YOU MEAN THAT’S A UTERUS IN A BAG?!?!

Ovens are few and far between in China so everything you eat is inevitable fried in horrendous amounts of oil and drenched in soy sauce to add ‘flavour’. In a sad attempt to counteract the less than desirable effects all this fried food is having on my skin and waistline I decided, for the first time in my life, to join a gym. It was all going so well, I was pounding out the Ks on the treadmill, gradually increasing time and intensity with every visit. These hard sessions were interspersed with yoga classes with a teacher that kept trying to push me further into the box-splits every week.  I felt like I would be able to rival Rocky’s fitness in just a matter of days. Then I decided to branch out and take on the cross-trainer – a big mistake that ended with a dodgy knee and body parts in transparent bags.

After 2 weeks of hobbling I decided to see a doctor. The concept of a GP’s surgery is non-existent here so everyone’s first port of call is the hospital. Before I realised this, I always just assumed my contact teacher was a hypochondriac when she used to suggest a hospital visit for a simple migraine. Thankfully I did not have to attempt to visit a hospital on my own as a Chinese friend offered to take me over the weekend.

 I met her early on Saturday and as we set out for the hospital she chose this moment to inform me that she had changed her mind about the course of treatment. Deciding the queue would be too long at the ‘normal’ hospital she thought it better that we went to a Chinese Medicine hospital. My face literally hit the pavement. She assured me that they had western medicine too as we approached the hospital doors.

 We were met by a very pungent smell, the smell of the various natural ingredients that go into Chinese medicine. It was a cross between woodland, rusks, and the fish section of Pets at Home. Despite expecting the worst, I was pleasantly surprised by the efficiency of the hospital especially since I was in, medicated and out in a grand total of 30 minutes. The hospital is organised in the manner of one large conveyor belt which aids it’s efficiency; you pay upon entry at reception, visit a doctor on the 7th floor, back down to reception to pay for your medicine, then back up to the 2nd floor to collect said medicine and you’re done! I guess with a population this large I should have expected China to have got such a system down by now. On our way to collect my medication, I spotted an obscure looking item in a bag of murky liquid on a table in the waiting area. I stopped and turned to my Chinese friend and asked,

Me: Hey, what’s that?

Chinese Friend: That?

(she moves in for closer inspection, nose is now centimetres from the bag)

Chinese Friends: Oh, it’s an organ. What is the name again of the organ that holds the baby?

Me: You mean that’s a uterus in a bag?!?!?!?

Chinese Friend: *triumphant smile on face* Yes that’s it, a uterus.

Me:*fighting gag reflex* Why is it just on a table in….. Never mind.

The doctor prescribed me some regular pills and a funky looking tube of brown paste with instructions to massage it into my knee for ten minutes and then proceed to kick my leg violently and repeatedly at a right-angle karate-style for a further minute! The packaging has a picture of a fierce looking dragon on the front. After what I saw, I thought it best not to inquire as to what it contained. Here goes nothing!

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Dancing with Death and Other Short Stories

4th-6th April was a national holiday in China: Qing Ming or Tomb Sweeping Festival. It is a festival that is centred on paying one’s respects to one’s ancestors. Many Chinese return to their hometowns to visit the tombs of those who have gone before them to tidy them up, give offerings and burn incense. During this holiday that focuses on those who have passed, I had my own brush with death. Thrice.

A few of the other foreign teachers and I decided to spend the holiday in Yangshuo; a fabled beauty spot of China. We did as the locals and all our other friends who have visited Yangshuo do and booked our beds on the sleeper bus. Excited by the adventure that lay ahead and amused by the three rows of precariously narrow beds crammed into a regular-sized coach, we settled in for a long drive.

On the road

On the road

At about 5:30 the next morning I was woken up by the sound of the bus skidding on the wet tarmac of the road as the driver slammed on his brakes, I opened my eyes and looked out of the window next to my top-bunk bed and saw the bright headlights of another coach coming straight towards my window. I screamed, the bus swerved and I steeled myself in anticipation of the loud crack that followed as the other coach ploughed into the back of our bus three beds behind mine. Just in front of me, the air-con started to leak and I watched for a moment, frozen, as a choking gas filled the cabin. All of a sudden I heard myself scream ‘EVERYBODY UP!’ and in one swift swoop, I was out from under my sleeping bag and seatbelt. One of my friends shouted for us to grab our things and frantically I searched for my shoes and bags. Confused and in tears I eventually found them towards the front of the bus and scrambled out. This being my third bus crash, I was quite simply hysterical. My friends were a lot calmer and noticed a woman trapped at the back of the bus. They called to the male passengers to help them help her but none of them moved. One even raised a finger to his lips motioning them to keep quiet. They bravely went back to the bus and helped her out. She had gone into shock and several shards of glass had embedded themselves into her face but she was alive and, after a while, able to walk. Looking at the scene of the accident it became apparent just how lucky we had been. On our side of the road was a large truck carrying a load that cushioned the blow. On the other side of this truck was a concrete barrier which stopped one metre in front of where the bus had stopped. On the other side of this concrete barrier was a steep drop to the river running adjacent to the road. The thing that struck me the most was the steeliness of the Chinese passengers. No one seemed perturbed by what had happened. Everyone was very calm, as if we had just casually knocked the fender against the curb when in fact the entire back of the bus had been destroyed. There was nothing but daylight all the way through. We were helped by a kind family who spoke English and translated what was happening and other such details. We waited in a small village for 4 hours for a replacement bus. The last 5 hours of our journey were spent in complete silence save for quietly muttered prayers and sharp inhalations every time the driver beeped his horn.

Our bus

Our bus. The other coach ended up in  a tree

We arrived bruised but alive in Yangshuo. That evening we had our first meal in 32 hours and it was incredible. We sampled a local dish called beer fish. I don’t know whether it was the hunger talking or if the fish really was that good but we wolfed it down.

Mmm beer fish

Mmm beer fish

The next day we took a bamboo raft along the Li River, pausing to see the birds that fishermen use to catch fish and the iconic Yangshuo scene that adorns every 20 Yuan note. The scenery really was beautiful and worth the long journey. In Shenzhen I am constantly surrounded by people, malls and other ghastly man-made creations such as this. So it was such a relief to get out and see the wonders of nature that, although it is trying, China has not succeeded to completely bulldozer with what they think tourists want: tack, rows of identical shops, a guy selling Disney merchandise, rocks built to look like real rocks and more general tack. That evening we went back to Monkey Jane’s bar, which deserves the reputation it has amongst backpackers. Monkey Jane is indeed crazy but the convivial atmosphere in her little rooftop bar is second to none. People perch on the end of each other’s tables, flitting between conversations, inventing ultimate drinking games with rules pooled from at least 3 continents and generally have a great time. I left with several offers of tour guide services from people living all over China.

Yangshuo 063

Yangshuo 041

The next day was spent relaxing in the town and most importantly indulging in my first proper breakfast in China. I had eggs, TOAST, granola, yogurt, fresh juice and it was incredible. Even better considering I had not hauled it across the border myself like some sort of mule which has become the norm every time I return from Hong Kong. We took the time to wander the streets, do a spot of shopping and hang out in our hostel, Number 11. We chilled out with the owner, an extremely hospitable bloke, who chatted with us in Chinese, made tasty vegetable soup and kicked all our asses at table football all afternoon.

The best day of all was the 43 kilometre off-road mountain biking tour. My two friends and I had the pleasure of the company of Farmer Tang a.k.a FT, our tour guide for the day and a Yangshuo-er born and bred who knew all the back routes, which I’m sure were the most challenging, of the local countryside.

Farmer Tang

Farmer Tang

He took us on a tour that involved cycling through the mountains, up and down steep rocky inclines where with one foolish flick of the wrist you could crack your head open on a rock. We were wading through mud, steaming through shallow streams, crossing 700 year old bridges, and riding along precarious narrow planks where if you lost your balance you could face-plant either into a boggy rice field or a river. The waters were a clear jade-blue, the fields were a lush fertile green and the mountains seemed to have popped up in spontaneous locations – think acne outbreak as opposed to mountain range but better looking. Moreover, for the first time, the air was FRESH! So fresh it almost hurt my lungs! We cycled through small traditional villages where the lifestyle and people, the youngsters on scooters and iPhones aside, reminded me a lot of what I have seen in Rukungiri. Living was simple, there were small kadookas selling a random assortment of goods and sweets you haven’t seen since you were knee-high to a grasshopper and old people being scared by chickens that moved too quickly. It was a world away from the bustling city I have known for the last 8 months and the striking difference in wealth and living standard was food for thought. With all the talk of China’s economic growth and the bright lights and malls of Shenzhen it’s easy to forget that this side of China does still exist. After all, China is very much still a developing country.

Yangshuo 142

7 hours later…

We finished the day exhausted, sore bottomed and shaky legged with the only appropriate remedy in Asia – a full body massage. It was extremely relaxing although my friend who was massaged by a young man who held his head at highly unnecessary angles whilst massaging her thighs thought rather differently of the whole experience. Add to that the jokes we were cracking at her expense, which, when we translated them to Chinese, the two ladies that were massaging my friend and I took to a whole new level. The poor lad was beetroot by the end of it all and probably partially deaf from our cackling.

That evening we said goodbye to the manager over one final defeat at table football and being too scared to get a bus back home we took a taxi to the airport to catch our last minute flight. However, this is when my life started to feel more like Final Destination than reality. One hour into the journey I caught the driver closing his eyes periodically at the wheel. I pointed it out to my friends who brushed it off as paranoia. After another hour we were on the final approach to the airport. The driver had gone into the wrong lane and despite the bus that was coming directly at us, flashing its headlights repeatedly, the driver didn’t respond. I turned to look at him and the dude was ASLEEP! I shook him violently by the arm and he casually slipped into the right lane as if he had staged the whole charade. By this point I was incredulous and just shook my head as I climbed out at departures.

Then our flight, due to depart at midnight, was delayed indefinitely and there was a serious lack of information from the airline. I have never seen Chinese people get so passionate about anything but the screams that were being hurled at the airline desk girls merited the presence of 3 security guards who then wheeled an old lady off in a wheelchair, grimacing in pain as she had given herself a hernia from shouting. Again, relying on the kindness of English speaking strangers it transpired that the flight was delayed because the wheels of the plane had broken upon landing. I’m serious. 3 hours later we were in the air, praying our way through turbulence and then grabbing each other by the hand as we came in for the roughest landing I have ever experienced. When we got out of the plane it became clear why, the tires had broken again. Exhausted and saved once again by strangers I made it back to my shack at 5:30 am and have never been so happy to see these cursed four walls.

Although in many respects it is very touristy and in some parts westernised, I thoroughly enjoyed Yangshuo for two reasons that no amount of man-made substitutes could hope to emulate – the scenery and the people. It really does deserve the reputation that precedes it.

As for my stint as an extra in Final Destination I have learnt three key lessons. One, keep your standards. If it looks like a death trap, that’s because it probably is. It does not matter that this is how everybody does it, do what’s right for you. By all means, ‘when in Rome…’ but there has to be a limit. Two, don’t travel at night on roads in Asia. Three, make friends with your fellow passengers, especially if you are travelling alone. That grumpy looking giant or the couple with the annoying kid may just save your life.

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Livin’ in a Land Down Under…

As soon as the plane hit the tarmac, I could no longer contain my excitement. I raced off the aircraft and through the world’s most intimidating immigration, having watched many an episode of Border Police, to find my sister on the other side, beaming as we had not seen each other for over a year. To boot, I was the first in the family to make the trip Down Under. Granted, being in China I was already half-way there but it was also obviously because I am the most dedicated of the bunch! Excitedly chatting away we almost walked into a glass door and then Doreen could not remember where she had parked the car. Eventually we made it out of the airport and I was given a grand tour of the neighbourhood and the city. I was taken down to the ‘money shot’ overlooking the Bridge and the Opera House and it felt so surreal to be there. I had never really considered visiting Australia before they had moved, thinking it would be much the same as England. Everybody speaks English after all so it would not be enough of a challenge. But being in China has taught me that you do not have to constantly push your limits in life and it’s OK to sit and enjoy the easy life every once in a while. So I did, and loved every minute. That evening, I was thoroughly spoiled by my Sister and Brother-in-law with a welcome drink in the early evening sun down in the harbour overlooking the Bridge and the Dirty Projectors’ gig in the Sydney Opera House. It was a beautiful welcome.

Sisters reunited

Sisters reunited

My first few days were filled with wandering around Sydney, getting a feel for the place and befriending strangers of all ages. These included a retired Serbian man who talked about how he earned $50 dollars a week when he first arrived in Oz and the subsequent effect of inflation on his ability to purchase tickets back to his homeland and another clucky 40-odd man who tried (and failed) to entice me with coffee after he welled up at seeing me chase an inflatable ball down the beach to give it back to a distraught toddler. Sydney’s finest were out in force it would seem! Thankfully, Friday was Burns’ Supper and I was introduced to Doreen and Malcolm’s buddies. After an emergency haggis run to David Jones, we had a hilarious evening of kilts and flip-flops, a Quaich full of whiskey, dancing and poetry, tatties and tennis as the Australian minority and I weathered the banter of the Scots during the Federer-Murray semi-final. It was a fantastic event, which gave me a heartwarming glimpse of their life on the other side of the world which really isn’t bad at all!

Mmmm haggis

Mmmm haggis

The next week was spent in Melbourne. After an hour’s flight I arrived into what felt like an altogether different world as I had gone from scorching sunshine to blustery winds and a dreary seafront in St Kilda. Shivering in my summer dress and sandals, I could not see the hype and likened this new place to Peacehaven with a dodgy accent. However, the old adage ‘never judge a book by its cover’ could not have rung more true and as I slowly got under Melbourne’s skin it grew on me, being upgraded to a Brighton by the end of the week. We met a couple of their friends who owned a dog who gave you a high-five on your way out of their apartment and we had dinner and a dance in St Kilda. As I had placed a UN-esque sanction on all Chinese food and a total ban on rice, Ichi Ni, a delicious Japanese teppanyaki was as close to the line as they dared to get. Moving on to another establishment that was reminiscent of a cross between Warwick SU (during it’s ‘The Graduate’ phase) and Eastbourne’s Weatherspoons just with more dreadlocks and less chav, we threw some (dangerous) shapes on the dance floor as Vicky set about potential husband-hunting on my behalf. A great night out!

 The next morning I set about discovering Melbourne’s version of Brighton’s lanes and had probably the best coffee I’ve ever tasted. Melbourne is famous for its coffee culture and for just cause. Dozens of off-beat coffee shops so small that proprietors can only afford to hire the ‘so cool I look malnourished’ types, jostle for space but not for customers in narrow backstreets. The effortlessly cool vibe they exude, no doubt entirely due to the staff, ensures that they are all packed to the rafters with a suitably hip-crowd at all hours of the day. Add to this the Yarra River that runs through the heart of the city and whose banks are populated by street Picassos, parcour artists, and swanky bars and it’s easy to see how Melbourne has been voted the most livable city in the world.

Melbourne

Melbourne

That afternoon, I was the envy of at least two of my tennis-mad friends here in Asia as I went to the Australian Open Final to watch Murray battle it out with Djokovic. This was my second tournament on my second continent this year. The sun was blazing and we soaked up the festival atmosphere in the grounds before taking our seats in the stadium. We were completely surrounded by Djokovic fans of Asian origin that kept waving their Serbian flags in the face of the only Scot among us. I do enjoy watching sport but I am by no means a dedicated fan. I have never understood the rationale behind those who spend their lives following a particular football team, grieving when a player is lost to another side or crying in the arms of another man when their hopeless team inevitably loses in the first round of what they lead you to believe is a life-changing tournament, incomparable to the other 200 that happen during the season. However, as the excitement built in the stadium I felt myself get carried along. I cheered merrily as Murray powered through to take the first set. My cries grew louder as Djokovic held fast and took the second set. Then as Djokovic grew stronger I felt myself become nervous, crying out desperately in an attempt to block Djokovic’s strikes that eventually broke Murray. As the game progressed my cries grew louder still as my brow furrowed further and my hands gradually clenched into  defiant fists. Then, as the match started to slip beyond Murray’s grasp I felt the dreaded ache of impending defeat stir deep in my belly until finally I was awash with despair as I watched Djokovic raise the cup to his lips to mark his victory. The rationale is that there is no rationale. It was totally irrational but incredibly exhilarating. A match and a feeling I shall never forget. To lift our spirits the party continued in Windsor but, despite being the youngest by at least 12 years, I made a run for a taxi after the first bar as I felt my ‘sleep immediately’ instinct kick-in leaving the others in search of a Souvlaki bar.

Come on Andaaaay!!

Come on Andaaaay!!

So Close!

So Close!

After all this fun, it was time to go it alone as, being grown-ups with proper jobs, they felt the need to return to Sydney in time for work. The last few days in Melbourne were taken up with experiencing the backpacker lifestyle as I made friends with some people in my hostel and went on a couple of excursions. My first tour was to Philip Island to watch ‘the penguin parade’. On the way we stopped at a wildlife park where I saw several native Australian animals including koalas, kookaburras, wallabies, dingoes and I even fed a kangaroo or two.

Feeding time

Feeding time

On Philip Island, which is oddly twined with the Isle of Wight, we sat in little stands on the beach and waited for the sun to set. Once it was sufficiently dark, several rafts of penguins swam up onto the shore and hurriedly made the long journey from the water, across the wide open and thus dangerous beach to the cover of the bush and all the way to their little shelters to nest for the night. They were small penguins, barely 30cm tall, and some had eaten so many fish that day they could barely waddle. Several times, they fell flat on their large bellies as they tried to run fast enough to catch up with the rest of the raft. They were just adorable and judging by the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ of the spectators, I wasn’t the only one that thought so. Another day and another excursion, this time it was the length of the Great Ocean Road up to the Twelve Apostles. This is essentially a road that runs along the coast, hugging the cliff in some parts and winding through rainforest in other parts. The views were breathtaking and the beaches were some of the most beautiful I have seen where multiple grey-haired Sandy Cohens in wetsuits dashed past me down the beach with their surfboards under one arm, ready for an early morning session. One of my favourite parts was the story that accompanied our trip to a bay a few kilometers along from the Twelve Apostles. It was a picturesque bay where, in 1878 the Loch Ard had shipwrecked. Busy celebrating their arrival in Australia, they had failed to see the rocks in the thick fog and only two people survived the disaster; a man and a woman. They sheltered in the bay overnight and the man went to look for help. He was successful and as soon as possible the woman set sail again for England, vowing never to return. The lucky or perhaps unlucky man went on to survive a further 3 shipwrecks. You would think one would never set foot on a boat again after just one bad experience! The two survivors unfortunately never saw each other again.

The Bay

The Bay

I learnt two things from my time in Melbourne. The first is to stop passing judgment instantly (an unfortunate habit I have picked up living in China). And the second was how easy it is to travel alone. One of the best aspects of my excursions was meeting people from all walks of like. I met many people around my age, living the dream on a work-holiday visa. I met others who were fulfilling a life-long dream by journeying to Australia. I found that Germans and Swiss-Germans are amongst the most friendly and engaging travelers. I found that everybody had a unique and interesting story to tell and that travel helps you appreciate just how incredible human beings can be. Clichés aside I made my way back to Sydney, happy to swap dorm-life for a double bed and home cooking.

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Remix…N***as in Honkers!

After a first term that felt like it had been taken right out of Lemony Snicket’s never ending ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ the promised winter break that I had been dreaming of for months finally began with the arrival of my first visitor(ish). My older brother, Mark, on the start of his voyage around the world made Hong Kong his first stop.

After being bed-ridden with illness for a week, I packed my bag and hauled myself across the border. I waited in the arrivals hall for 2 hours with no sign of him. I felt a pang of despair as I checked and checked again as to whether I had got the wrong date, tried to get hold of the passenger list for the flight and even went so far as to call my father in the UK to check if he had missed his flight. After another 45 minutes his smiling face finally appeared around the corner and my heart leapt for joy and I almost cried. It had been a long, long winter.  Buzzing with excitement we made our way to the lodgings he had chosen for the first stop on his backpacker’s tour around the world. Mark being Mark, we were not staying in some smelly hostel but rather a private apartment complete with plasma screen and iPod dock. I was glad for his take on ‘backpacking’ as this was a welcome upgrade from the shack! The first evening was spent wandering around Central allowing Mark to drink in the comforts associated with a more developed country – public transport that works, no ‘jam’ on the roads, no dust, and things generally getting done. Having spent the last several years in the heart of Africa, his sheer fascination at almost everything was rather amusing. It also helped me re-appreciate Hong Kong.

The next day we ventured up to the Big Buddha. We reached it via ferry and a ride in a large coach driven by a man who fancied himself a formula one driver on the narrow, winding roads of the island. The sights on the way up were beautiful; lush, green vegetation and the winter sun danced vibrantly upon the water as we climbed higher and higher. The large statue of Buddha was sat calmly at the top of a sizeable flight of stairs. However, considering the sheer number of people flanked either side of the staircase panting dramatically you would have thought we were making our way up to the summit of Mount Everest. The sight, although remarkable, lacked the serenity one would expect from such a place as it was heaving with hawkers trying to sell you plastic junk that you did not want. We then took a glass-bottomed cable car down where we got a great view of the Buddha, surrounding islands and the airport which looks as though it is precariously balanced on the water. I’m glad I did not know that before! In the cable car with us was a Chinese family with a woman who kept grabbing my hand to take photos of it probably because, compared to her tiny paw, it must have looked like it belonged to Godzilla.

That evening we went ‘local’ for our dinner and ate amongst hanging ducks and miserable waiters who tried to get us to hurry up, eat and leave as soon as we had sat down. The amusement continued as Mark attempted to eat rice and duck with chopsticks, one stick in each hand. We then decided to try out a couple of little bars. The first called ‘Joyce is Not Home’, was a tiny corridor-sized bar with a double bass that took up most of the space and boho clientele who visibly had to refrain from clicking when applauding the jazz band. The second, recommended by a former colleague, was called the ‘Feather Boa’. This bar had no sign on the door and looked just like an antique shop with curtains drawn closed for the night. We would have missed it completely had it not been for the queue of people who looked like they were waiting aimlessly. We joined the queue and minutes later a tiny Asian lady opened the door and barked ‘how many?’ at the couple at the front of the queue before nodding curtly and slamming the door shut. After another five minutes the door opened and about 15 people merrily poured out. Without letting anyone in, the tiny lady slammed the door shut again and we were left to wait for another 15 minutes. It felt like we were trying to enter a speakeasy during prohibition. Finally it was our turn and we entered another tiny corridor-sized bar. It was decorated with old chandeliers, wing-back chairs and other miss-matched furniture creating the atmosphere of a well-worn stately home. It was so tiny that it was hard to imagine where those 15 people had been stood! The atmosphere was convivial and you were in such close proximity to others that you could not help but join in their conversations as you sipped your Strawberry Daiquiri Slushy.

One of the items on Mark’s bucket list was to have dim-sum in Hong Kong. Very kindly my friend Charlie showed us to one of the last remaining traditional teahouses in Hong Kong where we were joined by my friend from Shenzhen Tessa and her sister Polly who had come to visit. We entered and a waiter signalled with his head for us to take seats at a table in the far back corner where we intruded on a couple’s lunch. In this restaurant, your tea is topped up by a man who looks old enough to have served the emperors of old and the food is pushed around on trolleys by women who guard it aggressively as a bird would its eggs. It is a fight to the death to claim one of the wooden baskets from the trolley and the hardest part is being skilled enough to pick up something tasty. The first round began and we immediately struck out. Falling prey to a custard filled desert-like cloud and, worst of all, red bean bun, we spat out most of it and resolved to have a better second round in the ring. There was a mad rush at the trolley on the other side of the room and as he was closest we sent Mark over to grab what he could. Others staggered back to their tables, barely able to see over their mountains of wooden baskets and yet Mark returned empty handed retorting simply that not only was there nothing appetizing to be had but he had also had to employ heroic amounts of self-control to prevent himself from throwing up on the trolley. After a while another trolley came round. This lady was extremely helpful (or just a good saleswoman) as she placed multiple baskets on our table, pausing to laugh heartily at Charlie who had managed to drop a slimy eye-ball like piece of food in his tea. After a good chuckle, she helped him by using a spoon to fish the object out of his teacup, plonking it in his bowl. At least she took the trouble to refill his tea (in the same cup). At this moment, Mark reminded us of his shellfish allergy and thus the 4 of us had to taste everything first as nothing in the baskets could be identified using sight alone. Considering opinions varied from ‘this tastes like fish-beef’ to ‘it’s kind of like a meat apple crumble…oh wait, that’s definitely a prawn’ I’m astounded he survived. That afternoon, Charlie, Mark and I went up The Peak for a wander, picking out the perfect spot for our future mansions. In the evening we had a rather delicious but sombre dinner as we were approaching the end of our time together; a fantastic time it had been too. One brief and sad goodbye later, I was sat in the departure lounge preparing for my next adventure and listening, most appropriately, to this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TkN4J2l1UaA

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Round Two

I am now once again back in the shack for my second term.  Although I was dreading it terribly and spent the 9.5 hour flight between Sydney and Hong Kong in deep despair, someone ‘up there’ has decided to finally give me a break. I can firmly say that life is not so bad here now (so far). This is probably 100 per cent due to the fact that I have spent the majority of this week in Hong Kong but for now I shall try and overlook that minor detail. First evening back and it was straight to Rapscallions, our usual haunt, for a night of fun with the British Council guys.  We frantically filled each other in on the various details of our month-long holiday as we comfortably slipped back into our usual routine.

The first weekend back was spent living the high-life in Hong Kong. By high life I mean things I used to take for granted all the time such as orderly queues, people standing on the right-hand side of the escalator in the underground, savoury bread, good coffee, Marks and Spencer and English-speakers. After a month off, my Chinese is a little rusty.

On Monday my good friend from university, Alex, was nearing the end of his time travelling in China and swung by Shenzhen for lunch before heading across the border. It was so exciting to see him not only this side of the world but literally on my doorstep, waiting outside the metro I take every single day. We talked and dined as he told me of his thoughts having spent a few weeks in the country. It was oddly reassuring to hear him express similar opinions on various aspects of China and Chinese culture. It also showed me how immune I had become to some of its idiosyncrasies and made me realise I had better leave before I start seeing these as ‘normal’! His enthusiasm and excitement was infectious and was just what I needed at the start of this final part of my stay. I crossed over to Hong Kong on Tuesday to spend the afternoon with him wandering around the markets of Stanley. A lot like Lamma Island, this side of Hong Kong Island has a relaxed holiday feel to it in which we fully indulged by sipping a cheeky afternoon beer or too in an English pub on the water front. We then went for a wander, during which Alex spotted a rather large snake on the beach and we hastily made our way back into town to meet Charlie for dinner and ‘le after-work’. The last time the three of us were together was at university and it felt like very little had changed. Everybody needs friends like these.

At school, things have improved. Forget ‘lucky money’ the best gift I received this Chinese New Year was the news that I would no longer teach Grade 2!!!! No more screaming ‘ball’ at the top of my lungs for 160 minutes per week and feeling my brain slowly disintegrating with every passing second. I was so happy I could not hide it from my new contact teacher, much to his disapproving surprise. Even my naughtiest classes have started to behave themselves – it would appear that the maxim ‘New Year, new you’ also applies in China. It’s either that or the fact that I made them copy out ‘Ozymandias’ twice when they refused to be quiet in my previous lesson. Other highlights include making the entire class sing me a Chinese New Year Song, being applauded by the class as I attempted to recite the animals of the Chinese Zodiac in Chinese, a couple of gifts from students’ travels, a full-page spread in the school’s bi-annual periodical dedicated to yours truly, receiving ‘lucky money’ in a quintessential red envelope and even one 5 year old kid showing me how he could break a piece of wood in half using his foot…during class.

All in all, things are looking a lot brighter….for now.

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Li Na jiā yóu!

Last weekend witnessed a series of firsts: Shenzhen’s first major tennis event, my first time to a sporting final, and my first (sort of) hitch-hike.

Late last year, I bought a pair of tickets to the Shenzhen 2012 Tennis Open where stars such as Li Na and Laura Robson would play in preparation for the Australian Open the following year. This was great as I was excited about watching my first game of professional tennis and coincidentally that game being the final. This excitement was compounded when my school informed me, two days prior to the match, that I would have to work an 8 day week to make up for the 2 days of ‘holiday’ that we were to be granted by the government and therefore the tennis was my non-refundable ticket out of that bear trap! It took a while to explain to my contact teacher why I couldn’t come to work that Saturday – he could not fathom why this was a) an outing he had not been informed about by the bureau and then subsequently b) why I had organised such an outing individually. I have experienced a very strong group mentality since I’ve been here and individualism, it would seem to me, is not something that is often expressed let alone appreciated. Either way, I was going to go to the tennis, no question!

The day arrived and we made our way up to a different district of Shenzhen – Longgang. This took about 45 minutes by metro and it was so much calmer than downtown Futian that it wasn’t hard to see how Longgang had, until recently, been separate from Shenzhen. Noticeably, there were less people on the streets and consequently an infuriating lack of taxis. When it became clear that we may miss the start of the final drastic, and potentially dangerous, measures had to be taken – all in the name of tennis of course. So yes, 3 foreign females stuck out their thumbs at the side of the road hoping for a car to stop. The one male we were with just looked at us in despair! Within about 30 seconds a guy screeched to a halt in front of us and gruffly asked “qu nali” (where to)? I showed him a piece of paper onto which I had copied the address in Chinese characters and he told us to hop in. He took us swiftly to the door of the stadium unharmed……..for the kindly sum of 20 yuan! It’s no wonder China is developing at breakneck speed if every Wang, Zhang, and Liu is this entrepreneurial. 

We walked around the grounds and then settled into our fantastic seats. The stadium was rather small so it was hard not to have a great seat to be fair. The match got underway and it looked like Li Na would unfortunately demolish her opponent in straight 6-1 sets much to the disappointment of us all who wanted to get our money’s worth! However, Zakopalova had some fight in her and took back the second set leading to a tense final set which, in the end, Li Na dominated. 

The other aspect of the match that jockeyed with the athletes for the most attention was the phenomenon of the Chinese spectator crowd. The idea of silence was lost on them and throughout the match there were babies crying and phones ringing which led to long noisy conversations of ‘yeah mate, I’m at the tennis but……’. One person even had THE classic Nokia ringtone which simply added to the ridiculousness of the situation. At one crucial point in the match just as Li Na was about to serve for the set, one guy in a suit strolled up the staircase beside me and upon spotting someone he knew shouted ‘AHHHHAAAA MATE, HOW’S IT GOING?!’. A constant level of chit-chat and even the noisy phone conversations were accepted by the rest of the spectators but I got the impression that this guy had gone too far, even by their standards. The occupiers of the seats around me turned and glared ferociously at this one man who didn’t even notice and continued to try and get closer to his friend. When an usher came along and told him to pipe down he continued smiling, completely oblivious as to what he had just interrupted. 

However, what they lacked in general spectator decorum, they certainly made up for when it came to the politeness of their words of encouragement for their Li Na. That day I learnt what to say in Chinese when someone plays an incredible shot down the line – piao liang (beautiful) – and how to spur them on – jia you! “Come on!” in English can be used in encouragement, exasperation or even mockery on the sporting field however the literal translation of jia you! is ‘fill the machine with petrol’ i.e. persist! with more effort! Don’t give up! Thus it is naturally meant for encouraging and cheering someone on. A far cry from the ubiquitous and delightfully English “Your Sh*t, and you know you are!” Equally when her opponent Zakopalova played some stunning shots, although the entire crowd was supporting only one player, her effort was recognised with polite applause and the occasional piao liang.

We were then treated to the doubles final where the incredible ‘Chan/Chan’ duo easily defeated their opponents to become the Chan-pions (terrible I know….I’ll stop there).

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Li Na jiā yóu!

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New Year’s Hong Kong Style

新年快乐! Happy New Year!

I have just returned from what was quite possibly one of the best New Year’s celebrations I have ever had. If the saying, ‘start as you mean to go on’ has any truth to it, this year is going to be a great one.

It all began with working on the Saturday before in order to get the Monday off (doesn’t sound great but I couldn’t help it, it comes with the territory). As the bell rang for the end of my last lesson the excitement of both my students and myself was palpable. One kid gave me a knowing smile as this was the most energetic he had seen me in their class for months. Another kid actually gave me a high-five as I raced out the door.

I spent the rest of the weekend exploring the art district of Shenzhen. A friend opened my eyes to what is possibly the only part of this city that has a soul and it was great to visit an art exhibition and then wander the narrow streets as he perused the art shops before deciding on a Gustav Klimt classic.

Christmas and New Years 2012 014

On Monday evening Sarah, my Shenzhen buddies and I celebrated the New Year in Time’s Square, Hong Kong. We were joined by some others from my programme who are stationed in Guangzhou. However, the 5 meters between us and them, sectioned off by metal railings and a barricade of unyielding policemen meant that hugs were exchanged a little after midnight. The celebrations before the countdown itself were great. We sang, danced and laughed with the locals as we pretended to be head over heals in love with the Hong Kong pop-stars that were providing the night’s entertainment. There was a camera crew who kept close by, regularly going in for close-ups on the group of crazy foreigners – I have since found out that this footage actually made the big screen and a friend of mine spotted my face the next day on TV whilst casually riding the Hong Kong Metro. Now I’ve had my 30 seconds of fame, I may milk this ‘token foreigner thing’ for all it’s worth! Forgetting the time difference, I called home and screamed a ‘happy new year’ greeting down the phone to my father who was in the middle of another ordinary day at the office and seemed a little bemused at first as to why I was so prematurely excited.

Christmas and New Years 2012 043

The next day, Sarah and I had a very relaxed day. When I say relaxed I mean we had breakfast at 4 pm. However, this city is made for those who rise at all hours as we had Eggs Benedict, coke floats, and bottomless tea in a 24 hour diner called the Flying Pan – just  brilliant. We then wandered the streets of Soho and casually made our way up to the top of one of Hong Kong’s numerous malls to take in the sights by night before heading to the airport to welcome Charlie back to his home.

The final day was spent in an equally casual manner. We stumbled upon a little cafe in Causeway Bay where I got the fix of a baguette, jam and coffee that I have long been craving on the other side of the border.  We wandered around Central and stumbled upon a guy performing Spanish Guitar in a church on-top of a hill. The church was beautiful with magnificent mosaics on the floor and white-washed walls. The windows were flung open and there was a calm breeze that lazily carried the music with it as it floated through the church. It was beautifully serene and slightly Mediterranean.

Afterwards we caught a turbulent ferry over to Lamma Island for a waterfront seafood lunch.The island itself has lots of narrow streets lined with independent Boho shops where savvy hipsters sell their handmade, eco-friendly wares. A wise man once describe Lamma as the hippy retreat of former ‘suits’ who have lost faith in the rat-race of capitalist Hong Kong Island. If the insane amount of facial hair and vegan cafe’s I saw in the space of about 1,000 metres is anything to go by, I would say he is not half wrong. The pace of life on the island was so calm that even the dogs sauntered casually down the streets and occasionally the cats would raise one eye-lid to watch them drift by. The houses were a higgledy-piggledy mix of old buildings interspersed with sleek ‘Grand Designs’ -esque homes. It was just as eclectic as Hong Kong itself. We ate an incredible lunch of clams, sweet and sour prawns and squid that was beautifully fresh.

Lamma Lamma Lamma

Lamma Lamma Lamma

That evening we took a taxi up to The Peak on Hong Kong island for an incredible night-time view of the whole island. This was followed by an evening at the cinema watching Les Misérables. It was great to be reunited with my university friends again. I am learning that no matter how long and no matter the distance, the best things in life never change.

I am now facing an 8-day working week (another shining example of the Chinese interpretation of the word holiday) but I am basking in the glow of a fantastic start to the year.

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