It’s beginning to look a bit like Christmas

I started writing this blog post shivering on my bed as workmen were replacing my kitchen and had left the front door open. In typical Chinese fashion, I was told that this would be happening but I wasn’t told when it would be happening. This led me to being midway through yoga practice when I received a torrent of knocks on my door. The workmen then proceeded to place everything in the kitchen on top of my yoga mat (interesting move) and I locked myself in the bathroom so that I could get dressed. Really, I’m lucky, as had they come fifteen minutes prior they’d have found me asleep (I’d also forgotten to lock my door) which would have been embarrassing for everyone involved.

The festive season

Christmas isn’t really a thing in China. This is the first time in my life that I’ve made it so far through December without hearing an abundance of Christmas songs. While my local supermarket does often play an instrumental version of ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’, it’s been playing since August so I feel like this doesn’t count. A good example of the absence of Christmas is a card I received from a primary school student. She’d written “Merry Christmas” on the card and had drawn a present, but it was in fact a thank you card. Similarly, one confused Senior 1 student wished me a happy birthday at the start of a lesson this week.

The Christmas spirit has, however, been alive and kicking among expats. Pretty much every weekend since the end of November there’s been a market run by an embassy or an international school. Two Sundays ago we went to a market in a bar called The Hutong where it was so crowded we couldn’t move. After a tepid mulled wine, we made a quick exit. The markets I’ve enjoyed the most were the ones organised by the charity Migrant Children’s Foundation (MCF). As I write the blog for MCF, I got to go along and peruse the stalls and chat to vendors and volunteers alike. Even though I was attending the markets in a volunteer capacity, I couldn’t help treating myself to the mittens featured below. If you want to read more about MCF’s Christmas fairs you can do so here and here. I also got to experience what felt like the equivalent of an office Christmas party, as MCF had a Christmas volunteer social. Held at a posh café near the hutongs, we were treated to a Christmas buffet and mulled wine. We each received a goodie bag and just generally had a lovely time.

Speaking of expats, my friends and I have indulged in the Christmas classic Secret Santa. We wrapped our presents in Chinese newspaper (I couldn’t read it but I could ask for one at the newspaper stand – progress) so that our identities remained secret. I have been going on about the absence of hot chocolate in my life for a while now so was very pleased to receive some hot chocolate, marshmallows and a new mug.

I also gave myself a little Christmas present in the form of a new tattoo. A lot of expat life in China runs on hearsay, and it was thanks to someone in a group chat sharing a tattooist’s WeChat account that I found a credible tattoo artist that was good at speaking English.

While winter might not be festive, it is far from miserable. The weather has been glorious lately, and the sun has been shining almost consistently. I think it would be much easier to lament the lack of festivities if it was grey and cloudy. This is not to say it’s been warm, however. The weather is creeping towards the minuses and at night it’s fallen to as low as –9 degrees.

Caochangdi Art District

I had an impromptu Thursday and Friday off two weeks ago. In a bid to make the most of my time I ventured out to Caochangdi, Beijing’s alternative art district. Back in September I visited 798 Art District, the main art area in Beijing, and loved it. Caochangdi is a very different experience. While 798 is heaving with stylish youths, Caochangdi is deserted. 798 is a fashionable area to hang out, with not just galleries, but shops and cafes too. Caochangdi is a small residential area that just happens to be home to a number of esteemed galleries. This is pretty much the idea behind the district, with artists moving to Caochangdi to escape the commercialisation of 798. The lack of people is not a reflection of the quality of the art, with Ai Weiwei having notably moved to Caochangdi fifteen years ago.

Located in the north east of Beijing, it’s literally the other side of the city to me. Around 25 miles away, it took me an hour by subway and then I had to take a taxi. Unfortunately the taxi didn’t drop me off at the right destination meaning I spent a good half hour being lost. Thankfully I eventually found one of the main sights, the Three Shadows Photography Centre. Ai Weiwei designed the complex, and it’s the first gallery in China that is exclusively dedicated to contemporary photography. The collections exhibited were really interesting, especially one about the music scene in Beijing in the early 2000s. There were many photos that featured a popular music venue that was knocked down and replaced with Sanlitun SOHO (a huge shopping complex). This is the kind of history on urban redevelopment that’s hard to discover anywhere else in Beijing.

I then wandered across to an area that featured many galleries, all located within an industrial looking set of buildings. It was a bit of a maze and I popped my head into as many galleries as I could work out how to open the door to (no mean feat). I probably bumped into a maximum of about seven people in my three hours in the art village. I’m not sure if this is because it was a Friday or if it really was the norm for Caochangdi, but either way it was a very pleasant way to pass time.

The lack of commercialisation was evident in the lack of cafes. I had to stave off hunger, evidence that the purpose really is just to showcase art. The area surrounding the art village was very residential. Known as an urban village, it is mostly home to migrant workers and farmers. I ventured into a restaurant and the staff shouted “Wai guo ren! Wai guo ren!” (foreigner). I tried to point to a nondescript photo of a noodle dish but was met with a torrent of questions in Chinese that I was unable to understand, but thankfully a fellow female customer helped me out.

I thoroughly recommend a visit to Caochangdi art district. It was peaceful, and full of noteworthy art from both national and international artists. Walking around Caochangdi, it felt more like a mild spring day than an almost freezing winter’s day.

Prince Kung’s Mansion

I also recently visited Prince Kung’s Mansion, a huge complex where Prince Kung lived in the late nineteenth century. Fit for a king (literally), it was ginormous.

The complex is educational, with several small museum-like rooms. Sadly, all the information was in Chinese so I had to look up the history afterwards, but as it was a nice day, this wasn’t too much of a problem. If you were willing to get up close and personal with some fellow Chinese tourists, you could peak your head into some of the grand rooms. There were also some beautiful galleries filled with glittering artwork (see below).

The real highlight was the gardens. Probably due to the colder weather, it wasn’t overwhelmingly busy meaning you could take pleasure in your surroundings and enjoy the sound of the waterfall. I asked a woman to take a photo of me using the universal sign of pointing to my phone and then to myself. She obliged and then we bumped into each other again at which point she asked for a selfie (see below).

After visiting the mansion, I ventured out to a café. If I’m honest, the only reason I discovered Prince Kung’s Mansion was because I was trying to find something close to a café. From Prince Kung’s mansion, it was a 12 minute walk to Café de Sofa, just off the bustling touristy street and down a quiet residential hutong. The café was lovely and quiet, and allowed me the opportunity to sit on a sofa for the first time in four months. At one point a Chinese woman that was sat opposite me nipped downstairs and left her iPhone and other items unattended, something you’d certainly think twice about in London. This leads me onto the point that China is incredibly safe. I had the realisation the other day that I have never heard a siren here.

Teaching highlights

I teach the same class each week twelve times to seniors, and the same class five times a week to Grade 5. While this can be monotonous, the students remain as unpredictable as ever. Here are some of my favourite questions students have asked me recently:

A Grade 5 student: “My hamster has given birth. Would you like one of its babies?”

Two questions from the same Senior 2 student:

  • “Do any of your friends have HIV?”
  • “If I move away from China and to another country, like Europe, would I have to convert to a religion?”

Some students are also skilled at metaphors, for example one student told me: “Our maths homework could make a mountain.” Another highlight was one cheeky student who, when I handed out the worksheets, said “Burn them all!”.

I also found someone had scrawled the lyrics to What Do You Mean by Justin Bieber on their desk. Again, in demonstration of my incapacity to be a teacher, I demanded to know who did it and then asked him if he liked Justin Bieber and started humming the song.

I’m ending this blog post from my bed as I turned up to my first class of the day to find no students in the entire building. I eventually located an English teacher and she told me there was a performance and she was surprised (I was not) that no one had told me. It’s a strange kind of feeling resenting wasting energy dreading a 40-minute lesson that doesn’t take place. Merry Christmas!


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