Wuxi Trail Race

Back in the UK, I used to do a lot of races – there was a period where my boss would ask me what I was doing at the weekend and would groan when I’d tell him another half marathon. But in China I’ve not done nearly as many – partly because there are fewer races, but also because at my old job I worked every weekend. I did one race in September, but that was it.

On the day of the Shanghai Marathon, I met up with friends running it for celebratory drinks. One of the people there said that she was the organiser of the Wuxi Marathon, and a bunch of us ended up saying that we’d do it. She mentioned a trail race coming up in a few weeks, and a little while later, posted it in the WeChat group.

The trail race had a few options – 50km, 29km and 8km. I tried to talk a friend into the 8km but she wasn’t convinced. I asked another friend and he managed to talk me into agreeing to run 29km. Quite honestly, I was easily persuaded but that didn’t stop me from worrying about it quite a lot as the day got closer.

As I tried to get to sleep the night before the race, I was really quite worried. 29km is a long way, I haven’t run that distance since training for the Halstead Marathon, so not since April 2016. In fact, in 2017 I’ve probably only twice run more than 10km. I hadn’t eaten enough, wasn’t sure that I’d packed the right clothes and was all round questioning my life decisions.

The alarm went off at 6am and there was a flurry of activity – showers, coffee, soup, bananas, cereal, last-minute extra layers and then a taxi to Wuxi scenic area. The taxi dropped us off at the entrance and we waited for the shuttle bus to take us to the start line. It was cold. Did I mention I was worried? We did a group warm up and were soon on our way, with the start coinciding with my garmin going into sleep mode (a watch after my own heart).c8i48q1fmrp8o3q1hhmsm

The course seemed busy at first and I wondered if it would be congested all the way, though of course it thinned out without me really realising. We walked up the hills and ran down, trying to keep moving. I actually felt really bad. After 2km I wouldn’t have put money on me finishing. It wasn’t that I was tired but more that I felt that my head would give out. I started apologising to Alex, I was sick of the sound of my voice and sick of the voice in my head too.

run

After 8km we came to the first feed station and we ate bananas, orange slices and raisins. A man took photos of me eating a slice of orange but thankfully I am yet to see these photos anywhere.

Around this point we went through a large stretch of forest, where we had to go single file in a large group of people. Going step by step by step through the trees started to make me feel better. I’d been worried I was so slow, too slow, but here I was going at the same speed as everyone else, and I didn’t have to look where I was going because I could just follow the people ahead. I started feeling better, a lot better. Every step took us closer to the halfway point at the very least, and Alex had pointed out that we really only needed to do 15km because after that we’d have to finish or else never get home.

I normally hate running downhill, especially on trails, but was trying a new tactic of not being such a coward and giving it a go (though I had tried this in the Ashridge Forest trail race and ended up covered in blood). Maybe it was the moral support but I couldn’t stop laughing, even if I didn’t look quite as elegant as I felt.hu010ra63yvje0hxbavgnmcpcakqa5y02z9m8u47

We came out of the woods onto a road heading downhill and I felt like I was flying. Alex was flagging a little bit and I waited for him at the second feed station. I had some more raisins and he had some noodles, and then we were on our way again. We went through a village and then back out into the countryside, along paths through tea fields and then just pushing our way through dense tea plants.1s1c4agahdm3ek2u146vz2

tea

We headed up and up to the top of the mountain, high above the city. There was no one else around and we scrambled across rocks. It felt a little sketchy. Alex wanted to pick up every discarded water bottle that we saw (who drops litter in a place like this?!) so we ended up with lots of empty bottles tucked into our rucksacks. It was quite slow going but every step got us closer.

After about 21km we left the top of the mountain and went through another village, depositing all our water bottles in a bin. A man sauntered past eating a steamed bun and Alex asked him if he had a spare. The man thought he was joking but he wasn’t. We got a little lost just after this but eventually found ourselves on a road and by the edge of the lake, with a pleasant jaunt along the lakeside walkway.

Alex told me to go on ahead and wait at the final feed station, and I headed off, immediately regretting what I’d done as I should have waited for him. I took a wrong turning – that’s karma for you – but finally found my way back to the course, just in time for a long uphill road. Near the top of the road was a large white dog (a samoyed or similar), pulling his owners along. I went to pet the dog and the owners were amazed that I wasn’t scared, and then started laughing when the dog jumped up to cuddle me and we ended up rolling around in the road, one fluffy dog and one sweaty human. Such a nice dog, happy days.

From here it was a short run down to the final feed station, and I waited for Alex, who wolfed down orange slice after orange slice when he arrived. I wanted us to run the final bit together but couldn’t convince him to run with me, so (yet again – and I do feel bad about this) I headed off.

There was one final hill, and I tried to run up and down (by whatever definition of running), ideally without tripping over and breaking any bones. A man past me and gave me a vaguely patronising cheer, then when I passed him back I returned the favour, so he ran with me for a while, asking what I thought of Wuxi etc. I realised we were really close to the end and said I wanted to finish – I wanted it done and I was genuinely worried my watch was about to run out of battery! I tried my best attempt at a sprint finish and crossed the line. 5hr49!

About ten minutes later I saw Alex coming around the corner. Was he… walking? I shouted at him and he ran to the finish. We then made some significant inroads into the food available at the finish line, ginger tea being my favourite thing. We were given finisher hoodies – some pretty good swag at this race, all in all.

I can’t believe how this race went from one where I was so down and then so up. I felt great for days afterwards and I’m still grinning about it.

I suspect I may actually be Chinese

I read an article about a style of parenting popular here in China, called setback parenting. In this, you’re basically really awful to your kid so they don’t get too high an opinion of themselves and this will apparently make them stronger. I think you can guess how it turns out.

Here’s the article: http://www.sixthtone.com/news/1001083/setback-education-the-parenting-fad-harming-chinas-kids

As I read it, I did a LOL (as the kids might say, but probably wouldn’t, because I have no idea what the kids actually say), as there are so many parallels with my childhood. My dad believed (possibly still believes) that you shouldn’t compliment (or be nice to) your kids and is surprised that we now do not have a very close relationship.

Anyway, there are lots of other reasons why I think I had a Chinese upbringing:

  1. I got glasses when I was 4 years old.
  2. I play the violin.
  3. And the piano!
  4. I was a total nerd in school, until that day that I suddenly wasn’t.
  5. I went to LSE.
  6. My parents were pretty strict.
  7. I still think less than 90% in a test doesn’t really count as a pass.

That’s only my childhood. There’s further evidence that I’m a Chinese adult, for example: my love of WeChat stickers, going hiking with an umbrella, drinking hot water, shouting in restaurants, pushing on the metro and a whole host of other things that I’ll write about another time.

How to change jobs in China

First of all, a disclaimer that is a long post and may be out of date already (things change quickly), and may also be specific to Shanghai – but I thought it might be useful to document the process of changing jobs in China, and to let you all know what I’ve been dealing with, work-wise.

  • Hand in notice (8th July)

Almost four months into working at EF I’d had enough. It was a terrible place to work, and I was fortunate to be offered an interview at a much better company. I jumped at the chance, they offered me the job and I resigned from EF. Chinese labour law stipulates a one-month notice period, but EF wanted me to work for two months, claiming that they have an agreement with the police here. I have no doubt that this is a lie.

  • Get documents notarised by the Chinese embassy in the UK (July/August)

When I applied for my work permit for EF, I needed a police background check and scanned copies of my degrees. The rules have now changed and I needed to get all these documents notarised by the Chinese embassy in the country that issued these certificates – which meant applying for a new police background check (they’re only valid for six months) and FedExing all the documents to an agency in Coventry, who could deal with the whole process for a hefty fee. They then said that the Chinese embassy wouldn’t be able to notarise my degrees as they don’t state my middle name – a new rule, another hurdle to jump through. Eventually this got sorted out by a solicitor writing a statement to say that I am me, middle name or no. Finally, the documents were sent back to China, notarised and ready to be used in the application for the new work permit.

  • On final day at your old company, get a release letter (5 September)

One thing to remember is that foreigners can only work in China with a work permit, which is for a specific employer only. Your employer basically owns you.

If you leave a company, they have to cancel your work permit so that your new company can apply for a new work permit for you, armed with an official ‘release letter’ from the old company. What your old company DOESN’T have to do is cancel your residence permit – the page in your passport that allows you to stay in the country – but my previous employer did this. My residence permit was replaced with a 30 day ‘humanitarian stay visa’, which was backdated to a date in August, giving me 14 working days from when I picked it up (oh yeah and I had to pay for this new visa). This was the most stressful thing, and totally unnecessary – your old company doesn’t need to do this! However mine wouldn’t give me the release letter without handing over my passport to get my residence permit cancelled.

  • New company can apply for a new work permit (5 September)

Your new company needs to already be registered on the system to start this process, which apparently takes a week or so, so ought to be done beforehand. The work permit application process takes minimum 15 working days – five for the online check and then ten for an in-person check. Remember how I said I had 14 working days…

Two weeks after applying for the work permit, the HR guy at my new company called me to say the application had been rejected. It was still at the online stage and had taken this long as the whole computer system had crashed. My application was rejected because one of the forms had printed over two pages and they wanted it one page. I was in a hotpot restaurant with a good friend and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

The next day, 21 September, we submitted a revised application. My visa was due to expire on 24 September, so I flew to Hong Kong that weekend. It was lovely to be in HK and great to see my uncle, but quite stressful to leave my home and not know if I would be allowed back in the country. I applied for a new visa while in Hong Kong, and picked it up a few days later, flying back to Shanghai later that week, and feeling extremely relieved.

The following week was an 8 day national holiday so nothing could happen with the work permit application – leaving me worried that I’d run out of time on this visa too.

  • Physical health check (18 September)

This is necessary to get a residence permit, and involves going to a health centre out near Shanghai Zoo and doing a whole bunch of checks: height, weight, chest x-ray, ultrasound, ECG, blood tests, blood pressure, eye test. Basically they’re trying to make sure you won’t die while in China and that you don’t have HIV.

My results were sent directly to my new company and HR sent me a message to say they had the certificate. I was intrigued to see what the notes said – I’d passed the test but it said I had a heart abnormality, which freaked me out a little bit (I’m fine! I checked with people who know more about this kind of stuff and it’s okay!).

  • Apply for new residence permit (25 October)

Finally, on 24 October, my work permit was ready. I went to the Entry-Exit Bureau in the depths of Pudong with my HR colleague to apply for the residence permit. This allows you to live in the country, and it takes seven working days to process. I finally got my passport back last week and am so happy to feel settled once again in this crazy old country.

I’ve actually left out a couple of things from this long-winded tale, because they’re specific to my application. Happy to answer any questions about it.

Conclusion

Changing jobs in China is hard. There are a lot of hurdles to jump through. Even though I’m highly skilled and experienced, there’s so much paperwork and confusion, and changing rules and regulations. It had to be done, however, as I couldn’t have stayed at my old job. And now – nearly four months after resigning from my old job – I’m happily working at my new company. Long may it last!

Costs

Document notarisation: £500

FedEx documents to the UK for notarisation: 300 RMB (£35)

Humanitarian visa: 160 RMB (£18)

Health check: 461 RMB (plus 15 RMB for posting results) (£54)

Flights to Hong Kong: 1500 RMB (£173)

Visa in Hong Kong: 750 HKD (£73)

(most of these costs I can claim back from my new company, but it’s certainly caused some temporary cashflow issues!)

 

 

Getting a haircut

Last week I was feeling down in the dumps, so I went to get my hair cut. I found a picture of the style I wanted and showed it to the hairdresser, who said it was no problem. He asked when I’d had that haircut and didn’t believe me that the random picture on the internet wasn’t me (after all, foreigners generally all look alike).

After chopping at my hair for some time he whipped out the electric razor and I realised I was getting a different haircut to the one I’d asked for. Luckily I’m not precious about my hair and I like it short, so I just let him do whatever.

He asked if I wanted more volume on the top bit, and I said sure. I have extremely fine hair so volume is needed. He started fiddling around with my hair, putting it in pins. It was quite relaxing. Then he took out a box of something chemical looking and I began to get suspicious. I asked to have a look at the box. Perming solution! Are you kidding me?! I told him that there was no way I could have a perm, my hair would be destroyed. He was really keen to do it but I made him stroke my baby-soft hair and compare it to his own and eventually he agreed that I could have a think about a perm and maybe do it next time.

By this point I was a bit stressed out so he told me to wait there (where else could I go, with my hair full of pins) and he disappeared, returning with a bowl of cherry tomatoes for me. He told me I was pretty and that I had nice big eyes, not like those “scary Russian eyes” (I think he meant blue eyes but I’m not sure, he was adamant that they were scary).

He faffed around with my hair a bit longer and finally I left. I’m actually really happy with it, brushed down it looks work appropriate – my manager didn’t notice the undercut until my colleague pointed it out. I’m obsessed with stroking the undercut, like I’m a giant shorthaired cat.

WeChat, China’s messaging megalith

China has 1.3 billion people and surely at least that many mobile phones (everyone has a mobile and some sleazy businessmen will have one for the wife and another for the mistress, #lads etc). If I take the metro to work it’s very easy to avoid eye contact with anyone, as they’re all looking at their phones. 

What are they doing – especially given that so much is blocked in China? Watching TV shows, catching up on weibo, shopping on taobao or chatting on WeChat, of course!

WeChat is the messaging app of choice for everyone in China, young or old. You can use it for text and voice messages, sending photos, voice calls and video calls. So far so normal. But there’s so much more. Here’s a few things that I use wechat for on a daily basis (ok, hourly, I am in China after all).

  1. WeChat wallet. If you link your bank card (Chinese banks only) to your WeChat wallet then you can use WeChat to pay for things. Every retailer either has a QR code for you to scan and enter the amount to pay, or they’ll scan your QR code. It’s so so easy and means you hardly ever have to carry cash. You can also use WeChat wallet to pay bills, buy tickets and top up your mobile phone.
  2. Red envelopes. You can send money to friends. Again, so easy!
  3. Scanning friends. If you meet someone and you want to add them as a friend, you don’t need to faff about typing in their number or looking them up in a search bar. Every user on WeChat has a personal QR code, so you just ask to scan them, they produce the QR code, you scan it and add them. Simple! 
  4. Stickers. These are pictures or gifs you can send in messages. You can download packs of stickers or if a friend sends you a cool one you can save it to impress other friends with later. I like dog ones, obviously, but I also have a pretty rad one of Hitler dancing with glow sticks.
  5. Group chats. These can be for work, friends or interest groups. I’m in all three, though some of them have notifications on mute!
  6. Subscriptions. These are news or organisation accounts that I follow. I particularly like the ones about Shanghai so I know what’s on (art, cinema etc) or what’s a hot topic right now (typhoons, flour scandal, VPN news).
  7. Moments. This is like a facebook news feed, except if a friend posts something you can only read the comments by people you’re already connected to.

Soon you’ll be able to use it on the turnstiles at metro stations here in Shanghai, eliminating the need to carry a metro card.

    Of course, this amazing app does come with a price, and that’s all your personal data belonging firstly to Tencent and then the Chinese government. So that’s not ideal. Also, like many apps in China, it’s a really bloated app  and as a result my phone is grinding to a standstill these days. But life without it would be a lot less convenient, so I try to put any concerns about the government out of my mind… Needs must!!

    Things that are banned in China

    You probably know that Facebook is banned in China. It’s been banned for years now. But did you know that the following are also banned (either permanently or temporarily):

    Google (other than google translate), WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, WordPress, LFGSS, gambling, going to Tibet, talking about something that happened in June 1989, baking soda, tinned soup, mentioning certain topics in WeChat groups, changing your WeChat profile picture or username, imported blue cheese, going anywhere without your passport, Brad Pitt, airbnb (it’s not technically legal and right now it’s completely banned in Beijing), hot air balloons, drones, the New York Times and the South China Morning Post but not the Guardian, having a dog without a license, some shoes, giving your child a Muslim name if you live in western China, marmite, and Justin Bieber.

    Renaming a dog

    I’ve been looking after a miniature schnauzer for ten days, a sweet little boy called Santa. His owner assured me that he was well behaved and well trained. He’s certainly not well trained – toilet trained, maybe, but he doesn’t know any basic commands (he will sit if you hold a treat over his nose, so he definitely could get it if he was trained, he just hasn’t been!). 

    He’s very cute, a real velcro dog who wants to be by my side at all times. He can’t climb onto the bed by himself but he’ll put his front paws on the bed and wait for me to pick him up and then he’ll sleep on the bed all night. During the day he follows me about the flat, sitting on my feet wherever I am, unless I’m sitting on the sofa and then he’ll sit next to, or across, me.

    He loves going outside and gets very excited if he thinks he’s going to go out. This means that every time I go to the bathroom (which is next to my front door) he gets excited and starts shuttling about in a circle and jumping up at me. Once outside, he wants to sniff everything, and any understanding of the word “sit” completely vanishes. He’s used to having two 20 minute walks per day but he’s been getting a lot more with me, usually more than 10,000 of my steps over the course of the day.

    He doesn’t know his name, which is good because I don’t think Santa suits him and I forget to call him that most of the time. My friend Mahalia said he looks like a Gustav so he got renamed, but I also call him the following: Big G, shuttlepig, horror, piggo, superted, gougou, pumpkin, Rowley (the cat), Nancy (my friends schnauzer), Hazel (another friend’s schnauzer) and any number of other names that aren’t Santa.

    Things my Chinese teacher says to me…

    Your pronunciation is terrible.

    Your pronunciation is great.

    You’re not *that* fat.

    You have very big eyes.

    Don’t say that, you sound like you’re from Beijing.

    Don’t say that, you sound like a cute Taiwanese girl.

    Don’t say that, you sound like you’re from Shanghai.

    Don’t tell anyone, but I think Koreans look funny.

    Your family is strange.

    Your life is funny.

    You’ve made huge progress and we’re all really proud of you.

    Yangcheng Lake 10k

    My running club organises a few races each year, but this was the first I was able to go along to. People had been talking this up for some time, telling me about an amazing buffet and swimming pool, so as soon as it was announced it went straight in my diary.

    What’s the deal:

    • get picked up from Shanghai (not too far from our house), get given breakfast and then driven to Fairmont hotel by Yangcheng Lake, a 5* hotel about an hour from Shanghai
    • 10k or half marathon in the grounds of the hotel/surrounding area, alongside the lake and through some organic farms
    • swimming in the hotel pool
    • buffet
    • get driven back to Shanghai afterwards

    In reality, this meant:

    • We took a taxi to the pick up point and the stupid driver went the wrong way and refused to do a U-turn, prompting my best Shanghainese shouting. Breakfast was good and we had a chat with people I know from running club, then we took the bus. The bus got lost near the hotel for about half an hour, but one of the other buses was so lost that the start had to be delayed.
    • The 10k was slightly long, about 10.6k! This wasn’t appreciated but my undertrained legs. The half marathon was spot on. So glad I didn’t do the half… Beautiful course despite the runaway golf cart.
    • It was a little too cold to swim in the pool but we lazed by it for a while, and having a pool meant we could use the showers to get changed post-race, which was fantastic.
    • The buffet had been seriously hyped. I’d been told about cheese – and after not really eating much cheese for some time, I was pretty excited. This was just before the Great Cheese Ban of 2017 so I’m not sure why there was no cheese, but there wasn’t, and the veggie options weren’t amazing either. I had two plates of salad and then about 3 plates of desserts. Not three desserts. Three plates of desserts.
    • We got the last bus back to Shanghai as we were having fun chilling out in the hotel grounds. The bus driver took us on a major detour and we ended up in Suzhou. There was a lot of talk about dogs and Matt fell asleep. When we got back we went for a beer at EQ cafe.

    All in all, a really fun day and an enjoyable race. I was soooo slow but I’ve really not done much running. I ran out of steam after 8.5k, which is definitely more of a mental thing. There’s a 15k race next month so I’m hopefully going to do that.

    Huge thanks to Martin for organising everything and being an all-round great Dane!

    Slugs and snails and puppydogs’ tails

    Little boys are horrible. Six year olds, specifically. Snot, fighting and being awful to each other.

    Little Raphael is a case in point. When he’s not paying attention, or when he’s paying too much attention, he blows spit bubbles. It’s my least favourite thing of anything my students do, which is impressive as they’re often quite repulsive. Every time he does it I tell him to stop and tell him I won’t give him a sticker at the end of class. Sometimes this goes in and sometimes he just stares at me, spit bubbles ballooning out of his chubby face. Then I say “goodbye sticker!” and out of his unfortunately slightly gormless face comes a confused and slightly wronged face – what did i do? He reminds me of a small drunk, a miniature McNulty, barrelling about agape at the injustice in the world.

    Raphael would love, more than anything, to be one of the cool kids in class. He tries so hard to be part of their gang but never quite manages it. Recently we were discussing dinosaurs and we all agreed that dinosaurs are very cool.

    “When I grow up I want to be a scientist!” announced Raphael, proudly. “I want to discover things about dinosaurs!”

    One of his classmates started laughing. “As if you could ever be a scientist!”

    And all the other boys laughed.

    This class are off to primary school this week. Chinese children start school at 6 years old and are often extraordinarily ill-equipped for it. A nation of only children brought up by their grandparents, these children are fitted on from a young age. The parents work and the grandparents (sometimes 4 to 1 child) give their little precious everything they never had. I see children being fed like birds, opening their mouths and waiting for grandma to stuff more food in. I see grandfathers trailing their grandchild, praising every tiny thing. “You’re the best! You’re number one! You’re better than all the other children!” (about being number one… I’ve had fights break out in my classroom over it, and every child I’ve taught would rather rush their work and finish first than do it all correctly). I very frequently see 4 or 5 year olds being carried like babies. 

    Chinese children spend six years being told how amazing and special they are, allowed to rule the roost (bar the occasional violent beating), running around causing havoc in restaurants almost as bad as in middle class parts of London, unable to feed or dress themselves. And then… primary school.

    40 or 50 students per class, intense competition and years of rote learning lie ahead.

    Raphael, of course, doesn’t know quite what his future holds. He’s always seemed slightly carefree, either impervious or (more likely) oblivious, confident that he is NUMBER ONE despite any evidence to back this up. He looked puzzled when my Teaching Assistant stopped the other boys laughing at him by saying that everyone is allowed to have a dream, like he’d suggested he wanted to grow up to be a panda instead of the number one scientist…

    At the end of class I gave all the students lollipops and wished them well at primary school. They rampaged about one final time while I led them out of class to find their parents. All the children scampered off until I was left with just Raphael. His grandma hurried forward and checked he wasn’t cold (grandparents fight an endless battle against their grandchildren being cold, even in the Shanghai summer) and asked him how class was. He showed her the lollipop, clasped in his sweaty little hand. 

    Then the smile fell from his face. He stood completely still. Grandma asked him what was wrong. He appeared to get smaller by the second, then turned to me, his face hardened by resolve and sadness. “I’m not allowed sweets anymore,” he told me. “Mum says I’m fat.” He handed back the lollipop and, downcast, walked off, ignoring Grandma’s pleas that he was just perfect.

    Welcome to the end of your childhood, Raphael.