Beijing, TUESC: COMPETITION TIME

Tsinghua English Summer Camp.

IT’S SINGING COMPETITION TIME!!

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Jennifer waving our class flag!!

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IRISH BACK AT ME

The Camp-wide competition of Tsinghua University English Summer Camp 2012 is this biggest event of Beijing so far with over three thousand students packed into the university’s auditorium.

Blue G’s five piece boy band (shamelessly and fearlessly) made it through the preliminaries and semi-finals with Westlife’s My Love, a tribute to my ten-year-old Westlife cowboy-hat wearing self which nearly had me in tears –  and boy, did we roar their way onto the finals stage. Nothing could make me prouder than having some of the shyest male members of Blue G feel brave enough to take on this classic tune in front of thousands of their first-year compatriots.

Old hands at the camp, prepared for the vastness of the auditorium stage may have wowed the crowd with costumes and dance routines, but with our class’s front row section to auditorium, we were banner-waving, foot-stomping, and crowd-screamingly raucous; we were the loudest faction (by our count at least) and we sang every note fit to burst along with our lad’s Westlife tribute.

As My Love became the official anthem of Blue G 2012, Stefan and I nearly passed out with exhilaration.

What a great night!

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Beijing, TUESC: Forbidden City

Forbidden City

It’s a predictably hot day when Emma, Ellie and I chose to visit one of Beijing’s most coveted set of historical buildings: The Forbidden City.

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Rivulets of sweat run happily down my back, my umbrella is up, Chinese-style, and my back-pack of water feels a lot heavier than a litre of water duly should, but nothing can overshadow the sheer scale of the endless courtyards, alleys and royal buildings in the elaborate 15th century complex of beautiful, painted-wood roofing. As we file in under a huge portrait of President Mao, we’re battling with the people towards a small dark tunnel: the entrance to the city itself. It’s hard to believe, given the addition of thousands of tourists, whistles, tour-group speakers and jiggling flags, that this entire area was once a secluded, palace of secrecy and royalty.

Instead of talking the main bee-line up the middle of the complex, we soon veer off to shaded side roads, back alleys of the servants and noticeably less crowded; from these bubbles of quiet. we observing the vast cobbled courtyard space into which the bottleneck of tourists tumble ant-like, and sweating, admiring their hundreds in a space once reserved for ceremonial events and special dignitaries.

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The contents of the exhibitions here are definitely undermined by the misty glass-cum-plastic that divides the sticky fingers and foreheads from what is possibly antique furniture – though it’s hard to tell in the dim rooms, a stark contrast from the blinding sun outside.

Having visited the National Palace Museum in Taipei, which houses many of the original artefacts from the Forbidden City, evacuated after a long trek across the country of China over to the small Formosan Island by Chiang Kai Chek and his followers following the Civil War in China, it is not hard to see that the two heritage sites offer very different experiences. In my opinion, The Forbidden City demonstrates the sheer vastness of the architecture and demonstrates the immense power of space and place in politics and society, whereas for the contents and details of the internal wealth, art and culture, it is best to look to the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

However the souvenir shops and exhibitions in the Forbidden City offer excellent air-conned relief from the scorching morning sun.

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Chinese Chat

As a last anecdote of the day, a man in his late fifties, thin as a bean pole and wearing heavily clothes as sun-bleached as his skin is tanned, calls out to me with a flash of white teeth and astoundingly well-accented English.

It’s hard to displace the shock of the apparent incongruity of his appearance and his Oxford-style English within the wall of the Forbidden City, and his alarming tendency to peer very closely into my face when speaking knocks me straight out of my historical reverie. But while his enthusiasm to converse with us definitely straddles the border with frightening, it’s an excellent example of the curiosity of being a tourist in China; the people may stare without prejudice, and converse with mild prejudice (rightly assuming the majority of us cannot speak Mandarin), but they for the most part, are purely curious: being foreign in China is certainly an oddity in a way that is no longer common in England.

Considering the vast scale of the country, its tendency to umbrella its many ethnic diversities as a community of one country (in contrast to the emphasised individualism of the West) and it’s relative youth in terms of international tourism and wide-spread immigration it is hardly surprising that two English girls, and one half Northern Irish, half Taiwanese Mandarin-speaking girl (to be precise) can cause a small amount of fuss.

Interestingly, once most people discover I can speak Mandarin, they are suitably unnerved and back off.

It’s the real foreigners that they want photos with.

😉

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Beijing, TUESC: Food Time Cacophony

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FOOD TIME

Everyone’s rushing to get lunch in a technicolour of student cycling madness. Driven by hunger. Ruthless in traffic.

It’s lunch-time at Tsinghua University Summer Camp and we can barely keep our students in their seats till the last minute.
And with good reason.

There are at least six canteens over campus, best travelled by bicycle, each serving variations of Chinese food in building ranging from high-class, lazy-suzan and lace rooms to three floor mess halls of university appropriate din – and you want to get there fast (it’s blood-curdlingly hot), chain up your bike, bag a table and enjoy a hot plate of Asian food goodness. With students coming to Tsinghua from all over the continent, there are dishes to cater for every province and taste and with the excessive RMB on our dinner cards courtesy of Tsinghua Camp organisers, I’m aiming to try everything.

Having been in Taiwan a lot over my lifetime, I was expecting food to be a walk in the park, but even for me it was at times a frustrating trial of experimentation and error, and at others, absolute delight.

It’s saltier here than I’m used to, some dishes are particularly oily and the service is entirely English-speaking free. Forget the lack of English, the canteen staff barely have time to speak in Chinese.

It’s a nippy task of tense queue waiting (with much spectator curiosity from your Chinese queue-buddies), and random pointing at  dishes with an internal monologue that mostly consists of tense exclamation (at the contents of previously tame looking vats) , prayer (that the dish you choose is edible and non-spicy), expletives (when they refuse to ladle from the dish you want) and resignation (when you get your finished tray of food).

It’s a swift in-out of the ol’ meal card – it’s never more than around 5-6RMB per meal out here, including drinks – and you can get back to your table and heave a relieved sigh with your fellow volunteers.

Oh, and of course, it’s chopsticks and spoons only.

chopsticks.

“Everyone goes to Qing Qing Burger.”

I never went to Qing Qing Burger.

But then again, I was able to stick out the vast array of dazzling (and sometimes disarming) food on offer. For some of the volunteers, it had to be Western food, and that is on offer here too. Although word of warning – it’s easily four times the price of the chinese meal equivalent, and lots of Qing Qing Burger-goers soon ran out of their Tsinghua given cash.

My solid favourites remained the aubergine and mince, egg fried tomato and rice combo dipping in and out of various meat and veg sides, with an iced black tea.

Meal-times with an element of risk makes every good choice taste better.

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Taiwan: Tropical Flowers

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It’s Spring! And these sure beat daisies. The sub-tropical climate in Taiwan, straddling the Tropic of Cancer, is altered slightly across the island by the the island’s backbone ridge of high mountains; the vegetation therefore, produces a really spectacular range of flowers every spring and summer – just in time for me to return!

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Maybe you can’t really see this strange tree, but in early June it’s nearly finished its stunning bloom of huge fat, sturdy flowers; the burning orange petals have a strangely firm cotton-like feel. Just flowers, no leaves. My mum tells me that earlier in the year the whole tree is bursting with flowers. Can you imagine? Asia does tree flowers rather spectacularly. Even in the middle of the city.

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