We’re so happy to be back in Thailand.
Ian and I didn’t smile much in the last few months. We’ve been struggling with extreme isolation and difficulties with our (now former) employers, and we both realized it had been taking a toll both physically and mentally. I’m not sure we realized just how extreme our transformation would be when we hit the ground in Bangkok.
Ian’s appetite disappeared for pretty much the entire time in China. He’s lost ten kilos from when he was last in Thailand, and he was by no means a fat bastard then.
The realization that we might have been catastrophically lied to combined with the stress of leaving was, for me, compounded by a run of bad health in the weeks up to our departure. One small malady after another has worn me down in the past month; none bad enough to keep me in bed, but just enough to run me down excessively. I look haggard.
Virtually overnight, this is gone. This is our first morning in Bangkok and I’ve woken up feeling like my old self. Ian even managed to eat two full airline meals and then pick at leftovers from mine. Airline meals! Two of them!
Well, our time in Xinjiang has come to an abrupt end and we’re en route to Thailand to begin a tour of continental SE Asia.
The last few weeks have most definitely been rough on both of us; the stresses of the last week especially have tested our sanity to breaking point. Here’s the story;
Going out for a company meal in China is all part and parcel of the
way things are done here. None of this going for a beer after work
nonsense, it’s a full banquet or, literally, nothing. As non-Chinese
speakers we are, thankfully, left out of the majority of
inter-departmental small-talk and can focus on the real reason we’re
all gathered at table: the banquet bounty itself.
Some of the more noticeable points here are:
The excessive amount of food
There are 15 people seated at the table and they serve food for, oh,
roughly, about 40 people. Food comes in a what seemed like a rather ad
hoc fashion, but there is some sort of method to the madness. First
come a succession of what I suppose you’d have to call salads,
disinguishable from the rest of the food mainly by being cold.
Then come a succession of smaller meat dishes and the vegetable
dishes. The highlight for me is braised eggplant and capsicum in a
sticky hoi sin sauce, which I naturally over-indulged in. Tofu also
features highly, these folks know what to do with soy bean!
Then come the centrepiece dishes; seafoods, duck, chicken (boney as
hell) and, unbelievably, Mongolian beef, JUST LIKE AT HOME!!! I nearly
cried with happiness, but it seems this particular piece of heaven
hasn’t made it as far as Scotland, because Ian had never heard of it.
The Peking duck, athough a long, long way from home, was also most
welcome. One of the highlights of living in this region is that pork
is not ubiquitous; due to the high Muslim population, these banquets
always feature my favourite meat, lamb instead, and the lamb here is
absolutely to die for;
The five per cent alcohol – that got our colleagues smashed.
They served alcohol there, but not exactly as you might recognise it.
A steady flow of extremely fruity red wine is delovered to the table.
The bottles are immediately flattened the second they arrive, but not
in the way you might think. It’s polite to serve other people’s
glasses before your own (instead of your own) and so the second a
bottle arrives it’s grabbed by a hospitable fellow-diner and shared
among all 15 people at the table.
The difference here is that the wine is about 5 per cent and the
glasses are small, so each glass of wine lasts Ian precisely 2.5
seconds: i.e. the amount of time it takes him to politely wait one
second, grab the glass and raise it to his mouth.
This causes a problem if, like me, you have decided for the sake of
your health, to have a week relatively off alcohol and came with no
intention of drinking (and the crappy wine in any case takes up
valuable Mongolian-beef-space). It’s rude to refuse the glass, or not
subsequently refuse to drink it, and yet, there’s 15 people around the
table, meaning that our glasses are to be filled 13 times in the name
of hospitality. What to do? Well, of course, a sneaky sideways flick
of the booze into Ian’s glass keeps us both happy, he gets a more
respectable share of the wine; I get to (more or less) stick to my
Not to cast any apsersion on China or Chinese as a whole… but…
seriously, the people at our company, man, they cannot drink. Two
100ml glasses of 5 per cent alcohol and all the girls are giggly and
walking on more severe diagonals than normal. Ian gets many looks of
awe and I get many looks of pity as he soaks up all the available
wine; unsurprisingly he remains almost completely unaffected. More
than one of the co-teachers were rough and well off their game the
following day. (Being of Celtic descent is both a blessing and a curse in China.
Imagine a Scottish Legolas drinking with Chinese dwarves: Ian)
The seating order
One of the more interesting things we noted is that the Chinese
teachers we work with automatically arranged themselves in order of
seniority, leading away from our manager. There was the big boss (next
to Ian, lucky him…) then our manger, then the longest serving
teacher, then then next longest… and so on, down to the girl who was
hired only a few weeks ago. And the newest girl was the one
continually sent to fetch new bottles of wine from the waiter. What’s
that you say? Sixty years of communism making an equal society? Bah!
Pix coming once we’re in a country that doesn’t have sucky internet.
As all the world knows (or ought to, or will very soon) the mainland Chinese LOOOOOVE their mobile phones. They also love shouting. And chicken feet, but that’s a different post.
But surely, at one of Xinjiang’s most beautiful places; a fairyland lake of sapphire blue water surrounded by emerald hills, watched over by spectacular snowy peaks; an alpine region that earns complimentary comparisons to the European alps; a place totally, amazingly different to the hundreds of kilometres of red-rock deserts that surrounds it; surely, surely they’d just shut up and drink in the views.
Right? Right? Ummmmmmm, nope.
As we’ve already commented, the Chinese are nose to tail eaters. Along with chicken breasts you can buy chicken heads and chicken feet at every supermarket. Like pork chops? They’re just beside the trotters and snouts. Like salmon? Well, you can only have thin slices of it at exorbitant prices. But, hell, we’re living in the most inland city this rock has to offer.
Aside from the weird stuff, there’s a vertitable feast of good meats on offer too. A favourite Chinese snack is beef or yak jerky. It comes is all kinds of flavours and is a perfect beer-time snack. The best tasting jerky is nothing more than thin strips of beef, cut from a joint, dried and put in a packet. Others come basted in spice mixes and are also fun.
Roast horse is my absolute favourite. We were invited to attend a Kazakh coming of age ceremony (well, asked to be entertainment as it turned out) and given a free meal afterwards. First thing out on the table: a huge lump of roasted horse on the bone. Brilliant! As the only guy in the group, it was my job to get my hands dirty and carve; something that gave me huge satisfaction. For those who have never tasted it, our equine friends come somewhere between beef and venison in the red meat stakes (pun intended). We should eat more horse, that’s all I’m saying.
Thus far we’ve been invited to two weddings in Urumqi: one Han and the other Uyghur. As examples of comparative anthropolgy they’ve been very interesting.
Take, for example, a Han Chinese wedding. The one I attended (Ange couldn’t make it) was the wedding of our supervisor and it was a wet affair. The common drink to dish out here is a clear liquid death called baijiu (sounds a bit like bye, Jo) which (in the more expensive cases) comes in porcelain containers and is served in shot glasses. Typically, the stuff ranges from 50%-85% proof and just one leaves a taste of nailpolish remover in your mouth for hours afterwards. It’s fairly minging. Does the job though, no mistake about that! And it’s not a good idea to have one when you’ve a class later that day. ‘You smell like Daddy’ is not something you want your students telling you of a weekday afternoon. Packets of cigarettes are left on all the tables for people to help themselves.
For all that’s on the blog now, we still haven’t said anything much about what we do in Xinjiang.
Maybe it’s just something that is so much a part of our daily lives now that it’s in the background and therefore not worth commenting upon. Well, we’re ‘foreign experts’ (true, our visas say so) and are here teaching oral (snigger) English. Basically, we get paid 3-4 times local wages to make noises (see Logic post) at kids and confuse them with our incomprehensible use of articles (a, an, the). We teach kids from the ages of 3 (pointless) to 12 (annoying) at a language training school which, as we have discovered, doesn’t actually have a license to do what it’s doing. In other countries this might prove a major operational problem, but, fortunately, we’re in China – land of the bribe – which makes these things easier. We’re just asked to disappear whenever official-types are coming over. (At least, this was the case six months ago, I hope things have moved along a little now)
The thing I was most scared of, before moving out here to the middle of bum-fuck-nowhere was not the isolation, the language barrier, or the violent riots three years ago that so damaged the reputation of this region (yes we feel safe and, oddly, I’ve never had anyone warm me against going to London…)
No, what scared this warm-weather-girl were the climate charts… read ‘em and weep. I did! This is a city at high altitude, and its claim to fame is that it’s the most inland city on the planet. Yeah, I bet you’re jealous of us now!
It’s not that mainland Chinese are impolite it’s just that… okay, this one is hard to explain. For example, roughly shoving someone out of the way on public transport or poking somebody in the kidneys is entirely acceptable and the locals don’t bat an eyelid. This drives me crazy and I’m not the only one.
One of the most entertaining sights I’ve seen here in Urumqi was a friendly older American man we’ve bumped into on a few occasions: on this occasion he was in full flight at the doors on a bus, turning in small circles, waving his finger and shouting “don’t push me, don’t push me, no pushing, don’t you dare push me” at bemused Chinese, who were no doubt wondering why the crazy laowai wasn’t going to let them off at their stop. Nothing shouts ‘time for a holiday’ like the desire to take on all one billion Chinese over the shoving issue!
Okay, maybe starting this topic was a big mistake for two reasons.
1. I only have so many hours in the day and there is a LOT of weird shit I don’t understand here, and;
2. I’ve been in China six months, sure, but I reckon you could be here for years and still find there’s a lot that doesn’t make any sense from an outsider perspective. I’m a long, long, long way from expertise.
Nonetheless, here goes, a list of the top four differences between China and my home, as seen by me (NB: we work for a company dominated by Han Chinese and live in a predominantly Han neighbourhood, and so it is the Han way of doing things I reference below.)