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 everywhere?
  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?

Cambodia travels

After more than 18 months living in China, I decided it was about time I visited a bit more of Asia. I’ve visited quite a few places in China, and in East Asia I’ve been to HK, Macao, Taiwan and Japan (my friend pointed out that some people may see this as not having been anywhere other than China…). But I’d never been to Southeast Asia, and after working like a dog throughout summer I finally had some time to myself.

I opened up tabs on my computer: maps of Asia, ctrip flights, wikitravel visa requirements. I faffed about for a while but in the end decided on Cambodia. It then took me ages to actually book the flights, because the thought of booking the wrong date stresses me out so much. I ended up booking my hotels in a rush and booked the wrong date! I felt really stupid.

I really wanted to fly from Hongqiao Airport but it wasn’t possible, so I decided to try to get into the holiday swing of things by taking the Maglev to Pudong Airport. Big mistake, the Maglev was terrifying and I spent the whole journey thinking the train would fall off the tracks, except it wouldn’t even be falling off because it’s not bloody touching the rails. I was relieved to get to Pudong Airport, which was an unfamiliar feeling as I absolutely hate that airport. I’ve made lists of airports I’d rather go to, and London Southend beats Pudong. This time the Starbucks was closed. WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS?! I thought the flight was only 2 hours, I’m not sure why, but anyway, after 4.5 hours I was quite sick of the amount of leg room I had on the budget airline I had optimistically booked.

My first task when I landed was to get a visa to enter the country. I got some $$$ (as in, literally $$$) out of the ATM in the immigration hall, then pushed my way past the hordes of tourists to get a visa application form, then pushed my way past yet more people to hand over my application and passport. I didn’t have a spare photo so I got charged an additional $3, but otherwise the visa cost $30 and took 5 minutes, during which time I trampled yet more tourists like the boor that I am. Living in China has taught me to use my size as weapon, coupled with a dead eyed stare when people complain about it (no one ever says anything, they just passive aggressively squeal – like that’s going to stop me).

Finally through immigration, I got a sim card for my phone and took a tuktuk into town. This got off to a great start as the driver pulled out across six lanes of traffic and started off towards town on the wrong side of the road. About 1km later we swung back across and continued on our way on the correct side, so presumably the experience was designed to make me value my life. At the hotel, he asked for a tip and I laughed at him (see above: living in China kills your soul).

I won’t go into the boring details of trying to sort out my incorrectly booked dates (screw you, ctrip) but the hotel was super nice. My room was huge and calm and pretty, though there was a gravel path to the bathroom with small boulders on it that I inevitably fell over every time I went to the bathroom. Design flaw or user error, I don’t know. I went for a curry at the restaurant next door and then flopped into bed.

The next morning I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast before walking over to the Royal Palace. Walking in Phnom Penh is a nightmare, I think I saw two pavements all day. I walked in the road, dodging the motorbikes and cars and wondering what I was doing. It was hot, really hot. Eventually I got to the Royal Palace and it was closed, of course, because it was lunchtime. A couple were having their photos taken outside and a man chased me across a small park to hand me a worried-looking pigeon. I retreated to Sisowath Quay, an embankment along the river with some slightly shaded benches. An icecream later, I felt slightly more ready to take on the city (again) and after lunch, I went back to the Royal Palace. It was pretty cool, very royal, much gold, such shiny.

I set off again for the Genocide Museum, in a school-cum-torture prison-cum-museum. This was where the Khmer Rouge tortured people before sending them off to the Killing Fields, so it wasn’t at all uplifting, but it was extremely thought provoking. I had no idea that the Khmer Rouge had emptied Cambodia’s cities, or that 25% of the overall population died. It felt particularly pertinent given the UN trials of surviving Khmer Rouge officials (abandoned since my trip…).

The next day I was up bright and early on another tuktuk, heading for the airport. I was extremely worried that I didn’t have enough time, but once I’d checked in, I realised that the boarding gate was literally up a flight of stairs and past a shop, so I had enough time to browse the not-that-bad bookshop (until I saw the prices, LOLS!). I was probably the youngest person on the flight, everyone else being retired British people from Cumbria and retired Chinese people from Guangzhou. I sat next to a man who was fascinated that I was reading a book in Chinese and told me that he could read Chinese too. I smiled along with him but given that he was from China I wasn’t really that impressed at his advanced reading skills.

The flight to Siem Reap took a whole 30 minutes, and we landed at the domestic terminal, which is basically a room with a baggage carousel. There’s no bus to take you from the plane to the terminal (which is good as I hate those buses), you just walk across the tarmac. I felt like a hero in a film, or a 1950s movie star. I took a tuktuk into town, and told the driver I wanted to go to the Angkor History Museum. He insisted that we needed to buy a ticket from a ticketseller in town and we had a bit of a row about it. I still don’t know who was right but he’d told me about hordes of chinese tourists at the museum clogging up the ticket office (little did he know that that’s my bread-and-butter) and in the end said hordes did not exist. The museum was pretty cool, lots of statues and buddhas and hindu/buddhist mashup figurines.

Afterwards I went to check out my hotel, a 10 minute walk up the road. 20 minutes later I realised I was lost, but didn’t want all the tuktuk drivers to realise, so I carried on walking until there was something I could pretend to be heading for… then of course I had to walk back past the drivers, who could see straight through my sham. Finally, finally, I found my hotel, and the hotel staff all very sweetly commented on how sweaty I was. My room was spacious and clean, with another gravel installation in the bathroom (only the shower this time). I was meant to be having an online class but my student didn’t show up, so I called my friend and ranted at him about it for a while, before realising that actually, it was a great thing and I should enjoy my freeeeeeeedom. I went to check out the rooftop pool and swam about in the pool, laughing to myself. Later on I changed into slightly less sweaty clothes and went to a fairtrade khmer restaurant, even finding the odd bit of pavement to walk on on the way.

The next morning I spent some quality time washing my (aforementioned sweaty) clothes, before heading out to explore Siem Reap. It’s a small city, based almost entirely on tourism thanks to the proximity of Angkor Wat. I’d read about art gallery, but the whole street was closed for renovations, so I wandered along the river, sipping on iced Khmer coffee and trying to write my diary, before shopping and lunch. While having lunch, it started absolutely chucking down so I sat under a large shelter by the restaurant pool and read a book about Tony Blair (light holiday reading). Later I walked to the ticket office for Angkor Wat… Some facts:

  • The site is about 7km north of town and there is no ticket office on site
  • The ticket office is about 4km out of town, though of course not on the road to Angkor Wat
  • The ticket office is open from 5am-5.30pm
  • You must buy your ticket in person, as they take a photo to go on the ticket
  • You can only buy tickets for that day, unless you go after 5pm, when you can buy tickets for the next day
  • Sunrise is at 5.30am

This all seemed like an overly complicated ticket buying system, and presumably designed so that you have to hire a tuktuk for the day, from 5am. I decided against that and hired a bike instead.

I woke up at 4.30am, got dressed and went down to the reception desk to pick up my bike… only to find no one was there. Eventually a receptionist showed up, and I had to restrain myself from being too impatient about it all, particuarly when he couldn’t find the bike lock key. I really wanted to make sure I was at Angkor Wat in time for sunrise. It would be stupid to go to all this hassle and then miss it. Finally my bike was unlocked and I set off at full pelt up the road. At first there were streetlights, but then there weren’t, and I didn’t have lights, so I had to try to see ahead as far as possible whenever a tuktuk passed (luckily quite often). I was quite glad that I didn’t know about all the stray dogs and monkeys on this road at the time. I ditched the bike by a tree and walked over a pontoon bridge to the main Angkor Wat temple site.

By this point it was edging towards sunrise, and I jostled into position by a lake in front of the temple. And wow, just wow. What an amazing sunrise.

Afterwards I wandered about the temple, checking out the frescoes and looking at the carvings. I wasn’t aware before I got to Siem Reap that the famous Angkor Wat temple is only one of about 20 temples in the Angkor Archaelogical Site, but having a bike meant I could go and explore them at my own pace. The next temple had lots of faces – hundreds of them.

Shortly after this, I got chatting to another cyclist and we decided to look at the rest of the temples together. Some of them were very small and in need of restoration, others were much larger. A few involved very precarious stairs! It was really great to have company, and Christian was the best kind of company – smart, funny and a cyclist to boot!

By about midday it was getting very warm and I was also pretty tired from such an early start, so we cycled back to town (much easier in the daylight) and I went back to my hotel. After some lunch (well, breakfast really) I planned to read by the pool but I fell asleep. In the evening Christian and I went for dinner and beers near Pub Street, which is a street full of bars. I found Pub Street really weird, actually, so many tourists, and while it didn’t feel sketchy, it just highlighted the massive gulf between Cambodians and tourists.

The following morning I flew back to Phnom Penh. I decided against taking a tuktuk into town and followed the signs for the Airport Express. The signage was of a high speed train and I was intrigued, as (terrible experience with the Maglev notwithstanding) I do love a train. I got to a small waiting room and paid my $2 and sat down. Suddenly I heard a terrible noise, the blaring of horns and metallic scraping. I looked out the window, and a small diesel engine was honking its way past the waiting traffic and pulling into the station. I got onto the train – an engine and a single carriage – and after sitting for a while, we started off towards the city. The train track, a single track, ran through some dusty roads and delapidated, temporary-looking housing, at slightly faster than walking pace. It was quite an experience, and took longer than a tuktuk but was possibly more interesting.

I hadn’t really liked Phnom Penh earlier in the week but I was feeling much more relaxed and had spent a lot of time thinking and being by myself, so had a much better experience. I went to a temple on a hill, the Central Market, a river boat along the Mekong at sunset, and finally a huge firework display outside the Royal Palace to mark Cambodian independence day. After all that, I headed back to my hotel and hung out by the pool (where I met a Scouse girl who asked me whether it was true that Chinese men have small penises).

My trip ended with a final tuktuk ride to the airport, which I can’t remember at all, and an entirely uneventful flight, which I slept through, so I can’t write about either but I know happened because I ended up in Hong Kong…

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.