Saturday, 30 August 2008

Working On My Day Off

I had to work on my usual day off today because last week I took a three day weekend to visit Hangzhou. Although I wasn't looking forward to a longer week of work, today has been an OK way to start it.

Firstly, the amount of people at Web has significantly lowered. During the summer holiday we have had an influx of high school students whose parents didn't want them lying around doing nothing all day. This caused a huge number of uninterested students attending my classes, which was not my idea of fun. They all seem to be back at school now which is a relief for me and all of the other teachers.

In the afternoon I was asked by the sales department to chat to two young women from a local bank. They were both very nice and invited me to go horse riding and play golf sometime (!). I also asked them about my current financial problem to see if they could help. My problem is simple: I have saved up some RMB to pay off my credit cards; the exchange rate has been so bad in the UK that I thought I should make the most of it and convert my RMB to pounds; when I came to add these funds to one of my British bank accounts it was either impossible or ridiculously expensive (even HSBC, "The World's Local Bank" wouldn't do it). They made some calls and told me that I should be able to get a real Debit card (not just a cash card like I have now) which would make all of my problems disappear. Apparently they will be getting back to me soon with news of how I can open such an account. I can't relax knowing that I have so many pounds just hiding in a bulging envelope somewhere.

They gave me all £50 notes

* The picture on the top left was taken by a student through one of the glass walls at Web (without my consent).

Friday, 29 August 2008

One Year Later

It amazes me that I came to China to work and live over one year ago, the time has just flown by so incredibly quickly. Something else I cannot believe is that it is exactly one year to the day that I met Kimi for first time (outside Pizza Hut, Wulin Square, Hangzhou). To celebrate this fact, we decided to go for a foot massage together and have dinner in a newly opened Macau restaurant.

Today was my first time to have a foot massage and it exceeded all of my expectations. We entered the neatly decorated building and were rapidly lead to a small private room. There were two comfortable chairs and a television which was playing an irritatingly loud Chinese play. The TV was instantly switched off and I sat back as Kimi chose the type of massage we would be having. The order was made, a man and woman entered the room, and the process of cleansing (or cleaning) our feet began (it seems that females get a male masseur and males get a female). As I watched the woman massage me and the man massage Kimi, it almost looked like a mirror image. They were working in exactly the same order, manner and timing. One hour later and I felt like my legs and feet didn't belong to my body any more, they had completely switched off. The lady put my socks on and I realised it was time to wake up. The experience was very pleasurable, she didn't tickle or hurt me at all (unlike a "blind massage" where they practically pull the bones out of your sockets).

We paid, left the building, and caught a taxi to D&L square where the Macau restaurant is located. Neither of us knew beforehand but this restaurant serves hot pot (not to be confused with the Lancashire kind), a slight disappointment considering my preconceptions of what food in Macau must be like. We ordered the soup and various items that would go into the pot. From the menu it looked slightly overpriced for a meal where you basically have to cook it yourself. Seconds later the waiters came bringing the vegetables, meat (for Kimi), and the pot -- which is placed on a hot ring in the middle of the table. We threw in some food, waited for the soup to boil, and was disgusting. Of course Kimi liked it, but I could taste something revolting in the water and it tainted everything that went into it. Not only that, but I was sure there was meat or seafood in the "vegetable buns" and "cheese buns". The latter was especially horrible and didn't taste like cheese at all.

The Hot Pot (ergh!)

Since I became a vegetarian I have not eaten a meal that I thought was unappetizing once. Today was the first time in over four years I have admitted to disliking something. The reason for this was simple: I don't think the meal wasn't vegetarian at all.

After we paid the bill (279 RMB) and walked out of the complex, the Pizza Hut near the entrance suddenly looked more appetising than ever.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

The Cost of Living

There are some perks to being a resident in China. For example, in Wenzhou it couldn't be easier to find an unoccupied taxi, they are everywhere. Once you are in the taxi, the fare will usually cost around 75p. Also, catching the bus is just like at home, but the cost of travelling to any stop in the city is rather different (approximately 15p).

Food is also on the cheap in China too. Of course you can find plenty of restaurants that will cost an arm and a leg to eat at; but for eating on a daily basis there is a different option. Previously I would shop at the supermarket and buy enough groceries to feed me for a whole week. I was saving money -- or so I thought.

Since moving to Wenzhou I found that my working hours meant I had to eat out more and more. At first the cost was worrying, but then I realised that by regularly eating at "sensible" restaurants I was actually not spending any more money than I did at the supermarket. The food in these places is simple home-style Chinese cooking which is actually very healthy and completely different from our Western-produced Chinese food.

Tonight we went to the local Chongqing restaurant that serves some spicy dishes, almost identical to Sichuan style food. Inside, the restaurant has been recently refurbished and would look quite modern and chic if it was 1978. It's a comfortable environment with adequate air conditioning (a must if spicy food is on the menu), plenty of tables and waiters that haven't learnt to smile.

Three dishes are usually enough for two people to share. Tonight we ate:

  • Mapo Tofu
One of my favourite Chinese dishes is Mapo Tofu. It's filled with a variety of spices, some of which can actually numb the inside of your mouth temporarily. The heat of this dish changes from day to day, sometimes it's very pleasant to eat and other times completely unbearable. That's part of the surprise.

  • Chinese Cabbage

I'm not exactly sure of the English word for this vegetable. It literally translates as "White Cabbage" but I'm certain such a name doesn't actually exist. The Chinese know how to do vegetables and this is one of the best examples of how effective simple cooking can be. There are no hidden calories or trans fats in this.

  • Aubergine
This dish consists of slices of Aubergine (they're usually purple and thinner in China) with spring onion, garlic and soy sauce. Usually, the chefs like to add tiny pieces of pork into this dish (and the Tofu too) which doesn't really benefit the dish at all. For me, it can be annoying because I am a vegetarian. Occasionally when we ask for no meat ("bu yao fan rou"), they put it in anyway.

  • One bowl of rice
Well, of course a Chinese meal wouldn't be complete without a bowl of boiled rice.

So how much does all of this cost I hear you ask? Considering there is strictly no tipping in this country, the total comes to a breath-taking £2.00.

And that's why I love eating in China.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Nan Xi River

Although Wenzhou isn't a tourist hot spot it does contain some beautiful scenery, which unlike Hangzhou's West Lake is hidden away from the city centre. A one hour bus or car journey can take you to the Nan Xi river. Kimi and I were invited there last week by her two Aunts and Uncles. I wanted to go but had to be at work for 2 o'clock as I was to attend a rehearsal for the school's singing competition in which I would be hosting (!). The actual show would be taking place the following afternoon so it was required of me to be there. The Aunt wasn't perturbed by this and came up with a plan B: we would go in the morning and have me back in the city by 2pm. It sounded great so I accepted. The downfall was that we would have to get up at 5am. Anyway, we managed to drag ourselves out of bed and Kimi's uncle swiftly (very swiftly) drove us to the river.

First, we walked through some wilderness to appear at a lake where we, and some other non-local Chinese tourists were guided onto a yellow plastic boat.

We were pushed out into the middle of the lake where the boat floated with the calm current. After a couple of peaceful minutes, laughing could be heard from the back. I turned around to see the boatman sporting a large grin of embarrassment (I've seen this kind of grin many times before). I asked Kimi what the problem was and she told me that the guy had forgotten his oar. Of all the things to forget! So he rolled up his trousers and jumped in.

As we sat there aimlessly floating around, it hit me that we were actually surrounded by complete nature. It was beautiful.

Luckily our man returned with his oar and dragged his legs back through the shallow water to sail our yellow plastic boat to the next bay.

Much of the area has been left untouched, which is rare for beauty spots in China. I was more than happy to see the absence of speakers planted into rocks that pump out hardcore dance beats. However, because Nan Xi river has not been completely converted for tourism it is missing some basic safety measures. For example, the bridges used to cross parts of the river were just square-ish stepping stones, some of which were smaller than my feet. This, I did not like.

After two hair-raising crossings I was promised there would be no more and we trekked onwards to the final boating trip. This time we would be crossing a large part of the river which would take approximately 45 minutes to sail down. The chosen method of transport for this was a boat constructed entirely out of bamboo. Even the chairs, oar and probably boatman's hat were made of the stuff.

We were incredibly close to the water and at some points a person with slower reactions than mine would have had a wet pair of shoes and socks to deal with. Apart from this it was a very pleasant and comfortable ride. Time was running out for me so Kimi's uncle rushed us (and I mean really rushed) back to Wenzhou city centre. He was so prompt that I even had time to spare before singing rehearsals at the local KTV would begin.

EDIT: Click here to watch the video of this day.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

My First Post: An Unintentional Autobiography

Hello, this is my first time blogging so I thought it would be appropriate to introduce myself first with a completely unplanned autobiography (I really can ramble, I apologise).

My name is Christopher Egginton, I am 23, and come from Manchester in Great Britain. I am currently living and working in China as an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher.

I finished my music degree almost two years ago and left feeling quite confused about what I should do with my life. Did I really want to commit to finding work in the music industry? My answer was, "I don't think so". Although I do have a love for playing, composing, producing and listening to music, I started having my doubts about pursuing this over-competitive career path. So what should I do after finishing my degree? This is where China comes in.

To explain this I need to go back in time to August 2003. It was the day of the A-level results and I had found out that I got a place onto my chosen course at The University of Hull (Creative Music Technology) hours before even receiving my grades. After being accepted into the university it was my job to post a cheque which would reserve a place in the halls of residence. I completely forgot to post it. Two weeks before the first semester was to begin I received a phone call asking me where my money was and that the halls of residence were now full. They gave me two choices for accommodation: a large house sharing with 30 people, or a smaller one with 10. I have no idea why, but I chose the latter. To cut a long and boring story short, I found that I was sharing with a more interesting demographic than the average student would usually find in their first year accommodation. Three of these people weren't even from the UK at all. John, real name Yang Yi came from Beijing, and Mona and Clarinda came from Hong Kong. I became very good friends with them in no time and after a few months they invited me to visit their homes in the summer holiday. This was an invitation I couldn't resisit as I had always dreamed of going to China but found it to be impossible due to a lack of bravery and money. Having Chinese friends there to do the hard work of communicating for me was all I needed to make the impossible possible. I instantly accepted. I always knew my friend Richard would also be very interested in visiting China so I asked if he would like to join me on this trip, he instantly said yes too.

In August 2004 Richard and I travelled to Beijing to meet John. We stayed and toured the city seeing all of the major tourist points (and probably all of the minor tourist points too) for one week. Then we left BJ together to see Mona and Clarinda in Hong Kong for another week. It was a short but unforgettable time. In the back of my mind I knew I would surely come back again in the future.

Due to lack of money and university commitments it wasn't until three years later (2007) that I managed to make my way back. Richard -- who travelled with me in 2004 -- had a strong desire to return to China. He took the partially crazy step of finding a teaching job off the internet and left the UK to the city of Dalian right after finishing university. I couldn't imagine doing such a thing and took the much less daunting step of saving up some money and travelling out to see him when I had the required funds. The job I found to raise this money came from Woolworths. A shop I loved as a child but would most certainly dislike as an adult. It was an interesting experience working in retail, it has given me much sympathy for the shop assistants of this world. I met some great people there and had a memorable time, but I can't say I wasn't happy to leave. It took me considerably longer to save up the money for the trip than I originally thought, mainly because I couldn't stop spending what I was making on such things as iPods, TV's and Nintendo Wii's. I don't regret any of this because I was enjoying having spending money for the first time in years. It was late March when I knew I had finally enough cash to make the voyage to the the PRC, so I booked my ticket and left for Shanghai at the end of April.

Shanghai is a fabulous city and most certainly the entertainment capital of China. After one week spent gazing at the sights from The Bund with Richard, we left for the city where he was now living and teaching, Hangzhou, capital of the Zhejiang Province. The city is very close to SH and can be reached within an hour and a half by taking the bullet train, which as you can guess is pretty fast. Hangzhou is kind of a toned down version of Shanghai with less of everything really, but famous throughout China for it's West Lake which can be a beautiful sight if the pollution is having a day off.

I had the opportunity to see what it was like to teach children English as a second language while I stayed with Richard. He taught at a primary school and as I watched a few of his classes I thought, "I'd like to try that." We stayed in HZ for most of my holiday but managed to get a short break to Xi An to see the Terracotta Army (my photos of which are lost forever).

After getting over the initial culture shock of being in China I found myself feeling quite at home. Hangzhou really is a liveable city with everything a person could need, and at a more affordable price. An extra factor can be added to this feeling too: it felt exciting to be in this place. Nothing seemed "normal" to me, even going to the supermarket or taking the bus was an intensely interesting experience because everything was just so.....foreign! I really was on a different planet (from the looks given to me by some of the locals I think they thought I was from a different one too), and I liked it.

After nearly two months away and a £200 phone bill later, I came back home to England and spent at least one week contemplating my next move. It wasn't long until I realised that the experience of living and working in China would be something I couldn't and shouldn't miss out on. Even if things went all wrong for me I knew I would only regret turning down such an option later in life.

I told my parents the news and booked the ticket to Shanghai once more. In September 2007 I started teaching tiny children at a Kindergarten in Hangzhou which was great fun, and an experience I certainly won't forget (albeit an incredibly tiring one considering I would be teaching 5 year olds up to 7pm each week night). While I lived in the city I also met my current girlfriend Kimi. If in some way I was meant to come here, surely it must have been for her. I couldn't have imagined such a thing would ever have happened in my time here.

The company I worked for on the other hand wasn't quite the legitimate enterprise I had hoped for and after seeing many of the other foreign teachers get treated unfairly I decided not to renew my contract. A change was in order, so I moved to the city of Wenzhou where my girlfriend lives and decided I would like to try teaching adults this time. Now I am working for a privately run school called "Web International English"where I teach English to many people my age and above (and sometimes below too). I am still loving every minute of being in China and each day comes with a new experience.

I hope to stay in China for a while longer while I try and decide what course my life should take next....