Near London

I often hear people ask English people which city they are from, and nine times out of ten the English person will reply “I’m from near London.” Sometimes they even say it in a fake cockney accent for effect. “LANDAN, MATE!”

I’ve always wondered about this. Especially when the vast majority of these people are from nowhere near London (though comparatively speaking, in a country as small as England nowhere is really very far away from anywhere else). Now, it’s possible to argue that the reason they claim to be from ‘near London’ is because if they told people where they were really from (Milton Keynes, Bath, Reading, Leeds, Beesands in Devon) the odds are anyone who wasn’t British wouldn’t have heard of it so would be none the wiser.

However, let’s be honest here.

We all know the real reason so many people erroneously claim to be from this mysterious, far-reaching neverland called ‘Near London’ is because the place they are really from is shit boring and they want to be associated with somewhere more glamorous instead. There’s a world of difference between telling a hot Ukranian air stewardess you meet in a night club that you’re from London and watching her melt (“I love London soooooo much!”) and telling her you’re from Chipping Norton and then spending the next fifteen minutes trying to explain where it is. As world cities go, London is right up there with Paris and Milan as geographical aphrodisiacs. Chipping Norton, not so much. And when the hot Ukranian air stewardess finds out its nowhere near London she’ll drop you like a hot coal. For as long as the blissful ignorance lasts, you’re in with a shout.

It’s hilarious when their guilt starts to show.

“Oh, you’re from London?”

“No, NEAR London.”

The subtext being: Come on, get it right! Knowing full-well all their friends and family from Chipping Norton would mock them to within inches of their life if they were overheard telling anyone they were from London. NEAR London? Well, there’s some wiggle room there.

I see it as my duty to call them out on their bullshit.

“I’m from near London, bruv!”

“What’s the name of your town?”

“Yeovil.”

“Oh, so about 130-miles near London?”

Conversely, I was discussing this with a Chinese friend recently who said that when foreigners ask her where she’s from, she often does the opposite. And she’s not the only one. It’s a common theme, apparently. It would be easy for Chinese people to say they are from Beijing or Shanghai, probably the only two Chinese cities the vast majority of people unfamiliar with China would recognize, even if they weren’t. But instead, they say they are from Mengzi City in Yunnan Province, or a remote mountain village in northern Guizhou province.

Then, they take great delight studying the foreigner’s reactions. Will they claim to know all about it in an attempt to win favour or avoid a potentially mutually embarrassing situation? Will they show a polite but obviously fake interest? Or will they just be completely bewildered and unable to comprehend the fact that they were talking to a Chinese person who wasn’t from Beijing or Shanghai?

This juxtaposition is fascinating, and a telling reflection of the contrasting social etiquette in east and west, and especially England and China. English people are always trying to elevate themselves above their station and are anxious to be seen as somehow better than what they really are. They think claiming to be from ‘near London’ helps them achieve this. On the other hand you have the naturally modest Chinese who would rather not be associated with a big, glamorous city, thank you very much. They wouldn’t consider themselves to be from ‘near London’ even if they were.

Let’s Talk About…. The Glory Years.

Welcome to the latest installment of Let’s talk About, where we tackle the most pressing China-related topics. If you’re late to the party, firstly, mine’s a cold one. And secondly, you can catch up on previous posts about internet dating and the importance of being funny at your leisure. For now, though, we have to crack on.

You remember the glory years of teaching in China, right? Depending on who you talk to, they started around the turn of the century (the 21st Century) and lasted until new legislation introduced in 2017 which, in turn, was part of a wider educational reform. This new legislation required foreign teachers working in China to have a bachelor’s degree, a Criminal Background Check, and a TEFL qualification (or teaching experience). Crucially, the new legislation required these documents to be checked and notarized by a registered solicitor, which effectively put a stop to people breezing through on false documents. Additionally, the new legislation held not just the teachers but their employers responsible, ensuring the schools did their own level of policing, which they hadn’t really done before.

Pre-2017, the teaching landscape in China was like the Wild West. The assumption was that all you really needed to be an English teacher was to be a white native speaker. To be honest, that assumption wasn’t very wide of the mark. During that time, I knew a lot of foreign teachers who had blagged jobs using fake degrees they’d bought online. The likelihood is that many of the places they worked for knew the degrees weren’t real, they just didn’t care. All they worried about was that on the face of it they looked real, and by making sure they had one the schools had done their due diligence. It wasn’t their fault if the teachers they employed pulled the wool over their eyes, was it?

I’d just like to point out here that some of those guys working on fake degrees were actually very dedicated, capable and efficient teachers. They had to be, because they were flying without a safety net. On the other hand, some of the worst, most inept and wilfully incompetent teachers I have been unlucky enough to deal with have been fully qualified. Just because you happen to have the right accreditation, it doesn’t make you a good teacher. In a perfect world maybe it would, but we all know the world isn’t perfect. So yeah, its not an ideal system, but at least the Chinese authorities took steps to regulate it.

The changes meant that a lot of unqualified teachers were forced out of the job, and that caused a knock-on effect. Suddenly, there were less teachers available to work in a still-booming sector. Happily for legitimate teachers, that drove the salaries up allowing foreign teachers to earn a lot more. My first job in China was teaching a university in Beijing in 2007-08 where the salary was 4,800 RMB. The last job I had in China eleven years later paid three times that. But even this silver lining came at a cost. The schools decided that if they were going to be paying top whack for foreign teachers, they were damn well going to get their money’s worth. And who could blame them? The happy-go-lucky approach to teaching, where you were given free reign and considered yourself lucky to even be given a text book to use, disappeared over night. Back then, they didn’t care what you taught. All you had to do was turn up. In fact, you weren’t expected to teach much of anything. You were more of an entertainer. The real teaching was left to the Chinese teachers who knew what they were doing, and were being paid a fraction of what the foreign teachers got for doing it, which made some of them rather resentful of us. Understandably so.

Now, in this brave new world, foreign teachers are not only expected to teach 18 periods a week, but are constantly being coerced into designing courses, moderating exams, and any amount of extra-curricular activities like participating in English corners, judging contests, adjudicating debates, or being guests of honour at singing or dancing competitions. Office hours, previously something only seen at training centres, are becoming increasingly common as schools and universities try to squeeze out as much blood as they can from you, and new loopholes are appearing as representatives from other departments try to circumvent the terms of your employment contract by having you work extra hours on the down-low. That 18-hours a week which looked so appealing on your contract is soon extrapolated to 30 or 35 hours, and on top of that you still have to prep classes, mark homework and attend meetings, all under the constant glare of the higher-ups who just can’t wait for you to fuck something up so they can give their egos a boost by putting the tawdry foreigner in his place.

You might say the schools are well within their rights to expect all this extra work, and who knows, maybe you’re right. I’m not making any judgements here, I’m just relating how much things have changed. The ‘glory years’ of not having to work very hard are gone forever. Foreigners teaching English in China have to be professional, educated, and prepared to work long hours. Yes, the money is better, but many think the pay-off isn’t worth it. What’s the point of working abroad if you are always too busy to enjoy it? You may as well just find a comparative job in your home country, where things are more familiar and you don’t have to put up with people staring at you in the street.

The situation has further been exacerbated by several factors, including COVID-19 and the associated travel restrictions and yet more legislation which came into effect on September 1st 2021. This latest rules were aimed at governing the private tutoring sector, where so many training schools had previously operated and effectively banned for-profit tutoring core subjects (like English) ostensibly to boost the birth rate by lowering living costs. This will undoubtedly spell the end for most training schools, even the big chains, which in turn will push more teachers toward government-sanctioned schools and universities making competition for jobs even more fierce. The general feeling is that China is making efforts to keep more of its teaching jobs (and therefore its wealth) ‘in-house’ which could be interpreted any number of ways. Sceptics are convinced that the reason behind it all is that China just wants less foreign workers. How this will all pan out is anybody’s guess.

Reading through this post something occurred to me. This has all been written from a teacher’s perspective. A teacher who was there in the so-called glory days of teaching in China and all the days since. The education sector evolves and mutates over time just like anything else, and sometimes change is tough to deal with. Sometimes, you have to accept things the way they are and roll with the punches.

But what we should never forget is what this is really all about, and that’s the students. They matter most. As long as they get a decent education, and get what they pay for, it’s all good. Hopefully, the government, the schools, and the teachers can all pull in the same direction and work towards a common goal.

This is China 4: Misadventures in the Middle Kingdom Part 4 – The Return is out now on ebook and paperback.

TIC 4 – OUT NOW!

Previous instalments of This is China: Misadventures in the Middle Kingdom took a forensic look at the author’s initial move to China back in 2007, his early struggles to overcome culture shock whilst trying to survive the brutal north-Chinese winter and navigate his way through various inter-personal relationships, his wild three-year stint in the entertainment hub of Changsha, and his long-awaited move to London to fulfil his dream of becoming a magazine journalist. There, along with the glamorous, celebrity-schmoozing lifestyle, came gambling addiction, a relapse into substance abuse, and some memorable run-ins with corporate duplicity. Soon, burned out, depressed and disillusioned, he stood at another of life’s crossroads.

After a considerable amount of soul searching he decides on a return to China where he feels he has unfinished business and takes up a teaching position in the booming southern metropolis of Guangzhou. The plan was to be a model professional, keep his head down, live a quiet life and save some money. But as most of us know, things rarely go to plan. The moment he arrives he is faced with a string of situations far more dangerous, depraved, and debauched than he has ever experienced.

And that’s before the entire world is plunged into chaos.

He used to wonder what would happen if dreams came true. Now he wonders what you do when your worst nightmares becomes reality.

This is China: Misadventures in the Middle Kingdom Part 4- The Return is out now on ebook and paperback.

666 – The Number of the Smooth

I’ve talked before about the little cultural differences between China and the West, and also the influence of numbers in China like Double Eleven and 520.

Here’s an especially weird one…

If you are a Westerner, or come from any country with a Christian influence, you will no doubt recognize the number 666 as being the mark of the devil, or the Number of the Beast, as mentioned in the Book of Revelations (13:17-18) and famously popularized by Iron Maiden. Basically, in Western culture the number is representative of the Antichrist (please refer to the classic movie the Omen) and has become synonymous with Satan.

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However, in China, 666 has nothing to do with Satan whatsoever, and is actually a positive thing.

This is because the Chinese language is full of homophones, which makes it easy to turn numbers into proxies for words and phrases. In this case, the Mandarin pronunciation of the number 6 (in pinyin, liu) is the same pronunciation as the character which means ‘smooth, or well.’ Therefore 666 has come to mean something like ‘everything is going well/smoothly’ and you often see it as text shorthand or incorporated into group chats.

This is a relatively recent phenomenon and is believed to have evolved directly from China’s obsession with the computer game League of Legends (LOL). Players would use it as a quick and easy way to express admiration for good gameplay, first in open chat forums then later on livestreaming platforms, meaning that often all an observer would see would be a string of 6’s.

So there ya go.

For more cultural analysis, check out the This is China: Misadventures in the Middle Kingdom series of books.

Let’s Talk About…

I’ll be starting a series on this blog soon called Let’s Talk About…

The idea is every so often, when the mood takes me, I’ll take a long, hard look at various aspects of Chinese culture. I’m not going to preach or anything like that. I might give an opinion, but the main purpose will be to highlight and, well, talk about it. I hope it will generate some discussion, and maybe even help improve people’s understanding. Especially people who have any interest or relationship with China.

So far, topics I am considering are the differences between Chinese and western humour, online dating, dealing with Chinese parents, teaching Chinese kids, the spitting thing, and queuing, or lack of it, as the case may be. If you have any other ideas or topics you’d like to see me tackle, I’d love to hear from you. The whole shebang kicks off soon with a post on racism. More specifically, racism in China. That’ll be fun, right? No. Not fun at all, actually. Which is precisely why we need to talk about it so urgently.

I’m not sure how often I’ll publish new instalments, but when I do I’ll share them to my Facebook page so hopefully they’ll get some coverage.

Please consider signing up for this blog on the homepage and/or giving my posts the occasional ‘like’ or ‘share.’ It really means a lot.

OUT NOW…

After spending over five years in Beijing, Tianjin, and Hunan Province, Part 3 of the acclaimed This is China series sees the author leaves China to pursue his dream of writing for a famous magazine in London. At first it’s everything he expected it to be; glamorous, eventful and fun-packed, and aside from rubbing shoulders with celebs and living the high life in England’s capital, he enjoys decadent sojourns in Magaluf, Bordeaux and several other European hotspots.

However, along with the celebrity-chasing lifestyle came gambling addiction, a relapse into substance abuse, and more heartbreak. He experiences a succession of personal and professional ups and downs, falls foul of office politics and industrial duplicity, and through it all endures the pain of broken connections and a constant yearning for a return to the Middle Kingdom to seek yet more misadventure.

Eventually, the pull proves irresistible.

If you have any interest in China, teaching English abroad, or the dynamics of cross-cultural relationships, these books are for you because…

This is China.

This is China Part 3: The Wilderness Years is out now on paperback and ebook from Red Dawn publishing.

This is China: Misadventures in the Middle Kingdom Part 2 – Hunan Province (Extract)

After fleeing recession-hit Britain in September 2007, I spent a year living and working as an English teacher in Beijing before meeting a girl and moving to Tianjin, northern China, which is very much like a Chinese Middlesbrough. If you’ve never heard of Middlesbrough, then you get my point. Needless to say, the girl promptly dumped me for another guy leaving me in a strange city in a foreign country with no friends and a job I hated. I taught in a primary school, and though they were sweet and adorable on the outside, on the inside those kids were the embodiment of evil. They almost broke me. I spiralled into a life of booze, solitude and borderline depression, punctuated only by the occasional bout of meaningless sex. I didn’t think I would survive another Tianjin winter, and overall the place didn’t leave a good impression on me, so I decided to run down my contract at my school and move somewhere else in China. Hopefully, somewhere warmer.

I didn’t want to teach kids anymore, so I found a job as a writing instructor at HMMC (Hunan Mass Media College) in Changsha, Hunan Province, which was about as close to journalism as I could get at the time. I didn’t know anything about Changsha. But by this time I’d learned not to jump into anything blind, so I did some research. Located on the Xiang River, Changsha is described as a ‘culturally important’ city, though not internationally recognized in the same way Beijing and Shanghai are, and has over 3,000 years of history. It was occupied by the Japanese for a short time during the Japanese-Sino war of 1937-45, and is the place where Mao Zedong (Chairman Mao, the revolutionary founding father of the PRC) went to school and converted to communism. These days, it is better known as both a commercial center and an entertainment hub, and is home of Hunan TV, one of the biggest channels in the country which pumps out endless variety and talent shows which the Chinese lap up.

Juliet, a girl I’d met whilst travelling in Shanghai two years earlier, came to meet me the day I arrived and brought a suitcase with her meaning, I assumed, she planned on staying for a while. That was fine by me. I hadn’t seen her for ages, and we had a lot of catching up to do. The very first night, things started getting hot and steamy. While we were kissing and fumbling on the sofa, she asked if I had a condom. I didn’t. But I remembered my contact from the college telling me there was a twenty four -hour supermarket nearby. I didn’t remember exactly where, but how hard could it be to find?

I grabbed a handful of money, ran out the door, down three flights of stairs, out of the apartment block and down the road. It took a while, but I eventually found the supermarket and stocked up on condoms and soft drinks. As I left, I was hit with a realization. I didn’t actually know where I lived. I was completely lost. I’d been so excited about the prospect of finally bedding Juliet that I’d left the apartment without my phone. I didn’t even know the name of my street. I’d only got off the plane about six hours earlier.

So I stumbled around for most of the night clutching a pack of unopened condoms and whimpering softly to myself. I tried to retrace my steps, but found that almost every building looked the same, especially in the dark. I eventually found my apartment again a few hours later but by then, Juliet was sound asleep and the moment had passed. I figured having waited over two years already, another day or two wouldn’t matter too much.

This is China: Misadventures in the Middle Kingdom Part 2 – Hunan Province is available now on paperback and ebook

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Amazon UK

Amazon US

 

Forget Booking.com

booking.com_

Until earlier this year, I’d used Booking.com almost exclusively to book hotels I stay in. I travel a lot, both for work and for pleasure, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I must have used Booking.com over a hundred times, probably spending a couple of thousand in the process. I’d never had any problems with them before, apart from one time in 2015 when I arrived at a hotel I’d booked in Changsha, China, and found they had no record of my booking. Even then, Booking.com just apologised and refunded my money.

Last year, my girlfriend wanted to go to a Hins Cheung concert in Hong Kong. I sprang into action, bought tickets on the black market and used Booking.com to get a room at a place called Minimal Hotel Bazaar for two nights at a cost of 725 HKD. Remember the name, and if you ever go to HK, avoid it like the plague. To cut a long story short, the shit hit the fan in HK. There were mass demonstrations, and the Hins concert was cancelled. My girlfriend and I decided it was too dangerous to go to Hong Kong for no reason, and contacted Booking.com to request our money back. I should say here that I’d booked a non-refundable room, but due to extenuating circumstances we’d heard of other people getting refunds so we thought we’d try our luck.

The hotel refused to give us our money back, but offered to move our reservation to a later date. I agreed, hoping that the hostilities would die down. The later dates were more expensive, coming in at a cost of over 1000 HKD.

When I checked my bank balance, I saw that the hotel had taken two payments. 725 and 1000. I called them, and they said because the first payment failed to clear, they took the second payment. This was complete bullshit. How could the second payment clear but not the first when they charged the same credit card? It was obvious that they were trying to pull a fast one, and either charge me twice for the same room or bill me the higher amount.

I wasn’t having that and contacted Booking.com customer services. They were helpful at first, promised to investigate the matter, and requested screen shots of my bank account showing the transactions Minimal Hotel Bazaar had instigated, which I duly supplied.

And then they stopped replying to my messages.

I called the hotel again several times, but they wouldn’t pick up the phone and all my emails to Booking.com were roundly ignored. Slowly, I came to realize that I’d been screwed. And not in a good way. I went online to leave a review with Trust Pilot, a consumer website, and discovered how bad their reputation has become. In the past few months there has been a slew of one-star reviews with people telling all kinds of horror stories. Their overall rating is now a shameful 1.5 out of 5.

booking

I won’t be using Booking.com any more. They’ve become a fucking joke. Instead, I’ll be using Trivago, their main competitor, and I advise you to do the same.