New Year temple celebrations, and some ruins


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Beijing, China

Chun jie kuai le (Happy New Year!) How else to start the New Year than by going to a traditional Spring Festival temple fair? I had heard that the White Cloud Temple had a particularly spectacular fair, so me and Annelieke headed there (most people were too tired after the night before, but I just drank a lot of Diet Coke and that seemed to help). There were so many people there, all Chinese – we were the only foreigners! I imagine most of the people there were still tourists however; most people who actually live in Beijing leave for the New Year. It was so busy and buzzing inside the temple complex, which was nice because Beijing has been pretty empty so far (everyone’s gone home!). We walked in amongst hanging decorations of lanterns and flags, and there were so many police around – I guess because it is an important event. There was a long queue of people waiting to touch this stone decoration which was part of the entrance archway, I can only guess that it brings good luck. We couldn’t be bothered to stand in a long queue to touch the stone so I hope that doesn’t mean we get bad luck!

I think most of the activities going on in the fair were routines to ensure a good year for the individual. You could buy a big mound of bronze coins near the entrance, and everyone was throwing them underneath this bridge where there hung a big bell, trying to hit the bell. I would have liked a go but unfortunately there were no English translations on the signs so we couldn’t work out how to buy the coins.

The White Cloud Temple is a Taoist temple – I don’t know much about Taoism yet so I will have to read up about it, but from what I can gather it is about balance and opposites. It is the religion that has the yin-yang symbol and they also have a lot of deities who protect them in various ways. They had some pretty and ornate statues of these deities in the temple rooms and the usual people praying with incense sticks. There were also massive open fires that the incense sticks were being thrown into after they were used. I wish I knew the significance of some of these rituals, they are so interesting to watch!

It was really nice walking around and observing everyone going about their rituals throughout the temple. I could tell that this is not a temple that foreign tourists tend to visit, so I’m glad I managed to find out about it. All throughout the complex there were stone statues or wall carvings and people were slotting small change into the nooks and crannies, and touching the stone. We came across a lovely long carving of all the animals in the zodiac, and another long queue of people waiting to touch the stone. Nearby were more carvings which I think represented religious stories.

After all these warm days we’ve had, New Year has begun by reverting to ‘normal’ Beijing temperatures – freezing, and snowing! Oh well, it was good while it lasted.

The remaining free day we had, some of us went to see the old Summer Palace – the one that was bombed by the British and is now in ruins, in a massive park. This was a few hundred years ago I think and we took all the Chinese artefacts and put them in museums in the UK… apparently they’re still pretty annoyed about it (understandably). Awkward. The ruins were still charming to see, and I was very surprised that the Summer Palace had been European architecture. China is the last place I thought I would see European designs, but apparently they used to employ people from Europe to build in that particular style. I found that interesting when they seem to have such a ‘set’ style for most palaces/temples/buildings in China – those I’ve seen so far have all had very similar designs to each other.

The ruins were only in a small area of the park, so we explored all of those (we were able to climb around on them which I found odd, I tried to avoid climbing on them anyway!). There were also some small (and very creepy looking) statues of all the animals in the zodiac – I’ve found them to be quite common so far, and have seen statues or drawings of them in lots of public places – even massive statues of them (which were also creepy) on the top of a shopping mall! They are obviously very important for the Chinese, especially around this time.

The park was massive so we didn’t walk round the whole place, but just like the day before it was super busy with Chinese people, and again the atmosphere was buzzing. There were lanterns hanging everywhere, and music, and also a massive TV showing random things like people roller skating. It was a really pretty walk around the lake (unfortunately not frozen enough to skate on, it’s been too warm), with tall trees surrounding the path and weeping willows beside the lake.

Since Saturday we have all been busy lesson planning, since we have been teaching this week. I’ll talk about that more in my next post. Anyway, it’s been a week since the official Chinese New Year, and fireworks are still a daily occurrence… luckily I have my earplugs…


Bargaining, more temples, and Chinese New Year


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Beijing, China

After a busy few days, I was feeling rather happy that I’d finally seen quite a bit of Beijing. The thing is, because it’s so big, it’s not somewhere you can just wander around and find interesting things (believe me, I’ve tried) – you have to seek them out and do your research. Going to interesting places normally involves going on at least a bus and a subway journey… so it’s not something you can do quickly. I had a lot of work to do after the trips so that restricted my exploring time quite significantly for a few days. However we were able to make an evening trip to the Silk Market, to try and bargain for some smart clothes to wear for teaching practice. I had most things already but wanted a couple more shirts since you can get them for about 60 Yuan (£6). The Silk Market is basically a massive indoor market with lots of small shops, selling fake designer clothes – mainly shirts, shoes and trousers. It’s become a bit more touristy recently, which is a shame because the shopkeepers try and rip you off with the prices, knowing tourists will pay more. They all speak perfect English and start asking for prices like 800 Yuan for a shirt, pretending the item is really good quality etcetc. You basically have to be really firm with them, refusing to pay that amount and not budging from your own offer (about 90% lower than what they’ve asked for). If they won’t agree with your offer, just walk out the shop and they will (hopefully) call you back with lower offers. Sounds simple right? Well it’s not… they are all so much more stubborn than I thought, it’s hard to make them budge on an expensive price, and they make you feel bad by saying stuff like ‘oh, you’re robbing me..’ etc. It was a lot more difficult (and even hostile) than when I’ve bargained in the past. Luckily Rob (one of our tutors, he’s lived in China for years) helped me out and got me a good price for a shirt, but the woman who sold it to me literally looked like she hated me with a passion as she sold it to me, she was calling me cheap and all sorts. Rob says it’s just an act. And I guess if we were offering too low a price they just wouldn’t sell it!

On Valentine’s Day, we had a Mandarin lesson and learnt how to sing a Chinese love song. It’s kind of annoying that this is the only Mandarin that’s really stuck in my head, and I can’t really use it because it means something like ‘you smell fantastic, I have dreams about your sweet smell’. It was so funny singing it in class though. When I get more time I really need to keep practicing the language. I’ve picked up bits and bobs and carry my phrase book everywhere. I’ve also started to look at the symbols when I’m out and about. I know meanings for a few and am starting to recognise quite a lot of them too – if I see a certain symbol quite a lot, I try and ask someone what it means, because it’s obviously a common word!

A couple of days ago, after class a few of us headed to Tiantan Park, location of the Temple of Heaven. I’d heard it was a beautiful park and so my idea was to go and watch the sunset, unfortunately big buildings and trees were blocking it so that didn’t really work… but it was still such a beautiful evening, and so peaceful in the park – despite it being quite a touristy area (I think we came at the right time, most people go during the day). We could see the Temple of Heaven in the distance, and strolled down amongst tall trees, smaller temples and also a group of men singing very deeply – which just added to the atmosphere. A few people were jogging in the park or playing ping pong. As it got darker, the Temple of Heaven and the surrounding trees were lit up with very bright lights, and it made the temple look truly amazing; like it was glowing. I’ve seen pictures of it in the daytime and it is beautiful, but it looked even better at dusk. The colours and designs really stood out. It was just such a pretty and peaceful walk. Further on there were lanterns on the trees, and you could see the busy Beijing with all the lights, traffic and high-risers in the distance through an archway – a little reminder that despite the quiet park, we were in one of the biggest cities in the world.

After Tiantan Park, we headed to Hotpot which is a restaurant that I’d been recommended. You order a massive saucepan full of a certain flavour soup, which is boiling hot. You then order lots of different food, and it comes to you uncooked. You have to put it in the soup to cook it. I had dumplings, lamb and lettuce, and tomato soup. We weren’t sure what to do at first and all the Chinese people eating there were laughing at us! We must have looked ridiculous. It was really good though, an interesting experience.

Today is Chinese New Year! It’s the year of the sheep. So last night to celebrate New Year’s Eve as well as the handing in of two difficult assignments we had a karaoke night – pretty much everyone went. You hire out booths with maybe 15-20 people in each, but we all ended up in one room by the end! It was so much fun, there were a couple of microphones but everyone sang along together anyway. That ended at 10pm and afterwards most of us went to bars. Walking along the streets, everything was lit up and the atmosphere was buzzing. People were setting off fireworks literally everywhere, all over the street, it was pretty albeit very dangerous (none of us got hurt luckily). Everyone was in a crazy good mood. New Year is such a huge thing for the Chinese. Fireworks have been going off all day today too (one right outside my window woke me up at about 8am)! Apparently fireworks are pretty normal in China and they’ll set them off even for the most random things like a new supermarket opening!

The Great Wall, Olympic Park, Hutongs


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Beijing, China

I’ve been pretty busy for a while now, and have completed 2 out of 5 assignments – writing about 4000 words in total. I have had one assignment back so far and managed to get a Very Good, which is the highest grade so I’m pretty proud of myself! This week we have to start creating lesson plans for 50-minute slots, and we start teaching practice in less than a week. We will be teaching at a school in Beijing, one lesson a day, for 5 days. The problem is that we are given no information about the ages or levels of the students who will be in our class, until we walk in on the first day and have to teach. Very daunting!! The trick is to plan for low-level students, and adapt the lesson plan to a more advanced level if needed.

I’ve also found time to see a bit more of Beijing, luckily. The day after we went to the Forbidden City, we had a ‘tour day’ – organised by the staff who run our programme. We were going to see the Great Wall of China… eagerly anticipated by us all. What I found strange is that none of the staff seemed to know which part of the wall we were going to, only that it began with ‘J’. All I know is that it wasn’t one of the most touristy parts of the wall, which I was pleased about.

I was pretty sure that it would be at least 2-3 hours drive to the Wall, so was pretty surprised when about an hour (or less) into the journey I suddenly saw it right in front of me. It was pretty exciting; it’s always cool seeing something so iconic in person, after seeing thousands of photographs… nothing ever beats the real thing. Knowing a bit of the history behind the Wall just makes the experience even more awesome. It was actually many different dynasties who built it, so it is was not built as one continuous wall, and different parts are different ages. Now, it stretches for over 13,000 miles! It’s a bit creepy that there are actually thousands or even millions of Chinese people buried inside the wall; people who died building it were simply included in the mix, making the Wall the longest cemetery in the world as well as the longest manmade structure.

We were given a couple of hours to walk up the wall and then get back to the coach, which was disappointing as that was only enough time to get up to the highest point and then walk back down – I would have quite happily have spent a whole day trekking along the Wall, but I guess that’s what organised tours are like – they want to squeeze in as much as possible, and as a result you are constantly rushed and don’t see as much as you want to see! But still, it was a magical and fairly quiet trek up lots and lots of steep steps, and as you climbed you could see more and more into the distance – to the outskirts of Beijing, the smoggy hills, and eventually (at the top) more of the Wall in the distance, snaking through the terrain. It was so beautiful especially when you reached the higher parts of the wall. After being told it was chilly up there, I was wearing 4 layers, including a coat and a thermal… I ended up in just a thin long-sleeved top, carrying my other layers. Beijing is still so warm!! I don’t understand. Not complaining though.

Once I reached the top I stayed up there for a while enjoying the view with everyone else. It seemed really odd that this part of the wall was just beside a road, houses and shops; you only ever see pictures of it looking like it’s in the middle of nowhere (I guess it’s the same with a lot of these sites, I’ve heard the Pyramids are the same!). The only thing that disappointed me about the Great Wall was that the part we visited had obviously been very restored. I would have loved to see parts that were crumbling and old, hence why it would have been so good to have a day to trek – how often do you get a chance to walk along the Great Wall?! But a really cool experience nonetheless.

Far too quickly, it was time to head back down. We were then taken for lunch at a place that was obviously catered for tourists coming from the Great Wall – we had all the kinds of food we get at home in Chinese takeaways, rather than actual Chinese food which is very different! This restaurant was in a massive shopping area with jewellery and trinkets to buy, and we were given an hour to look round after eating, another thing that bugged me… we could have had more time at the Wall or doing the afternoon sightseeing!

Back in the coach after lunch for a quick visit to the Olympic Park. We had only 20 minutes to walk round, and it’s huge… so ridiculous. Oh well. I saw the Bird’s Nest which was cool because it was massive, but I didn’t think it was particularly pretty! The whole Olympic Village was big, so it was interesting to see. Apparently before Beijing hosted the Olympics there was just a village in that area, and everyone who lived there had to move elsewhere. Now it’s just a really really long and wide pavement that goes on for miles, all the way to Tiananmen Square and all the way through the Olympic Village. There were some really interesting sculptures dotted around the park too, showing people playing different sports.

After that we had a coach drive through the hutongs on the way to Houhai Park. Hutongs are very common in central Beijing and are streets with traditional courtyard houses. These houses are small, grey (only important people could have red or gold on their houses), with shared toilets and I’m pretty sure they have no electricity or heating either. It’s so easy to assume that these are like the ‘slums’ of Beijing, where families have existed for ages, but in truth they are very expensive – 10million Yuan (£1 million)! Crazy. But if you think about it, most people who work in Beijing have family elsewhere – they have to come and work here for the money, and maybe go home and visit their families once or twice a year on holidays. People who live in the hutongs can come home from work and their family is all around them. You can see why living here is desirable.

We had a chance to have a quick walk around the lake in Houhai Park – all frozen over. It was lovely having a stroll down the hutongs, restaurants and quaint shops, with tuk tuks racing past. Apparently this is the main nightlife scene in Beijing so hopefully we will be going back.

After a long coach trip back due to rush hour, it was time for a rest after an exhausting weekend. More school tomorrow!

A quick point about the Great Wall… after seeing it in the flesh, I can clarify that there is no way it can be seen from space. No way. It’s a lot smaller than you expect! I knew that was a myth anyway, but I don’t even know how that rumour started, it’s so ridiculous!

How does TEFL work?

Beijing, China

A couple of people have been asking me how it’s possible to teach English to Chinese students when we don’t have a shared language to communicate in – I don’t speak Mandarin! Since every single child in China now has English lessons from a young age, normally from a Chinese teacher, it’s pretty safe to assume they already know some English – they are also exposed to it through TV, music, etc. There are a wide range of activities we can use in the classroom to suit all levels and ages, and all kinds of purposes (vocab learning, speaking practice, functional language, grammar, phonemes, etc.); we would normally focus on one topic in a lesson (like ‘food’) and do several short activities relating to that topic. For example first you could do an activity relating to some vocabulary of different foods, asking students what food they like and brainstorm, you could then slowly (step-by-step) build this up to students performing a role play of ordering a meal in a restaurant.
We need to remember to give very simple instructions that the students will understand, without using new vocab in the instructions, and then give them an example of the activity so they can see what they have to do. We have to use lots of gestures/facial expressions/board drawings, and there are many different ways to explain the meaning of a new word without simply translating it into Mandarin – like pictures, actions, synonyms, examples. The main purpose of getting foreign teachers in to teach English is for speaking practice; Chinese teachers may not have the correct pronunciation. We have to speak English always, and never use Mandarin; which is good practice for the students who will in time pick up words, phrases and even idioms from the context in which we use them in. There is a lot of emphasis on teaching ‘natural English’ – that is, conversational English rather than textbook English. It is hard for someone who is not a fluent speaker to teach this.

Yonghegong, Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square


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Beijing, China

We’ve reached the ‘weekend’!! (we have them on Thursdays and Fridays instead of Saturdays and Sundays). It’s been so awesome to finally have a chance to explore the city. I’m really falling in love with Beijing. Everything about it is BIG… the roads are the size of motorways, and it takes a whole minute to walk across them (also cars sometimes just don’t stop for red lights, which is scary). The population is big, but the city is so big too that it rarely feels crowded. Although, February is a quieter time for Beijing due to people who work here travelling to see family for New Year.

In class the other day, as a break from Mandarin we went outside and did some Tai Chi. It was different to the Tai Chi I’d done before – the lady teaching us said it was mainly for older people. Also, we had Bella (who works with the ImmerQi team, and is Chinese) come into a lesson and teach us Mandarin while speaking only in Mandarin. Basically what we will be doing when we teach, except with English obviously. It really struck me how difficult it was to understand what she was asking us to do, it was so bewildering! I’d never thought about that before, this is going to be a tough job, and we really need to make sure we use vocabulary that is suitable for the level we are teaching. Anyway, that was an exercise I definitely benefited from, I know how the children will feel now!

After finishing class yesterday a bit earlier than usual, I headed straight for a temple with a few others. The Lama Temple (Yonghegong) is a Tibetan Buddhist temple and people still worship there today. It was very beautiful, and also a really warm day – I was only in a long-sleeved top! Unheard of for Beijing in February. The sun was shining, the skies were clear, it was lovely. All the temples I’ve seen so far seem to have the same design and they are very intricate. They are all mainly red (which is the colour of prosperity in China), and the edges of the roof have a line of animals standing up which I really like. There are lots of painted decorations near the roof, often of snakes – I don’t know the significance of this yet. There were lots of different temples and rooms, inside they had different Buddhas for example one room had 3 Buddhas which were for the past, present and future. It is disrespectful to take pictures inside these holy places so I only have pictures of the outside of the temples. There were different styles; I liked the Tantric Buddhist statues, they were rather eerie. There was a statue of something with lots of arms, each arm was holding something different – e.g. a foot, and something that looked like a baby alien. Strange. Right at the end of the temple complex was a room with an absolutely huge Buddha – when I walked in I was stunned by the size of it! So so awesome. I loved all the decorations around these holy statues also – lots of carvings of different animals from dragons to horses, candles, lots of very detailed artwork on the walls and even the ceiling was beautifully designed. I can tell I’m going to like visiting temples, and I’m really excited to learn more about Buddhism.

There were lots of people worshipping, which gave the whole complex a peaceful air. It was interesting to watch how people worshipped. They stand in front of one of the statues with some incense in their hands, they clasp their hands together like in prayer, and bow twice. Then they move onto the next statue and do the same thing. A quick mark of respect. I wonder if they go round the whole place or just focus on a few buildings?

So after a hard week of training, there was only one thing to do that evening – go out for some beers! We got the bus to a pretty area with lights in the trees and a massive lit up sheep I can only imagine is for New Year. After wondering around we found an Irish bar, which was full of expats, and everything was English-speaking which was refreshing! Went to a few different bars, a nice and chilled out night.

Today was a big day – around 25 of us headed over to the Forbidden City, where the Emperor would live. Let’s just say I can see why it’s called a ‘city’… the place is massive! I’d heard from people that it was big but I didn’t know just how big they meant! It was beautiful, I spent a few hours wondering around on my own taking it all in. A lot of people just kept walking straight down the centre, where all the main buildings/rooms are, but if you veer off to the left or the right there are plenty more rooms and temples, plus an absolutely gorgeous Imperial Garden with very interesting-looking trees and rocks. There was a big hill of rocks with a temple at the top, and I think a path ran through the middle of the rocks to get up there – that was cool. Visitors can’t go up though.

What I loved while walking around was seeing the contrast between this old city and the skyscrapers of modern Beijing which surrounded. Once we’d left the Forbidden City (I did manage to get lost so it took me a while to leave), most people got the subway back, but me and two others headed to Jingshan Park opposite. It’s a pretty park, and it was quite warm again. So glad it’s not minus 20 as expected. The main attraction of the park is that it has an awesome view of the Forbidden City and of Beijing in general. There are a few small temples and apparently they were built there on purpose, because this is the place with the best view of the city. So we climbed up to the top… incredible views, it was just amazing. After being inside the Forbidden City, we then got to see it from an outside perspective and really understand just how huge it is. I sat there for a while just taking it all in – as well as the surroundings of modern Beijing. The view from the other side showed more of the city – tall buildings next to old temples, the contrast was stunning. There’s nothing I like more in a new place than getting as high as I can and looking from above… you get more of a feel for the size, position and character of the place.

So then we decided to have a little peek at Tiananmen Square – problem is, we were now on the north side of the Forbidden City and the square is on the south side, so we had a long walk ahead of us! We walked past the walls of the City and then down a long, long street with hutongs – this street went on for a half hour with no side turnings or anything! We eventually reached the square, which was huge (standard Beijing) – apparently it is one of the largest city squares in the world. We were too tired to go in any of the museums by this point, so after being asked to pose for a photo with a Chinese family (that happens all the time here, they love foreigners, it’s like being a celebrity), we headed back. Long day… awesome day.

I’m finding the fact that I have to study and do assignments, while being in an exciting new city and country, really difficult. There’s a clash between the part of me that wants to spend every day exploring and wandering, and the part of me that wants to study hard and do well. It’s tough trying to manage both!

First days- from TEFL training to scorpion eating


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eijing, China

Already four full days into my month of teacher training in Beijing. Most of that time so far has been in classrooms – we have TEFL classes from 8:30-14:30 every day (with a break for lunch), followed by an hour and a half of Mandarin lessons (later on this time will be for lesson planning). Luckily, the classes have been interesting as well as helpful, and the teachers are very good – these first few days have been rather overwhelming however. There’s a lot to take in and a lot to think about when planning lesson activities. We’ve also had a rather extensive class on grammar, something which I thought I was good at but have been proven otherwise. Those who learnt English as a second language (most of the people on the course) actually found this part easier!

We’re staying in a hotel just outside the main city centre, so apparently it doesn’t take long to get to the main places of interest. Although, after being told the subway station is 15mins away (when it’s actually around half an hour) we started to wonder if a ‘Beijing minute’ is longer than a normal minute – well, it is such a big place! It’s been pretty easy to get around and understand things here because a lot is in English, but I think that’s just because it’s the capital… the real ‘culture shock’ will begin when we go off to our placements in smaller cities and towns! I’ve now done a total of 4.5 hours of Mandarin, and just as expected it is not easy. I’ve got the hang of the four tones and most of the pronunciations of initials and finals (in pinyin), and we’ve learnt some vocab and phrases. I’m definitely not a natural though.

Our meals are included during training, mainly the dinners and lunches have been good, I haven’t been able to eat the breakfast so far though – cold noodles and weird dumplings just aren’t appealing to me at 8 in the morning! One night me and Annelieke (from Holland) did try out a local restaurant; it is very much a case of pointing at one of the (very small) pictures and hoping it’s nice! We were looking at one of the pictures where the food looked good, before I looked closer and saw there was chicken feet in it. So… be careful. Unless you fancy some chicken feet.

Last night a lot of us went on our first outing which was VERY exciting considering we’d been in intense classes for a few days and had barely been past the supermarket next to our hotel. After dinner we headed to Wangfujing – main purpose: to see the night market and eat some bugs. We got there by subway, and they have video adverts in the tunnels that follow the train along so you can read them, which we thought was pretty cool. Wangfujing is the main shopping district, so lots of huge shops – I was especially impressed with the size of the bookstore. Down a little side street with lots of hanging lanterns, is Donghuamen Night Market. Some stalls selling scorpions, starfish, centipedes, spiders, snakes, even seahorses and turtles – to eat. Pretty sure this is a tourist thing, apparently the locals don’t actually eat these (I guess they think ‘hey, what’s the weirdest thing we can get Westerners to eat?’.. and it works). Even so, I had a weird curiosity and so me and Morgan (from UK) shared a starfish, whilst I had a baby scorpion and a bite of snake also. The scorpion was actually quite tasty, wasn’t expecting that! Not a fan of starfish at all though (apparently tastes like mackerel but having never tried fish I can’t verify that)!

There were other stalls too selling dumplings, sweets etc. After we’d had enough, me and Annelieke wandered down Wangfujing and into the mall, just to be somewhere warm; by this time it was way down in the minuses. It was huge, with a countless number of floors and obviously the location for all the posh/expensive shops. People tried to scam us twice while walking around the district, luckily we’d been wised up to the black taxi and the tea room scams so we were having none of it.

Although I haven’t had a chance to see much of China so far, I’m really looking forward to what is to come – trying weird food, learning Mandarin, experiencing the cultural differences – but most of all teaching in a real Chinese school and travelling around the country. The next six months are definitely going to be an adventure!