Adventures at the nuclear facility

My colleague went on holiday for 3 weeks so I was asked to cover his classes. Sure, I said. Then I remembered that one day a week he goes to a town outside Shanghai to teach, setting off from our school just after 7am, but by then it was too late to say no.

On my first week I woke up at 6, showered and dressed and left by 6.30am. Matt had bought me an iced coffee so I grabbed this from the fridge on the way out and took the metro to work.

Outside the school was a grey KIA, and I got in. One of my colleagues was inside and the other turned up a few minutes later. We sat in silence and the driver set off. Both my colleagues were soon asleep but I was full of coffee and rage at driving almost directly past our flat.

An hour and a half later, we arrived in the town of Haiyan. According to the font of knowledge that is Wikipedia, 300,000 people live in Haiyan. That makes it basically a village.

We pulled into a complex and drove to a large, empty building. This is the community centre and is where things like English language lessons, pensions and sterilisations are carried out. 

We had two classrooms on the 2nd floor. The whole place reminded me of the Huntingdon Regional College, where I had music lessons on a Saturday morning as a child. Just like here, classrooms were requisitioned at the weekend for teaching children, pretty child-unfriendly places really. I remember being fascinated by the endless corridors with darkened classrooms housing strange machines. As a child with a vivid but unhappy imagination, I saw death and danger behind every door as I wandered up and down, frequently lost and often in the dark. And now here I was in a bone fide nuclear facility.

Haiyan is (again, thank you Wikipedia) known as “nuclear city” thanks to the nuclear plant. The company knows that it needs to entice people to work out here, miles from Shanghai, so English classes have been arranged for the kids – so they have the same opportunities as the kids in Shanghai – and so here we were.

Except it wasn’t the same as Shanghai. In my classes in Shanghai I use a touchscreen to access all the online resources for my lessons. Here: no internet and no touchscreen. I had a whiteboard! How retro!

That first day I taught three two-hour classes. 5 year olds, 13 year olds and 10 year olds. The kids were nice, not as confident as their Shanghai peers but I had a good time with the teens especially.

At the end of the day we got back in the car and drove for two hours back to Shanghai, the traffic slowing is down a little. We arrived back at my school at 7.30pm, and then it was half an hour to get home.By lunchtime I was hungry, and we got back in the car and drove 200 metres to the nuclear plant’s restaurant. A table of food was laid out for us – Chinese dishes, three veg and three meat, plus soup and tea and rice, of course. The food was actually pretty good but it was totally surreal as I was the only foreigner in the place and we were the only people who didn’t work for the nuclear plant. We ate in silence, if Chinese food can ever be silent (slurp).

The final journey back was the most eventful, clearly the driver was in a rush to get back but we came far too close to many moving and inanimate objects. At one point I messaged Matt and told him how to contact my insurers in case of an accident. Then, because it’s China, I went to sleep.The second and third weeks were similar except I woke up later, didn’t shower and took taxis to school. On the third week some of the youngest students followed me to the bathroom and I heard them shouting in Chinese “the foreign teacher is having a wee!”.

I’m so glad I don’t have to go again.

New Star spa

A few weeks ago (or a lifetime ago, depending on how you look at it), Matt and I went to check out one of Shanghai’s bathhouses.

Bathhouses are traditionally a staple of Shanghai life, and as I lay in a rose scented pool, my cold bones feeling warm for the first time in weeks (Shanghai homes don’t have heating), I understood why.

Last week we visited our second bathhouse. New Star are a whole chain of spas, three in Shanghai and three in Qingdao. We went to the branch nearest our house, just by the spaghetti junction at West Yanan Road.

From the outside, it looked like a hotel or similar. Once inside, we shed our shoes and padded downstairs. Matt and I agreed to meet in a little over an hour and off we went into the sex-segregated bathing area.

I stripped off and had a shower before getting into the nearest pool. Each pool had a digital display showing the temperature, and some had a sign with a description of the pool. I got in and started soaking.

In the ladies area of the bathhouse, there are 5 pools plus a sauna and steam room. There’s an area where you can go and get a scrub, plus lots of showers. There are individual toothbrushes so you can clean your teeth and everything. 

I floated around in the pools and decided not to go for a scrub as I was so relaxed.

After an hour of soaking and washing, I got dressed into a pair of pyjamas and went to meet Matt in one of the relaxation rooms. This is a big, darkened room, full of recliner chairs with individual TVs. Lots of people were sleeping. Some were snoring.

We were quite peckish so we went to the Korean restaurant upstairs. Matt ordered a dish called “handheld devices”. This turned out to be a mistake, it was a pile of spicy gristle. We ordered again.

After eating, we wandered about the spa. There were three domed hobbit houses, each heated to a different temperature. 45 degrees was hot but doable. 73 was uncomfortable. People were sat about everywhere eating snacks and chatting, but not in the 73 degree dome, where a man lay prone on the floor. We realised that if you died here it might take a while before anyone realised.

Outside the domes were heated glass panels, where you could lie and toast yourself. Mine was pretty scorchio but I felt very relaxed. Maybe emoliation wouldn’t be a bad way to go.

After around four hours we felt duly relaxed and we got changed back into our normal clothes and retrieved our shoes from reception. Entry to New Star is 108 RMB (about £12) and food and treatments are on top. It’s a bloody bargain!

We walked home and had an icecream on the way from one of Shanghai’s many convenience stores. Relaxed, clean and happy!

Return of the Matt

Matt was away for six weeks but he finally came back. I decided to surprise him by going to the airport to wait for him. Pudong airport is about 35km from central Shanghai, so probably 45km from our house, and it takes 2 hours on the metro. As I set my alarm for 5am, I did contemplate not going… but dragged my sorry arse out of bed and onto the metro.

I arrived at Pudong at 7.30am, and headed to the arrivals hall. Matt’s flight was due to land at 7.50, but I was suddenly really unsure about what that meant – the wheels touching down? the doors opening at the gate? the passengers coming out at arrivals? I wriggled my way into a prime position at the front of arrivals and waited.

It became clear that passengers were coming out of arrivals up to an hour after the posted arrival time (I was peering at the luggage tags on people’s bags, to try to match them up to earlier flights). Finally the British Airways cabin crew came out, unmistakably British (sadly more Lad Bible than top hat and tails).

Now the wait was really on. There was a TV screen above me showing the doorway just after the final security check, and about 15 seconds later, the images on the screen turned into real life people walking out in front of me. I looked between the two, frantically. What would Matt be wearing? What if he came out in a little crowd and I missed him? Should I keep an eye out for his bag, which should be easy to spot as it’s the one I’ve taken around the world?

In the end, it was easy. A blond head came walking down the corridor, first just the top of his head visible and then the checked shirt and orange rucksack. Matt.

I waved and he looked over, nodded and came over for a hug. He told me he’d wondered if I would come but knew it was early so thought it would be too much to expect. He didn’t want to look around too eagerly in case I wasn’t there.

We retraced my footsteps all the way back home and then Matt had a 5 hour nap – a terrible idea as then he was awake all the next night. What a treat to have him home.

Hangzhou minibreak

A couple of weeks ago I finally got my passport back, complete with residence permit. It’s a fairly long process but luckily my school has a visa officer who took care of most of it for me. Technically, you’re meant to have your passport on you at all times, but generally just showing a picture of it will do – although travelling is an exception to this, as you usually need your passport to buy train tickets and definitely need it to stay in a hotel.

To celebrate getting our passports back, and because we felt it was time to get out of Shanghai, my friend Mahalia and I decided to go to Hangzhou for the weekend.

We met at Hongqiao Railway Station about 40 minutes before our train. Hongqiao station is on the western edge of Shanghai and is where most of the high speed trains go to these days. It’s inconvenient for most people, but Matt and I live a few stops away so it’s alright for us! It’s a huge, gleaming place, more like an airport than a train station. Mahalia and I managed to find each other, then went through security and found the departure gate.

We’d been out at a party the night before so we had plenty to catch up on while we waited for our train and the entire journey to Hangzhou. It’s less than an hour, and the speedometer in the carriage said we were going at 300 km/h. It didn’t feel that fast.

At Hangzhou we got on the metro. It was insanely busy, hordes of people and staff with megaphones trying to move people around. The train itself was even worse, we were jammed in with some people with questionable hygiene and everyone was staring at us and saying things like “oh look at the foreigners, they’re on the train, where are they from, maybe they are american” and other inane things like that.

A lot of people got off before us and by the time we got to our stop it was less bone-crushingly crowded. I had a print out from the hostel so followed the slightly vague directions, supplemented with baidu maps.

The hostel was cosy and atmospheric, and our room was spacious and clean. It was on a pedestrian street, backing on to a hill, so was very peaceful.

We wandered out to see Hangzhou. Very close to our hostel was a pedestrian street with stalls and shops selling snacks and tourist gifts. One of the stalls was selling something that I can only describe as smelling like death. We were quite hungry but none of the stalls appealed (crab on a stick, anyone?). By the entrance to the lake front was a restaurant and we went in, although I was a little wary that they’d have nothing veggie. The waitress was quite sweet and kept trying to order for me, but in the end I had broccoli/other veg in garlic with rice, and Mahalia had duck and chips. It was much better than it sounds! Neither of us tried the Hangzhou specialities of fatty pork in syrup or fish in vinegar soup.

Nicely full, we went to see the lake. West Lake is one of the most famous sights in China, and it was beautiful. It was quite a grey day so not as pretty as it could be on a clear day, but it was lovely nonetheless.

We asked how much a boat trip would be and a family suggested we join them – so we did! This was super relaxing. The family (from Shanghai) were friendly but not overbearing and floating around on the lake was very soothing. Other than when we came a little too close to other, much bigger boats, of course…

After an icecream, we continued meandering around the lake.

It started to rain, just a little at first but gradually a little heavier. This meant there were fewer people around, but it also meant we cut our wanderings short and headed back to the hostel.

We had a little nap and then a relaxed dinner, chatting away for hours. After all that walking and talking we were both quite tired and were asleep by 22:30!

The next morning I went for a run. I’d spent some time looking at the map trying to work out a good route but I didn’t want to take my phone or a map with me so in the end I settled for running to the lake, along the water’s edge and then retracing my steps. It was breezy and a little cold when I set out but by the time I got back to the hostel I was very warm!

We had breakfast in the courtyard of the hostel. Mahalia had eggs and oatmeal, and tried to order a hazelnut mocha but was told it wouldn’t be very nice. I had waffles and it came with two forks.

After breakfast we went for a walk up the “mountain” to the rear of our hostel. There were a few interesting buildings, pagodas and the such like, as well as the Hangzhou exhibit from the 2010 Expo. The view from the top of the pagoda was fantastic.

We wound our way back down the hill and mooched about the shops. I bought sweets and Mahalia bought pearls. 

We had a late lunch (made even later by the huge delay in bringing our food out!) and I started my customary worrying about getting the train. As a result we made it to the train station with more than an hour to spare, and had to kill the time by having a matcha frappe latte. We were asked for our passports at security in Hangzhou, which hadn’t happened in Shanghai. The security guards laughed at my picture – thanks guys, yes I look like a murderer.

Hangzhou station is just as impressive as Hongqiao, and I kept referring to both as the airport. The most stressful part of the whole weekend was back at Hongqiao as there were so many people trying to get off the platform and then out of the station and into the metro. Chinese queues are… well, let’s just say they’re not like British queues. Lots of pushing. I try not to think about what would happen if there was an emergency (I guess I’d use my height as an advantage and step over people….).

I got home and I felt so relaxed! Even though it was only one night away, and only an hour away, and to another city, not the countryside, it felt like I’d had a good break away from it all. Very content! Matt gets back next week so I’m going to plan an adventure for us – maybe somewhere nearby or maybe a little further afield.



Weekday weekends

I work in a school, but not a regular school – a school for after school. My students go to their regular schools Monday to Friday, 7am until 4pm, and when they’re done there (though not done with the mountains of homework, of course) they have additional classes. Not just in English, but in maths, music, anything, everything. China is an extremely populous country (stating the obvious, much?) and getting an edge, any edge, in the extremely competitive world that is Chinese childhood and teenage years is important. 

It’s incredibly stressful for the students. Ask a group of 10 year olds what they did at the weekend and they’ll say “study”. Maybe they’ll a have violin lesson in the mix too. But it’s a tough life for these kids. I’ve (anecdotally) heard of parents beating their child for reading a book that isn’t a school book. The pressure to do well in the Gaokao, the end of high school exam, is enormous (and you’ll do better in the Gaokao if you go to a good high school, which means you’d better do well in your middle school exam, which means you need to go to a good primary school exam, which means going to a good kindergarten… it basically starts at birth). I’ve not seen any reports about student suicide (this is China, after all…) but across the way in Hong Kong there’s a fairly well documented  student suicide epidemic – so I’d say the chances of it not happening here are slim…

Of course, I also teach children who are too young to attend normal school but are not too young to start learning English. These children can be as young as 3 and although it seems super young (and some of them really do look like little dolls!), their capacity for learning is immense and as long as it’s kept fun, I think it’s a good thing to nourish a love for learning at an early age.

This all means that my busy times are when the kids are not at their normal school. I teach classes from around 16.30 on weekdays and all day on weekends. Some of the students want to learn English (this tends to be the younger ones), some of them like chatting in English and don’t care if they make mistakes. Some students are there before they go to extra maths, extra Chinese, extra science lessons. Some are there because it’s daycare, the parents are busy and can’t spend any time with their child.

At parent’s evening, parents tell us teachers things like “you should be more strict”, “I don’t mind if you hit my child, I can write you a letter saying so” and “my child needs to study harder”. But you also get parents who tell us that they help their child study for an hour every day, they are so committed to their child’s education (and guess what: you can spot these kids easily in the classroom!). You get grandparents who don’t speak any English but who bring their grandchild to class twice a week, sitting outside the class with snacks and drinks.

I’m immensely sympathetic towards my poor overworked students, but am also aware that they’re not angels. A lot of them lack basic social skills (snatching, hitting, baring their teeth) along with the disgusting things that kids everywhere excel at (snotty faces, hands down pants, etc). Some of them are just too young, physically and mentally, to be at school. The youngest ones cry for their parents or cry because their bags are too heavy or just because.

Sometimes I look around at my students and I feel like I’m looking directly the future. These children will be the leaders of the future, possibly world leaders (these are the children of the elite, after all). They’re overflowing with potential and I want to do the best I can for them. 

But am I part of a problem? Will a generation of Chinese children end up scarred because of the incredible pressure they’ve been under, the extra classes they’ve been sent to, the weight of expectation from everyone around them. 

Time will tell.


Yesterday was my birthday. I had a good but slightly odd day! 

I went for a run first thing. We’re really lucky that our local park is about 400 metres away (yes, I wear a GPS watch…) so I go running there. It was really hot and I had some top banter with an elderly couple who told me it was way too hot to be running and suggested a mug a child for their scooter instead.

After showering and drinking a lot of water, I headed to Pudong, the east side of the river. I’ve been to Pudong three times before: the airport, the police headquarters and to have my picture taken by a lady who (it turned out) just took pictures of the sky. Let’s just say I wasn’t massively enamoured with Pudong and I had even jokingly said I’d never cross the river again. 

But I broke that promise with the lure of a free trip up a skyscraper. The Shanghai World Financial Center building is the 2nd tallest building in Shanghai so probably top 10 in China. I think it’s the highest observation deck in China, maybe the world, who knows. The observation deck is on the 100th floor and it normally costs about £20 to visit – but I’d read somewhere a while ago that it’s free on your birthday, so off I went!

It was pretty cool, the lift to the 100th floor took 60 seconds – eek! The views weren’t great as it was a bit of a murky day, but I could still look down to the city centre and see teeny tiny boats (actually container ships!) on the river. I wouldn’t pay £20 for it but for free it’s fun. Plus, my ticket said it was a free birthday ticket so every time my ticket was checked, the attendant wished me happy birthday! Hooray!

After lunch I went to work, where all my colleagues had forgotten about my birthday. I bought some chocolates and put them in the staff room and sent a group message saying help yourselves, then the birthday wishes came flooding in. It felt a bit awkward, but less awkward than people realising later and getting a belated cake… I got one of my classes to sing happy birthday to me although they told me they didn’t believe it was my birthday. Aged 4 and already so sceptical. After work the head of the school had gone out to get a cake for me (she must have felt bad) and we had cake and more singing. 

And then I headed off to my running club social night, where we ate salad and chatted about triathlons and I got a pair of new running socks.

I got myself a present (because it felt weird to have no presents and no cards): a book, some hair clips and some Moomin soap.

I’ve had birthdays away from home before (I was in France for my 11th birthday, Germany for my 14th and Hong Kong for my 26th) but this felt a bit different. Not only was I away from everyone I know from back home, but I don’t know when I’ll next see most of them. And I wasn’t with my good friends here in China. I did feel a bit lonely.

That said, I got some lovely messages and I need to spend some time replying to everyone – I was really touched that so many. And I’ll have another birthday next month when Matt is back in Shanghai.

Sheshan – Shanghai’s mountain

Last Tuesday it was Qingming, the tomb sweeping festival. I asked my colleagues what I should do with the day but no one had any great ideas – public holidays are insanely busy in China, so a lot of ideas were centred around avoiding too many crowds.

After nearly a month in the city, I wanted to get out of town for the day. As I don’t have my passport back yet, I can’t take the train anywhere – so had a look on the (impressively extensive) metro map to see where I should go.

I settled on Sheshan, Shanghai’s only mountain and a national park – conveniently on line 9. I cycled from our flat to the nearest line 9 station (to avoid changing lines twice) and boarded the first train. It was pretty busy and I stood by the doors. This turned out to be quite fun as about half the journey was above ground and I could see out and into houses and over fields.

About half an hour later, we arrived in Sheshan. From the station I could see the east and west hills, and a rollercoaster between me and the hills. I rented a bike and set out towards the hills.

At first the route seemed very simple – pedal directly towards the hills – but after I passed the sculpture park the road turned around the base of the hills and I had to stop to check I was going the right way. Unlike a lot of people using the cycle lane, I pulled over whenever I needed to stop. It’s amazing how many people don’t!

About 25 minutes later, I arrived at Sheshan and picked up a ticket (free) from the entrance booth. I also picked up a bottle water and an overpriced ice cream, getting in the holiday vibe.

I followed the crowds up a flight of steps and soon came to a little clearing, where there was a 10 storey pagoda. Lots of people were taking photos and I got involved in that. 

From there, I followed another flight of steps to the observatory. I didn’t go in, but admired the view from the lookout point instead before going up some more steps and into the cathedral.

Inside the cathedral a lady was singing ‘Amazing Grace’s in Chinese, which was quite lovely.

I would my way down the hill and crossed the main road to the other hill, which is famous for its bamboo plants. It’s amazing how a hill that’s visible for several miles can be created in a few strides. I guess it shows how flat it is around here!

There was a little pond with some fish, and a cart with candles that you could pray at. I think my favourite thing about all religions is the music and Buddhist chants are up there with my favourites, so I lingered here a while.

By this point it was about 5pm and I had to start thinking about getting back, as I had running club in the evening. I went to find a bike to ride back to the station but couldn’t see any. I opened the app and it told me where two were, but as I started walking towards them, two guys beat me to it. I tried another one but it was broken. I went to the bus stop but all the buses were insanely busy. I ended up walking a little way to find a bike that had been parked at the back of a carpark, next to a filthy creek. 

The bike was standing next to some oil seed rape, which grows in and around the village I grew up in, and flowers in time for my birthday. It felt surreal to see it here but it made me very happy.

I pedalled back to the metro station and boarded a train towards the city, hungry but happy to have seen a slither of countryside.

Chinese lessons

Before I left the UK I took the HSK 2 exam, and then completely forgot about it. A few days after arriving in Shanghai, I suddenly realised that the results were out, and I went online to check.

HSK 2 is marked out of 200 (100 for listening, 100 for reading) and I think the pass mark is 130 or something. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I scored 197 out of 200. My certificate has been sent to my parents’ house and I think I might frame it when it eventually arrives in Shanghai.

I’ve already made a good start on the HSK 3 vocabulary, and bought a textbook to guide me through it (textbooks are a lot cheaper here). Of course, I’m picking up more Chinese by just being here. But I felt I wanted more, I needed some lessons – as a teacher myself, I have a fairly good idea of when I need extrinsic motivation.

My work offers face-to-face Chinese lessons, but only once you have completed your probation. There are online lessons too but I keep forgetting to buy a headset.

I contacted a Chinese school about lessons and went along to a trial class, a HSK 3 preparation class. There were 3 others in the class and we went through past papers with the teacher. I did learn from it, but after the class I decided that the format wasn’t right for me – I can go through past papers on my own. What I really needed was speaking and listening practice.

I told the school what days/times worked best for me and they said they’d be in touch when there was a class available. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to hear from them again! But a week later I got a message, they had another student at my level who’d like to do classes on Wednesday and Friday mornings, what did I think?

Yesterday we had our first class. The teacher kept asking when we wanted to take HSK3 which was a bit odd. The other student is a French girl who’s lived here for 8 years. Her listening is much much better than mine but she can’t read or write any characters. I found it quite tough listening to the teacher for 2 hours in Chinese as I get fixated on not knowing individual words, rather than trying to understand the overall meaning. My pronunciation isn’t great either, I don’t always remember which tone I should use and I get really self conscious.

I’m going to carry on learning the HSK3 vocab (I’m about halfway there) alongside classes, and hopefully should see some big improvements soon. Fingers crossed anyway – I will be much happier when I’m a bit more confident, and have a feeling that being more confident will exponentially help my language learning.

I still don’t understand modern art

After three weeks in Shanghai, I decided it was time to do something cultural. I also needed something to take my mind off missing Matt, who went back to the UK on Monday. I’d spent Monday getting the internet at the flat sorted (and then gorging myself on episodes of The Wire) so I really felt that I ought to do something more fulfilling with my day on Tuesday.

It was a breezy day and I emerged from the metro in what seemed like the middle of a building site. This isn’t uncommon in Shanghai or in China generally. I thought I’d be able to walk towards the river but it wasn’t immediately apparent which way that was. 

The river always amazes me with how wide and well trafficked it is. People were flying kites, and in the distance I could see the famous skyscrapers of Lujiazui – the pearl tower, etc.

I’d decided to visit the Yuz Museum, as there’s another exhibition on at the Long Museum that I’d rather see with other people, and both galleries are meant to be well worth visiting. Outside the Yuz there were long queues and a lot of art student types hanging about. Lots of black, lots of ennue. I tried to join one of the queues but was asked if I’d booked, so decided to follow the next person who also didn’t have a booking. Once I’d locked on to them (they had no idea I was trailing them, or it they did, they didn’t say anything) I followed them through the too-cool-for-school crowds and into the building itself.

The main atrium of the Yuz is glass, and the river looked better for the distance and the lack of wind. The building is an old aircraft hanger so it felt appropriate that the atrium felt a little like a modern airport termknal. I sat for a while and did a lot of people watching.

It turned out that it was the first day for the main exhibition, KAWS: WHERE THE END STARTS – which explains all the hipsters.

The main exhibition space is cavernous, saved from feeling too sterile by the ceiling supports. Inside, there were enormous figures, variants of Mickey Mouse and other well known characters. I have to admit I don’t really understand why/how this is “art” (yes, I sound like my dad here – if my dad bothered himself with any thoughts on modern art) as it felt… derivative, maybe?

That said, there was something about the scale of these figures, and the sympathetic way that they were displayed in the space that made me feel small and reverential. I particularly liked these two embracing.

Selfies were the order of the day!

In the smaller rooms off the main space, there were paintings (is that the right word? As you can see, I’m almost as good an art critic as I am a sports writer!). Some of these were ad jamming, which I’ve seen a lot of so didn’t find very impressive. But I liked the eponymous Where The End Starts.

The most previewed picture I’ve seen is the collection inspired by The Simpsons. This was selfie central! Everyone wanted a picture with Homer!

After I’d had my fill of KAWS, I went to the other exhibition on. This was a long, thin, dark gallery, with an occasional beating drum that sounded like a heart. The paintings (and this time I’m almost convinced that’s the right word) were swirls and swirls and the more you looked it them, the more you got sucked in. I felt like I stood on the edge for a while, but let myself fall into one and then never wanted to get out.

I extricated myself from the gallery and the Yuz as a whole, and rented a bike, pedalling furiously along the riverside, somehow simultaneously more and less alone.

A shock back home

Last night we got in and as my phone connected to the wifi, I got a Guardian news alert. Something going on in Westminster.

It didn’t feel real to watch this on TV. I can’t follow Chinese news very well but there wasn’t really anything to be said.

It’s so sad for all the people injured or killed. Hopefully London doesn’t give in to fear. Terrorists want to spread terror – I refuse to be afraid.

I really have nothing much else to say. I just felt I should mark this in some way.