This year MyLaowai received more than the usual number of submissions for our Christmas Guest Post. Obviously, we deeply appreciate every submission, and hope that those writers who were not published do not lose heart – we love you all long time, really we do. We thought we’d found our Guest Post and in fact we went ahead and published it, and then we received this gem. At first glance it might not seem like your typical MyLaowai post. But cast your mind back to your first few days here, before reality moved in and took over your sofa and your fridge and your bathroom. They were happy days, weren’t they? True, there were precious few of them, but they were happy. And sometimes it’s good to be a little less cynical, which is why we told our model that her services would not be required for the usual Christmas shoot, and went ahead with this instead. MyLaowai hopes you enjoy it as much as we did…
It’s my first year in China and because of this I may be a bit more wide eyed about China than more seasoned foreigners here.
I’m not the typical age to be in China as a foreign teacher. I’m a little bit older if not a hell of a lot wiser. The things that annoy other people about here might not necessarily bother me so much.
I live in small-city China. ‘Real China’ as Scott the bar owner says. But everybody says that about their little corner of this massive country. Foreigners here get an undeserved amount of attention sometimes. We get invited to dinner or invited to parties not necessarily because people like you but because you are a foreigner. I like eating so I like being invited to dinner. I can see it getting wearing though. I’ve also been on TV twice. That’s twice more than I have ever been before.
Tomorrow I am informed I am singing a song at a children’s party. Nothing surprises me here now. I’ve already been a fake foreign businessman for an ad and was selected to ‘model’ at a fashion show. I am still asking myself why. Especially the modelling. I’m up for anything so I’ll try it at least once. In China I am finding that questions are asked in a way that makes it impossible and impolite to consider refusing.
So last night I got invited to an oral English speaking competition in the neighbouring college, the one I don’t teach in. In the West we call this ‘going to the pub’ but in China the students take it very seriously and it is very formal. And from this microcosm of Chinese life in a forgotten Chinese city you can see one of the things that is wrong here.
It’s the fact that even though it is opening up China exists in a vacuum. Their English language courses also therefore exist in a vacuum. They get approved texts and nobody seems to want to go outside those texts and safe subjects to improve their fluency.
Sure, I could understand the students and they were technically competent but what I would really have rated them highly for i.e. being creative was missing. The students were judged on aping an American accent and have a vocabulary as wide as the Three Gorges dam but if they are going to stick to the narrowest of the narrow range of topics why bother learning English?
It’s as if they are given a course on what to say to foreigners. There is no depth and nobody really deviates from sitting on the fence. The structure “in my opinion” is just another way of saying “here’s another fact”. Nobody has an actual opinion. These kids have so such remarkable potential but they are constrained like battery hens.
So, contrast this with the city. The people stop, they stare and if I had one kuai for every time I was called “laowai” in the street I would be able afford to bring all my friends to KTV. In fact if I had one kuai for every time people stared I would have this money even faster. I think that people forget that foreigners are people just like them. Our noses are bigger which is handy for keeping glasses on our faces and our feet are bigger but basically we are the same as each other. Many Chinese students have glasses drooping down their noses, well, mostly because they slide down the bridge and come to rest about an inch too low.
As is usual in China everything is famous. This city is famous for spicy duck heads, spicy rabbit heads and oranges. All of which I have eaten and the duck head in particular is quite tasty. If a bit gruesome.
You have to get used to the gruesome here. Walmart, which is a million times cleaner than the markets here, is piled high with full chicken carcasses and ducks that look like they were cooked by being fired through a jet engine. The meat counters of Chinese supermarkets are no place for the squeamish.
They are places for bullfrogs and all kinds of live fish and creepy crawlies that lurk in the sea though. Frogs are quite tasty but I have no idea how to prepare or even buy frogs. I mean, do you buy them alive and put them in a bag? Do you give them a name and how the hell do you cook them? I prefer to eat them when I go for hot pot.
All life in China centres around food. I am moving on from pointing and nodding to saying “I don’t want spice”. Here, when they hear that, they still spice it but it’s a smidgen less spicy. Regular food will just blow your head off, duck heads in particular are ultra spicy. Most of the stuff I can’t say in English – never mind Chinese.
Night life is dead as a doornail here. It doesn’t mean that there are no bars but some of them are empty seven nights a week and have zero atmosphere. The one bar that we all seem to end up in has had nights where it all kicked off and it closes when the last person gets bored or hungry and goes home.
The treat for getting hungry after the bar is not going for chips and a burger. It’s more fun than that. You can get squid, dumplings and skewers of meat served with noodles or rice from the street vendors. Best not to look too hard at their fingernails though. Here is where I learned to yell in Chinese “NO SPICE”. Otherwise I’m going home with the hottest food on earth.
But there is one street vendor who has the most fantastic dumplings. I’m sure they are exactly the same as the next guy’s but he is nearest the taxi stand and they are fabulous. It’s the nearest thing here to a bag of chips on the walk home.
We have long since given up on dashing back to getting in the school gates before 11pm. The gates close and the only choice we have is to vault the side gate. With wintery weather coming I am guessing that this will get trickier as it gets slippier. Nobody has fallen but I have memories of a German colleague halfway over the gate, shaking with laughter 10 minutes into climbing the gate. The poor girl hates it.
So Christmas is here. Although you really wouldn’t know it. There are pretty much no decorations and there is nothing like the rush you experience back in Ireland. Walmart and RT Mart have displays of demented fake Christmas trees and the market is awash with tinsel and Santa hats but Christmas exists purely on a superficial level. There’s no going to the pub to see people you haven’t seen since last year in the same pub that you swore blind you would catch up with during the year. No going to Midnight mass with a few jars on board and waking up yet again in your mates house wondering how on earth you are going to get home.
Christmas for me is about family, about getting things with batteries and instructions that you couldn’t be arsed reading at the time. About watching a crappy movie after eating far too much. It’s also about having a row with your sister when the Top Gear special comes on.
Here its going to be different. Scott who owns a bar with his Chinese wife is making a Christmas BBQ. Being Australian I suppose that’s what Christmas means to him. Should be interesting. I will blog photos and a commentary afterwards.
I suppose what I am saying is that it is Christmas on the calendar and I have received presents and a teeny tiny tree from Ireland but it doesn’t feel Christmassy. And amazingly it is forecast to snow on Christmas day here. A white Christmas but not what Christmas is all about. To the Chinese it’s just another Western festival they kinda half get.