Newcomer

My husband Rora arrived in China on June 2. It is only his second time to be out of Egypt, and while the first time was only a short vacation in Germany, he has now moved to China for good. This interview was conducted by me, Cairene, on the evening of June 8, less than a week after his arrival.

Cairene: “Hi Rora, after a few days in China, what are your first impressions?”

Rora: “My first impressions? Well, I was expecting a big culture shock, and the shock for me was that there was no culture shock. I feel that I simply moved from one area of Cairo to another area of Cairo somehow. Not that Hanzhong is like Cairo in any way, it is much greener, and much nicer than Cairo, but the general atmosphere, in my opinion, is not that far from what I’m used to.”

Cairene: “What would you say are the biggest differences?”

Rora: “The biggest differences are that there are Chinese characters everywhere and that I don’t understand them, which is nice, because now I don’t have to take care of so many things anymore.”

Cairene: “And what would you say are the biggest similarities?”

Rora: “Today we were walking in the street with some friend of yours…”

Cairene: “I didn’t know the person! …. Now she’s a friend!”

Rora: “… and I realized that we are walking in the middle of the street…”

Cairene: “Instead of the sidewalk…”

Rora: “Exactly. Because this is China, and it’s more like Cairo in this regard. If this were Berlin or some other European city we would have been walking on the sidewalk.”

Cairene: “What is the most difficult thing for you here?”

Rora: “The crappy internet. Ah, and the chopsticks. I’m still learning to eat with them. It’s difficult, but if I don’t want to starve I will learn it eventually.”

Cairene: “What do you think about the people?”

Rora: “Well, there are two kinds of Chinese I have met until now. The one kind are in big cities like Xi’an where people are basically ignoring you, and might even bump into you sometimes – this seems to be the same in every big city in the world, though. And the other kind are people from a smaller city like the one we are in now and they are more curious about you, they smile at you and they are more relaxed and nicer.”

Cairene: “And they might even start a random conversation with you in the street like the lady today. How do you like the food?”

Rora: “It’s Chinese food. It’s delicious! I like it a lot. Even the spicy stuff. Well, until now I haven’t eaten anything really spicy, but I like it!”

Cairene: “What do you miss most about Egypt?”

Rora: “My family of course, but so far nothing else really.”

Cairene: “Is there anything else that you want to say to our readers?”

Rora: ”Next time you come to China make sure that your roaming and internet service are actually working, because if not you might get lost in a big big country.”

Cairene: “That’s coming from an IT guy.”

Rora: “Exactly.”

Cairene: “From an IT who didn’t make sure that it’s working before he left… Hehe… One last question: what is the weirdest thing you’ve seen so far?”

Rora: “Little kids peeing and shitting in the streets. That’s nasty!”


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Settling: Leisure

Working only 20 hours per week, I have a lot of free time. You might wonder what I do with all that downtime, and what Chinese people usually do when they don’t have to work – many work long hours, often 12 hours per day, 6 days per week.

For one, I love reading and listening to audiobooks. Since coming to China two months and a half ago I have finished 18 books, and, by the time I publish this post, I might have finished another two. The audiobooks I’m currently listening to, with a few exceptions, are autobiographies, and the books I’m reading these days are either collections of short stories, novels, or non-fiction. The books relevant for this blog, i.e. China related, that I have read in the last few weeks are W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, On a Chinese Screen, and Yu Hua’s China in Ten Words. Betimes I will write reviews for them and publish them on this blog.

Chinese people like reading, too. Many of my colleagues read books in the office once they are done with lesson planning and grading. I, too, frequently read e-books on my  phone during breaks. There are bookshelves in each classroom and in the hallways, and many kids read when they find time to do it – some even read during class time… Bookshops are popular and often crowded, and while the foreign language sections are usually not well stocked, I still enjoy browsing them.

Another important part of Chinese people’s daily lives is physical exercise. At school most students use all the free time they can find to play some sport or other. My students have a 30 minute PE lesson every morning, as well as another one throughout the day. During their other breaks they can be seen in the hallways playing catch, hide and seek, shuttlecock, dancing, or inventing their own kind of games, or they are outside playing table tennis, basketball, badminton, football, rope skipping, or running. Many teachers join them in the activities, or play sports during their own breaks.

Whatever time of day one goes out into the streets of Hanzhong one can find people playing sports. In the mornings grandmas and grandpas can be seen in parks and squares practicing tai chi. Throughout the day people exert themselves at outdoor gyms or go for a run along the riverbank. In the evening aunties and some uncles can be found dancing in the squares and parks. Even at night people still play sports: the local bike club, for example, meets at 7:30 pm every day, and returns well after nightfall.

I frequently ride my bike around the countryside or explore parts of the city. Sometimes I only take short 10 km rides to the city center and back, at other times I ride up to 30 km through villages, rice fields, up and down hills, along the river or tributaries, on proper streets or dirt roads, through open spaces and forests. I love this way of exploring my surroundings, and now that I own a lightweight hammock, I’m always well equipped for comfortable breaks with a view, provided I find two trees that grow close enough together.

On weekends and particularly on national holidays, Chinese people will flock to the countryside to go hiking, see colorful flowers in bloom, climb a mountain, visit some historical sights, or have a barbecue far away from the city. In short, Chinese people love the outdoors! And given the fact that the countryside is simply gorgeous I can’t blame them. This, however, often leads to the scenic spots being crowded, the ways to and fro clogged with traffic, and the natural places full of litter.

Chinese people also love spending time with their children and grandchildren. Families are close-knit, and grandparents often live in the same home as parents and children. Not only do they spend time together at home, but also outdoors: when you see Chinese parents with their little child you can be sure that the grandparents are nearby.

Chinese elders seem to be very well integrated into social life, and wherever I go I see elderly people. This is a stark contrast to other countries where old people waste away in retirement homes, hidden from the public eye. Nearly every day I see groups of old folks playing cards, Chinese chess, or mahjong under some big tree on the pavement, in parks, or on squares. As I mentioned above, many older citizens engage in physical exercise on a daily basis, and are thus quite sprightly.

With my internet addiction I fit right into Chinese society. I spend many hours of my day online, both on my laptop and smartphone, usually surfing on Facebook, chatting with friends on WhatsApp or WeChat, watching movies or clips on Youtube, or reading the news. Chinese people LOVE the internet. They do a lot of online shopping, order food, taxis, or many services from their phones, pay on the go with their WeChat Wallet, play video games, share selfies, livestream their activities, blog, comment, and watch films. Of course Facebook and Youtube are blocked here – yet still accessible through VPN and proxy servers – but China has QQ and WeChat, Sina Weibo, Taobao, Baidu, Youku, and many other websites instead.

Last but not least is of course food. I, and the Chinese, love to eat. Which comes as no surprise, because Chinese food is just extremely delicious, and offers a lot of variety. In only a short time I’ve had a barbecue with my friends at least three times, hot pot at least once a fortnight, and random other food outings with others at least once a week. While food at restaurants is usually quite good, it’s even better to be invited at some family home. These Chinese aunties really know how to cook up some treats!

This account of leisure time activities is of course not exhaustive, as there are many other things that can be done here, and that I do here. I will surely write about others in the future, but for now this shall suffice.


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Photography: Hanzhong

What follows are some random shots from Hanzhong’s Hantai District and Nanzheng County that I have taken between March and May.

Settling: City

China, also known as the People’s Republic of China, consists of 31 provincial-level devisions, among them the province of Shaanxi. While Shaanxi is commonly regarded as a Northwestern province, it is located more or less exactly in China’s center. And if I had to name China’s most central city, I would name Hanzhong 汉中, which translates to “middle of the Han River”.

Hanzhong has been my home for a bit over two months now, and I very much enjoy living here, as the quality of life is high, the air, compared to many other Chinese cities, very clean, the city very green, and the food great! Hanzhong is located in a basin, surrounded on all sides by mountain ranges: the Daba Mountains in the south, and the Qin Mountains in the north. The Han River and several tributaries flow through Hanzhong, which offer splendid opportunities for walks and bike rides along the river banks.

To be exact, Hanzhong is a prefecture-level city, which is further divided into ten counties and one district. As I live south of the Han River, I live in Nanzheng County, and the more densely populated urban area north of the river is called Hantai District. Wherever you look, Hanzhong is rapidly modernizing, and high rise apartment buildings are shooting from the ground like the mushrooms in Sylvia Plath’s poetic forest floor. Some older living quarters can still be found throughout the city, but I am sure they, too, will soon be flattened to make space for modern apartments.

At the moment Hanzhong can be reached by long-distance buses, slow trains, and a few air links. Traveling to Shaanxi’s provincial capital, Xi’an, currently takes around four hours by bus – a very scenic route as long as one is in the basin; once one reaches the mountains one tunnel follows the next. I have, however, heard talk about a high-speed rail connection, said to commence operations in autumn, which will connect Hanzhong with the rest of the country.

To get from one part of the city to another countless city buses operate all day – though I must say that 8:30 pm is really not a good time to finish operations. If one is not inclined to walk after the buses retire for the night, there are countless taxis as well. I am independent from these forms of transportation, as I have my own bicycle, and Hantai District is small enough to be crossed on two wheels. Living south of the river, I am close to the countryside, and can easily go for rides out into the green valleys and hills.

Hanzhong has a long history, dating back to times before 220 BC. During the time of the Three Kingdoms (220-280 AD) Hanzhong was an important location for military strategy, and the Han Dynasty is named after the area. Despite the many years of settlement in the Hanzhong Basin, not many ancient structures, with a few exceptions, remain.

Hantai District satisfies shoppers’ every need with one shopping mall adjoining the next. My heart is made happy by the countless cafes that can be found throughout the city, and I often sit in one to do research for this blog and write new posts. Wherever you look restaurants, ranging from little hole in the walls to five star hotel food temples, can be found, which offer all the local delicacies, as well as international foods. Trees line next to every street here, and several well-kept parks can be found as well. Overall it is very clean here, and public and private places seem generally well maintained.

At the moment I could not imagine a better place to live in! Hanzhong is big enough to host all necessary facilities, and small enough to not be too crowded. Having lived in the mega-city of Cairo for the last four years, Hanzhong’s small town life is quite a welcome change.

After last week’s post on my job, and today’s on my city, I will write about the locals’ and my leisure time activities next week.


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Settling: Job

I can’t believe I’ve been in Hanzhong for 60 days already. Time flies quickly indeed!

That’s 60 days of new adventures, new friends, new opportunities.

And 60 days without my husband, Rora.

15 more days, and he’ll be here, too.

What follows is the first of three parts on settling in, regarding my job. The next weeks I will focus on my city, Hanzhong, and leisure time activities respectively.

Job

I teach oral English in a private primary school and kindergarten to students aged 4-6 and 9-12. As my previous teaching experience was always with those over the age of 12, I wanted to work with that age group again. As the other foreign teacher arrived at the school before I did, however, he was able to choose the grades he wanted to teach, and I was assigned the others. Or, as our foreign affairs officer (FAO), Lou, put it: “This way you can gain experience in a new field.”

I must admit, I really enjoy teaching my grades 4, 5, and 6 now. The students are generally well behaved, and their Chinese English teachers help to maintain order and discipline – at least most of the time. In primary school I teach 23 classes, and see all of them once a week for 30-45 minutes, and in kindergarten I teach 8 classes, 4 each week, for 25 minutes each. I don’t particularly want to teach kindergarten students, and I have expressed my dismay to the school, but somebody has to do it. Don’t get me wrong, the kids are cute and funny, but it’s just not my thing – I don’t show that in class, though.

The average school day of primary school students at my school looks something like this: they get up at 6:50 am, have breakfast, then attend “morning class”, during which they do some reading practice or review, from 7:30 to 8 am.  Regular lessons begin at 8:10 am and end at 11:45 pm; during this time they have four lessons and ample breaks in between that are filled with snacks (usually some fruit and buns) and physical exercises. This is followed by a 2.5 hour lunch and nap break, and afternoon classes are between 2:35 pm and 5:45 pm – four lessons with breaks in between. The students then have a dinner break from 5:45 pm until 7:20 pm and “evening class” from 7:20 pm to 8:20 pm for grades 1-4, and to 8:55 pm for grades 5 and 6. Bedtime is, I believe, at 10 pm. They have class from Monday to Friday, as well as Sunday afternoon.

My school, reportedly the top school in the area, is also a boarding school. Most students sleep here, and only see their families on weekends, others live in nearby apartments with their parents, grandparents, and sibling. No, the singular form of sibling is not a spelling mistake. After the one-child-policy was amended to be a two-child-policy, many Chinese families have opted for a second child. Many of my students’ siblings, however, were born before the policy was changed; in other words, they have rich parents who could afford the penalties that had to be paid in order to be allowed to have a second child.

The kids have lessons in English, Math, Chinese, Science, Art, Music, Computer, PE, and an optional class (cooking, cross-stitching, rope-skipping, etc.). And they have my oral English class. There is no curriculum for this kind of class, and my school does not provide a course book or material, so it is up to me what we do in class. We play English games, sing songs, the kids have to practice pronunciation, sometimes we watch a short movie and discuss it, or they have to work on tasks in groups and present their results to the class. There is no homework or test in my class, which means there is less stress in my class, too.

Each primary school class consists of up to 45 students, and in kindergarten there are up to 25 children in one class. Add all the numbers and you will realize that I teach up to 1000 students each week. I assume there are over 5000 students enrolled in my school.

Please note that this is not representative of all primary schools in China. In most primary schools the schooldays are much shorter, and the workload lower. As a top school, however, my school has the aim of putting as many graduates into the best universities in China and abroad as possible. There even is a “wall of fame” along the high school building, giving information on previous students who managed to get into such prestigious universities as Beijing or Tsinghua University.

Speaking of the school: while the kindergarten and nursery are each housed in separate buildings outside the school campus, the primary, middle, and high school all share the same campus, albeit all have their own buildings. There are, furthermore, the following things on campus: a huge canteen with several floors where students and employees can have breakfast, lunch, and dinner; a fine-art/music building, the administration building, a large hall, the students’ and teachers’ dormitories and teachers’ apartments, a huge basketball court, a football field with racetrack, and lots and lots and lots of trees and other plants everywhere.

I work approximately 20 hours per week, and while I do have quite a full schedule, I do not have any required office hours. My lessons take place between 8am and 4pm, and I have a lot of free time every day, which I spend reading, writing, riding my bike, watching TV shows, and surfing online. Lesson planning is minimal, as I usually teach the same lesson in all my primary classes – I simply adjust them based on the class’s English level. In kindergarten I can use one lesson plan for two weeks. I love this job, as it makes me and my students happy, isn’t too stressful, and provides me with enough money and time to enjoy life. Summer and winter vacation add up to 3 or 4 months, and almost every month there is some national holiday or other, which means additional days off throughout the school year.

There are many critics of foreign oral English teachers. The most common argument is that the teachers are not qualified. While this is often unfortunately true, the Chinese government is making it more difficult for unqualified people to obtain a working permit. I can, with pride, say of myself to be fully qualified to be an English teacher in China: not only do I hold a degree in English from a British university, but, besides many years of teaching experience, also have a teaching diploma, and thus the necessary background in education.

Another reason oral English teachers are belittled by many is that they are an example of what is often called a “white monkey job”. Many Chinese companies will hire foreign staff, preferably white Westerners, and use their foreign faces as a means of advertisement to make their product more attractive to buyers – kind of like the exploitation of circus or beggars’ animals. They claim superiority of their services, and thus justify charging higher fees. It’s a win-win situation for both employers and employees: the company makes more money, and the employee gets a high salary and many benefits (free housing, free food, travel bonus) for a stress-free job, while his or her only merit might often be nothing more than the color of his or her skin, the passport he or she is holding, or the native language he or she might speak.

A 30-45 minute oral English class once a week – or 25 minutes in kindergarten – might not be very efficient for such large classes, but I believe that those students, who are interested in the language, can still benefit from even such little practice. White monkey job or not, I strive to do my best and try to make my classes fun for the students. And I have some hope that I can teach my kids at least a little bit of English.

Surprise

Walking towards the exit, I saw a big sign with my name on it, and the Chinese woman who held the sign, Rita, was smiling and waving at me. Approaching, I noticed that there was an older foreign lady standing next to Rita, doing the same thing. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I noticed who the lady was! J. from Australia, who has been living in China with her husband A. since 2012. We used to be living close to each other in Yangshuo, Guilin, Guangxi for several months when I was still in China, and often met each other. We had stayed in contact for some years, but as I am somewhat lazy when it comes to responding to e-mails, I hadn’t heard from them in some time, and wasn’t sure whether they were still in China, had moved elsewhere, or gone back home to retire. They moved to Shaanxi province some eight months ago, and by chance J. had heard on Friday afternoon that Rita was picking up some German teacher from the airport the next day.

After check-in, I spent the afternoon at See Tang Hostel near the Southern Gate, getting to know some Buckland employees, and catching up with J. and A. over some tea and Muslim noodle soup. On leaving the small Muslim restaurant, I noticed that I had been in that street before – six years prior, on my first trip to China, I had visited a tea shop there.

Later that day, after the two Aussies had left, I was joined by university student Heather, who has been a friend since my teaching days in Yongzhou, Hunan, and one of her classmates, Ava. In the evening we went to one of my favorite places in all of China: Xi’an’s Hui Muslim Snack Street! We shared many delicious, local specialties, such as 羊肉泡馍 (yang rou pao mo), a mutton stew with pieces of bread, also known as my favorite dish in China, 肉夹馍 (rou jia mo), aka. Chinese hamburger, 菠萝 (bo luo), aka. half a pineapple on a stick, some rice cake, and some other snacks. While talking to some friends in Egypt later that night, I commented that I had eaten a bigger variety of flavors in one night in China than I had in four years in Cairo!

On Sunday morning I had some sheep intestine soup for breakfast – it tasted much better that it sounds!

J., A., and Heather were not the only friends from bygone days I met so soon after my return to China. Sunday noon I met my Hawaiian friend B., who has been living in Shaanxi for five years, and he introduced me to R. from the US and J. from Scotland. Our plan was to have biang biang noodles (aka. belt noodles) for lunch, and I’m pretty sure we told the waitress the correct thing in Chinese, but we were served some bowls of 羊肉泡馍 instead. We then headed to one of the countless shopping malls, ate donuts, and the others bought some imported goods they can’t live without. B. and J. soon headed back to Weinan, while R. and I explored some more shopping malls and haggling markets. After a short stopover at a cake shop we decided a foot massage would be the thing to do.

Oh, what a pleasure!

In Egypt massage parlors are hard to find and treatments only for the wealthy. Not so in China: most neighborhoods have at least one massage parlor, and they are often very affordable – but some can charge a fortune, too. R. and I opted for a foot massage, which cost 30 RMB (a bit over 4 US$) each, and lasted about one hour. The perfect thing to do after flying halfway around the globe!

R. proved to be a good resource for information about my new school and home in Hanzhong, Shaanxi, as she previously lived and taught there for two years. As there are not many foreign residents or travelers in Hanzhong, online information about the city in English is rather scarce – a circumstance that will change with this blog. I had many questions that R. was able to answer, and I became more and more excited about finally reaching my new home.

Sunday evening I went to the Hui Muslim Snack Street for another round of food, and on Monday morning I packed my bags once more. Before departing to Hanzhong, however, it was time for the mandatory health check. Five years prior I had to take the health check in a grubby, cold hospital in Guilin, Guangxi, where people were smoking inside the doctors’ offices. Not so in the hospital in Xi’an: clean, organized, people waiting in lines, nobody was smoking, the rooms were heated, and the doctors spoke English!

After that was out of the way I had lunch with Rita and Joanna from Buckland, and then was on my way to the bus that would take me to Hanzhong.

Departure: 40 minutes delay.

The bus ride was quite comfortable, and I was very much surprised that the bus not only had seatbelts, but that use of them was mandatory!

Four hours, fifty two tunnels, and some stunning mountain vistas later I was home: Hanzhong, Shaanxi, People’s Republic of China.


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