Cut loose at Fifty: Chapter Five -- Spring Festival
By Chris Clancy
My first semester in China drew to a close.
I went to see the Foreign Affairs Officer (the FAO).
I asked him if he could give me a bit more variety in the second semester -- I really didn't want to spend another one doing nothing but repeat lessons. He said he'd see what he could do and then asked me if I was interested in re-newing my contract when the current one expired. I said if I did I'd prefer to teach one of my specialist subjects rather than Oral English.
We left it at that for then.
The problem I had with Oral English was that it left me with too much rope to play with. Basically I could do whatever I liked as long as it got the students to speak.
I wasn't used to this kind of freedom.
My teaching and training career had been primarily examination and assignment based. There was usually a syllabus to keep to or clear objectives to aim for -- a line to follow. Of course, there was some latitude for weaving in and out of the line but there was always a definite target.
With Oral English this was not the case. I found it difficult to know where to start and even then, once started, where to draw the line? I felt a bit like Charles Babbage -- the so-called father of modern computing - he never finished what he set out to do because he kept on getting a better idea!
The semester ended around mid-January.
The second would start at the beginning of March - plenty of holiday time.
Jan had decided to go on some kind of package tour to Beijing for a week or two. As far as I can recall Ernest and Linda decided to stay put.
Linda was pregnant -- the baby was expected two or three months later. I didn't know what their health care arrangements were but I did know they had to be paid for or they wouldn't get any. This was China after all. Plus, while she was having the baby and recovering afterwards she would not be paid.
In this respect things were very straight forward. No work no pay.
If a you missed a class, for whatever reason, it had to be made up. No-one would be sent to cover it. If you didn't make up the class you wouldn't be paid for it. This applied to everyone, whether foreigner or Chinese. Needless to say, throwing a "sicky" whenever you felt like it was rare.
I wondered if this would work in the UK?
Kiwi and I had agreed to travel to-gether during this holiday period -- known as the Spring Festival.
The is the biggest and most important holiday period in China. It's so old no-one really knows when it started. It ushers in the Lunar New Year. It's a bit like our Christmas except that during the festival literally millions and millions of people travel to be with their families.
At this time there were two other holiday periods called "golden weeks" -- one in October, the other in May. They were introduced in the wake of the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s to get people spending again.
I only travelled out of DJK three times in the first semester. The first time, as I mentioned before, was to a city called Shiyan for our medicals. The second time was in the October golden week.
My eldest son, who had been teaching in China for nearly a year, travelled up from Guangdong with his fiancée for a visit.
We went to a place called Wudang Mountain -- about a one hour drive from DJK.
The scenery was breathtaking.
Visitors usually stay overnight. They get up very early and trek to the top of the mountain to watch the sun rising. It's a long walk and steep. If you want to you can pay people a few RMB to carry you to the top in a sedan-like thing. I drew the line here -- even I wasn't that lazy.
As it turned out it didn't matter -- that night the rain came down and walks to the top were cancelled because conditions had become treacherous.
The third place I travelled to was a city called Xianfan. It was just a weekend trip. It wasn't much different from DJK, Shiyan or even Wuhan. This was something I would get used to as I travelled more in China.
As for Glen, we passed each other in a stairwell. I asked him if he was going to do some travelling during the Spring Festival.
"No", he said without stopping.
He wasn't being rude. It was just Glen being Glen. I was determined to get more from him than this.
"Why not?" I asked.
"Did it once", he said over his shoulder, "never again."
He continued up the stairs.
So much for the art of conversation.
Just before we set off I went to see the FAO to give him our itinerary. This was not just a matter of courtesy but also a security and safety issue. Intrepid lone travelers are not welcomed in China. We were all aware of a story about one such traveller who took himself off to Tibet for the Spring Festival.
He was never seen again.
I provided the FAO with details of times, dates and places of everywhere we planned to travel to and stay. Details of any changes in transit would be emailed to him.
He told me that since we had last spoken he had been on a business trip to Wuhan. There he had met the FAO for Zhongnan University of Economics and Law (ZUEL). The Accounting School was looking for a native English speaker to teach Accounting in English.
This was one of the main subjects I taught when I lived in England.
Was I interested?
You bet I was. I got in touch with the FAO at ZUEL and an interview time and place in Wuhan was eventually agreed.
The Wuhan interview meant a slight change to the itinerary. The revised plan went like this. Travel by sleeper bus to Wuhan and then fly to Hong Kong. Stay a few days and then fly to Hainan Island. Stay for a week or so and then fly to Guangzhou. From there travel to Maoming by coach and attend my son's wedding. After this get a coach back to Guangzhou. Then a train to Wuhan for my interview. Finally, a sleeper bus back to DJK.
I had never done so much traveling in such a short space of time but it all seemed very straightforward.
Unfortunately, as we all know, life just isn't like that.
At this point there's three things I want to mention about travelling in China. First, don't even think about "going it alone." Second, get yourself a good strong money belt. And third, sometning about the language.
There are many many different dialects in China and most are mutually unintelligible. However there is one which most people will understand called Pu Tong Hua (which translates as "common language" or "common tongue"). Get a good phrasebook and learn at least some "survival" Chinese. You're still going to have problems but not nearly as many.
We set out late one night on a sleeper bus to Wuhan. The journey took about seven or eight hours. This kind of bus is simply a coach with three rows of double bunk beds. Provided you're not much taller than about 170cm you'll have a comfortable ride.
There was no toilet on the bus and it only stopped once on the way for five minutes. Do yourself a favour and make sure you aren't "caught short" - avoid drinking anything for a few hours before the bus leaves.
We arrived in Wuhan very early. It was just as cold as DJK. After much confusion trying to make ourselves understood we picked up a shuttle to the airport. At this time the latter was small. A few years later it would be grow so large as to become unrecognizable -- an example of the incredible speed of development in China.
The flight to Hong Kong took about two hours. We landed at the international airport on Lantau Island. From the cold of Hubei I stepped into the clammy heat of Hong Kong. The airport itself was immaculate, spotless, as was the train which took us to Kowloon.
The three dreaded 'S' words for visitors to many parts of mainland China -- smoking, spitting and staring -- are not a problem in Hong Kong. Anyone caught smoking in a prohibted area, dropping a cigarette end or spitting in public is subject to an on-the-spot fine. The police enforce these rules with great "enthusiasm." As for staring, the place is so cosmopolitan no-one is bothered.
We found some cheap accommodation and then went out for something to eat. Whatever kind of food you want is there. Afterwards we went for a walk up and down Nathan Road. I couldn't help thinking how British the place was. They drove on the left and all the street signs were familiar. In fact, parts of it reminded me very much of Soho in London.
There was lots to see over the next two or three days. The most memorable part for me was going to a place called the Peak on Hong Kong Island. Once there you can go on a walk which circles the top. It takes about an hour. Along one stretch of it you can look down on Hong Kong Island and across Victoria Harbour to Kowloon. I won't even try to describe it -- just go if you get the chance. The same goes for the harbour skyline at night.
Hong Kong is a very busy place -- at once prosperous and seedy. It's a love it or hate it place. I would have liked to stay a bit longer but it was time for Hainan Island and a place called Sanya.
One of the last things I did before leaving Hong Kong was to take a boat ride by myself around Victoria Harbour. It took about half an hour. I put myself at the front of the boat and just looked and looked -- trying to take it all in. I felt like pinching myself -- was I really here? -- was this really happening.?
If someone had told me six months before that this is where I would be I would have laughed and thought they were mad.
We flew from Hong Kong to Sanya.
Hainan has been described as China's Hawaii. If you like beautiful weather, clean beaches, lying in the sun and just doing not much else all day, then this is a place you'd love. I can only take lounging about on a beach for a few hours. I took a few trips here and there and went into town a few times but after a few days I'd had enough.
I'd also had enough of being ripped off left, right and centre -- for taxis, the hotel, restaurants, excursions and so on.
This was not like being overcharged in DJK. This was a holiday resort. Like any other in the world the game was simple -- if they're foreigners and can't speak the lingo take them for every penny you can get!
One of the places we went to was a "nature reserve" of some kind -- we were supposed to be seeing people living a "traditional peasant lifestyle".
As we entered I noticed that one of the "traditional" wood and thatch houses had a satellite dish -- it tended to ruin the overall impression somewhat.
We were immediately beset by people offering to be our "guides." They were very persistent. Just to escape I said yes to one of them. He then led us from one place to another stopping each time to be pestered and pestered to spend -- souvenir stalls and shops, dance exhibitions, acrobatic displays, people wanting to sing to us, tea-making ceremonies, photo opportunities with an enormous evil-looking snake and a half-dead giant turtle -- it just went on and on.
The guide obviously got a cut from whatever we spent; the more places he dragged us the better -- he hoped.
One of the stops was a shallow pond. For 5 RMB you were given 10 bamboo spears to hurl into the water to try and get some fish. This was the only stop that sparked my interest. I wanted to spear one of them and then email a photo to the Animal Rights people back in the UK. Unfortunately every time I let fly they scattered.
Even the damned fish are clever in China.
I spent another 5 RMB -- but no luck.
The last place was to a hole sunk into the side of a huge boulder. This was inhabited by someone who purported to be a "monk" -- he gave me his "blessing". I looked back at him blankly. He then rubbed his thumb and middle finger together -- there wasn't even a smile. He wanted some money. I lied I was broke. He pointed to the packet of cigarettes in my breast pocket and held up five fingers. I held up one. We settled at three.
Learning point. When anyone offers to be your guide, do yourself a favour and just say, "No".
The final rip-off was booking our "package" to fly to Guangzhou. It's still painful to think about how trusting we were and how much our "travel agent" took us for. A parting broadside you might say.
I swore if I ever came here again it would be with an English-speaking Chinese guide who I knew and trusted.
Once in Guangzhou we went through the now usual palarva of trying to get from one place, the airport, to another place, the bus station.
The whole thing was beginning to wear a bit thin.
Getting the tickets was a nightmare followed by sitting around for hours, amidst the masses, waiting for our bus.
In contrast to Hubei at this time of year, Guangdong is pleasantly warm. Travelling in a coach which is packed for five hours was unpleasantly hot. Every seat was taken and extra seating, in the form of small plastic stools, was provided so that people could fill the central aisle.
My son came to get us at the bus station in Maoming City.
Even at that stage I was beginning to dread the journey home.
The next few days and the wedding passed off smoothly. This was probably the most relaxing part of the "holiday".
Time to start heading back. Bus to Guangzhou then find the railway station. When we finally got there I have to say that never in my life have I seen so many people, in one place, at one time.
As for the journey itself, words fail me here except to say just imagine a thirteen-hour journey, standing in a corridor, with wall to wall people and one toilet on each carriage. After a few hours of this misery a student took pity on us. He had sort of wedged himself into a corner of the carriage. He squeezed his way to an official and then squeezed his way back to us. He told us that there were two spare bunks available in a four-berth cabin in the front carriage.
We fought our way there, led by the official.
I wondered how there could possibly be any such spaces left on the train? I found out later that railway officials routinely bought the tickets at a discount, in advance, and then flogged them above face value on the train when people with some extra cash got desperate enough.
We were desperate enough.
We paid more than double but it was worth it - even with the snoring, farting and worse that we had to put up with from the old couple we were sharing with.
We got to the hotel in Wuhan after the usual hassle. We paid over the top for one night -- I didn't care anymore.
I went for a walk in the evening. I saw a place which resembled a bar. There were three or four members of staff hanging around the place -- no customers -- not unusual in China. "Non-businesses" like this are just one of the many ways used to clean dirty money.
I saw they had small bottles of Heineken in a fridge. I ordered one. They charged me 50 RMB -- a ridiculous price in China. I didn't argue because I couldn't. Even if I could have I wouldn't have. No matter how good your Chinese is, never have a vocal with a local -- you'll lose. This is especially true if there are lots of people around, as a crowd will quickly gather, out of curiosity.
If the argument continues the crowd will grow and things can escalate very quickly.
Don't do it. Don't even think about it.
I drank up and went back to the hotel.
The next day I had my interview with four people from ZUEL. We met in the hotel lobby. One was the FAO - his English was fluent - the other three were "Leaders" (what we would call Senior Managers in the West). They all had copies of my résumé. I wasn't asked many questions. The FAO handled the translations. In between each question and answer the Leaders had five-minute discussions in Chinese.
At one point they asked me about my experience with computerized accounting systems. I had a good answer ready. The FAO translated. Another five minute discussion. I then added, for no good reason, that obtaining licenses to run accounting software was a fairly straightforward matter.
The FAO looked at me as if to say, "Are you for real?". There was a slight pause. The Leaders looked at the FAO.
The FAO then translated. This seemed to cause some confusion..
The FAO then spoke some more -- at some length I felt - this seemed to clear the problem.
I learned later that the "problem" was to do with what we in the West refer to as Intellectual Property Rights -- to any meaningful extent they don't exist in China -- more later.
I can't remember exactly how the thing ended except that there were plenty of handshakes and smiles. I had prepared for an in-depth interview but actually said very little.
The experience made me think about how much time and money we waste in the West on recruitment -- expensive advertising, psychometric tests, harrowing interviews and so on -- enlightened personnel departments recruit experienced staff through recommendations. I knew that the FAO at DJK had said very good things about me to his counterpart at ZUEL. I also knew that he had written me an excellent reference. That I had the knowledge and experience was not in question -- what was more important was how I came across to them and would I would fit into their organization?
The FAO told me that they would be in touch. And that was it.
Later that evening we travelled back to DJK in a sleeper bus.
Before we left I bought a small bottle of Chinese wine (46% proof). I mixed it with lemonade and drank the lot. If I had to spend the next eight hours in a semi-foetal position I'd prefer to be knocked out.
We arrived very early in DJK and hung around for two hours waiting for a taxi to get us back to the campus. It was still as cold as when we left. I was exhausted. Back at the campus I carted my bags to my flat.
Someone asked me how it had gone.
"Great" I replied.
All I thought was, "Never again!"
Chris Clancy lived in China for seven years. Most of this time was spent as associate professor of financial accounting at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law in Wuhan City, Hubei Province. He now lives in Thailand where he spends his time reading, writing, lecturing and, whenever he gets the chance, doing his level best to spread Austrian economics.