Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Oh I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday...

A selection of festive gems from Tianjin No. 1 High School...

Spiderman and Rudolph...a crime-stopping duo!

A great selection of Christmas cards from our students.
If you open the pink and purple cards, top left, you will discover
a flashing 'Happy Birthday' accompanied by the sound of Fur Elise.
This made my day!

A lovely Christmas message from Denis,
complete with joke as follows:
Tommy: How is your little brother Jonny?
Jonny: He is ill in bed. He hurt himself.
Tommy: That's too bad. How dd that happen?
Jonny: We played who could lean furthest out of the window
and he won :)

Christmas corner in the office

Monday, 19 December 2011

Twas the Night Before Christmas...

As I am about to embark on my first Christmas experience abroad, I am starting to feel that I could not have gone much further or reached more foreign climbs than The People’s Republic of China. Naturally Christmas is overshadowed by Spring Festival, the biggest event in the Chinese lunar calendar, and everyone is now gearing up to a much deserved winter holiday with the Chinese New Year festivities beginning very early this year. The whole country will be uniting with family and friends, preparing mammoth feasts and decorating their homes, all under a beautiful umbrella of firework displays. 

Christmas is not traditionally celebrated in China but my city, Tianjin, has done its part and if you find yourself wandering through the city centre you will find a good assortment of Christmas trees or ‘Trees of Light’ dotted around, including a bright pink number covered in silver baubles. You can also see many jolly shop assistants sporting festive headwear and numerous buildings decked in lovely Christmas lights. And over the last couple of days I have even spotted two Chinese Father Christmases or shèng dàn lǎo rén (Christmas Old Man) as he is known here.

With less than a week to go until the big day I am beginning to feel rather festive especially opening the doors of my advent calendar every morning without fail. We have also brought the joy of Christmas time to the classroom in a two week long festive lesson plan.

It turns out that Chinese students are big fans of our much beloved Mr Bean, so naturally ‘Merry Christmas Mr Bean’ went down a storm. I was not prepared for the hysteric laughter that followed Mr Bean’s attempt to remove his head from inside his rather enormous Christmas turkey.

Being a huge fan of Christmas (as many are), I can be festive wherever I am but I think what friends and I have missed the most is the wonderful build-up to Christmas that often begins quite early in the UK. This year we have had to seek out the infamous Coca-Cola trucks as well as Mariah Carey’s ever popular Christmas tune on youtube. I have not experienced the hype surrounding this year’s John Lewis Christmas advert or had the opportunity to amble past the beautiful Christmas window displays at Selfridges which is a must at this time of year.  I still find it strange that Christmas Day is just an ordinary day for most Chinese people. You do have to make a little more effort to feel in the holiday spirit here but  last night I was pleased to overhear a karaoke version of Wham’s classic ‘Last Christmas’ whilst out for dinner.  

I am currently compiling a Christmas playlist for the big day containing the usual festive gems, but if I am in the mood for a more sombre, up-to-date, Christmas number I will turn to The Maccabees and their cover of 'Walking in the Air'.
I will miss spending time with family and friends and being 5145 miles away seems even further as the holiday approaches. But this year will be a Christmas like no other. On 24th December fellow expats, Chinese friends and I will be heading to Beijing to experience what the Chinese capital has to offer over the festive period. We are booked into a lovely hostel on the outskirts of Tiananmen Square and the now not so Secret Santa has been drawn. It is odd to think that we will be celebrating Christmas and opening presents a whole eight hours before our loved ones in the UK, but with the option to switch to UK time during the day, we can legitimately prolong the festivities even further. Our day is likely to include an interesting combination of English and Chinese activities including mulled wine making (and drinking), tucking into a world famous Beijing duck, pulling crackers sent from home as well as playing party games and perhaps a little karaoke which is a must for any special occasion in China. The dress code for Christmas Day is officially smart/cash with a tinsel twist (as demonstrated by the lovely young lady below!).
The temperature in the North of China is dropping rapidly so placing a bet on a white Christmas in Beijing could perhaps be a wise move and, more importantly, would make for my first ever snow covered Christmas Day.

And finally a big thank you to Leah for asking me to be a part of her Expat Christmas project featured in The Telegraph!

Sunday, 6 November 2011

A little country getaway

I love the city but sometimes you do need to escape and see that there is a blue sky beyound the smog that inevitably hovers over Chinese cities. National Day was approaching and naturally the one day holiday is transformed into a week off for most people. So a group of us decided to head to the countryside, about a two hour train ride from Tianjin (and for only 80p one way you cannot fault the price). Upon our arrival in Jixian, we were pounced on by hotel owners, taxi drivers and tour operators, you name it! But once we got through the rabble it all calmed down and we saw a blue sky for the first time in a little while.
Drum Tower in the centre of Jixian (complete with blue sky)
Jake and I decided to stay in the town for a couple of nights before we met the rest ofthe group. In retrospect this was a slight mistake. The hotel was interesting to say the least. The walls were paper thin which does not go well with the tendency for Chinese people to shout. In China I do find it hard to work out whether people are angry or just speaking loudly as they do generally speak at a higher volume than us. Two policemen also came bursting into our room one day which was rather intimidating. They then took Jake away which worried me somewhat. Turns out they just needed to register our details, which obviously requires two policemen.

We visited a lovely temple whilst staying in the town. The Dule temple () is more than 1000 years old and contains the statue of Avalokitesvara with the head of eleven small Budhas on tob. It is one of the largest clay statues in ancient China. Jake wandered in to this Buddhist temple and his first remark was “Jesus”….he did apologise a minute later though! It was deserted when we visited and it was so lovely to escape the constant attention that seemed to follow us everywhere.
The Dule Temple
The ever happy Buddha
We met the others at Jixian station (where I visited the second worst toilet in my life) and we all travelled to a farmhouse near Mount Panshan. Our first meal included a whole chicken (head and feet). The breakfast was great though and came complete with tasty omelette. It is surprising the comfort you get from food that you actually recognise as it is a common occurrence not to really know what you’re eating here.

Chowing down in the farmhouse...now chopstick pros!
We decided to climb Mount Pan Shan the next day. We were the only westerners on the whole mountain…I think it must be a very Chinesey tourist spot. For anyone making the epic climb, it is their goal to reach the pagoda at the top. With every new section we climbed I hated that pagoda more and more as it never appeared to be getting any closer. But we kept going and reached the top 5 hours later. The views from the top were wonderful. Then we realised we had to get back down again! We had to take the cable car down the mountain…it was horrible! The glass at the front of our car was smashed and it rocked repeatedly from side to side with the wind..but we made it down in one piece!
In good spirits, half way up the mountain

The pagoda....so close!
It was at Mount Pan Shan that we came across this interestingly dressed young man...
Lost in translation?
We also visited another section of the Great Wall, so more climbing. It was a newly refurbished section and the views were amazing! When we walked along the wall and came to the old part, I thought I may slip and die on a few occasions but it was all worth it and my legs were well and truly toned by the end!
Great Wall fun

We had a bit of time in the town before we left, so Jake and I would rock up and play cards in different places, ice cream in hand. Every time we attracted a group of people who were intrigued as to our existence as well as the card game we were playing (but if you have ever played Shit Head, you will know that it is impossible to guess the rules….the Chinese tried nonetheless!). I had my photo taken a number of times and one man let me listen to Lady GaGa on his mp3 player. Jixian is a funny little place! 

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Ich bin ein Tianjiner

I cannot quite believe that two months have passed since we first stepped foot in China and completed our induction course in Beijing. We have been living in Tianjin for nearly 7 weeks now. Time has flown by really! Tianjin is very big and the city goes on for miles. We have done a little exploring and visited some of the attractions that the city has to offer. We have been up to the top of the TV Tower which is 368m high. Luckily it was a beautiful day and we could see the whole city. Tianjin has some beautiful parks but you are never allowed to sit on the grass!

Tianjin is home to a beautiful house made out of pottery….my favourite part of the house being the porcelain cats neatly placed around the door frames.

The city has some interesting themed areas dotted around including the Italian Style Town (containing Italian and German Restaurants, and of course a Starbucks) and Ancient Culture Street which is full of market stalls and beautiful traditional Chinese buildings bursting with colour. However it is also the most touristy area of the city and we are often papped by Chinese tour groups while we are there.
Painted shop front in Italian Style Town
Being papped by a Chinese tour group in Ancient Culture Steet
There is a lot of street food to choose from and they prepare it for you as you wait.
The street stalls are perfect for any meat lover!
Hot Pot restaurants are also very popular and it makes for a ‘fun and interactive’ dining experience (especially when the dancing noodle man makes an appearance!).
Our Tianjin family in a Korean hot pot restaurant...complete with stylish red aprons
If you want to baggsie yourself a bargain then the best place to head for is Da Hutong – it’s a crazy mish mash of shops and market stalls in what looks like a disused multi-storey car park. You can buy almost anything there but you have to get your bartering head on as well as have the patience to navigate yourself through the maze. But, if we need some home comforts then there is always Tescos....

It is quite nice wondering around the centre of Tianjin in the evening as you see all sorts going on. People often sit around with their pets in the middle of the street which is a little odd but great when you get to cuddle the cutest dog in the world….I was so close to taking him home!
There are also outside gyms in a lot of the parks in Tianjin, which may be the secret as to why I never see any fat Chinese people…
There are not really a lot of places to hang out in Tianjin and the nightlife is not fantastic but we have found a few expat bars including Helen’s (good western food, old school music, lots of random notes and messages written all over the walls), AJOs (a sports bar, but on the plus side it does have a dart board and amazing apple pie so I’m happy!) and Alibaba’s (an entire wall is painted to replicate the entrance to No. 10 Downing Street).

Out and about in Scarlet Bar (conveniently situated above a KFC)
We still have a lot of Tianjin to explore but now we have some wheels (only 299 Yuan/£30 courtesy of Tescos), it has made it a lot easier to get around (I must admit though, I am very proud of myself every time I get home in one peace!).

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Teacher Sarah

Jake and I teach a variety of ages. We have six year 7 classes who are cute/little terrors. They can be very hyper and very difficult to get quiet but all in all they are good kids. They are especially cute when they stand on the other side of the door and constantly poke their head around to look at you but won’t come out of the room, and you know they are there because their arm is half way out the door. But they are even cuter when they pronounce Dumbledore’s name as “Dumbleedore”! The year 7s are also the classes with the best English names: Harry Potter, Tiger, Rainness, a girl called Jason, Cinderella, and in some of the other ELA’s classes we have: Fish, Eminem, Lucifer, No, Cupid, Shiner, Tiger Woods, AK 47, Chinese and Rice.  
Some of our Year 7s working away
We also teach Senior I classes in preparation for the American SAT exam and they are around year 10 age. (I have a boy called Lazy and a girl called Coocy in that class). Their English is a lot better so you can talk to them quite easily and organise debates in class which is quite interesting. We also take two Senior II classes (Year 11/12). We were told that our objective with this class was to “force them to speak English and broaden their horizons” because they are the slightly “geeky” classes. But, even though most of them wear glasses, they are not geeky and are actually pretty good/confident at speaking English. We can teach/do whatever we like with them as long as it is ‘English themed’, so in a few weeks we are hoping to teach them rounders and netball!
Some Year 7 blackboard artwork
Taking the various classes for the first time was great but a little overwhelming as they liked to clap as you walked in and as you left but that has kind of stopped now as the novelty of us being here has worn off slightly! We were told by our mentor that the Grade 7s like our classes which is great and we were also told that male teachers cannot touch the female students at all (pretty normal we thought), but he went on to say that with the boys it’s ok..you can slap them or kick them, “whatever you like!”. It did make us chuckle a little!

There are a couple of things that we find rather extraordinary while wondering around our new Chinese high school. The first is when our students greet us in the corridor. They will say “hello teacher” and either do, what I can only describe as, a Nazi type salute and raise their arm in the air, or they will bow very low whilst walking and look like they are about to topple over. It is a sign of respect but rather strange and amusing at the same time. Some also do the old fashioned wave accompanied by a giggle. Secondly, we often wonder around the school and see the students standing in rows and columns moving to the sound of a man over a megaphone.  At school the students must attend morning and afternoon exercise classes. I think this is to wake them up as they are at school from 8am every morning and sometimes do not go home until 8pm at night. Naturally some are not as enthusiastic about this as others!

And most of the students were also not so thrilled about being sent off to military training last week either! On the plus side, us teachers did get a nice few days off!

All ready for 9 days of military fun...

Teacher’s Day – Happy Everyday!

So, before we had even really had the chance to get used to being a teacher, it was Teacher’s Day! Traditionally teachers are given flowers or a pressie and they also get to finish the day early which is lovely. Jake and I got a couple of lovely pressies from our classes and some beautiful lilies from our mentor. Teacher’s Day is a chance for every budding performer amongst the staff to get on stage and participate in the Teacher’s Day show. Now, we were asked on the day we arrived at the school whether we could perform and we even had a Chinese song ready to practise. However fate intervened, and due to lack of time and how busy the organisers were, we were unable to perform / we got out of it! Now this was most certainly a blessing because the teachers who did brave the stage were amazing and apparently very funny (it was all in Chinese but we giggled along at appropriate moments). There was everything from a group playing giant drums on stage, to comedy sketches and opera style renditions of Chinese songs to round it all off. As is everything in China, it was most definitely an experience!
Teacher's Day card and trinket teddy bear teachers from Class 5

Dinner with all the teachers followed the performances. I ate a crab for the first time (I had to break it all up/destroy it because it looked like it did when it was alive which is never my ideal starter, but again, when in China).  It is tradition to go around the tables and clink glasses with everyone else and wish them a “Happy Teacher’s Day”. Funny enough most of the teachers knew the word for “cheers” but when in China: “gān bēi”. I did not understand the Headmaster’s speech that started the feast off but I was told that he mentioned that everyone should drink a lot and enjoy the evening… people did not disappoint.
Teacher's Day feast, complete with karaoke screen
And then, because we are in China, it was karaoke time. We were told that “Auld Lang Syne” was a Chinese favourite (they even have a Chinese language version). Apparently this is due to the film “Waterloo Bridge”.  Now I have never sung this song in its entirety and we discovered that it’s actually pretty long. After we agreed, about a week before Teacher’s Day, to participate in the karaoke we were told that we had better be good as we had been scheduled to sing last and that many of the teachers go to KTV to practise…great we thought! On the day, when the nerves started setting in, we were told not to worry as it is the taking part that counts! Sigh of relief. So we were about to go on stage, when we were informed that we were the last contestants in the karaoke competition! Hmmm. So if a Chinese person tells you it’s the taking part in the karaoke that counts they’re lying! J But it was good fun and when we were singing, lots of couples came up to the front of the stage and started waltzing which was ever so sweet. The best part about it…we came third in the competition! I think that may have been because we were foreigners but I’ll take that third place win nonetheless!

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

A medical exam like no other and becoming a ‘Foreign Expert’.

So in order to proceed to the next part of the immigration stage in China you must go for a medical exam. I won’t go into it in too much detail but it was pretty odd. I was hooked up to a machine that I thought was going to shock me, my blood was taken by a slightly mean looking woman whilst everyone was watching over my shoulder, people were walking around the corridors with their urine samples in flimsy little plastic cups (minus any sort of container lid of course),  the x-ray machine was in a warehouse room full of boxes and having just had some of my organs ultra-sounded (imagine that’s a real word) my mentor was called  in…I honestly thought that something was wrong with me. So, waiting patiently for some horrible news, I stood there for a whole 2 minutes until my mentor came out of the room…only to find out that the ultra-sound lady’s son went to our school…how lovely.

All this was ultimately so that we could get our residence permits in China. There are a lot of hurdles to get over and a lot of paperwork, but our mentors have been on the case for months now. Last week we got our passports back from the police station and we are legally Chinese residents so we’re in!!
Jake with our mentors, Joe, Alex and Shawn
But what is even more exciting is that we have now officially become ‘Foreign Experts’ in China with a certificate to prove it and everything (well until we have to give it back to the Ministry of Education when we leave the country). But we can enjoy the ‘prestige’ of the title while it lasts!

Crossing the road...Chinese style

All I can say is just go for it…(and watch your toes).
The juncion outside our school..believe it or not, the best thing to do to get to
the other side, is to walk straight through the middle of the chaos..

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Tianjin No. 1 High School

So I have never seen anything like it…we normally have Mondays off but for the first day of school we were asked whether we would like to attend the flag raising ceremony at 8am on Monday morning. “Cool” we said…why not. We walk out of our building through the school and what do we see…groups of students in military formation lightly jogging to a chorus of “left, right, left”. Turns out they were all making their way to the sports field to form an even bigger military style formation. Once all 3000 students were assembled nicely, someone shouted a few things over the loud speaker in a deafening cry, shortly followed by the raising of the flag and the national anthem. It was definitely a sight to see! (We have often joked with other ELAs about coming back to the school slightly under the influence and 'borrowing' the flag…but I am in no doubt that they would most definitely hunt you down!) So yes it was very interesting and so unlike anything you would expect at home but unfortunately we will probably not experience this again as we are fast asleep on Monday mornings!

Our living quarters

Our school is not pretty. It’s grey, a bit dull and the sunflowers (the school flower) that grow in the middle of the school are all dying, but I like it! It’s not beautiful but it’s in an awesome location, has everything you need (including a swimming pool..perfect for me!), and it takes us two minutes to get from our rooms to work! The students’ uniforms are quite nice too if you like lilac - more of a tracksuit than a traditional school uniform as one would expect at home. Our mentor is going to get hold of a couple for us to look cool (Chinese style) when we get home!

There are some very cute little streets around our school and the best place to buy flowers in the whole city is just down the road. I often see beautiful bouquets being prepared and people walking around with lovely flower arrangements bigger than themselves. Naturally they are extremely busy on Teachers Day and Valentine’s Day! There is also a little street that sells animals such as tiny kittens, guinea pig looking animals, fish and turtles. I nearly bought a puppy along this street…he was blonde and so small, the cutest thing I have ever seen! A lot of people seem to have pet dogs in China but they are all so tiny! Jake says they are not proper dogs. He seems to think that they all have rabies and he wants to kick them all but they are real dogs, they don’t have rabies and most of them are adorable. Just the other day I saw a tiny white poodle, complete with red slippers, strut past followed by a wonderful display by a Chihuahua attempting to climb up an escalator that had just decided to stop working (I still don’t know whether he made it or not).