Spring Festival

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January 2005.
I had just completed my first semester as an Oral English teacher
in China. I was working in a city called Dan Jiang Kou (DJK) in
Hubei Province.

I had agreed
to go traveling with another foreign teacher for the Spring
Festival
. This is the biggest holiday period in China which
ushers in the Lunar New Year. It's like our Christmas except that
literally millions of people travel to be with their families at
the same time. Just before we set off I went to see the Foreign
Affairs Officer (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 welcome here. We were all aware of a story
about one such traveler 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. Details of any changes had to be emailed to
him.

He then told
me that since we had last met 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 really didn't want to continue teaching Oral English — one year
would be enough. I got in touch with the FAO at ZUEL and an interview
time and place in Wuhan was eventually agreed.

The problem
I had with teaching Oral English was that there was so much rope
to play with — enough to hang yourself. Basically you can do whatever
you like as long as it gets the students to speak. I just wasn't
used to this kind of freedom. My teaching/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.
There was always some latitude for weaving in and out of the line
to add a bit of color but there was always a clear target. With
Oral English I found it difficult to know where to start because
there was so much freedom — and even then, once started, where to
draw the line? I felt a bit like Charles
Babbage
— he never finished what he set out to do because he
kept on getting a better idea!

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.

Three things
about traveling in China. First, don't even think about "going
it alone." Second, 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"). Get a good phrasebook
and learn some "survival" Chinese. You're still going
to have problems but not nearly as many. Third, get yourself a money
belt!

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 taller than about
five feet six or seven you'll have a comfortable ride. The bus only
stopped once on the way for five minutes. There was no toilet on
the one we traveled on. A foreign teacher had warned us about this.
Don't drink anything for a few hours before or during the journey.
She said that she had once been so desperate for a wee on one of
these buses that she used a plastic carrier bag and then stuffed
it out the small window of her top bunk.

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. Four years later it
had grown so large I didn't recognize it — an example of the incredible
speed of development here.

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
u2018S' words for visitors to many parts of mainland China — smoking,
spitting and staring — are not a problem in Hong Kong. Anyone caught
dropping a cigarette end or spitting in public is heavily fined.
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 for something to eat. Whatever
kind of food you wanted was 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 of a place called 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 take a walk which circles the top. It takes about
an hour. Along one stretch of it you can look down on Kowloon, Victoria
harbour and Hong Kong Island. 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 busy place — at once prosperous and seedy. It's a love it or hate
it place. I loved it and would have liked to stay 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
around Victoria Harbour. 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 most certainly would have
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!

We went on
one outing to some kind of "nature reserve" — we were
supposed to be seeing people living a traditional native lifestyle.
The houses reminded me of pictures I'd seen of Maori buildings.
They were beautifully carved and were very authentic looking — one
had a satellite dish which ruined the overall impression somewhat.

On our arrival
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. It became
obvious that the guide got a cut from whatever we spent; the more
places he dragged us the better.

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 God-damned fish are
clever here! I spent another 5 RMB — but no luck.

The last place
was to a hut inhabited by someone who purported to be a "monk"
— he gave me his "blessing" and 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 my cigarettes 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 either be with a Chinese speaker
I knew and trusted or it would be never again.

Once in Guangzhou
the now usual palarva with trying to get from the airport to a 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 bus 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, who
had been working in Guangdong for a year, 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. We fought our way to the
front carriage where we found two spare bunks in a four-berth cabin.
Paid more than we should have 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.

Got to the
hotel in Wuhan after the usual hassle. Paid over the top for one
night — didn't care anymore. Went for a walk in the evening. Saw
a place which resembled a bar. There were three or four members
of staff — no customers. I saw they had small bottles of Heineken
in a fridge. I ordered one. They charged me 50RMB. 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 things can escalate very quickly. Just don't do it. I
drank up and went back to the hotel.

The next day
I had my interview with four people from Zhongnan University of
Economics and Law (ZUEL). We met in the hotel lobby. One was the
FAO, the other three were "leaders" (what we would call
Managers or Senior Managers in the West). They all had copies of
my rsum. 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. They were particularly interested in my
experience with computerized accounting systems. As part of my answer
I said that obtaining licenses to run the software from the various
providers was a straightforward matter. The FAO translated. This
seemed to cause some confusion. He spoke some more in Chinese and
this seemed to clear the problem.

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. That I had the knowledge
and experience was not in question — a more important question was
did they like me and would the students do so too?

I knew that
the FAO at DJK had written me a very good reference. He had given
me a copy in Chinese. I asked a student to translate it for me later.
I felt humbled. I knew from the start that the job of being FAO
is not easy — in fact it's pretty thankless yet carries a great
deal of responsibility — it involves trying to perform a juggling
act where a number of groups are all kept happy at the same time.
I knew the pressure he was under and so never bothered him unless
I had to. On the few occasions when I did I always asked rather
than demanded. This approach is appreciated and, like bad behavior,
is not forgotten.

The ZUEL FAO
told me that he would be in touch. And that was it.

Later that
evening we traveled 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.

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!"

March
28, 2009

Chris
Clancy [send him mail]
is Associate Professor of Financial Accounting at Zhongnan University
of Economics and Law in Wuhan, Hubei Province, People’s Republic
of China.

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