Well, I'm back, and apparently I'm still working on Linux Format - sorry, Graham! In my 10 weeks away from Blighty I had the opportunity to teach English to hundreds of kids, to work in a kindergarten, and to work in an orphanage, so it really feels like I made the most of my sabbatical. This was my first time visiting rural China, and it was an incredible experience. Sure, I was the only Westerner around, which meant that most people stopped and stared in the street, some young kids followed me around out of curiosity, some people took photos, and I even got asked for my signature a few times!
It's hard to know where to start describing my life in China, so I'll start in the area that Chinese people think is most important: food. Just before flying out of Hong Kong to come back to London, the sandwiches I bought to eat said, "life is uncertain; eat first" on the side, which I think pretty much sums up the Chinese attitude to food: eat early, eat often, eat when you're hungry, eat when it's a special celebration, eat when it's not a special celebration, and so on.
The selection of food took a little time to get used to. I'd had chicken feet while in Malaysia, and didn't want to try it again - there simply wasn't enough meat on it to make the food worth eating. This time, though, chicken feet were some of the more palatable things on the menu: chicken head was there, as were pig skin, pig tendons, pig stomach, river snails and other things I just didn't fancy. In fact, it got to the point where I started wondering where the actual chicken meat went, because it seems they cut off the head and feet for meals then throw the rest away!
To avoid sweating in the incredible heat, the most convenient way to travel was by taxi, and the fare from my house to pretty much anywhere else in town was 5 RMB, the Chinese currency. When I told my Chinese friends that sometimes drivers would see I was a foreigner and charge me 8 RMB, they told me I should argue and say that 5 RMB was the most I would pay - not really understanding that the 3 RMB difference was just 25p in English money, and not really worth me fighting over.
Arguing aside, I have to admit that the taxis in my town were the worst I have ever seen. Some of the doors barely closed. Some are missing side windows. None of them use rate metres, instead giving you a quote when you get in. There's also a system of impromptu taxi sharing whereby someone else can flag down the taxi you're already in - you don't get a say in the matter, and it doesn't make your journey any cheaper. The driving style is chaotic at best - there was only one set of traffic lights in a place with a population of 250,000, so crossing big roads was a matter of crossing one lane, waiting, crossing another lane, waiting again, etc. And so it's little surprise that cars are using their horns nearly constantly. And I mean that: in a 5-minute taxi journey, the driver will use their horn at least 20 times, often for extended periods of time if people don't get out of the way fast enough.
And so that leads me to the Chinese culture of noise, which I think is the most memorable thing for me. I was living on the 13th floor of a tower block, and there was always - *always* - some horn noise outside. There were times when people would hold down their horn for 20 or 25 seconds, presumably only cut short when someone threatened to punch them. At night time some large trucks would drive through town, and they had no qualms using their window-shaking horns with impunity.
The noise level doesn't even subside when you leave the cars behind, because Chinese people seem to prefer to shout across a room rather than go over to speak to someone. In fact, by European standards they shout nearly all the time, so at first you think you've walked into a big argument, but really they're just chatting. Even when they are less than a metre away, people seem to use an extraordinary volume of speech, and it was only when I witnessed a real argument a week before I left that I realised just how loud they could go.
Not content with just talking loudly, lots of people have taken an interest in Western musical instruments. The piano and guitar seemed the most popular, but, sadly, few people played them well. In fact, most people seem to have been taught by someone who reached Grade 3, and yet the strange thing is that no one seems to mind. Often a group of people will be singing mostly in tune, then someone playing a piano and a guitar will join in - nearly always in a different key, nearly always at a different tempo, and sometimes with apparently little idea of what the tune should actually sound like. I've listened to several guitar "players" who seem to think that as long as they get the rhythm right (ie, strumming at approximately the right times) getting the chords right - or indeed tuning their guitar beforehand - is not so important.
At one of the summer camps I went to work at, there was a group of 20 guitar students learning to play, and of the 20 guitars only 1 was in tune - and he wasn't even the teacher! NB: I should point out here that I went to hear a band play live in the local equivalent of a club and they were actually pretty good, so clearly the talent is here waiting to be tapped.
My main job was to teach English, and I had the chance to teach kids from 2 years old to about 25. The level of English understanding seems to vary greatly, which is pretty normal. But unlike other countries, the Chinese have a peculiar little quirk that I think relates to their desire to keep "face" at all times: if they don't understand what you're saying, they will give a positive response to you just as if they had understood perfectly. For example:
Me: "OK, I need to have XYZ. Do you have an XYZ?"
Them: "Yes, yes."
Me: "Awesome. Could I have it now?"
Them: "Of course, of course."
Me: "So... how about that XYZ?"
And so I present to you the single most important phrase for a foreigner in China: "ming bai ma?" With practice, you learn to discern a "yes, I understand" response from an "I don't understand, but I'll say yes anyway" response, in which case you deploy "ming bai ma?", which means "understand?" This seems to prompt them to give a more honest answer, and not a day goes by when I didn't use it. I think the reason it works is that, until I say "ming bai ma?", they think I will carry on talking and hopefully say something they understand.
Because I was always working outside of cities, I had lots of chances to find out what real Chinese people thought of the rest of the world. What they know is a strange mishmash of Disney characters, American movies and sports, which meant a lot of they time my job was just to dispel myths. No, we don't all eat milk and bread for breakfast. No, it's not always foggy in London. Yes, we have rice in the UK. No, we don't hate China. No, I'm actually of pretty average height. When I asked a group of 15-year-olds where the UK was on the map, some of them thought it was in South America. Others, in their 20s, had no idea who the US president was. In fact, even when I was wearing an English football shirt, most people couldn't figure out where I was from beyond "wai guo ren" (foreign land person). Still, I was happy for them to be ignorant of everything Western as long as they had at least one Western-style toilet around, even if it was tiny and hadn't been cleaned since the Qing dynasty.
Lots of English students choose names for themselves, but some seem to choose these names by opening up dictionaries at random places or just making up words themselves. And so I've had the pleasure to meet people called Cloud, Fantasy, Blue, Dark, M (yes, just "M"), "Anclo", "Degans" (this is apparently the name of a 19th Century English author, and Degans refused to believe me when I said I was sure he meant "Dickens"), and a few other strange names. Surprisingly, one of the most common places for teens to learn their English seems to be on TV when watching NBA basketball matches. Football (ie soccer) just isn't popular in China, largely because football needs grass whereas basketball needs only concrete - something of which there is no shortage in China. What little grass there is is usually marked with signs telling you not to walk on it, or at least that's what I think it's supposed to say...
I was very privileged to be given the chance to teach English at a kindergarten during my stay. As soon as the kids caught sight of me, they would start shouting "Bao luo lao shi Bao luo lao shi" (their name for me), and they made me feel very welcome. That said, even after having spent seven weeks in China by that time, I was still surprised to see how little they actually had to play with, which was later compounded when one of the children handed me a packet of headache tablets they found lying on the floor of the classroom. But once you're over the initial shock, kids are kids, and at that age it doesn't take much to make them happy.
One of the children handed me a Tom and Jerry VCD they wanted to watch, but it was scratched to pieces and covered in a strange white goo, so naturally it had no chance of playing. Later that day I went off to buy a selection of kids movies, cartoons, books, jigsaws, stickers and other things to give them a boost, and for the most part it was a great success - every child wanted one of the Fuwa stickers on their hand or their head, although many of the DVDs ended up being TV recordings that were downloaded from the internet, complete with scrolling text advertising warez and other downloads. And no, I didn't buy them from random street stalls - they were from the city's biggest supermarket!
From the kindergarten I moved onto an orphanage, which was the hardest part of my stay. Not because of the food (it was good) or the people (they were lovely), but just because it's heart-wrenching to see how very little they have out there. My orphanage was built in the outskirts of a small town; 300 children live in a single tower block in dorms of about 16. At first the kids seemed to struggle a bit with my teaching style, so at lunchtime I walked to the shops to buy some sweets - at £0.0075 a sweet, I ended up buying six boxes of chocolates, fruit drops, chewy things and other rewards, and the promise of having a reward, even a minor one, did a lot to speed up the learning!
In the evenings, the kids don't have a lot to do: there's table tennis (outdoors, in the mud, where you share the airspace with legions of mosquitoes as well as snakes), Chinese Checkers, and Chinese Chess. I tried my hand at ping pong, and was somewhere between Uber Suck and Vaguely Suck, which wasn't a huge surprise given China's record at the game. I tried my hand at Chinese Chess, but the lack of English speakers made learning the rules rather tricky, so I stuck to the Checkers - only to find that, with so much time on their hands and so few things to do, even the smallest kids in the orphanage were good enough to make me want to go back to playing ping pong, and from there to seek refuge in the Rubik's Cube.
To avoid the kids going crazy from boredom, they are given work to do every day - at 6:30am they are awake and outside brushing leaves away from the footpaths, and each child has to do their part in the cooking and cleaning for the rest of the day, with the older kids getting the most work.
You might think from all this that my view of China is negative, but nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, it's a bit frustrating in places, but all that is countered by the extraordinarily welcoming nature of the people. Not a day went by when I wouldn't receive a phone call inviting me for lunch, then another one later inviting me for dinner, from a wide range of people. The church people went out of their way to find out what foods I liked the most and ensured I got them. The children I worked with put Western kids to shame by their politeness: when you eat at a table of ten, they always leave the best food for the adults, they wait for you to come before starting, they go and fetch rice or soup for you, then take your bowl away when you're done and wash it. Keep in mind that these were kids who, all too often, had next to nothing themselves, and yet they were still willing to give it up to make you feel more comfortable.
Whatever the Chinese do they seem do with enthusiasm, and that makes them all very easy to get along with. All too often I'd be listening to some particularly ear-scorching music, thinking "I can't believe they think this is how a guitar is supposed to be played", but all the Chinese people around me would be singing, dancing, laughing and having a great time, and it becomes infectious. Whether in-tune or out of tune, they just want to be happy, and it would take a really cold person to try and change them just because they do things a little differently.