This is the third in a short series of five flashback posts being shared on Thursdays with a #tbt hashtag. These posts take a snapshot of an earlier time in my teaching career, when I was living and working abroad and are more about the personal, adventurous and travelling side of TEFL, than the professional teaching perspective. I used to document things, often quite personally, in a way that I probably would not do these days, since I have become more known within ELT. It is sometimes interesting to look back and reflect on where I have been and the experiences I have had. It also shows how I have developed and, dare I say, ‘matured’.
After posts from South Korea and Japan, here comes one from Beijing, China. It comes out now with ‘coronavirus’, which began in Wuhan at the end of last year, dominating the headlines around the Globe. It was originally posted here on 4 December 2009; so around ten years before this Covid-19 outbreak began. What follows is unedited, apart from a few typo corrections, and shows my mixed feelings about living with my ex-girlfriend’s aunt and her 9 year old son in Beijing ten years ago. It features a ‘video postcard’ film subtitled ‘Wish You Were Here‘ that I made with my friend who had contracted suspected H1N1 virus at the time of recording, although he now denies it. You can hear me mention this briefly as we ride the cable car to the Great Wall at Simatai. The main music going up to Simatai, is ‘隨喜自在念佛 (Rejoice to Buddha)’ by Ren Jing. The similarity to Floyd’s Wish You Were Here inspired the subtitle. This short film is now published for the first time. Scroll down to the end for this.
I am alone, in the Bookworm, on a Friday night. I am taking the opportunity to treat myself to a nice meal and a whole bottle of Montepulciano. Considering the money I have seemingly thrown away on other things, this seems like a relative luxury I can afford.
I am going through a slightly more difficult time of late. Having weathered the CAFA storm, and been strong when others have crumbled around me, I have fallen into a mini hole. It’s only a feeling. I will recover soon, I am sure. Some of it relates to money, but most of it relates to a general alienation. The alienation I feel comes from beginning to realise more fully just how different Chinese people in their homeland can be. Their expectations, their ways of doing things and their contradictory behaviour baffles me sometimes. I feel outnumbered, certainly. But I am also stubborn and reluctant to get to meet new ‘foreigners’ which stems from my reaction to falling in with a party crowd in Changwon the second time around. I am also stubborn when it comes to walking, instead of taking a bus, or taking a bus instead of a taxi. It’s small kwai, but it is sheer stubbornness.
Today I walked from Xi’er Qi train station to Haidian medical centre. Despite going through a 60 pound run-through with Dr McAnsh in Wells earlier in the year, it was necessary to a have another run through of a checklist of health items here. Every new job, every new Z visa requires the employer/government/who knows(?) to take a blood sample, an ECG, an X-Ray… much the same as you have to go through to prove you are of marriageable material. Weirdly situated in the desolate outskirts of Beijing, the medical centre lacked charm (and free wine samples). It was perfunctory to say the least. They requested my knowledge of HIV/AIDS before sticking needles in and generally sending me from one bleak room to another. The whole privilege cost 644 Yuan – interestingly about the same price as Wells Health Centre. If only Dr McAnsh had done an X-ray and an ECG I could have saved the Beijing authorities of the bother.
My lack of Chinese or my seeming inability to hold onto Mandarin which I learn on Saturdays with my regular language exchange girl goes in one ear and out the other. The 1000+ characters remain a mystery although I do try writing it sometimes – albeit like a primary school kid. It mostly comes in useful when standing at bus stops wondering where the 656/966/701 (delete as appropriate) goes.
Home life remains consistent. I no longer worry where I am getting my one true square meal per day. On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays I eat out. On the latter day I treat my landlady, Hong Yan, and Fu fu. It is small gratitude for letting me stay there rent-free. I bought him 9 balloons on his birthday, which was on Wednesday. We ate at a Pizza place in the local mall… I ran through the potential 10 friends that were going to be present with him the night before. But in the end only Le-Le turned up. So an underwhelming birthday party if ever there was. No big celebration, just a note that he was officially a year older. (see photos below)
I ventured to the Hutongs for another birthday, Hannah’s 32nd, the same night. I had a curry at Mirch Masala but my mood was badly affected by a difficult day at work in which my line manager was off sick and one of my colleagues had been reduced to tears by the attitude of the CAFA staff regarding poor attendance of the language classes. I returned home to find the lights out but Fufu’s old-fashioned cassette recorder whirring away. His birthday was apparently not an opportunity to have a night off from study. My absence only made his mother more determined to try to force feed him English in order that they can fly away to a warmer climate. She puts a lot of faith in him doing well academically.. too much so. He is a great kid, but not a natural learner. The old-fashioned ‘learning by rote’ remains prominent amongst early years. Something that is reflected in my students at CAFA trying to cram as much information about IELTS tests into their heads as possible in the futile hope that it will help them when it comes to their real, imminent IELTS exams.
Come February and the Chinese New Year, I hope I will be clearer about where my future lies. But my gut feeling right now is that my future won’t be in China. I haven’t fallen in love with the place yet, nor Beijing. It’s fine, but I don’t feel like a local yet and I don’t know if I ever will. It is predominantly a dirty, cold place, full of people who struggle to get by. That might seem like a generic brush stroke, but I can’t help my feelings. It might get better. But this time, without being constantly stuck behind a camcorder, I am experiencing the difficulties of life as an outsider. I am reluctantly to go down the lǎo wài route, although I am jealous of those that can do it.
lǎo wài (Chinese: 老外) “foreigner”, literally “old outsider”, slang term for Caucasians in Mainland China, especially Anglos. Since this term is quite often used colloquially without malicious intent (even directly to foreigners proficient in Mandarin), its meaning is highly context specific. As a rough guide, however, it’s best to avoid using the term outside China itself as it has a tendency to annoy those whose cultural roots in a country outside China is longer than that of the Chinese themselves.
Christmas is approaching and, surprisingly, decorations are up around Beijing. There are always ‘younger people’ willing to celebrate western-style celebrations. I just see it as another commercial venture for a country still trying to take on all things material. This is a confused place. Or maybe that is just me. The contradictions get to me. And the endless guttural spits that can be heard on every street, as people clear their lungs, simply irritates me.
“Love, do not harm the motherland.
Serve, don’t disserve the people.
Uphold science; don’t be ignorant and unenlightened.
Work hard; don’t be lazy and hate work.
Be united and help each other; don’t gain benefits at the expense of others.
Be honest and trustworthy, not profit-mongering at the expense of your values.
Be disciplined and law-abiding instead of chaotic and lawless.
Know plain living and hard struggle, do not wallow in luxuries and pleasures.”
Postscript: My good friend, ギャリー 고시원 (a.k.a. Garry) visited me in Beijing in October, before this post was written. He stayed for one week. The day before he left the weather was gloriously sunny; a day later the city was covered in snow. This is an extended video postcard that we created on his time spent with me in the capital city. I have never previously shared this video, other than briefly on an older YouTube channel (now deleted) and found it on a DVD that I created. It includes trips to the Olympic Stadium, Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall, the Summer Palace and the 798 Art District in Wangjing. The original ‘Winter Wonderland’, featuring the 9 year old Fu Fu, which I have previously shared, is tagged onto the end of this edit: