By SIMON EDWARD SMITH
Like many young graduates, I found myself struggling to get a job after leaving university. After failing at teaching English to out of work professionals in Spain, I took up an offer to ‘give China a go’.
What I didn’t know when I boarded the plane in November 2011 at Manchester airport, is that the jaunt would turn in a three-year stay…one of revelations, ignorance and excess.
The China Diaries, told as mini-features, is the inside account of expat life, revealing the reality of teaching English, the hazards of a relationship, the infamous massage parlours and navigating Chinese healthcare.
Life is a game of survival in the Middle Kingdom…Let’s roll.
1. The Chinese urologist wore me like a glove
Just wait. Can someone please close the door? What do you mean, there’s no fucking door? Just stand there…please…’ I said as the urologist held my shoulder and bent me over.
I clenched the sheet on the hospital bed in preparation.
Without even a countdown, he rammed a gloved-up finger straight up my arse.
The sensation forced a sound from my mouth, like a car horn that shifted up into a choirboy. I clenched again.
Despite my half-naked state, the consultation room saw other patients storming in – thanks to the lack of a door – and shouting for the doctor’s attention. Sufferers threw their clinical history folders on his desk like a giant game of hospital Snap, the afflicted desperate to be on top of the pile and next to be seen.
One patient even spread open a folder on my back, but after a ‘Mate, are you having a fucking laugh? I’m not a table,’ the man muttered something and shuffled off.
‘His left hand on my hip for stability felt unnecessary’
My girlfriend’s mother had tried to plug the doorway but with no success. More barged into the room.h
My girlfriend, Lanlan, patted my head while Dr Wu twisted his index finger rummaging for the last Jelly Bean in a pick ‘N’ mix confectionery bag. His left hand on my hip for stability felt unnecessary, but a foot on the bed for leverage was pure humiliation.
The poking ended but he switched to a come-hither massage. With his forefinger he pressed hard then released with a swiping motion. By the seventh cycle, I was twisting the bedsheet in raw agony.
Lanlan continued to stroke my hair like I was a golden retriever. ‘Who’s a good boy? You’re so brave. You’re so brave.’
After five minutes I begged her to beg him to stop, ‘No more, please, no more.
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Dr Wu slid his finger out with a pop and patted one of my arsecheeks. Still clinging onto the corners of the bed, I turned to see him lighting a cigarette. Gloves still on.
He began chatting to Lanlan’s mother. They both started laughing as if sharing a joke waiting for a bus. The doctor pointed at me using his cigarette and they both erupted.
I felt used and tricked.
What a bastard.
‘Before we’d even left, Dr Wu had changed gloves and was dipping a finger in a bowl of lubricant’
An elderly man appeared next to me. He lowered his pants and underwear and stuck out his bare arse.
I almost started crying at the sight and turned to Lanlan. She helped me pull up my underwear and straighten out the bedsheet then said, ‘Ok. Great. Your treatment has finished. We can go.’
Before we’d even left the room, Dr Wu had changed his gloves and was dipping a finger in a bowl of lubricant. The old man was waiting.
Outside in the waiting area, I collapsed, sobbing, on a row of metal chairs, my mind a cluster of panic attacks.
Lanlan kept telling me to breathe deeply as her mother emerged from the crowd and walked over. She handed over my patient history folder I’d forgotten to collect in the horror show, then went to pay the consultation fee.
Lanlan asked if I needed anything.
‘An ice cream. I’d like an ice cream please.’
‘Doesn’t matter. It’s for my arse.’
I‘d been invited to China by neighbours that lived on the same street when I was a child. Over the years, they’d remained in touch with my family.
I was 23 years old and had just finished a Masters in Creative Writing – something that, in hindsight, isn’t great on the CV.
After two lonely months failing at teaching English to out of work professionals in Barcelona, I took up their offer to ‘give the Far East a go’. China had been immune to the 2008 financial fuck up and it was fast becoming the land of opportunity for fed-up Westerners.
Lindsey and Paul taught at the Queen Elizabeth International School – a prestigious British education school in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province in south China. They’d been there for three years and had bounced around East Asia since their late 20s, starting in Taiwan.
Though they were both certified to teach in the UK, they knew they could have a better quality of life where they were in higher demand. They’d cleared their student debts, visited every country between Nepal and Japan and had three children.
I landed at Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport in November 2011, drunk from the countless dark rums on board the two seven-hour flights from Manchester.
Lindsey and Paul offered a warm welcome, but the kids were on edge, worried by the stranger slumped over his luggage trolley.
The metro had closed and we walked outside to the taxi rank. The queue was thick and long but faster than a whitewater rapid.
‘I’d swallowed three times the prescribed dose of Valium over Pakistan’
Paul guided me into the front of a cab. My Samsonite case and rucksack were thrown in the boot and the family of five crammed in the back, separated by a protective metal barrier.
The driver shouted something and Lindsey slid a piece of paper through a gap like a prisoner sharing escape plans. The driver unfolded it, nodded with an ‘ok, ok, ok, ok’ then tossed it out the window. Presumably, it was an address.
From the airport we shot up onto the S41 expressway and I wound down the window.
The breeze was thick and heavy, like a hot towel wrapped around both nose and mouth.
The kids had already fallen asleep. Paul tried to pass a beer to me in the front through the bars but the spaces were too narrow. As an alternative, he leaned out his window and arched a can around the door frame. A pack of cigarettes followed.
I put my thumb up to the rearview mirror and he screamed over the wind, ‘Go ahead and light up. Those were Chairman Mao’s favourite fags. The national smoke.’
With the can squeezed between my thighs, I tore open the pack of Chunghwa cigarettes – gold embossed on either side with the iconic image of Tiananmen Gate.
The driver nodded enthusiastically. With one hand on the wheel, he offered a lighter and I lit the cigarette. The draw was like 20 Benson and Hedges rolled into one and there was a strong smell of plums in the exhale.
The journey took only 40 minutes but the breeze on the motorway knocked me out in ten. Along with the onboard booze, I’d swallowed three times the prescribed dose of the anti-anxiety drug Valium during a windy patch over Pakistan.
When we pulled up in front of the house around midnight, Paul reached through the passenger window and shook me awake with both hands, ‘Simon…Simon….Simon!’
Lindsey and Paul assisted me up the stairs to my new room while the kids grumbled from behind. I collapsed on the bed, red Toms espadrilles and waxed Barbour jacket still on.
I woke early afternoon from a 14-hour coma. Lindsey, Paul and the children were at the international school less than a mile down the road.
With the house to myself I dragged my case and rucksack upstairs and tipped my belongings on the bed.
I’d had no idea what to pack before I left. Mainly because my entire planning consisted of binge-watching Karl Pilkington on An Idiot Abroad.
I knew homes in the south don’t have central heating and as part of my research, I read expat forums where people wrote: ‘My bones are fucking ice, it’s freezing over here. A heated blanket - in a tropical climate! What. The. Fuck?’
On top of an old school desk in the corner, a rotating halogen heater blasted infrared warmth over the bedroom. To cover all possibilities, I packed clothing for climates from Ibiza lunchtime to camping on Everest.
I decided to check out the house. It had the feel of a drug lord’s villa: Mediterranean, minimalist and open-planned with white marble flooring and high ceilings.
There were two floors. The top level was Lindsey and Paul’s room, which spread across the whole floor. There was an en suite bathroom and a balcony that overlooked the driveway and opposite villas.
On the first floor were three bedrooms – one for each kid – and a large mosaic-tiled wet room at the end of the landing. There were more ceiling fans and air conditioning units than an exclusive Phuket resort. And each window had a shield of insect mesh.
‘England, pints of amber ale, the damp and Oasis gigs were already sliding into the past’
On the ground floor was the kitchen, dining area and sitting room that ran the length of the house in a wide rectangle. A projector hung over a couch. There were more Xbox games and DVDs to satisfy a stoned teenager.
I walked into the living room and froze in front of an enormous poster on the left wall. It was a Pacific-centered world map with China – (which the Chinese call ‘Zhongguo’, the ‘Middle Kingdom’) – smack bang in the centre.
Great Britain was way off to the left, centimetres from the edge. In the corner, in thick white font, ran the words ‘National Geographic - View your world from a new perspective’.
There were 6,000 miles between Lancashire county and Guangdong province. But in a way the miles were irrelevant. I could have been on the fucking moon.
To stop myself from freaking out I kept exploring. At the back of the building was a small yard, enclosed by three high walls and even higher bamboo plants. At the front, a narrow porch with two frayed wicker chairs and an end table in the middle. On top lay a clay dragon ashtray.
Its tail wrapped itself around the edge and the beast’s mouth was open, ready and waiting for ash. The porch was two steps up from the driveway, wide enough for one car. Lindsey didn’t have a driving license, and though Paul did, I would find out later why it was crazy to let him behind a wheel.
I headed back inside to do what everyone does 24 hours after landing someplace – log on to WiFi and get wired in.
Among requests from Emirates asking for a review plus a graduation reminder, my brother had emailed.
Tim hoped I had a safe journey but that ‘this isn’t the fucking Beach’ or ‘time for finding yourself, Leo’.
He’d arranged a training session with a company that helps expats find work abroad, creatively named youworkabroad.com. My appointment was the following day at 9am with a guy named Miles. My brother assured me, ‘He’s English and your age. He’s very keen to meet you 🙂 Hahahahaha.’
Under ‘bye for now dickhead!’ he’d copied and pasted the address of the training in Chinese characters.
Next, I deleted all my social media accounts. The Chinese government has a blanket ban on foreign platforms. Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter all require a VPN to access but I had no interest in getting one yet.
If anyone wanted to reach me, they’d have to compose an email or arrange a Skype call. Both highly unlikely.
England, pints of amber ale, the damp and Oasis gigs were already sliding into the past.
To celebrate my liberation, I tossed my mobile on the couch and went outside to explore.
I walked out the yard, closed the gate and turned right.
Lindsey and Paul’s villa was one of 200 in a gated community of luxury houses and apartment blocks. The house was included as part of the package with the school.
I walked and smoked and it didn’t take long to realize the complex was a maze of concentric circles, dead-end alleyways and grid-lined streets.
Stray cats darted between dustbins foraging in heaps of split garbage bags. Every twenty feet an explosion of rats and mice fanned out across the asphalt.
At the end of a short avenue was the main entrance off Tonghe Middle Road, the artery that led south into the city.
I walked down to the entrance where uniformed patrolmen stood milling around the barriers. Four sat on the steps of the office hut playing cards and sipping from transparent flasks of tea.
The entrance gates were in the style of a Communist military headquarters. Two austere, red brick archways joined at the top to create a giant M.
Running across the length of the front was the name of the community in metallic gold characters. The Chinese five-star red flag flew high, on a gold pole, above a single communist red star.
At first the guards ignored me but that changed when I got closer. They jumped up and cheered as if thanking a generous boss at a Christmas dinner.
‘The guards stopped tending to the drivers to wave in union. A scene from the fucking Wizard of Oz’
The rush of superiority was undeniable and I found myself surprisingly comfortable with my newfound importance.
The guards formed a line to shake my hand for selfies and group shots. Each one was smoking and I was offered a cigarette by a rake-thin boy no older than eighteen.
I accepted and we stood giggling and bonding over our shared addiction. The most we could muster was that I knew Manchester United football team and that China is big.
Traffic soon formed at both barriers and the guards scurried off to man their posts. Residents were getting pissed and honking and there was only so much attention they could give the newest white man in Paradise Peninsula Garden.
I stood for a moment longer, flicked the filter in a gutter then walked back into the complex. The guards stopped tending to the drivers to wave in unison. A scene from the fucking Wizard of Oz.
In the centre of the community was a large outdoor swimming pool.
I perched on a wall to watch.
Residents swam in a frenzy reminiscent of a Jaws attack. Pure chaos.
There was no system and it was impossible to tell if someone was doing lengths, widths, searching for a diving brick, or were trying to find the ladder.
Mothers cradling babies stood chatting in groups while Michael Phelps wannabes ploughed through.
Teenagers dive-bombed as men smoked holding onto the sides, arms splayed, like 1980s kingpins in hot tubs.
A lone lifeguard, dressed in white decorator coveralls, squatted on a chair on a video call.
He was smoking too.
I wasn’t in the mood for a swim anyway and I jumped off the wall and kept walking.
At 100-yard intervals running around the circular road were outside gyms. The steel contraptions worked by using body weight.
They had been installed across the country by the government as ‘adult playgrounds’ to encourage elderly citizens to exercise.
There were apparatuses to stand in and swing your legs back and forth, dip frames and gigantic wheels to turn to exercise the shoulders. They’d been painted bright green and purple frames with yellow bolts, nuts and grills.
‘Rocking back and forth I looked like I was training for a porn scene on a pedalo’
I chose a bike designed to work the lower arms, shoulders and thighs. As I yanked the handlebars toward me the seat lifted, firing my groin forward. I picked up the speed, hypnotised by the rhythm.
Rocking back and forth I looked like I was training for a porn scene on a pedalo. The squeaking of the nuts and bolts attracted the attention of a gardener who peered over a bush then shook his head in disgust.
Suddenly aware that it was my first impression to the local residents, I stopped pumping the bike frame, dismounted, and made my way to the house.
The family were home by the time I returned. Paul was slouched in a wicker chair with a San Miguel and a cigarette on the go.
The dragon was crammed with filters. The three kids could be heard screaming from the outside. I slammed the iron gate to make myself heard and walked toward the patio.
Paul jolted upright, then immediately ripped a can from a six-pack of beer and threw it to me. It was chilled and, given my intense workout, I took a large swig.
‘I’ll get you one of these. It’ll keep your drink chilled. You’ll need it when the weather changes,’ he said.
His can had an insulating neoprene sleeve with the words ‘I drink to make people interesting’ stitched into the fabric.
I slumped in a seat and the wicker stretched and crunched under my weight.
‘Well Simon, that’s another one out. Could. Not. Handle. The. Freedom,’ he said.
‘The Hong Kong Civil Aid Service had to be called for a rescue operation’
He stubbed out his cigarette, lit another, crumpled the empty packet and threw it at a deflated football on the drive.
‘Shame really. I mean the guy only got a bit pissed.’
‘Sorry, Paul, what you talking about?’ I said and snatched a cigarette.
He took a long draw and sighed.
‘I mean. We all like a drink. It was only the wrong place at the wrong time,’ he said. He tapped his cigarette in the ashtray. The dragon was waiting.
Bit by bit Paul gave me more information.
Owen, 42, from Belfast, was the head of history at the school. He’d taken a group of students on a camping trip to Tap Mun, an island in Hong Kong.
He and a teaching assistant were responsible for 12 pupils.
When Owen thought everyone was asleep he’d opened a bottle of baijiu – Chinese rice wine with an ABV over 50 per cent.
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What he didn’t know was that when he passed out, slumped by the dying campfire, two pupils left their tents. They had wanted to go exploring but had soon become lost in the island’s dense forest.
The Hong Kong Civil Aid Service had to be called for a search and rescue operation, which meant the students’ parents finding out.
There were immediate calls for someone to be punished. Owen was summarily dismissed for gross misconduct.
One of the students was diabetic and in a delirious sweat by the time the crew found the lost boys – three miles from the campsite huddled together in a cave.
Within a week of teaching his last history class, Owen had been hired by a local high school as an English teacher. I asked Paul if they’d wanted to know why he left a well-paid job at an international school so quickly.
Paul said, ‘Anyone that looks like him, you, or me… Anyone that’s fucking white isn’t going to have any issues getting a teaching job. They only want the face.’
Lindsey opened the door and said the kids were getting restless. The children were battering each other with exercise books in fits of hunger. We had to go for dinner. Now.
Opposite the international school was a giant car park. Though it was now used for coaches and parents dropping off their children, it had originally been built for a theme park.
The entrance to South Lake Amusement Park was at the back, marked by the national flag and two flaking velociraptors…one was missing a head, the other, smiling.
I did a quick internet search and found the park’s Fantasy Crazy Rollercoaster and Fire Dragon Swirler had failed their safety tests. They were now ‘permanently closed’.
The only ride open was the Outer Space Flying Horse, a single train with six cars. Sections of rusting purple and blue track could be seen from the outside.
A weathered space shuttle in the distance had branches sprouting from the cockpit: ‘STAR ROCKIT’ was not launch-ready.
While a minority of China’s 2,900-odd theme parks generate a profit, at least 70 per cent run at a loss. Sly property developers had recently started viewing theme parks as untapped gold mines, but it has nothing to do with candy floss, big dippers or dodgems.
‘Topless lads drenched in sweat stood behind coal grills flipping 20 sticks at a time’
The appeal lies in the areas of prime land that surrounds many of them. Developers promise local governments increased tourism and more jobs, for a few thousand acres of land at bargain prices to build an amusement park.
The huge discounts proved an open invitation to the classic bait-and-switch - throw up a glorified playground in one corner, and use the rest of the land to build luxury apartments.
I looked around at the many apartment blocks in different stages of construction. Someone, somewhere was making a shitload of money.
The last of the day’s punters were filing out underneath the dinosaurs and golden statues, dangerously similar to Disney characters. Children took selfies holding balloons and cuddly toy prizes.
Lindsey grabbed my sleeve, ‘Simon, as a friend of the family, I recommend you don’t chance it. They won’t have the same safety checks as Universal Studios.’
‘You’re probably right. Why take the risk?’ I said.
On either side of the car park were rows of restaurants. Large groups of families sat round foldaway tables on plastic red stools. Discarded Zhujiang lager bottles were everywhere – on the ground, leant against pushchairs, on stools and the roofs of parked taxis.
Waiters, probably the owners’ kids roped in to help, ran around collecting them in a frenzy.
In the centre of the seating areas were barbecue stalls complete with shelves of prepared meat skewers and pots of sauces and spices. Basting brushes rested across the rims. Topless lads drenched in sweat stood behind the coal grills flipping 20 sticks at a time.
Beside each stall a speaker played hardcore trance music. The families, unphased by the Asian Wigan Pier, chatted as if sat at picnic benches in a country park.
Given the sheer number of restaurants it was impressive to hear all radios tuned to the same station. Clearly a pre-barbecue agreement was in place.
Paul caught me staring at the staff weaving between stools and lunging over tables snatching empties.
‘A big, hefty man was shouting in a thick Liverpudlian accent, “Oi, knobhead! Fucking over here”‘
‘They recycle the bottles, swill them out with soap, then refill them from kegs in the back. For 40 pence a drink, you get used to the taste of sterilizer,’ Paul said.
Over the noise of the chatter, fragments of English broke through. A big, hefty man was shouting in a thick Liverpudlian accent, ‘Oi, knobhead!…Knobhead, fucking over here!’
He was clutching a bottle and pointing at Paul. ‘Yes. You. Knobhead. Where do you think you’re going? Come here.’
Lindsey pointed at the kids in the hope the man would stop swearing but he kept shouting, ‘You lot. Get. The. Fuck. Over. Here.’
‘We’ve been spotted, Lindsey. We’ll have to go over. We’ll just have a couple,’ Paul said.
As we made a beeline for the man – still shouting and still waving – I saw two other foreigners at his table. We sat down and Lindsey instinctively handed out iPhones and an iPad to the children. They were told to play only Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja…no sound, no internet, or else.
The table was covered in empty packets of Super 5 cigarettes, tissues, half-finished bottles of beer and piles of stripped skewers. The mess looked like the result of a KerPlunk tournament at a children’s party that had quickly escalated.
The sweaty Liverpudlian, who’d called us over, had long greased-back white hair. A cigarette hung from his bottom lip. He ordered a round using only hand gestures and English.
‘Six. Six. No. No food. What the fuck is “beer” in Chinese? Six. Yep. You got it chief!’
He turned to the table and said, ‘Just a little heads up folks, avoid those fucking meat stick things. I can already feel the shits coming on.’
‘Oh, that’s not very nice language is it?’ Lindsey said.
She didn’t need to worry though, the children had zoned out, trying to beat each other’s top scores.
‘For no good reason, he had to be duct-taped to a chair and gagged with a sports sock’
Richard, around 50 years old, taught physics at the school. He’d been living in China, or ‘knocking around this fucking place’, for the past fifteen years as a science teacher.
He’d ‘bagged a local’ and ‘given her what they all want’, which meant he’d married a Chinese national and they had two sons.
The other two British expats, Will and Dave, were in their mid 20s and both TAs (Teaching Assistants). They’d arrived two months before me.
Dave was short and stocky. If he were a Lego minifigure he’d be a square train driver or a workman.
Will, sweating heavily, was scrawny with the body of a Twiglet.
Though he sat upright and affected an air of confidence – blowing smoke across the table – I kept thinking of a Justin Bieber music video. He was one step away from a cocky wink and a pout…followed by a punch to the nose.
I briefly explained why I was in Guangzhou, adding that I’d arrived the day before.
‘I can tell you’re brand new with your wide eyes,’ Will said.
That’s odd, I thought, because they were barely open from the jetlag.
‘You from England then, mate?’ Dave said.
‘Yeah, yeah. Guessing by your accent, you too?’ I replied.
‘Yep,’ he said as he opened a fresh pack of cigarettes.
‘Whereabouts?’ I said.
‘Nice one. So am I. Manchester?’ I said.
He looked annoyed. ‘No mate.’
Will said something in Chinese to a young waitress collecting bottles. She giggled and he tapped his cigarette, then winked at Dave.
‘Think you need to get yourself down to Angel Town, mate… Let me think. Hmmmm. I’d recommend number 181,’ Dave said.
‘Yeah, good shout, but she’s got fuck all on 78. You know. Oh…you know,’ Will replied.
They both laughed at the inside joke. Lindsey, visibly annoyed, changed the topic by asking how they were settling in at the school.
Will, with his gormless face and McLovin build, reminded me of those kids who are the butt of every joke.
They were great distractions when recess became boring and someone, for no good reason, had to be duct-taped to a chair, gagged with a sports sock, and left in a storage closet. To add insult to injury, they’d be punished for turning up late for class when they finally managed to free themselves.
Richard lifted his chair and angled himself toward me. ‘Simon…fucking answer me this.’
‘You came because you really want to teach English.
‘It’s been a deep passion of yours to teach little Chinese kids their ABCs,’ Richard said.
He emphasised each word to stress his sarcasm.
‘No. No. I don’t plan to teach,’ I said.
‘Yeah mate, yeah, yeah, they all say that. Unless you’re with an international company, you’ll teach. It’s inevitability,’ he said.
I was about to call him Agent Smith but Lindsey interrupted: ‘He’s seeing how it goes. He flew here on business class. On Emirates. You know, free champagne and all that jazz.’
‘Thanks for that, Lindsey. It was an air miles thing. Had to use them up,’ I said.
Richard didn’t respond. His face fell from smugness to scorn and settled on mild envy.
Paul broke the lull by signalling a waiter. A boy in Puma shorts, Crocs clogs and an Apple Genius t-shirt strolled over.
‘My arrival, from their home country, was a threat to any mysteriousness they’d acquired’
He was casual and clearly trying to remain unfazed by the presence of foreigners at a local barbeque. He demonstrated this by using one of our lighters then threw it back onto the table into the mess.
Paul attempted to order in Mandarin but was interrupted by the Chinese Steve Jobs – tired of foreigners butchering his language.
Five minutes later, two paper plates piled high with dumplings slid onto the table. Steam rose off the boiling juice that leaked out the dough casing.
A handful of wooden chopsticks wrapped in plastic followed.
The kids tore off the sheaths and, using one chopstick each, stabbed the dumplings. They hammered each one into a saucer of black vinegar before cramming it into their mouths.
I looked at Lindsey for an explanation but she said, ‘They’ve given up trying to learn the culture’.
The evening passed with Richard giving his views on everything about China. Will and Dave, either side, were his disciples. They would try to contribute but were either talked over or dismissed with, ‘Ha. Yep. Yep. Yep. That’s what I thought when I first arrived.’
The car park TED talk included Richard’s thoughts on the country’s economy, the Chinese approach to relationships, several dynasties and a brief look at social etiquette. No one asked for them, yet in the humidity no one bothered to challenge him.
‘Expats were here to flee Western living, the mediocre weather and their mediocre lives’
I would drop in and out of sleep catching snippets. Most lectures began: ‘The thing is, the Chinese are X when it comes to X…’ All points ended with an unquestionable: ‘I’m telling you, that’s the way it is. You’ll see for yourself.’
By the time we got up to leave I understood why Lindsey had made the business-class comment. And why it had irritated Richard.
From the other side of the table, in the dim lighting of the car park, I could see the three expats shared something in common.
They each had the face of someone that had had their fair share of being made outcasts back home. Of not being listened to. Of not being taken seriously. Of having no presence.
My arrival, especially from their home country, was a threat to any mysteriousness and uniqueness they’d acquired.
I’d entered a place where outsiders could carve out a world for themselves, bullshit and ‘bag a local’. But with every new wide-eyed foreigner that touched down, they became less and less special.
In a country of 1.3billion people, there was only a smattering of highly trained foreign professionals, from traders and doctors to architects and diplomats.
The majority of the ‘wàiguó rén’ (外国人, literally foreign country person) were English teachers. Young dropouts and middle-aged divorcés who had come either straight from university or nearing retirement.
The international school carried status but I would come to learn many of the other expats were here to flee Western living – the high prices, the mediocre weather and their mediocre lives.
Telling the three expats about my business class ticket meant they knew I had the means to get by but most importantly get out. China was not a last resort but a casual consideration.
I was in the same waters as they were, but not the same boat, and I did have a paddle.
I didn’t need to swallow being an English teacher for a new life or new me.
But what I didn’t know at the time, sat in that car park on my second night was that becoming a writer in the Middle Kingdom would take me to hell and back.
On the walk back to the complex I asked Paul about Angel Town.
‘It’s a massage parlour. Down the road. Opposite McDonald’s. If you end up going, don’t go alone.
‘Forget about that for now. You’ve got a big day tomorrow.’
I woke early the next day for my training to pass a job interview in China. The family had already left and I went downstairs to find something to eat.
On a kitchen unit there was a note against a plastic steamer.
It read: ‘Thought you should try baozi (bread bun) for breakfast. Kinda like an Asian sandwich. Good luck today. 🙂 x.’
I lifted the lid. Inside were three large buns stacked in a pyramid like meringues. I snatched one, careful not to burn myself on the vapour.
On the underside was a sheet of parchment paper to pull off. The last thing I’d eaten was a grilled chicken with sundried tomato tapenade (halal of course) on the 33,000 feet descent into Guangzhou.
I rammed the bun in. It was was doughy, slightly sweet and packed with a barbecue pork centre.
It was the perfect snack to soak up booze.
Mid-chomp, someone behind screamed. I turned to see a woman standing in the kitchen pointing a mop at my face.
Paul and Lindsey had mentioned that their āyí (阿姨 – an affectionate term for a cleaner that meant ‘auntie’) would be coming today.
Assuming that I was safe for at least an hour, I’d come downstairs wearing only a pair of boxer shorts.
Gorging on my Asian sandwich, I hadn’t noticed she’d let herself in.
‘Ahhhhhh, Semen?’ she said.
I swallowed a chunk of bun and said: ‘Sorry, what?’
‘Semen!’ she repeated.
‘After a few more thumps, she retrieved a mop and washed away my arseprint’
Catching the two syllables I said, ‘Simon’.
She ignored my correction, opened her handbag and took a paper bag out then shoved it into my chest.
She motioned to eat with her hands and kept repeating the word ‘chī’ (吃, eat).
I opened the bag and let out a ‘Jesus. What the fuck is going on here? What’s this?’
The ayi nodded with a look of encouragement, ignoring the fact I was half-naked, shivering from the AC and now cornered.
Inside the bag were four oily, orange chicken claws. Two were curled into a fist, the rest were stuck in a high-five position – the nails remained on all.
I looked at her, then back into the bag. I did this twice while thinking of an excuse not to sample the popular Chinese snack.
She edged closer, hand outstretched reaching into the bag.
She grabbed a claw, crunched flat its waving gesture and moved closer.
With inches to spare, my mobile started ringing upstairs. I leant back as the claw tickled my lips and made a phone shape with my hand.
Sprinting across the dining room I slipped and landed face-first on the bottom step.
The ayi had mopped the floor as I’d been eating my bun.
My damp arse stuck out in the doggy position and I had to roll to the side to uncrumple myself.
She ran over with her arms above her head and howled, ‘Semen?…Semen! Semen. Semen!?’
I raised my hand to stop her from coming any closer.
Though the blood had drained from my face, I still had some self-respect and couldn’t face being aided to my feet in now see-through Calvin Kleins.
My crying didn’t help and sensing my shame and pain she stamped the floor like she was scolding it.
Hobbling up the stairs still holding my bag of feet I tried to look unhurt and held up a hand in the ‘okay’ gesture.
After a few more thumps on the tiles for good measure she waved back, retrieved a mop and washed away my arseprint.
When I got to my room, I sat on the edge of my bed and vomited into a wastepaper bin.
Miles had left a voice message saying he couldn’t wait to connect.
I stood on the road outside the complex trying to hail a taxi.
There are around 16,000 working across the city, owned by five main companies. Each firm is ranked in a hierarchy of fairness, cleanliness and conversational ability – decided by how many English phrases a cabbie can recite.
The lemon yellow cars (Guangjun Taxi Group) are operated by local Cantonese and regarded as the best for their knowledge of the city and reliability.
Below them are companies with solid reputations. Those included the burgundy saloon cars, modelled on the London black hackney carriage. A hundred were introduced for the 2010 Asian Paralympic Games and were a rare but comforting sight for the homesick Brit.
The worst taxis were green, infamous for hilariously indirect routes and fleecing punters using a variety of methods.
The top three cons were rigging the speed of the meter so it ran at a much faster rate, switching the customer’s money for a fake note (then accusing you) and setting a price off meter which was far higher than the normal fee.
The first available cab swerved to the curb.
I got in and the driver pulled down the flag down.
The red plastic screen bearing the characters 空车 (literally ‘Empty car’) clicked off and the fare began.
At the end of the recorded welcome message, first in Chinese, then English, it was hard to tell if the woman said, Thankyou or Fuck You.
‘Haze hung in the city like a swept room in an abandoned warehouse, all dust and no ventilation‘
Without looking, the driver pulled into the middle lane and we headed toward the city.
My father had visited China at least 20 times for his footwear business. He would spend month-long stints seeing clients at factories spread out across Guangdong.
The province earned the nickname The Factory of the World on account of it being the engine of the country’s manufacturing boom in the 1990s.
With an economy the size of Spain, if it was Made In China, it was probably made in Guangdong.
In an effort to avoid the pollution and the humidity, my father always returned paler than when he left, yet his shirts looked like they’d been used to scrub the walls of a salt mine.
He’d speak of being soaked with sweat walking to the taxi from the hotel lobby.
‘Let me know if you spot the sun over there,’ he texted as the Emirates Airbus A380 left Manchester.
Weaving through southbound traffic on Guangzhou North Avenue I looked out the window.
I was under the great dome of malaise my father had talked about. Haze hung in the city like a swept room in an abandoned warehouse, all dust and no ventilation.
The air was stifling and oppressive – the air of a Salford pub pre-smoking ban. Grey wrapped itself around skyscrapers and peaked in a copper band overhead.
China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment has a reputation for falsifying or distorting pollution data in order to not impact the factory operations and therefore economic growth.
Embassies across Guangzhou had installed their own air quality monitors and regularly post updates on their websites.
When I arrived the UK Consular posted on their social media account: ‘Health advice. Minimise damage. Save your lungs. Use a treadmill.’
The taxi pulled up on the edge of 50 residential towers.
I paid the fare, stepped out of the taxi and took a deep breath.
Youworkabroad.com was in Huangpu district, in a cluster of beige apartment blocks.
I walked in the centre of eight high-density towers, each one 40 storeys high.
The windows were tinted green and from the third floor up, protective wire rope ran the length of the balconies.
Laundry hung from multi-coloured plastic hangers on overhanging poles but the complex was deserted and I was worried I’d fallen for a fake company.
The most common expat scam – not unique to China – is the ‘upfront recruitment service fee’, a bogus deposit recruiters charge jobseekers for their services which includes providing the ‘necessary’ documents to apply for jobs.
After 15 minutes of buzzing intercoms for the wrong flats, I panicked.
I called Miles and he guided me to the only tower I hadn’t tried.
The lift was like something out of Saw – more cargo elevator than for human beings.
The lift pinged at 38 and the doors opened.
Before I stepped onto the floor someone screamed: ‘Friend. Friend. Get in here. Over here buddy.’
Miles was stood in a doorway, both thumbs up, with the smile of Sid – the idiotic ground sloth from Ice Age.
‘He’d gone for the opium den attendant look, wearing an elaborate silk jacket with red dragon patterning’
The lift was less than three feet from his door, yet he waved me in with the enthusiasm of a lonely neighbour.
It became clear on entering youworkabroad.com that it was an apartment, not ‘Office 1306C’ as the address stated.
In what should have been a living room, two girls sat typing, heads down, at laptops. They didn’t acknowledge my presence and Miles didn’t introduce them.
Aside from a few filthy kettles, rice cookers and Miles’s IKEA desk, the room was empty.
From the waist down he wore baggy white linen pants with black Birkenstock sandals. From the waist up, he’d gone for the opium den attendant look, wearing an elaborate silk jacket with red dragon patterning.
He showed me to an empty room in the back of the apartment. It was smaller than a prison cell and equally bare. Propped against a wall was a stained mattress.
‘What’s that for?’ I said.
‘Oh, that’s for the girls. You’ll find out later. It’s big over here.’
To the right there was a tiny square window. I walked over and clutched the wires and pushed my nose into a gap. A giant egg slicer.
I inhaled deeply. Back in the warmth of the sauna.
A break in the apartment blocks revealed the rest of the neighbourhood. It was a SimCity expansion pack rinsed by a teenager overloaded on Monster. If it wasn’t being built, it was being demolished.
Green safety netting draped over residential towers under construction. Phone numbers ran the length of 20 storeys for prospective buyers. Crammed around the towers were pink shanty blocks no higher than ten storeys.
The haze, the funk and the humidity saturated it all.
Minus the suburbs, Guangzhou’s urban area alone has over 11million inhabitants – the equivalent of packing the entire population of Greece into an area the size of Suffolk county.
‘Get on the floor, please. It’s time for role play’
I inhaled once more for another stifling hit then turned to face the room.
Miles had moved right behind me.
Due to the height difference between us I was looking at his chest.
I felt like a nervous Rose Dawson on the bow of the Titanic. He was a socially inept Jack.
He grinned and looked down: ‘Simon. I think it’s time to play.’
I glanced over at the filthy mattress and wondered if I’d been tricked, but from behind his back he produced a wad of A3 flash cards.
‘Get on the floor, please. It’s time for role play,’ he said.
‘This is a green ball’, Miles said, pointing to a picture on one of his battered flashcards.
He’d instructed me to sit on the floor while he demonstrated the ‘perfect, pleasant and pleasing’ interview lesson. The three Ps.
I sat, in my tight Ted Baker suit, crossed-leg on the dirty tiles. Miles told me to look enthusiastic and delighted ‘like a pupil full of wonderment and awe’.
I told him no as firmly as possible, but he left the room telling me to ‘get ready to soak it all up’.
Within seconds he kicked open the door shouting: ‘Well hello my children.’
He was ecstatic, wide-eyed and possibly drugged.
I turned around looking for other pupils in an effort to wind him up but he continued.
‘Hello. My name is Miles. You. You. Try. Say. Miiiiiiiiles.’
My jaw, and pride, hit the floor. The look on my face was a shocked goldfish.
He repeated the instruction but this time froze his smile like a Goosebumps horror doll.
‘Miles,’ I said, in the strongest Liam Gallagher accent I could muster.
‘Woah little guy, that is great. Your English very good,’ he said.
‘I’m from near Manchester. Have you heard of a town called Bury?’ I said.
Miles continued in his hyper-amazed Steve Irwin character, playing four more games using the flashcards.
‘He threw himself on the floor and stared up like a Beagle waiting to be taken on a walk’
When he asked me to pick the picture with the three red balls, he insisted I point to a few wrong pictures first and watch how he encouraged the pupil to try again.
He was becoming my theatre coach.
‘Ahhhh. Shucks. Not quite right, buddy. Give it another try fella,’ he said.
The session ended with a song. It was based on the I Love You song of Barney & Friends, used to wave goodbye to viewers.
Miles put his hands on his hips like the giant purple dinosaur and sang: ‘Hello you, hello me… We’re a happy family. How are you?…What’s your name? Won’t you say you love me?’
I was forced to stand to learn the hand gestures that went with the song.
He sang louder and danced around the room. He broke mid-song: ‘Remember you’re a little Chinese pupil. Stay in character.’
‘I’m trying Miles,’ I said, hopping and jumping opposite him.
He moved like a garden fairy that had snorted too much cocaine.
Once I’d nailed the lyrics and dance routine, I thought about jumping out the window.
Miles gave me two thumbs and said ‘great effort little one.’
I was now to play the teacher.
He threw himself on the floor and stared up like a Beagle waiting to be taken on a walk. The head tilt and vacant expression were fucking stupid.
After three false starts which involved Miles making me re-enter the room with ‘more love’, I made it through the lesson.
Miles played the role of a stunned Chinese child with Daniel Day-Lewis commitment. He even did an accent which, though probably racist, did make the whole ordeal feel authentic.
‘No. That’s not a green ball. It’s a banana, Miles,’ I said.
Try again you fucking idiot, I thought.
I would have been more understanding but his IQ was concerning. Miles’s character would take years to learn the difference between a banana and a balloon.
During the Barney song and dance rip-off, he crossed over into Rain Man territory. I had to guide his hands into a waltz position and dance with him.
By the time we finished, it was after 11.
My indoctrination had lasted two hours.
Miles patted me on the back and led me into the main room: the living room.
The two girls were filling flasks with green tea from a pot in the corner, eyes never making contact with me or each other. The twins from The Shining.
‘Feel ready?’ he said.
‘I think I need to go over the dance steps once more at home. I’m not sure what just happened.’
He didn’t clock my sarcasm.
‘Remember to establish a good rapport with your students. Do lots of high fives’
‘Simon, you’ll be fine. I’ve lined you up an interview at a school. You’re on at 12.’
‘12? Today,’ I said.
He put his hands together in a praying position.
‘Remember to establish a good rapport with your students. Do lots of high fives and give stickers as praise.’
‘I don’t have any stickers on me,’ I said.
‘No problem. Give them smiles instead’, he said.
‘Thanks,’ I said.
Before I left the flat I asked how many training sessions he does a week.
‘Probably four a day. Now go. Go, go, go. Show them what you’ve learnt.’
The school Miles had arranged my interview at was in another district, six miles away, south of the Pearl River.
The taxi pulled up outside a building that looked like both a Toys ‘R’ Us and a prison.
I paid the fare and got out.
The school walls were painted with zebra stripes and rainbows. The security cage around the playground gave the place the feel of a sex offenders’ rehabilitation facility. That, or a children’s zoo.
I walked across the rubber flooring, stepping on badly painted lions and tigers, and into the reception.
Within seconds of arriving, someone spotted me as they crossed the corridor.
He approached side on, smoking in a half crouch. Cautious yet intense.
‘I’m an Australian. An Australian civilian. It’s alright. It’s alright. It’s all been approved’, he said, holding his arms wide open as if ready to catch a Swiss exercise ball.
‘Why are you here? What did you do? What were you sent for? Take a look around mate’
‘I’m here for the teaching job,’ I said.
‘I’m a master. I’m Frank. Frank from Brisbane. From Australia. I’ve been here three years,’ he said.
‘Hi Frank. How’s it going? I’m Simon.’
He put both hands on his head as if he had a migraine.
‘Why are you here? What did you do? What were you sent for? Take a look around mate.’
Another foreigner stepped out a room at the end of the corridor. He started pinning crayon drawings to a corkboard.
‘I mean. Check him out. Do you see him? What a fucking freak. He looks like an ape that’s into Star Wars.’
Frank whistled and waved.
The man turned, smiled and waved back.
‘Look. Look. Dreams do come true. Shrek does exist. What a retard,’ Frank said.
He added, ‘I’ll tell you one thing. This place is a real mess. It’s an asylum. People come but they don’t understand, Simon. They don’t understand.’
‘He slapped the man on his bald head as he passed and giggled at the sound the impact made’
A middle-aged woman in a black suit appeared from a side office.
Frank stopped as she walked up to us. He skipped off down the hallway shouting ‘YOLO, mutha fucka!’
He slapped the man hard on his bald head as he passed, giggled at the sound the impact made, then disappeared into a classroom.
‘Frank is a happy man. Welcome please. I’m Principal Carol Chan. You here for job.’
‘For the interview,’ I said.
‘You have a demonstration lesson?’ she said.
‘I’ve got a song and a game. For the students.’
‘The children love to learn a new song,’ she replied.
My mind drifted to Miles in his grimy apartment, dressed like a Chinese Michael Palin, singing the ‘I Love You’ song.
I wondered if he’d ever been assaulted.
‘Stop. Asking. Me. To. Show. You. The. Fucking. Red. Balloon,’ a broken expat would cry as he battered Miles with a flashcard.
The Principal broke my fantasy.
‘Ok. Mr Simon. You ready now?’ she said.
We headed down the corridor. Past a strip of hooks for coats and bags. Under cutouts of sunflowers and paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling. And stepping round a stack of blue stools and a pile of crash mats.
‘Heads were twisted to face the front and jackets wrenched off’
‘Your class is waiting in here,’ the lady said.
Mrs Chan twisted the handle on a door marked ‘Sunshine Place’.
I shuffled in behind her into the room.
‘Miles, you’re a right twat,’ I muttered.
‘I do not understand,’ Mrs Chan said.
‘I love your bright mats,’ I said but was already shaking with nerves.
Covering the entire floor area, more than 40 five-year-olds sat cross-legged on multicoloured foam mats.
‘Here is your class. I guess it is bigger than what you are used too’, Mrs Chan said.
‘Just a tad,’ I said.
Chinese assistants went between the rows dragging the kids into place by their tiny yellow jackets.
Each child had a flannel towel tucked into the back of their collar like a mini cape, there so the assistants could easily wipe the neckline and hair clean of sweat.
Heads were twisted to face the front and jackets either wrenched on or off.
I stepped to the front, tie removed, top two buttons undone, name card around my neck.
Before Principal Chan had finished the introduction, I started to sing.
It took me a few lines to realize that, due to nerves, I was shouting not singing.
Messing up the lyrics Miles taught me I sounded like a very friendly but insecure bouncer.
‘WHAT’S YOUR NAME?…MY NAME IS SIMON!…HOW ARE YOU?…WON’T YOU SAY YOU LOVE ME. I LOVE YOU!’
The children stared; the assistants had a look of concern, but were clearly thrilled by the sight of an expat facing the reality of making easy money teaching in China.
Principal Chan didn’t help by staying next to me, gawping at my sweating face.
I couldn’t remember the rest of the song and tried to recall the Barney & Friends tune. But I hadn’t seen the show for years.
I was now calling to be rescued: ‘My name is Simon…Hello…Hello!’ Where’s my happy family?…’
The assistants made noises similar to the lyrics in an effort to get the children to sing.
‘Ma naama is Saaaa man… Hell oh… Hell…oh!’
Outnumbered by ten to one, I was competing against a gang of Asian Teletubbies.
Rather than just give up I stepped up the improvisation.
I knelt down and, singing, laid the flashcards before me and gestured in a sweeping motion.
‘Come with me…and you’ll be, in a world of pure imagination…’
I even did a few twists and turns like Willy Wonka.
The children dragged themselves closer and formed a semi-circle.
‘If you want to view paradise…simply look around and view it, anything you want to, do it…’
But my voice wobbled when the pupils started to smile.
Their mouths were full of black, broken teeth.
Some were so rotten they were worn down to a nub butdu many of the children had gaps of brown gums where baby incisors should be.
‘Parents have the cash for dental care but not the knowledge’
What would the average primary school teacher back home say? Social Services would be paying a visit, and, let’s face it, Jamie Oliver would launch another anti-junk food campaign.
I knew China had had some growing pains during its rise to economic giant.
Only up until the last 30 years living and education standards were, on the whole, pretty poor. Chinese people not only lacked the basic knowledge of oral health care but also the money to afford that care.
During Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, between 1966 – 1976, millions missed out on going to school. The leader closed the nation’s classrooms and campuses calling on the youth to help root out intellectuals, doctors and teachers who Mao believed weren’t revolutionary enough.
Quality oral healthcare never really became a social priority.
When Mao’s own doctor suggested he use a toothbrush, the chairman responded with, ‘A tiger never brushes his teeth. Why are a tiger’s teeth so sharp?’
Mao died with green teeth having preferred to swill his mouth out with tea then eat the leaves.
With the rapid rise of the middle class, parents now have the cash to spoil their kids with sweets but not the knowledge of dental hygiene.
I finished my demonstration with several quickfire games of ‘point to the right flash card’.
The children’s English was worse than my Chinese and I found myself having to mime the objects to be understood. ‘Ice cream’ and ‘Kite’ created a lot of problems.
Principal Chan stepped in before I could get going on a goodbye song and asked to speak with me in her office.
I was expecting a dressing down that began with: ‘You people are all the same. You come to our country and think you can…’
‘All staff is to treat students with love and patience and must not punish them physically’
But as we sat she pulled out a wad of contracts from a drawer. There must have been a hundred. She pinched the top one and slid it over.
‘You look nervous, Mr Simon. It is okay. You sing very good. We do not say no.’
‘This is the Zenith Kindergarten & International Nursery Employment Agreement. Miles send your passport copy and resume,’ she said.
I scanned the pages.
I would be employed as an ‘English Master’ with a salary of RMB15,000 a month.
My hours were 8am to 5.30pm each day and I was to start immediately.
Several clauses at the end of the contract stood out:
- All staff is to treat students with love and patience and must not punish them physically.
- If typhoon number three or red rainstorm signal is hoisted, teaching staff must return to work as normal.
- Teaching Masters should observe the Prevention of Bribery Ordinance and should not receive presents, money or ‘lai see’ [money packets] from students or parents.
Attached to the contract was a calendar listing the school’s upcoming events. Attendance of each one was compulsory.
The Great Annual Teacher Appreciation Dinner was not until July.
I’d never been a Master before.
I signed the contract and was given my first task.
My first job as an English Master was to help prepare the ‘Sunshine Place’ for the children’s naptime.
Traditional Chinese Medicine is keen on keeping the body balanced (think the Yin and Yang symbol).
Around midday, your body apparently experiences a period of quietness and rest.
To keep harmony within your body, it is advisable to take a nap to restore the energy. Following an hour-long lunch, the children have an hour-long nap.
Miles’s spare mattress in his apartment and ‘You’ll understand later’ suddenly made sense.
My job was to help build a makeshift dormitory. Tens of tiny stackable naptime beds were laid out, each complete with a pillow and mini duvet.
Five other expats entered and fanned out to form a circle. The bald man I’d seen in the corridor smiled and waved from across the classroom.
I felt like I was part of a cult and an accusation away from a MailOnline story.
Frank shouted from across the room, now full with kids tucked into their mini beds, ‘Mate, wait till you hear this. This is the way the fucking world ends!’
‘A Scottish girl led a dance routine using Hanson’s MMMBop’
The expats clapped three times in unison. And then it started, softly at first then gradually getting louder: ‘Heal the world…make it a better place, for you and for me and the entire human race.’
They continued: ‘There are people dying. If you care enough for the living…’
It was either a co-ordinated expat joke or a humiliating job requirement.
Either way, I wanted no part of it and hummed quietly like an ignorant footballer during the national anthem.
After naptime I was asked to give the children of a class of four-year-olds Western names. It was a common way to initiate new staff and helped them to bond with the pupils.
I started sensibly, with Tom, James, Matthew, Mary, Olivia and Alice but soon lost interest.
I looked down the queue at the rest of the 30-odd kids waiting for the white man to rename them.
The next kid stepped forward.
I went with what I know.
Names flowed: Gerard, Peter, Thomas, Carmel, Eileen, Kostas, Fotini, Rena, Popi.
‘I would be master of wiping arses and playing the dancing clown’
Speed trumped sense and I rattled through my aunts, uncles, both Irish and Greek sides.
In thirteen years’ time, a group of 18-year-olds would be applying to universities abroad. On application forms alongside ‘Name’ they’d write Carmel Zhao, Thomas Li, Rena Yang or Popi Huang.
The following day, bored and wedged into a child’s chair desk in an empty classroom, I looked up Miles’s website.
Youworkabroad.com guaranteed their service gave, ‘access to a wide range of excellent international employers, more importantly secures a position that will diversify your resume, opening your options, expanding your experience and offering you an amazing opportunity…’
The ‘expanding experiences’ and ‘amazing opportunity’ were hard to put a finger on.
So far, forgetting YOLO Frank, I’d met Hanna, a 40-year-old Estonian woman who’d pull kids down hallways by the hood of their jackets.
And there was also Daniel, the South African transvestite. He’d fled Cape Town to escape charges of molesting a 13-year-old Malawian girl. Something he very casually admitted after Michael Jackson karaoke.
But ignoring the variety of expats, I soon realised I there’d be very little actual teaching.
I would be a master of wiping arses, singing the alphabet and playing the dancing clown.
The RMB15,000 each month meant standing at the playground gates at 8am each morning just to wave the kids into school. Principal Chan said it ‘showed face’ to the parents.
The greeting was followed by a warm-up session. A Scottish girl named Zoe led a dance routine using Hanson’s MMMBop.
‘Mmmbop, ba duba dop
Ba du bop, ba duba dop.’
There’s a lot of dancing to being a teacher, I thought.
I quit Zenith Kindergarten & International Nursery after four days.
I handed out Miles’s flashcards as leaving presents for my Greek and Irish class.
I was willing to put up with anything else to make it as a writer.
Within two months of leaving Zenith Kindergarten I’d completely given up any idea of becoming an English teacher.
I’d eventually found work at an expat magazine called Paper, but not before a few last teaching gigs.
A standout was WhyVille Education – an after-school academy for teenagers to improve their English.
I walked out after three weeks, having almost punched an overweight South Korean.
‘Billy’, or fat Billy as I wrote in my class planner, was sat at the back doing his usual routine: playing with his mobile underneath the desk then looking up to nod at random moments.
Rather than ask him to stop, this lesson, I decided to confiscate the phone. It was a risky move given WhyVille’s customer base was new-money families whose spoilt children were performing poorly in school.
Each morning, the boss reminded us that students were only to be praised, never punished. Parents were paying for quick improvement, not steady progress.
Within minutes of taking Billy’s mobile, he’d pulled out another from his pocket and began to watch videos on Youku – the Chinese version of YouTube. The volume was turned to full.
I confiscated that but he raised me an iPad…followed by a handheld PlayStation.
I looked at my desk – now resembling a hoard of stolen electronics – looked up at Fat Billy, told him to lose some fucking weight, then walked out.
I once asked the boss, an Indonesian woman called Fanny Hua, how she came up with the name WhyVille.
Her reply: ‘Because “ville” is French for town and this school is the town where pupils ask “why”.’
Her bullshit answer left me confused for days, until I found out the real reason.
Whyville.net, established in 1999, is a leading American online educational platform with over seven million users.
Fanny’s defence for what was essentially trademark infringement was as ridiculous as calling a new phone company ‘Apple’ – because people like the colour green and apples are green.
I discovered Paper magazine one afternoon as I was taking shelter in a Starbucks. A tropical storm was sweeping across the province and was currently unloading over Guangzhou.
The coffeeshop was outside Gangding metro station, on a street known among expats as Computer Street. Imagine a row of electrical goods stores: each one overstocked, eight storeys high and selling every chipped, unlocked, and unblocked device on and off the market.
Inside Starbucks I sat thumbing through a pile of English-language magazines and newspapers collected from empty tables.
At the top was That’sPRD, a modern, well-produced monthly full of features, reviews and listings, similar to that was an A3-sized fortnightly called CityWeekend.
There was InTheRed, an over-ambitious poor man’s iD for the LGBTQ community, the GZMorningPost, a flimsy weekly newspaper and README a new middle-of-the-road lifestyle publication.
Toward the bottom was the GWIC Gazette, a glossy produced for members of the Guangzhou’s Women’s International Club, and Paper magazine: basic on design but cheeky, youthful and on trend.
I emailed the editors of each one asking about any writing opportunities.
I kept thinking of dancing to MMMBop in front of 100 children at 8:30am.
I’d take anything – full time, freelance, features, food reviews or fashion. I polished a short story I’d written on my MA course and attached it to each message.
Ten minutes after the last email was sent, my mobile rang.
‘Errr, nihao?’ I said.
‘Yeah fucking nihao to you too. It’s Mark, from Paper. What areas you wanna write?’ he said.
We were somewhere over the Pearl River when Mark lost it. I remember saying something like ‘try to calm down, mate, take one of the blue Valiums…’
And suddenly he began whacking the back of the driver’s seat, rolling around on the floor saying, ‘I’m going to kill this beast’.
It was 3am and we were on the way to Party Pier – a waterfront strip of newly built clubs, bars and restaurants.
Mark, full of low-grade cocaine and Hennessy green tea cocktails, thought we were supposed to be going to his flat.
Fifteen minutes earlier in another bar, he’d been arguing with the owner, calling him a c**t before we left.
Jimmy, a Shenzhen local who dressed like Vanilla Ice, had decided he’d rather stay and entertain a newly hired waitress than go with the two of us to Party Pier.
Mark was furious by the rejection, not the fact Jimmy’s pregnant wife was also in the bar at the time he was all over his new staff member.
‘Get out and fackin’ run me ol’ son. The twat is on to the police’
As we drove past Mark’s complex and turned onto Liede bridge, my Mark woke up. He locked on me: wide-eyed, slack-jawed, drip white. The look of a man whose dreams were the stuff of nightmares.
The lights of the river bank buildings came into view as we crossed the three-mile overpass. To the right, the 600 metre-high Canton Tower rose from the south bank, pinned in the middle like a stretched bow tie.
The twisting structure pulsated with fluorescent nodes that wrapped the entire lattice body…contractors had taken inspiration from a spiral rainbow lolly.
Mark gazed out the window, pushing his forehead into the glass and giggling. By the time he turned around his haunted face had shifted to that of a child on nitrous oxide.
The giggling was even higher now breaking into a wheeze.
Then he stopped and let out a soft cry at some sick image in his mind. A cry from the depths.
Gripping at either side of the headrest, he tried to reach the driver’s head but his wrists were too chubby.
When the driver failed to stop, Mark tried rolling out the car. I reached over and snatched his wrist with both hands while he screamed and hung out of the taxi.
Mark was 6’ 2”, stocky…and drunk. At 5’ 7” I was a child trying to reel in a Great White.
The driver, screaming also, stopped the car.
Mark reached up and gripped the doorframe shouting: ‘Let’s get it on, mofo.’
But before he had chance to pull himself inside, I let go of my grip and he slumped onto the asphalt.
I slammed the door as he was trying to do a backward roll.
I didn’t want to get involved and, instead, chose to proofread the latest draft of the magazine I now worked for.
I’d written a piece on the ‘Top Five Places for Irish Coffee’ and was keen to see how the art desk had laid it out.
They’d gone for a grid design – two rows, three images on each one. The mugs in each box had been cut out, which, I had to admit, added a professional, arty touch to the recommendations.
I didn’t have a name credit, however, and I started arguing with myself whether it was my fault for forgetting to ask. It could have been a house style thing but in my current situation, it felt a minor issue.
‘When Mighty Joe Young realised this, he wrenched off the handles and threw them into the river’
Mark was stood on the bonnet pounding on the windshield like a mountain gorilla in heat. The chest-beating didn’t look out of place at all.
He jumped off the bonnet and landed in a clumsy Marvel superhero pose.
The driver clanged the bars with his Thermos. I looked up from the page I was reading. He began pointing at his mobile with one hand and shielding his head with the other.
Mark was trying to open the driver’s door, but the driver had pushed the locks down making us visitors at a Safari Park.
When Mighty Joe Young realised this, he began wrenching off the door handles and throwing them over the bridge railings into the Pearl River.
‘There goes another one mutha fucka,’ he shouted.
I began to monitor his movements more closely when he started rocking the car back and forth, like some over-the-hill rugby player trying to prove he’d still make a reliable flanker.
The swaying was quite exciting but it didn’t last long as he vanished from view.
He reappeared in the rearview mirror.
Mark was using the trunk to cut lines of cocaine. He’d slam his face into the metal and with each hit drag his nose across the powder.
‘Fucking now. Go now. Seize the fucking day!’ Carpe diem!’ I said to the driver.
He swung his door open and, stumbling and tripping, sprinted down the road.
Mark howled as he saw the man running for his life, yelling into his handset.
‘Get out and fackin’ run, me ol’ son. The twat is on to the police.
‘But, Simon, do not worry, we’ll get another taxi off the bridge.’
Mark, 31, from Wimbledon, had been in Guangzhou for eight years. He was the current editor-in-chief of Paper magazine but survived taking a number of positions.
His last venture was managing an expat football tournament called the Guangzhou League of Vagrants.
He blamed the end of that on a number of expat websites that kept hiking advert fees.
‘He had no real interest in journalism and had taken the role for complimentary dinners and party passes’
It could have been that or the fact he’d knocked out his kit sponsor in the middle of a charity football match…for children with congenital heart defects.
He had no real interest in journalism and had taken the role for complimentary dinners, concert tickets, party passes and promoting whatever new businesses his friends had set up.
Mark’s boss paid him RMB15,000 each month, which included the budget to hire freelancers for variety and quality.
To keep spending down to a minimum, Mark would take on the majority of the features, news and listings each edition – nearly 30,000 words in total.
Pay amounted to anything between RMB2,000-3,000 each month depending on how much I was assigned. And that depended on how lazy or greedy he was feeling.
I’d reached out at a good time. Mark was starting a DJing venture on the side called Soul Fusion.
He wanted to ease up some of his workload to focus on marketing and advertising – designing Soul Fusion spreads and inserts to slip into Paper.
Of all the expats I’d come across, Mark was the most racist and least understanding.
On arriving at his apartment one afternoon, I witnessed one of the worst examples of white foreigner exploitation I’d see during my three years in China.
I opened the flat door to see a woman, an ayi, being chased by a topless Mark.
As the maid rolled over the couch he lobbed mops, buckets, sprays, bottles…anything within his reach.
‘Pǎo, pǎo, pǎo ba, nǐ zhè gè xiǎo jiàn rén! Nǐ duǒ dé guò chū yī duǒ bú guò shí wǔ.’ (‘跑吧, 你这个小贱人! 你躲得过初一躲不了十五’, ‘Oh you can run! But you can’t hide, you filthy little whore.’)
‘The sheer effort of the final assault caused him to bounce off the door and hit the floor’
She was screaming as he barrelled through the kitchen table set, flipping over chairs.
The panic was clear and I tried to distract the juggernaut with a ‘what’s going on?’
But he got within kicking distance and tried to boot the woman like Jonny Wilkinson. She twisted out the way before he connected and dived behind me.
The little woman clung to my waist, hands clasping my sleeves, kneeling between my legs.
Mark’s next move came as a surprise, given whatever the cause of the chase, I was innocent. He ran to the corner of the living room and reached behind an armchair.
As the full mop bucket came sailing through the air, my boss’s chocolate Teddy Bear dog, Mungo, stopped barking.
Before the 15-litre container smashed into my face, I slid the ayi between my legs toward the door.
I went from a push to a squat as the bucket exploded on the wall behind me.
The ayi fumbled with the handle but managed to escape before Mark connected with a second charging penalty kick.
The sheer effort of the final assault caused him to bounce off the door and hit the floor.
In the hallway, the ayi’s cries of freedom echoed in the stairwell.
I looked at the dented wall, dripping with soapy water.
I looked at Mark flat out on his back.
‘Fucking hell mate, I nearly had her,’ he said.
‘But it was coming for my head?’ I said.
‘Yeah but if you had just moved and not pushed her like a fucking puck I would have scored a hit. You fucking twat.’
I hadn’t noticed during the ordeal, but the living room walls were dented in at least two other places. There was a hole above the television and another behind the couch.
‘They’ve gotta learn. Got. To. Learn’
I smoothed out my Barbour jacket and straightened up.
Mark struggled to his feet and lit a bent cigarette. He took out another, lit it, then passed it to me.
After collapsing on a cream vinyl couch, he pulled a shirt from underneath a rubber plant that had been used first as a whip then as a projectile.
‘What was that about?’ I said.
‘Oh, they’re all like that,’ he said, calmly taking a sip of green tea from a porcelain cup.
‘Like always trying it on. Always taking the piss,’ he said.
‘In what way?’ I picked up the plant and set it back on a wall cabinet.
‘She keeps forgetting to mop the floor. It’s disgusting,’ he said.
‘Our ayi is the opposite. It’s like an ice rink at home,’ I said.
I sat on the edge of one of his couch and Mungo jumped onto my lap.
‘They’ve gotta learn. Got. To. Learn. Si. Mon. Got. To. Learn.
‘Anyways. You want a piece?’
I finished very drunk and very tired at my review of a new steakhouse.
Due to nerves, I’d overprepared. I took along a laptop, two notepads and borrowed an iPad from my hosts. I was even recording on my mobile.
My note taking started with the attention of a trainee reporter, but by the end I was scribbling random quotes on napkins, beer mats and my hand.
The South African manager had insisted he tell me how he’d come to run The Butcher’s Block – beginning aged five playing tag in the vineyards of Stellenbosch.
Stefan plied me with knock-off Shiraz in an attempt at guaranteeing a positive review.
The steakhouse was owned by, and located above, a popular expat Irish pub aptly named McCawley’s Irish Pub.
The rest of the 20-storey building was apartments rented by foreigners and locals.
But The Butcher’s Block was finding it hard to get out of the blocks, as it were. The residents made weekly complaints about the noise from the in-house Filipino band.
The whole place would be shut down for a few days until a made-up fine was paid then the pub allowed to reopen. Management called it the racket of the racket.
When I left the six members of Mind The Gap were warming up with a metal version of Nina Simone’s Feeling Good.
I headed down Huacheng Avenue toward the nearest metro station – Zhujiang Xincheng (Pearl River New Town) on Line 3/5.
‘It was pure might is right and a living example of a culture clash’
With eight lines and 144 miles of track, the Guangzhou Metro system is the ninth longest in the world. Every day an average of eight million people ride the tunnels.
It was rush hour and the city’s inhabitants were piling underground making their way home. Commuters swarmed ticket machines, purchasing a one-off green token or topping up their Yang Cheng Tong smartcard (Ram City Pass).
At the fare barriers people shoved their way through in violent conga lines. The escalators both down and out were teaming.
In China they say: Rén shān rén hǎi (People mountain, people sea, 人山人海), which means crowds of people in a confined space.
In the spotless air-conditioned bowels, hordes filed into makeshift crowd-control railings then split onto opposite platforms. At 20-feet intervals monitors stood in Michael Jackson uniforms, complete with microphone headsets, red sashes and white gloves.
‘I found myself face-to-face with a schoolgirl wearing a surgical mask’
They attempted to marshall the torrent using hand signals and mini speakers but it was no use. The surge swayed to and fro ignoring the floor arrows, like a herd of cattle, sensing the slaughterer.
Unlike the Victorian London tube, the Guangzhou lines are shielded by sliding doors that only open once a train has arrived and stopped.
Men and women slammed themselves against the glass partitions ten deep, frantic not to be left behind. As more spilt onto the floor the swell bulged until it was impossible to face the right way.
When the train came in and the doors opened the scene wasn’t far short of the last boat out of Dunkirk.
Those wanting to get off smashed into those waiting to get on, who not only blocked the exit but pushed back against the stampede. It was pure might is right and a living example of a culture clash.
Passengers that wished to remain onboard gripped onto inside bars above the doors but the outpour lifted them up like human versions of PVC flap curtains.
Some tried to hold back offloading groups by splaying their arms and leaning backwards, but it was pointless, they were alighting whether it was their stop or not.
I elbowed my way in and filled a space made by an ejected businessman who hadn’t finished his journey. By the time he’d turned around and made a bid to get back, the glass doors had closed.
I found myself face-to-face with a schoolgirl wearing a surgical mask. Two men locked onto a bar above either side and secured my head between their arms.
I managed to reach two straphangers in a crucifix pose. It was an anime torture scene.
‘Qīn’ài de suǒyǒu chéngkè, qǐng wǎng chē xiāng zhōng bù zǒu’ (‘亲爱的乘客，请往车厢中部走’).
Then came the English: ‘Dear all passengers, please move to the centre of the train…’
I have no control over my neck, I thought.
After three beeps, the train zoomed out of the station, my head firmly wedged between my fellow passengers’ arms.
At each station the number of riders decreased, until at Guangzhou East Railway Station two life-changing things happened.
First, my captors got off which allowed usage of my head.
Second, someone threw their daughter at me. A middle-aged woman spotted me from the other side of the carriage, grasped the young girl by the shoulders and shouted ‘make English good’ before firing her in my direction.
With her mother’s shove and the help of a coach jolt, the girl flew across the 5ft gap with ease. She clung onto my Barbour lapels as she hit me and with a bright red face apologised.
‘Dear mister. Noooooo. Erm. Hello there, how are you?’
She was wearing a checked tartan coat that fastened across the chest in the manner of a dentist’s tunic. On the collar and running in two columns down the centre were big gold buttons each with raised patterns of a crest.
Her hair was that of an anime character who had tried to cut their own hair: ungroomed, choppy, lopsided and sticking out in flaps above the ears like a cocker spaniel mid skydive.
On her lower half were baggy jeans that would have been more suited to a teenage skater, and she was wearing VANS to match.
All in all she was a mismatch of innocence, individualism and eccentricity.
Her name was Lanlan.
We sat talking through the stops as we headed north out of the city centre. She was in her final year of university in another province, studying English and translation.
She spent chunks of each term visiting her mother, older brother and mother’s father, who lived together in the South Lake Peninsula Garden complex next to where I was living.
‘Without a prompt her mother handed over two slips of paper and a pen. She was the ultimate wingwoman for her daughter’
Whenever her mother clocked a foreigner, she’d perform the same routine: launching her 20-year-old daughter at the stranger in an effort to both impress and learn.
Her mother was an accurate shot and Lanlan had met a lot of people using the method.
But the bullseyes so far had been middle-aged male lecturers in posts at foreign-language universities or American English teachers that Lanlan said were extremely clear and easy to understand.
When I appeared, drip white from a stomach bug, wearing a waxed jacket, chinos and loafers, the opportunity was not to be missed.
I was an ultra-rare Pokemon – the Manchester MewTwo – captured in a Poke Ball by Ash in the bowels of the Guangzhou metro system.
Lanlan started flapping her arms by her side:
‘Erm…My mother says you have the colour of erm a, flying…thingy…’
Lanlan plunged a hand into a pocket and pulled out a mobile.
She cleared her throat, lifted her chin and in her best Downtown Abbey accent said: ‘Simon, my mother means to say you remind her of…The soul of a dead person usually as a vague shadowy form…wandering among living persons…a ghost.’
‘Oh right,’ I said but she tried harder.
‘A spirit…a vision…a soul.’
‘Yep. Yep. Yep. Got it. Tell your mum I understand.’
The mother seemed pleased but added something else.
‘She said she can barely see you sat in front of that poster.’
I turned around to see an advert for Qiaobi whiter than white laundry detergent and cracked a smile. Years later, the same brand would spark outrage when it released an advert dubbed the most racist ever made.
During the conversation, we’d very slowly become surrounded. Her mother, brother and grandfather were stood in a semicircle, each of them with the expression of a boy walking past a giant toy store.
Eyes and mouth open with extreme delight.
Without a prompt, her mother handed over two slips of paper and a pen. She was the ultimate wingwoman for her daughter.
We swapped details on the escalator to the surface and at the taxi rank said awkward goodbyes.
The next morning I received an email with the subject bar: ‘I can be your guidance and interpreter~’
I opened it and the message read:
I am wondering what you usually do during your stay in China.
If you need a guidance, or interpreter these days, I’m here to help ~ Though I’m not very familiar with Guangzhou, I would try my best to, maybe help you ask others about the road and bus routine.
I have not specific things to do these days, please you could feel free to contect me~
For your knowledge ~ means a smile
I replied and we chose a day to hang out.
Lanlan walked toward me wearing an oversized bear onesie, giant brown ears flapping each side of her head.
‘Hello. Hey. Simon. Hey. Simon!’
The patrolmen at the community entrance looked at her, then back at me. She shouted something in Chinese and I was buzzed in.
‘Lanlan, why are you dressed like fucking Ted?’ I said.
‘Uh? Who is Ted?’
‘The teddy bear from the movie…forget it.’
‘These are my pyjamas,’ she said.
She took my hand with a paw and led the way.
I tried to imagine what residents taking an evening stroll thought of the situation. A young girl dressed as Winnie-the-Pooh’s cousin escorting a Western boy in a suit. It had all the hallmarks of an underground fetish.
We walked through the lanes of the complex, identical in layout to Lindsey and Paul’s. Guards in communist army green uniforms whizzed by on green electric bikes.
Every minute, an elderly citizen would power walk past on a loop – residents out for an evening session. Each one was dressed in a 1980s tracksuit and blasting folk tunes from a portable radio player.
I nodded at a stout man in his 40s wearing only jogging pants and flip flops. It was clear he was frustrated and it probably had something to do with the OAP lapping him.
‘The noise sounded like 100 Alsatians fighting inside a fuel tank’
The 80-year-old was in a pair of blue suit pants pulled up to his nipples, a pink buttoned-down t-shirt and polished brown leather sandals.
I turned to Lanlan: ‘To be fair I’d be pissed off if someone dressed like that was lapping me…while smoking.
‘And you’d have thought he’d take the phone call after the run.’
‘Hmmm. Yes.’ She nodded slowly, but I wasn’t convinced she understood.
‘What’s with all the dogs barking? They’re fucking noisy, aren’t they?’ I said.
‘Errrr. Hmm. How to say? Not dogs. Hmm. In Chinese we call them grass chickens.’
I listened to the noise which sounded like 100 Alsatians fighting inside a fuel tank. Piercing the rabble was the unmistakable jangling of crickets.
‘Chickens. Is that right? Are you sure?’ I said.
‘We say gua gua. Like the sound they make. Gua Gua, gua gua, gua gua.’
She alternated the speed and volume but I interrupted as Paula Radcliffe’s grandad made a fifth pass.
‘Ah. You mean a frog?’ I said.
The noise was thousands of East Asian bullfrogs grunting and barking for attention and status. The ponds and rockeries running alongside the avenues were full of them.
‘We say ribbit-ribbit in England. Ribbit-ribbit. Ribbit-ribbit. Actually, is it ribbit-ribbit or a croak…’
She squeezed my hand and stopped walking.
‘Simon. I must warn you, in China, it is illegal to trap the frog without a license. You may face jail.
‘Now please, my mother waits for you.’
She straightened the bear nose on her onesie and walked on.
‘I am very good. You are always welcome this home,’ the woman said as she opened the front door.
‘Wǒ tiān, mā nǐ shuō shí me ne!’ (‘我天, 妈你说什么呢!’, ‘Noooooo. God. Ah. No. Not now!’) said Lanlan and rushed inside flapping her hands in a shushing motion.
Lanlan’s mother was stood in a billowing dress, with black and white striping, like Bertie Bassett. The red face and royal blue flip flops completed the look.
I bowed and made an awkward wave from the hip.
As she smiled her chubby cheeks, covered in white spots, pushed her eyes into a squint. The rapid switch from frantic resident to cheerful host felt welcoming.
I stepped over the threshold and the 50-year-old charged, pointing at my feet. She picked up a pair of large Adidas flip flops from a shoe stand and dropped them on my Toms. I pulled off my slip-ons and slid into the rubbery footwear. By the time I looked up she’d vanished.
‘Her mother emerged and stood behind me with a bloodied knife’
Opposite the shoe rack was the kitchen and as I walked past Lanlan’s mother was slicing into a wriggling sea bass on a chopping board.
The short corridor opened up into a living room/dining area. It was full of electrical appliances – a television set, a desktop, standing fans – all covered in thick white lace.
‘When are they getting married?’ I said.
‘Noooooo. Tut. Ergh. You know. It’s anti the dust,’ Lanlan said.
I walked over to the opposite side of the flat, my flip-flops slapping with every step.
A balcony gave view to a forested hillside. Tops of more isolated apartment blocks peaked above the tree line, and to the right, way up on a peak, two modern high rise flats were part way through construction.
‘Lanlan, what should I call your mother?’ I said.
‘You may call her Zhang Laoshi. It means Teacher Zhang.’
‘It’s a bit too formal. Can I just call her Miss Zhang?’ I said. Lanlan, still wearing the hood of her bear onesie, paused and looked at the ceiling in thought.
‘Teacher shows respect but she will accept Mrs Zhang,’ said Lanlan.
I walked over to a shelf with framed pictures of Lanlan playing the flute as a teenager. There were shots of her mother sat at a piano with children.
‘You are always welcome…’
Mrs Zhang had emerged from the kitchen. She was stood behind me holding a bloody boning knife.
It was time to eat.
Lanlan sat down and blocked me into the corner. Her mother darted in and out of the kitchen with food served in stainless steel dog bowls.
The table was filled with no fewer than ten dishes.
I asked Lanlan what each one was and after rapid internet translations, and heated debates with her mother, each of the contents were explained with some added cultural detail.
Taking pride of place in the centre, a bowl of pig knuckles covered in sweet vinegar (zhū jiǎo jiāng, 猪脚姜).
The fatty hocks were garnished with strips of scallion. Guangzhou was famous for the nutritious homemade delicacy.
‘In old times, people cook it for pregnant women but…’ She placed a hand on my wrist. ‘They are not my mother’s speciality.’
Next to the knuckles was a rectangular platter of braised ribbonfish (hóngshāo dàiyú, 红烧带鱼). The chunks, coated in carbonised sugar, were draped in thick dark soy sauce, slices of ginger, spring onion and garlic.
Either side of the plate were bowls of steaming stewed chicken soup (dùn jītāng, 炖鸡汤). Floating in the oily broth were slices of East Asian mountain yams (shānyào, 山藥), burgundy Chinese dates, (zǎo zi, 枣子), and goji berries (gǒuqǐ, 枸杞).
Against the wall, a digital rice cooker with a giant wooden spoon lent across the middle bleeped and puffed away.
I was expecting some salt ‘n’ pepper chicken wings, crispy duck spring rolls and sweet and sour chicken with egg fried rice. Maybe a bag of prawn crackers too.
‘I don’t recognise any of these dishes Lanlan. What about noodles?’ I said.
‘Noooooo,’ she said and told her mother who burst into a dismissive laugh.
‘In China, you do not treat guests with noodles. It’s not good enough. It is, you know, the shit fast food,’ Lanlan said, leaning over a tissue and spitting out bits of bone and fat.
My place setting was clear for no longer than ten seconds before the area was reset with second, third, fourth and fifth servings.
‘Mrs Zhang screamed and I spat out a chunk of knuckle‘
I kept shaking my head and trying to push the food back into the centre but it was pointless. Each time I slid the bowl away, something else took its place. Mrs Zhang was playing a forced feeding version of Checkers and I was losing.
I took a sip of water from a porcelain teacup. Immediately Mrs Zhang grabbed a jug from the table and refilled my cup by a millimetre.
‘Hē shuǐ!’ (喝水) she said.
‘Sorry?’ I said.
‘Hē shuǐ! Hē shuǐ! Hē shuǐ!’
She repeated the words in a march rhythm….Heigh-ho, heigh-ho…
‘She’s telling you must “drink water”.’ Lanlan said.
‘I haven’t finished this yet,’ I said, necking the rest like a shot.
Mrs Zhang leant across, topping my mug like an American waitress vying for tips. Each sip was followed by the religious ‘hē shuǐ’.
The water was hot. A sign it had been boiled due to the country’s poor filtration and purification system. But it wasn’t only to kill microbes and bacteria.
Traditional Chinese Medicine says that the internal body temperature of 37C keeps a smooth blood flow in tune with healthy bodily functions. Cold water messes with that smooth flow and is therefore seen as unhealthy.
It would explain why I’d heard many Chinese girls don’t eat ice cream when they’re on their period – the body, in its weakened state, supposedly can’t handle the shock of a Magnum.
‘Drinking cold water disrupts the whole circulation,’ Lanlan said, moving her hands over her head and shoulders.
‘It is the reason why Western women age faster.’
Mrs Zhang screamed and I spat out a chunk of knuckle.
‘Nǐ ná kuàizi yuè duō, zhǎng dà jiù lí jiā yuè yuǎn.’ (‘筷子拿得越上，长大就离家越远’)
‘What’s that, sorry?’ I said.
‘Lanlan chose to dip bits of octopus into a tub of Haagen-Dazs’
She was pointing, stunned at my hand holding the chopsticks. Lanlan was in awe too.
‘We have a saying in China. The farther you hold your chopsticks from the tip, the farther away you’ll move when you leave home.’
I looked down at my right hand. My fingers were at the edge clutching the very ends of the chopsticks.
‘Simon. You are very far from home now,’ Lanlan said.
‘About 6,000 miles. Before I came here my grip was much lower. It was around here…’ I said, sliding my fingers down the chopsticks.
Lanlan quickly interpreted for her mother and they both broke collapsed in laughter.
It was funny, but not that funny, I thought.
Mrs Zhang cleaned away the bowls, dirty tissues and rice cooker.
Dessert was a selection of ice creams. No one was on their period.
‘The sound of the crickets and frogs hummed throughout the tower blocks like nature’s static‘
I managed to put away a couple of mini Cornettos. Lanlan chose to dip bits of leftover octopus into a tub of cookies and cream Haagen-Dazs.
On the steps outside the apartment, Lanlan squeezed my hand, interlocking her fingers with mine.
The sound of the crickets and frogs hummed throughout the tower blocks like nature’s static. A buzzing concrete jungle. Pure ambience. Along with the rain, the noise was straight out of a ten-hour YouTube video to ease anxiety.
Residents were still out running the loop.
‘Now they’re running backwards?’ I said as a man in a suit jogged by.
‘In China, we say the reverse running is good for the memory,’ she said.
‘Why’s that? I said.
The man approached a speed bump and without turning, hopped over it.
‘You must remember the way,’ she replied.
‘That’s it, I’m going to fucking leave him. I mean, why would he do this, again? I’ve had enough. The kids have no idea where he is. He did this on holiday in fucking Sydney.
‘Where the fuck is he?! And that bitch not inviting me. I’m going to be having words with her first thing Monday morning. Sticking her fucking nose in…’
By the time she’d finished the rant, Lindsey was sobbing.
It was a Saturday afternoon and the phone call had caught me off guard. Often bored waiting on assignments from Mark, I’d taken to walking from Starbucks to Starbucks to sign the Comments books. It gave me a real sense of purpose.
On the walks between the branches I’d try to come up with questions to annoy other expats. What was Jesus’s second name? What colour are mirrors? Is the ‘S’ or the ‘C’ silent in the word ‘scent’? Inane rubbish you’d find on the toilet doors of a boys’ grammar school.
Sometimes I wouldn’t even order and just stand writing a note like a health and safety officer, tutting and sighing as if I’d given a bad report.
‘Really is shocking guys, you need to get your act together.’
To show commitment, Starbucks staff were encouraged to take a Polaroid with a customer, which they sellotaped alongside the corresponding comment.
When Lindsey called, I’d managed to gather the entire team of Gongyuanqian branch into a group shot.
I positioned myself in the centre of the eight-strong crew and even wore a spare green apron to blend in. The biro behind one ear was a nice touch, along with clip timers and a name tag.
I didn’t look like a ‘Terry’, but ‘Queenie’ and ‘Ryan’ didn’t quite work for my team members either side of me.
‘Simon, where the fuck are you?! Lindsey said’
Frank Sinatra crooned from the speakers telling subtropical Guangzhou to Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow.
‘Come on guys, everyone get in. Fan, fucking kneel down at the front. Kneel down. Right down. Ready?’
As I was counting down my mobile rang. I had to abandon my colleagues at ‘sì’ (四, four).
I sat on the steps outside looking like an expat who’d taken the idea of a summer job way too far – staff at Starbucks in Guangzhou are paid RMB17/hour (£1.80) for eight-hour shifts.
Pacing the steps in my apron trying to look busy, I answered the call.
‘Simon, where the fuck are you?!’ Lindsey said.
‘Hey, hey, I’m just grabbing a coffee with some new pals. Are you okay?’
Through stuttering, half sentences, Lindsey explained Paul had gone AWOL. The last time she’d seen him was the day before, on Friday afternoon, as they walked the kids home together from school.
Paul had walked into the kitchen, dumped his phone and keys on the table, turned around and walked out.
It was now Sunday evening.
She’d guessed he’d gone to one of Owen’s leaving dos though he’d actually left the school months earlier.
Owen’s wife, Miss Ling Ling, worked as Lindsey’s classroom assistant yet hadn’t mentioned the get-together. That had really pissed her off.
‘When I eventually found Paul, in the state he was in, the thing that really worried me was dehydration’
She’d already texted Miss Ling Ling explaining that not turning up to school on Monday would be ‘a good move’. Also that she was a ‘manipulative, sly bitch’.
I spent the rest of the evening exploring the city, staying out as late as possible to avoid a domestic.
When I eventually found Paul, in the state he was in, the thing that really worried me was dehydration.
Paul was lying on his front at the foot of the couch, wearing the same clothes he’d vanished in on Friday afternoon.
It was Monday morning and I’d gone downstairs to boil some water.
I felt like I’d walked into the middle of a real-life game of Cluedo. I’d found the body. And I may have considered him actually dead if he wasn’t snoring heavily. I woke him by repeating his name with increasing volume. By the time he opened his eyes I was one ‘Paul’ away from screaming.
He sat up in a slump against the couch. His face was a mix of sweat and patches of heat rashes. One eye was shut from dryness and he had the expression of a captive that had been dragged face-first through a desert behind a mule.
I half expected him to say ‘Is this earth?’ but he drank my glass of water and tried to piece together the past 48 hours.
He knew he’d slept in a 24-hour McDonald’s, opposite the Meihuayuan subway station, three miles down the road. We figured this out from the collection of McDonald’s guff he dumped on the coffee table.
A heap formed of tissues, yellow cheeseburger wrappers and hash brown sleeves – the evidence of a sobering-up feast that had run the clock with other McRefugees.
‘One night, I caught Paul pantless, leaning against the wall outside my bedroom’
Among the weekend’s souvenirs were a wad of receipts, beer mats, and a menu for CAVE BAR, ‘The spot for the city’s gypsy kings and queens’.
At some point in the early hours he was helped into a taxi by a McDonald’s cleaner, then woken up on the porch steps by a passing patrolman. Lindsey had left the front door unlocked in the hope of his return.
He must have kept drinking because the dining area looked like it had hosted a drinking contest for a winning rugby squad.
The wild stories I’d heard about Asia tended to focus solely on the tourist hotspots: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia. Graduates see Southeast Asia as a mass of island parties, cheap beer, temples and the odd jungle adventure.
But I had to keep reminding myself that China wasn’t on the gap-year backpacker trail. I wasn’t shouting a 25-year-old traveller awake on the floor of a beach hut on Penang Island.
Paul was a 41-year-old qualified teacher with three young children and a wife.
They worked at an institution that could rival any private school in the UK, yet Paul’s behaviour was that of a washed-up author struggling with his new novel.
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It didn’t come as much of a surprise when he confessed there was tension in the family due to his drinking.
The truth was that I would often find Paul in various states of drunkenness. From passed out on the toilet in the night to sprawled out on one of the stone benches in the complex.
One night I woke up to pee and heard snoring right outside the bedroom in the corridor. I caught Paul pantless, leaning against the wall to the left of my door.
He’d attempted to make it to the top floor to bed but only got as far as the first, where he’d removed his trousers and decided to sleep in a leaning position. It had all the hallmarks of a drunk nodding off over a urinal.
I checked the area around his bare feet, but it was dry. After 15 minutes of trying to talk him into sense, Lindsey overheard, descended and guided him to their bedroom.
Paul claimed the school was full of expats that back home would be borderline if not full-blown alcoholics.
Abroad, and particularly in Asia where alcohol is cheap, foreigners excuse heavy drinking due to a lifestyle which has ‘fuck it, anything might happen’ woven into its DNA.
Heads at the school had to ban after-school drinking at the car park. The principal said that it didn’t look good to have parents see their kid’s maths teacher unable to see, let alone count, how many bottles he’d got through.
The drinking culture was such a problem that any staff member who appeared even slightly hungover was immediately pulled into the principal’s office and given a warning.
New teaching assistants fresh out of university would try and test these restrictions, but they didn’t last long. If they persisted after the initial cautions, they were directed to the HR department who would help book the first available flight home.
Paul and several veteran teachers had found a solution by drinking in the more secluded restaurants. These shacks were in the thick of the forested area surrounding the car park. The only downside was that they required you to order food. A steamed bass drenched in vinegar and chillies would take centre place, its mouth gaping in shock as we necked beer after beer.
‘It was time for me to find my own place, but, in truth, moving out had been on my mind’
Paul had survived for so long because he had never not drunk. Looking anything but hungover would have aroused suspicion. Only a few close colleagues who drank too knew of his weekend blowouts, everyone else was dealing with their own excesses.
Yet the main reason his state was tolerated was because he was a highly capable teacher. With his dishevelled and carefree approach, the students loved Paul.
Part Dead Poets Society and part Shane MacGowan, he would pepper the geography syllabus with stories of his upbringing in Cairo.
On that morning we agreed it was time for me to find my own place, but, in truth, moving out had been on my mind.
Lindsey told me the kids had been asking how long I would be staying for. The two sisters were sick of sharing the same room. I was also thinking more and more about Lanlan.
Paul’s latest bender only added to my sense of overstaying.
‘I better leave before they wake up,’ he said.
After finishing a can of Heineken I hadn’t seen, he staggered to the kitchen sink where he thrust his head under a cold tap.
‘Aren’t you going to change?’ I said.
‘No, I think the effort would give the game away. Never try to overcompensate,’ he said.
He grabbed his rucksack from the dining table, knocking empty cans that rattled on the marble floor.
He opened the front door and pulled a pack of cigarettes from an inside pocket. But each Super 5 stick was in pieces. He tipped the packet upside down and a dozen fell out and landed on the floor in a mess of tobacco, paper and filters.
‘Cheers Linds, thanks for that,’ he said, sweeping the debris to the side with his foot.
Water was dripping down his forehead and the shirt’s chest and collar area were soaked to the skin.
‘He didn’t look fit enough to walk, let alone teach for the day’
‘Here,’ I said and walked out onto the porch to give him my pack. Holding his head in a stoop to light a cigarette, he coughed violently, clutching onto a chair to prevent from buckling.
He didn’t look fit enough to walk, let alone teach for the day.
‘You sure you’re okay?’ I said.
He was outside the iron gates now, tucking his shirt into his trousers and fumbling with a creased tie.
‘This place. Ha. It’s er. You know.’
He paused and shook his head to clear the remaining droplets.
‘It’s… It’s hard to control,’ he said, nodding in agreement with the comment then disappearing down the avenue.
I went back inside and checked my phone.
Lanlan had texted.
I was back at Lanlan’s flat for a second time.
Since her offer to show me the city, we’d hammered Guangzhou’s sightseeing options.
At the city’s zoo I saw a Rhesus Macaque balancing on a basketball and fed bits of baozi to begging brown bears.
We rode Canton Tower’s bubble tram – a horizontal Ferris wheel that circles the lip of the 604-metre needle.
Lanlan didn’t help my vertigo as she held the Canon DSLR to her face insisting I give her at least 500 different poses.
On New Year’s Eve, we sat underneath poplar trees in the city’s ‘Starry Sky Table Tennis park’. Opposite, a plasma screen on the 80-storey Citic Plaza counted in the New Year.
On ‘HAPPY NEW YEAR!’ we lent in and had our first kiss. Her lips were cracked and dry from constant questions and nerves; mine were cracked from the dry evening air and constant answering.
Back in the flat and after another forced feeding session, we headed upstairs to her brother’s bedroom.
‘The plan was to watch a subtitled Wuthering Heights – the 2009 Tom Hardy made-for-TV version’
Jardo, 24, had come up with his Western name by blending two of his favourite actors, Jude Law and Leonardo DiCaprio.
He was away in Shenzhen on business.
Lanlan had suggested the move from table to bedroom with, ‘My mother thinks you should remain the evening. You work very hard, my mother says you must rest. You can have my brother’s bed.’
I’m not sure what surprised me more: the invitation or her belief that I not only worked but worked hard. In any case, as she led the way Lanlan stopped on the stairs: ‘Simon, my mother will bring us a bowl of watermelon with soya milk presently.’
Jardo used the bedroom as a base when he wasn’t on business trips and visits to his father. As a result the room had turned into a storage room-cum-spare room for Lanlan.
There were her added touches, like the giant banner of a bearded John Lennon playing guitar in bed. The lyrics to Imagine were written in English, accompanied by Lanlan’s Chinese translation running down the side.
On the desk next to the door there was a laptop plastered with stickers of stars and emojis.
The plan was to watch a subtitled Wuthering Heights – the 2009 Tom Hardy made-for-TV version.
Lanlan had a vision of life in the north of England where I spent the days running across moorland or thinking next to a stream.
I let her have the cushioned desk chair while I perched upright on the edge of the bed.
As Cathy professed to Heathcliff ‘You’re asking me to risk my reputation. Once a woman’s reputation is gone she has nothing’ Lanlan turned to face me, her mouth dripping with watermelon juice, and asked if I wanted to ‘accompany her in the night’.
‘I shall inform her that we’ve already done the French kissing’
I said yes and in reply Lanlan said we’d first need to ‘seek’ her mother’s permission.
She paused Tom Hardy, stood up and walked toward the door.
‘Do not worry,’ she said.
‘I shall inform her that we’ve already done the French kissing,’ and then she disappeared down the stairs.
Before she left I was issued with a pair of her brother’s pyjamas. I knew Jardo was slim from photographs around the flat. But they were oversized and when I pulled them on and caught myself in the mirror, I looked like a martial artist about to have a massage.
I crept downstairs and sat on the stairwell in Jardo’s silk pyjamas. Mrs Zhang shared a twin room with her father.
I could hear Lanlan and her mother laughing.
After ten minutes of audible arguing, which broke into giggling, Lanlan popped her head around the corner.
‘What did she say?’ I said.
‘My mother said okay, she also said it may hurt the first time and you may use my brother’s condoms.’
‘Eh? Hold on…what?’ I said but Lanlan darted past.
‘She likes you, I like you, she can tell I like you,’ she whispered in my ear.
Lanlan climbed on ahead clutching something she’d got from her mother’s room.
Shutting the laptop and after a few more chomps of watermelon, she pulled back the duvet.
‘My mother said I should wear this for you, that it will make me look handsome,’ she said, showing me what she’d been holding.
‘He was smirking. I broke wind loudly and asked him how he liked that’
The gift from her mother, originally for Jardo’s fiancée with the wedding night in mind, was a set of red silk knickers and a slip. But before I got to see what Jardo was in for on his wedding night, Lanlan ran off to have a shower.
I lay down on the bed. I hadn’t noticed but opposite Jardo’s bed was a poster of Jude Law for the movie Alfie. He was smirking. I broke wind loudly and asked him how he liked that.
The shower must have been more symbolic than useful because Lanlan appeared from the stairwell five minutes later.
Stood there like a schoolgirl in a pantomime, her discomfort contrasted with the mature and provocative lingerie she’d put on.
The outfit was too big but the loose cut worked to her advantage, making her resemble the French mistress of an up-and-coming Impressionist. All that was missing was a half-eaten pain au chocolat and a cigarette.
‘We stood opposite each other naked, the hairy white boy and the timid 5′ 4″ Asian girl’
Before removing the slip she said, ‘Simon, I would like to tell you, that I have had an operation. Now I have the scar and the metal disc. For you, I hope it is okay.’
I got off the mattress and kissed her as we undressed. We stood opposite each other naked, the hairy white boy and the timid 5’ 4” Asian girl.
We kept kissing and fell onto the bed.
She was a slimmer version of those curvy life models Auguste Renoir used for his nude paintings.
She was unshaven, even her armpits, and when I teased her about this she said it was because her ‘stuff’ was back at university.
‘What about your legs though, they’re very smooth,’ I said.
‘I’m Asian,’ she said giggling with a certain amount of ethnic pride.
I pulled her legs up toward my chest to have a closer look.
There were fine brown hairs on her shins. Because of their length they weren’t abrasive to the touch but still would have been shaved or waxed in the West.
The hairs contrasted greatly with those of her armpits and genitals. There they were black and long and though there weren’t many, their thickness gave them prominence on her body.
Her pubic area was covered in a thick defined strip, evidence she had no desire to trim or style the hair at all.
Above her right nipple was a two-inch diagonal red scar. Six months ago she’d had an operation to remove ‘something’. She tried to give more detail but struggled and I left it, not wanting pry.
It’s no secret Durex produce smaller sizes for the Asian market. I tore three condoms trying to stretch each one over my Western-sized penis.
Even ShanghaiDaily posted a story reporting that expats were complaining about ‘ill-fitting’ condoms.
Though it was her first time, we had sex twice before falling asleep.
There wasn’t a moment during the night when she didn’t have a firm grasp of either my waist or a hand.
The next morning we went downstairs to find her mother on her hands and knees. She was cleaning up the shards of a smashed lightbulb.
‘What’s happened?’ I said.
‘The joke didn’t translate well and I came across as a potential abuser of the elderly’
Lanlan’s grandfather often woke to use the toilet in the night. He would remember where the light switch was on the way, but forget on the return.
Using a wooden walking stick he’d shove the handle into the ceiling fixture to destroy the bulb.
It was a costly method and I suggested swapping his cane for a metal one. But the joke didn’t translate well and I came across as a potential abuser of the elderly.
The mother had suggested her father go for a stroll to prevent him accidentally seeing the white man wearing Jardo’s pyjamas. He may have been half blind and deaf but he wasn’t stupid.
The 78-year-old was a former mechanical engineer. Based on a photograph he dressed like a mixture of a British OAP and Sir Edmund Hillary before the ‘final ascent’ of Everest. Thick layers and thick lenses.
He’d been in bed when I’d arrived the night before. I’d been warned that when he finished his stroll to act like I’d just arrived, which obviously meant I had to change.
Once the fragments of the bulb had been cleaned up, Mrs Zhang laid out another buffet.
Over chicken baozi, Lanlan’s mother casually revealed that her ex-husband was insensitive and inconsiderate during sex.
She was also stunned to find out that the sex had lasted longer than two minutes, that being the average duration for her.
‘In her oversized bear onesie, she’d gasp in awe as House casually diagnosed rare illnesses’
It was a fantastic ego-stroking massage for the foreigner, and I stuffed my face with the meaty buns, loving the attention.
Lanlan spent the afternoon binge-watching the TV show House – a massive hit in China.
I walked the loop outside, chain smoking in the mist and making notes for my latest magazine article – a review of a rodeo-themed bar called Mr Rocky’s.
I returned to catch Lanlan, headphones on, repeating lines from the show.
‘Go up his rear and get a smear. Which reminds me, kinda feel like a bagel’, ‘Humanity is overrated’ and ‘Good news is, he’s running out of organs to fail.’
In her oversized bear onesie, she’d giggle and gasp in awe as Dr Gregory House casually diagnosed rare illness after rare illness.
I kept reminding her that ‘it’s not a documentary pal’ and that Hugh Laurie had a posh British accent, but she wasn’t having any of it.
She was in love.
I was in love.
After more information from her mother and an afternoon browsing online, I figured out the reason for the scar.
Lanlan had undergone an operation to remove a fibroadenoma. A common harmless condition where a non-cancerous tumour forms in one of the breasts.
Lanlan said a lot of girls in China have the same condition but didn’t resort to having an operation. She explained, ‘The fatter you are, the more chance you have of the tumour.’
She viewed the scar as a personal barometer, from her state of mind to if her body liked or disliked certain food – this she knew by whether the scar throbbed or itched after each meal.
‘On the streets and public transport of Guangzhou, she’d pick out girls that were “so lucky, small boobs”‘
Although Lanlan knew fibroadenoma was not life-threatening, she was obsessed with girls with smaller breasts in the belief they were safer.
Verging on a C cup, hers were comparatively large in China where the average cup is an A.
On the streets and public transport of Guangzhou, she’d pick out girls that were ‘so lucky, small boobs’.
Aside from the surgeon, and her mother, I was the only person to have seen the scar.
And it wasn’t only the scar that made her unique. Lanlan’s English was highly proficient but she was rare in that she could only speak Mandarin.
‘Each morning Lanlan stood in front of her grandfather and screamed that his breakfast was on the table’
China’s one official language is Mandarin which the locals call ‘putonghua’ (‘普通 Pǔ tōng means ‘common,’ and ‘话 huà’ means ‘language’).
Most Chinese citizens speak, or at least understand, the standardized Beijing dialect, but also speak one of the 130 hometown dialects, with elder family members or old school friends.
As a child she could speak fluent Cantonese but that had long since left and in between she hadn’t picked up any dialects along the way.
This lack of a home dialect left her feeling ‘lost’ and ‘belonging to nowhere’. She could barely speak to her mother’s father, who spoke a rare Jiangsu province dialect.
Each morning Lanlan stood in front of her grandfather and in basic Mandarin screamed that his breakfast was on the table.
I thought what it would be like, stood before my grandparent in good health, shouting ‘Breakfast! On table, ready. Food! Breakfast!’ Who would look more pathetic?
Her focus on improving only Mandarin and English to the standard of Oscar Wilde, meant she – along with her formidable mother – were the ultimate help team. The more complex the English phrase or obscure the word the better.
She was so hungry to soak up everything I knew from sex and slang to synonyms and songs that she threw herself at any issue I had.
As a consequence, I became her window to the West but I relied on Lanlan to solve every problem.
A trip to the supermarket to find custard powder turned into a walk down memory lane and a description of the quintessentially British rhubarb and custard crumble tart.
It was incredibly empowering to feel such trivial memories were not only entertaining but shaping another human being.
Yet it also created a relationship built on an unhealthy reliance on each other: one that I would eventually exploit and in turn Lanlan would outgrow.
Lanlan’s full name is Ji Lanlan (季兰兰). In China, the surname comes before the first name.
Ji, like many Chinese surnames, has no meaning.
Lanlan (兰兰) means ‘orchard’.
She was born in Datong city in Shanxi Province, northwest China, in 1992.
Datong is one of China’s coal capitals.
The air is so polluted that by noon the sky is dark grey and drivers need to turn on their headlights. Six months after Lanlan was born, the family moved to Fujian province, to the port city of Xiamen. Known for its easy way of life, street food and international music festivals, the coastal city couldn’t be more different from dusty Datong.
Her father capitalized on the seaside atmosphere and opened a small ice cream factory.
Lanlan’s grandparents were convinced Mrs Zhang would only bear sons because of Jardo’s arrival. When little Lanlan was born the family was ‘disappointed and troubled’.
‘Raising a daughter, it was said, was “like watering your neighbour’s garden”‘
But son preference in China is nothing new. It existed long before the 1979 one-child policy by thousands of years, going back to a time when male children were needed to work the land. They would inherit it, pass on the family name and look after parents in their old age.
Daughters, by contrast, were sent to live with their husband’s family.
Raising a daughter, it was said, was ‘like watering your neighbour’s garden’.
Once married, daughters were ‘spilled water’. Either way, they were seen as a waste.
Because of this desire for boys, sex-selective abortion, though illegal, is still carried out and is the reason why there is a huge excess of men in China.
In Guangdong province, for every 100 females born there are 130 males. In Great Britain the ratio hovers around 100 female births to 104 male births.
In some Chinese provinces parents are allowed a second child only after the birth of a girl. Second time lucky if you will.
And though sex-testing is also illegal, many traditionally-minded Chinese people have found ways to find out if the fetus is male or female.
With the help of money, some doctors will nod or shake their head during an ultrasound; or use a full stop or comma at the end of medical notes – to indicate that parents have either achieved their goal or must continue efforts to have a boy.
The words ‘It’s a girl’ could be heartbreaking.
Since the family already had Jardo, a second arrival put her dad in a lot of trouble or ‘quite major hassle’ as Lanlan said.
Mr Ji rinsed his connections at the local police station and was let off with a ‘sponsorship to the community’ (a bribe) of RMB20,000 – a lot of money in the 1990s…in China.
For the first six years of life in Xiamen, Lanlan said she lived like a princess and had ‘15 boxes of Barbie dolls, a wall full of stuffed toys and a Minnie Mouse bigger than a bear’.
‘In order to “get her” he gave her a Steinway & Sons upright piano and a new television set’
Mr Ji rose to the top of the ice cream world, becoming the king of cones, popsicles and sprinkles. His face was plastered on billboards, park benches and his range of frozen foods.
Whenever I ask about this stage of her life Lanlan stretches her arms as wide as possible and says, ‘Look at my mother’s flat. Now look. The whole flat. This was the size of just my room! Oh no, no, no. Look how we have changed. Oh no!’
When he first met Lanlan’s mother, Mr Ji pretended to be far richer than he was. The big man about town.
In order to ‘get her’ he gave her a Steinway & Sons upright piano and a new television set.
But from day one after getting married, her father began setting up bank loans in his wife’s name in an attempt to keep his business ventures afloat. He had already taken out too many loans from too many banks in his own name.
Mrs Zhang thought he would succeed because ‘he looked so confident in whatever he did’.
She had no choice but to borrow from everyone – family members, childhood friends and even colleagues from the university where she taught composing and singing.
Because of the crippling debt they’d rapidly built up, it wasn’t surprising to learn lenders were after Lanlan’s parents.
To escape the intrusive door knocks, threatening letters and unsettling gossip, her mother had to make a drastic decision.
When Lanlan was six, Mrs Zhang boarded a sleeper train with her two young children and escaped to Guangzhou.
Three years later, on Lanlan’s ninth birthday, her mother officially divorced. It was a bold and risky move. Divorce was a taboo subject in China and a black mark against any woman’s name.
Though at nine years old Lanlan didn’t know what divorce meant, she knew her mother was ‘deeply unhappy with her anxious marriage’.
‘Her father was in hiding from his now melting ice cream business’
Lanlan’s father said that if she wanted him to sign the divorce papers she’d have to hand over the children.
‘My mother was desperate to become free from this tragic trap of a marriage so she gave us up,’ Lanlan said.
When he took her children away Mrs Zhang was depressed and suicidal but Lanlan said she ‘craved for absolute freedom because my dad was an extremely controlling human’.
Her father took Lanlan and her brother from Guangzhou to the city of Hangzhou – the capital of Zhejiang Province 800 miles away in east China.
Her father was in hiding from his now melting ice cream business. More loan sharks, more bailiffs, more underhanded agreements turned sour.
Lanlan, Jardo and Mr Ji lived in an apartment near the iconic West Lake. Chatting tourists and passing dragon boats could be heard from the balcony. Laughing cormorants performing their birdcall accompanied Lanlan to school and the squeaking of kingfishers.
In the evenings the three walked the trails of nearby Yunqi bamboo forest.
It was the early 2000s and the ‘New King of Asian Pop’ Jay Chou was popular in the charts.
Lanlan and her brother sang the lyrics from his latest songs. Chou’s 2001 hit ‘End Of The World’ off the Fantasy Plus album was a favourite.
They would confide in each other about school crushes, seeking advice and encouragement, then chase each other between the mini shrines and temples.
Her father was always six steps in front or behind with a ‘heavy head’ due to business difficulties and making next month’s rent.
Lanlan said ‘At the time I kind of felt sorry for him but those walks are some of the only pleasant memories I have of my father.’
Her mother visited Jardo and Lanlan three times a year. She ‘really missed the two of us, and every departure my brother and I would shed tears.
‘Her eyes would turn sharp red, but, as an adult, she did not cry in public. Even when we waved goodbye.’
‘In the daytime she needed to “work brutal at school” and in the night “beat the rats around the bed”‘
Lanlan said her dad is both ‘evil and charming’. Living with him, she said, somewhat ironically, was ‘not a walk in the park’.
As much as Mrs Zhang couldn’t live with her husband, he couldn’t live without women.
He kept mistresses for as long as Lanlan can remember. The details are fuzzy at this point but she remembers her dad giving a lot less attention to his children and more to the mistresses.
One ate all the good food in the cupboards, another was short and wore heavy make-up. None of them were attractive but her dad ‘only needed a woman’.
Lanlan describes feeling incredibly lonely because her mother used to cuddle her each night before bed and made her feel safe. ‘I would sob into my quilt, in case my father heard from his bed, and I would be embarrassed.’
When she was 16, Jardo left for university and Lanlan was dumped onto her grandmother while she finished middle school. Lanlan, not her grandmother.
In the daytime she needed to ‘work brutal at school’ and in the night ‘beat the rats around the bed’.
They pulled themselves through cracked vents and scratched at the mattress. But because of the giant overhanging mosquito nets they couldn’t reach her as long as she stayed in the centre of the bed.
‘If they did try to gnaw their way in, they would start by the pillows.
‘You have NO idea how strong those rats are!’ Lanlan said.
At 18, Lanlan enrolled at Xiamen University, in the same city where she’d ‘lived like a princess’ as a child.
Gulangyu Island was a 20-minute ferry ride away. The place, where cars and bicycles are banned, is featured in every ‘Top ten must-see spots in China’.
A tourist website of the island ran something like: ‘Known as the Garden of The Sea, it’s a huge draw for young couples with its imported Taiwanese novelties, boutique hotels and hidden subtropical gardens.’
‘A former international settlement once home to a dozen foreign consulates, tiny Gulangyu is unique in its undisturbed colonial architecture and 19th-century European flavour…’
It was where Lanlan used to visit with her boyfriend during her first year. He would bring his electric guitar – along with a belt mini amp – and they’d walk the postcard lanes while he serenaded her. The Rolling Stones’s Wild Horses was played on repeat.
‘Childhood living is easy to do.
‘The things you wanted I bought them for you…
‘Graceless lady you know who I am…’
By the start of second year, she was single but had acquired a new stepmother – Mr Ji’s third wife. Lanlan describes her as ‘very middle-aged, quite friendly, thick body, thick make-up’.
She spent the year flooding Lanlan’s dormitory with expensive dresses, coats and snacks in an effort to win over her new stepdaughter.
‘She warned her stepmother not to send anymore presents or she’d just sell them online’
That came to an abrupt end when Lanlan realised she was using the money her father had borrowed from her mother.
The more gifts that arrived at her door, the more worried her mother sounded when she phoned to talk her about financial difficulties.
She warned her stepmother not to send anymore presents or she’d just sell them online.
With normality restored by the start of the third year, she met me.
I walked around the apartment, flip flops slapping the marble tiles. In each room hundreds of passport-sized photos were strewn across the floor.
They were in cabinet drawers, spread out over the mattresses and stuck on mirrors in criss-cross patterns – the scene of a detective’s home who’d become obsessed with a cold murder case.
Even the sinks in both bathrooms and the kitchen had piles of the headshots.
Each one with the same face of a man in his early twenties grinning back.
I emptied the fruit bowls of rotten dragonfruit and mangos then unrolled a detailed map of Guangzhou over the dining table.
With a permanent marker I wrote ‘jia’ (‘家’ ‘home’) over my gated community Blu-Tacked the map to the wall.
Flat 903, Block 58, was far too big for one person and could have easily accommodated a family of four. It was a duplex. Two bedrooms downstairs and one on a mezzanine overlooking the living room.
In the atrium an artificial crystal chandelier hung high over a television set, an air conditioning unit, a glass coffee table and a five-piece olive green sofa suite.
A synthetic leather couch and two club chairs were angled at the TV but there were also two more chairs part of the same set. One was crammed into an alcove under the staircase, the other next to the TV.
A visitor could sit watching a person watch TV in a psychiatric experiment on audience reactions.
When the hunt for a new place began, Lanlan told a local agency I needed a one-bedroom flat in one of the expat areas of the city.
‘If an agent called back she kept hanging up until they learnt not to bullshit’
Pockets of the city were becoming swish with high-rise modern tower blocks inhabited by young foreigners. Liede and Zhujiang New Town were the two main neighbourhoods. They were slowly filling with spoilt Chinese kids or expats with decent teaching gigs.
On reflection asking Lanlan to sort the viewing was a dumb move – for two reasons. One, she used a firm near her complex, way out from the centre and thus their scope. Two, Lanlan, in her shyness hadn’t stressed we didn’t want to be fucked around.
After the twentieth viewing, in a half-finished tower in practically another city, Mrs Zhang was called in. She put a stop to any unsuitable viewings fuelled by an agent’s desire to fill flats they were having difficulty renting. When an agent started waffling she hung up. If they called back she kept hanging up until they learnt not to bullshit.
She found a three-bedroom duplex in the same block as her own, four feet opposite her flat.
Out of sheer desperation and convenience I signed the lease.
I was tired of the awkwardness in the villa and felt equally uncomfortable using Jardo’s bed to have sex with his younger sister…especially while Mrs Zhang timed us from below.
Mrs Zhang hit the landlady with a 20-minute analysis of the housing market – both in Guangzhou and across the country – a description of my reputable character and a history of being a renter and a landlord (she didn’t even own a property).
The result of the speech sliced my monthly rent from RMB3,100 to RMB2,800.
Mrs Zhang had also got me out of any rip-off commission fees for the estate agent’s services.
Richard, the Liverpudlian I’d met on my first night at the car park refused to pay his and still moved into the apartment.
When he left for work on the first morning he was met with a group of young agents banging drums and brooms in the hallway. Fucking Asian STOMP.
This lasted a week until the protestors got tired of Richard surprising them with a wet mop and battering them down the stairwell.
Estate agencies in China are notoriously coy, comically cryptic and painfully competitive. Companies maintain a cutthroat nature fuelled by under the table payments from landlords to prioritise their property and the opportunity to land a commission the equivalent to a week’s salary.
Even after I moved in, more agents from the same firm called each week trying to pitch available apartments. They were so obviously not communicating with each other that after ten minutes on one call, I worked out the flat I was being pitched was the one I was in.
Things took a turn for the stupid a month into my tenancy. I was stood naked on the balcony, behind a giant Jasmine plant I’d purchased off a street vendor in the car park.
‘Panicked I wrapped myself in one of the white silk drapes and immediately quoted Commodus from Gladiator’
I’d taken to sipping a chilled bottle of Heineken then pouring some over my head in sip-drench cycle to fight the humidity. Part way through a lager shower, I caught the sound of the front door lock being fiddled with.
I stepped back inside at the same time a family of three where being guided into my flat. Panicked I wrapped myself in one of the white silk drapes and immediately quoted Commodus from Gladiator.
‘Slave. How dare you enter! As for you, you will love me as I loved you…’
The wife began screaming but fortunately more so at the agent than me. I held out an upturned thumb – now in the Colosseum – then quickly flipped it downwards.
The agent held up his clipboard over his face, bowing as he ushered the prospective clients outside. Another employee who’d been left in the dark.
The layout of the furniture was bugging me. Not that I was expecting to host many dinner parties, but the excess chairs made the place look like a secondhand store.
I texted Lindsey asking if anyone from the school could help me shift the excess chairs upstairs.
She replied: ‘This is Oliver’s number. I’m sure he’ll give you a hand.’
‘Wheeeeey…there he is.’ The young man strolled past and into the living room.
‘It’s good to be back…whey. Get us a beer. Na. Na. Na mate, I’m only kidding.’
Then he noticed the passport photos and whooped.
He scooped up a pile and fanned five out like a magician demonstrating to an audience.
‘Ha…there he is. Oi oi…Lad.’
The faces were the same as the person holding the photographs, though the live version was clean shaven.
‘Yeah, sorry about those. We left in a bit of a hurry. Can’t believe the estate agents didn’t clean up the place,’ he said.
Then he began examining the flat, as if looking for clues at a crime scene, peering round corners, behind the furniture and into the rooms.
‘Ha…yeah that’s where my mate passed out. Shit, the chandelier is still holding on. Took down the rope swing though.
‘There’s a Union Jack flag knocking around here.
He ran over to the bathroom.
‘Did the landlord ever fix the fucking bathroom handle? She said she would.’
He gave the knob a practised twist and the lock and bolt slid out.
‘Guess not,’ he said, before dumping the shrapnel and photos on the dining room table.
Taking one giant step he extended an arm: ‘Sorry, sorry, hi mate, I’m Oli.’
Oli did not stop talking, but he also never made eye contact. He had that Stephen Merchant awkwardness and geeky humour with the gait of a curious ostrich.
He walked around the apartment punning off items in the flat…‘See you got the flip flops on, yeah velcro is just a big rip off…toilet paper, plays an important role in your life. Is that a deck of cards? Sorry, my mind’s playing tricks with me!’
It was constant and he only stopped when I interrupted by offering him a Tsingtao and headed to the balcony.
We each took a seat in a wicker chair. Paul had been gifted a pack of ten Romeo y Julieta mini Cuban cigars, which he gave me after complaints from Lindsey.
I opened the box and offered Oli one.
‘What’s with all the photos? They’re everywhere, mate.’ I said.
‘Yeah. When I first got here I was on a shitty tourist L visa. Had to go down to the exit-entry office every few months to renew my visa.
‘There’s a guy in a room who does your picture. It’s a fucking rip off and the queue is a bitch. Save time. Skip the process, you know.’
‘Why are there thousands of them then?’ I said.
‘We had sex on a couch. Me looking down at a thousand smiling pictures of myself’
‘“Cos he thought it would be fucking funny to add a few zeros onto the quantity. What. A. Prankster.
‘They were so cheap I didn’t even notice when he asked for the money. I’ve been carting my face around each every time I moved.’
He paused to light the cigar, revolving it slowly as if he were a war veteran about to recount a bloody battle.
‘A few days before we were due to leave this flat I invited a girl round for drinks. My flatmate cleared out for the evening.’
‘When I brought the girl home, I walked into a sea of my face.
‘To be fair, the girl actually found it pretty funny. It really helped break the ice. My face.
‘We had sex on that couch. Her looking up at me sweating. Me looking down at a thousand smiling pictures of myself.’
My father had been able to arrange a business and trade F visa through his contacts. It was valid for 12 months with double entry status and a maximum stay of 90 days at a time.
The only hassle I had getting my visa was spilling a Starbucks venti triple shot white mocha on my lap during my wait at Manchester’s Chinese Visa Application Service Centre.
I hadn’t had the pleasure of visiting the notorious Entry and Exit Administration Office of the Guangzhou Public Security Bureau.
Oli arrived in Guangzhou nine years ago, fresh off a bachelor’s degree in communication and media studies.
On the day he landed, he’d got a text inviting him to go shopping for the ‘absolute essentials’ with the new arrivals.
After two hours of expats filling in delivery forms for rice cookers, dishwashers and internet routers, Oli left the mall with a family size bag of Doritos, a hat and a 3-litre bottle of Coca-Cola.
The newbies were taken to a restaurant then to a bar for drinks. One of the group invited Oli to his apartment in Panyu – a district way down in the south of the city past the Pearl River.
‘His face broke the fall onto the gravel but the pressure of the impact caused the buttons on his shirt to pop off’
By the morning Oli’s phone, with the details of his apartment, had died. Another trainee offered Oli his place to chill for the afternoon, and that turned into a heavy drinking session.
The next morning, the two figured Oli’s best bet was to head to the school. He made a note of the school’s address and managed to flag down a motorbike taxi.
When the battered Honda CG 150 braked outside the reception Oli tripped as the bike leaned to one side. His face broke the fall onto the gravel but the pressure of the impact caused the buttons on his shirt to pop off.
When he burst into a random classroom, red-eyed and barechested, the Year 4 English teacher screamed and told the class to run the ‘school intruder drill’.
Oli tried to calm her down with: ‘Right. Okay. Yeah. Don’t worry. Could you tell me where I live? Oh, and does anyone have RMB5 for the bike guy?’
He was taken to his apartment – directly opposite the school – less than 200 yards away.
‘What’s with all the Chinese stuff?’ Oli said.
In Lanlan’s attempt to help me learn Chinese, she’d covered the walls in flashcards.
‘Thought I’d get stuck in,’ I said.
‘Naaa. Forget it.’ he said.
‘I can’t speak a word and I’ve been here…’ He looked at his watch. ‘Shit. Like seven years.’
‘How do you get by with taxis, food? Stuff like that,’ I said.
‘Just repeat the words over and over and mime. Mime alot. I’ve become very good at drama,’ he said.
‘Don’t bother with all that different tones nonsense. Anyway, you’ll find a lot of expats live in China but aren’t in China. You can dip in and out as much as you want.’
It was a well-rehearsed thought, and he highlighted the remark by slowly exhaling on his cigar.
After a year at the international school, Oli moved back to east London. He lasted three months working on the checkout counter at Tesco before applying to more teaching jobs in Guangzhou.
‘Part way up the stairway were two huge dents in the wall, like the Hulk had punched the plaster after being catfished’
He moved out again, this time with a childhood friend. But the teacher academy they’d been hired by had been a con.
The two spent three weeks waiting to be designated a kindergarten. Oli and his friend would spend their days sat in Starbucks, creating lesson plans in the hope work would come soon.
One day they decided to visit the office where they’d had their initiations and introduction.
When they got to the third floor for Phoenix Gold Star teachers, the office had been gutted. All the desks, desktop computers, chairs and cabinets were gone. The only items left were copies of contracts, lesson planning guides and a few disconnected keyboards.
The pair had handed over their passports with the promise of being sorted a work visa. They’d gone.
Oli’s friend decided to get a temporary one issued by the British Embassy and head back to the UK.
Oli did the same but wanted to stay in Guangzhou. He contacted friends at the international school and became a teaching assistant.
He was so desperate to avoid the path to teacher that within six months he’d created a new role – librarian/ photographer with occasional marketing responsibilities. For the past seven years that’s what he’d been doing.
‘There’s a woman in your doorway holding a six-pack of beer and a plastic bag of live fish’
‘By the way, you want help moving some furniture upstairs don’t you,’ Oli said.
‘Lindsey told you,’ I said.
‘Yeah, that’s not going to happen.’ he said.
‘See those dents, in the plaster, up the staircase.’
He arched around and pointed inside.
Part way up the stairway were two huge dents in the wall, like the Hulk had punched the plaster after being catfished.
‘We tried moving an armchair up on the first day. The thing’s legs got buried in the fucking wall. Was stuck there for weeks…’ he paused and turned back around.
‘Simon, there’s a woman stood in your doorway holding a six-pack of beer and what looks like from here a plastic bag of live fish…’
‘Oh that I’ll be Mrs Zhang with dinner,’ I said.
‘Sorry, mate, who the fuck is Mrs Zhang?’ he said.
I stood up and waved her in.
‘I dunno really, mate, she’s sort of become my Chinese mother slash PA slash recruitment agent,’ I said.
Mrs Zhang was born Zhang Xianfeng in Lishui, Zhejiang Province in 1966.
‘Xián’ (贤) means ‘virtuous’ and ‘fēng’ (风) means ‘wind’. Like Ji, the surname Zhāng (张) had no meaning.
At 18, Mrs Zhang attended the prestigious Shanghai Conservatory of Music where she studied composition with min’ge changfa (民歌唱法) – a traditional type of folk singing sung high-pitched with dramatic, powerful lyrics.
It was something I got to witness at KTV night. Karaoke establishments differ in China in that groups book a private room for themselves.
It’s not ‘idol night’ at your local damp pub ran by landlord Les. There’s no cheap light display and the constant screeching of feedback.
There’s room service and the interiors can vary from a multi-coloured futuristic space shuttle to a glitzy New York penthouse apartment.
Following my forced renditions of Coldplay and The Beatles, Mrs Zhang would hog the mic and blast out highly emotive, upbeat traditional songs.
This one is about the hot-tempered girls from Sichuan province and their ability to eat very spicy food.
She’d sway and gesture with her hands imagining she was a famous Chinese singer on the last night of a tour.
After each performance Lanlan and I would stand and applaud while she’d bowed. Her friends wiping away their tears and running to hug her.
Mrs Zhang managed two branches of the Liu Shikun Arts Centres in downtown Guangzhou. There were 60 across the country attached to the 72-year-old musician Liu Shikun – a Chinese national treasure and world-renowned concert pianist.
Liu became one of China’s top concert performers until 1966, when the country was shaken by the Cultural Revolution and the infamous ‘Gang of Four’ (a group of evil high ranking Chinese Communist Party officials that included Mao Zedong’s wife).
Western music was banned and along with thousands of other artists and intellectuals Liu was sent to prison for six years. Not before the Red Guard apparently broke both his wrists and hands.
Needless to say, he was something of an idol among young and old pianists and his rare visits to branches were nothing short of the Second Coming.
Mrs Zhang’s monthly salary as a manager was a decent RMB10,000 but she would tutor students herself for extra money. A close friend had also set up a piano school and Mrs Zhang ran that one on the side.
It was hard to know where I stood with Lanlan’s mother, and our dynamic would cause much interest to my mum and dad 6,000 miles away in the idyllic English countryside.
Mrs Zhang was an invaluable aid, guiding me through my residence permits and local police station registration – even lending me the flat deposit of three month’s rent.
Each time I slept over the following morning would involve the stuffing routine, followed by a lavishing of gifts.
Before each item was retrieved from her grocery bag, Mrs Zhang repeated the same line from her favourite composition, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.
‘De de de derrr…’
Magnum ice cream bars.
‘De de de derrr…’
Ten packets of roasted seaweed sheets.
‘De de de derrr…’
Twenty cartons of red bean milk.
She had even bought a plastic blue tub which she placed next to my bed when I was out.
At first I thought it was a sick bucket and a sly dig at the amount of alcohol she thought I drank. But I soon realised it was a commode, offered because Lanlan mentioned I was up and down each night peeing.
Since she had a set of keys to my flat, the fridge would always be stocked with beer, baozi and peanut M&Ms like a magical hotel minibar. She even went to the trouble of paying a cobbler to re-heel my Ted Baker brogues. That didn’t turn out too great when she handed them back with an added two-inches.
I felt like Prince for months and spent hours walking the community loop in an effort to wear down the rubber. I just wanted to return to my normal height.
Friends kept suggesting the generosity was visa-related with both ridicule and a worrying dose of realism.
‘You’re her ticket to the West.’
‘Yeah, yeah, fuck off, mate,’ I’d say.
‘She’ll be moving in next, Simon.’
‘No she won’t, nan.’
But her kindness did come at a price and Mrs Zhang made sure each favour was repaid.
For Lanlan’s mother, everything had a price.
The morning after Lanlan and I first slept together, Mrs Zhang told her that men like to receive ‘the blowjob’ (chuī xiāo 吹箫, literally ‘play the vertical flute’).
And there was no way she would give one unless her partner was willing to hand over at least RMB50,000…each time.
I teased Lanlan by asking her what she’d charge for different sexual favours. But she took it seriously and reeled off her prices like an honest escort.
For weeks after she covered the flat deposit, Mrs Zhang escorted me from one bank to another trying to find one that could deal with Western accounts.
‘We bussed around the city, stopping off at street-side restaurants for bowls of dumpling soup to replenish electrolytes’
She would get the money one way or another.
Evening meals ended with Lanlan issuing the same thinly veiled request: ‘My mother would like to take you shopping tomorrow for snacks and beer.’
‘Oh right, okay, sure,’ I said.
‘You must bring your bank card, passport and proof of address including any utility bills,’ Lanlan added.
Her mother and I hit all the banks, including China’s ‘Big Four’ (and the world’s) – International and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), Bank of China, China Construction Bank Corporation and the Agricultural Bank of China (ABC).
Mrs Zhang would wait on the bank steps while I went inside to the counter. She insisted that rather than simply try the ATM I wait in line to speak to a cashier to give the best chance of a withdrawal.
Branches that days earlier accepted my Barclays card would for no reason decline it, so an outing to collect the money of the deposit became an afternoon adventure.
We bussed around the city, stopping off at street-side restaurants for bowls of dumpling soup to replenish electrolytes.
Out of survival she’d developed a heightened sense of paranoia. Nothing must be trusted and everything viewed with suspicion.
One morning, at 5am, I woke to Lanlan standing at the end of the bed. She was naked.
‘I am ill, I think I should see the doctor,’ she said.
I followed her out of the room and into the toilet. I watched her hover over our squat bowl passing cloudy pee tinged with red.
I told her she more than likely had cystitis – and we could go to the doctors in the morning.
I presented her with a red plastic tub of 250 triple-strength Holland and Barrett Cranberry capsules that I’d brought from the UK, but she looked at me as if I had offered her a Yorkshire Pudding.
I tried to reassure her by first pointing to a bowl full of fruit and then to the word ‘home remedies’ on an NHS cystitis webpage.
I’m not sure what worried her more, the idea of taking an unknown tablet or the fear of having to take something for something.
Like when faced with any language issues I turned to Google Translate, and gasps of realisation followed. Lanlan snatched the tub and ran to her mother’s flat across the hallway.
Ten minutes later I called her mobile asking what the verdict was. She responded in a whisper: ‘My mother told me I should not eat your drugs.’
‘They’re not drugs. Hold on, why am I whispering? Sweetheart they’re not drugs. They’re high-quality cranberry tablets. Cheeky sod,’ I said.
‘As liberal as she was about her daughter staying with me, she was almost medieval when it came to healthcare’
After dining on all the mushrooms and trees of the Far East with each unknown fungus, branch or organ apparently doing good to some part of my body, dismissing Holland and Barrett felt a little narrow-minded.
But for Mrs Zhang the strange capsules and English writing on the side of the tub compelled her to protect Lanlan. As liberal as she was about her daughter staying with me, she was almost medieval when it came to healthcare.
She didn’t believe in vaccinations for example.
For many in China, Western medicine is seen as a sort of bulldozer treatment that though works – immediately – has too many negative effects to be trusted.
Lanlan would explain, ‘Chinese medicine has no side effects.’
‘Almost darling, it has no effects,’ I’d reply.
Lanlan’s cystitis settled down by the morning but her mother’s response after the incident was to update her social media accounts with: ‘物极必反’– an ancient proverb that means ‘extremes are dangerous’.
‘You could be the great man. You could be the one. You could be a legend English teacher.’
Jardo stood up, put his hand on my shoulder and nodded.
‘Yes. This role. It is your…’
He showed me a translation on his mobile:
‘Mìngyùn, (命运) – Fate.’
‘My fate?’ I said.
‘Yes, your…fat’, he said smiling.
It sounded like the rumblings of a revolution and he was intense to the point of ‘now water can flow…or it can crash…be water my friend’.
Mrs Zhang sat opposite. Though she couldn’t understand, she nodded slowly with her eyes closed.
To her the decision was obvious.
Jardo, who worked in the marketing department at Chow Tai Fook jewellers, had returned from a business trip.
We were having a meal as a way to getting to know each other. He was my height but much slimmer with the constant look of a mischievous gecko.
He had plans for a tour of Guangzhou where I would make speeches and lessons in shopping plazas in an attempt to drum-up custom. There was a print-out plan handed over complete with a variety of potential slogans in Chinese.
‘He assured me that “with your big British face” soon adults and children would be sending love letters’
My protesting was dismissed with further promises. He kept referencing a figure named Li Yang as the ‘greatest person’ of English teachers.
He assured me that ‘with your big British face’ soon adults and children would be asking for autographs and sending love letters. They would travel thousands of miles for days across the country to attend my lessons…in stadiums. I would soon be able to charge whatever for one-to-one sessions.
Jardo framed the lessons not as a chance for extra income while building my freelancing work, but an opportunity to be a ‘shining entrepreneur’.
He was close to jumping on my back trying to ride me to teacher stardom.
It was pointless trying to resist taking up the lessons. That night as Lanlan and I walked the lanes of the complex, she said: ‘You’ll be teaching Precious and Happy twice a week. Don’t worry my brother has sorted everything out for you.’
‘Sorry. Hold on. Happy and Precious? Sounds like a dating bio.’
Lanlan tutted and explained Happy was a five-year-old piano prodigy.
‘He has won millions of piano contests. He has won the Outstanding Youth Pianist competition. He has won the Shanghai Rachmaninoff Competition for Young Pianists. He has won the Beijing International Piano Competition for Juniors…’
‘Happy, due to his health, was not expected to reach his 21st birthday’
And then the list of his health problems began. Each one explained using terminology that would put Dr House to shame.
Happy suffered from chondropathy – a disease of the cartilage associated with his dwarfism. There was also his amblyopia (lazy eye), asthma and poor hearing.
‘Happy? Someone was taking the piss with that name,’ I said.
She thumped me in the chest and continued.
‘I must warn you. He will have to go to Raffles Hospital in Singapore often. Many times. For treatment.’
Happy, due to his health, was not expected to reach his 21st birthday.
Happy turned out to be the most engaging, charming character I ever met in China. He reminded me of the child actor that played Renee Zellweger’s son in the movie Jerry Maguire – playful, mature and undeniably happy.
After mentioning in passing to Happy’s mother I drank coffee, the kid would bolt into the flat with handfuls of OldTown Mountain coffee sachets.
The brand, though Malaysian, was popular throughout Singapore and his mother would stock up at the airport on their return flights.
Together we worked through lessons I’d downloaded from the internet and tweaked.
‘Do you want a grande or regular?’ I said.
‘Make it a venti,’ he said.
‘No worries. Room for milk?’ I said.
‘No ta. Cheers. Can I pay by card? You take AMEX don’t you?’ he said.
Happy would repeat English words and phrases in my Manchester accent. ‘I’ll have an Americaaaano, please, mate.’
I had a vision of him appearing on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon when he cracked the US. After a stunning rendition of Mozart he’d turn to the host and let the US hear him for the first time: ‘Alright Jimmy, nice one, nice one, how’s it going pal?’
Out of embarrassment and pride his mother would drag him to Mrs Zhang’s apartment across the hallway and dump him in front of the upright piano.
It was impressive to watch Happy perform advanced pieces like Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 or Chopin’s Sonata No.3. especially in his physical condition.
Because of his short stature he had to sit very low to reach the pedals which forced him to hold his arms high above his head in a surrender position.
He learnt each piece by heart yet the sheer strangeness of the performance gave each rendition the feel of a magic trick.
The rest of us would applaud at the child ripping through pieces that a seasoned pro would struggle with.
My other student was Precious, the seven-year-old daughter of the piano academy owner and Mrs Zhang’s boss.
She was a little shit and the cause of a major bust-up.
Whereas Happy and his mother came straight to the apartment, teaching Precious was nothing short of a presidential meeting.
The lessons took place at irregular times, with little to no notice, and at either one of the centre’s branches.
There was also the requirement sprung on me the morning of my first lesson. I was to teach classes dressed as Gaston – the villain from the animated Disney classic Beauty and the Beast.
He was Precious’s favourite character and therefore it was non-negotiable.
Lanlan ordered a costume but there was a mix up with the sizing and the character. Instead of a red shirt with gold lapels, a dashing belt and buckle, I was given a vest, baggy pants and a fez.
Dressed like Aladdin’s rent boy the plan was to teach Precious by painting the alphabet tens of times. Each letter a different animal.
But the outfit turned out to be pointless. When I entered the classroom on my first day I was issued with a giant painting smock to protect my Delhi street rags.
‘There was no chance of my losing integrity: in my new outfit I didn’t have any’
Imagine Aladdin doing some cooking.
Lanlan warned not to score any of Precious’s paintings lower than 85 per cent or it would be a great loss of face. There was no chance of me losing integrity: in my new outfit I didn’t have any.
Precious’s mother sat at the back of the room repeating every word I was getting her daughter to learn.
She was the picture of a spoilt brat. A Willy Wonka Golden ticket winner. Veruca Salt’s Asian clone complete with the bow and a Louis Vuitton handbag.
‘Daddy, I want another pony.’
‘Yeah, yeah, fuck off, Precious,’ I thought.
After the first lesson, Miss Chen told Mrs Zhang that she couldn’t understand my accent. A loud, mainstream American voice was preferable. I had to get rid of anything too British, especially anything not Oxbridge.
To cope, Gaston immediately developed a thick New York twang. But that was no use and as the lessons progressed I had to fade in and out of the accents across America. Think Ross and the lecturing episode.
I covered all the states from Massachusetts to California, stopping off in the Deep South but the complaints continued.
I argued that my half-blind, half-deaf other student Happy was coming on superbly. He’d conquered tenses, time, numbers to one hundred, colours and even conditionals.
Precious, two years older, was struggling getting further than ‘F’ in the alphabet and identifying shapes.
‘Precious? She’s not precious enough to be a little shit,’ I said one lunch during a heated argument with Mrs Zhang.
‘There’s nothing wrong with my accent. This is how we speak in England…where English is from,’ I said.
Precious’s mother said she had no idea what I was saying.
‘Mrs Zhang had taken a down payment of RMB10,000 guaranteeing at least 50 lessons with Gaston the coffee lover’
I shouted at Lanlan, ‘Hold on. She doesn’t even speak English!’
Mrs Zhang fired a comment at Lanlan.
‘She said the way you say school is difficult to understand,’ Lanlan explained.
‘School.’ I said.
‘It is not too clear,’ she replied.
‘School,’ I said.
‘It sounded muddy,’ Lanlan replied.
‘Scho…na, na, fucking forget this. I’m out.’
Cancelling the lessons was the cause of a great rift between the three of us.
Mrs Zhang had taken a downpayment of RMB10,000 from both Happy and Precious’s parents guaranteeing them 50 lessons with Gaston the coffee lover from America.
And those were the only two students I knew of. I learnt my name had been touted all over the school with deposits handed over guaranteeing a packed calendar of classes for a range of age groups.
And yes, I’d be happy to dress-up as any character in demand, a Power Ranger, Iron Man, Thor and, of course, Harry Potter.
Mrs Zhang had already taken bookings for at least 20 kids and arranged my classes.
If I went back on the school’s offer, they’d have to pay back the advances from the parents. Money the school had already spent.
I tried to calm Mrs Zhang by telling Lanlan that I’d continue Precious’s classes for another three weeks but that’s all, no more Gaston.
Happy vanished to Singapore for a major operation on his spine and I never saw him again.
Lanlan told me that her mother was trying to help me build good ‘guanxi’. That connecting with the wealthy parents would stand me in good stead for a life in China.
It was a word I’d heard with increasing frequency but in my ignorance dismissed it as irrelevant to a foreigner.
That was a mistake and I’d very soon come to see the power of guanxi and, how, if used well, it could change your life.
If you’re in China long enough, sooner or later the word ‘guanxi’ (关系) will crop up in conversation.
The word translates roughly to ‘relationship’, ‘connections’, ‘pulling strings’ and refers to developing networks, by the giving of gifts or performing favours.
It’s vital for survival and a must for anyone trying to get to grips with the culture.
To the outsider, guanxi would be considered bribing but you should think of it loosely as ‘nothing comes for free’ on steroids.
Anyone – regardless of class, age or profession – can participate in guanxi.
The crucial thing to remember is to show the right amount of respect to those who are and know they’re influential, and unlike good old-fashioned bribing, valuable guanxi can take years to develop.
Among the basics of money and luxury foreign items to gift there was a strict list of rules.
For example, it would be careless to write out a greeting card in red ink.
In ancient times, a death row criminal’s name was written in chicken blood, and this later evolved to being written in red ink. Thus, in all official records, the names of death-sentence criminals appeared in vermillion.
‘Any gift should be received with both hands as a cultural way of showing respect and politeness’
It was said that Yán Wáng (阎王), the god of death and king of hell in Chinese mythology, also marked people about to come down to hell in red.
So ‘Dear John, I hope you’re getting better’ might as well read ‘See you in hell pal’.
And any gift should be received with both hands as a cultural way of showing respect and politeness.
It’s customary also for the recipient to decline the present while the giver repeatedly insisted.
I’d often seen Mrs Zhang given gifts when I was at the piano academy. A couple would present her with an extravagant item for helping their child pass a piano test. But the item would be thrust back at the parents at least five times before she finally accepted.
This extreme politeness, especially in public, was an important way of showing respect between people you may need.
Out of pure survival, Mrs Zhang had made guanxi into an art form.
She was Guangzhou’s queen of guanxi. Her position as gatekeeper to prestigious piano masters put her in contact with influential and wealthy families desperate to better their child.
Throughout my three years in China, Mrs Zhang and I would have major cultural clashes, the biggest over someone’s life, but her working of the Chinese societal system for survival was something else.
Lanlan called her mother’s flat the post office. Her mother was the postmaster. The flat was filled with half-opened parcels and packages sent from the wealthy parents of students.
They were keen to not only be assigned more lessons per week but also the best piano masters Mrs Zhang had on her books.
‘The pod looked like something Tony Stark used to unwind at the end of a tough day – still wearing his Iron Man suit’
The contents ranged from the ridiculous to the absurd, from imported Leonidas Belgian chocolates, special edition Marlboros, single malt Scotch to concert tickets for touring Western bands.
Foot bath machines were popular items too. They were relatively inexpensive but appreciated because of the belief that bathing one’s feet before bedtime was good for circulation.
Flat 904 looked like the contraband pantry at a German POW camp. And each item was repackaged and ranked for a specific recipient.
One day I walked in to find the 5’ 2” woman encased in a Zero Gravity Gintell 3D PRO massage chair. The contraption was used as a home massage system, a gadget the Chinese had fallen in love with due to its both hi-tech and holistic features.
The pod looked like something Tony Stark used to unwind at the end of a tough day saving the world – still wearing his nickel-titanium Iron Man suit.
The advice from Paul was that guanxi was a Chinese phenomenon that is a major source of confusion and frustration for international companies to fully understand.
On the ground, however, I felt guanxi didn’t discriminate and was open to anyone who wanted to play. The Jumanji of Chinese culture.
But there were those who were angry at its unfair advantages.
Those too bound by their country’s approach to networking and in turn never got to experience guanxi’s full potential.
While I was embracing China with polite and respectful hands, there were those dying to get out.
‘Look. Please. You don’t understand.’
‘No. Oi. Wait. No. No.’
‘You have to do something.’
The girl was emptying her pockets of ticket stubs, crumpled receipts and metro maps.
‘Listen. I have to leave. I have to.’
Dumping the rubbish on the check-in counter, she rummaged through the heap in an attempt to find her passport.
I recognised Zoe as the same girl I’d seen during my three-day stint as an English master. She was the girl that put 100 per cent into her Hanson MMMBop routine’s each morning to get the kids warmed up for the day.
I didn’t think now would be a good time for a catch-up.
The man behind the counter couldn’t care less about her dilemma. In textbook English he explained she must contact the British Embassy, to which she responded by howling.
The next stage was circling her trolley in an effort to reboot her memory. This did nothing to calm the customers next in line who wheeled an inch closer with every cycle. A family of four came so close they blocked her looping, but Zoe responded by going wider.
‘Bras, adaptor plugs, trinkets of laughing Buddhas, terracotta warriors and decorative chopsticks spilt onto the marble’
It was Chinese New Year and Lanlan was taking a flight to visit her father and grandmother in Fuzhou city.
I had gone with her to the airport and she’d already gone through to the gates before I came across Zoe.
Lanlan had forgotten that liquids over 200ml must be put in checked baggage. The security officer was less than pleased when he pulled out the gift for her father from her rucksack – a 700ml bottle of Hennessy XO Cognac.
Only a week earlier we’d read a story that had gone viral of a woman necking an entire bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label after being told she could not carry it in her hand luggage. The reality of it being confiscated was too much to handle. Someone would not be getting a gift.
Ironically the police and airline staff at Beijing Capital International Airport decided the woman was too drunk to fly and she was prevented from boarding.
Lanlan called my name over three security checkpoints pointing frantically at the officer. He was scratching at the corner of a label. A basic test to see if the alcohol is counterfeit.
I signed a document written in Chinese. Presumably it prevented him being accused of stealing the alcohol and that I now had possession of it.
Clutching the embossed bottle like a shield I walked back to the check out counters and saw Zoe. After the circling she opened her suitcase and flipped it upside, revealing the contents of her suitcase.
Bras, adaptor plugs, trinkets of laughing Buddhas, terracotta warriors and decorative chopsticks spilt onto the marble.
The passport was found, wedged between colouring books and lesson plans. She had to wipe off crayons, stars and glitter to satisfy the check-in worker. The man nodded reluctantly before slipping a boarding pass inside the passport and handing it back.
‘She soon struggled to cope with the daily stresses of dealing with the progression of the diseases’
She thanked the gods of the world in relief, before bowing repeatedly and tiptoeing backwards.
I had barely spoken to Zoe while working at the kindergarten. She was always on edge, uneasy and part-way through any corridor chat would break away to chain smoke in the playground.
Zoe used to work as a social worker in care-homes in Scotland, tending to sufferers in advanced stages of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
She soon struggled to cope with the daily stresses of dealing with the progression of the diseases, and witnessing what, maybe, was in store for her.
Glasgow was abandoned for Guangzhou. But in her first week in China, she paid £200 for a flight to Hanoi, Vietnam.
She never made it to the airport. She told me, ‘I just felt I was running away from something, but I didn’t know what it was.’
Three months later and back at Guangzhou Baiyun International airport, she was trying for Hanoi again and this time wasn’t going to fail.
Almost all expats declared themselves ‘out’ for Chinese New Year, either fleeing to the islands of Thailand or taking a long-haul flight back to their homeland.
The few that were staying mumbled with flat faces that they couldn’t afford to leave, that the city would empty overnight and they were ‘fucking stuck here’.
I was stuck in the city too but entertainment came straight to my doorstep that both enraged and delighted residents in equal measure.
41. The cultural significance of a red G-string on New Year’s
Ask any veteran expat living in China about Chinese New Year and the same fact is trotted out: ‘It’s the largest annual human migration in the world.’
But they are right. The sheer mass of movement is so vast it’s on a par with the oceans’ zooplankton that rise to the surface then sink every single each day.
To mark the longest holiday of the year, around 385million Chinese people leave the major cities to visit their families in rural parts of the country. By comparison, a pathetic 50million Americans cross states on Thanksgiving.
‘Men and women wear adult diapers for train rides uncertain that they’ll be able to shove their way to the toilet’
Airports jammed and station platforms became surging masses of people trying to get to mum, dad and the grandparents. Men and women wear adult diapers for train rides uncertain that they’ll be able to shove their way to the toilet.
Shots of the crowds always feature in the international news.
The headlines run…
‘In pictures: Millions of Chinese begin exodus…
‘Forget Thanksgiving! Lunar New Year Sees World’s Largest Annual Migration…
‘New Year travel rush starts in China…
Based on the Lunar Calendar, the Spring Festival usually falls at the end of January and last for around two weeks.
And this year, 2012, would be my year, the year of the dragon – the only Chinese zodiac animal that represents a mythical creature and the mightiest of all the signs. Full of dominance, independence and ambition, nothing could go wrong this year for this dragon.
If the coming year is your animal, it’s suggested to wear red. The colour acts as a shield against bad luck in Chinese philosophy.
But given that wearing red for an entire year can play havoc on your outfit choices, going with red underwear was the easier choice.
‘We all agreed that the g-string did not suit my “buttocks”‘
What’s more, red undies bought by someone else adds to its power.
On the days leading up to the Spring Festival, Mrs Zhang delivered boxes of deep red XL underwear, from briefs, boxer briefs, trunks to boxer shorts and trunks. There were even jockstraps, leggings and, for reasons unknown, g-strings. There was enough to last a lifetime of dragon years.
Lanlan urged me to send photos of myself modelling the underwear, which I did. And in turn Mrs Zhang sent me her top three favourite shots courtesy of Lanlan.
We all agreed that the g-string did not suit my ‘buttocks’.
With Lanlan visiting relatives, and the city centre now a ghost town, I passed through the holiday on my own. Even Oli had gone back to east London.
Sat on one of the wicker chairs in my red underwear, I’d smoke, drink and watch residents of the complex illegally set off firecrackers.
Guangzhou was the first city in China to ban fireworks. Regulations issued in June 1992 banned fireworks from being set off in the major districts. There had been too many injuries and fires not to mention massive amounts of public money spent on celebrations.
What’s more is that nationwide the top ten worst polluted cities in China hit their peak smog levels on the eve and early morning of Lunar New Year.
‘Carparks, town squares and badminton courts turn into mini battlegrounds. Locals versus hellish monsters’
The high figure was caused mainly by vast quantities of pyrotechnics being set off.
Doctors often report a rise in respiratory issues such as severe asthma attacks during the festivities.
Yet China’s obsession with fireworks runs deep. Not only are fireworks something the Chinese invented – along with gunpowder – but they are viewed as a way to chase away the Nian.
The Nian is a mythological beast lives that under the sea or in mountains and awakens once a year to feed on grain, livestock and any wandering children.
Fortunately the horned demon is intimidated by loud noises. Drums, music and explosions do the trick of telling it to fuck off. Thus the tradition of scaring away evil spirits with firecrackers became embedded in the Lunar New Year celebration.
And so where it is difficult for law enforcement to monitor, fireworks remain popular in rural villages, smaller cities and suburbs.
Carparks, town squares and badminton courts turn into mini battlegrounds. Locals versus hellish monsters.
As the sun set, I’d position myself on my balcony – different lucky underwear each night – feet up against the iron railing.
In the dusk residents would dart into central courtyards carrying giant rolls of cranberry red firecrackers.
Then they’d deploy them like police officers launching strip spikes to disable a joyrider.
‘Kuai dian la, kuai dian!’ (快点, faster) they shouted to one another. On bended knee they’d take their cigarette and light the fuses.
Out of frustration and camaraderie those watching from balconies lit lines of firecrackers, leaning over the balconies and whipping them back and forth.
Crazed towel boys forcing tips from terrified customers.
Wives screamed and squatted behind their husbands but the men snapped the explosives harder. Mental. Frantic. Frenzied.
The courtyard erupted in waves of anger as disturbed residents yelled out. Great slanging matches would ricochet over the complex as one family threatened another.
And then a great payload would silence the rabble. Someone, from the smoke, would set off four Tai Pan wrecking balls. The 3inch shell rockets produced repeat golden palms with each bang a starter pistol to the eardrum.
Window panes shook and showers scored direct hits on penthouse balconies. The smell of sulphur filled the air.
When the noise stopped, I would whoop and jeer, waving an enormous Union Jack flag over my balcony in my red g-string.
‘Woohoo mutha fuckas. Happy New Year.
‘I was born in a crossfire hurricane
‘And I howled at the morning driving rain
‘But it’s all right now, in fact it’s a gas
‘But it’s all right now, in fact, I’m Jumpin Jack Flash…
Enter the dragon.
‘It’s nearly your turn,’ Lanlan said. She’d returned from visiting her family over Chinese New Year.
I turned my head, to the wall with the screen. It was a queue management system with numbers formed by red LEDs – the same used on scoreboards at an ice hockey match.
I was trying to break my record on Temple Run – an endless running game where you play an Indiana Jones-type character. You’ve just escaped from an Aztec temple and a gang of monkeys are on your tail.
Buried by Chinese characters SIMON EDWARD SMITH rocketed up the queue while I collected coins, jumped ravines and respawned.
‘He’s got a set of lungs on him this lad, hasn’t he? Awesome stamina. Imagine him at your local 10km fun run,’ I said, but Lanlan wasn’t listening.
Her mother had called on her wealthy well-connected clients who’d set up appointments and treatments with respected doctors across the city. I was about to meet one of them.
My prostate was giving me real problems, and Mrs Zhang was determined to fix it.
‘I assumed the position of Michael Palin in conversation with Stephen Fry at a village book festival’
Lanlan grabbed my shoulder. ‘Okay, dumbo, it’s you,’ she said.
We entered the consultation room – smoke-filled with the decor and furnishings of a 1950’s boarding school changing room. All fittings were wooden and the walls painted a light green to the wooden cornice half way up.
The doctor didn’t look up, still dealing with a patient stood next to him.
I took a seat in front of the desk. Lanlan sat next to me.
I assumed the position of Michael Palin in conversation with Stephen Fry at a village book festival. Arms resting above the head, a mild slouch, one beige chino crossed over the other. Jesus sandals gently dropping.
The patient in front bowed rapidly, said something, then left.
‘Okay great. Good morning doctor, thank you for seeing me, my pelvic pain started around three years ago. I was in the pub with my close friend Jacob, drinking a local brown ale and I felt…’
The doctor glared at Lanlan then at me.
‘Hmm. Errr. Simon. Be…faster,’ she said.
‘How long do I have?’
‘Hmmm, 15 or 20.’
‘15 minutes?’ I said.
‘Yes. No. Not minutes. Metres,’ she said.
‘My appointment is 15 metres?’
‘15 ermm. How to say. Seconds.’
‘The doctor has around 60 people to see today,’ she said.
Fuck this, I thought.
I leant forward. Elbows on thighs. Tom Cruise Scientology promotional video intensity.
‘Right. Listen. Pain. Penis and bum. Need to pee a lot.’
I pointed to the appropriate parts on my body.
Lanlan interpreted pointing at my body as well. I felt like I was being accused of molesting a child in a police interview.
The doctor handed over a prescription at the same time Mrs Zhang burst into the room. She was wielding a hamper, swinging it from side to side to bat away encroaching patients.
Inside were cartons of Super 5 cigarettes, dragonfruit and several fanned out copies of the magazines I’d written for – the ultimate guanxi starter pack.
‘Mrs Zhang nodded from behind in complete bliss, as if listening to a 1960’s Irish Catholic priest imparting advice on how to cleanse the soul’
She dumped it on the desk and stood behind the urologist.
Without stopping writing, Dr Wu placed the basket on the floor next to his chair. He slapped my history folder shut and threw it back across the table.
He then spoke. Not in the tone of a family doctor but a lecturer. Not open to Q&As or discussion.
Mrs Zhang nodded from behind in complete bliss, as if listening to a 1960’s Irish Catholic priest imparting advice on how to cleanse the soul of impure thoughts. To her, his advice was gospel.
Lanlan quickly interpreted.
‘You must drink the tea,’ she said.
‘Ok. Drink the tea.’
‘And take the Western drugs,’ she said.
‘Okay, take the medicine.’
‘And he wants to massage your prostate three times. Here,’ she said.
‘Okay, puppet practise three times a week. Go on,’ I said.
‘And get married,’ she said.
‘Come again. What? Get married?’
‘Your problem. It will get better when you get a wife,’ Lanlan said.
‘Fuck off. Why?’ I said.
‘A wife will give you the routine and stability your prostate needs.’
‘So, to recap. Herbal tea, drugs, a massage and marriage.’
‘You got it,’ Lanlan said.
‘Yes, he said this disease. It will not affect your inseminating ability.’
‘Okay. That’s the wedding night covered then. Let’s go.’
Since I’d told Lanlan about my swollen prostate, her mother had made it her sole mission in life to find a cure.
But it wasn’t an easy route to playing sock puppet for Guangzhou’s number one urologist.
There had been many false starts.
There was the neurologist Dr Huang, for example. He showed me pictures of what at first I thought were his family. But I soon realised he was on Baidu (China’s Google) images, and had entered ‘laughing children’ in the search bar.
Photos of kids chuckling with face paint or classrooms of pupils in hysterics popped up. The neurologist couldn’t get enough. He chuckled into a slouch imitating the children’s faces.
This guy is fucking mental, I thought. Surely he’s lost his mind…and his medical license.
He took out a length of rubber tubing from a desk draw. He pulled them tight saying these were my muscles. He then nodded at the images and let the tubing flop.
Why does he have those in that drawer, I thought. But in his own way, he was trying to tell me to unwind.
I looked at him and he looked eagerly back at me. It was the same stare as the ayi with her chicken feet, willing me to get involved with the approach.
We clicked through thousands of images.
‘Imagining myself as a floppy, relaxed tube didn’t help my range of urinary symptoms. I was still needing to pee every ten minutes’
Once we’d exhausted the internet, we moved onto the family albums. He produced an iPad and we delved into various personal folders. From a recent holiday in Tibet with his wife and two young sons to a 1990s summer trip to Madrid, we covered all the great memories.
We finished the therapy session with a hundred selfies of Dr Huang exploring Shanghai’s tourist attractions during a neurology conference. Each one was accompanied with the mantra: ‘See. No worry. Smile. Care no thing.’
But imagining myself as a floppy, relaxed tube didn’t help my range of urinary symptoms. I was still needing to pee every ten minutes. The urge to go was accompanied with the feeling of a nail through my penis.
A few weeks later I found myself lying on the reception of Nanfang Hospital with no one to call or for help.
But, this time, it wasn’t my prostate. It was something that trumped the sensation of a bolt through the cock.
From past experience I knew a stone was rattling around a kidney, specifically my left kidney.
Lanlan was at an internship in another city and each one of my Chinese-speaking friends were not answering.
Unless you’re about to die, all patients must go through an agonisingly complex process to get seen to.
Patients must first register, for a small fee, to set up an account if they are new to the hospital.
The counter you collect your patient history folder and card is, of course, a different kiosk to where you register.
After you’ve explained your problem, a ticket is issued and you’re told to head to a waiting room for triage. Again, this is usually on a different floor at the other side of the hospital. After a basic assessment a nurse will tell you which doctor you need to see.
Then the process starts again when you’re taken to a cashier to pay for the specialist.
At this point you’re left wondering if it might be less painful to go home and quietly slip away.
‘Anything less than a severed limb and you’ll have to wait on one of the benches outside, whatever state you’re in’
In China nurses and doctors abandon their posts and go for lunch between 12am – 14pm. If you have an emergency and come in midday, you’ll have to wait whatever state you’re in. The entire hospital shuts down as food comes before misfortune. It is impossible to find a member of staff, let alone someone trained in medicine.
Anything less than a severed limb and you’ll have to wait on one of the benches outside, whatever state you’re in.
Curled up on the reception floor with janitors mopping around me, it was two hours before I was lifted to my feet and dragged to the back of the hospital.
Major hospitals in China’s first-tier cities have a VIP wing where patients, usually expats, can expect greater privacy, shorter wait times, and staff with better English.
Within 15 minutes I was stretched out on an X-Ray table. A card machine was shoved in my face and I was told to punch in my pin. Payment – minus prescriptions – is always taken before, and often during treatment.
What if I didn’t have any fucking cash on me I thought. I’d have to crawl home to get my wallet.
In a stoop I was bounced from one department to another. At the ‘Ordinary Blood Drawing Room’ and ‘Urine Deposit Closet’ samples were given. I went for an ultrasound and made at least five separate trips to the cashier’s office.
The last stop was the ‘Emergency Observation Room’ – a lounge where patients are hooked up to IV drips in wooden deckchairs.
I found a free recliner and slumped into it.
When the stone scraped down my urethra I fell to my knees and starting wailing.
A passing nurse giggled and I clasped her ankles and said ‘Bāng bāng wǒ! Nǐ tā mā de shénjīngbìng!’ (Help me! You fucking nutter!’).
She continued to laugh and took out a phone to take both profile and landscape shots. On the tenth shot I forced a smile while looking up from floor level.
What’s the fucking caption going to be on that photo? I thought.
After more begging the nurse offered a děng yīxià (等一下, wait a moment).
‘Anything less than a severed limb and you’ll have to wait on one of the benches outside, whatever state you’re in’
I was led back to the VIP wing – drip slung over my shoulder – and asked to pay RMB8 (75p). As a receipt churned out the card machine a doctor appeared and began tugging at my pants.
I took a stab in the dark at what the plan was and showed an arsecheek. The doctor stabbed me with a needle and pressed the plunger.
Though kidney stones would entitle a sufferer in a UK A&E swift access to a morphine drip, China’s dark past with opium means the painkiller is primarily reserved for managing cancer pain.
The Opium Wars instilled a belief that any opioids from morphine to Fentanyl can damage the brain and decrease your IQ. The fear was that a standard co-codamol prescription for toothache could turn you into a stupid addicted wreck.
The §audid injection the doctor stuck me with is a relative of morphine but seven times stronger. It was made infamous in the West when following Michael Jackson’s death it was revealed The King of Pop was taking daily drug cocktails: Dilaudid was one of his go-to mixers.
It was why several nurses and a doctor had to be present when the drug was administered.
I’d also had to sign a waiver (in Chinese) stating I’d understood the potential risks.
The painkiller worked rapidly and the donkey kick that had spread across my back softened. While I was floating down a river of bliss with the Buddha, I thought now would be a good time to collect Dr Wu’s prostate prescription.
In Chinese hospitals there are two types of dispensaries to collect prescribed medicine.
One, if you want the typical Western-style of remedy, such as beta blockers, corticosteroids or antidepressants etc. Behind that counter it looks like your average drugstore. Racks and complex shelving systems of medicines ending in cillin, mycin, or xacin in little paper bags.
There is also another counter that issues herbal medication. Behind this counter are filing cabinets stocked with traditional medicines of mushrooms, leaves, or dried items that can be crushed, stripped or clipped.
Patients are handed plastic bags packed out like pom poms.
Each prescription comes with directions on how to prepare the herbs whether steeped, boiled, steamed, applied or swallowed raw.
Dr Wu’s recipe for my massive prostate was several weeks worth of herbs. The equivalent of around ten pom poms.
My prescription included the likes of Artemisia anomala S. Moore, Semen Litchi, and Taraxacum mongolicum Hand.-Mazz, ancient remedies with supposedly anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties.
The bitter potion had to be boiled in a pan of water then left to simmer. I did this twice a day and the result produced a disgusting brew somewhere in taste between steeped tree bark chips and a pint of stale ale.
China was breaking down my reservations.
The months in Guangzhou rolled on. Past New year, past Chinese New Year, moving into an apartment and more visits to my urologist – the amateur ventriloquist.
To quieten the screaming I’d taken using my community swipe card as a gag.
The humidity rose, along with my acceptance of China as home. Emails came through from my brother saying he was ‘just settling down with a Corona to watch [his] new favourite TV show, Lost’.
Also that the ‘new MI4 is good. Story is weak, but Tom Cruise is the man!’ TripAdvisor was a new website I should check out too.
My parents wanted to fly out soon but couldn’t be ‘sure if it would be before or after our holiday to Las Vegas. You might have to wait until you come here to see us’.
‘Paul had gone AWOL again on a recent trip to Melbourne. Lindsey lay awake each night at the campsite waiting for his return’
Over coffee with Lindsey – as fate would have it at the same one I learnt of Paul’s disappearance that weekend – she said she was considering leaving Paul and taking the kids.
Paul had gone AWOL again on a recent trip to Melbourne. Lindsey lay awake each night at the campsite waiting for his return.
In the middle of the night she could hear him stumble and fumble his way to the tent, punctuated with whispers of ‘fuck off mate, wrong tent’ or ‘yes I’m sure there’s no one called Lindsey in here.’
She figured she had three options; one: keep with the original plan and move to another country in July and teach with the kids and Paul – the change in scenery might calm Paul’s drinking; two: ask Paul to leave the house in China and remain a teacher at the international school or three: go back to England alone with the kids and have them sent to a state school while she works.
As bad as it sounds, a possible divorce was the least of my problems. With my refusal to teach English, I was still struggling to get by.
Mark’s assignments were increasingly unpredictable, not to mention his temperament.
My latest outing with him resulted in getting kicked out of a St. Regis hotel.
We were supposed to be interviewing American Whitney Miller. The 23-year-old had won MasterChef US the year before and was doing a week-long event at the luxury hotel in Shenzhen.
The plan was to interview Whitney on the 96th floor in the bar above the restaurant she was exhibiting her ‘southern USA modern hospitality’ buffet.
However, when the lift doors pinged open we were greeted by a confused Mexican.
He introduced himself as the ‘official drinks and food manager’.
His boss had given Whitney the day off. She was currently out enjoying the day visiting the shopping malls and sights of the city.
‘That’s why, for now, Mark could treat me about the same as The Gimp in a Quentin Tarantino film’
This didn’t so much as disappoint my editor as enrage him. Mark felt slighted at having made the effort to travel from Guangzhou to Shenzhen for nothing.
‘This will not do, Jose. This will not do,’ he said.
The manager’s name was Vincente, not Jose.
Mark walked over to a row of bar stools.
‘Hmmm. Yep. Yep. Busy. Whitney is out shopping,’ he said, tapping his fingernails on a wooden backrest.
The manager looked at me for guidance then back at Mark.
‘Hmmm,’ Mark said before he shoved the end stool hard. One by one the six trendy chairs toppled and rattled on the marble floor.
‘Ooops,’ he said.
‘What an inconvenience.’
The manager tried to calm him but Mark raged like Nice Guy Eddie Cabot in Reservoir Dogs.
‘You’re telling me your boss, a very good friend of mine, who I’ve known for four years, who in four years never went behind my back, no matter what’s happened, you’re telling me that now, that now I’ve come here, and I’m making good on my commitment to write about the restaurant, he’s just gonna decide, out of the fucking blue, to screw us over? Why don’t you tell me what really happened?!’
Good effort. Well remembered, I thought.
We were banned from the St. Regis Shenzhen by the time the two security guards escorted us to floor ‘G’.
But Mark didn’t only direct he rage at random locals. He screamed down the phone at me with a rage that would make Malcolm Tucker sound like a toddler.
‘What the fuck is this shit? You’re about as fucking useful as one fucking chopstick.
‘I wanted a piece on the 2012 London Olympics. Not a list of fucking sporting venues. Do you work for the fucking council?
‘I’d love to keep chatting but I’d rather get typhoid. No. No. Not typhoid. A nice fucking raging case of Hep A.
‘I’ve wasted 10 per cent of my battery on this call. Okay bye for now. Wonderful. Yeah. Fuck off.’
Yet in writing he was incredibly formal. His emails read with the feel of a law firm. The only thing that broke the facade was him always signing off using a different name – ‘Carol’, ‘Lottie’ or ‘Samantha’.
I tolerated getting thrown out of hotels, having the police called on us and his random acts of violent racism.
I tolerated it because I was being shown a side of Guangzhou that few foreigners were privy to.
For the Corporate China edition of Paper, Mark and I were invited to tour a new city being built from scratch.
The colossal development, for more than half a million residents, was to be known as Guangzhou Knowledge City. Billed as a mini Singapore the entire project would take 20 years to complete.
We were picked up in an executive Mercedes and chauffeured to nearby Luogang district. The vehicle was more Jay Z Learjet than passenger van with leather recliner seats, blacked out windows, docking stations and dimmed lighting.
Our guide showed us around an ultra-modern ghost city.
We were given access to halls and executive meeting rooms built for high-ranking politicians and visiting presidents.
No other expats in China, especially in their 20s, were getting this sort of experience or treatment, and that’s why, for now, Mark could treat me about the same as The Gimp in a Quentin Tarantino film.
As I became more used to life in Guangzhou, I became more confident.
I began to navigate the buses of the neighbourhood with the ease of a curious housewife. The B6 to ZhuJiang New Town to the expat Irish bar where I did my first assignment for Paper.
The 792A down to Nanfang Hospital where I had my face mopped in the foyer.
The 504 to Citic Plaza where Lanlan and I first kissed and all the way to hooker street in Taojin on the crammed 862B – nicknamed the ‘pirate bus’ because it’s known for pickpockets.
When the driver shouted the fare in response to my destination I stuffed the appropriate RMB in the farebox.
‘They look like modern takes on the women of the Kayan people who wrapped their necks in brass coils’
I always took a window seat at the back. The humming of the engine was incredibly hypnotic and lulled me into a nap. But the seat also afforded me the chance to look out the window.
Men loitered by the side of the road. Around their necks were layers of steering wheel covers for sale. They look like modern takes on the women of the Kayan people in northern Thailand who wrapped their necks in brass coils.
The men were hawking car accessories from neck supports to dashboard dusters and air fresheners to floor mats. From top to toe there was no place left unused to display a product. They have their t-shirts hiked up leaving their midriffs on full display.
The fashion phenomenon, peculiar to men, is common in the south due to cloaking humidity. Expats call it the ‘Guangzhou gut’ with affection.
I’d gawped at them as they stared through the traffic.
Lanlan made a Chinese CV with a smiling headshot to show my credible white face.
I sent it out to hundreds of postings for jobs throughout the country, from content manager and audio dubber to copy writer and English editor.
I wrote film and book reviews for README magazine. My first movie review was The Flowers of War – a historical war drama by controversial director Zhang Yimou.
The story is set during the 1937 Nanking Massacre and takes place in the city itself. A group of Chinese schoolgirls and high-class prostitutes hide out in a cathedral as the Japanese army encroaches. Christian Bale, playing an American mortician, is originally sent to bury the cathedral’s head priest but ends up trying to keep everyone safe.
Bale makes a bad first impression by being drunk and inappropriate toward the prostitutes.
I felt the 250 other cinemagoers zoning in on the only Westerner, also pale and bearded. However, by the end of the movie, Bale turns out to be the saviour. As I stood up to leave and wipe popcorn off my jumper, I felt several pats of congratulation on my back.
I became a freelance copywriter for the Beijing Shangri-La writing the luxury hotel’s slogans, e-newsletters and press releases.
I’d never even stayed at a Shangri-La let alone been to Beijing, but the assistant director of communications emailed updated menus, renovated suites and cocktail promotions which I had to flog in a snappy paragraph.
I also proofread for the GZMorning Post – an English weekly for expats in the city. Six hours a week correcting howlers that slipped by local editors: ‘Students get first hand job experience.’
‘Homicide victims rarely talk to police.’
‘Japan’s Prime Minister rejects Obama’s generous package.’
And also suggesting not running a promotions advert for a vacation – WIN A DREAM CRUISE – above a story about a cargo ship sinking in the Mumbai harbour.
‘To keep the gig I figured as long as they were believable I could simply make up the expats’
The GZMorning Post had a weekly article on expats in Guangzhou, what they were up to and how they ended up here. After the editor-in-chief interviewed me for my story, I offered to take the column off her hands for a monthly retainer.
She agreed and I was charged with finding foreigners to interview – the more interesting the better.
I went through a few friends to begin – Oli, Oli’s mates and my hosts.
But it was hard for a newbie to find different expats to interview every week. To keep the gig I figured as long as they were believable I could simply make up the expats.
For the first few profiles I convinced the paper the expat was too shy to send a photo or hadn’t had the chance to take one since they’d been in China. But after a while that didn’t fly, and I was under increasing pressure for a face alongside an interview.
I’d written a bulk of the stories preemptively, but my editor said she wouldn’t accept anymore without images.
I bought a VPN to access Facebook and trawled through my friends list seeing who best matched with my made up stories.
To keep the paper interested, I’d created some pretty remarkable people. But I was faced with the moral dilemma of choosing which friends had lived my made-up lives. I needed a face to fit the stories.
Deciding which auntie turned their life around after heroin rehab is tough, so too is which college friend picked themselves up after losing both their parents in a freak dodgems accident.
‘Mrs Zhang was still replenishing my fridge but I couldn’t survive for much longer on M&Ms, lager and the occasional morning buffet’
The GZMorning editions filled with headshots of my friends, family and exes. And though the text said they were loving their new life, none of them ever appeared next to a single landmark in Guangzhou, or China for that matter.
But whoring myself out to any outfit willing to pay a foreigner to correct grammar was far from enough to make rent. The amount of RMB to my name was rapidly decreasing.
Mrs Zhang was still replenishing the contents of my fridge but I couldn’t survive for much longer on M&Ms, Tsingtao lager and the occasional morning banquet.
The dragon was broke, something had to happen, fast.
It was an American journalist from New York called Roy Robertson who told me about a job opportunity.
I was sat in the German bar, 1920, on Jianshe Liu Ma Lu – a main street in Guangzhou popular for The Garden Hotel, street hookers and Nigerian drug dealers.
We clocked each other at opposite ends of the rooftop terrace. Both smoking. Both with a five-day beard and three-day hangover.
I was working on a story. He was, as luck would have it, doing exactly the same.
I only met Roy the once but our chance encounter would put me on the path of full-time writer until I left China.
Roy, 26, was a ‘foreign editor’. He worked for Crazy English – the company founded by ‘the greatest person’ Li Yang, the man Jardo had wanted me to become.
Crazy English put out a collection of English learning magazine catering to their teenage student demographic.
Roy spent two days a week proofreading articles, checking transcripts, and writing the editor’s letter for each edition. He was moving back to New York to freelance for Esquire. Crazy English was looking for a replacement editor.
We exchanged contact details.
I didn’t think anything would become of it but a week later Roy emailed with: ‘The editor-in-chief’s name is Li Wan (Alice).
‘I’ll send her an email letting her know you’re interested and that you’ll be getting in touch soon.’
‘Crazy English was in the “Earnest English tower” – a basic, squatting office block in the north of the city’
And that was it. My in. My connection. My guanxi. I was whisked into an interview and grilled on my relevant employment history.
A senior editor wanted me to explain the difference between a colony, a principality and a territory.
Crazy English was in the ‘Earnest English tower’ – a basic, squatting office block in the north of the city.
In the ground floor foyer, a security guard sat sleeping in a rocking recliner chair. The peak of the PVC security cap covered his eyes.
The company was on the second floor.
Inside was like a 1980s stockbroker’s office, a cramped make-up of 24 tiny cubicles and small gray units.
On the walls were calendars celebrating different religions and postcards sent by former colleagues.
House cactus and jade plants sat at the foot of cubicles and flags from across the world draped off the corners.
On badly notched filing cabinets, newspapers faded from sunlight were stacked high. There were the Cantonese weeklies but also copies of The New York Times and The Bangkok Post.
Even Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post was there, special given the Chinese government had banned the paper from the mainland.
Low key jazz trickled from a Roberts radio hanging on a coat stand in the aisle.
On the first day, Zhao Min, a senior editor, pointed to the cubicle in front of hers using the lit end of a cigarette. The cream desktop was from the 1990s, covered in dust and Post-It notes from previous foreign editors.
Pinned on the cubicle partition was a step-by-step guide to logging onto the computer. There were also passport photos of the editors. Roy was sheepishly grinning from a corner.
One face stood out and was plastered in rows around the top. ‘Joe’ had the face of an overweight bearded Ken doll.
‘I faced the door to see editors in other cubicles fashioning their coats into pillows and placing them on their desk’
I turned around to Zhao Min, who was busy staring at her screen, cigarette dangling from her lip. She reminded me of those pissed off cafe owners in 1970s Hong Kong movies, wearing a dirty apron and swearing in thick Cantonese at her staff while battering her husband with a frying pan.
I pointed to the rows of the same face.
‘He must have got a good deal,’ I said.
‘No. You all paid the same. Not better deal,’ she said. Still typing. Not changing her gaze. Ash falling on the keys.
‘I mean this guy must have got a good deal. When he bought the photos,’ I said.
‘Those are passport photos. Spare ones he did not want. He’s back in Texas,’ she said.
‘No, I mean…my friend ordered. It doesn’t matter,’ I said.
She stopped typing.
‘Ok. This is the British sarcastic. The deadpanned humour,’ she said and stubbed out her cigarette.
‘Now. It is break,’ she added.
I faced the office to see editors in the other cubicles fashioning their coats into pillows and placing them on their desk.
Some folded their arms and put their foreheads straight down as if hiding exam answers. The radio was turned down and the lights switched off.
‘Is this some sort of drill?’ I said and turned back round to Zhao Min. But she was faced down gently snoring on her face.
Crazy English added a degree of certainty that was desperately missing in my life. Above all, it was the first major step away from the possibility of being an English teacher.
I was contracted for 15 hours and split my shifts across Mondays and Wednesdays.
The memorandum I signed stated work began at 9am but because of my foreigner status, anytime before 10am was okay.
Each morning a taxi dropped me off on the GuangYuanZhong Road outside a Bruce Lee ‘Real Kung Fu’ fast food branch.
Taxis refused to enter the one-way system of the neighbourhood. Instead they chose to stop in the outside lane of the highway.
The cabbies never paid any mind to the screeching of the cars, buses and lorries swerving to avoid smashing into the rear.
Whether someone was about to plough into a group of nursery children or two friends spotted each other in passing, the horn was used with the same aggression and conviction.
Honking had lost any real effectiveness.
When the door handle was broken I had to slide across the driver’s side and life immediately became more interesting.
‘I’d grab my bag and tumble out with as much passion and determination as Mark on the bridge’
The driver would check the wing mirror and scream instructions:
‘Bié jí. Děng yī xià, děng yī xià. Děng yī xià, zài děng yī xià. Hái méi hǎo ne. Zài děng yī xià. OK. Hǎo le, kuài diǎn xià qù, kuài ya, kuài zǒu!’
(‘别急. 等一下, 等一下. 等一下, 再等一下. 还没好呢, 再等一下. Okay. 好了, 快点下去, 快呀, 快走.’)
(‘No. No. Wait. Wait for it. Wait. Wait. Not yet. Not yet. Okay. Now. Hurry up. Get out. Faster. Faster. Faster. Go!’)
And I’d grab my bag and tumble out with as much passion and determination as Mark on the bridge.
I’d stroll into the office around 10am with either a plastic bag of steaming pork baozi or two sausage and egg McMuffins and a McCafe americano. It was a toss-up as to which queue was the shortest whether I went local or Western.
Like with my visits to Starbucks, I had a Polaroid taken at the McDonald’s branch with the staff. The shot was also pinned on a noticeboard.
Most days I’d work through the Crazy English magazine series – Reader, Echo, Teens and Speaker.
Each publication focused on a particular English skill. Echo and Speaker included a free CD with recordings of passages, roleplays and sentences for readers to recite along to.
Zhao Min sat behind blowing Kent cigarette smoke at the back of my head.
She had streaked grey and white hair tied in a loose ponytail. For glasses she wore thick lenses with thin frames and tips that curved around her entire ears. She couldn’t have weighed more than 85lbs and had the dress sense of a reclusive Oxbridge academic and the black teeth to match.
I put her in her late 60s but the month I arrived she was celebrated both her 45th birthday and 15th year at the company.
In turn I’d blow my smoke into the aisle. In a cloud of smog I sat in my cubicle and worked through emails from editors across the room.
‘Hi. It is great to meet you. I am Emily from Echo. Here are the articles I need for you to read. This afternoon would be the wonderful time.’
Apart from Zhao Min the rest of Crazy English were too shy to say hello.
‘I became creator and filter of all aspects of Western life. They willingly appointed me as go-to gatekeeper and I became the office Stephen Fry’
I worked out who was who by a process of Whack-A-Mole. When an email was received two seconds later the sender popped up from their cubicle.
The girl – it was usually a girl – would give a frantic wave. ‘Hi. Hi. Simon. Here. Hello. Here. I am Emily…’
I would give a thumbs up then usher them to sit down. They’d vanish as quickly as they appeared behind the cubicle screens.
Editors sent tens of emails all day, asking for advice, suggestions, corrections on passages they were either writing or editing.
More often than not it was help about slang, colloquialisms and expressions from Western countries. Requests came through to check headlines, riddles and transcripts against audio clips.
I listened to Brad Pitt’s First Rule speech in Fight Club, Rachel McAdam’s audition tape for The Notebook and Steve Jobs getting angry during a keynote presentations.
Once again I became creator and filter of all aspects of Western life. They willingly appointed me as go-to gatekeeper and I became the office Stephen Fry.
Only Zhao Min had been out of the country; a month-long trip to California ten years ago to visit relatives in San Francisco.
The other editors, all young recent graduates of English language degrees were keen to learn but painfully sheltered.
Any mention of Lanlan and the cubicles erupted in schoolgirl giggles.
Thus I was consulted on everything. Because if one Chinese person must know everything about the differences across a billion people, then the only foreigner in the office must know everything about the West.
‘Simon, how would you speak to your grandmother at a family meal?’
‘Hmmm, well where I’m from in England, Manchester, you might say…’
‘I see. Yes. And what about London?’
‘Well, my mate Oli would probably say…’
‘I see. Yes. And what about in Dallas?’
‘Dallas? In Texas?’
‘We are doing a piece on table manner at family meals in the West. Dallas please.’
And so I fudged my way through meal-time etiquette from Toronto to L.A. to Dublin to Sydney.
At the back of the office, next to the manager’s room, was a recording studio. It was where paid expats went to record scripts, snapped up for their accent, gender or age.
But many would simply not show, too hungover, overly cautious of a scam or unable to follow the confusing ‘Location and Traffic Guide’ document.
When those booked for a session failed to turn up I took their place.
Two girls sat on the other side of the booth. One operating the recording equipment and the other gave instructions.
My side was bare, except for the grey soundproofing panelling. On the desk was a sheet holder, a microphone on an armstand complete with a pop filter.
When I put on the headphones and waited for the finger point I felt like Robin Williams recording for Aladdin.
Most of the time it was run-of-the-mill recordings; quotes by authors on different topics from memory to love or short travel stories.
Problems arose with role plays, the aim of which was to use conversations to introduce idioms, metaphors and smilies and other features of English.
But Yang Xiaoli, the editor who wrote the scripts, took inspiration from her favourite director – Tim Burton.
A girl would deliver a script with an eager smile. I’d place it on the sheet holder securing it in place with a plastic clip.
One dialogue read:
Part 1: After Work Fun
McKenzie: Hey Cathy! What’s shakin’?
Cathy: Not much, not much. Been kinda dead today.
McKenzie: Really? They usually work you to the bone in your department.
Cathy: Na. I left the office bang on five this afternoon.
McKenzie: I bet you’re on cloud nine. Are you up for shooting some pool and grabbing a bite to eat?
‘I’m guessing I’m McKenzie, you getting someone in later for Cathy’s lines, right?’ I said.
‘My attempt sounded like a chat between Warwick Davis in Leprechaun and a stoned woman going through transgender hormone therapy’
Through the talk back button the instruction came:
‘Please. Could you speak both lines, Simon.’
‘You want me to play Cathy’s part, too?’ I said.
‘Yes, our recorder is too late. And please to remember, Cathy is from California,’ she said.
‘I might struggle with a female Californian accent,’ I said.
‘And to remember, Cathy is older. How to say? Middle aging.’
‘Right. And McKenzie?’ I said.
‘McKenzie is from Dublin. And Zhou said she imagines McKenzie “like the caterpillar from the movie – Alice in Wonderland starring Johnny Depp.”’
The operator tapped her on the shoulder. And pointed at the button to record.
‘Okay, Simon, so in three, two…’
‘Wait, wait a second. Just to confirm…’ I said.
‘Please. Each time you speak we must reset the tape. It is troublesome. Three, two…’
My attempt sounded like a chat between Warwick Davis in Leprechaun and a stoned woman going through transgender hormone therapy. An embarrassing lucky charm Irish lilt and a deep, slow, depressed bodybuilder.
But my colleagues on the other side gave me smiles of ‘I guess that’ll have to fucking do’ and thumbs up.
On the odd occasion the expat who was supposed to voice the lines would turn up mid-session. They’d stand in the studio doorway and pause when they saw me shifting from one side of the microphone to the other. Mad. Disturbed. Lost.
‘What is he fucking doing?’ they thought.
And I’d stare back with the look of help and confusion. And that’s how the days progressed. Working through emails, back and forth from booth to desk, fielding questions from wide-eyed colleagues and proofing copy by in-house staff and freelance writers.
I enjoyed protecting the magazines from the guff foreigners bashed out for a quick buck.
‘Dennis used the breaks as therapy sessions, revealing that he was “a gay” and that his parents wanted him to return to his hometown’
Stories that had so clearly been written with speed and not quality in mind…Pure Wikipedia cut and paste jobs by deluded expats who thought their raw ramblings were polished features.
On slow days to pass the time, I’d perch on the window ledge in the toilets and smoke with a colleague. Dennis from Shandong province, near Beijing, worked for Teens and sat directly opposite me, on the other side of the aisle two rows deep.
Aside from myself he was the only male member of staff – a reflection that in China, being a writer, especially for English-language magazines is seen as a feminine vocation.
Dennis used the breaks as therapy sessions, revealing that he was ‘a gay’ and that his parents wanted him to return to his hometown to settle down and have a family.
He put off the return by telling them he was due a promotion plus his girlfriend had just moved in. Dennis hadn’t even passed his probation yet. The only new addition to the flat he shared with his serious boyfriend was a pet cockatoo.
He was 24, with an undercut hairstyle, a slight but toned frame and the dress sense of an Attitude magazine cover model – tight t-shirts and even tighter jeans.
He’d squat on the ledge and I’d sit side saddle. Both of us relished the gust that broke the humidity and stench of stale piss.
In the courtyard below women gossiped and hung out washing. Elderly men made love to outdoor exercise bikes.
My relationship with Lanlan built at a feverish pace.
When in bed together, instead of her medical history, she would now whisper in my ear ‘Wǒ ài nǐ’ (‘我爱你’, ‘I love you’).
We slept in my mezzanine bedroom, coined ‘the oven’ by Oli, because in the summer the room hit 50C.
Mrs Zhang kitted out the mattress and pillows with sheets of carbonized bamboo to keep the body cool. They gave the bedstead the look of a bed in an S&M chamber in a swinger’s dungeon.
They were highly effective but you ran the risk of trapping intimate hairs between the elasticated panels. Sometimes I rolled over and got a surprise back, sac and crack mid-sleep.
‘Argh, fucking hell,’ I’d say.
‘What’s wrong?’ Lanlan said.
‘Did you have a bad dream?
‘Yeah darling, I dreamt I had the body of an eight-year-old boy and I’ve woken up and it’s fucking true,’ I replied.
‘I grabbed my knees and clutched my chest like failing to break through a frozen swimming pool’
But we put up with the intense heat because of one very simple reason – the mattresses. I discovered the hard way when the estate agent showed me the flat.
‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, this is great, loads of room,’ I said, stepping into the master bedroom.
As soon as I saw the giant mattress I launched myself at it in a try-scoring position.
But it had the same firmness as a marble floor. I curled into the foetal position upon landing. I grabbed my knees and clutched my chest like failing to break through a frozen swimming pool.
The mattress in the second smaller room was marginally softer at chopping board density.
Which left the bed upstairs in ‘the oven’. A mattress luxurious by comparison with all the give of laminate flooring.
And that’s where Lanlan and I hung out. In our private little furnace. If we weren’t watching pirated DVDs for my film reviews, we were having sex or sleeping, but were always sweating.
What many exes back home would have seen as uncultured or primitive in the bedroom was recast as exotic and endearing. Lanlan insisted on showering immediately before and after for ‘fear of any dirt from a man’s genitals’ she explained as I got on top of her.
Her obsessive cleanliness was matched with genital hair that would shame any hardore feminist, and no cosmetics at all: ‘I am young, so at this moment, I am already beautiful and Simon, I do not want any chemical on the skin.’
No perfume, baby oil or body butter. Going down, too, was ‘quite unhygienic’.
I would have sat on the edge of the bed clutching my head in despair at my dirty genitals but Lanlan’s attitude to eating in bed was worse than Marilyn Monroe.
When, after sex, I reached to the bedside cabinet for a glass of water, after sex, I turned around to catch Lanlan chomping on a random delicacy.
‘What. The. Fuck. Is. That. Sweetheart?’ I said.
‘It’s an egg,’ she said.
‘It’s fucking black,’ I said.
‘Yes. This. We call it pídàn (皮蛋). In english you say preserved eggs,’ she said.
I read the online description as she worked her way to the centre, crumbs of green yolk dropping on her chest.
‘…preserved egg is a Chinese delicacy made by preserving raw duck, chicken or quail eggs…
‘The shells are coated in a paste made from salt, quicklime, sodium carbonate, tea and ash…then they’re rolled in rice hulls and left to ferment…’
The smell was a combination of pickled garlic, an extinguished match, Mr Muscle toilet cleaner and a hardboiled egg that had gone off two years earlier.
‘You have some green yolk on your face, darling,’ I said.
‘Here, you must try…’ and she broke a bit off, mushed it together like Plasticine then shoved it in my mouth.
I thought I’d gag, scream or worse vomit over Lanlan. But as I bit through the mush of gelatine and solid yolk, my worry turned to surprise. The taste was that of a mature cheese; nutty, pungent, with a slight hint of ammonia.
‘You’re supposed to chop them into chunks and put them in rice porridge. It is unusual to eat them on their own,’ she said.
Lanlan brushed the rice hulls off another egg and cracked the grey shell on the laptop. Tom Cruise threw himself out the Burj Khalifa in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.
The description went on to say that preserved egg companies had been hit with a toxic food scandal.
An expose by State broadcaster China National Radio revealed plants were using industrial copper sulphate to halve the curing period to a month.
Industrial copper sulphate includes heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and cadmium. Not your go-to choices for food additives.
I looked over at Lanlan as was pushing the last bit of jelly-black albumen into her mouth.
I leant over and kissed her cheek. ‘Maybe lay off the eggs for a bit, darling,’ I said.
But our exchanges of love for one another weren’t enough for Lanlan.
Though we were drunk on the exoticism of the relationship, Lanlan discovered her own way at revealing how she felt.
When Lanlan was at university messages arrived thick and fast. To keep in constant contact, she set me up on the social media apps – QQ and Weixin (anglicised as WeChat).
QQ is China’s MSN messenger but able to send and receive huge data files. It’s for that reason popular among work colleagues.
WeChat is similar to WhatsApp but with a Facebook-styled wall called ‘Moments’.
The major difference from WhatsApp being you can only see the comments and likes on posts of mutual friends. The other key feature on both platforms were that senders were unable to see if a message had been read or not.
Those would prove incredibly useful when it came to adding and talking to those I shouldn’t have been adding or talking to.
Alongside social media, Lanlan used whatever was in arm’s reach at the time to get a message to me. Love letters on postcards, crepe paper and course module credit forms arrived at my door.
Each one was a note from The Riddler. More than three different colours and handwriting were used per sentence. Paragraphs were separated by doodlings, LOVE LANLAN or fragments of John Lennon lyrics.
There were multiple P.S. that ran around the edges, mini mazes to tackle and lists of why we were meant to be together.
Above all, Lanlan thought it was time to have my own Chinese name.
My dear lover,
Here are two options for your new name.
- 小羽 – (Xiao Yu)
It’s a name that you can let your friends use to call you.
The literal meaning of 羽 is feather, which may impress others of your freshness. And I think it shows your pleasing personality.
- 轻扬 – (Qing Yang) 轻 means soft, light; and 扬 means raise, spread. When they are combined together, it means fly softly like a piece of leaf or melody.
Also belongs to the names that could give others an expression that you are pure and easy-going.
Clearly Lanlan had a much better view of me than I did if she felt ‘small feather’ or ‘soft spread’ were suitable names.
‘”I’ll suck Simon, give him a French kiss which will make him dizzy until he rains milk”‘
I encouraged dirty texts accompanied with photos and Lanlan tried with all the innocence of a Victorian school girl to continue the filthy emails.
‘You feel the warmth of my vagina, through which u feel yourself tightly connect to me. The sensation is so great that both of us begin to shout…
‘Hmmm…I’ll ride on you, run you to a place u’ve never been to. Sorry that’s crap…I’ll suck Simon, give him a French kiss which will make him dizzy until he rains milk…’
More letters came adorned with stamps, scribblings and maps of where her university campus was in Xiamen.
There were email attachments of photos of her playing laser tag in a forest with colleagues – Lanlan squatting in a ditch in full camouflage cradling her AR 15 rifle like a newborn baby.
In one photo she was pretending to punch a Ronald McDonald statue, in another, attempting seductive poses in her underwear.
But outnumbering the filth and the silly, a swathe of declarations were exchanged.
Heya my darling Lanlan, (no I’m not drunk!)
I just wanted to say I can’t wait to see you and hold you in my arms, I’m not even thinking about my birthday but just seeing you! I am so proud of you doing this internship, you’re really impressive, I don’t have the guts to work in a call centre for an international company!
You’ve an amazing amount of confidence (you do need to practise your English though, hehe) and I’m so happy to be able to call you my girlfriend.
I can’t describe how much I miss holding you, I need your touch, the sweet smell of your forehead, hands, neck, breasts and thighs, makes me feel that you’re mine and nobody else’s.
I can’t wait to kiss your soft nose and run my fingers through your hair…
My darling, I love you…
Dear Simon, my love…
The smell of your mouth can still be traced in mine; I dare not to eat anything, trying to keep it longer around my tongue. I lost my appetite the moment you turned around anyway.
You proved a famous saying for me: there is a moment when a new love shows up, all my old loves become floating clouds and drift away.
You opened a brand new window for me, through which, I can see the most breathtaking views; hear the sound of nature whilst being embraced by the warmest sunshine.
But somehow I want more… I want to get closer to my lovely angle [sic], kissing his forehead and tell him how lucky I am to be able to have his love.
Thousands of KISSES for Simon and Little Simon!
Wholly belong to you,
I’m almost in tears after reading your message! I’m so glad that you feel the same way as I do.
We haven’t talked or seen each other’s faces for a long time (12 days’ separation seem to be such a long time! I can’t believe we’ve only departed for 12 days! As to me, it’s like one month already)
But I was cautious of the building intensity. She was using words like ‘prince’ and ‘universe’ to describe how she felt.
Relationships developed differently in China to what I was used to.
Sometimes with catastrophic fallouts.
Yesterday on Tianhe Bei Lu – a main street in Guangzhou – I saw a boy, around 18, clutching a tree on the pavement.
He was howling into his mobile with such despair it bordered on insanity.
His jacket, shoes and rucksack had been dumped behind in a stroppy Hansel trail. Hundreds of passersby continued on their way but a small oval crowd stood to film. One traffic warden tried to help but the boy clung onto the trunk like an activist.
I called Lanlan and held the phone at the tree-hugger while she interpreted what he was wailing.
His girlfriend wanted to end their relationship. He wasn’t having it and wanted to ‘leave this earth’ as he no longer thought it had a place for him.
There was no reply and he began bashing his head against the trunk. More pedestrians stopped to film. They held their phones forward without shame or guilt in an attempt to capture the incident. Young girls were on bended knee looking for the perfect angle.
The boy’s face was covered in streaks of blood from the bark and he began screaming ‘Are you there?! You don’t know what I’m going to do’.
Over the past six months I had read numerous disturbing stories of final goodbyes but one in particular was gaining nationwide attention.
On September 17, 2011 a 17-year-old student was doused with petrol and set on fire in her home in Hefei, Anhui province. She had rejected the romantic advances of a high school classmate.
Zhou Yan suffered second and third-degree-burns to 30 per cent of her body after the attack by Tao Rukun, 17. (In 2016, the MailOnline would cover the story about the girl and her scars in this piece.)
The case captured nationwide attention because Tao was the son of high-ranking local officials in Anhui.
A colleague at fake Crazy English told me her breakup horror story. She had recently broken up with her boyfriend and the decision had on the surface been received well. But when she returned home after work she found her pet rabbit hanging from a string on the bathroom door handle. Her ex had decided to go into her apartment when she was at work and offer one last parting gesture.
Even Lanlan was once blackmailed with suicide by her boyfriend on the edge of a balcony 30 floors above if she left him. The bread knife he was clutching at the time seemed somewhat pointless.
On the whole Chinese culture isn’t one that looks favourably upon casual dating. If one partner states from the outset that marriage isn’t probable, it’s thought there’s no future between the couple.
Once a relationship has begun both parties often begin the process of planning a life together. A surprise early axing can be hard to take.
The story about young Tao and his passion for disfiguring crushes was seen as the prime example of a generation of Chinese children told repeatedly that they could do no wrong, that they were not only the centre of their parents’ universe but of the universe as a whole.
As a consequence of the 1976 one-child policy a generation of children arrived with no brothers or sisters.
This post-90s generation have been dubbed ‘Little Emperors’ or (xiao huangdi) by psychologists.
A 2005 survey by the technology company Sina of 7,000 respondents between 15 and 25 years old found that 58 per cent of one-child respondents admitted ‘being lonely and said they were selfish’ but also ‘love being the “sun” around whom the household revolves’.
Indeed, a ‘90后’ – a Chinese person born in the 1990s – is often used negatively online:
‘crazy 90后 generation are fragile and can’t handle pressure of…’
‘spoilt 90后 boy sends home dirty laundry…’
‘Selfish 90后 couple show no respect for…’
Critical social commentators summed them as spoilt brats that are academically pushed from an early age by parents that still perform basic tasks for them.
And while Little Emperors may get all the family attention and doting, it comes at a price.
When the Little Emperor reaches adolescence, he/she is expected to support the older adult relatives – a scenario that’s been coined the 4-2-1 problem. Four grandparents and two parents for one Little Emperor.
Because of this narrowing family tree, immense pressure is placed on the single child to grow up, marry, have a boy (hopefully), be successful, and be able to take care of their aging relatives.
With so much weight and expectation placed on the shoulders of one child, it’s easy to understand why many feel they’ve lost a lot more than a sweetheart after a breakup.
The phenomenon was worsened by many 1990s’ kids growing up without brothers or sisters to understand close relationships.
Having a Chinese girlfriend was one of the first major cultural issues I had to think about.
Fortunately, Lanlan had grown up with a brother to laugh and argue with, so I was confident we wouldn’t be throwing acid at each other anytime soon.
‘Where you off now, mate?’ I said.
‘I have another recording gig,’ he said.
I leant against a wall outside Crazy English with Alex – an American who regularly recorded for us. I’d got to know him as he strode into the office and flirt with Zhao Min on the way to the sound booth.
He was in high demand for recording work because of his voice. It sounded like a life insurance announcement for an American radio station. Deep, strong, upbeat, resonating, and, crucially, incredibly clear.
I was smoking. He wasn’t.
‘Oh yeah. Where at?’ I said.
‘At the Crazy English offices,’ he replied.
‘The Crazy English offices. You mean here?’ I said, pointing behind us.
‘No. No. The other one,’ he replied.
I frowned and shook my head.
‘What do you mean, “the other one”?’ I said.
‘They don’t like talking about it around here. I didn’t find out until months after I started,’ he said.
‘Go on,’ I said, and stubbed out my cigarette.
‘This isn’t the real Crazy English. This company is the fake version. The whole place is just a rip-off of the real one’, he said.
‘Copying is standing in China because it can save on money and planning. There is nothing sacred about the original’
The revelation was a surprise but not exactly earth-shattering. I wasn’t going to fall to my hands and knees screaming ‘Why God? Why?’
I was in China, where copying is a national sport.
In 2008 BMW became embroiled in a legal war with a Chinese car manufacturer.
Shuanghuan Automobile were accused of producing a much cheaper clone of the BMW X5, an SUV they renamed the SCEO.
They even went so far as to unveil their car at the 2007 Frankfurt Motor Show, only a blast up the autobahn from BMW’s headquarters in Munich.
The international press slammed Shuanghuan’s car saying they’d ‘blatantly and unashamedly’ copied the design.
At the time, BMW CEO, Norbert Reithofer, said, ‘We did not like it.’
Karl Schlössl, chief executive of importer China Automobile Deutschland, said: ‘Naturally, our cars are inspired by European carmakers…but we reject the charge that they are copies.’
BMW initially won a court order at the Regional Court of Munich to ban sales of the SCEO in Germany, but a few months later, an Italian court rejected BMW’s claims.
Despite winning over the judges, the knock-off BMW never won the hearts of European buyers. The Chinese firm only managed to sell around 300 of the cars across the continent.
Copying is standard in China because it can mean saving money on the stages of planning and originality. There is nothing sacred about the original.
Even Vany at WhyVille academy openly admitted to copying. She instructed her staff to copy American textbooks, redesign the covers then sell them on to students.
Alex told me: ‘Dude, I could totally get you in there. I’ve got pretty solid guanxi with the management.’
Whereas at fake Crazy English I was among colleagues in the thick of it, the set-up at the real one couldn’t have been more opposite.
The interview process consisted of could I commit to three days each week? There were no questions about my English ability. But I did have to prove that I knew Alex and agree to a confidentiality agreement if I wanted to work for Mr Li Yang.
I was given a desk but in an in a separate room with around 100 empty cubicles.
The room was the size of a gymnasium with a glass wall dividing the space lengthways. A door was cut out half-way along with a ‘Human Resources’ banner running across the frame.
That desk and chair were empty but there was a feeling of abandonment. There were a couple of crumpled tissues on the desk, files and folders dumped on top of a printer, a shawl on the floor.
The whole vibe of the place was odd, secretive, like a research facility in Resident Evil. Right down to the high perimeter walls and security guards I had to show my pass when entering the compound.
At the far end of my office space there was a desk unit. Yet behind, against the wall, was a gold chaise lounge wrapped in plastic.
‘Heads clocked to the left every 20 seconds. It was a room of depressed Oompa Loompas typing in sync’
It looked like something that should have been in Elton John’s en suite bathroom, not in the office of an English language magazine editor.
Even the desk chair was lavish with thick black padding and polished wooden armrests – a corporate version of the La-Z-Boy recliners in Joey and Chandler’s apartment.
When a young girl delivered me to my control centre she made a small bow and said: ‘For you. Yes. For you.’
At Li Yang Crazy English I was an island in my giant room. On the way to the toilet, at the far end of the corridor, I passed the main office where the rest of the editors worked.
By comparison, it was a battery farm.
Though the furniture was more modern than fake Crazy English, the office was far more sterile.
For starters no one was smoking. And there was no music.
The walls were full of well-organised planners, graphs, charts and more posters of Li Yang. Graduates sat copying from stacks of textbooks, typing frantically.
It was open planned but each worker had their head bent low behind desk dividers. Every now and again they’d check which sentence they were at.
Though I stood in the doorway for only a moment, it looked as if the glances were in unison. Heads clocked to the left every 20 seconds. It was a room of depressed Oompa Loompas typing in sync.
Oompa Loompa doompadee doo
I’ve got another textbook to view
Oompa Loompa doompadee dee
If we are wise we will lift to a tee
What do you get when you write your own stuff?
Effort and stress in a terrible huff
I don’t like the sound of it…
No one looked up and no one spoke.
There was no gossiping.
There was no giggling.
There was no joy.
From outside, the sound of chanting shuck my trance. Fragments of one sentence broke through the rabble.
‘Tonight, for the first time, I am releasing my official birth video…’
I walked down the hallway past cardboard cut-outs of Li Yang. Past billboard posters of the man backed by a mass of beaming followers in stadiums, arenas and halls.
There were framed inspirational quotes by iconic figures typed onto images of countryside landscapes.
I passed and scanned them.
The mind is everything. What you think you become. – Gautama Buddha
Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value. – Albert Einstein
Believe you can and you’re halfway there. – Theodore Roosevelt
And there were those, slightly less inspirational, and original, by Li Yang himself.
‘Just do it. Yes, we can. Do it.’
‘If you tumble down, stand up and attempt another time.’
‘The Great Wall of China was not built within a 24-hour period time frame.’
At the end of the corridor, next to the door for the stairwell, was the toilet.
I went in, not to pee but to find somewhere private to smoke without being bothered.
‘The white suns of Taiwan, the red and blue yin yangs of South Korea and the white flowers of Hong Kong fluttered in the breeze’
I locked myself in a cubicle closest to the window. I perched on the window ledge to escape the smell of piss but also to look out over the grounds of the compound.
Another identical building faced the one I was in, divided by a wide tarmacked passageway.
The structure squatted vast and grey like a multi-storey car park in a run-down neighbourhood.
Floor after floor of tiles and opaque windows rose 300 meters and peaked with the remains of an overgrown terrace garden jutting from the top.
To the left, a heavily patrolled entrance gate, with guard booths, multiple barriers and a security turnstile.
To the right, a set of Downton Abbey stone stairs led up to a mishmash of cricket greens, football pitches and baseball fields.
On the wall edge surrounding the lawns, ran national flags from China’s neighbours on 40-foot poles.
The white suns of Taiwan, the red and blue yin yangs of South Korea and the white flowers of Hong Kong fluttered in the breeze.
It gave the feeling of preparations for a Far East kung fu tournament. Instead of teams of fighters warming up for mortal combat, there were masses of young men in blue tracksuits. These were followers of Li Yang who’d signed up an intensive English course package.
‘They were screaming with such aggression their voices trailed off into hoarse whispers. Like someone lost in the woods and giving it one last shot’
For a week they’d stay within the grounds and be bombarded with exercises and drills by Li Yang’s top instructors.
I was watching one of their exercises take place.
Each of the devotees had headphones on. And they were screaming, walking in criss-cross paths, stepping around each other or forming accidental conga lines.
From the cubicle I caught some of the lines.
They were screaming with such aggression their voices trailed off into hoarse whispers. Like someone lost in the woods and giving it one last shot.
I realised they were reciting lines from President Barack Obama speeches. The ‘I am releasing my official birth video…’ was an opening gag from the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
In the far right corner were the remains of a giant climbing frame. A metal version of GoApe! for hardcore Chinese acrobats. But from its state the poles and wire walkways were in need of a drastic overhaul.
Frayed ropes and rusting chains hung from ladders, webbing and platforms. Boys sat on the lower frames screaming lines in fake American accents.
Tannoys on the grass edge trickled out gentle harp music that only added to the total weirdness. From my ninth floor vantage point I watched the scene, smoking in a mixture of awe and disbelief. Long exhales and slow headshakes.
On leaving the Li Yang camp, students would be let loose in an effort to interact with the first foreigner they came across.
Belting profound lines into bewildered faces:
‘For generations, the United States of America has played a unique role as an anchor of global security…
‘I grew up as the son of a single mom who struggled to put herself through school…
‘And meanwhile, the United States and our allies will continue to support the government of Ukraine…’
Alex had forewarned me about leaving the building during Obama recital. He said I’d be mobbed by those eager to have a photo with the foreigner.
‘I walked over to it and asked if it was for me, but she flashed the look of a disgusted Paris Hilton and carried on playing on her phone’
I flicked a cigarette butt out the window and made my way back to my room.
A girl was puffing up a cushion and spreading out a blanket on the gold chaise longue.
She was slim with tied back jet black hair and delicate facial features covered in white face powder. She was the only editor I’d ever seen wearing high wedges, a crop top and denim hot pants.
‘Er, hi, I’m Simon. The editor guy,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ she replied.
She laid down and arched her pelvis to straighten the blanket. Then with an intentional thud she dropped flat onto her back.
Propped against one side of my cubicle was a folded camp bed. I walked over to it and asked if it was for me, but she flashed the look of a disgusted Paris Hilton and carried on playing on her phone.
I prised open the bed, took my shoes off and laid out on the sagging canvas.
‘You failed to turn off the lights. Here, in China, we sleep in the dark,’ she said, not shifting her gaze from her mobile screen.
She was pissed off with my presence and for good reason.
Jardo left out some key information when he pitched the idea of me becoming the next Li Yang – the ‘great leader and English-language education man’.
In August 2011, 42-year-old Li Yang was accused of domestic violence by his American wife, Kim Lee.
‘You knocked me to the floor. You sat on my back. You choked my neck with both hands and slammed my head into the floor,’ Mrs Lee wrote on Weibo – a Chinese version of Twitter.
She posted a series of photos of her injuries, from her bloodied left ear, badly bruised knees and a shot of her swollen forehead.
Her husband stopped the beating only after their three-year-old daughter intervened.
Yang made a planned appearance on Chinese television as his wife was getting her wounds treated in hospital.
‘Seeing that you were having makeup applied for a TV appearance while I was in hospital hurts more than you slamming my head on the floor,’ Mrs Lee wrote.
Ten days later Yang admitted the assault on his own Weibo account.
‘I formally apologize to Kim,’ he wrote.
‘I committed domestic violence against her. This has caused [my family] serious physical and mental damage.’
‘”I hit [my wife] sometimes but I never thought she would make it public since it’s not Chinese tradition to expose family conflict”‘
Yang promised no more attacks, to seek counselling and donate RMB1,000 (£100) to a counselling centre for women.
Yang didn’t help public opinion when in an interview with China Daily newspaper shortly after the assault, he said, ‘I hit [my wife] sometimes but I never thought she would make it public since it’s not Chinese tradition to expose family conflicts to outsiders.’
Yang had killed his revolution and started another one.
The case made Mrs Lee a symbol for female Chinese victims of domestic violence. The accusations caused a wave of issues regarding domestic violence in China’s homes. Until Yang’s incident, China hadn’t seriously considered an anti-domestic violence law.
Mrs Lee gained the support and admiration from women’s rights campaigners, academics and the general public who were calling on a boycott on Li Yang products. Now he was being nicknamed ‘Crazy Li’.
At his peak Li Yang was one of China’s biggest entrepreneurs. He is credited with helping more than 20 million Chinese people learn English with his books, tapes and stadium tours.
He founded Li Yang Crazy English in 1994, after finding that shouting out English sentences helped him to overcome his crippling shyness at university.
His evangelical lecturing style saw him fill stadiums with tens of thousands of fans, all screaming out on cue. One of his many patriotic slogans urges: ‘Conquer English to Make China Stronger!’ Another is ‘Conquering English, revitalising China.’
His nationalism created a sense of pride that was both powerful and worrying.
Inside Li Yang headquarters, the scandal was the reason no one spoke, because Li Yang had ordered paypackets to be temporarily withheld. The millionaire was haemorrhaging cash in legal costs for his divorce battle, not to mention the effect the scandal was having on his reputation.
The HR department had already left.
This was also the reason for the general hostility toward me. All other staff weren’t getting paid but management were still happy to recruit and pay a foreigner, and far more than what they were (or weren’t) getting.
‘I couldn’t afford to join the exodus. I had to keep editing and polishing text for a self-confessed wife beater’
It also explained the frantic surge to have a photo with a foreigner. Li Yang students were posting the photos on websites of newly-formed English teaching companies, ready for when they’d finished their training.
The foreigner in the photo was the ‘co-founder’ along with the Li Yang graduate.
Alex discovered what the students were doing through a friend in the company who sent screengrabs. There he was, on at least ten landing pages, smiling, thumbs up, promoting a company he didn’t even know he owned.
Real Crazy English was crumbling but I couldn’t afford to join the exodus. I had to keep editing and polishing text for a self-confessed wife beater.
I had to hold out.
It was my birthday. I booked the day off work as Oli said he wanted to treat me at Angel Town massage parlour.
I’d spent the morning visiting my favourite urologist – the apprentice glove fitter, Dr Wu. He realised it was my big day looking through my folder.
On reflection I’d prefer it wasn’t while he was inside me.
The realisation was followed with a cheerful ‘Oh, haha, hěn hǎo (‘很好’, ‘very good’), ha.’
Followed by a thumbs up (with a free hand).
But then he started singing, gently, in my ear, happy birthday: ‘Zhù nǐ shēngrì kuàilè, zhù nǐ shēngrì kuàilè, Semen shēngrì kuàilè, zhù nǐ shēngrì kuàilè’.
(祝你生日快乐, 祝你生日快乐, 西蒙生日快乐, 祝你生日快乐’, ‘Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday to Semen, happy birthday to you’).
He insisted I sing along and paused the massage when I fumbled the words or gave up. He continued the poking in rhythm with my singing, like a music conductor molesting a choirboy.
I made it through all the verses and I’ll never forget how to sing happy birthday in Chinese.
On the other hand Oli had a pupil at the school translate the Harry Belafonte Banana Boat song into Chinese.
Singing it was his party trick and it would have more impressive if he knew what words he was singing when he sang them.
The intense studying to learn the calypso song was made even odder by the fact he could barely speak a single word of useful Mandarin.
He loved the song, especially the opening, ‘DAYYYYYYYY-O….DAYYYYYY-O’ which the teenage pupil had trouble translating.
Rather than buzz my flat intercom Oli would stroll across the complex singing lines from the song.
Gōng zuò le zhěng wǎn yī zhí zài hē láng mǔ jiǔ
Yáng guāng lái le, wǒ yào huí jiā!
Dié xiāng jiāo zhí dào qīng chén
Yáng guāng lái le, wǒ yào huí jiā!
The residents of South Lake Peninsula Garden probably didn’t understand why the lanky foreigner ‘work all night on a drink of rum’ and ‘stack banana till de mornin’ come’ and Oli definitely didn’t know the underlying meaning of slave labour.
His joyful bellowing attracted the same level of interest as the fireworks display but none of the fury.
‘Daylight come and me wan’ go home’, he sang.
I’d appear on the balcony in my red boxers cloaked in the Union Jack flag. And we’d parry each other’s DAY-Os like Freddie Mercury warming up a stadium.
‘Day, me say day, me say day, me say day…’
‘Aay, da, da, da, doh!’
‘Dee, dough, dough, dough, da, da, da, day-oh!’
‘Dee, dough, dough, dough…’
Each greeting was the same and my birthday was no exception.
Outside the complex we flagged down a passing motorbike taxi. Since I was shorter I jumped on first and grasped the driver in a bear hug. Oli followed and slid onto the arched leather seat. Embarrassed by the intimacy, he put one hand very lightly on my shoulder and stretched the other to a luggage grill at the back.
Three miles down the road, in Meihuiyuan, is a small shopping complex with Angel Town sauna. We hop off the bike, our bodies humming from the shaking of the engine.
I’d been in the mall once before, or a taster session at Total Fitness gym on the top floor. Every person that left at Angel Town was middle-aged and male. I knew it was unlikely the men were in genuine need of a deep tissue massage after a hard day at the office.
I always felt a slight twinge of embarrassment for those who exited at this floor.
‘”Don’t worry. If they don’t recognise you, they’ll say there’s no handjobs on offer. It’s a minor precaution”‘
The rest of us wearing gym gear peered nosely from inside the lift, and a nod of disagreement circled as we ascended to the treadmills, Swiss balls and dumbbells.
Oli and I would now be subjected to that judgement.
As we ascended to ‘7’ Oli said: ‘Don’t worry. If they don’t recognise you when you walk in, they’ll say there’s no handjobs on offer. It’s a minor precaution.’
‘Huān yíng guāng lín!’ (Welcome!) two girls shouted in sync as the doors opened.
‘Very discreet’, I said as we stepped out and walked over to the reception desk.
Two girls flustered by the presence of two clueless foreigners greeted us from behind the counter.
‘Hold on mate, let me sort this out,’ Oli said and stepped forward.
‘Two ma…sa…gee…Me. Him. Ok?’ Oli said, pointing straight at my face.
‘Great, fantastic, well done Oli. Can you also tell them what pressure I like and what problem areas to work on?’ I said.
But Oli’s stunningly ignorant approach worked, and we were each handed a small laminated list of options.
Four massages were on offer at Angel Town sauna. On a pegboard with white letters ran the options.
There was ‘foot’, ‘standard’, ‘special thai’ and ‘full body’ and was I persistently recommended the special Thai.
A full body massage cost RMB386 for 90 minutes or RMB310 for 60 minutes. A special Thai costs RMB236 and I wondered what made it so special that simultaneously made it so spectacularly cheap.
I decided to ignore their advice and choose a ‘full body’ service, unsure whether I should have taken the hint and paid RMB200 less for something that was ‘special’.
‘I don’t get it,’ I said.
‘Why is the special cheaper?’
‘It’s all a formality. They’ve got to have some sort of list on show. Anything below RMB250 is just a standard crap massage. Aim high.
‘Whatever the price, they’ll add RMB20 for lending pyjamas. I’m guessing you didn’t bring your jimjams,’ he said.
‘No mate, I didn’t bring a set of pjs to my birthday massage,’ I said.
After we’d each picked a massage we were issued a locker fob on a gold wrist coil. A manageress appeared from a corridor to the right. She guided us back down the corridor to the changing room.
‘Mate, notice there’s only a male changing room,’ Oli said, throwing the key fob above his head and bolting forward to catch it.
On both sides were oil painting prints of Asian women. They were neoclassical and the women were either bathing in Athenian fountains or reclining nude on marble seats. See-through veils draped over their bare legs and their hair was tied up with ornate clasps. Their skin was porcelain white and breasts and hips enhanced, more Hentai in proportion than authentic.
‘I feel like I’m in a fucking art gallery…for perverts,’ I said, but Oli was bounding ahead.
The manageress bowed at the entrance to the changing room before a voice crackled from her walkie-talkie and she ran off.
‘You ready?’, Oli said.
As soon as we stepped into the room, we were set upon by a gang of towel boys. Eight surrounded us, bowing and pulling at our clothes.
‘Just give one of them your fob and go with it…tip them at the end,’ Oli said.
Four boys guided me to a locker. Two opened the locker and threw a pair of flip flops at my feet while the others helped me undress – one for below the waist, the other for above.
Oli pretended to be the dumb, clueless foreigner. He held out his hands with his phone, wallet and watch in his hands like a penniless clown.
The head towel boy ran over, who, with a smile and in broken English repeated, ‘you okay sir…any help sir…need help with clothes sir…need water sir?’
Oli motioned to a block of mini lockers for valuables.
The changing room was industrial, both in decor and in size. Different areas, from the Jacuzzis to the shower block were a mish-mash of Tetris blocks. The walls, doorways and cornices were straight and severe with grey tiling.
‘Though Oli was breaking wind and whistling. I felt a tremendous sense of unease and foreboding. A police raid may be imminent’
Towel boys ran around trying to tend to everyone’s needs, desperate to earn a sizeable tip.
Men sat in the plastic chairs, smoking and watching videos on the mobiles. On the TV screen Vin Diesel punched a man in the face while on another a Chinese news anchor read out the day’s headlines.
Though Oli was breaking wind and whistling, I felt a tremendous sense of unease and foreboding. A police raid may be imminent.
I had to force myself back into the shower having managed less than ten seconds on the first go. But Oli was loving the environment and I could hear him in the shower next time mine.
‘Oooooo, I love a good lather,’ he said and belted out a DAYYYYO!
It’s hard to relax as a foreigner, unsure whether that extra five minutes in the sauna or steam room will be deducted from your massage. How long do I actually have? You bounce around the facilities unsure how much time to afford to each one.
I found myself necking complimentary cartons of milk or cups of green tea, then loitering unable to relax for fear that if I drop my guard I’ll be subject to something sinister, like a mass towel boy mugging or extortion.
But more customers entered, and those already sitting continued to smoke and the towel boys handed out slices of orange.
Oli was now splashing, naked, in one of the Jacuzzis.
A towel boy came over and bowed, ‘Massage?…massage now, sir?’
After changing into pyjamas with the sleeves and legs cut short, we were deposited, into a dark corridor, where we were met by another woman wearing a suit and an earpiece.
We were led down a narrow corridor. Each room was marked by silver numbers fixed on the wall and under lit by mini bulbs.
They were the only source of light.
102, 103, 104 ran the numbers as we passed.
At random intervals there were floor to ceiling mirrors and at both ends of the hallway.
‘The feeling was one of discretion and in the labyrinth of mirrors and darkness to lose yourself’
In the dim light it was impossible to know if someone was behind you or approaching or it was just yourself. I felt like fucking Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon.
Each door had a switch next to it – like a room service marker. Girls snuck in and out, and, heads down, giggling, as they passed Oli and I. Some were topless or covered themselves with towels like a shawl.
Others were carrying items such as sliced oranges, bottles of water, beer or cigarettes. Some darted past with wet wipes, bottles of baby oil and towels.
Even the fire extinguishers were hidden behind black string curtains recessed on an alcove shelf. And the emergency exit signs had the bulbs removed. Encased in the coving speakers played chilled Zen house.
The feeling was one of discretion and in the labyrinth of mirrors and darkness to lose yourself. It was a sanctuary of shadows, silhouettes and secrets.
A middle-aged man, wearing only a towel around his shoulders, walked toward us. He was smoking with the gait and determination of a sumo wrestler doing his walk-on entrance.
We were led further down the rabbit hole by a boy in a suit who kept turning to nod and bow. He led me to 118, guided me into the room and said: ‘You wait please sir, okay, okay, minute moment sir’.
Oli was taken next door to 120.
The room was dimly lit but I could make out a wide futon on a polished wooden frame. I felt a sense of terror and apprehension not knowing who was going to walk through the door. We’d only seen the girls at reception and the chunky manageress.
Panic crept up my spine like the first twinges of diarrhoea in a public place. Was I going to be scammed? Had I fallen prey to the classic bait and switch? Would Yoda be servicing me?
I read through emails from Lanlan about a possible trip to visit her at university. Zhao Min at fake Crazy English asked for advice on the difference between ‘could’, ‘should’ and ‘would’.
Ten minutes went by until the sound of footsteps broke my reading. Even on the carpeted corridor, I could tell someone was getting closer.
A girl opened the door, gingerly closed it and a made a quiet ‘hello’. She picked up a wall phone and whispered into the microphone. Then she turned the dimmer up slightly.
She was dressed in a short pink silk robe, and had a large yellow sash fastened around her waist.
She was around 5’4”, slender with the figure of someone had done a lot of track and field as a teenager.
Her hair was fashioned in a 1960s bob and unlike the powdered white face of the editor at real Crazy English, her skin tone was darker, something which she emphasised with shimmer highlights on her cheekbones and eyes.
The girl introduced herself with a limp handshake as ‘èr shí sān’ (23). A ‘23’ badge was pinned to her chest.
She told me, or because of the language barrier, gestured I remove my top. Then she guided me onto my stomach and gently pushed my head into a pillow.
The massage progressed conventionally with her leaning over my head to work on my upper back and shoulders.
‘The way she occasionally rubbed her bare legs against my ears and cheeks as she leant over my back was suspect’
After 45 minutes I was in two minds as to whether or not anything else was in store.
But the way she occasionally rubbed her bare legs against my ears and cheeks as she leant over my back was suspect. Plus the bed wasn’t exactly a £1,000 professional spa table with adjustable head support and high-density foam.
She pulled at my shoulders indicating that she wanted me on my back.
I turned over, she smiled and flicked her hair back. Then she stood and went to the wall to dim the lights to almost blackness.
She returned, knelt by the side of the bed and very casually removed my shorts.
Lying on my back in the dark, with a full erection the masseuse gasped and commented on how big my penis was, spreading her thumb and index finger.
That was a general international observation and not specific to me.
She continued to massage my hand and arm but would occasionally masturbate my penis and whisper, ‘hěn hǎo’ (‘很好’, ‘very good’).
But after a few teasing strokes she’d go back to my arm as if nothing had happened.
This back and forth routine went on for five minutes until she began to fan her wet forehead and repeat the words ‘tài rè’ (‘太热了’, ‘too hot’).
As if now suffering from severe heatstroke she removed her robe, and continued to massage me in her underwear.
‘In the doorway, a silhouette appeared, side on, holding what looked like a pyramind of Ferrero Rocher chocolate balls’
After this development, she began to take more of an interest in my penis and after masturbating it a few more times, asked, ‘okay?’
Presumably they have to ask in case a clueless client pushes them off shouting: ‘This is definitely not the shiatsu massage I was after.’
Number 23 left the room and returned thirty seconds holding a mini toolbox. She flipped the clasp and took out a bottle of baby oil and tissues.
As she sat beside me and began to give me a very thorough handjob, she kissed me softly on the cheek and breathed heavily into my ear.
I pushed myself up in ecstasy. She climbed onto the bed and straddled my thighs.
She would occasionally stop to drench my groin area in more oil. Buried there in her neck, smelling her hair and sweat, and with her gently sighing in my ear it wasn’t long before I was uttering the words, ‘kuài dian’ (‘faster’).
She picked up the pace to a fatty with a near-empty ketchup bottle.
I was at the point of no return shouting ‘Hěn hǎo, Hěn hǎo, Hěn hǎo’, when the door opened and the room flooded with light.
In the doorway, a silhouette appeared, side on, holding what looked like a pyramid of Ferrero Rocher chocolate balls.
The figure moved forward saying ‘please, ok, for you, eat’ and placed a tray on my lap.
Instead of experiencing something which no doubt would have been incredibly satisfying, I was now sat with a tray of cold, hard-boiled eggs on my cold hard-boiled eggs.
I was in shock and awe. What the fuck is this, I thought.
The same person who had delivered the gift walked into the hallway, turned and closed the door.
Though number 23 was massaging my shoulders, my erection left faster than ‘I love you’ during a one night stand.
The introduction of food into an intimate massage killed the vibe, and I put a stop to any further attempts of hand relief.
As we dressed, she kept touching my face and saying, ‘You beautiful, I love you.’ A ploy in order for you to pick her, or number ‘23’ should you return.
In the corridor she held my hand, with another around my waist. I was holding my tray of eggs. We looked like vegetarian newlyweds that had done the catering on a budget.
Number 23 kissed my cheek and she walked me back to the changing room, stopping at an imaginary line at the end of the corridor.
We hugged, and she kissed my cheek as I handed over the tray of eggs.
‘Thank you,’ I said.
Oli was in a shower cubicle joyfully singing, when I went in. The towel boys swarmed with my appearance and helped me dress. I handed out RMB notes with a mixture of embarrassment and sense of authority.
The birthday boy was at a loss for words.
‘So how was it?’ Oli said.
‘Odd mate. Just odd. Different way to celebrate my birthday,’ I said.
‘Yeah, first time for everyone’ he said.
‘No, I was enjoying it but then halfway through…’
‘Ahhhh…ahhhh…I know,’ he said punching his PIN into the card machine at the reception desk.
‘They hit you with the egg thing,’ he said.
‘Yeah they did. How’d you know?’ I said.
‘It’s one of those “according to traditional Chinese medicine” things. They believe egg albumen have tons of the same protein that a man loses after a “session”. The egg helps replenish the protein,’ he said.
‘I would have preferred my protein replenished after the “session” had ended,’ I said.
More eggs in fucking bed, I thought.
The kneading and stretching of my stomach had fast-tracked the spicy duck neck soup eaten the night before.
The desire to go was immediate and I turned to run back into the changing rooms.
‘I’ll be right back, god, I need a shit,’ I said.
‘Mate, you’ll need these,’ Oli said.
From a cargo short pocket he took out a travel pack of tissues and waved them tauntingly.
He read out the characters slowly on the plastic sheath.
‘“Triple-ply” AND “absorbent”.
‘Great. More useful words you learnt then. Pass them here mate, I’m going to take a dump in the fucking foyer,’ I said.
‘Give me one DAY-O’, he said.
‘What?’ I said.
‘Just one. And with feeling,’ he said.
‘For fuck’s sake.
DAYYYYYYYYYYYYO’ I said. Clenching.
He threw the packet past my head and down the hallway of paintings.
I turned and scurried, grabbing the tissues on the move in a cricketer’s crouch.
When I turned into the changing rooms, Oli’s DAY LIGHT COME AND ME WANNA GO HOME echoed behind.
Leaving the flat without a pack of tissues was riskier than zorbing in a war zone.
To cut costs from constant stealing, toilet paper is rarely provided in public restrooms.
Also plumbing in recently-built urban areas is a mixture of new and old, and as such blockages are a hazard.
Since there’s no way of knowing the condition of the drainage system before you squat, not flushing paper is the best way to prevent a backlog.
The practice and tradition is to never, ever, put tissue down the toilet.
It’s for that reason public toilets often have a little waste bin next to each hole.
But that rarely prevented the tiles being covered in a thick layer of soiled paper, slop and cigarette filters.
There are often no doors on cubicles of the few public toilets in a city of 11million.
I often found myself queuing while men defecated in stalls on either side of me. On one occasion, I felt someone tapping my left shin and looked down to see an elderly man, defecating, asking for a cigarette.
A male has to grab his penis between his trousers and angle backwards to prevent soaking the crotch or overshooting the hole.
I discovered this after drenching myself on my first attempt. I stood for 30 minutes, half-naked, wafting my Jack Wills chinos dry in the cubicle as men and children walked by embarrassed for me.
After squatting for several minutes the lactic acid begins to build in the thighs, buttocks and calves.
The quads and hamstrings weaken, shaking, yet the blood rushes into your brain adding to the tension. Your forehead, chest and lower back is drenched from the struggle and the 40C heat and smothering humidity.
An effective way to lessen the agony is to stretch your arms behind you and rest against the wall.
‘We caught eyes, and if it wasn’t for the fact I was twice his weight and also grunting, there would have been a restroom scuffle’
The appearance has all the dignity of a toddler who’s dropped into a toilet bowl and is desperately trying to push himself out: ‘Mammmmm, help!’
The next stage is wiping, which is as difficult as scrubbing the deck of a ship in a storm.
One leg sticks out like a sumo wrestler readying to fight – there’s similar panting, puffing and praying too. And once again you are reduced to chimp status.
Fumbling. Untrained. Primitive.
When you pull up your underwear, you try to compose yourself before leaving, but deep down, in your heart, you know people will sense you’ve been through an ordeal.
You stagger out, defeated, aware that by the time the day is over, this will have happened twice more.
In the toilets of the Bruce Lee restaurant, near fake Crazy English, a boy in a suit wearing a satchel kicked open the door.
He began pacing frantically.
I could see he was in urgent need of a toilet, much more so than me. But I refused to let him ahead on the grounds of how long I’d already been waiting for the cubicle.
He was sweating heavily and pacing the small room with one urinal. We caught eyes, and if it wasn’t for the fact I was twice his weight and also grunting in desperation, there would have been a restroom scuffle.
With each lap an item of clothing came off, first the bag, then jacket, then tie and finally he unbuttoned his shirt to reveal a vest. A spicy meal had reduced him from smart professional to boyband member with IBS in minutes.
Finally, the urge got the better of him. He kicked a mop bucket in frustration and removing his trousers jumped backwards onto the urinal.
His legs were too short to reach the floor and he had to grasp the horizontal pipes for support. He defecated and as he did the automatic flush came on. The look on his face dissolved from extreme distress to childish euphoria and he even giggled as the sprinklers started their cycle.
Before he had time to jump off the cubicle door opened. A tramp emerged, who’d clearly been sleeping, and had only woken due to my persistent knocking. He staggered out and I ran in before the urinal became free – the boy still joyfully swinging his legs.
By the time I exited he’d gone yet the mess remained.
In fact there had been a slew of stories regarding public defecation, centering mainly around the practice of parents letting their children use the pavement as a toilet.
Articles on sites such as thenanfang.com (an English-language news site for southern China) ran the story ‘No toilet, no problem: high-school student defecates into a trash can on the GZ metro’, ‘Fistfight breaks out in Shenzhen hospital after child defecates in waiting room’, and ‘Photo of boy taking a shit on Guangzhou subway goes viral.’
The government issued an order that there should be no more reporting about people practising open defecation. The Propaganda Department warned publications against using cryptic terms from an internal glossary.
‘Don’t send a reporter’ means: permission to publish the standard article from Xinhua agency (state-run) or to copy the report or article from local media; ‘Ban on criticism’ means don’t comment on those quoted in an article, including in the form of a cartoon.
Paper magazine received:
‘Reporting banned’ meaning: it is forbidden to write a story on this subject.
Mark either missed that instruction or didn’t care when he ran the story: ‘Women takes a shit in Shenzhen metro platform’. The piece was accompanied by a pixelated CCTV image of a middle-aged woman in the glass metro lift.
She could be seen squatting, defecating, in the far left corner. The train was in the station.
But pissing off China’s media censors was the least of Mark’s problems.
Pretty soon he wouldn’t be able to see, let alone publish a magazine.
Mark screamed into the phone: ‘Wǒmen xiǎng yào liǎng gè fēicháng piàoliang de nǚhái, yī gāo yī ǎi, liǎng gè dōu yào shòu, bùyào pàng niū. Zhìshǎo lái liǎng xiǎoshí.’
(‘我们想要两个非常漂亮的女孩, 一高一矮, 两个都要瘦, 不要胖妞. 至少来两小时.’ ‘We want two very pretty girls now, one small and one tall, both skinny, no fat bitches and for at least two hours.)
Slumped on an outdoor bean bag, he banged the phone on a patio table to emphasise his request. When that didn’t work he threw his mobile at another bean bag but he hadn’t ended the call.
‘Fuckers, they can’t understand what I’m saying,’ he said.
There was a ‘nihao, nihao… nihao’ from the speaker.
‘Yeah, yeah, fuck off,’ he said.
By his feet, Mungo, now completely shaved, had fallen asleep in the shouting. Mark often brought his dog with him to reviews as he said it helped him pick up women. But the sheer size of him compared to the tiny teddy bear pooch made him look like an extremely sensitive bodyguard.
‘The whites of both his eyes were solid red but what truly terrifed me was the condition of his left one’
We were at Party Pier in the outside seating area of Suns bar lounge. There had been a soft opening for a new EDM bar next door which would feature in next month’s edition. Once we’d finished there we needed somewhere to sit and cool off.
Mark, excited at the prospect of possibly DJing at the new EDM venue was beyond enthusiastic. He stood alone in the middle of the dance floor, Mungo under one arm, and just jumped up and down on the same spot.
In the end I’d had to take over the interview with the manager while Mark drunk enough green tea and Hennessy mixers to kill a dragon. On the side, from his man satchel, were palmfuls of cocaine.
From outside Suns I could see the promenade was filled with a mix of young expats and local partygoers. Each taking a break from whatever club or bar to smoke or fondle some stranger. The thuds of Hed Kandi chilled, Maroon 5’s Moves Like Jagger and a Mexican-themed bar punched the night air.
A short Indian man leant on the stone river barrier, smoking and mesmerized by the sheer mass of apartment blocks on the facing side. A lone night cruise went by on the Pearl River lit up like a thousand searchlights.
Mark looked up from his stupor and spotted a couple walking by. The girl was eating a chicken foot using a plastic glove.
‘Ooooh, she’s gone for the fucking diesel glove. Very hygienic, love. Has she been refuelling? She’ll eat that talon, take the glove off then pick her fackin’ nose.’
That was the cue for me to leave as gently as possibly. I stood up, took a large swig from a bottle of water and headed outside to find a taxi. I told the driver to head to Angel Town. I wanted to try again.
Before I went in I headed into the McDonald’s across the road to sober up.
I arrived at the crossover point, where the breakfast items are becoming available and I ordered off both menus. At 7:15am I walked outside hailed a taxi with the help of a cleaner and headed home. The massage girls and boiled eggs would have to wait.
Once I managed to work the lock, I collapsed on the couch, yellow cheeseburger wrappers, sweet and sour sauces and hash brown sleeves in my pockets. Mark kept giving me missed calls but I wasn’t in the mood for him.
When I woke mid-afternoon, I called Mark but the phone kept going to voicemail. I tried for another two days until he answered.
‘Yes’, he said.
‘Fucking hell, must have been a bad hangover,’ I said.
‘Is that supposed to be a fucking joke?’ he said.
‘You seemed pretty wasted,’ I said.
‘The fuckers seemed to knock me out,’ he said.
‘Who? Who knocked you out? I said.
Through hoarse groans he explained he’d been beaten unconscious by 30 bouncers, at 6am this morning, as I was tucking into my McChicken sandwich, double sausage and egg McMuffin buffet.
One of the security had thrown a patio chair at him and a leg had caught his left eye. Now he was partially sighted.
He’d been taken to the hospital, where he’d been admitted to an eye ward.
When he was discharged he went to his flat but had to call a locksmith to get inside.
He’d tried to use his keys as a weapon but they’d been prised from his fingers and thrown in the river.
From a selfie his face looked like it had been jammed into the spokes of a speeding Harley Davidson motorbike. He said the only thing keeping him awake was the spastic pain of a broken collarbone.
The whites of both his eyes were solid red but what truly terrified me was the condition of his left one. He’d lifted the eye patch to reveal the aftermath of an orbital fracture from the chair leg. But the eyeball was looking downwards, not working with the other one.
There were scratches and scrapes across his torso, as if he had wrestled with a panther.
He read texts from his friends, who’d were trying to get in touch. They told him that he started the whole fight and was determined to keep it going.
Mark remembers being ejected from the club but then trying to get back inside to ‘get the fackin’ Russians’. When Mark got physical after being disallowed entry things took a turn for the brutal.
The 30 bouncers threw decorative pebbles, rocks, chairs and awning poles at him as he tried to reach the taxi rank.
It was a scene from Platoon.
He’d also lost Mungo.
By now Lanlan had become firmly embedded in my life. There was no escaping the fact: we were in a serious relationship.
She would take the 13-hour ‘normal-speed’ train to Guangzhou to see me. Because of availability and price, Lanlan often ended up with a ‘hard seat’ – a 90-degree wooden bench shared with two other travellers.
But it was a step up from the cheaper fare of ‘standing’. In the night those passengers, shattered from the effort of remaining on their feet, spread themselves out across the floor, in the aisle, in the toilets and the canteen carriages.
Labourers and students fell asleep on Lanlan’s shoulders while toddlers played games on their parents’ mobiles at full volume. To save money and keep herself entertained she stuffed her backpack with snacks and books.
Her stuff from her mother’s was moved into my flat. There were her plastic blue flip-flops by the door and piles of green and purple packets of dried seaweed.
We’d moved from ‘the oven’ upstairs and into the small bedroom downstairs. To compensate for the hard mattress, we bought a TUDDAL topper pad from IKEA. The two inches of high resilience foam felt lavish compared to the slab of iron I’d had to endure.
Lanlan and I would Skype with my parents, Lanlan turning to me for help to understand their northern slang and accent.
We discovered the differences between us through the simple act of living. Rather than use the washing machine, Lanlan scrubbed the clothes by hand.
She hung the dripping garments everywhere, in the sink, off the shower pole, towel racks, window ledges and toilet roll holders.
‘Air conditioning was seen as disruptive to the body’s internal system and the flat was either a wind tunnel of fans or dead, numbing humidity’
She kept buckets of water next to the toilet to use for flushing. She said it was to ‘save the planet’ but I knew she’d learnt it from her mother as a way of lowering the water bills.
Like chilled water, air conditioning was seen disruptive to the body’s internal system and the flat was either a wind tunnel from the ceiling and floor fans or dead, numbing humidity.
In taxis we’d developed an interlocking pattern where we could sleep on each other’s shoulders. We’d ride the metro escalators, hugging, one facing up and the other down, taking it in turn to warn each other when the bottom was near.
Lanlan used the desk in the bedroom to translate business contracts and agreements for uncles and her father, who rarely got in touch but guilt-tripped her into the tasks.
My urologist had advised that to get the blood flowing in my prostate and help with inflammation I should take sitz baths – submerging only my buttocks and crotch.
But we didn’t have a bath and the only way I could fulfil this remedy was to buy a toddler-sized bathtub from the local supermarket.
I filled it with kettles of boiling water and positioned it in front of the toilet with the lid down.
On top I’d spread open a copy of the China Daily newspaper and make corrections to the text.
She taught me conversational Chinese and in turn I called from the tub if I wanted a kiss or a Wanglaoji, shouting ‘lai lai lai’ (‘来来来’ ‘come, come, come’) like a spoilt prince.
She ran into the bathroom and whacked my knuckles with a pen. She told me to write out a Chinese character a hundred times, which I did around the edges of the articles.
We never ate in – the gas fitting for the cooker had failed its safety test. The only constant in the fridge were red and gold cans of Wanglaoji – a sweeter, herbal version of Lipton’s iced tea.
Something I’d become more addicted to than Kel and his orange soda.
On the nights we stayed at her mother’s, I’d given up using the toilet downstairs. The thought of bumping into Lanlan’s grandfather, swinging madly with his cane at the light bulb terrified me.
I chose instead to pee on the rooftop terrace accessed by a sliding door in Jardo’s room. I’d step out onto the rooftop garden, cool tiles beneath my feet, often senseless from the remaining Valium I had left for flying.
Staring into the hillside forests surrounding the complex, one hand on myself and the other on a grimy air conditioning tower, I’d pee out all the tea, Tsingtao lager and gallons of warm water I’d be encouraged to drink by Lanlan’s mother at dinner.
It was only when Mrs Zhang made her fortnightly trip to check her shallots, sweet potatoes and cabbages that she noticed the damage done.
I’d killed all of the neighbour’s creeping figs, money plants and peace lilies – scorched yellow and brown by my urine. In the harsh light of day it looked like a massacre.
‘All hell broke loose if I hit a wrong note. She’d pinch one of my fingers between hers and with it smash the correct key’
But Mrs Zhang was delighted. They were the neighbour’s and the two middle-aged women had been locked in a feud over the shared rooftop space for months.
Now she had a solid reason to bin the neighbour’s destroyed plants and use the space herself. To show her appreciation she insisted I let her teach me piano. Lanlan warned it would be a great insult to refuse the offer.
Three times a week Mrs Zhang sat next to me on the piano stool. She’d sing into my ear in time with the rhythm of the piece, ‘do, do, do, mi, far, ti, do. Do. Do. Do.’
All hell broke loose if I hit a wrong note. She’d pinch one of my fingers between hers and with it smash the correct key with a fury that was borderline psychotic.
The temperature dropped again as autumn came and went and the winter months approached. With no internal heating it was so cold inside I could see Mrs Zhang’s breath hit the piano like blasts from a steam train.
We go through scales, hand position and posture, before she entertains my request to learn Bohemian Rhapsody.
‘Mama, just killed a man…’
‘Put a gun against his head…’
She was still intimidating, obsessed with money and guarded, but the invitation for free lessons was a big step.
With a great sense of normality I was lured into a false sense of security.
For a few months, there was calm.
Living a life that included Mark couldn’t be survived for long. Up until his run-in with the bouncers, I was still helping out with Paper magazine.
For two days each month, before the issue went to print, we’d hole up in his apartment and between us crank out nearly all of the 30,000 words.
The sessions began at 10pm and went on until the early hours of the morning. The occasional freelancer or photographer turned up to be paid or a dealer came by to drop off a bag of coke or weed.
We took it in turns to cover last-minute restaurant reviews, openings or events.
‘Mate, got an American bar and grill then going to interview .’
I’d respond with, ‘See you back here, going to spend an afternoon at a new parkour gym for the cover story.’
Once we’d made the changes enforced by China’s media censors, the final PDFs were emailed to the printers.
Mark then began his wind-down stage. He stood at his DJ decks and speaker, joint in mouth, bouncing up and down to funk remixes of George Michael like a fat parrot.
If it was the weekend I’d leave around 8am and walk to a nearby salon and have my hair washed and scalp massaged.
For the rest of the morning I’d sit in a Starbucks, buy knock-off DVDs of the American sitcoms or head to Baiyun Mountain and climb the steps to the summit.
I’d sit and smoke and oblige locals who asked for selfies with the panting white man.
Lindsey texted to say the family were leaving Guangzhou within weeks. They were relocating to a school on a remote island in the Philippines.
Paul had essentially made a similar ill-judged decision as his friend, the former head of history, a year earlier.
This one took place at the annual prize-giving in one of the downtown luxury hotels. He was sat among his teachers in one of the function rooms at the Sofitel, a five-star French hotel.
For the morning, he’d convinced Lindsey he needed to go through some final-year reports at the school before the ceremony.
What that actually meant was heading down to McCawley’s pub with a group of colleagues. The plan was to order a full English breakfast, have a few smokes and americanos.
But there was a 2FOR1 deal on Guinness and the half-eaten breakfasts gradually became surrounded by empty pint glasses.
Cut to four hours later and Paul is sat, hammered among sober colleagues at the ceremony. When one of Paul’s students won a prize for attainment in Geography, Paul heard his own name and went on stage.
Not only did he collect the certificate for Outstanding Achievement in Urban Geography but he also gave a speech.
Parents, faculty members and pupils gawped as a mumbling Johnny Depp thanked ‘the academy’ and advised the audience to ‘stay young, stay hungry, be you’.
The special guest – the British Consulate-General for Guangzhou – watched from the front row. The pupil who won froze on the stage steps and looked for direction from the headmaster.
He shot on stage, made an awkward joke about the dangers of overworking and signalled to the school orchestra to play Paul and him off.
But I wasn’t aware of any of this as I stood, waiting outside the villa. Lindsey had organised a small gathering to mark the end of the academic year.
The few friends that were invited hadn’t showed; too drunk, deflated or disappointed to look Paul in the face.
Lindsey suggested he go for a stroll around the complex with the kids. I paced along the patio as Lindsey busied herself in the kitchen. We talked through the window, her passing over a can of Tsingtao and a half-smoked cigarette every twenty minutes.
An hour went by. The dragon’s mouth filled with cigarette filters and the table with beer cans.
She was becoming more philosophical, even putting the incident down to end-of-year stress and hopefully a final one off.
As she was stepping outside to join me, laughing as she closed the door, her son ran through the gates.
He was topless and covered in blood.
We ran to where Paul had taken the kids; Lindsey’s son leading the way. He led us to one of the outdoor gyms, secluded in a tiny forest at the back of the complex.
He was crying now, and trying to get out what had happened.
The three children had been playing on a bike, goading each other to go faster and faster.
The youngest, jerking back and forth thanks to the help of her siblings yanking the handlebars, lost her hold and smashed her forehead into the centre frame.
The inch-long gash in the centre of her hairline was so deep that blood didn’t run but spurted. She looked like she’d been drenched with a jug of beetroot juice.
Her brother tried to stem the flow by wrapping his school shirt and tie around her head. She was rocking back and forth, muttering in a lightheaded trance.
The other sister was sat bawling on her backside.
Paul wasn’t around.
Lindsey screamed at the other children to ‘walk don’t run’ to Lucy and Rob’s – teachers that lived a few doors down from them.
‘Fucking hell. Jesus. Simon an ambulance will take too long. It’s fucking rush hour.’
‘Oh yeah, shit I forgot, they don’t even get right of way over here,’ I said.
She ran over, crouched and hugged her daughter telling her to breath.
‘Do you think we should get her to lie down Simon? Where’s your dad sweetheart? Where’s your dad sweetheart? Let me have a look darling…’ Lindsey said, her speech becoming more desperate.
‘Just calm down a minute Lindsey. You take a breath. She’ll be okay. I’ll get a cab…’ I said.
But she wasn’t listening, instead begging me to look after her daughter as she sprinted out of the trees.
I scooped up her child and sat cross-legged on the grass, placing her in the bowl of my thighs.
Her brother’s efforts had been effective, but the tourniquets were now too soaked to hold any more blood.
I undid the knots and threw the shirt and tie beside me. She was silent, traumatised with bloodshot eyes from the stress of crying. To keep her from passing out I pulled faces and, pathetically, tried to test her on Chinese numbers up to ten.
Using the shoulder of my t-shirt I dabbed at the wound, smoothing back a tuft of damp hair. More blood trickled around the edges of her face, mixing with more dried blood and sweat.
She leant forward, as if looking for something between her legs.
‘What are you looking for sweet? Come on. Sit up straight like a soldier,’ I said.
And as she brought her head back up she vomited over my chest.
She burst into tears and I was about to tell her she’ll probably feel better now when the sound of an engine cut me off.
A motorbike turned onto the path and floored its way up to the gym.
Lindsey was on the back, sat side-saddle and screaming.
‘Is she okay? Is she okay?’ she said.
‘She’s just thrown up but I think it’s not as bad as it looks,’ I said.
‘There weren’t any cars. This is the only thing that stopped. Thank god the guards let us in.’
The bike had a multi-coloured umbrella stretched over to the top. The driver, smoking, was wearing a pair of goggles and his jacket backwards.
She hopped off and picked her daughter up by the armpits.
‘Lindsey, am I meeting you at the hospital?’ I said.
‘No you stay here for Paul. Tell him what’s happened and where the kids are,’ she said.
She pinned her daughter between the driver and herself before the bike U-turned sharply.
Less than a minute after the three revved out of sight, Paul staggered up the path. It looked too convenient to be coincidental but I was too drained for an argument.
‘You alright mate? Was flat out behind those trees. Had a bit of a heavy morning. Mate, you’ve got something on your face,’ he said.
I looked at him and wiped the blood off my nose, smearing more across my cheek.
‘Yeah Paul. I know,’ I said.
It was at that moment I realised why there was no car on the driveway and that I needed a break from China.
I stood up, took and lit a cigarette from Paul then walked off.
Three guards ran past me, late to the scene.
‘Hey, where you going?’ Paul said.
‘I’m going to book a holiday. This place is getting hard to control,’ I said.