9th January 2016

It’s that time of the year. Nearly the end of the Semester so I’ve been setting and marking exams. An essay for them to write with strict instructions not to nick it off the Internet for European Culture ; a Comprehension Paper for the Reading Exam and then there’s  the Spoken English Exam. My favorite. It works like this : 

I give them a choice of 12 topics. They have to pick one and talk about it for three minutes. I always give them the topics about five minutes before the exam. This is to discourage rehearsal and speech making, the weaker students always want to do this. The topics include unexciting stuff like “Spring Festival” and “My last holiday” but I do offer some more interesting topics. “My first year at university” is quite popular as is “Beer” and “Love”. 

So I got to the class early,  no matter how early I get there, there are always students who arrive before me, and I set the scene. 2 chairs and a desk. I then brief the students. This time in the middle of my talk a student arrived five minutes late. She was profusely apologetic, almost in tears and she was ON CRUTCHES ! You will not be surprised to hear that I said it didn’t matter but it gives a little insight into the authoritarian nature of how they are treated sometimes perhaps. 

I then send them all out of the class and they come in one by one. Some of what they say is funny, some is poignant. A lot of students, both boys and girls pick “Love”. They often say that they have no boyfriend or girlfriend and would like one very much. One girl told me that she loved her granny the best. When I asked why she said that she had brought her up as her parents had to go to another city to work. She saw her parents once a year at Spring Festival. A girl came in and told me she would talk about beer. She said that she sometimes drank beer with her father and she liked this very much as it was the only time that they got on. 

Anyway “Spring Festival” beckons. I’m off to Wuhan. Happy New Year to everybody who reads my ramblings. 

7th November 2015

……has now been awarded. And the winner IS……….(drumroll)…..

Commiserations to the other entrants. It was a tough one to judge.

I’ve never got over my love of English Pubs. Happy places with happy people enjoying themselves ? Well maybe. Back in the 1970s when I started drinking in them perhaps, but not any more sadly. Roger Scruton wrote a beautiful essay about the Melancholy of modern Pub life that I read recently? I still like to go to them though.  The great days of British Pubs are over now. Killed by a combination of Tesco’s cheap booze,  the smoking ban and the creepy advance of bourgeois individualism. “You come to us ?”.  “Oh no we’ll come to you”.  We can show off our new bathroom suite. Or more likely these days our sanded floors with expensive rugs. 

So I arrived in China. There are no Pubs here in the English sense, just bars. This is some of what I’ve learnt about Chinese bars, or at least the ones in my area. 

Firstly never go before 10pm. The place will  be empty. Unless there’s a singing competition on. In which case there’ll be 500 there in a bar that can comfortably accommodate 200. Then I order a beer. At this point the barman will give me a beer and often refuse to take any money. After an argument I accept the first beer gratis. When I order a second one I threaten to walk out unless I pay. This normally does the trick. We then have a stilted conversation which involves much typing on our phones. I’m asked about England and what I’m doing here. I’m then asked whether I can play the guitar. They know very well that I can play the guitar………badly !! I then play the guitar…..badly……

A Tshirt slogan I hadn’t seen before that I spotted yesterday. It reads *Fuck You, Fuck me. Fuck everyboddee *……..well it rhymes ; and scans ; nearleeeeee. 

7th October 2015

As far as I can see, and that’s  maybe not that far, many Chinese institutions are corrupt and mindbogglingly slothful. This is not really news of course and it’s not too difficult to explain. It’s partly for Economic reasons, China is still a Developing Society, and partly for Political reasons. Only a couple of generations back, well within the memories of many Chinese people The Cultural Revolution took place. A decade of insanity, basically.  During this period it was dangerous to do or say anything *wrong*, indeed it was dangerous, sometimes mortally dangerous to say or do the RIGHT thing at the wrong time.  Far better and safer perhaps to say and do nothing. This historical memory I think still affects people now.

But on the street in everyday ordinary transactions I’m sometimes quite moved by the honesty, hospitality and kindness that I encounter.

Two examples : Last week I went to visit a student in hospital. She’d fallen off a scooter. Not uncommon round here. I took a Taxi to get there as I didn’t know where it was but decided to return by bus as I was pretty sure I knew where I was and could get home. The bus I got on didn’t go where I was expecting it to of course. I got to a bus terminal with no idea where I was. Six months ago I would have panicked but not any more. I’d get home somehow but while I was there I may as well have a look round. I walked past a wet market and saw some oysters. I like oysters. The people who think they taste like you’re eating your own snot are misguided I think. So I went to buy some. I asked the woman how much and I thought she said 40¥ so I profferred  a 50¥ note. She smiled at me, gave me the note back and gestured to me to open my wallet. She took a 5¥ note out and gave me 1¥ back. Remarkable I think. I’d have been none the wiser and as everyone knows in China, Westerners are rich. Why did she act as she did ?  I don’t think it’s got much to do with the Law.

A second example : a while ago when Lemmy was still here we went one night to get some street food. I chose my food and went to pay. The guy cooking the food gestured to a plastic box at the other end of the stall out of his sight line. It was brimming with paper money. Then I realised what I should do. I should put my money in the box and help myself to the right change……. And this system works. I suspect it wouldn’t in many places.

3rd September 2015

I remember many years ago watching an International football match where China were one of the teams. The commentator, whose name escapes me was silly enough to say that the Chinese players all looked alike to him. Well of course the morally  self-righteous heavens opened. I particularly enjoyed *The Sun* of all newspapers, lecturing this poor man on his racist attitude.  

A couple of years later I read some Social Psychological research that suggested that this wasn’t simply can’t be bothered casual racism.The study suggested that the further an ethnic group were away from your own (yes I know that phrase raises all sorts of questions but we haven’t got all day) the more difficult it was to distinguish one from another. Anyway fast forward to me arriving here. I tried, I really tried to remember the faces and names of my students but God it was hard. Chinese names just are difficult. The Chinese characters are simply impossible to understand without a lot of study but even Pinyin often doesn’t sound as it is written from an English Language point of view. Most of my students though had English names. And the students understood my difficulty,  much to my embarrassment. Regularly some nice little student would look mournfully at me and say “You don’t remember me do you?”.  I lied sometimes.  “Of course I do” but felt ashamed of myself for doing so. And some of them actually said that it was OK. Chinese people knew that Westerners had difficulty identifying them. There’s a strange mirror-image in Chinese Culture here. To Chinese people we seem to be not people from other different Countries but simply Foreigners. Waiguo ren. Sorry I don’t know the clicks for the tones. I’m writing this on an IPad, they must be here somewhere. 

But, and this is the point I want to make here. I simply CANNOT BELIEVE now that I thought Chinese students and indeed other Chinese people looked alike. I went to the local Plaza today. Probably saw maybe ten thousand people with different eyes, noses, ears, complexions, you name it. 

So what is it ? I don’t think it’s just me. Maybe the mind has some way of initially editing a particular look. Initially we see hair colour and eye shape first although God knows they vary. There’s a Mongolian student here at FJUT and I KNEW he was Mongolian before I was told. What cultural crevice in my mind did I use there ? Something to do with Lenin I think. I vaguely remember something about him having Mongolian features. 

I’m sad to say that I discovered recently that there is a thriving market in China for an operation  to construct an eye fold to make Chinese people look more Western supposedly. I wonder whether as Chinese cultural power increases, that in a few years time there will be a thriving market for Westerners to make themselves look more Chinese? 

Before I came here I read loads of guide books. You know the sort of thing “An Ex-Pat’s guide to China”, “Living in China, the facts”. Well some of them are useful but there are a list of things that are grossly simplistic, half true or just downright wrong. Here are 5.

1. Buses. “Take taxis not buses. Buses are hot, smelly, crowded and downright dangerous. And watch your wallet”. I paraphrase but only a little. 

The buses in my neck of the woods are great. I’ve been on a few now and they don’t smell, the air con is good and I’ve never been on a bus anywhere near as crowded as the London Underground at rush hour. Plus they’re fun because they bounce about a bit but that’s the speed bumps.  I suppose what might put some people off is that the drivers are constantly honking their horns. But that’s a Chinese thing not just bus drivers. And I’ve now learnt that the connotation is different. It’s not so much “get out of my way you bastard” more “Hi guys, here I am ! Do you like my bus/car/scooter/bicycle ?”

And best of all, every journey costs 1¥ however far you go. That’s about 10p in old money. Oh and I’d trust my wallet not getting nicked on a Chinese bus any day to an English one. 

2. “Before you come to China stock up on anti-perspirant and soap. If not you’ll probably have to go to Beijing or Guanzho to get some”. 

Er……..about 300 yards from my dorm (we call them dorms) there is a little shop that sells anti-perspirant and three different kinds of soap. My favourite smells like Imperial Leather. 

3. “Never ever EVER stick your chopsticks vertically into your rice. You see that’s a sign of death in Chinese Culture”. 

Ooh er missis. Well I’ve done what we Sociology types call “Field Experiments”. Admittedly the field is hardly typical being a university campus but nobody seems to give a bugger. That last bit is a technical phrase of course. 

4.  “Be sure to be punctual for appointments in China.  Otherwise Chinese people will get a tad irritated”

This is an interesting one because again, according to my admittedly small scale research, the truth seems to be the perfect inverse of the proposition. 

5. “Chinese people will constantly stare at you and say hello. They will want your picture. It’s VERY irritating. Not so much in Beijing or Shanghai but in the more rural areas…….”

Well, I live in the sticks and very very occasionally I’m stared at. I smile, say hello and they say hello back. That’s not too awful is it ? ………Although to be fair one night I was sitting at a bar drinking Tsingdao and contemplating the meaning of life when an arm appeared in front of me and wrapped itself round my neck !! The gentleman concerned then produced his camera in his other hand and took a selfie. I think he might have had too much Tsingdao but it’s difficult to imagine that. You’d drown in it before you got drunk on it. 

Sonia took me to Chongqing Bus station. We met her in the Youth Hostel and discovered that she was attending the medical university down the road from me in Fuzhou. She’s training to be a Nurse and she likes my cigarettes, they are roll ups, pretty much unheard of in these parts.  Very few women smoke in China, at least where I am, and I liked her all the more for that. She very efficiently got me there, neatly wrote down the phrase  * I’m going to Fuzhou* in Chinese script on a piece of paper and left me to it. I had an hour to wait, so found a vacant chair in the bus station which was not easy and settled down to wait. At 11.20am I went to find my bus and got on it.

I knew this type of bus existed but I’d never travelled on one. No seats, but you get a bed. A rather nice one too. I don’t know much about these things but it looked like polished teak with a stainless steel handrail to stop you falling out. A man came over, told me sternly to buckle myself in and take my shoes off. I did. Then the bus started up and we got going. I looked around at my fellow passengers, greeted them in Mandarin but got no response apart from vague glares. I offered biscuits. I’d stocked up with Oreos. Still no response. I said hello to a little boy. He screamed and hid behind his mother. What WAS going on ? I pondered this. At FJUT all the students are friendly. But they know I’m something to do with the university. Here I’m some crazy Westerner on THEIR damn bus. And I think I make sense in Mandarin but maybe they speak Min a local Fujian dialect. So I decided to make the best of it. I read, dozed and looked out of the window for several hours. I did mental calculations. 7 hours, nearly a third of the way there…….

And then the bus stopped. At what appeared to be a derelict building site. Inside was a meal laid out and a man with a megaphone encouraged us to tuck in. It was 30 ¥, a lot of money for a bad meal in China and obviously a scam but they do these scams better in Italy, in my experience. And then a slightly too genial Chinese man who wasn’t on the bus suggested I go up the stairs with him. Oh dear I thought. This is the mugging moment. There will be 3 Chinese guys up there who will relieve me of my wallet.  I thought carefully and still went up there. It wasn’t the mugging moment. It was the * I’m terribly sorry for the quality of the food downstairs. Would you like to try my excellent spicy fish hotpot moment*. ……

Yesterday I turned up at Fuzhou railway station for a trip to Chongquing and realised that I’d left my passport at home. Oh how stupid of me. For those of you not familiar with Chinese Law this was an utter disaster. As a foreigner you should keep your passport with you at all times and particularly when travelling. My travelling companions were Lemmie, who you will know as he is of this Parish, and Vanessa who will be blogging shortly. 

What to do ? Well my first reaction was to go home but Vanessa, through the sheer force of her personality got me a train ticket. I had a copy of my passport picture on my IPAD and the ticket assistant let me through after Vanessa had finished shouting at her and beguiling her in equal measures. So we got on the train to Chongqing. A great journey, lovely views and so on. The accommodation was nice in Chongqing, apart from the fire, but you can’t have everything, but still the fact that I had no passport worried me. The next day we went to The Chongqing  Museum of the Three Gorges. Fab but I knew I couldn’t go on to Xian. But how to tell the others ?

Tricky. I tried to tell Charlie, and Vanessa but I think that largely they thought I was mad. A couple of photocopies, get the passport couriered up. No problem !!  But then I heard that Chris, Vanessa’s friend had spoken up for me.  She said that if she was me she’d do the same thing. This got me thinking. I’ve read an awful lot of psychology, Behaviourism, Freudianism, Human-centred (how could it be anything else ? ) and so on. And A and B personalities. 

So I propose 2 new personality types. Let’s call the first one Charlie/Vanessa. These people don’t worry too much about anything. If it’s called a problem they see it as a challenge and they just know that everything will turn out fine in the end. Then there’s Chris/Mark. These people are well aware of Sod’s Law, that if anything can go wrong it will do !! And they are expecting the law to come into force at any moment. The CVs think the MCs are neurotic pessimists and the Mcs think the CVs are er… ridiculously optimistic. So I was determined to get back to FJUT to return to my passport. No trains available but there was a bus. 22 hours but that’s fine isn’t it ………. 

Many months ago, indeed it seems a lifetime ago now, I was in Zhuhai getting my TEFL certificate. It was much harder work than I expected. Theory all day and then teaching lessons in the evenings with our rather bad tempered tutor who delighted in pointing out every error in our teaching, usually real but sometimes imagined I think. Our tutor was one of those irritating people who revelled in power, no matter how small. Anyway, towards the end of these 12 hour days me and my teaching colleagues used to have a little joke. One of us would cup our ear and say “I think I hear *The Ice Bar* calling”. We drank there most nights, amongst assorted slightly eccentric ex-pats and it was great although it had  a really ghastly Squat Toilet. (Think Train-Spotting !) I never did find out why it was called The Ice Bar, they didn’t even sell ice.

So a couple of months later I came to Fuzhou. There are two Bars on Student Street. One is noisy, expensive and boring and the other one is excellent and run by the estimable Yan Hong. I drink in the latter one. It has splendid staff and even ice too. But still I craved the eccentricity of The Ice Bar. I took the bus to town many times in that first couple of months. There’s a scruffy corner that I go past  there near the bridge over the  river with nothing but mosquitoes there , until one day there WAS something ! It was below the bridge. All you could see from the bus was a Chinese Flag and, if you looked carefully a cornucopia of other flags. I asked the students what it was and they said it’s the new INTERNATIONAL bar. I made a mental note to go there. Then I went for a night out into central Fuzhou to a Concert, yes, blah de bla and the bus driver dropped us off at the wrong stop and next to it. Well God works in mysterious ways. We went in to be greeted by the proprietor. An interesting man. He’s Chinese , known as Wolf-Man and has been to Japan, Honduras and Argentina. He also speaks some Spanish. I was pleased to see him but not nearly as pleased as he was to see me. He KISSED me. That’s a very un – Chinese thing to do and I think he’d had a couple of beers but hey, he’s running an International bar and finally, finally the Foreigners turn up. Then he brought some beer, some peanuts and a salad that I thought tasted distinctly Spanish…….

1st July 2015

I thought I knew what Karaoke was but I didn’t. You have too much to drink in a bar then sing, right ? The words come up on the screen and you warble along…… badly. ? 

Well this was CHINESE karaoke. We went to reception and gave them some ¥. No sign of beer. Then we were directed to one of many rooms there.  Well I say room. Cubicle would be a better word. And we had our own toilet which struck me as funny. Then we put the songs on. I chose that great song “The House of the Rising Sun” and murdered it but everyone else was pretty good. I’d do it again……..Whether I’ll be invited again is less certain.