Next week I’m going to be visiting Yunnan – six days of blissful tranquility in what the guide book says is the most beautiful part of China. Just a short 20-hour train journey south of Chengdu, it’s the place where Chinese people more so than anyone else like to holiday. My dad said it best – it’s “their version of the lake district.”
In my head though, Chengdu was “their” version of Birmingham and Shuangliu County was their version of Walsall. Given that Chengdu is about ten times the size of Brum, and this Chinese county is larger that my home town, I have a feeling that “their version of the lake district” might in fact be their version of England.
So, either my China-calibrator needs readjusting or I need to do away with the “their” motif. (A China-calibrator, in case you were wondering, is their version of a Britain-calibrator- a tool for Chinese visitors to use to compare Britain with China).
It will probably surprise you to know that I just spent the last hour cleaning the kitchen and bathroom, putting things up for wash, and even sweeping for dust, all in preparation for returning from holiday and being welcomed by a clean, hassle-free boudoir. Or maybe it won’t surprise you at all as that’s what we should all do when we leave home for a week.
What has surprised me, though, is that this feeling resembles the same one I had when I left my actual home a month ago. If you are as lucky as I am, and you get the opportunity to give somewhere a chance, anywhere can be your home.
A routine has emerged, certain eateries and shops have become a “local” and I even share moments each day with nameless but now familiar faces in the shop, at the bus stop and in the street.
Today that routine was challenged by the spanner in the works that is the last day of term. Nobody really knows what’s going on, everybody is excitedly waiting for the end and, well, mistakes were made.
Sorry, I was watching Ed Miliband’s conference speech like the rock-star I am and his rhetoric has clearly rubbed off on me: mistakes were not made – I made a mistake.
At first, all seemed well. I walked in, they hushed and I got on with the lesson on music. They were telling me what music they like and why quite happily until their form teacher burst in.
A few seconds of frantic Sichuanese-dialect and chaotic noise later, and it transpired that this lesson wasn’t scheduled. The children were too polite to tell me that there was no third period today, and instead let me give them the worst start to their holiday possible – a lesson on music.
Worse, a lesson on music that ate into the allocated time they had to pack and get on the bus home. I felt guilty of course, then annoyed at not being told, and then bewildered that not one of them tried to tell me, even in Chinese. Politeness is the kindest way of looking at it, but it was just stupidity I think. Funny though, especially for the others in the staff room.
School life is offering me more than just the scheduled teaching now. A few colleagues like to practice their English with me at lunch, and English Club and English Corner now take up two of my lunchtimes.
It is for certain that there are clear differences between English Club and English Corner, but I honestly couldn’t work them out myself. The same people come to both, we do similar fun learning activities things and – actually, I should stop there. For all I know one of the rules of the Club and/or the Corner is that one must never speak about what goes on.
Priscilla, who is an English teacher here and in charge of the school’s foreign affairs but who happily acts like my mother, mentor, landlord, sister, colleague, friend and language-exchange partner, had a lovely surprise for me after English Club. Or was it English Corner? Never mind.
A former student of hers who now studies music was visiting her, and Priscilla asked me to meet her, and play the piano with her. A very touching gesture from her which resulted in the most bizarre experience I’ve had in China so far.
Her student was painfully delicate in her Bohemian appearance which included the most glamorous clothes I’ve ever seen, and an umbrella that had multi-coloured ribbon casually tailing of the tip.
She seemed to flout about the place as though walking would harm the ground and although she didn’t have an English name. her Chinese one was as soft to say as it was pleasant to hear. I think “Primrose” or “Quavery” would be good choices for her English name, especially if said in a sing-song fashion through pursed lips.
Her first piece was 15 minutes of improvised, minimalist piano that was completely stunning. It lulled us all into absolute stillness and calm from which I thought I would never leave. Until, that is, she blurted out Sharapova-like grunts that shocked and frightened me but which had no impact whatsoever on Priscilla and the other lady in the room I didn’t know.
When we spoke later (Priscilla is also my interpreter I should mention) she explained how she sometimes just has to emote on to the piano, to let out what was burning inside her and show the world who she really is.
Then, she ran to the piano again, and began to play, snapping her neck from one side to other while looking up to the ceiling (or perhaps the heavens!). I too began to look up and around but there were no hidden cameras in sight.
Life here, then, has become very real for me – even surreal. A good time to have a holiday, then!