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Misadventures in Chinese, by Sinead Hegarty

While my love for China and the Chinese people grows most days, the language barrier is still one issue that refuses to let go. Every day brings new challenges and tests in communication. One such test occurred when ordering my favourite breakfast food – baozi or 包子 – a small steamed bun filled with meat or vegetables and typically dipped in a concoction of chili and vinegar. Delicious. Now, when you first start learning Chinese you soon realise the importance of choosing the correct quantifier for each word, for example it’s not one water it’s one bottle of water. In my excitement for baozi all this went out the window and instead of ordering a plate of baozi I ordered one tiny little bun with a side dish of one bemused waitress. Being too embarrassed to admit my mistake I explained how I had already eaten today, ate my tiny baozi and left. Never will I neglect my Chinese grammar again.

While I would love to say this is my only mistake in Chinese, unfortunately it is merely the beginning of a very long list. This list includes ordering pig intestine rather than mushroom, realising I was saying diarrhea instead of thank you, ordering 50 dumplings rather than 15 and buying a train ticket to the completely wrong city. The final mistake was only rectified when I started speaking to people in the queue and realised I was about to travel 700 miles north of where I wanted to go. However, despite my frustration with Mandarin the language has allowed me to make Chinese friends, experience the amazing variety of food that this country has to offer and see the most breathtaking landscape.

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My first month in China, by Lucille Van Niekerk

If you had asked me a year ago where I would find myself living and working I would most assuredly have said somewhere in South America. Yet, here I am in China. The question that begs answering is, why? I instinctively knew that it would be the antithesis of my own culture and upbringing. In this contrast and difference I have experienced a plethora of emotions. I have vacillated between extreme joy and frustration. Now, now before you go and diagnose me with a personality disorder let me explain further.

The things that have made me so happy are the following;

On arrival to Beijing I was met by the Recruitment Manager, Rob. He was the epitome of friendliness and truly made me feel welcome. It was later that I found out that he and a new teacher fondly known as KB, our Georgia peach had waited for me for 6 hours. Despite this extreme punishment for them and imposition both were lovely and had to be subjected to my verbal diarrhea for an hour. How they never landed in therapy after that is beyond my comprehension. These two individuals allayed any anxiety I might have had and made me feel that coming to Beijing was a good choice.

Meeting the other new foreign teachers just solidified my belief that my China experience would be good. They are truly a bunch of gifted, talented and intelligent people. I have read most of their dissertations which is a newly discovered passion of mine and they are truly a clever bunch. The older foreign teachers have gone above and beyond to facilitate an easy transition and to assist us with anything.

The school’s foreign affairs officers, Luke and Summer are the reason we function so easily in China. They have patiently and kindly assisted us with everything. I mean everything. You struggle to communicate with the plumber, telephone guy we call poor Luke or Summer. Despite this these two individuals still smile and are not yet on antidepressants.

The Chinese staff and teachers known as CT’s were very welcoming and kind. They truly made an extreme effort to make us feel welcome. My first centre meeting they arranged food for us and eagerly laid out the table. There was an abundance of fruit and health drinks and for a brief moment I thought they were hinting I need to diet. Fruit however, is a big deal in China and this was their way of making a big deal to welcome us.

All of the above bears mentioning as without it my story would have read differently. If I was surrounded by people I did not have an affinity for and not felt welcome no matter how many treasures China had I would have missed it because my vision would have been distorted. So, to the lot of you thank you.

I have discovered that Chinese people love salsa dancing. A common passion we share. Beijing has Salsa clubs and I attended a class at the International Art Plaza. I was the only foreigner in the class and it was so much fun.

Music is a great love of mine and Beijing has a treasure chest full of gems I am still discovering. KTV is a karaoke club and normally it would not be something I enjoy. Karaoke in China is just so much fun and different. I enjoyed it so much I lost my voice.

Getting lost in any foreign country I find is an adventure. China is no different. I had such a great experience whilst wandering in the street trying to find a restaurant. A Chinese guy noticed that I was discombobulated and decided to help me. The next thing I know a woman on a scooter tells me to hop on the back and proceeds to take me to the restaurant.

Another joy filled moment for me was whilst I was travelling on the subway. I had a 20 minute discussion with a Chinese lady each speaking our own language and gesticulating profusely. Pure joy! I think we solved the world’s issues in those 20 minutes and I reckon on some strange level we really understood each other.

My frustrations are based around the following;

The toilet issue – It has to be said. I now value, love and respect western toilets on a level I never thought I could or would. When I find one it is one of the greatest joys of my life. I can truly say with utter conviction that I will never truly get comfortable with squat toilets.

My ineptitude at learning Chinese – I feel I have regressed and feel mentally challenged as I point and nod all the time when communicating with Chinese people. I order my food by pointing and a noodle restaurant I frequent has now become so accustomed to my pointing that when I walk in they point. It’s not hard for them as I order the same thing every time.

Chinese traffic rules – China has a unique interpretation or set of traffic rules. When crossing a road at the pedestrian crossing be careful green means a scooter will still ride and cars too even if you are walking across the street.

Rush hour traffic on a subway – I have never experienced been jammed like a sardine before. I still can’t conceptualise how so many people filled one train compartment. I spent an hour with my face in a guy’s armpit due to been vertically challenged and squashed from all sides.

Beijing is truly a vibrant, beautiful city. It has cast some spell on me this surprises me the most. I find the mountains, temples and sites magical, alluring and just beautiful. I feel at home here already. I feel at home in a country where I cannot communicate effectively, have toilet and pollution issues and am afraid of rush hour on the subway. I have found with my travels that anywhere you go you will be faced with frustrations and issues but I warn you Beijing will seduce you with its unique charm.

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My First Three Months, by Sorcha Smith

When I arrived in Beijing, I was one of the last of the teachers to arrive. We quickly delved into everything that needed to be done; bank account set up, mobile and service provider set up, visa registration, etc. Honestly, the first few weeks were all a blur.

The training was intense, which suited me as I hated things being long and drawn out. As I was so busy with training and then settling into class I thought that I’d become homesick after a while. I’m still waiting on that homesick feeling, probably because with Skype, emails and annoying friends and family to download WeChat, communication is rather simple.

There are a few things that I’ve learned in these months which I think are crucial. And I’ll list them as follows:

1.     Get lost.

Yup. Get lost. Walk around your area, get to know it. I’d suggest having a picture of somewhere near your apartment to show a taxi driver. I got lost on my second night, turns out I was just around the corner from the apartment without realising! By wandering around and just letting your feet choose the direction you end up seeing so much more than you realise.

2.    Talk.

Talk to the other teachers, both older and new. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you think it’s a stupid question, I can guarantee 99% that it has been asked before. I learned not only different ways of teaching the kids and different games just from a chat over coffee.

Also talk to your Chinese teachers, get to know them! They’re human being like the rest of us. One of my CT brought me in cough drops when I was sick, another knew that I don’t eat breakfast in the mornings and brought in dumplings and practically forced me to eat. They’re also fun to hang out with, you can practice your Chinese and they always know the best areas to travel for any mini breaks.

3.    Eat out.

Always try at least one new dish. Myself and two other teachers did that nearly every night for the first few weeks. Some of the food will look dodgy, I’m not going to lie, but I’ve only found one dish in god knows how many that I don’t like. Be brave! Thanks to another two teachers I have found my weaknesses!! Lemon tea and biangbiang noodles!

4.    Be patient.

This goes for everything. Banks are a nightmare but if you go at the right time you can be in and out in twenty minutes. Otherwise you could be there for an hour or two… And postage… Don’t get me started on the postage… Some people are not going to understand you, some won’t even try to, so take a deep breath and move on.

The greatest amount of patience can be for some of your classes. Some will be fantastic and you’ll enjoy them and look forward to them. Others… Not so much. That’s how I felt for two of my classes especially, the kids misbehaved, I’d spoken to their previous teachers to find out what worked and what didn’t, to the point where I dreaded going to class.

But then I tried looking at it from the kids’ perspective; were they bored, was I going to fast, did they need a different reward system? So I changed a few things, I now have student job roles in all my classes and my dreaded classes are now my favourite. Unless it’s teaching new words and reading, I normally have the kids help each other. Not only does it give them a confidence boost and a sense of accomplishment, but they have great fun doing it too.

So they are my words of wisdom. If you have an issue, talk to someone about it whether it’s trying to get something done or just having a problem with a particular class. Put the work in, change things around, and I promise you it makes such a difference to both you and the students.

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Secret Meat, by Aoife O’Donnell

My first dining out experience which I had in China was with my new found co-workers at a restaurant called ‘Meizhou’. With most of us having not a word of Chinese, we relied on our more experienced colleagues to do the ordering. Aware that there was at least one vegetarian among us, they ordered accordingly. Excited to try some of these new cuisines I enthusiastically reached for a delicious looking eggplant dish. With my new arch nemesis in hand (chopsticks) I inelegantly co-ordinated a pile of food on my plate and began to tuck into the succulent slices. As I turned to my roommate Rebecca, she looked at me in horror quickly alerting me to the hidden little bastard chicken which had been seamlessly sown into the eggplant slices. Not to cause a scene with my new colleagues I discreetly spat the contents of my mouth into a serviette and downed several glasses of water trying to quench the tirade of expletives shouting inside my head. How the hell did the chef manage to disguise a dead chicken inside a slice of innocent eggplant? I didn’t know if I was annoyed or impressed. What else was lurking between the green beans and tofu? Was it even tofu? It was probably some cute Labrador puppy that had been ripped from the hands of a crying five-year-old Chinese girl. Someone was definitely conspiring against me. Clearly an over sensitive vegetarian, I was foreseeing the next year of my life starving to death and surviving on knock off Maltesers from the local newsagents. At least my travel insurance would foot the repatriation of my skeleton at the end of the trip and my poor mother wouldn’t have to re-mortgage the house.

 

Following my first gastronomic catastrophe I thrust myself into an eating lockdown. For the first few weeks of this bumpy integration into a normal Chinese diet, I survived mainly on cereal and ice creams. I suspect the owners of the local shop had me pegged for some idiot hamburger guzzling foreigner who probably had the palate sophistication of a knat. Wishing so much I could express in Chinese that I have actually eaten more nutritious things in my life than Cornetto’s and Magnums, I would take my change, run away and shamefully feast on my sugar pile until the deadly withdrawal would see me drag my hypo-glycaemic corpse through their doors again. Having cut out the food pyramid entirely from my diet I rapidly dropped a half stone in weight because I was so utterly paranoid that everything was tainted with meat products, meat juices or secret meats of some variety. Twenty-two years of abstaining from eating anything with a pulse was proving difficult to ignore, and having inherited from one of my generous parents the type of appetite that could cause famine in small villages, I knew this life style would be unsustainable. I was going to have to figure out a compromise with my personal values which were etched into my being.

 

Luckily this realisation coincided with Rebecca’s own enlightenment (she was equally perturbed by the eating situation and was surviving solely on Nutella and crackers) and we began to slowly suss out the plethora of local Chinese restaurants dotted around our neighbourhood. Thankfully what came out of it was the overdue wake up call to our temporary close mindedness. We both needed to realise we were not living on some other planet with a bunch of barbarian, dog-killing, murderers who would eat their granny on a stick if they could. Quite the contrary. ‘The Shan’ (our affectionate name for our home in the district of Shijingshan) has endless gastronomic experiences to be discovered. Food is so cheap we could order as much as we wanted. Our philosophy was to experiment with a random dish (often there are no English menus and a just a photo to decipher it), discover if it had meat in it, eat it or not, and try something else. It was a simple process of elimination and we quickly amassed our own personal menu of vegetarian dishes which were tasty and cheap. So cheap in fact that we could order a ton of food and still only pay the cost of a few pints of milk back home.

 

Being a vegetarian in China does not equate to a life sentence chained to the junk food aisle at the grocery store. In fact, China has a massive Buddhist culture, so coming across vegetarian and vegan restaurants is much more common than you would imagine (you just need to seek them out). A veggie restaurant just popped up near my work place which is located deep in the west of Beijing (a very non-westernised area) so things are moving forward in terms of variety and mind set. Favourite vegetarian Chinese dishes of mine are ‘enoki salads’, ‘spicy potatoes’, ‘egg fried sweet potato’, ‘scallion pancakes’ and ‘vegetarian chuan’ (vegetables on a stick), and if you are so inclined, the range of mock meats (soy based dishes) are abundant. As long as you can turn a blind eye to someone dipping their chopsticks from the ‘gōngbăo jīdīng’ into the ‘qié zi dòu jiǎo’ then you are full steam ahead for a culinary experience that will enrich your journey here.

 

Living in Beijing as a vegetarian has a different meaning to me now than when I was the over cautious, fresh off the boat ‘lǎo wài’. I appreciate the importance of the relationship Chinese people have with food as a tool to show appreciation for each other and form bonds with new friends, and having adopted a similar sensibility has helped me to create my own community of friends through a shared love of food. My core belief system is still intact and I uphold it pretty easily here.

 

 

 

 

 

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My most interesting nature experience in Beijing, by Robert

Nature is relatively scarce in Beijing because the place is about as metropolitan as the definition of the word allows for. It’s not unheard of to catch a glimpse of natural beauty here, though. The parks are quite nice, my personal favorite being XiangShan, or “fragrant mountain.” Its rolling hills, green foliage, and beautiful police station are a thing to behold. It also has a nice pond with no less than three swans, nature’s beautiful jerks. Any public park can surprise you, though. It’s not uncommon to catch sight of a hedgehog scurrying near dark. Don’t actually catch one, though, because that’s a cultural no-no. Also, they have spines. Even on the streets in some areas, you observe the habits of the semi-domesticated Beijing street dog. These guys are street-smart as animals come; they’ll switch to the other side of the sidewalk to avoid bumping into people, or even wait for pedestrian signals to cross major intersections. In other words, it’s very much a city, but if you look, you can find nature growing between the cracks.

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Beijing GAA, by Simon Holland

The first thing I did before I arrived in Beijing was get in contact with the chairmen of the Beijing GAA club through Facebook. He wrote back to me in a matter of minutes expressing his delight that I wanted to join the club. He informed me that there was a massive social and completive aspect to the club and that they enter many tournaments through the year.

Moving to a new country was one of the most daunting things I have ever done, however by joining the GAA team it made the transition much smoother and it helped me settle into China a lot quicker.

We train on Thursday nights and Sunday mornings and it’s the most enjoyable thing I do during the week. The people that have set up the club are fantastic people and so are all the members of the club. They welcomed my friend and I with open arms and I haven’t looked back since.

The social aspect of the club is also fantastic, we regularly go on pub crawls in the main pub sections of Sanlitun, or we visit the old part of China called the hutongs where you get the real experience of China.

I would highly recommend joining the Beijing Gaa club even if you don’t play Gaa, you will meet some fantastic people and have an absolute laugh in the proces

 

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My worst mistake when ordering food in China, by Francis Dorfling

“It will get easier.” That is a phrase I’ve heard so much since I got here, and it sure does even when it comes to ordering food. Not easy though, just easier. Don’t confuse the two.

The first big meal I had here was with all the new teachers, a few of the Chinese staff, and our executive Headmaster. The food was delicious and it just kept on coming. Never giving a thought about how it got to the table. Until all was done and we actually had to start wandering around looking for food and ordering it by ourselves.

Using your sense of smell might help a little. Walk out onto the street and sniff your way to the variety of different restaurants available to you. If they smell bad, try the next one. Keep going until you like the smell and are intrigued enough to try the food. (Well, in China looks and smell can be deceiving.)

Next, decide if you want to be able to understand the menu and know what you are eating, or if you want to gamble a bit and test your skills of pointing and guessing. Then you think “Hey I’m in China”, so why not try the new and unexpected.

First, point at the meal you have blindly chosen. Let them know you only want one order for yourself. Then smile big which says: “Yes, I have no idea what I just ordered but I am trusting you as my waitress/waiter to bring me something delicious.”

You will most likely end up with something like this: mystery meat, in a questionable broth with overly chewy noodles. It’s about the experience…so dig in and plan on making a beeline to the closest bakery in the case that it leaves a foul tasting flavor in your mouth- but “Hey, I’m in China.”

This will only be one of the many situations where you stare at the waiter repeating yourself in English thinking why don’t you understand me while they probably think the exact same thing, or grabbing your phone to ask “PLECO” for some help. (It does help hehehe.) Use the numbers 1 to 5 to decide how cooked you want your meat. Safest bet would be 5. Point at pictures or just using your wonderful teaching skills by playing charades with the waiter trying to order a simple dish like chicken.

But what can I say. “It gets easier.”