often an idea which is accompanied with highly negative connotations in a world that is increasingly integrated and where national pride seems to be a dirty word. Think of the debates that persist regarding the flying of the St George’s flag in England or, as is always cited in this debate, the darker side of nationalism demonstrated by numerous right-wing parties around the world who use patriotism as a thin veil for racism and exclusion. All too often patriotism is tarnished by this image and through fear and lack of
understanding is dismissed by the intellectual and political elite (especially in Britain) as the preserve of the 'ignorant' and 'lower classes'.

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Despite never subscribing to this opinion it is impossible to escape the general feeling of negativity that has perpetually surrounded patriotism; that was until I came to China. From the moment I arrived in China it was clear patriotism played a hugely different role here, speak to any Chinese person about how they feel about China, and the vast majority are falling over themselves to tell you of their love for China. National flags fly in any direction you care to look, schools have their own flag raising ceremonies each week, there is a 7 day holiday for ‘national day’, and the national anthem is sung at every possible occasion with passion and huge pride. Contrast this to the annual debate surrounding St George’s day and patriotism, the running jokes about the national anthem and the fear of being regarded as a thug for flying the flag all of which is endemic in British society.

Now after you escape these rather superficial criteria as a measure of patriotism it is possible to move beyond this narrow definition and consider the altogether more positive and constructive version of ‘national love’ that I have found in China.

Statue of the 5 Goats

Statue of the 5 Goats

Yuexiu Park

Yuexiu Park

On Friday the 16th version of the Asian Games began in Guangzhou with much élan. A spectacular opening ceremony overlooking the Pearl River showcased the history and the culture which runs through this corner of China. Fireworks, stunning performances and ingenious use of water and stadia took the spectacular outside the conventional, and produced a display to rival that of the Beijing Olympics two years ago, and one which London will find near impossible to match come 2012. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-11746264)

Now why do I mention this? It is because the games are providing examples on every level of how patriotism can be entirely positive and progressive.

Wushu Venue

Wushu Venue

Sanshou - Wushu

Sanshou - Wushu

The most obvious side to this is the total and flagrant support for each and every Chinese athlete, who, no matter what their sport, are regarded as heroes, untouchable to mere mortals. The moment any competitor in the distinctive red and yellow of china takes to whichever area it is they occupy the atmosphere changes immediately. A ripple of noise and excitement begins as half the crowd see the screens which indicate a Chinese competitor is up next. As the information is transmitted around the stands the ripple takes the crowd into a whole new dimension. An unrestrained excitement takes hold and builds to the inevitable crescendo. The chants begin. The banging begins. And it is impossible not to be swept along with them as they push each other to greater and louder support.

This is not meant as a comparison, I am fully aware that the support for the majority of British competitors in most sports is just as vociferous and unyielding. However, having attended many sporting events in Britain I am yet to come across such an atmosphere created so purely and unflinchingly out of an overwhelming sense of patriotism. That is not to say the fans are better in China or indeed anywhere else. Simply that the support seems to come from a different source from that found in England and Britain, which is built more on knowledge and passion for the sport rather than simply the country itself.

Guangzhou Velodrome

Guangzhou Velodrome

Guangzhou Velodrome

Guangzhou Velodrome

To judge ‘patriotism’ from a crowd at a sporting event is largely arbitrary as by definition those attending an international event are going to be supporting their own country. What really brings the idea of patriotism into a tangible sphere in China is currently to be found all over the city, in the form of a large army of volunteers.

Clad in their distinctive white and lime green uniforms, volunteers are to be found everywhere in the city, indeed in recent days it has been impossible to go anywhere without coming across a volunteer in one form or another. At over 150 posts around the city information booths are manned by up to 20 people at any one time, each and every one giving up their time to help and support any visitor, or indeed local, with any query they may have. At every stadium, at every metro station, at the central road crossings and at the major attractions there is somebody on hand to help and support you.

Whilst hugely impressive this might not be seen as special to some as it appears to others. What really sets these volunteers apart though is their insatiable desire to help in any way they possibly can. A huge smile and genuine excitement has been conveyed in all my interactions with the volunteers, and it is impossible to escape the sense that they are genuinely delighted to be sharing their city and their culture with you. Taxi drivers, metro station workers and all volunteers have taken a crash course in English and are visibly pleased and excited to put it
into effect. Just one great example of this was as I boarded a bus the other day, a lady sat on the front seat with her son next to her, and as I caught their eye both giggled to each other before launching into a very excited, “Welcome to our city, I hope you are enjoying the games”.

Korea vs Malaysia Womens Sprint

Korea vs Malaysia Womens Sprint

Despite being beautifully charming it leads to some fantastic moments of language cross-pollination. As I left the Velodrome yesterday I was met by an excited volunteer who implored me to enjoy the match and come to him if I needed help. An interesting concept considering was just leaving out the gate!!

Cynics will dismiss this as just another comment failing to note that this is merely a façade and a further example of China trying to distort its true nature. Whilst inevitably the city has been improved immeasurably during the preparation for the games, it surely would be hypocritical to suggest London will not be doing the same come June 2012.

Track Cycling - Asian Games

Track Cycling - Asian Games

Track Cycling - Asian Games

Track Cycling - Asian Games

The end result of the volunteering is not the point I am trying to tease out, rather the reasons behind the volunteering itself. I would suggest that to a greater or lesser extent it has been patriotism, undoubtedly mixed with a large portion of personal excitement and self-fulfilment, which has driven such a vibrant and excellent set of volunteers. Having spoken to many of my colleagues in the past couple of days they assure me that this dynamic is changing and the volunteers are less driven by patriotism than 10 or 20 years ago when Beijing held the Asian Games in 1990. Equally however, all concede that patriotism and the genuine love and pride in both Guangzhou and China is an important factor in both the quality and quantity of volunteers even today, with many more applying to help than were in fact needed!

Day at the Cricket

Day at the Cricket

The result has been a wonderfully refreshing experience, as the Asian Games have provided a great insight to the positive power of national pride. I think Britain would do well to reassess its attitudes towards patriotism, and I hope it can open its eyes to the great opportunities it presents. In many respects the evidence in Guangzhou suggests that it can help empower a population to take a pride in their community and their country and help move the country in a very positive direction. Rather than dwelling on the negative aspects of British patriotism over the past three decades, I hope the debate can be drawn into a wider sphere of national pride and respect that ultimately would provide a much more impressive legacy than any stadia London 2012 leaves behind.

Day at the Cricket

Day at the Cricket

Now enough of the insightful and on to the sport. This weekend I was lucky enough to experience several of the games in person. I spent a thoroughly enjoyable Saturday at the cricket where China and Japans' women teams beat Malaysia and Nepal respectively in some good quality T20. Saturday evening I spent at the wushu (sanshou), expecting the beautifully flowing, rather gymnastic, non-contact martial art i had been led to believe i had tickets for, I was met with a cross between taekwondo and Thai kick boxing. Following the initial shock of two people coming out ready to beat seven shades of whatever out of each other over 3 two minute rounds, it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable evens so far. Sunday was spent at the judo, as Chinese athlete after Chinese athlete got knocked out leaving the home crowd far from happy. Yesterday I went to the velodrome to watch the track cycling which proved to be just as action packed and exciting as the wushu and judo.

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So after long deliberation here is my top three moments so far…

1. In the Wushu, second fight up, Iran vs Afghanistan women’s -65kg, the taller rangier Iranian swivels after ducking a punch and swings her leg at her shorter the Afghan opponent catching her in the face with her foot and knocking her totally stone cold. As she fell backwards we saw her eyes roll back and her gum guard go flying, and without exageraition she still hadn’t moved a muscle as she was being carried out on a stretcher. It was seriously amazing though, as it appears to be the only sport where they have a designated person to wipe blood up after every fight!! (In true Chinese style rules had to be followed and they had to wait for her to be officially counted out before they adminstered medical treatment)

2. Judo, three seconds from the end of the last fight of the session, and one point down, the Kazakhstani fighter produces the perfect throw to end the fight by Ippon (perfect throw meaning an automatic win) to send the noisy Kazakhstani contingent in the crowd into uproar.

3. At the velodrome yesterday in the men’s team pursuit the Asian record was lowered three times in a row. First up the Chinese team shave two clear seconds off the record, huge! Only minutes later silence falls as the Koreans take a further two seconds off it...huge! Finally annoyance turns to frustration and anger as Hong Kong duck just insdie Korea's time, unfortunately meaning the Chinese team was left to battle it out for the bronze medal…quite a fall from grace as they had been Asian record holders ten minutes earlier!

That’s pretty much it from me I will be posting again in the next couple of days to fill you all in on the last few weeks. Tales from the high seas and hot springs to follow…..
Sanshou - Wushu

Sanshou - Wushu

Posted by Nomadlife 23:24 Archived in China Tagged sport guangzhou volunteers south_china asian_games Comments (1)

A tale of two halves

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With few weeks in my life ever matching the chaos of the previous week’s antics, the week following the holiday in Hainan was unlikely to be the most explosive of my life. However, there have been two main events that once again have made me stop out of wonder at life in China. As with nearly every moment here it is just when you think you have things figured out that the biggest surprises happen, such is the nature of the contradictory culture here.

The first surprise came in the most unlikely form on Wednesday afternoon when I walked into my last class of the day only to be told we would be finishing 20 minutes early to allow the students to go through their final practices for the Irish dancing competition. At this point you have exactly as much idea as I did about the situation; after checking twice with the class just to make sure that I hadn’t just overslept at lunch and was in my very own Fear and Loathing moment I accepted that maybe there was something to the new absurdity that had just gripped my world.

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Now to fully explain I need to redraw your attention to a very crucial detail in the daily school routine of a student at a high school in China. Following the third lesson of the day which ends at 10:20, the vast majority of students file out of the classroom and make their way towards the school field. Now a couple of weeks back curiosity finally got the better of me and I decided to find out what they did when they disappeared off for 15 minutes every morning. The answer was most unexpected….’Morning Exercises’.

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Following the long accepted truth that exercise sharpens the mind, every child in the school is required to spend 15 minutes every morning doing set rhythmical movements to music. Whilst slightly hollow music resonates through the tinny speakers a member of staff calls numbers to the beat of the music and bank upon bank of children follow the sounding of each number with a set movement. If this picture is still a fairly alien image, imagine my surprise when I was informed that on this fine Wednesday afternoon every class in grade one( in order to collect points for the month-long sports festival) was to perform the set exercises to randomly enough…Irish music.

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While I was surprised I was not stupid and knew that this had the potential to be one of the better experiences I would have at the school and it did not fail to disappoint. Every 10 minutes or so three classes at a time would take to the field and perform a dance, entirely practiced and choreographed by themselves, with the only rules being they had to include some of the set exercises. Armed with fans, ribbon, staggering formations and very clever use of space, the show was spectacular and inevitably drew some rather uncomfortable comparisons with students in England regarding the team attitude and work ethic that was on display. As it turned out the students had been working on their routines day and night (literally). The reason for this level of hard work and commitment lay in the simple truth that for any class the greater glory and pride was to be found in winning together rather than individual brilliance…makes you think!!

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As the weekend rolled around a boost to the energy reserves was desperately needed and it came in the best way possible, I attended a local football match between Guangzhou FC and Hubei FC. Having been relegated from the Chinese Super League to the First Division last year for match fixing, the game I was headed to was somewhat of a celebration for fans of the Guangzhou team. Playing away last week they had secured promotion straight back up to the Super League, and the match being held at their home stadium in the beautiful surroundings of Yuexiu Park represented something of a carnival of redemption following last year’s shame.

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Carnival it was, as I headed out of Sun Yat Sen tube station, I was swiftly picked up and carried along by a tide of blue and white (the Guangzhou colours) and the inescapable feeling of excitement was only heightened by the sharp crisp chants being hurled into the air in perfect timing with the rhythmical drums and whistles that further whipped up the atmosphere. Inside the relatively full 30’000 capacity stadium the atmosphere was frenzied even an hour before the match kick off, and it did not let up until well after the final whistle. As the small contingent of Hubei away fans did enough to ensure an electric atmosphere the football struggled to match the levels of support found in the stands.

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Despite it being low on quality the match was very entertaining with Hubei equalising with a great move having gone behind to a Guangzhou penalty. Following a very contentious disallowed goal, Guangzhou grabbed a winner in the second half and ran out comfortable victors. After my first taste of professional Chinese football I am eagerly awaiting my next fix as the fans passion and excitement easily matched anything I have experienced in the UK.

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With a bit more time on my hands this week, I have had more of a chance to explore the city as well. Friday night was spent sipping very very slowly from a singular bottle of Carlsberg (yes Carlsberg) that set me back 6 quid, note to self always always check the prices before you buy!! As it turned out we had wandered into Hei Hei (with a little help from our Chinese friend), and apart from an impressive array of insanely expensive drinks, the club could proudly claim to be the home of Guangzhou’s ‘it’ set. With all the decadence and arrogance to match it was a nice break from reality for one night, but at those prices it will be a long time before my wallet lets me return!!

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Saturday night was spent in much less rarefied atmospheres at a local Chinese bar called 191Space. A mix of a good bar and live music venue is rare enough anywhere, but especially so in China, add in the fact the music was great and the sofas on offer were some of the most relaxing and comfy my buttocks have experienced and you are left with a highly chilled and rather different night to most on offer here.

Anyways that’s about it for the moment….and remember…Come to Guangzhou the home of Irish dancing!!
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Posted by Nomadlife 14:48 Archived in China Tagged skylines football china school teaching guangzhou south_china Comments (0)

The One with the Black Cat

A very British, Chinese Holiday!!

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Towel – Check
Swim shorts – Check
Bus tickets – Check
Hat / Sun cream – Check

This - rather understandably, considering we were headed to China’s premier beach holiday spot, Hainan Island - was the checklist assembled on a piece of scrap paper prior to our departure on the Friday evening of the National Day Holiday. Having been gripped by the frenzy of movements around the city during the previous 24 hours, Anna and I, plus our four companions, were keen to get set off on what promised to be a week of relaxing sun, sea and sand. Excited by the notion of exploring the tropical island, with its beautiful beaches on the coast and tropical rainforest inland, preparations had been made, if not all together smoothly, and tickets had been bought, reservations made and, most importantly, expectations lubricated via Google and several websites!

In hindsight, the list maybe should have read as follows:

Black cat – Check
Ladder - Check
Red sky in the morning – Check
Broken mirror – Check

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To say the holiday was a disaster would be very unfair as, in fact, it served to do everything that I had hoped before we left. I came away feeling really relaxed, very motivated to throw myself more into China and to get more established with the language and the locals and I was also able to spend some time reflecting on my experiences so far. When you think of it like that, it seems absurd to suggest that the holiday was anything short of perfect. I would at this juncture ask you to get a cuppa, read on and consider the following...

The characters in the drama that was soon to unfold, as you have already discovered, were in high spirits and by 4pm on Friday afternoon had arrived at their point of departure: Tianhe Coach Station. If you imagine the shops on the last Saturday before Christmas and multiply the chaos by a few, you have roughly the scene we were met with when we arrived to get our bus. People were everywhere. Men, women, children and, in some cases, animals were concentrated into a mass of life and chaos, desperately trying to find their departure area or buy their tickets. China, it seemed, was on the move.

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Having shoved, pushed and generally manoeuvred our way to the closest information point, we queued for a while and finally got settled at our gate an hour before our bus was due to leave. To pass the time, we mused as to what the nature of the bus that was to take us the 13 hour journey to Haikou (capital of Hainan and port city on the Northern coast). ‘Sleeper bus’ leaves a lot to the imagination it seems. We passed the time by playing cards with a local teacher who took pity on our attempts to play cards in the crowded terminal and taught us a popular Chinese card game, which even now I have very little idea of how to play; complex doesn’t cover it in the slightest.

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As it turned out the bus was an adventure in itself, a double-decker stripped of its top floor, and instead installed with three rows of what can only be described as bunks, each stretching back from the front of the bus down its length to the back. At 5ft long and 2ft wide ‘bed’ is stretching it a tad. Despite their dimensions they provided a comfy (ish) and fun (very) way of travelling and when ignoring the obvious lack of safety, they turned out to be quite the way to travel.

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Having arrived in Haikou everything seemed to be going our way, the weather way good, we found our hostel with little to no problem, a minor miracle I assure you, and things were generally looking up. Following a couple of hours sorting our return bus (China doesn’t do returns just one way, highly annoying when any sort of planning is involved) we headed to what we were assured was a good beach, and a nice place to relax. Armed with coconuts, freshly opened via machete, and straws to remove the coconut milk, we found the beach and with the overexcitement of preschool kids and play dough and we raced round the corner to find our paradise…….

Only problem being no one had told the beach this, we were met by mountains of rubbish, little to no sand and what was literally a construction site. If I told you there was a JCB and reinforced concrete right on the little sand there was I would be no more a liar that if I told you the world were indeed round.

Refusing to be down hearted we set out to the local university’s outdoor swimming pool, put two fingers up to our bad luck and swam anyway. As it turned out this highly figurative and immature gesture was to come back and bite hard….

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20 minutes out of Haikou the next day, on our way to the southern paradise of Sanya with its famed beaches the heavens opened and the blue sky of sundown at 6.45pm the night before were to be the last we were to see of the blue skies until we returned to Guangzhou several days later.

3 Hours later Sanya appeared, and despite the rain, we checked into Sanya Lost International Hostel and headed straight to the beach determined to bring some British spirit to proceedings and enjoy the holiday come what may! Having reached the beach some 100m away (I know, hard life isn’t it) it was instantly apparent why Sanya has gained a reputation for stunning beaches , a reputation that is only rising as increased disposable income leads to increased tourism within China. Green palm trees fenced the picturesque white sandy beach that stretched as far as the eye could see in either direction, and thanks to the rain we were practically its only inhabitants.

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Confident the rain would ease we splashed about till mid afternoon and went to relax in the hostel and wait till dawn brought clear sunny skies. As it was to transpire dawn brought more rain, and the week as to become part of a record breaking rainy spell on the island that broke records stretching back as far as 1910!!!

Slightly downcast we relaxed in the morning; reading, playing cards and generally following what was becoming an increasingly intense Ryder Cup on the Hostels internet. Come lunch the decision was made to make it a ‘beach day’, despite the torrential rain, and in what turned out to be a grand plan, we hit the sea for a second day running in conditions that certainly lived up to one half of the weather in the tropics.

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After an hour of dunking, diving into waves and generally causing maximum noise and enjoyment the day took an agonising turn for your loyal author. Having ‘chased the wave’ back to shore I was in the midst of running back to the sand bar when I felt a stunningly sharp pain shoot from around my foot up the back of my right leg. A jellyfish had decided to coil its tentacle around my leg and immediately set off two reactions: 1) in what I am assured was a moment of maximum manliness I let out a roar of distress and agony, 2) In the same moment I immediately began to question who I would I could persuade to piss on my leg!! Sadly, despite some rather half hearted ‘I will if I have too’ the response was less that overwhelming, and the only thing to do was to hobble back to the hostel and wait it out.

By the time I had got back I was in a fair level of discomfort with my leg completely numb and breathing rather painful attributable to a shooting sensation every time I drew breath. I would like to take this chance to thank the hostel owners for their help and advice in my hour of need. Assured the pain would pass I sat down on the front step, cursing everything that moved in the sea, and wondering what would happen next….

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We didn’t have to wait long to find out, the next day, after much of the tingling had subsided and the feeling was back in my right leg, we set off to acquire some rather striking waterproofs from the local supermarket. Due to the continuous rain the road was now ankle to knee deep in flood water, and the only way to go was wading through. After much thought (about 2 seconds) we set of with little apprehension or fear of the unknown ground beneath us….mistake…. about 20 seconds later Anna was putting her right foot down and much to everyone’s surprise (and very quickly delight) Anna, along with her right foot, continued their downward journey straight into the uncovered manhole below. Now words fail to come close to describing the shock, and amusement this event caused, so I shall not try to outdo the video that was captured of the event and instead will just let you watch, again, and again, and again….

Having further angered the gods, and wondering what could possibly go wrong next, the next couple of days were spent doing a variation of the following; swimming, walking down the beach, amusing the locals with our rather amazing macs, and frequenting the many coffee establishments along the seafront, with a special mention going to the ‘Bud (Zao Mia) roof top coffee bar 'and ‘Fat Daddies’ (although the second should only be visited if you can stomach the rather offensive, anti-local, ramblings of its co-manager Max). Despite the rather bizarre events that had to this point accompanied the holiday we thought our run of bad luck was up, and, in spite of the continued bad weather, and with a large dose of ‘Britishness’, everyone made the most of the following days allowing us all to relax and switch off.

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Now the story is almost done but there is still to be one more twist in the tail, the journey back. As alluded to earlier travel is never easy in China, and the journey from Sanya to Guangzhou was to be no exception. Having taken a mere three hours and 60 Y (6 quid) a head to get from Haikou to Sanya, the return trip was a tad different. Due to 6 days of insatiable rain on the island, this had brought some serious consequences that were at this point unknown to us. 130’000 people had been evacuated due to floods, one of the two major roads on the island was closed and many more, smaller roads had been rendered impassable. With market forces dominating, and with no busses containing any space due to the conditions, a taxi was our only option. With a rate of 200 Y per passenger the five of us set off with four squashed into the back seat. After an hour in the rain negotiating an inflated price, tempers were slightly frayed and a quick journey was all that was hoped for (we were minus one as the day before one of the group had left on a train bound for Shanghai).

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It was not to be, 8 hours after we left Sanya we rolled into Haikou. Having toured around the city for an extra hour, due to the drivers lack of familiarity with the city in the pitch black and pouring rain, the cups of steaming hot tea and bowls of food that we found waiting for us at the Hostel seemed the equivalent of being told that despite not buying a ticket, yes you can still have the lottery jackpot.

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Having slept like a baby, I awoke expecting to leave the hostel at about half 2 to catch our bus that left an hour later. As with everything on this holiday, it didn’t quite work out as planned. Having handed our bus tickets to the staff to ensure we had the right bus station, we were quickly quizzed as to why we had not left already. Puzzled we enquired as to why we needed to leave at 1pm for a bus at 3.30. By this point the response was of little surprise, in the top corner of one of the tickets was written in Chinese that the departure time was in fact 1.30, giving us exactly half an hour before we missed the bus and were stranded in Hainan for another 24 hours (with it being the last day of the holiday all transport was fully booked). Running 3 steps at once, and with my heart rate unhealthily high, clothes, towels and anything that resembled our belongings were thrown into bags, and we were in a car provided by the hostel exactly 3 minutes later. After some more fine examples of crazy Chinese driving, a further 5 minutes later we were offloaded and settled at our gate in the bus terminal. Panic over!!

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Despite having made the bus and left on time none of us were confident that come midnight we would be arriving in Guangzhou as scheduled. It would have been of great comfort to do so though, as to do so would provide me with a good few hours kip before my first lesson the next day (8 am). Following the ferry crossing all was well, before 20 minutes later whilst playing the same Chinese game of cards that had started our holiday, there was a sudden jolt and crashing sound, as our bus missed the road work signs and deposited itself firmly into the ditch. Having knackered the front of the bus, the next few hours were spent on running repairs and long delays. As night fell it was apparent that the 8am start time was in jeopardy, a feeling that come day break was inescapable. Resigned to the inevitable, following our run of bad luck, at 7 am I had given up and called the school to tell them what had happened and that I would be late for my lessons. 20 minutes later the bus had arrived at the station close to my school, and the race was on to get back, shave, shower and change before 8am…

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After the week I had had there was no way I was going to miss it, and come 7.55 I was in the right classroom at the right time, waiting for the lesson to begin, or rather for the ceiling to collapse and end the week in style!!

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I must at this juncture apologise for the length of this blog. However, I did feel that the events were all worthy of depiction, and found it impossible to neglect any one part of the story….I hope this is as entertaining to read as it was to experience. That is about all for now, see you for the next, much shorter, instalment!!
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Posted by Nomadlife 17:59 Archived in China Tagged beaches people china hainan Comments (0)

Hot Town, Summer in the City

R & R in the Big GZ

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There are times that I think I am in the wrong business. Having come to China to teach the most widely-used language in the world, I am certain that the only teaching materials I should have packed were a football and a pair of boots. Wherever I have been in the world, be it Africa, Europe, America or, now, China, I have never failed to find a regular game of football close to where I am based. With such a following as this, it is hard to refute the claims that ‘soccer’ is the new world religion.

Please indulge me and allow me to stretch the metaphor just a bit further, for I have found one of its greatest disciples, the John or Thomas if you will, and his name is Figo. Now, Figo is a self-proclaimed football fanatic and he preaches the good word to whomever he meets; in fact, trying to have a conversation on any other topic is bordering on useless. On the second day after I arrived at the school, following the food excesses of Beijing, I had decided to beat the heat and take a run around the athletics track at 6.30am. As I was slowly dying, I saw a small shaven-headed guy approach and make wild motions for me to stop (presumably he didn’t fancy a walk and talk scenario). Intrigued as ever, I stopped and listened to this highly-excitable chap explain that he was the captain of the teachers' football team and would I like to play in their upcoming match? After considering for all of a second, I yielded to his wild gesticulations and gladly agreed to play in the match on the following Monday – 5:05pm, wearing red.

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Since this first introduction, Figo and I have become good friends and, on the rare occasions when our conversations have got past who played well at the weekend, I have found him to be a really likeable family man with a young 6-year-old daughter. (Every Chinese person has an English name too and, despite many people choosing a common name such as David or John, others choose random names such as Trainee or Yoyo. As for Figo, he chose his name after his favourite footballer). Like in every school, the football team and P.E. teachers rule the ‘cool’ roost and it was no surprise to find that many of them enjoy a tipple or ten following a match. So far, these ‘celebrations’ have consisted of: dinner and drinks at a top local tennis club; dinner and drinks at a very nice, local restaurant, and the latest instalment was dinner and karaoke following the 5-3 triumph over a team of alumni who graduated in 1990.

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So, karaoke… where to begin? You enter a building that only people suffering LSD flashbacks would ever think of as normal. The jet black, shiny walls and pitch black hallways are illuminated with a garish, neon glow from the green, yellow, pink, blue, orange and red lights. Following your very own ‘fear and loathing’, you walk into a big room and are greeted by mirrors on all sides, more neon and a huge flat-screen TV. After one or two of the Chinese teachers have unleashed their secret passion for singing and got the pitch and tone spot on, someone turns, catches your eye, and there is no escape. You are harangued and bullied into choosing which mid-80s rock cover you will destroy in your flat and toneless voice! Far from being the psychotic experience this sounds like, I have actually found this to be very therapeutic and enjoyable - minus the inevitable hangover as copious amounts of alcohol are consumed for Dutch courage. The feeling of freedom and fun achieved only when really ruining a cheesy rock song at full volume is strangely unique and cleansing for the soul. Who knew football and karaoke were a valid religion after all!

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Now to speak of cleansing in a much less spiritual way, I have taken opportunity of the free weekends and holidays over the past month to explore around and about, both inside and beyond the city. Due to the abundance of traffic and industry, the air is far from the fresh air of the Swiss Alps - that air held in such esteem by the makers of washing powder and air fragrances - so a couple of weekends ago, Anna, three others and I decided to head west to the mountains (hills) outside of the city and explore Dinghu Shan!

Early on Saturday, the bus rolled out of Guangzhou and, for two hours, whisked us (hand-on-horn the whole way to clear less important traffic) to the edge of the National Reserve that is Dinghu Shan. Having been entertained by the film 'Transformers' the whole way, I was loathed to leave the bus before what I am told is a truly poor conclusion, but the promise of breathing fresh air was too great, so we stepped out to explore. After booking into the hostel (clean and bug-free just like Lonely Planet – I mean the Bible- said it would be), we set out - complete with rucksacks - to explore the hills and waterfalls that the park has in abundance. The scenery was beautiful: large hills rose into the distance and a tropical rainforest carpeted their sides, giving off a fog-like steam that slowly dissipated as it rose into the slate grey sky above.

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Two events stick in the mind from this foray into western Guangdong. Firstly, having walked all day through the forests, hills and waterfalls, we found a Buddhist Temple that served some fantastic food so, naturally, we stayed to keep the hunger pangs away and, more importantly, to avoid the rain storm that had hit 20 minutes before. Relaxed in the dry, food-filled rooms of the temple, we all forgot the impending darkness and soon night had fallen like a thick and silent blanket over the forest. Cue a 2-hour walk back through the silent and oppressive forest to the hostel, with only the occasional chirps and noises of animals to distract us from our highly-competitive game of 20 questions (come on, Nero - 22 and counting)!

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The second great event occured the following morning. After a hearty breakfast, we stepped out into the streams and shallow rock pools that were everywhere in the rainforest. We found a nice spot just off the path and jumped in! Seeing no one about we (Rhys and myself) stripped down to t-shirts and boxers and had a swim/paddle, completely happy in our own little world until we looked up to see 50 laughing and excited faces of a passing tour group, cameras snapping away… ’Ladies and Gentlemen, for one morning only 'The Roger and Rhys Show’!'

The following week was school life as usual and then something glorious happened: we got allocated 3 days holiday for the Mid-Autumn Festival. I have since come to the conclusion that holidays in China are suspect at best: despite 3 days off during the week, we spent the previous weekend working on the Sunday and the weekend after working both days to ‘make up for the holiday’. Hmm…

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It provided the perfect opportunity, nevertheless, to explore another of Guangzhou’s retreats: Shamian Island. Once a vital island in the history of Britain and China - Britain flooded China with opium during the 19th century via this tiny island in the middle of the Pearl River - today, the island serves a much less destructive, albeit equally relaxing, purpose. Walking across the stone footbridge is a treat. Almost instantly, the noise and chaos of the metropolis 200 metres away disappears and you are plunged into the quiet and beautiful streets full of fantastic 18th- and 19th-century French and British housing. The streets are lined with huge Banyan trees, their twisted trunks only adding to the delicate air of grace and poise the island holds.

As you walk from one end of the island to the other, along the main street, you can’t fail to notice the relaxed air that accompanies your stroll (you stroll here, never walk). Multi-coloured flower beds add colour and fantasy to the gnarled trunks of the trees and the old, wrought-iron street lamps. After half an hour, you hit the far end of the island and are met with a choice: enter the ridiculously expensive-looking restaurant/bar, The Orient Express, or turn back, thirst unquenched.

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With it being a hot and humid day, we chose to enter and what a choice it was! As we walked in, we were met with a show of early 20th-century decadence, as relaxing sofas remind you of the pure luxury of the Orient Express itself. To add further to the sense of class and privilege, the walls are lined with original posters and pictures of the cities the famous train visited. To complete the idyllic picture, the old oak-wood bar serves a great pint of San Miguel or Tsing Tao for a very reasonable 20 Yuan (2 quid), which, considering the surroundings of the island and bar, it is very reasonable indeed. Also, unusually in China, the owner has ensured a good array of wines, white and red, at very good prices indeed. Then again, the owner is French after all!

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Since this discovery, several evenings have been spent in this establishment, as to sit in the soft and comfy sofas and gaze upon the excess of the past is to let your troubles of a hard day dissolve off you and, like with the karaoke and the mountains, the sense of tranquillity and peacefulness is impossible to ignore.

I have another holiday this week (October 1st-7th), this time for the national day, and the great and good amongst us have plumped for Hainan Island, a tropical paradise off the South coast of Guangdong! Expect an update and pictures to follow shortly… Until then, my advice would be: if you need to relax, find a football game, karaoke, a late-night hike through a rainforest or a colonial bar. Bon voyage!

Posted by Nomadlife 15:43 Archived in China Tagged landscapes waterfalls sunsets_and_sunrises lakes trees school teaching guangzhou south_china Comments (0)

We Don't Need No Education

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Your first day at a new school can bring many surprises and unknown experiences and, with this in mind (and the fact that this is China), I was prepared for almost anything. However, true to form, China has gone one step further. I was awoken at 7am to the sound of Jingle Bells. I repeat: Jingle Bells, that was serving as a school bell to signal the start of the day! Bearing in mind I have already butchered a national anthem and eaten more of a chicken than I ever knew existed, to say this is one of the most bizarre experiences so far in China is not done lightly.

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My first reaction was that this was some sort of joke, a first day bog flushing if you will, but no! Seconds later, streams of children left the canteen and could be seen wandering half dazed and half over-caffeinated to the point where their eyes made Pete Doherty look chilled out and relaxed. Having recently completed a dissertation, I can appreciate the importance of our good friends Coke and Coffee so, having thought nothing more of it, I relaxed into the day. It was only at half 10 that evening that I gave it a second thought when, to a greater crescendo of Jingle Bells, the same scene repeated itself with the kids streaming from the teaching buildings; this time, the destination was their dorms. When I left my office at 5pm and saw the kids grab the nearest basketball and badminton racquet, I had naturally assumed that was their day done… Oh no. Let me run you through the day of a high school kid in China!

6:00-6:30 – Wake up to random classic music / out of season Christmas song.
6:30-7:30 – Breakfast and morning exercise.
7:30-8:00 – Guided Reading.
8:00-5:00 – Lessons (2hr break for lunch at 12:30, includes nap if you eat quickly).
5:00-7:00 – Dinner and sports.
7:00-10:30- Homework – supervised and compulsory.
11:00 – Lights out in dorms to the sound of an evening lullaby.

Now, I challenge anyone reading this to feel hard-done-by when it came to their school life. The intensity and nature of education in China is put into context when considering the rising population and the one-child policy. With such competition for jobs and university degrees, being good just doesn’t cut it; you need to be exceptional to get anywhere in life (or connected to the party). Add into this already pressurised situation the fact that most children at the school are the only child in their family and you get an idea of the pressure they are under to succeed. China lacks any state security system outside of employment and, as such, the children are, in many cases, a family’s only long-term security (especially considering the non-existent property rights here).

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You would assume that the level of pressure and importance placed upon them would lend itself to resentment and disengaged individuals as it would if a child in England was forced to study from 7.30-10.30. This was also my initial thought here; yet despite regular complaints of a lot of homework, the students are very phlegmatic about the situation. They hold an importance to their education unrivalled by any country I have ever visited and, when I pushed the issue with one first year student, she paused, thought about it and said: ”well, it might be different to England and the west, but every side has 2 corners”. How true! This might also explain the stereotypes about Asian and Chinese students in the west being hard working and diligent almost to a fault: it is the culture.

It was in this environment that I nervously opened up my PowerPoint presentation to my first class. (I teach 15 grade one classes – 15-16 year olds). It contained maps and pictures of home, places I had visited and travelled to and a game: 2 true, 1 false. The game, designed to find out about my students, requires 3 sentences and, unsurprisingly given the title, two have to be true and one is a lie, then, as a whole, the class votes which one of the three is a false. Given the regimented answers I had received to ‘how are you?’ when I entered the room, I wasn’t hopeful for much variety, but I was pleasantly surprised. Many students come from outside of the city of Guangzhou and, more surprisingly, many come from different provinces in China. Now, although my school has a reputation as the best in the city, I did not expect children to have travelled over a couple of thousand miles, in some cases, to be here. Again, what price is good education in China?

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To be totally honest, the first week blurred into one long stream of meeting over 750 new faces (classes are never under 50), and I was feeling totally drained- whoever said teachers don’t have a tough job (a) has never taught, and (b) is certifiably an idiot! So, come Friday, I was delighted to be told that because of ‘Teachers' Day’ we were being taken out for dinner with the other teachers!!

In China, teachers are held in great esteem by their students; it stems from the teaching system where the teacher is an all knowing fountain of knowledge, placed upon the earth to depart the knowledge to students in a system of repetition and rote. In this culture of total respect and subservience to those of wisdom and age, it comes as little surprise to find out that there is an entire day dedicated to the teachers of China. I was handed an address, some money to get myself to said address and a time to arrive. Suited and booted, I arrived at 6pm sharp at the Garden Hotel in downtown GZ.

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I had been told that most of the teaching staff would be there, as well as some retired teachers. When I arrived at a fantastic building with a glass façade, waterfalls in the entrance and the Japanese and Iraqi embassies occupying one wing of the complex, I got the idea that this was something a bit out of the ordinary. This feeling failed to leave me all night. I walked into a massive room with low crystal chandeliers and well over 50 tables all set with the most precise and delicate settings. I had imagined a few extra teachers to the couple of hundred on campus; it turns out there was closer to 700! The meal was superb. Every dish - and there were ten - was an assault on the mouth and nostrils; there was fish, chicken, lobster, shrimp, different soups and an array of sides. The coup de grâce came in the form of a suckling pig, complete with head and the most garishly tacky accessory: the eyes had been replaced by 2 flashing red LED bulbs, connected to a wire under the hollowed out head!

Later that evening, we were to learn the true extent of the unusual nature of the evening. Speeches were given by increasingly senior members of the school and then, as is tradition at a Chinese feast, the senior figures in the room come to ‘gambai’: literally ‘down’ their drink with you as a sign of honour and respect. Hence, the most-drunk member of any Chinese meal is often the most important. Whilst in itself no indication of the extraordinary, it said a lot about the school I am working at when first the Mayor of Guangzhou ‘gambai-ed’ our table and then the Minister for Education in the province of Guangdong, who (rather worryingly) informed us that he had seen all our files. The night ended in chaos with everybody increasingly drunk from the toasting and several teachers having to be literally carried out (one with a man at each limb).

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Come Monday morning, I had two hard-boiled eggs sat on my table at work, both wrapped in red plastic! After only the first few weeks here, I had no idea what to make of them, so with a sense of slight apprehension they sat where they lay for the morning. After lunch, the slightly older teacher who sits at the desk next to me informed me that I must eat the eggs or it will be bad luck. (I was thinking that I’d take my chances, considering they had been sweating in the heat all day).

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It turns out, however, following many polite refusals and many more, slightly stronger insistences, that eggs are given to friends and colleagues during pregnancy to ensure good luck for the mother and baby. Friends, colleagues and family are given one unwrapped egg after 1 month of the pregnancy, and two wrapped eggs on the day the child is born. (This is done via a friend, for any women out there questioning the logistics of this)! So, not wanting that weight of responsibility placed on my head, I duly consumed two rather rubbery eggs with great trepidation! The author wishes both mother and child all the best.

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In other news, I am going to take this opportunity to give a word to the big bird (Rhys) who celebrated his 23rd Birthday in style on Sunday evening with us all at the Latin Grill in the city centre. Needless to say, beers and alcohol were on the menu, along with ‘cowboys’ - two foot skewers of meat -, and a dancing samba band! Check out the pics!!

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Posted by Nomadlife 13:22 Archived in China Tagged parties night school teaching guangzhou south_china Comments (0)

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