Domestic Abuse Crispy Noodles: Because nothing works up an appetite like drawings of an injured, weeping child!
Found in 7-11
Domestic Abuse Crispy Noodles: Because nothing works up an appetite like drawings of an injured, weeping child!
Found in 7-11
I was cycling along, heading to meet a friend of mine at a bar one evening last week when I saw a group of people gathered at the side of the road. Curious as to what they were gathered for I looked up, only to see that the second floor of a restaurant was on fire. Now, just for background purposes this is a very busy street that is full of restaurants. To either side of the burning restaurant were other eateries, filled with customers. Like everybody else I stood for a while and watched the fire as it grew in strength. I kept looking at the people in the restaurants to either side and wondered why they didn’t seem concerned – if this kind of thing happened back home fire alarms would have gone off, people would have been evacuated to a safe distance and not a soul would be mad enough to remain in the building!
“Maybe they don’t even know there’s a fire.” I thought.
Right after thinking that, a customer emerged from one of the restaurants, took a look at the fire, weighed up his options and headed back in casually.
It’s at this point I realized – they knew there was a fire; they just had no intention of leaving without finishing their dinners!
As the fire grew in size, one of the windows shattered with the heat, covering the pavement in glittering shards of glass.
The restaurant on the right got everybody in the upper floor out, but continued chilling downstairs. The restaurant on the left carried on as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening.
It was only when smoke started to enter the restaurants through the air vents that people decided “alright, maybe it’s time to get out.” Even then only about half of the customers left (the others clearly still had tasty treats to finish devouring).
I had to go at this point as I was already running late, so I cycled away only to be passed by three fire trucks and a police car.
At least somebody takes fires seriously here!
Note: Sorry about the shitty pictures – phone cameras don’t take great night shots…
I still remember my first day in China, it was September 1st 2007. I’d landed into a hot, humid, hectic jumble of a city; Beijing. I had just begun what was to be a year of volunteering in a town way off the beaten path in the north east of Xinjiang.
As far as I can recall, the only word I knew in Mandarin at that point was “hello”, and even that was something I’d picked up off another volunteer at the airport. Whilst in Beijing we had a 2 hour crash course in Mandarin, where we learned how little we knew and forgot everything else. Oh, except for one thing; we learned that in Mandarin there are four tones and a neutral tone, by which the same syllabic sound could have four different meanings… Cue mass panic. I remember looking around the room and seeing that everybody was thinking the same thing: “Tones?! How the hell am I going to work tones out?!”
To expand on that – each of the above words have the same pronunciation but different inflections (also 麻 is generally used to mean hemp, rather than rough). So the sentence 妈妈骂了吃麻的马 (mā ma mà le chī má de mă) actually means “mother scolded the horse that ate hemp”. Bit of a mouthful!
The daunting prospect of being sent to small town China was looming ever closer, but after getting over the initial panic about our Mandarin, we were started to become a little more confident in communicating.
Once our orientation course in Beijing came to a close, we were put on the 46 hour sleeper train to Urumqi. It was an experience so different to any journey any of us had taken before that we were all kind of excited. The carriages were separated into open compartments with three level bunk beds on either side and a table and pull down seats by the aisle. After spending the first afternoon on the train playing card games and watching the arid landscape rush by we swaggered in to the dining carriage, eager to try out our Mandarin.
It was a disaster.
First off the carriage staff, in their limited English, asked one of the guys if he was a girl or a boy (he looked a bit like Halle Berry). He went a nice shade of maroon, but as we basically couldn’t speak any Mandarin we had no idea how to respond. Anyway, after that debacle was over, we managed to order food without getting any unidentifiable animal bits, which we were pretty chuffed about. Before we could celebrate our victory, however, they asked us to pay the bill. We discussed the figure amongst ourselves, with our senior Mando speaker (who knew about five words instead of two) deciding it came to the total of 1 yuan (10p). When we handed over the money the carriage staff burst out laughing, and used a calculator to tell us it was 25 yuan each. We couldn’t leave the carriage fast enough, and scurried back to our compartments with our tails between our legs.
“Oh dear, this is going to be a long year” I remember thinking. Looking back I only wish it’d gone slower; it was one of the best years I’ve had, and is what brought me to Beijing all this time later.
Spring is here. Forget your ground hog day; the real way to welcome the arrival of spring is by sitting on a roof top bar and having a few day time beers. It was a task that three friends and I welcomed with open arms this Saturday, soaking in the sunlight on a decked roof by the Bell Tower.
One of the Pedi-cab drivers sat by the square below had got his hands on a Karaoke set and was covering a wide range of cheesy hits, the highlight of which was a fantastically out of tune version of Take My Breath Away from Top Gun. It definitely did take my breath away, just maybe not in the way he’d hoped.
Unfortunately, it’s not all good news now that the Spring time has come. Until the fridges get turned back on some time in mid-May, all you can get your hands on are warm beverages. You open the fridge in the mild hope that it will contain a nice, icy treat, but instead you’ll be rewarded with a tepid bottle of disappointment and the fusty reek of warm plastic. It’s alright in winter because it’s cold enough in corner stores for the drinks to be pretty much chilled, but come spring time you no longer have this advantage. This period only lasts for about six weeks either side of summer, but every time it comes by I am left wondering how anybody could enjoy beer or Coke at room temperature.
Still, I shouldn’t be a sour Susan, it’s warm again!
In every type of social group out there, there is always social stigma, competition and one-upmanship at play. For middle class suburbanites it may be how many varieties of organic kelp or hand made fair trade mugs you own, for your urban Chav its how many hideous, thick gold or silver chains you can dangle from your Burberry clad neck. For expats in Asia it seems to be your job. Well, when I say job, I mean there is one particular job that will incur social stigma, pity and judgement akin to a sex addict turning up to a Jehova’s witness convention. That’s right; I’m talking about teaching English.
Practically every foreigner I know in Beijing has done their stint of English teaching. For some its the door into more suitable careers, and for others it is the suitable career. Unfortunately, there is a third group of people that choose to work in education in Asia that have spread the negative stereotype of The English Teacher; they’re called LBH (Losers Back Home). They’re widely seen as people with no drive, ambition or charisma who, upon arrival in Asia, become arrogant and obnoxious (chiefly as a result of confusing hospitality with idolisation). If any of you have seen American Pie, think of Sherman. Infuriatingly some of them seem to pick up really attractive girlfriends (why, girls? Just why!), which only goes to feed their massively inflated egos. A majority of this type of person pick up teaching jobs purely because they are white. They seem to have no ability, enthusiasm or experience in the teaching world.
Anyway, I digress. What I wanted to say was that these people give everybody else in that profession a bad wrap, causing them to be embarrassed by their job. It’s most evident at the small talk stage of house parties or talking with strangers in bars. The classic small talk question “So, what do you do here?” is always lurking round the corner, and if the person asked is an English teacher, they are usually so self conscious about answering it that they will either kind of mumble that they teach English from the side of their mouth, self deprecate and say “I teach English… yeah, I know”, or say “I work in the education industry”. Luckily my own teaching stint was a part time gig whilst I was in full time education, so I escaped being lumped together with the LBH shockers. Many of my friends are not so lucky!
The other thing you’ll get judged for is your skills with the local language. Not by locals, who are generally very encouraging, but by holier-than-thou expats. I’m talking about the kind of people who speak the local language to bar staff just that little bit too loud so that everybody can hear them. I have to say, these people piss me off something rotten. It always seems to be people with extremely average Chinese trying to embarrass beginners; big-fish-small-pond syndrome, if you will. Why is it that some people just feel the need to peacock like that? I just feel embarrassed for them…
After the nightmare of my visaster/surprise return to the UK, I am finally back in Beijing.
It’s been a rather tumultuous ordeal, finishing with a delicious 30 hour return to Beijing, courtesy of bureaucratic airlines (and my haemorrhaging bank account). My itinerary was Manchester to Dubai, Dubai to Hong Kong, 5 hours in Hong Kong and finally a flight from Hong Kong up to the Jing.
It was actually quite entertaining watching the British-ness of the passengers peter out as I got ever closer to my destination. It began when I went to stretch my legs on the flight from Dubai to Hong Kong. I looked across and in the aisle opposite me was a hunched over middle aged woman fervently rocking around in a circular motion with her hands on her knees.
As I looked down the next thing I saw was somebody curled up in a ball on the floor, using her seat as a pillow.
Then, one second after the wheels of the plane touched down in Beijing I heard the sounds of mobile phones starting up, seatbelts being unclasped and almost simultaneously everybody stood up. I looked across at the air hostess who completely ignored it. I guess she was wise to the fact that you can’t stop a river with one pair of hands.
“Welcome back to Beijing” I thought to myself, and even though I was the tiredest man, it still made me smile.
Well, since there’s not really been much going on in the Jing this past week worth writing about, I’m going to give you an education on Chinese banquets. They’re actually quite a lot more complex than you might imagine; the whole who-sits-where and who-does-what are things that you need to know if you don’t want to offend or come across as ignorant. I do realise that there isn’t an extremely high likelihood of you all being invited to huge Chinese banquets, so you can just chalk this post up to being like one of those days you get lost in Wikipedia and learn about the difference between varying types of bees or the benefits of Reiki healing
Banquets tend not to take place in the main dining area of a restaurant. In most nice restaurants (especially in small town China) there will be an upstairs that has at least five private rooms. These are the places where banquets tend to go down.
The most important thing surrounding banquet etiquette is the seating plan. Tables are usually round, and have a lazy susan (love this name, so irrelevant!) so that each person can sample every dish that is ordered. The host of the banquet sits at the central seat facing the door, whilst the honoured guest, or most important guest, will sit to his/her immediate right. The second most important guest will sit to the left of the host. Without status to define the importance of each guest, the seating plan is arranged by age, with the young ‘uns taking the spot with their back directly to the door. The young ‘uns also tend to pour tea for everybody in absence of a waiter/waitress. As business is often done over dinner, banquets are commonplace.
The food at banquets will be pre-ordered by the host, and usually expensive dishes are ordered as a show of taste and wealth. Although there are no particular dishes that must be ordered you will generally find that each banquet contains at least one type of soup and one fish. Rice, noodles or any other carb will not be provided unless you asked for it, as they are seen as cheap fillers – you may even offend the host by asking for carbs, as it shows that the food ordered was not to your satisfaction, so be careful on this one.
Next up, drinking. My favourite! Chinese drinking culture differs hugely from western drinking culture. Nowhere is this more obvious than at a banquet. As a rule people don’t sip at alcohol (that’s what tea is for); everybody at the table will be poured a shot and a toast will be given, upon which the shot will be downed (
wash, rinse, repeat at least 10 times). I actually find it kind of sad. When I was out in Xinjiang the headmaster of our school had a wooden leg because he’d continued to drink after being diagnosed with diabetes. Another teacher’s husband died from a mild heart attack that any healthy adult would have survived, but, owing to the punishment his body had been put through by years of hard drinking multiple times per week, he didn’t. Anyway, slight sidetrack there. One more tip about drinking in China – whenever you cheers somebody with a senior status, be that age-wise or position-wise, you should make sure the rim of your glass is lower than theirs. This is an acknowledgement of their seniority.
Lastly, hosts deliberately over order. There is always meant to be food left on the table at the end of a banquet. This is to show that the host is generous, and provided a banquet that was more than enough for everybody.
Slightly different post this week. Hope you learned something!
The first thing that I noticed about Bali was the sky. During the daytime huge clouds drifted across the sky like floating candy floss. It was so beautiful that I sat by the pool, beer in hand, and watched the sky most of the days we were there.
When the sky wasn’t busy being beautiful it was busy pouring its guts out. We had one amazing day, on which Siren and I both managed to get sunburned, and then it absolutely chucked it down for four straight days. About the rain… I think I’ll just quote Forrest Gump “We been through every kind of rain there is. “Little bitty stingin’ rain… and big ol’ fat rain. Rain that flew in sideways. And sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath. Shoot, it even rained at night…”
Somehow in the midst of all this rain I caught a cold. Yup, I had sun burn and a cold at the same time. As you can imagine I was feeling pretty sorry for myself, but then in some pre-ordained amalgamation of cheesy festive cheer the rain ceased, and when I awoke on Christmas day there was a beautiful clear sky. So, being sticklers for tradition, we did all the normal Christmas things: fed monkeys, smoked Shisha and went swimming.
The blue skies kept up for the remainder of the holiday, allowing us to climb Mt. Batur (an active volcano) in time for the sunrise, which was absolutely breathtaking.
It seems somehow fitting that the last night we spent in Bali had the most beautiful sunset of the whole holiday; lazy hues of red and purple covered the sky as the sun melted into the horizon.
In short: Bali is fantastic. Go there!
So, my girlfriend and I are heading over to Bali tomorrow for 9 blissful days. I’ve never spent Christmas in a hot place so this is going to be kind of peculiar for me. Still though, I’m not complaining; a week and a half of sun, sand and relaxing? It’d be rude not to.
Even though my pasty flesh seems incapable of deviating from its two modes of ghostly white or lobster red (you can take the Englishman out of England…), I’m still going to be out there loving the sunshine.
Another thing I’m really excited about is having a week of clean air. You know you live in Beijing when one of the first things you look forward to is clean air. Hopefully this short respite will lower my chances of becoming a Beijing black-lung candidate.
One can but dream…
Anyway, wishing you all an early Merry Christmas. See you next year!
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