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!