Today’s formalities began with an overview by the Vice-Director of SAFEA in the conference room. I learned that the Friendship Award has been given to 1,099 ‘foreign experts’ over the years. There are usually 50 recipients a year but this year 100 will be dished out to experts from 28 different countries. Eight of those 100 are women, and three are from the UK –Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (a.k.a. the Celtic fringe).

After lunch the first of our ‘babysitters’, Wang Yanhui, arrived to take care of Freda and Edie while we headed off to the Great Hall of the People. It was slick and flawless. All recipients sat in alphabetical order of country which meant that the Brits were sandwiched between the Ukraine and the USA, on the back row. Dam-busters music piped through the building on a time loop for 45 minutes as recipients went to the front one by one for their medal and 3-kilo certificate. After receiving her award Lesley was a little hasty in offering her hand to Vice-Premier Zhang Dejiang for the second handshake, with which she gave her thanks. He paused for a second then obliged though it was touch and go. Ali greeted him with “fit like?” and a warm handshake as VP Zhang made his way around all the accompanying spouses. Possibly not a greeting he receives very often. The recipients were praised for their “wisdom and hard work, which make and outstanding contribution to the development of modern China”. The Friendship Award is the highest award granted to foreigners working in China. VP Zhang gave a long speech, during which he referred to China’s path towards “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. By that we assume he means “capitalism”. It was a memorable and moving event, which we felt deeply honoured to attend.

Lesley, Freda and Edie with one of the hotel's security guards in front of our convoy of buses. We brought 6 lanes of traffic to a standstill in central Beijing today as we made our way to Tiananmen Square
Freda passing the pre-breakfast temperature scan. It was worth the effort for the bacon, fried eggs, sausages, beans and real wholemeal bread...

Getting breakfast in this hotel doesn’t depend on having a voucher or room key; it depends on whether you pass the temperature scan. Before entering the dining room all adults had to put their palm up to an electronic scanner. Interestingly, nobody questioned or objected, perhaps overawed by the apparent authority of the masked ‘doctors’ (they may or may not be) clad in white jackets. One might say it’s “harmless”, but it’s the thin end of the wedge. At least we were allowed to leave the dining room unchecked, unlike a fellow award winner a tad older than us, who was pulled aside to have his blood-pressure checked. Why? Had they observed him drink too much coffee at breakfast? Are they concerned that he’ll pop his clogs mid-handshake with Wen Jiabao? It strikes me as blatant ageism mixed with the Chinese zeal for exerting power over those too intimidated to question it. It never crossed my mind to ask SAFEA (State Administration for Foreign Expert Affairs) where they had been three days prior to arriving in the hotel or whether they had had their temperature checked recently.

This may seem like a small thing to someone living in a country that accepts its citizens (or visitors who have a valid passport and visa) without having to stick a needle in them first, or extract a urine sample. China is willing to accept our contribution to “economic and cultural development” but only once we hand over all rights to privacy. From our experiences to date, we have much more likelihood of picking up a nasty illness (typhoid, TB, rabies, Jap B encephalitis, malaria, dengue fever) than bringing one here. “China has a right to protect it’s people from foreign bugs” you might say. Of course, then why not scan the children? Why pull up a man and check his blood pressure just because he looks over 60? They say they are looking after us, I say they are flexing their muscle and reminding us who’s boss. Perhaps things have changed in the UK in the last 4 years and employees to give blood etc before being offered a job. If that’s the case, do set me straight.
Lesley launched this week's activities with a reception at the Great Hall of the People. The Hall is the same age as the PR China, built with a strong Russian influence. It was wonderful to walk on the red carpet and listen to the military band, though the reception itself was like a wedding without a bride and groom.
Today got off to a sticky start when Ali arrived at Kunming airport to discover Freda and Edie had tickets but he didn’t. It seems that in some pre-departure changes in Simao Ali’s booking was cancelled. Fortunately people are realising it’s not a good time to be travelling to Beijing and the flights are very quiet. From tomorrow some of the main tourist attractions will be closed in the run-up to the National Day celebrations so unless one of the lucky ones with a special pass – THAT’S US!!! -  you might as well stay at home and watch TV.

Lesley visited the VSO office and spent the day arranging childminders for Freda and Edie over the next few days. They will be living it up in the hotel. Believe me, that’s a luxury. Our suite is more luxurious than our Simao flat and the meals. Well, let’s just say the tailor was wise allowing an extra inch in our newly made clothes!

The programme for the next few days is:


a.m. “Expository Meeting” – apparently a speech from the Bureau (not sure which), probably all the rules and restrictions for the coming days.

p.m. Friendship Award Ceremony at the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square

eve. Photos back at hotel with Freda and Edie!


a.m. Free (to recover from the fabulous breakfast of cereal, croissants, bacon, fresh fruit juice, real coffee etc etc

p.m. State Leaders meet Friendship Award winners and spouses at the Great Hall of the People, followed by National Day Banquet, same venue


a.m. Military parade on Tiananmen Square with State Leaders

p.m. Some other even on Tiananmen Square (all very secret at the moment; ‘no need to know’ basis)

eve. National Day Evening Party on Tiananmen

Offering us help with Freda and Edie are some VSO friends – Kruti, who works as a volunteer in the VSO Programme Office; Eilidh (from Kingussie!), who works as a volunteer with a small human rights organisation in Beijing; Wang Yanhui, the VSO Programme Support Officer for Basic Education. Thanks to their support Ali and I can take part in this special programme of events to celebrate 60 years of the People’s Republic of China. Whatever one’s political orientations, this is an historical moment.
Lesley getting through her ironing for the week in our small apartment on the 10th floor of the Beijing Foreign Experts' Mansion, a stone's throw from the Olympic Plaza.
Lesley and the girls with Paul, Jiajia (right) and Emily (left), outside Jiajia's clothes shop in a trendy party of Kunming that's been named by locals, 'Foreigner Street'.
Leaving early for Beijing allowed us to catch up with Paul in Kunming for a couple of days. We haven’t had much time together in the last year and he’s heading off abroad (UK and Africa) on Wednesday, returning to China in the New Year. It will be his first time back home in four years and we’re sure he’s in for a bit of a shock – the price of things in particular. At least he’ll be able to bring his own pork pies back with him this time!

One of the highlights of this visit was meeting Jiajia (aka Ava), Paul’s lovely girlfriend. After having lunch with them and Emily (another friend who is back in Kunming after a year of studying in England) we went to visit Jiajia’s clothes shop. Her shop has a great range of casual and more formal outfits. She makes monthly trips to Shenzhen to pick up stock for her regular customers. What she doesn’t sell to them in her upstairs fitting lounge, goes on the rail. I asked her how she selects her stock, to which she replied, “I just buy things I like. It’s not so good for business because I should try to buy clothes for more tastes, but I can’t buy clothes I don’t like.” This maybe reflects the fact that Jiajia is an artist at heart, having studied design at Xiamen University, and not only a business woman. Although she loves to design her own clothes, she doesn’t have time these days. She did, however, take time to come shoe shopping with me. This was no easy task. As well as my feet being larger than the average Chinese person, both Jiajia and I seem to have quite different tastes from what’s currently in fashion – glitter, bows and various other unnecessary decorations. After three and a half hours we finally stumbled upon what we were looking for – a traditional pair of embroidered silk Chinese shoes. These are now known as my ‘Wen Jiabao shoes’ are I may well meet him when they’re on my feet. So long as I’m not tempted to take one off and, and…….
Ali with the tailor and his family
It turns out that it's quite a prestigious affair; this going-to-the-Great-Hall-of-the-People-to-receive-the-Friendship-Award business has taken over our lives the last week. It seems that nothing in Ali's wardrobe would even have allowed him into the hotel where we'll be staying in. After trying to borrow and buy locally, we opted to have a suit made - a traditional tang zhuang style. Over the last few days we have also had to buy black shoes, a few shirts, a couple of ties and a tank-top (cheaper than a jacket). Amazingly enough, he's delighted with his new outfits and says he's going to dress like this all the time. Miracles do happen.

As for Lesley, she's had her own begging and borrowing to do but still has to go smart-shoe-shopping in Kunming as nothing in Simao fits her BFG-size 39 feet! The last few days have taken on an added frenzy due to work pressures. Lesley's been putting in solid 12-hour days at the office - enabling her to finish off the training materials (manual, workbook and resources) for the up-and-coming Team Leader-Trainer Training course that starts the first day back after the holiday. She's also been running round like a headless chicken doing all the admin work - getting name lists from the Education Bureaus, fighting with them to stick to the requirements (i.e. send Team Leaders), translate the lists, book hotels, finalise the budget proposal and get the funding promised from VSO, etc etc. The good news is that Hou Wanxia's role in the TDC should be formalised in the next month or two, which will increase her presence in the office. With our departure set for an hour and a half from now, Lesley is relieved to have printed the final draft of the books for proof-reading.

Now we just have to pack our glad-rags into cases and head to the Capital - the Provincial Capital that is! We are spending a few days in Kunming with Paul and his girlfriend, Ava. We've been looking forward to meeting her for a LONG time and Lesley's hoping to recruit her assistance to find some traditional Chinese shoes that will pass the dress code.

I'm sure most of you will remember Marissa from previous blog entries. She graduated from the English Department in July 2008 and headed off to greener pastures to further her teaching qualifications. Since we saw here in Baoshan this summer she has been adjusting to her new life in the Provincial capital. Here's what she has to say:

“I’ve been here for nearly two weeks, but I haven’t got used to it yet. Actually, it disappointed me a lot when I first arrived here. I didn’t like Kunming at all. Compared to my previous college, the accommodation is a little terrible. Everything was strange, completely strange for me at first. What is worse, everyday things are quite expensive. I had a really miserable time on my first day here. I didn’t know where I could buy bedding and things for daily use. I had a really terrible job getting them in the end. Then, when I got back to my dormitory, I found that I had no key. I went to the dormitory- keeper but nobody there. I waited outside my dormitory, with my heavy luggage and my belongings. I couldn’t help bursting into tears immediately at that moment. I had done a lot of things from early in the morning till late evening; I carried my two suitcases and a big bag of books from miles away from here. I was terribly exhausted. I desperately wanted go home. I missed my family and my friends so much. I couldn’t imagine how I would survive here.

“A few days past, I discovered that university life is completely different from college life. The courses are more difficult and complicated. We’re required more basic knowledge and higher abilities in listening, speaking, reading and writing. What we need to learn is more profound. What's more, the teachers in the university have different teaching styles from those in college. They have higher and stricter requirements from us. I know it clearly that a much more serious competion and more pressure exist here. I must study really hard, or I’ll definitely fall behind the others.

“Frankly speaking, I dislike this place - the terrible conditions, the terrible teaching facilities and a few bad teachers. Although it’s a big city, a wealthy place, a real university compared to Simao Teachers’ College, I prefer the last one. I could feel that every teacher in Simao Teachers’ College was much better than any teacher in this university. How could I wish to go back to my previous college?! Anyway, no matter how difficult it is, I must calm myself down and try my best to adapt to it, because that’s my own choice. Now that I’ve chosen it, I certainly must bear it. Whatever I have to face, life is continuing and so is my studying. As that saying goes:

‘The teacher opens the door, you enter by yourself’.

So, I’ll adjust my state of mind to get accustomed to my present life, and proceed.”


zhutong fan for sale in Simao.
Today I spotted the first of the season's zhutong fan for sale. This Dai-nationality streetfood is delicious sticky rice steamed and grilled over hot charcoal inside a bamboo tube. We usually pick up a few tong (tubes) with the girls on the way home from school at lunchtime. The special variety of bamboo that is used only matures over the autumn and winter months, so it's only available from now until January. Better make the most of it ...

For more details check out the Yunnan 18 Oddities page on the LEAF-go-VSO website.

Lesley in Xi'an
I don't have any fabulous photos from my recent trip to Xi'an. The main reason is that the 3-day workshop itinerary was jam-packed. On the one morning we hoped to cycle around on top of the old city wall, it was pouring with rain.

Besides the interesting and active session plans organised by the PO and volunteers, the highlights were: Getting together with all the Basic Education volunteers currently working in China, including the new arrivals; having time to get to know other volunteers better (at previous conferences, with larger groups including our local partners, there hasn't always been the same chance to talk); the kindness of other volunteers regarding my Jingdong book and my Friendship Award; hearing from Hongyan that we'll be staying in a 5-star hotel; trying out new food dishes, typical of the North but rarely on our table in Yunnan - most of them containing enormous quantities of garlic; wandering around the Muslim food and craft sector of the old city and chatting over beer in a bustling restaurant; a corn seller and other locals on the street sorting out what bus we should take back to our hotel after our night out; the bus driver taking a wrong turn [perhaps following another route] and the other passengers sorting him out; our journey back home - we were delayed from Xi'an and nearly missed our connection to Simao. They held the plane up and we were escorted to it in a little van with a flashing light. All very exciting.

The lowlights were: Not having enough time to catch up with people, knowing that it will be a long time until we meet again; the smoggy, noisy, horrible walk with Tina on our first afternoon - we both returned to our room smelling of pollution and fighting off a headache; always having garlic breath; gradually losing my voice - although I'm sure everyone else was pleased.

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We were standing outside Xi'an railway station waiting for the new volunteers to arrive when a police officer walked up and hit Teresita, a volunteer working in Ningxia. The reason? She was holding five umbrellas in her hand and the police officer, here to protect us of course, thought she was an umbrella-seller. There are a few points, however, that he over-looked. Firstly, the umbrella-sellers at the station usually only have one umbrella out at a time, so as not to attract attention. They shuffle up, show you their merchandise with a whisper of the price, then shuffle away if you don't want to buy one. Teresita clearly had too many umbrellas and was standing with us chatting for way too long. Secondly, she had the umbrellas behind her back so, given that we were facing her, we couldn't even have seen what she was selling. Thirdly, all of the foreigners (Teresita is also a 'foreigner' but with dark hair this isn't immediately obvious from behind) that she was apparantly selling umbrellas to were already holding umbrellas up as it was raining. Our one Chinese companion couldn't even understand what the tussle was about, until I piped up to the police officer that we were all together and the umbrellas were for the friends we were meeting from the train. A little bit of thought can go a long way. [photo to follow]
Lesley headed off to Xi'an today for a VSO workshop with the other Basic Education (BE) volunteers from around China, including 7 new arrivals. She didn't prepare much for the sessions, but did have her new publication up her sleave - A month in Jingdong County - improving education in rural China. It's been nerve-wracking making public something that is so personal (even if work-related). So far the feedback has been good and Lesley is hoping to gather writing from volunteers to put together another, edited, collection about volunteer life. If you would like to start the ball rolling, send something now!

Let her know if you'd like a copy of this publication and we'll find a way to get one to you.