China Stories and Tips

Week 06 & 07 - Singing Transvestites

Tiananmen Square - Beijing Photo, Beijing, China

After three weeks in this small, polluted Chinese city, I’m finally starting to settle in to Chinese life. When the smog lifts long enough, the views from the 31st floor are actually rather impressive. While people go about their daily lives below, the distant rolling hills that surround the city stand proud. I was hoping that living closer to heaven than most people would make for a quieter, more peaceful existence. I couldn’t have been more wrong. All it equates to is being the same height as the thousands of exploding, deafening fireworks that are set off at regular intervals day and night. Apparently fireworks aren’t only used to celebrate Guy Fawkes and days of independence. They are also extremely successful products at scaring off evil spirits. From the constant dull explosions, I doubt there is a single evil spirit within a two-hundred mile radius of this city.

When I arrived here, the city was experiencing unseasonably high temperatures. Reality has returned with a vengeance though with night time temperatures already peaking as low as minus twenty degrees Celsius. It’s only going to get worst for the next couple of months as well! With cold temperatures comes snow and I’ve experienced more snow in the last two weeks than in the past five years. With so much snow and ice, building pavements out of the type of slippery tiles you get around swimming pools, personally, I don’t think is the best idea. To appease falling grandmothers and to cut down on the amount of shattered hip bones, the cities response to snow is nothing short of extraordinary. Within hours of snowfall, garbage trucks are transformed in to snow trucks and an army of street cleaners miraculously clears the streets clean of this powdery white stuff. It’s a shame London couldn’t learn a lesson or two from this!

With Facebook well and truly blocked, I was expecting withdrawal symptoms to be long and lasting, but with every cloud comes a silver lining. The silver lining this time around is the ability to access the BBC, a website I thought was suffering from a lifetime blocking ban. I really have no excuse not to keep up with regular international news events and hear the daily drivel that comes from the mouth of Chris Moyles.

Office politics is an interesting beast, and it never takes long from entering a new job before you become embroiled in it’s daily, hedonistic activities and gossip. A fellow teacher a few days before my arrival was sacked for being black (I’m not sure how they missed this small point when admiring the many passport photos needed for a Chinese work visa). Black teachers, racist as this is, apparently scare children, and when parents start complaining you might as well start packing your bags. If my new boss was to argue against the parents concerns and back up his teachers, then he would lose face and respect. Losing face, I’m quickly learning, is like committing social suicide, losing the monetary privileges, power and respect that ’good face’ brings.

Not only are you forced to teach at a dictated rate, but you have to appease the watching parents. Apart from the one incident I have so far managed to keep these rabid dogs at bay.

The one incident in question was when teaching the words ‘book’ and ‘bug’. As I called a five minute break in the middle of class, I heard the murmurs from the parents at the back. A second later, desks and students were flung aside as the stampede started and the parents closed in on the vulnerable, exposed English teacher. I looked for escape, but within seconds I was cornered on all sides. Parents shouted incomprehensible words that I can only guess were Chinese. For a start I was courteous and listened to their concerns over my pronunciation and the effect these two words would have on ruining their children’s lives and ruining job prospects later in life. But when one parent tried to snatch my marker pen out of my hand, I saw red and fought back. By the end of the five minute break the parents had retreated to their seats and I’d hopefully stamped some authority in my classroom. How long this truce will last though I don’t know.

What surprised me the most about this short-lived conflict, was that immediately after the break, I played a game with their children called ’touch the teacher’. They loved this game! Talk about contradicting oneself! If you are concerned about such games in an English classroom then you needn’t be. I was using basic vocabulary that I knew the children understood, so they could come and point to various facial features before uttering the word in English.

Working six days a week doesn’t allow a great deal of time for exploration of my new surroundings, but I have take a little delight in discovering my local neighbourhood. I’ve learnt that just around the corner is a KFC restaurant (I shamefully admit to eating here once already!) where adjacent I watched a group of workmen playing football with a live chicken. I really hope these two aren’t connected!

I thought the attention witnessed in Beijing was elaborate and slightly over the top, but in a small city like this, the stares, amusement and confusion is multiplied by at least infinity. Even for a vertically challenged nobody like myself, it can be slightly daunting. Taxi’s swerve; pedestrians walk in to lamp posts and fall over potholes; market sellers drop their produce. Everyone stops and stares. If you are lucky you may have a brave student shouting ’hello’ in your direction before disappearing in to the endless crowds. Even the dogs, with dyed yellow, green or pink hair and dressed as though appearing in a Toy Story re-make keep their distance.

Therefore imagine my delight when instead of just staring, falling over and mocking my blue eyes, blond eyebrows and ginger stubble, one elderly gentleman had the audacity to approach ‘the foreigner’. People gasped; parents covered their children’s eyes. What would happen now? Undeterred and squinting through his inch-thick glasses, the man took my hand and held it in his, before uttering some soothing, encouraging words. Not understanding a word and not wanting to offend a member of my new host population, I acknowledged his words and questions with answers of yes, theatrical nods, grunts and the occasional smile. It must have worked. Fifteen minutes later, he was still holding my hand and we’d walked to a part of the city I’d never seen before. I was confused, a little scared and oblivious to the stares. It seemed I’d served my purpose and with a few more words I’ll never have chance of understanding, he left me. It took me an hour to find my way back to somewhere that looked familiar.

In an effort to bond with my new foreign teachers, I thought it would be a good idea to partake in some of the cities finest nightlife. Apart from the many seedy local bars and KTV karaoke joints, there is only one disco-esque nightclub. I use this term loosely as the mafia-owned venue isn’t the type of nightclub you would find on the streets of England. Here a variety show kicks off the evening‘s entertainment. A collection of singers and musicians take to the stage. Between songs they torpedo bottles of beer, sometimes two at a time, in front of the watching crowds. By the end of each performance it’s not unusual to have drank six bottles of beer in a fifteen minute period. They must have hardened livers considering they do this every night of the week!

It’s actually highly enjoyable entertainment. The star of the show is a singing transvestite. Her sexuality wasn’t obvious when he took to the stage and I thought to myself, "behind my wife, this was probably the most attractive person I’d seen in the city so far". My mistake soon dawned on me when each song was sung as both male and female. If in Vegas, this person would be huge!

Once the variety show finishes, the stage opens as a dance floor and for one hour and one hour only ‘dancing’ is the only form of entertainment. If you imagine a tame high school disco where the impressionable party-goers copy your every dance move, then you get an idea of the environment. For those that have ever had the displeasure of seeing me dance, you may realise what a surreal experience it is to see thirty smiling, frigid people, swaying from side to side while moving their arms at right angles to their body (just like me!). I felt a fraud allowing them to think this was movement was acceptable to the masses.

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