Every year, UCLU Dance Society put on a show in the big Bloomsbury Theatre on Campus. The show normally has a theme: this year it was titled ‘Unknown’. Choreographers had to thus come up with an idea that loosely fitted into the idea of a parallel world filled with dance, opposed to an almost robotic and antisocial world (very much like ours) devoid of dance. Choreographers didn’t actually know this in the auditioning process, but we had a vague idea what to audition for.
As stated in the last post, I had considered for the Fresher’s Show doing a dance to the ‘Requiem for a Dream’ soundtrack. At the time, I had wanted to have the dancers be an extension of the music, for the soundtrack swings between jagged and yearning violins, to mechanical and abrupt industrial sounds. I also wanted to continue and explore the themes of the film, those of addiction and hallucination. So, how I could fit this into the new brief?
If the dance show was going to be about escapism and the flight into a fantastic, almost idyllic mysterious world, I decided I would like to try show the darker side of such a place, the danger of ritually repeating and succumbing to what we believe to be gateways to freedom and happiness. The show would begin with four characters introducing the world, so I thought I would include one of them in my piece, stumbling into a dance with compulsive and almost violent ‘creatures’.
I also wanted to explore how a piece could be intertextual, so I decided to include a clip from the film, wherein the two main characters speak to each other over the phone: they have been separated ultimately because of their failure to kill their demons. I initially planned for one of the mentioned characters to act out this phone call scene with one of the dancers in the piece; unfortunately, due to the amount of dances this character was already in, he wasn’t available to do my dance. Fortunately, I had some really helpful and supportive dancers in my dance who agreed, at (relatively) short notice, to learn a revised part. I’ve put in a rehearsal clip of the first option (you can see the final version in the final video). I was really happy with how the phone call scene turned out in the end, even if I initially had planned otherwise. Once again, it’s a valuable lesson about stumbling blocks when you are being creative; sometimes the answer is not to try replicate what you’ve lost but to rethink it completely. This is always harder, and scarier, but will probably, if not inevitably, make your piece better.
This dance was such a joy to do. The scope of the whole show was just bigger (not that bigger is always better, but it’s pretty damn fun). We had a bigger costume budget, a bigger stage, which I could fill with more dancers and we could more seriously think of lighting (which always makes such a huge difference to the final thing). As for costumes, I imagine my fascination with Yeats held sway, as I wanted my dancers to wear masks. On the one hand, masks can be seem as allowing choice, as enabling an alter ego, or, to more clearly show off one’s true self. On the other hand, I felt visually they would translate in this piece as something closer to dissembling, to addiction to an ideal, and to uncertainty.
Headshot for flyers/posters
Lighting is fun..
I was incredibly happy with the result and was so lucky to have such a dedicated team of dancers with me to bring the idea to fruition. As well as skill, ability and hard work, you also want to work with people who want to work with you, who also want to put on a good show; such focus is invaluable.
Finally, having only done a one year Masters at UCL, I was thus (funnily enough) able to participate in the Leaver’s Show. This was a ridiculous experience in so many ways. We had just under two weeks to choreograph and then learn our dances. I choreographed one piece, and danced in three others; this meant hectic days of dancing for at least six hours a day and it was great. It’s always about day three that your right quad permanently cramps, you upper back doesn’t straighten and your ankle feels a bit dodgy. But you power through (bruises included), wap on an ankle support and make sure you probably warm up the next day before rehearsals.
This piece, out of the four I’ve choreographed, is in many ways the ‘closest to my heart’. My problem when choreographing is always conceiving of something really big that I then have to scale down. This time, I decided from the outset: no more than three dancers, so that they’ll have room to dance in the small space, and go for a piece that is more intimate in nature, as the audience will be so close anyway. This piece is also more of a dramatic piece and I felt I was taking a bit of a risk asking my three dancers to ‘act’. But they really stepped up and watching the final footage from the night (which I couldn’t see because I was backstage, guarding the one toilet for someone’s quick change), they really expanded and brought the ‘characters’ to life.
To conclude these musings, (I feel I should be a disembodied voice here, as the camera moves over a landscape doused by the setting sun, while violins play in the background) I am so glad I just went for the very first audition. I’m sure I’m not the only person who spends so much time humming and hawing about whether to give something a go, or spending time planning things rather than doing them. Of course, it is hard to find the opportunities to do the things we want, but if they’re there, you really have to take them (and I guess, if they’re not, you have to ‘make’ them). Hopefully this is not the end of what has been a really exciting year full of dancing!
Well, as can be clearly evidenced from the time between this blog post and the last, it has taken me a long time to continue my writings on China. I both have and don’t have an excuse: I started my MA in Film Studies and became heavily involved with the Dance Society at UCL, and so idle hours spent blogging fell away.
There is going to be an even bigger gap between the last China post and the next, however, as I’ve decided that, while it is still fresh in my mind, I would like to write about my experiences choreographing this year. I choreographed four pieces for the society, two of which involved tight timescales (24hours and 9 days, respectively). It almost took up more time than my actual degree…
My first attempt at choreographing was for the society’s 24hour show. Coming to UCL, I knew that I wanted to get back into dancing; while I had been attending classes in my undergraduate degree, it wasn’t enough. And so, I decided to audition for the role of choreographer for the show. I figured I didn’t have much to lose, and that the only way to get back into dancing was by jumping straight in, rather than trying to ‘gradually progress’.
The choreography audition process would be the same for all shows: you go into a small classroom that has been booked for the day, and perform 30 seconds of your choreography to two Dance Soc members and explain your ideas. It was pretty daunting, considering I hadn’t danced in front of an audience for quite some time. My main fear was that I would forget my own choreography, never mind worrying if it would be good enough.
I was pretty surprised, then, when I got in! I was then invited along to the dancer auditions, where I could choose my dancers. The concept of the 24hour show is pretty obvious: the society gives you a piece of unheard music (which is nonetheless similar to your audition piece) to which you have to choreograph and teach to your dancers before the evening show the next day.
Without even thinking about it, I decided not to dance in the piece: I assumed that was the ‘done thing’, but I was the only choreographer to do so. While I’ve subsequently danced in two more of my pieces, I still have this instinct: that to properly choreograph and direct a piece, and to get the best out of my dancers, I shouldn’t be involved in it.
The dancers and myself after the show
The link to the finished choreo is below: I can’t say it had any discernible style, really, in that it was more about me trying to find my feet again. Nonetheless, as you can see, it’s contemporary, but definitely with a technical, ballet influence. This undoubtedly reflects the fact that I had only been going to classes for the past few years, thus the only thing I ‘knew’ was ‘technique’. I love dancing to instrumental music rather than music with lyrics, and I like dance to be fluid, weightless and effortless (although I think this is more something I can say in hindsight).
Choreographing within 24hours is not actually as hard as it seems, and it’s even better when you have great dancers who pick things up fast (as I did). It felt like I was on the right track, so I decided to audition once again, this time for the Fresher’s Showcase…
My initial choice of music for this show was similar to the previous show (which was a Ludovico Einaudi piece). This idea mutated into music from the soundtrack for ‘Requiem for a Dream.’ However, that didn’t last long after Adele’s ‘Skyfall’ popped up on my iPod one day. Having auditioned to do a ballet piece, this seemed slightly counter-intuitive, plus slightly, if we dare to use the word, less ‘original’ a song to dance to. But as soon as it came on, I knew it had to be danced to; it is such a sensuous song, with Adele’s luxurious voice over the resounding brass. And so I thought, ‘hey, what the hell, let’s give it a go’.
The previous show had been an experiment in many ways; this time, I wanted to start with a concept and to expand on that through dance. So I started ‘researching’, which involved looking at a lot of the opening credits to a Bond film. It’s pretty obvious what I’d take from this: the different feline positions the Bond girls hold, and various displays of acrobatic flexibility. There were specific moves that inspired me also, which I wanted to more directly imitate, such as when one ‘Bond girl’ intercepts Bond when he is aiming to shoot: I’m not sure why this specifically appealed to me, but I think ideas of resistance, contact and change can be easily translated into dance, particularly partner work.
However, I didn’t want to just create a dance about Bond girls, although I did want to evoke the mood of the piece and its connotations. I was also interested in how certain moves in Ballet are danced by women, while some are reserved for men. Men, in general, have bigger jumps (in terms of height, in terms of style, in terms of complexity), starting and ending in deeper positions, and they dance slightly different turns. It is also about mood as well: balance and grace for women, with strength and zeal for men. (It goes without saying that these are generalizations).
After all this research, then, I had a few ‘sections’ in mind: The first section would evoke the Bond girls, the second would have stronger, more masculine dance moves. There would then be a section that focused on partner and group work, before concluding with a big jump sequence (because they’re fun). I like dance pieces to have narratives, and in the case of group work before a big jump sequence, you could see it almost as a sort of crisis or chaos before a big conclusion. You can see the final product below.
As always, when working on a collaborative project, things never go the way you’ve planned, and I mean this in no bad way. In fact, it is one of the things I most like about choreographing. I have a few steps in my mind and then I teach them. Sometimes they are danced the way I envisioned, but at other times they are danced in a completely different way. And at times, I actually prefer the new result. This could be a different expression, a different alignment or even just different timing or emphasis. People interpret the music different to how you do, and people also come with their own way of moving: of course, dancing as a group requires a degree of uniformity but I also enjoy letting a dancer show off who they are, they often dance better as a result.
Dancing ‘Skyfall’ was also the first time I had performed properly in about five years. It was of course pretty nerve racking but there really is something special about coming off stage after a performance. You feel elated, zingy, like you’ve gone through a process and have come out cleansed. Or something. I dunno, I enjoyed it enough to set my sights on UCLU Dance Soc’s big event of the year: their annual Bloomsbury Show…
[Continued in Part 2]
Work and Play
In amongst all this gorging of food and drinking in of city life, we did spend some time learning mandarin. Mandarin is a very different language to English. First off, it is a tonal language. Words can either be said with a steady first tone, a rising second tone, a third tone that dips and then ascends, a short, sharp, downward fourth tone, or a neutral tone. The boys (and I stress ‘the boys’) spent a lot of our classes using this to ‘comic effect’, by deliberately confusing tones of certain words that, when so confused, would have rude meanings.
Nonetheless, we muddled through. It was difficult in the first few weeks trying to get our head around the way a different language works; for me, it was also about trying to remember how to learn a language. Mandarin, as well as having tones, also differs in terms of tense. Verbs are not conjugated, for instance; instead, the past is indicated by giving the verb a precise time. Instead of saying ‘I went to the park’, you would say something along the lines of ‘Yesterday, I go to the park.’ Similarly, they don’t really use the verb ‘to be’. Instead of saying ‘I am tired’, you would simply say ‘I tired.’ If this sounds simpler than english, mandarin then has measure words; when identifying one object or more, you would not simply say ‘a table’ but instead ‘a measure word table.’ The measure word differed depending on the nature of the object, if it was, say, an animal, or had a certain characteristic, such as its length or if it was flat. You could, however, fall back on ‘gè’, a generic measure word that could be used if you couldn’t remember the proper one (which was fairly often).
(The picture below was a place near the school we called ‘tea street’; it really was a street that just sold tea..)
Our classes weren’t always indoors. Near the end, we ventured out into food markets to try our newly acquired mandarin. In one instance, I asked an old lady how to get to a certain shop. When I looked back at her rapidly replied mandarin with a blank stare, she simply took me by the arm and walked me to said shop, all the while talking about god knows what. The Chinese could be both friendly and nonplussed in that way. Another day, we had our lesson while doing tai chi (the idea being we would learn our left from our right in mandarin). We did this in a public square near a new shopping complex. This was another thing I loved about China, these shared communal spaces. In such parks, people could do as they wished, and you would often find people singing, dancing, or playing má jiàng. There was never a sense of imposition, as this was precisely what the spaces were intended for. China also had a lot of outdoor-public-gym-apparatus-things. You would often find old men sitting around them, idly swinging their legs, or every now and then you’d see some woman standing around, nonchalantly snacking on pumpkin seeds, with one leg resting on a bar high above her head.
Near the end of our time at the school, we had a night out doing one of China’s favourite activities: karaoke. In every city I went to, there would be numerous KTVs. These places were often quite new and super fancy. They were composed of lots of private rooms, in which you were brought beer and snacks. In each room, there were couches, centered around a TV and several microphones. The Chinese took their singing pretty seriously, and, consequently, the Chinese who joined us definitely outshone us with their well practiced voices.
Nonetheless, it was fun, after which we went to a Chinese night club. It looked pretty much the same as any other night club, to me, except everyone smoked and there was a table service that would bring you drinks. Laura and I left early, only to walk into an amazingly misty morning. It subsequently took us some time to actually find a taxi.
We also, while in Hángzhōu, managed to squeeze in some of the touristy sights, such as taking a boat around the lake.
Chinese New Year
Our time in Hángzhōu coincided with the Spring Festival, or what is more commonly known as Chinese New Year. The festival is as big as Christmas here. In the lead up, businesses slowly closed down, beginning the mass exodus out into the country to visit family members and pay respects. Supermarkets started selling innumerous amounts of sweets (contrary to my earlier assertion of the Chinese not particularly liking sweet food), every shop would have red lanterns hanging outside and red envelopes inside to sell (as gifts, children were given money inside these envelops), and, of course, fireworks on every street corner.
I went with my Chinese family away from Hángzhōu for about a week, to Judy’s grandfather’s house out in the country. His house consisted of one main room, taken up by a large circular table with a lazy Susan, a bedroom either side, and a small kitchen behind it. The week consisted mainly of lots of eating at various relatives’ houses. Among some notable eating experiences, I had to take apart a whole boiled crab from scratch, heard (but didn’t see) a turtle being smashed up before being put into a stew, and ate a fair few odd sea creatures, names unknown. Each family would bring gifts, but not in the way we’re used to; instead of individually picked out and wrapped presents, boxes of sweets, milk, nutritional products, or nuts (to name a few), all the same across different supermarkets, were instead exchanged.
(A day out with my Chinese family; acting stupid around animals is fun in any country, it would appear..)
On the actual night of new year, we all stayed up at Judy’s grandmother’s house (this time, on her mother’s side) to watch the biggest show of the year. It consisted of various musical, dance, and comedy acts; the family got very excited when Celine Dion came on, to which I too had to pretend my enthusiasm for someone western. Naturally, there were fireworks the whole time, even during the day. In fact, when we were back in Hángzhōu, businesses continued to let off fireworks on the street, the idea being that such activities would ensure a profitable year.
It was during Chinese New Year that I had one of my most memorable experiences; I attended, with the women in my Chinese family, a bathhouse. You enter into a changing room, strip off and then head into a large room with several showers. After a few minutes of ‘AH I’M NAKED IN PUBLIC’, I got used to it, and enjoyed my first hot shower in days. Nonetheless, I couldn’t quite blend in. It is a very strange experience to have women come up to you and quite obviously, with no sense of shame, scrutinize and comment on your different shape. But as with everything in China, this curiosity was in no way hostile (to use too strong a word) but was an honest and open interest in people and things that a lot Chinese people, especially in rural China, simply don’t see that much of.
Our month in Hángzhōu passed too quickly, as we devoured all these strange experiences. But the real adventure was only just about to begin, as we packed up our bags to head into the country and begin teaching…
On my first morning in Hángzhōu, I woke up just before six. Ramsay was meeting me at seven and would be showing me how to get to the school where we would be learning mandarin. That first morning, Judy’s Dad cooked me a Chinese breakfast. This was a mix of savoury foods (things often left over from dinner, such as spring rolls), a boiled egg (soaked in soy sauce) and then sticky rice mixed in with sweetened red bean paste. Happily full, I met Ramsay and we set off. Hángzhōu, while not a big city by Chinese standards, still felt stretched to me. Walking to school, which I commenced doing after the first day, would take me at least fifty minutes, and that was only going from two different points very much classed as inside the city centre.
Our month in Hángzhōu went roughly as follows: classes ran from eight in the morning until ten or eleven, resuming at one and ending at four. We filled the few hours in the middle of the day by often going to different Chinese restaurants to try both our stunted mandarin and numerous delicious dishes we weren’t quite sure the ingredients of. A meal of about six or seven different dishes would cost us only about two or three pounds each! In our last week there, one of our teachers took us to a famous local restaurant called ‘lü chá’ (meaning ‘green tea’). Here we were introduced to the infamous bread temptation (a huge stack of sweetened bread topped with ice cream, served before your mains), an exotic passion fruit drink and ate innumerable amounts of ‘táng cù lĭ jĭ’(‘sweet and sour pork’).
Hĕn Hăo Chī (‘Delicious!’)
As mentioned, everyday I walked to and from school, come rain or snow (and believe me, there was a lot of snow at the end of January). I loved seeing a Chinese city in action, walking past someone doing their morning exercises or seeing the amount of laundry hung out on any available space (bus stops, trees, anything went). In the mornings, the roads were crammed full of cars, taxis, bikes, e-bikes, and buses. There was also an abundance of vehicles that didn’t fit into any of these categories: bikes with trailers in the backs, small one-man pick-up trucks, some with roofs, some without. Or sometimes, there would simply be a bike, piled high with uncountable bags of rice, defying all laws of physics. Du Yu told me that he preferred driving in Shànghăi rather than Hángzhōu, as, in Hángzhōu, farmers would come in from the surrounding country in these makeshift bikes, without knowing the rules of the road, and would thus cause an already chaotic driving system to become even more precarious.
What I loved about Hángzhōu, and other Chinese cities I subsequently went to visit, was the prevalence of street food. Eating in China was very different to here. In the morning, you would see lines of smartly dressed men and women queuing at a small vendor’s stall, who would undoubtedly be selling different types of dumplings, sticky rice in leaves, various fried items, or some sort of meat. Chinese food was not very sweet, contrary to its equivalent in the UK, and the Chinese people would mostly eat savory foods.
Similarly, restaurants did not generally try and create a relaxed environment or a sense of ‘atmosphere, as the food is the most important part of the restaurant. Most restaurants were very basic, with the tables having a plastic tablecloth spread over them so that bones could be spat out and then quickly cleaned away, and there was none of this ‘cup of tea, anyone?’ after a meal. It was in and out in minutes, with noodle soup still dripping down your chin, and it was glorious. While there were supermarkets, people would still buy their food from fruit stalls, butchers or fishmongers; with the latter, the fish were often still alive in the tanks. With such an importance thus based on food, China, to me, seemed to refuse fully retreating into a darkened restaurant room with ambient music, or to give up its rickety carts selling freshly cooked meat. There were, sadly, numerous KFCs or Pizza Huts, unfortunate imports from the West. I can only hope that China continues the unique food culture that I thoroughly enjoyed, having seen nothing of its like anywhere else.
On a dark Wednesday evening in January, I said goodbye to family, friends, and my boyfriend, and flew down to London Gatwick. And there was my first mistake of the trip. My flight to Shànghăi on the Thursday morning was flying out from Heathrow, a detail I managed to miss until that Wednesday afternoon. And so, my Thursday morning was not the leisurely goodbye to Britain I had envisioned, but a stressful rush as I tried to make my way to Heathrow by half nine. Great start.
Finally arriving at Heathrow, I spent ten awkward minutes waiting around the Virgin check-desk; I had been told that I would be meeting three of my fellow volunteers there, as well as an AV representative (the company who organized the trip). Of course, I had no idea what they looked like, but I was finally approached by the rep (who was used to, he said, recognizing new volunteers, often girls, standing awkwardly in airports), and introduced to Rob and Shaun.
About half an hour later of slightly awkward chat between people who hardly knew each other but who would be spending the next four months together, the other volunteer flying out with us, Thomas, had still not arrived. The rep advised we head on through the gate. Two hours later, we sat down at our gate, to have someone turn to us and ask, ‘Are you with AV?’ We had found Thomas, who had been late because… actually, I can’t properly remember the reason, I think his flight was delayed. More importantly, he had had a more stressful night than myself: his luggage, containing all this clothes etc., had been stolen the night before. All he had on him was his rucksack.
It was time for the flight, where we first introduced to the bewildering world of Mandarin as the flight attendants spoke in both English and Mandarin over the tannoy system. Hearing a foreign language while boarding a plane really made me realise the finality of situation: ‘no going back now, you’re heading to China’. But any apprehension was soon erased when we touched down, twelve hours later, in Shànghăi. A super swish airport (although, similar to any other airport really), I had to keep telling myself, ‘Oh my God, I’m in China!!’
Welcome to China
We met the rest of our team in the airport, and one of our reps, Ramsay. Tom and James had arrived the day before us, and so greeted us fresh faced (at least, it felt that way to us). We had managed to miss out on a night’s sleep, due to the time difference. Laura soon joined us, then we jumped on the Maglev out of the airport. The Maglev, the different train we got afterwards to Hángzhōu, and the train stations themselves, were my first introduction to China’s incredibly impressive rail system. Public transport would change a lot when we moved out in the country, but for now, all I saw were train stations that were big enough to be airports, packed full of people and fast food shops, and trains that were newer and faster than any others I’d ever seen.
Of course, I was also introduced to China’s ridiculous security measures. Nearly every train, bus or metro station has bag scanners before you enter the main terminal. Some places also require you to step through a metal detector. The annoying thing was that you could clearly see the security guards not looking at their computer screens as you or your bag went through. We were told the reason for this pointless security check could be to do with the fact that the scanners gave a certain official money each time they were used. It seemed to also fit, the more I saw of China, with the confluence of a huge population and a booming economy: there were plenty of surplus jobs, that were easily filled, thus often leading to a superfluous and often slower system, in whatever it may be. It was also our first instance of seeing something just plain odd and only being able to reply with, ‘Well, it’s China.’
Group ‘Bonding’ weekend
After arriving in Hángzhōu, where we would be staying for the next month, and checking into a hostel for the night, we were taken to our first Chinese restaurant. Ramsay introduced us to a local specialty: dumplings, filled with meat and piping hot soup, which proved dangerous eating (see bottom right). We also had fried rice and sweet milk tea, something I was hooked on by the end of the trip.
We were then taken around West Lake, the main attraction in Hángzhōu. If you’re looking for a scene of Chinese serenity, you have it here: overhanging willows, boats slowly rowing by, pagodas with pointy roofs (to use precise technical architectural terms) and high curving bridges. My only hang up with West Lake, was precisely that though: it was clearly marked as a ‘tourist spot’, so the weekends would see swarms of people descend on it. It wasn’t simply the amount of people, however, that took some of the charm away for me. It was its status as ‘SOMETHING YOU MUST SEE’; I didn’t feel it existed on its own terms really, more as a place to ‘GO AND RELAX AND STROLL AROUND ETC.’
Say ‘qié zi’! (This is what the Chinese say instead of ‘cheese’; it means aubergine, or eggplant, if you’re not from Britain).
Later that evening, we also walked past some interesting food stalls… scorpion, anyone?
After one night in Hángzhōu, we headed up the mountain Mògànshān (‘shān’ means ‘mountain’). Here there were a few small villages, which contained lots of lodges or holiday homes; it had apparently been a popular place for Máo Zédōng to come visit. The purpose of our visit there was to ease us into China, relax before the rush began. We stayed there one night, spending the evening sitting round a fire, playing with the owner’s puppy. Mògànshān was a beautiful place; we took a few walks up the mountain through scores of bamboo trees, ending up at a reservoir. Our rep advised us not to swim in it, as the water was so clear, people often sank.
Feeling slightly more settled as a group, it was nonetheless time for us all to go and live at our separate homes. For the next month, we would each be taken in by a Chinese family while we were studying Mandarin back in the city of Hángzhōu. We jumped on numerous buses and into a few taxis to get back (this was to be the nature of our travels while far out at the school). Our reps bought us a Subway each (a classic Chinese dish) before dropping us off at our homes.
Home Sweet Home
My family, as did most of the others, lived in an apartment block, on the eight floor. Accompanied by Carl (our Chinese rep) and Ramsay, I arrived at their door with my massive backpack (the type used by those doing Duke of Edinburgh trials, for instance) and a smaller one worn on my front, containing objects like my laptop and camera. As soon as the door was opened, I was immediately given slippers to wear. In all the households I visited, I was given slippers, of which families would have many spare pairs; the Chinese like to keep a demarcation between the dirty outside and the clean inside. They were halfway through their dinner, and so they, naturally, insisted I sit down and join them.
The idea of us volunteers staying for a month with a Chinese family was so that we could improve our Mandarin and experience what it really was like living in China, and so that the children of each family could, in turn, practice their English. In my family, the parents could speak a passable amount of English, but Judy, their daughter, was very fluent. The dinner thus wasn’t in silence, but filled with polite questions like ‘How was your flight?’, ‘Do you know any Chinese words?’, before being filled with other questions I could tell they had been dying to ask. ‘Do you have any siblings?’, ‘What did you study at University?’, ‘What do your father and mother do, and what do they earn?’, ‘Do you have a big house?’.
While Judy thus facilitated a lot of the conversation, it was her father who was the most keen to find out about my life in Britain and, conversely, tell me about China. I could tell he was very proud of his country; this was not an obnoxious pride, but a desire to try make me, as a foreigner, truly understand what China was like. After dinner, he pointed to various places on the map of China above the table, and described either their famous sites, foods, or how they related to his family. Later, Judy’s ‘brother’ came by. At first I was confused, didn’t China still have a one-child policy? But I soon realised that close friends, or other family members, would often be called brother or sister; DùYǔ was Judy’s cousin. At the end of my month there, Judy said I could call her little sister (‘mèi mei’) and she would call me big sister (‘jiě jie’).
At ten o’clock, I retired to bed. Classes started at eight in the morning, like most things in China; people would go to bed when it got dark and get up when it was light. I was exhausted but excited. My family had been very welcoming, and I would have a whole month to fully find out more about them. It was time to begin my four months in China…
On the 30th of January 2013, I went to China for four months. The plan was to learn Mandarin for one month, while staying at a Chinese family’s home, and afterwards, move out into the country to teach. The last month involved travelling around China.
After finishing my English degree this time last year, I really wasn’t sure what to do for the next few months, or, indeed, for life. As with so many others in a similar situation, travelling seemed the obvious answer, and I was lucky enough to be able to pursue it.
People kept asking me ‘Why China?’, and to this day I still can’t give a clear answer or reason. I had always wanted to go to China, having been fascinated with the country since I was a kid. It seemed natural, then, on a trip that was in a period of uncertainty to go with my instinct. Plus, as a child, peking duck and pizza had always vied for my favourite food choice. One musn’t downplay the importance of food…
And now, once again, like so many others, I’m going to attempt to write a blog about it. It’s a way for me to record these memories, a shortcut for bypassing numerous questions about China, but it’s also, I guess, something I hope people who are thinking about doing something similar will read. If you are in a situation where you are able to do something like this, go for it. It is both as big and as daunting as you imagine it will be, and, conversely, not that hard at all…
So. Before setting down these adventures, I’ll introduce the other guys who I spent my time with, in alphabetical order. None of us knew each other before meeting either at London Heathrow, or in Shanghai…
‘Danish’ (aka Thomas)
Where to start with Danish? He ended up on this trip with us after his Mum came into his room one morning and said, ‘Thomas, you’re going to China.’ He thus spent most of his time paranoid about any diseases he might catch (having not had time to get the necessary jabs), and so carried around bottles of antibiotic hand gel and spent a lot of his time cleaning things.
One of the two Aussies on our trip. James was taking a year out before heading to University, planning to head to Africa after our time in China. He spent most of his time either speaking pretty fluent Chinese to the locals, asking me questions about good and evil, or, conversely, stepping on toads and introducing us to the world of Aussie swearing.
My only other female companion on the trip, Laura had been working at Manchester University before jumping aboard a plane to fly around China, New Zealand and Australia for 6 months. We spent a lot of the weekends whilst living at the school exploring the surrounding village, heading up Huangshan or going all the way to Shanghai.
Heading to University to study African and Asian history, Rob decided to head to China first. Rob entertained us all with his stories of all the ‘interesting’ people he knew at home and became quite adept at barking like a dog in public. He met me in Beijing on our later travels, where we spent a lot of time appreciating numerous ancient gates (the Chinese couldn’t get enough) and eating copious amounts of duck.
Our other Aussie on the trip, he spent the last month often shouting at me ‘No one asked you Roisin!’ Stationed at a different school with Rob, Shaun became very popular with some of the kids who stayed at the school over the weekends, befriended a small puppy before the kids chased it away, while also getting annoyed at the strange noises some of the local cats would make in the middle of the night….
Tom, always with his head in his Mandarin flashcards, was also on a year out before heading to University (although, if you were to ask him when or where, you would find him still undecided). We spent half the trip asking ‘where’s Tom gone?’, while he wandered off lost in his own thoughts. Obsessed with Japan, he was planning to head there after our trip to China.
And some of the other lovely people we met on the way…
The Chinese family with whom I stayed for a month in Hangzhou. Extremely friendly and welcoming, Judy (the daughter) was also very smart and interested in learning English, as well as being an amazing singer. I ate a stupid amount while staying at their house.
One of our Mandarin teachers, Jin Qin Qin….
…and our other teacher, Serena. Yes, James does have his trousers down.
One day in Weiping (a local town near us), we were approached by a group of high school girls, whom we subsequently met up with a few times. They grew very attached to the boys (to put it mildly), especially Danish with his blue eyes.
The English teachers at the school we taught at.
Our two in-country reps, in case we needed a hand: Ramsay, top right, and Carl, bottom left.
And of course, the kids; who could forgot the kids!
Finally, yours truly, wearing one of the exquisite pyjama outfits the locals were so fond of. We laughed, initially, when we saw them worn in public, but damn they were warm…
A crowd of crows scatter around
fly black triangles
on an empty road passed by.
They squawk and beat
stretching their wings
to blossomed meadows,
waking sky, with inky touch.
They trail feathers
I yearn to follow.
But traffic cones become
traffic bones, and grind towards
places unflown. My footsteps lay
prints on stone, two of many.
So. It has been a (relatively) long time since I last posted something. Why? I don’t know, I think life started happening. Ish. Maybe now is a good time to reflect on my original purpose in this blog. I began with this blog being ‘about people and ideas that inspire me, about values that are important to me’, because I was trying to focus on what I am, not on what I will be.
Trying is the operative word, it’s very hard not to worry about your future. And I have been worrying. But I think I have taken some me-time, done some exploring. I have one paid job, one voluntary job at a newspaper and an internship. I dance twice a week, go to more events and see lots of amazing people (and even more of this beautiful city!).
The main thing is that I’m writing a lot more (though no where near enough). Nothing good either, but I feel I’m starting to see an improvement. And while I’m writing mostly poetry, I thought that, to be brave, I’d post a tiny excerpt from a small short story in here. Maybe I can start moving on from simply quoting those people that inspire me?
‘You need to pull yourself together.’ Ingrid looks bored as she says this, with her cigarette in hand and hair sticking out like week old flowers. She sniffs before taking another drink from her coffee mug. A waitress moves past. The diner is full.
What does it mean to pull your self together? Is your self something that unstitches itself? Are we made of threads that give in and relax, with wear, or time? Or maybe it is zips, zips that simply expand when we breathe out, that don’t quite hold, and need to be hoisted up again. Are we then just items of clothing, something to put on to then remove when no one is watching? Something to shrug out of, we’ll maybe look for something comfier, or nothing at all, and lie there shivering.
When I think of pulling myself together, I do think of lying somewhere. In a room that’s, for some reason, made of soft, bouncy walls, you know, those crèches you put your kids in to while you go shopping. There’s some big, cushiony building blocks scattered around, all bright colours, and I’m lying in a corner that’s yellow. I think. It’s maybe red. There’s also other people there, an Ingrid figure watching and prompting me, but also maybe some kids running around. They’re all blurry and making indistinct noise. When I’m told this, that I need to pull myself together, I sigh and haul myself up, slowly. I pick up pieces, cradling them in my weary arms. It’s been a long day apparently. These pieces are quite slippery and almost animal like in the way that they pour out of my hands. I put on something like a jacket: it’s quite heavy and I have to slouch.
I hug my self, hold it close. If I don’t, it can just fall off again, back onto the yellow floor.
‘Just pull yourself together, ok? I’ll be back in a few days, I miss Philip too much.’
‘I miss him too.’
‘My dog, you idiot. That wanker can fuck right off.’
Ingrid kisses my cheek as she leaves, leaving a sticky residue on my cheek. Her smell of smoke lingers too, and I sit there, feeling all of this. Outside it is too cold and I want to stay warm a little longer.