I lead a strange life. The evidence has been mounting for some considerable time, but the sentiment was really driven home to me this morning as I stood in a ‘Hello-Kitty’ themed studio, wearing a ridiculous pink outfit, holding a plastic wedding cake and following directions from a non English-speaking camera crew, as we attempted to record a Halloween message for broadcast on Chinese television. The question was raised, and not for the first time; “Honey, how the hell did we get ourselves in to this situation?”
Some events simply defy rational explanation.
At the end of August we moved out of Chengdu to start our full time jobs at a high school in Ya’An (or Ya Ann, or Yaan, or Yanshi, there’s little consistency in the spelling), a much smaller town in the east of Sichuan. The place is a bit of a paradox really, it’s an ugly collection of drab, square buildings set in a stunningly beautiful valley, and surrounded on all sides by lush forested mountains. It’s like someone picked up a 2km strip of 1970s Warsaw and deposited it in the heart of the Lake District National Park. Ya-An is famous for only two things; giant pandas, which we have not yet encountered, and earthquakes, which we have. There’s no train station, no airport, no western food, only one supermarket and, despite a population of over 300,000 people, only five non-chinese residents. Including us.
I’ve had many questions from people about what it’s like here in China, which I suppose is natural given the amount of coverage this country receives. And if all depictions in the media and popular culture were to be believed, the People’s Republic ought to be little but an Orwellian dystopia with added brass gongs. The truth, as always, is a little different.
So allow me to address some of the more common questions and misconceptions here, via the unconventional method of a round of:
Chinese people are tiny. Yup, no denying that one. There are the odd genetic freaks as with anywhere but as a general rule, my 5 11′ allows me to see over most heads in a crowded supermarket. This leads to problems obtaining clothes. I’m a good 15kg down since the last time any of you laid eyes on me but even so, the largest sizes available in Chinese clothes shops are still at least two sizes smaller than I find comfortable. And the hunt for a pair of shoes for work took us several days and to a good two dozen shoe shops before I’d sourced a pair equivalent to our size 9 (I’m actually a size 10, but beggars, choosers etc. . ). Miss Marie-Carmen on the other hand had quite the reverse; at a dainty size 3 she’s accustomed to being turned away at shoe shops in Europe. Here in China, every single pair is suddenly available to her. If you want further evidence of the size differences between Chinese and Europeans, the lift in our Chengdu apartment block bears the sign “Maximum load 850kg / 15 Persons”. In the UK that same sign would say 10 persons. .
Don’t they eat weird stuff ? Yes and no. We are assured, by guide books and by locals alike that dogs are still eaten in some parts of China, but it’s a practice that’s well on it’s way out. Certainly in the time that we’ve been here we’ve seen no sign of any such thing (this contrasts with Vietnam and Laos however, where we occasionally did witness first-hand, dog appearing on menus and in butchers shop windows). In fact one of the things that has surprised me most about China is how un-unusual much of the food is. Yak is popular in mountainous and Tibetan regions, and obviously seafood along the coast, but the overwhelming majority of dishes placed before us over the last 5 months have been perfectly ordinary beef, chicken or pork.
Chinese students work really hard. You won’t believe me. I know that, because I wouldn’t believe me. If I was the one back in the UK, and someone told me the following information about the Chinese school system, then no matter how credible the source, I would assume they were mistaken or exaggerating. But here goes: Lessons at our high school in China begin at 7:30 am, and end at 11pm. Six days a week. On top of which the students are given homework to be completed on their one day off. Sounds mad but it’s true, other than a two hour lunch break, these kids are in the classroom studying and learning for 15 and a half hours a day, Monday to Saturday. Suddenly I understand why Chinese students who come to universities in Europe have a reputation for being diligent and hard working. There’s the answer, for these guys, attending a mere four hours of lectures and a further four hours of home study per day must be viewed as the height of ‘goofing off’.
I was discussing this with some of my students, and when I explained that school hours in the UK are generally 9am to 3:30pm Monday to Friday, they didn’t believe me either. It was met with exactly the same degree of incredulity that you would expect a British teenager to display upon being told of the hours that his Chinese counterparts put in.
So if you have, or know of, a 14 year old back home who complains about the amount of school work they have to do, or whines about being unable to go out with their friends every night of the week because of homework, Slap them. Slap them and tell them if they don’t stop being so ungrateful you’ll send them to Mr Bob’s high school in Sichuan, I’m sure I could arrange it. Then slap them again, just for good measure.
Chinese to English translations are hilarious. Oh God yes. English translations on public notices are rare in China, but where they do exist, the literal interpretation of the Chinese language can often provide a source of almost limitless mirth. From the curiously worded but comprehensible sign on a two inch deep fountain/water feature which read “It is prohibited in the water slide frolicking peril”, to the sheer WHAAAAT???? value of the restaurant whose elaborately painted frontage read“Yunnan Eighteen Strange Three Dishes A Mosquito”
The cities in China are dirty and polluted. I can’t speak for the really huge cities of Beijing and Shanghai, but many of the ones we have seen resemble those pictures we were shown as children depicting the “City of the future”. Streets are clean, ultra-modern skyscrapers dot the landscape, and sleek, super high-speed bullet trains whiz people around with clockwork precision. The most popular method of personal transportation is the electric bicycle, so the noise and air pollution that blight the cities of India and other parts of Asia is nowhere to be seen.
But they are overcrowded right? Yes China has an enormous population, and a city like Chengdu has more people living in it than a great many countries do. But the difference is that, unlike say London or Paris, these cities were expressly built in anticipation of the population explosion, and have been designed to accommodate it. The streets are wide and there is housing aplenty, so although you are aware that there are a tremendous number of people around you at any time, it never feels oppressive. You can always get space on the Metro, even at rush hour, and I’ve never had to spend more than a few minutes queuing in a supermarket.
How’s the booze? Not great. Although it depends on your point of view. If your idea of beer is Fosters, Carling or Budweiser you’d probably be right at home, the People’s Republic evidently shares your view that beer ought to be ice cold and weaker than the Zimbabwean air force. And you’d be especially happy to learn that these local Bud-a-likes come in at around 10 pence a bottle. But if you’re tastes extend to wine, cider, spirits, or a beer that doesn’t resemble the urine sample of an elderly man with chronic jaundice, then it’s slim pickings I’m afraid.
Anyway, that’s China and our lives in a nutshell. We like the country, we enjoy our jobs and we love the people. We miss coffee, we miss wine, we miss bacon and yes, we even miss many of you. But all is well, and happy times abound.
Peace & Love,
No I’m not going to provide any clarification about why we are currently starring in a Chinese TV show. All will be revealed at some point, but not today. Also, I’m not going to tell you which TV company, because some enterprising geek just might manage to track down footage, and that’s something no one on your side of the world should ever have to see.