My week in pictures…

Interviewing the gameshow contestants.

Waiting impatiently for the gameshow to start.

Goldenbell!

Actors in the "fashion" skit. :)

Proud parents watch as their chefs make bruschetta.

Yes, well, we had fun. But boy, am I glad that’s over!

I leave you with a video of the song that has been permanently lodged in my poor brain for the past couple of months. I think this is one dance routine that, like the Macarena and Saturday Night, I will never, ever forget how to do…

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Little Stars

The English School’s Show is, as mentioned earlier in the week, underway.

Every day, two classes have been putting on their singing, dancing, acting extravaganza for a gym filled with proud parents and camcorders. We have practised so much that I find myself singing the songs from the show, any time I let my brain stop thinking about more useful things. I woke up in the middle of the night last night, coughing, and realised that I’d forgotten to refill the humidifier (AKA my current BFF, BTW). Groaning groggily, I stumbled into the kitchen in the dark, lugging the water tank with me. By the time I got back into bed, I realised that I was on the third chorus of “Continents and Oceans”. In the morning, I woke up and immediately launched into Abba’s “I Have A Dream” (the show’s finale). I have no control over any of this. I have sung the songs and danced the routines and rehearsed the lines over and over and over again so many times with the kids that I could probably put on a one-person, two-hour show with no need for any children to take part.

Fortunately, they’re not asking me to do that. Unlike school productions back home, however, the (foreign) teachers do take part in this one – we are, as I’ve mentioned before, the school’s proudest possessions, and they want to show us off. I get to do a fun take on a Korean quiz gameshow with my bunch, talking to them individually first in the typical gameshow “tell me about yourself” way. I am, apparently, “MC Hayley”. Then we do the quiz, and they write down the answers on their boards and hold them up to the cheers of the audience.

To be honest, our version makes an awful lot more sense to me than any parts of the show that I’ve seen on TV or online. It’s called Golden Bell, and it seems to have a cult following here, but to me it just seems like a bewildering, lengthy conversation.  I watch it sometimes as part of my Korean language-learning attempt, and although it’s useful for this, I can’t quite fathom what the point is. Perhaps the Korean sense of humour is still mostly over my head. Here’s a clip from an all-celebrity episode.

The kids love it, though, and they look so cute when they all troop excitedly on to the stage with their matching outfits, caps, and numbers, clutching their answer boards with an air of great importance. And – joy of joys! – every single child so far has got every answer correct, with perfect spelling and everything. I practically collapsed in a relieved heap once I ushered them off the stage and into the corridor after the first show. You know, I never once considered the feelings of stress that my teachers at school went through before events like the Christmas nativity play. Doing that year after year? They must all have been smokers, or heavy drinkers, or at the very least a little bit crazy.

I remember that we children were always incredibly nervous before such a performance. There were pale faces, stammerers, and trembling hands, and someone always froze on stage and forgot their lines. The Korean children aren’t anything like this – they seem to be born performers, every last one of them. Instead of being quiet and nervous, they jump around in excitement as they wait to go on stage, and they grin madly as they say their lines and do their dance routines. I envy them. Personally, I’ve been utterly terrified every time I’ve seen that hall full of proud parents pointing cameras at us.

Great job, everybody! I said joyfully as the tots bounced around me after the show. You did so well!

They bounced even more, pleased with my enthusiasm. I may have joined them in a little bouncing, also.

Hayley Teacha, candy please! They never miss an opportunity. Still, only one more show to go… and if it goes as well as the rest, there will probably be some visits to the dentist required in the near future. :)

Making friends with the right people

The school’s “English Show” is finally taking place this week, having been postponed back when we were all dying of Swine Flu.

See you tomorrow! I called to Jennifer as I stuck my head round the office door yesterday evening, the night before the opening performance.

Yes… and please to dress up! she replied. Drat.

The problem is, I explained to a friend as I despaired over the contents of my wardrobe, I have neither the knowledge nor the clothes that I suspect are required in order to do such a thing as “dress up”. I’m the only one who ever gets this warning, come to think of it. I have a feeling that the boss thinks I’m dippy enough to arrive in wearing a t-shirt and jogging bottoms as I would if I were just spending a normal school day teaching groups of infants to dance to Whigfield songs.

In the end, I wore a blouse that wouldn’t quite button when I first got here, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it now fits. It’s not exactly hanging loose, but it’s comfortable. It’s the diet here, I announced at lunch as I energetically chewed an octopus tentacle I’d discovered in my soup. The weight’s just going to keep coming off! Jennifer looked doubtfully at me as I reached the bottom of my second bowl of rice. But… you are Cooking Lady’s favourite! she said. She said it as if everyone must surely know what this means, and I looked blankly at her. She only likes big eaters! said Jennifer, looking sorry for me. I considered this. Cooking Lady (a middle-aged, somewhat fussy, mother hen type) chose that moment to appear by my side with an affectionate smile and another bowl of rice. She also put some extra kimchi into the almost empty dish in front of me, and then topped it all off by reaching me a plate of rice cakes.

Actually, now I came to think of it, this had been going on for quite some time. At first, I couldn’t stomach most of the food here. I would eat my rice and force down some soup water, and that was it. No wonder I lost weight. But now? The food has grown on me. I’m used to it, and I actually look forward to the selection of fermented cabbage, pickled radish cubes, vinegared red pepper sauce, fish soup, shredded vegetables, and dried squid that appears at the lunch table. I can now use chopsticks pretty naturally, so I suppose I’m also eating more quickly. And after I went into the kitchen for seconds a couple of times, Cooking Lady (who doesn’t like picky eaters – I can’t have a conversation with her, but I can tell a lot from her tone of voice and facial expressions!) became extremely fond of me.

She started bringing me more food before I was even halfway through my original bowl of rice, and she now kind of hovers around, watching me with a doting smile on her face and rushing to assist if she sees me reaching for something in a dish that’s too far across the table. And now that I’ve started venturing to speak a little bit of Korean here and there when I can, she loves me even more, as she’s the only one present who can’t speak any English at all. The other day as I took my bowls and chopsticks into the kitchen, I told her that the bibimbap was delicious, and that I’d enjoyed my lunch very much. She was so overcome that she gave me three satsumas and a slice of chocolate cake, jabbering away far too excitedly for me to have a hope of understanding her.

So. I guess the weight loss has come to a halt, eh?! I have an awma who all but forces me to eat everything on the table, and a Cooking Lady who will now be deeply hurt and offended if I don’t eat at least three times as much as everybody else. Ah well, what can you do…

Just call me Noo-na.

The Korean family I’ve been spending time with are lovely people.

The little boy calls me 누나 (“noo-na”), which is the word for big sister. In Korea, people don’t use real names very often, instead calling each other by the term for the relationship – big sister, little brother, uncle, cousin, and so on. Friends often use these terms, too, calling each other “big/little brother/sister” even though they’re not really related. I like it – it seems quite sweet and affectionate to me. Plus it’s useful for someone like me who can never for the life of me remember Korean names. So now, without even really noticing it happening, somehow I have a Korean 남동생 (“nam-dong-seng” – little brother), 엄마 (“awma” – mum), and 아빠 (“abba” – dad). It’s all a little surreal (especially since awma and abba are no more than about 12-14 years older than me), but quite good fun.

Not having a language in common with your “parents*” is somewhat challenging. We use the translator dictionaries on our phones a lot, when nam-dong-seng is not present or unable to translate for us. Other than that, the conversation in the car or at the dinner table is entirely in Korean. I’m still at the stage where I’m pretty much just listening intently for the verb in each sentence in the hope that it’s one of the 40 or so that I’ve learned, and then trying to guess what’s being said based on that plus hand gestures, facial expressions, and the reactions of the other family members.

Awma keeps giving me stuff. I constantly find myself amazed and humbled by the generosity of the Korean people. They will give you food they’ve bought for themselves, practically drag you by force into their homes for snacks and drinks, buy you thoughtful gifts, and regularly donate useful items to you. I often feel a little embarrassed by all this attention, and try to pay my way or refuse presents when it seems like it’s getting to be too much. But as soon as I try to put money in the hands of abba or beat him to the restaurant’s cash register to pay for dinner, he shoos me away almost angrily, looking horrified at the idea of letting me pay, or even splitting the bill. When I shake my head in the typical Western “I can’t possibly accept this” way, and try to refuse yet another gift from awma, she looks so sad and confused that I hurriedly accept it and thank her as profusely as my limited vocabulary permits. They went on holiday to France over Christmas, and brought me back presents, despite only having met me a few times beforehand!

The generosity and kindness of these people, and of Koreans in general, makes it so much easier to feel truly at home here. It doesn’t matter nearly as much that I’m struggling to pick up the language, or that I don’t have a clue what’s going on most of the time, when I have no doubt that people I barely know have such a desire to welcome me and look after me. Just yesterday, I was slipping and sliding my way home from school (on a Saturday! It seems that my school has no concept of a snow day, and we had to go in to make up for the day we missed due to snowy roads during the week), and made a dramatic, all-coughing, all-sneezing entrance into the corner shop, where awma works. That’s where we met, actually. She told me off for buying a packet of crisp-like snacks, using hand gestures to indicate that I was already quite fat and that these weren’t the solution. :) Anyway, she was very concerned by the fact that I was struggling to breathe, and there was no way I was going to attempt to explain to her that I was allergic to the dry air and suffering from sinus problems as a result. 추워요 (” chu-wah-yo” – cold!), I said instead. She gave a loud exclamation and disappeared behind the counter, rummaging through a shopping bag and emerging with a beautiful pair of red leather gloves, snapping off the plastic tag, and holding them out to me. I didn’t have the heart to show her the perfectly fine pair of mittens that were stuffed into my pocket, so after an attempt at refusal (met with another offended and hurt gaze) I meekly held out my hands and allowed her to put the gloves on me. She watched me proudly as I slid off into the icy evening, like a mother sending her only child off to his first day at school.

It’s really nice. It’s also a far cry from how I felt on my last day in China, cheated and angry and disappointed and betrayed. Sitting in that cosy living room as awma makes dinner and nam-dong-seng cheerfully chatters away as he shows me pictures from his holidays, with abba awkwardly but determinedly trying to ask me about my home country using the ten words that make up his entire English vocabulary, I feel safe.

I like it here. For a country and people that, a few months ago, I knew next to nothing about, it’s doing a pretty good job of impressing the socks of me!

*The Parents need not feel threatened by any of this. The Korean ones are very nice, but they’re not The Parents. And anyway, they don’t have Kat the Cat. ;)

Mayhem

Crossing the road in China is not for the faint-hearted.

Now, granted, I’ve become slightly more cautious about the whole road-crossing procedure since leaving Ballymena. In my home town, crossing the road meant dealing with either one or two lanes of traffic. Traffic which would be going no faster than 30mph, and which was guaranteed to stop if the lights changed to red. Should you try to jaywalk (a term which is mostly unknown and completely irrelevant) by weaving in and out of slowly moving cars to get to the other side, you could be certain that you’d survive the experience – drivers would stop if you got in their way. It was all very laid-back and, well, safe.

Travelling across Europe opened my eyes somewhat, and I quickly realised that road-crossing is rather more challenging in places like, say, Estonia or France. And then I came to Asia, where it’s really more of an extreme sport. I mean, Korea is bad. I’d a post all planned about the lack of road rules here, but it seems insignificant now that I’ve been to China.

In some places, there’s a total absence of traffic vs. pedestrian laws. Huge main roads and vast intersections with ten lanes of traffic coming from all directions (with no lane markings) fly along at motorway speed in the city centre. For the most part, there were no ‘little green man’ style crossings – just a zebra crossing marked on the road, and no other indication for the traffic to stop. Which it did not. Nor was there any point at which the traffic from all directions was at a halt, making it a safe opportunity to nip across. I know this because I stood on the edge of a kerb for a ridiculously long time waiting hopefully for this to happen. No you basically have to just go, and hope for the best.

I quickly learned that the only way I was going to have a chance of survival was to thrust myself into the middle of a group of Chinese people who looked like they were thinking about crossing the road. I didn’t even look at the streams of speeding vehicles on all sides; I simply fastened myself to the group and walked when they walked. You have to pause several times at various points in the road as cars zip around you. And if you’re waiting for a gap to appear in the next lane, and a car approaches in the one you’re still in, it honestly won’t stop. It will either hurtle towards you, honking loudly, or try to swerve around you, causing much screeching of brakes as it almost causes a collision with traffic coming the other way. The whole thing is just horrendous. And hilarious. I actually burst out laughing when I got to the other side for the first time after my safety in numbers brainwave. I think it might have been nerves and hysterica mixed with my amusement at the insanity of it all.

Even when there is a little green man, the cars don’t actually stop for it. I studied the situation in great detail, and can honestly conclude that I see no reason whatsoever for the existence of traffic lights in China.

On the bus back to Beijing from the Great Wall, Chandler and I clung to our seats, our faces white with terror, as the driver alternately blared the horn and screeched to a halt to narrowly avoid slamming into other vehicles. Chandler swore a lot in an attempt to conceal his fear and appear cool. I just gasped and closed my eyes.

Holy ****, are those people actually strolling across the freeway?! he almost yelled at one point, his voice going all squeaky. We gazed out of the window in disbelief for a while, observing the pushbikes and handcarts and rickety rickshaws and pedestrians all competing with the 7950-lane motorway traffic. Old men with walking sticks and women with bags on their heads were quite unconcernedly crossing the motorway on foot as vehicles zoomed around them at breakneck speed.

We were traumatised by the time we arrived back in rush-hour Beijing and staggered off the bus into the loud, bustling crowds of people and traffic. All we could do was cling to each other as we attempted to cross the road to get to the subway station and found ourselves stranded in the middle, being honked at and yelled at. When we did finally get across, we were swept along by the crowd as if caught in a tidal wave, while all around us people made apparent suicide runs into the roads and cars drove blindly into the paths of oncoming trucks. This is a little bit mad, I remember thinking to myself as I was pushed and shoved and jostled by the roaring, swarming crowd. I was jolted out of my thoughts by Chandler, who hadn’t spoken for a while, being completely occupied with the task of self-preservation (and holding on to my sleeve – “in case you get trampled”).

****ing hell, this place is ****ing crazy! he remarked with a laugh that sounded halfway between demented and terrified.

I think his way said it better than my way.

Slowing down: a mother and children caught in Beijing traffic jam.

Slowing down: a mother and children caught in Beijing traffic jam.

China’s ugly face.

I always read up on every destination I visit before I arrive, which gives me an idea of what to expect in terms of culture, history, sights, and that sort of thing. It also gives me a heads up on things to look out for – namely con men and scams targeting Stupid Foreigners. I have always prided myself on being clued in about such things. It’s almost 2 years since I left Norn Iron to travel the world, and I haven’t been conned once (that I know of!). Am smart, sassy, independent and worldy-wise traveller. No one messes with me.

The most off-putting thing about China, for me, was the fact that it was crawling with scammers. It seemed that everywhere I looked there were people vying for my attention in an effort to get money out of me. The popular misconception there is that foreigners are all filthy rich, and as a result, there are huge numbers of people cooking up ways of parting fools from their money.

It honestly is quite depressing to not even be able to walk down the street without a constant stream of people tugging at your sleeve, following you, calling to you, trying to force you into accepting whatever ‘generous’ service it is that they’re offering. As a foreigner, you stand out from the crowd (most of Beijing’s tourists are Chinese people from rural areas), and everyone wants your attention. I quickly learned to stop looking up when I heard the word “hello”, knowing that it wasn’t someone trying to be friendly – it was someone trying to get me to agree to parting with cash.

I arrived in Beijing and started walking towards my hostel. Rickshaw, missy, rickshaw yes? I shook my head politely at Friendly Rickshaw Driver, and continued walking. Apparently he followed me, because he appeared at my side as soon as I stopped to check my scribbled directions. I showed him the hostel name. It’s just down here, right?

Friendly Rickshaw Man smiled and grabbed my bag. Lookee-lookee! Is walking long-time! You sittee! Perhaps because I was genuinely surprised and delighted that he was really speaking like Wun Lung from the Billy Bunter books, and also because  I thought the rickshaw thing might be kind of cool, I hesitated. He was just trying to make some honest money, right? How much? I asked, good-naturedly enough. Three! he replied. I nodded. Smart, sassy, independent and worldly-wise traveller got into the rickshaw. Friendly Rickshaw Man pedalled for about 2 or 3 minutes, then stopped. I saw a hostel sign, but it was at the other end of the alleyway he’d pulled into. That should really have been my heads up, but anyway. I gave him 3 yuan. This is not much money – less than 30p – but it sounded about right given that my subway journey had cost me 2 yuan.

Friendly Rickshaw Man laughed and produced a card, pointing at the number beside “Take to hostel”. Three hundred! he said, suddenly recalling the word that had apparently slipped his mind at first. With a sinking heart, I shook my head. You said three, I said firmly. Friendly Rickshaw Man became Angry Con Man. We had a completely ridiculous argument for several minutes, which ended with me marching towards the hostel – which wasn’t even the right one! – with him in hot pursuit. I pleaded for help, and the receptionist called a security guard, who dealt with Angry Con Man and then escorted me to the correct hostel to make sure I wasn’t mugged. Welcome to Beijing.

Yep, that one I escaped – just about. I was not so fortunate with two other scammers.

1. Arriving back in Beijing after visiting Xi’an, I approached a taxi driver and showed him my map, with the hostel clearly marked. I made sure to go to an official taxi rank, and not to the touts in unmarked cars who I knew charged tourists 100 yuan for a journey that costs 15. The taxi driver said something I didn’t understand, gestured me towards a woman I assumed was his wife, and drove off in his perfectly legal taxi. The woman opened the door of the next taxi for me and threw in my bag. It was only at this point that I noticed, in my tired state, that it was not a real taxi.

I know I should have taken my bag back and walked away. But honestly, I was so tired and so cold and so fed up with having to be super-aware of people trying to get my money at every step and turn, I just didn’t have the energy. I got into the “taxi” and just nodded sadly when the driver wrote down “100” and held it up for me to agree to. I sighed heavily most of the way there. Not so much because of losing the money (as it was really only what a taxi ride of that length would legitimately cost in most European cities), but more because I found it incredibly depressing that this was what these people did for a living – that the driver was chuckling in glee to himself, thinking I had no idea that I was being charged nearly 7 times the correct fare. That sort of thing just sickens me. I wonder how many people they steal from like that on a daily basis – and how many people don’t even know?

2. This one annoyed me the most. On my last day in Beijing, I was sitting on a bench on a busy street, having a rest, when a couple in their thirties stopped beside me to cross the road. Hi! said the man. Cold, isn’t it?! Where are you from?

He spoke and acted so casually that I suspected nothing. He was just a tourist, like me, except that he was Chinese. He was also one of few people I’d met there who could speak fluent English. Quite glad of some company and conversation, I chatted pleasantly with him, and then he raised his hand in farewell. Too cold! he said laughingly, we’re going to get something hot to drink! He hesitated as he stepped off the kerb. Maybe you would like to join us?

I did. He seemed really nice, although I felt bad for his girlfriend, who didn’t speak English. She didn’t seem to care that he completely ignored her the whole time, which I suppose should have seemed a little odd to me. We went into the first tea shop we found, and were taken into a little private room… clue number 2, perhaps. A sign on the wall said “30 yuan per person”. A little steep (I’d been buying meals for less than that), but I was OK with it just to get out of the cold and have company for a while. Anyway, so in comes a girl in traditional attire to perform a sacred Chinese tea ceremony for us. Having studied all this in great detail when I was writing 50 articles on the subject of Green Tea (!), I was very interested in the whole procedure. We tried several different kinds of tea – a thimbleful of each one – and continued to talk and laugh.

The laughter stopped at approximately the same moment as the bill appeared and I saw that it was for over 800 yuan. We will split in half? asked my “friend”, looking a little nervous for the first time. I stared, panic-stricken, at the bill. B-b-but… it’s meant to be 30 each!

The waitress pushed aside a plant to reveal the rest of the sign. 30 yuan per person, per type of tea, it said. 100 yuan for fruit platter (I’d had one satsuma) and 100 yuan for cookie platter (I’d had none). There was nothing I could do. I spluttered, I protested, I gazed in utter disappointment at my “friend”, but I had to pay. Not half, mind you. I paid 200, which happened to be all the money I had on me, and dramatically showed them my empty purse. My “friend” made up the rest despite a disapproving look from both his “girlfriend” and the waitress. I wonder how much his cut was. He tried to shake hands with me when we got outside, but I just glared at him, close to tears. Check it’s a rich person, next time, I growled at him before walking off swiftly into the crowds once more. Again, I was more annoyed at being fooled (and by someone I thought genuinely wanted to be my friend) than at losing the money. Still, 20 quid for a few thimbles of tea… gah.

Note to self: in China, trust no one. No matter how smart, sassy, independent and worldly-wise you are!

All Part Of The Experience

Staying in a hostel in Beijing, I befriended a couple of guys in my dorm and went to see the Great Wall of China with them.

Look, it was cold, OK?!

Look, it was cold, OK?!

Joey and Chandler were fun travel companions. (OK, only one of those names is real. :)) Joey lived up to his name by being the only person I’ve met on my travels who was more lacking in the common sense department than me. I think I always automatically assume that if someone is off travelling the world on their lonesome, they must be really worldy-wise, sensible, logical, and practical – forgetting, of course, that I am one of those solo travellers and have none of the aforementioned qualities. Because of this, I tend to follow the lead of anyone I happen to pair up with, naturally expecting them to know where things are, or remember the way back to the hostel, or be able to understand the subway map.

With Joey, I quickly realised that I’d made a mistake. When, on our second evening together, I blindly followed him into another underground road crossing only to emerge on the wrong street for the 4th time in our two-hour hike to the train station that was a 20-minute walk away, it suddenly dawned on me that I was actually the more competent traveller. It was natural to me to leave the navigation to him, because that’s Just What I Do. And he – like everyone else – had an air of casual confidence (the kind that says “Hey, I know what I’m doing!”) that I never have. However – unlike everyone else – this confidence was in no way justified. He really had no idea how to read a map or work out which way he should be going based on his surroundings. I was somewhat surprised to find myself becoming impatient with his cluelessness, and even more taken aback when I heard myself saying “Erm, no… you see, that’s the road we’ve just been walking along for the past 15 minutes… give me the map.” It seems that being lost by yourself in one big city after another does wonders for your ability to think logically and find your way. I looked at the map, looked around us, worked out where we were, and got us to our destination without any further confusion. And Joey followed meekly, looking relieved to be no longer in charge.

Good grief, what’s happened to me?! They say that travel is all about self-discovery. Up until now, I’ve found it to be more about constantly losing myself, but I guess the experience really is changing me!

Poor Joey. He managed to get himself lost at the Great Wall. Chandler and I found our lungs struggling to cope with the incredibly steep climb and the painfully cold air, so we took it at our own pace and stopped frequently to get our breath back. Look, it really is very steep, that wall thing.

Joey, filled with boyish enthusiasm and manly bravado, tore ahead with great, loping strides and a look of pity at his weakling roommates, leaving us watching in admiration as he became a small speck in the distance. Chandler and I met each other again back at the bottom entrance to the Wall, after a pleasant morning of strolling, taking pictures, resting, and taking in the spectacular views.

Joey was nowhere to be seen. We searched for him in every nearby coffee shop and rest spot, but eventually had to get on to a bus back to the city, fearing frostbite. It later emerged that he had, in fact, been overcome with cold and exhaustion approximately 5 minutes after bounding off energetically ahead of the weaklings. The weaklings made it to the highest point of the wall and returned with many photos and no aches or pains. Joey, although somewhat unforthcoming with the exact details, presumably collapsed in a heap and spent the rest of the day half-crawling, half-falling back down the Wall, and then ended up somewhere in the suburbs of Beijing because he couldn’t remember where he was meant to get off the bus and had failed to bring his map.

He remained smiling and cheerful, however. I found his shrug-it-off-and-march-into-the-next-disaster attitude quite endearing, possibly because it reminded me of myself. Ah, how far I’ve come! I thought as I observed him in a big-sisterly sort of way.

Then I got utterly lost in Xi’an, despite having a map, because I came out of the underground road crossing on to the wrong street and completely failed to notice this for at least half an hour, becoming increasingly alarmed that none of the streets on my map were where they were supposed to be. I was a little disappointed in myself, but mostly oddly relieved. Being a bit of a dippy wanderer is who I am, you see. I’m not sure that I’m ready to part with that just yet…