My first volunteer excursion with Lotus involved a trip to the nearby senior centre by bus to visit, chat with and generally entertain the elderly folks who live there.
This particular day was chosen as it was the 重阳节 (Chóngyáng jié – Double Ninth Festival), which as of 1989 has also been known as ‘Seniors’ Day’, when the elderly should be visited and should enjoy themselves.
The first activity upon our arrival was to give balloons to the elderly and play with them. The game essentially involved hitting the balloons back and forth, and whether they were cherishing them, hitting them back or just popping the balloons, the elderly folks seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Next came the entertainment. Each volunteer performed a routine for the elderly spectators. One was Taijiquan, one was a violin recital, a few people demonstrated their superb solo vocal skills while I myself joined in with a group rendition of 北京欢迎你 (Beijing Welcomes You). It wasn’t only us that performed however, as a few of the elderly folks also gave a performance of some kind. Following this, it was cake time, as all the seniors with birthdays in the last three months were wished happy birthday with a huge cake and celebration – a truly heart-warming sight.
After this the seniors retired to their rooms, and it was time for the volunteers to visit each room with gifts of bananas and apples. They all seemed thoroughly thrilled to see us, and I even had the pleasure of meeting one lady who said she 110 years old!!
It is fairly safe to say that eating in Chinese restaurants in the West does not make you an expert on Chinese cuisine. Although I knew that the food I would be eating out in China would be a far cry from the ‘Chinese’ food I was accustomed to in London, I did not realize quite how far.
In Beijing, and indeed in most of China, it is not customary for each person at the dinner table to have only their own plate of food to eat from. Rather, each person has their own small bowl of 主食 (Zhǔshí – staple food of rice or another form of grain), and the 菜 (Cài – dishes of vegetables and meat and everything else!) are placed in the middle of the table for everyone to tuck into. I have to say that to me this form of eating not only seems more sociable and friendly, but makes much more sense, as rather than having a set amount of food to tackle each meal, you can pick and choose what you eat and how much of it you eat depending on your appetite at the time.
I never imagined that I could eat something three times a day without becoming sick of it, as in the UK I guess we don’t have anything that you could call a 主食 （Zhǔshí）. However, I guess being in China has changed that, as I’ve been eating rice at least twice a day and have never once felt sick of it. This may be because of the wonderful variety of all the different 菜 (Cài) that my homestay family prepare every evening. They keep asking me which of the various dishes they have prepared for me is my favourite, but it’s impossible to answer as there are so many and I can honestly say every single one is fantastic. Hardly a single dish I’ve had with my host family has been similar to what I would normally eat in England. This is most apparent to me when I think of the vegetables. Back home growing up vegetables was always something you ate because you had to, and it usually consisted of plain steamed broccoli or something else equally bland. In China it’s a different story, as every vegetable dish is flavoured wonderfully and has its own unique tastes.
I’ve no doubt that when the time comes to return to England, the food is going to be sorely missed, perhaps above all else.
Being quite a keen footballer back at home, one of my first objectives once I’d found my feet out in Beijing was to find a team to join.
So, I fired up the computer and browsed for amateur Beijing teams, hoping that the fact that my football vocabulary in Mandarin barely stretched to 我很喜欢踢足球 (wo hen xihuan ti zuqiu) would not be a problem.
Lo and behold! I found out that Beijing has a wealth of football teams with players from every country you can think of. Any one amateur league will have teams that are made up mostly of Russian, English, French, Chinese or any other nationality of players. Most teams in fact have a great mix of players from different parts of the world. I decided to join the Beijing Barbarians, as I thought they looked like the most fun and had an interesting mix of players. Our first game was played against the interestingly named ‘Sexy FC’, another team that was very much international. It was played in the incredibly beautiful Si’de park (四得公园) in Chaoyang district. As it was a sunny Saturday afternoon, the park was full of both expat and Chinese families having picnics and taking walks.
The game itself was played in very competitive yet amicable spirits, and the shouts around the pitch were always a mixture of English and Mandarin. I actually felt that by the end of the 90 minutes (with us winning 1-0!) I had picked up a few new words and phrases in Chinese, which I am determined to put to use on the pitch next week.
As Monday was Mid-Autumn Festival, I was told on Friday that we were going to celebrate it that night with Karaoke. I had been well aware that as I was in China, it was only a matter of time before I’d find myself standing in front of a TV with a microphone in my hand. This however made the prospect no less daunting. I have always possessed a horrible singing voice, and so although I was looking forward to having fun with all the others at Lotus, I was a little apprehensive too.
No one knows for sure why karaoke is such a huge part of popular culture in the Far East compared with the rest of the world, but one thing is for sure – it is huge. You only have to walk down a street in Beijing to notice how popular the pastime is, as everywhere you look you will see ‘KTV’ written in large neon letters.
The venue we chose to go to was enormous. It had a large bar area, with a buffet restaurant and a huge corridor running from the restaurant. On either side of the corridor you could see people belting out classics in private rooms. It was interesting to see that in some rooms the audience were rolling around in laughter while the singer(s) crooned, yet in others they sat still and sober, diligently listening to the man or woman with the microphone. It seemed to me that the atmosphere of KTV can vary hugely, and it can be both a laid-back and serious affair.
I am pleased to say that after we were shown to our karaoke room, and a few drinks had been had, I took my turn to sing a song and had a great time. It didn’t seem to matter that I followed some of the excellent singing of my Lotus colleagues with tone-deaf screeching.
I would thoroughly recommend anyone who spends time in China to go to a KTV bar and try it out, as not only is it an important part of Chinese popular culture, but it’s also a lot of fun. I would also however recommend that they choose their songs carefully, as I experienced firsthand the terrible moment of realisation that the song you have chosen to sing has a chorus with a brutally long and sustained high-note…
Following the BLCU placement test, which for me was mostly an hour or so of mind blanks and desperate attempts to remember characters I had learned the night before, my friend and I decided to take a trip to the Yaxiu market. Having read about it on various blogging sites, I expected the worst, and so was prepared to be hassled, grabbed and screamed at.
In actual fact, when I got there, I was surprised at how pleasant the shopkeepers all were, and found that rather than shout and grab, they all asked politely if I was interested in whatever it was they had to sell.
I eventually approached one of the shoe sellers and prepared to bargain hard. Fifteen minutes later I left with a pair of trainers and a pair of football boots feeling pretty pleased with myself. It was not until I got home and tried them on in my room that I realised that neither actually fitted, as I had managed to buy one pair too small and another too large. It seemed that when I had tried them on in the market I was too concerned with working out how best to haggle, rather than whether or not the shoes were the right size. This meant that after a furious sparring match of quoting prices at each other, and my triumphant feeling as I left the stall, I had to crawl back and sheepishly explain that I needed to exchange both pairs. A rather embarrassing experience to stay the least…
Having only been at Lotus a couple of days, I was delighted to be invited to Lily’s birthday do on the first Friday of my arrival in Beijing. However, I will admit that at first I felt perhaps a little apprehensive at my sub-par communication skills, and predicted that I would spend the entire evening repeating “Duìbùqĭ, Wŏ bù Dŏng”. I did on the other hand feel that having tackled the Chinese textbook’s chapter on birthday parties at university I knew relatively well what to expect…more or less.
We left the Lotus office early Friday evening and piled straight into the car waiting for us, cheerfully making no issue of the considerable discrepancy between our number and the car’s capacity. We pulled up to an enormous restaurant that was decorated in gung-ho style with elaborate patterns in gold and red everywhere, and yet was still very classy.
The layout of the restaurant was certainly strange, as it consisted of a vast complex of separate dining rooms, each with one enormous round table, and a hole cut into one of the walls for food to be passed through. The first order of business after we were escorted into our room was filling everyone’s glasses with beer, and I was a little confused as my glass was half-filled with warm beer, and the remaining half was filled with ice-cold beer. Lily, being the birthday girl, stood up, raised her glass, said what I guess must be the Chinese equivalent of ‘cheers’ and drank as everyone else followed suit. I myself took a large sip and made to sit back down, only to look around and find everyone else still drinking. I finally clocked on to what I was supposed to do so I stood up and drained my glass, by now rather pleased it was not ice cold. It was at this point that I received a very sweet little applause from Alice and an equally sweet warning of “don’t get drunk” from Zoe. I cockily replied that coming from a country where beer is served in measurements rather larger than they were here, I certainly felt that I’d cope.
Another characteristic of this dining style that I found slightly puzzling at first was the lazy Susan, as by the time we had all sat down to enjoy the food I was pretty hungry, and reached eagerly for the fish dish only to find it mockingly slide away from me. Once again, it took a few seconds for me to realise what was going on, as I noticed that it was not just this particular dish that appeared to be moving. A rookie to start with, I felt that by the end of the meal I was a Lazy Susan-spinning pro, as with an elegant flick of the wrist I saw the duck’s tongue dish slide toward me. Having said this, it may have been the substantial amount of beer consumed by this point that made the action appear smooth and successful.
It seemed that to sip at your lager was not considered normal form, and I very much enjoyed the process of picking a drinking partner from around the table (or maybe ‘opponent’ would be more appropriate) when you felt thirsty and downing your beer in unison. This hilarious method of drinking, coupled with excellent food, made for a wonderful meal and I’m pleased to say that the fact that I understood little of what was said, or rather shouted (hence the separate rooms I guess), over the course of the meal failed to dent the experience. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of the evening and cannot wait for this coming Friday when it will be repeated in celebration of the mid-Autumn festival.
Having done extensive internet research back in England on learning Chinese in Beijing, I started turning my attention to homestays, as it seemed by far the most effective way to become fully immersed in Chinese language and culture. After a quick cursory glance over Lotus’s website, I firmly placed it on my shortlist of options for my time in Beijing, especially as they offered an internship along with the homestay.
Lotus was by no means the only organisation offering both an internship opportunity and a homestay, and I was as yet undecided on which organisation seemed the best. At last…The clincher undoubtedly came when I found out that Lotus are a not-profit organisation, rather than a business devoted to extracting as much money from you as they can whilst spending as little as possible on your comfort and convenience whilst you are there. Lotus seemed to be genuinely interested in promoting and fostering Chinese-Western relations by encouraging the exchange of language and culture. They were not just in the language teaching industry to make money like many others.
Anyway a few email exchanges later and I was set up with a homestay in an area about half an hour by subway from BLCU, where I would be studying Chinese every morning Monday to Friday. I was also set up with an internship every afternoon, also Monday to Friday, in a dynamic and exciting non-profit organisation, where I knew I would be able to make valuable contributions and gain excellent experience…without the ridiculous price tag that comes with many other means of organising internships in China.
Soon after, I was being greeted at Beijing airport by a driver and an incredibly lovely young girl from Lotus called Zoe, who took me straight to my host family. My host mother greeted me with a huge smile and immediately started chatting away to me in Mandarin. It was at this point that I realised that after a couple of years of studying Mandarin from a textbook, I essentially knew nothing. That evening, over a spectacular Beijing meal, myself and the family communicated via frantic hand gestures, laughing to break any awkward silences and ecstatic celebration by both sides whenever anything was successfully conveyed.
So far it has been a week since I set foot in Beijing for the first time, and although I still possess a toddler’s speech capacity at best, every day I can feel myself understanding more and more phrases that are spoken to and around me, and I already feel settled both with my lovely Beijing family and in the Lotus office.