I am writing this from Xi’an airport. We are departing for Shanghai at 3pm, from where we will catch a flight to Kuala Lumpur and then onto Kohci in India.
We have come to the end of our adventure with mixed feelings. There is sadness for leaving behind friends we’ve made and the sense of adventure that has followed us everywhere for a year; there is frustration with the lack of logic and common sense that seems to have overtaken a lot of Xi’an; there’s anticipation of seeing our friends and family again, being in familiar surroundings and in a culture we can relate to; there is a sense of achievement for having learned to converse in Chinese and for what at times seems like ‘surviving’ Xi’an. All in all I have positive thoughts, but if I had the chance to meet Xi Jinping before we left I would have a lot of atrocities to report to him and a lot of suggestions to make his country better for its people.
I will try to tell you about everything in order. But before I do, I would like to tell you about our last week in Zhongguo.
A trip to the not-so-glamorous alleys of the Muslim quarter and the start of the Silk Road
We have a monthly magazine for expats here called Xianese. It mostly consists of restaurant reviews and lists all the haunts where one could meet a foreigner. They also review some local attractions. Last month’s issue told of a bird market deep in the Muslim Quarter. This was described as a place not to be found in any tourist brochure and a truly authentic experience.
On Thursday morning I made poor David get up at 6 and venture to this market with me. Having acquired some Winter (sorry baba John, mukoma Laurie and Dong Da Wei) characteristics, I was not equipped with a map or an address, so we decided to just walk in the North West direction and see if we find the place.
We did find some roosters, chickens, kittens, puppies and sparrows squeezed in tiny cages, making a lot of squeaky noises, however, this was nothing new for us. We kept walking along narrow alleyways leading us past several mosques which’ existence was unbeknownst to us.
After passing at least 10 shops selling bao zi (steamed buns stuffed with meat or vegetables), gloopy rice porridge and deep fried dough sticks, we found ourselves in the midst of a dirty and smelly street sprawling with vendors selling everything from chicken feet to cassia bark to lotus flower roots.
Only during our last week has it occurred to me that Xi’an used to be on of the most important cities in the world. Then called Chang’an, the first capital of unified China, it held the then biggest market in the world and welcomed traders from across Asia and Europe. We can thank China for the abacus, compass, tea and gunpowder amongst others while people from the West introduced chairs to China. The Muslim people, or Hui as the are called here, also reached Xi’an via the Silk Road. Being there in the middle of the market chaos felt like the modern Silk Road. The Silk has now been replaced by fake shoes, clothes, plastic goods and everything you can find in your local flea market or kirbuturg. Probably including the fleas.
I find the Hui people to be very different from the Han Chinese. Firstly, they look different and remind me of our Soviet brothers from Kazakhstan and other ‘stans’ in the middle of Asia. Secondly, they dress differently, obviously. The men wear the taqiyah or a square hat while the women cover their heads with colourful scarves. I also find the Hui people a lot more approachable and friendly than the Han. Having been persecuted as a minority for years, they seem to have developed much stronger community ties and are so a lot more considerate towards others around them.
As we walked around the busy streets we got a lot of looks and the many smiles revealed teeth left unattended for decades, yet still very charming. There were a lot of abattoirs with whole goats and sheep hanging from the ceiling.
The meat is transported at the back of a microbus with no attention whatsoever given to any type of hygiene or regulations. We may have found one of the reasons for my numerous stomach problems there.
Right in the middle of the Muslim Quarter we saw a sign for a temple tucked away in a little alleyway. We ventured in and were welcomed by a very friendly nun who invited us to have a look around. The temple was beautiful, it seemed to have been newly built or renovated. Along with the three nuns we saw we also noticed a lot of stray dogs that they provide a home for. Next to the temple stood an ugly square building, overshadowing the temple a little. It was strange to see the three Chinas meet there – the Muslims, the Buddhists and the modern (capitalist?).
The China most foreigners know comprises dragons, Communism, Kung Fu and great food. We have seen all these things, but also realised that China has so many faces that it is hard to pin down one and call it ‘China’. Xi’an does definitely not fit the stereotype. Sadly a lot of the history in Xi’an has been destroyed and is continuing to be destroyed. The area around Xi’an in riddled with ancient tombs and graves, which are regularly looted by villagers who are pushed to do so due to poverty and lack of opportunities. The stolen artefacts are sold to private collectors, few finding their way into museums.
There is a museum at the start of the Silk Road displaying some of the artefacts found in the area and telling some of the story of this network of roads connecting the East to the West, however the lack of funding and interest renders it rather dull considering the colourful history of the Silk Road. There is a big shopping mall built on the original West market, where the merchants came to trade goods. The shopping mall is as any other, except it has a street called the Silk Road, where you can visit tourist information centres/cultural shops for India, Iran, Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and Japan. Not a lot about the countries actually tied to the Silk Road, unfortunately.
The Tang Dynasty Dance Show
One of the recommended attractions to all visitors to Xi’an is to go to a dance show, which depicts the costumes, music and dances from the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD). Since the theatre holding these shows is right across the road from our flat and I’ve been walking past it every day to get to work, I felt obliged to go before I left. I was not disappointed, nor was I overwhelmed. The theatre was nice and comfortable and the tickets included a free glass of champagne, which was a real bonus in my mind.
The dancers were professionals, trained as ballet dancers probably and the grand costumes added a bit of an authentic feel, however, the whole thing felt quite fake to me. It was entertaining and nice to look at, but that is all.
Some other things
At the beginning of the week I vowed to go to a different restaurant every day for the last week. This has not happened. The old favourites are the best – guo bao rou, kao rou, Korean food, Muslim Quarter, Roger Moore. My taste buds are already tuned into India and are not in any state to try new food in China.
We went to the bank yesterday to transfer the money from our Chinese bank account into our UK bank account. We found out that foreigners are not allowed to transfer money without an official letter from their employer, a work visa will not suffice. So we had to transfer money to a Chinese friend’s account and then she transferred it to our UK account. The whole process took about an hour in a freezing bank where the employees were all wearing their winter coats and the doors were left wide open.
The air quality has improved a lot and we have had a couple of clear nights where we have even seen the stars. This also means it’s been really cold and both David and I have been rather unwell with runny noses, sore throats and coughs. Fortunately I know there is nothing a bit of vodka can’t fix.
Working as an English teacher
I think it is now safe to say that David and I will not be pursuing a further career in teaching. It’s certainly been a rewarding experience, which has taught us a lot, but the what we expected and what was expected of us did not match at all. The actual teaching was OK, we loved the children and interacting with them, however, the management of the school left a lot to be desired.
Each school has Chinese and foreign management, so naturally the foreign teachers report to the foreign management. The Chinese management is extremely top down, where the manager is actually feared, complaints are therefore not made and so the staff is quite unhappy.
As the foreign management has to work with the Chinese, quite understandably, some of their ways seemed a little strange to me. The lack of information about problems we had reported, for one. Not a lot was done if we did have problems with the school or work, the reason often being ‘this is the way things are done in China’. It may be the Chinese way, but the people working there are foreigners and expect better standards. So at times the morale at the office was quite low.
As a part of our contract we get our flights there and back reimbursed. When we started to speak to HR about this, they claimed to have lost our flight details and offered to give the current market rate for our tickets here instead. Luckily I had kept the receipt. They then said they could not reimburse our tickets, because we had come via Hong Kong, but should have come via Shanghai instead, which is cheaper. Even though I had confirmed that our flights are OK before flying out, they seemed to have lost their memory of this, so when I produced a thread of e-mails discussing this, they had no other ways of tricking us.
I was also surprised that on departure I was not asked for any feedback what so ever. Just a goodbye, thanks for coming and that was it. The whole thing seemed rather unprofessional compared to places I’ve worked at before.
The way Chinese staff is treated is not very nice at all. They work ridiculous ours, get paid nothing and get fired for putting a foot wrong. They get fined should they be a minute late, they get fined for not wearing make up or the right shoes. They don’t get paid during public holidays and if they complain there is someone waiting to take their position as EF has a reputation as the best English school in Xi’an. Unfortunately, with a population of 1.3 billion, these things are too easy to happen, especially if you have no guanxi (relationships).
Despite this little rant, I am glad to have worked at EF, because I met some great people, foreign and Chinese and I found out I never want to be a teacher again.
Whenever I mention the fact that I am going to India I get told not to go to this place that is so dirty, disease-ridden and where every woman gets raped on a bus. A lot of the people think (or at least tell me so) that China is genuinely the best place in the world and there is not that much wrong with it. I can understand this as anyone’s home would always be the best, even if it is Võru, but their thoughts on foreign countries are very naïve and prejudiced.
I often get told that other places are very dirty and their food does not even come close to wonderful Chinese food. America and England are quite good, though, because this is what can be seen on TV and movies. It’s easy for these kinds of opinions to form in a society that is still so closed. There is information available, but it needs to be looked for purposefully and you need to take interest first. Sometimes information is received, but not processed any further, because people are used to being told what to do and think.
Places like Shanghai and Beijing are surely a lot different and so are the people who live there, but second tier cities like Xi’an still have a village mentality and at times feel like a massive village.
The parts that got left behind in the development
As one would expect, Xi’an is nowhere near to being a first world city. The poverty is obvious when you see shantytowns and remnants of old buildings between the high-rise apartment blocks. People live in those places with no heating and very thin walls. I am sure people hardly ever take their coats off in the winter.
There are crippled beggars who pull themselves along using their hands on a little trolley and use a large speaker, which has probably made them deaf by now, to gather people’s attention. They usually get no attention. People look away, cross the road, stare, take pictures…anything but help. What could they do? There are extremely persistent old ladies, who would physically hold onto your arm and not let go until you give them some cash. They are so desperate. There are youngsters kneeling on the street with the words ‘help me go home’ written with chalk in front of them. They probably came from a village or a little provincial town looking for opportunities in the bug city if Xi’an.
There are thousands of parents who work overtime to provide a good education for their children and there are thousands of highly educated people struggling to find a job.
My favourite parts of our year in China
Some forms of traditional China can still be found in the shadow of the economic miracle and rapid growth. Xi’an and other cities have whole areas dedicated to calligraphy, paper cut pictures, Chinese painting and handicraft. I have fallen in love with Chinese art, which is very simple and clean.
Walking around in some areas of Xi’an you an see old men creating beautiful pictures with just a few brush strokes. There are people practicing their calligraphy at parks early morning and in the evenings.
There are areas where traditional courtyard houses with curved roofs have been preserved and walking along those narrow streets reveals a whole different China. Kids are allowed to play on the streets without parents fearing they would be kidnapped (this is a real problem here), groups of men and women gather around tables for games of cards, chess and mahjong, there are people sitting around sitting tea for hours and watching the world go by, kites stuck in the electric cables and it does feel like a tight community.
China is a vast country and this means you can see everything here – rivers, snowcapped mountains, hot springs, grasslands, desert, beaches, forests. As Xi’an is so close to the Qinling mountains we did a lot of climbing. Coming from the flat land that is Estonia (except for the whopping 318m Egg Hill), I found all these mountains so beautiful and spectacular that we kept finding different ones to climb. My calculations tell me we conquered 6 mountains, one of them twice. The hardest was our climb in Gansu province at 4,200 metres wearing a heavy Tibetan cloak. The most beautiful and second hardest was mount Taibai, which was still untouched by China’s drive to make all beautiful places into tourist attractions and build fancy cable cars and hotels everywhere.
We also visited some hot springs when my mum was here. We lay in pools of naturally hot water, at about 30 degrees Celsius. There were pools of tea, rose petals, ginger, lemon and so on. We had a lovely Korean style facial, which turned out to be a skin whitening one and our hours of bathing in the sun were lost, but it must have been one of the most relaxing days we’ve had in China.
Do not believe that the food you get from the UK takeaways in Chinese. It did originate in the South of China, but it has been changed so much to suit the European taste. I don’t see why it had to be changed, because the food we’ve had here has been wonderful.
Xi’an is famous for it’s many types of noodles of which we had oodles (see what I did there?), bread and different Muslim foods and snacks. There are numerous dishes that became as a ‘standard’ whenever we went to a restaurant, many of them made of humble ingredients like cabbage, peas and aubergine. I am afraid MSG is responsible for a lot of the very nice taste, but there are obviously MSG free places.
My unbeatable favourite is guo bao rou – a wonderfully sweet and a little sour and gingery dish of fried meat. I would order a dish of it and eat it all by myself. I am so thankful David does not like, so I could have more every time. It is like eating heaven.
The fruit and vegetable selection available here varies a lot season by season, but there is always so much choice and so many things I have never seen or heard of before.
I will miss just being able to go outside and find delicious food surrounding me everywhere I look.
There are some genuinely smart and unique people here, who cannot be easily found amongst the masses, but if you do find them, you can talk for hours.
The older people in Xi’an still seem quite fascinated with foreigners hence the staring and yelling ‘foreigner’ whenever we walk by. They are desperate to talk to us and find out about us. They are so proud when we speak some Chinese and surprised that we like Chinese food and can use chopsticks.
The Chinese friends I made welcomed me with an open heart and make sure I was always happy. This is mostly done by feeding you until you burst. I made some lovely friends at school and hope that we will be able to meet again one day. It will be hard for them to visit Europe due to travel regulations and the price of tickets, but I feel I will definitely see some of them again somewhere in the world.
Where to next?
I don’t know is the short answer. Our plan is to stay in Estonia for a couple of years at least. We are currently trying to find work there. It is a little unnerving not knowing what we will be doing after 3 weeks, but we are not overly worried at all.
Was it worth it?
See you in India.