Food, Glorious……

Chinese Dumplings eaten during the Winter Solstice

In China, it’s all about the food.

Oftentimes instead of ‘hello’ you’ll hear; ‘chi le ma?’ Literally have you eaten?’ which is a common greeting.

In my English language training centre the lunchtime orders go out as early as 10:30, not because this is the most expedient way to make sure you won’t go hungry, but because it then gives people two to two and a half hours to talk about what they’ve ordered, why they made this choice and how it compares to what they had the day before.

Food is the keypoint of every festival, whether minor or major with specific dishes being eaten on specific days, shared, of course, with family and friends. Even the recent Winter Solstice festival celebrated on Dec 21 has its own variety of dumplings as shown in the picture at the top of the article. These are different to the dumplings eaten for other festivals such as Moon Cake Festival and Chinese New Year.

If you’re invited to a Chinese person’s home for a meal, expect to be encouraged to make dumplings alongside the cook (for people to actually eat, not just for fun – as I recently found out, yikes!).

When the waitress admitted she didn’t know which part of the animal the meat was from I didn’t panic, due to being a vegetarian

Each region of this vast country boasts its own specialities and locals all claim that theirs is the best tasting, naturally.

The food and its significance is one of the things I first noticed when I came to China. It’s almost like an adored relative in its importance and no social occasion is complete without a variety of dishes and beer to wash them down with.

In Xu Zhou, a large city in Jiangsu province, for example, spicy food carries the swing and dog meat is regarded as a delicacy. You can walk past street stalls of  carcasses with cooked dog meat pick up a few bits and have them for dinner, or breakfast, or whenever.

The Spice of Variety

I always think of Chinese food as being wet. There is a love of soups, sauces and watery dishes. Consequently, even with such a variety of vegetables, fruits, staples, starches and meats, the food can still seem samey from meal to meal when it’s presented in yet another soup.

Having said that the interesting thing is that there are so many novel ways to attain it. Roadside stalls where it’s cooked and prepared while you wait. A hundred different types of restaurant and café establishments. A café place where you choose what you want from a series of refrigerated shelves, they throw it in some seasoned soup for you and leave you and your chop sticks to do the rest.

Best of all throughout most of China, the food is ridiculously cheap. For 10 yuan or less (one pound) you can get pumpkin soup and dumplings filled with brown rice – a meal so filling you don’t need to eat again till the next day, if you can manage to finish it all.


Delish Chinese Mushrooms

Final Thoughts

Other related foods and places, such as the Chinese supermarket and Chinese sweets and cakes along with unusual meats such as donkey, monkey and crocodile, probably deserve articles of their own. They really are that special.


So, I’ll cover those at a later date, maybe. Most probably. I guess.  Well, we’ll see (-:

In the meantime if you’re heading this way, be open and ready for a Chinese cornucopia of tastes which is 100 times better than food from the Chinese takeaway in the west.


My Own Voice of China
Judges on The Voice of China

The Voice of (insert your country in here) has become a very popular singing competition show with latest viewing figures from the UK, which is based on  the original version, The Voice of Holland, averaging about   8.5  million  during 2015.

Here in China, the series is just as popular with some fantastic singers coming through every summer, anxious for the priviledge of being judged by household names in the business and perhaps acquiring stardom.

One evening, however I was lucky enough to find my own special Voice of China (Zhōngguó Hǎo Shēngyīn). 

I was waiting at the bus stop at about 7:30pm. Traffic was flowing but not too heavy. Weighed down with shopping bags and tired after an early start and long day, I tried in vain to hail a taxi. Weirdly they won’t carrying any passengers, but no one stopped. It was as if I was invisible.

Shenzhen taxis. The red disc in the windscreen means they’re available

Eventually one pulled over. I got in, sank into the seat and gratefully offered my address. The driver drove off, taking the time to select a CD and adjust the volume. After the first few notes of introduction he opened his mouth and sang. There was no voice on the CD, it was all him, singing live, just for me and it sounded awesome.

He crooned an old Chinese melody, a soft, slow ballad that built to a powerful crescendo. Every note was pitch perfect and every word was filled with feeling. I was amazed and touched.

As we reached my home, in faltering Chinese I tried to express my admiration for his talent and asked him to continue driving so I could pay more and keep listening. He declined my offer of more money and more driving and instead sang another short song for free. Then he gave me a CD of his own personal recordings, wrote his number on it and told me to call anytime I fancied KTV (Chinese Karaoke). Yeah right, like I was gonna sing in front of him and embarrass myself!

Evening rush hour traffic in Shenzhen

It was a perfect end to the day and I was so glad that those other empty taxis had carried on driving and that this guy with the divine voice had chosen me to share it with.

Can ESL Teachers Really Make a Difference?


In my second year of teaching IELTS and general English speaking in China I was asked to coach a 17 year old student who had applied to a prestigious German school. Her entrance interview, which she would be attending in person, was less than a month away and she, along with her parents, had high hopes of succeeding and gaining a place. After speaking to her informally I was also confident that the school would be a good choice for her interests and academic ability. However, by the end of our first two hour session together I realized that the cards were not stacked in Grace’s favour and that she was basically facing an uphill battle.

The Chinese Education System

I’d joined her educational journey after she’d been through fourteen concentrated years of following a set formula which compelled her to listen, memorize and reproduce, following standard Chinese learning theory and practice.

Like most ESL teachers I’d encountered this often in students who’d been through the Chinese schooling system and emerged with relatively closed minds which, thankfully, weren’t too resistant to being opened, but I have to admit I’d never dealt with this at the level of Grace’s mastery. It was as if her mind had its own personal great wall staunchly resistant to the enemy named western thematics.

I’d taken Chinese learning methods in my stride up until now, remaining calm at the plaintive cries of ‘we HAVE no imagination,’ whenever I’d asked students to use theirs. I’d allot generous thinking space allowing students to re-set their brain from ‘automatic’ to ‘free,’ but my dear, sweet, intelligent, ambitious, high-flying Grace was a different story. It was as if she had no knowledge of how to awaken and stretch an imagination which had been asleep for so long it sported a ‘do not disturb’ sign. You may think that’s no bad thing, but Grace was about to begin a three year course of study in Europe and her well-developed, analytical, critically responsive mind, overly dependent on knowing things by heart, was bound to encounter serious blocks within a totally different system.

English Language Students Working Hard

Different Countries, Different Methodology

I had come across this before back in England when teaching radio presentation to ESL students. Some of my female students came to my class in tears after failing exams in other subjects because they’d memorized and reproduced blocks of text verbatim. That was the system in their home country and it was all they knew.

I explained to Grace that it was impossible to retain and recall every fact, answer, question, quote, word or phrase needed for future academic success including her upcoming interview. I frequently reminded her that she had a mine of great unused ideas along with an extensive English vocabulary at her command. All she had to do was unearth and express it in a creative, non-parrot, non-formulaic method. In other words just be herself and let her personality shine through. For thirty to forty seconds she’d be fine, but as soon as her well of regurgitated information expired she’d stare at me, a look of mild terror on her face, like a trapeze artist realizing he has no safety net.

Grace was at a crossroads in her learning. Adapt to a new way or retain the old?

You have the knowledge you need, I re-iterated. If you’re asked about your hometown or your hobbies or your family, simply speak from your heart. Again she’d relax before speaking, however as she ran out of pre-learnt words and phrases, her body would grow tense, her shoulders close in on themselves, her chin droop and her eyes lock with mine in a silent plea for help. When I asked her what she was thinking the response was always the same; ‘I should have studied harder, I should have memorized more.’

Grace was bright and eager, a high flyer at school and perhaps with some adjustment she could have eventually overcome her difficulties and done well within a western educational system. But we had less than a month which just wasn’t enough time. She flew to Germany and failed her interview. The feedback was that her answers were too short and she was unable to elaborate when asked follow-up questions.

Final Thoughts

When I have VIP classes or small groups for two or three months at a time I can see the difference in their confidence and attitudes as they become accustomed to the western way of teaching. As all of my students plan to study abroad in high school or university at some point, I think this is a good thing.

However, I must constantly balance this against the fact that I’m up against multi-millennia of Chinese standard teaching. Consequently with someone like Grace, who’s so entrenched in the system, I accept that I won’t be able to make a difference, which leads me to ask myself yet again, which system is better? Rigid yet organized Chinese learning, or the freer, perhaps less effective western ideology? In a perfect ideal world it could possibly be a combination of both.

What do you think?

Baking Soda Burns! Beware

You know sometimes you read about something on the internet and it just sounds so good you can’t wait to try it?

Back in August I got excited about the wonderful superpowers of Baking Soda. Goofy, I know. The Great Wall of China, one of the eight wonders of the world is just 800 miles away from my front door but I’m entranced by white powder in a can.

A Miracle in a Can

I knew a litte about it, as most people do, but I hadn’t realised that it could literally do everything around the house apart from cook the dinner and babysit the kids. It’s a natural, bio-degradable substance. Living in China, any way to reduce air pollution is always a good thing, and living in the tropics, anything to dissaude the bugs from co-habiting; namely, mosquitos, bugs and cockroaches, whilst reducing the likelihood of ingesting possibly carcinogenic bug spray is a bonus.

So, I got some and set to work. I cleaned, shined, sparkled, refreshed my environment and then even used some as part of a hair wash and body scrub. It was a rewarding day and I felt pretty pleased with myself.

Or Maybe Not

However (there had to be a however, right?), just a few days later I noticed that the skin on my fingertips was peeling pretty badly. Severely actually. Painfully and unrelentingly. My nail beds were pushed upwards and backwards and my fingertips turned almost black.

My wonder product had given me a devasting chemical burn on all of my fingers and both of my thumbs. Despite the fact that Baking Soda is in fact a chemical  – Sodium Bicarbonate, none of the advice I’d read on the web about using it had mentioned wearing gloves and protection hadn’t occured to me, because I’d read reports of people using it on their hair and skin! I also suffered minor scarring on my neck and upper chest.

Plastic Gloves

Unsurprisingly I’ve more or less stopped using it altogether, unless heavily diluted or to clean the loo whilst clad in FBI grade Kevlar protective clothing from head to foot, you know in case of splashes.

So How’s It Looking Now?

It’s now four months later and my fingers are just beginning to show improvement. My fingernail beds are finally beginning to lie flat, although there is still burnt skin on my fingertips which I have to keep continually  moist for it to basically drop off. My fingertips are almost pink again which is nice to see.

Trying to Find a Solution

I spent the weeks immediately after the burn seeking solutions from different pharmacies which are pretty good in China, apart from the one who gave me a lotion which turned my fingers green, bearing in mind that they were already almost black from the injury, so my hands weren’t a pretty sight. I spent most of my time on public transport with my arms folded and hands beneath my armpits trying to look nonchalant, like this was a normal way to travel. Despite some communication difficulties the pharmacists medics could see that I was uncomfortable and did their best to help.

Eventually I gave up on the pharmacies, realising that my skin was getting drier and drier and my fingers no better. The kind, English speaking doctor from Hong Kong, confirmed my self diagnosis and said that the pharmacy cream contained steroids and other chemicals which though may have helped a little, obviously hadn’t been enoughand were potentailly harmful.

Finally  a Cure!

He prescribed Aqueous cream to be applied several times a day as well as a daily soaking in clear warm water and wearing plastic gloves as often as possible to keep them moist and speed the recovery. Did you know it’s possible to type whilst wearing plastic gloves. I also teach in them, cook and use chopsticks. Check me out with my bad self!

He cautioned that even with all of this it could  still take another three to four months before the fingernails I used to adorn with pretty polish and the fingertips which used to look rosy and healthy will return.

So, that’s 8 months of ruined fingers for one day of working with what I thought was the best thing since sliced bread, Baking Soda.

Aqueous Cream AvaMingImages


Last Words

The best thing about this is discovering Aqueous cream. I have no idea if it’s available commercially but I love it. It’s making my dried out skin soft and pliable again. It smells like something you’d use on a baby after its bath and it sinks into your skin without much prompting or persuasion. I just wish I had enough for my whole body and not just my fingers.

Pay heed to my tale and don’t let such an innocuous looking product like Baking Soda do this to you. It’s really not nice.


A quick way to liven up your English lesson

Have you flash cards lost a little of their pizzazz? Are your students losing valuable brain cells from looking at pages and pages of vocabulary lists? Do you wish you had a way to regain their attention and inject some oomph back into the classroom?

Maybe this article, where I explain how I use an ordinary pack of playing cards in my ESL lessons, could help.

But don’t expect any rabbits to be coming out of hats as sadly I’m not a magician, although how cool would that be?!

Weird Westerners? Yes, Chinese people think we’re strange too

Coming to China has been an eye opener in many ways. It’s so vastly different from the west that, looking back, I’m not at all sure how I could have prepared myself even if I’d tried.

In the UK we view Chinese people as unendingly polite with a ready smile. Perhaps due to stereotyping and other forms of conditioning the women are seen as compliant, while the men are thought to be ‘naturally good’ at IT and maths. And yes, I’m aware of how awful that sounds.

Before I came here I had no idea of the many  huge and beautiful cities which criss-cross the northern, eastern and southern landscape of the country in sharp contrast to the poorer eastern and central areas. Neither did I know of the vast plains of inner Mongolia and Xinjiang region, home to many China’s numerious ethnic communities.

It wasn’t for want of trying, it just seems that for so many years, even after the reform and opening of China, so much of the country was still kept secret. So, I arrived in ignorance and learnt many unexpected things on a first-hand, need to know basis! It’s been an interesting ride and I’ll blog more about it on this and other sites.

Weird Westerners? Nooooo! AvaMingImages

It’s also worth remembering that for many Chinese people  travelling abroad is a far-distant dream or something which they hope their children or grandchildren will be able to accomplish. Consequently my first few months in China were filled with queries about the weird habits of westerners whilst listening to the impressions Chinese people have of us.

Their interests covered everything from food to dating to lifestyle choices. I’ve listed some below, but I have to admit that it was the one about potatoes which left me completely flummoxed.

  1.  Why don’t MacDonalds and KFC  deliver in the UK?
  2. Why do we have so much divorce?
  3. Why do we have so many children born out of wedlock?
  4. Why do we go out on casual dates with so many people, instead of only dating our future husband or wife?
  5. Why do we kiss and/or hold hands before the third or fourth date?
  6. Why do we eat whole potatoes instead of chopping them up and sharing with several other people? They’re just so big!
  7. Why are there so many vegetarians when you need meat to grow up big and strong?
  8. How can I (Ava) be a vegetarian for 10 years when I don’t look sick and I am not thin?
  9. Why don’t vegetarians don’t eat chicken, or animal blood, or food with ‘just a little meat’ in it?
  10. Why don’t westerners eat donkey, dog or monkey meat? Why don’t they eat all of the animal, ie ears, toes, toenails, eyelids, inner organs?
  11. Why don’t we eat insects?
  12. Why are so many westerners left-handed?
  13. Why don’t we eat rice, cooked veg or hot noodles for breakfast?
  14. How can you tell if a western person likes you or just wants to be friends? (this from the girls)
  15. What should I do if a western girl wants to be my girlfriend when I go abroad? (this from the boys)
  16. Why does England have so many English people who are not English?
  17. Why do you have Karaoke instead of KTV? Who wants to sing in front of strangers?
  18. Why don’t you hang your bed quilts out of the windows on the first sunny days of spring?
Handsome Young Man in South China Definitely not a weird westerner! AvaMingImages

I did my best to give simple but detailed responses hoping to shine a light on these areas, but honestly, I may have just made things worse, I mean, I have no idea why so many westerners are left-handed! How would you have handled these comments and questions?