Tag Archives: NaBloPoMo2015

方便: China’s obsession with convenience

The first foodstuff I learned the name for in Chinese (and successfully remembered) was instant noodles.


Fangbianmian: convenient noodles – not instant, convenient.

Funny way to describe the feeling of precariousness that is walking down the aisle of a packed train, clutching a cardboard packet full of msg, spices and boiling water, a plastic fork jammed onto one edge of the flimsy rim to keep the plastic lid from curling up with the heat. Because train food is the primary use of convenient noodles, and that is all I can picture when I hear the word: that walk from the hot water machine in the gap between the carriages crowded by standing smokers and desperate passengers waiting for the bathroom, pushing between the standing tickets and stepping over those who brought a tiny stool to sit on.

This blissful convenience follows hours of queuing on the platform, queuing to be allowed onto the platform, queuing for the security check to enter the station, queuing for tickets at the windows outside the station – this is tough for everyone, not just foreigners (though the language barrier tends to confound the problem). Unless you are a Hukou / ID card holder AND able to book your tickets online AND happen to be travelling from a station that happens to have an automated ticket machine (many smaller stations do not), you’ll be in that queue before you travel. Whether you are taking the slow train or the gaotie (literally: tall metal or high weapon), independent of where / when you’re going and how much you will spend, buying a ticket means queuing. Most people go to the station days or weeks in advance to buy and/or collect their tickets. Foreigners cannot use the automated machines and therefore must always queue, because an international passport cannot be used like a Chinese ID card. Even if you booked online, you’ll be queuing. Now that’s my idea of convenience.

“It’s really convenient to get here.”

My student-now-boss says this to me as we step into the rain of Langfang and out of a vast, empty station 40 miles south of Beijing in Hebei province at 9.05am. Well yes, it is marginally more convenient than simply driving (and certainly cheaper, if you don’t own a car), but it is not convenient to wake up to a 6.30 alarm, leave the house at 7.15, and board a train at 8.45 to get to a 10.30am class on my only day off this week. Right now, nothing seems convenient.

That certainly got me thinking. Despite assertions of convenience, very little in China is actually convenient. Whether at the bank, the hospital, the post office, or the train station, organised queues will plague your every move. Take the post office for example: there is a queue for the stand selling envelopes and boxes where your purchase will be a decision made by the worker, who gives out her opinion gratis, then another queue to pay for said purchase. Next a queue for the man who packs your parcel the way he likes, and will offer a mianfei explanation on how to write an address properly (particularly if you’ve chosen to send your dongxi in a plastic burlap sack). Finally, a queue to post the damn thing, if you haven’t already broken down in tears of frustration and left, resigned to return when you have hours to waste.

Going to the bank is worse. All kinds of restrictions stare a foreigner in the face. Only some services are available, only certain quantities of foreign cash can be granted per day, every consultation requires several forms of ID, and all these joys await at the other end of a very long, well-organised queue. A visit to the bank in China can make or break the day. If you can successfully jump through the hoops, you might well be rewarded with the service you showed up for. I have been lucky enough, on several occasions, to come away with the $500 USD I went in for, earlier in the day when it was still light out. Otherwise, you might reach the bank and be turned away because the existing queue is too long just now, or you may sit and wait for a while only to be told by a more accomplished English-speaker that they cannot help you today – someone else cleared them out earlier today – or you might get half way through the long awaited meeting only to be refused the new bank card you desperately need because the banker has decided not to believe the problem you’ve been living for weeks.

And the hospital? There’s a queue for the reception, where you will be invoiced for a consultation in whichever department you’ve chosen. There is a queue to pay the invoice at a separate window. There is a queue for the lift. There is a queue for the consultation, provided the doctor showed up that day. There is a queue for the lift, again. There is a queue at a third window where you pay for your prescription, and a queue at a fourth where you collect your medicine. There is no possible way you are going to make it to whatever it is you have to do that day.

From my limited experience, there seems to be no such thing as a clinic for specific medical issues, just departments in hospitals. There are, however, telephone queues if you want to book an appointment. You can book a week ahead of your desired date, at the earliest, but all the appointments will have been allocated by 8am on the day you call.

Convenience is a myth for the majority of Chinese people. A myth lived out only by the elite, those rich enough to consider time more important than money. For everyone else, it is a long perpetuated lie cast by the shadow of capitalism hanging over the lives of 1.4 billion people. A lie many no longer believe will ever come true.

A sweet, sour, bitter, spicy life

In Chinese, there is an expression:


Pronounced: Suan, Tian, Ku, La

It literally means as Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy and translates as the joys and sorrows of life. 

I love this phrase. It is true to life anywhere in the world. But it seems to lend itself particularly well to life in China. As my Chinese tutor explained to me: nobody’s life is just Tian, now is it?



Bones Will Crow

Desert Years
Tin Moe

a strand of grey hair
a decade gone

In those years
the honey wasn’t sweet
mushrooms wouldn’t sprout
farmlands were parched

The mist hung low
the skies were gloomy
Clouds of dust on the cart tracks
Acacia and creepers
and thorn-spiral blossoms
But it never rained
and when it did rain, it never poured

At the village front monastery
no bells rang
no music for the ear
no novice monks
no voices reading aloud
Only the old servant with a shaved head
sprawled among the posts

And the earth
like fruit too shy to emerge
without fruit
in shame and sorrow
glances at me
When will the tears change
and the bells ring sweet?

Translated  by Maung Tha Noe & Christopher Merrill

Screen Shot 2015-11-27 at 17.34.16

Bones Will Crow is the first anthology of contemporary Burmese poetry published in the West, with both the original Burmese (Myanmar) text and the English translation.

“It includes the work of Burmese poets who have been in exile and in prison. The poems include global references from a culture in which foreign books and the internet are regarded with suspicion and where censorship is an industry. The poets have been ingenious in their use of metaphor to escape surveillance and censorship.” (Arc publications)

“When that moment comes, it becomes very, very difficult for any regime – no matter how talented it is at the business of repression –  to put people back in their box, and I believe that it what we’re witnessing at the moment.”

from: Fergal Keane’s introduction to the Bones Will Crow event at SOAS, 24th October 2012.

In 2012, several of the contributing Burmese poets gave readings in London, UK. Some read only in Burmese, while others read their work in both their native language and English. This was my first exposure to Burmese culture; it marks somewhat of a turning point in my life.

Listen as two of the country’s most esteemed poets, Zeyar Lynn and Khin Aung Aye, read from their work and discuss the country’s budding literary scene with the editor of Bones Will Crow:

The Day (Before That Day)

The day before that day
A huntress held her breath
The day that annihilated itself
The day that dressed my wounds …

That day
With the cold-bloodedness of
A public executioner
Needed nerve to reconstruct itself …

That day
Of amnesia without special effects
Needed a genuine gasp for air
To purify its lungs …

That day
Could have been the moon jumping out
From the grim underside of clouds
That day
Could have been a ticket
For a journey that never began …

On that day
He switched off the song he’d been singing along to
I shelved the book I’d been reading
The nameless café bored him
And my aimless yacht anchored

In fact …
I achieved nothing
It was a day of horrid loss …
Horrifying disintegration …

In fact …
Uncertain were the days
The bitter days disfigured by experiments
They will never be resold
For the price I paid

In fact …
In life …
I was in the habit of abhorring

On that day
He mocked me
With the worst of words
I took all his barbs
And laughed them off

On the day before that day
Is it today
Is it really today?

The day before that day
I poisoned the arrowhead
That would shoot me down.

Translated by ko ko thett & James Byrne

from: Bones Will Crow: An Anthology of Fifteen Contemporary Burmese Poets
Edited and translated by Ko Ko Thett and James Byrne


Buy: Bones Will Crow (Arc publications, 2012)

Listen to Fergal Keane’s full introduction on Soundcloud

A little taste of home: Hong Kong 2015

Stepping off the plane in Hong Kong was a huge relief. As the subtropical heat washed over me, it swept away the tension that only weeks of sitting in unheated Beijing apartments and classrooms can bring. We had a cold few weeks before the government decided to switch the heating on (originally it was meant to be November 15th, but it was early this year – a political decision between a warm populous and keeping the lid on climate change a little longer). Three days in t-shirts and skirts was glorious.


After a night in a hotel room of the perfect temperature, I sat overlooking a plush green park flanked by the kind of skyscrapers I’ve never seen before (Hong Kong’s botanical gardens), as I wrote. Ah, the peace, quiet, and space. It was an extremely nice alternative to that classroom on the third floor I occupy every (other) Friday morning for four hours, and from classes of 24. What a start, Hong Kong.

Venturing out into Central for lunch, I spied the wonders Hong Kong clutched between those soaring, shiny buildings. I saw the long skinny trams, the little winding streets, the left-hand drivers… Roadsigns in English, recognisable shopfronts, one-way streets… That was it; Hong Kong reminded me of London.

So for the rest of the day I was in paradise. Stepping out of our lunchtime spot, I spied a Marks and Spencer. I’d heard one was soon to arrive in Beijing, but hadn’t seen an M&S for a year (and even that was in Shanghai). So I browsed, excitedly picking things up, squealing a little, and putting them back on the shelf. One Brit, two Americans and three Filipinos wandering around Marks & Sparks must be a funny sight, particularly when everyone but the Brit sees these stores regularly. After swaying between various types of biscuit for a while, I chose a sturdy favourite – a pack of Bourbons.

Later, I ordered a cup of tea at a pub – a pub, not a bar! – and sank into the bliss that is dipping a bourbon biscuit into a hot cup of perfectly brewed tea. I simultaneously introduced an American to the delights of finest British teatime cuisine (Bourbons are so high brow, innit).

That’s not the only thing I loved. I loved the multiculturalism of Hong Kong. I loved the rooftop bars. I loved the cuisine I tried. I loved the warm rain. I loved the temporary tattoos. I loved gay pride. I loved discussing the art of stories in the park. I loved the taxis. I loved the oysters. I loved seeing an old friend. I loved writing late at night. I loved jazz music. I loved drinking in the street. I loved the crowd. I loved the whiff of the sea. I loved the risk of jumping in. I loved the botanic gardens. I loved the distance between me and my problems. I loved being there with the man I love.

My only real qualm was the surprise expense of everything (coming from renminbi, the HK dollar was a shock), but it seems everyone living there finds ingenious ways around that. A meeting took place over bottled drinks in the park. Evenings centred around seven-eleven beers (and later, kebabs) outdoors. You don’t have to spend money to have fun, Hong Kong’s residents seemed to be saying. I loved the way Hong Kongers rolled. I loved my three days in Hong Kong.

Taungbyone Nat Pwe

We slowed down as we passed a group of people collecting on the streets, shaking large silver bowls at us, rattling whatever was in it already. Were they collecting alms? Sitting astride a motorcycle, I leaned forward to ask my driver and thought better of it. No, they were not monks.

People danced as they shook their bowls. Speakers were set up by the roadside – some groups seemed to be attached to specific stalls or stands. Mainly they seemed more concerned with enjoying themselves than with collecting cash; there were miles of people just enjoying the festival feeling – for that’s what it was, a huge, annual, Buddhist festival.

As we drew closer to the festival, though, people really started collecting money. Cars slowed to give money, or simply threw bills out of open windows. Cash fluttered to the ground behind moving vehicles and someone would scramble to pick the money up.

Only a few times did I see any kind of tussle; mostly between kids, but once between two grown women. They both dove for it and crashed mid-air. It was film-like; the kind of movement you’d see in a testosterone-filled sports movie. But it was not comical. The festival spirit was not the only reason so many people were out collecting money. People wrestled. Kids ran out in front of moving traffic for it.

I saw a woman sitting in the centre of the road, between two lanes of traffic, breastfeeding her baby. A man passed on a motorbike clutching a boombox between his knees as it blared music. He drove hands-free, whizzing along the little road to Taungbyone through the rice fields.

As we got closer still, I saw more beggars. Dirty, sleeping children and very elderly women tending to small babies by the roadside. I guessed that knowing the sheer number of festival attendees in a generous spirit (or should I say extra generous? The Burmese are the most generous people I have ever met) would draw people from all over.

That ‘sheer number’ was far greater than I had anticipated. I struggled through crush after crush to get to the centres of the two stupas I’d been advised to see. It took me two attempts to have my little bunch of flowers blessed (touched to the statue of Buddha) before I could follow suit and join the festivities.

I first learned about Nat Pwe in Mandalay airport. A fellow traveller disclosed that it was due to start the day after we’d both flown in. Lonely Planet was vague about a specific start date for this annual late-August spirit festival. I gradually learned that it spreads out over several weeks moving from one of several main locations (near Mandalay) to the next, and finally ending at Mount Popa near Bagan. Without entirely meaning to, I attended Nat Pwe (literally spirit festival) in three different locations. Taungbyone is the biggest, most famous and, thereby, most popular among tourists.

Snow Days

Last Friday, a first blanket of snow covered Beijing for a few hours. I was safely tucked away, out of the cold, in a classroom on the third floor, overlooking the university’s playing fields. The more curious of the class peered out of the windows at the heavy dollops of snow coming down past the silvery trees still displaying their yellow leaves. It seemed too early for snow. And it was. The snow began after I started teaching that morning, and had melted by lunchtime with no sign of the powdery sprinkling but the remaining chill.

On Sunday morning, the snow returned in earnest. Hauling ourselves out of bed and into the shower before a long working Sunday and after a long working Saturday, we didn’t notice it until moments before we left the house. The whiteness shone in at us as the morning light bounced of whitened hutong roofs.


Throughout the day, my usual brisk walk to keep out the cold slowed gradually to a careful trudge, each short journey between subway station and destination getting more treacherous as the thawed, slushy snow refroze to form a layer of ice underfoot.

Across the city, pavements were covered in green slush puppy – apple flavour? – as the chlorophyll from unturned leaves crushed underfoot mingled with the white snow. I knew Beijing snow ought to be dirty, but green? This wintry snap was so sudden that most of the trees were still covered in hardy green leaves, all forced to fall with the stinging cold. Workers lined streets wielding straw brooms and spades, gathering snow and freshly dropped foliage into little piles along sidewalks.

It was bitingly cold but I knew the later I stayed out the colder it would get. I managed to curl up in bed before 10pm – which is a first in months – for a deep, snow-induced 12-hour sleep.

Monday was sunny. The temperature was not high but the brilliant blue sky cheered my otherwise low spirits. I had explained in Chinese just the day before why autumn is my favourite season. In the UK, there are days when the sun shines, and the sky is blue but the air is frozen. Plumes of dragon’s breath unfold on the walk to school, as I eat a newly ripe apple plucked straight from the tree before leaving home – I remember those days as clear as the sky itself.

I donned my fur-lined industrial-weight stomping boots for the first time this winter (I’m so glad I braved China’s August heat wearing those on first arrival in Beijing, they are 100% necessary if I want my toes to survive Beijing winters) and sung as I walked to my dental appointment.


Unable to talk (let alone sing) on my walk home, I was no less grateful for the huge coat I bought last February. I hadn’t needed it (or hadn’t realised I needed it) until after a late-January visit to Xi’an, Shaanxi Province. That week of outside activities in my woollen, double-breasted, mens houndstooth jacket was agonisingly cold. But last year, apparently, was much warmer than this. The blue skies we had last year confute the cutting chill of normal Chinese winters. Climate change finally appearing manifest, last year’s was a deceptively warm hoax of a winter.

And now, the thin snow is falling once again. Though it comes down in sparse little flurries, it is constant and soon covers the ground in a fine powder. The eerie white light spurs me on. The trees directly outside my north-facing windows are completely bare and leaf-free now. This is the freshest light I have seen in weeks.

As I write, I know the playground opposite is about to be flooded by children, who may or may not run around and play in the white cold a little while, depending on how strict (or cold) their waiting (grand)parents are. Perhaps the blanket will remain where it lies, undisturbed until tomorrow’s school day begins afresh, perhaps it will thaw and refreeze, rendering the play area unusable and keeping the children indoors all day as the rain used to do in my school – we had specific games especially for ‘wet play’ days.

Might their Headmaster organise a snowball fight? Mr Watkins, our Headteacher and everybody’s favourite, would announce the scheduled lunchtime fight at the morning’s school assembly. Year 4 and 7 against years 5 and 6, with respective teachers joining their classes. Mr Watkins was a devoted cricket player, who, during Monday assemblies in summer months, would recount stories of his Sunday afternoon matches – I was one of the few students on our cricket team, and therefore lucky enough to understand his love of the sport – so Mr Watkins had the best aim of all the teachers, and you’d always want him on your side for the snowball fights.

Somehow I doubt that is a popular policy at Chinese schools. I just hope the local kids get to enjoy the winter’s snow as much as I did as a child (and still do), and aren’t kept indoors by their guardians for fear of their having too much fun.

Chinese Dentist Time

What time is it?

It’s Chinese Dentist Time! 

When I was a kid, just as ten to ten became Cowboy Time (ten to ten to ten ten ten…, two thirty became tooth hurty – Chinese Dentist Time. It was years before I realised the racism of this joke. But it has nonetheless been circling my head for the past week.

I have spent months trying to find a dentist within convenient distance who I trust. I had two fillings by a friend of a friend back in June, the first of which still hurts. I trust her judgement on necessary treatment, just not so much the follow through. She spent several hours yanking on my friend’s wisdom tooth before they rushed him to hospital because she was both unable to pull the tooth and unable to staunch the bleeding…only about a month before his wedding.

I can’t say I have been able to get good advice from many people. Most expats, it seems, do not a) take care of their teeth, b) have bad teeth that they need to take care of, or c) feel safe enough to entrust themselves to a Chinese dentist. I don’t have much choice, unless I want to live with severe shooting pains through my jaw every time I eat until I visit the UK in July, at which point I would probably need six teeth removed through sheer neglect. I cannot believe it took me so long to actually see a dentist!

X-Ray courtesy of Hengrui Dental Office

But this week, having decided I had to at least get ONE thing ticked off my to-do list, I walked into a Wudaokou dentist, and just happened to catch an English-speaking assistant before she left work at 9.30pm. So they X-Rayed me, had a prod about to discern where the pain was coming from and then gave me an appointment.

Tomorrow, I am getting a wisdom tooth removed. I am somewhat scared. It’s bad enough trying to communicate with a person when they have tools and their hands inside your mouth in order to cause you pain. This dentist, though, does not speak my language.

So, without further ado… Wish me luck!!

P.s. More on this to come, after the “surgery”…