Blog News

1. Comments are still disabled though I am thinking of enabling them again.

2. There are now several extra pages - Poetry Index, Travel, Education, Childish Things - accessible at the top of the page. They index entires before October 2013.

3. I will, in the next few weeks, be adding new pages with other indexes.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Making a difference

We do make a difference. I received an email about half an hour ago from a student I taught last year in Junior 1 (Grade 7, 12 years old). This was it (completely unamended, exactly as the student wrote it)

Dear Bob,
Hello!How are you?
I am a student in the No.11 middle school of Baiyin City in China.I am in Grade8 Class 1 now. Have you remembered?
We have not your class this year. And we have seen neither you nor Megan since this term began.Where did you go?Have you gone to another country? Or just have gone to another city in China? Will you come back?
Thanks a lot for returning every e-mail from me.Do so many students write to you?
Best wishes for you.And looking forwards your e-mail.
Miss you very much.
Yours sincerely,

I replied briefly and a few minutes ago received this one from the same student.

Dear Bob,
You always reply so quickly.I'm very glad to know that both you and Megan are still in China.And I'm surprised that you are still in Baiyin,too.
Our lessens are good.And we are still working hard.But without you and Megan, everybody is a little unhappy.
I'll tell my friend your e-mail.They will write to you.I'm sure.
Thank you again for your replying.It's deep night,so you needn't to reply.
Good night.

I really wish that I thought anyone in my current Senior 2 class (Grade 11, age 16) could produce work that good.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

A little bafflement

I've been watching with a kind of fascinated bafflement the redevelopment of one of Baiyin's parks. It's an impressive undertaking. Paths are being rerouted. Covered walkways and viewpoints are being constructed. Water features and elaborate fountains are being constructed. Stone steps are...hang on! Water features? Fountains? We are in a city in the middle of the desert. We don't have enough water to keep the little grass that we have green.
It's not unusual though. The nearest- and largest - park is Goldfish Park. There are several fountains there including, at the main entrance, two beautiful six foot tall goldfish which should, in an ideal world, spout streams that cross and then fall into the waiting pond. But it isn't an ideal world. We are, as I said, in the middle of a desert. I have been here for three years and I have never once seen ANY of the many fountains in Baiyin working.

But they keep on building them. The ones at the entrance to the newly redeveloped park are, if the publicised plans are to be believed, supposed to be very impressive. There are two stone bridges which arc over a flowing channel. Jets are to spray up and over in splendid powerful arches. Multi-coloured lights will illuminate them. Marvelous stuff.

And that's the source of my bafflement. Why, in a city that has so little water, do they go on building these expensive and extravagant water features everywhere? What's the point of fountains that never get turned on?

Friday, 21 March 2014

The Eagle Has Landed

...or rather the Ghost Ship has docked. I just took delivery of 96 cans of Adnams Ghost Ship sent to me at a very reasonable price and with no delivery charge from my mate Jeff who keeps the London Tavern bar in Yangshuo, a bar that may have no cellar but makes up for it with the perfectly splendid range of English bottled beers.
And yesterday I saw, and bought, a nice, old-fashioned, dimpled and handled pint pot to drink it from.

(For those following the saga of my electrical systems, an electrician came and did something. He must have been a good one, he had a boiler suit and a screwdriver.

At the moment stuff seems to be working. As long as the fridge works for all that beer.)

Monday, 17 March 2014


And it just gets worse.

Turned on in my apartment were the living room light and the fridge. I put on an egg to boil. In the time it took to boil an egg the fuse tripped three times. I can use the low power appliances like lights or computer but anything that draws any higher power - cooker, kettle, water heater, iron etc blows the fuse in minutes. This can't be right. My administrator's response was "Well, you had the chance to move."

Indeed I did, to an apartment so dark and dingy that a mole wouldn't have wanted to live there.

I am promised that an electrician will come tomorrow. Let's hope so.

Inconsistent standards

I am living in a country that can put men and women into space.

I am living in a country where the electricians can't properly wire a plug.

You may recall the frequent problems I had with my electrics a few months ago. Well they're back and they're worse.

On Saturday I made the foolish mistake of trying to boil a kettle for a coffee while I was ironing a shirt for work. The combination of two appliances on at the same time tripped the fuse.

On Sunday morning I plugged in the water heater as I intended to do some washing. I sat down to read a book and five minutes later the fuse tripped. This time the plug for the water heater was too hot to touch. The plug is the sealed type and is joined to the wire from the heater by twisting the wires together and covering with insulation tape. The tape at the join was also hot.

On Sunday afternoon I was trying to cook my dinner. In the time it took to fry a pan of chips the fuse tripped twice.

This morning I got up, put a kettle on to make some coffee and the fuse tripped before it had finished boiling.

In every case the appliances mentioned were the only ones on apart from the fridge.

When I complained about it originally I was told that the fault was mine because if I didn't plug things in the fuse wouldn't blow, Actually they told me not to ever plug two things in at the same time! Now it appears that I shouldn't plug one thing in at the same time. The low standards of workmanship here never cease to amaze me.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

What kind of cock-a-mamie language is this anyway

My friend keeps trying to teach me more Chinese.

Last week I learned a word for "potato" -  tu(3) dou(4)*.

The individual syllables for this mean, respectively, "earth" and "bean". It's a bit of a stretch but no more so than French's "apple of the earth" - pomme de terre.

This week I learned there is another word for "potato" - ma(3) ling(2) shu{3)*.

The individual syllables (as spoken, not written) mean "horse" "zero" "mouse".

Horse zero mouse?

Horse zero mouse?

Horse zero mouse?

In what kind of language does horse zero mouse = potato? 

I'll never get to grips with this. Think I'll get someone to send me out my Klingon dictionary. It's easier.

*If you're wondering about the numbers they show the correct tones for the syllables.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Smoking, Buses and Roads - some more random complaining

Well, it's been a while.
So I thought I'd post some more random thoughts about my life in China.

First up let's revisit smoking. I've mentioned before that taxi drivers smoke in taxis, doctors during consultations, schoolteachers in corridors, offices and even – though they aren't supposed to – classrooms and pretty much every male Chinese smokes more or less constantly. This, as you may imagine, is deeply uncomfortable for a lifelong non-smoker like me. Last night was an example of where it is at its worst – restaurants. I went out for a meal with a friend at a small restaurant across the street from my apartment. It has about ten tables of varying sizes and three private rooms. We normally go for a room but they were all busy so we took one of the two unoccupied tables in the main room. It wasn't too bad at first, though on one table a Chinese man was busy puffing away with his left hand while plucking food from a bubbling hot pot with chopsticks in his right hand. At a table near the wholly inadequate air-con another man was waving his cigarette around like a laser pointer. Then the problem got decidedly worse. At the nearest table were a group of six men, all eating a variety of hotpot meats and vegetables. One of them handed round a pack of cigarettes and all six lit up – as they were eating! It was horrible and I'm afraid I started complaining. I was ready to leave but we had already ordered. They finished their smokes and within a minute had lit up again. I alternated between holding a cloth to my face and taking it away to eat. It got funny looks but by then the food had come. Then they finished that one and immediately lit up a third. The room was beginning to resemble a foggy November day. My friend had several times asked if we could move but there was nowhere to move to. Then one of the private rooms came free and the staff said we could move there. All our food was taken in and we relocated. At last I could breathe and eat at the same time.

This is absolutely normal here. Any restaurant at any time will have hordes of smokers simultaneously smoking and eating and filling the place with smoke and the fact that the concept of ventilation is almost unknown in buildings here doesn't help. I have now, for this very reason, almost completely, given up going out for a drink.

Anyway, moving on, albeit slowly, we come to Chinese buses. I have often used the buses here to get around because they are so cheap – 10p flat fare anywhere in the city – but only recently have I had to use them to commute to work. The daily journeys have highlighted some questions that had been floating in the back of my mind for a while. Chiefly there is this – are the problems due to mechanical failures of the vehicles or human failures of the drivers?
I ask primarily because of the way they stop and start. They stop as if they have hit a wall. All passengers not braced by holding onto seat backs or overhead rails are pitched forward violently. Those who are braced risk broken wrists or dislocated shoulders. Then they start as if someone has attached a rocket to the back and everyone is pitched to the back of the bus with similar force. Inadequate clutch or inadequate clutch control?
The argument that perhaps the vehicle is mechanically unsound and the driver has no control is supported by something that is clearly a mechanical issue – they way they deal with inclines. When the bus has to go uphill it slows to less than a walking pace and the engine roars like a jet taking off and the whole vehicle shudders and judders until you think it must surely fall apart. And I am talking about the slightest of slight inclines, slopes so slight that I had never even noticed them on foot. Slopes that would not trouble a ninety-five year old with a walking frame.In fact a ninety-five year old with a walking frame would probably outpace the bus on those sections.
Set against that, and supporting the driver hypothesis, is the observed behaviour with regard to lane discipline and lane changes. Put simply there is no lane discipline and lane changes are sudden, unexpected and mostly random. The bus simply swerves without warning into the next lane regardless of the traffic already there. The reasons for this remain a mystery as it will often swerve back with equal suddenness mere metres later.

There is another issue with bus design and it has to do with the seating. Chinese people can do something that most westerners can't. They can crouch, they are masters of crouching. They can have their feet flat on the ground and their backside also touching the ground as they lean their shoulders forward and remain completely stable. This position is almost impossible for us without toppling backwards. Try it if you don't believe me. This means that they don't mind the peculiarity of seating design where the seats at the front, or over the wheels, or immediately behind the wheels have nowhere to put your legs. The simply hop up and pull their knees up under their chins and show no signs of discomfort. I, on the other hand, am forced to stand. If I attempted that position I'd need a month in traction to fix my spine.

Of course I mustn't forget to mention the roads. Like many things in China they appear, at first glance to be fine, well-tarmacced surfaces. They aren't. There are many places where the fact that the surface has collapsed reveals that it is an inch thick veneer of tarmac laid directly onto sand, which of course is the reason that it collapsed! This renders every journey a bumpy adventure in which the base of the spine impacts with great frequency onto the hard plastic seats. Maybe having to stand is more of a blessing than a curse. And at least buses are one of the very few places where people don't generally smoke.

Monday, 3 March 2014


There is more than a little prejudice in Chinese schools.
Three of the trainee teachers in my groups were South African and there was difficulty placing them because, while the schools are happy with the full range of UK,  US and Australian accents, they don't like the South African accent at all. There was nothing wrong with any of them as teachers but as soon as they spoke some schools didn't want to know.
One teacher suffered the triple whammy. Male, when they prefer female. Considered over the hill at 51. South African.
They placed him eventually but it looked worrying for a while.

The age prejudice is one I've faced myself. The reason I was sent to Baiyin in the first place was that many schools just won't accept that someone over fifty has the energy and will - experience and skill don't come into it - to teach a class. It comes from the fact that retirement in China is compulsory at sixty but seriously encouraged at fifty. This is necessary in a country where the population outstrips the job market by so much but it leads to a cultural perception that at fifty all you are fit for is sitting on street corners playing cards, chess or mahjong and smoking till your lungs fall apart.
Now that I have a proven record and schools that are willing to vouch for my ability and enthusiasm, I doubt it would be such a problem, but I did at first.


Well things didn't turn out too badly though the journey was a bit of a nightmare. It went like this.

7 pm Sunday taxi to station
8 pm Sunday train to Lanzhou arrive 11 pm
1:45 am Monday train to XiAn arrive 10 a.m, sitting all the way (too late to book sleeper) while three seats away someone spent the whole night playing a very loud computer game and ignoring pleas to stop.
11 am Monday to 5 pm Monday sleep in hostel
5 pm Monday drive to airport arrive 18 pm
7 pm Monday flight Guilin arrive 9:45 pm
19 pm car to Yangshuo, arrive 11:30 pm

Then sleep

As you might imagine, all that sitting with my knee bent left my leg feeling like someone had attacked it with an axe. Still I had Tuesday to recover.

Over the next two weeks I delivered the training and assessed the teachers lessons and everything went well. My leg improved to the point where I could walk properly without the stick and by now I can hardly tell that there was ever a problem. I spent quite a bit of time and money in the London Tavern and the Kali Mirch Indian Restaurant and the two weeks were pretty much a success all round.

The fly in the ointment was the inland revenue who, in spite of my having completed all the necessary paperwork three years ago, decided to send me a letter telling me that if I hadn't completed a tax return by 31st January they would be fining me 100 pounds plus 10 pounds a day. Naturally they didn't give me any way to contact them other than by letter (which would take too long) or in person (which is clearly impossible). A colleague with an internationally enabled phone left a message for my brother to contact me - sadly her wording left something to be desired and threw my brother into a panic as he heard on his answerphone "You must contact your brother immediately, there is a serious emergency".

You can well imagine the state of panic that caused him to try to contact everyone on my Facebook friends list while I was safely asleep in my bed.

Once we sorted out that I was alive and uninjured but in need of some help contacting the IR we proceded with the tortuous and arcane process of persuading them of their error - a process that I expect will take some time yet.

And so I returned to Baiyin but I have decided that at the end of this semester I shall request a transfer to another city. There are now only two foreigners here and neither of us feels we are getting great service from the people who are responsible for helping us. There is a constant battle that goes on between us about all sorts of things from the payment of our salary to the location of our apartments. And it's wearing me down. The schools and the kids are great but I've fallen out of love with the city.
Truthfully I would have gone six months ago but I had a reason to stay. And that brings me to the latest news in this round-up. For a couple of months it has been clear that while we still referred to each other as boyfriend and girlfriend, Teresa and I were functioning as friends who occasionally had dinner together. After some discussion, yesterday, we decided to just face the reality that this is in fact all we are so my reason for staying no longer exists - friends I can fine anywhere.

So there you have it. The job is still interesting and the classes are great but overall the feeling at the moment is a bit mixed. Nothing that a change of scenery in six months won't cure though.