On the metro this afternoon a little girl pointed at me and said “Obama.”
The metro is the Shenzhen underground train system. It’s usually a pleasure to ride as it takes you away from the horrendous traffic that can occur in a city of 15 million people, along with the tropical monsoon wind and rain which take a peculiar joy in soaking you after breaking your umbrella and sending it hurtling down the street.
I don’t run after my umbrella anymore. I used to but then I realised that l looked silly.
So, getting back to the little girl. Several questions popped into my mind at her pronouncement.
With her pointed figure was she actually accusing me? Was she really saying “Obama!” And anyway, which particular Obama did she mean, POTUS or FLOTUS?
In her tiny and as yet largely uninformed mind, was she capable of thinking ‘hey, she could be Obama, don’t they all look alike?’
Okay, I’ll admit that POTUS and I are both left-handed but there’s no way the little girl on the metro could have known this as I wasn’t using either of my hands at the time.
I’ve had a lot of strange comments thrown my way over the years in China. One lady memorably said, ‘your eye is beautiful.’ I still don’t know if she was referring to the left one or the right one. If only I could work it out then I could bring the other one up to speed! I’m kidding of course. I know that in China single words are often used for plurals.
But as for being called Obama? Well, that’s a first. And, as he is looked upon as the leader of the free world and Michelle is the highly qualified wife of the free world, in conclusion I guess that it’s not such a bad comparison.
I wrote about how my bosses were becoming frequently slow to pay me, blaming the most recent delay on the Chinese New Year festival. I explained the subsequent frustration I was feeling and the hit my bank account had taken. Friends suggested other ways to make an additional income as well as choice words to lay down on my managers. Er, thanks.
I didn’t mean to mislead. I’m not starving, I was just having a rant at how people are sometimes treated here. Every working foreigner I’ve met has had a similar experience at one time or another and probably many Chinese people too. It’s certainly not uncommon.
Which leads me to ask; Is messing about with people’s salaries deliberate? Is it part of the culture or could it simply be an oversight? Who knows?
I think that it’s good to highlight these types of problems because it smashes the myth that moving abroad and living in a new country, experiencing all of its joys and wonders is like living in some kind of promised land.
Yes, being in China is great and has led to all kinds of things I’d never had had the chance to do if I’d stayed in England, but it’s not a perfect life. It isn’t Utopia, Nirvana or even Valhalla, far from it.
Bills still have to be paid. You still have to go to work on the days when you’d rather stay at home, even if you love your work as much as I do. You still have to deal with annoying colleagues and ego driven bosses and you still get sick.
My first winter in a freezing, polluted city gave me pneumonia, bronchitis and a chest infection. Being unwell and far away from home was awful, not to mention having to deal with a medical system in a foreign language when the only Chinese words I knew at the time were ‘hello, goodbye’ and ‘I’m hungry.’
On top of this there are the day to day frustrations of hearing familiar English words used in a totally different way. Chinese people often say ‘maybe’ to mean both yes and no. This is because hedging your bets reduces the chances of being wrong and consequently losing face. But how am I supposed to know what they mean when they say “Ava, maybe you will have no class today?” And they phrase it as a question!
They also say ‘good enough’ to mean ‘very good,’ which used to confuse the hell out of me. Sometimes one of my assistants will suggest I go ‘upside down’ when she means ‘go downstairs,’ but that’s just funny!
Then there’s being stared at – which warrants a post all of its own and, also regularly being announced as ‘The Foreigner’. Excuse me, I do have a name!
The most common complaint is being asked the same questions over and over again, often by complete strangers. If they don’t speak English they’ll ask my Chinese friend and the two of them will carry on a whole conversation about me, right in front of me; Where are you / is she from? Why did you come to China? How long will you stay in China? How old are you? Are you married? Do you have children? What is your job? How much money do you make? Where do you live? How much is your apartment?
Lately I’ve been asked a new question; ‘Why are your teeth so white?’ I had no idea had to answer as I honestly never saw that one coming.
These questions seem intrusive to us, but are a normal way of getting to know someone in China. If I’m in a playful mood I turn the tables, if not I smile politely and walk away or tell my Chinese friend to be quiet, reminding her that these people are strangers and don’t need to know my business.
Many people have a ‘special’ way of speaking to us because they believe that ‘that’s how you speak to foreigners.’ It involves giving lots of false compliments and, to be frank, is highly insulting.
Yes, I’m having a great time in China with no regrets about making the move and it is undoubtedly an amazing place, but I certainly don’t wake up every morning and go skipping and dancing along the street (mainly because I have to be careful where I step, which is also deserving of a whole other post).
Even if you’re only here for a short time, China pushes, pulls and compels you way out of your comfort zone.
From the beggars who follow you along the street, touching your arm or shoulder until you give them money or tell them to leave you alone, to the old aunty who rifled through my shopping basket (while I was holding it!) and called her friend over to look because she couldn’t believe ‘the foreigner’ was buying Chinese vegetables, to my employers who have paid like clockwork for two years but lately find copious reasons to delay. Everyday in the Orient certainly brings a reason to become more.
If you’re interested in personal growth and self-development as I am, then that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The situation in my bank account is looking bleak.
I’m down to my last few hundred RMB (100RMB = 60USD, 10GBP) and I don’t want to touch my savings because we all know that’s a slippery slope with a bad ending. You dip in once, you dip in twice and then you keep on finding reasons to dip until all the savings are gone.
Over the last four months, despite cultivating an excellent sales team which has managed to steadily increase the number of clients wanting to learn English, it seems to be getting and harder for my bosses to pay me on time.
Our centre is not cheap. What are they doing with all of the client fees? More to the point, what are they doing with my salary?
Excuses range from; It’s the holidays so bank opening times are unpredictable. (But this has never affected my salary at any point in the previous two years of holidays and festivals).
To; admin staff are sick. Admin staff are having a baby. Admin staff are a little slow. Banks are slow. You are not patient.
None of these so-called reasons are acceptable.
When I’m asked to deliver my sessions I don’t reply that they’ve been affected by sickness, giving birth, slow banks or impatient staff. I give 150% and deliver on time, hence it’s surely reasonable to expect to be paid on time.
I have never done my classes late so please do not think it’s okay to pay me late because it’s not and it never will be. I’ve already done the work and already done it well.
Don’t take advantage of my good nature by fobbing me off with nonsense. I’m foreign, not stupid, the two are not mutually exclusive. I’m known for being amenable but let’s be clear; I will shout at you in a public area of the centre and make you lose face if I have to.
In a nutshell; I did the work, now gimme my money.
The training centre where I coach young people and some adults towards success in their oral examinations; the pre-requisite to studying overseas, moved to a new building recently.
We’re in the same area, in case you wanted to find us, but now we’re nearer the main road, just behind the underground station and by the park, the one with the shaded benches where office workers hang out at lunch time.
We were told that the new place, essentially the Promised Land, has more rooms, more space, better facilities and so on. Great. More of anything is always good, right? Well, maybe not always.
Our New Address
Prior to the move I’d enquired several times about our new address, so I could turn up for work in the right building, only to be greeted with a vague and lazy hand gesture towards the outside world through the windows, along with a casually mumbled ‘we’re over there.’
Not surprisingly I didn’t take much comfort from this and even began to fret on D Day; Moving Day, the last day before we broke up before Chinese New Year. I pictured everyone else returning to work after the holiday easily knowing where to go, whilst I’d be wondering around outside like an idiot, somewhere in the same area, but never actually coming close to finding it.
So, when the staff became reluctant removal men and ferried boxes and bags, PCs and laptops to the new centre I saw my opportunity and grabbed an item.
That’s when things got really strange.
Every time I picked something up a member of staff appeared out of no-where and insisted (very nicely) that I put it back down. I replied that it wasn’t heavy and I wanted to help with the moving process, but my cries fell on deaf ears and whatever I was holding was taken from my hands and spirited away by one of my colleagues.
This was a case of treating the foreigner well, taken too far. It wasn’t that I particularly wanted to do any removal work, I just wanted to know where to go and also I did feel a tad guilty just chilling while they were all working. So this was an ideal way to kill two birds with one stone. I could help whilst getting the exact location of the new building. But they wouldn’t let me do anything!
Why not? Were they were fending off the possibility that I might suffer a costly injury resulting in them having to pay hospital fees. Or were they worried that I might receive an injury so bad I’d have to return to England causing them to lose their only foreign teacher? Who knew exactly what they were thinking? I certainly didn’t.
The First Clue
I’d thought it was odd earlier when I’d asked our ultra busy receptionist several times if I could help and he’d constantly brushed me off with a mumbled, ‘oh yeah, later.’ Later when? Moving Day had already arrived and he was up to his ears in it. Why didn’t he want my help when I was standing there doing nothing?
Eventually I stopped asking if they needed me and offering to help and sneakily grabbed a bag of office supplies. I followed some colleagues into the lift, holding the bag behind my back and trying not to spill anything as we made our way across the square to the new centre. I tried to be totally casual and inconspicuous, almost walking behind my workmates. Kind of like I was just out for an afternoon walk and headed in the same direction as them, whilst not actually moving anything, you know in case they took it out of my hands.
Once in the new building I couldn’t help but ooh and ahh at the shiny newness of it all. Now that I was actually there, no-one looked surprised to see me at all. They didn’t check that the hair on my head was out of place. Nobody squeezed my arm to make sure I hadn’t broken it from the effort of taking part in the transition, all of which makes me wonder why they wouldn’t let me help out in the first place?
So confusing, but as my best friend, Li Mingyang says; “Welcome to China!”
Outside of our new centre, Futian District
As foreigners we’re constantly and relentlessly trying to find our place in this land where we’re simultaneously welcomed and made to feel apart at the same. This leaves us with a feeling of instability and is probably one of the main reasons for those ’bad China days’ which occur from time to time.
Is it cultural? Is it deliberate? Do Chinese people even know that it’s happening? Would it occur less if they did.
I guess some questions have no answers but I’ve learnt to waste less time ‘offering’ which seems to be taken as an empty gesture and to instead to just jump in and help out alongside everyone else, because actions do indeed speak louder than words.
Sea-food which you may have never seen before and probably couldn’t name? Animal parts? How about a plate of delicious baked and crispy insects? Or, if you prefer you could always have recently be-headed turtle, shell taken off so veggies can be soaked into the meat before the shell is placed back on top and it’s delivered to your table with its chubby little legs sticking out, still intact.
Are you supposed to eat those too? I don’t know, but I’m thinking most likely.
Fish Hot Pot. Raw fish ready to be cooked by the diner in either a savoury or a spicy sauce
These are some of the foods on offer in my town on a regular basis. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the weird and wonderful (depending on your point of view) cornucopia of delicacies on offer here. Which is probably a good thing as I’ll never get bored, even if I can’t bring myself to eat half of what I’m offered. It beats an egg mayo sandwich from British high street baker, Greggs, any day of the week!
Dragon Fruit – white with black seeds. Very popular in East Asia.
Here are some examples of the food which causes westerners to take a deep breath and count to three before releasing inhibitions and diving in!