Archive for the ‘China’ Category

During my big trip around Sichuan and Yunnan provinces in China, I visited a lot of famous landmarks. Amongst them was Emei Shan. This is fairly close to Chengdu (about 130km South West) and is one of the four famous Buddhist mountains (for further info, click here).


Rather than bore you with the history and the ins and outs of getting there, which will be available elsewhere on the internet or in any decent guidebook, I have simply posted some of the photos of the trip itself (with captions). Unfortunately, the pictures don’t do justice to the reality. However, if you’re interested in visiting one of the famous Buddhist mountains of China, enjoying draw-dropping views, old monasteries and mist-covered hills, I highly recommend that you go.


Read Full Post »

From time to time, I will post some articles in Chinese or French. I’m still improving in these languages and owe a great deal of gratitude to fellow users of italki.com* for correcting my work.

[*If you’re unfamiliar with this site, it allows you to practice whatever language you want, either through online lessons, online exchange, or posting an online entry to have it corrected (as I have done).]

My first Chinese post:

我以前住在大连(中国的东北)。 在那儿我学了一年的中文,然后教了一年的英语。因为我赚钱,所以我需要开一个银行账户。 我本来想去hsbc,因为那是一个国际银行,所以我可以在任何国家免费取钱。不过,因为我是学生,所以我没有那么多钱,它们说我是太穷了,所以我得找别的银行。

我存了很多钱,然后回到英国。我最近搬到法国,而且我已经花了很多。因为我还有很多钱在我中国银行的存款, 所以我要转钱到别的银行。 但是, 一点不是那么容易。 如果我要转钱的话,我得去中国银行的大连部门把钱兑换到美元,然后可以转到别的银行。因为我住在法国,这有点难!我问一些职员,我是否可以让一个朋友去替我兑换钱。 但是他们告诉我,因为他们不是家人,所以我不能用这个方法。

还有别的问题。 我给中国银行打电话的时候, 需要说得特别慢,并且重复说十遍。他们终于听得懂我的问题,然后给我一样的回应: 我需要去中国兑换钱。 天哪! 或者, 如果我特别生气,况且他们不知道怎么帮助我,他们就给我转接到别的部门!

有一次我给中国银行的英国部门打电话, 因为他们的英语比较好。 他们告诉我不能帮助我,因为国外的系统跟中国不一样。 法国部门也是一样。如果你是中国人,搬到国外留学或工作你怎么管你的钱呢?!
有一次,我想要转一些美元从中国银行到别的银行(我有两种货币在中国银行),但是我没有成功。 为什么? 因为我加了MR (先生的意思) 在我的名字的前面。他们不知道这是什么意思,所以我不能转钱。 我等了一个多星期才知道理由!我还付了二十英镑,尽管没有成功!

Thanks again to the contributors who corrected this. You can see the original article (with all its flaws), at: http://www.italki.com/notebook/entry/231387.htm

Read Full Post »

I spent a year in Northern China teaching English last year (2011-2012). I taught age groups from as young as five, to adults in their thirties. For me, it was a testing time. Standing up in front of a large group of people and directing a class is not my idea of fun. However, necessity sometimes leads to unusual circumstances: I was broke and a job offer was given to me, so I had little choice but to take it.

The most important thing to point out is that teaching is not for everyone. If you are the kind of person who likes being centre of attention, can be fairly authoritative and enjoy entertaining, it can be a great gig. To be honest, I sometimes wish I was more cut out for teaching because the opportunities to travel the world, to live in some amazing places, and to save money in the process is one that few other careers provide. Alas, for me, it is not meant to be.

If you are unsure, look for an opportunity to volunteer before investing in an expensive course. It’s also worth considering whether it’s the type of thing, realistically, that you’d enjoy. Consider taking a personality profile test to find out more about yourself. Remember that there are also other options available such as teaching one to one, or teaching small groups of adults rather than a class full of kids. This type of work is often easier to find or organize yourself, by posting ads online.


How to find a teaching job?

If you have decided that you do wish to give teaching English a go, how do you land your first job? Most would recommend that you do some sort of qualification before you go abroad (such as the Trinity TESOL or Cambridge CELTA courses). Whilst these can be expensive, they tend to be recognised worldwide, so are a good investment if you are considering teaching for a while. One alternative, if you are itching to quit your job and live abroad, is to take one of these courses at your destination. The price is normally similar, plus you get a chance to enjoy the new scenery and to get some decent practice with all the people who wish to learn English. Once you have obtained a teaching qualification, a quick search of the internet will provide thousands of opportunities – take your pick!

Those who are thinking of teaching for a shorter amount of time (over a summer vacation perhaps) may not consider the investment in an expensive, certified course, to be worthwhile. Not to worry, there are other options available, the qualifications simply tend to give you greater flexibility and better pay prospects. For example, in China, there are a number of key players dominating the market (such as the global English First). These large, international companies tend to have much higher entry criteria for their teachers (as any large recruiter tends to). They may demand a certified certificate as well as a couple of years of experience for example. Whilst I understand that more developed economies such as Japan (with more years of English study behind them) have become more consolidated, with just a few big companies dominating the market, in places like China there are still thousands of small independent schools, with less stringent entry criteria.


So, what advice would I give to those who do not want to (or cannot) take the certified certificate route?

  1. Look for work outside the many cities. In much of the interior of China, it is often poorer and there are fewer foreigners, so they are often crying out for a foreigner to come and teach some oral English classes.
  2. I got my job because my Chinese university teacher had a friend or cousin working as a secretary at an English school. It just so happened that they were looking for a native English speaker. Remember that in China, guanxi, or relationships, are very important. Many opportunities will arise through word of mouth. Therefore my next advice would be –
  3. take a course in Chinese in China. It will be a huge help if you can speak some of the local language, but it will also give you ample time to network (i.e. mention to everyone that you’re looking for a teaching job). See this article for advice on choosing a place to study.
  4. Look for volunteer opportunities. Whilst a great many of companies offering their services to find a volunteer placement are taking you (and your money) for a ride, there are some decent companies out there. Put in the search time: I tend to find that websites with forums or classifieds are much better for finding some of the smaller organisations, whose ranking on the search engines is rather low. I was almost tempted by an opportunity I saw in Bhutan, which charged a minimal fee for food and lodging, in exchange for volunteer English teaching in some beautiful surroundings, for example.

My experience was in China, so I do not know how well my advice translates to other countries. However, I would have thought that much of it is actually common sense and follows the law of supply and demand, so should therefore also be applicable in other countries.

Feel free to leave your advice below if you have any other good tips on finding work. I shall no doubt expand this post at some point to make it more comprehensive.

Read Full Post »

If anyone is qualified to recommend the best way to learn Chinese, I am. I moved to Shanghai in late 2009 to start a course (from complete scratch) with MandarinHouse.com. I spent 3-4 months there, had a great time, met some fantastic people, but my Chinese was appalling. Now, I chose the course partly because it had a high rank on Google and partly because of the misplaced advice given by a family friend who suggested that I should choose a school which is a member of the ‘International Association of Language Centres’. As a result of the high Google ranking and the prestigious awards and associations it belongs to, it was inevitably expensive. The price of the course, combined with the price of living in Shanghai, ate up most of savings rather quickly. A clue to who the courses were intended for was given by some of my fellow students, which included a Microsoft millionaire, a Californian state attorney, a retired gynaecologist and lots of students with wealth fathers. The other students were very friendly but had a slightly different financial background! In addition to the expense of the course, the other main problem was that it was focused on learning pinyin: it was largely a course targeted at businessman who wished to learn how to converse with colleagues. My interest was to learn characters as well. Finally, another reason why my Chinese didn’t progress was because my circle of friends consisted solely of people from the course or other expats – not a single Chinese.

I decided that I needed to try something completely different if I were to make progress in the language. A friend of mine recommended that I study at a university, so I applied to Dalian University of Technology to start a Chinese Language course. [Why Dalian? Because the north of the country was meant to be good as the dialect is more standard. In addition, it was cooler than Ha’erbin, which was one of the other options available. Unfortunately, I had to take an entry level test when I got to the University. As the test was in Chinese and I had not yet had a chance to learn characters, my first 4 -5 months was wasted as I had to start from Chinese 101 again!


Fresh goat meat outside DUT


I spent a year at the University of Dalian and made some good progress. However, my downfall was that I still spent most of my time with the international students on my course. My reading and writing had improved somewhat but my oral Chinese still had a long way to go. After 1 year, my funds had dried up so I had no choice but to find some sort of work if I didn’t want to return home with my tail between my legs, having failed at my ambition. Fortunately, I managed to find a job teaching English, which was not only well paid (compared to the standard of living) but also only part-time, which give me ample time to work on my Chinese.

Whilst working part time, I studied at a private school which aimed itself at Japanese students. I haven’t posted a link, partly because the bloody website is impossible to find, partly because they ignored my numerous request for paperwork, which gets them a black mark! I chose the school largely because the price was the most competitive and the main focus for me was on conversation, as I could already speak a basic level of Chinese. All the courses were one-to-one and they were charging about 45 RMB an hour at the time.

I travelled extensively around China, including Sichuan, Yunnan, Xi’an, Shandong, Ha’erbin and others.This was a good way to practice the Chinese I had learnt. In fact, I would recommend taking local public transport as a great way to practice: I had a long conversation with a local on the 10-hour bus trip to Jiuzhaigou, who was delighted that the foreigner he sat next to could speak some Chinese!

I have recently moved to Lyon in France. Whilst perhaps not the most obvious place to practice Chinese, I have enrolled on a Master’s in translation using Chinese, French and English.

Whilst my level of Chinese is not as good as it should be considering the time I spent in China (you can see my level of Chinese on italki.com) it is passable for now. My main problem was finding Chinese friends to meet with to practice my Chinese. Had I managed to do this, my Chinese would have been a lot better.

 To sum up: My best advice would be to learn Chinese at a university – ideally one where there are few foreigners. If possible, try and stay in the Chinese dormitory on campus (it won’t be as nice as the foreign block but your Chinese will benefit enormously); alternatively, think about a Chinese homestay.

For advice on practicing your language, take advice from the expert at Fluent in 3 months.



Read Full Post »

The Chinese are big on food.

Unlike social life back home, which tends to resolve around bars and pubs, the Chinese socialise in restaurants. OK, so the word ‘restaurant’ is perhaps misleading here – to me it conjures up images of a fairly upmarket establishment – ‘eating place’ is perhaps more suitable.

The majority of eating places are small, family run places. They’re hygiene standards certainly wouldn’t be accepted in many places in the world: they’d no doubt be shut down for failing food health and safety tests. But things are just different here. For example, the little old lady on the table next to you wouldn’t think twice about coughing up a sizeable lump of phlegm and dropping it onto the floor. People won’t use ashtrays – the ash and the butt will both end up on the floor. At night, cockroaches will occassionally scuttle past. The rubbish will be carried out straight through the main eating area. If eating meat on the bone, the correct procedure is to pick it up, gnaw on it and then drop the bone onto the floor. So, basically the floors are filthy.

So what’s on offer in the hole in the wall restaurants? Well, pretty much anything you want. Each restaurant must have around a hundred dishes on offer…

Below is a collection of food/restaurant photos in China for your enjoyment…

Rinsing duck heads in the river, Suzhou

Freshly rinsed, the duck heads are left to dry in the sun…

A country-style dinner shared with the parents of a friend in northern rural China. The meal included pigs’ trotters, pigs’ ears and the black things are silk worm cocoons or something of the sort (for more info see: http://www.0791quanquan.com/forum/topic_51358.html or do a google search for ‘蚕茧的营养‘ for more pics). The pin yin is can2 jia

A friend who manages a small muslim eatery in Dalian. It gives an example of what the majority of the local ‘eateries’ look like.


Meat, vegetables and noodles. Less than 10 RMB – why bother cooking when you can eat for that price?

Dalian beer festival provided not only a nice selection of lagers but also a few tasty kebabs in case your feeling extra brave after you’ve downed a couple…

I was made to feel guilty about trying this snack after I was reminded about the plight of the humble bee in the UK. For anyone who wants to try it: the small ones tasted fine because they were mainly batter (deep fried), the larger ones were a bit bitter. Too much bee!). This was in a restaurant in Shanghai.

A selection of pics (along with the previous few) from a water town in the outskirts of Shanghai.

Read Full Post »

A couple of years ago I went on a long trip around the provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan, in the South West of China. I’ve decided that it’s about time that I shared some of the photos I took because some of the scenery was truly spectacular.

One place that particularly sticks in my mind is Jiuzhaigou in Northern Sichuan province.  I believe it translates as ‘nine village valley’ and is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve (see the Wikipedia entry for more info). The trip took about 10 hours by bus (stopping off at some of the worst toilets I’ve come across!) from the capital, Chengdu. I was originally reluctant to go because of the time it takes (I spent 10 hours on a bus, walked around the park for a day, and then returned the day after – exhausting!) and also because of the steep prices for entry into the park (from what I can remember I paid as much as 250 yuan for one day entry (around £25). However, seeing that the Lonely Planet highly recommended it, I decided to bite the bullet and go for it.

Rather than clog the page with over 50 photos taken of the site, I’ve displayed it as a slide show – if you would like me to post some larger photos as well, please let me know.



Comments to follow…



Read Full Post »

Before we arrive somewhere new, we always have an impression in our mind of what the place is going to be like. [Take for example, this recent article on the situation in Greece: our expectation is one of a country covered by riots]. Not once have I arrived somewhere and found it to be as I expected. My experience with China has been no different.


Most of the news I heard about China whilst back in the UK was regarding its incredible economic growth and its enormous population. The impression was one of a new world superpower in the making, determined to eclipse the US as the largest economy and to restore itself to its former glory.

Other than what was read in the press, you’d have had to have been stupid not to have noticed how many products used in our day to day life were made in China. You could pick up almost any object and it would have the inevitable ‘Made in China’ stamped on the bottom.


Exhibitions such as the Terracotta Warriors in London and the (false) claim that ‘the Great Wall of China is the only manmade object visible from space’ emphasised the country’s long history.

Chinese films such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon directed by Ang Lee or House of Flying Daggers by Zhang Yi Mou demonstrated the countries renowned martial arts skills and also gave us a glimpse at China’s history through its use of clothes, hairstyles and architecture from China’s past.

I had little to no knowledge of China’s history prior to arrival. The only knowledge I had was picked up from other people’s ideas and views, which were usually related to the atrocities of General Mao, human rights problems and the lack of democracy and freedom. Probe a little deeper and you would find that most people are actually fairly ignorant on China’s history and that they only have a fleeting understanding of China’s past – but they know enough to form an opinion, however inaccurate it may be.


Speaking to those in my parents’ generation, they often had the impression that the Chinese people are all small (similar in stature to more southern countries such as Thailand and Malaysia). There is also the perception that the Chinese will eat everything – including dog, cat, tortoises etc – which many people find repulsive and inhuman.

So, how accurate did my initial perceptions of China turn out to be?

On the economic growth side, the evidence can be seen by the number of new buildings being erected all over Dalian (the place where I lived for the good part of two years). What one year ago was an empty plot now contains a new apartment block. My flat overlooked an enormous development site, a complex of about eight apartment blocks surrounding a shopping plaza. The construction work goes on 24 hours a day. Besides new buildings, an underground system is also currently being built – the explosions at four o’clock in the morning testify to this fact.

On the surface development is happening at an astounding rate. However, beneath the surface things are not always as they seem. Due to the speed at which buildings get constructed, the quality tends to suffer. Buildings constructed over ten years ago are considered old. The interior walls are full of cracks, the skirting boards are falling off and plug sockets hang off walls. If you live on the uppermost floor (as I once did) you may find that the roof hasn’t been constructed too well, so that it leaks after rain – requiring buckets to collect the water and the soggy lumps of plaster that fall from the ceiling. I have spoken to a number of Chinese who said they won’t be using the underground system once it’s completed as they don’t think it’s safe. [In fact, it is the construction sector of the economy that is keeping much of China ticking – providing new jobs and economic growth].

In addition, many graduates are finding it difficult to get jobs. As the jobs become scarce, the competition gets greater and greater, meaning that many students choose to stay on at university for as long as possible in order to gain an advantage in the job market. I met a large number of students who had opted to complete a Master’s and even a PhD after obtaining their Bachelor’s degree. The target for many is to work for the CCP (China Communist Party), mainly because of the future prospects it offers.

I was expecting to find lots of winding alleyways, old buildings and courtyards as depicted in films. Alas, besides places such as the hutongs (which are rapidly being destroyed) in Beijing and other small preserved sections in some of the older cities, most of the architecture has been disappointing. Most of the cities I have been to have block after block of the same old ugly concrete apartment blocks, similar to the kind that were popular back in the 60s and 70s in the UK. I also saw a lot of what one might call a Stalinistic style of architecture – great big imposing rectangular structures made out of concrete – not a good look.

On a plus side, the new developments I have seen are now starting to incorporate a little more design into their style – in a few years the cities should start to feel more welcoming.

Regarding history, the ‘Mao’s a bad guy’ idea is really very simplistic. And wrong. True he made some bad decisions which resulted in the death of millions of Chinese through starvation but this was not a purposeful massacre. The goal was to build China into a great country again. It was very nearly torn apart by internal disagreements and by foreign influence – especially the Japanese domination in World War II. The older generation often talk about the hardships that they lived through under Mao. However, it seems that it’s the younger generation who have benefited from the sacrifices – many of the elderly still live in relative poverty.

Worthy of note is that many of our beliefs about the Chinese have stemmed from those that live in our country. However, the overwhelming majority of those who have set up Chinese restaurants or have spawned Chinese communities such as Chinatown were originally from Guangdong province (originally Canton) in the South of China. It is here that people are generally shorter in stature, are renowned for the wide range of cuisine and speak Cantonese which sounds very different to Mandarin Chinese. In the north of China people are generally much taller than in the South but every large city now has people from all over the country so the population is much more mixed.

Finally, although most of the culture was wiped away during the Cultural Revolution, there are still traces left to find. One of the most common sites in China is the dancing and Tai Chi sessions that take place (largely amongst the older generations) in the public parks. There are also a number of Buddhist and Taoist monasteries that have been preserved outside the main cities. Traditional Chinese medicine is still incredibly popular, although perhaps less so amongst the younger generations. I also find the obsession with white skin rather amusing: people will carry an umbrella when it’s sunny, cover themselves with ‘whitening’ cream and even don Doctor Who/Star Trek style costumes (enough to give anyone a fright!) to fend off the sun’s rays!

Further articles:

China’s cuisine

China emigration

China’s economy

What’s made in China?

Famous tourist sites

Chinese Films

General Mao

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »