Category Archives: China

Playing at being ‘Jane in the Jungle’.

20170415_164625

Finally, the time of procrastination is at an end…  Back in China, almost settled into my new apartment, and knees as operational as they will get: time to don the hiking boots and explore the great outdoors of Hangzhou and beyond!!

Over the past twelve months, I have been on a fair few trips in China, mainly with organisations that cater well for the expat community…  Cash-rich (relatively speaking) and time-poor, weekend trips are often the only option for us, with longer trips reserved for Chinese national holidays or the long summer break when everyone hankers after an opportunity to escape China’s pollution and insanity, as well as Hangzhou’s oppressive heat.

Recently, a new travel group has burst onto the scene, this time based in Hangzhou itself.  Capitalising on a gap in the market for low-cost trips for eager low-budget travellers such as students and English teachers, they offer day trips for the adventurous and hike-loving,  all within easy reach of Hangzhou…  give or take a few hours of sitting in a coach… So my last few weekends have been fairly action-packed on a quest for the hidden gems and thrills of Zhejiang Province.

mmexport1493087950737

Noodle Village

After an early start and a tedious drive battling with holiday traffic in China, we reached the ancient noodle village of Panzhoujia…  If we had expected to take part in the noodle making ceremony, we had arrived in the wrong season.  Tea leaf picking was the more urgent, and clearly more profitable business rather than entertaining hapless tourists with draping over-long noodles over the extended chain of arms…  Of course, we – all twenty of us –  had a little go and carefully stretched one noodle between us before having the pleasure – and it was a pleasure – of eating the famed noodle soup trying to fish out the meters-long noodles…

20170403_131356 (2)

The 3-D Village

Chinese people have a knack of spotting business opportunities where we might see none… Derelict and remote buildings nestled against a hillside would hardly attract our attention, but how better to entice the masses than by decorating walls with 3D paintings and calling it the ‘3D Village’…  And when a visit to this place coincides with the spring extravaganza of rapeseed flowers on the hillside terraces, you can be guaranteed of an influx of visitors and a healthy supply of traffic jams..

Authentic Hangzhou

Real adventure can definitely be found in and around Hangzhou with the Hash Harriers – the running/hiking group with a ‘drinking problem’.  Admittedly, I have so far stuck to hiking the trails rather than running, but a slower speed means more chance to take in the often spectacular scenery.  A recent night hike revealed Hangzhou’s West Lake in its nocturnal glory, a blaze of colour reflected in the water.  And of course,  there is more fun to be found off the beaten track, clambering over rocks and sliding down muddy slopes, experiencing some of the few remaining authentic nature areas that escaped a Chinese makeover…   Nothing beats a bit of a ‘Tarzan and Jane’ exploit!!

west-lake-nighttime-2

Tianmen Mountain challenge… walking the glass plank…

And then there was the challenge of the ‘Coiled Dragon Cliff Walkway’, built along the edges of Tianmen Mountain’s summits, clinging to the sheer vertical cliffs. Part of the cliff-hugging walkway had a makeover last summer and those who dare can now brave a walk over the 100m long tract of crystal clear glass looking all the way down to the bottom of the cliff… It is not for the faint-hearted and requires a bit of stamina as the walkway is only reached after climbing 999 steeps steps.  Not a mean feat on warmer days, but the views of the valley and the surrounding nineteen peaks are awesome and certainly worth the effort.  And the scary looking bridge suspended between two peaks???  Luckily, it looked more flimsy from a distance; it was clearly well-maintained and in good condition to make sure that visitors do not come to a sticky end…  At the end of the climb, we found a delightful little pool, fed by fresh water streaming downhill…  How could anyone resist the temptation of dipping their feet in???

20170416_143903

DSCN3945

Good things come to those who wait and ….. hustle (part 2)

good-things-come-to-those-who-hustle-gray-tee-1024x1024

I set my alarm for the crack of dawn: 5.15 am.  My friend Liz had offered me a bed for the night and a lift to the airport.  Being a seasoned flyer, I had already checked in, so no need to turn up too early for my 7 am flight.  Life’s essentials for my short trip easily fitted in a small backpack and I did not even have to worry about taking little containers of shampoo, conditioner or toothpaste, which would be provided courtesy of my classy hotel in Brussels.  I breezed through security!!

The flight announcements looked promising:  we were scheduled to take off on time.  Unaware and unsuspecting, passengers were herded onto the plane and, once seated,  praised for their efficiency.  We were all ready and waiting for take-off 10 minutes ahead of time…   It was at this point that the captain chose to put us in the picture.  Fog in Brussels!!  Our landing slot had been pushed back and take-off delayed by about an hour…  Whilst we sat on the tarmac, waiting for clearer skies over Brussels,  my mind raced, ‘Would I still have enough time to make it to the Chinese Consulate before the 11.30 am deadline??’  The time difference between England and the continent meant we would now not land until nearer 10 am.   I could still get there before they closed for business, but I would have to dig deep and pay for a taxi..  The Chinese Consulate was not exactly in the city  centre and out of reach of the metro network, and the bus route from the airport was uncharted territory to me.  With only a small margin of error, too much of a risk ..  I queued for a taxi!

The taxi driver was familiar with my destination and whereas I immediately shadowed our progress on Google Maps, he followed his nose… straight into a traffic jam on the Brussels ring road…  I had seen the red stretch looming,  warning us of stationary vehicles.  I sighed.   Time ticked by as we crawled along.  Had he not checked the traffic flow before setting off in the direction? What about the back roads, maybe they were less clogged?? He apologised in English (lots can be forgiven from those who speak English…), ‘I know where this is, so did not need to look at Google maps…’   We made it with an hour to spare.  Plenty of time, I thought, I had all the necessary documents, I had scrutinised the internet..

The Consulate was not very busy, just a small huddle of people.  I went to the legalisation counter, confident of a quick and smooth process,  and presented  the legalised copy of my degree (legalised by the Belgian authorities), my original degree (just in case) and my passport plus a photocopy of my passport.  The girl – Chinese – at the counter checked the papers carefully. ‘I need to see your passport,’ she said.

I pointed to my passport and the photocopy in full view..  ‘No, this is a British passport.  Do you have a Belgian ID card or passport?  Are you a resident in this country?  I need proof of residency,’ she continued.  The Consulate could only legalise documents for Belgian citizens, it transpired…  I either had missed this bit on their website, or maybe it had been omitted in the information..  A grim consultation with her supervisor (in Chinese) only seemed to confirm the requirement..  There was definitely no way around it.

A resident in Belgium??  Not having lived in Belgium since the 80s, any claim on residency had well and truly missed the boat…  But I still had an old – duly expired – Belgian passport, which was sitting safely  in a folder in my daughter’s home in the UK.   Would they accept that if I could get a copy??

It took less than five minutes for my daughter to answer the phone in the UK, locate the passport amongst all my belongings, take a photograph and send it all the way to Brussels…  I showed it to the supervisor.  She nodded approvingly, but she expected a printed copy…  ‘And where can I get this printed?’ I enquired, looking at her computer and other digital media equipment in the office…  If I had hoped for sense, there was none…  ‘Go and find a printing shop,’ was the immediate reply.

Anger bubbled to the surface, but if I have learnt one thing in China, it is that anger does not get you anywhere.  Chinese people respond best if they are made to feel they are doing you a favour…  So I grovelled, I pleaded, I debased and humiliated myself… ‘I have come all the way from London this morning and have to go back tomorrow.  Please, please is there anything you can do to help me??’ I all but fell on my knees intently staring at the computer screen in front of the supervisor… Would she take the hint??

‘Ok,’ she finally relented.  ‘You can send it to me by email.  There is an email address at the back of the room.’  She waved vaguely in the direction of the wall behind the photocopier.  ‘And then you have to wait…’  I sent the email from my phone, and then did as I was bid…

I waited.  There were just three people still sitting in the room.  I waited some more.  Everyone had been seen to.  I still waited.  The supervisor looked busy, she moved some papers, she walked to the other side of the counter, she made some coffee, she polished her nails.  I waited… With ten minutes left to closing time, she eventually glanced in my direction and motioned me to come.  ‘Did you send me the email?’ she asked accusingly, ‘I cannot see it.  Which email address did you use?’  ‘The one you asked me to use… you know,  the only one at the back of the room…’  ‘I see.  That was not the correct one, but I shall have a look then…’   Really???   It took her all of a few seconds to locate the email and push the print button…  she passed the papers to the girl who was responsible for dealing with the legalisation applications…

With the legalisation application finally accepted, all that was left for me to do was explore a bit of Brussels before returning to the Chinese consulate the next day to collect my legalised degree..

It came as a bit of a shock the next day when there were no further hiccups.  After paying my dues – of course adding a sticker to the back of the certified copy of my degree does not come cheap – I took photographs of all the stamps and stickers and sent them immediately to the agent in China so he could carry on with sorting out the paperwork for my visa…

20170210_092725

It was February 10th.  It took a further month to get my visa to return to China.  I finally picked up my passport in London on 13th March, and headed straight to Heathrow for my evening flight…

Good things come to those who wait and wait…? (part 1)

8245-Good-Things-Come-To-Those-Who-Wait

I like to have a plan, maybe not with all the details sorted, but at least some idea of the direction in which I will be heading.  And yes, a plan B as well, just in case things go pear-shaped.  I accept I may have to make some tweaks and adjustments, if not totally change course – life happens.  But it helps me to sleep at night.

So with the ink on my latest contract for another year in China barely dry, I started plotting my next destination.  Vietnam, or Thailand perhaps…  I was certainly very  much taken with Bangkok last summer.  Working abroad within the parameters of local employment laws for foreigners often requires meticulous preparation and mountains of paperwork and  I was determined to make good use of my unexpected and enforced return to Europe.

Most countries, including Vietnam,  expect the foreign English teachers to be graduates and as these days degrees can easily be photo-shopped and bought  rather than earned, most countries ask for official documents, such as degree certificates, to be legalised…  This had not been necessary for my last employment visa for China, nor for India, but rumblings on the Expat rumour mill indicated that even in China the mood may be changing and legalisation will be introduced from  April 2017 onward..…  And speaking as a real graduate, with a real degree, I can only support this.

I had looked into legalisation before – last year when I happened to be in Belgium – as documents need to be legalised in the country of their origin.  Of course, I have a host of  postgraduate qualifications obtained in the UK (I am British after all..), but the one that everyone seems to want to check is your Bachelors or Masters Degree.  Although my first attempts to get to the bottom of ‘legalisation’ had failed – well, I did not really need it last year – this time, I was more tenacious and the internet suggested a trip to Brussels to the Legalisation Division of the Federal Public Service Foreign Affairs (FPSF) was involved.  I booked my flight to Belgium, allowing plenty of time for a trip to Brussels on Monday and booked the appointment…

It was only when scrolling down the confirmation email that I realised things were a little more complicated..  In Belgium, being the country that it is, consisting of two (or should I say three) autonomous regions speaking distinctly different languages, my appointment at the ‘Federal’ office had to be preceded by another visit to the ‘Flemish Community’ in Brussels after getting a certified copy of my degree from my Alma Mater…  ‘No problem,’ I thought, ‘I can fit in Leuven on my way from the airport on Friday… Hop  on the train, before visiting my family..’   only to find on my arrival in Leuven that the university admin office was closed on a Friday afternoon…

20170127_142522

With my Monday appointment at the FPSF booked for 11 am, it was going to be a tall order to travel to two different cities and three different offices to collect all the necessary stamps and signatures…  But Belgium is not exactly a big country, so distances are relative.  Thanks to the efficiency of Belgian trains, the Brussels metro network, and of course Google Maps to fill in the blanks, I succeeded with even the slightest whisker of time to spare and some leniency on the part of the officials at the FPSF!!  Plus I learnt that my humble degree is now recognised as a Master’s Degree..  I suddenly felt so much more intelligent!!

For good measure, I asked for two copies of my degree to be legalised…  you never knew when this might come in handy.  At least I would be able to skip this first part of the legalisation next time around.  Not sure which country I would choose next, I left visiting a foreign embassy to complete the process of legalisation for a later date…

Before leaving China in January, I handed all the necessary documents  (I was aware of) to my new agent, so he could apply for the Foreign Expert Certificate and my work permit whilst I squeezed in some European travel before handing my passport to the Chinese authorities in the UK for my new visa..  Throughout January I had implored the agent to double check the requirements, to make sure no sudden surprises would be sprung…  ‘Of course,’ he put me at ease, ‘You go and enjoy yourself…  I will let you know when I have the work permit…’

20170206_124024

I travelled to Italy whilst China was waking up after the New Year festivities and long national holiday, and my agent returned from his home town…   ‘I have had some feedback,’ his email read. ‘They need one more document from you…’ Suddenly it transpired that the ‘Foreigner Affairs Office’ insisted on a legalised copy of my Masters degree.    ‘Masters Degree?’ I questioned…  Since when had a Masters Degree been one of the demands for getting a Z-Visa for teaching English…???  And legalisation was not meant to take effect in Hangzhou until April…

‘I am sorry not let you know before [sic],’ he apologised, ‘for the new policy is just beginning from this year.  Everyone who want [sic] teaching in China need [sic] this document from this year.’   And had the Chinese authorities kept this a well-guarded secret? Or just decided to implement this without giving anyone due notice to be able to comply??  I wondered…   Or did the agent just not bother to check in advance when the impending changes would come into effect…  Or did only expats have knowledge of the new legislation, rather than the agents whose job it is to prepare the visa application paperwork…

‘They need you to go to the China Embassy of British [sic] to make your diploma to certificating authority [sic]. can you understand that? It is easy to get from the Embassy,’ he continued.  ‘Not so simple,’ I retorted. ‘A Belgian degree means a visit to the Chinese Embassy in Belgium…’  I had only been a stone’s throw from the correct Chinese Embassy when I was in Brussels less than a week before…  At least I did not have to start from scratch…

Flights  to Brussels at short notice were quite expensive… so expensive that I got a much better deal booking a city break in Brussels staying in a plush hotel…   Of course, even using the express service at the Chinese Consulate I would only be able to pick up my duly legalised degree the next day…  I secured my flight and hotel, scheduled to leave  Heathrow  on Thursday morning at 7 am to arrive in Brussels at 9am, with plenty of time to make it to the consulate before closing time at 11.30, or so I thought… (to be continued)

Tangled in the Sticky Web of a Chinese Contract…

trainingschool

When I signed my contract for China last year,  I knew the small print left a lot to be desired.  It was not just the small print, actually there was very little to commend the contract to anyone…  Pay seemed adequate.   Not generous, but then again it was hardly going to be a full time job and as demand for English teachers in China easily outstrips supply, salaries are simply boosted by doing some private work on the side.  Although the contract included provision for medical insurance (as required by Chinese law), there was no room for being sick, unless of course without salary…    Holiday pay was non-existent (apart from eight Chinese statutory holidays), on the other hand there was the potential of doing extra work in July and August to tide teachers over.   The work on offer by my agency amounted to more hours for less pay…   Would I be interested??  Really??

2011-07-07-4-benefits-of-being-a-foreign-teacher-in-china

The not inconsiderable cost of obtaining a working visa would be paid by the teachers, rather than the employer as is the norm in other industries (or ESL agencies in neighbouring countries)…  As far as getting flights reimbursed at the end of the contract, I worked out in an instant that under no circumstances anyone would ever be able to get the full amount promised by the contract.   ‘Pro rata’ definitely worked in the favour of the agency…    And if anyone thought of jumping ship mid-contract, the penalties for doing so involved the repayment of several months of salary…  Your only options would be to leave the country straight after payday never to return, taking all your hard-earned ‘kuai’ with you,  or vanish off the radar whilst hanging on to your hard-earned ‘kuai’  and join the merry band of illegally employed teachers and run the risk of deportation if caught…

Of course, I put out feelers and spoke to people on the ground before  signing…  Curiously, the agency’s London Office could only put me in touch with two teachers, both still in their honeymoon period after just six weeks in China and in the job…  Glowing reports flowed my way.  ‘Great job.  Great kids,’  Italian Anna assured me.  ‘Best thing I’ve ever done,’ South African Riaan declared.  But as the contract strictly forbade employees to say anything negative about either the agency or the schools, no surprises there, I was hardly going to get to the crux of things…   Anna profusely apologised afterwards knowing that her positive spin certainly glossed over the less attractive side of the job.   ‘I felt bad,’ she explained, but what choice did she have?

Although a lot of contracts for ESL teachers in China run along the same lines, mine was particularly ungenerous, probably one of the least generous ones I have come across.  But, in those early days, I placated myself:  I was going there for the experience,  and that was all that mattered…   At least I had read and understood the contract and started the job with my eyes wide open, which is more than can be said of the many younger teachers.  So even if the reality might turn out to be a tad uncomfortable, it would certainly be interesting..  And come the end of the contract, I would be free to leave and head for my next adventure!!

2009-07-27-teaching-english-in-china

The academic year ran relatively peacefully …   Just a few hiccups along the way as agencies use two different contracts: one for the teachers and another one for their schools.  Unfortunately,  the promises made to the schools do not always tally with the promises made to teachers and expectations vary accordingly.   Most things got smoothed over along the way quite effortlessly.  We, the foreign teachers, found refuge in our own ‘Foreign Teachers’ Office’ and our contact with the rest of the Chinese staff was limited to essential, need-to-know communication.   After a while one-sided efforts to integrate sapped all our energy  and seemed very pointless…  Plus, what the eye does not see, the heart doesn’t grieve over…  The feeling was definitely mutual!

In early October, with the end of my contract looming in the distance  and my daughter’s wedding in the UK just on the horizon, decision time was imminent: should I extend the Chinese episode or move to the next destination… ? In any event, no way would I spend another year in the little hamlet of Linping…  Too quiet, no pubs, no social life, no life…  Having filled the evenings of my first year in China with copious amounts of evening work and watching Grey’s Anatomy,  change was essential.  Downtown Hangzhou all the way, I thought!!

To keep things simple, I first approached my current agency to see whether they would improve on my salary and transfer me to a school in a more desirable location, in the heart of  Hangzhou civilisation, rather than on the periphery.  After weeks of dragging things out, I finally was given the best I could hope for…  A meagre increase (but at the top end of what any teacher in the agency could expect); a vague verbal promise of a relocation to downtown Hangzhou, depending upon vacancies; and a not so vague clause in the contract suggesting they could place me in any school in any area they deemed appropriate…  Plus could I also please pay an advance on my salary  for February/March so they could afford to pay for my medical insurance…  I would eventually get this money back in my April salary as, clearly, the contract stated that it was the agency’s responsibility to fork out for this and was part of the package…  ‘Hell, no,’ I said…  It was time to look elsewhere, so I did.

Of course the agency kept my school very much in the dark about my decision to leave after having  reassured them in September  that I would stay at least until the end of June, the full academic year…   An interesting pledge, especially as my contract was definitely due to finish in January and I certainly had not been approached by them with a request to extend it until June.  Suddenly, their proposed new contract made sense:  there would be no relocation to downtown Hangzhou, because, first and foremost, the agencies need to appease the schools…  I would have been given the choice of staying put –‘ Sorry, no suitable school available in downtown’ –  or moving to a less desirable area in China.  And having signed a contract with no real get-out clause, I would have been trapped and probably would have resigned myself to another six months of boredom…  Clearly the preferred outcome for the agency.   ‘Lucky escape!’ I thought.

Finding a new job was child’s play… In order of importance: I have the passport, I have the (Masters!!) degree, I have the  experience and a qualification to teach English as a foreign language, so I can get the right visa…  Although not a native by origin, my British passport is all that matters to qualify as a native English speaker in China… and believe you me, as a non-native at least I can write and speak grammatically correct English and have an accent that is universally understood…

bilingual-01

The sticky point was that the new job involved moving to another agency which made everything decidedly tricky.    Avoiding a costly visit back to the UK and applying for a new visa hinged on the transfer of my  ‘Foreign Expert Certificate’ and work permit before the expiry of my residence permit which coincided with the expiry of my contract…  and being the innocent piggy-in-the-middle between an aggrieved school and a thwarted agency meant I could expect no favours or help from either of them.

It may well have been that my agency’s hands were tied and it would have been difficult to effect the transfer any earlier, but any reputable agency – as I was told later – should allow for transfer time in their contract…  It is a mean streak, designed to discourage teachers to change agencies because of the cost and time involved in obtaining a new visa, especially since agencies (in China) expect the teachers to bear all the costs…

Although my new contract with the new agency is on much improved terms, it is still with an agency rather than directly with a school…  By the time my new boss (all of 25 years old and I can assure you that in the ‘interview over lunch’ I was the one asking the questions..) indignantly stated, ‘You have a British passport, you have the experience, you have the qualifications!!  You do not need an agency to get a job in China…’ I had already signed the contract… So, we will see how this one pans out…

You live and learn but some lessons are definitely more expensive than others…  And  not being able to transfer my ‘Foreign Expert Certificate’ and work permit turned out very expensive indeed…   (more in the next post)

 

Harbin: the fun of minus 20 degrees Celsius..

mmexport1484399326005

dscn3767

dscn3779

When the list of recommended travel essentials includes a ‘small flask of hard liquor’, you know you are either in for one hell of a party, or going to somewhere cold, very cold…  In my case, it was the latter, although a party would definitely be on the cards too!

As if the frosty temperatures of Hangzhou and Shanghai were not chilly enough, I decided to check out THE Chinese winter destination of Harbin, located in north-eastern China and sandwiched between Russia on the East and Mongolia on the West.   In the firm grip of the icy Siberian High anticyclone, Harbin winters are cold and dry and average day temperatures hover around minus 18.  Definitely a case of getting the extra layers and winter woollies ready to brave some serious subzero mercury… and of course packing generous supplies of hand warmers, foot warmers, body warmers, balaclavas as well as not forgetting the recommended ‘small bottle of something strong’ to add that shot of instant heat!

dscn3689

mmexport1484465839548

For the last thirty years, Harbin has hosted the Snow and Ice Festival, an extravaganza of snow and ice sculptures, which from mid January until end February attracts an avalanche of visitors to revel in the impressive accomplishments of its designers and artists.  Starting in mid-December, massive ice blocks hewn from the nearby frozen Songhua River, are sculpted into awe-inspiring buildings and monuments of different architectural styles.  Compacted snow is carefully and delicately carved into grandiose and mind-blowing statues.   In fact, in matter of a few weeks a small city fashioned out of ice rises up providing not only spectacular views for the visitors, but also a range of fun activities.  Adults and children alike spill from the ‘castle doorways’ on massive slides; a ‘cycle lane’ is brimming with ice-adapted bicycles; there are areas for ice hockey games… Awe-inspiring by day, the park transforms at night when the millions of LED lights meticulously threaded through the ice blocks are lit up and set the ice city aglow.

mmexport1484399307534

dscn3714

dscn3717

20170114_190403

dscn3704

dscn3733

Although most of the sculptures are found in the ‘Ice and Snow World’ and other dedicated parks, plenty of other statues and creations are dotted around the town.  An intrinsically carved train engine stands proud in the pedestrianised main street and a huge ‘frozen chicken’ heralds 2017 as the ‘Year of the Rooster’.

dscn3776

But Harbin is not just a destination for spectators and offers plenty of opportunity for action.  Whereas I had to give the ski slopes a miss on account of my knee (and probably the fact I was never any good at it in the first place…), there was plenty to keep me busy.  The ten-minute long husky ride (which included a full five minute photo shoot) and two circuits on a quad bike on ice set us back more than two hours on the slopes would have cost…   We were  in ‘tourist land’ and the locals had definitely cottoned on how to make the most of it..  Although to be truthful,  after just a short spell of thirty minutes outside, we were pretty glad to escape to the indoors and warm our hands, toes and noses..

dscn3645

More fun was to be had on the Songhua River, frozen solid in midwinter, and turned into an enormous playground at festival time.  Biking, skating, miniature tanks, ponies and even 4x4s set revellers spinning across the Songhua’s frozen surface.

dscn3771

And of course, there were those who literally preferred to take the plunge in the outdoor pool, cut into the frozen river…   Whereas the onlookers on the sidelines were carefully wrapped in thermal layers and covered with heat packs and heat patches to defeat the cold, the swimmers – mainly Russians – appeared from their huts,  scantily clad in bathing suits and bikinis and charming us with displays of bravado before, elegantly or otherwise, diving into the icy water…  Not for the faint-hearted, but after prancing around in the minus 15 air temperature, maybe the water felt pleasantly warm and none of them swam more than a few strokes before retreating back to their saunas …  I do not know, because – to be honest – I was not that keen on finding out…  Some boxes do not need to be ticked…

20170115_095221

dscn3755

dscn3750

dscn3765

 

 

China’s north-south divide of haves and have-nots.

Ever wondered why the children in my classroom wear coats inside when I am teaching??  I did when I first saw photographs and videos taken in Chinese classrooms… This was before I learnt about the Chinese north-south divide of haves and have-nots.

A mention of the north-south divide immediately brings to mind the line that separates the more wealthy from the less wealthy, or the economically developed countries from the less developed areas of the world, the haves from the have-nots.  In China, however, the north-south divide of haves and have-nots takes on a completely different meaning, especially in winter.   It is the great dividing line of being warm or cold in the months when temperatures dip to uncomfortable levels…  And Shanghai and Hangzhou are just on the wrong side of it…

f8bc126d97c41635377e03

About sixty years ago, in the time of the Great Leader, a plan was hatched to provide Chinese citizens with free central heating in homes and offices and centralised systems were installed in residential areas, with the assistance from the Soviet Union.  Laudable you may say, and so it would have been if the offer had embraced the whole of the country.   But at those years, China was facing extreme energy shortages and the then Premier, Zhou Enlai, suggested the Qin-Huai line, a well-known geographical demarcation between north and south, as a cut-off point.  Buildings to the north would be provided with free or heavily subsidized central heating for four months each winter; buildings to the south would have no heating facilities whatsoever…  Rather unfortunate for those living below the line, even by just a mile….

I had been told by other Westerners that the cold in Shanghai and Hangzhou is different. Not that anyone could explain why.    Although freezing temperatures are not unheard of, the mercury seldom dips below zero and hovers somewhere between the low single digits and just above ten…  Like a British winter, basically.  But whereas in Britain we move from one nicely warmed room to another toasty area, here the only way to stay warm is to keep moving, moving from one icy place to another even icier place… There is no escape from the clammy penetrating cold sweeping in from the sea.  It flood your entire body and soul right down to the core..

So how to endure a winter here?  People are resourceful and adapt.  Instead of just wrapping up warmly to venture outside into the cold, people wrap up even warmer when entering their arctic homes.  Shoes and trainers are replaced with fur-lined boots and Chinese people wallow all day long in thickly padded pyjamas that make normal movement impossible…  And with an extra coat on top.  And yes, in school windows are thrown wide open to allow the more temperate outside air to circulate and ‘warm up’ the classrooms.  My days at school are spent in a state of permafrost…

winter-pyjamas

Living in winter pyjamas

long-underwear

And then wearing long underwear underneath the pyjamas

In the meantime, I bought an extra woolly hat and special leggings and tights with fur on the inside.  Deliciously warm!!!

Luckily, China’s recent economic advancement has allowed for some improvement and newer apartments below the line of haves and have-nots now come with an air-conditioning-cum-heater units.  They are electrical, not very efficient and expensive to run, but at least they take away some of the chill.  For instance, my apartment has one located just next to the huge window, fighting off the biting cold permeating the double glazing.  But whilst the area around my window and bed easily reaches a sultry 25 degrees, the heat does not travel well and never extends to the bathroom at the other end.  Getting out of bed can be a trial and a frosty toilet seat is not exactly inviting; showers have to be kept short (not a lot of hot water in the small tank) and can only be started once the cubicle is misted up with hot steam.  I have been tempted to supplement my heating with a small electrical oil radiator; it’s all the rage… and probably more effective than the huge unit on the wall.  But with China trying to curb its greenhouse gases, maybe adding to them by generating the luxury of heat may well be frowned upon…

radiatortoilet-seat

Last winter, us foreign teachers were chastised for putting on the blow heater in our small office.  Why did we not put on our coats, like the rest of the teachers and students???  It was an alien notion to us then and at the point no one had explained the big divide which meant that heating was a luxury only to be enjoyed on very special occasions, such as a whole week of deep frost…

20160220_131946

I certainly no longer make fun of e-bikes fashioned with little blankets at the front to shield hands and body from the icy winds…You would do anything to keep warm…

Maybe  the solution is moving several thousands of miles to the south of the big dividing line…  Hmmm, and I have just signed up for another year in China, in Hangzhou…  I better invest in some more and warmer winter gear.

 

(drawings by Anna Z. and found on her blog post:  http://chinaslostpanda.com/how-to-stay-warm-in-china-without-central-heating/)

A matter of privacy, cleanliness and toilets…

Privacy is such a Western notion, or privilege maybe…

In the Western world, we take privacy for granted: a respectful space between the counter in the bank and the line of waiting customers; a discreet gap and hushed voices when talking to the receptionist in  the doctors’ surgery.  And of course closed bathroom doors..  it goes without saying.  Bodily functions belong in the realm of secrecy: we may not be able to suppress every tinkling and other unfortunate sound accompanying bathroom exploits, but at least there are no eye witnesses…  At least not in the ladies’…

In China, bathroom doors are clearly a recent addition.  Luckily,  living in the affluent Eastern city of Hangzhou, civilisation as I know it, is not too far behind.   Shopping malls and metro stations have cottoned on to the need for privacy and cubicles are neatly partitioned with doors.   Toilets are still mostly of the ‘squat’ variety and no handbag is complete without a generous stash of tissues, but a smattering of facilities now provide huge reels of toilet paper near the washbasins…  Sometimes there is even a soap dispenser!

However, the availability of doors does not mean that they are used and often women just  leave doors ajar or open and get on with their business in full view as if it is everyone else’s business.   Apparently, it is to do with cleanliness: opening and closing doors requires touching handles that may have been touched by hundreds of other people before you; sitting on a toilet seat involves a close encounter with a seat that has been sat upon by possibly hundreds of other people..  you get the drift.  Whereas the Western idea of cleanliness focuses on not spreading the germs we carry with us by cleansing us and all surfaces of those germs we incidentally pick up and leave behind,  the Chinese idea of cleanliness focuses on not touching anything that may be covered with germs in the first place, which is basically everything…

20161005_133311

dscn3546-2

During my travels to far flung Chinese destinations where Western practices and habits have not yet fully penetrated, toilet facilities have been much more primitive.  Of course, doors are completely missing and instead of individual squat or floor toilet pans, a mere gully divided by waist high walls provides opportunities for relieving oneself..  Sometimes even the little walls are missing,.   And flushing toilets??  Building the gully with a slant takes care of that problem…

I have been lucky in my school as the toilet block used by the teachers is pretty reasonable:  three individual toilets of the squat variety, complete with doors.  Not that I ever had a great need of using them, only turning up at school to deliver my lessons and then disappearing back to my flat.  But after my surgery, walking backwards and forwards between flat and school was going to be more problematic and longer days at school would necessitate making use of the bathroom facilities…  Not being able to bend my knee was going to add an interesting dimension to using a squat toilet…

Early inquiries about the existence of a Western toilet at the school, had been greeted with doubtful looks: no Western toilet that anyone was aware of.  But during my week’s absence, a disabled toilet had been discovered, tucked away on the ground floor near the Middle school.  Hooray… surely a disabled toilet would be a Western-style toilet; they certainly  were in the shopping malls.   And indeed, when I wobbled there on my crutches and found it, it was…

20161227_153413-2

but no way was I going to use it…

It would have been bad enough for a Chinese student to have to use it in full view, but can you imagine the stares I would have had as a foreign teacher…     One thing I could be sure of: cleanliness Chinese-style would be fully guaranteed.  This was one toilet seat that had not been touched by hundreds of others beforehand, and as it was not even linked to the plumbing system, had probably never been touched at all…

With a little bit of willpower, some ingenuity and the help of my crutches, I managed the squat toilets and just reduced the number of coffees I had..