Saturday, 29 December 2012
That's not the starnge thing, though.
The strange thing is that in among them are birthday cards, valentines day cards, mothers' day cards, general cards with unidentifiable purposes (like the one that has no words but lots of pictures of Miami Heat players) and at least one "Congratulations on Your New Baby" card.
Of course, it is the thought that counts.
Wednesday, 26 December 2012
On my way home to change, my other school rang to ask if I wanted to go with them. Arriving at home, my next door neighbour asked if I wanted to eat with them. In my email in-box one of my private students was inviting me to eat with his family. Before I had reached the bathroom my administrator was ringing up to ask if I wanted to go out to dinner.
To finish it all off, while I was already having dinner with my school, someone I have met exactly once, rang me up inviting me to come over right away to a party. (I didn't go, I was too full and too tired.)
Now all this is wonderful but, as I said, a bit overwhelming, and the biggest problem of all is that of the eight possible evenings I could have spent, six of the invitations came at less than a couple of hours notice, four of those at less than twenty minutes notice and the one while I was eating at less than no notice as the party had already started.
This is entirely typical in China. Arrangements are made on the day, invitations made mere hours before events. I explained to one of my colleagues that if I am making dinner arrangements for a group in the UK I will start checking availability weeks in advance. She told me that in China you might, only might, start telling people two weeks in advance for something as big as a wedding. For less formal occasions it's completely normal to just do it on the day.
Anyway I had a good meal with my colleagues (which, again in typically Chinese fashion, started at 5:30 and went on till about 9:00 - explaining why I was too full to go to the party) and an excellent night out, but I do sometimes wish they would arrange things a bit less spontaneously.
Saturday, 22 December 2012
Friday, 21 December 2012
As a poet I can't let such an occasion pass uncelebrated so here is my poem for the apocalypse.
The End of The World: A Poem for the Apocalypse
So this is the end of the world
and this is the last poem,
sent out into the darkness,
forgotten words on a fluttering paper –
as infinite and empty
as the Universe itself.
So this is the end of the world
and this is the last poem,
unknown, unloved and unread
the poets last immortal gasp, then silence –
an unvoiced dead language
for a dead eternity.
So this is the end of the world,
and this is the last poem,
surviving the apocalypse,
outlasting every other word in every tongue –
this, and only this, lives on
So this is the end of the world,
and this is the la
Sunday, 16 December 2012
It started with me standing in the drive of my old house, realising that it's no longer part of my life and walking away.
It continued with me walking through completely deserted streets looking in through the windows of houses where happy families were all eating lunch together.
It progressed to me searching through a ruined castle for something without really knowing what.
And, weirdest of all, it finished with me being led by a rabbit into a cornfield where there was a baby rabbit on a drip in a hospital bed.
Anybody know the Chinese for "psychiatrist"?
Tuesday, 11 December 2012
At the end of his post were four Chinese characters.
I don't read Chinese but I figured they were probably "Merry Christmas".
All the same, to be sure, I popped them into Google Translate.
It detected the language not as Chinese but as Japanese and provided a translation that said
誕快 Lok St.
Switching to Chinese I did, of course, get "Merry Christmas.
It occurs to me that there could be people I missed in the list.
Don't be upset. There are always people I miss when I create a google group (and always some I include by accident, who probably scratch their heads and mutter - why is he sending this to me)
It's incompetence on my part, nothing more.
So, if I missed you, here is the post - now aimed at the whole wide world.
So, it's time to send out my Christmas greetings from China - my email Christmas greetings, as the cost of sending actual physical cards to everyone on my list would make it cheaper to fly home and deliver them in person.
I'm still having a fine time here in Baiyin though there is no real visible sign of Christmas. It just isn't that important here. I have to work on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day but it doesn't matter – we've just arbitrarily decided to move Christmas to December 23rd and celebrate on Sunday instead. One of the other western teachers has decided to throw a party that's intended to last all day. Between us we are cooking a traditional Christmas dinner and looking forward to watching our Chinese friends tackle knives and forks with the same amusement that they watch us tackle chopsticks. I've stuck a load of old TV programs onto a flash drive for us to watch – after all what is Christmas without Morecambe and Wise or the Christmas Day Top Of The Pops?
We scoured the town to find actual flat plates – a task that we almost gave up on because they seemed to be impossible to get. Then, by sheer dumb luck, I found some in one of the supermarkets – the one I only go to because they sell baked beans!
It's shaping up to be a proper Christmas Day (albeit two days early!)
Now for the greetings card bit. It's become something of a personal Christmas tradition to write a verse on the subject so here's this years.
The attached Christmassy picture is, I'm sure you will realise, of Prague not Baiyin but what they hell – Prague is far more Christmassy on its worst ever day than Baiyin will ever be.
I must pick up a festive pen,
it's that time of year again.
I must write about the Christmas Day
that's happening so far away,
because I kind of miss the O-T-T
way that things back there could be.
I never used to be that way;
people always heard me say
"Humbug! Bah! Just call me Scrooge."
My season's joy was hardly huge.
But I find I miss the neon lights,
that make the houses look such frights,
snowmen, polar bears – inflated –
no decoration understated.
I miss checkout girls all dressed as elves
piling baubles on the shelves.
I miss the way the Christmas songs
play end-to-end December-long,
the festive names of Christmas Ales,
carol singers with wassails,
Christmas trees both real and fake,
Yuletide logs and Christmas cake,
the same-old, same-old on the box,
my auntie's gifts of gloves and socks,
college closed down by the weather,
family parties all together,
snowflake silhouettes on panes,
streamers, lanterns, paper-chains,
cards from everyone I know,
holly, robins, mistletoe.
Something here has gone askew,
I shouldn't miss them but I do.
Perhaps it's true – I need to ponder –
that absence makes the heart grow fonder
and when I'm back I'll be once more
the grousing Grinch I was before.
But now, in China, one more year
I'll raise a glass in Christmas cheer;
wish one and all a festive season
and never mind the rhyme or reason.
Monday, 10 December 2012
Get it at
Why not buy a dozen and give them to some of your friends.
Or perhaps your enemies.
To whet your appetites here is one of the poems from the book, the title piece, in fact. It's illustrated on the cover.
The Unchanging World of Mr And Mrs Sun
Today I'm dressed in emerald green:
waistcoat, bowler hat and braces.
My wife, who by my side is seen,
is also dressed in emerald green;
in a puffball skirt
and pleated shirt.
We're in accustomed places.
Today her dress is long and white:
a yellow sash is wrapped about,
to match my shirt that shines so bright
and set off with bow tie of white.
The storefront glare –
the place we share –
is elegant without a doubt.
Blood red with black dots, black with red:
see Minnie Mouse, her theme today.
My clothes may be quite plain instead:
the trousers black, the shirt just red.
Dressed up so smart,
we never part.
A life together is our way.
I have not changed except my hat
but my wife's mouse demeanour's gone.
She has a long silk gown now that
has matching shade to my red hat.
Gold threads entwine
in both designs
for all the world to gaze upon.
Today we've changed to shades of blue:
a shirt of sapphire, navy tie.
My wife's blouse has a similar hue
and skirt and shoes are also blue.
We always try
to catch the eye
of all the people passing by.
Each passing day from shop front stand
we watch, consider, contemplate.
We're always not quite hand in hand,
as side by side we simply stand.
While others race
from place to place,
still all we do is watch and wait.
Thursday, 6 December 2012
The blue and white capsules are, apparently, "antiphlogistication medicine".
What a great word!
Saturday, 1 December 2012
I have just watched an episode of Young Apprentice where the teenagers were engaged in a variation on the usual "treasure hunt" task. Mostly it was unremarkable but I did find it amusing that one team spent the whole episode discussing the meaning of "candelabrum" without managing - even once - to pronounce the word correctly. Presuming that the use of a dictionary is banned (surely, if it isn't, SOMEONE should have thought of it.) but even so it isn't that uncommon a word. They still didn't know by the end of the program when Alan Sugar had to tell them.
Friday, 23 November 2012
Reading that Walsall council have decided that they will refuse to collect rubbish if anything is in the wrong colour bin
makes me feel rather more at home here in my apartment in China. Outside the apartment the rubbish pile continues to grow. It is now twenty five feet long by twenty feet wide and four feet deep throughout and hasn't been collected for eleven weeks. It stinks so bad that on the fifth floor I am unable to open my windows and whil I haven't yet seen rats it certainly seems to be the main attraction for a million flies.
People back home don't know how lucky they are.
As for the so-called "pot-hole crisis",
over here most of the streets – whether lit or not – have holes dug in them by the workers who leave them unprotected and unsecured at night. So far I have managed to avoid falling down any but it's more luck than judgment. One of my friends fell down one outside her apartment last year. She was fortunate to escape with only minor injuries. I'll bet that I can't walk half a mile in any direction from my front door without climbing over at least three or deep, dark holes.
It all makes me feel quite nostalgic for the dear old West Midlands.
Wednesday, 21 November 2012
Trouble is I don't really know where to go with this.
I could explain to him in detail about tense, aspect, voice and mood. I could show him that English really has only two tenses, as such – present and past – and that what we commonly think of as the future is really formed with the modal "will". I could explain why anybody who says the passive must not be used is an idiot (though I'd have to get that explanation of "voice" done first.)
The trouble is, I'm a teacher here myself and I know that this isn't what he needs. I don't even know how I should tackle these things with my students. The Chinese grammar books are all at odds with my understanding of this area and the important thing to a student here isn't that he is any good at English, it's that he can pass his exam and go to University.
And I've gone on at length before about why a good knowledge of English grammar actively works against Chinese students in exams.
Imagine how much harder it will be for a teacher that got his grammar second-hand from me to make the call on what to pass on to the students.
Of course I could teach it to him as I learned it in school - where pretty much everything I was ever told was wrong. I could teach that English has twelve tenses (which is what my teachers told me) – the various combinations of what I now know to be present, past, future (modal will) with continuous/simple/perfect aspects. Of course that would be ignoring mood (no great loss there) and voice (a rather more substantial loss).
Or I could just do a "lies to children" version giving him just the information that he needs to pass on to his students to get them through the exams.
He's not a stupid guy, but he does suffer from having gone to school in England in that period when the powers that be had decided that grammar should no longer be taught, so he lacks even the very basic stuff like a broad understanding of what a noun or a verb is. He's actually a pretty good teacher for the job we do. He gives the students interesting discussion tasks, has a great connection with them and works hard in the classroom. His need is more perceived than actual, as we are discouraged from teaching grammar. All the same grammar questions come up – especially with private students – so he wants to understand well enough to answer them.
But what is well enough?
What would you tell him?
Saturday, 17 November 2012
Roundup Part 2
Now that the Chinese political machine has rolled to a halt and the new administration is in power perhaps the firewall restrictions might be relaxed a little. Internet has been hell here for weeks. It has been taking up to thirty minutes of repeated attempts just to log in to gmail and then it only loads with partial functionality. Perfectly innocuous sites that just happen to be hosted somewhere other than China have been unavailable and the whole internet experience has been a nightmare.
Hopefully it will be back to it's normal pain-in-the-arse status rather than it's completely unusable status soon.
Not Chinese news but I was amused to receive an email from England about the recent British election of Police Commissioners. Lowest ever turnout, eh? One polling station having a turnout of zero, eh? LibDems beaten in Coventry by spoiled ballot papers, eh?
Ah, democracy in action.
No such problems here in China where the transition of national power to a new assembly is now complete without any of that messy business of voting. I was also amused by this, though...
I may have mentioned before that I think China is the noisiest country in the world. The current manifestation of this is at the Postal Bank of China across the street from my apartment which has some kind of event or promotion going at the moment – as the signs are in Chinese I can't be more specific than that. What I can tell you is that in addition to the large inflatable arch in front of the building it has two very loud speakers which have for two days been playing loud, pompous, militaristic music at a volume that can be heard in the park more than two miles away. Perhaps it wouldn't matter quite so much if it weren't the same piece of loud, pompous, militaristic music over and over again accompanied from time to time by a deep, stentorian voice proclaiming something or other in Chinese.
The pile of uncollected rubbish outside the apartment block continues to grow, though many of the holes and trenches that were, theoretically, the reason it could not be collected have now been filled in again. It's currently (and I've paced it out) twenty-two feet long, eighteen feet wide and four feet deep at the centre. A smaller separate heap blocks the other route out of the block so, either way, there is a bit of wading to be done. If it gets much bigger and deeper it will actually start blocking the windows to the ground floor apartments.
Finally I ought to say that during a few days off when the school had exams I managed to complete the draft copy of my new poetry book. It's currently with a few friends for proof-reading and review and will, in the next month or so, be available to buy. Here is a sneak preview of the cover picture. The book will be called "The Unchanging Wolrd of Mr and Mrs Sun" and will contain a mixture of poetry about China and selections from my previously unbpublished British work.
My next post will be a taster in the form of one poem from each section.
Bye for now.
Friday, 16 November 2012
Lax, lax, lax. And I'm not talking about an airport in Los Angeles. I'm talking about me and this blog. I've been letting things slide, failing to post, generally not keeping up with the task. The trouble is that there isn't really all that much too say. Life here is very easy, very pleasant and very much the same as the last time I didn't have much to say.
Here's me saying it anyway in a brief round-up of stuff from the last few weeks.
I went out with the rambling group for a second trip which was a little easier than the first and didn't feature insane scrambles down loosely-packed, peaty hillsides or apparently endless flights of knee-jarring, stone steps. It did feature a nice climb up a dry river bed, a steepish few minutes up to a tiny temple and one of the most amazing views I have seen in a very long time. through the mountains to the river. It was a couple of weeks ago now so that the trees hadn't yet lost their leaves but had turned red and gold in the bright sunlight. One kind of tree (don't ask me which, I'm nearly as good an arborialist as I am an ornithologist) lined the river with thin, straight, silver trunks and had started to shed. Its leaves were paper thin and white, covering the ground with a strange carpet as if someone had cut book pages into leaf shapes and scattered them across the path.
Here and there, there were areas of burnt stubble or piles of crops awaiting transport to town for sale. One small home was almost completely buried under the piles of sweetcorn – some glistening and yellow, some still wrapped in its darker leaves.
We had lunch on a sandbar in the middle of the river, an odd choice given the intense heat of the sun assaulting us both directly and reflected from the water.
The Chinese group were holding a bit of an impromptu disco when I left to climb to the road and get the bus back to the city.
The following week the weather had turned and a bitter blizzard on Friday gave way to thin icy rain on Saturday so their next walk was quite sensibly called off.
I took a visit to an art gallery a couple of days ago. I hadn't realised that there was such a thing in Baiyin and, truthfully, it's really more of an art studio. One of the other teachers, Ben, is a keen amateur artist and he had found it in his quest to locate materials. Usually, he tells me, it's hung with paintings from multiple artists who work there but on this occasion it was all the work of the owner that was on display. I'm not sure what I had expected but I hadn't expected it to consist of faux-impressionist landscapes, reminiscent of Alfred Sisley. It did though and they were all remarkably well done, though landscapes always leave me a little cold. The artist works in various styles, though, and dragged out a few more modern pieces for me to take a look at while we sipped green tea. They were much more to my taste with bold shocks of colour subtly enhanced with gold geometric designs. A very talented man, albeit a man with a rather wide collection of styles.
On the same night I went for a stroll to the local barbecue the streets were lined with people burning joss paper ghost money and gifts for their ancestors. I've talked about this before. Whenever there is a Chinese festival you can see this phenomenon. People burn piles and piles of paper gifts and these can be representations of money or paper bottles of imaginary alcohol or paper clothes to keep the spirits warm; or they can be more elaborate and imaginative paper cars, houses or i-phones.
I checked which festival this one was and was told "Ghost Day", though all my internet sources agree that we are a couple of months too late for that.
Anyway, I counted at least fifty people making offerings in my short walk and probably three or four times that in piles of ash where others had already completed their ceremonies.
In the barbecue I met up with Carole and we had finished eating and were about to leave when a Chinese couple on the next table ordered a dozen bottles of beer and persuaded us to join them. Their English was roughly on a par with my Chinese – which is to say virtually non-existent but somehow they communicated the rules of the drinking game they were playing and an evening of drinking Chinese-style ensued.
Let's explain what I understood of the game.
Lay out three cards. Put the rest of the pack as a stock. Take turns. On your turn choose a pile. Turn the top card of the stock. If it is the same suit as your chosen pile put the card on the pile and drink a shot glass of beer. If it is the same rank, drink three shot glasses of beer. If it is either next or next but one in rank – in either direction – drink a shot glass full of beer. If it is the same suit AND next or next but one drink two shot glasses of beer. If you had to drink, it's still your turn and you choose again.
A quick count will show you that for any given card you choose there are twenty cards that make you drink one glass, four that make you drink two, three that make you drink three and twenty four that don't involve drinking. A better than evens chance that you'll have to drink something. You could try noticing what cards have gone already to improve your odds but you rapidly reach a point of inebriation where that's no longer possible.
This is very typically Chinese. A large part of their drinking culture revolves around games that get people very drunk, very quickly.
By the time we left – still quite early at a little after ten thirty – four of us had gone through two dozen bottles of beer.
It's time to go to get ready for my morning lessons now so, if I remember, I'll complete this round up of recent weeks tonight.
Sunday, 21 October 2012
Boy meets girl.
Boy and girl fall in love.
Girl leaves boy.
Boy is heartbroken.
In the "boy is heartbroken" phase he will gaze moodily at photographs of happier times, hallucinate his girlfriend still walking around with him, stare at the ocean.
In the gloomier videos instead of leaving him the girl will die in a tragic accident and in the very gloomiest he will hurl himself from a cliff or swim out into the sea never to return.
In short Chinese pop videos are unrelentingly miserable. Just for once it would be nice to see something a bit more upbeat.
Hasn't happened yet though.
So this is how it went.
I was planning a quiet weekend sitting in my apartment watching DVDs with my feet up and a cup of tea. Then, as I was walking home from school on Friday I got a text from my administrator asking me if I wanted to climb a mountain on Saturday. A few brief exchanges established that while it was a mountain it was a hike up and down rather than a full blown climb so what could I say but "Yes".
Four of us were supposed to be joining a group that seemed top be the Chinese equivalent of the Ramblers' Association and heading off for a two hour drive to Xinglong mountain where we would hike up and then back down before coming home. It was, we were assured, very beautiful. In the event, the seven thirty start deterred two of the party and the two of us who went, Carole and I, were joined by Jane, our administrator. The Chinese group was part of a national organisation called Travel Friends but, as Jane explained, the Chinese for this sounds like the Chinese for Donkey Friends and we three, having not been with them before were the new donkeys.
The new donkeys joined the old donkeys in a group rather larger than we had anticipated. Two full fifty-seater coaches set of a few minutes past seven-thirty to head for the mountain. It was an uneventful journey, accompanied by videos of Chinese pop songs and a bizarre Chinese movie that seemed to be about warriors and magicians but was rendered quite hard to watch, even for the Chinese viewers by the fact that it kept getting part of the way in and then restarting from the beginning.
We pulled off the Gansu Expressway and onto smaller roads and then, about two hours after starting we stopped. There was a roadblock. Untroubled by this the driver backed up, returned to the expressway and continued on. We would, Jane told us, find another route to where we were going. At the next exit we left the motorway, followed some smaller roads, came to the junction where we needed to turn south to get to the mountain and ran into a police roadblock. They waved us on our way and the driver continued looking for another route. Perseverance is an especially Chinese virtue.
A little further on we stopped and everyone left the coaches and started to follow our group leaders up a dusty and unpromising path that would, they said, lead to where we were going. Perhaps it would have. We shall never know as about two hundred yards in there was, yes, another roadblock.
We went back to the coaches. In England there would have been grumblings. Murmurs of rebellion, even. No one here seemed very much perturbed as we went on our way to seek another way in.
It seemed for a few minutes as if we had found one when we stopped at what was clearly an entrance to somewhere touristy. There were pavilions and car parks and lots of people but after a few minutes we drove on.
Fortunately the next stop was the right stop. A steep flight of stone steps led up past a memorial which Jane told us was a cenotaph and just beyond it was a military cemetery. As we followed the path we passed a small group of people, including a monk, reciting prayers at a tiny pillared structure and then we were into our hike, starting off along what began as a moderate slope up the mountainside. It was, as billed, a beautiful walk. The bare branches of the autumn trees crowded into the path scratching at exposed flesh but it didn't seem to matter. The views out along the valley were magnificent. On the nearby mountains autumn trees glowed like burnished bronze – the sunlight made them look as if the whole mountainside was on fire. Where we were walking the trees were almost bare of foliage but many of them were still covered with red berries. White spores from other trees drifted past us on the wind.
Soon I was breathing hard. The climb was steep and the path narrow. The Chinese with me ranged from teenagers to old men and women but most of them seemed to be taking the walk with ease. Before too long we were strung out along the path. Whenever I paused to take a picture – or more accurately to uise the excose of taking a picture to give me a few moments rest – I was quickly surrounded by people who wanted to have their picture taken with me. Singly and in groups they joined me and only by starting off up the hill again could I break free. The respite was temporary. Each time I paused it was the same routine.
The climb became steeper and at times rather more precarious as the narrow path edged along near vertical drops. Then it became muddy and my training shoes started to slip. Most of the Chinese hikers wore boots although some, like me, had less appropriate footwear.
Perseverance of a different kind was the necessary order of the day. Eventually we reached the top. In a couple of clearings we sat down to eat our packed lunches. As I munched my way through my own fruit and sandwiches people kept coming and offering more. Assorted fruits, plates of pickle for my sandwich, ginger cakes, biscuits – I could easily have managed with no provisions of my own. And now that I was a captive "donkey" practically everyone there turned up for photo opportunities. I know foreign friends are rare in this part of the country but I felt like some kind of rock star.
Carole too had the same cross to bear as everybody surrounded us for more and more photographs. I must have been captured on film a hundred times half way through chewing on my food. Not very flattering but they didn't seem to care.
When I had finished eating I wandered around taking my own pictures. There was a kind of bush that had many white berries – it may have been a variety of snow-berry or wax-berry - and another that had small deep red pods shaped like a soy sauce bottle (as one of the locals haltingly explained). Through one small gap in the trees I could see down the opposite slope into a dense stand of trees which shifted with the sunlight revealing tantalising glimpses of a far off plain.
It was quite wonderful.
At about two thirty we set off down a different trail. Initially this was steeper but less slippery. It occasionally flattened or even climbed a little but the rapid and overwhelming trend was down. Suddenly things became a lot worse. The solid trail started to give way to a kind of peaty soil that crumbled and slipped beneath our feet. I was ab ut halfway back in the long procession and the frontrunners had loosened it still further so that it was very difficult to walk on by the time I got there. I put my camera away. It was hard enough to get down this kind of path with both hands free. Things became steadily worse until we were sliding and slipping and tumbling rather than walking down the mountainside. I tried to aim myself for the solider looking trees so that when I slipped, which was often, I didn't slip too far. Grabbing onto whatever branches and bushes I could to slow my descent I made my way down.
By now everybody was falling with alarming regularity. Things got even worse. The smooth branched bushes that had lined the trail gave way to spiky shrubs that could not be safely grasped. The trail started to disappear, though the others had already come this way – I could still see some of their bright clothing in the distance. As I slipped down a particularly sharp drop I saw, with tremendous relief that though the path was now all but invisible the direction that I was headed was towards a very long set of stone steps.
I struggled too it, climbed the rail and was on solid ground for the first time in about an hour.
As the steps started a considerable distance higher than my present position I could only surmise that there was a separate – safer – trail that we had somehow missed.
I looked down.
The steps seemed to go on forever. My thighs and calves were aching with the effort and my legs were already shaking. Within minutes my knees had been added to the list of painful body parts as I started down.
And down and down and down. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands of steps before I eventually reached the bottom where there was a small bar. Carole had already got a beer for me. I drank it standing, afraid that if I sat my knees would seize up completely. None of the Chinese were drinking. They just stared at us as if we had gone mad. We didn't care. We'd damn well earned that beer and we strolled down the last few hundred yards of flat path back to the coaches, still drinking it. Swigging from the bottles as we walked.
It was a much more strenuous day that either of us had anticipated but it had been terrific to get out in the fresh air and get some exercise again.
It's too long since I've been hiking but next time I go I'll know that what I need is perseverance. And preferably some decent boots.
(And I'll post some pictures a little later in a separate entry.)
Wednesday, 17 October 2012
I have been asked a couple of times if my assertion that day to day life in China is much the same as day to day life in England can possibly be correct. After all, they say, it can't be, can it? China is so different. Obviously in many ways it is. The food is different. The entertainment is different. Many of the attitudes and beliefs, especially medical ones, sound like little more than preposterous superstitions to us. As my previous post showed the approach to town planning and the efficiency of the public services is certainly different.
So it's different, isn't it?
Well, that's not really what I'm talking about. Let me try to explain.
I am typing this at a desk where I can see out of my fifth floor window and look along the street. What can I see?
Let's take the buildings first.
Running from left to right across the street I can see:
A bank, a hotel, another bank, a grocery shop, two restaurants, a carpet shop, a pharmacy, a barbers, another grocery shop, a bar, a hardware shop and a garage. I can't see it from here but I know, from experience, that below my apartment there is another garage where blue-overalled mechanics are working on taxis, fixing the engines, replacing exhausts and gear boxes. Above all but the hotel, which is itself several floors high, I can see apartments. Where the curtains are open and I can see into the apartments I can, at this moment see a man watching TV, a couple of kids in school uniform (and why they aren't at school, I don't know – it's ten in the morning!), a woman cleaning and tidying, an old woman watering some plants and a group of people just sitting doing nothing much of anything.
All seems very like the things I'd see at home if I could see into people's apartments there.
So what can I see if I look along the street?
Vehicles first – there are parked cars outside the hotel, cars moving along the street, a bus, a couple of taxis, a couple of motor cycles, some workmen's vehicles by the roadworks and a police car with a couple of policemen leaning on it having a smoke: and, just like England, a couple of white vans with slightly dodgy looking geezers parked on the side of the road.
The road itself has rather more roadworks than would be seen in England but, as I explained before, it's also rather more than would usually be seen in China.
There are a couple of stray dogs running about and I can see one cat sunning itself on the shop steps.
What about the people?
Well, it's a little late in the morning for kids. At lunch time or when school finishes for the day I can see hundreds of them in their school uniforms, running, fighting, playing, shouting, dragging their heels because they have a bad school report to give to Mom, smoking at the bus stop, swinging their school bags, reading comics – in short, doing what kids do.
Right now though they are all in their classrooms having history or physics or whatever drilled into them. I can only see adults. The shops aren't very busy at the moment so a couple of shopkeepers are standing outside talking. People in suits are going in and out of the hotel. Men in overalls and orange jackets are digging more holes. Two twenty-somethings are standing looking bored and cold while their friend is a few paces away talking on a mobile phone. A man is awkwardly trying to wheel a bicycle and balance half a dozen bags of groceries at the same time. A woman is reading a notice in the bank window. Lots of people are walking into and out of my view as they go wherever they are going. Two women appear to be complaining to each other as they have difficulty climbing over one of the trenches that the workmen have dug.
The whole thing looks completely normal, a scene that I could see anywhere.
And that's what I mean when I say it's much like life in the west. People clean their homes, look after their kids, go to school or work, earn a living, buy food for themselves and their pets and, on a day to day level, everything is just like back home. Societies may well vary greatly but people are people and that's why the details may vary but it's really the same picture and the view from my window is very like the view from your window
Tuesday, 16 October 2012
And then you realise that it's not all that it seems.
It's been apparent since I came back after Summer that something has changed in the administration. Specifically in whatever passes for the town planning division of the administration. Last year there were occasional times when you would walk down a street and find a trench along the side accompanied by the mountain of dirt that had been dug out to accomplish whatever electric, gas, sewage or heating works were needed. There were holes here and there that the unwary might fall down as they hadn't been there the day before. There was some chaos. But this year there are "civic improvements" going on. This year there is progress. And here progress seems to be a synonym for chaos.
If any English town planner suggested that it would be a good idea to simultaneously dig up every road and every footpath in the city he would be quietly moved to another department where he could do less damage. Here though it has struck someone as necessary and from thought to inception is about a heartbeat when you are an official with any power. So, and it's no exaggeration, in the downtown area of the city approximately seventy-five percent of all the roads, pavements and paths have been dug up along their entire length. I, for example, cannot go the couple of hundred yards to the local market without clambering over several mountains of mud, balancing precariously on concrete slabs used as temporary bridges across three separate gaping holes in the ground and jumping half a dozen two foot wide, six foot deep trenchers.
Last week I went to dinner at my administrator's home and to get to the front door had to negotiate a hole that was the full width of the alley between the buildings, five-foot wide and eight foot deep with rusty iron piping at the bottom should I fall. There were two muddy ledges, one on each side, to act as stepping stones.
The reason for this chaos is that they have decided to replace the heating system.
Now, to understand fully, you need to know how the heating works. In most countries householders control their own heating. They have gas or electric central heating or just free standing heaters or even coal fires. They turn everything on or off as they choose. Here in China that's not how it works. Here there is a citywide grid of underground pipes and then more, narrower pipes that are fastened to the walls inside and outside the apartment blocks and narrower still pipes that go into the apartments and into the radiators. On a fixed day each year the heating is turned on and hot water is pumped around the whole city and on another fixed day it is turned off.
It's an inefficient and ineffective system at best.
This year I have serious doubts that we'll have any heating at all. I can't see how they can possibly have all this finished by the official 1st November heating switch-on.
Of course, everything can always get worse. And it does.
The workmen digging the roads up power their tools by running jumper-cables from the junction box in any one of the apartments. This is NOT a good idea as was demonstrated by the way that last Friday they blew out the main generator taking out apartment blocks in the process. Mine included. Power has only returned today on Tuesday morning and the way they have fixed it is with a truly scary Heath-Robinson-ish lash up of cables and boxes that they have strung from apartment to apartment hanging from open junction boxes, trailing across floors, leading out of open fourth storey windows, dangling across the gaps between buildings and joining the apartment blocks like bulbs on a Christmas tree.
So I've been in darkness from about six-thirty onwards for four days and as a result have gone over to visit friends who live outside the affected area. That too hasn't been altogether a good experience. On Sunday I went over to watch a movie and have a couple of beers at Carole's. In her apartment block there is power. There are also, a work gang refitting the inside pipes who were hammering and drilling the whole time I was there from seven till about ten thirty. They were, I am told, still hammering and drilling at twenty tow midnight. The noise sounded as if the whole block might come down. The net result of their work is that the stairwell is filled with a spaghetti-like tangle of pipes, all lagged with a kind of black rubber. They are screwed in random variations to walls and ceilings. They poke through crudely chipped holes into apartments, drop through holes in the floor to the level below and continue their twisting, turning journey to the ground floor where they disappear outside through a hole in the wall and join a larger pipe in a hole in the ground.
Carole was told yesterday that this week the workmen will need access to her apartment to make the final connections.
This, of course, is progress.
Tuesday, 9 October 2012
I think it's safe to say that no one will be getting a Christmas card from me. It's nothing personal. It's just that today I had to send an important, single-page letter to my pension company in England. The weight of the letter itself was too light to register on the Chinese scales. It cost 230 ¥ - that's £23. At that kind of price it would be cheaper to fly home and deliver Christmas cards in person.
And that wasn't even the most annoying thing about the process. The most annoying thing was how long it took. In an empty post office the bureaucracy of filling in forms in English, waiting while they checked the computer, getting someone to fill in forms in Chinese, waiting while they retyped the Chinese into their computer, waiting while they telephoned someone to find the price and so on took almost an hour.
I passed the time explaining to my Chinese friend that to send a letter the other way costs a tenth of the price and takes about two minutes. She was amazed as it hadn't occurred to her that our mailing experience was anything other than perfectly commonplace.
Chinese bureaucracy is just one of those things that you have to live with over here.
Like Chinese road works. If there is a single road within five miles of my apartment that isn't dug up along the entire length of it I haven't found it. Getting into and out of apartments becomes a random assault course of ditches six feet deep, mounds of earth ten feet high, concrete slab "bridges" a foot wide, mountains of pipes waiting to be laid, weeks-old piles of rubbish that no one can collect or clear because of the other obstacles. It is, I am told, a program of civic improvements, though even the local people who see this kind of thing all the time can be heard grumbling about how bad it is and how the improvements only ever make things worse.
Another street, another trench,
another overpowering stench.
The trenches do not cause the smell
though they're a bloody pest as well.
It's obvious we'll never know
who'll clear the bins that overflow.
Those who earn their daily bread
in that task just scratch their head.
"With all these holes," you hear them say
"How can we take the trash away?"
Trenches deepen, rubbish piles.
I walk the streets for miles and miles
and everywhere is just the same.
Someone, somewhere is to blame
for another day, another trench
and another overpowering stench.
It's surprising how very small things can make me happy. This week, as I mentioned before, I found a shop that sells baked beans. Last week it was sardines. Last night I went over to my friend's apartment because she had just come back from a trip to Shanghai and had bought me half a pound of mature cheddar cheese. Little things but significant to me.
Or to put it another way, as I did in an idle moment between classes
It's great to get a moment's bliss
discovering something I miss.
Last week it was a can of beans.
The week before it was sardines.
Such little things – how well they please.
I'd be in Heaven if I found cheese.
Last week was a school holiday and most of the teachers here went away to different destinations in China. As the only foreign teacher staying in the city it fell to me to look after my friend Ben's three month old puppy.
There's pee in one corner and poo in the next.
He does it to vex me. Consider me vexed..
Turns his nose up at food, laps at his water,
takes bites out of things that he shouldn't oughta,
like chair legs and tables, my ankles, my hand.
Does as he pleases at every command.
As I clean up his mess with a mop and a pail.
He sits there so innocent, wagging his tail.
And when I sit down he jumps in my lap,
curls into a ball, settles down for a nap.
He's tiny and cute – I forgive him his sins,
and as he lies dreaming, I'm sure that he grins.
The second small stones anthology, "A Blackbird Sings", will be available shortly. Now I'd be misleading if I said you should buy it because it contains my work. It does, but that's misleading nonetheless. It contains a single piece of my work which consists of a grand total of twenty words. So if you don't want to buy it because it's me, then why should you buy it?
You should buy it because it's full of tiny observations about the world we live in from all sorts of writers. The brief was, as in the previous collection, to write things that are short, perfect reflections of our everyday experiences and they writers manage to do just that. Every piece, selected from thousands by the editors -Fiona Robyn & Kaspalita Thompson-, is a small polished gem of writing.
So where can you get it?
You can pre-order it from Amazon right now and on the 1st November, for one day only, the Kindle edition will be free to download. As soon as I have a link to buy the book I will post it here.
Meanwhile don't forget that my own books, which actually contain considerably more than twenty of my words, can be found by visiting
They are also available from Amazon though I'd prefer you to visit the publisher directly on the link.
Sunday, 7 October 2012
Now I do know a couple of people here who can actually sing, whose songs may be incomrehensible because of the language barrier but who can, nevertheless, belt out a decent, entertaining tune in a close approximation to the original. They weren't there last night. Instead we were at the opposite end of the scale. It's good of them to invite us but, on the whole, I'd prefer a less painful evening out. Say a root canal filling.
Monday, 1 October 2012
5. At this time tomorrow __________ the museum.
a) we're going to visit
b) well be visiting
c) we'll visit
d) we're to visit
If you can pick between those four answers your better at this language lark than I am.
(* And yes, I know "impossible" is supposed to be one of those adjectives that you can't put "more" or "most" in front of. I don't buy it. Never have. It's just more bad advice.)
Sunday, 30 September 2012
I have a student who comes to me for private tutorials on Sunday afternoons. We often go through questions from his books that have left him puzzled. Today was especially interesting as it seemed to feature the full range of impossible to answer Chinese questions. Frankly it's the worst book I've ever seen.
Here is a sample of questions which all came from the same page and the reasons that I think they are ridiculous.
Remember that for any question there is only ONE right answer.
Choose the correct answer
3. Because the situation in that country __________, all the foreigners are leaving.
a) is getting worse b) has got worse c) was getting worse d) had got worse.
Clearly both a) and b) are correct.
4. What about going to the match tonight?
Why not？And I __________ my friend with me.
a) am taking b) have taken c) take d) would take
The only one that comes close to fitting is d) but it doesn't sound right and isn't logical. The best answers "can take" or "could take" aren't there at all.
8. I __________ Beijing tomorrow. Do you know when the earliest plane __________?
a) leave for; takes off
b) am leaving for; takes off
c) leave for; is taking off
d) am leaving for; is taking off
I'm fairly sure they want b) but all four answers are perfectly normal idiomatic English.
9. How long __________ here?
I'm not sure?
a) do you stay b) are you staying c) would you stay d) did you say
Both b) and c) could fit depending on the circumstances in which the question was asked.
10 Tom, you __________ books about.
a) have always thrown b) always throw c) are always throwing d) always threw
All of the answers form perfectly grammatical sentences, albeit with slightly different meanings.
Fill in the gaps with the correct form of the indicated verb.
12. The students took eight subjects this term. They __________(take) six subjects next term.
I can think of at least four immediately without even considering the possibility of modals (take/will take/are taking/will be taking)
13 At this time tomorrow we __________(have) a meeting.
Again several forms spring to mind
14. Tom didn't go to school today. He __________(not go) tomorrow, either.
17. My friends came over last night. They __________(come over) tonight too.
And that, as I say is all from one page of the book. No wonder my poor student was having a hard time figuring it all out. He made a lot of careful notes which he said he wants to show to his Chinese English teacher. I wonder what the reaction will be.
Saturday, 29 September 2012
And yet somehow the Inland Revenue (that's the UK equivalent of the IRS for anyone in the US who doesn't know) managed to get not one but two letters to me yesterday. They sent them to the address of the head office of my agency where someone forwarded them to my local administrator who came round to deliver them in person.
Normally I don't like to get envelopes with "her Makasty's Revenue and Customs" printed on them but in this case I was rather pleased as the first one was informing me that I was due a sizable rebate on overpaid tax and the second one was informing me that it had been paid.
I was expecting it to happen but I hadn't expected them to track me down and tell me. They are a bit like the mounties. They always get their man.
Anyway, that's by-the-by.
Here, for anyone that might need to contact me while I'm in China, are the details of how to do it.
Print a copy of the picture below.
Make sure it's nice and legible.
Securely tape it to the letter, parcel or whatever that you need to send.
Middle School Number 11
Send it by a trackable method. The post office will be able to advise on the best method but it must be trackable as quite a lot of post to Chinese addresses goes missing.
Cross your fingers for a couple of weeks and I'll email as soon as I get it.
Tuesday, 25 September 2012
On Sunday I went again, with this years crop of English teachers. As the only one remaining from last year I'm the de facto old hand who knows everything already. It was in many respects a repeat of last year's experience. This time there were five of us - me, Ben, Jess, Carole and Garrett accompanied by a Chinese teacher from one of the schools. We had the drive to the head of the valley through the bleak and rocky desert where, this year anyway, the few patches of flat ground were all cultivated and the green of the cornfields contrasted starkly with the brown background.
From the head of the valley we drove down the winding road into the flat and fertile river plain which is covered with orchards. Most of the fruit isn't ready yet. Paper bags have been put over the individual fruits on the trees to force their growth.
At the bottom we climbed onto the same sheepskin rafts as before and drifted slowly off down the river. The rafts are remarkable. A dozen sheepskins have been cured, sealed, stitched into bags and inflated. These are then lashed to a wooden frame. A couple of carpets to keep the water from splashing up through the gaps and there's the vessel looking about as unseaworthy as it's possible to imagine.
They are seaworthy enough for the calm currents on this stretch of river though and a fifteen minute lazy float and two minutes frantic paddling by our boatman as a back-current took us perilously close to a rather too rocky bit of shoreline, we beached at the foot of the cliffs and disembarked.
We were immediately mobbed by a large group of Chinese tourists who all wanted their pictures taken with us. They don't get many foreign visitors in these parts and we're quite a novelty.
When we eventually got away from them we took donkey carts and horses up the valley again. This time rather than taking dozens of pictures - which, of course, I already have - I just looked at the towering rock formations around me. It's an impressive place. The valley is narrow and the rocks high. The rough bouncing journey ended part of the way up, where it had ended last time but this time we weren't stopping there. Instead we transferred to dune buggy style vehicles - low-seated, wide-wheeled motorised carts with all-round bumpers and steel roll-cages. In these we bounced further up the steep track. We passed the terminus for a cable car that was operating though none of the cabins seemed to have any people in them and continued up. The canyon walls were much lower now but also crowded into the track more closely. In places there was barely room for the buggy and once we rounded a sharp bend and collided with another coming down. When we could continue no further we alighted and carried on on foot. Steps have been provided to take tourists right to the high point where there is the other end of the cable car and a viewing platform from which the scenery is spectacular. Towering rocks and winding tracks lead off to the horizon in every direction. The muddy brown river and the narrow strip of green that is the orchard floor of the valley can be glimpsed here and there far below.
It's a popular spot. A young couple were there, dressed up very smartly, having some of the pre-wedding photography for their wedding album done against the amazing backdrop. This was much higher than I had come last time and made the repeated journey even more worthwhile.
We made our way back down, retracing buggy and donkey cart rides back to the river and then drove off into the town for what was, by now, a very late lunch. It might have been late but it was delicious with freshly picked and prepared vegetables in a variety of tasty dishes.
Then it was back into the cars and back to Baiyin.
The trip had been every bit as good as last year.
And unlike last year, here are a few pictures to give you an idea of just how good.
Well, that was then and this is now.
This year is different.
I've been back here for four weeks and while it would be an exaggeration to say that it's rained all the time, it certainly has rained a lot. We've had almost as many rainy days as sunny ones and that seems very strange to me. Streets are muddy with the bright orange mud that comes from living in a place built in the middle of a desert. The situation isn't helped by half the streets and pavements being dug up for assorted roadworks. The entrance to my apartment can only be reached by negotiating an assault course of ditches, wooden planks and bogs.
It's raining write know, as it has been through most of the night. Looking from my fifth floor window I can see the water spattering down into pools and the cars slicing chaotic patterns of parallel tracks into the morass at the junction.
There is an upside. The parks are not the barren places they were; the trees that line many of the streets are not the brown skeletal things I remember. Instead there is plenty of green to liven the monotony of the view. There are flowers in the allotment area outside the apartments at the end of my street. The extra water has really made the place, mud notwithstanding, look rather nicer.
I mentioned the difference to a Chinese friend and was told that it always rains more in The Year of The Dragon. Whether this is true or just a folk myth I have no idea. It's certainly raining more in this one.
So, if you are not one of the people I talked to in the summer - if, instead, you are one of the people who has read the write-up I did about the city for the agency that employs me, then all I can say is is that I'm sorry for misleading you.
It does rain in Baiyin and in some years it rains a lot.
Sunday, 16 September 2012
Apart from a delay of about an hour at Beijing my return to Baiyin was about as uneventful as a long journey can be. I was met at the airport by a couple of people from one of my new schools and driven straight to a restaurant for another meal on top of the half a dozen or so airline meals that I was still digesting. It was, of course, a sign of things to come. When we eventuall did drive to my new apartment I was very impressed. Not only does it look better from the outside; not only is it my apartment, rather than shared; not only is it five minutes walk from the school - it's a very very nice apartment.
Before I decided to move to China, when my plans hadn't been set in stone, I considered staying in the UK but buying a new apartment. I looked at some new build apartments which were much smaller than this one, about as well-fitted and in a not especially nice area. They were a hundred and ten thousand pounds.
A few posters, a few nick-nacks on the shelves, all my old stuff moved over and it already feels more like home than last year's apartment did, though that was also good.
I've settled very quickly back into my routine. The new schedule is no more onorous than the old one. Neither of the two schools I teach at is more than a ten minute walk away. Both schools are friendly and welcoming and let me teach whatever I want to. The other new teachers in the city are also good. One, Garret, an American, is stuck out west away from everyone else but he seems to prefer that. Theother three here at the moment are a lind of set of ENglish northern towns. With Wolverhampton, I am the furthest south. The others are from Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield (or near enough in each case). They all seem enthusiastic and happy.
Our biggest problem in the first couple of weeks has been food.
There's just been so much of it. I've been out to dinner at least half a dozen times, with teachers, old friends, new friends. Ben, one of the new teachers, has a particuylarly friendly landlord who took us to dinner at his apartment. He must be pretty rich as he has one of the nicest apartments I've ever seen - and I don't mean just in China.
Two weeks in and there is already a week's holiday looming just around the corner. The other teachers are hoping to get off on a long trip to the Silk Road. I'm thinking about it but on the whole I'm inclined to just stay here, read watch TV and relax in a week when I don't have any teaching to do. Well, almost no teaching as I expect I'll still have the little girl that I tutor five nights a week. I picked her up as a student when Erika left and it's such a boost to my money that I don't even manage to spend what her Dad pays me never mind have to touch my bank acount and school salary. Easy work too. Her Dad or Mom come with her and sit in the corner for an hour (in the case of her Dad, usually falling asleep on the sofa) while I go page by page through a pile of text and reading books. She's a bright, precocious and friendly eight-year old and it's the easiest money I've ever made.
And now here are some pictures of my apartment and the view from my window.
Tuesday, 11 September 2012
should be back online soon. The problem hasn't been that the new
school failed to provide a computer. Far from it. They had the
computer and the internet installed in my apartment within a day of me
being installed. The problem is...
well, here's a poem about it.
The computer's hooked up and I've powered it on.
The logo's appeared and it's gone "bingly-bong".
I hover my fingers above keyboard keys,
but when the desktop appears, it's all in Chinese.
Of course there are icons, even some that I know.
I suppose I could click them and just have a go,
but I cannot tell OPEN from CLOSE (or DELETE)
so I guess that it's wiser to admit my defeat.
So that's what I'd do if I could but - don't scoff -
I can't even work out how to turn the thing off.
Well tonight they came and reloaded English copies of WIndows and
Office, set up the internet in English and Bob's your uncle. Well he
would be except that half the stuff on it doesn't seem to work. Still
at least it's not working in ENglish rather than not working in
Chinese so I have a fighting chance of fixing it.
Should be back soon.
Watch this space.