My roommate was up bright and early. He was going with the other Brit with a Chinese friend to check out Wal-Mart and get a sim card. I stayed in bed and then I decided to brave the bathroom for my first shower. It’s a fantastic power shower, the heat and everything. It’s perfect. But there is one problem. The drain for the shower is on the other side of the room, with the toilet in-between, so when having a shower it creates a permanent puddle in the bathroom, which is a slight error in its design.
By the time I’ve gone downstairs to use the WiFi in the lobby, and done some admin, my roommate arrives back having been unsuccessful. Wal-mart is closed on a Sunday in china, but in the US (you know, the land of the free and all that) it is always open on a Sunday.
I decide I should try to register for the university in the student union, as, that is why we are here after all. However, I have been trying the past few days, but each day, the reply is ‘try again tomorrow’, I have my fingers crossed, that today is, err, tomorrow. We enter the building, and a lady escorts us into her room, and finds our names on the register and ticks them off. So they do have a record of us existing, that is refreshing to hear. She says we need a Chinese name, in Chinese characters. She repeats my name over and over again and pauses, she writes two characters, and shows them to me and says ‘wau-ker’, with a falling/rising tone in the middle. I was born again. Like every other person I meet, before I leave they ask for my WeChat ID and I give it to her willingly.
We wait in reception, with the China Communist Party flag hanging, and I take my picture with it. The passing Chinese students laugh. Bloody tourists. Then, we move on to the next room, I walk into the room with my friends, to see some french students are trying as well. They are in deep conversation with a Chinese lady (in Chinese) to get a room all of the four can sleep in, or a room for two each. She can’t help them, and so, they depart. So then I sit, she takes my passport, and I have to write my name on a list. One column for English name and one for Chinese name, I get her to write my new Chinese name, as I don’t want to write my own name wrong for the first time, I think I need a little more practise. She tells us this isn’t official registration, this is just letting them know that we are here, I presume registration, will be tomorrow.
It’s time for lunch, and a Korean girl who was there at the same time joins me. She’s wonderful and charming, and called Gippeum, with a bounce to it, but her English name is Grace. She has been to England, and tells me about her love for Harry Potter, the English accent, and that it is well-known that English men, are gentlemen. Well, I do try my best and we’ve only just met.
Brexit gets a passing mention. We are all disappointed and a little anger remains, but we all come to different conclusions as to whether it will happen or not. Those who voted leave will suffer the most – we all voted remain, and left to go to china.
The ‘other Brit’ I mention is Libby. She’s done things like this before, she’s been to India with the British Council, as well as countless other places she likes to mention. She’s from
Somerset, and unlike the others, have no connection to Wolverhampton. She has chosen to live in a different block to us, but still, it’s only 250 metres away.
This evening, the final Brit arrived, making it two girls and two boys, the fantastic four one could say. Dominique is wonderful, her smile beams across any room she walks into – I know this because she is the only one I’ve met before China. She was at the meeting about going and we introduced ourselves then. Tonight her smile shines a little less so than usual. She has arrived without her luggage as her airline have lost it. She confides in our little English-speaking group.
She has arrived with little more than her passport, phone and money, so we then go to the bustling night market to get her some bedding to sleep on. Gippeum comes along, as she knows where the 9.99 yuan store (yes, you guessed it, a 99p store) and man, do us brits love a bargain.
We have some street food, a bit of chicken on a stick, and some tofu in a cup. Gippeum asks me how old I am, and that in Korea, if you are older, you are treated as you are wiser. She tells me that she’s twenty-three, and I say I’m twenty-one, but when we say our birthdays, they are not that far apart. She was talking in ‘China years’, for the Chinese calendar, which (I think) makes me twenty-three as well.
We get to the 9.99 yuan store, and I find the perfect instrument to clean our bathroom floor when it floods. I walk back to the dorm, and one of the Chinese students tells us that the Water will be turned off for three days, in the entire campus for engineering works. Great.
I had my last shower this morning for a while before they turn the water off at midday. I fill up a bucket of water to live off before they turn it back on again.
Me and my friends decide to try to get a Chinese sim card today. We’re worried about our communication skills, but as we are about to leave, my Korean friend who directed me to the correct place on my first day walks by. He offers to help us get a sim card, as he has nothing to do apart from avoid packing for his flight tomorrow back to Korea to renew his visa. He walks us far across the campus down to a basement supermarket with a mobile phone stall. There is no queue, but there is a crowd. We eventually get to the front and the Korean (Son-Gwon-Lee) talks the talk and gets us all sim cards with a ten pound deposit, as well as some mobile internet. As if he hadn’t done enough, he then takes us out to lunch. We walk to a massive, brand new shopping mall, and go to a traditional Chinese hot-pot restaurant. We have an individual hob on the table for each person, and they come with a pot of broth and you order the extras to boil in your pot: pork, lamb, shrimp, sweet and non-sweet potato and noodles to finish off. You have a pot of sauce (of which you create yourself) to dip your boiled food in to cool it down and eat. It was wonderful, but in my first few days I am having a baptism of fire in using the chopsticks, trying to get slippery shrimp out of a pot of boiling water with steam flying in your face, It’s fair to say I’m improving. We come to pay the bill, and for 4 hotpots, every single extra you can imagine, and drinks, its
201 yuan (around £20). Son-Gwon-Lee then whips out his phone to find a 200 yuan voucher leaving us to pay 1 yuan. We paid 10 pence.
As the water is still off, I go and buy a 4 litre bottle, you know for necessity. After carrying the bottle on our walk in the 30 degree heat, I have a little daytime nap, before I get to grips with my girlfriends visa.
Me and the brits go to dinner and I have some dumplings before off to my favourite supermarket to get some more bedding (None of them can cope with the hard beds. They are buying more mattresses and padding by the day.
I sit in the lobby of our residence, for the WiFi, and see everybody pass through to video call their family and friends from back home. The Uzbeks are the most connected to home. They are here video calling on WeChat as well as everything else. They get me to say something in Uzbek and I am a star. I think it’s because of my perfect uzbek accent. Bizarrely, they are all arsenal fans, and they know little English, but they know what I mean when I say Olivier Giroud is rubbish. ‘Liverpool number one’ I say to them, and they reply in pantomime style with ‘no no no, Arsenal number 1’.
I talk to a few of the mexicans, Alejandra is one of them who took me out to lunch when I arrived, and is utterly charming, but she does it with such grace, I feel when I try to follow-up I always come across as a little to eager to please. However, she introduces me to the Chinese ‘yogurt in a bag’. It’s around the same shape and size of a mozzarella bag, and it is surprisingly refreshing. I go back upstairs to find my roommate binge-watching family guy on DVD. I always make him jump when I walk into the room because he has his earphones on.
This morning is the campus tour for international students, given by three chinese female students. One with a camera, and the others at each end of the group. They want us in two lines, one boys, one girls, we all look a little bemused, and the order soon fizzles out over the two-hour, 6km walk in the burning sun on the humongous campus. There are many buildings for different subjects, as well as a hospital, 9 canteens, an impressive library and a couple of supermarkets and basketball courts along the way. This is not even mentioning the huge blocks of accommodation for students (and non-students) and their 8 bed dorms (with their classmates), public showers and communal kitchen. The international students are treated like gods compared to the home students. We walk around, and the photographer gets us in perfect group photo spots, that will almost certainly be used for their next ‘diversity’ brochure. Alisa, the international student coordinator gave me a painting, she had painted. A beautiful painting of flowers, it was greatly appreciated, and it hangs on the wall next to my bed, so I see it when I wake up in the morning. I walk, with a spring in my step, to the chinese test, having quickly looked up some key chinese words, and had a skim read of the words needed for HSK Level one. I arrive a little late, and in the small classroom, with no teacher present, around half of us are standing. So, some of us, are moved into what looks like a welcome room, with some pictures of important people and some shiny golden flag masts with numerous countries represented. We are given the exam, which is all in Chinese characters, meaning most of us can’t read it, (you are level 3 out of 6 levels if you can read characters…), the teacher seems a little bemused, and gets a Pakistani
student in the other room to explain to us what we need to do in the exam, in English. This just made the Koreans more confused. We write our names on the paper, and leave, that was an interesting 20 minutes. Dominique went to the airport which is two hours by taxi away but her near 4 1/2 hour round trip turns out to be successful, to pick up her lost luggage, she bemoans the lack of clothes she has had with her, and I didn’t even notice. I went to the canteen. I also went to the supermarket, I bought some fruit which I could eat later. I went and sat by the athletics track in the evening to watch the dancers, the people doing tai-chi, the walkers, the runners, and the lovers on the grass in the middle. By the time I’ve read the last of my newspapers and magazines I got on my flight to china, it’s pitch black, and there are more people, the hustle and bustle continues till late, and the locals are, as always, fascinated by me. Some even come and sit next to me and talk to me in Chinese, and even when I convey to them that I don’t understand. It seems to only encourage them, or at the very least, offer me a cigarette. With a warm handshake and a smile, I leave to go back to the residence, to talk to some of the westerners, who are still bemoaning the fact that we don’t have water. I go up to my room, and I find that my bucket of water has been decimated by my roommate, he used the toilet and used my water to flush it down. He didn’t realise it was my water, he says.
Day 7 Wednesday
I wake up to the sound of a drip on our bathroom. I have never been so happy to hear the bathroom leaking – the water is back on! I feel clean again, and I fell like I can do a lot more and be a little less smelly.
Alejandra, takes me and the girls to an international school, who need some English teachers. It’s the top floor of a huge shopping centre. Alejandra works here once a week, teaching one to one, but I think that they want us to do groups. Alejandra is wonderful, the ways she talks to us all, like she’s known us for years, and at the same time that we are all new and exciting to her. Many of us lose the hope and optimism of our youth, but Alejandra gives off the aura of joy for the rest of us. She gives us a short tour of the shopping centre, which is four floors, and includes an indoor market, numerous kids play areas, and a full size ice rink.
The international school is on the top floor in the corner. ‘SIN China International Education. The receptionists are very happy to see us and guide us through to a meeting room to meet the boss. Amanda, is everything I imagined her to be. She is tall, elegant, in a long formal black dress and looks like a boss. She looks a little stern, but when she walks into our room, to see our foreign faces, she looks like she has seen her new-born child. We are offered a platter of mangoes (locally sourced, we’re told) and watermelon and a drink of ice-cold water. Alejandra translates what Amanda says to us, although she does understand what we are saying in English. She asks us to talk a little about ourselves to hear our accents, and we all pass with flying colours, not that there is much competition, we will be the only English people who work here. I am relieved that the brummie inside of me didn’t come out to play. We are taken into another room, where they show us what they require from us, teaching us a demo class. Every move we make, acting out, smiling, listening, there is a camera at hand to take a picture of us. After the induction, and they have all added me on WeChat, I soon
see that me and my compatriots faces, are the new faces of the international school. They clearly see us as a goldmine, even if none of us have experience of teaching English. They give us the taxi fare to get home, but, being the bad students that we are, we get the bus home and save the £1 for a rainy day. On the bus tv, the news is constantly rolling, which is sometimes a little perturbing. They showed a massive car crash on a bridge from the viewpoint of a car camera, at the exact moment, we were going over a bridge. Perhaps they should think that through a little bit. The next news item is that the heroic Olympians have arrived back in China, and that the even more heroic Paralympians have departed. Some things never change.
For my evening meal, I go to the canteen with matt. I eat chicken and rice, he gets a ramen, which, he destroys with half a ton of chilli powder. He later wonders why he feels a little under the weather….
I am feeling full of energy after the return of running water, and I want to get a little fitter. I accompany mexican Jonathan to the gym, who is taller, stronger and older than me. But most of all, he feeds and takes care of all the dogs who live outside our residence. So much so, they follow him everywhere he goes. In order to walk around in peace, I meet him on the main road, as instead of going through the main door past the dogs, he jumps out the back of the building from the first floor (it’s not really that high, but high enough for me not to do). He has a six month subscription, but he gets me in as a taster session. We walk upstairs in the warehouse-like building, and find all the machines and equipment, on a red and black carpet. A short, but incredibly muscular chinese man, walks up to me and introduces himself in english. His English name is ‘Rock’. I smile and say ‘you mean The Rock?’. ‘No, there’s another guy called that, so I’m just called Rock’. I say my name, and like a lot of Asian men I have met, they say ‘Paul Walker’, who was the star in the Fast and Furious franchise. Yes, that’s news to me as well. He gets me pushing heavy things, surrounded by all these muscular Chinese men, that is a little odd, as one does not normally see Chinese people fine tuning their abs, let alone any Chinese bodybuilders in Wolverhampton.
I return back to the residence, to see Alisa, the residence assistant. We sit and talk for hours about our anxieties and our futures, as well as what a terrible news network CNN is, and what the west thinks of the South China Islands. At least you guys just build most of the land, whereas the Brits normally colonise, I joke. We talk about the similarities of Ying and Yang and French Philosophy, the difference between the body clock of a Chinese student and a Brit (they get up at 6am, not 6pm), and most devastatingly, she is leaving her job to go and live in her old student residence with her friends, so she can focus on preparing for her masters (which is two years away) and her future career. She gives me a gift, and she tells me about the ‘normal’ chinese residence. It is an 8 or 9 bed dorm, with many dorms on each floor, with one kitchen to share, and public, cold water showers. Maybe us internationals should stop complaining about our difficult roommates and think ourselves lucky.
Today is orientation class. I arrive a couple of minutes late, but I’ve missed nothing. They put on the Powerpoint, telling us that we should go to class, not to get a pet, not to party all
night, not to move out of the residence without telling anyone, and not to padlock our door. They say this with a little too much gusto to suggest this happens a little too often, and that there are few consequences that go with it. Also, the scholarship will be a month late. Who doubted it?
I get some street food for lunch, a bread roll with chicken and what looked like noodles, but as my friend informs me, potatoes. It’s all very nice. In the afternoon, we go back to the international school to deliver our demo class, that they requested us to learn, we each perform in sections, but I’m always first up, so the others learn from my mistakes. It’s all quite tiring, but whatever we do, the Chinese love us. We celebrate our success by spending the taxi fare on mango bubble tea.
I get back and I do some washing, and two friends, one from Zambia, and one from Nepal, join us for dinner. We go to the canteen and I get what I think is Chicken on a stick, but could be tofu, or something in-between. Dominique a vegetarian, is a little perturbed.
I play badminton with Alisa, and we have a wonderful time. I will miss her when she leaves the residence. The Uzbeks think I am flirting with her by spending a little too much time with her, but it is just me being charming, I’m sure. Me and all the Uzbeks have partners, but I make a joke about getting a Chinese girlfriend for the time we are here. They said they prefer the Koreans, but they then proceed to tell me that they are Muslim, live in a Muslim country, and that they will marry their girlfriends, and that they are celibate. Their views on the world are fascinating. Their views on homosexuality are quite disconcerting and their view that their dictator is a modern-day ‘Ghandi’ maybe a little off the mark. However, their unadulterated love for the music of James Blunt does make me smile, and they are impressed with my knowledge of Uzbekistan and their ever-shrinking sea (I know, I spend too much time on Wikipedia).
I access Facebook for the first time in a while, to see all these notifications and see all the wonderful people wishing me luck. It does stop me from lying awake listening to the ever constant drip in the bathroom.