Holidays and Homesickness

Lanzhou

Four weeks!

We are in the midst of four weeks of holiday!

LanzhouWe have been in China for just over one month – during which time we have met people, travelled around Lanzhou a little, participated in a concert, sorted out visas, residence permits, lost suitcases, found suitcases, done medical checks, wrestled with the Banking System of Lanzhou, organised bus tickets and food cards for the canteen and finally been successful in using WeChat for just about anything.

All of these procedures took time for us to organise.

We also spent days in the Foreign Teachers office, navigating our way through curriculum and learnt our very first (very few) words in Chinese – 早上好.

We settled into our spacious flat, sorted out our water cooler/heater, cooked on our hot plate, bought our wok and pot set, purchased some crockery and cutlery (no ‘normal’ knives yet). We bought some cushions (online from Tao Bao, of course) some featuring the Union Jack (of course) and others the Tree of Life ( to go with the random tree painted on our bedroom wall by a previous American teacher) and figured out all the Chinese instructions on all the various gadgets.

our flat
We learnt to live with the large section of van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ which is painted on our lounge wall – also by some random American teacher…

We mastered the canteen, gained some skill with chopsticks (including the correct and well-mannered way in which to eat with and abandon them – never leave them pointing upward like two incense sticks!)

eatingWe now recognise most of the dishes served, and we know which ones we like and which ones we dislike, but we still cannot eat a drumstick or a plate of prawns without using our fingers – a skill which the Chinese people do possess.

BHGWe can ride some of the bus routes confidently and find our way to Wumart (like South African Checkers), BHG (like South African Pick n Pay) and Vanguard (probably up there with South African Woollies).

Oreo

We know that there are really only about 4 types of cookies on the supermarket’s shelves that we like and enjoy and that yoghurt is mostly of the thin and drinkable variety, except for one brand, which our fridge is chock-a-block with. We also know that it is very, very difficult to find good cheddar cheese or any cheese for that matter (a particular hardship for me), and Marmite is nowhere to be found, which breaks Lex’s heart.

We know which bread to buy, but mostly we don’t bother, and that butter is imported and very expensive.

We know that face creams nearly all contain whitening agents because we also know that often West is seen as Best, and we know that we know that that is definitely not always true.
We have found out, to our extreme cost, that deodorant is also almost impossible to find, and when it is, it is very expensive.

All these things are true for Lanzhou, which is a small city in China. Small, that is, for China, as it still has roughly the same population as Cape Town.

Lex and I have no Chinese at all, and the vast majority of Chinese here have no English – but that does not stop any Chinese person from speaking to us rapidly and fluently as if we understood every word.
We also know that we constantly give people reason to stop and stare at us, and parents explain what we are to their little children. May we be the first non-Chinese people they have ever seen?

We have been told that people stand up for us in buses because we are Foreign and not because we are ‘old’. We do not understand why this might be so.
Anyway, there are also so many other things that we encounter all the time but still do not understand.

And now it is holidays, and all around us our Western friends have left, some to New Zealand, some to India and some back to South Africa.
For the most part, we are alone in the huge school building.
We knew it was going to happen and we were not sure how we would feel. And now it is upon us.

Our colleagues were not gone long before they began posting pictures of themselves back in their home country.

There was one of a young man, who posted a picture of himself, sitting astride a classic motorbike back home in Mumbai, with a piece of a wall and a distinctive Indian door in the photo behind him.

Others sent a picture of themselves (tall South Africans smiling into a sunny day) standing on a hot Karoo lawn with a large shady tree and a white homestead glowing behind them.

I pour over typed messages from our beloved children, far away in South Africa. I look at their dear faces, frozen in time in the few photos they send, interspersed as they are with the occasional video chat, done as best we can while the VPN rises and falls.

I try to make calls to my extraordinary elderly mother, often without success. Does she not hear the phone, or does it not ring? I try to hide my frustration listening to it ringing on and on, while I stand at the window, watching the snow fall.

The doors to the flats of our fellow teachers have been sealed with strips of white paper, on which something is written in Chinese script. What does it say? Gone away, gone away…

The passages of the school are all empty and silent.

Snowy pathways outside have been swept clean and there are no footsteps, apart from the little prints of a child’s that I saw one day, leaving the path and making little crisscrossing running footprints in the snow.
I know the little boy who made him. He is a grandchild of one of the cleaners.
I have spotted him often – sometimes wailing over his lunch because something was not to his liking, or trailing behind a cluster of chattering women as they sweep and mop, and once, at the concert, with his own yellow toy dog dangling from one hand by its red thread, wearing a jersey with the words ‘I’m happy’ stitched across the front.

I miss everybody.

But so far we actually do feel pretty good on this 4 week holiday.
Lex and I are each others’ best friend.
The days start slowly and we begin with our meditation time together. We do our yoga stretches.
We eat fruit and drink warm water.

seeds
My favourite snack is now a Chinese one – it looks like parrot food, but when you crack the husk the kernel is salty and almost roasted in flavour.
We pass the days reading and writing and later we download and watch BBC series.
We cannot travel because our passports are with Home Affairs right now. We’ll get them back in a couple of weeks.
We have Chinese to learn, blogs to write, novels to finish, websites to organise and books to read.
We have Lanzhou to explore, parks to stroll in, cappuccino Cafes to discover and temples to visit.
We have people to watch and be fascinated by. Loads of them.
For a few days right now everything can wait.
We are resting and, well, just being.
We have time and we are grateful.

Temple

In Concert

Foreign teachers

When we were asked to participate in the New Year Concert we were told that the Foreign Teachers contribution had already been choreographed. In fact, it had already been performed before, once, at a Sports meeting, I think.

L and I were shown the steps. It was a line dance, Western in theme. I supposed the Wild West idea was chosen because we are sort of Western.

We were to perform the dance against a backdrop of a dusty street in a Western Town.
L and I were willing, and we did our best to learn the steps, after a fashion…

Tao Bao is an online Chinese store ( from which, we have been told, you can by ANYTHING) and it was from Tao Bao that we received our costumes, one red Stetson, one red bandana and a black t-shirt each.

L and I did not sleep well the night before – I kept doing the steps over and over in my mind. I woke up that morning to the sound of L practising his steps in the kitchen. He didn’t look very well over breakfast.

We went to the auditorium at the requested time. We seemed to be early – Chinese time and Africa time have a few minutes in common – and all of us Foreign Teachers sat in the chairs that had been assigned to us.

Foreign teachers
As we entered we had to sign in at the door and as a reward (I felt anyway) we were each handed a small yellow cuddly dog with red stitching. L and I immediately named our two identical dogs Tao and Bao.

The stage was trimmed with huge clusters of colourful balloons. The Chinese teachers began to arrive, and some were in evening gowns fit for the Academy Awards. There was no red carpet, but there was plenty of red everywhere else.

The show began and all the Chinese staff had obviously been working very hard on their performance pieces. We had heard a little of the rehearsals taking place in various classrooms (they had been loud and vigorous – and sometimes a little off key)

The stage was backed by a very big screen and the show went on for over three hours. I had no idea that the staff of our small 300 pupil school extended to nearly 150! And everyone had participated in some way.

All items were in Chinese, except for the backing soundtrack of a couple of the dances, which was American pop or rap.
There were little dramas (skits) which we could get the gist of, but obviously, the humour was mostly lost on us.

There were classic pieces, a kind of Chinese opera and a very dramatic piece about China, that was very emotional, and even I found myself feeling quite stirred and a touch patriotic!
There were many awards given out, which were received by great big groups of people.
There were many speeches, and, sitting in the front row – a place where us Foreign Teachers often seem to end up – we appreciated the few sentences of English spoken in amongst the Chinese words.

We were item number 14 on the agenda, and we had not watched many of the performances before we realized that our piece was probably not quite up to the rather high standard set by the Chinese teachers.

Our turn did come eventually, and we got up and did it. L and I were in the back row and the bank of balloons thankfully hid our footwork from the front row of viewers. We were also positioned behind our more experienced (and talented) co-workers, who have quite a flair for dancing, as it turns out.
DanceI missed a good deal of the moves, and I glimpsed L going off at a bit of a tangent during the middle bit. We both recovered and ended more or less where we should, and when we sat down we breathed a huge sigh of relief.

The program continued for a good while after our set, and I think I enjoyed it more because I could relax.
During the concert, a character in one of the little dramas started throwing red envelopes, with gold writing on them into the auditorium. We got one and inside we found a one yuan note. Our first red envelope which is apparently the traditional way of gift giving – and the money inside is essential!
During another performance, very small goodies were also thrown into the audience. I caught one – it was a little piece of tofu – vacuum packed!

New Years dinnerAfter the performance, we all moved to the dining hall for lunch. Buffet style, the food was definitely of an American flavour and the hall was decorated with New Year decorations. Happy New Year! (Again)
The tables were decorated in the centre with fruit and carbonated drinks and cans of beer.

We took our platters and helped ourselves to the food which was, unfortunately, a little cold – the concert had gone on a bit – but we dished up French fries, fried chicken, fish nuggets and an assortment of salads and vegetables.

ToastingWhen we were done the toasting began, which involved groups of people moving from table to table saying: 新年好, or in English: Happy New Year! And raising tins of beer or paper cups of Coke or Fanta.
Groups of people circulated and eventually, I could say ‘Happy New Year!” in Chinese. I have now, of course, completely forgotten the words, which happens to me quite a lot. I find the particular tones used in the Chinese language so hard to remember, but I do keep on trying.

We left the dining hall with bananas and nectarines stuffed in our coat pockets for later – that was our last meal from the canteen. Everyone was leaving for their long four week Spring Festival/New Year break. Except us.

Tao and BaoIn our flat, we sat one dog on our bed (Tao) and one in the lounge (Bao, or Bow wow wow). They are to be our company for the next four weeks!

Later all teachers were summoned down to the Finance Office and we were given cash for the New Year (in China, I have realized, Good Luck and cash are inexplicably linked).

The Year of the Dog is on its way!

 

 

Year of the Dog

The Foreign Office

At the moment there are only 7 of us in the foreign teachers’ office.

The office is warm, with a view of some of Lanzhou’s new tall buildings. Many of them have only appeared over the last 2 years I have been told. Apparently, Lanzhou is growing at an incredible rate.

my workstationI have been assigned to a desk and have been given an impressive array of stationery. I have colourful circle magnets on my filing cabinet and an assortment of pens and pads and little sets of drawers.
I have always loved stationery and it is plentiful and cheap here, because ‘everything made in China.’

The other teachers are finishing the terms’ reports, and observing from the outside (my favourite place to be), I have noted that there are quite a few complications due to a fair number of instructions being lost in translation.
Another factor is that it seems that the children, sometimes on a whim, change their English names. As their English names were never given to them by their parents, they are quite free to be changed. Charles has now become Bob, and Kingsley is now Liam. And the Chinese teachers, whose job it is to translate all English comments, do not know the childrens’ English names in the first place!

I have been trying to do Lesson Plans for the next term, and to some extent, I have succeeded. But it’s strange to be planning for a situation that I have no way of understanding.

The children have already left the school for their break. When we arrived lessons had stopped for the term, but we met many of the children anyway, who were still writing their Chinese exams.

– Hello. Hello. –
The children chorus, with broad smiles, adding
– What is your name? –

We respond with Hellos, and our name, and ask their names in return.

The conversations continue over meals in the dining hall. On the first day, we were handed trays piled with a lot of everything and a plastic spoon.

foodSince then we have learned. Now we stand in the queue with our empty trays and point to whatever we select. We pick up a set of black plastic chopsticks like everyone else and find a place to sit at the tables.

The food is good, an assortment of stir-fried saucy meat or vegetable dishes.
In Lanzhou, there is always a touch, or more than a touch, of chilli. We ladle a spoonful of sticky rice onto our tray.

There are often white rolls or buns, like dumplings, to be found on the side. Sometimes, hidden within their white softness there is a secret filling.
There is also always a pot of soup. Thin and watery, sometimes containing thin transparent bunches of seaweed or Gojiba seeds or ginger or an assortment of other unknown ingredients, it is to be drunk from small silver bowls.

Much has had to be accomplished in these first days at the school for L and me.
We are driven everywhere by our young Chinese fixer and the drivers employed by the school. We ride in one of two cars. Once the wrong car came for us – wrong because its registration number ended in the wrong number for that particular day. Certain numbers can only be driven on, for example, Tuesday and Thursday and Saturdays, and other numbers on Mondays and Wednesdays and Sundays.

Some of the main streets are becoming quite familiar, and once, when we were out, the car stopped and we were taken for a walk through a part of town that we had not seen before.

I bought two small purchases from a shop filled with cute little typical Chinese design objects.
Michelle with maskI bought a mask to wear when walking along the road (but when I tried it on, I did find it to be quite claustrophobic…) and a little ring attached to a sticker to stick to my phone (I have seen many Chinese people using this addition – but I have yet to actually use it…)
They will probably remain in my drawer, as memorabilia of the time spent here.

Back in the office, my thoughts are disturbed by the sound, much like a tune played on a xylophone which signals a change of period.
Chimes are also played – they sound like a Grandfathers clock, with never more or less than 4 chimes.
It’s much gentler than the siren or school bell that I am used to. In fact, here the day starts with a tune, which, L pointed out, is very much like the opening soundtrack to a daily soapie or sitcom. A voice comes in at the end, which encourages the children to make their way to class.

Every now and then music is played over the intercom. Earlier today it was a Christmas song by Justin Bieber. No one seems to know who or why particular music has been selected. It is always English music, and it is called ‘in between lesson music’.
A lot of the words of these songs are lost on the students, but the beat no doubt puts a spring in their step, as they move from class to class.

The various melodies never fail but to put a smile on my face. No doubt the novelty of it all will eventually wear off, but for now, I remain amused.

Settling in

Our first two days in the school were busy. There was much to be done.

LWCCSA
Lanzhou Wanhua Concord College of Sino-Canada

Firstly – we had to repeat all the medical checks and a police check that we spent a huge amount of time and money doing in South Africa.

This time, naturally, we could not do them alone. A young Chinese woman from the school was assigned to help us get through all the details.
It was just as well. It would have been impossible without her.
From the very first I thought of Lex and I as her children, in a way. For a day she, almost, led us by the hand. She became a sort of mother to us. We followed her, we obeyed her every word, we struggled to understand, but did whatever anyway…
IMG_4475We arrived at the Medical Clinic place at more or less the same time as a large group of men, who were, we were told, having to go through a bank of medical checks before being sent off to Nepal.
We waited. We were stared at (we are now used to this – it has become our normal).
The brilliant orange fish circling within their deep blue coloured tank were a welcome distraction.
Eventually, it was our turn to be dealt with by the group of Chinese women in white coats behind the glass at reception.
We followed every instruction given to us by our sweet young companion. We sat down on command, we leant forward towards the glass – it took us a few seconds to understand that – we had our photos taken.
Upstairs we followed our leader behind a number of light blue curtains. We were prodded and probed, pricked by needles and managed somehow to give answers to an eye test. We peed into test tubes and stood on scales to be weighed – oh no, they did not let me take off my extremely heavy boots!
Everywhere we went we were surrounded by a bank of people in white coats, speaking about us in a language we did not understand! Are we ok? Is there something wrong? What seems to be the matter?
No answer was given, but each step of the way was marked by a little red stamp on our card.

We were driven too and fro in the backseat of a type of car even Lex had never seen before!

IMG_4492From my place there I observed Lanzhou for the first time. I noted groups of orange, yellow and green bicycles that you can hire from some app and pick up and drop off all around the city. I noted the complete disregard for the traffic rules that I know, witnessing three small accidents on the first journey. I noted the quite funky looking masks most people wear when walking next to the main road.
Note to self – to find out where to purchase a particularly fetching black one for myself.
I noticed lots of three wheeler motorbikes that are apparently electric, and have a little ‘bakkie’ behind the driver, often loaded to the gunnels with goods. I noticed great swathes of black electrical wires bunched together around some of the buildings. I noted that there were large signs everywhere and that they were all just about only in Chinese. I did not see another foreigner, and we drove for hours….

And then I reached sensory overload.

We went to the police station.
There was a lonely sort of pug dog sitting in the car park.
It had begun to snow lightly.
Around the corner, down a side street, were two elderly men playing a sort of draughts game on a small table with very big discs of wood.
We came back.

Lex and I were asleep by 6 on that first day, and we slept for 12 hours.

School
Outside the gates of our school.