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New Year in China

A Gregorian New Year and a soon-to-be Chinese New Year quickly approaches...

sunny 7 °C

I felt it was time to evaluate my life in China so far, what with the dawn of the Chinese New Year fast approaching and the Year of the Horse wielding unknown potential.

I'd like to share with you some things I have learned from living in this amazing country:

1. No matter what ailment is troubling you, be it a headache, menstrual cramps, a cold or the flu, a chesty cough or generally just feeling a bit under the weather, hot water will be your best friend and ally during these tenuous times!

You will be hard pressed to find a Chinese person, especially where I live, without a flask, mug, glass jar or some other nondescript container filled at least three quarters of the way with hot water.
Now don't get me wrong, I already understand the value of water; it's good for your skin and keeps your body hydrated, it provides much needed moisture to maintain strong brain power, it can even aid digestion. However, it is not just the miracle of water that the Chinese understand and appreciate, oh no! It is hot water, with its glorious cleansing steam gliding up into your sinuses, it is the warmth spreading through your chest into your stomach and down to your toes as this apparent heavenly hand guides its warming embrace throughout your entire body.
Whenever in the past year and a half, I have experienced any kind of medical annoyance, the first thing any of my students or Chinese friends have advocated is this, 'Drink hot water, keep your body warm', and although sage advice, it is not only this, but also an undeniable truth.
I drink hot water in restaurants, at home, whenever I feel a cold coming on, or am experiencing particularly uncomfortable cramps - out comes my very own flask which locks in the magical heat and within a day or two, I am back to feeling tip-top again.

2. You will never be as popular anywhere in world with people you've never met, than you will be in China.

Every single day, I walk to school, or I get a bus or a taxi into town; I meet my friends, I go shopping, I'll stop in somewhere and maybe have some hot water (with tea in it!) - I do a myriad of things throughout my weeks and months, often different things or trying different places, or trying to find the place I really like but that appears to have closed down...! One thing however remains constant:
Every single person you walk past will either want to, will know how to, or actually does say one or all of the following phrases to you...
'Hello' / 'Nice to meet you' / 'My English is very poor'

I have made more friends on the streets of this town, in the short space of time that I've lived here, than I have in my previous 20 odd years in the UK.
Everyone is so desperate to interact with a foreigner that they usually pluck up the courage and put their limited knowledge of the English language to use.

The best part is, that if these brave souls happen to be girls, usually of any age, or younger boys, when you reply to their 'Hello' with an equally matched response, they will giggle, run away and then point and talk about you with a group of their friends who never seem to be very far away.

It has gotten to the point now where I genuinely cannot remember if I've met, seen or even spoken to this person before me offering a cordial greeting as it happens so often, I've almost lost track.

3. People you have never met, or have perhaps met during one of the aforementioned bravery conversations, will have photographs of you on their cameras or their phones and they will have passed these photos on to at least 5 of their friends, or better yet, they will simply have posted these pictures on to one of Asia's many social outlets. QQ, WeChat, Weibo etc.

My first encounter with the stealth photographers happened when I arrived fresh-faced and excited in Beijing. The sights, the smells, the immense number of people, the strange language on every sign, the incredible feat to find and navigate the subway system (read some of my earlier blog entries for that thrilling debacle!)

It was however, on the subway, that my suspicion peaked... through the wonders of peripheral vision.... I saw them.
Slowly, almost unnoticeable to the human eye, people's mobile phones were creeping up over other passengers’ shoulders, heads, arms, each one pointing their judgemental camera's eye directly at me.
I waited for the sound, the give-away that a picture had indeed been snapped, but nothing.
Just as eerily as they had appeared, the phones slid back into pockets and bags, calculatedly waiting for their next prize photo opportunity.

4. At more than one interval throughout the day, you will eat an entire meal from a plastic bag:

It doesn't matter how much money you do or don't want to pay for your food, whenever you buy food outside or even from a little shop, you will be served your succulent meat or soup or rice or noodles, all together, in one bag (after all - it's going to end up like that in your stomach once you've masticated it!)

Once you've gained the skill of not eating a little piece of the bag with each bite, you get to really understand and enjoy the bohemian thrill of it all - no plates to clean, no cutlery to wash; you just put the disposable chopsticks you were given into the empty food bag, tie it off in a neat little bow and boom, straight into the bin it goes.

Restaurants, of course, have a little more western etiquette to them, you get to enjoy your food on plates with sturdier chopsticks and separate dishes for you to portion out your required amount of food. There is demonstrably the added benefit of once again, not having to do any washing up or tidying up of any kind; but to think you escaped the bags?
How foolish of you.
Once you've eaten your fill, the kindly waiter or waitress will appear with several empty bags, pick up your leftovers (from the serving dish, rather than your individual plates or bowls) and pour said contains into the plastic bags.
Taking home any uneaten food is very important here, again, at least where I live, as the government is trying to cut down food waste and if you don't want it now, you'll probably want it later so why not just pop it in a doggy bag and take it home with you?!

The same practise of using a bag over crockery also applies in Qingdao during their annual beer festival - instead of tables for you and your friends to sit around and discuss current affairs, there are hooks on the walls for you to hang your beer bags on.
(It saves space, allowing more beer bags to be purchased by more patrons)

5. If you have any colour hair, other than black or dark brown, you are suddenly the Messiah:

My Australian friend who lives here with his beautiful Chinese wife once told me that he had a friend (male), with shoulder length blonde hair, who took a trip on one of the marvellous trains we have all over the country, and decided to take a nap as it was going to be a long journey.
When he woke up, he saw before him several concerned and awe-stricken Chinese passengers staring at him.
Now given the previous points of foreigners being interesting commodities, it would appear to be understandable to have a group of unknown voyeurs to this man's train journey.
It was however the large chunk of hair he was missing that these travellers were more put out by....
During his nap, someone had decided that his golden locks should be shared amongst his earthly comrades and thusly cut off a large piece of his hair as a keepsake.

As a fellow blonde, my roots ache for that man's lost locks, but luckily (for me!) I have yet to encounter any serial hair collectors.
My hair dresser here does however tell me, more often than not, that my hair is too soft to do anything with.
I take that as a compliment!

6. If you have a boyfriend or girlfriend in China, not only will your parents be thrilled, but so will clothes manufacturers throughout the country:

The Western world is already aware of the massive influence Asian countries and their trends have had on popular culture; Hello Kitty, Sushi restaurants, glasses without lenses (Asian Hipsters!), coloured contact lenses, brightly mismatched clothing etc.
What the Western world has yet to cotton onto is the booming market of girlfriend/boyfriend shops.
Now don't get me wrong, we have 'His and Hers' towels and bathrobes, but we’ve got nothing on the Chinese niche for boyfriend/girlfriend matching outfits.
That's right folks.
Couples in Asia don't just want you to know they’re a couple, they want to show you through the medium of fashion.
Whole boutiques dedicated to sweatshirts and hoodies sporting the same colours and logos - bigger sizes for him; petite, perfectly figure-hugging sizes for her.
This phenomenon even extends to shoes, hats and trousers.
You and your partner can walk into one of these boyfriend/girlfriend shops and kit each other out in perfectly harmonised ensembles.

7. Poorly translated and often comical signs and menus:

When picking your food in restaurants or trying to figure out where you are in the major metropolis can be daunting, but fear not, because someone, somewhere, with a basic understanding of English has attempted to assist you in this ordeal.

Pictures, clear as day, show you a delectable dish of Chicken with potatoes and vegetables in a colourful blend of culinary excellence, and although the Chinese, if you're fortunate enough to understand it, tells you that that is indeed what this dish entails, the English version will probably put you off eating for the rest of your life.
I once saw a similar dish described as 'Flavoured Fungi and assorted entrails', even though the Chinese characters told me it was Chicken and vegetables....
The fun continues with warning signs or polite notices.
In a hotel I saw a sign in the corridor outside the elevator, with a picture of pursed lips and a single finger laying gently over them, telling me to 'put it mildly, and then put it mildly'.
Common sense would dictate that this probably means, 'Please be quiet when walking about the hotel so as not to disturb other guests', but alas, this elegance was somewhat lost in translation.
Another interesting warning came from what I presume was a 'Slippery when wet' or 'Uneven steps' sign in a tourist attraction of ancient art and temples, with a sign that simple read 'Don't fall down' accompanied by a picture of a foolish naysayer falling down some steps.
The list is of course, long and endless, but usually full to the brim with hilarious mistranslations and equally amusing illustrations for added effect.

8. If you're outside, feel free to spit wherever you like, even out of a car window, whilst on the move.

Now as a quintessentially British childhood moulded my sense of propriety and manners, spitting was never an appropriate past time, but in Asia, if it's in your mouth, you need to expel it as loudly and thoroughly as you can.

You are all probably aware of the guttural wrenching sound people make when they have a particularly stubborn phlegm build-up in the back of their throat or nose. Well this sound is only part of the cacophony of sounds one hears on a daily basis in China.
If it's not a taxi honking it's horn to see if you require a lift; small, barely audible speakers shouting at you to buy the freshly picked produce or children departing school en mass, then the pise de résistance, will be the spitting.
If Disney were to recreate Fantasia using the sounds of Asia rather than actual instruments, the sound of spitting would account for the percussions, strings and probably brass sections as well.

But have no fear readers, because cleaners are on hand 24/7 with their bamboo handled, mesh and feather street brushes to clear the congealed mess away…

9. If you can still breathe, then there is enough space in this taxi, subway car, bus or ticket office for more people:

If you've ever wondered why Asian people tend to lack basic manners in regards to space awareness and entry/exit protocols, look no further for your answers.
It all starts here, in Asia.
If you want to get on that subway train in the UK or the US and there doesn't seem to be a lot of room, you will probably have the basic instincts of self-preservation to wait 3 minutes for the next train.
If you want to get on that subway train in Asia, you get on the damn subway train, regardless of that child's face you've now squashed against a window or that small family of foreigners you've all but forced into a vacuum, slowly suffocating them to death.

Not only will you hardly ever see a queue or something to that effect, you won't see a patient Asian person either.
If you've got somewhere to be, you get there no matter the cost, damage or possible offence it may cause.
If you need a ticket but the mass conglomerate ahead of you doesn't have your best interests at heart, you force your way to the front, interrupt the employee who is already dealing with another customer and thrust your money into their hands, talking over the previous patron.
It reminds me of that scene in Titanic when everyone is trying to evacuate the sinking vessel and the lower level passengers are all pushed up against that padlocked gate, clambering on top of one another for just a glimpse at their possible freedom and escape.
Even without the threat of imminent death by frosty cold drowning, the assertion to survive and be the first to do so lives on in the heart of pretty much every Asian person alive.

10. Pyjamas are not just an inside outfit, but don't wear indoor shoes outside, obviously:

During the harsh winter months, I've learned that PJ's are not just a comfy, cosy, indoor outfit for you to nestle into on the sofa with your mug of hot chocolate, oh no.
Pyjamas are actually giant layers of padded warmth that you wear over your normal outside-clothes and when you combine these two fashion masterpieces together, you get a warm outside look with all the comfort and cosiness of your inside outfit.
The best part about wearing your pyjamas outside is that everyone else is doing it too so no one thinks you look utterly ridiculous and some of the designs and patterns could even be deemed fashionable.
The rooky mistake however, is mistaking indoor shoes for outdoor shoes.
It's completely acceptable for you to wear pyjamas outside, but if you wear flip flops in summer or the matching cosy booties that go so perfectly with your PJ's in the winter then you are opening yourself up to ridicule and the blatant question 'Why are you wearing slippers outside?'

Overly fluffy or felt-style boots are slippers.
Flip-Flops are slippers.
Shower-shoes are slippers.
Slippers are slippers.

And at no time is it appropriate to wear any of these items of footwear outside.
Even if you are wearing a Michelin-man inspired pyjama set.

Posted by Lady Mantle 20:34 Archived in China Tagged shopping china asia subways new_year spitting trends food_in_bags life_lessons rules_of_asia social_etiquette asian_hipsters lost_in_translation winter_wear year_of_the_horse Comments (3)

Train Stations, the Zoo, old China town and a stupid cold!

sunny 27 °C

Today has been long but eventful! Prepare yourself, this is going to be a long one!

I got the subway (again - I'm a pro now!) to meet up with Mish and we headed to Beijing North Train Station to get my ticket to go to the school on Saturday in XinXiang.

This would be fine accept we got out of the subway and couldn't find the main train station, so we're stood there looking at a map when a friendly Chinese face pops over the map and says, with a slightly American twang "You guys need some help?" - THANK GOODNESS!

So she directs us to the train station and advises us that we need to actually get there which is daunting as there is an assortment of highways twisting and looping about themselves right between us and the train station. I almost wanted us to be in a movie and as the camera pans out to show the mass of road we needed to cross there would be a kind of "duh, duh, duuuuuuuuh!" musical moment as our task was laid before us!

However, we eventually found an underground root which cut out the overpass completely - very useful!

The next 2 hours were border line psychotic...!

We waited in not one, not two, but four queues, upstairs, downstairs, outside, inside, everywhere, only to end up at the same window we started at, frazzled and confused and no further in our quest to get me a train ticket.
I noticed a Chinese girl in front of us, probably no older than 15, maybe 16 who had hand written English on her backpack - I tapped her on the shoulder, refusing to be beaten by a sodding train station and showed her a simple message I had translated on my phone simply saying, in Chinese, "Do you speak English?".
By some glory of Darwin, she replied, "Yes, a little" - we showed her Mish's ticket and explained, as simply as possible and with a lot of non-verbal communication (AKA, a lot of hand motions and raised eyebrows) that we needed another ticket, like hers only for me, but it needed to be the same day, same time, same train!
A few quick words of Chinese later, my passport and the equivalent of £18, I had my ticket for the 5 hour train journey to the school and mine and Mish's home for the next year.

It's now 1pm.

We go to the subway to head back into town, then decide to go the zoo as it's the next stop on the subway anyway.
The Beijing Zoo subway stop was between where we were and the National Library. However, the Beijing Zoo subway stop was out of service, so we ended up on the other side of it at the National Library - we then walked. And walked. And walked some more. Found a park with an elaborate entrance, but no zoo.
We showed a passer-by the map and pointed to the zoo, they directed us around the corner; we walked some more.
Eventually, after several offers of Rikshaw rides and some of the most pungent street foods ever created, we found the zoo!
Yay!
So for what was essentially £13 we got a ticket for the main zoo, the Panda enclosure and the aquarium.
Beijing Zoo is bloody enormous.
They had lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) and a giraffe and birds and eagles and reptiles, you name it, they had it.
They also had this little guy:
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I hand-fed him bamboo and when I noticed there wasn't any water for him, at all, I took out my bottle of water and covered the bamboo leaves with water, next thing I know there is a huge trunk snuffling it's way towards me, and in one curl of its muscular nose, the wet bamboo was swept straight out of my hand!
Then he starts sniffing around the bottle, so I pour some water into my hand, and there he goes again, sucking up the water through his nose with a force that can give a Dyson a run for it's money on suction power.
Well needless to say, that entire water bottle went to that little guy and then everyone around me started joining in - there were people with their hands thrust through the gate pouring water, tea, anything they had on them onto the floor and the leaves and apparently elephants like Starbucks.... but they don't very much enjoy eating the cups!

My good deed done for the day helping the animals, we ventured into the Aquarium.
Oh. My. Jeeves.
Best Aquarium ever. The zoo was ok, about from some of the animals were clearly distressed and were beating their heads against their enclosures which was really upsetting. But the aquarium. Wowzers.
We were greeted by the obvious choice for a Chinese Zoo:
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Koi fish!
We then walked across a little bridge over the Koi pond to find this beast!
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Holy Hell-Fish, Batman!

We continue on through the aquarium and find these exquisite Jellyfish, dancing through the water (safely behind a thick wall of glass!)
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Then we moved on to these:
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Back in the zoo, and this angry little fella LAUNCHED himself at me:
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Almost embarrassed myself in public - luckily, I'd used the toilet in the aquarium!
I say toilet....:
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Yep - that's the toilet, a hole in the floor with foot grips so you don't fall in your own wee!

Then we went to see the Pandas!
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When we couldn't walk around the zoo anymore, we got a taxi back to Mish's hostel so she could change her shoes that had begun eating into her feet :( then headed to the older part of town that has the best food and shops!
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After gorging on some amazing dumplings and undisclosed meat on a stick:
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we met these guys: IMG_2253.jpg then ended the evening ordering bottles of booze through Mr. Wong, a wholesaler who spoke brilliant English and discussed our futures here in China whilst his colleague whipped me up a hot tea with honey and lemon for my increasingly annoying cold and apparent cough now as well.
Walked Mish to her hostel then on my way back to the subway to head home I noticed a Chinese Medicine store and popped in to see if there was anything I recognised to help with fix my broken body.
The woman behind the counter had a book with symptoms written in Chinese and English - I pointed out cough and sore throat and she put some elixirs and potions on the counter:
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Best stuff I've ever bought, within an hour the cough syrup had sorted me right out!

I think that will do, don't you!?

  • Sleeps*

Posted by Lady Mantle 08:18 Archived in China Tagged trains chinese_food subways language_barrier questionable_meat beijing_zoo Comments (5)

Summer cold

sunny 27 °C

It is BOILING outside! 27 degrees at the minute.

Not a cloud in the sky so trees and buildings are the only thing offering any shade.

I keep seeing little huddles of Chinese people clustered beneath them to protect themselves from the sun. I even saw an older lady with a coat on her head like a cloak just sat on a bench eating a sandwich!

I went for a walk today to try and get rid of the cold I apparently have now! Luckily I brought plenty of paracetamol so hopefully it will go away soon - sunshine and a cold do not mix!

My hotel room doesn't have a window so when I woke up at half 10 this morning (3.30 am UK time!) I was confused to say the least!

I have however located the subway that will take me into central Beijing after wandering around for nearly an hour and stopping in a different hotel to ask for directions.

This would normally have been fine, accept there was only one person who could speak a little English, in the same respect that I can speak a little Spanish, so after 20 minutes, 2 maps and 6 colleagues, we just about figured out what I wanted, where we were, and where I needed to go.

These were the instructions written down for me:

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I had to add them to my own map as I have apparently chosen a hotel in the arse end of nowhere and my subway station isn't on the map of Beijing that I have!

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All in a days work!

Posted by Lady Mantle 22:31 Archived in China Tagged summer language maps subways cold ill Comments (2)

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