Friday, 29 April 2016

2016: Amazing April!

Yes, April 2016 was an amazing month for certain with many reasons to celebrate! From my Tomb Sweeping weekend break to Changsha, Hunan to getting my second tattoo with my friend, Fiona. Casting my mind back to the previous April it was all about saving for my upcoming move to China but one year on it was definitely a lively month! Xianning, made the cut too Fifi!

Setting off for my first trip out of Wuhan after my Spring Festival travel extravaganza I was ready for Changsha! Hunan Province's capital city needn't of waited for me because I zoomed down from Wuhan Railway Station on my fifth China High Speed Train journey to Changsha South. Meeting with a friend who happens to also be an English teacher we had a great weekend seeing the sights that Changsha had to offer. I loved Orange Island Park the best with its Central Park feeling, it was bringing back some New York City Overness for certain! Being a part of the hysteria when we saw the giant statue of Chairman Mao's head emulated something caught at Disney World or outside the gates of London's Buckingham Palace! The weather held out for a short while but those rain clouds filled up and eventually poured down like there was no tomorrow! For a city smaller than Wuhan, Changsha City impressed me very much!

I wasn't expecting much from my trip to Changsha because the main reason was to spend some time with my friend, Andy. Ditching a hotel or a hostel for his homely apartment I was made to feel very welcomed for the entirety of my whistle-stop trip. April 2016 was running down the track like an Olympic sprinter, with a chance of getting the gold I had a feeling I was also going to experience a champion month. Changsha served up a terrible odour, being the home of 'Stinky Tofu' I pinched my nose whenever that stench was nearby. Huogong Palace may have been just a restaurant but I loved it's entrance, serving something that oozed a flare I love in China! Seeking something cultural and historical at the same time on my second day in Changsha, the Tianxin Pavilion and Park was exactly what I wanted to see whilst in that Hunan capital city! Beginning with a bang, I appreciated my first outing away from Wuhan during April 2016. From one trip to the next, I was ready for it! Yass Xi!

Embracing Wuhan's neighbouring Hubei sister city I was more than ready for Xianning, something told me it was going to be an eventful weekend! Getting back on the train I arrived at Xianning North Station after racing from work to Wuhan Railway Station, I wasn't going to miss that Friday night out on the tiles! Meeting my fellow teaching friend, Fiona at the station we got ready and allowed the night ahead to show us some crazy times! April had got me seeing something new, seeking the raw edge of Xianning gave me the opportunity to see a side of Hubei that I honestly didn't know existed. After getting crazy on the Friday night, myself and Fiona went to the Qianshan National Park to see Xianning from a higher view. Compared to the craziness of Wuhan I embraced the calming vista that Xianning presented to us two. Like a prayer we both found solace at Qianshan Temple, I sent my thoughts to the Buddha. It felt so relaxing!

April had been busy, after Changsha I was called away again to Xianning for another full on weekend, I was living! No McDonald's was going to help what felt like the worst hangover in my life, on reflection it wasn't the hangover that was making me feel so bad it was my dancing the previous night because we slayed! Breathing fresh air was the best, Wuhan has too much construction and god knows what else going on! March was pure working after Spring Festival, taking two breaks away from my jammed pack Kindergarten schedule was just what I needed. Xianning showed me so much more than I thought it was going to, on my final afternoon it was time to see some of the city's oldest streets. Going into what felt like another world was amazing, I was away from the modernity of Wuhan's growing skyline, so seeing something stripped back did serve scenes from my Jiang'an adventures. Bound for Wuhan Railway Station I was ready for a new week of teaching. I needed sleep!

Fiona had some business with our teaching agency to deal with so we turned her visit into a weekend of unexpected events! Meeting after work within the crazy that is Guanggu Square it was only natural for the wine to start flowing, we always have stories to share a healthy serving of truth to analyse. Dealing with the shady business early on during Saturday morning, we then headed for our favourite Chinese lunch dishes. The weather was positively awful, ditching our sightseeing plans to have a lazy afternoon acted as the perfect remedy to my post-boozy state. Treating ourselves we dined at the local Indian Restaurant in a nearby shopping centre to ring in Saturday night! We had both been thinking about getting a new tattoo but that idea was amazing! After doing a few translations of designs that we had been thinking about for a long time, biting the bullet we headed for Wuhan Prison! We got inked!

Wuhan Prison is amazing, boasting a bar then next door its own tattoo shop, getting down to Lumo Road we were hoping no one else was waiting in line! Submitting our designs the tattoo artist took a short break before our new tats could be inked. Going next door to the bar we both had a strong drink to calm those pre-tattoo nerves, I had my first tattoo before I went to university during a family holiday to Turkey a few years ago so I had given it a while before taking the plunge for my second piece of body art. I chose to have three Chinese characters etched onto to my upper back, translated to 'Travel', 'Live' and 'Explore' I took the tagline from my blog to become a permanent reminder of my time spent in China. Fiona chose the characters for 'Family' and 'Love' as her tattoo design, after our sittings we were very happy about our tattoos! Even though it was all very spur of the moment we were completely sure about what we were doing. Yes, April 2016 was definitely amazing!

April! Get It, Get It!

Joseph Harrison

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Let's Introduce: Xianning City, Hubei Province!

Leaving Wuhan for a weekend trip was the right thing to do, another part of China's Hubei Province was waiting for me! Xianning, Hubei had me running for that China High Speed train, I wasn't ready for that weekend of crazy! I had no idea what would greet me at Xianning North! We kept our promises, I was reunited with Fiona, a fellow English teacher from Scotland! 

I had heard great things about this pint-sized Hubei city before my May trip. Fiona had a plan, heading for the Qianshan National Park to climb what felt like a mountain. The weather was being shady so she took me to another temple, I was loving the peacefulness of that Qianshan scenic area but that incline wasn't cool! I captured a chilled out vista of Xianning's growing skyline I was impressed with what Xianning was serving to us, it was the perfect antidote from the smog and craziness of Wuhan to be able to breathe some fresh air but the concrete was the same! Meeting at our agency's Christmas party then again on Christmas Day in Wuhan, me and Fiona have forged a no-nonsense friendship because we can sense that shady business more than one mile off! The serene feeling of the Qianshan National Park gave us the perfect setting to put the world to rights, serving nothing but truth! Oh, I would need some sleep!

Leaving the view of Xianning's cityscape we found a sense of calm as the Qianshan Temple was in our sights. I was loving the tranquil feeling that the temple exuded, basically in the middle of nowhere compared to my hectic Wuhan residence I was living for this feeling of chill. Rewinding to the previous night when I stepped onto the platform at Xianning North I was not ready for that Friday night! Meeting Fiona we got ready then got our drink on, I was told not to expect much for a Friday night but from what I can remember it was filled with karaoke and copious amounts of booze! Yes! I had taken a break from my dancing ways because I had done myself an injury on the floor but with a visit to a nightclub in Xianning on that Friday night. Me and Fiona commanded everyone's attention with our outrageous moves! Fulfilling our fantasies we strutted down the vacant runway like fashion models but we didn't care what the onlookers thought about us! Xianning, saw hose death drops!

No McDonald's could cure me properly, I had made it to the top of what felt like a mountain in one piece but I was feeling terrible! Round two was pending and I had to show face on the dancefloor once again in Xianning, something was not right though! Soldiering on we met Fiona's teaching friend, Alvaro teaches at a university in Xianning and he's from Spain so it was lovely to finally to put a face with his name. Our Italian meal was nice, it was so very nice to eat something remotely cheesy for a change! A new friend of Fiona and Alvaro joined us that evening, Hanan from Morocco made it very clear she wasn't going to embrace Chinese culture during her internship, the less I say about that questionable part of the meal the better! Friday night had well and truly got me but I was out and ready to experience the Chinese nightclub that Fiona had hyped up! With new friends in a new city I was living! Behave yourself, Joseph!

Reminding me somewhat of my Chinese nightclub experience in Chengdu during National Day 2015, just no tricks to be played though. I was fronted with a shiny and plush nightspot, apparently the place to be in Xianning on a Saturday night?! Getting a table and some drinks it was time to watch and learn, I can dance when I've had a few drinks because it releases something that I can't grasp when I'm sober, I'm just more fierce! Dressed to the nines, the young Xianning folk sipped their drinks and watched the empty dancefloor. Team foreigner made it up to represent the Laowai's, encouraging a group of Chinese clubbers to join in! Chinese nightclubs are different compared to those in England but this Xianning nightspot was utterly bizarre! The performers slayed with high energy hip-popping routines and even brought some fire to the stage! Don't get us twisted, that's not a very clever thing to do! For a small city outside of Wuhan, Xianning was serving something extra! Xianning ruined me!

Sunday morning greeted me with a clear and sober feel, I had recovered from my weekend of craziness! Those death drops were the problem not the alcohol, I will never learn! Fiona showed me how it is to teach English on the 'other side' in a public secondary school as I work in a private Kindergarten. I was shocked by the basic classrooms and harsh regime the students go through everyday, only having one day per month off sounded hellish! Refuelling at a nearby Muslim restaurant it was time to recount the night before with Alvaro as he didn't come to the nightclub with us. Hitting the streets was what I wanted to do but we chilled with a cappuccino in a nearby coffee-shop, it was the best in the city! Xianning afforded me the chance to be stared at for being white because Wuhan folk aren't fazed by my European skin tone. Branded 'the ghetto' Oh, I was ready to get the scoop! I wanted to see how the other half lived.

Myself, Fiona and Alvaro took a stroll along their familiar Xianning city streets but being from Wuhan where it's fast becoming shiny and new I was captivated by the back to basics feel that part of the city was serving. It wasn't sketchy or strange to me as I adore places with that extra personality, taking it back to the streets I recognised the 'normal' feel of Xianning's non-developed parts of town, but for how long will these diamonds in the rough remain in a city that lies only twenty-two minutes away from Wuhan on the High Speed Rail line? From those first boozy moments on the Friday night to our Sunday afternoon adventures, I appreciated the difference of being in a smaller city that gave me everything that I wanted and more. It's nice to leave the flashy places behind sometimes to experience a lesser known place. Boarding my supersonic service back to Wuhan Railway Station I had a feeling Xianning would be calling be back soon! I'm not allowed to dance dangerously for now!

Slay, Xianning!

Joseph Harrison

Monday, 11 April 2016

Teaching English: A Whole New World...

There's always that saying, "what will you do once you graduate?". I haven't got a clue about the future but I'm working on it. I would maintain the belief that I would be abroad, preferably in the Far East teaching English. I suppose I could call it fate because I'm doing just that? Let's not tempt fate because things are going well! So, pay attention prospective TEFL teachers!

China had to be the answer! Towards the end of my degree course in Birmingham I had been given a knock back from an interview with a famous Middle Eastern airline for a job as Cabin Crew. I still had a plan to get myself abroad, to work and support myself whilst learning a skill to allow me to travel at the same time. I passed my TEFL certificate, opening the bewildering world of teaching English as a foreign language to me, so many offers were on the table but I needed my degree certificate before I could commit to any contracts. Deciding China to be the destination of my teaching journey I opted for Kindergarten jobs, I had small cousins at the time and had experience working in a Youth Theatre setting so I could pull a few crazy tricks into a demo class for a Skype interview. On to the interviews, they became tedious and I got close to the point of changing my plan to something different. Oh, life C!

I had done my research carefully, I knew Hong Kong was a big no because of all the experience that was required and the multiple applications that were unfortunately ignored. I wasn't afraid to be upfront and candid during my TEFL Skype interviews or question why certain things were left out of the interviewers checklist. Knocking back several opportunities because of the wage being so low compared to what lucrative deals were out in the vast world of TEFL jobs, I had faith that something would come along that I could fully put my trust in. Dealing with Chinese TEFL agencies and schools over the internet was no mean feat for me, I sniffed out the shady organisations who were willing to send me to Hong Kong on a tourist visa to convert to a Z visa. One company crossed my path and took a chance on me, I arrived in Shanghai, China on the 18th of June 2015! Spending five days in Shanghai was absolutely insane, but I travelled to pursue my dream to be a teacher! Yes, SH!

My initial training wasn't bad, I was in China and doing something I had wanted to do after refusing so many jobs. Getting to my work location allowed reality to kick in, I was teaching English in a training centre five days per week without two consecutive days off per week at the weekend, that wasn't a problem. I thought I was doing a good job, but I was being watched constantly with a growing number of observations that resulted in me parting ways with the company on the 22nd of August 2015 if I remember correctly. I literally had my work permit stamped into my passport, I hadn't travelled all the way to Wuhan, China to return home less than three months from my departure! Consulting in a friend I had no choice but to sign up with a local teaching agency to find a job before I ran out of money, I had already signed up for one year's lease on my apartment. Ready to fight, everything was about to change for me!

Rule number one, no question is a stupid one for the move to China can be a daunting one to say the very least. Having tight communication with your chosen company or agency is crucial, to be able to determine if everything was Kosher with my visa process with the training centre I had to be persistent. Back to that August afternoon, I was handed a contract for 6,000 CNY for the next teaching year to begin one week later from that day, I calculated my rent and living costs from the wage that was in front of me and proclaimed that it wasn't going to work out at that price. I negotiated a higher price for the first and second semester as I wanted my previous wage to be matched. Most teaching agencies in China take a monthly commission fee, so it's always good to get as much money as possible because they will always be taking some of the wage each month. My harsh approach to making decisions had paid off, I recognised that I had been to get a second chance! I was dubious still.

Becoming a Kindergarten teacher in the end was an amazing feeling, to be at a school with such a great ethos felt like all the trouble and turbulence had been worth it. I settled into English teaching life once again, waking up with the birds each morning was something to get used to but I was working where I wanted to be. The children range from two and a half to almost six years old, the age gap is quite something but compared to the previous demographic of students I can deal with this change. Getting my visa and medical back on track after a bumpy start, I applied a direct approach as sometimes its the best way to get things done without being unprofessional. I don't want to say anything that is out of turn because I have been afforded a great opportunity with complete job security. Getting the weekends off and having access to more National Holidays has been such a blessing I can deal with that ish!

Up to April 2016 I have been teaching at the Kindergarten for eight months, having the chance to work with a team who care about every aspect of their jobs really makes things great! The methods of a Montessori education wasn't on my radar but I have learnt to get along with that aspect of my job, I am learning as each week passes and have faith that this contract will be seen out to its date of completion. I anticipate to be working up until August 2017 to complete a two year stint at my current school. The workings of teaching English in China is changing so with my possible two years of experience gained from my time working as a Kindergarten teacher will put me in good stead for the future. It's not a walk in the park, we've all got to feel like we're treading water in the ocean blue from time to time, that's the challenge that is life! Teaching English in China is not a joke or the way out of England, it's definitely a serious career! Know what you want and make it happen! OK?!

TEFL's No Joke! 

Joseph Harrison 

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Who's Calling? ... It's Changsha, China!

Changsha was calling me to visit during China's annual Tomb Sweeping Festival, I simply couldn't refuse the opportunity to make this Hunan capital city my tenth city visited in China. I'm getting about quite a lot, I know! What would I see during my April weekend break? No, I wouldn't be indulging in any stinky tofu during my Hunan trip! Yes, Changsha's only getting started!

Wuhan's smog ridden skies passed me by at lighting speeds as I relaxed into my high speed rail journey from Wuhan to Changsha's South Railway Station. Waving to my friend Fiona as the train made a quick stop in Xianning, Hubei. My G train hurtled into it's Hunan destination on time! Getting train tickets for the high speed line during National Holidays in China can be a pain but I got mine with a stroke of luck! Changsha's Metro was getting crazy, nevertheless I got down to Furong Square to meet my friend Andy, I would be staying with him during that Tomb Sweeping Festival weekend. A fellow English teacher I had arranged to spend the weekend in Changsha with Andy, it was enormously handy to have someone with me who knew the city from back to front because the Metro hadn't be developed at that point! I admit that taking the train makes things easier compared to flying in China, that's the way it goes C! 

After dropping my bag off at Andy's place it was time to check out Changsha's Orange Island Park. Taking a stroll through the relaxed parks on that Orange Isle was great, it was amazing to breathe in some fresh-like air because Wuhan's got too much smog! I was feeling a sense of 'Central Park' with the lush gardens and the growing skyline in view I could feel a smaller NYC in my view. Making our way closer to the state of Mao Zedong it was lovely to take in the panoramas of Hunan's capital city, a sense of movement could be felt in the air with all the cranes and unfinished skyscrapers suggested this Chinese city was only getting started? The statue of Mao Zedong was a sight to see, people were going mad with their cameras as if they were standing in front of London's Buckingham Palace! It was very bizarre to see so many people frantically taking photos, but the statue did look quite breathtaking from an angle I have to say! Changsha gave me a sense of park-life, I appreciated that Hu!

I had a hunger to see what Changsha served, it might not be a huge city but I wanted to endorse some Central China Realness! Choosing Tianxin Pavilion I was loving the design of this ancient relic in Changsha City, crafted during the reign of Emperor Qianlong during the Qing Dynasty. The pavilion itself impressed me much but I was living for the view from the top, that trick known as 'Mother Nature' threw a series of rain showers down as I was admiring the view of Changsha's emerging skyline. Hungry for something unique to that Hunan province city it was time for some Hunan rice noodles for our brunch, hold the spice! Being a foreigner in China provokes extra attention, a certain celebrity status was placed upon me during that time, during our brunch the Hunan rice noodles wasn't the only interesting thing to see. Two Chinese kids who were sitting on the opposite table stared at me with an intriguing glare! Aliens?

The picturesque gardens served a perfect contrast with the neighbouring concrete city scene, I was able to capture the stillness of a Chinese urban space without madness for once, something that isn't an easy thing to do! Changsha's Tianxin Pavilion invited me to see its bulletproof stone walls, shielding us from the incoming rain showers that had been forecast for the weekend. I wasn't looking to get crazy during the twilight hour because I had made the trip to Changsha to catch up with my friend, Andy. Located under ninety minutes away from Wuhan on the super efficient China high speed rail line it was a whistle-stop trip without stress. I wanted to see the Yuelu Academy but I didn't fancy trekking up to the top of that mountain scenic area, fearing not I was able to capture a sight of a certain Yuelu fashion during that Orange Isle time. Did I miss out the craziness of CS? I'll get to the crazy! Tianxin Pavilion and Park reminded me of Wuhan's Yellow Crane Tower but that's just so! 

That Tomb Sweeping Festival madness met up with us as we rolled up at Changsha's Huogong Palace. I first caught a glimpse of this Hunan delight whilst killing some time on YouTube, I was drawn to the rich crimson red frontage of this Hunan foodie hangout. Andy told me that part of Huogong Palace consisted a restaurant but I wanted to pay a visit to this vibrant addition to the city. I was ready! The rancid wafts of stinky tofu assaulted my sense of smell in the worse way possible. A Changsha delicacy I was not won over by that Hunan delight whatsoever! I usually loathe taking photos in busy places, keeping calm and making the best of the situation I got a snap of the entrance without it looking too cluttered. Taking a look inside the brightly decorated walls of Huogong Palace revealed a lively courtyard. I recognised the Oriental style and took notice of the period features as onlookers went crazy over a statue!

The humidity had me running towards the shopping malls of Changsha's main fashion avenue, making three necessary purchases I made a quick change so I could deal with the messed up weather! They say that we always take the weather with us wherever we go but I didn't take kindly to the torrential rain that bucketed down during my second day in the city of Changsha! Admitting defeat and shelving our plans for that Irish bar outing it was much better for us to take shelter at Andy's apartment for the evening. Changsha gave me everything that I wanted, showing me three worthy contenders within that Hunan capital city satisfied my travel requests. Having a constant Kiki with Andy was just what was needed, a Kiki is a gathering of fabulous minds to put the world to rights and to sometimes throw shade! Wuhan's little sister is getting her groove on, soon to slay within the stakes of China Central capitals! Travelling back in first class back to Wuhan, I was living! 

I Choose Changsha!

Joseph Harrison