Zai Jian Zhong Guo

My posts have dwindled as life in China has taken hold and today sees my last post on this blog. I finish my placement today after a year and a half in China, and what a year and a half its been! I don’t think there has been another time in my life where I have had such a steep learning curve either professionally or personally. It’s been up and down, but I leave China next week with a fully positive perception of my experiences and massively glad that I came here.

I’ve met so many different kinds of people from the four corners of the world – some will remain life long friends, others…not. And I think that’s the most important thing about this year: the people. The sights, smells, sounds and tastes of China have, of course, been something that will stay with me a life time, but it’s the people that have affected and changed me – those that are still in my life and will remain there, as well as those I have lost – both here and at home.

My idea about development has changed, matured hopefully – and that’s the path I think I’m going to follow on from here. Having trained in Art Psychotherapy and then spending the last 18months in development work, I’m keen to find a way to marry the two – and the options are plentiful. I originally signed with VSO because I loved their ethos of ‘Sharing Skills, Changing Lives’ – an opportunity for learning about development to go both ways, rather than a Savior complex of ‘the West’ to sort out everybody else’s ‘problems’ before looking too closely at their own. Although the work here hasn’t been what I expected, I was glad to see that attitude spread through all levels of VSO and it has inspired me to continue working in this area.

I’m struggling to write this post, I think I need time away from the context to even begin processing what has happened while I have been here. I will surely do that through writing and have chosen the sublime backdrop of a month or so travelling around Thailand to do so. I will continue a new blog from there and will notify anyone who requests it when I have set it up.

Thailand next, after that…who knows?


Round the garden path

April is half way through and I find it a ridiculous amount of time since I have last written. As I chastised myself for not writing for my [I’m sure multitude of] loyal readers, I questioned why. My initial excuse was lack of material. I felt I’d reached a pattern of familiarity that would only lead to a constant stream of repeated realizations about my experiences and the glimpses of insight they provided me about China, the Chinese mentality and about myself located in this familiarly bizarre place. But that wasn’t really true. I have material – a bus ride to work still provides me with material enough to fill at least a virtual postcard or two and if I pondered the imponderable events of my working life for any length of time, I’d be chained to the computer for the duration.

No, lack of material wasn’t it.

Life since January has been, how shall I put this? One of changes that have led me round the garden path and back through the gate – a few experiences on the way and some interesting scenery, but essentially, back home.

My visa was due to expire in February and I was making the impossible decision of whether or not to remain in China. My consternation pivoted on a multitude of factors that saw me to-ing and fro-ing on my decision like an overzealous popped jack-in-the-box who’d exploded into a cloud of decision-making, but couldn’t judge the parameter of its boundaries and was now haphazardly bouncing violently against anything in the immediate locality.

I was deciding whether to stay or not for a relationship that was in far too early days to be making those kinds of decisions. Unfortunately, having conversations of that magnitude put an unfathomable strain on seedling roots and just as everything was signed sealed and delivered in the logistical elements of my extended stay, the relationship sang its swan song and I was suddenly staying in a country I didn’t particularly want to be in, in a job I wasn’t massively inspired by and missing the motivation to see it through.

I considered abandoning ship, reneging on agreements and hopping on the next flight home – or grabbing a rucksack and a few belongings and heading off for yonder blue…or, well basically anything that appealed greatly to me involved me crapping on the commitments I’d made and changing all with selfish design. In the midst though, I knew that, a few months or years down the line I would bitterly regret any such actions – I’d have felt I’d done myself and the people I’d committed to, a huge disservice and that is something that wouldn’t sit easy.

So I gritted my teeth and chewed the ear off Gaya, Glen and mum and dad – all of who’s stalwart patience and loving responses humbled me on more than a few occasions [I even considered turning to the Chinese-only speaking Jian Bing Guo ze seller – at least if I plastered a smile on my face, they’d think I was just musing about the weather] and handled the situation in British style – ie, usually with a bottle in hand once past the water shed.

I’m not pretending for a second that this time has been all doom and gloom – I’ve had some of my wildest and funnest times in China in the midst of this and have fabulously tied with a new beau who has transformed luke warm Nescafe into piping hot Illy [sorry, I seem to have inadvertently developed a coffee addiction in recent days also that now penetrates my semantic analogies]. There’s been girly trips to Hainan which involved some skinny dipping induced bag thieving; new tattoos; free meals in posh restaurants as I began restaurant reviewing; a change in work role which leaves new challenges ahead; the making of new friends and sad loss of old friends [Glen unfortunately finished his placement and left amongst this and is now sorely missed]; and more fun excursions with good friends than you can shake a chopstick at. I’ve missed marriages and births at home, which has been gutting and an additional motivating factor to return, but I’m racing into my final few months of placement [again] with a renewed sense of enjoyment and excitement about the future. But for a while there I couldn’t find the words… or maybe I just didn’t want to.

What are you saying?

There’s at least three different types of communication in China: where you are both saying what you actually mean; where you’re both avoiding saying what you mean, but both know it and can read between the lines; or where one of you is avoiding and the other is trying to guess what the first is actually trying to say. Unfortunately, my default point of situ more often than not seems to be the later one. Compounded further by the fact that the process needs to go through a translator, at times I want to poke the person across the table in the eye with the nearest pair of chopsticks.

So, this morning, I was asked if I wanted to still continue with an out-of-city work visit we had planned for tomorrow, because now it is raining. Initially perplexed, I said ‘Yes of course’, but when asked again, I wondered if I was missing a subtle nuance and actually that it was inconvenient for me to visit tomorrow…or dangerous on the roads. As I had some others things I could do, I said ‘Ok, let them know we’ll rearrange for next week’ at which a look of horror settled over my translator’s face and she asked incredulously ‘You won’t go??’ Utterly confused, and after trying to unearth the conversational subtext through half an hour of lip biting frustration, I spoke with more clear directions: “Ok, this is why I am confused…[receital of previous relevant conversation]…so do they want me to go or not want me to go? In my situation, what would you do?” to which even more horror crossed her face and she exclaimed “I can’t tell you what to do!” [I am her ‘senior’ and so she can not challenge me] After explaining that for me, translation of the subtext and cultural cues was as important as the direct translation of the words, she finally advised me that they were being polite and would actually be very impressed and happy if I made the extra effort in the rain to go. Right, we’ll go as originally planned then…effective use of an hour.

Unsuprisingly, this is not an uncommon situation to experience here. I’m certain I have caused a multitude of offense that I’m not even aware of in the last year, and much I am aware of, but just not quite sure of why.

Passive aggressive was a phrase someone used with me the other day. No, lets clarify this – used about me. And I totally agree. Somewhere in the mix, I’ve got lost in this ‘saving face’ phenomena and feel stupidly uncomfortable at expressing my consternation, but instead have begun edging round the problem and hinting at what I want others to do, only to be exasperated when I don’t get what I was hoping. Of course, in other cases the exact opposite has happened and I have become eloquently out spoken in the face of threatened misunderstanding [like twice in the last week, with Gaya and I being ready to go balls out with sneaky taxi stealers who pailed at the first sign of our wrath and apologized as they opened the door for us to get in]. I think the common thread though, is that the more I know someone here, the less likely I am to directly say what I think. I can’t take the discomfort that seems to descend like a cloud of tear gas, causing the receiver to recoil in social remorse.

Another expat said to me the other day “A year in China is like 5years in therapy for working out what pushes your buttons” – an interesting thought for a psychotherapist. Even if you love this place, the frustration can be immense and in those hot spot moments, you see what makes you thrive and what makes you dive. I know now that I love people who think creatively, question and take risks and I really struggle in the face of disparate communication. Don’t read this wrong, it’s the people that HAVE demonstrated these aspects of what I deem positive communication that have helped me to realise this as much as those who seem to completely lack the ‘virtue’. The gems that are going against the grain with intelligent responses to unintelligible situations are what make you smile the rest of the time.

So what’s going to happen then as I move through my first year and into my last four months? Will I become more outspoken or dissolve into the status quo? And is it a lasting effect, or will I simply morph with dialectic characteristic, adapting to [and in turn changing] whichever society I find myself in?

This Is China

Yesterday I moved flats from the North East to the South West of the city, to be closer to work and friends. Anyone who knows me may be able to imagine the chaos that was likely to ensue in the wake of this activity, as forward planning and organization are not my strong suit. So, D-Day [Departure Day] arrived and the flat was finally signed for. Having had a back-and-forth game over contracts, money swaps and fraud analysis by the organisations I am involved with [a tedious and long sub-text to this tale] and the landlord, I was relieved the bureaucratic part was over. I speedily fled and collected Gaya, who had kindly offered to help me move. And from this part on, that is the running theme throughout this entry: Overwhelmingly humbling kindness from friends and strangers.

Gaya and I attacked the scrambled mess of my apartment with ruthless vigor, disbanding with collected junk and meaningless items I had horded over the past year. Amidst the activity we chatted and giggled and got high about our closing proximity of habitation. Slightly alarmed by the mounting piles of belongings, we began frantically filling any spare space in bags and boxes to evacuate the current abode and reach the new one in time to buy electricity so I didn’t spend my first evening in darkness.

Once everything was collected, I went out in search of a Taxi Mini-Van. Not living in the busiest of thoroughfares, I began randomly walking up to any mini-van, in the hope of finding someone I could persuade with a smile and a 100Kuai note. The first man I stumbled upon was golden. As he began to pull off, I knocked on the window and he stopped. Suddenly realizing I had no idea the Chinese for ‘Move house’ I said, “Today I live here, tomorrow I live in Gaoxin…I have too many bags, can you help with your vehicle?”…a stifled smile and perplexed head scratching gave way to ‘Ke Yi’ [I can] and said he could give 10mins or so. An hour and a half later, we pulled up and emptied out at my new apartment and not so much as a flicker of consternation had crossed his face in that time. Instead, he had drawn right up to my door, helped Gaya and I load and then driven 45mins through rush hour traffic to take me to the other end of the city. He enthusiastically worked through our broken Chinese, inadvertently giving us tuition and we established he was my neighbour from a couple of floors below in my old apartment. I tried to offer him money and wine as a thank you, to which he point blank refused saying he was just helping out an old neighbour and I was left with a golf-ball size lump of humbled appreciation in my throat.

As we began moving the piles of wares from street to apartment, a new neighbour abandoned her activities and without being asked, helped us to load everything into the elevator [riding up and down the floors a few times so we didn’t prevent the other apartment users getting to their homes] and then into my flat. Again, priceless generosity. She introduced her self, as the last bag was tossed into the apartment, and told me where she lived.

Gaya and I closed the door on my new apartment breathing a sigh of relief and beaming with happiness at the people we’d encountered. We cracked open a beer in celebration and sat in a new construct of total chaos.

Sometimes, with my lack of understanding and other pressures of living in a foreign land, I get more than a little snappy and it is ridiculously easy to fall into the trap of throwing a generalized tantrum at your host country and all who represent her. And many times, Chinese on mass, can be very unforgiving and cut throat…a living demonstration of ‘survival of the fittest’ as those who don’t win, perish…but on a one to one basis, the calibre of people can be breath taking. A common expat phrase here is ‘T.I.C’ [This Is China] and is usually used in a derogatory context to berate the idiosyncrasies of this vast country that drive each one of us slowly [or sometimes rapidly] nuts. Today however…T.I.C…in its very best guise.

Living the dream

When I joined VSO, I was looking for something a bit different – I wanted to travel, I wanted to do something I felt was worth while – I wanted a challenge and to see life from a different perspective. Originally I envisaged a mud-hut-in-africa type experience and was surprised to be offered China. I took the opportunity, sure that whatever I did, it would be interesting. Leaving UK was difficult because of the people I was leaving there, but I was in a different head space anyway. I wasn’t following the same life pattern and although I felt huge affinity in so many ways with my closest friends and family [who the separation from stops me in my tracks from time to time] I felt a little bit like a fish-out-of-water in terms of life style. My interests didn’t match the life I was living. I’ve written, deleted and rewritten this paragraph about five times now, because what I’m saying isn’t about feeling like my choices are better than others – seriously, this comes from nothing resembling arrogance… kind of like just preferring coffee to tea – neither is better than the other, its just different desires and motivations. Seeing what some of my friends at home have done with their lives is inspirational and something I certainly don’t feel able to do. Anyway, the base line of this monologue I guess is just to say, I chose to leave in search of something new. Being a psychotherapist, I have more than a few insights into my possible motivations, but I find that kind of ‘laying yourself bare’ a little excrutiating at times, so I think I’ll give that a wide berth.

So, I arrived in China, almost a year ago now, wide-eyed and highly expectant. In many ways, China [or Xi’an at least] is very familiar – there’s starbucks and Mac Donalds and huge shopping Malls, more cars than can easily fit on the roads and young people are power and status hungry. Life is not all that different. Although scratch the surface and it’s massively different. I’ve heard it described a few times recently that China is like a carbon copy – like people have seen photographs of things from the West and replicated it, but the substance doesn’t really run through. From the smallest things to the largest things – like the fake t-shirts…or the ‘chocolate’ filled cakes that aren’t actually chocolate, but instead bean paste – it looks like chocolate, but it’s the China version. Right the way up to the constitution…any real correlation between what is written and what actually happens? In my work, teaching psychotherapy, I was met again and again with the desire for the abridged version so they could say ‘we have a psychotherapist’ but without committing to obtain the depth of learning to make that sentence meaningful. Sometimes the locals look like they have been plucked up and placed in an artificial simulation – an ‘Ideal Homes’ catalogue or holiday brochure…looking around, bewildered, wondering when familiarity was replaced with reconstructed reality, scratching their heads and hocking a lugi in the path of the abhorred foreigner who is unaccustomed to how things are done and grimacing in reaction. The wealth has grown and its ‘do or die’ for the locals that now has to come along for the ride.

So my wide-eyed search for something new has largely been met with pseudo-familiarity and I have freakishly easily settled into ‘Uk in situ’ where my life uncannily resembles what it was at home. I go to work; I do my laundry; I cook; I socialize; I pay bills. Occasionally I’m jolted by the difference and frustrated when things aren’t done in the way I would expect, but mostly I’m a little bit perplexed at how my ‘big adventure’ has EQUALIBRIATED To normality. Wherever you go, there you are. Right now, I feel like a pot of salad dressing that has been let to settle for a while. All the exciting ingredients were added, but after being shaken up and put back down, the exciting components have separated back out again, waiting to be shook up again.

I frequently meet travellers as we usually socialise in hostel bars. I love to meet these people – idealistic, excited and short term enough to hold them in awe, living the dream, as you can never know them long enough to see the cracks and flaws that are inevitably there. These people become bubbles of life that hold only the good stuff, floating about, exotic and elusive. They energise me and make me dream again about the possibilities. Its not real though. You can have life-changing conversations in the beer-fueled misty haze of a night out and vow to change everything, but its imbalanced. I know my recent tendency to run from roots, and the concept of a nomadic life makes me buzz, which is why I was completely bewildered by my frantic unconscious scrabbling for roots when I got here. For a long time [and still a little bit now] I was disappointed in myself and berated this need, feeling I’d failed my idealogy, my motivation.

So, I’ve stared at the blinking cursor on my computer screen for a good while now, trying to think of a clever and inspirational way to finish this off, but its not coming. Not now anyway. And that’s ok, sometimes the only thing to do is sit and wait it out, regardless of if waiting it out leads to revolutionalising action or simply accepting and readjusting expectations. Who knows? Who needs to know?

Di Er Ge Xin Nian Kuai Le! – 第二个 新年快乐!

New Years morning, I stepped out of my apartment and was once again reminded of the warzone analogy, as lay across every square inch of the path in front of me was the residue of the firecrackers – red wrapping splattered over the ground like paper blood marking the massacre of the night before.

I made my way down to South Gate to meet Xiao Ping, a friend of my Chinese teacher Li Ping. Xiao Ping had kindly invited me to spend New Years Day with her family, ensuring me that her mother was a fantastic cook and I would be able to be part of a traditional family celebration. I was introduced to her parents, who I was instructed to call Ai Yi [Aunty] and Ba Ba Shou [Uncle] and was made to feel so welcome. Armed with my camera, I hovered at the door to the little kitchen as Ai Yi busied about chattering away to her daughter and daughter-in-law and periodically laughing a giant smiled comment at me as I tried to catch the words and negotiate a response as she poked sample after sample of the dishes she was preparing into my mouth with a pair of chopsticks. There was a vast array of foods, all with their own significant stories of how they bought in a prosperous New Year. There was ‘more and more rice cakes’ [Nian Nian Gao] and ‘Jewel Fish’ [Duo Bao Yue] to bring prosperity; Sticky glutinous rice [Bao Bao Fa] to signify a sweet family that sticks together; and Black Duck Egg, created by being soaked in soy sauce and packed in clay for weeks [Bian Dan] which looked like a precious stone, again welcoming wealth for the New Year. Ai Yi worked tirelessly in the kitchen pausing only once we were all satisfied, at which point she gingerly nibbled at the leftovers.

Throughout the meal, family members took it in turns to pinch food from the central dishes and put it on my plate. I was reminded of the HSBC advert where the businessman fills on slippery eels, trying to be polite to the point of explosion as, every time he finished his portion he was spooned another bowl. When I was given things I wasn’t so keen on, [like Kidney and slices of Jellied Meat] I closed my eyes and was grateful for the times my parents had given me food as a child that I had disliked and I’d learnt to swallow huge bites whole so I didn’t have to taste it. The rest I managed to stow away under fish skin and pork bones hoping they wouldn’t be discovered. Not that there was much of that happening – the food was incredible and abundant and the enthusiasm with which people chowed down inspired intrigue to try unfamiliar tastes.

After dinner we sat and talked between my bad Chinese and the translations made between Xiao Ping and her husband and Xiao Ping’s parents. I showed them photos of my family and they gave me little gifts [like handmade shoe sole liners – weaved like carpet with intricate patterns, by the sister who was at work at the time]. The focus of the conversation began to centre on English real estate prices [not an unsual topic in China and one I unfortunately remain clueless on] and living costs, as it emerged they hoped to send their nephew to study in England. I responded as informatively as possible until they mentioned they hoped he’d marry and English girl, glancing casually down at my ring finger 😉

As the evening drew in and Ai Yi rested her weary bones, I said I thought I ought to make my way so they could relax. I was inundated with offers of assistance in anything I might possibly need and they continued with warm smiles and invitations as I made my way out the door and back into the cold. Their hospitality was humbling – I wondered how many people in England would be willing to open their home to a complete stranger, who couldn’t speak their language well, on Christmas day for example.

The rest of the holiday passed in a haze of lie-ins, coffees with friends and a Pi Jiu or two too many on a couple of nights. Occassionally I managed to rise before noon and make it to an art gallery or have a wander around the city, but for the most part, it was nice to just hibernate from the cold.

The Pao Pao Paos continue daily even as I return back to work – our first morning back today being marked by the office congregating outside to set our own batch off, superstitiously embarking on the New Year. The New Year also marks the beginning of my new contract as I have decided to extend the work I am doing here for another 5 months, hoping to embed some of the skills I began teaching at the end of last year.

So, Happy New Year [again] everybody…Xin Nian Kuai Le [新年快乐]!

Di Yi Ge Xin Nian Kuai Le! 第一个新年快乐!

New Year, December New Year, passed with little significance in China. It was barely acknowledged other than the occasional half-hearted greeting from those saturated by the West through their friends or careers. We celebrated it amongst my ex-pat friends and it was a lot of fun, but as for China, it was business as usual. Ironically, they celebrated Christmas Eve with furor, but the endless gambling opportunities and flashing devil horns for sale led me to think maybe the heart of the celebrations didn’t really encompass the Christian message. Chinese New Year, I was certain, would be something else. Having arrived at the other end of the festive period last year, just in time for my head to hit the pillow to a cacophony of fireworks [Pao, Pao, Paos 炮炮炮 as they are onomatopoeically named] as Red Lantern Festival, the conclusive day of Spring Festival erupted around us, I knew that China, to quote a friend, would be a war zone.

We were not met with disappointment. For weeks running up to New Years Eve, sickly cartoon bunny rabbits sat side by side with intricate paper-cut style rabbits of all shapes and sizes. Lao Hou 老虎 [Tiger] was being abandoned and Tuzi 兔子 [Rabbit] was invading with vengeance. The city walls were adorned with 50m high glowing boards of rabbits, and lanterns were strewn up everywhere. The week prior to New Year, I met with a group of nonplused expats, rounded up by a friend, to be the token foreigners in CCTVs [National TV station] New Years special. We were paid well to stand in the cold for an hour, walk round in a parade for 10 minutes and shout ‘Happy New Year! We Love China!’ in unison into a camera. Job well done I thought.

I went to a few lunch time parties for work at some of the homes I’d been working at for Young Adults with disabilities and was comforted so see cross cultural similarities in end-of-term parties: crisps and fruit, soft drinks and performances from the learners. I began to feel the delayed festivities that I would normally have felt a couple of months previous as we all revved up for the holidays.

New Years eve, I had decided to spend with my friend Gaya [see Gaya, you got a mention – No more moaning!] – we were going to cook a feast and head into town to join the crowds. I was making Jiaozi [Dumplings, traditional for New Years] from scratch [yes, you can be impressed, I even made and rolled the dough] and Gaya was making a traditional Armenian New Years dish, Dolmades [Bean and rice mix wrapped in pickled cabbage]. We passed a relaxing early evening in our own make-shift family [New Years is very Traditionally spent with Family where people travel thousands of miles to be with loved ones in the annual ‘family gathering’ to eat and spend time together], chatting and arduously preparing food that we knew would take an 8th of the time to consume as it had to prepare. We tried to open a bottle of wine, but alas the cork was stronger than the screw and after breaking the screw, we had to admit defeat and settle for vodka instead. Firecrackers are set off throughout the period – and actually at the opening of any new business or erection of new building – to ward off evil spirits and as night fell, the consistent background hum of the firecrackers, that had been the soundtrack from about 6am that morning, grew louder and louder until we could barely hear each other shout. We stood at the windows and watched Xi’an erupt in clouds of smoke and explosions of colour as people set off fireworks from buildings and doorsteps, stairwells, roof tops and alleyways with a close proximity that would leave UK health and safety officials with a lasting anxiety disorder. Cars flashed as their alarms were disturbed and the ground shook like we were experiencing a mini earthquake.

We ate far too much and lay motionless for a time, hoping the feelings of massive overindulgence would pass enough for us to shift from the couch. Finally we pulled ourselves together and headed to our local hostel bar where we bumped into friends. Just before midnight, we headed outside for an anticipated spectacular show. Surprised by the lack of people, we wandered around and soon had their absence explained as every square inch of the sky lit up with so many fireworks that the earlier shows began to look like a mere throat clearing. The absence of people was probably due to the fact that where ever you stood, you were never more than 10m from an exploding box of fireworks or crackling line of firecrackers, under a cloud of showering ash that prevented you looking up for fear of loss of sight. We snapped away, protecting our eyes behind the camera lens and laughed in disbelief at the sight of Xi’an looking like a scene from the Blitz.

As it began to quiet down a bit, we rejoined friends and celebrated the rest of New Year in the only way we knew how: a sweaty, throbbing club. We toasted the New Year, wore our Bunny rabbit ears and danced the night away. Tomorrow however, was likely to be a bit more traditional as I had been invited to spend New Year afternoon with a local family…

Having a not-so-blonde moment

So, yesterday I decided to try and return to my previous blonde days as one of my Chinese friends recommended her hairdresser to me. Hair dressing in China is ridiculously cheap, so even on my meager volunteer allowance, it’s affordable to splash out occasionally. I tried a couple of times before in the proceeding months, but the people with me were never very forth coming in the haggling department and we never seemed to be able to attain the price that everyone told me I should be paying. However, yesterday, armed with my friend Tracey and her VIP card for the most reputable salon in Xi’an, I walked confidently in to “Yes I do”, ready to transform into my former blonde glory. This was at 12.30pm.

Hour one, ran past quickly with negotiations, haggling, picture showing [I had come prepared] and discussions on what I wanted. Slightly unnerved that they kept pointing at the canary yellow, rather than ash blonde, I persisted with trust that God was on my side and I was not going to leave the salon looking like the cookie monster’s ugly sister. By the end of hour one, the first layer of dye went on.

As we embarked on Hour two, my head stinged a little as the dye set in and I was slightly concerned at the all over mask of dye they had applied…all over except a rough inch line from my scalp all the way along, which Tracy translated they would touch up later. I watched as my hair lightened before my eyes and anticipated my beckoning transformation. As hour two concluded, I headed for the sink to have the mask stripped off.

Hour three began with my return to the chair, head wrapped in towel, excited to see my new colour. Butterflies danced eagerly in my stomach as the hairdresser loosened the towel and I clasped my hands to my face as, tumbling around my shoulders, were waves of glorious…Canary. Yellow. Hair.

Trusting that they had a plan, and that they were going to tone it down, I spent the rest of that hour, and the approach to hour four waiting for the young, perfectly coifed hair dresser to return and sort the halo and fuzz around my head that put the brightness of the sun to shame. As we drew well into hour four, I finally managed to convey through frantic re-reference to my photo, that actually, canary yellow was not my colour of choice and could they please make some attempt to tone it down. As I understood my colours and heard ‘green’ banded about, I didn’t experience as much panic as Tracy, dredging from my memory that a green toner calms hideously yellow hair. I comforted Tracy. Erroneously.

Hour five witnessed the application of green toner, that didn’t tone, but instead turned my hair green/grey…except the inch root all around my head that still glowed with a faint day-glo orange. I rubbed my hands repeatedly over my face and suggested maybe they didn’t know what they were doing and I should perhaps return to my former colour. The remainder of the hour saw many hairdressers inspecting my hair with the seriousness of a heart surgeon over an open chest cavity. Finally we agreed to go back dark and I was presented with the colour charts again. This time I held little store by them, but pleaded with them to give me a warm colour so I didn’t resemble the washed out bride of Frankenstein. As I understood ‘blue black’ I hoped in vein that they understood, but held little faith.

Hour six was mainly spent looking in the mirror, aghast at my current hair colour, that made me look like a hagged witch and I welcomed the third application of dye with all forgiving arms wide open.

Hour seven was less forgiving as the unveiling revealed a charcoal grey head of hair…all bar the inch root, which of course remained day-glo orange. By this point panic rose in my throat that I would never escape this Twighlight zone salon and was doomed to an eternity of hourly changing hair colour, like a chameleon sitting on a rainbow. I clutched the chair to keep me in the seat, contemplating whether my hair was livable or not and if I could feasible wear a hat to work everyday. Tracy point blank refused to let me leave and as hour seven drew to a close, application 4 of hair dye began to be applied. This time I was told it needed to be jet black, as this was the only colour that would cover the horrendous mess they had made of my head.

Hour eight was interspersed by tears, both from me and the hairdresser who had since ran away with his tail between his legs, sending apologetic texts from behind closed doors to Tracy. Little did I know, but Tracy thought I looked so suicidal, that she organized a cheer-up-party in the form of my friends, who entered the salon [girls comfortable, boys distinctly bewildered and offering advice to shave my hair off and join their crew – they were looking for a female member after all] brandishing beer and jovial remarks. My mood lightened as I couldn’t help but see the funny side. As the boys escaped the overly estrogen filled environment with both testicles still intact, the girls remained with me, like a united front on the battle field, simultaneously holding my hand and mopping my brow as I was taken for the [hopefully] final shower off.

Hour nine and Hurrah! My hair was finally all one [unfortunately dark] livable colour and we raced towards hour nine with an impossibly likeable new hairdresser who snipped my hair with enthusiasm and practiced his few English phrases [all hair orientated] with his captive audience.

As I thought that finally, escape was in sight, as 10pm approached, our over enthusiastic and completely lovable new hairdresser flicked and tweaked my hair with obsessive finesse and continued as I began rising from my seat, clawing my way to the door. I glanced back and thanked the guy who finally got me through and waved from under my new mop of blue-black hair at the salon of staring eyes that tracked me till the door closed. As the lift descended I felt relief, and a sense of accomplishment in finding a lesson I will undoubtedly not forget: NEVER go blonde in China.


Aptly my blog is still blocked to me except through a proxy – evidently my mindless chatter about a foreigner’s perspective of living and working in Xi’an has caused irreparable offence, and so I shall continue to enter through sneaky backdoors.

My current blog, [again, I’m afraid, tainted with frustration at censorship] comes in the light of the Wikileaks phenomena that seems to be sweeping the globe – from embarrassing tell-tales of world leaders’ opinions of each other, resembling playground squabbles that leave a quake in your boots about their ability to make world-altering decisions; to the offensive opinions that British Troops [still fighting or sadly lost in the line of duty] weren’t up to the job in Afghanistan…it seems everyone is being smited by gossip that hasn’t needed to be so curtailed since we were advised that ‘Loose lips sink ships’.

Diplomats the world over, are reportedly endangered by cables that are kept quiet [the various Governments say] for a reason. Strategic ally-relationships are jeopardized by the colander-esque [Ok, I made that word up] mess that has become the World Leader’s ‘private’ thoughts. As those implicated sycophantically scrabble around in the stark truths vomited up my Mr. Assange, and those free of trouble [evidently just Joe Public – what a multitude of backstabbing, secretive foxes we appear to have elected to power] mount their high horses and throw their arms and eyes heaven bound in distaste; or run for the nuclear-proof bomb shelter, as more meths are thrown to the burning Islam=terrorism campaign fire; I am left standing in my previous furor of ‘Freedom of Speech is a basic human right’, wondering if, actually, maybe its not best to know everything.

It seems we have followed Adam and taken another hefty bite of the apple, whether we wanted to or not. Assange is now running and desperately seeking refuge anywhere he can, having doors slammed by rape charges and calls for extradition. I admit I’m intrigued by the cables that might be being written about him at this time and wonder if he’ll make it out alive to release them.

A comprehensive argument could be made either way as to whether he’s in the right or not. Ignorance is Bliss? Or should we not say anything in private we wouldn’t be willing to say to all? Everyone hates a gossip, but many secretly enjoy the fruits on offer. I was very much in the camp of honesty and letting the people know all, so integral decisions can be made in future development. My frustration with China’s censorship [and indeed they appear to have remained relatively unscathed in this chaos – other than an unfortunate remark about the behavior of North Korean leaders – are they clean, or just more versed in keeping the holes in their bucket plugged?] is palpable in this blog…but I find myself currently [and very tentatively] stepping – like on broken glass – into a new territory of thinking… maybe we don’t need to know everything.

Now, the censorship we are talking about the globe over [and actually in some cases its not really censorship but rather private thoughts escaping] with Wikileaks is very different to the censorship in China, but maybe some of the motivations are similar. Some of them. If we all knew everything, life would be chaos – we’d have no way to protect ourselves or advance ourselves [rightly or wrongly] …we simply aren’t built for uninhibited truth. I think this must partly be coming into play with China. After such a closed society fro so many years, a democratic society, in which each person’s opinion is valid and leaders are held accountable for their actions [hopefully] must seem terrifying in a country where the population reaches to dizzying volume of 1.4 Billion…without some form of control, how to you govern that many people? I break into a bit of a sweat if my class pushes more than 20 under my authority.

This isn’t a 180 on my opinion of Chinese censorship, but I’m just reframing I guess. I feel sad about the Wikileaks situation – I’m not sure why…maybe because there seems to be no winners, just a lot of hurt and discomfort caused by digging up past issues and throwing a magnifying glass over them to make them squirm, like a 5 year old boy might do with the sun and a slug. I think everybody has the right to know the true state of things, but only if doing so means a greater end than if a select few know and can move for the good of the whole. Maybe the difference between this and the situation in China is because I’m not always convinced by the motivations of those in control. So what now in Wiki-gate? Can the world leaders learn a thing or two from China in the future about using the proverbial water sealant? Or has China got something to learn about how secrets inevitably come back to bite you in the ass?

Keeping my mouth shut

I’ve been a bit quiet recently – not because I haven’t had the words, but because I haven’t had the liberty to post them freely, having had my blog censored and not being able to get around the ‘Great Firewall’ on my computer. A friend’s fake proxy enables me to write now, although the frustration at the aforementioned censorship prevents little other topic to write about from entering my headspace.

The recent visit of David Cameron to Beijing was, in my opinion, disappointing in regards to human rights in China. The reticence to discuss such a controversial matter, regardless of his use of the emotive subject for bargaining himself into power when criticising the previous government for little action, was laughable – if it wasn’t such a let down. My opinion comes though, as a Western female, in her twenties, with education and a freedom of speech that allows her to write such lines about her government without fear of reprisal. ‘Dissidents’ in China may feel similar reactions – artist Ai Wei Wei spoke as such as he condemned the PM for putting “putting money and short term profit before very important values” – but other people, Joe Bloggs on the street (Or high officials in the party??) for example, think the UK should keep their opinions to themselves: who are we we to preach in light of our record and influence in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan? seems to be the most common counterarguement.

I agree with Ai Wei Wei, as I emanate a childish petulance at not being able to write my blog at will and openly access my ‘beloved Facebook’ to keep in touch with friends and family more easily (I’ve even had access to an online photo account suspended for some reason…although I guess photos of a large group of expats living it up may be offensive enough to withdraw the privilege). My opinion, as I live her longer though, does begin to pivot on more worthy reasons for scorn at the censorship as I hear stories about what the influence of a past or passing regime has. This week a Chinese friend emailed me an article about a story that was attempted to be suppressed (, but has spread regardless, in which a student was hit by a car and the drunk driver, when cornered by the police, quoted his influential father’s name and ultimately evaded punishment. “My father’s Li Gang” became a bitter joke amongst those who knew its root and the state propaganda team worked its hardest to suppress the story. Ultimately, the victim’s family’s case against the offender, predictably mysteriously disappeared and those in the know were left shaking their heads.

However, I do want to be balanced in my frustration. To me, violation of human rights is not ok, never is going to be, and should be addressed with yesterday’s immediacy – but I am willing to accept that this comes, as mentioned previously, with arrogance from a different culture. China’s move from Communism to democracy (and who can say for sure that is even the right move?) is under huge scrutiny and is like a cup of water being boiled with the lid on. While the debate heats up by influence from the West, the previous communist regime contains the people like a vessel with no pressure valve – how quickly can we expect the water to reach temperature without a dangerous explosion, if we don’t allow China time to create a slow release valve?

So, I’m annoyed because I can’t access my communication easily; and I’m sure Liu Xiaobo is more annoyed at being put in prison for suggesting human rights amendments though Charter 08 (; as surely is his wife, being put under house arrest and his lawyer for not being able to leave the country for fear they might accept the Peace award on Liu’s behalf; while other’s walk around oblivious to the discussion because of government manipulation of the media and yet more wish we would keep our big arrogant feet out of the subject and let things develop as they are. This is China.

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