Did you have a rice time?

Yes, it was the ricest of times! Whoever came up with that piece of comedy gold shall remain nameless.

Nihao! There it is, the extent of my Mandarin. Oh wait, I forgot the stunning ‘laoshi’, in which the last vowel sounds more like eeeuuuggghhh and somewhat like a car coming to a sudden halt. That audio delight of a word means ‘teacher’ and was screeched at us at least fifty times a day during our recent stint in China.

As you may have guessed, I have not given up the East European dream and fallen head over heels in love with Mandarin. I did, however, recently get back from an unforgettable teaching trip to Zhongshan, in the Guangdong province of China.

Well, we were told that we would be in Zhongshan, and I guess this wasn’t a total lie. My expectations post-customary Wikipedia search were not entirely satisfied as we found ourselves in what was essentially a suburb of a suburb of Zhongshan. Somebody inspired compared it to staying in a village on the outskirts of Reading. This case is pretty representative of lots of circumstances which characterised the trip as a whole: something annoying which was actually kind of wonderful. I think I speak for the majority of people on the trip when I say that although we had loads of fun, there were many immensely frustrating moments, but more often than not these brought about the funniest memories of the entire month (for those in the know, this blog entry was SPONTANEOUS, and no, I was not sedated when I wrote it. Aha).

Back to Chinese suburbia. We were working at the Sanxin Bilingual School/Camford Royal School (which one we were actually in/whether they were the same thing or not remained a mystery throughout). We were promised that Camford is not a mixture of ‘Cambridge’ and ‘Oxford’, but nobody was too convinced. Either way, it is a huge and rather beautiful boarding school. The grounds include a lake and several pagodas. Much like the Howard of Effingham, my old school friends cry…. well, when it rained the poor drainage did mean we had a lake, several in fact.

Our first lovely surprise (it wasn’t really of surprise, but we had all been choosing to deny to ourselves the reality I think…) was the availability of only squat loos. The idea of us almost falling over every time we needed a wee not being quite funny enough, every loo in the school and most that we saw had a door that only came about half way up my chest. In our room we also had a practical low wall between the shower and the loo, making communication oh so easy. My what I like to call ‘only child syndrome’ (meaning that I have never really shared a room) and self-consciousness came to the fore when I saw this set-up for the first time and realised that privacy was not an option. But it was fine, and I told my room buddy Jess on many an occasion that as a result she is one of the few people I’d be happy to walk around in front of in my bra. Lucky thing. The other thing we LOVED about these rooms was the luxurious mattresses. MMMM sleeping on the wooden frame of a bunk bed with what was really just like a blanket under us was great. So much restful sleep!

Look at those practical internal windows too….
(what we were dreaming of)
Although on occasion I had to remind myself that it is not acceptable to swear at students, teaching was lots of fun. There were three camps over our time in Zhongshan, and each time I elected to teach the lowest level. I had not quite anticipated just how wide a range ‘Class One’ might encompass. From a girl who could fairly confidently converse, to another who took a full 15 minutes to utter the word ‘cat’.
They were mighty cute though.
Here we are in a very creative photo formation.
Much to our delight, every week there was a Gala Night. This entailed performances from each class, which may or may not include the teachers. Despite our best efforts to escape, Kitty and I performed an excellent dance to a section of a Maroon 5 song. To give you a flavour, our high level dance routine included ‘Slide and slide, clap clap clap clap, criss cross criss cross, punch punch punch punch.’ Oh yeah. A couple of beauts did arise from these nights though, including the entry of the ‘Little Apple’ song into our lives http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=odtp3xYmgUk  . Some girls in our class did a (what seemed to be slightly inappropriate) dance routine to a K-pop song which has been in my head ever since. So catchy. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v-FvZaaLKSI
One highlight was giving the children English names, or hearing the names they had chosen for themselves or already been given. My personal favourites were Doris, Little Angel and Banana. Oh, and the adult male teacher named Ocean. Why do we not use names like this? Why?

The teachers with younger classes were able to teach in pairs throughout the camps, and I was lucky enough to be paired with these two absolute babes. Their sarcastic comments were essential in my staying vaguely sane.

Food was kind of a tale of two halves. We definitely sampled some very questionable things (questionable partly in that I still have no idea what some of them were, and partly because some of them we now know exactly what they were), but we also ate some incredible food. There was a great dumpling place around the corner where you could get dumplings, noodles and a drink for about 90p. This was great not just for the deliciousness and the price but also for the wonderful process required to attain food. Lots of pointing to the pictures of steamed dumpling and peanut noodles on the wall, but to obtain fried dumplings one has to point and then do an action of cooking with a pan whilst saying ‘Boom!’. We have apparently found a universal language there so I reckon we need not feel so bad about our lack of Mandarin, as our system has superseded more ‘conventional’ language. Hmmm. The restaurant over the road made the BEST AUBERGINE EVER. Oh my. You may know that I love aubergine anyway, but this was a new level of aubergine heaven. And I like nothing more than to see new people inducted into the cult of aubergine. AND THEY WERE BRIGHT PURPLE. AHH.  Happy happy days.
Nothing goes better with a delicious meal than a side dish of fame. It was impossible to go into a restaurant without somebody taking a photo of us. The guy who runs the dumpling place has a little photo display with pictures of the whole three Westerners who have dined under his roof, and I will have to make a visit back there just to check that we made it up there. This went for being outside of the school in general. Highlights included a little boy bursting into tears at the sight of us, people surreptitiously (read NOT SUBTLY IN THE SLIGHTEST) taking selfies with us in the background , and the old lady at the bus stop who knelt down next to Charlotte just so she could touch her beautiful white leg. Normal.
What made the month quite a frustrating one lay partly in the apparent desire on the part of the school to orchestrate almost everything whilst giving the impression of fun and ‘spontaneity’. Now this word, ‘spontaneity’, was bandied around a lot and became one of the buzzwords of the trip. The dichotomy between the two desires of the school was epitomised, I think, in the Gala Night which happened during every camp. Now, what exactly is a Gala Night? We didn’t know, and are still a little confused about this. From our experience we can deduce that it was meant to be both a talent show and a disco, which in my mind are two very different events with very different aims. One is an ordered evening in which students perform an act and everyone claps politely, whilst the other is an awkward and normally very sweaty evening in which groups of twelve year olds stand stationary under flashing lights around the edge of a sports hall……that is until the Macarena comes on and things get MENTAL. On the first or second gala night a class performed the Cha Cha Slide, and some kids truly spontaneously decided to get up and join them. Actual organic-ish fun. The school (quite who makes up these powers that be I’m not sure), who were always keen to film and take photos for their next brochure (this seemed the point of bringing the ‘elite foreign teachers’ in. Bet they didn’t mention the fact that these ‘elite’ teachers had zero training), thought that this was exactly the kind of thing they were going for. So, the next week every teacher was instructed to teach the Cha Cha Slide to their students. It was explained to us in one of the excruciatingly long and painful meetings that upon hearing the music in the next Gala Night, the kids would ‘spontaneously’ get up and dance. One of my favourite friends in the camp put up her hand and asked, ‘How exactly do you understand the word spontaneous?’ It would be acceptable for each performance, it was explained, to be followed by a section of ‘freestyle clapping’. As opposed to that other kind of regimented, rhythmic clapping which people frequently do at performances? Other instances of fantastic uniformity included the oath that all the kids had to swear at each opening ceremony, holding their fist next to their face. It was interesting that they chose not to translate that section of the ceremony…. aha. I kid and am certainly not implying that they were saying anything remotely  suspect. Not at all.
A common tactic to deal with the teachers’ resistance was to give information at the last second, so that there could be no time for arguing. For example, very soon before the end of the first camp we were told that 7 of us would be moving to another camp run by the school, 3 hours away. Not a choice, but an order, and in spite of the fact that this was completely in breach of the contract we had signed. I would go as far as to say that for many of us that was the end of any respect we had for the school, who seemed to find it perplexing that we should find this unusual or disturbing. As a skilful friend of mine said, ‘So… this camp, which starts tomorrow…. you only found out about it just now? It’s funny because you would think that the kids would have booked onto it weeks ago, yet you never mentioned it. Strange.’
A delight that came with each camp was the speech competition. Every student from all the different levels had to write a speech entitled ‘My dream’, and each class had to put between 1 and 3 students forward to perform in the final, meaning that the whole school had to sit through around 30 speeches. Some of the kids were really fantastic, but perhaps it is unsurprising that a limited vocabulary leads to a fair amount of repetition: ‘I have a dream. I think everyone has his own dream. Do you have a dream?’ Although I loved our classes, it was painful to have to put through my gorgeous little ones, the best of whom wrote approximately 4 sentences (think ‘I want to be basketball player, because I like basketball’) against the 17 year olds who can, you know, actually speak English. Especially when, despite our complaints, the school insisted that all the results be read out. Their English may not be great but they are smart enough to know the difference between their score of 45 points and the next highest score which is 70. It just seemed kind of cruel. But then again this is the same organisation that thought it would be a wonderful and safe idea to play musical chairs with 250 children using the flimsiest chairs of all time. In the wise words of one of my co-teachers, ‘The kids are gonna get fucked up, man!’ Word. Lots of teachers showed their classes Martin Luther King’s speech. Some students were so captivated that they thought they would try to copy the whole thing word for word. Oh really, I didn’t know you had ‘four little children’! And where did your sudden interest in the deep South come from?
I feel like I have just done a whole lot of moaning, and I apologise. Maybe I will continue in my more usual manner of random anecdotes and photos, which might give you more of a flavour of the really fun side of the experience.
Bus? Schmus. Past 7.30 it was all about the tuktuk. We cheated death on more than one occasion.
I don’t have a photo but we knew we were onto something special with the ‘Great Wall’ wine. Perhaps there is a reason that China is not (yet…) known for its wine. This rivalled the £1 Ukrainian wine/vinegar which had such an impact on my year abroad.
The day before our first days off, we suddenly realised the potential for a real bed and bathroom at a very low cost. A group of eight of us girls booked into a hotel in Zhongshan for a night, and it was the best £20 I have spent in a long time. Oh, the wonders of a mattress. Here we are having some fun at the hot springs, in Zhongshan park and in town.
We invested in some great mugs with some inspirational slogans.
I was shocked at the amount of anti-Japan sentiment we encountered in ten year olds. ‘Okay, today we’re going to make sentences with “like” and “don’t like”.’ ‘ I like pizza and watch TV. I do not like the Japan.’
We also got to visit Hong Kong a couple of times, which was an absolute dream in the midst of our school experience. This involved seeing my friend Adam from Queens’ who is now living in Hong Kong. We like to take very mature photos.
We did lots of the touristy things like going to Victoria Peak, markets and the Buddha on Lantau island.
We were there on a Sunday once, so Louise and I decided to go to church. We went to Lifehouse Hong Kong which is affiliated with Hillsong (where I go on and off in the UK). It was so fun to meet some local people and hear a bilingual church service in Cantonese and English.
One of my favourite things that I did, however, at the end of our trip came when my friends had abandoned me for England (sniff!). I took a train to the end of an MTR (like the Tube) line and spent some time taking in this gorgeous beach view.
On my next day of solo travel I took the ferry to Cheung Chau, a small island within Hong Kong, and enjoyed walking around the forest and the beach there. Hong Kong has so much more to offer than I had imagined! It is just so cool to be in the middle of the vibrant city, yet so close also to nature and deserted beaches.
I leave you with that which (apart from the memories of meeting amazing people) will remain with me. This is surely what makes China great:
(mmm bean ice cream)
boy nuts. ha.yes maturity.
I decided to resurrect this blog in order to document the extension of the Year Abroad not only beyond third year but beyond Cambridge (yes, shockingly they gave me a degree!). On Sunday I move to LA for four months to take part in the Queens’ exchange to the University of Southern California. I am starting to get nervous. Mostly because I fear that people may reject me because I refuse to say ‘fall semester’. It’s just wrong.
Love xxx
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