ELA s and OAP s herald the start of an adventure
13.08.2010 - 28.08.2010
Following a 10 hour flight from London Heathrow terminal 5, we finally touched down in Beijing - thankfully with all our luggage. I had quite clearly abused the hand luggage allowance so was pleased that I had arrived without any extra luggage fines.
To the other side of the world...
After piling into taxis and getting a taste of seemingly non-existent road laws in China (lots of overtaking and liberal car honking), we checked into our hotel, the Phoenix Palace. Having been separated from the 68 other ELAs (English Language Assistants) who were staying at another hotel, I was initially miffed but was soon calling our hotel a ‘home away from home’.
There are only 18 of us in this hotel so we quickly got used to each other’s company as we explored our immediate locality to find a key asset of our hotel – the park! Well, I say ‘find’ but we were right next to one and it was to be a green oasis in an otherwise smoggy Beijing. Even the muggy temperature seemed to be mediated by the vegetation and it proved to be a perfect location to watch Beijingers in action. It was an unexpected joy to see OAPs dancing to ‘Sex Bomb’ by Tom Jones in the morning whilst siren-like operatic lilts drew us into the park at night time only to discover yet more eternally active OAPs. It wasn’t quite as enjoyable to witness another OAP doing some quite vigorous exercises against a tree trunk the following morning but it certainly made me think how extremely underused our parks back in ol’ Blighty are!
LOVE the lassoing action
Our first meal in China was also a revelation, especially to all us new graduates used to living a frugal ‘beans-on-toast’ existence. Just a stone’s throw away from our hotel, we wandered into a local restaurant and ordered several dishes to share, copious amounts of rice and, of course, many píng(s) of pí jiǔ (啤酒)to wash it all down with. Much to our collective delight, the bill came to a meagre £1.30 each. This first meal was to become the standard against which ‘a bargain’ in China would be measured. Indeed, within the next few days a friend resolutely refused a bottle of water exclaiming “that could get me half a meal”. Her Chinese transformation had already begun and indeed, we were all soon thinking in kuài, máo and fēn instead of our normal monetary lingo of pounds and pence.
Perhaps it was to serve as a reminder of the intense schedules which Chinese children follow but the first two weeks in China were nothing short of exhausting. 9 to 5 TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) training classes soon dissipated any illusions I had of a fortnight akin to freshers’ week. On top of that, there were lessons to give to the local middle school (their equivalent of secondary school but much more stressful) and partake in some basic mandarin classes (where my present unchineseyness was exposed).
Nevertheless, we did manage to squeeze in some sightseeing with a trip to the Great Wall (alas in less than ideal conditions – more a Wall of Umbrellas on that particular day...) as well as getting the chance to explore the Forbidden Palace and the Temple of Heaven in a whirlwind day tour.
The Great Wall of...umbrellas
The obligatory 'jump' photo...
Wise words at the Forbidden Palace. Confucius himself could not have put it better
We also got to sample some less known sites such as 798 Art District during our fortnight in Beijing:
How watermelons really grow without modern pesticides
Evening activities also put in a good showing with our trip to see the mesmerising Chinese acrobats (with the jaw-dropping motorcyclists...5 in one tiny steel cage?!?) as well as the more-graceful-than-expected Kung Fu show packed with more tricks than a Jackie Chan DVD with extras. Where else would you see lil’ kids somersault on their heads as a substitute for walking?? Then again, I used to be able to do that*...
- ...bare-faced lie. Remember that not all Chinese people can do kungfu.
I'm the guy on the far left
We even had time to celebrate a birthday in style...cocktails at a rastafarian bar and then onwards to an Italian for pizza! Ah Beijing. Such wonderous variety you display.
Chloe's birthday at an Italian in Beijing
Despite all these welcome distractions, when it came down to the dreaded TEFL test, we all knuckled down and (true to my geographical roots) I got out my colouring pens and settled down to some revision. Although I didn’t think mind maps would make such a rapid return so soon after my finals, it was all worth it as we were presented with our TEFL certificates at the end of our two week orientation course. To celebrate, many ELAs went out to Sanlitun (三里屯)in Chaoyang District to cut some shapes not too dissimilar to those pensioners in the park. Swap Tom Jones for Alicia Keys and you’re there! Early next morning, ELAs could be seen dragging (quickly-packed) suitcases with faint memories of table-top dancing and tunes painfully still ringing in our heads. Off we went to Beijing South train station from which we would all depart to our host cities where our year abroad would truly begin in earnest.
The Phoenix Hotel crew before we departed to our host cities