The last week has been crazy. Although reading back through this it’s mostly moaning, it has been amazing and so many good parts. China has been my home for 7 days now, and I’ve been through every emotion, most of my money and every clean pair of socks that I brought with me. I didn’t get the internet until Tuesday (today is Thursday), and I had to spend the whole time researching for my lecture which was the following day, so I’ve not had chance to write anything here for a while. So a quick roundup:
Weds 16th – emotional goodbye with Diego and experience the first tears of the day. I think he was crying too, although that might be to do with the fact that I’d forgotten to feed him (a thing which haunted late that night when I was eating Chinese beans on a flight to Beijing).
Sat in the terminal watching an old couple with Disney hats on waiting for their plane, the guy was in a wheelchair loaned by the airport, and the wife was having a go on those massage chairs. I wondered if they intended to get on a flight or if this was their holiday. They looked pretty happy. I felt a bit sad and started to wonder what on earth I’d done in upping and leaving.
The 35min flight to London cheered me up as we got complimentary crisps and tea courtesy of Richard Branson, and the air hostesses looked like they were getting off at London and going straight to the pub.
Got to London and met Thomas for the first time, and we boarded the plane to Beijing.
Thurs 17th – arrive in Beijing. My persistent narcolepsy was a blessing and I’d slept through most of the flight. Still, feeling pretty tired and uncomfortable, we wandered around the terminal as we waited for our flight to Harbin. This last flight was pretty rough. Feeling tired and a bit woeful, we were packed onto a tiny flight surrounded by people coughing, phlegming and generally germinating all around. I think people wear smog masks to shield against the phlegm more than anything.
Arrived in Harbin in the evening, Chrissy’s smiling face was waiting for us at arrivals and we were ferried off to the campus. Our apartments are serviceable, very bright lights and lots of cold open space, and the shower/wet room is in the kitchen (which is a microwave and one gas ring). A huddle of Chinese people were in my room checking the gas and miming how to work things to me, and by this point I wanted to close the door and have a little weep. So I did. And then they knocked and came back in to show me more things! So that was awkward, but I don’t think they noticed. You can’t drink the water from the taps in China, it makes you really ill, and I was so thirsty. I knocked on my neighbour’s door, an American couple with a 2yr old, and they lent me a pan to boil some water to drink. What a humble existence!
Many university lecturers live on the campus, and our block of flats is reserved for foreign teachers, so there are 6 of us all together (plus wives, husbands and children). All of the others are American and have been here a couple of years, so they’ve been showing us where to go and eat and shop. They live in nicer apartments than ours, with more rooms, more radiators and separate showers! But this costs more to run I guess, to swings and roundabouts.
Fri 18th – Woke up feeling much happier after a big sleep, and spent the day going round the city opening a bank account, converting money and having another medical examination. This involved a blood test (at which I envisioned a slow and painful death by AIDS), and a urine test. I’d made sure I’d gone to the loo before I left my apartment for fear of having to use a squat, and as I was dehydrated from the flight, I ended up squatting for no less than 15 mins trying to squeeze anything out. The shame you feel at having to pull your pants up, leave the bathroom and ask your Chinese guide for a sip of their water to help you pee is quite unique.
Next we had dinner, Chrissy paid for us and I’ve had a few meals paid for me up until now. Food is super important in Chinese culture, everyone eats together from shared bowls (with a bowl of rice for yourself). Food is paid for as an extension of friendship, to show gratitude, respect and honour.
The next few days were spent getting to know the campus and the shops. Yesterday I went to the big Asda type shop in town, and spent lots of money on a big thick duvet, comfortable pillows and sheets. It came to like 400 kuai, and this woman came up to me asking if I could use her loyalty card. I was a bit confused, but assumed it was like a Boots advantage card, so I thought why not? Then it turned out she’d actually paid for the items on her card, and then proceeded to frog-march me to the cash point to pay her back! I was crapping myself the whole time thinking I was being hustled, and she kept talking on her phone in Chinese. In the end nothing bad happened except I was in such a rush to run away one of my bags split, so I had to trudge through the rain back to my apartment with heavy boxes and bags feeling grim. Then a student saw me struggling and helped me take it all back to my building! He kept asking me if I was married or single, so I when we got to the main door of my building I told him I could manage the 5 flights of stairs myself and thanks for his help. Most people are very friendly and willing to offer help.
On Monday we met with the English principal who gave us our schedule. Because we arrived so late, the classes we were supposed to teach were reassigned to the other teachers. Every student at the university, no matter what they study, has to take English lessons in their 1st and 2nd (of 4) years. Our job is to give them one-off lectures about British culture, and to motivate them to speak English. The same lecture again and again and again until every class has seen it by July. By now I’ve done it 5 times, and I know it word for word. I think I’ll go crazy by the end. I’m hoping after Spring Festival we’ll be assigned some proper teaching.
It’s not all bad, I encourage the students to get talking and ask them lots of questions. They’re painfully shy and usually you have to pick on students and ask them, but they speak honestly and in detail when they stand up to answer you. I’ve set up a yahoo email address so they can contact me to learn more, and I had a super sweet email this evening from a girl offering to show me around and help me set up a QQ account, and if I ever get lost to call her, and to get lots of sleep and not be too tired! That made me smile. I’ll play it cool and reply tomorrow.
I have two more lessons tomorrow, then off all weekend. So far I’ve only walked into the town which takes about 10 minutes down a filthy grotty back road. But that’s where the best restaurants are surprisingly. I’ll get a photo of the road, few cars scale it, it’s sheer solid mud and it’s like offroading. You’d never complain about a pothole again. This weekend Linsdey (one of the American girls) is taking me on the bus into a bigger part of the city to buy a big fur coat, and show me where she goes to get clothes created, imitated and tailored. Finally I can recreate the Royal Wedding!