Monday, 30 March 2009

Wedding Season

The happy couple (Kimi's cousin is on the left)

I don't know if there actually is an official wedding season in China, but if there is one it should be right now. Over the past week I have been to three such events, two of which were with Kimi's family, and the other a colleague from Web. Apparently the real reason is that there have been some lucky wedding days according to the Chinese Lunar Calendar.

Weddings are an interesting phenomenon in modern Chinese culture. Before I had actually experienced a wedding here, I had a kind of exotic image of the bride wearing a traditional qipao, her face covered by a veil; there would be intricate head dresses; everything would be red, from the decorations to the clothing; and Chinese folk music would be banging and piping away throughout the proceedings. My hopes and expectations were greatly dashed when I witnessed the modern style of wedding.

To put it bluntly, a wedding today is more like a westernised-TV game show-all-you-can-eat-and-drink-money-making-event. Usually proceedings are held in a large hotel function room. Guests sit around large round tables facing a small stage at the front of the room. Glossy magazine style photoshopped pictures of the bride and groom are scattered all over the room. Loud music bursts out of the speakers making it difficult to talk, and -- if the family has the spare cash -- a host stands on the stage shouting down a microphone. At what point the bride and groom actually get married, I don't really know. Some people have told me that before the "wedding", they go to a registry office and sign the documents there.

While the host talks, or we are listening to music, food is usually delivered to our tables. Every wedding I have been to has almost exactly the same food on offer. It's not very good for me as vegetarian food is the cheapest to buy, so in a lot of people's eyes, it's not respectable to serve it. Instead we get plate after plate of seafood: crab, lobster, shrimp, oysters, mussels, and even a couple of times, turtle.

Eventually the bride and groom enter the room, the bride wearing a western wedding dress and the groom, a suit. Somebody playing the role of a vicar will greet them, say some words and walk them to the stage. At the last wedding I attended they played an electronic version of the Wedding March at this point. Vows are exchanged on-stage, sometimes a keyboard player will be playing incidental background music and adding sound effects to any funny remarks being said. After the words are over, the rest of the event is in any one's hands. Games are played, songs are sung, and drinks are drunk. Part of the couples responsibility is to go around each table -- and there are always a lot -- and ganbei (bottoms up) a drink with everybody. The fun can continue for hours, but when the food is over many people rapidly exit, with only the loyal few remaining.

The couple on-stage with the host

The newlyweds (now wearing new clothes) must visit each table and ganbei a drink

A wedding is not only a day to seal a relationship, it is also a day for the couples to cash-in on an investment they have made many times before. For each wedding you attend, you must hand over a red envelope (I talked about the significance of the red envelope here) containing some money (absolutely no gifts are involved). The closer your relationship with the bride or groom, the more money you should give. A bridesmaid may put 2,000 RMB in an envelope, whereas a colleague at work can give just a couple of hundred. If you wanted to you could put as little or as much in the envelope as you wish, but whatever you put in, it will be remembered. Sometimes when you enter the function room, somebody will be sitting at a table taking envelopes, counting the money inside, and writing your name and the total down in a book. So, if you gave 500 RMB to your best friend, when your best friend comes to your wedding he or she will also give you 500 RMB. I think part of the pressure to get married so early here is so that all of the money people have paid out over the years can be returned.

The wedding really is an eye-opening event, there is so much more to talk about, and I've not even mentioned what an engagement is like (there's another very similar party for that too).

Friday, 27 March 2009

A Seedier Side of Wenzhou

A few days ago I went on a night out with one of the other foreign teachers at Web, Kristian. Usually I don't choose to go to the bars or nightclubs here, they really aren't my cup of tea. Most of them are incredibly over-priced and the music is horrendous. I much prefer going to the places that are referred to as cafes, although from a western point of view they would be classed as a bar. These places have a much more relaxing environment, quiet music, and cheaper drinks.

Kristian and I decided to go for a couple of beers at Ming Ou cafe and then have dinner elsewhere. One thing lead to another, and after a few too many Double Deer beers, we decided to hit the bars. A short taxi ride later we arrived at Jiang Bing road where a lot of the bars and clubs are located. As soon as we stepped out of the car, semi-fresh air was instantly noticeable. The road is directly next to the sea, and it makes a huge difference. Taking a gasp of truly clean air is something I terribly miss from home.

We entered a large illuminated night club, the first building we saw. Once inside we approached the bar wanting to order a drink. Although there was a barman waiting to serve, it was a waiter who asked that we order with him. We asked for two bottles of Tsing Tao beer -- the kind you can buy from the shops for 3RMB each. The waiter wondered off, and returned minutes later with two bottles and a receipt of 100 RMB (about £10). We declined.

A few minutes passed, and I began looking at the crowd of people who were attending this night. One thing was glaringly obvious. A proportion of these people were -- how can I put it -- ladies of the night. It is an unfortunate fact, in much of China prostitution is illegal, but mostly ignored by the police -- for a price.

We didn't stay in the club for very long and decided to look elsewhere. We took a short walk outside and found a small road which looked like it accommodated some smaller pubs or bars. The tiny road was packed with people, mainly men which seemed very odd. We walked for a minute or two and realised there was actually not one bar one the street. People were exchanging money at counters for something, but I couldn't see what. There was a mountain of beer bottles (see below) just piled up on the ground. I glanced at the place where I originally thought the pubs must be located, they weren't pubs at all, it was a small apartment block. Both Krisitan and I felt very uneasy at this point. Something was going on here, whatever it was, we didn't want to know. We rapidly turned around and exited back to the main road.

The mountain of beer bottles

It seemed our night was an eye-opener into a much seedier, stranger side of Wenzhou that only exists in the early hours of the morning. I don't think I will be going back there again.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

No More Youtube (for how long this time?)

I have been very lazy with my blog recently, I have no idea why. Sometimes I feel I want to add something to my page every day, other days I tell myself I will write on it later, but when later comes I'm too tired and can't seem to write anything coherent. Anyway, I have a few things I would like to talk about which I will hopefully publish over the next few days. Back on topic....

For those who don't know -- but you probably do -- China likes having control over its people, one part of this control comes from the censorship of information. There are very strict policies in place, anything that does not show a kind of loyalty to China doesn't belong here. I have heard of foreign newspapers simply having pages taken out of them before they are put on the shelves, books have paragraphs blacked out, and some websites are completely blocked.

When I arrived in China over a year and a half ago, I recall some of my favourite sites being blocked by "The Great Firewall of China": BBC News, Wikipedia, and Youtube. The reason for the censoring was simple: each of the websites are some of the most popular methods of information sharing, and somebody didn't want that information to find its way to China's internet users.

I don't recall the exact time when things changed, but it coincided with the upcoming Olympic games last year, let's say it was six months before. Stories were emerging of Journalists who were complaining that their sources of information would be blocked when they visit Beijing in the Summer. All of a sudden, somebody waved a magic wand, and overnight all of these websites suddenly became available. Even after the games the sites were still accessible, it looked like China had finally decided to open up a little more -- good.

Two days ago things changed again. Youtube was blocked. "There must be a reason for this" I thought. After a quick look at the -- still accessible (but for how long?) -- BBC page, the answer was this. Once again it comes down to Tibet. Just like my cancelled trip to Shanghai to see Oasis, it's Tibet that really hits China's nerve. Again, it's petty, just like a child who used to let you play with this toys, but now you can't use any because you briefly mentioned how he borrowed one of your toys a few weeks ago and didn't return it. He says it was always his toy, gets in a mood, and leaves you with the boring toys. It can only be a matter of time until people start to realise that this continual blocking of information is for a reason, and not a good reason at that.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Sports Day

A few days ago Kimi asked me if I would like to escort her to a work's day out. Apparently it was a belated celebratory gift for Woman's day (which was more than a week ago). The theme of the day would be a sports day dedicated to team-building. I didn't know where I would fit into all of this, but I decided to tag-a-long anyway.

The destination for the event was in a smaller town called Yue Qing, just outside of Wenzhou city, but still belonging to Wenzhou. An hour bus journey later, and we arrived at the town's sports stadium. It was the first sunny and warm day of the year, which was lucky as I recall torrential rain the previous day. The sun was so strong I even burnt my nose (it's always the first thing to go).

I felt a little out of place after arriving on the field as there were almost no men in sight, it seemed Kimi was the only person who brought their partner along. Some of her colleagues had seen me before, and no doubt most of them knew that Kimi had a lao wai boyfriend, but still, there were a few stares and glares heading in my direction.

The ladies

The proceedings began with a host shouting down a microphone with the volume cranked up to 11 -- nothing changes. She called out staff names and introduce each event. When I saw the props hiding behind the big red rubber arch, I realised this was not to be a standard sports day. The games consisted of such things as: wrapping up people in toilet roll, bouncing on a space hopper, riding a bicycle as slowly as possible, and a sack race.

Kimi preparing for the space hopper race

To my surprise everybody seemed to be having a whale of a time. I wouldn't have been so happy to have done all of this on my day off (although I was watching it all on my day off). I am taking a stab in the dark saying this, but I get the firm impression that a person's free time from work is a much more prized possession in western culture. I can't imagine half the turn-out for the same day going on in the UK. Yet it seemed almost all of the female workforce had chosen to attend this extra-curricular activity.

I was dealt another surprise that afternoon when I saw Kimi win, not only one game, but every game she took part in. Each member of staff was only supposed to take part in one event each, but her "team mates" talked Kimi into doing three out of five. She rejected the final round because of the hurdle and can of Coke involved -- and it was probably beneath her by then anyway. She received a prize for being the star of her team: a bottle of shampoo and shower gel.

The crowd formed to see Kimi triumphant in the cycle-as-slow-as-you-can race

Kimi slightly worn out, and my nose slightly burnt, we left the sports stadium and took a suspension-less bus back home.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Street Food

Street food in action
For a foreigner living in China it is more than possible to continue having a western-style breakfast each day -- if you have the spare cash that is. When I say western-style, I mean the basics of one bowl of cereal and a piece of toast with butter (and jam if you like). It is very easy to buy milk and bread everywhere here, although 99.9% of all the bread I have eaten in China is rather sweet. Problems arise with butter and cereal. In Wenzhou these goods just aren't available in the supermarkets, the only place to buy such things is at D&L square (which I briefly mentioned here). Almost everything in the "European Supermarket" is imported, and it comes at a price. So, if money is no option you can quite easily live in China with a daily dose of home.

On the other hand, I find that a Chinese breakfast can be equally, or sometimes more satisfying than anything my toaster can prepare -- and it comes at a fraction of the price (literally). I don't particularly like going to a Chinese restaurant for breakfast, I simply cannot adapt to eating similar dishes I would normally have at night in the morning. I find the best way to eat in the early hours is on the street. Some of the most enjoyable food I have eaten has come from street vendors, the food is quick, simple, and breakfasty enough to suit me just fine. At the top of the list is Baozi, a kind of bun with pork or vegetables inside (I go for the veggie one). How much for two? 2 RMB. Next on the list is something called luo bo si bing (see above), which is kind of like a fried pitta bread with white carrot inside. How much for one? 1.5 RMB. If you are not still full yet, there are numerous other options available on the mean streets of Wenzhou, from balls of rice to sticks of deep-fried dough. To wash it down, for 1 RMB a nice bag of warm soya milk can be yours -- that's right a bag (see below). The grand total for this street-food-breakfast: 4.5 RMB (that's around 45 British pence at the current exchange rate). Or you could just have a Macdonald's breakfast for 35 RMB....

Nothing like a nice bag of soya milk to perk you up in the morning

Friday, 13 March 2009

The Amazing Disappearing Skyscraper

After I finish writing this I have promised myself to keep pollution-related posts down to a bare minimum. I do not want to keep bashing the air quality, as sometimes it is perfectly OK (such as in this instance). A week or two ago I wrote this post which showcased some terrible pollution/fog. However, today has brought new lows to visibility in Wenzhou.

After working for eight days in a row at Web, I was very excited to finally have my two days of holiday. Things were starting to look up, the rain had finally stopped after more than twenty days, and even the sun made an appearance, it was warm, actually it was hot. Spring had been bypassed and summer was here, fantastic, I would surely have two sun-filled days off. As of this minute, it is almost lunch time and I am sitting in my bedroom (where my laptop is) in darkness. The sky has turned a depressing shade of grey, the rain has returned with force, and to my amazement Wenzhou's World Trade Centre -- the tallest skyscraper in the province -- has completely vanished.

The view from my balcony promises a breath-taking view of The Wenzhou World Trade Centre

Looks like today is the perfect opportunity for me to read my new, "How to Speak Chinese" book, and pick up the guitar again (it's been a while).

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Bad Parking 1: The Lamp Post

Since I came to Wenzhou almost a year ago I have come across cars parking in all sorts of places, in all sorts of directions, and breaking all sorts of traffic laws (although the police aren't very interested in that, they've got better things to do with their time).

I am starting off this collection with what is probably the best -- or worst -- of the lot. I will never be able to beat this one, but it just had to be documented.

So, number one in the series of bad parking is this:

This unfortunate display of parking was found near to Kimi's apartment. We tried to guess how such a thing could have happened. Finally we agreed the car must have been parked further away from the lamp post, but the driver made a huge blunder and forgot to put the hand brake down. The rest, as they say, is history. I hope they were insured.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Women's Day

Sunday was Women's Day here in China -- a holiday not supported in the UK. It is a day to celebrate women and all of their achievements, so most of the department stores have a big sale for a day or two. Web also contributed to the holiday by taking us all out for dinner. But it wasn't just dinner, it was KTV too.

After finishing work we walked across the road to the same karaoke establishment Kimi and I had previously visited, the "Jolly 100". This time a mini-room would not be enough, what I think must be the largest of rooms was booked for us instead. Inside it was certainly spacious, with a cinema-type screen hung onto the wall -- it made reading the lyrics easy even without wearing my glasses.

The party in full swing

It was supposed to be a social gathering with a bit of singing, drinking, and eating, but it seemed although the idea was there, somehow it got lost along the way. The primary reason for this was the volume of the music, it was so high it was almost impossible to talk to each other. With a bit of shouting and speaking into each others ears, we made some effort to communicate with each other. A few Double Deer beers later and we, "the foreign teachers", even came to the stage to sing, "Hey Jude".

Like so many events and dinners I have attended in China, they don't slowly end with some people leaving early and some people staying until the bitter end. I find that a function will just stop, and within a few minutes almost everybody leaves within a split second. There's never an announcement or talk of leaving soon, just a kind of silent alarm that repels all people in a room. So at 9:15 we rapidly left the establishment, all with Tinnitus ringing in our ears.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Things to do on a Rainy Day in Wenzhou

My days off at Web had been changed since I returned from the UK in February. Previously I had managed to get Friday and Saturday which was incredibly cheeky considering Saturday and Sunday are two of the busiest days in the training centre. As they say, "If you don't ask you don't get".

Since I came back after my holiday the H.R. department had changed my days to Tuesday and Wednesday. I wasn't very happy about this, but I was promised I would have them changed back again after a month. Thankfully they have kept their word which has put a smile back on my face. It means I can go back to teaching children on Saturday and I will also be able to start having piano lessons. The downside of this is that I am now having to work seven days in a row until I make it to next Friday.

This week I had the pleasure of Kimi joining me on my days off. We planned to get out of the apartment and do something. This plan was immediately thrown in the rubbish when we looked out of the window: rain. The rain here has been ferocious and has no intention of stopping. As I write this we are on day 19 of uninterrupted rain. Apparently this is not completely natural either. There have been droughts in some parts of the Zhejiang province so the government have been using a chemical called silver iodide which forces rain clouds to dispense their lot rather prematurely. The first time I heard of such a thing being used here was for the opening ceremony of the Olympic games. Rain was scheduled to coincide with the event, so again, rockets were fired into the sky and a city outside of Beijing was flooded -- probably.

What is there to do on a rainy, dismal, and dull day in Wenzhou? There's only one answer: KTV. Kimi has been eager to go to karaoke for some time, Wednesday just seemed like the perfect day to be stuck inside. The KTV buildings are almost like hotels, you have to book a room, choose the size, and pay for how long you would like to use it for. We purchased the smallest room for a couple of hours, it was cheap at only 28 RMB. Inside, the rooms are neatly decorated with two microphones, a touch screen computer to select the songs, and a large wide-screen TV. I am by no means a qualified singer, but it is strangely enjoyable singing along to music videos in the privacy of a sound-proof room. It isn't easy finding English songs as the search function is useless. Instead you have to trawl through page after page trying to find an artist or song that is recognisable. There was a large choice of Abba, The Beatles, Westlife, and The Backstreet Boys; also some more obscure stuff like Richard Ashcroft, Cat Stevens, and The Animals were available too.

Kimi selecting a song in the "mini-room"

Somehow we managed to spend almost three hours in our room. By the time we checked out it was almost time for dinner. We had decided earlier in the day that we would go for a hotel buffet. They are more expensive than a usual dinner here, but now and again it is worth the treat -- especially as they have things like bread and butter on offer.

We arrived at The Dynasty Hotel opposite from Kimi's home just as the Buffet was starting. As we were about to enter the restaurant we noticed that the price had been raised, instead of the previous 98 RMB it was now 135 RMB. We took a look in the two other hotels close by the Dynasty to compare prices. One of the others was only 68 RMB but was full, and the second was 158 RMB, too much. Back we went to the Dynasty, only this time much wetter.

Both of us were extra-determined to get our money's worth from the meal. I immediately went for the bread and butter, salad, fruit, chips, and desserts. Kimi on the other hand went for the seafood, meat, and desserts.

Making the most out of the buffet

I felt quite sick at the end of it all which could only mean one thing: it was worth it. At least it won't be for another month or two until we do such a thing again.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Oasi Concert Cancelled

A few days ago I mentioned I would be attending an Oasis concert in Shanghai next month. Kimi and I received our tickets and I had already booked two days off from work. A couple of days later, Alex -- who you may have seen on the blog -- sent me this link confirming that the gig would be delayed "indefinitely" without reason. I was annoyed and disappointed, Kimi too. I imagined it was probably another disagreement between the Gallagher brothers, or maybe one of them just couldn't be bothered. These are the kinds of stories that have appeared in the news about the band previously, it wouldn't be a surprise if it turned out to be one or the other.

As I checked my emails this morning I noticed one from my father. He explained that on the BBC news last night there happened to be a story about Oasis's China concerts. In a nutshell the real reason behind the cancellation is this (the full BBC article is here):

The Chinese authorities have banned both concerts from taking place in Beijing and Shanghai because Noel Gallagher played in a Free Tibet concert twelve years ago.

Petty is not even the correct word to use here, in fact I would go so far to say that it is infant behaviour, like a spoilt child who won't share his toys. To think that it is people like this who run the country is quite frankly terrifying.

Monday, 2 March 2009

The Wonders of Working at Web

The halls of Web, where genius is cultivated

The marketing department at Web had devised a set of 3 demonstration classes centred around applying for a new job. I should mention what the demo class really is: a sales pitch to lure in new students. The first of these classes, "How to write a CV", was handed to Johann and I. We had covered this topic a few months ago in one of the extra curricular activities Web occasionally holds (I mentioned it here), so this would be no problem for us. We still had to do some preparation, and spent a good couple of hours finalizing the power point presentation and running through what we would say. All of this was to absolutely no avail. We were expecting 30 students or so we had been told -- 3 showed up. This sums up how Web usually operates:
  1. Somebody (probably the boss) has an idea that he thinks will make money for the school.
  2. The idea is not run passed anybody first.
  3. The people who have to actually work to make the idea a reality are told at the very last minute.
  4. If multiple departments have to work together there will be no communication whatsoever.
  5. Because there was nobody to manage the situation the event is an utter shambles.
I read a fantastic quote on another blog a couple of years ago that defines what it can be like working in the Chinese education system:
"In China information is on a need to know basis, and you don't need to know"
I wish I could remember the website I read this on to credit the statement. It has rung true on uncountable occasions.

Web has also introduced another brilliant idea with LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability). It involves the foreign teachers talking to a select set of students about how to live a healthy alternative lifestyle. Once again, we were all clueless, we didn't even know anything about the concept. The first of these LOHAS classes came from Kristian who had to introduce the topic and talk about tea drinking. The idea could have been worse I thought. That was until they revealed the venue where the class would be taking place: Pizza Hut. Yes, Pizza Hut. Of all the places to discuss healthy lifestyles. Again, bewilderment is the word.

I had my LOHAS class on Saturday, my topic: clay sculpting. Where it fits into the definition of the term is beyond me, but at least it wasn't in Pizza Hut this time. A group of six students, a couple of marketing personnel, and me would be going to a clay shop and apparently have a go at sculpting something (I wasn't told any details, I just wait for the surprises). The shop in question wasn't exactly close to the school, it would take a taxi ride for sure. Of course money is no object at Web, but they insisted that walking there would be part of a healthy lifestyle, so a twenty minute walk in the rain was scheduled for us. When we arrived we were shown around the tiny shop and introduced to many small figures and crockery. All explanations were in Chinese which again made me question the relevance of doing any of this, as the activity should primarily be an English learning exercise more than anything else. We were then taken into the back of the shop, handed a few slabs of clay, and began copying one of the already finished sculptures. I worked with Cucu who is one of the marketing brains behind the idea. We sculpted this:

It was surprisingly enjoyable moulding this lady out of a slab of clay, I was proud of the result even though she seems to have minor back problems