There is no greater feeling than getting to a hotel late at night and no one’s credit card is working. Scouting around for some cardboard to sleep on and snuggling in next to the local homeless on the corner of the hotel wasn’t overly appealing so thankfully we had backups.
Another 6 hours sleep and we were all bright eyed, bushy tailed and ready to scout out another half dozen new Toorak Girls. Again, we were nestled in between Trinity and Tintern, again the arrogance just swamped us and again with our red ribbons at the ready we stood and ripped out our best ‘Ni hao!’ and railroaded girls to our table. It was a steady day but without KK busting out a number from Cats and without Lauren being handed a flower and being told ‘I love you’ by a little kid we walked away not having a huge amount of confidence we would get any conversion.
Tonight was our only free night for the whole trip so I had organised to go to one of my fave western restaurants in Shanghai called Liquid Laundry. It is super funky with great food and wouldn’t be out of place in Brunswick for example. Melbourne Language Centre have been pretty good to us and have recommended Toorak to many, many families not only on this trip but in the past year or so. They handed us our very first little year 5 in December so we owed them and asked them to come along. Good food, good wine and good company then a trip to the Bund to see the pretty lights of Shanghai and a quiet beverage at Bar Rouge. Hands down the best vantage point to see the lights of the new side of Shanghai.
KK had Lucie from Melbourne Language Centre ask for some 90’s music and as they were carving it up on the dancefloor with some rather young boys trying to cut in on them. Lauren and I were cut in on by some older Chinese businessmen smoking cigars. Eww! Poor Lauren copped a weird handshake (she is happy to re-enact) and I just had cigar smoke blown in my face. Hot! So even though Chris from Melbourne Language Centre was trying to tell us that these were some VIP high ranking businessmen and we should stay for the free drinks we still decided to split. Our souls were not worth selling for the sake of a wine and losing a lung from the cigar smoke.
After talking about Toorak all day to around 18 different agencies, we pulled it together and went to our first parent dinner. I had organised it in the French Concession area at a place I had been taken to by some Mum’s a year or so ago when I was on holidays in Shanghai. It was once a private residence and is now a hotel. Gorgeous French architecture both in and out and quite honestly the biggest table I have ever seen in my life. It was round as all Chinese banquet tables are and had to be at least 5 meters in diameter. To speak to someone on the opposite side meant you had to yell. Let the awkwardness begin!!
Because KK is the most important person at the table, she had to sit at the top. We had a few no-shows so that meant a few empty seats and in Chinese dining etiquette that meant KK had to sit on her own. So there she was in her culturally appropriate red dress, in this enormous room, sitting at the top of this enormous table surrounded by… no one. You could pretty much hear the crickets chirping and definitely see everyone squirming uncomfortably. As always, a wonderful welcome speech by our fearless leader relaxed everyone a little. We went around the table and introduced ourselves as if we were in school and then went about eating the dinner. All the while KK sitting there. On. Her. Own. Thankfully the wine came out and we all relaxed a bit more once Diana’s dad threw in a few Ganbei’s!! (Cheers!) It all hummed along well. The food was really good and no weirdness as I had been able to intercept the menu a couple of days prior and take out the Braised Sea Cucumber with 5 kinds of corn and some other culinary question marks and replace it with food we could actually identify.
At the end Watson (who had the best English out of the parents and had been doing a bit of translating for us) exclaimed it was a great night but too formal and whisked us away to a German pub on the new side of Shanghai so we could see the lights of the old side. The opposite view of what we had seen the night before. With each of us struggling to keep our eyes open, we were told that we could not get a taxi and would have Watson take us back to the hotel… Oh and there are some Mum’s waiting there with a gift for us. It was the night that never ended. As Watson dropped us off at the hotel, we were greeted by two Mum’s that had sat and waited for us. They each handed us a gift and waved us towards the lift. Their staying power was impressive and the beautiful silk scarves that we each received were stunning. We really have very happy and very generous parents. It is a nice feeling to walk into a room and every single one of them are happy with what Toorak is providing for their daughters. Each of them have a different reason for being with us and somehow we have managed to provide what they wanted. We have happy girls and grateful, happy parents.
SHANGHAI PARENT DINNER No. 2
Sometimes we have girls start with us that are broken. Villa in Year 10 was this before she started. She had been at Avalon College and had a terrible time. When she visited us in November she could not lift her eyes from the ground. Towards the end of our time on our tour there was a little smile but not much. If you were to meet Villa now she is a different kid. Happy, open, an average excitable teenage girl. Her whole demeanour is different. She has found her place with us and is loving it. Because of this, Villa’s parents and her uncle think we are pretty amazing and asked us out to dinner. Uncle Rong is an international corporate lawyer that works out of Shanghai and Melbourne. He has been an Australian for 30 years. You know when you meet people and you can feel their wisdom? He is one of those people. A little intimidating because he is such a smart guy but very nice.
So there we were in front of another ‘Lazy Susan’ with unidentifiable food in front of us. In for a penny in for a pound! So I took a deep breath and just tucked in. I have no idea what I was eating but when the ‘Bird’s Nest Soup’ was explained to me I stumbled a little. Rong stated with a huge smile that “If you see anything that is a little weird you can just leave it! Mei Guanxi! (No problem) Just leave it!” Followed by a chuckle. So as I took the lid off my little clay pot I saw a stick and a whole bunch of unidentifiable fleshy looking things and a caterpillar. Oh my… here we go again. Sarah being the brave soul that she is just tucked in. I sat there nervously moving the contents around the clay pot. Then Rong piped up and said “Oh the soup is this particular restaurants specialty. It is very good. Are you enjoying it Caralyn?” Busted!
“Oh mine is a little hot I am just waiting for it to cool down a little but it smells amazing!” I managed to get a mouthful down whilst all eyes were on me. I managed to pretend long enough and avoid the caterpillar until the next plate of fried goodness appeared. Much to my delight it was a plate of Aussie style Sweet and Sour Pork. Bless you Rong and your Australianised palate. The rest of the meal went off without anymore culinary challenges.
We arrived in Guangzhou very late and had the day off on Friday. We walked around the old part of the city. It is very diverse, more so than I ever realised. We happened upon a street filled with African and Middle Eastern Muslims and loads of food cooking over coals and spices not native to China. It was super cool to see such a place in a generally mono-cultured country. We walked through parks and eventually made it to some impressive temples. It was about 30C so this is where the Swupdates should start again but I am keeping Chupdate going.
We were to be picked up by a parent and taken to Hotpot for dinner. I had requested this kind of meal because how challenging can it be right? When the girls and I go for Hotpot in the city we have lovely fresh meats and seafood, vegetables and tofu, lots of noodles of course and they try and make the broth as spicy hot as possible to test my heat sensitivity. It is really a lot of fun.
I had joked with Katerina about asking her Dad to pick me up in his new red, convertible Lamborghini. As Sarah and I stood there waiting for Raymond and his assistant Archer to pick us up, Donna from Lauriston wandered up to us what should pull up in front of us but a brand new red Lambo.
Donna joking around: “Is this your ride for the night eh ladies?”
Me taking a second and third look at the people in the Lambo: “Ummmm yep it is actually!” Donna almost fell over and I burst out laughing at the thought of even being near a car that is worth over $800K. Raymond and Archer bounced out of the flashy red car and over to Sarah and I. Before I knew it I was in the passenger seat flying through the streets of Guangzhou. I must say the way Raymond drives is like he is playing Mario cart and there were some very, very terrifying moments. There are terrifying moments on China’s roads at normal speed in clapped out old taxi’s let alone slipping in and out of heavy traffic at warp speed. Thank goodness this thing has F1 brakes! At one point I squealed and covered my eyes.
Raymond: “Are you scary? Don’t be scary! bahahahahaha”
Me: “Just a bit...” I was very scary at this moment and it is moments like these that if I was a Catholic I would be saying hail mary’s. We flew into an underground carpark at a speed that would have a normal car on two wheels and Raymond took about 6 go’s to park the shiny red piece of automotive glory. In all fairness it wouldn’t be easy to park given it is about 2cm off the ground and every spot is a blindspot.
Archer and Raymond ordered the bits for the hotpot and before we knew it out came 2 bowls of this brown flesh with little bumps all over it. The men proudly telling us “This is cow stomach. We know how much you Australian’s like cow so we get it. It is best because it is from New Zealand! Yes yes! Best. It is best!” Lots of proud smiling among them, lots of internal dying among us. Archer and Raymond put the stomach into the broth and then tossed it in our bowls. I had to eat first… Big deep breath and down the hatch it went. It wasn’t appalling just kind of chewy and believe me when I say I chewed fast and swallowed even faster. Please remember that there were 2 massive bowls of this digestive system for us to eat. It just kept coming.
Then as a bit of a break in the cow stomach we had something else. Not sure what it was but it looked like mushrooms. A different mushroom look to the jellyfish in Beijing but mushroomy none the less. As I took the first chew a flavour like no other entered my mouth. I immediately flashed my eyes towards Sarah and sent her an SOS look. I couldn’t do a Lauren and spit my Jellyfish into a napkin because there were no napkins. I was panicking the flavour was piercing every tastebud in my mouth and I had nowhere to spit it. I looked at Sarah again and dry wretched. The only thing to do was swallow this horrific tasting rubbery mass in my mouth. Another dry wretch and I knew I had to get this sucker down. I also knew I had to chew a couple more times to be able to get it down. Everything was about to come up when I managed to get it down. I pretty much skulled a beer and drank the chili oil to eliminate the taste.
Raymond: “What you want next eh?”
Me: “Noodles! I want noodles!!” so noodles it was and the rest of the meal was fine… aside from the blood jelly. Yep. They get blood and gelatine and set the blood in the gelatine and you eat it. It was at this point that I grew a spine and said no. The blood jelly was taken away and the rest of the meal was great.
Is there such thing as workers comp for trauma caused by consumption of food from a foreign country? If so I may need to apply for that when I get home.
Guangzhou and Hong Kong expo update on its way!
Hi Team! It has been an epic 5 days so I do apologise for the tardiness of the Chupdate... This is part 1... part 2 will be written once I have a few more moments to spare. I will preface this by saying if I was to write up everything that has happened over the past 5 days I would not leave my room for at least a day... it has been action packed, full of inappropriate moments, cultural faux pas and just general misadventure even though we have spent the majority of our time in dimly lit ballrooms talking to prospective families. What can i say? That is China for you and this is about 1/5th of what has actually happened!
Friday 9 March
Sorry team but the Swupdate has evolved into the Chupdate. It is not sweaty here in Beijing in fact it was -4C this morning so it was pretty chilly hence the new name but as we move south it will be almost 30C so it is a kill two birds with one stone scenario. It can either be a China Update or a Chilly update depending where I am in the country.
Thursday was a long day. We arrived in Beijing after an uneventful flight on a very old Qantas plane (no touchscreens for entertainment so we were basically in 1999 again) with rather disappointing movies ‘On Demand’. As we slipped through customs being asked if we had declared any of our goods and Lauren bravely snapping the semi-corpse of a security guy “No! We were told we didn’t have to!” we wheeled our 2 trolleys piled high plus 4 suitcases towards the taxi stand without being searched. A lovely lady saw how ‘heavily’ we travelled and got us a taxi in 2 minutes allowing us to avoid the 50 minute queue. Bless her and her fur lined hat. We all had a crack at saying ‘Thank you’ in Mandarin to several enthused Westin Hotel Staff and slipped into bed around 2am Beijing time.
Being scheduled to the minute on this trip we were back up and gathered in the lobby at 5:30am for the 30 minute trip to Tiananmen Square to watch the Flag raising. It took 15 minutes at that time of day. We got to stand around in the -4C smoggy morning air for an extra 15 minutes. Lucky us! We passed through security and when asked for passports (that only KK was smart enough to bring) KK flippantly told the armed guard “No sorry, none.” Without too much of a thought, he waved us through the scanners. Clearly the adorable blonde that KK is means she isn’t a terrorist and either are the 2 giants waking around with her. Or are we?
For the Chinese watching the Flag raising once in a lifetime is like visiting Mecca for the followers of Islam or going to Gallipoli for Australians. So at 6:36am (The exact time of sunrise) the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) marched out of the gates of the Forbidden Palace and into the Square. 75cm per step and 100 steps per minute, the PLA unnervingly thump their way to the flagpole and start the day for 1.4 billion Chinese people. It is a remarkable sight and the marching really does send a chill down your spine. There are 10’s of thousands of people watching yet you can hear every step they make. It is deafeningly silent despite the number of people and the size of the square.
All done in 2 minutes and 37 seconds (the time it takes for the sun to rise) and with rather frozen feet we walked up a side street to find some traditional Chinese breakfast food; Jianbing. It is a pancake with egg, spring onions, chili and a sauce of some description. It’s ace and with my awful Mandarin I was able to order one for each of us with 2 eggs instead of 1 egg. We needed sustenance after 3 hours sleep after all. We headed to a Commy party hotel to get a taxi and were security screened just for asking a question. We got a warm taxi so care factor – zero.
PARENT & NEW STUDENT LUNCH
Lei Garden is a very famous restaurant throughout China. It serves traditional Cantonese food… Traditional. Alina will be starting with us in April. She is a little pocket rocket with a smile that is like sunshine. She is SO excited to be a Toorak girl and to be in Australia. She cannot wait to see the animals. Alina and her mother picked us up and took us to Lei Garden, Century City, Chaoyang. Chaoyang district is the fancy part of Beijing. For those that have not been to Beijing it is very stark, grey and polluted. To be frank it is a depressing city unless you are wandering around in a Hutong or traditional very old part or monument. It screams communist society. The PLA are everywhere with their foreboding uniforms and angry eyes piercing you to your soul. Laowei’s (foreigners) feel they are being watched and they are. In fact everyone is. The government has the most up to date facial recognition and movement tracking software and devices in the world. No matter where you go you are tracked.
We had to walk through a Maserati dealer’s showroom to reach the lift to take us to Lei Garden. I wasn’t sad about that. I do love a Maserati’s and so does Lauren and KK it seems. As we walk out of the lift we were escorted to our private dining room. Alina could not stop smiling and her mother could not stop apologising for her poor English. It is times like these that I feel so incredibly ignorant. I know some words and phrases in Mandarin but so few compared to the Chinese’ general command of the English language. The room that we were in was stunning. We overlooked a French inspired building and the room itself was embellished with chandeliers and fresh flowers, wallpaper and antique wooden furniture. It was opulent and its grandeur was humbling. We were seated and the first course was placed in front of us. Chicken feet. Because KK is the top of the totem pole she must eat first and we must then all follow her lead. So Alina and her mother respectfully waited until KK had taken the first mouth watering bite of the pursed chicken claw sitting on her plate. With the first reassuring delighted ‘yum’ escaping KK’s faltering mouth we all followed suit and tucked in to our claw.
As I scan the table Alina and her mother are sucking each digit from the claw and spitting the bone onto their plate. Meanwhile KK looked somewhat distressed and Lauren was a whiter shade of pale. As I tried to decipher the looks on their faces the awkward silence is broken by the “Wow! That flavour is extraordinary. Have you ever tasted anything like that before Lauren?”
Lauren: “Its amazing isn’t it Caralyn?”
Caralyn: Just as I had sucked the fatty bit out of the middle of the pursed claw and was silently dry reaching onto my plate: “Why yes! I have never had such complex flavours before” beaming with vomity delight.” It’s divine!” The fatty bit still floating around in my mouth. As I look to KK again I realised something wasn’t quite right. I later found out Kristy was choking on a whole chicken toe! I had followed the families lead and was sucking the bits off the digits but because KK had to go first, she tucked in and was chewing on the toes and trying to swallow. Turns out they are not easy to swallow! Chicken feet… I don’t know why they bother… not a lot of juice for your squeeze if you know what I mean. But it’s a thing and who am I to judge?
Dish 2 looked like a mushroom but it wasn’t a mushroom. It was… as Lauren exclaimed upon first bite “Oh it’s cold and wow! What a crunch! Amazing!” after much fussing and eventually Baidu (China Google) translating we got “It is Jellyfish……….. HEAD!” Big smile and lots of excited nodding from Alina and her mother. “Yes yes. Very good food. You like?”
KK: “Oh yes! It’s got so much flavour!”
CD: “I’ve never had such a crunch before. Jellyfish Head you say? SO good!”
“Oh yes. It is so good. That is why we order. We knew you love it!” Giggles and excited appreciative nods from Alina and her mother. If there is one thing that I am looking forward to with Alina it is her smile. It is seriously like sunshine. She lights up a room with that smile. She is gold! Jellyfish head is not gold in case you were wondering.
Culturally there are a lot of do’s and don’ts around food and leaving some food on the plate is acceptable, leaving too much is insulting but also cleaning the plate means there wasn’t enough and the host did not adequately satisfy the needs of their guests, so is insulting. It’s a tightrope at best. So as the ‘Lazy Susan’ (can I just pose this question to you? Who named that contraption? Ridiculous! Anywho…) was filled with far more normal and palatable foods the jellyfish was doing laps as we desperately yet silently fought over the dumplings and Peking Duck pancakes. So taking a culinary hit for the team I ate the second last jellyfish head. As I crunched through the… head, I had to dead stare KK so that I didn’t throw it back up, all the while Alina and her mother smiling with their sunshiny smiles and excited nods. Lunch was done. We gushed over the food so much so that we had actually convinced each other that we loved it. It wasn’t until the 2 hour cab ride to visit agents that we confessed our distress to each other. We never actually made it to any agents because the Beijing traffic was so bad. Note to self: allow 4 times longer to get anywhere in Beijing than you think once the sun rises. At least the lunch was a cultural success even if it was culinary challenging.
One thing to know about the Chinese is that you will either insult them or they will railroad you into doing what they want. I was railroaded tonight. I had 20 minutes from getting back to the hotel after said failed agent visits to meeting Jennifer’s parents. Jennifer is an outstanding Toorak girl. She is involved in the school and her parents love the school. They are huge advocates for us and they are supportive of not only me but and the teachers as well, no matter what is going on, we have their support. They travelled from the other side of the city to meet us. I swear it must have taken them 6 hours to get to us after experiencing the traffic we had just experienced. But they were there with their colleague to translate for us.
KK had innocently thrown in the line during our taxi debrief “I swear if I drink anymore tea..! “ guess what team???? MORE TEA!!! Yeah! We were all presented with some very expensive tea and the Fuyen (waiter) placed a pot of very expensive tea in front of us for the parent meeting… again, because KK is the big cheese she must go first and express her joy in the tea ordered for her before any of us can begin. Her theatre background was certainly coming into play! She joyfully sipped her tea and with much excited smiling and nodding Jennifer’s parents and then Lauren and I sipped away. After an hour or so Lauren and KK slipped away to the AEAS meeting and I finished up with Jennifer’s parents. I wish all of my parents were like them! They are seriously great. KK’s love for tea has not changed although you would think she is an avid tea drinker after today.
SATURDAY 10 MARCH - BEIJING STUDENT EXPO
As we walked into the room of 35 other schools and set up our booth we competitively scanned the room. The usual (I’ve done one expo series so I am basically an expert): MLC, Tintern, St Leonards, Melbourne Language Centre, Melbourne Girls, Lauriston and the school of the moment… TRINITY Grammar… right beside us! Trinity’s arrogance is palpable and even though there is a massive sh*tstorm back home it is still palpable. Humility does not enter their rhetoric at all.
The day started and instantly we had girls and their families approaching us. One of the rules of AEAS is that you are not allowed to approach anyone. They have to show interest in you and sit and talk with you. So with Lauren standing on the left and KK on the right (#rebels) and me sitting at the table we were able to engage 3 families at any one time. If you know the psychology of crowds it means that when we are full more and more gather because we must be good if we are full, right? We may have been told off for this. But we continued and before we knew it we were tying red ribbons in ponytails and welcoming girls to Toorak. Mostly in year 5 & 6. There really is an appetite here for the younger years. My research wasn’t wrong… we are onto a winner team! (insert sigh of relief!) At the end of a very busy day the Principal of Tintern told us that he had never seen so many kids “walk away smiling from a booth and never seen so much fun had at one of these conferences before!” When we talk, we talk to the student not the parent. Every other boring, beige, arrogant school talks stats to the parent. Yawn. We talk to the girl and the parents love it. To date we have 3 applications already lodged and we expect to see 3 more. Beijing was a great expo for us and there are many sub-stories to tell. Please ask about the Equestrian helmet and Kristy’s musical number. Never has there been an AEAS expo like this one.
To Shanghai we fly! More to come!