Spring Festival

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