As weeks go, this one has been pretty good. The week began with Monday (…). Mondays aren’t known as the heralds of optimism, but this one marked the beginning of the second to last week of classes, and so the holidays. Not that I don’t enjoy my job, and I’ve only been here 2 months, but already I’m so ready for a break. Negotiating culture shocks and navigating every moment of the day requires a lot of energy every single day, so it’ll be nice to enjoy just ‘being’ in China.
Anyway, on Monday evening, a couple of us were asked to help judge a singing competition. Karaoke is big business here, and let me tell you they’re not shy. A little think like being totally out of tune doesn’t get in between a Chinese person and a microphone. I truly admire their confidence. I went to a Thanksgiving party in one of Thomas’s classes a couple of weeks ago, and amongst the entertainment were at least 3 students singing along to various C-Pop ballads with genuine earnest and emotion, and without a hint of embarrassment. I was amazed, to look around the room, not to find heckles, scorns and scoffs by fellow classmates. But at an official university singing contest, ofcourse I was preparing myself for a slightly different calibre. LOL. We arrived in the auditorium, were led to our front row seats by actual geisha girls, and sat down. On the left hand side of the stage was a huge screen which displayed home-made music videos for each contestant, to compliment their act. To the right was another screen, which displayed shout-outs and comments that the audience had ‘tweeted’ to Weibo (Chinese twitter), like The Hub on This Morning. I half expected a Chinese Jeff Brazier to bound out on stage with an iPad and a dearth of piercing critiques from Beverley, 43, in Slough.
Anyway we were treated to a parade of entrants belting out the classics from such English language pop music greats as The Beatles, Backstreet Boys and Avril Lavigne. There was beauty to be found in their enthusiasm, dancing and outfits, even if the singing element left a bit to be desired. The whole thing was loud and camp and crazy but also very sincere and genuine. The eventual winner was a very deserving boy who strutted around the stage to Singing In The Rain. We had to go on stage to present the contestants and winner with their gifts. Gifts are big business here, and the main rule is to give and receive always with two hands.
Tuesday was the final English corner of the semester, and so we had to give a special presentation. They all know what Christmas and Thanksgiving is (American culture is top when it comes to the West), so we thought we’d present some of the smaller festivals and holidays. I talked about Hallowe’en, and I was up first. Us six foreign teachers sat at a desk at the front which looked like it was set up for a press conference. It was a little nervewracking because a lot of people turned up, but it was soon over and I could sit back and enjoy learning about Independence Day (something to do with tea bags) and Pi Day (March 13th – 3.14 – traditionally one would consume many pies, but over time this has grown to encompass any circular shaped foods). The evening was fun and at the end we mingled and chatted to the students, and ate from the trays of cherry tomatoes and kumquats dotted about.
On Wednesday, I gave a class to some members of staff in the International Cooperation department. I’ve been doing this for a month or so, and it’s been a little odd. I haven’t been sure exactly what to teach them, plus seeing as they’re sort of my boss it’s a bit awkward to tell them what to do and what they’re doing wrong. After the lesson, I was told to go to the Dean’s office – he’s like the head master of the International College. Power Distance in China is huge, so I was a bit nervous that I was going to be shouted at/fired. But he was actually very friendly. The full upper-body brace he was wearing over his shirt helped to set me at ease. There’s something about seeing a person wearing spine-supporting armour that shows off their vulnerable side. We chatted about my job and how I’m settling in, and all was well. He gave me his business card and told me to call him if I need anything at all. Business card etiquette is another big one – receive with both hands, head slightly bowed. Do not look read the business card, but put it away safely for later.
In China, 12th December (1212) is a huge online sale day. The main online shop is Taobao, and they knock things down to like 80% off sometimes. All the year round, online shopping is massive amongst the computer literate. Students spend hours window shopping during their free time, then go home and order the stuff online for a fraction of the price. On 1212 things are even cheaper, so on Thursday I spent the afternoon sitting in a coffee shop browsing Taobao. I treated myself to a new scarf and some Boots No 7 Primer (the two things I buy about once a month at home…). Because my cards won’t work on these sites, one of my students helped me to order the stuff, and we spent the afternoon just shopping and drinking overpriced coffee. It was fun.
Friday 13th was my birthday. My ability to fall asleep, I’d usually define as borderline narcoleptic, but on Thursday I’d found it difficult to drift off, and I woke up long before my 6am alarm clock on Friday. I felt the quiet but restless anticipation of the night before Christmas. I’ve found that, early in the morning, if I switch my phone off and on again, and place it in the furthest corner of my apartment, occasionally the WIFI from the coffee shop across the road connects to my phone. Every now and then I’ll get a burst of whatsapp messages, but the connection drops before I can reply to any of them. But, by some mysterious hand of fate, the connection lasted for over an hour, and I was showered with birthday messages from my nearest and dearest, and was able to experience some real-time sibling torment. This made me very happy.
I had classes until midday, then office hours until 2pm so the day was pretty busy. A student came to my office with some delicious cakes all for me. I then went to the shops to buy some milk and teabags (adulthood init), and when I got home I found two more students at my door! These two I know well, they help me quite a lot, and last week they helped me to order a DVD player online. Online deliveries aren’t sent to your door, but one of about 5 UPS/China Post depots on the campus, and you collect from them. Anyway my DVD player had arrived, so we set it up and started watching Lord of the Rings whilst eating more cake that they’d brought, and opening my gift from them. My neighbours also called round offering various gifts. In the evening, a group of us went to a new Thai restaurant and ate potentially the most delicious meal of my life. Pad Thai noodles, chicken curry, spring rolls (a different world from even Tesco’s Finest effort) and sweet and sour. The décor and whole atmosphere was really nice, and at 52RMB each it was a little more expensive than we normally go, but worth it. 52RMB is about a fiver – we usually eat for 10-15RMB. We came home and are MORE cake with some of our neighbours who have babies so couldn’t come out with us. A lovely day, made me very glad to be living here with good people.
Saturday was another early start, we had to be out of the house for 7.30am to go skiing! Thomas and I met the international students at the front gate of the university, and we got on the coach for the 2hr drive to the ski resort. Driving through the city was the usual collection of ramshackle shops, streets lined with markets selling vegetables, meat, and the general type of nondescript ‘stuff’ you’d expect to find in the discount aisle of Home Bargains. But after an hour left the city and the landscape drastically morphed into miles and miles of beautiful, crisp whiteness. Tall bare trees stood in rows here and there, without the leaves to disguise the uniformity of their planting. I watched the vast expanse of bleak wintry countryside roll past my window from the warmth and comfort the coach, and felt very lucky to be here.
We arrived and got kitted out. We had to pay for the optional accessories, and I opted for an adult sized romper suit and ski glasses to look the part. Keen to get stuck in, I put on my skiis and started down the first, steep mini slope to get to the lifts going up the hill. It turns out you’re supposed to walk down this first slope, and bearing in mind I have never skiid before, ofcourse I fell over straight away, and smacked the back of my head on the snow. I felt like a right idiot and was immediately wishing I had gone for a helmet, wondering how many brain cells I’d lost and would I now have amnesia and live the life of Erinsborough favourite Susan Kennedy after she slipped on that pesky cracked egg? More embarrassing was that I couldn’t get up again, but instead slid about mid-slope with heavy skiis strapped to my feet. A nice Chinese guy came to my aid and gently told me to take the skiis off to get back up – invaluable advice for later on. I was feeling a bit nervous and unenthusiastic for the next two hours, feelings heightened by the fact that I managed to fall off the ski lift going up. It was basically a seat that drags you up the hill as your feet slide along the ground, and I was only 2m from where I’d gotten on when I toppled off again. Shambolic start! But looking around, falling over seemed to be part and parcel of skiing, so I picked up my skiis and started on foot up the hill. My first few attempts were a bit rough, characterised by essentially freefalling down the hill without knowing how to slow down or steer other than to perform a forced landing by making myself fall over (and often accidentally falling over). By the end, though, I like to think I was on the way to becoming semi-pro. Once you get your technique, it’s exhilarating. The technique is to bend low at the knees and the hips for optimum control. Change direction by prodding the ground with your stick, and angle your skiis thusly / \ to slow down. At first I was careering down the hill so fast that my life was flashing before me, but by the end I was sliding down at my leisure like a Sunday afternoon stroll. True to Chinese form, there had been no Health and Safety brief, no beginners lesson, just ‘here are your skiis, there’s the slope, see you later’. I can’t wait to try it again!
We spent 2hrs on the slopes, then got back on the bus to go for food. Most of us were dosing throughout the journey back, so we felt revived when we got to the restaurant for dinner. It was an all you can eat, all you can drink buffet, where you cook the food at your table. We sat in groups cooking, eating and drinking, and there was much merriment, made all the merrier by the announcement that the university was paying for the whole day as a Christmas treat!
Because there were people from lots of different nationalities, the main common languages being spoken were English, Chinese and Russian, and all in varying degrees. The atmosphere was bustling and hazy, people calling out ‘Gānbēi’ (cheers/neck your drink), attempting to gain mastery over eachothers languages and generally getting steadily more drunk. Full bellies, copious amounts of free beer and a trip to the KTV bar for Karaoke, and I don’t think anyone knew exactly what was being said by the end, but it didn’t matter. A great night.
As you can imagine, today was spent in my pyjamas, watching Lord of the Rings (the only DVDs I brought with me) and drinking plenty of fluids!