Thursday, 12 January 2017

When the worm turns... things get ugly in China.

Teaching in China is a pretty good gig. I should know as I have been doing it for five years now. I know my postings haven't exactly been regular but along the way I hope I have given you all some insights into what life is like here in the Glorious Peoples Republic.

Life, for me at least, is pretty good.  The job is good and I enjoy teaching in a High School although it does have its frustrations. The students are a real mix some want to learn English, other like Albert, cannot be arsed and prefer to while away their days sleeping or disrupting the class.  In Alberts case its not that he's stupid, he is not. It's just cos he is rich. He doesn't need to learn English because there will be a nice cozy niche in the family company when he has finished his penance here. I use the word penance advisedly because I am told his mum just doesn't want him at home. This is underlined by the fact that his mum did hire a home tutor, but the home tutor gave up the ghost cos she couldn't handle him. I just shout at him. He scored 20% in the oral exam I just gave all my students for the end of semester which sort of underlines my frustrations.

Frustrations of another sort is the management style of my agency bosses. Over the last two or three weeks they have resorted to a bullying style of management with me. And its a style that I just do not respond well too.

The first I knew of it was when an new guy to the team who has a sort of management role knocked on my front door.  He came in and sat down and explained to me that the main boss, a female, wanted me to teach TOEFL (an american qualification) to a student from the High School (not our Foreign Language Department) in the evenings after school. I was asked to quote a price for my time - which I was happy to do. I asked around and found out that this sort of tutoring paid between 200 and 300 rmb. So I quoted the 300 figure as you do.  I was told that the they would pay 250 rmb which I was happy with.

Then the next thing is I'm having my contract quoted at me and that the most they will pay is 150 rmb. Plus I started to hear all sorts of rumours about how people were unhappy with my teaching. That I was swearing at students and how I was 'uncooperative.'

This started to make me angry because I am the most co-operative foreign teacher on this campus. I have done everything from speaking to parents, writing letters of recommendation to foreign universities, I even used my credit card to pay one students £2000 deposit at Royal Holloway London. These rich parents don't have credit card, I was repaid by international bank transfer.

I had also been told not to tell the school about this work as it was 'a secret.' Apparently the boy was the son of a friend of the principle who was pulling strings to get the student extra tuition prior to him going to the States.

So it went on. I didn't keep it secret of course, I went straight to my school manager, who is different from my agency manager, and asked him about these rumours. Of course he didn't know anything about them cos they were all bullshit.

In fact he started to tell me that just the day before he had asked my agency manager to pay me a bonus for all the good work I had been doing this month.

Now this is where it all goes tits up - pay attention.

I heard the words 1000rmb - now his English isn't great, but its good enough. So I walked away from that meeting thinking I was inline for a 1000 rmb bonus.

But I was still seething that I had been bullied into accepting this TOEFL work. Not only that they tried to move the goalposts. First it was why not 3 lessons a week and not 2. I said No. Then it was we need you to start right away. I said 'No the arrangement was for after the spring break holiday'. At first they also wanted me to teach him in my apartment. Of course I said no, I need a classroom. Plus I do not have any books or materials. They said buy some (they would refund) I said No.

I was not feeling at all cooperative after all of this. And feeling pretty pissed off that all my efforts over the last four years at this school seemed to have no value at all.

Then the interlude of the annual agency party.

I had been asked to give a 'performance' as is the tradition. I said no. and I wasn't very cooperative for the group photo. I kept my head down. We foreigners are always pushed to the front to stand next to the big boss.

Yes I was sulking.

Then pay day comes and I look at my salary - and no bonus.

So I call my HR woman and say where's my 1000rmb bonus. She says they had not been informed of that by the school.

So I went and spoke to the school boss who had mentioned the original 1000 figure and he clarified it. I had misunderstood him. He said their is a 1000rmb pot and he asked the other manager to give me a consideration this month. OK so thats cleared that up.

Usually the bonus for good work is 500rmb so thats fine.

Then I get a message that my bonus is 100rmb - £10!

 This is funeral Money this is NOT real RMB - Policemen please take note.

10 measly quid for all the work I've put in, all the letters of recommendation I've written for useless students.

This was the straw that broke the camels back.

I went to see my academic boss and complained about it with her. I was steaming. I had a 100rmb note in my pocket - so I took it out and said here give back to my employer I don't want it. Its a fucking insult.  I don't want their stinking money.

I said that they were treating me no better than a street cleaner. Oh you must do this, then you do that then do this and here's 10 quid for your extra trouble.

Now I was really streamed up.

We were at the annual staff meeting on the last day of the semester - just yesterday actually.

I went and sat down with my colleagues. Muttering about what a bunch of bastards my agency was.

So then I was pulled out of the meeting and asked to go and speak with the school boos, the agency boss, the woman from HR and the academic boss - all chinese BTW.

I told them that offering me 100rmb was an insult. I was told no it wasn't and had my contract quoted at me again.

I still had the 100rmb note. So I took it and ripped it up and threw it across the table at them. Told them I didn't need their bonus and in fact if people actually spoke to me nicely that might just get me to do all of that extra work for nothing.   Then I left and went back to the meeting.

This is not real RMB this is funeral money - policemen please take note.

At that meeting I gave a presentation and received feedback from my students. (a questionnaire had been used by the academic boss) I got 100% satisfaction scores and on the weekend I had received my fourth in a row Excellent teacher award from my agency.

So after the meeting there was another meeting with the same faces as above. We agreed that there was a misunderstanding about the 1000rmb bonus. But they could not understand why I felt the 100rmb was an insult. Given all I do for the school. They were also pretty upset I'd torn the 100rmb note up as apparently thats illegal win China and is disrespectful. So they were more upset that I'd torn the note than how I was feeling about their actions towards me.

Anywho the upshot of the whole thing was the main problem lay in the fact that they had changed the bonus system from one where a good report got your 500rmb - which I had received a few over the years - to one where you got 10rmb (£1) for each point you were awarded. You could only get a maximum of 120points thus 120 rmb bonus. This new system was put in place in March and the agency boss had not bothered to tell us - or me anyway - which he apologised for.

The upshot is they said they would contact head office and increase my bonus to 200rmb! (£20). Thus missing the whole point of my ire which is the money is not important all I want is a bit of respect for the things I do.

Is that too much to ask in a country where 'face' seems to be an important concept?

Rant over - sorry if I bored you.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Yowzah - where has the time gone?

Ok my last post was just at the beginning of the semester and today I taught my last class.  I always impress upon my students that time flies but never heed that advice myself when it comes to this blog.

Yes my last class, but tomorrow is exams and I'm doing the oral English exams so that means at least six hours of listening to students who have not worked too hard struggling to speak coherently to the IELTS questions I put to them.

Then on Wednesday a staff meeting. That will last about two hours and will be in Chinese.  But then over one month off.

Thats the great thing about working in China is that they know how to have a good holiday, none of this wet weekend bank holiday stuff. Yes a solid month off for the Spring Festival and New Year. Woo hoo.

I am off to the Nam for 10 days come the 19th. Snooky of course will have to stay at the vet.

The reason why I haven't been posting here that much really, I guess, is that I have been putting all my writing efforts into finishing my Novel - Meditations on Murder which I am hoping to get out to agents and publishers soon.

The good news is that one publisher has requested the full manuscript and I'm about to send a query letter and the first 5 chapters to another publisher who is accepting submissions at the moment.

But I have to re-do my synopsis as its not as good as my query letter at the moment.

You can find out more about my novel on my other blog here

Here are some photos of my students performing at the 'Christmas Party'

Sunday, 11 September 2016

A new semester - another ESL teaching year in Nanjing China

Its Monday, the second week of the new semester and already we have a holiday on the horizon. Well much closer than the horizon Thursday to be exact. Its the Moon Cake festival. Last week it was teachers day (although not a day off) which entails students congratulating their teachers and giving gifts, I got a flower, a nice 32GB USB stick and a luggage tag! I also got a personal gift off one student which was a little security box that looked like a book.

At the temple

This will be my fourth year here at Nanjing Dongashan Foreign Language School so I guess they like me or I must like them. I think it is generally mutual. I like living here because I have a nice apartment in the grounds of the school so we are behind the fence and have security on the gates not that China is dangerous or insecure. On the weekends and the holidays me and Snooky pretty much have the place to ourselves. Most of the teachers that stay here in the week go home. Most of the students have gone although there always seem to be a few wandering about (not during the long holidays, mainly at weekends) leading me to speculate whether their parents don't want them at home or perhaps they are just too busy working.

Students on a day out

On the wider front many of the teachers I have know over the past few years have left to go home or to move on to pastures new. Of all those I met when I first arrived in China back in 2011 only AJ and Tom and Peggy are left. Of course as teachers leave their places are filled with new faces but most, to me, are merely acquaintances I meet in the bar when I go across to Xianlin which is where I first lived. Tom and Peggy have taken over the running of a cafe/bar, Gilly's, in Xianlin which is proving to be successful catering for both the local expats and a Chinese clientele as well.  The Blue Marlin has become Manhattan but has fallen out of favour a little with Gilly's being the place to go.  They also do good American style food which is a plus for the mainly US and Canadian expats that congregate there.

At the moment there is a dearth of teachers here in Nanjing many of the schools and training companies are desperate for Native speaking teachers, to such an extent that that category 'Native Speaker', might just be overlooked if you can speak English and look the part. (I am being coy here because it is well known in China that if you are Black, even if you are a Gor Blimey Native English Speaker, then its difficult, not impossible, but difficult to find work on the other hand if you are a pretty blond Ukrainian Girl with poor english and a horrible 'russian' accent then you would be a shoo in for the job)

Being short of teachers also is good for us because the school doesn't want to lose us as the salary auction pushes salaries so they treat us a little better. This year we were short of a teacher and didn't actually find someone suitable until a day or two before the start of term. Some of the people we interviewed were clearly unsuitable and this is because we were scraping the bottom of the barrel. People with no experience, people who had experience but had serious visa problems, people who couldn't even be arsed to turn up to the interview (and this is a good school which pays really well).

In the park

If you are reading this because you are considering coming to China, do come. Get your TEFL course done, dust off that degree, hand in your notice and change your life. You will not regret it. Today is Monday as I have mentioned I have 1, yes one, class of 45 minutes today. My longest day is Fraday when I do have 4 classes. 1 before lunch and 3 after lunch. Then I have my almost 3 day weekend. And the days in between are not so bad either. 2 days with 3 classes and 1 day with 2 classes. Thats 9.75 hours of work a week.  Onerous isn't it? I do also have to put in some 'office hours' nominally 8 a week.  But thats not heavily policed. I will go to my office later and put in an hour as it is useful planning time. Yes, I do still have to plan my lessons so I do it in my office so people get to see me around the corridors and know that I am at least fulfilling some of what my contract states.

I am teaching Year 11 this year - I taught this class as year 10 last year so I know them and they know me. This year we are doing oral English and they are split into groups so for some I am teaching towards the IELTS test because they want to go to the UK or Australia or Canada and for other I am teaching toward the TOEFL test for those students who are aiming to go to the USA. This is not too hard, but what is hard is getting them to speak and especially getting them to speak outside of the classroom so that they can practice what I have been teaching. Its early days yet but these kids do seem a little bit more motivated than last years year 12.


Out of school I am hoping to try and see a bit more of China. I have been here around 4 years now and not seen as much of China as I would have like. I am really keen to get over to the West and North West of China over to where the Silk Road exits the country. I was interested to watch the Silk Road programmes on the BBC recently together with the spin off programmes 'Hand Made on the Silk Road'. If I get the opportunity I would like to go by train which would be a three or four day journey so I might have to consider going during the Spring Break rather than somewhere more exotic like Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia which are all good tourist destinations.

Of course first I have to earn some money as my bank account looks pretty empty but on the plus side, and something you should think about if you come to China is that I am now debt free in the UK all the credit card debt which cover many of the idiot things I did more than a few years ago have been expunged. This is because it is possible to have a good life in China teaching English and it is also possible to save money.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

100 things to know about China No's 50 - 100

50. Napping is the national ‘sport’ or habit. My students could nap for China. Everywhere you go, at any time of day, people will be napping. In the shops – IKEA runs regular announcements stating that the beds are for display not sleeping in. But its not unknown for grandma’s and granddads to be left napping in a chair whilst the family shops. People use restaurants like KFC, McDonalds, Starbucks – all with AC and Wi-Fi as handy places to nap – you don’t even have to purchase anything. I’ve even had to ask staff to wake people up and move them so I could sit down with my purchase –this is done without so much as a murmur of dissent.  People nap on bikes, in carts, on the metro actually anywhere and everywhere is conducive to 40 winks or more.  The Chinese teachers have camp beds in the office for the lunchtime nap.

51. The building workers live onsite, often for years, until the project is finished in prefabricated rooms with little more than a bunk bed, basic toilets and outdoor washing facilities.

These are by my school - not being used at the moment.


52. The butchers at the farmer's market carve up the meat and put it on display without refrigeration and don’t wash their hands between taking money and cutting meat.

53. How much baijiu is drunk at restaurants at a meal. I was invited to a dinner with fellow teachers by the parents of one of my students – they do this hoping we will pay more attention to their kid. Baijiu is a Chinese spirit akin to vodka and is drunk the same way – by shots.  Do not get misled by the Chinese calling it ‘White wine’ – its more like diesel. Anyhow at the end of this meal it was a matter of great joy that we had drunk 6 bottles of said rotgut. Remember this was probably the very good stuff because the (rich) parent would want to impress us with his generosity. The trick for drinking less baijiu - getting the waiter to fill your glass with water instead.

54    How many dishes are ordered at restaurants - they often end up stacked in layers. When one goes to these dinners the food – which has been pre-ordered by the host just keeps coming and coming. All the dishes are shared – unlike in a western restaurant where your food comes on your plate.  This also happens in private homes during the festivals.

55    Congealed duck blood is a popular dish together with many other outlandish and unsavoury (in my view) dishes such as Turtle, 100 year old eggs, chicken fetus on a stick – no I’m not making it up, chicken feet, duck neck, stinky tofu and so on.

56     Most of the beer available is around 2.5% alcohol. Snow Beer for example, which, by the way, is the biggest selling beer in the world, just because it sells the most to the biggest population in the world, is ubiquitous. But try getting a cold one – especially in the winter.  Shops in the winter do not have the refrigerator on – why would they its cold outside. In the summer it seems they want their beer at body temperature – because they believe to put cold things in ones body will make you ill. Thus even water is taken warm, in the summer when its plus 30 degrees C and hotter.

57 The is no lower age limit for drinking alcohol. I was shocked when on a school trip I found my students drinking large bottles of Rio with their picnic. I took the, by now empty, bottles to the Chinese teachers in charge and they were bemused by my concern. Also one lunch time, at the shop over the road from the school, I found one of my students buying two tins of Harbin (better and stronger than Snow) beer – he told me it was his lunch time ‘treat’ every day.  I’m afraid I grassed him up to the head teacher because now I knew why he was always so sleepy in my first class after lunch.
My students lunch time treat - Harbin Beer

58 Someone will dole out cigarettes to the entire group when they smoke, and it's extremely rude to refuse the cigarette offered to you. Smoking is de rigueur for most men and at any occasion especially more so if there are No Smoking signs.  The toilets at any event or public place such as the Mall or shop are usually full of smoke and guys grabbing a smoke despite the No smoking signs. At least the smoke masks the stench of the toilets.

59 Cigarettes range in price from 1.5 Yuan to over 1000 Yuan. At any social even such as a formal dinner the host will offer the smokes, expensive smokes and often by the pack and not individual cigarettes.  At weddings packs of expensive cigarettes are in the gift bag every guest gets given. The security guys at my school benefit from this because I take the packs to give to them. 

60 At the hospital its not uncommon to see Doctors smoking in the hospital corridors. Teachers in my school smoke with no sense that they are role models for the students.
61 Corporal punishment is still a factor in Chinese schools. Although I have not seen it happen in my school. I have seen a student manhandled out of a class by a Chinese teacher.

62 School life is hard in China. Most schools are boarders; the majority of kids sleep here. The day starts at 6 for breakfast. They are in the classroom at 7:15am until 9pm at night. The lessons after dinner are usually for self study (homework) and hobbies etc.

63 Public school tuition in China is expensive – at my school, a High School the fee is around 80,000 rmb a year (2 Semesters) (about £8000/$11,333) which is comparable to private school tuition in the West – that does include boarding but not other extras like food – which is cheap in the canteen, or bedding, or books, trips etc.

64 All the students return to school before the long summer break is finished for a period of military training which entails being in uniform, getting yelled at by military personal, running around and a lot of marching in formation yelling those 1,2,3,4 cadences you see the US army doing when training.

65 Working at a school in China also has its frustrations public holidays are given by the state but then one day is often clawed back by having to work the Sunday of the week we start back at school.

66 My usual class size is about 30 students per class but class periods are only 45 minutes long. Individual attention is impossible – despite some (paying) parents demanding it.

67 Many students are often unable to read the blackboard because of poor eyesight and not having glasses or having glasses but not of the right prescription.

68 My students find it difficult to practice creative thinking because of the Chinese education systems dependence upon learning by rote and repetition

69 In the scorching hot summers (over 100 degrees Fahrenheit/38 degrees Celsius with high levels of humidity), restaurants don't turn on their air conditioners until customers sat in that private room or do not have them set low enough so we have to get up and change them ourselves.

70 Shopping Malls with AC are the favourite haunts of grandma’s looking after the grandkids – they sit in there all day when the temperatures are high as they either don’t have AC at home or they do but they do not want to switch it on to save money.

71 As soon as the sun starts to shine again, after the winter, around the end of March here in Nanjing women start to walk around with open umbrellas. This is not to protect themselves from heatstroke per se but more to protect themselves from the sun so their skin wouldn't get tanned. The mother of a female friend regularly chastises her for looking like a ‘farm girl’ because she allows her skin to darken and does not use any skin whitening products which are big business in China (along with plastic cosmetic surgery)

72 Safety regulations are very relaxed – in fact so relaxed that they seem to be none existent. For example the schools handyman fixes my light switches with a pair of pliers, a current tester screwdriver and nothing else, with the current left on. Men work the high-rise buildings with no evident safety equipment.  Welders weld, on the street, outside their workshops with little or no protection against arc eye or flying sparks – some facemasks, made of cardboard or plastic are used, sometimes.

73 It is not uncommon for the whole family to hop on a moped or scooter, and without helmets. Often the child is on the back, mum and dad have the helmets, the kids don’t (waste of money).

74 In cars kids are in the front or back seats never wearing seatbelts, if there is a law, its not enforced

75 It seems to be de –rigueur to ride a bike/scooter/motorbike or drive a car, lorry, bus whilst using a mobile phone.

76 Pet ownership seems to be hit and miss, whilst there are many cats and dogs hanging around the streets looking dirty and mangy they seem to be getting enough to eat.

77 Most of the dogs wear clothes. Winter and summer. Or if they are not wearing clothes they are being dyed different colours, especially the poodle type.

78 Fish and birds seem to be popular pets as do rabbits and mice/hamsters which probably have a short ‘shelf’ life.

79 Groups of men sit around with their caged birds – giving them the ‘air’ a form of torture it seems to me showing the birds what life could really be like it they were not serving life imprisonment in a cage barely big enough to stretch a wing.

80 Even in the city its not that unusual to see a chicken having a stroll down a road or a lane.

81 In general China is a safe place to be I've never felt safer from crime. Females of my acquaintance also tell me they feel safe walking home late at night alone. You do not see Chinese men drinking on the street, in fact the only time I have seen drunken Chinese men is as they are helped out of a restaurant after the baiju marathons at dinner   – the only drunken brawls I have seen are western ex pats in western type bars who have gotten totally pissed western style.

82 Blind Massage is a good option if you want a massage but cannot differentiate between a good place or a ‘naughty’ place.  This is a relatively common occupation for the blind in China.  I’ve been to my local place a couple of times and the massage is good and professional.

83 If you really want a ‘naughty’ massage look out for the shops with the pink curtains and the pink lights – probably with a couple of women lounging on sofas in the front. Prostitution is illegal in China but these places are all over the city on the main street towards my school there must be half a dozen, at least, of them.

84 The kids are still kids in that they have an innocence about them that a lot of American kids today lack. We often see that as naivety – they giggle a lot if the discussion touches on sex  or relationships. The have a deep love for their parents which comes out in their writing in a real heartfelt way and they are not ashamed to read their writing out aloud in the classroom in front of their peers – something I am sure a 16 or 17 years old typical teenager would do in the UK or US.

85 In the summer whilst some men will walk around with no tops on, or with the granddad type ‘wifebeater’ shirts (I believe they are called) many like to just pull their top up exposing their often nicely rounded tummy and midriff (a sign of affluence apparently – big tummy means you have food)

86 You tend to see many employees being marshaled in military style outside of their place of employment. They are stood in ranks being given a hectoring speech to do better, work harder before having a group yell of something stirring and inspiring.

87 Some Chinese people, and, in particular, it seems to be the older generations, lack any sense of manners or etiquette. If you're in someone's way when they want to get out of the metro, expect an elbow to the ribs.  Nobody waits for you to get off the metro they just barge right in trying for the mythical empty seat.  If you are being served, even in somewhere like Starbucks, who do enforce a queuing system, people will think its ok to just come to the front to get their questions answered or make an order. And of course having a pee or even a poo anywhere they like. In this case the toilets were just the other side of the path.

88 There's also less expected table manners it is shocking and slightly nauseating if you are not used to it to see people spitting, or at least dropping food, usually bones, out of their mouths onto the table, sometimes onto the floor of the restaurant.  No one else blinks an eye because they are all doing it.  I have seen a person at a buffet use the serving spoon to taste the dish and then put the serving spoon back in the food.

89 Customer service in 'average' places is almost non-existent. Waiters and waitresses are generally useless and often come across as brainless. This is often because they are on minimum wage maybe 5 or 6 rmb an hour (50/60 pence/70 cents). But the number of times the order is wrong is remarkable given that they write it down on their pad. And sometimes we have double-checked they know what we want it still doesn’t come or its wrong.

90 Do not expect any logical sequence to ordering food – especially if you are expecting western style food.  If you order a starter, main course and dessert you might get the dessert first, half the main next, then the starter – then after you have asked where it is the rest of the main that is now lukewarm because its probably been sitting on a shelf in the kitchen.  If you want a dessert after your meal – order it after your meal not at the same time.  This is probably a consequence of Chinese meals being structured differently thus food does come out at different times because of the number of dishes.

91 Chinese people seem to be unaware of their surroundings or an awareness of the space around them so they seem very unpredictable in some aspects. For example, people stop dead in the most stupid of places to check their phone or have a chat without any consideration for other people – like in doorways, the bottom or top of the escalators of the metro (lighting a cigarrette is popular here) Many people don't seem to pay much attention.

92 On bikes and in cars they will, without any indication change direction or lanes.  They fly out of intersections (especially on bikes/motoelectro bikes) without as much a glance to the left or right. I think this is why some people on scooters or bikes continuously honk their horns, as a kind of constant warning not to make any sudden movements.

93 Convenience of life

In many ways life is more convenient in China. Technology tends to be adopted at a much faster rate than in the West, and many of our practices would be seen as outdated by Chinese people. Alipay and WeChat in particular just make life a lot easier! Buying online is cheap and the delivery is incredibly fast, usually next day

94 Obsession with foreignness 

Many foreign things, in particular stuff from the US, Europe or Japan and Korea, are treated with such reverence it makes me kind of uncomfortable.  It's not just consumer products, but also people. It makes me uncomfortable that white people are put on such a pedestal, and it's very unusual. It's difficult to get used to living in a country that thinks itself inferior to others. That foreigners get some kind of instant VIP status. Some banks, for example, wouldn't let me queue up even if I wanted to queue up to be fair to everyone else.

95 A lot of the old heritage buildings look very new. During the cultural revolution there was an orgy of destruction carried out by the Red Guard. Old China is being re-built but its often more Disney than Dynasty.

96 Piracy is rampant: TV, movies, software, games,  technology knock-offs are everywhere, clothes, food if you can fake it the Chinese will.


China's nouveau-riche often have too much money and not enough taste.  Why have one Lamborghini when you can have 5?

98 Elderly Chinese seem to be fit, although its seems that the notion of being elderly starts at about 55. 

But you see older Chinese out on the streets, if still not working because they need to they'll walk, jog, do Tai Chi, dance in the public spaces, play badminton, play mahjong, visit friends regularly. People love walking backwards, stretching their back on trees, clapping their hands whilst walking and hitting their body. Swimming in the mountain lakes in the winter.


99 The Chinese hang red banners, and/or public 'posters' everywhere. I guess where they once proclaimed the glorious sayings of Mao Zedong, nowadays its more likely  to be something like 'Freedom, democracy, equality' or more mundanely  'The 16th Annual University Sports Day'

100 There are flags everywhere Union Jacks and the Stars and Stripes are very popular covering everything from electric scooters, to clothes, mobile phone covers, books, furniture, food even.  Of course the Chinese flag is ever present, every Monday, here at school we have the official flag raising ceremony.

Monday, 4 April 2016

100 things to know about China No's 1 - 50

1.      The scale of Chinese cities. They are huge. I live in Nanjing where going ‘downtown’ for a beer with my buddies involves a 90 minute trip on public transport.  In England I wouldn’t dream of traveling for one and a half hours just to have a pint and a chat. Also these cities are expanding and eating up the surrounding towns and villages so for example in Shanghai, the "suburbs" are an unbroken string of 10-story+ apartment complexes starting about fifty miles out.


2.     Consequently number 1 above is to blame for No. 2, which is the amount of construction going on everywhere.  At nearly every aspect on the skyline one can see half a dozen cranes and within months new building are appearing on the landscape. That some of them seem to stay empty for a long period of time seems to suggest a building bubble that might burst. But if people are moving from the West of China to the East for work then they will be full soon.

3.     Light stores. Probably as a side effect of the construction boom, there is an unbelievable number of stores packed with elaborate lamps, sconces, chandeliers, and other lights of all types - modern, baroque, sleek, LED, patterned, painted, bejazzled, spangled, neon, beaded, frosted. These light stores have competition from the sanitary ware / bathroom stores. Indeed in some areas there are whole industrial parks dedicated to housewares.

4.     Given there is so many people noise pollution is everywhere. 

Drivers of all ilk, car, scooter, truck, bus are addicted to their horns. Regardless of the signs on the side of the road banning their use they are used day and night. The police man in the road, the taxi attendant, loves exercising the power of his whistle - the only sound that can cut through the deep echo of the noise of the traffic reverberating off the elevated highways. On the school campus music is played at the start of the day, for the start of the lessons, during exercise time, for the end of lessons, plus the loudspeakers are utilized to pass on messages or some such brainwashing of the students. We asked for the loudspeakers outside our apartments to be switched off because they start at 6 am in the morning and do not quiten down until around 10pm 7 days a week. Its relentless. 

5.     I’ve just mentioned the noise pollution but China is polluted in other ways.  The easy target is the air pollution and when its bad its bad. But here in Nanjing after a pretty bad 2013 over the last 12 months the air has been good and we were seeing blue skies rather than the white blanket that usually covered the city. The week before Christmas 2015 saw three days of bad air pollution where masks were recommended. But whilst I wore a mask en-route to school to work, once in the classroom one would find the windows all open, the students wrapped up in layers of clothes and coats – which is pretty much the norm – and as I have to speak I have to take the mask off. I would close all the windows because I prefer to breath air that has been filtered by 30 plus lungs than fresh out of the dirty atmosphere. 

6.     Waste pollution. On the whole the city streets of China are spotless this is because there is an army of cleaners who are constantly picking up after the dirty wasteful habits of their compatriots. There does not seem to be a Keep China Tidy campaign such as is run in the UK. People drop litter willy-nilly everywhere.  Packaging, paper, cigarette butts, fast food cartons, drink containers despite their being lots of waste bins which are nicely lable – recyclable rubbish and non- recyclable rubbish.  This gets much worse the further you get away from the centre of the cities. Whilst there are ‘scavengers’ who pick litter – cardboard, plastics, wood, metal and so on to make a living the rest of the stuff is just thrown in ditches, riverbanks, rivers any discarded bit of land becomes a veritable tip. Flytipping of building rubble also adds to these eyesores.

7.     This scavenging activity brings us to the notion of how much stuff can you fit on a tiny vehicle? Everywhere you go you will see bikes, trikes and motorized carts with bundles of plastic bottles about a yard wide and tall or huge amounts of polystyrene or cardboard or whatever will earn a buck stuck on the back of a bike. A common sight is an entire family on a moped. I’ve even seen a car jam-packed full of people with a guy in the boot.


8.     This leads us to the seemingly virtual absence of traffic laws or the impotence of the police force to police those laws and make them stick.  In the center of the cities, the volume of cars requires more adherence to the laws (of course taxi’s are excepted) but once out of town drivers seem to do whatever they want.  It is not unusual to find cars driving down the carriageway in the ‘wrong’ direction – they seem to do this because its simpler than following the correct route, or their route might be blocked for a few minutes and they have no patience. Double-parking to such an extent that the road is blocked is common as is just stopping the car in the middle of the road, because you need to check your phones, need to check directions or simply light a fag. They leads, of course, to No 4. (above) the continual honking of horns.

The consequences of not watching the road and watching your phone - lots of rear end shunts. 


Of course road rage is nothing new here 

9.     There is also no courtesy on the road, when coming to a junction or a slip road off the main road, its basically everyman for themselves. You can have four lanes of traffic and all four lanes will decide, at the last minute that this is the junction they need to get off at – so the car is directed at the smallest gap and it’s the guy with the loudest horn and the stoutest heart, and often the biggest car (no one wants their relatively new cars to be dented) who gets through – this melee also involves the huge trucks and lorries that use these roads.

10.  Luckily because its such a big country the streets in the cities are very wide, even in the inner cities often three or four lanes across each side, so a six lane road is not unusual in the city. This makes crossing the road heartstoppingly dangerous in the eyes of law-abiding Westerners who have always abided by the Green Cross Code or the No Jaywalking rules of their home country.  Basically what the average person does is just walk across the road, no looking left right left, just wandering across. Fortunately the average speed on the roads is quite low plus the financial penalties, in terms of having to provide health care, time off work compensation and so on is quite high (once again taxis are excepted from the notion of driving carefully – most drivers seem to have learnt their driving skills by playing Grand Theft Auto)


Crossing the road

11.  Despite having large numbers of cars and an excellent cheap and modern public transport system many people don’t seem to travel that much. Of course everyone goes to their hometown during the holidays but from the Chinese I have met I seem to have visited more of China and even more of Nanjing than they have. Even a taxi driver we took last night to get us from Jurong a town on the ‘outskirts’ of Nanjing about an hours drive away hadn’t ever driven to Jiangning, the district I live in so consequently he lost is way so we had to use the GPS on out phones to get home. Some of my students aged 16 and 17 have barely been downtown into Nanjing proper.  One student claimed to me that he had never been downtown despite having lived all his life in Jiangning a district of Nanjing.

12.  Taxis. On the whole the taxis, despite my comments above are fine, I can count the number of times I’ve had a problem on my fingers…and toes. They are cheap and abundant, except between 4:30 and 5:30 pm – rush hour – when the shift changes to the night drivers (in Nanjing), then its chaos. Most people use an app to book the driver. Easy enough to use if you can learn a few words of Chinese. The trick is, if you use them regularly is to memorise the local landmarks as you pass them and you can soon suss out if they are taking the tourist route home or the local route home – which happens in any town or city across the world of course. Having gps maps on your Smartphone helps a lot.  But you still find yourself getting pissed when the journey costs 4 or 5 rmb more than usual until, that is, you realize you are complaining about 30 or 40 pence different.

13.  The amount of English used in the road signage. All the major routes have signage in English and Chinese. All the road names are signed in English and Chinese plus that have the compass direction on them too so you know if you are travelling North, South, East or West. This is useful given that some roads are really long.

14.  Roads are closed if there are visiting dignitaries in town which jams up the road network for hours. I was in a taxi going to meet some buddies and Xi Jinping was in town so all the roads he was travelling on were closed it took me well over an hour (with the attendant higher fare) for the 15 minute drive I was expecting.

15.  There are smells everywhere. Delicious food smells, Horrible food smells – stinky tofu is too difficult to describe even although I’m told its delicious. Strange smelly air, good smells, bad smells, strange smells, pleasant smells. My students sometimes smell strange to me, I probably smell strange to them. I believe that foreigners used to smell ‘milky’ to Chinese because of the dairy in our food. Now they drink more cows milk so we’ve probably reached equilibrium there. In more 'traditional' neighbourhoods in particular, you can walk down the street and get a new smell every 20 feet.
Stinky Tofu vendor near Auchan supermarket

Stinky tofu ad.

16.  Talking about smells the public toilets are a wonder to behold.  On the street the public toilets are basically a concrete tiled trench along the length of the room separated by ‘walls’ about three feet high - with no doors. There is no sense of privacy in a Chinese loo.

And absolutely no privacy in this Chinese loo

Toilets at a visitor centre.

These are the toilets in an abandoned workers accommodation

Toilets in my school - It's 'delightful' when you go in and your boss is doing his business whilst having a smoke  or, even worse, when its one of your students shouting 'Hello Teacher' at you.  Thank god I have western style toilets in my apartment - which is on campus.

17.  Most of the big shopping malls, department stores, restaurants, will have toilet facilities. Most have the more traditional porcelain squat toilet facilities. But some do have Western style toilets – for example Starbucks. In most cases this are serviced very regularly by cleaning staff and are spotless.

18.  If you do find a Western style toilet you might find the seat is broken or the seat is up and there are footprints on the porcelain because some people will hop up onto the toilet and use it as a squat toilet. 

19.  Toilet paper is not provided so you must carry your own supply – usually little plastic bags of paper. Some of the toilets in the Malls have pay for dispensing machines outside the entrance to the toilet.

20.  Toilet paper is also not for flushing, the plumbing cannot cope so you have to dispose of it in the bins provided.

21.  The waste product is also used in the countryside and the vegetable plots in the suburbs as manure. Alongside the country roads are pits of rotting shit. This is ‘managed’ in that all the paper and sanitary towels etc is raked out into a pile next to the pit and later burnt.

This is a local shit pit which once left for a while will be used as fertiliser  - notice the sanitary products to the side. 

22.  Instead of nappies, babies and toddlers wear trousers that are split down the crotch so that they can be held over a sewer grate or just on the sidewalk.  I’ve seen kids being held over the rubbish bins to piss on the metro station. Ive also seen a relatively old kid, aged 6 or 7 having a shit on a piece of cardboard on the pavement as his adoring grandma watches.

This mum, although the baby had a nappy on, undid the nappy to let the kid piss on the floor in the middle of the Mall - behind the wall in front of her are the public toilets.

Pee pee on the floor

23.  Men take a piss wherever they want.

24.  People spit all over the place: on pavements, in restaurants, in bars - everywhere. And its not just spitting there’s an excruciating (to our ears) amount of hawking before the gob is spat onto the floor. I’ve had it done next to me as I’ve been sat at a bar – at least in the past we used spittoons.  I once took a plane to Thailand and I had some grandma sat behind me hawking up the whole time.

25.  Nose picking or just rooting around for a bit up there seems to be a popular pastime on the metro and most other places really. Most people seem oblivious to the gaze of each other and go about their business as if there was no one else about. This is possibly a consequence of such a large population with very little sense of personal space and privacy.

Digging deep

26.  I’m British; the concept of queuing is embedded in my DNA. We queue for everything. In China there is no concept of queuing.  In the supermarket, where you get your vegetables weighed it’s a competition to get your bag of apples onto the scales before the next person. At the train ticket counter, there might well be a queue, but for some people that queue doesn’t exist, it might just as well be in another dimension as they waltz to the front of the queue, barge in and get served. The person behind the counter also complicit in allowing the queue jumper to get served.  But I have seen people complain and make people go to the back and if Im in the queue I don’t stand for it either – its just not British – by gad! Getting off a packed metro train onto the packed platform is a trial of strength and will because as soon as the doors open the people on the platform surge forward hoping to get one of the very few seats whist we, the poor passengers fight to get off for fear of being trapped on the train for hours on end in a never ending loop.

This is me at the supermarket, in the queue. The marrow to the left is a grandma using the first on the weighing scales, first served method. Nobody ever says anything least of all the girl on the till.

27.  Being stared at by an open mouthed Chinese person who is gobsmacked at there being a foreigner on the metro or on the street is pretty normal. In China it is perfectly alright to stare at strangers and then take their photos or demand a selfie with you – or in one case, as happened to myself, be asked ‘why is your nose so big’?

28.  The Chinese are not shy about asking personal or intimate questions. Such as the above – ‘Why is your nose so big?’ or ‘Why are you so fat?’ or ‘How old are you?’ or ‘Are you married?’

29.  Personal space is not respected that much either colleagues have reported students and random people touching their hair, because they'd never felt it before. For some reason some of the girls in my school like to pat my belly (which is not so large and which makes me feel uncomfortable for many obvious reasons) but they just laugh – maybe it’s a Buddha thing for luck!

Chinese on the beach

On the metro is always a busy time

30.  Chinese men generally don't seem to use deodorant or antiperspirant. I think some Chinese people really don't like it at all and think it is quite unpleasant. I mentioned above that some Chinese think we smell bad. Nevertheless Chinese people don't seem to suffer from the same BO smell that plagues western people, especially in the really hot and humid summers. The Chinese don’t seem to sweat as much as we do. Plus many will shower twice a day and thus don't require such heavy deodorant use.

 Its difficult, but not impossible to find deodorant and antiperspirant in the shops. This deodorant is in a 'Japanese' 10 rmb shop called Miniso - but it is difficult to find in general chemists and supermarkets.  

31.  It's also hard for women to buy tampons – sanitary towels are the solution of choice for most Chinese women it seems – there are long rows/whole aisles of sanitary towels in the supermarkets but they might only carry a few boxes of tampons. In the countryside or the more rural areas they might be even more difficult to find.

The whole of this left hand aisle is sanitary towels. There was 1 box of tampons amongst the lot. 

32.  How many layers of clothing people wear. When it is just starting to get nice and cool after the baking summer and I’m still walking around in shorts and T-Shirts people start to wear their winter long johns and thermal underwear. They would show off their three to four layers, peeling the layers off their wrist. Colleagues would stop me in the school as I was just wearing a shirt and ask me if I was cold. People seemed very impressed that I didn't fear the cold and wore so few layers.

These guy were brave going for a swim in a mountain lake in March but perfect for showing off the layers 

33.  Its always suprising to see how much underwear can you see line-drying outside windows as you walk down the street. Usually big grandma pants flapping away in the wind and in the poorer neighbourhoods you can see how well time-served they are from the patches and darns in them

34.  How few clothes people own. Some people would wear the same clothes for a whole week – this of course is a generalization but because of the huge gap between rich and poor – those who are not so well off will not have so many outfits to wear. Chinese friends are surprised at the number of shirts I have though.

35.  It’s not unusual to see people exercising in their normal/work clothes. One my campus I regularly see teacher jogging around the track in their suits. In a country that practically makes all the sports paraphernalia and clothing in the world you would thing sports clothing would be de-rigueur. Teachers also come into the little gym we have and jump on the machnes for a few minutes but still in their ‘work clothes’. Even my school students will go out to PE lessons and do the exercises in the clothes they are wearing and in the summer come back into class soaking in sweat – the boys mainly, of course – with the attendant smells – see above!

36.  Fashion is big in China. So big that it’s not unusual to go to the parks and mountains to see girls tottering up the rocky trails in really high heels and sparkly outfits. But saying that having hiked a lot in the UK up mountains you do tend to see similar  mistakes

37.  Despite the influence of fashion there is little self-expression allowed in school. All students wear the same tracksuits in summer and the same winter uniforms.  Dyed hair is not allowed. Makeup is not allowed. Dating is not allowed.

38.  Getting a haircut in China can be a risky business give the lack of languages skills by both parties. But generally the cutters are pretty good. In the first placed I lived with a large student population there were lots of hairdressers to choose from – but which one.  My tactic was to choose the hairdressers with the gayest looking boys in there with the most modern haircuts as I assumed they would know what they were doing. It seemed to work for me. Most cheaper hairdressers seem identical. A bunch of fashionable guys (I’ve not seen girls cutting) with cheesy music blasting from some outdoor speakers. My haircut is around £4. Plus they wash your hair before and after the haircut.

Me getting a cut 

39.  And there are a lot of hair salons to choose from which makes the choosing all the more difficult.

40.           Generally people don’t seem to have as much ‘stuff’ as we do in the West. I have been in many Chinese homes in Anhui Province and locally and they are pretty spartan. In a big room there might be a dining table a settee, some hard back chairs (suitable for said table) a big screen TV perhaps a dresser. On the walls maybe some calligraphy or a picture of Mao. That’s about it.

41.           In many places there is no evidence of heating or AC – people just put on more clothing to keep warm and keep the doors wide open. Obviously this probably doesn’t happen in the North - Anhui province where I went, even in the mountains, is in the ‘warm’ south.

42.           Once upon a time some beaurocrat member of the party drew a line across China, it stretches from Shanghai across the country. Above that line it is ‘officially’ cold and below that line it is ‘officially’ warm. This means homes in the ‘warm’ south are not built with insulation and decent heating.

43. Throughout the year one will hear insanely long strings of firecrackers constantly going off at the crack of dawn or late into the night.  These are often set off to celebrate the opening of a new store or a marriage procession along the motorway – they drive away bad luck for the recipients but pollute the air for the rest of us. It had got so bad that here in Nanjing the local government have banned fireworks.  We still hear them occasionally but even at Spring Festival and New Year it was quite, unlike the Chinese New Years eve I spent in Shanghai a few years ago where it was like being in WW3 and the fireworks lasted over 24 hours.

Shanghai Chinese New Year

44. Karaoke, or as its called in China, KTV is huge. The places where you can go to sing, badly and out of tune, are all over the place, its big business here.  In fact as it was my birthday we went last weekend. The room cost around £35 (350rmb) for 5 people. Yes, unlike Karaoke in the UK where its done in the bar of the local pub so you can humiliate yourself in front of the rest of the punters whilst singing ‘Lady in Red’ to your cringing girlfriend KTV in China is done in private rooms with big screens, great sound systems and waiter service.  Drinks are expensive and you can buy snacks. My 350 rmb booked the room from 6pm to 2am – but we ate out first so go there around 9 and spent 2 hours caterwauling. It is great fun.

45.  During the winter months its not unusual to see sausages, fish and meats curing on the clotheslines next to the pants or hanging on the boughs of a handy tree or the telegraph/electric lines because they are drooping low enough. After all why use a fridge when its cold enough outside.

46.  It is quite jarring to see people who have shopped at the fish market, taking the fish home alive and still flopping around in plastic bags.  The fish section in the supermarkets are also not the place to visit if you have any feelings for animal (fish) welfare. Tanks are overfilled with gasping fish living out their last moments, some are clearly damaged floating around upside down – its not a good experience.

47.           Plastic bags from the supermarket are hopeless as they are very thin and the type of bag one uses in the rubbish bin are so thin I marvel at the technology used to make such thin bags and have them on a roll at the same time.

48.  If one is ill it is possible to go to a pharmacy and buy most things your doctors back home would give you a prescription for. For example antibiotics aren't regulated, so its easy to by Amoxicillin for example. The problem with this is they are seen as a cure all and you will be told to take an antibiotic even for a common cold or for a stomach ache.

49.  Instant coffee is everywhere. Everyone loves NescafĂ© but in the little sachets one buy its usually sugared so you end up with a hot sweet brown coloured beverage that is masquerading as coffee.  If you want real coffee and make the mistake of going into one of the many ‘coffee’ houses such as Blue Mountain Coffee you will get a small cup of very expensive, but good, coffee.  Of course Starbucks and Costa sell western style coffee at around 30rmb but Chinese chains such as 56 degrees (In Nanjing anyway) do decent coffee for half that price and indeed KFC and McDonalds coffee is bearable for a much smaller price.

This is my preferred brand in my office - hot water is always available in the hot water dispenser by the toilets

50.  Napping is the national ‘sport’ or habit. My students could nap for China. Everywhere you go, at any time of day, people will be napping. In the shops – IKEA runs regular announcements stating that the beds are for display not sleeping in. But its not unknown for grandma’s and granddads to be left napping in a chair whilst the family shops. People use restaurants like KFC, McDonalds, Starbucks – all with AC and wi-fi as handy places to nap – you don’t even have to purchase anything. I’ve even had to ask staff to wake people up and move them so I could sit down with my purchase –this is done without so much as a murmur of dissent.  People nap on bikes, in carts, on the metro actually anywhere and everywhere is codusive to 40 winks or more.  The Chinese teachers have camp beds in the office for the lunch time nap.

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