Pretty in Pink: Why not to use Asian hair dye

It seems that this week I am destined to write a blog about hair dye.

I’ve been dying my hair varying shades of ginger and red for over a decade and I’m not about to stop now. Aside from the fact that I don’t feel suited to my natural hair colour, imagining the growing out period for about a foot of hair seems torturous.

Now, red hair dye is known for fading quickly. It just happens. Despite this, it is also incredibly stubborn and even after a hardcore bleaching this past summer, my blonde hair was still noticeably ginger. (Which worked well for me, as I was only moving to a lighter shade of ginge at the time.)

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Why is this blogworthy? I’m naturally an ash-blonde. That’s the kind where it’s almost brown, but goes bright blonde in the summer. It’s apparently a Scandinavian gene that’s responsible, but that’s not really important. Just a nice little tit-bit of information for you there. What IS important, is that this kind of hair is incredibly different to afro hair or Asian hair. It’s not just the colour, it’s the texture, the thickness, the porosity. This all rolls together to give me soft, thin hair that stylists seem to love, but is proving to be a bit of a nightmare over in China.

First and foremost, the dry air of Ordos has pretty much abolished my natural curl. My hair is highly porous, meaning it dries out easily and loses its bounce. Humidity might make me a little frizzy, but is ideal for my hair, so a lack of it has left me feeling a bit limp. To compensate, I’m using three or four different hair products each day and it’s starting to look lively again.

Secondly, the thing about China is that it’s full of Asians. Huge shocker, I know. Because China is full of Asians who have Asian hair, all of the hair products available are formulated for Asian hair. This includes hair dye. My delicate hair is usually dyed with Western formulae without bleaching agents because I simply don’t need them. I’ve tried finding one out here, but to no avail. My last dye was bought in Hong Kong, which was multicultural enough to facilitate my hair type and I even found a colour similar to what I wanted. But, six weeks later and I’m looking like this:

So, I did what any self-respecting person would do and went to a salon with experience dying foreign hair scoured Taobao for a solution that didn’t look too damaging. I came across a seller specialising in African hair care, and although Africans also have thick black hair, the white lady on the box had me convincing myself that perhaps it caters for white South Africans. What I didn’t pay attention to at the time was that it’s a bloody Chinese brand, so it’s probably all fake. But, whatever. Time to dye my hair ‘wine ren’.

Now, I’m not entirely stupid. I at least went to the internet in order to see whether to treat my hair first, reduce the development time or something else that will help protect my hair. Unfortunately, my VPN decided to fail today and Baidu/Bing don’t understand ‘Using Asian hair dye on blonde hair’ and other variations of the same – all I got were results for how to dye Asian hair blonde.

So I went in blind.

First Dilemma

Do I treat my roots first? Usually I do, but that’s because it needs to take more colour. If there’s a bleaching agent, surely a longer development time is to lighten the hair, which means it’s not the roots that need it at all.

The rest of the hair’s already red, even if different strands are different shades. I could just dye it all at the same time and hope for the best. The worst that could happen is exactly the same colour mismatch as I currently have, but in a different shade. That sounds acceptable. It also sounds like something I just made up as I don’t understand the chemistry, but you live and you learn, right?

Second Dilemma

The box says, “Follow the instruction leaflet.” – there isn’t one.

“Application on natural hair? See color chart below.”  – there isn’t one.

“Beauty hair needs an experts.” – I’ve also counted 13 typos on the box of this ‘professiona care and colouing first choice product

 

The Procedure

Oh boy. I washed out products the night before and when I woke up today, I applied the dye all over, and I’m writing whilst leaving it to develop for 20 minutes. I’m guessing the ammonia is going to leave me dry, so a deep condition is probably wise too. I don’t have any hats with me, but I’ve got a headscarf I can wear if it goes horribly wrong.

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Oh my god why is it pink?

Why doesn’t it all fit in the bottle? Oh no, I have to ruin a bowl for it.

My god, why is it so pink?

Why isn’t it coming off my skin. Oh noooooo, it’s one of those. What is this, the 1990s?

So, 15 minutes development time might be too much, yeah?

Oh god, why is it so pink? Will I have candy floss showers forever?

Good thing I have a bandana. Time for work.

 

The Fix

Okay, stay calm. First things first, strip as much as possible, then dye it darker. Vitamin C and washing up liquid has worked in the past, worth a shot this time. But what about brown dye? Even that will have ammonia in since Asians have to lighten their black hair to apply it. I mean, I’ve got nothing to lose, right?

The first ‘treatment’ blasted my shower with bright pink chemicals, so it definitely did something. Then I applied a brown dye and treated it again. My hair feels like straw and is definitely not what I wanted, but I guess I can live with it. Kind of prefer the pink though…

 

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Ordos: How green is the Kubuqi Desert?

A 2 ½ hour ride from Kangbashi, the Kubuqi Desert is the 7th largest desert in China, surrounded by river, mountains and grasslands. As described, I imagine it as a videogame terrain. I’ve never been a fan of desert zones, they make me uncomfortable and the monsters are usually too tricky to fight. Thankfully, there were no monsters to be seen in Kubuqi!

The desert itself is actually a lot greener than I expected, even knowing the efforts that have gone into ‘greening’ the area over the last 30 years. Now a third of the desert is covered in plants chosen for their sturdiness and ability to grip in sand dunes. Time magazine gives an informative read about how the ‘greening’ came about and the ways in which the community contribute to stop the desertification. (No surprises, but the key factor was ensuring it turned a profit. That’s not a bad thing… if the way you make a living benefits the world, by all means, make that living).

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In fact, as a testament to how much change has been brought about, Ordos was honoured to host the UN convention to combat desertification (COP 13) last month. Delegates from 113 countries, including some prime ministers, arrived in Ordos for the conference and saw for themselves how the desert here has benefited from increasing biodiversity.

So, it’s off to the desert we went! Initially it sounded like it would be a small party of eight, but with hurried plans the night before, our numbers grew to 21. Many of them had worked for the conference in an interpreting capacity, so I think it was fresh on everyone’s minds. Needless to say, we weren’t just wondering off into the dunes – we stayed at Seven Star Lake tourist resort. At the heart of the compound is a lavish hotel, the indoors consisting of top-to-toe marble, that costs 2000RMB a night. We did not stay in the hotel, but rather in ‘villas’ in a nearby eco-park. These were more like static caravans, with two bedrooms at the ends, an anteroom in the middle, and bathrooms in between. It was a weird set up, but definitely fit for purpose.

We got up to all sorts of fun things despite the short time – riding camels, sliding down sand dunes and riding buggies. Superficial? Maybe. Fun? Yes.

It wasn’t until the camel stood up that I realised just how big they are. I knew it shouldn’t have surprised me, they have people on their backs after all, but nonetheless it was a surprise. I called my camel Ernie, he wasn’t much for conversation but he seemed a good listener.

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Remember sliding down snowy banks as a child? Maybe you had a sled, maybe you had a tin foil serving tray. Having a bunch of sand around, you can do it any time – and it’s a lot steeper than the little bank in the Willows that we used to use. Fun, but a bit gritty.

Whilst the little ones took to little boats in a … pond? Puddle? … the grown-ups took to the buggies, driving round a track. Me and Bill missed the first round due to a lack of cars, but everyone came back grinning ear to ear – they’d had a crash. Fast driving and not looking where they were going! On our turn, I took to the wheel and it felt good to get a bit of speed. I’ve been missing the independence of driving and although it’s not the same, taking a few sharp turns and overtaking others was a lot of fun.

It was a good weekend and I’m glad I was able to go. Although it came about as ‘let’s go to the desert’, it’s been interesting to experience it and to learn a little more about its significance in combatting desert expansion.

I’m looking forward to learning more about how the landscape feeds into local life, both in contemporary and historic contexts. The Mongolian influence is extremely evident in day-to-day life, and the resources available has clearly shaped the way communities in and around Ordos make a living. Hopefully, you’ll find it interesting too.

Ordos: Our beautiful buildings

The buildings around the town centre of Ordos are a matter of pride, with each one uniquely designed, representing different parts of the local climate.

The first one I’d like to show you is the theatre, which is designed to look like a Mongolian hat – or at least I was told that by locals and was inclined to agree; however, the architects of Yazdani Studio state that it is designed to mimic the floor work of the long-sleeve dance.

 

The theatre and concert hall photographed from the other side of the square.

The complex includes a 1,200-seat concert hall, a 400-seat multi-purpose theater, and a special 100-seat theater environment to accommodate traditional Mongolian music performance. Having attended a Mongolian dance performance during my first week, I was rather impressed with the interior that feels intimate and commanding at the same time. The stage itself seemed never-ending, with a distance shot constructed from what I thought must have been a clever trick of light, turning out to just be distance.

Next up we have a building which is a bit more obviously shaped from a theme: the library. The library building represents three hefty tomes on the cusp of falling from the shelf. It mirrors some of the government buildings (and only some, one of the government buildings looks like a mirrored palace, but is only one-tenth in use…) with the windowless walls and grey soviet slabs. I’m struggling to find information on the architects, but if you happen to know, please leave a comment.

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The library looks well-designed for some heavy reading.

Finally, the piece you are most likely to have seen – the museum. I haven’t been inside yet as I’m saving it for a cold winter’s day, but I’m very excited to head inside.

 

Ordos Museum acts as a centre piece and focal point throughout the centre’s many parks.

The museum is designed by MAD Architects and brings together several concepts in one. The flowing curves of the museum are supposed to make the building seem like a mirage appearing over ever-shifting sand dunes, which will have an urban representation as the city builds and grows. Integrating local culture with all the potential futures for the city, the architects embraced the controversy of this ‘ghost city’, rather than taking the approach of many others (“It’s a beautiful building, but a shame no one uses it…”).

It really irks me that whilst finding information about these buildings even the most recent ones are touting Kangbashi as a ghost town, because these buildings ARE in use. One article in particular, that I’m not going to mention by name, goes on about the lack of public transportation and how there’s miles and miles of empty space, which seems to me as if they are going out of their way to perpetuate a lie. True, some things do lie out-of-the-way, like the sports arena. They still get used for public events and can be considered stepping stones. The plan for the future is to join Kangbashi with the next city over (Dongsheng), as it was only ever conceived because of how rapidly Dongsheng was growing. Locals to Dongsheng express that even 10-20 years ago, Dongsheng was tiny, and everyone expects that Kangbashi too will grow and prosper. It is much better that infrastructure and public buildings already exist, even if they are under-used for some time.

But enough of my ranting, let’s get back to the point at hand. By chance, earlier this week I realised that I already know the architects of the museum, as they are also responsible for the new Chaoyang Park Plaza in Beijing. A client from my summer internship is opening a new restaurant in the plaza and it is a truly captivating space, so although it is not about Ordos, allow me to share it with you.

 

MAD Architects’ concept designs for the Chaoyang Park Plaza in Beijing

Isn’t it beautiful? It looks like a sci-fi fantasy design, integrating natural formations with cold, sleek urbanisation. I for one love it. I still can’t get over the concept designs and look forward to seeing it in person.

 

Ordos: Our beautiful buildings

The buildings around the town centre of Ordos are a matter of pride, with each one uniquely designed, representing different parts of the local climate.

The first one I’d like to show you is the theatre, which is designed to look like a Mongolian hat – or at least I was told that by locals and was inclined to agree; however, the architects of Yazdani Studio state that it is designed to mimic the floor work of the long-sleeve dance.

The theatre and concert hall photographed from the other side of the square.

The complex includes a 1,200-seat concert hall, a 400-seat multi-purpose theater, and a special 100-seat theater environment to accommodate traditional Mongolian music performance. Having attended a Mongolian dance performance during my first week, I was rather impressed with the interior that feels intimate and commanding at the same time. The stage itself seemed never-ending, with a distance shot constructed from what I thought must have been a clever trick of light, turning out to just be distance.

Next up we have a building which is a bit more obviously shaped from a theme: the library. The library building represents three hefty tomes on the cusp of falling from the shelf. It mirrors some of the government buildings (and only some, one of the government buildings looks like a mirrored palace, but is only one-tenth in use…) with the windowless walls and grey soviet slabs. I’m struggling to find information on the architects, but if you happen to know, please leave a comment.

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The library looks well-designed for some heavy reading.

Finally, the piece you are most likely to have seen – the museum. I haven’t been inside yet as I’m saving it for a cold winter’s day, but I’m very excited to head inside.

Ordos Museum acts as a centre piece and focal point throughout the centre’s many parks.

The museum is designed by MAD Architects and brings together several concepts in one. The flowing curves of the museum are supposed to make the building seem like a mirage appearing over ever-shifting sand dunes, which will have an urban representation as the city builds and grows. Integrating local culture with all the potential futures for the city, the architects embraced the controversy of this ‘ghost city’, rather than taking the approach of many others (“It’s a beautiful building, but a shame no one uses it…”).

It really irks me that whilst finding information about these buildings even the most recent ones are touting Kangbashi as a ghost town, because these buildings ARE in use. One article in particular, that I’m not going to mention by name, goes on about the lack of public transportation and how there’s miles and miles of empty space, which seems to me as if they are going out of their way to perpetuate a lie. True, some things do lie out-of-the-way, like the sports arena. They still get used for public events and can be considered stepping stones. The plan for the future is to join Kangbashi with the next city over (Dongsheng), as it was only ever conceived because of how rapidly Dongsheng was growing. Locals to Dongsheng express that even 10-20 years ago, Dongsheng was tiny, and everyone expects that Kangbashi too will grow and prosper. It is much better that infrastructure and public buildings already exist, even if they are under-used for some time.

But enough of my ranting, let’s get back to the point at hand. By chance, earlier this week I realised that I already know the architects of the museum, as they are also responsible for the new Chaoyang Park Plaza in Beijing. A client from my summer internship is opening a new restaurant in the plaza and it is a truly captivating space, so although it is not about Ordos, allow me to share it with you.

MAD Architects’ concept designs for the Chaoyang Park Plaza in Beijing

Isn’t it beautiful? It looks like a sci-fi fantasy design, integrating natural formations with cold, sleek urbanisation. I for one love it. I still can’t get over the concept designs and look forward to seeing it in person.

 

Chinese kindergarten – is it too much?

I was due to start teaching last weekend, but because of recent holidays the students had to go to school on Saturday, meaning our classes were postponed a week. If you’re British and reading this, you probably think that’s nuts. I think that’s nuts. It’s not really a holiday if you have to make up the time later, right?

Weird though it seems, it isn’t really out of place within Chinese culture. I’ve spoken before about how you don’t necessarily need to work hard, as long as you ‘work’ long hours and the same can be said for schools. Children attend kindergarten from age 3-6 years, with a day typically lasting from 8.00am until 5.30pm. This is something I’m still trying to come to terms with – my nursery class in the UK only lasted three hours – but it’s normal here for children to be out of the house for upwards of 9 hours a day.

The kindergartens accommodate this well, with ample space for play indoors and out including complicated play apparatus, ball pits and toys. Each classroom is fitted out with different zones for different types of work and children take a nap at lunch time on beds that are otherwise stacked in the corner. For kindergarten, classes are typically split up into 30-minute sessions, with play interspersed between them.

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An example of the play equipment at No. 7 kindergarten, Kangbashi

The long hours have lots of benefits for the parents, who don’t have to worry about additional childcare, but it seems like there’s very little time for family. This is a bit of a juxtaposition to what I’ve seen of China so far, as family is very important and parenting is actively undertaken by both mothers and fathers. When speaking to a colleague about her children’s schooling, she was somewhat reserved – she would like to take her children back to Australia but her husband can’t emigrate again due to business. When I pried her about this, she didn’t like the long hours and how children are taught to repeat and remember things, rather than encouraged to think for themselves. This is an argument I’ve heard before and is fairly typical for collectivist cultures, meaning that even when students move abroad for university study, they fall behind their peers due to a ‘lack of original insight’.

It occurs to me that spending so much time in kindergarten and school is good for socialising, and from what I’ve been told, bullying is uncommon. It helps students to become part of the group, inducing community values from an early age. But at what cost? Are Chinese students still able to develop their own identity, to consider what is important to them? In my opinion, they don’t really have the time to experiment and find out what they like, but I may be wrong. It may encourage more social activities such as participation in sports teams and going to KTV, whereas my upbringing led me to develop solitary hobbies such as reading and drawing. It’s not necessarily that they don’t have time to develop an identity, but that their identity is developed in relation with others around them, which isn’t a bad thing.

Another point that my colleague mentioned was that the shift from kindergarten to elementary school can be tough on children. Although the hours are the same, classes are longer and typically don’t involve play time. This can have a profound effect on children’s attention span and make life a little bit miserable for them. As such, there is a preparatory year to deal with this – which seems to equate to ‘Reception’ in the UK. Once in school, children work the same amount but are also given homework, which can take up to two hours a night. High school students have it even harder, as they may return home for dinner at 5.30pm, only to return to school at 7pm for another two hours of classes, before doing their two hours of homework.

Once I found this out, I think I started to understand the Chinese work mentality a little better. For their entire lives, Chinese people have been told to go here and do this, with the emphasis being on time. It also explains the napping at work thing, as throughout their academic lives, time has been set aside for them to nap at school.

No one is particularly encouraged to excel, as everyone is supposed to advance at the same pace, meaning those with attention deficit disorders are told they are not trying hard enough. The message that keeps coming across is you only have to pull your weight, which is why many people are interested in government positions, where the pay is good but there’s relatively little work. And of course this won’t be true for everyone, or even every city, but it does seem to be the norm.

 

Hong Kong: Multicultural or Colonial?

Arriving in Hong Kong, I didn’t know what to expect – would it be more Chinese or more British? My gut told me it would be more British, but that was incredibly naïve of me. It turns out it’s neither… or rather, it’s both with a few more cultures thrown in as well. First and foremost, I noticed the Japanese culture (well, I would, wouldn’t I?) but it wasn’t until later that I realised this was due to occupation during the second world war. Although some of the influence is a direct result of this, the homeliness that comes from upward mobility may be a result of similar urban planning rather than culture. In Hong Kong you have to look up or you’ll miss out. Buildings often have shops up to the 5th floor or higher, and these shops will advertise on their windows. Alongside this were many Taiwanese and Korean products and stores, especially within the beauty shops.

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Hong Kong is a shopping haven for many and it’s no surprise. The range of products available makes it ideal for people from throughout Asia to get the best products at reasonable prices and as a trade centre it also has a lot of Western imports too. I was staying on the Fashion Walk, surrounded by high-end designer stores, but the whole of Causeway Bay seems to be mercantile. It was amusing to take a walk around the neighbourhood because they really do have everything, sectioned off into little areas so that there is a whole street selling toilets. Another street selling electronics. Another selling socks and slippers. I suppose it encourages competition to remain friendly and makes browsing a lot easier.

In many ways, I was impressed with Hong Kong, particularly with the civic mindedness evident throughout the city. There is signage for practically everything, reminding you to be clean and polite. There are a lot of messages for public health, including notices reminding you that elevator buttons are disinfected every hour, smoking indoors (or certain public areas) incurs a $5000 (£500) fine, eating on public transport incurs a similar charge, and there is hand sanitiser dotted about different parts of the city. This public concern for health could have come from anywhere, but Hong Kong’s history is spotted with epidemics such as plague, SARS and avian flu. Educating the public about sanitation has been a government objective since the second world war, but received a big push in the 1970s when the governor Murray MacLehose introduced reforms to improve public services, the environment, housing, welfare, education and infrastructure.

This mindfulness continued in the museums. The Hong Kong Science Museum had really well-designed exhibits that are informative for the young and old alike. Hong Kong celebrates its biodiversity and included exhibits about managing urban development so as to best sustain the environment. There was a self-health check that covered hand-eye co-ordination, balance, response, stability and balance, which encouraged development of self; a commissioned exhibit about occupational hazards and workplace safety; an entire floor dedicated to leaving a smaller carbon footprint, renewable energies and global warming; even an exhibit on food that discussed wastage, balanced diets, and ethical animal rearing.

Throughout my stay I found more and more things to praise about Hong Kong but found myself attributing it to how multicultural it is. I had to stop and think, as my idea of multiculturalism as a desirable community has, until now, ignored the chequered pasts that lead to blending of cultures. What has led me to do so? It is, of course, ignorance on my part but whether that is down to a lack of education, a generational distancing or the privilege I’m given from my country’s colonial past is still unclear to me. Does it matter? I think it would be a great disservice to ignore how multiculturalism becomes the norm, but somehow I still find myself thinking ‘at least good has come from it’. In different situations, this kind of thinking makes me the bad guy. I’m not forcing my culture on anyone (or at least I hope I’m not), but at what point does my behaviour deviate from pro-multiculturalism to plain old appropriation?

Appropriation is a tale as old as time, and often comes following an invasion, but over time we accept the multiple pasts as part of who we are. English people still take pride in the influence of the Romans, the Celts, the Vikings… but they were all invading forces. They changed our country to such an extent that it is hard to imagine how our country would have been had they not landed on our shores. They made our country better, but that’s easy to say from 2000 years into the future. When it’s happening in real time, it doesn’t really matter whether an invader thinks they know how to do things better, they have no right to force it on people. I’d be interested to hear what you all think about this, or even to know whether you’ve thought about it at all. I’m still developing my opinion, so outside influence would be appreciated at this point.

Bye Bye, Beijing – The Good and The Bad

Alright, I know, I haven’t posted a blog in two weeks. Some of you care about that, I’m sure, but hey – here now!

But I won’t be ‘here’ for long, as I am leaving Beijing tomorrow. It feels like I only just arrived but it’s been a full eight weeks, so it’s time for me to head over to Hong Kong, pick up a visa and fly to Ordos. I’m going to miss this city so much – I’ve really fallen in love with it. It has its bad points, sure, but Beijing is so busy, it’s full of life and it has so many good things going for it too.

Good – Transportation

I’ve already talked about the sheer number of bike rentals around the city, that are so cheap they’re practically free, but if you need to travel far there’s also buses, the subway and taxis.

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An example of an ‘authentic’ taxi – photo from City Weekend

 I haven’t taken a bus on my own because talking to people still seems like a lot of hassle, but my journey to the Great Wall involved using a public bus and it cost 6RMB (£0.70) to go 60km. Back home, I can’t even get the bus to the next town over for that price! On the way there it was comfortable, there was enough leg space and air conditioning. The way back was a bit different due to the amount of people making the trip. We got stuck in traffic for over an hour whilst crammed into the aisle with other tourists, but all in all, it wasn’t a terrible experience.

Then there are taxis. People tried to put us off taking taxis when we first arrived because a lot of people get scammed, but I’ve never had a bad experience – either with the official cabs or the unlicensed cabs. It’s usually pretty simple to flag one down and although some don’t want to stop for foreigners (the language barrier), those that do are very patient and helpful. Even late at night, the cab fare home hasn’t been extortionate (the most I’ve paid is 45RMB (£5.30) at four in the morning) and the drivers are always friendly.

As for the subway, it typically runs from 5am until 11pm, which isn’t always convenient, but a journey anywhere in the city costs about 4RMB (£0.50). My journey to work took 40-50 minutes and I never had to wait more than three minutes for the next train. Sure, it gets crowded in rush hour, but where in the world doesn’t? It’s actually quite impressive as you think you couldn’t possibly get another person in, only for four more to push on in. I think it’s partly due to this close proximity that everyone is polite when it comes to shuffling on and off the trains. It’s just a shame that the slow walkers who stop at the top of escalators to check their phones ruin the flow.

Good – Social initiatives

A really cool thing about the subway is that the carriages have TV too. Late at night it tends to be playing ‘Shawn the Sheep’, but during the day they play through lots of public service announcements. The most common one is for blind people – showing libraries that have books in braille and audio books; a little ant construction worker who helps blind Tony Stark not to get run over… that sort of thing. There are messages about increased disabled access and there was even a video trying to eliminate some of the stigma attached to depression – which would be considered pretty forward in Western countries, never mind China. There’s a lot of anti-smoking posters too, which I was shocked by. Beijing’s starting to implement a lot of the laws we have in Europe about where you can and cannot smoke and it seems to be going down really well. I don’t know how long it’s been going on, but when I came here I was expecting a lot of indoor smoking and in fact, it’s almost exclusively reserved for bars and clubs.

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Image from China Daily – just such a shame I can’t find the Iron Man one

However, some of the social initiatives could be damaging. The government is currently bricking up the hutongs in order to keep the backstreets under control. This means that any shops, bars or restaurants they find undesirable get their doorway bricked up. It happens overnight. It seems to be dividing citizens too, as some understand the government’s desire to make the city a safer, more reputable place, whereas others see it as ruining the lives of those who own the venues whilst taking away from Beijing’s culture. I personally think it’s a very sad thing, but there are two sides to every coin.

Good – Clean Streets

Okay, I know this is going to shock a lot of people, most likely including the expats that have lived in Beijing – but hear me out. The streets might be dusty and trash gets thrown anywhere – but it never stays there for long. I’m embarrassed to recall the streets in the UK littered with cigarette butts, covered in chewing gum and the more-than-occasional dog turd. Chinese people may feel free to throw things on the ground, but it never stays there for long – they hire a large number of street cleaners to make sure the mess doesn’t pile up. I keep reading ex-pat articles talking about faeces on the streets, but I’ve never seen it.

Bad – Public Toilets

To start with, I am impressed with the sheer number of public toilets, you’re never that far from one. However, the term ‘toilet’ may be loosely defined. Nearly every toilet here is a squat toilet and that’s something you can get used to, but public toilets don’t always have dividers. There’s just a row of four squat toilets, with no bins for toilet paper (or any toilet paper, for that matter) and no hangers for your bag. If you want to hold hand with the person next to you I’m sure it’s ideal, but there’s a few too many inconveniences to the public toilets for me.

It extends to shops and public buildings too. Often the female toilets don’t lock, so you’re squatting, trying to keep your clothes off the ground, your bag precariously perched on your knee whilst you try to keep the door closed. It’s risky, but if you’re quick to wipe, you can probably grab hold of the door again before anyone comes in.

And as a side note, I really miss flushing toilet paper. Women have a lot of reasons to need a bin in the bathroom, and I have seen all of them up close and personal. I have long legs. Trying not to knock the toxic waste of a basket with my knee is an ongoing challenge.

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An example of a hutong toilet – image from the Daily Mail

Bad – The Spitting

Actually, it’s not the spitting itself that bothers me anymore, it’s the big throat-rattling performance they make on the lead up to spitting. It’s everywhere, including indoors.

Bad – The Beijing Bikini

This one isn’t actually all that bad, it just took a while to get used to. Men have a habit of lifting their tops up so that their bellies are out, making a ‘Beijing bikini’. I’ve seen lots of different types do it, but the usual suspect is a middle-aged man with a gut large enough to block his view of his own feet.

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The ‘Beijing Bikini’ – image courtesy of The Beijinger

Bad – The Lack of English

I feel bad saying it – how dare I expect them to speak my language – but English is spoken by a helluva lot of people. Getting about isn’t so bad because they have pinyin (pronunciation) over the characters but tourist sites don’t have English. Museums don’t have English. How am I supposed to learn about your culture if there’s no way for me to get the information? Sort it out.

 

As with anywhere, it’s a love-hate balance, but for me Beijing comes out on top. #IloveBJ

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The Internship: Part 1

 

I’ve been an intern in China for two weeks now and wanted to share a little bit of what I’ve been doing, as well as my initial perceptions of the Chinese work ethic. As a disclaimer, I’m sure it differs industry to industry and this post is only based on my experience and the experiences my fellow interns have shared with me.

I was forewarned when I started that my supervisor wouldn’t be present for the first few days, so was expecting a light workload, but boy was I surprised. There were only four people in the office, as the time of my arrival coincided with everyone else’s holidays and visa runs, so the first week was quite intimate. My supervisor had left one of the girls a short set of instructions telling me to look through the public file to familiarise myself with the company, the website and setting my task for three days.

That three-day task was actually completed in three hours.

At first, I wasn’t sure if something had been lost in translation and I’d be receiving a new task each day, but unfortunately that was the total of what I was given. I had to plan 5-8 blog posts – not even write them, just come up with titles and subtopics. Okay, fair enough, they have no understanding of who I am, what I can do, so it’s quite acceptable to underestimate an unknown intern. But… it didn’t get better.

I planned them paragraph for paragraph, doing a bit of background research for myself and it still only took the first afternoon. As it turns out, I had also done too much, as the blogs should only be around 500 words each and my topics went too in depth. I found this out when my supervisor returned, “wow, you’ve done so much” and I started writing them up. I wrote two in the first morning as these are only short blogs and take less than an hour each only to be told, “wow, you’re so quick!” which is when I started to realise that just because you’re at work for nine hours a day doesn’t necessarily mean you are working for nine hours a day.

Not one to sit and twiddle my thumbs, I have been working on an online communications strategy in my ‘spare time’. This has been quite useful, because although I get the feeling the supervisor doesn’t want to see it, it gives me something to do. I’ve been asking for more tasks and usually get told that there is nothing to do, or if I can wait fifteen minutes they’ll give me one. Fifteen minutes seems to mean 2-3 hours.

This started to improve somewhat in the second week. I now get asked to help research projects! Some are interesting and give me plenty to work on – finding out about the company, the target audience and competition in order to brief the design team – but some aren’t even marketing. I’ve been asked to come up with designs for a client to put on their wall and this is not my area of expertise. I’m not a designer and even when reliant on Google images, I didn’t understand the brief. They want something ‘cool’, but not like that. ‘Modern… you know, something… modern.’ I spent the best part of a day trying to understand the image that my supervisor clearly had in mind, wondering why she didn’t just do it herself as she clearly wasn’t going to be happy unless I got the exact thing she wanted.

Mainly, I’ve gotten good at sitting around and pretending that I’m busy. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not dossing off as all my tasks are completed, it’s just that there isn’t enough work for me. I’m using my downtime to write those articles, which are still just sat in a file on the shared drive because they need to be translated into Chinese before we can post them. I’ve been finishing that online communications strategy that the supervisor doesn’t want to see. I’ve been working on my dissertation at work.

It’s a little demoralising, actually, because I have so much more to offer. The other day, I was given one task at 5.55pm. That was my first task of the day and do you know what it was? Finding an image of a pretty person eating a burrito.

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Finding an image of a pretty person eating a burrito is actually a lot harder than it sounds, but it’s also incredibly funny. Here’s one of the gems that I came across.

Everyone in my office naps and the supervisor doesn’t mind. It genuinely seems like the emphasis on ‘good work’ is just about showing up – which, even then, my office isn’t great at. For the first week I arrived on time, only to wait in the corridor for 30-40 minutes until a keyholder decided to come in.

I thought it might have just been me, or just my company, but it seems to be affecting the whole of Beijing. A colleague said it was the same for her at first, she had to adjust to the slower pace of life. It’s not that these people are lazy, they’re just really slow.

Except for the girls in our building, they very well may be lazy. It’s very rare to get a cubicle in the bathroom because people from the other offices disappear into them in order to have a smoke or play on their phone. I’m pretty sure even the cleaner uses her time in there as an unofficial break.

My friends all have similar stories. For example, when a receptionist was asked “Do you not want to do this and become better? People are unhappy with your work“, she responded ‘no, I’m fine like this.’

At a different friend’s office, he goes in around 10am, has a 2 hour lunch and leaves at 4pm. Even when he’s there, he barely has any work to do, so he’s in the same boat as me, just wasting a few hours less of his day doing nothing.

Then there’s the intern working in a hospital who pushes a button and waits for the machine to finish. That’s his whole job.

So, my impression is that the Chinese aren’t good workers. They’re happy to show up, because that’s how they get their money, but I don’t see any pride going into their work.

I know I’m wrong to generalise, and I’m sure this doesn’t apply to every individual in this nation. Certain sectors such as construction are probably a lot more hard-working and even though my experience of wait-staff is one of frustration (I’m looking at you, Taqueria), they seem to put the effort in.

Tourism is Forbidden

Trying to make the most of our last days before work started, we opted to do some mid-week sight-seeing. The Forbidden City had been on the list for a while and doing it when there weren’t going to be as many people seemed a smart move. I read up on it before hand this time, not getting caught out by a lack of English signage and was a pretty good tour guide if I do say so myself. Listing off years that things happened, highlighting interesting architectural points and even throwing in some Mongolian trivia almost made up for the fact that we barely saw any of it.

Yeah, you read that right. We spent a good three hours walking around the Forbidden City and still managed to miss out on the calligraphy, the ceramics, and the Palace Museum. It’s a big complex okay? A big complex with a one-way exit policy. We left through the North Gate, not really realising that it is the official exit, and once we had left we weren’t allowed to return. The boys will probably visit again as their student ticket was only 30RMB, but foolish ol’ me left her ID in the UK and is a little too tight to dish out 60RMB twice just to see the bits I missed. Maybe next time I’m in Beijing.

It was at this point that we got a message from Sami asking where we were. He was helping out Ayodele get some footage for her vlog and had arrived maybe two hours later than the rest of us.

We sent him a message to let him know that there was absolutely no chance of finding us, as we had accidentally gone through the North gate and we weren’t allowed back in. To which dear Sami asked “What, are there exits?”

We were in creases. Of course there were exits. What he actually meant was something along the lines of ‘oh, we don’t leave through the same place where we came in?’ but it was at this point that Sami became immortalised for the phrase “I don’t know… it’s China, man!”

Once we’d established we were never going to see Sami at this rate, we headed up Prospect Hill (Jingshan Park) to get a good look at the city complex. It’s quite a peaceful place, quiet, and there’s quite a few old people just doing their own thing.

 

That was Thursday. I returned on Saturday with Ayodele, as she was determined to do some tourist attractions in her last weekend. She’d offered to front my ticket (or half of it), which made the idea of returning to see the bits I had missed a lot easier on the wallet. Only, things didn’t quite go as planned.

We arrived on a lovely day and joined the crowds out of the tube, but our journey began with an English-speaking Chinese man luring us into a side room to sell his calligraphy. It was alright, as far as calligraphy goes, but he was probably the least interesting artist in the room. We had no intention of buying and only went with him so as not to be impolite. On reflection, looking at his artwork and then turning him down is probably a lot ruder than ignoring a stranger on the street. Oh well.

We went back to the entrance, over the bridge and under the picture of Mao, we went through the different entrance courtyards, but the ticket office didn’t seem to be open. Maybe I’d missed it. We milled around a while but couldn’t find anywhere to buy tickets, although the place was heaving. We figured it must be free, and if it wasn’t someone would point us in the right direction, so we did as everyone else was doing and moved to enter between the guards. They stopped us.

“Where is your ticket?”

-We don’t have one.

“You need to buy a ticket.”

-Where can we get one?

“You can’t get one. You must leave.”

We watched as the guards ignored everyone else ducking between them to get to the entrance, regardless of whether they had a ticket or not. Maybe it was a Chinese-only day? We scoured the crowd for other foreigners, seeing if they had a prized ticket clutched in their hands or were just as miffed as we were. Defeated, we headed back the way we came.

“No, you can’t go this way, you must go ahead.”

Erm… what? Again, we watch as a string of Chinese people make their way past the guard yelling at us. It’s okay, turns out there’s an exit on the left in the second courtyard. That we also couldn’t get out of. We asked again, ‘where do we leave?’ and they pointed us to the main gate that’s already rejected us. Well, damn. Maybe Sami’s comment wasn’t so stupid after all. We spent a good twenty minutes trying to get out and it felt like going two steps forward and one step back each time. We resorted to waiting for the guards to be distracted, moving past as quickly as possible, only to be stopped by the next one. I really hope those other foreigners we saw had tickets, otherwise they’ll be trapped there forever.

We then proceeded to queue for another 30-40 minutes to get into the National Museum of China. This is something that could do with better direction, let me tell you. There were three queues: the first one took you up the stairs to the little plaza out front, which then has its own two queues facing opposite directions. Surmising that one must be the ticket queue and the other was not, we were further confused to see everyone had a ticket of some kind. We got on line whilst we figured it out and an overheard (but not understood) conversation in Chinese had someone pointing at tickets and moving to the other line. Okay. So it is the ticket line. Just to be sure we phoned our friend who had already passed the trials to find out there’s another door for foreigners. We found it, and actually, I’m glad as there wasn’t a queue for that one. We joined the line heading into the museum, went through security and… had to turn back. “You must get out now,” as the security lady’s ominously translated phone message told us. A camera tripod counts as a selfie stick and has to be stored in the cloakroom. With no idea where the cloakroom was and with no intention of queueing again, we played dumb until a security guard escorted us back down past all three queues to a hidden office beneath some stairs.

The museum was the first time I became aware of actual propaganda. The censorship is a little more noticeable, but proactive propaganda has only really manifested itself as a sense of civic duty. Walking around the museum, however, there was some beautiful wording, which would have made me feel like scum if it weren’t so ridiculously over the top for a government organisation:

 

We left around half four, with not enough time to see the Ancient China exhibitions, but with enough time to get in some last-minute gift-shopping at the pearl market. The first time we were there Ayodele was young and naïve, paying 300RMB for two dressing gowns, but this time, she was on her game. Pyjamas for her brother? 80RMB. A jacket for her father? Something like 100RMB. Two Michael Kors knock-offs and a Herschel back pack? 90RMB each. She had really upped her game in such a short amount of time – I think the indignity of the dressing gowns fuelled a rage that could only be sated by true bargaining.

I, on the other hand, needed to buy a new purse and fell victim to a nice store attendant and the glittering hope that I wouldn’t have to check every purse on every stall. It had the same layout as my purse, a similar pattern (Cath Kidston) but as soon as I over-paid for it, I regretted it instantly. I hate it. It doesn’t feel right, it’s ugly, they didn’t even bother putting a lining in it. I’m using it – my old purse is too damaged to fix – but I’m not happy about it. But oh god, is it ugly.