I made a new friend today. It’s the last day of term and of exams, before the students go home for winter. It’s going to be a long two months, and so I signed up for a library card to save my eyes from becoming too square. Card in hand, I marched up to the 6th floor, which is dedicated to English books, and my eyes wept at the sight. Shelves upon shelves of words in a language I can read. I knew what Heaven looked like. I took to wandering around the aisles glorying in the world of possibilities that 10RMB had opened up to me – shall I become an expert in mechanical engineering, a student of infectious diseases in livestock, or perhaps a scholar in human migration patterns? The world is now my oyster now that an entire, virtually untouched, reference library lies at my disposal.
I was browsing a shelf which seemed to focus on the influence of terrorists in C21st artwork, when a librarian popped up from nowhere and introduced himself as Xiu (pronounced ‘Shoe’). He offered to help me find the books I was looking for, and so rather than sound like an idiot by saying ‘nothing in particular, I just love it here’, I tried to sound a little less dorky and asked for English translations of the four Chinese Classic books – the most famous and influential pieces of Chinese literature. They didn’t have them sadly, but I found a couple of other books and sat down to have a read. Ten minutes later, Xiu comes trotting back along with a stack of books he’s found around the library (some in English, others in Chinese). At the top of the pile was a notebook with a note inside wishing me good luck in my studies! Tokens and gifts are big business here, and I thanked him for the kind gesture. He then talked me through the books, one by one. One on translation of literature, another on selected Chinese works. All very nice. Then he got to the Thai Chi instruction book, which proved to be a handy opener to him talking all about his 20 year long passion for the art. I should join, he said. It’ll improve my fitness. Then he produced a book about Chinese medicine, and added his own indepth and damning critique of the side-effects of Western medicines. Finally he showed me a some books about healthy Chinese foods. I left with a stack of books that need to be returned in 30 days and a lingering feeling that my new coat makes me look fat. And an invitation to come to his house for dinner one evening, to meet his daughter and wife. She’s a scholar bound for Cambridge next September, but to go she needs to pass the difficult IELTS English exam. I’m sure he’s just a kind and thoughtful librarian perfectly suited to his job, but a little part of me thinks that either a) he wants me to help improve his wife’s English, or b) he’s lining me up as a replacement for when she’s gone.
So I started writing this on New Years Eve, but then duty and delicious home-made Indian food called so I had to abandon it. Here’s where I was upto…
This time last year, I was in The Clwyd, rattling off the usual wishlist of hopes and dreams for the next year. December 31st has the pretty big job of separating the events of the past year with everything that is to come. It bears the weight of unrealistic expectations, of pounds to shed, new jobs to start, hobbies to accomplish, changes we want to make in our life. I can remember in the Clwyd soliloquising to nobody in particular that, this year, I wanted to do something lifechanging (not thinking that it would actually happen ofcourse). This time last year, I had just turned down the chance to volunteer in Portugal for six months. Although at the time it was the right thing to do, I still felt like I was chickening out. Now, I’m glad I did. I have no regrets for the last year. When I think about the number of times I’ve woken up after a night out, cringing as vague images begin to take shape, and how many little things I regret doing, or saying, or drinking, or wearing (who told me I looked socially acceptable in leopard print bodycon? Shame on you). Small conversations that end badly, that second bag of crisps, forgetting to shave your armpits before going to the gym, sometimes it feels like I spend my whole life regretting things. But, in the scheme of it all, those little things don’t matter. Now, I look back on 2013 as a year of big change. I watched my beautiful nephew grow from a tiny baby into a big strapping heartbreaker of a one year old.
…and that’s where it ended. As we can see, I was feeling deep and emotional that day. I cut it short to join the other English teachers, and some from across the city, for some amazing home-made Indian food, board games and story telling. That easily saw us up until midnight. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the New Year in single vision, so this was nice. The words to Auld Lang Syne are known in America, but it’s not a tradition to stand in a circle, locking hands and singing along. I’m not sure if it’s even a tradition in Britain, or just something my family do after 7 hours of Baileys and gin, but straight after midnight I got everyone together and orchestrated the best part of the evening (in my opinion). We spent Christmas Eve in a similar way. We got together in another of the teachers’ apartments, ate Mexican food, and sang carols. The Sunday before, I went to a church that wedges an English service between two heaving Chinese ones. It was a special advent service to light the 4th candle, and so we heard all about the nativity and sang lots of carols in the way they’re meant to be sung. There was a youth band there, headed by a guy with a guitar and a voice that sounded like a thousand angels echoing around the room. With the snow still on the ground, and all the singing, life these past few weeks has felt like one big pencil drawing on the cover of a Penguin Christmas Classics.
Christmas dinner consisted of an amazing Chinese feast at a local restaurant, which, although enjoyable, burst the Nutcracker bubble somewhat. Afterwards, we went to the Songhua river for a walk to help it all go down. Literally on the river. It’s frozen solid. Apart from the pop-up theme park as you step onto the river, the rest of it is just miles and miles of stillness. The ground isn’t smooth – you can see where there were ripples and waves on the surface, as though someone just flicked a switch one night and turned the whole river to ice. We walked across to the other side, and I was warmed to see what looked like my old pal the New Bridge over the Dee (but this one was sinking).
So I’ve missed out loads from the last few weeks, like how I’m now into cross-stitching, and how I received a garish pink floral tea set as a kind Christmas present, and that yesterday I ate a chicken’s heart, and that I’ve booked a flight to the other side of the country in a couple of weeks. But I want to go and watch Gone With The Wind. My New Years Resolution is to write down more things as they happen. A picture tells a thousand words, so by way of recompence I’ve laced this post with some absolutely expertly captured scenes from the river.