Monthly Archives: September 2016

A small matter of cultural differences.

Travel, and especially airports, brings out the worst in people..  The queues to check in; the queues at the  baggage drop off; the negotiations at the ticketing desk about overweight suitcases and hand luggage;  the liquids through security; the gauntlet of passport control – do you really still look like that person in the photograph… ? A journey fraught with stress and anxiety, long before anyone has even boarded a plane.

On the whole, I have been lucky.  Most of my air travel has been pretty uneventful and gone smoothly, disregarding the inevitable turbulence which is out of human control anyway.  This was until my flight back to Hangzhou from Thailand, courtesy of AirAsia, which as a popular budget airline has caught the attention of the novice travellers from China…

Although Thailand gets a fair amount of Chinese tourists, we hardly crossed paths during my ten day stay.  Mostly they kept to themselves, avoiding eye contact  and conversations with Westerners as the mastery of English has not yet trickled down to the proletariat.  Knowledge of world languages is not really necessary as Chinese visitors move en mass, shepherded from one attraction to the next by the umbrella wielding leader of the flock.

I may have anticipated sharing the flight to Hangzhou with mainly Chinese people, however I was not prepared for being submerged in Chinese culture as soon as I hit passport control.  My suitcase had changed hands flawlessly; its weight hardly raising an eyebrow…  I headed for the door emblazoned ‘International Departures’ and immediately joined a throng of Chinese bodies trying to force themselves through the narrow entrance.  No orderly line to be seen; every man for himself.  And if anyone was not quick enough to fill the minute space in front of them, Chinese beady eyes kept themselves peeled ready to make a move.  If looks alone could kill, the floor would have been carpeted with my victims…  I used my elbows, I learnt from the best: the experts in India…  I am not proud of it, but I too had a plane to catch….

Finally through the door, more chaos awaited.  The next room was seething with people, like wildebeest intent on launching an immediate stampede.  But the only danger they wanted to escape, was the poor attendant who desperately tried to contain everyone  between the futile barriers.  No matter her vigilance, she was no match for the persistent Chinese.  Barriers were lifted and moved and small  sections of the herd surged forward, unseen, swallowed by the other Chinese who meekly watched them forge their way to the officers in charge of passport control.  My heckles rose and I had to remind myself of the pointlessness of any retort: I was only going to experience more of the same in China, much, much more…

Passport control sorted and electronic gadgetry x-rayed, we were guided to the AirAsia departure lounge, deep in the bowels of the airport, carefully separated from all the domestic flight passengers.  Of course, my flight was delayed.  It is par for the course…  Taking into account that I was heading for Hangzhou, just a few days before the G20 summit meeting and rumours about additional security abound, this came hardly as a surprise…

When boarding time was announced, the Chinese travellers moved in unison, all aiming to get on the plane first.   However, our aircraft was some distance from the departure lounge, so we were ‘treated’  to a leisurely bus journey around the airport first.  And then we arrived at the steps…  The Chinese who would have trampled their fellow travellers to be first in line???  This rush suddenly vanished as they all whisked out their mobiles to take selfies next to the plane, on the steps up to the plane, in front of the door of the plane…  It was clearly more important to ensure that the world was aware of their whereabouts and could relish in their international travel..  and our flight was late already…  Did another ten minutes of immortalising oneself on camera really matter???

Eventually, all passengers were ushered onto the plane to find their allocated seats … and a  game of musical chairs ensued.  I always make use of online check-in to ensure I have my preferred seat, near the aisle, ready for a quick get-away after landing.   I know the ropes: the advantage of being a seasoned air traveller.  Maybe the Chinese have not yet cottoned on to this and wait until they get to the ticketing desk to find out whether they will be admiring a view through the window, being squashed in the middle, or having easy access to the toilets and exits courtesy of an aisle seat, or indeed are sitting next to friends or family…

A father pleaded with the girl next to him to swap seats with his young son.  A reasonable request, I thought.  So the girl took the middle seat next to mine, leaving just the window seat unoccupied.  She had barely sat down when two obnoxious chewing-gum chewing twenty-something Chinese girls turned up,  clutching McDonalds bags, looking ready for the kill and clearly joined at the hip.  There was just this small matter of them being assigned seats at opposite ends of the plane, one of them the window seat near me.  Clearly, me moving was out of the question, so they preyed on the girl next to me.  Unfortunately, she buckled under the intimidation and quietly retreated to the tail end of the aircraft.  The McDonalds twins sunk into the spaces next to me…

In the meantime, passengers busied themselves with sending last minute messages to the rest of the world, entirely oblivious to the stewardesses preparing  the plane for take off.   Permanently glued to their mobiles, safety announcements fell on deaf ears and as soon as the stewardesses turned their back, WeChat conversations continued.  I really have no problem with the Chinese travellers disregarding their own safety on a flight. Let’s face it, there is a bottomless pool of replacements..  But I would prefer them not to do it when I am on board.  I still have quite a few more boxes to tick on my bucket list before MY plane is downed….

And if I was expecting peace and quiet after we were finally in the air, I had not reckoned on the most disturbing Chinese habit of all…  Window girl gulped down her McDonalds purchases and settled in her seat, removing the ‘vomiting’ bag from the seat pocket.  Maybe McDonalds upset her stomach, I wondered.   But no, she just needed a receptacle for her spit.. She made a horrible retching noise, as if trying to haul stubborn phlegm from the pit of her belly, and deposited it  into the bag with great gusto…. every few minutes.  I covered my ears, I closed my eyes.  It was going to be long, long flight…

And the thing I had been dreading before my departure???  My arrival in Hangzhou marred by extra security measures?  I breezed through the airport:  getting off the plane,  clearing passport control and even collecting my luggage… all done and dusted within 20 minutes of touching down.  I have no idea what all the fuss on the expat websites was all about… scaremongering maybe… Or could it have been that my plane landed around midnight when most security personnel had long since clocked off???

Celebrating Teachers’ Day in China.


Some days I really like China… Okay, I admit, those days are few and far between… I have not really shared many of these thoughts, trying to put a positive spin on things, ironing out the frustrations and exasperation.  But last Saturday I genuinely appreciated being here.

I have been a teacher in the UK and have been on the receiving end of kids’ whims, ingratitude and sheer bad behaviour.  It pretty much goes with the territory of being a supply teacher.  In return for putting up with noisy children, talking children, fighting children, I was let of the hook on the paperwork side.  A fair exchange, I believed.. But I never had the privilege of experiencing Teachers’ Day…

According to the Bible that is Wikipedia, the United Kingdom duly takes note of  ‘World Teachers’ Day’, but does not waste time nor energy on observing a proper ‘Teachers’ Day’, a special day in recognition of teachers and their formidable task of , over an extended period of many years, turning little ‘hooligans’ into useful, productive human beings.  Anyway,  I first heard about the existence of such a thing as ‘Teacher’s Day’  in a blog post from a fellow ESL teacher in Vietnam… There were no details about how the day unfolded, but clearly Vietnam is a country where teachers enjoy the high regard they deserve.  It is entirely possible that India reserves a similar respect for its teachers, but as its ‘Teachers’ Day’ celebration last year fell at the beginning of September when I was tackling the Himalayas in Nepal , I clearly missed it …

Back in China, after a long and well-deserved break, I (and my fellow foreign teachers at the school) received an invitation from the Head of English to a meal out…  Great, free food!  Of course, we were not going to decline; there is no such thing here as being paid during the holidays and next payday is not until Mid-October, so any freebies are gratefully accepted.   It was not until we arrived at the venue that we realised this was one of these Chinese formal dinners, with a million different courses and far too much booze and bottoms-up toasting…  The grand occasion: Teachers Day!  We shared our table not with the teachers from the  English department, whose skills include speaking English, but were seated with the P.E. teachers whose English amounted to just a nod and a smile…  On the upside, we all received presents and I am sure my thermos flask and two cups will come in handy someday…


And then, on Saturday, it was the actual Teachers’ Day!!  Students – or their parents –  showered their teachers with flowers and gifts.  Fragrant lilies perfumed my flat, and rosy carnations added a splash of colour…  I brightened up an empty shelf with some of the greeting cards, although I am not entirely convinced that all the cards were intended for Teachers’ Day…  I have not yet dared to wash the canary yellow towel and flannel set just in case the colour runs…  But I am definitely cherishing my Wal-Mart gift card: every little helps to make ends meet until payday!


But this is China… and every gift comes tagged with expectations.  Whereas Western teachers might interpret a gift as a token of thanks, not so in China.  When enquiring about the etiquette after receiving such a gift, my assistant put us in the picture, ‘Oh no, you do not need to thank them.  Parents expect that you will give their children special or preferential treatment in return… Just don’t tell anyone or make it obvious.’

In my case, they’ll be disappointed then.  I have long since forgotten which child brought flowers or a present, and I only ever remember the names of the naughty ones..and I sure as hell will not let those of the hook, no matter how big the gift!!!

I love Bangkok….

I love Bangkok.  It comes as a surprise really.  I am not a city person, but as always thinking about the shape my next venture might take, I cannot dismiss Bangkok as a possibility…

It was certainly not ‘love at first sight’.  My initial reaction was fuelled by visiting all the tourist attractions, inevitably overrun by foreigners, and staying in the Bangkok plush area of Sukhumvit, with its abundance of 5* skyscraper hotels for the cash-rich jet-setters.  Modern, state-of-the-art shopping centres such as Terminal 21 and EmQuartier may well catch the eye of those with deep pockets, but as I tend to  shop out of necessity rather than enjoyment, shopping malls generally hold very little appeal.  At least Terminal 21 had a few surprises in store that kept me amused and intrigued…  You don’t often bump into London landmarks and sights whilst on holiday.   And the food and restaurant floor of the EmQuartier offered a varied cuisine to tantalise even the fussiest of palates as well as a beautiful view of the sparkle and shine of night time Bangkok.




On my return from Phuket, I chose a different hotel, a few sois (or roads) away, just in the Ekkamai area.  A quieter, pleasant and more homely atmosphere with lots of restaurants, bars and coffee shops offering breezy outdoor seating as well as indoor air-conditioned spaces,  a place exploding with social life vibes.   A nearby shop sold a vast array of Western food essentials, suggesting I had hit ex-pat territory.   Wide, clean roads were lined with aged, gnarly trees and the uneven, pushed up pavement slabs told the story of a city with a history.  There was no impatient honking of horns, only the normal, expected humdrum of busy traffic at peak times.  Motorcycle taxi drivers found respite in the shade of tree canopies or other shelters.  At lunch and dinner time, the air was bursting with the tempting, fragrant aromas of street food.  Exotic fruits in vibrant colours, sometimes sprinkled with a Thailand-spicy concoction of chillies, salt and lime, begged to be eaten. Definitely a place where I could rest my suitcase for some time before the inescapable itch to move on will once again bubble to the surface.

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Of course, I fitted in trips to the Wats, Wat Arun and Wat Pho to be precise.  Ancient temples nestled in the old part of town, which attract tourists from all over the world to revel in the architectural accomplishments.  As luck (or bad luck) had it, the imposing spire of Wat Arun was shielded from view with extensive scaffolding  covering the intricate patterns of Chinese porcelain and coloured  glass in the stonework, but I could climb the smaller, surrounding spires and stand in awe of the achievements of craftsmen of  long ago eras.  The Buddhist temples are still used as places of worship, so a waft of sweet smelling incense lingers around the countless statues of the Buddha.

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On an early morning bicycle trip, I weaved through an unusually quiet Chinatown, as the Buddhist festival of Ullambana, or the Festival of Ancestors, literally turned the normally bustling area into a ghost town. For a short period only – it is believed – the doors of Hell are opened to allow loved ones to return to earth as ghosts and devotees place offerings of food, drink and other worldly comforts in front of their houses to ensure that their deceased relatives may have an easier ride and be given forgiveness.  Paper is burnt… not just any paper, but paper bank notes, paper mobile phones, paper televisions, paper cars or paper aeroplanes..  Just about anything a modern ghost might need to smoothe the journey in the hereafter.

We cycled through the flower market, and the vegetable market, explored yet another Wat, crossed the river and took photographs and selfies with the skyline of modern and new Bangkok in the background.

In those three days, I barely scratched the surface of what Bangkok has to offer..  I avoided the seedy places, the ladyboys’ exploits, the tourist-orientated markets and missed out on the floating market – which only operates at weekends.  So I certainly feel there is some unfinished business, a reason to go back… maybe just for a long weekend, or maybe to join the ex-pat community for a little while.  Time will tell, there is no rush… I have not yet finished with China.