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The Transience of Expat Life- A Musing

When you live abroad (wherever that is) you find that things are constantly shifting.People are constantly coming and going.Many people come here for a short while and they move on.We came to China 3 years ago and we have moved to another city,leaving behind people we met,had a great time with and then said goodbye to.In Lin’an we made some great friends,but at the end of the year we had to say goodbye to them as we moved on to Xiamen, not knowing if we would see them again.Some we have managed to stay in contact with,some we have seen – one colleague came to live here, our “Chinese daughter” Ting and her boyfriend Computer Boy came down here last year in May for the holiday , and we chat a lot on Skype,but staying in contact is hard, and it’s certainly not the same as when she dropped by our apartment for supper most days.

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Ting and Computer Boy on their visit to Xiamen University

When we arrived in Xiamen we made a wonderful friend called Ivy who helped us out many times reading stuff in Chinese and showing us around town.But she got another job up in Tianjin and went there.I can chat to her on WeChat but it’s not the same as hanging out together in a new coffee bar in Xiamen or going together to a party…I can’t blame her.She got a great job and she said that “Northern boys are better than the ones here”.. so bye bye Ivy.

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Lovely Ivy at one of our favourite Xiamen Coffee bars.

So all the time we meet people,have a great time with them and then say goodbye.Many expats actually prefer this lifestyle.They want the casualness of life here,the lack of obligation,the “no strings attached” side to it.And it does have its appeal.WE always know that new people will be coming.There is a 5 year rule in China that after 5 years you are supposed to move to a new school.It is sometimes enforced and sometimes not.In some areas you cannot teach after 60 or 65 (retirement age for Chinese is 50 for women and 55 for men) so every year we are wondering who will not be invited back.Of course there are always people looking to move to a new area or to return home too.Last year we said goodbye to Renee and Barry our dear friends from Hawaii.James and his wife Wenxia went back to Canada,Karen and Lazar and their daughters back to Australia,Jonathan and Allie and their daughters to El Paso, and so it goes on.You meet people you have fun you move on.WE even have people who “do a runner” and disappear into the night for various reasons.No goodbyes there!

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Friends from Lin’an Diana,Barry,Renee and Patrick

At this time of year the situation is pretty complicated.The universities are looking to renew contracts with some teachers and fire others.Many teachers have not given the school a reply whether they intend to stay or not.Some are undecided whether to move schools.Others are going home.They school may wish to fire some teachers but don’t know yet how many they will need as other teachers have not replied about renewing the contract.So of course we know we are going to be saying goodbye again this summer to many people,and that is all part of the nomadic life we have been leading.It’s great to meet lots of new people but sometimes it’s hard knowing that our paths may not cross again.But then, we kind of like the dynamic aspect of it too.It’s all par for the course when you move around a lot.What do you think? Would that kind of lifestyle flummox you? Or are you up for meeting people,getting friendly and then letting go?Feel free to comment!

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Wonderful colleagues from Lin’an-Ted,Ding,Teresa and “Chinese Mark”

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Mid Autumn Festival (the bigger picture for my bro)

Well today’s post will be a little cultural/anthropological in orientation as my brother read my blog and complained it was too personal and focused on food and trivial details.So today I want to give a bit of background on the current holiday in China,which is called the Mid Autumn Festival.This festival is a popular harvest festival celebrated by Chinese people on the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the Lunar Calendar. It is also known as “Mooncake Festival”, Lantern Festival” or “Moon Festival”.It is customary at this time to visit your family and friends and to eat a celebratory meal,and to go to beautiful places to look at the full moon.Since it is a National cultural heritage holiday there is an official holiday so that people can travel and visit their relatives.But in Xiamen where we live,there is a special tradition which is only observed here.IT is called “Bobing” and it is a kind of gambling game.

“WE experienced it for the time last year,when our university took us (all the foreign teachers and some Chinese ones) to a lovely five-star hotel.There we were given a buffet lunch and then after that we went upstairs to some tables,where we rolled six dice in a porcelain bowl.The rules are a little complicated but basically the number four is your friend.According to the number of fours that you throw you can win prizes.

Explanation as follows:(skip if you aren’t interested in the details)

“The 300-year-old custom of mooncake gambling dates back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The inventor, Zheng Chenggong (1624-62), a general of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), stationed his army in Xiamen. Zheng was determined to recover Taiwan, which was occupied by Dutch invaders since 1624.

When every Mid-Autumn Festival came, the soldiers naturally missed their families but fought with heroical determination to drive off the aggressors.

General Zheng and his lower officer Hong Xu invented mooncake gambling to help relieve homesickness among the troops.

The gambling game has six ranks of awards, which are named as the winners in ancient imperial examinations, and has 63 different sized mooncakes as prizes.

From the lowest to the highest, the titles of six ranks are Xiucai (the one who passed the examination at the county level), Juren (a successful candidate at the provincial level), Jinshi (a successful candidate in the highest imperial examination), Tanhua, Bangyan and Zhuangyuan (respectively the number three to number one winners in the imperial examination at the presence of the emperor).

Game players throw the dice by turns. Different pips they count win the player a relevant “title” and corresponding type of mooncakes.”

In simple language:-

If you get a six on all the dice you get the jackpot.If you get 1 through 6 that is the highest score.But even if you only throw two ro three fours,you can win something.So we all went home with tubes of toothpaste,soap ,blankets,boxes of mooncakes and other prizes.

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Mooncakes

This year we were informed that due to budget cuts and suchlike from the Government we were not able to go to a hotel so we only did the gambling game in a room at the University,and the prizes were only mooncakes from small to large.But when I got home I was invited by a neighbour, whose husband is a University teacher,to the neiighbourhood  Bobing game downstairs outside our building.There the residents had clubbed together to buy various prizes and there were two tables of gamblers,one for kids and one for adults.I joined in there but didn’t win anything.It was great to watch the faces of the kids as we all threw the dice in turn.

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Our neighbour’s daughter Ray shaking the dice

Yesterday we went for a walk around Jimei (our neighbourhood) and checked out the new Wanda Shopping Mall that has opened here.It was being built when we left for the summer holidays and now it is open and was buzzing with people because of the holiday.It has 4 floors,one floor completely devoted to restaurants,and there was a sort of traditional dance show  going on when we arrived,but I think it was just an ad for a cellphone company or something.Anyway,the mall has an IMAX cinema complex,Haagen Dasz ice cream and all the usual Chinese -American favourites ie Pizza Hut,McDonalds and so on.But it looks very upscale and expensive.IT is also spotlessly clean (for now!)

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Dance show at the Mall

 

We also met up again with our friends Jennifer and Hamburger last week and went with them to Jiageng Stadium near our house where there was a very silly exhibition of trick art or 3 D pictures where you can insert yourself into the picture and take a photo.This is kind of childish but amusing fun especially if you have small kids or friends who behave like kids.We took lots of silly photos,and it felt good to be back with our Xiamen friends again.There are quite a few new teachers at XMUT,and we have not had time to make everyone’s acquaintance yet.I hope we will have the opportunity to do that,once the holidays are over.Next week is National Week and we have 8 days off so we are off to Taiwan -t’s kind of like the Rosh Hashana-Yom Kippur-Succot period in Israel when you can’t really get anything done until after the festivals.So far the classes I have seen have been very nice and with quite a high level of English.More after Taiwan!

 

Macau City of Dreams and Shenzhen Shopping Heaven

We flew back to  Hong Kong and from there took a ferry straight from Hong Kong airport to Macau.This was as easy and straightforward as other travelers on the Internet described as you bypass customs and immigration in Hong Kong and your bags are transferred directly to the ferry boat. It is only one hour by ferry and then there was a special line in Macau for oldies of over 65 and they let me go through with D so all was well.

On arrival at Macau ferry terminal we wanted to take a free shuttle but were too tired and the bags were too heavy so we just cheated and got a cab to our hotel the Metropole, in the Old Town, not on the Cotai strip where all the casinos are.The hotel was lovely except for one thing-it was being renovated and it was rather bizarre to look out of the bedroom window and see a workman with a yellow hard hat standing on bamboo scaffolding! The noise was not so bad but we couldn’t open the window or really relax in the room.So that was a bit of a bummer. Nevertheless we went out into Macau Old town to sample the strange mix of Portuguese and Chinese cultures. Next thing we notice-cars drive on the left? Why is that ? We have been to Portugal and it was not the case there. Macau old town was delightful- clean and lively with the streets still decorated from the Chinese New Year.

We saw the ruins of St Paul’s which was beautiful and just strolled around town and had a great Portuguese style meal.Then we took a bus to the Cotai area where all the huge casinos are and looked around the kitschy Venetian like the one in Las Vegas. It is a mockup of Venice complete with fake gondolas and fake painted sky, lots of casinos of course and also very luxury shops.

Ruins of St Paul's
Ruins of St Paul’s

THe next day we had intended to do a bit more sightseeing before moving on to Shenzhen but as it turned out the shuttle to the port was at 11.30 so we decided to go with that and take the 12.15 sailing to Shenzhen. It was a quick trip but the sea was a bit bumpier than on our arrival.ON reaching Shenzhen we took the subway straight to our hotel,the Sunon Villa which was great,slap bang on the pedestrian mall of Shenzhen where you can buy anything and everything. We walked around a bit,bought a few things and went back to rest in the room. Then went out to eat and had a great day.Next morning we got up and took the subway to OCT (Overseas Chinese Town) to visit Splendid China,which is a sort of Mini China-all the famous sites of the country in miniature.

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Fake Mosque for Xinjiang ProvinceIMG_2792

Minority group show-Va people

IT was also kitschy but endearing especially the people-watching and waving and taking photos with mums,dad,grandparents etc. We especially enjoyed the mockups of the ethnic Chinese villages,with their folklore shows. We saw three of these demonstrations of minority group customs and the highlight was the Mongol battlefield show complete with costumed riders with lances and other weapons reenacting various battles and horses jumping over flames and other obstacles.I found it thrilling and almost felt I was 6 years old again watching it.

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Splendid China Kitsch

Next day we flew back to Xiamen and got here early in the morning ready for our new semester which will begin on Monday.

A week left and counting..

We came back home to Jerusalem for a month over the semester break and it has been rather weird. Firstly of course it was great to see all our friends and family again,to eat our faviourite Israeli foods that are not available in China, and to sleep in our own (extremely soft) bed. It was great to go to Pilates classes again and tell people we are just here for a break and are living in China.But it was also odd that we very quickly found ourselves missing China, Xiamen and our life there. I miss the students, I miss getting up every day in Xiamen and not knowing who we are going to meet or what is going to happen.I miss the challenge of trying to make myself understood in Chinese.And I miss the surprises every time we order in a restaurant and have no clue what is going to appear on the table.

It was great to be met at the airport by our younger son,to hear what he has been up to,and to spend time with my Dad,and my brothers and see all the family together for my brother’s birthday.But now we feel that we are in the way.The boys have their own lives to lead,and really don’t need us around.My dad is doing fine and is okay with us going back.

Today is Chinese New Year, and although we planned not to be there during that festival I am a little disappointed now I see it all on the TV that we will be missing the festivities.So maybe we will stay put next year and see them for ourselves,wherever we are.

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We did have some fun here.We went to see a couple of movies and we are gong to a concert this week. But we kept checking the prices in the restaurants and shops and comparing to Chinese prices. We spent some time with friends of ours from Xiamen who came to visit, Steve and Viny, who are of the Bahai faith and came to Israel to go on a pilgimage to their temple in Haifa. We showed them around Jerusalem a bit,went with them to Yad Vashem,to Ein Karem,Abu Gosh and the Tayelet to see the views of the Old City.

We also had a coffee with Aliza and Shimon who will be joining us at XMUT next semester.So that was fun too.So roll on next Monday when we get on the plane and go back to Xiamen via Hong Kong,Macau and Shenzhen.

Steve and Viny visit Abu Gosh

Steve and Viny visit Abu Gosh

Gulangyu Island Part 2

We had visited Gulangyu Island when we came to Xiamen last December but it had been a rather rushed visit and had wanted to go back so this weekend when the mercury shot up to 24 C in the daytime we decided the time was right.So we popped onto the BRT right to the end of the route and from then walked to the Pier for the 5 minute crossing to the wonderful island.IT is car-less and bicycle-less,has a mountain in the middle called Sunlight Rock,and 2 museums,one a Piano Museum and one Organ Museum. The island is home to about 25,000 people and has lots of old colonial buildings and some beaches and is a relaxing getaway but to be avoided over national holidays.The best thing to do however is just meander aimlessly around the streets,look at the twee little shops selling knicknacks and relax. IT is a very relaxing place. This time we thought we would climb up Sunlight Rock which we didn’t do last time,but again the visibility was poor despite the sun,so we passed on paying 60RMB each for that and made do with the Piano Museum which was most rewarding.WE then went to the Park surrounding it,and another small museum of Chinese artifacts,and just hung out generally.

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Piano Museum

 

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colonial buildings

The beach is lovely,maybe not world quality but a pleasant place especially because it is not crowded and sweaty.WE will return to Gulangyu again and make it up to Sunlight Rock next time. In the evening we had intended to hear a rock band in the village of Zen cuoAn near to Xiamen University but were a bit tired and since the last BRT home is at 10pm we didn’t fancy returning by taxi so we had dinner at Pizza Hut and caught the bus home.Today we have the long awaited Xmas dinner at the five star Royal Victoria Hotel Xiamen as guests of the University so I guess that will deserve another blog entry. On a side note,Danny’s collection of Chinese sleeping in weird places is coming along nicely!

In another 3 weeks we will be back in Israel so I am not sure how much I will be blogging then,but time will tell.Today,on the teachers’ bus to Metro supermarket we met a couple from Ireland ,Stephen and Lavinia,who are Bahai,and they will be in Israel end of January so of course we will invite them over to have dinner with us in Jerusalem.

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Xiamen from the ferry

Some reflections on Chinese students and EFL (for teachers,probably)

We are nearing the end of the first semester here in Xiamen and our 3rd semester in China so time for a bit of reflection.I have spent the last 2 weeks testing my students orally for their Final Exam,and I have a few observations. It seems that there is a great deal of difference between teaching English majors and Non English majors,but there are some things which seem to jump out at me as “weird” or “different” when I compare the Chinese universities to the Western ones. Firstly,the students here seem to have a lot less choice in their lives than our children do,and than we did as students. Most students here,when asked why they chose this university or why they chose their major reply that “My parents picked it” or “My Gao Kao (high school university entrance exam) score was too low to go to another place. They don’t seem to express any opinion about what to study or where to spend four years. Another thing that sticks out is that they mostly plan to return home to their “hometown” when they graduate to help their parents,or because getting a job there is easier than in another city.They often plan to follow a career choice chosen by their parents,again in many cases not something they are crazy about. I find this rather sad,looking back on my University l ife and how much I loved it.

Students,by and large, try to answer our questions with what they think we want to hear,and not their “real opinion” as far as we can fathom,and it is impossible to get them to be honest and really tell us what they think.And by the way there are some other rather confusing things. Frequently a student will refer to his “hometown” which is his ancestral family home,but not necessarily where his family now live,which can be thousands of miles away. And they will also refer to “my sister” or “my brother” when referring to a cousin,but it can also mean a true sibling. Many of them ,despite what we know about China,do have a sister or a brother,sometimes two!

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Students here seem to be perpetually busy doing pointless tasks for the university,and when they are free they just watch movies online,or sleep,or play computer games.They rarely go into the city which is only 30 minutes away as they seem to think it is too far or too crowded.They are lacking in ambition and independence,and on weekends go home to their families if they live near to Xiamen.There is very little of the typical University life we know in the UK- certainly no pubs,no parties,very little mingling of the sexes at all.In class the boys and girls sit separately as we did when we were very young in elementary school.They are pretty immature,look much younger than British or American students and have very little social life.Classes have a class monitor much as we did in high school,who has to do various things for the teachers. I asked some students about hobbies,or what they do in their free time and the predictable answers were “play computer games”,”sleep” “go to the library” and for some girls “go shopping”.

Of course the students are delightful people on the whole,very polite and respectful,curious about us and where we come from,why we are in China and what we think about it.They find it hard to imagine why we would have left a place which they consider to be alluring,magical,and highly desirable to come to China and they mostly have very little idea of travelling even as far as Shanghai,let alone abroad.IT all seems very unreal to them. I can’t help wondering,however what the future holds for them,and what China will look like when they reach adulthood…

More anon…

 

The Speaking Competition in Fuzhou

We have just returned from a really interesting weekend accompanying the team of three girls that we coached to participate in the Regional English Speaking Contest in Fuzhou. Altogether 75 candidates from different Universities in the province competed to go to the National Contest in Beijing. Our team consisted of Mavis,Witty and Shirley three lovely girls who have somehow become our “Xiamen Daughters” or possibly the 3 Musketeers.

ImageWE coached them on pronunciation, presentation,body language and suchlike over the course of the last 6 weeks and became very close. They frequently came over to work at our house and were regaled with tea and biscuits. Anyway the culmination of this process was the contest. For this we had to take a fast train for 2 hours to neighbouring Fuzhou where we were met by a volunteer from the Fuzhou College of Foreign Languages and Trade,this year’s venue for the Contest. The organization of this contest was terrible even for China, but despite all the hitches we had a great time. This was partly because of the girls, but also because of the people we met.Out of all the hundreds of people attending,the only non  Chinese were me,Danny, a coach for the Xiamen University team called Michael Oviedo (A Jewish guy from California) and Michael Garnett, a judge from Hatfield,(more of him later) and another lady judge whom we didn’t talk to.The girls were really nervous but did a great job. We got 6th place out of 74 and they performed really well.On arrival at the venue there was a draw to determine the contestants’ running order. WE got 1,23 and 37 which meant first contestant and then one in the middle and one almost last,as there were two separate rooms of speakers. The girls had to give a 3 minute prepared speech and then an impromptu unprepared speech followed by questions. Then we were taken by bus to the hotel (not so great but ok) and then dinner. Chaos was the main theme of the checkin at the hotel and then the subsequent running of the contest. What was really enjoyable was meeting all the young people participating and seeing their seriousness and fervour in preparing for their speeches. Some were really excellent too,although a few were weak. During the long afternoon in which the girls got all dolled up in their best and put on makeup and practised, we were suddenly approached by a Chinese lady who addressed us in fluent Hebrew! She turned out to be the wife of Michael Garnett,and had spent 10 years living in Israel,on Kibbutz Hazorea and then in Haifa. She embraced us like long lost family and said that now she and Michael live in Fuzhou and teach at Fujian College! Talk about a small world!. We of course exchanged phone numbers and emails and will stay in touch.

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Mavis doing her thing

At one point Shirley was in the lead,but at the end of the day the 3 winning contestants were from Xiamen University and Fujian University. The contest finished at 6pm when we were returned by bus to the Fuznou train station,together with Kevin the Chinese teacher from our school who had been a judge in one of the rooms. On arrival back in Xiamen,Kevin ran us home in his car which he had parked at the station,and thanked us for all of our hard work. Today is Sunday,so we have a well earned day of rest!.

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Mavis,Witty,Me,Danny,Kevin and Shirley