Chinese vs British trains

I was waiting to take a train from Coventry to Birmingham a couple of days ago, and amongst the chatter on the platform, I heard some Chinese speakers. They were complaining that the train was delayed, and in fact all the trains were delayed by at least a few minutes that day for several reasons. It was then than I started thinking what Chinese people must think of British trains. I mean we do have a good system here in the UK, but the Chinese system probably has the edge (I’m talking about the Chinese high-speed trains, the slow trains are a totally different matter).

In China, you have to buy your own ticket, with your own ID, be it ID card or passport, so nobody can sell their ticket on to anyone else. When you enter the station, after an ID check, there is a security check and a metal detector…usually people pile mountains of bags on the conveyor belt, and a sleeping officer will be ‘checking’ the screen for weapons, but on the whole it feels slightly more secure than any UK train station where anyone can walk in and anonymously buy a ticket.

Only after these checks, are you in the train station. Therefore, everyone inside the station has a ticket to travel that day. Whereas in the UK, anyone can buy a ticket, at the machine or at the counter, and anyone is allowed inside the train station, where there are restaurants, shops and ATMs. Now, with ticket barriers operating at major UK train stations (including Coventry now, no skipping the fare!), you have to scan your ticket to be allowed on the platform.

This happens in China too, but in China, there are never platform alterations, and you’re only allowed onto your platform when your train is coming. If you’re waiting for the 11.05 to Hangzhou from platform 2, you can’t go and wait on the platform at 10.40 when they open the gates for the 10.45 train to Beijing. You wait in the large waiting room, rather than on the platform.

Also in China, everyone has a seat number and carriage number, there are some standing seats available, but not many and even if you have a standing seat, you will be told which carriage to stand in. On the platform, 5 minutes before the train arrives, everyone stands in a very neat line according to the marks on the floor which say the carriage number. When the train arrives, people first get off the train, then people get on the train in a very orderly fashion.

Flip back to the UK, where on platform 2 you could have people waiting for the 10.58 to Birmingham, the 11.05 to Bournemouth and the 11.12 to London on the same platform. Everyone is crowding around and then suddenly, a voice comes on the tannoy saying that the 10.58 has been delayed, and it will now depart from platform 4 at approximately 11.03. Everyone for the Birmingham train will barge past the other passengers, trying to find the stairs to get up and go across to platform 4. The train arrives and people will always try to get on whilst others are getting off, and nobody ever knows where they should stand on the platform. Sometimes you have a reserved seat, but the UK sells a lot of ‘open return’ tickets, meaning you can get on any train and don’t need to wait for a specific train, so lots of people don’t have seat reservations and sit in any place.

With a bit more organisation, in the UK too we could write the numbers (well, letters) of the carriages on the floor so people know where to stand waiting on the platform, we could make stations safer by asking people their names to write on the ticket, we could have unreserved carriages for people with open tickets and travelling by train could be a smoother process. Delays and platform alterations are bound to happen when you’re only travelling a short distance and signals, bridges and weather affects the times of trains, so not everything can be avoided.

I just feel sorry for those Chinese people who are used to travelling by high speed train, who come to the UK and have no idea what to do at the train station, because there’s so much chaos in their eyes.

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Caribbean Hair Care

When I go to a specialist hair shop in the UK – you those ones with all the wigs in the window, I am taken aback. There are hundreds and hundreds of products for people with black or caribbean hair. There is much more than what you’ll find in Boots (and it’s cheaper too).

Usually, I try to go in and find something new or good for my hair, but I have no idea where to go. Me and my sisters all have different types of hair, and I have never learnt how best to manage it. These shops are usually not staffed with helpful assistants (like Boots is), where people who have thick locks of curly hair can tell you what does and doesn’t work for them. Normally, there is a man behind the counter who doesn’t have much hair at all – maybe I should consider cutting it all off and buying a wig for £14.99 does often go through my head, but I know that my curly hair is really a blessing and there are so many people who are jealous of my hair, or would go into a hair salon asking to have curls like mine that would only last for a couple of days.

Back to these shops…Shea butter, cocoa butter I’ve heard of, but hair cream, hair mayonnaise, hair custard…what are they for? What do they do? Are they really for putting on your hair or can you eat them too? Cos it’s not always clear to me!

I’ve tried plenty of hair products from different brands and some of them leave my hair greasy, some of them leave bits in my hair (was probably supposed to wash it out after a day but of course the bottle never tells you that), and some of them really aren’t as tangle taming as they make out to be.

If you know me personally, you will know about my hair, and only in the past couple of years have I become more confident about wearing it out (yes out…my hair doesn’t go down, it just goes out) in public. Before I would always tie it up. Now I wear it out more often, I do wish to find products that will keep it moisturised, easy to handle and smelling good without grease or slime!

I am going to have to try to find a blogger on the internet with hair like mine and see what advice they have, because going into those shops and being confronted with too many choices is just too overbearing!

 

My New Favourite Machine

I bought a rice cooker a couple of months ago and it is the best investment I have made in a while. In my new flat, I have an electric hob, and well, we all know how difficult it is to cook rice well on a gas hob without having the rice sticking to the pan or burning…let alone on an electric one where it’s harder to control the temperature.

The one I bought also has a steaming tray, so it is already multifunctional in that sense, but last week I used it to cook something even better!

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My friend came over, we made Chinese hotpot in the rice cooker and it was such a good meal. The paste was £1.50 from a Chinese supermarket and all we really had to do was chop the vegetables (we had a meat-free hotpot).

Hotpot is a real winter staple in China, and it’s different from a normal soup. Using chopsticks, you cook your own food in the pot bit by bit. There are things like potatoes and tofu which kind of fall to the bottom and are difficult to grab again, and broccoli and sweetcorn that float on the top. Once your pieces are ready, you can eat them straight from the main pot, or leave them to cool a little bit in your own personal bowl. Typically, in Chinese restaurants there are various bits and pieces you can mix together to create your own sauce – my favourite being peanut sauce, sesame oil and garlic.

It’s spicy, warm, filling and all done in my new favourite machine – the rice cooker. It’s now going to be a staple piece of equipment for my home.

British or international?

I’m proud to be British. At the same time, I’m very proud to be an international, global citizen. Lately I have found some people, (or maybe it’s British society itself?) that have an issue with these two words. They believe you must be one or the other – a Brit or a foreigner…you can’t be both.

I work with international students, and host events for international students. This in no way means I exclude all home students and British students from events. Once at a party, the bouncer tried to turn away a group of British people who had come with their Spanish friends, saying that this was an event for ‘international people only’. I know as a nation we voted for Brexit, but in no way do I see the word ‘international’ as an antonym to ‘British, English, local’ etc. How could he possibly turn people away from not being international enough?

I once went to a ‘Global Lounge’ at a church and although they didn’t turn me away, they certainly made me feel very unwelcome for trying to attend a ‘global’ event as a British person. They told me normal services are on Sundays, and this event wasn’t really designed with British people in mind. It was all very ironic, given that my first real contact and participation in a church was when I was living abroad, and I had never really read any Bible verses in English at that point. Why did they want to discourage someone who had only read and heard the Bible in Spanish from a ‘global lounge’? It really surprised me and I never went back there, not even on a Sunday for ‘normal service’, I was so disheartened.

When people ask me where I’m from, I have a similar issue…my passport is British, but over the past 6 years, I have spent almost half of that time out of the country, speaking totally different languages and spending a lot of time actively trying to avoid contact with the Brits (sorry).

And when I do tell people I’m British they say in shock ‘really?? but where are you really from? you don’t look 100% British’ and all the rest of those questions that make words like ‘quarter, half, hybrid, fully’ come up. Sometimes it’s a cultural thing, in Chinese the dictionary definition of 混血 is given as hybrid, but come on, which mixed race person would ever call themself a hybrid?

Through socialising in the international crowd, I have discovered that asking ‘where are you from?’ is actually a really insensitive way to start a conversation with someone. It’s too generic and as someone who is asked this question a LOT, you never know if the person is asking

in which city were you born?
where did you spend your childhood?
which city have you spent most time living in?
what passport do you have?
which country do you feel most at home in?
where do your parents live?
where did your grandparents live?

I have met people who for each of the above questions could answer with a different city or country.

We live in an ever more intercultural and diverse world, so British people, I urge you… drop the British label, think bigger. Learn a language, watch a foreign film, do something to make yourself not only proud to be British, but proud to be a citizen of the world.

 

UK deliveries

When you get a delivery of something larger than your letterbox, it’s a pain. Our system is outdated and very inconvenient, as I have found in the past few weeks.

I live in a house that’s divided into 5 separate flats, but the buzzers and doorbells don’t work to any of our flats, so when the postman comes and rings the doorbell, nobody hears it. Sometimes I’ve heard people knocking loudly at the front door, but that’s only if I’ve got no music on and usually they don’t knock, despite all the notes left on the door.

So they can’t make the delivery…I don’t know if it’s a local system, or a general UK one, but our parcels never go to the neighbours house, we always get a red slip through the letterbox, saying our parcel will be ready to collect from the nearest sorting office from the next day.

It happened to me last week that my colleague sent some tickets by guaranteed delivery, I was in all day, and expecting the mail, but didn’t hear the doorbell, when I went to check the post at 12pm, I saw that familiar red card that said the postman had called just 15 mins ago, and I had missed it. Although my tickets were here in Nottingham, I still had to wait another day to go and collect them… to add insult to injury , the delivery office that parcels are sent to is 4 miles away.

Then when you get there, you can’t even collect parcels for other people in the same building…it really is problematic!

Now take China, where online shopping and e-commerce has boomed in the past 3 years. You order something online and most of the time, they won’t even attempt to deliver it to your door. They will leave it in a secure box within 200m of your house, and then text you the password to go and open that box and collect the parcel whenever you’re ready. Or they will leave it at a local store, whether it’s a supermarket, a hairdresser, an electronics store…just whatever is on your road. Again, you’ll get a text telling you where it is, then you go to the place, tell the person your name, phone number’s last 4 digits and address and you can pick up your parcel like that… no ID, no fuss, no driving and you can collect parcels for your friends too.

I much prefer the Chinese system, even if sometimes boxes and parcels are left out on the street, or it takes you 20 mins to decode the text and figure out where your parcel actually is, it’s much more convenient than having to go at a certain time to the office which is miles away the day after you had a failed delivery.

 

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An example of packages arriving and being left on the street before sorting

 

 

Working as a tour guide

One part of my job is working as a tour guide. I lead groups of international students around places like Nottingham, Sherwood Forest, Durham, Lake District, Peak District and I hope one day to give a tour around my hometown Coventry!

You’d think that learning a script and taking students to the same places each week would get boring and repetitive but it really isn’t! Each time I take a group of students, there are different challenges to overcome, problems to solve and the groups all have different vibes…the group who had a slow three hour coach journey with no heating are less enthusiastic than those who just had a one hour journey with no traffic.

As a tour guide, you need to know a whole lot more than just what’s on the script – where are the nearest toilets? where can you get a bottle of water/cup of coffee? where is there some shelter from the rain?

A tour guide has to be adaptable and make the most of opportunities that come up. If there is a special event on like Robin Hood Day, instead of just walking past the people in medieval clothes (who aren’t usually there), ask them to give a performance or tell the group about what they’re doing today. If Coca-Cola is handing out free cans in the centre, lead the group past their stand so the customers can get a little sugar boost etc. If someone tells you about an organ concert in 30mins time at the church, take the group back to the church to hear the concert.

Those are examples of good unexpected things that can happen during a tour. But there are problems that happen during tours – people have lost bank cards and ID cards at Sherwood Forest, I’ve lost three students who didn’t arrive at the bus at the departure time and weren’t answering their phones, groups have arrived 30 minutes before the attraction opens and need entertaining etc. It’s times like these when my skills come out and I shine. I always keep calm in situations like this and by getting other people involved and on board, the problems are always resolved. Students cards were returned to them on the same day, with the help of Sherwood Forest staff we found the missing students and on the Harry Potter tour, when the students arrived before the cathedral opened, I spent the time ‘sorting’ students into their Harry Potter houses which was fun for me too, especially deciding which group looked like they would be Slytherins!

So being a tour guide, it’s something I enjoy, it’s something I wish I could do more of because there are so many stories to tell people about a place, stories that aren’t on wikipedia or in the travel guides.

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Online Harassment

In my current job, I have a big online presence, Facebook is where almost all of our sales are generated as we connect with the international students and create events for them. As I’m the admin of the groups and always posting about the events, the spotlight is on me and I get 100s of messages a day. Mostly they are from people asking about events, wanting more tickets, or asking for advice about the city they’re studying in.

But I have had several messages from men which have asked me for other things. Some have asked me to send them photos (not the type you’d find on a postcard) and others have been even more direct and asked me if I am working for the local escort service (which unfortunately has a similar name to our company’s) and continue to ask me about such services, even when I tell them that is not what I do.

Sometimes it’s funny, seeing these guys message ‘me’ (for work purposes I have separate facebook accounts) asking such ridiculous requests, but it’s actually not funny that I and other women are subject to messages like this… I don’t even know these guys, I’ve never met them before. Last night when I received another such message, I felt quite intimidated as he told me to ‘never play games with [him]’.

Before I have just blocked messages from these men (yes it’s always men), but from now on I will not accept this online behaviour, because it IS harassment and I feel that if they are messaging me, they are probably messaging other women too. As I work with international students, I fear some of them are far away from home, out of their comfort zone and therefore vulnerable. I feel it’s my responsibility to report these messages to both Facebook and the police so that it’s on record should anything else happen. It needs to be dealt with immediately so it does not escalate.

It starts with a few messages, but who knows what they are capable of and what they will do? Some of these male students come from cultures where they can’t freely talk to women they meet, so when they come to the UK and are out of that cultural environment and away from the watchful eyes of their peers and families, they are unleashed. Suddenly women are walking around in short skirts and crop tops, they’re friendly and talkative, there are dating apps where men can connect with these women and ask them questions like they have been asking me.

Some women just accept the threatening, intimidating and offensive messages as something that happens, it’s just part of being a woman, we have to put up with stuff like this. We just block them and try to forget the things they’ve said to us, but I urge you reading this… if you’re a woman, report these incidents to the police, report their online messages and tell your friends and classmates who these people are..believe it or not, not all men are pigs and some are truly disgusted when you tell them what other men have messaged you asking such things.

And if you’re a man, set a good example, don’t dismiss it as ‘banter’ when you hear about guys sending these messages to women and girls. It is happening every day and it needs to change.

When a guy walks you home

Last year when I lived in China, I met a lot of African friends, the university I attended gave a lot of scholarships to students from Cameroon, Tanzania, Ghana, South Sudan amongst other developing countries, like Ukraine, Albania and Egypt.

I spent half the year in dormitories on campus, and there were two sets of dorms for international students, most of the Africans were in Qiming, and the rest of us were in the slightly better Liuxueshenggongyu.

As most of my classmates were African, they quickly became my friends and we would often/always go to Beimen, the school’s bustling north gate to eat dinner. Meals were cheap and there were loads of choices, as well as a supermarket, KTV bars, snooker halls and beauticians (I miss those £2 manicures!!).

When we first started meeting for dinner, most of the group would go walk to Qiming, but there would always be a guy who would offer to go out of his way to walk me back to my dorm, even if it was raining and he was wearing flipflops, I was almost always walked home.

At the beginning, I felt very uncomfortable about this, did the guy have bad intentions? Did he want to know exactly which room I lived in? Why is it ‘not ok’ for a girl to walk home on her own…yet fine for guys? Etc etc. But after a while, I just accepted it as it offended them when I said I would walk by myself and actually, the company is nice.

What I learned was that culturally, these guys were expected to make sure women get home safely, due to the dangers there can be for women walking alone in their countries.

When I came back to the UK, I was walking home with a group of friends about a week ago, most of them lived in a student accommodation 5 mins walk from me…we said our goodbyes and a guy who lived a bit closer to me said he would walk me home. But after the group went into their halls, this guy who said he would walk me home said that actually he lives the other way…so he just walked off and left me. I was a bit annoyed, since he said he would walk me home and didn’t, it was one of the first times in a long time I hadn’t had someone walk back with me after meeting with a group.

Then last night I was at an event and a Russian guy offered to walk me home, I had just met him, but I accepted the offer as we live close by and again, for him culturally, he cannot ‘when in Rome, do as Romans do’ when it comes to things like walking a girl home. He also gave me a big hug, as he said when you shake hands or hug, it re-energises both people as they pass energy to each other through physical contact and it shows strength and power.

Last night we also talked about greetings, and how British people may shake hands when they first meet someone, but not when they meet again for the second or third time. The Russian said us Brits can be really cold, and he can’t understand why I would want to walk the last 5 mins alone… whereas the old me could not understand why a guy would want to walk an extra 5 mins, then have a 10 min walk home alone. I’m still unsure how I feel about being walked home, as if escorted because being a woman puts me in danger…but at the same time, I realised that I did get used to it in China and I kinda like it.

Stop the sirens…

and the horns, the screeching of tyres, the sound of engines revving and all the other sound effects that appear in songs on the radio when I’m driving.

I got my license a few years ago, but only started properly driving a few weeks ago. Obviously there is a big difference between driving with an instructor in the car and driving on your own. Your driving style changes, you use the handbrake less and can listen to music too, which affects the way you drive.

I listen to the radio usually, and I have come to the conclusion that the ‘radio edits’ of songs with swear words replaced for younger listeners, are still not 100% suitable for playing on the radio.

There are lots of songs that have sound effects that sound incredibly similar to ambulance sirens, so when I hear this on the radio whilst driving, I become more alert, slow down and check my mirrors to see where the sound is coming from. As I’m the only one on the road who can hear this sound (unless people are listening to the same radio station as me), me slowing down unexpectedly is a danger to myself and other road users. When I realise it was just a song, I can drive normally again, but these sirens reappear in songs that are played on the radio.

Take this DJ Khaled song, if you listen from 1.50 you will hear the sirens that go off twice, don’t you think this is dangerous for drivers?

This is just one example of a song where it happens…there are other songs where the radio edits contain sound effects of screeching cars, gunshots, engines revving aggressively, car horns and sirens. When you hear these, it is an indicator of danger, although there is actually no danger present.

I think there needs to be a review of these ‘radio edits’ and sound effects like those mentioned should only be in the music videos, they don’t add much to the song, so can be omitted from the radio version, to make it safer for drivers.

 

Perceptions on drinkers

When living in China last year, my own relationship with alcohol changed quite dramatically. In China, firstly the drinking culture is totally different. There are business deals made over shots of baijiu and the whole concept of face…in some situations if you don’t drink, you lose your face. Every time a 干杯 (cheers) is toasted, you must down all of your drink. None of which I was too comfortable with.

One thing I did like about drinking in China was that in bigger cities there is 代驾 (daijia), a service where company drivers who haven’t been drinking loiter around pubs and clubs waiting to drive people home for a fee. How is this different from a taxi? They drive you in YOUR car, so when you go out at the beginning of the night you can still show off whatever car you have (as that’s part of face too) and you don’t need to worry about trying to find your car the next day.

This is a safer way of getting home, as drunk drivers are kept off the road…but I haven’t heard any reviews about how the daijia drivers are at driving!

In China too, a lot of women don’t drink…of course there are plenty who do, but when a woman tells the group ‘I don’t drink’, it’s usually accepted by her peers and people won’t force her to drink.

I found though, when I was in China and tried not to drink, because I was a foreigner, all the conceptions about women not drinking were put to one side and both Chinese people and foreigners would try to make me drink more alcohol than I wanted to.

Being in China, I wasn’t sure that all the drinks would be legit, I know people who have been really ill and blamed it on cheap/fake drinks in clubs from the night before. And as I believe foreigners are more susceptible to be on the receiving end of unwanted or inappropriate male attention (blog post to come soon), drinking shots of ‘tequila’ one after the other wasn’t what I wanted to do..it was risky.

So what did I do? Did I drink? Sometimes I did, but mostly I stood my ground, or I tricked them..my “friends”. Like a child who doesn’t want to eat their peas, I would lift a glass to my mouth…but not drink any. I would switch glasses on the table, I would give the others top ups but none to myself and I would hold my cup in my lap to hide how much I wasn’t drinking, but also to make sure nothing else was put in my cup.

Fast forward to now, I’m back in the UK and for a while now I haven’t been drinking during the week. It’s a habit I’ve got into and I don’t have a problem with not drinking alcohol, even when others around me are having beer or wine, I can just give it a miss.

Last Wednesday, I was at a salsa night with friends. I danced with a guy who I knew I had several friends in common with…although we’d never met before. He then went to the bar, and held out a beer. I thought it was for me to hold while he tied his shoelace or something, but he told me it was for me. I said I didn’t want it, and he was really shocked: “Why? Why don’t you want it?”.

Well for a start, I wasn’t going to accept a drink from a stranger when I didn’t see it being made or poured – RED FLAG. And secondly, as I told him “I don’t drink during the week”. “What, really, but why??!?!” was his reaction..he then turned to his mate and was like “Can you believe it? She doesn’t drink during the week!!” he was astounded, shocked and I felt he was almost mocking me for my decision not to drink.

I got so angry, and I think he didn’t even realise how uncomfortable he was making me feel, as if dancing salsa with strange sweaty men wasn’t uncomfortable enough already.