China, a country of contrasts and complexities, a nation where what you expect to find is not what you get. I could be cynical and declare this a very clever smokescreen, but in the end I can only take my experience at face value, having had the privilege of spending one week absorbing their culture courtesy of the British Council and Hanban, the outreach Confucious Institute in China responsible for the bridge between their own education system and ours.
Along with 58 other leaders, Ruth and I travelled with one aim in common – to establish a working relationship with a Chinese partner school. We found a country where the courtesy, respect and warmth of our welcome at all levels contrasted dramatically with their appalling human rights record; a place where the efficiency and impressive facilities of their schools was countered by the squalor of many of the surrounding tower blocks where the youngsters lived; a land where a tangible, expressive pride in traditional culture is balanced by a burgeoning curiosity in the rest of the world, showing signs of an insular nation beginning to look outwards; a community where censorship prevails yet our extensive taking of photographs was allowed with a smile (though on occasion this smile could at best be described as nervous – they really did not want me to take a shot of the cheeky child with calligraphy ink all over his face); a country where children are children, just like anywhere else.
For all these reasons, this has to be a very personal account, sleepily written on the 10 hour long haul flights and the three hour internals between Beijing and Chengdu, tapped away on my tablet whenever the inflight entertainment failed to deliver. Which, in the case of BA, was pretty much all the time.
I’ve ‘magpied’ the title of this blog from the first morning’s lecture at the Hotel Vision, Beijing. What an incredible experience it had been so far! When I hastily completed the application form on something of a whim four months ago, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine an outcome like this! A fully funded trip of a lifetime, with a dear friend and colleague, Ruth, joining me on the adventure. One week in China, over half term.
Over the past couple of months we have been building up to this awesome experience. An initial smattering of email, a briefing in London (I particularly enjoyed this, despite mixed feelings from other colleagues – though a meal afterwards in Covent Garden was a bonus not all may have improvised) and a build up of introductions and ‘thread’ expansion on the Basecamp social network app, all paved the way to Wetherspoons, airside at Terminal 5, where four of us (soon growing to five) got to know one another over a meal and bottle of Pinot Grigio. It was very quickly evident that only like minded people go in for this sort of thing!
Ten hours on a flight is never going to be much fun, but all things considered it wasn’t too bad, particularly once we settled down with more wine and the inflight ‘feast’, though with a 4.30pm take off it was challenging to settle down to sleep at 8pm when the lights dimmed – happily my ‘edit a crap video for our Chinese partner school at midnight the night before’ plan worked reasonably well and I slept most of the way. Though I have to say there was one stewardess who had the loudest, most strident voice ever encountered in flight – I could hear her dulcet tones on the perimeter of my dreams throughout the entire flight, apart from the hour or so when they were drowned out by incessant clattering of metal catering trays.
The Hotel Vision more than made up for any discomfort on the flight – what a room! Almost a suite! One each too! Huge double bed, space to swing a lion, luxury bathroom with stylish Venetian blind window interconnecting to the bedroom (quite handy the following night whilst laying back in the bubbles and hearing an unexpected noise – had someone entered my room – I was soon reassured by a twiddle of the knob and a cautious peek…)
It was just as well a little luxury was on the cards as this was already showing signs of being a very intense trip. No sooner had we checked in and had a hasty, tasty lunch, than the summons had to be met. The lobby for 2pm – or risk missing out on a little cultural fun. Emerging from the mirrored lift that had whisked us down from the twentieth floor in as many seconds, we were prepared for a much debated ‘break away’ jaunt that Ruth and I felt a little guilty about – seven of us to take a cab to The Great Wall, rather than join the majority on the organised outing. In many ways I was relieved when our taxi failed to show and my role as a Reticent Rebel was not called into play – we dodged the car park horn tooters and rejoined our group just in time to follow leader Liam (sp?) with his telescopic flag pole to the Temple of the Harvest. There are times in life when following the crowd is more than worth it – after a long haul flight, this was one of them!
Our visit to the temple and surrounding gardens was bracketed by encounters with that true test of cultural empathy – can we cope with their public loos? Initially we decided not, understandably scared off by the tale of the unisex cubicle where an oriental gentleman chose to drop his trousers and hover over the hole in the ground, without bothering to close the door in his haste. We would wait until our return to five star splendour, thank you very much. But after an hour of exploring the temple, observing the locals playing card games on the nearby garden walls and visiting the supporting exhibitions, nature made her clarion call and we knew we had no choice. So we ventured in, Ruth using a corner of her tasselled poncho as a face mask whilst I focused on getting in and out as quick as possible.
Except we weren’t quick enough. Emerging from the stench into the relative splendour of the polluted Beijing air, we soon realised disaster had struck. Liam, despite his repeated, compulsive, head counts had buggered off without us. With the jaunty ‘Chengdu’ pennant no where in sight, and our impression on our new found friends having had less of an impact than we’d presumed (no one had noticed us missing – how could this be?) we did the inevitable. Panicked.
Several headless chicken minutes ensued as we clucked around the car park checking for the coach before finally seeking help from some other guy waving a flag. Luckily he pointed us in the direction of the tea house where our party were sat around a long table blissfully unaware of our crisis having a cultural workshop about the traditional tea ceremony. Our guide pretended he was about to come looking for us but the giveaway was how the entire group were crammed in shoulder to shoulder around the table, with not a sign to be seen of two empty chairs. Clearly we’d made an impression!
Tea tasting over, we headed off to the markets where I’d never realised it could be so stressful haggling for a bargain!
The next 24 hours passed in a blur of good company, a cultural museum visit and formal greetings, variable food, dodgy flight security and proving that it is possible to walk in the opposite direction when you realise you’ve gone too far on one of those flat escalators!
Next stop – Chengdu.
There’s no getting away from it – the Chinese love their welcoming ceremonies. Tuesday started with the local authority big wigs , plus the British Consul of Cultural and Education Section for South West China, continued with one at Longquanyi No. 5 primary school where I had to make an impromptu formal speech, highlights in a day with too many to mention – I will let the pictures do the talking. We were treated like royalty throughout a precision timed agenda, with the exception being traditional Chinese ‘rest rooms’ – a hole in the ground with wash basins minus soap outside on on exposed balconies! My bladder control has improved tenfold…
Luckily my bowel management skills were also up to speed which was just as well given the amount of spicy food we were treated to. Over the intense two days of our relationship with Lonquain district No. 5 Primary School were were escorted throughout by their SLT, our every move under polite scrutiny, whether making our acceptance speech, inscribing the beautiful silk visitor book, observing lessons or attempting to pick up slippery titbits with chopsticks. What an intense but exhilarating time!
During our days with this suburban, 13 year old school, we took part in the early morning exercise routine with 1200 pupils in the main arena, then joined the remaining 800 exercising in the courtyard areas, attempting to follow the baseball choreography; observed Maths and English teaching (one teacher, 50 impeccably behaved Grade 3 children, 18 observers); were taken on cultural visits to a traditional market in Chengdu, a Hakka village in the countryside and a gentle stroll through a relaxing park and the very beginning of our relationship with the Headmaster (‘outstanding, very famous’ we were repeatedly told) and Cherry the translator.
Each day was intense and it was a relief to share the load with Ruth, as the constant questioning, answering and translating was quite stressful. We were anxious not to offend, but also wanted to maximise our professional development by having as much interaction as possible with the children. They were an absolute delight! Totally biddable in the classroom, strict followers of routines but so happy and pleased to see us, bundling out of classrooms at lesson ends, smiling and tussling one another as they moved through the corridors, ran down the stairs or charged outside for their ten minute ‘relax’. I have to admit the visit totally changed my opinion of Chinese education and I feel we have more to learn from them than they do from us. But enough of the educational aspects – they will be written up separately as part of my performance management.
Back at the Dynasty, it was a welcome relief to be reunited with the rest of the Chengdu team of 13, which included Andy, Louise, Sarah, Simon, Nicola and Anna. Over white wine served in a champagne glass with cucumber crisps, we compared experiences and got to know one another. Several were Heads, with Simon also being a personable Ofsted inspector (and looking terrifyingly like one in his suit with black wheely attaché case). We didn’t hold this against him – though we did manage to lose him on our last evening when we strolled the streets of bustling Chengdu heading for a much needed MacDonalds, negotiating crazy horn blasting traffic with scooters zipping along their dedicated lanes, appearing en mass with an assortment of drivers wearing their coats back to front, children, elderly relatives and/or piles of sale goods strapped haphazardly on the pillion.
Our final day in Chengdu was spent at leisure, escorted by our Chinese guides ‘Alan’ and ‘Lucy’ to the world famous Panda Research Centre where we we absolutely thrilled to see three cubs snoozing in the cot, whilst outside three or four surprisingly playful adult panda ambled happily in their natural style enclosure, taking a rare break from their usual routine of munching bamboo and sleeping. Another Sichuan buffet followed, then more shopping and a final meeting, where the British Council representative was busily networking, encouraging us to build partnerships and make joint bids for funding linked to Shakespeare and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths).
What next? I am bringing this blog up to date on a brand new Airbus, an A330-300 flown by Hanain Airlines, who are surprisingly impressive compared to the lacklustre British Airways flight coming out. When we land, if the ever changing plans come to fruition, five of us will be heading out to The Great Wall of China, a fitting finale to this incredible experience…