Friday, 21 December 2012

Yangshuo - Part 3 - Conversations with Chinese Students

We started our lessons with the students the day after we moved in to the school apartment.  We were to spend an hour a day from 4.30 to 5.30pm, which generally comprised two half hour sessions with (usually) a single student but if it was early on in their course and their English was limited, they would attend in pairs.  On one occasion we had a group of 6 students each for the whole hour and they are an excitable lot but we were, on the whole, able to control them (although dragging them away from their mobile phones was a constant battle - it seems students are the same the world over!).

Paul introducing MT to some UK techno
For some reason, and much to my horror, most of my lessons were videotaped but Paul managed to escape this embarrassment.

Spending time speaking to these students was one of the most enjoyable experiences of our whole time in China.  Whilst we were limited to what we could talk about in terms of their vocabulary as they had only been learning English for between 2 and 6 months, we gained a real insight into the lives of ordinary Chinese people.  The students came from all across China and most were in their 20s and 30s (although a few were younger and even one or two in their 40s).  Some were married with children and all (bar one) were from large families with 3 or 4 siblings.

Which brings me to this one-child policy that China is so famous for.

Now this is something that we have noticed throughout our travels in China.  The one child policy really doesn’t seem to be either followed or enforce very much.  There seems to be many exceptions to the rule.  One is that if both parents are sole children they are allowed two children (but only four years after the birth of the first child and once the woman reaches the age of 28).  Another exception is for families in rural areas who are allowed more than one child, the theory being presumably that they will require more help working the land.  However almost all the students were from urban areas and were one of 3 children.  And it was not always the pattern you would expect with two older girls being born before having the long awaited son.  One of my students was one of three boys.

Water buffalo were becoming an
increasingly common sight as we headed south
My first student was the exception to this rule.  She was the sole only child I met at the school (Paul met none).  By coincidence she was from Chengdu and had worked for several years in the Sims Cozy Hostel where we stayed during our visit to see the pandas.  She was in her mid 30s and did not necessarily want to get married or have children.  Usually Chinese children are under pressure from their family to marry quite early and produce grandchildren.  Children are considered your insurance policy for your old age in a very family orientated China (also one of the reasons boys are so popular as girls usually leave to live with their husband's family but it is traditionally the son’s duty to care for his parents).

This particular student obviously had a working knowledge of English before she came to study at Omeida, dealing with foreign travellers at the hostel in Chengdu but she had enrolled to improve her language skills, and learn more of the mechanics of the English language.  She was very confident and her spoken English was excellent and we had a really interesting conversation about her parents, their support for her and the fact that they just wanted her to be happy.  I suspected this was quite rare.

We understand that many, many families particularly throughout urban China, have strictly adhered to the one child policy and that as a result of some pretty abhorrent and illegal practices including selective abortion of girls and even infanticide, boys outnumber girls so much that there won't be enough girls to go around when these boys are looking for partners.  China's new leaders are making noises about relaxing the one child policy, primarily to help fund provision for their aging population but also, it is suspected, to curb these utterly deplorable practices.

We met one of our students Irene in Hanoi
During our classes, we would speak to the students about their families, their jobs, their hometowns, what they thought about Yangshuo (pretty but boring was the general consensus because most came from big cities with better facilities), food (the school canteen was not well received by anyone and a surprising proportion of Chinese do not enjoy spicy food), travelling, and anything else that we could cover.  Neither of us instigated any conversation about anything remotely controversial although some of the students were keen to express their views. 

When the subject of change in China came up, and it was brought up by quite a few of the students, the general consensus was that the changes that had happened, over the last ten years in particular, had been good for China.  They were happy that more foreigners were visiting their country and that China was increasingly becoming an important world player.  They were also keen to know our thoughts about China and the people we met.

The few people who did express a political opinion, did so in a quiet but firm manner, voices almost tinged with sadness, when they said that they believed that the changes needed to go much further and that China needed to be a free (i.e. democratic) country.  These opinions were articulated carefully and surprising eloquently by the young people who we spoke to.  It was almost as if they had practised how to express their point of view in this other language.  

Paul with Irene in Hanoi
It has been made clear to us throughout our time in China that Chinese people have a great pride and love for their country and they are almost reluctant to criticise their homeland but they clearly wish to see the changes go further.  It is difficult to see any major political change in China any time soon but who knows what further changes these young people will witness in their lifetime.  Indeed, with the the country opening up so quickly, it is difficult not to envisage major changes being demanded by the next generation.

Almost all the students we spoke to were confident, outspoken, kind, thoughtful and a joy to spend time with.  We also met some of the teachers at the school, several of whom had been teaching at Omeida for some time.  They were a mixed bunch from all over the English speaking world, all with different stories to tell.  It was a fantastic opportunity to be part of the school community for the 10 days we spent there.  We were leaving the day of the Christmas party and the staff and students genuinely seemed sorry that we wouldn’t be able to stay for the planned festivities.  We were made to feel really welcome and anyone who travels that way should consider a stint as a conversational teacher just for the experience.
Out and about in Yangshuo

It was also refreshing to be living outside of the main tourist area.  Our apartment block was one of many on a complex of identical apartment blocks.  Across the street was a shop front with pictures of a duck, a chicken, a rabbit, a cat and a dog.  If it was in England it could easily have been a sign for a vet however we were reliably informed that it was indeed a restaurant.  We were not tempted.

Local activity left us a little bemused on occasion.  Outside our window, twice a day, a man opened his shutters and settled down to blow torch a pile of pigs’ feet.  Every morning and afternoon, regular as clockwork, we heard the sound of his blow torch which went on for about half a hour before he packed up and went inside.  It was a mystery to everyone why he did this and why it was necessary;  it was just another of those bizarre things you come across in China.  If anyone knows why it is necessary to blow torch pigs’ feet, please let us know.

Each night we spent in the apartment there was a chorus of a cat miaowing really very loudly, a dog barking incessantly and a rooster crowing at all hours.  Quite frankly, if I had been any one of these creatures, given the close proximity of the establishment just across the road with menu plastered across the shopfront, I would have kept my mouth/beak shut.  It was actually quite a relief to hear all of them making a noise each night, reassuring us that they hadn’t made it to the wok…yet.

Ducks foraging in the water chestnuts
The weather was getting quite chilly and the air conditioning/climate control unit was next to useless because it is obviously designed as an air conditioning unit, and screwed into the wall three inches below the ceiling so any heat generated hovers just above your head.  It really was noticeably warmer when you stood up but night time was a bit cold.  The shower wasn’t brilliant either (it was lukewarm at best) and so we were starting to look forward to heading south for some warmth, although the weather in Hanoi wasn’t looking that great either!.

And I don’t care what anyone says, eastern toilets are rubbish.  Using them from time to time is all well and good but all this squatting business (and Paul with his dodgy knees) was getting a bit tedious.  Try as we might we just couldn’t get used to them.   At our age it’s touch and go whether we can actually get up again!  More information than that I will not furnish you with (although I do have plenty to say on the subject but not nearly as much as Paul does!).
Our neighbour blow-torching pigs fee, regular
as clockwork, twice a day!?

We spent our evenings with Jim and Laura until they returned to Alaska to meet their new grandson a few days before we left ourselves.  One evening we went to the closing night party of Kaya Bar where we witnessed some Chinese boys on the turntables, a group of random musicians jamming, and a Swiss rapper.  The bar was about the size of a large broom cupboard but they managed to squeeze all this in together with about 50 people at any one time.  They ran out of beer glasses, but free shots were dished out liberally, and the mainly young Chinese crowd was having an absolute ball.  The younger Chinese generation really do know how to enjoy themselves and whilst we had to admit defeat and head off at 11am, we were reliably informed that the party apparently went on until 3.30am. 

More lovely Guangxi countryside
On a practical level we organised our Vietnamese visas through a local agent and decided that we would travel to Vietnam by bus to Nanning and then catch the overnight train from there to Hanoi.  Kelly (of Kelly’s CafĂ©) told us that it was easy to book the train on the day (something which made us feel slightly nervous as normally you have to book Chinese trains at least 3 days in advance) but it wasn’t possible to book through an agent all the way to Hanoi so we had to take our chances.

We packed up and left the apartment which had been our home for 10 days and caught the morning bus to Nanning.  At Nanning Train Station, tickets for Hanoi were successfully purchased for that evening at counter number 16 (where the queue was considerably shorter than those for national trains).  At about 6.00pm we boarded our last Chinese train, which would take us across the Chinese border after 3 wonderful months spent exploring this incredible country.

Our last train in China
Passport control at the Chinese border was, of course, carried out efficiently and painlessly.  We were asked to take all our bags off the train so they could go through the x-ray machine at the border town (having already been through security at Nanning Station) but again it was straightforward enough.  

We duly disembarked, followed the simple procedure, and then got back on again and after about an hour our passports were returned and we were on our way.

We were about to cross the border into Vietnam and after about 20 minutes stop at the Vietnamese border town where we would have to go through the whole process all over again.  

We were sad to be leaving China.  Apart from it being a beautiful country with diverse landscape and scenery, as well as a huge variety of cultures spread all across China, there was so much to take in, so much about the country and its people we didn’t know before we left, and so much more to learn.  And of course there was so much we didn't see. For example, we didn't touch the east coast at all but we feel that we saw as much as we could in the short time we had.  That we could speak some of the language helped enormously and Paul is even more determined to master Mandarin.  If it kills him!

We would dearly love to return to China one day.  Primary because Paul is obsessed with Mandarin (see above) and intends to be fluent come hell or high water, so who knows?  Until then, we have south east Asia to explore, starting with Vietnam.



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