Wednesday, 31 December 2008

The End of 2008

Time has certainly been slipping away from me since I returned home. Already one week has passed, Christmas is over, and New Year's Day is rapidly approaching. It was only this time last week that I was stepping off the plane at Manchester airport.

My return home was an incredibly long one, part of it being my own doing for wanting to save a few £'s -- the price between direct flights and connecting flights is outrageous. All in all, the travelling from Wenzhou to Manchester cost me over 33 hours; three plane journeys; and five hours in a hotel.

My flight from Wenzhou was a breeze apart from having to say goodbye to Kimi which I hated. It was very quick too, we barely ascended as the captain announced that we were about to descend. In one piece we arrived at Shanghai Pudong airport. Everything was going just as planned, which also meant that I had a wait of nine hours until my 6:30am flight to Dubai (because I flew with Emirates). While walking around the unusually quiet airport I bumped into a man -- I presumed he worked for the airport -- who was asking if I wanted to stay in a cheap hotel until my flight left in the morning. I didn't really want to, but his broken English and my broken Chinese was so bad that all I could do was tell him that I wanted to check the time of departure for my flight. Unperturbed, he escorted me to another terminal and helped me to check the time. I saw there was a bus heading to the hotel with other people inside. Before I could properly make a decision he had put my suitcase in the back and I was on my way to the hotel. It was only when the door slammed shut that I realised there was a small chance that this bus was going to park in the middle of nowhere at which point the £2100 that was stashed in my wallet would forcibly be removed from me. Fortunately the bus did indeed stop at a hotel where I paid a reasonable amount for a few hours sleep. Apart from a call from Kimi which brought all my fears of robbery back to the surface, I managed to have a few hours of sleep. The front desk woke me at 3:30 and I was taken to the airport for check in at 4 am. Worth every penny of the £18 I paid for it.

As I waited in the hotel foyer for my lift back to Shanghai Airport at 3:50am

The rest of the journey home was pleasant enough, although I was very disappointed with the Airbus plane that took off from Shanghai. I have become accustomed to Emirates' usual in-flight entertainment system, but this one was quite archaic in comparison. I actually had to change channels to choose what to watch, just like a television. Thankfully the flight from Dubai to the UK was back to excellence on a Boeing 777 plane -- even the food was nicer. Every time I have taken these flights to China I always have the pleasure of getting my meals before everybody else. It's great, there is always someone around my vicinity who I can hear impatiently muttering under their breath about the location of their meal, or why I've been given mine first. If you would like to have this luxury without having to pay any extra money, all you need to do is tell the travel agent you have a dietary requirement. There is a huge list to choose from, I go for the "Lacto-ovo vegetarian" option (that means I am a vegetarian who eats milk and eggs).

During my trip home I had the pleasure of staying in four airports. They are generally horrible and depressing places which could act as a kind of open-plan prison if one were to ever be decommissioned as an airport. I apply this rule to every airport I have been to apart from one: Dubai. If I have to be locked up anywhere for a day or two in between flights, I would choose there.

The gates at Wenzhou (top left), Shanghai (top right), and Dubai (middle) airports

Why I am rambling on about my trip home last week I have no idea. A whole week has gone by since then. Maybe another reason for the lack of posts here is because nothing too eventful has happened. Christmas was not ideal this year, mainly due to my mum being sick in bed with a flu-type illness. It seems to be slowly clearing up now, just a few days too late. On Sunday I also visited Dave (one of my friends from school). In February he and his girlfriend had a baby boy which they called Joel. I held him when he was just under one week old, he didn't even open his eyes then. Now he is completely changed, he laughs, climbs, crawls incredibly fast, and puts everything in his mouth. I am quite amazed by it all really.

It is brilliant to be home with my family and friends, although I feel like a huge gap is missing without Kimi being here with me. At least we have the incredibly bad quality of Skype to keep our lack of contact to a minimum. I forgot to mention that she bought me a fantastic camera for Christmas (this one), so there will hopefully be much higher quality pictures on here from now on. I had a go at using the macro mode and took this picture of a flower on some ivy in the garden (all of the colourful flowers are dead at this time of year). I am very impressed with it as no skill was involved and it managed to look like this:

So far the camera lives up to all of the reviews I read about it

Anyway, I have no idea where this post is heading so I should stop now. Happy last day of 2008 in the western world, and happy new year in China.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Merry Christmas

....or should I say Boxing Day? This post is a little later than I had hoped, but yesterday just slipped away. I hope everybody had a fantastic day. I was lucky enough to arrive home in time, although after more than 30 hours of travelling I felt a little phased out. I think I will write more about my trip home and Christmas Day tomorrow as I am currently extremely full and my eyelids are uncontrollably closing.

Here is a picture of our Vodka-soaked Christmas Pudding from yesterday:

A traditional Christmas ball of flame -- delicious

Monday, 22 December 2008

Going Home

For over one week I have completely negleted my blog. This is mainly due to having a seven day working week -- and nothing else of interest happening. I ended up with this workload due to Chuck leaving Web for a new job. We decided to exchange days off which meant I had a very enjoyable four day weekend last week, but had to endure seven days of non-stop work this week. As the week progressed, it seemed the nearer I got to my final lessons, the slower the minutes were ticking. I also slipped into "holiday mode" far too early, which meant that instead of having the motivation to teach five classes on Sunday, all I really wanted to do was lie in bed and watch a terrible Christmas film.

Today I came to the end of my seven day run. It was also my final day at Web for over one month. Tomorrow I will begin my long journey back home to England. It is going to be tiring. At 6 o'clock tomorrow I leave Wenzhou for Shanghai Pudong Airport. I will then be whisked to Dubai where I will leave one plane and board another. Finally, I should arrive in Manchester by 7pm on Christmas Eve. Altogether it will be around 30 hours of travelling -- brilliant.

I received my first Christmas present of the year this week. It was given to me by a student at Web -- Paul. I was very touched at this, and also realised that I really have made a few good friends at work, not just in the teaching staff. I will open it on Christmas day.

My first present -- at the base of my incredibly tiny Christmas tree

I also had a Christmas class with the children I usually teach on Saturday. Because I was working all day we had to arrange it for the evening. I thought I wouldn't be able to handle it because I was so tired, but I actually had a very enjoyable time. Crystal -- the lady who I work with -- also gave me a Christmas bonus which was extremely kind. At the end of the lesson we had a few pictures taken. I took a couple with Crystal's baby, and realised I have no idea how to hold one properly.

Me (looking sleepy) with my Saturday class

With the oldest student in the class (I've uploaded this one because my eyes are open)

The boys

Me and Crystal

I am very excited about going home, the only negative is that Kimi couldn't come with me. I will miss her very much, but at least we have Skype to make things easier.

Next time I write, I will be in England. Here's hoping for a smooth journey.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Cinema, Decorations....and a Feet Warmer?

On Saturday night Kimi and I went to the cinema -- the first time for me in China.  The nearest I have got to doing such a thing before was in Hong Kong. My friends and I saw a collection of three short films which were both disgusting and horrifying, but all with English subtitles. This time I wasn't so lucky, there was no English, although I was surprised to see Chinese. I am quite sure they are not doing this just for the hard of hearing audience, and I doubt many natives who cannot understand Mandarin would even think about visiting a cinema. Television is the same, every show has subtitles. I must find out the reason why.

The film we saw was called "Mei Lanfang", a biographical story of a famous Beijing opera actor. Watching the film was difficult as my Chinese is not quite up to the standard I would have hoped it would be by now. I found I could understand very little, although the general meaning of the story was quite easy to grasp. I felt a little better afterwards when Kimi told me that some of the words they used are not even generally spoken today. It was an interesting experience, I hope we can go back to the cinema again soon.

Last night we went shopping to one of the big supermarkets, Trust-Mart. They had an array of Christmas decorations and English Christmas songs were playing on the speaker system -- it is quite clear that the chain is owned my Wal-Mart. I bought a small decorated Christmas tree, some tinsel, and a set of Christmas lights. Even with the economic downturn, all of this still cost less than £9. My bedroom is suitably fit for the Christmas season now.

My 40 RMB Christmas tree

While browsing for decorations we also spotted a "Feet Warmer". I couldn't stop laughing at them, all designed as animals such as dogs, pandas, and monkeys. Kimi picked one up and thought it felt so comfortable she kept hold of it. I thought it was hilarious, it just had to be bought. True to its name, it really does warm the feet very well.  I just can't help but think it looks like a giant's slipper.

I don't need to worry about Christmas gift ideas now

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Time is Money

On Friday night I was invited to talk with two children -- a brother and sister -- who will be moving to England next year to study. You may be confused that I am in the country of the one child policy and was visiting a brother and sister, but apparently a lot of money can literally buy you another child. Most cannot afford it as the fee can reach the millions for a second child. Anyway, back on topic. I didn't want to go to their home on my own, so asked Kimi to accompany me -- I never would have found their apartment on my own anyway. We took a taxi to the building, made our way to the twenty fourth floor, and knocked on the door. A large teenage boy opened the door and didn't say a word. We were guided into what I thought would be an expensively decorated apartment. In reality it was considerably worse than my own apartment, but with much more space.

We sat on the white sofa, Kimi and I looking at each other with a sense of bewilderment -- nothing was happening. A second later, a young girl ran into the living room and dashed into her bedroom. Their ai yi (housekeeper/nanny) brought us a cup of green tea each, at which point Kimi asked where the mother was. Apparently she had just left the apartment to find me a suitable drink: coffee. Why tea wasn't good enough for me, I don't know.

Minutes later the mother returned with a box of instant Nescafe in hand. Immediately the ai yi was summoned to make it for me, although she wasn't quite sure exactly what to do with it. We were guided to the dining table and the teenager and the girl sat down. A pile of English text books were thrown on the table and the mother brought a stack of paper and some pens. "Was this a lesson now?" I was very confused about this whole meeting. I decided it would be best to talk to them and see exactly how good their English was. After a few minutes I found the boy to be very pleasant with a good grasp of spoken English. His sister on the other hand was a complete nightmare. I have witnessed spoilt children before, and she fitted the category perfectly. It was painful trying to talk to her, she wasn't willing to even attempt to speak English. As I sat there trying to get her to ask questions, I could only think of my private class of similar aged children that I teach on Saturday morning. Those children are the polar opposite of that girl, sometimes I can't get a word in because they are so keen to talk.

After ninety minutes I wrapped up our talk and made sure if there was a next time, I would speak to the brother and sister separately. I was putting my shoes on when I saw the mother talking to Kimi and handing over some money. It seems that Kimi has worked out my going rate for English classes, and it's not cheap by the look of the 300 RMB we came out with.

We went to D & L square today to eat at the newly opened Papa John's. It felt very much like Christmas inside with the decorations and music playing. I can't quite believe I will be home in such a short time, all I have to do is get through this upcoming 7 day working!

Papa John's: the newest American franchise to make it to Wenzhou. Subway is comming next

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Christmas in Wenzhou

Although it doesn't really feel like it, Christmas has actually arrived in Wenzhou. The hotel -- in which Web is located -- is now filled with an array of tasteful, and not so tasteful Christmas decorations. Of course, the Web centre itself has been fitted out for Christmas also, but beneath all of the decorations, I can't feel that Christmas is happening at all.. It is just business as usual here, no party spirit, and no anticipation that a major holiday is approaching. Still, I have an excuse to start being excited: I will be going back to the UK in less than two weeks, home in time for Christmas day. I have started shopping for gifts, and don't think anything will be left until the last minute this year -- which makes a pleasant change. The only problem I face when shopping for gifts in China is that I can't buy anything that is too heavy due to the luggage allowance of 20kg that is imposed by the airline I am flying with.

Christmas tree in the foyer of the International Hotel

At Web we are also holding a party for Christmas which was planned to be held on the 21st so that Chuck (who is leaving before the 25th) and I could attend. This afternoon I came into work and found that the day of the party has changed to Christmas day itself. As usual there was no prior communication about this, someone had stuck a new poster to the wall, and it was actually one of the students who told me about it. Obviously neither me or Chuck will be able to go. Jane and Nancy in human resources decided to bypass all forms of common sense by asking me to delay my flight so that I could stay for the party. I couldn't comprehend what they were saying to me, why on Earth would I want to stay for a party at Web instead of going home (which I have been away from for nine months) to have Christmas with my family?

In all truth I am quite relieved I don't have to go to the party. All of the teaching staff had been asked to do a performance, something like a song, dance, or any kind of talent. Kristian and I were planning on singing and playing a kind of folk-esque version of Jingle Bells on the guitar. I am still completely unprepared for it and we haven't practised together yet. I feel guilty that Kristian is going to have to do it on his own, but after talking to him yesterday he told me that he knows a student who plays the guitar who he can ask to join him on stage.

I have four days off starting from today because Chuck -- who I mentioned earlier -- would like my days off next week to prepare for his new job before he officially leaves Web. It is certainly a bonus for me now, but it means that next week I will work for seven days without a break. It won't be as bad as it could be, because when that week is over I will take one day off and then head to Shanghai Pudong Airport to go home. The excitement should keep me going I hope.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

How to Add an E-mail Address to Your Blog

Recently I added a picture and a link to my e-mail address onto the blog (see right, underneath "About Me"). I am very happy with the end result, especially as I had managed to do it using free software and barely any knowledge of how to make such a thing.

Initially I searched on Google for information on how to create an "e-mail me" link, but found very little help. Therefore, I felt it was appropriate to publish my own guide so that other bloggers may find a solution to this problem. I should point out that the final stage of this guide is for use with the blogger/blogspot website. I have no idea if the same functions are available on other blog sites.

Why go to all this trouble just to add an e-mail address to a blog?
It would be easy to simply type an address and publish it, but writing an address on a blog -- or any website for that matter -- can cause a much higher chance of receiving junk mail in your inbox. Adding an e-mail address in the form of an image -- like mine -- makes it much more difficult for it to be taken by the "spambots".

Below is my basic 10-step guide for making and adding an e-mail link to your blog:

1. Download Picasa from here. Picasa is a Google-owned image manager and editor. It is completely free to download and use.

2. I thought it would look smart to use my e-mail's logo within my address. Simply do an image search for your e-mail provider's logo. I typed in "Gmail logo". Click on the image, then click "see full size", and save the image to your desktop.

3. Open the image in Picasa, and click "Edit in Picasa", or if you are on the main screen, double click on the image.

As you can see, I need some space before and after the logo so I can add the rest of the e-mail address. Picasa is not designed to be a full-on image editor like Photoshop, so I had to improvise....

4. Find "Create" on the top tool bar, and click "Picture Collage..." (on a side-note, the collage function is a fun tool to use for its original purpose, I created my blogger header with it from this original collage).

As long as there were no other images saved on the desktop, the logo should appear on its own on top of a white background (if there are other images with the logo you will need to move the image into a folder where it is the only picture file, and repeat step 4 again).

6. Untick the box on the left which says "Draw Shadows". Move the image into the centre of the page by clicking and dragging. It is also possible that the logo is on an angle. If so, straighten it out by clicking once on the image and turning the wheel around until it says, "Angle 0". It is a good idea to make the image smaller. Again, click once on the logo, but this time move your mouse to the left to change the size -- I re-sized mine down to 50% scale. Make sure the angle remains at 0 before you take your finger off the mouse. Next, click "Create Collage".

Click on the image for a full-size version

7. Now you should have an image file which you can edit using Picasa. First we will add the text. Click on "Text". Write out your e-mail address in the text box, leaving out your e-mail provider's name. Using the same method for resizing images, click and drag the text box to bring the font size level with the image's text. Point the cursor to the centre of the box to move the text box. Play around with this for a minute, find a nice font, and make sure the text fits in with the logo.

8. I decided to change the colours of the font to match the Gmail logo. If you want to use more than one colour for the text, you need to use separate text boxes for each colour -- a bit of a chore I know. I chose the colours directly from the logo by using the pipette tool.

9. Next, crop the image to a suitable size and apply changes. Voila, your e-mail logo is finished.

10. Finally, to add the image to your blog, click "Layout", "Add Gadget", and choose "Picture". The "Configure Image" window should now pop-up. In the "Link" box, write this:

mailto:(enter your e-mail address here with no spaces and no brackets)

Upload the image and tick the box that says, "Shrink to fit". Using "Layout" in Blogger, move the picture to your desired location, and save changes. If everything has gone to plan, your e-mail logo should now appear on your blog. When the image is clicked it will open an e-mail form where visitors can conveniently write to you.

If you have any problems or questions with this guide, feel free to e-mail me.

....normal service will resume tomorrow.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Sweet Potato and an English Contest

Today has been a tough day at Web, six classes has not been an ideal start to my working week. Apparently one student was determined to have a class, and who was the only teacher free at her desired time?  Me. It wasn't so bad in the end, but I find I am completely drained from having that extra lesson. At this time of year I was really hoping that the schedule would be much lighter than it is, but we are working almost the same workload as in summer. I am becoming increasingly tired of it too, I think I need this upcoming holiday.

After Web today, I was treated to a pleasant evening with Kimi, Johann, Michelle, and Elwin (two students from Web). We went to a Korean restaurant, and even met a Korean man with a big beard who advertised that he owns factories in Wenzhou (we can thank him for days like this). We ate a sweet potato dish which brought memories of Hangzhou flooding right back to me. Richard (my friend from the UK who lived in Hangzhou) and I would regularly visit a restaurant each week that served this special type of sweet potato.  It is sticky, red-hot inside, but very delicious.

The dongbei (north eastern) Chinese restaurant in Hangzhou, in some ways very similar to the Korean restaurant we visited tonight, especially with its sweet potato dish

Before today I had just had a very relaxing three days off -- one more than usual -- due to me doing another favour for Web last week. I was asked to judge for the English competition that some Wenzhou university students took part in. I think they asked me because I had already spoken to a few of the students who took part a week earlier (I wrote about that here).

It was an interesting few hours indeed. The contestants had previously passed the first round that had taken place at the university, and would this time be coming to the Web centre itself. The winners of the second round will be entering the final which is taking place on December 11th. I guess if I am going to be asked to do this one too, I will be asked an hour before the event takes place.

The group of 40 or so students were split up into two groups: professional, meaning they were majoring in English; and non-professional, meaning they majored in something else. I judged the professional group with one of Web's tutors, Chrissy, and a university lecturer. We made our way to the "Web cafe", an odd place to hold the contest, but they had moved all of the tables and chairs out making it semi-acceptable. We sat behind our desks, and were handed the criteria for marking. All we had to do was give each contestant points, we didn't even have to say anything. There were two rounds for this process: the first was a performance, or talent show, and the second: improvised hosting.

I was surprised by two things in the competition: the lack of male contestants, and the fact that most of the students who chose singing as their talent couldn't actually sing at all. Hats off to them, they have the kind of confidence I am lacking in.

At the end of the judging, our papers were collected and the students returned to their campus. It seemed to be the university's job to count the scores and tell the winners, they did it a day or two later, so I have no idea who got through. If Web has nothing to do with the final, I wouldn't be surprised if nothing more is said of the matter.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Thanks For Coming

Just over a month ago I added a counter onto my blog -- completely out of curiosity -- to see if anybody apart from me and Kimi were actually visiting the site. It came as a pleasant surprise to see that within this time there have been nearly 1,200 page visits and 3,095 page views. Obviously a fair share of those numbers are from me, but it is very interesting to know that there are others reading my blog. The counter can also show me the area of people who have visited (although no invasion of privacy can become of this). Here are the locations of some recent visitors (the red dot being me):

I can't imagine how some of these visitors stumbled across my blog

I have mentioned this before, but my intention for writing a blog was simply to keep a written and pictorial account of my time in China. I spent one year here with so many events and occasions being a long lost memory to me now. Keeping a record of these times will hopefully be something to look back on in the future. It has just taken me by complete surprise that other people are actually reading this instead of my girlfriend and I. Through my blog I have even come into contact with some genuinely brilliant people, that otherwise I never would have met in a lifetime.

Thank you for reading!

Monday, 1 December 2008


Last night Johann, Kristian -- a new teacher from Canada -- and I were invited out for dinner by a few students. I had expected that we would visit a small cheap restaurant, the kind of which I have become accustomed to. The end result however, wasn't quite what I had in mind.

The students took us to a new restaurant a short taxi ride away from Web. We walked up the stairs, past all of the food laid out on tables for customers to pick (no menus in these places), and entered a private room. This was not going to be cheap. The food was ordered and in no time we were eating. Everything was going smoothly -- until the boss came in.

The man walked in with cigarettes in hand and sat himself down at our table. The students translated what he was saying to us. Apparently, because the restaurant is new, he wanted to celebrate this fact with us. Immediately, our three bottles of Tsingtao beer were replaced with Heineken. From this point onwards the eating stopped and the "ganbei" began (in Chinese "ganbei" means bottoms up, or down in one). The beer was flowing like water, the second I finished a bottle, the waitress immediately replaced it and refilled my glass.

The boss seemed very happy with the proceedings, and invited his friend's son into the room. He sat between Johann and Kristian, and spoke to us in English for a while, of course he had to down some drinks with us too. Next, a couple of the managers came in, and they drank a few more glasses of beer with us. After this, the boss decided to order something a little stronger than beer: cognac -- and two bottles of it. My glass was filled three quarters of the way up with the stuff, and once again we had to down it in one. More managers flocked in and also drank with us individually. Business cards were flying all over the room, each member of staff giving us their card (not that I could understand a word of Chinese on them). I have no idea how much we drank, but it was enough to send the room spinning.

A bottle of Remy Martin that Kimi's mother gave to me, similar to the stuff we were drinking last night

As soon as I arrived home I passed out on my bed. I was even too drunk to speak to my mum and dad who call me on Sunday night. Instead I wrote a message to them saying I couldn't talk due to the cognac. When I awoke at 7am this morning my head was killing me. I took three painkillers, but they didn't seem to work for at least thirty minutes when on the front of the packaging it quite clearly said "instant relief".

My day at Web was a very slow one, I was grateful that my final class of the day was with some of my favourite students. I think I would have died if I had been stuck with a beginner salon (salons are the bigger classes with up to ten students).

Also, today was Ryan's final day at Web, and in Wenzhou. He comes from Australia, is only one year younger than me, and has been in China since January. He joined the training centre about seven months ago, but recently things hadn't been working out. Unfortunately he will be leaving for Hangzhou tomorrow, and then to Shanghai. I just hope he can find happiness wherever it is he decides to stay.

Finally, Kimi gave me her old phone today. She took it to one of the mobile phone stores and managed to get the software changed from Chinese into English. I am now in possession of a considerably better phone than the one that was stolen from me. I just have to keep this one safe.