The question, "What are you doing with your weeks vacation?" normally receives an answer full of excitement and anticipation as your mind drifts to relaxing hours spent away from your day job. When this question is uttered late on a Sunday evening and is referring to a holiday you know nothing about that starts the following morning, you are left feeling slightly confused.
Information dissemination leaves a lot to be desired in China. So to quickly realise I was the last person in the whole school to find about my own holiday should come as no surprise. Information breeds individualism. Individualism breeds power. The less information you have, the less you will be able to question those above you in the hierarchy of power. Which in turn keeps those with power in power. A skill my immediate employer has perfected to a tee!
It’s strange though what information people deem not important enough to divulge, even within the teaching profession. Whether it be cancelled classes, additional classes, schedule changes or new students, the teacher is strangely always the last person to find out. So much so, it’s not unusual to be stopped by strangers in the street who know more about classes than the teachers themselves.
After double and triple checking to make sure my wife had also been given the same ‘surprise’ week’s holiday, it left us with just a few hours to buy train tickets, arrange accommodation and choose our preferred holiday destination: Dalian. With temperatures peeking at 35 degrees Celsius, it seemed only sensible to have our first beach holiday since we started travelling. With Dalian only a six hour direct train ride away from Benxi, this was a perfect choice.
Dalian, known by many to be the Hong Kong of the north due to its relaxed atmosphere, high standards of living and fashionable locals, is a complete contrast to other cities in Liaoning Province, including Benxi. Gone are the coughing fits and smog filled skies, replaced instead by clean air, blue skies and tree-lined streets.
Unfortunately I’d have happily exchanged all of this to find a taxi driver willing to drive us to our chosen hotel, a taxing five mile walk from the train station. Left with a map as useful as a bottle of vodka to a tee-totaller, it took a good two hours to finally locate the position of our hotel, which turned out to be nothing more than a derelict building site. The resident homeless man with eyes bulging as if he’d just eaten a can of spinach, Popeye style, delivered little help in locating our hotel’s exact location.
Luckily, an upmarket off-license selling thimble-sized bottle of tiger infused liqueur at extortionate prices came to the rescue. A quick phone call later from the off-license’s scantily clad owner and the owner of our hotel came to escort us to our abode for the next week.
It’s amazing the differences between internet advertisements and reality. The hotel I‘d booked, turned out to be a bachelor pad in a residential complex, complete with a glass cubicle shower and an adjacent glass cubicle toilet. Both were in full view of the bed. Don’t get me wrong, seeing a loved one showering can be a very arousing image. But whoever decided on adding a glass cubicle toilet at the bottom of the bed certainly needs their head examining. My wife waking up to a view of gritted teeth and straining isn’t anyone’s idea of romance!
Located on a peninsula stretching out in to China’s Yellow Sea, Dalian has enough beaches to appease any tan-loving human, all of which are cut off from the city’s hazy skyscrapers by a belt of lush green mountains. A heavy contingent of Russian tourists, whose ample frames weren’t really designed for topless sunbathing, could be found competing for the most revered beach spaces with butt-naked Chinese men, using the sea for their weekly washing sessions. Children, with buckets and spades, played around them, seemingly oblivious to the extreme levels of nudity on show.
Once away from the beach and the marauding Russian tourists, Dalian still has plenty to offer. From Xinghai Square, the largest square in Asia, to Labour Park, home to one of the world’s largest footballs, built to commemorate the success of the local football team, Dalian Shide, it was impossible to escape the local tourists thirst for a ‘photo with a foreigner opportunity.’ Even in Dalian Zoo, the tourists were just as excited to have photos taken with the intriguing laowai (foreigner) as they were with the baby tigers and performing elephants.
Seafood is Dalian’s speciality, but after accidentally ordering a £30 crab, thanks mainly in part to my pathetic math skills rather than the hostesses ability to rip me off, it was the wide availability of Western food that I turned my attention to. Along with the obligatory trip to McDonalds, I was amazed to see supermarkets stocking a wide selection of Western cheeses and even French baguettes, something I hadn’t tasted since leaving England.
While marvelling at Dalian’s sights, it wasn’t the Russian and Japanese historical relics that intrigued me, it was an English school bearing exactly the same name and logo to the one where my wife and I spend six days a week teaching. Worried that a spot of identity fraud was in progress, I was shocked by my employer’s blunt admission that he’d blatantly copied them. Copying ideas and businesses in a country where intellectual property rights and copyright laws are non-existent, might be seen as a lazy, un-rewarding way to make a living, but seeing the riches such plagiarism can bring , it’s obvious why so many people do it.
A week after we returned from Dalian, the city experienced one of the worst oil spills in Chinese history, in which at least one person died and many of the cities beaches were left covered in thick, oily sludge. They were so under-equipped for the clean-up operation that chopsticks were thrown in to the sea to soak up the surface oil. A far cry from the more advance methods being seen across the other side of the world in the Gulf of Mexico.
Other than surprise holidays, I sadly bid farewell to my public school classes and to my students who all moved on to middle school. Looking out across the playground from the teacher’s office above, as the students practised mass-marching in unison, at times it’s still easy to witness China’s Communist traditions. Continuing to watch the students marching below, it dawned on me, that I had yet to see any students playing football during their breaks, which is strange considering the population’s love for the game. In England where football competes with Christianity for the country’s most popular religion, people can be found playing the ‘people’s game’ in any free space. In the concrete jungles of China , where land is at a premium, places to play sports are virtually non-existent.
Focusing on study rather than sports could explain the youth of China’s struggle to compete on the national stage in many team sports. It could also help describe why most students have the hand-eye co-ordination skills of a baby. Watching some of my students attempting to bounce a basketball, I thought it was only fair to impress them with my very own hand-eye co-ordination skills.
As I beckoned for the basketball to be given to me, a group of students quickly formed around me, intrigued to see what special tricks I had to perform for them. I really shouldn’t be so quick to judge others. I’d hoped to show off the ‘bouncing a basketball through your legs’ talent most people take for granted. Instead, first bounce, with arms flailing like an octopus, the basketball smacked me on the bridge of my nose, bringing me to tears. The laughs from the students quickly turned to embarrassment, as they backed away and returned to their original playtime activities. The basketball’s owner retrieved his ball and moved away to another part of the playground. I decided it was high time to beat a hasty retreat back to the safety of the teacher’s office.