Notre Dame and social media

As China is six hours ahead of France, I didn’t find out about the fire at Notre Dame until I woke up on Tuesday morning. By the time I got to work, my WeChat Moments had lots of posts about the fire. WeChat Moments, or 朋友圈  (friends circle) in Chinese, is where you can post pictures, comments and links for all your WeChat friends to see. A Parisian friend posted the view from her childhood bedroom window, with Notre Dame in the background. Chinese friends posted pictures of themselves outside Notre Dame on their holidays or while studying abroad in Europe.

I started to feel slightly weird about these photos. The fire wasn’t even out and already there was  a heady mix of grief tourism and wealth flaunting. “Look how well-travelled and cultured I am! Check out the international education my parents paid for! Behold my appreciation of foreign architecture!” Making a fire in a church the other side of the world all about you and your selfies seemed, to me, to be a very Chinese millennial response.

My friends were unanimous about how sad it was that it was in flames. There were lots of references to its age, its importance, its beauty and why we need to preserve cultural icons like this. I knew it was wrong to judge my friends but I couldn’t help thinking about all the cultural icons they didn’t care about. China is proud of its long history (find me a foreigner in China who hasn’t been told about China’s 5000 years of history…) but there aren’t as many old buildings in China as there should be, due to wars, the cultural revolution, natural disasters and things not being built well in the first place. In Shanghai, old buildings are torn down to be replaced by gleaming (for now) malls or apartment buildings, or fake old buildings. Out with the old, in with the new; then out with those as the poor building regulations means it’s all falling apart only a few years later. More new things! GDP! Yay!

That’s not to say there aren’t some old buildings in China, though. One example is a mosque in Xinjiang almost the same age as Notre Dame – or was, at least. The Keriya Mosque was built in 1237 and was demolished last year by the Chinese government as part of the ongoing ethnic war against the Uighur people. You can see before and after pictures of the mosque here. Reportedly, 200 of 800 mosques in the region have been demolished. None of my friends have mentioned that they’re sad about these buildings being destroyed, if they even know anything about it.

At least my friends were sad about Notre Dame. Elsewhere on Chinese social media, some netizens (how I hate this word) were posting that the fire was karmic retribution for the destruction of the Summer Palace, an imperial park, in Beijing. At the end of the Second Opium War, the British and French looted the Summer Palace and (after two British journalists were killed) the British burnt the palace down. This event is taught in great detail in Chinese history classes and it horrifies Chinese people to discover that it’s not mentioned in British schools. Is there space in the British curriculum to cover every atrocity the British carried out, and would this even make the top five atrocities? Should British history cover British atrocities (personally, I think it should), even at the expense of studying anything else (personally, I don’t think so), and does it matter to this line of thinking that the Chinese curriculum doesn’t cover anything bad that China (or the Han majority) has done, past or present?

The fire was extinguished. I read about all the money pouring in to restore it, about the trees grown in Versailles especially for the eventuality of ever having to replace the wood in the roof. I stopped caring about a church I’d been to twice. Memes were shared.

My first thought on seeing a photo early on Tuesday morning was that it might be terrorism and it made me sick to my stomach – not just the act itself but what the reaction might be in an already incendiary Europe. I then found myself ‘relieved’ that it was just a giant fire, and when I thought back to how I felt reading about Grenfell, it felt almost insignificant, if you’re allowed to say that about the destruction of a national icon. I suppose nothing exists in isolation, and no reaction is without a thousand other influences.

More questions about China

  1. What’s with the terribly drawn on eyebrows?
  2. Why does no one go to the gym in the morning (I’m not complaining about this! I love having the place to myself)?
  3. Why do people use hair velcro instead of hair clips?
  4. I swear my colleague clips his nails at least twice a week, always at his desk. Why does he need to clip his nails so often?
  5. On the subject of nails, why do some men have long nails or (ewwww vom) the one really long pinky nail? Please don’t answer this one…
  6. Why is it okay for grown adults to send “cute” pictures of kids as emojis/stickers on their WeChat?
  7. Why can’t people read maps? It seems to be some sort of national affliction.
  8. Why do people believe that Indian food isn’t spicy?
  9. Why do people think ducks can’t fly?

Do you have any questions about China? Let me know and I’ll try to answer them.

Visiting home

After circling Essex like a metaphorical drain in the sky, the plane finally landed at Heathrow. I looked out at the dark, the rain – home at last. I didn’t know if I was very tired or very awake, and in fact the only thing I could be really certain of was that I needed the toilet.

At baggage reclaim I sat on a trolley and watched the suitcases nose their way up onto the conveyor belt and snake their way around the carousel. I thought about the slaughterhouse I went to in Shanghai and all the channels for cows, people, blood, meat, all flowing with the same lumbering grace of Heathrow’s baggage reclaim. I tried to remember what my suitcase looked like. Black? Rectangular? Possibly with a handle? I wondered if I would be too tired to do anything if it didn’t show up.

Case in hand, I headed out into Heathrow, scanning the waiting faces in case anyone had come to meet me, trying not to feel hopeful. Oh. No. Okay. It’s fine. It’s what I was expecting. I need the loo anyway.

Everything felt so…. normal, like I didn’t live 10,000 miles away in another continent, in another language, with another font, in another colour scheme. Oh look, Marks & Spencer! I dragged my case down to the metro – no! It’s the tube! Tube, tube, tube, not a metro. My card worked, I felt like a local, the local I am or was or would be or should be or I don’t even know anymore.

Why are the seats fabric? Why is everything so familiar? Why are the announcements al in English? Why are there so few Chinese people? Can I stare at people? Should I do the laowai nod to other white people? Why doesn’t my phone work underground? Why are we only at Hounslow? Why does this feel so incredibly normal?

My life in Shanghai felt so normal until suddenly I’m not there and now this is normal, but Shanghai is normal too, and I wonder how many people I really am. Kaleidoscopic me, thousands of eyes and faces and hair (the thickest my hair will ever look) and limbs and suitcases.

Visiting home is so normal, so abnormal, so confusing.

Christmas and new year

Christmas in China is in some ways a big deal and in other ways a total damp squib. Most malls will put up Christmas decorations (as early as October) and certainly my social media was full of people saying merry christmas (annoyingly, mainly on the 24th). However there’s very little Christmas music (a good thing I think) and not a mince pie to be found (also no great loss).

On christmas eve I was walking home when I was overwhelmed by a sudden wave of festive spirit and I decided that I wanted a glass of mulled wine. I’d had some mulled wine the week before and it was delicious, but I was nowhere near that part of town. About 100m further down the road I came across a pop up shop selling mulled wine! I couldn’t believe it! Unfortunately, neither could they, as they’d sold out. Thankfully I was able to get mulled wine in the pretentious and overpriced wine bar on my road, and I promptly nearly waterboarded myself on the slice of orange.

The big morning came and I jumped out of bed and and had a shower to try and take the nighttime chill off, before opening up the Fortnum & Mason christmas pudding I’d been given. I put it in my steamer and went to open the huge box of presents my mum had sent me, hitting play on the Sia christmas album while I was at it. This year the parcel made it to me without getting held up at customs for 3 weeks (what a nightmare that was – I had to get two colleagues involved and in the end paid an agent to help, though I still had to go out to the EMS depot near the airport when sick as a dog), and it had been sitting in my living room, eyeing me up for several days. My mum got me such awesome presents and I got quite emotional. I noticed billows of steam from the kitchen and went to rescue the pudding, before having to eat it really quickly so I wasn’t late for work.

At work, I opened a box of celebrations and got on with a completely normal work day. Later my manager asked if we could have a quick chat and I was convinced I was in trouble for something, but it turned out he had bought some cakes, and our team went to sit in the kitchen and eat our cakes. Our boss came in with his son and they ate some pizza, but I don’t think this was christmas related.

On the way home from work I skyped my family, which is always quite strange – being on the metro and chatting to them when they’re so far away. Back home I opened the last of my presents, chatting to the family. Later I took a taxi over to my friends house, where I presented him with two bottles of gin and a pomelo wearing a santa hat. At first it was just us and we hung out drinking G&T, then later lots more people showed up and made G&T using soda water and I eventually got home at about 3am.

The next day was horrid, with the only highlight the takeaway curry (with cheese naan!) I had in bed that night.

New year seemed to sneak up on me and I decided to go to Seoul. It’s less than 2 hours away and I thought it would be cold (and dry!) outside but warm inside. And I was right!

I made a stupid decision not to buy a sim card on landing in Seoul, meaning I was reliant on wifi – which, when you can’t find your hotel and it’s -8 degrees, starts to feel a bit stupid. I also managed to get into the metro without a valid ticket, and the good girl inside me was super worried about it for the whole journey (the gates were open at the station I exited at, phew). When I got to my hotel there was no one there, but it was warm and there was wifi so I waited a while and eventually the owner returned with his dog.

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I dropped off my stuff and headed off to a bathhouse. I absolutely love bathhouses and go to a Korean one in Shanghai from time-to-time. This one was super crowded in places but I still had a very relaxing experience, other than when I got face tingles in the very very hot pool. After soaking for ages and lying about on a heated tatami thing, I went back into town and had some pumpkin soup and soju. I regretted ordering soju almost immediately as it’s really not very nice.

The next day I had breakfast in the hotel dining room, which was playing Sister Act. Then I headed off to the Jongmyo Shrine, which was not too far away. I was told I’d have to take a guided tour, starting in 50 minutes, and initially I wasn’t all that excited about it. However it gave me a chance to go to a nearby market, which was a fun experience.

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The guided tour was actually well worth it, as I wouldn’t have understood anything about the shrine without it. It’s where all the spirits of the dead emperors are kept, and there are strict rules on who gets the best spots!

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Afterwards I walked to one of the shopping areas. I didn’t see anything I particularly wanted to buy but it was still fun to wander about. At one point I got accosted by christians – I’d forgotten about korean christians! They insisted that god had a wife and pointed to some words from Genesis to ‘prove’ it, and I went on at length about the futility of analysing language when it’s been translated so many times, into languages that don’t have the same nuance and by people with political agendas. They asked if I’d like to visit their church “only 50 minutes away by bus”. I said no.

In the evening, I made the fatal error of not having any dinner (on top of not having any lunch), and bought a bottle of apple soju. I ended up in a bar on Homo Hill in Itaewon, drinking wine with two awesome guys. After the new year countdown, and after some shots, we went to a club across the road where I busted out my best kpop moves, and then we went to another bar, where I sang Bohemian Rhapsody to a table full of strangers.

Inevitably, I missed the last metro back to my hotel so had to wait in a cafe for the metro to open. This was a pretty bleak point and I was very very happy when the metro finally opened and I could head towards my bed. I was less happy when I realised I’d got on the wrong train and was going in the wrong direction. Finally I got into bed at 6.30am.

I woke up at 10:46 for an 11am checkout, and had a shower and threw all my stuff into my bag and staggered downstairs. I definitely still felt drunk and couldn’t face going outside into the cold just yet so I sat in the hotel lobby for a while reading and scrolling through social media. I’d got an email the day before saying that my flight had been rescheduled so I spent some time trying to sort this out. Eventually I was so hungry that I had to get up and go and find some food.

I went to the metro station as I needed to go to the ATM and suddenly remembered that none of my cards had worked the night before. Uh oh. I tried my ICBC card and it didn’t work. Uh oh. I tried my BOC card and thankfully it did work. I went to a bakery and got bread and coffee. Feeling more alive, or slightly less hungry anyway, I went to Bukchon Hanok village, a traditional area of Seoul with lots of adorable houses nestled on a hill. It was well set up for tourists but wasn’t that busy, and was a nice place to wander about.

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Once I’d done wandering, I decided that another bathhouse was in order. This was an excellent choice, and I spent some time lying in a small tomb-like hole, before scrubbing and soaking myself to within an inch of my life. Bathhouses are so good in the winter as you feel like your insides are finally warm again. I should definitely go more often. Even when I was done and walking to the station I felt like I’d been pleasantly cooked and I could just about deal with how giant Seoul station was and how far away the airport train was.

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By the time I got to the airport I was really, really hungry, and eventually I managed to find something vegetarian. I went to the gate to wait… and wait… and wait… The airline started handing out snacks (never a good sign), and even when we were on the plane there was another delay due to people having so many bags of shopping from duty free. When the cabin crew opened up the compartment above me I saw that someone had bought a duvet. Who goes on holiday and buys a duvet?!

I finally got home at around 12:30 and went straight to bed. And now it’s January and I’m still not sure what my new years resolutions really are…

Things I wish I understood about China

I’ve lived here for nearly two years now. I’d say I’m not completely unfamiliar with the language, culture and history, and yet there are still so many things that baffle me on a daily basis.

  1. Why are people so loud? Why doesn’t noise bother anyone? Related: why don’t people use headphones?
  2. Why do people panic so much? For example, at the airport, running to the gate for their reserved seat, or when they arrive at a restaurant 2 mins ahead of schedule and message you asking if they should order?
  3. Why does anyone like pork floss?
  4. Why did a major publishing house produce a textbook called “London Bridge” with a picture of Tower Bridge on it? It’s hard to convince anyone that they’re thinking of Tower Bridge when they say that they want to visit London Bridge. I can guarantee that anyone visiting London Bridge will be very disappointed.
  5. Why does everyone insist Theresa May is a strong leader? Also, when shown the video of her dancing, why do they say “ah, at least she’s trying!”. Trying what? Can you imagine Xi Jinping doing that?!
  6. Why do girls wear red eyeshadow? They look dead.
  7. When I ask a Chinese person where they’re from, why do they answer with just “China”? Then when I ask “but where in China?” they say the province (note that even the smallest province is bigger than England). Then if I ask further they will name a tiny village in the middle of nowhere. Isn’t there a step missing? If someone asks where I’m from I don’t leap straight from “Europe” to the name of the road I grew up on.
  8. Why can’t people knock once on the door? Delivery drivers shout to announce their arrival, then knock, then wait two seconds before knocking again, and even if you shout that you’re coming they will continue to knock. Friends will do the same but without the shouting. Chill out!
  9. Why do people walk so slowly? Even in rush hour, people amble along slowly. This is contested by pretty much every Chinese person, who will insist that people walk quickly in the big cities and that in HK people walk incredibly fast. While it’s true that people in HK do walk a bit quicker, it’s still really slow!
  10. Why do people think tap water in the UK will make your hair fall out, and why is this the worst possible thing tap water could do? I know I would rather be bald than die of heavy metal poisoning…

Changing jobs in China: the banking edition

Last year I changed jobs, and wrote about the ordeal here. I’ve recently changed jobs again, but it was a much smoother process:

  • 15 September: hand in notice
  • 31 October: final day, HR applied for the cancellation of my work permit
  • 14 November: work permit cancellation letter ready, take documents to the agency dealing with the process to start the online application for my new work permit
  • 28 November: online process approved
  • 29 November: counter application started
  • 3 December: apply to cancel residence permit and replace with stay permit
  • 12 December: stay permit collected ALSO work permit fully approved
  • 17 December: apply for residence permit
  • 26 December: passport with new residence permit ready

Everything went smoothly but you’ll notice I wasn’t allowed to work (no work permit = no working) from the day I left my old work (31 October) and mid December. Just as well I had some pennies saved up!

Speaking of pennies, obviously I do not work for free and I prefer to get paid. In China it’s pretty standard practice that your employer will specify which banks they will pay your salary into, and if you don’t already have an account with one of those banks then you need to open one. There are four big banks in China (all state owned, of course): Bank of China, ICBC, Agricultural Bank of China and China Construction Bank. I have accounts with Bank of China and ICBC, but don’t really use the ICBC account as my name is written differently to wherever else it appears on official documents and this causes issues.

On my first day at work I was told I could only be paid into ICBC or China Merchants Bank. As I can’t use my existing ICBC account, I would have to open a new account at either bank – and have heard so many horror stories about ICBC that I chose CMB.

First of all, I had to wait until I had my passport back from getting the residence permit. Once I had this I went to the nearest branch (right by my office, luckily). They immediately listed all the different things I would need to apply: residence permit? work contract? housing contract? police registration form? Shanghai phone number? Yes, to all these. They asked me to fill in a form while they photocopied my documents and then told me they would be in touch once they had authorisation from head office.

I went away and waited. HR messaged me several times asking me what was going on. Eventually I got a call to say I’d been approved.

I went back into the branch and the lady I’d been dealing with wasn’t there, so I explained the whole situation again. The new cashier got out all my documents and some more forms. She gave me a tax form to fill in… which is when things went bad.

I’ve been hearing things about tax changes here in China – essentially foreigners can now be taxed on global income, so they want our tax numbers. My ICBC account has actually been frozen because I haven’t supplied them with this number. But that’s beside the point. It’s never been particularly clear whether they want our Chinese tax numbers or the ones from our home country. After lots of hassle last week, I managed to almost get my Chinese tax number, but it turned out they wanted the home tax number (the form actually said the tax number where we are tax residents, which for me is only China currently, but hey).

I filled in the form – the first I’ve seen with a box for middle name. This caused some problems as China generally assumes I have two first names. The cashier was also confused that my middle name didn’t match what was on my passport but it turned out she was looked at the words “Eireannach/Irish”. The biggest problem was that my passport is Irish and my tax number is my UK national insurance number.

“You need to put your Irish tax number”, she said.

“I don’t have one, I’ve never worked in Ireland,” I told her. “I have only worked in China and the UK, so the only non-Chinese tax number I have is a UK one.”

“I don’t think we can open your account,” she told me. “It has to match your nationality.”

“But I also have British nationality…” I nearly said, before I thought better of it, dual nationality being an alien concept in China.

Eventually, after making some phone calls and involving almost everyone in the branch, it was decided that I could use my passport number as my tax number, and that they didn’t need my UK tax number.

Next up, my phone number had to be verified, by calling the phone company to check that the number was registered to me (and my passport number). I also got sent a 6 digit code to enter.

Finally, I signed my name several times on the screen, ticking “I agree” to things I hadn’t read (does anyone read these things?), set up my PIN, set up the PIN for the app, signed my bank card and got the bank to write down the SWIFT code for me.

1.5 hours later, I had a new bank account!

I went back to the office and let HR know, then downloaded the app. Of course, having a bank card in China is not that useful as it’s not like you can use it to do very much. Most of the time I do everything using Alipay or WeChat Pay. Amazingly I was able to link my new account to both these apps! I transferred some money to test it out and now I just have to hope that I get paid with no drama next week.

To think that in the UK, I’ve had the same bank account since I was six… I’ve been in China less than two years and I already have three! Still, a good test for both my patience and my Chinese skills.

Things I do that are rather Chinese

I wrote a while ago about why I think I might actually be Chinese. But having lived here for a little while now, I have developed some rather Chinese habits…

When I first moved to China I was amazed that everyone was glued to their phones. In the UK, there’s no signal on the tube so you have to read the crappy free papers instead, but in China (well, Shanghai at least) there’s 4G everywhere – and 5G coming soon. Now I am a phone zombie too. I stare at my phone on the metro, including when getting off (though I do hold on to it tightly as I brace for impact with all the people rushing to get on before anyone gets off), I read while walking down the street, I hold up traffic because I’m checking social media while cycling to work. I’m not necessarily very proud of myself but it’s easy to get sucked in. And sometimes, every now and then at least, it’s work related and then I feel entirely justified.

Speaking of social media… I joke that many people only do things so that they can post it on social media. In China, pretty much all foreign social media is blocked, and if you want to boast to your friends that you queued up at Hey Tea to get a boba cheese fruit tea then you post the picture on WeChat Moments. I mock this, along with the filters and the beauty filters (admittedly some of them are ridiculous and make people look like aliens), but guess what I did when I went to Hey Tea last week?!

People in the UK, my mum at least (hi Mum!), think it’s weird that people in Asia wear face masks. But you know what, it’s actually quite nice to have a mask on in winter as it keeps your face warm. It helps to let people know that you’re sick (eg. your boss), and it feels like you’re doing something about your annoying winter cold rather than just moaning about it. On polluted days, a mask is crucial, specifically one with a proper PM2.5 rating. I have one with filters that you change on a daily basis, and while I think it’s very effective, I can’t get the idea that I’m changing my mask’s nappy.

When I was growing up we used to go to Peterborough to the big shopping centre as a treat during the school holidays. Now, not only do I call shopping centres ‘malls’, but I go to one EVERY DAY. Every. Single. Day. China has an abundance of malls, far too many to be in any way commercially viable (the government has incentivised this, and as a result you see dead malls (very strange to see) and thousands of malls full of all the same shops), and a lot of services can be found in them. Normally on the basement level, or B1, there is a food court and superamarket. Floors 1-3 are shops, floor 4 is kids shops/services, floor 5+ are restaurants, hairdressers, beauty salons, etc, and then on the top floor there may be a cinema. If you want to buy something, you’re going to a mall. If you want to eat, the chances are you’re going to a mall. It’s a weird phenomenom. Actually, as I write this I am quite proud to realise I haven’t been to a mall today (I’m in a trendy coffee shop – so Shanghai).

I’ve saved the best for last… I was brought up to cover my mouth when I cough, but it turns out that the 1.4 billion people here were not taught the same thing. Now I’m not saying I do this all the time, certainly not when there are people around, but sometimes I cough and don’t bother covering my mouth and it feels simultaneously disgusting and OH SO LIBERATING.

Yunnan

I’ve been to quite a few places in China now, though recently all of my travels have been in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces (nearest to Shanghai). As I’m not working at the moment, I have quite a bit of time to myself, hence the trips to Cambodia and Hong Kong last month. As of earlier this week I temporarily don’t have a passport as it’s with the Entry-Exit Bureau for processing. They gave me a paper receipt that is taking the place of my passport for the moment, but I can’t leave the country with it as there’s no mechanism for re-entering the country. I don’t carry my passport with me on a daily basis (it’s the law) but I do take it with me whenever I leave Shanghai, as you need it to take a train, fly (even domestically), stay at a hotel etc. Oh yeah and you need it when you go to the doctors or the bank or the post office (sometimes they will accept a picture – mine does, but I’ve heard of branches that are more annoying about it) and I’m sure lots of other situations that I’ve forgotten. Anyway, no passport = no international travel. But receipt + free time = domestic travel. And this time I decided to go to Yunnan.

Yunnan is in the southwest of China, bordering Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar. It’s somewhere I’ve wanted to go for ages – for the culture, diversity (it’s actually very ethnically divese, as about 35% people are from ethnic minorities (Chinese ethnic minorities)), countryside, food, etc – but it’s a long way from Shanghai. This time I actually wanted to fly from Pudong Airport, which felt weird and unnatural as I may have mentioned that I hate that place. I had an engagement in Pudong District that morning so it made sense to go straight to the airport. It actually wasn’t horrendous, I didn’t need to take a bus across the tarmac and we left pretty much on time. The only problem was that at the gate I had my bag open and the ridiculously cute baby behind me reached into my bag and pulled out a pair of my pants! Clean ones at least. I managed to get them back off him before his parents looked up from their phones.

We landed in Kunming at sunset and I stood admiring the colour of the sky for a while. Then I took the metro into town and walked to my hotel. At the hotel I pulled the receipt out of the plastic wallet I was keeping it safe in, and encountered two problems: firstly, the hotel staff had absolutely no idea what to do with it and said they couldn’t check me in, and secondly, my train ticket for the morning was not in the wallet anymore. Eventually the hotel allowed me to check in, but I had to go to the train station to buy a new ticket (I would have bought it online and collected it in the morning, but was worried that my “passport” wouldn’t be recognised and I’d miss the train). Ticket in hand, I got a mobike and cycled back to the hotel, missing my turning and cycling across a lot of the city before I wondered why it seemed *so* much further on the way back.

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I slept really badly, no doubt partly due to the spicy potatoes I had for dinner (that and a hot chocolate, don’t say I don’t lead a balanced life) and cycled to the station. Kunming was bustling and the air felt clean and fresh. I definitely had a good impression of the city despite my own best attempts to sabotage the trip. Once on the train I fell asleep, waking up once to shush the woman next to me, and waking up finally as the man next to me was kicking the seat. Finally we arrived in Dali, and I got a bus to Dali old town. This took another hour, not helped by getting stuck behind a truck doing a 100-point turn, but I entertained myself by getting involved in a passive aggressive but silent argument with the woman behind me about opening the window.

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Once in Dali I set out on a wander. I had a guide to Dali’s cafes/bars/restaurants from a friend of a friend and I tried to work out where I was and where a cafe might be. As luck would have it I came to a stop right outside one of the recommendations. A fluffy cat sat contentedly on the bar and later a border collie wearing a collar of shame bounded in. One coffee later, I set out again and went to a small museum of Dai culture (Dai is the ethnic group from Dali), where a group of old people were very enthusiastically playing chinese instruments.

I then headed to my hotel and checked in (no hassle about my passport receipt here). The hotel was very nice and had a great bar area. The room also very excitingly had no glass between the bathroom and bedroom.IMG_20181206_160408

I set off up the road to the Three Pagodas. These are three pagodas and some temples on the edge of town, destroyed a few times (most recently in the Cultural Revolution) but restored nicely. Tourist destinations in China can sometimes be awful: overcrowded, loud, badly restored… but this was great! It helped that the site was very big, and that it was late-ish in the day, but speakers playing buddhist music throughout the site helped to keep a nice peaceful atmosphere too.

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Afterwards I walked back to town and went for a drink before trying to find the restaurant I wanted to go to for dinner. The restaurant had no menu so I asked them to cook me something with vegetables, and it was delicious!

I went back to the bar after dinner and the barmaid told me that the band were just taking a break, so I took a seat at the bar and read a little. The band played loads of indie covers and I smiled at the cute bassist. The barmaid bought me a drink and I ended up staying until 2am. The bassist bought me a plate of chips, so my earlier flirting was not in vain.

The next morning I woke up at my normal time of 7.30 but managed to get back to sleep, waking up a bit later to eat a banana and go back to sleep once more. I finally bounded out of bed at 11.40 and enjoyed the mother of all showers. Once packed up I walked into town and went to a vegetarian buffet at a temple, 5 RMB for all you can eat. I washed it down with a doughnut from a bakery as I’m all about the balance. I then looked for a cafe, and ended up at Craftsman Coffee, caught up on life admin and tried to persuade my friend that it would indeed snow in Shanghai at the weekend. Then I went totally wild shopping, haha.

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Late afternoon, I took the bus back to Dali station and bought myself a fruit platter for the train journey. Said fruit platter exploded in the bag and I had watermelon everywhere. At least the pomelo wasn’t hurt! In Kunming I cycled to where I was staying, a different hotel to before, and didn’t get lost! I thought about going out but settled for hanging out in the bar for a bit.

The next morning I woke up feeling refreshed and hustled out of the door to get a coffee. I found a shortcut down to the lake and watched an old lady feeding the seagulls. Why are there seagulls inland? And why are people encouraging them??

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I had some work to do in the morning, but once that was done I set out on a bike to Daguan Park in the southwest of the city. The park was very nice, with lakes, pavilions, a fairground, old people making music and a million seagulls. It was extremely windy and the clouds scuttled across the sky as if they were being chased.

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I went to the Bird and Flower Market but didn’t see any birds or flowers, nor did I see any pets for sale. I did at one point see a shop selling rabbits and chinchillas but didn’t buy any, even though I’d love a fluffy little friend.From the market I walked to Wenlin Street and had a coffee and crepe at the French Cafe, before queuing for dinner at Heavenly Manna – totally worth it as I ordered a plate of deep-fried cheese!

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The next morning I repeated my coffee-seagulls-work routine.

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I somehow managed to fit everything in my bag (I’d just brought a small rucksack for the trip, but had been buying things as if I had a whole suitcase) and thought about how nice it would be to be able to change my clothes when I got back to Shanghai (the downside of travelling light – and I had to try and think of something positive about going back to Shanghai as it was in fact snowing!). I walked down to the lake and meandered up to Yuantong Temple, Yunnan’s oldest buddhist temple.

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Finally I went back to the lake and to the cafe with the highest ranking on Dianping (kind of like yelp/google reviews) in the area. I ordered a coffee and it turned up as a ball of ice that you had to add milk to. I wasn’t sure what to do at first and didn’t want to fuck it up and be judged by the baristas, but as my friend pointed out, they served a ball of ice as coffee so they have absolutely no grounds in being judgemental.

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I still had a bit of time and had probably had too much coffee, so on the way to the metro I stopped at another cafe where I had a pretty awful sandwich. I used the loo before I left and managed to block it, and did a runner before anyone could get angry with me. As I walked to the metro I laughed to myself thinking about how I’d had such a nice holiday and that was how I repaid the city of Kunming! But the city had the last laugh as that sandwich came back to haunt me at the airport, making a rather hasty escape from my insides. Sorry (to anyone reading this as well as to the province of Yunnan).

TLDR: Yunnan is great, had a brilliant time, travelling without a passport is possible but stressful, drank a lot of great Yunnan coffee, did some hardcore shopping, nearly shit myself at the airport.

Things that make me irrationally angry about living in China

Living in China can sometimes be challenging, and sometimes it can be rage inducing. Some of the things that grind my gears are (in my opinion, anyway) genuine issues. However there are some things that I know are not really big issues, yet they drive me nuts. For my friend, it’s the socks that old people wear, like mini stockings: slightly off-flesh colour, usually too tight to make little sausage legs. For me, well, read on…

1. The Shanghai Metro is a beautiful thing. There are 17 (?) lines now, a new one or two (plus extensions) every year. It’s cheap, it’s clean, it’s reliable. It’s also crowded and some of the people it’s crowded with have no concept of things like queuing, not pushing, talking at a reasonable volume, not playing music/videos at full blast, spitting, etc. But this isn’t what makes me angry (because it just can’t…. mind over matter). What I hate is that the hanging handgrips are positioned just at forehead height. Maybe this isn’t an issue for shorter people, but I’m not exactly a giant (1.76) yet these stupid hanging things smack me in the head all the time. They also have quite a bit of swing to them, so if someone lets go of one then it swings at quite a rate directly into your face. I bruised my eye socket this way.

2. Water bottles in China are often made of very flimsy plastic and filled completely to the brim, so that when you open them you compress the plastic and spill water all over yourself.

3. In hotels, the bathroom is usually separated from the rest of the room by a window. I asked a Chinese friend and he said it’s to make the room look bigger. No thanks, I’d rather have a smaller room with no toilet in the middle of it. Another friend said it’s so that when you’re having a shower the prostitute can’t do a runner with all your valuables.

4. Nailclipping in public. The sound of it makes me want to kill someone, possibly by clipping them to death.

5. Table manners in general. Slurping and burping just sound so awful to me. If I’m eating on my own in a restaurant I take headphones. Actually, that’s my China pro-tip: always have headphones. Noise cancelling if possible.

6. When you write Chinese characters, you have to write the strokes in a particular order, so this gets drilled into kids from the moment they learn to write. A lot of people apply the same order to writing in English, so they will cross the ‘t’ before writing the rest of the letter. It just looks so wrong, especially if they try to write in cursive (though admittedly very few people do this – my writing is “impossible to read”, according to my boss, which makes me happy as I can easily communicate with native English speakers/readers without my colleagues understanding).

7. Contrary to popular belief, milk is available in China. Some people are lactose intolerant, but most other people drink milky drinks like there’s no tomorrow. Usually I’ll order milk from the supermarket, but if I’ve run out and I need my morning coffee, I will grab some from the convenience store. Milk comes in little tetrapak cartons and is stored next to the yoghurt, also in tetrapak cartons, both in blue. And this is how I poured yoghurt into my coffee.

8. On that note… why is the yoghurt always runny? Where’s the Greek yoghurt at?

While I can be zen (or am becoming more zen…) about some of the big things (or at least I tell myself I can!), these little things cause me completely disproportionate levels of stress. If you’ve been to China, what little things drive you up the wall?

Toe Real

I enjoy running, although it leaves my feet looking pretty gross most of the time. I lost my first toenail a few years ago and although it grew back it was never the same again, and I’ve lost the same one a few times since. A few months ago I started having a terrible pain in my toe but I ignored it, as I was busy at work and my chiropodist friend recently moved back to Australia so it all felt like too much hassle.

Fast forward to October, and I ran the Changzhou Half Marathon. Changzhou is a small city of 5 million people about 200km from Shanghai. There was 30,000 people taking part and only 15 foreigners – our names were listed on a big board. People took photos with us the whole time. I don’t mind if someone is nice about it, maybe even asks, but when people photograph you coming out of a portaloo or when you’re at 18km and want to die then I’m not so happy with it. And don’t grab me and force me into your photo. I did that to a cat at a cat cafe the other day and it bit me, and you know what, I deserved it.

The Changzhou Half Marathon was probably the dullest route I have ever run – the first 6km were in a straight line on a completely soulless road – but in a way this is very Changzhou. We did go past Wycombe Abbey International School, which was exciting for me as the school is owned by my old company and I’ve taught a load of students from there. Otherwise, the day was grey and the lake was brown, and at around 10km my toe was really hurting. It felt like it was on fire actually, not a blister but an intense pressure from within, a sock volcano waiting to erupt. At the finish line we drank prosecco and I took my shoe off, saw blood through my sock and put my shoe back on.

Back in civilisation (AKA Shanghai) I took a closer look at my toe. When I prodded my big toenail loads of blood and pus came out. I decided to go to the doctors. My friend goes to the doctors on a pretty much weekly basis, so I got the details of the clinic and made an appointment. One of the joys of private medical insurance is that it’s super swanky. I think I’ve written about my guilty enjoyment of it before. This time I showed up and they gave me a pair of fluffy slippers to wear. It’s another world, I tell you (though due to billing cycles etc I ended up having to co-pay some of this treatment so I was milking the fluffy slippers as much as I could).

The doctor started telling me about how they didn’t like to remove infected toenails and instead would normally prescribe antifungals, but then I showed him my toe and he said that he’d definitely be removing it as it had two different types of infection (what can I say, I’m very talented). He gave me antibiotics to take and told me to come back in a week.

A week later I came back, no noticeable difference in my toe, and the nurse told me to lie on bed and wait for the doctor. She asked me if I was nervous and I said no, of course not. Eventually the doctor came in and got straight into the task of removing my toenail, zero chat despite my best efforts. He anaesthetised my foot, not well enough as he had to do it again once he started cutting, and I decided to stop watching and stared at the ceiling and felt miserable and lonely. After what felt like forever, the doctor announced that he was done, and I sat up and admired my toenail, sitting alone on the counter.

After bandaging up my toe, I was told to go and wait in another room in case I felt faint after the anaesthetic. The nurse asked if I needed a medical certificate to get signed off work. Off work?? Clearly they haven’t met my boss! The nurse was adamant that I couldn’t walk for the next week but also didn’t have crutches to give me, so I sat and waited to be discharged, texting a friend furiously.

Once at home, my toe did really start to hurt but I was teaching an online lesson so I took it out on the student. It hurt for a couple of days but very quickly felt fine. I’d been told that twice a day I needed to wash my toe with saline, use a special cream and bandage it up, and I was a bit wary about doing it at first as I thought it might look horrifying, but it was no big deal and I managed to keep up this regime for a good 10 days.

The worst thing is that after having the toenail removed I was told: NO RUNNING. I pressed the doctor on how long this was for, and he said “a long time” (ah, so scientific). I forfeited my place in the Shanghai Marathon (probably a good thing, as I wasn’t in any way trained and it absolutely pissed it down on the day) and still haven’t run… soon… soon…

Final note: aren’t you pleased this post had no pictures?