Last weekend (well our weekend of Monday and Tuesday) I hopped on the high speed train to Suzhou to see a friend of a friend (Grant Munro’s mate Magnus Pole for those who know either of them). Suzhou is 85km away but the train takes 25 minutes – take that Scotrail! Now, I wasn’t expecting much – Suzhou reportedly has around 6 million inhabitants and is dangerously close to merging completely with Shanghai thus making some sort of monster city, or a conurbation for those who like the word – but I was very, very surprised. The city is a sprawling mess as is standard in eastern China, but the centre is genuinely lovely. It’s an ancient canal town, often dubbed as the “Venice of the East,” which is of course, ridiculous. I’d love to hear how many times people refer to Venice as the “Suzhou of the West,” but along these canals and behind the rebuilt touristy areas I found huge pockets of authentic beauty. Tiny houses perched over filthy water-ways, old women flogging apples and their old husbands smoking and chatting on nearby bridges. Life had somehow stayed still in this decaying little bubble. I felt like a man from the future invading the past; the weird looks the locals were giving me compounded this a fair bit. Hemmed in within all this were ancient walled gardens, some dating from the 13th century. Entering one I discovered for the first time since I arrived in Shanghai, total, blissful, silence. In fact the only thing that interrupted the quiet was birdsong, which was another first in China! So I returned to Shanghai more than relaxed and more than happy. I’d go as far to say that one of the best things about Shangers is that Suzhou is next door. If you’re ever in this neck of the woods, go!
Well, that was a week ago and the calm has been replaced with a storm of loud kids, work colleagues leaving and new staff arriving. In fact we had a leaving meal for one of the teachers last night, which took place in a swanky Thai restaurant where the boss was paying so we all ate too much. As the boss was there and no-one likes her, I decided to lighten the awkward tension a bit by telling the ladyboy waiter that it was my teaching assistant’s birthday. “Really!?” Exclaimed the ladyboy, before marching over to the table with the other waiters and performing a full song and dance routine where we all had to get up and join in. The ladyboy taught us a new dance move called the Mahjong where you scramble your hands about in front of you. “Do the Mahjong!” He shrieked, pointing and embarrassing my teaching assistant. My little trick was all going swimmingly until the ladyboy turned to my aussie mate Ben and announced that he recognised him from Windows. Windows is the scummiest club in Shanghai and I’ve described it before. Ben and I have only been there twice and on one occasion we ended up in a race war between Chinese locals and some Filipino girls, some of whom were definitely ladyboys. As luck would have it, this was one of the ladyboys. “I remember kissing you!” He chuckled loudly at Ben before marching off to get some of the waitresses who also recognised both of us. “I have loads of photos of you,” shrieked one at me, before getting my full name off of my gleeful teaching assistant so she could tag me in all of them on facebook. “Oh, you were so drunk!” She yelled hysterically as my boss looked on, a model of disappointment. The rest of the meal went without a hitch and I even went on to get my highest ever score in bowling (144) but I’ll tell you what, watch out for those ladyboys – they never forget.
Just had a rather strange meal. The mother of one of my students took me and my teaching assistant out for dinner after we finished school. The kind woman didn’t speak a word of English and rather embarrassingly I don’t know much Chinese. There followed an entire dinner where my assistant and the mother chatted endlessly in their mother tongue while I was left with the 6 year old student at the end of the table. He’s a cool guy for sure. But he’s six. And Chinese. So while the rest of the table enjoyed adult conversation over some Mongolian barbeque I was left sipping my beer asking young Albert what his favourite colour was. Even Albert was bored. The worst thing was I could tell the mother was talking about me but no translation was forthcoming from my assistant. So I’d go back to colours with the six year old. The women didn’t shut up for ages, so as usual the two blokes who had ran out of things to say and usually at this point go and either play pool, watch some sport or get drunk, had to settle for comparing hand sizes. Good food though, I tell you what, if Albert keeps scoffing back the lamb at that rate he won’t be little for much longer. Greedy little bugger.
On the metro back from work I was slumped on a seat talking to my workmate with my feet resting on the central pole. My feet were perhaps at knee-height on the pole, which stood in the middle of the carriage aisle. An old shanghai bloke opposite me pointed at my shoes and ranted slightly. My teaching assistant who was also there, translated to me that he wanted to know if in my country this kind of foot resting was acceptable? I said yes. Imminently about to place the offending trainers back to ground level, I was then bombarded with another shoe-based tirade. “Screw it”, I thought, “this bloke is getting the foot treatment.” For the remainder of the journey he yelled and pointed at my feet until even his friends were rather embarrassed. It got to the point that every time he tried to yell I’d interrupt him with a hasty “tim bu dong!” which means ‘I don’t understand.’ He would then go quiet for a split second before attempting another rant. “Tim bu dong” I’d hush him calmly. Once again he’d rev up. “Tim bu dong.” It was like that bit in Austin Powers when Dr.Evil is silencing his son by repeatedly saying “shhhh!” Amazing. When we got to my stop I cleaned the pole with my sleeve and went to shake his hand. He was literally frozen in fury. I was almost certainly in the wrong but I’ve seen enough people being thoughtless around these parts that I didn’t feel too guilty. Actually, I bloody loved it. Put your chill-pants on granddad!
Not much in the way of adventures have occurred recently, but as is custom in Shanghai, enough odd things have taken place in my vicinity that there’s plenty to talk about.
1-Whilst cycling downtown (to get the 50RMB burger and a pint deal at Malone’s – IMMENSE) I witnessed a man crouched behind his large Alsatian with an open plastic bag ready to catch it’s jobby. The dog was almost the size of Beethoven (the dog, not the deaf guy) so the jobby was correspondingly large. The man had a great big grin on his face like he was proud of how well his dog was trained. To me it looked like the dog had actually trained the man pretty well. I think in any relationship, if you find yourself holding open a receptacle for someone or something to crap into, you are perhaps not getting the best out of things. You are literally at the arse-end of the scale and need to sort it out immediately. Very odd.
2- You may have heard in the news that there was a terrible fire in a downtown tower block the other day. Whilst on the same cycle we saw a couple of fire engines trying to get to the scene of the blaze. However, as is custom in Shanghai no-one got out the way. Traffic remained locked in stand-still, scooters continued to buzz round the blaring red trucks and I even saw some school kids try to cross the road in front of the fire engines when the lights finally went green. I was furious. My American mate started shouting at cars to move out the way but to no avail. The attitude here seems to be, “thank God it’s not me” rather than, “that could be me one day.” I have to say the longer I spend in Shanghai the more unsavoury I find a lot of it’s inhabitants.
3- My boss informed me that in the previously documented recording of the kid’s English CD, I had forgotten to say “Please turn to page 26.” This means I have to go back to the studio. She’s on to a good thing, my boss, as I only got paid £15 for my dulcet tones last time (due to various by-laws in the depths of my contract this is all I could expect apparently) and I’m pretty sure she’s mates with the bloke who runs the studio so she’s probably getting to hire it out for about 12 pence anyway. Apparently the second book is almost ready so I’ll be required once more to harp nonsense down a mic again. In fact, I was asked to proof read the second book, and the amount of mistakes was breathtaking. For the letter T, the little ditty read “T, t Tree. Tree. A Christmas tree.” Next to this was a palm tree, the least festive of all the trees. For the letter U, there was the following, “U, u umbrella. Umbrella. A yellow umbrella.” The adjacent umbrella was dark blue. It’s reassuring to know that the boss of your English school is still to grasp colours. I’m looking forward to seeing what Christmas decorations she puts up as well!
Erm, so I couldn’t get on the blog and then tried going through a proxy site which worked straight away. This means that quite likely I have been censored! Or my internet is acting up.
On a lighter note I got the taxi back from a sports bar downtown on Saturday night (watched England play quite well against the kiwis, god I hate Richie ‘The Cheat’ McCaw) and the driver misheard my location. Whizzing me to some unrelated junction this side of nowhere, he was then re-told where to go and after much ring-road negotiating managed to get me to the apartment. The meter had of course lapped this little detour up and now read 91 RMB, to which I was pretty despondent about. Reading my mood the cabbie took my 100 note and proceeded to give me change for 70 RMB before following this up with a “my bad” shrug of his generous shoulders. I was gobsmacked. So listen here, Chinese web police, if you are watching my every word, please track this good Samaritan down and award him the Red Star of China (or whatever you guys give out for this kind of stuff) for services to humanity and especially disillusioned foreign taxi patrons the world over. He is an all round good egg.
I bought myself a bike (which is blue and looks quite cool, although it only cost me £40 and the pedal keeps falling off), and am slowly learning the laws of the Shanghai road. The key here is that there are no laws. In fact I’ve discovered if I try and adhere to my sense of road etiquette as a Brit, I will be immediately crushed under the many wheels of an articulated truck carrying asbestos and lead. Therefore I am now the cycling equivalent of a leaf in the wind. Lanes are ignored, traffic lights are just pretty lights and every toot of a car horn is just a Chinese driver yelling “I don’t know what I’m shouting about!” They are abysmal drivers; pushy, rude, inconsiderate and totally unaware of their surroundings. I’m pretty sure there’s no official driving test in which they have to pass before getting behind the wheel. It’s got to the point now that if some sort of test was introduced, everyone would fail and those that did pass would be crushed under the many wheels of an articulated truck carrying asbestos and lead.
The boss of our school recently announced that she liked my voice. Not reading too much into this, I soon found myself in a recording studio doing voice over work for a range of new English learning CDs for kids. On the other side of the sound proof glass were a couple of bored sound technicians and my boss giving directions such as – “Sound happier! More enthusiasm!” I got to listen to the CD the other day. I lasted ten seconds. No-one likes the sound of their own voice, but when you can hear yourself announcing “Let’s play!” over a Casio keyboard on “Happy Plinky Plonk Jingle” setting, while some pre-recorded children cheer and laugh, it’s enough to make you go eternally mute. I had to go through the whole alphabet with a little ditty for each letter. “A, a, apple! Apple! Apple! Big and red! B, b, book! Book! Book! I can read!” etc. I had no idea I could sound so convincingly enthusiastic nor did I know there was such a level of creepiness that I could reach. It’s a terrifying CD, especially when I had to do different characters. The thing is I didn’t know I was meant to do different characters as I was just reading off a manuscript. Therefore you hear a kid introduced as Tom saying in my voice, “I’m a boy.” Little Ada then replies, “And I’m a girl!” In my voice. I’m not quite sure what the boss was thinking with regards to the production of the CD but rest assured I will either try my hardest to sabotage the whole thing or I’ll push for a monstrous bonus. After all, every recording star has his price.
A tremendous Hallowe’en night out was had at the weekend. I’d spent the previous 48 hours holding Hallowe’en parties for the kids at the school, which was as knackering as it sounds. The other teachers and I had decided to spice up proceedings however, by seeing who could scare the most kids to tears. Australian Ben stomped home to victory with a mighty total of ten by the end of the weekend. His ensemble of Scream mask, skeleton arms and cloak seemed to do the trick. His routine of remaining motionless behind unsuspecting children before enveloping them in his cloak pretty much pushed the cry button with every attempt. He was a master. I only managed a paltry four weepings, but this is largely because I have a conscience and I wasn’t prepared to psychologically scar any infants. In retrospect it seems quite cruel, but you’d do the same if the same kids had been taunting you for the past 4 months. It was awesome.
Anyway, the night out afterwards took me and Ben to a scuzzy little bar in the French Concession where I met a country singer who claimed to have worked for Nintendo. This instantly put him in the top 5 coolest people I’d ever met. He claimed that the Gamecube was his baby. I asked him numerous geeky questions surrounding Mariokart until he got bored and starting singing songs about how drunk Aussie Ben had got. Then I bumped into a woman dressed like a 1920s Chicago dolly bird. For some reason I started pretending to be a 1920s landlord/club owner a la Fat Sam. I have never been so owned in my life. For every witty improvisation she returned with a scything put-down, all in character. Ben announced that he thought he was dreaming. I was pretty much in love. When we got home (just me and Ben I may add, sadly) we decided it would be really funny to confuse the security guards and have a fake fight. I’m not really sure what happened but the security guards didn’t do anything and Ben is now moving around with a limp.
I’d like to dedicate this post to the wee kid who was so scared of me at school he performed a superman leap off the stairs and landed on his head, cracking his novelty mask in two. Thank god they don’t do law suits here.