Grand Tour: Curry

Being British, I miss the fine cuisine found in the British Isles, and by that I mean curry. Last year my friend Ellie introduced me to an Indian restaurant in Shanghai, and we went along together. Other than that, I got my fix of Indian food when I went to Hong Kong for the week. This year I moved house and ended up 500 metres from the restaurant Ellie had recommended. I have been many times – including the day I moved in, which was a generally horrendous day, other than the curry, as it involved staying out salsa dancing (in a non-salsa bar) until 3am with my colleague, then having to try to find packing tape as I’d neglected to buy any, followed by packing all my belongings while trying to stave off a nauseous hangover of my life. Oh, and then getting stopped by the police mid-move and the removal man telling me off for having too many boxes. Let’s just say I earned that curry.

This year has also seen me start a Grand Tour of Shanghai’s Indian restaurants. I don’t really remember how it came about, but another friend and I started talking about curries and now we can’t stop talking about curries and are working our way around all the Indian restaurants we can find. Curries are changeable; garlic naan is non-negotiable.

Lotus Leaf, Tianzifang
Tucked away in the alleyways of Tianzifang, I came here after a day at the art gallery with another good friend. I’d been to another branch of Lotus Leaf but this one is more atmospheric. We ate curry and garlic naan. I got told that beer with curry was wrong and I should be drinking coke. I gave that a go. This is a great choice for dinner if you’re in Tianzifang.

Vedas, Changshu Lu
Despite being on a main road, I found this one harder to find than Lotus Leaf. Also, I’d walked there in the August sweatfest so I was “glowing”. There was a distinct lack of atmosphere in the restaurant but we got the party started with garlic naan and one of the best curries of my life. The vegetable kebab are out of this world. I could eat here every week.

Masala Art, Wuding Lu
After a long day at work, what I needed was a curry, though true to form I managed to get lost – right outside the building. At one point, a family came in and the two sons kept their helmets on for the whole meal. The food was pretty solid but despite a coke I was extremely sleepy and stuffing my face with garlic naan did not help to wake me up. I will have to go back.

Currify, near Nanjing Xi Lu
I’d spotted this place, next door to my beloved Sproutworks, a few weeks before, though had to wait until my inconsiderate friend came back from holiday. It seemed to be a collaboration between Currify and a bar, but the only nod to it being a bar seemed to be that we were perched on bar stools. The naan was garlicky and delicious, so we ordered more, and we went wild and ordered another coke each – then of course neither of us slept that night.

Nepali Kitchen, Julu Lu
A renegade choice, I went to Nepali Kitchen about a year ago when a university friend moved to Shanghai. Somehow it wasn’t where I thought it was, so yes, I inadvertently got slightly lost yet a-fucking-gain. Pineapple shashlik was the standout dish, garlic naan wasn’t very garlicky (sob), one of us had two cokes but one of us was smart and chose jasmine tea for their second drink. We managed to spend 4.5 hours here before we were finally kicked out by the waiter.

Teaching C this summer

I mentioned my student, C, before. He’s nearly 18 and has some challenges understanding what’s appropriate and what’s not. This summer I was teaching him GCSE Geography. Here is a selection of the conversations we had during our classes.

C thinks dinosaurs still exist, some of them at least.

C thinks young ladies shouldn’t go camping in case they have their period.

C also thinks young ladies don’t eat at McDonald’s.

“Miss, what would that teacher over there do if I punched you?”

“20% of people in China are lazy, 40% of people in the UK are lazy and more than 50% of people in France are lazy”

C asked if I’d ever stayed in a 5* hotel, and when I said yes, he asked how I’d paid for it. “But miss, you’re not rich, you work here!”

“America lost the Vietnam War because the soldiers were lazy and ate too much fast food”

“People deserved to die in the tsunami because they shouldn’t live in silly places”

“I think it would be too hot to live in the centre of the earth, I’m glad I don’t live there”

“Global warming will make Africa warmer but nowhere else”

C wanted to know why he wasn’t allowed to refer to another teacher, who is black, as “that dark man”, even behind his back.

“Miss, you are lucky you live in China because no one will punch you for being a lady. Five years ago this wasn’t the case, in Yunnan you would get punched for being a lady, now it’s fine though”

“Only China sent aid to Haiti after the earthquake”

C got angry with me for showing a video made by NASA and not the Chinese space agency.

“Miss, your skin is pretty and nice”

C was talking about responsibilities, and said that his responsibilities are to help ladies carry their bags and and their babies. When questioned about this he said that he would only offer to carry someone’s baby if they had two or three babies on their hands.

“The government of Africa is rubbish. I’m sorry to use such a strong word, miss, but they are rubbish”

C is adamant that the population of Canada is 2.4 billion.

“Urbanisation is bad because you then have to build a drawbridge for all the people”

“If you were my wife, I would protect you when you went swimming”

C thinks volcanoes are man-made.

“Miss, will you sleep with me in a hotel?”

My first ayi

When I lived in a shared house in London, we had a cleaner once a week. There were four of us, plus visiting partners and a cat, and the idea was that having a cleaner would help us to keep the place clean/tidy throughout the week. It cost us about 15 GBP per hour (I can’t find the pound sign on this keyboard…). Because I am middle class and British, I found having a cleaner really weird, but accepted that the alternative was to clean up after my housemates.

In Shanghai, I live on my own and so have been fighting getting a cleaner. But no more.

Yesterday I went on 大众点评 (an app that’s a bit like yelp or google reviews or something, but better – you can book through it) and ordered a cleaning lady, or ayi, to come this morning. It cost me 70 RMB for two hours.

She showed up 20 minutes early, which was a bit awkward as I was just going out to buy a milk tea and some more cleaning products – I was suddenly worried that she wouldn’t bring any… and I was right. We had a bit of a chat and I showed her around the flat and left her to start on the bathroom while I went to the shops to buy her a mop.

I came back and found her cleaning the bathroom with my face towel. “Is it okay to use this cloth?” she asked. Well, a bit late now…

I retreated to my bedroom where I attempted to look very studious. She didn’t care about this and kept popping in to ask me questions about why I lived alone, how much rent I paid, why I didn’t clean more often… In the meantime she made every surface in my flat damp, before sweeping the floor and making that damp too. I *think* she used some cleaning products but not really enough.

After about an hour she told me that she was done, and I pretended to inspect the place and said “yeah yeah, looks great, thanks” so that she could leave and I could use the loo.

Actually, she’s not done a bad job. Cleaning is boring and I’m happy to pay someone to do it for me, and I get to practice my Chinese in the meantime. And now I own a mop.

Here are my top tips for getting an ayi:

  • Don’t expect her to bring any cleaning materials or products. Mine literally just brought a straw hat.
  • Either get one through a recommendation or you can order one through the app if you can read Chinese.
  • Don’t expect her to speak any English whatsoever.
  • Expect lots of personal questions!
  • Hide anything you don’t mind her commandeering for use as a cleaning cloth. I’m serious: towels, pillow cases, sheets, underwear, clothes, etc.
  • Point out the cleaning products several times and make it clear that you want them used.
  • Don’t get stressed that her idea of cleaning is to make everything damp with a cloth. If you have specific things you want cleaning then either tell/show her or do it yourself when she’s gone – I have a bit of a mold problem and bought some fancy imported mold spray but I wasn’t going to go to the hassle of explaining how to use this to her.
  • If you book her for a certain time, eg 09:30, expect her anytime from 09:00. And don’t expect her to stay for two hours, she’ll tell you when she’s finished and then you can either say you’re happy with it or ask her to clean something she’s missed.

It’s pretty cool to think I have a nice clean(ish) flat now, having booked it on an app yesterday. That’s one of the cool things about living in China, you can order/book anything you like. If I run out of ice, I order some. If I’m hungry, I order food. If I want an inflatable ball pond to play in, I order one. Life is convenient. Life is good.

 

Drive me crazy, part 2: theory test

Remember I wanted to get my driving licence? Well, here’s what happened when I took my theory test!

I took my test at the end of June and foolishly assumed that I’d be able to apply common sense and pass in this way. Nope! There are 100 questions out of a question bank of around 1250, and while some of them are common sense, other require memorising the regulations (some of which are nonsensical) and the chinglish phrases included in it. You can choose to take the test in Chinese, English, Japanese, Korean, French or German (and maybe others?). In some ways taking it in Chinese would be easier but they weren’t keen to offer this to me (foreigners don’t speak Chinese after all).

I arrived at the test centre with half an icecream spilled down my front, not a great sign. I had a bit of time to spare so I read through some of the regulations, sending the more amusing ones to friends.

Finally I went upstairs to the testing room, which is in building 1, in the room above the room where you make the appointments (desks 40/41). A man took my papers and checked things through again, before telling me to sit. A few minutes later, he called my name and I sat down at a computer.

I logged in and was a bit weirded out by the video of me in the top corner of the screen. Some of the questions made sense but some of them were nonsense, and some of them I just had no idea what the answer could be. I worked my way through all 100 questions and hit submit… 79. Fail. You get another go straight away and this time I got 78, so I had to go back to the 1st floor to get a number for appointment desks on the 2nd floor, where I made an appointment to retake the test.

Take 2, a few weeks later, and this time I’d studied. I downloaded the app, though couldn’t access more than 150 questions as it wouldn’t let me pay for the premium version. I memorised everything I could and then took a page of notes on some of the bits of the regulations that I knew didn’t make sense or otherwise needed memorisation – penalties for particular traffic offences, etc. I ate another ice cream on the way there, this time not spilling any on me.

I went back to the test room, and when my name was called, sat down at the computer and worked through the questions. If I knew the answer, I answered it; if I didn’t, I left it and came back to it at the end. There were about 15 questions in total that were either too vague/badly written to know what they were asking or I just didn’t know the answer. I made some guesses and hit submit.

An agonising few seconds later, my score popped up on screen. 92! Pass!

I went back to reception and they printed out a page with my passing score. Hilariously this had screenshots of me mid-exam.WeChat Image_20180801111302

I took all these papers down to the 1st floor to get another number for desks 40/41… There I submitted all the papers and was directed to desk 30/31, to pay. I stupidly didn’t keep the receipt but I think it was 70 RMB. I went back to desks over near 40/41 and waited until someone shouted my name (in Chinese), and they handed me my brand new Chinese driving licence!WeChat Image_20180801111231

Watch out, everyone on Chinese roads! Mwahaha.

Costs:

Translation: 50 RMB

Photos: 25 RMB

Medical check: 60 RMB

Theory test: 60 RMB

Licence: 10 RMB

TOTAL COST: 205 RMB

Drive me crazy: getting a driving licence in Shanghai

I started learning to drive when I was 18, just before I moved to London, and after a little break I passed my test when I was 19, driving around the North Circular and pointing out Pat Sharp’s house to my examiner. Amazingly, I passed first time. Then I didn’t drive for many years, because London.

Now I live in another enormous metropolis, one with an even better public transport system, so I thought why not get a driving licence here too? I have no plans to drive, but I thought it would be a useful thing to have.

As I already have a British driving licence, I can apply for a conversion to a Chinese one, rather than having to “learn to drive” from scratch in China. A friend sent me a super useful link, with step by step instructions on what to do. I basically just followed that!

Here’s my experience of applying for my licence!

Firstly, you have to be resident in China with a visa valid for at least 90 days. No problem for me, I have a residence permit currently valid until January 2019.

Secondly, make sure you have a copy of your temporary residence permit (the bit of paper from the police when you move house). I was a bit worried that I didn’t re-register when I came back from Taiwan, but it was fine. If in doubt just go and get another form, it only takes a minute.

Thirdly, get your driving licence officially translated. I went to the Shanghai Interpreters Association on Beijing West Road (上海市外事翻译工作者协会,北京西路1277号(国旅大厦)1607室). It cost 50 RMB, and I first had to write down my Chinese name on a piece of paper (they liked my handwriting), so I don’t know what you’d do if you didn’t have a Chinese name. Or couldn’t write it. They translated my driving licence both with “Miss” as part of my actual name and without.

Yesterday I made photocopies of all the important documents, namely:

  • passport
  • residence permit/visa (in passport)
  • temporary residence permit
  • driving licence (front and back)
  • translation of driving licence

Then today, armed with all those photocopies, and my real life passport, driving licence and certified translation, I went to the Shanghai Vehicle Management Bureau. This is on Hami Road, out by Shanghai Zoo (哈密路1330号).

  • Note to anyone else going! It’s not the place where you get your residence permit health check although it is on the same road! Don’t be like me and go to the wrong place! It’s fairly obvious when you’re in the right place because there are a million cars.

Top tip! Take a plastic wallet to keep your papers/passport/licence in as you have to keep whipping them out and you don’t want to have to keep getting them out of your bag. Or lose anything, heaven forbid.

At the Shanghai Vehicle Management Bureau

Walk in the front gate, try not to get run over.

First up is Building 10. Go to the counter and hand over passport and translated driving licence, then 25 RMB. Then go to the small door by the entrance, where there’s a little photo studio. Give the receipt and your passport to the photographer. I was made to take off my earrings and put on a (giant, grubby) jacket as I was wearing a camisole. As a result I have the exact same look on my face that my brother has in his Year 1 school photo.

Next go to Building 9 to pick up the photos, when they’re ready they’ll be on the counter (it took about a minute). Take three forms from the counter by the door, and if you can write in Chinese then fill it in – if not then I guess get someone to help you. The chap handing out the forms cut out one of the photos for me and stuck it onto one form, then told me which bits to fill in. Keep the rest of the photos safe. Once your forms are filled in, go to the counter and pay 60 RMB.

Next go out of the door and turn left, looking for the sign saying “medical check”. Go in this door and up the stairs. Turn right and then go into each of the rooms to do the medical checks. Give the doctors your papers when you go in and they’ll point you towards whatever apparatus they want you to use. Medical checks today: height, weight, hand strength, squats, basic eyesight, hearing, blood pressure, ECG, colour blindness. Once you’ve been into every room, go to the counter at the end and they’ll make up a certificate. I had a little chat with these guys as they were the friendliest people of the day – they were intrigued as to whether Ireland is a real country and also wanted to know about my Chinese name.

Finally, go to Building 1. Go to the first desk you see and they may send you around the corner to another lady, they did for me but it has the vibe of being a free-for-all. Show this lady your paperwork and she’ll give you a ticket for the queue. Go upstairs (the stairs are to the left) and walk through to the final room. When your number gets called, they’ll go through allllllll the paperwork (and freak out at my driving licence and passport being issued in different countries) and take the photocopies you helpfully provided. Finally, everything gets stapled together and you get asked to choose when you want to take your test. It was booked up for the next 3 weeks but I got a date at the end of the month that works for me. And with that, the appointment slip and all my paperwork was handed back to me and see ya!

What’s this date for? For a theory test. Everything I know is from the link I posted above – it’s a computerised test. I have literally no clue what’s in the test but I guess I have a few weeks to find out.

Tune in later this month to find out if I pass!

Two half marathons

This spring I ran two half marathons, and I meant to write about them but I was busy and lazy and didn’t. However, I was just thinking about how very different the two races were.

Pre-race:

  • Wuxi: Wuxi is 200km from Shanghai, so I had to take the high speed train after work, then a taxi across the city to a sports centre, to pick up my race number the day before (the organisers refused to allow same-day pick up or a friend to pick it up – really disappointing). I stayed with a friend that night, so had to take another taxi across town to this sports centre (very inconvenient location to start a race). Dropping off bags etc was fine and then I queued for 45 minutes to use the filthy toilets. Really unimpressive.
  • Shanghai 10 Bridges: I took the metro to a random stop in Minhang, then walked to a cafe on a dusty street. There were only 250 people doing the race, so it was all very low key and easy. I hung out with my friends and chatted, then stashed my bag in a cardboard box.

Route:

  • Wuxi: Getting over the start line took about 20 minutes as there were about 30,000 runners doing the full and half marathons. Once underway, it always felt crowded. The route itself was on closed roads, and there were quite a few spectators out, plus old people dancing and playing drums etc. Running alongside the lake was quite nice, although the pollution was very high. The final bit was through the university and the students were very enthusiastic cheerers – when I made the effort to wave, or high five, they went absolutely nuts and it gave me quite a boost.
  • Shanghai 10 Bridges: The race started down an alley beside a restaurant, and the first 8km was on the roads, dodging cars and old people, although after that it was mainly along the river path. When we hit the river things got a bit easier to follow, although some of the route markers had been removed by over-zealous security guards. No cheerers. Lots of annoying people also using the riverside path, how dare they. Got stopped 500m from the end by a film crew, then decided to be a dick and just ran through their set.

Water:

  • Wuxi: Water stops every 2km, after the first 5km, with water, energy drinks, sponges and toilets. There were also some random food stops, like a burger stall at 18km.
  • Shanghai 10 Bridges: Water at 9km, 15km and 20km. Nowhere near enough. Nearly died.

Weather:

  • Wuxi: It was warm but not too crazy. Shitty air.
  • Shanghai 10 Bridges: It was incredibly hot, and I contemplated throwing my dessicated corpse into the Huangpu. High pollution.

My performance:

  • Wuxi: I stopped at 8km to use the loo, then from 12km I walked through the water stops as I am rubbish at running while drinking. At about 18km I gave up and did a lot more walking. Finished in 2hr32.
  • Shanghai 10 Bridges: After the first water stop I couldn’t start running for nearly 1km, and that was kind of the story for the rest of the race. At one point I sent messages to my friend saying how awful I felt and he told me to get a fucking move on. Really had to have words with myself on several occasions but it did very little. Dragged myself to the finish line (a friend standing in the road with a can of coconut water) in 2hr34.

Post-race:

  • Wuxi: I sat on the grass for a while, then went to collect my belongings. Lots of random stuff in the goody bag. I called a taxi and then spent 20 minutes arguing with the driver because he didn’t know about the road closures. Finally got back to my friend’s house and went to eat churros, before getting the train back to SH and going for a curry with my boyfriend.
  • Shanghai 10 Bridges: Chatted to friends, went to the bar just as other friends had opened a bottle of prosecco, downed a glass, immediately felt my insides liquefy and had to run to the bathroom. Drank beer and heckled my friend who won, then got the metro home, feeling sweaty and slightly drunk.

How was your week? (the child edition)

(Names have been changed but the student has chosen his own name, but got confused about which letters to use and given himself a very feminine name. This is his second name, he used to be called Car (because he likes cars). He is 11 and weighs significantly more than me).

Me: How was your week?

Anny: I got in a fight at school. One of the students is taller than me and stronger than me, and he attacked me for no reason at all. Once he attacked a teacher with a chair leg and broke the teacher’s leg a little bit. He attacked me for no reason at all, we fought all the way across the classroom, from the front to the back. He hit my head and I picked him up and threw him against the wall. He is strong but he only fights with his arms and legs, not his head. I have a bruise on my arm and my head is a bit sore.

Me: Did you win?

Anny: No one won because the teacher arrived.

Me: That sounds like a good thing, the teacher must have been very angry.

Anny: The teachers are scared of him. Once Jerry brought a knife to class and he held it to my friend’s face. My friend told his mum and his mum came to the school. The fighting student, Jerry, his mum came to the school too and the two mums fought and my friend’s mum got hurt and now we don’t complain any more. The headmaster doesn’t want to help and we can’t report Jerry because if he knows it’s us then he’ll fight us.

Me: That sounds terrible for everyone.

Anny: His dad is a soldier but I don’t want him to grow up to be a soldier because then he could fight the whole country.

Me: So do you remember that we have been thinking about good decision making skills and poor decision making skills? What would you say were good decisions and what were poor decisions?

Anny: I shouldn’t have attacked him back. My mum said it’s okay to hit people if they hit you first but I should have gone to get the teacher. So I think no one made good decisions.

 

Anny for president!

HSK 4 – nerves, regrets and a surprise

Last month I took a Chinese exam, level 4 of the HSK. HSK stands for Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (“chinese level test”, Chinese naming conventions being very imaginative) and there are six levels in total. I took level 2 in February 2017 and level 3 in September 2017, and did fairly well in both, being well prepared for both exams. The jump between levels is quite big – the amount of vocabulary doubles each time – but I knew that if I didn’t sign up for the exam, I wouldn’t force myself to learn the vocab (instead I would focus on “fun” vocab – so it’s not like I’d completely neglect learning).

I did a mock exam a fortnight beforehand and scored 160/300. The pass mark is 180. I’d not done well (though hadn’t failed…) in the mock exams for both the previous levels, as the format takes a little getting used to, so I tried not to be too worried. However, I was aware that there were major gaps in my knowledge. Over the next week or so I carried on doing mock exams, practising the bits I found difficult. I also kept trying to cram in new vocabulary, spending my commute drilling new words and trying to read and review on lunchbreaks and quiet moments.

The week before the exam I did more mock exams, getting colleagues to mark the writing sections for me. In one I scored 200 but generally I was getting between 150 and 190. I grew increasingly worried.

I’d bought the textbooks for HSK 4 but only worked my way through 6 of the 20 chapters and I wondered what I’d been doing with my time instead of studying or revising.

The day before the exam I was working until nearly 9pm and decided to go home and try to get a decent night’s sleep instead of doing any lastminute cramming. I woke up at 6am and read over some sentences, while drinking a cup of coffee.

I felt really stupid as I felt like I’d had plenty of time to study for the exam. And I felt like the exam really shouldn’t be this hard – after all, I live in China, I’m around Chinese all the time, this isn’t even that hard an exam (children in first grade at school will learn all of this). I started to cry, and once I started, I couldn’t stop.

At about 8am I managed to get myself together a little bit and took a taxi to the exam centre. The taxi driver asked if I was Russian. I went to McDonalds and bought a coffee. I felt sick as I walked down the street, trying to find the entrance to the building. How ironic would it be if I couldn’t even find it?

The exam room itself was reasonably sized, computers at individual desks, most already with the candidate sat patiently behind. My desk was the one nearest the door. I logged in using the log in details taped to the desk for me (although I had to ask where these were, as I didn’t spot them). I checked the headset. I looked about. Then I waited, watching the countdown timer, feeling worse and worse, although not crying any more (small mercies).

The exam started. Listening first. I tried to read the questions before the listening extract each time, to give me an idea about what to listen out for. Some questions were very straightforward and others I felt like I had no clue – I guess this is to be expected when you simply don’t know big chunks of the vocab. I tried to keep calm although it was hard to stay positive. By the end of the listening section I felt pretty tired (I normally give myself a break when doing mock exams at home!).

In the reading section, my teacher had advised I do part 1, then part 3 and finally part 2. Part 1 I normally find very straightforward but I knew I hadn’t got this right, which made my spirits sink yet further. Part 3 is very very long and I felt exhausted by the end, but tried to remain focused on part 2, which is really hard (my teacher had said that it’s possible to spend the whole time on section 2 and still not get it all right, as it’s so tricky).

Finally on to the writing section! The first part is rearranging words into sentences, making sure that the order is correct. Some of these seemed quite easy, others I wasn’t so sure about, others I knew that I thought were easy but were no doubt wrong. The second part is writing a sentence using a picture and prompt word. I spent ages trying to work out whether a particular word that I’m semi-familiar with is a noun or a verb. I settled on it being a noun. I checked all my sentences. I rechecked them. I made some adjustments. I changed them back. I checked it all again. I had 30 seconds left, and rather than click submit and actively commit to finishing the exam, I let it time out and submit on my behalf.

I put on my coat, packed away my passport and headed downstairs. I stumbled out into the street and looked up the word from the writing section (it was a verb, not a noun) and decided not to look up anything else.

I posted on wechat about how I thought the exam had gone and messaged a few friends who’d wished me luck, telling them how awful it was. My teacher suggested I go and get a hot drink and I thought that was an excellent idea so went to buy a hot chocolate. I was totally sure I’d failed and only after going to the gym and sweating out some of the self-hate, then spending the afternoon drinking coffee with a good friend, was I able to put it out of my mind and decide to wait and see what the results were.

Normally the results only take a fortnight, but Chinese New Year meant that it took 3 weeks for the results to come out. By then I’d reconciled myself to the idea of retaking the exam. I almost didn’t bother checking the results online until I went to work, but decided that would be silly and I’d rather just know.

I entered my name. I entered my candidate number. The page opened. What?!?

Listening: 87
Reading: 80
Writing: 77
TOTAL: 244

Surely some mistake?

I immediately sent a screenshot of the page to my teacher, my classmate and Liam, then I just stared at the page for a little while. Then I posted it on wechat, partly for the head pats but also because I’d promised myself that I’d post the results regardless of what they were, full transparency and all that. People have been taking the piss a little, saying that they knew I’d be fine, that I was worried for nothing, that I should have believed in myself more, etc. I hate those kind of people who come out of exams and say they’ve done badly when they know they haven’t, but I genuinely thought I’d tanked it.

No exams for a while for me!

Moscow morning

7am. Moscow. Midday at home and 4am at my other home, the home I’m going back to. Another hour until my connecting flight, a long hour stretching ahead staring at planes taxiing about in the darkness.

No internet because my Chinese SIM only works in China and my UK SIM hasn’t worked for 11 months (although I am hoping that it will work when I land) and you need to enter a phone number to access the wifi. Just me, the darkness outside and the overbright light inside. People keep talking to me in Russian, and I don’t even look that Russian anymore. I don’t think it’s a compliment.

I managed a few short sleeps on the ten hour flight between Shanghai and Moscow, mainly when I was watching films. Aeroflot’s film selection is pretty good but I went for films I’ve seen before – first Interstellar, which made me cry (and then sleep), and The Dark Knight – because I didn’t want to be challenged. I wish planes still showed Glee. I used to love spending 11 hours watching Glee.

During The Dark Knight, in the scene where Harvey Dent has his face half burnt off, a stewardess dropped a jug of coffee on my leg, so we had a surreal moment where I watched someone’s face on fire while my leg steamed itself, a woman dabbing at my leg with a wad of tissues, apologising in Russian. Welcome to Russia, have some third degree burns.

I hate aisle seats, and my hatred was magnified by the couple beside me each getting up four times in the flight. At one point they must have been trying to wake me up and I must have been fighting it because I realised I was saying “nooooo, no more, sit down, I hate you”, to which they paid absolutely no mind and continued their hourly climbs over my reluctant lap.

About halfway through the flight I woke up feeling like I might throw up everywhere – that’ll be chips and a hot chocolate for dinner I suppose – and went to the bathroom. I thought about a short story I’d been working on with one of my writing students, a story about a girl on a flight who suddenly felt awful, went to the bathroom and shed several kilograms, then looked in the mirror and realised she’d gone back in time and spent the rest of the flight in a silent scream. Please no please no. I couldn’t brave looking in the mirror just in case, the story and Interstellar and feeling sick were too much for me and I eventually dragged myself back to my seat, where I for some reason stripped out of most of my clothes and attempted to get as foetal as possible – which is not all that comfortable when you’re in the aisle seat of economy class, you’re half naked and you have a middle aged chinese couple keen to use your sweating body as steeplejump practice.

I packed two days early and spent some time worrying that I’d forgotten something, then realised it was probably remembering to order vegetarian food for the flight. In the end I had a Cornetto and a bread roll. I can’t wait to get to Heathrow and spend my emergency tenner at M&S.

If that ain’t love…

It’s Wednesday 14th February, which can mean only one thing. It’s the day after Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent and the day after Pancake Day? Well yes, but that passed me by. It’s the day before Chinese New Year’s Eve? That certainly hasn’t passed me by, but that’s something to write about some other time. No, silly, it’s Valentine’s Day.

As a History teacher, I could tell you the genealogy of the Roman god we use as an emblem for this day (who didn’t have his own festival during the Roman era). I could tell you that in China we have several Valentine’s Days, because (massive generalisation alert) Chinese people love romance. Oh yeah, and commercialism.

I could tell some stories about dating in China, but I won’t, because I’m a paragon of discretion, and also some of the stories aren’t mine to tell and I’ll get in trouble if I spill the beans. And I need to hold something back for the book I’m one day going to write and make millions from (teaser: a former colleague once wept as he clutched at a woman he’d met online, sobbing “I don’t care how old you are, can’t you see I really NEED this?”).

There are many types of love. Eros, agape, philia, storge.

But let me tell you about love in the workplace.

  • There’s my boss, who’s exactly my age and half my height. She invited me out for dinner, grabbed my boobs and bit my arm so hard she left a perfect ring of tiny teeth marks for a week.
  • There’s my line manager, who gives me brutally honest – both good and bad – feedback on my looks (“if you’d looked like your passport photo when you came for the interview I would have kicked you out” along with “you have a hot body”). She is super sweet and buys me little treats, although I suspect she has nefarious intentions in trying to up my caffeine intake. After the triple-espresso incident I don’t let her make me coffee anymore.
  • There’s Liam, my oracle and twin. Maybe he’ll get his own blog entry someday.
  • There’s my little family, my colleagues. Most of the company work on a different floor to us and we accept this daily snub with glee, caught up in buying ever-more extravagant gifts of fruit for each other.

And then there are the students. They’re generally bright kids, rich beyond my dreams and somehow also beyond their own as they’re singularly lacking in the awareness to understand their incredible good fortune. Some work hard. Some don’t. We teach them one-to-one, for blocks of two hours at a time, leading to the sort of situations where I can spend 10 hours a week in a tiny room with one kid, more time than I spend with any of my friends. This often ends up in a Stockholm Syndrome where despite me shouting at them (“do you have a brain? is there something wrong with you? how can you have forgotten this?”) they profess their love, telling me they hope they can spend MORE time with me, telling me about their secrets and their friends and their friends’ secrets.

Exhibit 1: E

E was 12, with arms and legs slightly too long for him. He wore a retainer on his teeth that he liked to take out in class. He thought I didn’t realise that he was playing computer games in the loo for 25 minutes at break time. E believed firmly that the Great Fire of London was in 1966, that a thousand and a million are the same thing, and that the KKK is a one of the three monotheistic Middle Eastern religions (turns out he had confused it with Judaism, as you do). He tried to tell me that the Holocaust didn’t happen, so I made him look at so many pictures and read so many accounts of it that he cried, “teacher, why does history have to be so disgusting?”

I bought him some Christmas candy (yes I speak American English now, yes I hate myself for it) and his eyes welled up. He took selfies of us together (with the rabbit ear filter on), telling me he’d never forget me – which I have to say I’m sceptical about, given that after three months of intensive lessons he could still only sporadically remember which decade either of the World Wars took place in.

Exhibit 2: C

C was 17, at school in the UK because neither his school in China nor his parents understood how to deal with his Aspergers Syndrome (his dad left, his mum complained “I beat C but he doesn’t get better!”). He told me he was studying A-levels in History, ICT and Shipping Logistics, which is certainly an unexpected addition to the A-level offering. Over Christmas we met every day to revise what he’d been studying in History lessons.

C would come to class every day and open his rucksack. Out of it, he’d take a toy car, his notebook (where, on every page, he’d write his name in English and Chinese) and two bottles of water, one for him and one for me. He would pass one over to me and when I’d thank him, he’d say that it was 2-for-1, and I’d tell him once again that it’s usually best to just smile and nod in this situation.

C likes to ask the same questions over and over. Every day regulars include: which do you prefer, Airbus or Boeing? which do you prefer, British Airways or Delta? which do you prefer, Jaguar or BMW? what do you think about Donald Trump? why can’t I use ‘swearing language’ in my history essays?

C doesn’t talk to people he doesn’t like, which is most people. He called my manager a prostitute once. Being a 17 year old boy with poor social skills, he doesn’t have a great deal of interaction with girls. Once he identified that I was someone who would answer his questions (or at least try to give some sort of answer, even if that answer was to say that it wasn’t an appropriate question), the questions came in thick and fast: do you prefer to drive or have your husbnd drive you? do you prefer to look after yourself or have your husband look after you? why don’t you have a husband? do you have a boyfriend? could a man and a woman of different ages get married?

I think you can see where this is heading.

At the beginning of January I asked C if he had any new year’s resolutions. He nodded enthusiastically. “This year I’m going to be an adult!” he told me. Yes, 18 years old, are you going to learn to drive (C believes that the UK age of driving (17) is irresponsible and that China has chosen a better age (18))? He looked straight at me. “I’m going to be an adult. We can get married!” He reached out to stroke my arm as I edged away.

If you open my desk drawer you’ll still find unopened bottles of water (come on, you think I drink anything other than hot water?).