The Old London Tube

I was in London last week, for the first time in five years, would you believe? And I couldn’t get over how old the tube was. Of course, I was comparing it to the modern subway systems of Hangzhou, Shanghai and Chongqing.

Shanghai’s metro lines are ever expanding, and when I was there last year, the new Disneyland metro station was one of the newest stations, but I imagine that more stations will have been opened since last May when the park opened.

The subway systems in China are (in most cities) very modern and high-tech. Some have recycling machines that give you credit for your travelcard, most have moving adverts along the inside of the tunnel, and they all have voice announcements in English and Mandarin telling you what stop is next and to be careful with your bags.

In London, there are no x-ray machines before putting your ticket in the barrier and there are no tv screens on the platforms that with video adverts or news on, as well as the information of when the next trains are coming. The whole experience in London was totally alien, comparing it to the Chinese one, where the platforms have glass doors between you and the tracks. This is a safety feature, but it’s also good, as above the windows there are tube maps so you can plan your route, and you know where the tube will stop and which way the tube is going, in London I relied on my friends to know if we were going the right way or not.

The London underground is very much underground, you lose service on your phone when you’re on the tube and there’s also a distinctive earthy smell to the underground that isn’t very pleasant. There aren’t any fans in summer, making it hot and sticky either. It’s a good way to get around the capital, and especially with Oyster visitor cards that cap spending to £6.50 per day for people who don’t visit very often, but it’s not exactly a pleasant or efficient se ice, when I compare it with metro systems in China.

The Saddest News of the Day

Was one that I read this morning, about China banning the sale of children’s books from different countries.

Although it is true that children’s books could potentially influence children’s perceptions, there are thousands of children’s books now that try to break those stereotypes, just a few days ago I read about a revolutionary children’s book of true stories about 100 great women. Rebel Girls aims to educate children and show them that not every girl has to dream of being a princess, which is what most books aimed at young girls promote. But I doubt a total block on all children’s books from outside Chinese borders would stop children being influenced.

As a nation of people who stream and download thousands of MB of films and TV shows each year, it is easy for Chinese people to download children’s TV series such as Peppa Pig, Teletubbies and all the other shows that are shown to children across the world. What’s the difference between TV and books?

I was reminded this morning of Malala, another book lover, here is one of her quotes

Let us pick up our books and our pens,” I said. “They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.

I was also reminded of the book burnings that I know to have taken place in China from the time of the first emperor Qing Shi Huang, and later again during the Cultural Revolution. Is this another modern day method of burning books? A way to control the people’s thoughts and opinions, to forcibly guide them into only reading certain types of literature, because other types are deemed ‘unsafe’, ‘defamatory’ or ‘blasphemous’? Whatever reason China has for banning foreign children’s books being sold in the country, I’m against it.

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.

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

 

 

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.

When China gets Tampons

If you haven’t heard, one of the big side stories of the Olympics is how Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui came out and told people she was on her period during her race. Chinese women  generally don’t use tampons like we do in the UK and USA. Chinese medicine and tradition also advises women to abstain from eating certain foods, drinking cold drinks, eating ice cream and even paddling in the sea, let alone go swimming or enter an Olympic swimming race whilst on their period. Weibo has gone wild, with people asking all sorts of questions about how she did it. Well, she swam with a tampon in.

A couple of weeks ago, I sent an article to my friend about a Chinese entrepreneur who is launching the first domestic tampon brand. Foreign brands have tried, but it’s never really caught on. If last month you googled ‘tampons in China’, you’d probably only find expat blogs telling you to stockpile before you go, or some people telling you where you can find them, but little else, now the world has pricked up it’s ears and noticed this phenomena.

What I’m concerned about is the misuse of tampons. In some places in China, there are still photos glued to public toilet cubicles showing people how to (and how not to) use a ‘western toilet’ (not the squat type).

I can imagine some people placing them in wrong places, reusing them, leaving them in too long, going to the hospital to have them removed, trying to use two at a time, not removing the applicator, cutting off the string and all other sorts of damage and things NOT to do with a tampon. I’m also worried that other brands will develop different flavours of tampons, as they did with sanitary towels, dotted with a few drops of nice smelling fragrance is ok, but the mint ones? They are just wrong and awfully uncomfortable, even painful in my experience!

I really hope the brands that are producing tampons for China create good leaflets and campaigns telling people how to use them properly. Because if people don’t know how to or are uncomfortable using them now, they will just revert back to the 40cm pads. They will in turn never teach their children about correct tampon use and that will be it until the next person comes along and tries to win over a nation.

Now is China’s time to embrace a new product that will, in my opinion, benefit women who use it. When tampons are released, I hope the adverts do the product justice and are informative without losing that Chinese corny cute style like this one with the cute animated rabbits…(omg 42cm!!!)

 

And I had to include this video, advertising basically a nappy for women on their periods…what shocked me was probably the amount of men in the advert, not the fact that they all have sanitary towels on their heads!

Running into Danger

Running can be a dangerous sport, just take this year’s Guangzhou marathon where 12,000 out of the 20,000 runners were injured. For me, one of the biggest dangers when I go running is what is also called ‘man’s best friend’…that’s right, dogs.

In the UK, it’s better, dogs are usually kept on leads and I’m pretty sure there aren’t any stray dogs, also see Ben’s post about the running and the seven stages of dog . But here in China, dogs aren’t always kept on leads and there are lots of stray dogs.

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When I see a dog out on a run, first, I look around and see if there’s an owner nearby who would be able to call it over, or keep it nearby, which they sometimes do automatically. If there’s not an owner, I assess the situation and try to figure out if it’s safer to run past it or turn around and run back. Most of the time, dogs don’t see me coming (I must run light-footed) so I have about 30 seconds to make my decision. I look at what the dog’s doing (can I run past it without it noticing me?), how fast I think it can run (would I be able to outrun it) and if it’s clean or dirty (I don’t want to get rabies). I also look for trees that I could jump up to get out of the way, ridiculous I know, but that’s fear for you.

There was a time when I ran through a small village at the back of the university, the paths were small and interesting, there were fat chickens waddling around, old people sitting on doorsteps etc, but there were also guard dogs. The guard dogs were locked inside front gardens, with leads and big metal fences, but when I ran past they barked really loudly and aggressively. I was so scared I’ve never ran that route again, despite it being really beautiful and natural.

I know that dogs actually don’t want to bite people, I’m not sure where my fear comes from and what I’m actually scared of. I thought I’d gotten over it a few years ago, but the fear is still there, especially when I’m running, which is when I feel most vulnerable as I’m often on my own, running in quiet places and without a mobile phone.

 

 

Wild Swans – A review

Wild Swans tells the story of a Chinese family, spreading across three generations. It starts with an account of the author’s grandmother, and then tells the story of her mother and herself respectively. It spans from 1909 to 1978 and takes place in China.

The book tells a lot of sad stories – foot binding, famine, civil war, torture and other atrocities that happened during that time period, so it’s not an easy read. There are parts that are brutal, but they just reflect what really happened. It has definitely made me step back and think about the Cultural Revolution, and what people went through during that period. Even now, people’s views about the Cultural Revolution are split, some of my teachers praise it, others detest it, it’s a difficult topic to talk about.

New book

I see older Chinese people and wonder if they too were sent to labour farms in their childhood, if they were too made to recite the words from The Little Red Book and perform dances. These things happened not very long ago in Chinese history, so it’s hard to know how to and whether to talk to Chinese people about these things. This book is also banned in China.

This book was never on my reading list, I picked it up in a charity shop and it’s made me think a lot about the injustices that people have done to each other. I feel connected to the people in the book and their story has made an impact. It shocked and surprised me, and I’m sure it has had the same effect on other readers across the world.

Locals have it better

When you travel somewhere, I think you’re always limited in some way. You have less time than locals, so you just go to the most important, or most spectacular places in that city/area. How do you know which places to go to? Travel guides, tour companies, magazines all tell us the best places, and public transport makes it easy for us (non-locals) to access. If there’s a choice between the famous temple that’s on Line 2 of the subway, or the temple that you have to take three buses and a taxi to get to, I know which one most tourists will choose.

But if you’re a local, you have more time to explore your area than a tourist, you probably have access to a car and know from first-hand accounts what places are worth travelling to, rather than just what is mentioned in the guide books.

An example of this happened just yesterday. A local Jinhua family invited me to spend Dragon Boat Festival with them, and we went to Hengdian World Studios (China’s answer to Hollywood). It’s a bit out of the way, but it’s a really great place to visit if you’re living in the south and don’t have time to visit the ‘real versions’ in Beijing, Xi’an etc.

Yesterday, we went to the Old/New Summer Palace scenic area, and we also stayed to watch the night time show. In 1860, British and French troops destroyed the ancient Summer Palace in Beijing, but even though the buildings were gone, four types of special flowers remained. The night time show was about a dragon who fell in love with a pheonix, and this mythical couple travelled to go and find these four special flowers. Then they came back to see that some ‘demons’ had destroyed their home, but they built a bigger, better and more flourishing summer palace so it was a happy ending in the end.

Despite there being a couple of thousand people there, I think I was definitely the only foreigner there. I think not many foreigners will have had the chance to watch this show, so I felt very lucky to be able to watch it.

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Before the show began

Looking over the lake, there were so many special effects I didn’t know where to look – fireballs, fountains, a huge LED screen, lit up buildings, fog… it was incredible.

The movie was projected onto three big screens of water, that splayed out like the wings of a peacock, so all the images were 3D. There were fighting dragons, a break dancing dragon, dancing moths and it was just crazy…I don’t know how much money went into producing it, but it just seemed to have everything.

So how can we get these ‘local’ experiences if we’re not locals ourselves? I think the best way is to just get on the streets and do as the locals do, eat with them in the local restaurants rather choosing a BigMac. When the waitress tells you ‘most foreigners like to eat …’, ask her what the local’s favourite is. Even just going to the park can give you a great insight into local life.

So I challenge you to live like a local!

 

Things that worry me in China

I’ve been living in China for over a year (cumulatively) and there are some things that I and other foreigners worry about. I don’t worry about them on a daily basis, but they are things that kind of linger in the back of my mind.

How bad is the pollution today?

China is very polluted, there’s air and water pollution all across the country, and the weather forecast often tells you the Air Quality Index of which city you’re in. Except, there is a large difference between what the Chinese government says, and the USA (who also have weather/pollution monitors set up in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou) says.

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A very foggy afternoon in Qingdao

Is this food safe to eat?

Food safety isn’t regarded as highly in China as it is in other countries. At home, restaurants have a 5 star health and safety rating, and they’re usually always 4 or 5. In China, there is an ABC rating, along with a green, yellow or red face that’s either happy, apathetic or sad. I’ve only ever seen two green A ratings in China, one in a hospital canteen and one in a Japanese restaurant. All the rest have been C’s, meaning the way they prepare food isn’t very sanitary. But I still eat in these places, because there’s no other choice, and the locals all do it too.

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Sometimes they try and hide it

 

Is this real?

Similar to the food, there are a lot of fake products in China, electrical goods, alcohol, luxury brands, even money can be faked. I bought a dictionary online and after using it for a few weeks, I realised that some of the pages were printed incorrectly, and the quality of the paper is not consistent. Fake products are cheaper and sometimes are just as good, but for example when I bought my router, I didn’t know if it would be ok or trip the electrics (luckily it didn’t).

Will the police take me away?

I have a lot of respect for the police in any country, but something scares me about the police in China. I don’t know where it’s come from, but there is this fear that at any moment, the police could knock down my door, confiscate my laptop and arrest me for using a vpn or something.

Is my phone tapped? Is someone listening to/watching me?

Phone tapping and governments screening people’s emails etc is no new thing, it happens all over the world. But I’m worried someone is listening to me sometimes, especially when I say negative things about certain stuff, if you get me.

Don’t think I’m paranoid, I’m sure lots of people living in China worry about these things too. And it’s ok, because I’m leaving soon!