Welcome to the new weekly Thursday Photo Challenge, a weekly photography challenge for everyone who likes to take photos!
This week’s topic is… vibrant.
Vibrant colours are all around us, lifting our souls and energising our senses. Studies have even shown different colours behave differently at a molecular level (colour chemistry is a whole branch of the natural sciences).
So join us in celebrating the many brilliant and diverse colours in the world! You can show a photo with lots of colours, one particular colour, or an absence of colour. Whatever the word “vibrant” means to you!
I can’t wait to see what you share!
My photo is of some tins of sardines I found in a supermarket in China. I thought it fitted this challenge in a sort of pop art way.
Here’s how to take part:
Take a photo or search your files for one that represents the week’s theme.
Write a post, including your photo, any words of explanation or inspiration you wish to share, and a link to this challenge page.
Comment on this post with a link to your page so others can see your contribution.
That’s it! Super easy.
This challenge will stay open for one week, then I will be back in the New Year to post the next challenge!
One thing I saw several times in various cities in China was gigantic things being carried by tiny vehicles. Some of them moved really fast and I didn’t get to capture them all through the lens before they were gone! Here’s a selection of some of my favourites that I did snap:
By Chinese standards, these two e-bikes aren’t carrying a whole lot, but the stand-off between them and the oncoming car was absolutely hilarious to watch, neither party would move, they all just kept honking at each other for over ten minutes. I was on my way to a shop and I didn’t find out how it ended as I wanted chocolate, but when I got back, the e-bikes had disappeared and the car was parked further up the road with a shifty looking security guy in black shades standing next to it.
This bloke in Xi’an was taking all of the packaging somewhere. I like to imagine a single duck egg in the middle of it all.
This guy looked like he’d built a campervan on the back of his bike, complete with easy access ladder, but I can’t help thinking it all looks a bit cardboardy, like it’ll collapse in a heavy rainstorm.
This bloke looks like he’s moving house! All he needs is the kitchen sink.
Meanwhile, this chap is having a smoko from taking his rubbish to be recycled.
But the real, baffling question was, with all those metal poles in the back of this e-bike, HOW has it not tipped backwards?
Whether you love or hate China, one thing we can generally agree on around the world is China sees food differently to the west. One place that’s very apparent is in the way they design snacks. Sometimes, they look just like something from the west but when you bite into it, there’s no resemblance. Other times, the snacks are completely unique to China.
Here are my 5 favourites:
Fuma Pie! Oh, my goodness, the west is missing out. The only way to describe it is like a wagon wheel but better. First, it’s smaller in diameter, and second, it’s thicker and has more cakey and gooey stuff in it. Where to buy? Any shop in China that sells any kind of food will sell Fuma Pie or at least a knock-off version.
2. The donuts at real bakeries like Bread Talk
Don’t buy supermarket or convenience store donuts. They may as well be potatoes shaped like donuts. They don’t resemble donuts. But there are small bakeries in every town, and Bread Talk is like the Chinese version of Gregg’s (only no pasties or sausage rolls); a national chain where you can get all sorts of delicious baked goodies.
3. Matcha crisps (potato chips)
You can get all sorts of things in matcha flavour in China. One of my favourites is a packet of matcha tea flavour crisps.
4. Meiji Hello Panda
These are sort of biscuity things with Nutella sort of stuff in the middle. Crunchy and creamy. Top. They also come in a range of flavours. Such as strawberry and milk flavour. I think they’re a Japanese import but they’re for sale all over and they’re not expensive (like 11 RMB is around £1.40).
5. Chinese bombay mix.
So China aren’t fans of anything curry flavoured. But they do love imitating everything and anything. It must be really hard for them to live so close to India for these two reasons. In our local corner shop I found these packets of bombay mix. There were three little packs in the giant panda packet, and I had no idea what flavour to expect. They were cheese flavour. Cheese flavour bombay mix.
They were actually kinda tasty. But not at all what I had expected.
Need a Valentine’s rose with panties folded up in the middle of the flower? Taobao. Need an oboe? Taobao. Need a Doraemon wedding tea set for a wedding tea ceremony? Taobao. Need 5000 personalised corporate pens with diamonds embedded in the barrel and your company name engraved in it? Taobao. Don’t understand Mandarin? Baopals! There are literally translators working at Baopals who will talk to Taobao sellers for you and ensure you can shop with confidence! Taobao is often touted as “Chinese eBay” but that’s not entirely true. Taobao sells literally everything and it’s all brand new.
2. There are no launderettes.
I never saw a coin-operated launderette anywhere in China. But everyone knows someone who can do your laundry or ironing for you and they’ll give you her WeChat so you can connect.
3. Milk is the next big fad diet.
They put milk in almost everything in China! Even sorbet! The “translate” function on WeChat will help if you’re dairy free, but it’s a LOT easier to just learn the Chinese character for milk (or anything else you’re allergic to) and scan the packet for it. Milk is seen as the next big thing over there, and if it comes from Australia or New Zealand, Chinese shoppers will pay top price for it.
4. You can fit a lot of stuff on the back of a bike.
Here are some stellar examples of this from Xi’an:
5. Everything is caused by “heatiness” or “coldness”.
Chinese medicine boils down to two things: Hot and cold. If you’re ill, you have an excess of either one or the other (or both, if you have bipolar). I lost a baby once and got taken to a traditional Chinese hospital, where I was told in all serious by a qualified doctor that I’d eaten too much cold food.
6. They have their own type of sushi.
If you’re a fan of sushi, you’ll know sushi is actually the name of the type of rice. China grows its own, which is called Jilin rice, because it comes from Jilin province, which borders North Korea. It’s identical to sushi rice and a fraction of the price in China. I got 10kg of Jilin rice as a free gift for spending over 700RMB ($70) on groceries once. That would be like $30 for 10kg sushi rice in the UK, so getting it free with $70 of shopping seemed crazy, but that’s how cheap it is. And I really liked cooking with it.
7. Pregnant women are treated like queens
It’s probably a hangup from the now-defunct one child policy (now a two-child policy), but pregnant women and new mothers are treated with great care. Old ladies stop elbowing you in the ribs in crowded areas, men give up their seats on the metro, airports let you sit in the priority seats and the doctors expect you to rest. You also get a legal minimum of 6 months maternity leave from work and they legally have to give you your job back when you return. And everyone stops to adore a baby! There are entire shopping centres just for children like Coco City in Changzhou.
8. Eggs boiled in tea make a great breakfast.
The first time I saw it I was like whaaaat? Why waste good tea? But somehow it delicately infuses the egg with tea flavour and makes such a nice start to the day.
9. Umbrellas have two uses
Many Chinese women don’t like getting a suntan because they want to look refined (and not agricultural) so they use their umbrellas on hot days to keep the sun off them when they’re walking down the street.
10. Family is everything
This stems from the Confucianism on which China’s society still functions, even if 60% of the population are now atheist. Confucianism is a “humanist religion” which believes in no God, but which values hierarchy and prosocial values, especially respect for ancestors (including living ones, e.g. your parents, aunts etc). This is so ingrained into Chinese culture that you will almost never hear anyone in China criticizing their parents or going against their family’s wishes. Conversely, children are also precious, although this is sometimes expressed in ways we don’t understand very well in the west.
To sum up…
Culturally, China is difficult to pin into a box because it’s one huge country, with so many nuances across the different regions, but these are the things that sum it up for me!
After our first trip to Xi’an, we headed to Kathmandu, Nepal. We completely didn’t expect to see Everest until we arrived in Nepal.
We boarded our flight, and I was feeling a little better after having quite a bad fall in Xi’an. To help with the travel sickness I often get, I’d asked for a window seat at check-in and we were near the front of the queue so I got my wish.
Our plane took off and on the ascent, we went straight through a thick, white cloud that stayed with us throughout our journey. We were travelling in early July 2018. Summertime in Nepal is the height of the rainy season. There are few tourists at this time of year, since most go to Nepal in the (northern hemisphere’s) winter months in order to capitalize on the dry, cooler temperatures for mountain expeditions to Everest and Annapurna.
FYI, rainy season = cloud cover. All the time. The skies are SUPER grey in Nepal at this time of year and it rains pretty much every afternoon, you can almost set your watch by it.
We hadn’t gone to Nepal with any intention of doing the infamous Everest Base Camp trek. We just wanted to see Kathmandu, for itself, as a destination in its own right, so there was no real plan to see Everest at all on this trip. Some people will be outraged by that or see it as a waste of an opportunity.
What can I say? As I said in my article on 17 things to do in Xi’an, I’m not a fan of box-ticking travel, to go somewhere just to do one thing then to leave again without taking in the culture. I had to go to Xi’an twice before I saw the Terracotta Warriors, haha.
I had hoped to see Tibet from the air, as we hadn’t been able to organise travel there, due to needing time to apply for the travel permits (even with a China residence visa, you still need a permit to visit Tibet as it is a conservation area).
The whole flight was cloud cover. But as we got to the border between China and Nepal (which is exactly at Mount Everest), the pilot made a surprising announcement.
“This is your captain speaking. We are about to fly past Mount Everest on your right,” he said.
There was great excitement. And by some incredible stroke of luck, we were sitting on the side of the plane that passed Mount Everest.
At first, little cones of mountaintops poked through the clouds like puppy noses. Then, into view came this huge behemoth, surrounded by the little puppy noses but dwarfing them.
The mountain was almost as high as the plane, and we got so close, I felt like we could have stepped out of the plane and glided over there if we’d only had a hang glider. The distance was probably an illusion caused by the sheer size of Mount Everest.
People say it’s the highest mountain in the world, but from the ground, every mountain looks huge. It’s difficult to explain how different they looked from the air, especially since the clouds were so thick.
But if the clouds hadn’t been covering the ground so much, we wouldn’t have been able to see Mount Everest projecting so clearly and majestically out of the biosphere, with a background of delicious blue sky.
Fun fact: Mount Everest is the only part of the Earth in the whole world that occupies the troposphere, the layer of sky above the biosphere, where no mammals can actually survive.
The total cost for two plane tickets from Xi’an to Kathmandu was about 3300RMB (about £350) one way for two people. When we arrived in Kathmandu, we saw several “travel agency” places advertising a chartered flight over Everest for the equivalent of £1000 (8000RMB) for ONE person, so our flight over Everest was about 1/10 of the cost of the chartered planes.
It was one of the greatest travel experiences of my life. Here are some of the incredible photos I took:
If you’d asked me in October 2018 whether I would ever stop dying my hair silver, I would have replied with a resounding no. I’ve written so many tutorials and made so many videos about how to dye your hair silver and how to get white hair that I think I spent about 1/3 of 2015 just teaching other people how to get silver hair at a time when no one else was doing it.
I still have dreams where my hair is that beautiful color, then I awaken and see myself in the mirror. Dark hair. Washed-out face. Different. Older.
I still think silver, white and white blonde hair are the three most stunning colours you can dye your hair. The next most stunning? Purple.
In October 2018, I took about 3 bottles of Renbow Crazy Color Platinum, 2 bottles of Crazy Color Lilac and a medium bottle of silver shampoo and another of conditioner back to China with me in my suitcase, along with other western staples I just don’t like living without (coco pops, decaf coffee). They got through New York JFK airport no problem, and I couldn’t foresee a time when I would stop coloring.
Fast forward to December 2018, when I was stuck in the bathroom in our apartment in Malaysia, just being sick constantly. Pharmacy. Test. Positive. The most exciting day of our lives up to that point (it was about to get a lot more exciting). We had seen half of the world, flown over Everest, learned to cook in Cambodia and driven to Rome from York in our homemade Citroen Picasso campervan. It all paled in comparison to this. We were about to embark on the biggest adventure of our lives.
After years of trying and heart-wrenching disappointment, our baby was finally on the way.
We had four miscarriages before now, including two in England, one in Nepal and one in China. I was not going to take any chances on anything at all. I occasionally had wine before now, but when we got that positive test, I stopped drinking. I wore socks in my sandals which is the Chinese way. I wore nothing tight around my waist and didn’t even wear a bra for 7 months. I slept on my side. No coffee or tea. Vegetables. Vitamins. I wanted that baby to have everything.
This pregnancy was kind to me, especially contrasted with my first pregnancy, where I’d had hyperemesis and ended up in hospital on IV fluids. And finally, when the baby arrived, I thought I’d start doing all the things I’d done before.
See, there’s this thing called breastfeeding, and it turns out, you’re not allowed to do anything while you’re breastfeeding. Except make cosmetics with excess milk. So I left my hair alone. And left it. And left it. Eventually, I had this block of white which was around my collarbone, and lots of dark hair further up. In February, I got most of it cut off, and the rest went in July, so now all my hair is brown.
I’m still breastfeeding. Jellyfish is 15 months old and I will keep giving him boobie milk as long as he wants it. I could probably dye my hair again with no major problems, but honestly, at the moment, I don’t have any interest in doing it. White hair is ultra-high maintenance. Silver hair is labour-intensive, too. I don’t want to spend so much time on it. I thought about (gasp) getting it done at a hairdresser but they’re all a) closed and b) always tell me not to have silver hair which leaves me frustrated at wasting money on a hair colour I don’t want.
There’s a box of Schwarzkopf silver permanent dye in the bathroom. It’s been there since last August, when I bought it without thinking. Every time I go in there, the girl on the box stares at me, her gaze penetrating into my soul and calling to me, like Poe’s raven. Nevermore. Nevermore. Nevermore.
And like the raven, my hair will be silver again… nevermore.
Okay that was way too serious. It’ll probably get attacked with bleach in a year or two. IDK. I don’t want to say never but I’m not feeling a full-color whiteout right now.
How about you? Have you stopped coloring your hair? Started? Let me know in the comments!
This article will cover how to read your emails without a VPN, even if you use Gmail, and 7 other solutions to internet access problems caused by the Great Firewall of China.
What is the Great Firewall?
Basically, China has some concerns about the data security of specific western companies and they have blanket banned their services. This includes all Google services, not just Google search, so Maps, Gmail, Google Drive, Scholar and Google Books are all affected.
You might be forgiven for thinking that no one in China uses the internet, or that it’s a bleak, pared-down service with no real value to anyone. Google is EVERYTHING, right? Uh… no.
People in China use the internet like 24/7, and they do pretty much everything on there. More things than you. I’m pretty sure they’d use the internet to sleep if there was an app for it. The internet in China is thriving, and you can use it, too, you just have to know what to do instead of what you’re accustomed to.
If you have an iPhone, you can use Apple’s in-house programs instead of Google services.
If you have Google’s Maps app on your phone or tablet, the app will still work (ish) but it will be horribly inaccurate because it doesn’t know where anything in China is, streetview doesn’t work, and half the addresses are written in Chinese characters instead of English, so don’t use Google Maps in China anyway.
So anyway, there’s this firewall, and you’ve heard the answer is a VPN (virtual private network… you basically lie to the internet and tell it you’re somewhere else). You’re about to go to China and you are wondering about buying a VPN? STOP! Ask if you really need it. If you’re only going for a short trip, you likely will be about to waste £100!
Lots of rich-kid travel bloggers will tell you that you need a VPN to use the internet in China but it’s just not true. And actually, it can cause more problems than it solves.
Here’s the main reasons people think they need a VPN to visit China:
Google Drive and Dropbox
To access news sites and anything using AdSense or Analytics
This article is going to cover how to set up your stuff so you won’t need a VPN for most purposes. It’s for people who are only going to be in China for a week or two.
If you’re going as an expat, a VPN makes more sense because these workarounds are not long-term solutions, but as a tourist, why waste £100 on a year’s subscription to something you’ll never use after you get back from China?
How to get at your Gmail emails in China (do this before you go):
The biggest reason you might seriously need to use non-Chinese internet is to access important messages in your email inbox. Many things in the West are done via email these days so not being able to communicate with people is an abject nuisance, especially if you’re a digital nomad running a business.
Here’s how to read your emails and and stay in touch with your contacts while you’re on holiday in China:
Go to Mail.com (that’s a different website to Gmail.com – note there’s no G at the start because it’s not a Google site). Set up a free account. It’s fairly basic and their popups are really annoying but they have one huge advantage for tourists in China trying to read their email, which is that mail.com is not banned in China.
You could also use Yahoo Mail (the search engine is banned but not the email, so bookmark a direct link), or if you have a self-hosted website or a work email, you could set up Outlook, Mac Mail or Thunderbird (but these are complicated for getting at web-based mail).
Go to your Gmail account and go to “settings” (the cog). Click “go to all settings” near the top of the menu. In the tabs across the top (grey and hard to spot, see my screenshot), go to “forwarding and POP/IMAP” and check “forward a copy of incoming mail to:”
Click “add a forwarding address.” Type your new mail.com email address into the box here and check “keep Gmail’s copy in the inbox” so you have a record of all your emails in case you need them later. Ignore all the rest and click “save changes”.
Go back to your Mail.com account and confirm the forwarding request. If you don’t do this, the whole thing doesn’t work.
Go to China and read your emails. It’s that simple!
These work fine. Bing throws up more results in English. Take your pick.
What to use instead of Google Maps in China?
A mapping app is something we’ve all come to rely on to help us find our way around. Sure, you could buy a paper map, but it won’t tell you shop opening times or give you a company website when you click on it.
However, there are LOADS of alternatives to Google maps which work in China. Here I’ll review all of them along with discussing the problem most of them share:
1. Bing Maps.
This is basically the best mapping app for China. Pros: The road names are all in English so you can read them. It shows the public transport lines really clearly, like WAY better than Google which absolutely isn’t geared up to showing you public transport very well. It gives you details about things on the map such as their website and opening hours, where these have been added to Bing. It works in your browser so even on a Mac you can use this Microsoft app. There’s also a downloadable Bing Maps app for your phone! Cons: None. I am not a fan of Bing search engine but their mapping app is really good. Find it: https://www.bing.com/maps
2. Apple Maps.
Misses out on the top spot because it only works on Apple products and there’s no browser option. Pros: Works on your iphone, ipad or Mac. You don’t need to remember a URL to get a map. Has more up-to-date China maps than Google. Cons: Doesn’t work on non-Apple products and you can’t use it in a browser. Find it: On your Apple products.
3. Here We Go.
This works in your browser or as an app, across a range of products. I saw reviews which said it only worked on Windows, Android or iOS but I tested it on my MacBook Pro and I can safely say it also works on Macs. Pros: Works on all platforms and there’s a browser mode. Great for getting from A to B when you know where you are and where you are going. Cons: No business listings, destinations or places of interest, it only works with addresses you already know, so it’s not great for getting travel inspiration or mapping to somewhere by place name rather than street address. Very simple in terms of features shown, e.g. there’s no green to show parks. Find it: https://wego.here.com/
This is a mapping app that claims to work offline and be a great friend to travellers. Pros: Works offline (if you downloaded the map) Cons: Doesn’t work on laptops, you can only run it on iOS or Android. No good for late-night laptop research for tomorrow’s itinerary. Am I the only one who does this?
The one problem all mapping apps share when you’re in China:
Street names are shown in Chinese characters or Western translations, both of which are, of course, useless for people who aren’t bilingual. Pinyin of the Mandarin street names written out in full would have been a better choice for readability and would also help with conveying addresses to taxi drivers (many of whom can’t read Chinese characters either).
If app developers are looking to update their maps with a major improvement, things like the screenshot below (from the English-language version of Apple maps) are basically useless when trying to get around in China. Instead of Fengcheng 1 Rd, it would be 1000% more useful to see “Fengcheng Yi Luo” written out in Pinyin, so travellers to China can read this out loud to taxi drivers, and those Chinese characters are hopeless, too.
Bing maps, y’all. It’s the best of the lot for getting around in China.
How to access Google Drive or Dropbox in China without a VPN:
You basically can’t. Sorry. The best workaround is to back up your files onto an external hard drive and use that, instead. Large-scale file sharing is a non-starter in China.
How to translate things in realtime in China:
Google Translate is very useful when you want to paste some text into a box and see some English. However, it is banned in China, which is a country where few people speak English.
Instead of using Google Translate in China, locals use a phone app called WeChat, which includes a translation option. You can either translate text, if someone sends you a message in Chinese, or you can use the phone’s picture scanner to translate Chinese into English.
Go to “options” “QR code scanner” then on the QR code scanner, press the “translate” button to toggle between QR scanner and translation. This will take a picture of the thing you want to understand, and it will translate it for you. Be sure to snap a screenshot if you need to keep the translation, as WeChat doesn’t save the translations for you.
You can also use a translation app but I have tried about 6 and none of them (even the expensive ones) were useful for China if I’m honest, so I have nothing else to recommend.
If you want an app to help you actually learn Chinese instead of translating, get Duolingo.
How to use Facebook in China (and Twitter) without a VPN
The only way to use Facebook in China is by using a VPN. And you can’t use a VPN on mobile data. BUT you can stay on top of your notifications by being clever.
Go to Facebook and look at your email settings. Get it to email you notifications for everything that happens on your Facebook. If you set your email up (first section, above), these notifications will be forwarded to your Mail.com and you can see who has liked your cat photo. This also works for Twitter. Who knew those crazy emails every 2 seconds, like, “Bob Smith liked your post!” were actually useful for something?
How to read western news in China without a VPN
A lot of western news sites are blocked in China. Without saying too much, this is usually because they’ve been identified as having an anti-China bias. To make it even more annoying, paranoid webmasters in western countries block Chinese IP addresses for no good reason.
You can still get western news however. Your local hometown newspaper is very unlikely to be affected by this, because when was the last time the Springfield Gazette ran an article on China?
Bookmark your local hometown news site. If you’re from a big city like LA, Washington DC or New York, you might be better finding a smaller gazette or chronicle.
Additionally, certain western news sites are not blocked. This list is ever changing but if you bookmark the main sites, you have a good chance of finding one that can keep you abreast. When I last checked, the Independent and the Guardian weren’t blocked, and both cover US news as well as European news, although I suspect it’s only a matter of time before they get banned.
How to get YouTube in China without a VPN
Sorry, YouTube is a Google company, so you basically can’t access YouTube at all without a VPN. If you’re a Youtuber without a VPN in China, stay up to date on your channel notifications by getting them all via email, and save your videos of China to share when you get home.
For non-Youtubers, if you download your favourite videos with a YouTube downloader (my go-to one has just stopped doing free downloads so I no longer have a recommendation for this), you can watch them offline. Otherwise, buy a DVD and external DVD drive to take with you.
Are there any other apps or sites you’re struggling to use in China? Let me know in the comments and I’ll do some looking and update this article for you. 🙂
“Oh, you’ve been to China? Here, let me ask you one of these five questions…”
When you come back from China, be prepared to answer these same questions. A lot. Taxi drivers, nurses, immigration officials, shop assistants, friends, family, your dog… everyone will ask you these.
1. What was the food like?
Sometimes we ate at the finest restaurants in Beijing or Shanghai. Other times we huddled on airport benches chowing down on free noodle cups because our flights were delayed. Other times we were served food at cheap restaurants and we had no idea what it was. Supermarkets were a little surreal but you got used to it and you were never short of a laugh with seaweed flavour crisps and things inside packets that look nothing like their photo. Like everything in China, there’s really good stuff and really awful stuff, you just have to separate the two.
2. Did you see the Great Wall?
Yes. And I have all of the deets on the best places to see it, how to get there, what else is nearby and the best time to go. Article coming here.
A little bit. Enough to get by in taxis or restaurants in most areas and not to call your mother a horse (seriously, “ma” has four meanings depending on tone). The hardest thing about Chinese for me was the fact that, like Irish, they have no true words for “yes” and “no” (your phrasebook is wrong). You simply put the question into a positive or negative form to indicate your answer. This is fine if you can speak in complete sentences in Chinese. Not so great for beginners.
5. Would you go back?
Yes, but I’d want to be more choosy about the city we lived in, and go somewhere with lots going on, like Chengdu, Shanghai or Shenzhen.
China is a major investor in scientific innovation and research, spending $279 billion on this in 2017.
The road network in China is the longest highway system in the world, at 142,500km (and they’re still building more of it)
Most people live within 1000 miles of the coast, with far inland areas such as Inner Mongolia being sparsely-populated farmland.
In 2010, there were 118.06 boys per 100 girls. Most countries have about 105 boys per 100 girls.
The main ethnic group in China are the Han-Chinese, who are the world’s largest single-ethnic group.
70% of the population speak Mandarin, and although we think of Cantonese as a second language of China, only 80 million people speak it, amongst over 200 other living languages being spoken in China! Standard Mandarin is used as a bridging language between people in China who cannot speak the same dialect as one another, so many people speaking Standard Mandarin don’t have it as their native language, which means many people e.g. taxi drivers can’t actually read it.
China is committed to improving the education of its residents, and invests $250 billion annually in compulsory-level education.
China follows traditional Chinese medicine still in many hospitals but there are some more modern-thinking ones, called “western” hospitals.
Jason worked in China as a physics teacher at an international school in Jiangsu Province for two years. Here, he gives his experiences on what it’s like as an expat living and working in China.
The recruitment process
I didn’t really apply for a job in China, I got headhunted by a recruitment agency, so I don’t know about application forms or the best place to find a job if you’re looking to work in China.
The recruitment agency provided an introduction and got my CV in front of the headteacher of an international school with a good reputation. I did my research on the school (as much as was possible; I found their website and read about their curriculum, the structure of the school week etc). The school organized a Skype interview with the headteacher who told me everything I needed to know about the school then asked if I was still interested. We negotiated salary via email and I accepted the job.
At this point, an administrator at the school became my point of contact and walked me through the process of sending my certificates in for my degrees and PGCE, applying for a visa etc.
Once I had my visa, which involved a visit to a visa office in England, actually going to China was fairly straightforward. I booked flights, packed two suitcases and they checked my China visa at check-in.
When I arrived, immigration took a long time because I came in on a very big flight and flew into Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG), one of the busiest airports in China. Once I was through immigration, a representative from my school met me in the arrivals foyer, we met up with some other people who had flown in, and went to get some food before driving an hour and a half to the school in a minibus.
There were induction days and a safeguarding workshop, and a barbecue to welcome new staff members. Everyone was really friendly and there was a sense from day 1 that we were all working on the same team.
What were the living facilities like?
We had a 1-bedroom apartment but it was enormous! I live in a 2-bedroomed house now in the UK that’s smaller than the apartment in China. There was a kitchenette with a microwave, kettle, hotplate, sink and fridge-freezer; I bought an oven while I was there. The bathroom had a sink, toilet, shower and bath. The bedroom had a lot of storage, a huge window, an air conditioner and a bed. There was one set of bedding with it so I bought some more at a supermarket. The living room had a sofa, desk, dining table and chairs, TV on a TV table, and a coffee table, as well as a second air conditioner and an air purifier.
I had an I.E. (cleaner) who came to the apartment daily to empty bins, clean the bathroom, hoover and wash the dishes. Mine was provided free by the school but people who lived independently of the school found it easy to hire their own I.E.s.
What was the food like?
It was school food, because I lived at the school and ate at the school canteen. We sat with the pupils to eat and we weren’t allowed to use our phones in the dining room, to encourage conversation between staff and pupils. Generally the food wasn’t bad; there were some days better than others.
It was a fairly good school canteen, with the occasional really odd thing like the prawn pizza. It was split into three main areas, the “western” bit, the “Chinese” bit and the “Asian fusion” area, along with a salad bar and a hatch that just served noodles and dumplings, all of which served different types of cuisine. One good thing about the school I worked at was the food was plentiful. On the western side, it was a little bit weird, like someone had told them about western food and they’d made something approximating it.
The vegetarian option left a lot to be desired and usually had a lot of butter on it and no protein. People with dietary considerations did struggle at times, particularly vegans or those who couldn’t eat pork. They tended to buy their own food and cook in their apartments instead of eating at the canteen. There was meat in things that you wouldn’t expect, such as the buns in the dessert area which had sausages inside them, which we dubbed the “secret sausages”. There were very few times when I got to the canteen and went “there’s nothing I want to eat here”, although it did get repetitive sometimes; there was a lot of Katsu curry!
What were the pupils like?
They were happy to sit down and get on with work. Very little in the way of bad behaviour, although sometimes they would sit there not doing anything, occasionally falling asleep in the class. They almost always did their homework, and they expected it to be marked the day it was handed in.
The pupils were expecting a teacher-led experience rather than student-led, and I had to put in a lot of effort to teach them to try answering something they hadn’t already memorized the answer to. If you didn’t turn up to a class in the UK, the kids would be running riot everywhere. When another teacher did that once in my school in China, the pupils just stood and waited quietly outside the classroom. They waited to be told what to do. I never had any incidents of pupils acting out they were always very respectful towards the teachers.
SEN isn’t recognized in China so as a teacher you have to find ways to make learning accessible without any real support or even acceptance that any given pupil might have SEN. Even then, you don’t get the same behavioural challenges as in western schools.
What was the working week like?
The working week was heavy. I was teaching thirty 40-minute lessons a week on my basic timetable and sometimes more from covering other staff absences or timetable. That was on top of boarding duties, planning lessons and marking work, and leading extracurricular activities at the weekend such as golf, horse riding, rugby, science-related activities such as robot wars club and STEM club, where we did things like designing paper airplanes and seeing how far they could fly. There was a science fair, exam support, ECA, form tutoring…
I was working about 16 hours a day plus at least half of a Saturday and sometimes all of Sunday, too. It was basically work continuously with little in the way of sleep for about 4 weeks then a week or more of school holidays, but there was basically no work to do during those holidays, which is completely different to teaching in England, where you spend a lot of the holidays working.
The working environment
Classroom: Class sizes were fairly small. The classroom was the size of a UK one and had lots of new tech in it, such as digital projector, electrical workstations that came down from the ceiling, a chemical shower for health and safety, mobile fume cupboards, as well as all the usual stuff you’d find in a UK science lab. My classroom had plenty of light. It was all very modern; the school had been built very recently.
Office: I had a desk in an open-plan office, which was very spacious. We had a coffee machine and a mini-kitchen as well as our own printers so we could work more efficiently. My office chair was very comfy! Wi-fi connectivity was sometimes poor, which made it difficult to access resources to teach the English curriculum, particularly because the access to some websites was limited.
What were the best things about moving to China?
The money was good. The kids’ behaviour and attitude were fantastic. Online shopping and delivery was amazing. Anything you wanted was a few clicks and two days away, and usually very well-priced. It was very easy to visit the rest of China and all the surrounding countries, and we had a lot of great holidays. The expat community and the people I worked with were all great and very easygoing. The working environment was nicer than in England so people didn’t have the same stresses, and the people you meet out there are people who are willing to try new things or they wouldn’t have moved to China! I also made some fantastic friends and contacts, from whom other opportunities have come up since I left China.
What I wish I’d known before I moved there
I knew about shoes beforehand, that shoes in my size would be difficult to get. I wish I’d known how dependent everything is on mobile phone technology. You need WeChat for absolutely everything. I hadn’t properly understood how absolutely huge everything is.
I was in a city that was the equivalent of Leamington Spa in terms of importance to the overall country, but it was a city of over eight million, which is about the same population as London. It took well over an hour (in no traffic) to get across the city to the second train station (and yet there were only two train stations) due to the sheer distances involved.
All the shops etc were in the very centre of the city and you couldn’t walk anywhere because of the distances involved, so I got a lot of taxis. Taxis were incredibly cheap. 45 minutes in a taxi into the city centre was about 80RMB (about £10).
Would you go again if you knew everything you now know about China?
Jason now works as a freelance science education consultant. He runs a science education website and a physics revision app which he designed. You can find him at www.scientificanow.com