3 weeks condensed!
05.03.2013 - 27.03.2013 8 °C
I think I should start this post first with an apology as I haven’t updated my blog for over 3 weeks. Oops! Won’t let that happen again! So here goes an absolute ton of a post!
Our final night in Kunming was spent having a farewell banquet which was held in a beautifully old courtyard lit by traditional chinese lanterns in the city centre. It was also another volunteer’s(Joel’s) birthday so we all clubbed together and bought him a cake. In the end we all gave 10 yuan(£1) which meant we had 300 yuan to spend on the cake. I agreed to help carry the cake to the restaurant but little did I know how massive it was going to be. In the end it was about a meter across. I reckon in the UK a cake like that must be more like £200, I mean this thing was something that you could serve at a wedding! The next day we all had to get up early and say our goodbyes which was so sad as everyone was now leaving for their placements. Some only had an hours car journey but Alastair and I had a 3 hour flight to Shanghai which was really interesting. The flight take off again was really scary but the thing that surprised us the most was the amount of smog that covered China. It got worse and worse as we neared Shanghai until at some points you couldn’t even tell the difference between the ground and the sea! At the airport we were greeted by a huge red sign that said ‘Welcome William Richard St, Alastair James’ held by Jenny, our link teacher and Mr Ji, the vice-principal. After getting lost trying to get out of the airport we finally were bundled into the taxi and set on our way to Suzhou. Alastair and I both agreed that we felt kind of overwhelmed at this point as we had never seen anything quite like it. Again, as far as the eye can see(which isn’t that far...smog!) there was construction of tall buildings everywhere. The motorway was 4 lanes and lined by a high speed train line which mean every so often a white bullet would shoot gracefully past us. Even though the motorway was built to western spec the driving wasn’t. In Africa, even though the driving was really dangerous it wasn’t ever at a high speed so it didn’t really scare you but in china we were going at 70mph and it still seemed like it was still a massive free-for-all!
We started nearing Suzhou which from the first look was very industrial, there was the huge trousers being built in the distance, lots of cranes and unfinished buildings set around a series of small lakes and evening light was yellow because of the smog but I now see it in a very different way. We turned off the motorway and were then taken to a smart hotel next to a shopping mall where we had an amazing banquet. At this point all I wanted to do was get to the school and unpack as everything seemed so new and overwhelming but I am glad I stayed as the Banquet was really interesting. At a chinese Banquet etiquette seems very important. There was a lot of fuss taken over where everyone sat. The principal was the most important person at the table so places were arranged according to where he sat so Alastair and I sat immediately to his right and Jenny and Mr Ji to his left. We ate quite a lot and the meal consisted of lots of varieties of fish and some pork prepared in different styles and with different sauces. At the beginning of the meal we were asked what drink we wanted and in the end we opted for blueberry juice. The act of having the juice isn’t that interesting but I am telling you this as there was a culture difference. Back at home, I guess we all have a drink and then leave the empty glass. So after my first glass of the juice I had had enough and left it empty. However, as soon as the waitress noticed it was empty she would scurry out quickly to fill it up at which my knee-jerk reaction was to finish it again so as not to waste it. This process happened 6 times before I could no longer take anymore and in the end I let her fill my glass up to the top and left it! One other strange thing about the meal was the lack of Baijiu. We had been briefed back in Kunming about baijiu(a lethal rice wine used for toasting) and so we were expecting to see the bottles of it open...but they never did. I didn’t really think much of it at the time until I asked my link teacher the other day who said that it was an example of the new government crack down on lavishness. In fact, the principal was even a bit wary of having a welcome banquet for us because of it.
After the banquet we were then taken to a phone shop to get a sim. What was really sweet was seeing Jenny walk up to an Indian guy and ask if he needed any help with buying a sim. Just goes to show how useful english is to the world as a Lingua Franca! We set on our way to the school which was only a 5 minute drive away. We pulled up and to the school and then proceeded to drive to our apartment block within the school. Even though it was night we could tell the school was massive. I think it has 1500 students and most of them board and that isn’t even very big for China. I have friends teaching some schools of 4000! Our apartment is on the 5th floor(no lift which happens only on buildings above 7 stories) of a building built especially for single teachers. When the teachers get married they have to leave which means there is only one other person living in this building.
Our apartment is so nice. Tiled floors, clean white walls, a small kitchen, a dining room that looks over the 400m track of another school and our rooms have air con and ensuites. When I walk into my room I still gasp at the view which is stunning at dusk. This is because my balcony looks out onto a lake and at the other side of the lake is the SIP(Suzhou Industrial Park) which has lots of tall buildings lit up. On my side of the lake and just outside the school grounds there are rows of poorer social housing. Its actually quite strange seeing it as there are people who live in relative poverty and their view from their house is of a incredibly wealthy metropolis. But, I am always seeing the huge divide of the rich and the poor.
That weekend, Jenny and Mr Ji had planned to show us around Suzhou which was really helpful. They showed us how to get the bus, go to the train station(which is the size of an large airport) and around some of the beautiful gardens that Suzhou is famous for. They also took us to a water town called Zhouzhuang(think Joe-ju-ang) not far from Suzhou as they wanted to show us what Suzhou was like 30 years ago. I think the pictures speak for themselves here but one story worth telling was when Mr Ji treated us all to lunch. We sat down in a restaurant in front of the window. As we were about to order a meal, I noticed that Mr Ji and Jenny were laughing but looking away. As I looked round to see what was happening I saw what they were laughing at. Right in front of us a man had decided to go for a pee against the shop window and we all had front row seats!
Our first week at the school was really tough and I had to dig deep to get through it. This was mainly because after the extremely social week in Kunming suddenly we were all alone with no-one to talk to. This wasn’t helped by the fact that we had a week of no teaching due to grade 2 examinations which meant we had nothing to do and didn’t have anyway of meeting anybody. Anyway, I won’t dwell on it but I’ve been reading an amazing book called River Town by an ex-peace corps volunteer, Peter Hessler who taught in China for 2 years. In it he describes the exact same feeling we went through on our first week at the school:
“In some respects, we were seen as English teaching machines...we were given our cadres’ apartments...Our bedrooms were air-conditioned. Each of us had a kitchen and two beautiful balconies. Our students were obedient and respectful. It didn’t matter that, even as we were given all of these things, the leaders also gave quiet instructions to our colleagues and students that they should avoid associating with us outside of class...And in any case we didn’t need close friendships in the college. We could teach during the day and return to our comfortable cages at night, and if we needed friendship, we always had each other.”
Thankfully, Suzhou is incredibly near to Shanghai so during that week we took ourselves out on a boredom busting mission to Shanghai. We woke early in the morning and caught the bus to the huge train station and here we managed to get our tickets for the high-speed train to Shanghai and it only cost us £4! I had never been on a high-speed train but I’d describe it as very smooth, very fast and a very cool way to arrive into Shanghai. After catching the Metro we arrived at Peoples Square(its actually the shape of an oval!) and had our first taste of the golden arches china style. It’s actually quite crazy here as all the fast food companies have adapted their foods for the chinese market. Here, you can order a coke and then they will put a Mr Whippy ice cream on top or have a purple apple pie!
We were walking to the urban planning museum when we bumped into a group of chinese tourists trying to take a group photo. We helped them and then they invited us to go and have a lesson on tea drinking with them. We walked to a kind of dodgy looking shopping centre and led to a back room where there was a lady from Shangri-La sat round a table preparing tea for us. The ceremony was actually really interesting and I had no idea that there were all these specific ways of drinking different teas, including putting the teacups on your eyes. However, what we weren’t prepared for was the price. Every tea we tried cost us 70 yuan a cup and we tried 6. When the price finally came in we realised we had been conned. I felt so embarrassed that I fell for it!! After we finally went to the urban planning museum which was part of the 2010 Expo and excellent. It had a full scale model of Shanghai in 2020! We then walked to the Bund. The Bund is the historic hub of Shanghai and is where you can see some beautiful colonial architecture and then look across the river at Pudong where all the skyscrapers are. From here we then walked down Nanjing road which is just crammed full of shops and people. We were now very tired so decided to call it a day and head back which was lucky as any later and we would have missed the train back.
On the weekend we were invited to be shown round Suzhou by a student called Pony and her friend World. It was really nice as they had planned all of it and insisted on paying for us(which we kept on moaning about to them but were told very firmly, no!). We went to the main shopping street in Suzhou which is again heaving and full of silk shops and designer stores like Fendi and Lowe. We then went to an arcade and then visited a beautifully old shopping street which I love and is also a place where you can choose your oyster you want from a tank and then they get the pearls out of it in front of you( its about £3 a pearl so message me if you want me to get you some). They treated us to a delicious lunch where we tried some dumplings traditional to Suzhou. Whilst we were eating there was a kind of a scuffle that happened next to our table between two men. It turns out they were fighting as they both wanted to pay for the entire meal! I’m not sure people would be like that in the UK! One thing we didn’t anticipate was some students from our school following us and taking our photos without us knowing. The next day our link teacher Jenny came round and showed us the photos of us posted on the chinese version of Twitter and all the students were commenting underneath. Now I know how the teachers feel when they see RateMyTeacher.com!
This is actually a strange problem that we have encountered is that the Chinese girls go nuts over us and there is a lot of staring. For example, the other day we had a note put under our office door and it said “Do you remember the 4 girls? ^_^ Sweets x”. Another time one of my students waved to me at the cafeteria and I waved back to which her friend screamed out loud with excitement. And then when I was naming somebody in class I asked her what her favourite name was to which she said ‘Billy’ and the class roared with laughter. I’m not sure they would feel the same if I said I was Japanese. Everyone hates them so much here that if you drive a toyota you have to put a sticker of the chinese flag on your car to save it getting smashed up. I have never seen people hate another country so badly, it is actually kind of scary and also sad that the war still is affecting people!
Now we have just finished our 1st week of teaching and things have been so much better and I love it. We now have more of a purpose around the school and I love teaching my lessons. I find the students thoughts and opinions on things so interesting and I am really impressed by their spoken english though they need to read and listen to more of it. For example, last week I did a whole lesson on art and then showed them all these famous paintings and I loved hearing their thoughts. For example, when I showed them The Pietà by Michelangelo lots of the students told me it moved them and one boy could even tell me that he felt sad as ‘there is nothing stronger than a mothers love’. However, one girl didn’t really understand what the statue was depicting so said she thought it was ‘romantic and very sexy!’
I have also now got a bike which means that I can get to a nearby food market quite easily and I have found an amazing little restaurant almost identical to my favourite one in Kunming. The food is so good and they make the noodles right in front of you! Now when I walk around the school, people don’t stare at me or giggle but come up to me and say “Hello Billy” and the students have invited us out onto their school trip this Friday. Last weekend, they also asked us to sing in their talent competition. We reluctantly agreed and turned up at the school hall to a crowd of 400. The students work so hard here so it was great to see them letting their hair down with a concert and doing something creative. There was a dance act, a scene from a play, and a singer(who ran off the stage in tears). We had decided to sing New York by Frank Sinatra and we were actually quite nervous but the crowd wasn’t judgmental at all. At the end some of the students even gave us Chinese opera dolls as presents.
I have now got loads to look forward to and lots to do. Next weekend we are visiting Nanjing and the week after we are going to the Shanghai Grand Prix and we are also having a big Kunming re-union in Shanghai for the May 1st holiday. I have set myself some goals in learning Mandarin and I love the teaching. I can’t believe it’s been a month since I left. Time flies!!
I promise to make this weekly and regular!
Hope you are all well,
Billy 郭虎石(Guo Hu Shi- my new chinese name)