We have now been in China for over 2 months. It must be one of the quickest two months of my life – time seems to fly by as we get more and more used to life in Zhōngguó. It’s amazing how life just happens as normal wherever you go. People go to work, people go to school, people have problems and eat a lot of chicken feet.
The lion share of our time at work is taken up by lesson planning, unfortunately, which leaves us about 20 hours a week to actually teach. The materials for lesson planning are available at the school, but I still need to do a lot of surfing the net to find some different ideas. I am currently teaching three 8 – 9 year old classes, each class has about 15 students. I also have two classes of teenagers, who are my favourites. One class has 15 and the other only 4 students. They are typical teenagers with teenager problems: boy-girl relationships, popularity and grades. I had to solve a love triangle in one of my classes last week. One of the boys’ girlfriend likes another boy in my class, which means those two boys can’t stand the sight of each other. It’s quite serious business. The boys and girls in the class don’t generally talk to each other and avoid each other like plague. However, it is nice to have some older students, who can say more than ‘I like bananas’ and ‘I am wearing blue pants.’ They all want to visit the UK and America, but so far I’ve only found one student who has been outside of China.
I have also started teaching at a Chinese government kindergarten and a primary school. The aim of these lessons is to give the students speaking practice with a native English person. They have English classes with a Chinese teacher before my lesson. The kindergarten class has 30 two year olds. These children are so young that they even struggle to speak Chinese and control their bodily functions. Not a class goes by without a student peeing in their pants and all over the floor. This is fine by them and by me, just a little distracting and smelly. There is very little language I can teach them, so we mostly learn new words and some easier language functions. Most of the learning is done through playing, which includes me behaving like a 2 year old.
The inside of this kindergarten reflects the politics of China perfectly. The walls are decorated with photos of tanks, soldiers, space ships, military heroes and heroines and there are some military memorabilia on display next to pictures the children have drawn. I am not sure whether or not this kind of propaganda actually works as it is largely being taken over by the propaganda of consumption, brands and the importance of things.
Apart from these decorations it is like any other kindergarten. Mind you, I have only ever been inside an Estonian and a Chinese kindergarten. The children play, have a nap at lunch time, eat some food and play again. When I first walked in the classroom they were pointing fingers at me, laughing and yelling something in Chinese. It turned out that they were laughing at my hair and calling it yellow. When I sat down they all gathered around and started touching my hair. They are extremely cute and adorable.
The primary school I teach at is in a new part of town, which was built about two years ago. Some local teachers tell me there was nothing but a few huts there a few years ago, but the area is now full of high rise residence and office buildings. So the school is a nice new piece of concrete.
The students have to wear uniforms, which are basically tracksuits. There is one important component that must not be forgotten – their red scarf. Exactly the same kind my mum had to wear back in Soviet Estonia.
There is one thing that is rather annoying and that is our teaching hours. The late finish during the week means it’s ten o’clock by the time we get home and it’s midnight by the time we go to bed. We can have a lie in in the morning as work only starts at 1.30pm, however mornings are the only time to get things done, apart from our days off. So we constantly feel tired and feel like our days off are so packed, because there are so many things we have to squeeze in them. This is a very tiring lifestyle and clearly not sustainable for much longer than a year, at least that is how we feel.
TRIP TO THE TAIPING NATIONAL FOREST PARK
There really are a lot of people in China. The lack of space makes me feel quite claustrophobic at times, so getting out of the city is a means of preserving one’s sanity.
After 5 different buses, some walking and a lot of being lost in China, we arrived at the beautiful Taiping National Forest Park. Had we not had three Chinese friends with us, we would probably still be on our way there. This is not one of the places that is very accessible to foreign tourists, so it was not as nicely kept as the Cui Hua Park, where we went before. The views were beautiful nonetheless. There are steps all the way to the top of the mountain with beautiful waterfalls wherever you look. My legs are still in pain from all this climbing. There is no wildlife in these mountains but for a couple of birds and ants. David especially found this very strange to see.
After 3 hours’ climbing, we reached the top of the mountain and found a 160 metre narrow waterfall and not many people as the climb up there really was long. It was nice, but not spectacular like some of the views on our way there. The waterfall still had a lot of ice and snow around it, so we couldn’t get very close to it.
We took a cable car half way down the mountain and walked for another hour to get to the nearest village, where we spent the night.
We stayed at a Chinese equivalent of a bed and breakfast. The place was merely a house and nothing more. There were no paintings on the wall, the floors were full of dirt, including the bedroom floor. There was just no cosiness or decorations to speak of. It seems to me that the local people have no idea about keeping a house warm. The house was freezing yet all the doors and windows are wide open all day and night long. People in the house wear their coats and shoes.
Our room had no bathroom, so we used the one in the hallway, except I did not. I used a bottle of water to wash my face and brush my teeth on the balcony. The toilet just looked filthy and it seemed like the cleaner goes in there to push the dirt around. I no longer mind the Chinese toilets, but when you have to place your feet into unmentionable things it’s just not nice.
Despite the physical appearance of things, the people in there were so kind and nice. The food was great, too. We met some people who said they were ‘very powerful’ and worked for the government. The guys started giving David cigarettes as a sign of welcome and a lady tried to practice her English with us. We got stared at a lot as the local people are not used to seeing foreigners. We heard a lot of laowei, which means foreigner in Chinese. Like a Chinese equivalent of a murungu.
The next morning we took the bus back to Xi’an. We went a different route on our way back, through some small towns and villages. We noticed a lot of university campuses, which, as it turned out, are extensions of universities in Xi’an. The students didn’t fit into the city any longer and so some of them had to move out. We also noticed a lot of big villas being built by the roadside. There was one newly built village called ‘The international CEO village’. However, next to these fancy mansions are the usual huts where most of the people live. There are a lot of contrasts in this country.
It seems to be the case in a lot of developing countries that the women carry a huge burden in managing the family life and making sure they have all they need. While we were walking through some mountain villages I saw some women gathering firewood and making the fire, the women always cook and clean and take care of the children. This is fine, of course, but having read some books written by Chinese women it turns out that the women are not extremely happy with this and there is quite a big domestic violence problem as well. I have seen plenty women walking around with black eyes and being shouted at by their husbands on the street. Yesterday we were practicing making suggestions in one of my teenagers classes. As an example I showed them a photo of David and told them I had a problem with my husband leaving his smelly socks on the floor (this is a big fat lie of course, he would never do such a thing). The girls told me I should be a good wife and pick up his socks while the boys suggested dumping David and marrying one of them.
BUT. Women here are also honoured for their roles and for giving birth. When a Chinese woman has had a baby she has to stay in bed for a month. Some women don’t even shower as it is considered to be too troublesome. They must eat a lot of eggs while they rest. The baby will be taken care of by the grandma or by a professional company. This is a big industry here. There are kind of hotels/care homes, women can go to and rest for a month while someone will take care of their baby, or the people will come to her house.
I feel like the position of women is changing though. The Chinese seem to be obsessed by their new first lady Mrs Peng, who was famous in her own right before her husband became the president. The women want to dress like her and love her simple elegant style. Although some of the women have their own take on elegance, which includes mega short leather shorts. These seem to be the spring trend over here. They also love everything Chanel. Mostly fake Chanel. They put the logo on everything they wear from socks to jumpers to headbows. Brands in general are a bit of a status symbol here, even fake ones. The security guards in our buildings have a Louis Vuitton rubbish bin, for example.
SOME INTERESTING THINGS I’VE NOTICED
These are birds in cages. You think they are for sale? Think again! They are just going out for a ‘walk’. The older people in China enjoy listening to birdsong. Since there are not a lot of birds in this pollution ridden town, they keep the birds as pets and take them out to breathe some fresh air. The older people spend a lot of time outside just watching the world go by. Some of the men work on the streets as cobblers and some women fix your clothes while you wait.
You – can – buy – everything – you – need – for – life – cart:
This is the view from my office:
My usual lunch time spot:
And my noodles being made:
A guy comforting another guy who is not feeling too well, because he is drunk. Very sweet, I thought:
A FEW WORDS ON FOOD
It is now strawberry and pineapple season. You can buy pineapple on a stick. They peel and core it for you and all there’s left to do is eat. It is amazing.
Since we’re on the topic of food I must tell you about my new favourite food. It’s called pao mo and it’s a Xi’an Muslim speciality. First they bring you an empty bowl and some bread. The bread is quite dense and not really great for eating by itself. You must then break the bread into pieces as small as rice grains (in theory, but I can never do that). Once that is done they take away your bowl and soon bring you the soup, which contains incredibly tender pieces of mutton, noodles, spring onion and the bread you just broke. To adjust the taste of the soup you are given some chilli and pickled garlic.
I have a new favourite breakfast joint. Only a few metres from our house is this place that sells baozi. These are the big steamed dumplings filled with meat or vegetables or both. They are a lot like Estonian pirukad.
IN OTHER NEWS
I have joined the gym and have been going to yoga classes. I am once again the only foreigner, but it doesn’t matter. The whole class is in Chinese, so it’s a good opportunity and a good reason to learn some Chinese.
Talking about Chinese, our classes are going well. I can now even write some characters (food ones, of course).
We visited the drum and bell towers finally. Most of the information in both is in Chinese, which is not great for the city’s main attractions. The architecture, however, was interesting and the colours in these old buildings are really nice and bright. The drum towers displays drums, surprisingly, throughout the Chinese history and you can see a drum show if you stick around and wait for the right time, which we did not. The bell tower displays very few bells, but some other artefacts from the Chinese history. The bell tower was all in Chinese, so I have no idea what things they were unfortunately.
And finally some images from the Muslim quarter – my favourite area in this city. It’s got a great bustling atmosphere. Small narrow streets full of street vendors selling speciality Muslim foods and tourist rubbish. You do see a lot of tourists there, but David and I are locals of course, because we live here.