Drummer boy: Hidden talent in Kathmandu.

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Drummer boy: Hidden talent in Kathmandu is an article I wrote for the London music newspaper ‘Guestlist’ about an undiscovered band I met in Nepal. Keeping in touch with the drummer, Sagar, he kept me informed of his progress and success as a musician and I was delighted to hear how one of his bands had reached the semi finals of the Pepsi Voice of Nepal competition at the end of 2014. Kathmandu is a wonderful city, full of amazingly talented people and I was lucky to have met a small sample of them.

Drummer boy
Drummer boy

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Mao only knows…

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Mao only knows...

“Hello! Hello! Beautiful! Can I kiss you?!”

Not what I expected to hear while queuing up to walk beneath the somewhat large, and arguably self indulgent, image of Mao Zedong as I made my way through to the much anticipated enclosure of the Forbidden City. Following the desperate cries of this female (yes I said female) voice, a Chinese girl, waving frantically, stood before me looking like she had just strolled off the catwalk at New York fashion week. Confused?…you could say so. Amused? Of course! The attention I receive is definitely not always quite as bluntly complimentary. It made a delightful change!

If there is one thing I rarely encounter in Guangzhou where I have lived for the past year and a half, it is the relentless hounding of men and women, old and young, shamelessly throwing themselves in front of me for a picture or just quite bluntly shoving a camera in my face. Don’t get me wrong, there have been plenty of incidents over the past 18 months where I have caught some sneaky so-and-so on the bus or the metro taking a sly snapshot of me on their phone – the inconspicuous click of the camera being what gives the game away. But due to its comparatively occasional occurrence, I got used to it and it was never an overly intrusive experience. Even the consistent staring became part of my average daily existence. In Beijing on the other hand, I experienced a whole new inconvenience of being foreign.

For me, Beijing carries an image of Chinese superiority and a significant cultural, political and social importance. Does anybody visit China and skip Beijing?
I dangerously assumed that I’d barely be noticed, just another anonymous stranger in the crowd. Stereotypically, capital city dwellers tend to remain un-phased by most peculiarities, and with a population of no less than 20 million, I figured that Beijing would be crawling with us aliens…
Along with the Great Wall and The Forbidden city the one thing I looked forward to in Beijing was to walk down the street without every pair of eyes ogling me everywhere I went, and I know that this was something my travel buddy, Barbara, was also rather excited about.
From the moment we arrived in Guangzhou, Barbara, a black American girl originally from Ghana, received attention to an extent that was borderline harassment. She was shamelessly poked and prodded on public transport, unsubtle eyes from every angle scrutinising her from head to toe, some people even gasping at the sight of her dark skin. She found the milder incidents amusing at first, but I saw how it took its toll on her, and as a result I rarely complained about the little attention that I received.
Touring around China’s capital with her a year and a half later, it was clear that she had had high expectations of being able to roam about Beijing without feeling the prying eyes of the public watching her every move.
Our problem was clear from the start. There was a severe lack of foreigners in town and probably due to choosing to visit Beijing in March, a month before peak season begins, we became the token freak show at every tourist attraction.
Strolling around the 2008 Olympic Stadium “The Bird’s Nest”, I was bombarded by Chinese tourists who wanted to take pictures with me. Being my first night in Beijing I quite enjoyed the unexpected novelty of the attention, often joking with them that I required a fee for the “inconvenience”, which they found highly amusing. Especially since I was able to communicate this jest in their own tongue. I was literally stopped every few metres to pose with a stranger while their friends and family took staggering amounts of pictures of us.
The ones who were polite enough to ask my permission before getting snap-happy, I was more than happy to oblige. But I didn’t realise how tedious and annoying this was going to become.
As the night wore on, I became less patient and it must have shown; Barbara smiling at me knowingly; “not enjoying it so much anymore huh?”
She was right. I was REALLY irritated.
I will never in my life claim to fully understand what it’s like to be received as a black person in any walk of life, let alone in Asia. But for the first time since coming to China I began to feel the fury that a few of my black friends had described bubble up inside of me. It was inescapable. On the metro, in a restaurant, walking down the street, even walking through the airport, people gawped at us like they had just watched us stroll right off a spaceship.
We experienced various reactions to our double act, some less insulting than others. I came close to breaking point when we visited the Summer Palace. I found myself completely surrounded by a Chinese tour group – and MY do the Chinese love a good tour! Shouting and screeching excitedly at the sight of me, the Dowager Empress’ famous marble boat was instantly demoted to a second rate attraction whilst camera’s were thrust in my face. Furious at being laughed at while I fought my way out of this human cage that had formed around me, I felt like a discovered escapee from the local zoo. I lashed out, pushing my way through the crowd and just as I thought I’d escaped the chaos, a woman flashed a camera inches away fro my face and thrusting my own camera in her face, decided to give her a taste of her own medicine. She backed down immediately, looking a little like a traumatised child and avoiding my glare like I posed a Medusa-style threat.
After a year and a half of defending and justifying why some Chinese people reacted in the way that they did to foreigners, I will admit, it wasn’t until experiencing it like this, first-hand, that I appreciated how difficult it must be to remain patient with this ignorance on a daily basis.
In one incident, three Chinese women started squealing and hiding behind each other, refusing to be the first to walk past Barbara on the steps in the metro. I wanted to grab hold of all three of them and bash their heads together. I was livid.
Expressions of surprise or shock by members of a culture who are not accustomed to seeing people of different races is understandable, but what the hell do they think it’s like to receive these excessive and highly unreasonable reactions?
I decided to discuss what had happened with my older students at school, and after describing the highly unanticipated reception that we received on our trip – and the fact that I was pretty sure I had been photographed more than Big Mao that day at Tiananmen Square – the kids seemed genuinely mortified. Some even feeling the need to apologise for the ignorance of their fellow countrymen. We discussed how the size of China means that the rapid modernisation in the main cities is a stark contrast to the isolation of the people living in the countryside. A lot of the Chinese people in Beijing are Chinese tourists and are not Beijing residents, which partially explains some of our unpleasant encounters but I’d be hesitant to profess that it justifies them.
Beijing is a very interesting city to visit and I would never deter anybody from experiencing it. Despite my decision to focus on this particular aspect of my trip for the purpose of this piece, I thoroughly enjoyed the majority of my time in Beijing.
But I think we can probably anticipate that China still has a LONG way to go before the indigenous population will be in anyway mentally prepared to accept their first black, or even white, president…
Then again, China continues to surprise me! Mao only knows!

A Rude Awakening

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Ignoring the frustration I was experiencing at work, I had honestly become accustomed to my little Chinese life. Things that used to be infuriatingly difficult to achieve were becoming part of an endearing routine. Luckily, until now, something I had never had to experience first hand in China was any dealings with crime and the emergency services. It’s easy to forget and ignore a few unsettling realities of how far you really are away from home until the unfortunate occasion arises as a reminder.

The City Centre of Guangzhou at night
The City Centre of Guangzhou at night

Dancing away in a nightclub that had become our late night go-to whenever my colleagues and I had felt the urge to let off some steam, we had yet again, shamelessly taken to the stage and, carelessly tossing our belongings aside, pranced around to the all too familiar medley of Western hits. Taking my eye off our things for just a second, I looked back only to realise that the entire pile had vanished. This included about five coats and my small handbag that I had buried beneath them. The manager dealt with the situation professionally which pleasantly surprised me. It was no-ones fault but our own and we knew we were being rather optimistic to think that there was anything he could do. He disappeared and returned with a pile of unclaimed belongings which, luckily for me, included my missing handbag. Not surprisingly, however, there was no sign of my wallet or phone but it was a relief to get my keys back and I was annoyed, but grateful. The manager reappeared again a short while later beckoning us to follow him outside. “They’ve caught him.” He said, “The thief. The security guards have him outside. Please come with me.”

A sudden wave of resentment came over me with a feeling of freshly instigated anger and I marched outside. When I got close enough I could see that there was a man lying on the floor accompanied by a couple of security guards casually standing by. Under closer inspection, I noticed that there was blood coming from the man’s nose and mouth and I crouched down to see if he was conscious. Admittedly still furious and not thinking all too clearly, I started tapping his face with my hand in a light slapping motion to try and wake him up. As soon as he stirred I started hounding him about my wallet and, pulling out his wallet from his jeans pocket and thrusting it against his face, I told him that I was taking it with me unless he found a way to return mine. I didn’t even consider that he probably hadn’t understood a word of what I said. I was too angry to care.

Realising I wasn’t getting anywhere, I took a moment to think and evaluate my surroundings and this is what I could see. The facts: There were three or four unconcerned and unfazed security guards hanging out in the background and having a smoke. The manager was preoccupied and quietly discussing something with one of his club workers. There was no sign of any stolen goods and the thief in question didn’t even have a phone of his own. There were no policemen anywhere to be seen and no one seemed at all concerned about the guy’s state of health. My two friends who had followed me out of the club looked as if they were having the same realisation as I was and I suddenly felt very ashamed for not having attempted to rationalise the situation earlier. I had behaved appallingly, much to the amusement of the security guards and the manager, rather pleased with himself, had tempted us outside in victory of the capture of our “criminal”. What had been revealed on the other hand, was an unresponsive, badly beaten young man, less than half the size of anybody in his vicinity. He had been presented to us in a way that had felt like an invitation to finish him off while he was helpless, outnumbered and unable to defend himself. I felt sick.

Noticing that I suddenly looked horrified and a little upset, my friends stepped in and we quietly discussed what we needed to do and how we should handle it. Alex pulled the guy over on his side when he started coughing and Jason took a look at his wounds and tried to work out what was wrong with him. Nobody helped, intervened or bothered us. The manager who had obviously gone back inside without my noticing, had come out with a few more coats and called me over. “Are any of these yours?” He asked hopefully. When I told him that they were not, nonchalantly suggested that I should “Check the pockets. Maybe you’ll find something.” A little suspiciously, I did as he said and lo and behold in the inside pocket of the leather jacket placed right at top of the pile were both my Blackberry and my little lousy turn-of-the-century Chinese work phone. I didn’t thank him this time and I glared at him to show him that I was not buying his fraudulent chivalry this time.

I remember screaming in a rage of frustration for someone to call a “fucking ambulance!”, more frustrated about how gullible I had been and how we’d wasted time.

Jason decided that it looked like the guy had defensive wounds on his hands and arms and he’d obviously taken a severe beating to the face. His nose looked broken and his teeth were stained with fresh blood. I opened up the guys wallet which I still had in my hand and could see that he was Korean and he didn’t have a lot of money on him. Once the possible severity of his condition dawned on me, I became panicked and a little distressed. Within a time-span of about 5-10 minutes my conscience had done a full 180.

An ambulance finally arrived and a doctor came over followed by two other people with a stretcher. Probably assuming that he was just a drunken idiot who had got himself into a fight, they had barely assessed his injuries when they lifted him on to the stretcher by his hands and feet as if the poor bugger was already dead. My two friends dived in to support his body as the other men were making an absolute mess of the manoeuvre. The three of us, without much thought, got into the ambulance with him claiming to be friends of his.

Helping the medical staff shift him from one bed to the next, while the doctors put him through various machines and various tests, we marvelled at the hospital staffs’ carelessness and mistreatment of the patient. There was one man pushing him around on the gurney, a typically small Chinese man who seemed unconcerned with the bed swinging from side to side as he struggled to control it’s movements. I had seen first aid dummies that had been treated with more care than this guy, I was livid. It didn’t take long before we decided to be responsible for wheeling him from room-to-room to prevent any further injury.

The hospital was an ice box, even the nurses were wearing coats. The hospital walls and ceilings were mouldy and damp, and the pillows and blankets were filthy. At around five in the morning our friend had started to come around and after helping him hydrate a little, we got him talking. It turns out that he’s a Korean born, 20 year old university student who had lived in Guangzhou for about 10 years, and, after having his new iPhone 5 stolen from right under his nose in the nightclub that night, and being highly fuelled by the confidence of alcohol, he had decided to confront the security guard that had been involved in the theft. This kid wasn’t a thief. He was a ballsy little drunken twit whose night out with his friends had been ruined when his expensive new toy had been pried from his fingers. And the price he’d had to pay? Broken ribs, a broken nose, a fat lip and a likely concussion, not to mention countless scrapes and bruises and a stinking headache. He told us that the last memory he had was of him being repeatedly kicked while he was lying on the floor. Not only was he not a thief, but he was the victim of cruel opportunists; probably thinking they were geniuses for devising a plan which would kill two birds with one stone.

Jay, the previously unnamed Korean boy, was extremely grateful for our intervention and he even developed a sense of humour as we sat with him in the waiting room of the hospital. His English was excellent. We lent him a phone, and holding it to his face as he talked, even though it was in Korean, I could hear that he was having to very delicately explain the situation to his mother. I didn’t feel it necessary to trouble him with how we’d come to be involved in this unfortunate incident, and when his mum eventually arrived at the hospital to take him home at 7 o’clock that morning, she grabbed hold of my hand and, clearly shaken and sick with worry, she looked at me with more thanks than words could have successfully expressed. I fell apart.

We exchanged numbers and he promised to take us out for a quiet drink to say thanks once he had fully recovered. 

The moral of the story? Maybe it is better to stick with a Blackberry than invest in the newest iPhone after all.

Savagery and law enforcement; one and the same

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A man crouching on the side of the road in a small area of Guangzhou trying to make a living with his well oiled, turn of the 18th century contraption, charges pittance for his skilled craftsmanship which he offers to passers by.
I romanticise a tragic life story in my head for this man and then realise that although I take advantage of all kinds of street vendor’s services – supporting the local community at a lower level (not to mention saving a shed load of money) – I know absolutely nothing about the quality or legality of this kind of trade in this country.
Having said that, curiosity didn’t get the better of me until my house mate returned home from work one evening, bewildered and mortified and rambling at full speed about what he had witnessed in our neighbourhood moments earlier. Vehicles resembling police riot vans had screeched to a halt in front of a popular spot for vendors selling hot food, fresh fruit and various other nick-nacks while men dressed in army-like attire, piled out of the vehicles, jumped the stalls and began terrorising the workers at the side of the road as they tore up their equipment…their livelihood, right in front of their eyes. Unable to fathom how this could possibly be an effective and acceptable practice of law enforcement, I was outraged and decided that I couldn’t care less whether these people were trading legally or not; after witnessing treatment like that under a system which has recently heard the President declare how poverty alleviation plans should be made based on REAL SITUATIONS… Sure, let’s beat them while they’re down, humiliate them and punish them in public for trying to make a living, not from stealing, but from providing a very affordable service to local consumers. Good one Xi, you’re a real hoot.

I mean, I understand… Street vendors create a bit of mess and background noise to most neighbourhoods around this city. And they must be an incredible pain in the rear for businesses nearby who actually pay rent and that have to compete with there ridiculously low priced merchandise only metres away from their front doorstep. But come on. That is no more inconvenient than the endless droning of construction which seems to take place in any apartment building I live in, work in, visit or pass by, which creates just as much mess, twice as much noise and whose working environment would give British health and safety nuts a heart attack. China is loud. China is dirty. At least the street vendors bring a bit of life and soul to these heavily over-populated streets.
I’m afraid it gets worse.
In September of this year, a street vendor was put to death for an incident in which him and his wife had been jumped by 10 “chengguan” officers (local government officials whose jobs are to patrol the streets and terrify vendors in their path) who completely ripped through their cooking equipment and proceeded to beat the man who attempted to resist the violent onslaught. The man was apparently dragged to a local chengguan office and beaten further before he – most likely acting out of desperation and self-defence – pulled a fruit knife from his pocket, subsequently killing two of the officers.

I mean, I don’t know about everyone else, but all this anti-corruption and reform business in the news at the moment is starting to smell a bit rotten.
Let’s hope my old pal with his out-dated, industrial sewing device makes it through his working life unharmed.

Are “they” unsanitary or are “we” ridiculous?

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Walking to work, I frequently come across a wee Chinese market consisting of various meat, fish and vegetable vendors who, with no obvious system of sanitation or organisation, distribute themselves along a filthy, hectic highway outside a half torn down estate of old apartment buildings, where many people gather to do their daily grocery shopping. It is not rare to see the same punters, at the same time every day, mulling over what looks like the same selection of produce as the day before. What IS rare (excuse the awful and somewhat inaccurate pun), is the selection of meat and random assortment of animal carcasses which are casually hung, drawn and quartered in the freshly polluted city air while shoppers come and go, fondling their potential choice of meat and, with no visible concern for hygiene or contamination, blissfully and ignorantly, go about their day. Even though this may have come across as a disgusted account of what I regularly witness on my way to work, I feel strangely envious of these patrons and their freedom from the paranoia of what lurks on the surface of all the uncooked and unregulated meat. A paranoia which growing up in a Western society of strict health and safety laws has instilled in me. The first time I came across this particular market stall, I recoiled in revulsion at the sight of it, but I eventually came to feel ashamed of my reaction. Maybe (and I ponder this as a representative of any culture who sympathises with my thoughts) our problem is that we are no longer biologically equipped to deal with what used to be the daily exercise of our immune system and our ability to effectively fight potentially harmful bacteria. Maybe we’ve too eagerly altered and expanded our food laws and regulations to cater to an increasingly weaker, Western stomach…maybe, just maybe, we’re a bunch of over-paranoid pansies whose sensitivity to the most natural contaminants has been enabled by the modern need for a cross-examination of everything we consume… Or, maybe, purchasing raw meat from the side of a dusty old road in the middle of Asia really is unnecessarily risking the contraction of a number of diseases that are carried by uncooked animal carcasses and I should listen to my truly British subconscious and stick to shopping at my local Western supermarket…and so the vicious cycle of my inner conflict continues. Sigh.

Reading the signs

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A peculiarly amusing memory…

westernyouthinasia

One of the most uncomfortable experiences in my job include the open door classes that teachers must endure every so often to allow the student’s parents to be an audience for a lesson. The first one is where the parents watch me teach an ordinary class – an unavoidable ceremony of scrutiny for the teacher and usually a tedious obligation for the parents – and the second one to assess their child’s overall progression in the language at the end of a course book in the form of a presentation or performance; ideally involving very little input from the teacher, and where I tend to feel the scrutiny is more evenly spread between us.

One of my teen classes was having an end of book open door last week and we put together a few short performances that would hopefully impress their parents but also entertain them with a bit…

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Incontinent incompetence

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Shit had hit the… well, everywhere

Toilets have proved to be a never ending issue for me since I arrived in China, and this incident brought on a whole new, previously unimagined, fear to reality.

It all started one spontaneous evening after work at a whole-in-the-wall tattoo parlour. My colleague had a rather suspicious looking needle being held to her leg, by a guy who looked like he’d been run over by more Harley’s than his pictures seemed to claim he’d successfully ridden. My intrigue and consequent reason for being there at all was based on nothing more than witnessing the a likely miscommunication of artistic ideas (not to mention the gamble of possibly contracting any number of forms of hepatitis). Where the possibility of ending up with something that you hadn’t asked for, colourfully – permanently – etched into your skin was perfectly feasible.  Miscommunication which, at the expense of someone else, could involve their expressed desire for a tattoo of a cute “little chicken” and result in a picture of a creative interpretation of male genitalia on your thigh. Amusing right? Well, apart from the hepatitis anyway. And yes, this IS a conceivable example of the miscommunication I’m trying to illustrate. And so, it was there, perched on a stool in this inconspicuous little Chinese tattoo parlour, watching my colleague chew her cardigan into shreds while this rather gruff looking Chinese man took a rather rusty looking electric needle to her leg, my intrigue/concern was temporarily interrupted by the phone vibrating in my pocket, shortly followed by the news that the toilet in my apartment had decided to regurgitate the contents of its entire soul onto our bathroom floor while I was at work and that, despite my housemate’s efforts of exercising some sort of damage control, the clean, pleasantly scented sanctuary that was my apartment, had been crudely violated with an toxic flood of human waste.

I ventured home to attempt tackling the situation myself, fully equipped with plunger, bucket and marigolds. Needless to say, I was just as unsuccessful as Steven in containing our domestic sewage. Cranking up the air conditioning to moderate the smell was all I could do, meanwhile, hoping that we could get someone from our apartment management office to sort it out in the morning.

We awoke the next morning to a rapidly expanding river of shit and piss, which had, right before our eyes, consumed near enough the entire apartment. The smell was indescribable.

When help finally arrived, the flooding had spilled over into one of the bedrooms, and after clambering over the couch and dining table I had reached the kitchen and luckily remained trapped within a reasonable distance to the front door. Steven had stayed put and was stranded on the other side of the apartment in one of the bedrooms nearest the toilet. I did not envy him.

Four Chinese men, with jumpsuits, medical masks and shower caps on their feet looking like an Asian rendition of ghostbusters, waltzed into the apartment and fell about laughing at the site of us. In the mood I was in, they were lucky to have had a sea of human waste between us. They did very little for the next twenty minutes, but after deciding that this was going to be a bigger job than they had originally anticipated, they sauntered back out of the apartment, smiling and waving at us like idiots as they went to take a lunch break to line their stomach for the challenge. The same four men strolled back in two hours later, welcomed by a furious and extremely twisted combination of English and Mandarin that was probably completely unintelligible to anybody who could speak either of these languages. Nevertheless, it seemed to communicate my sentiment successfully, following which the guys only dared to utter occasional hushed instructions to one another as they worked. In a culture which tends to encourage and respect a “keep cool and keep face” demeanour and attitude, it appeared that being in a foul mood and screaming at them in Chinglish acted as improved communication, increased their speed, effectiveness and keenness to please. One of them even asked me if I wanted him to come back and change a lightbulb for me after taking up nearly five hours of my day to do an amateur patch up job on my toilet. Not likely.