The Tornado

Day 117 (20th of June, 2016) – Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

Consider this week’s blog the ‘calm before the storm’. It’s my last week of classes and exams at Jiangsu Normal University. Next week, I’ll explore every last crevasse that this city has to offer before moving onto bigger and better things – Shanghai, Sichuan, Tibet, home, Thailand, Iran, Turkey, Israel, Jordan and who knows where else.

Needless to say, you’ll just have to suffer through one more photo-lacking and energy-sapping read of this publication.

Tomorrow, like every Monday morning, I slept in. Gap years aren’t supposed to have routine, which is why I think that my exit from Xuzhou is timely. My only class of the day was spent studying a text which spoke about the Chinese Civil War fought between the Nationalists of the Republic of China (now Taiwan) and the Communist Party who would later form the People’s Republic of China (the China we all know today). This text, in classic Chinese fashion, told the teary-eyed tale of a Nationalist soldier who was expelled to Taiwan upon his defeat, lamenting the loss of his homeland and realising the flaws of his ideology.

What’s interesting is that for a war which is over half a century old, there has still been no official peace treaty signed. As such, scholars still argue over whether the Civil War has legally ended. Consider Australia’s involvement in World War II against Japan, and now imagine if there was never any peace treaty signed. You can imagine that there would still be a hint of tension floating in the air at the mention of their name, and that’s exactly what it’s like here with Taiwan.

But, thankfully, both countries run a pretty tight ship and have good trade relations. Maybe the Western idea of an ‘armistice’ isn’t seen as necessary in the East, since relationships are ever-fluctuating. In some senses, a piece of paper with a signature provides a pretty false sense of hope if all were to go wrong.

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After class, I went and found myself a good chicken and tofu meal.

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The rest of the day was occupied by preparation for my exams on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. I was talking with Mum on the phone as I made my way to the usual café for some revision.

Mum regrettably witnessed my reaction upon stumbling over an abhorrent sight. A pause in my speech already had her alarmed.

“What’s wrong?” she worriedly asked.

“Mother, there is a young girl in front of me taking a sh*t,” I replied, truthfully.

I had stumbled into a young toddler who, through the split in her pants, was taking a poo in a drain in the middle of the street.

So that’s where the smell in the streets comes from.

During my time working at the café, I noticed someone eating a steak and I excitedly ordered one for myself.

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Unfortunately, this was objectively the worst steak I have ever had. I am confident that it was the beef equivalent of Spam put on a fry pan and served to me. But then again, the café made up for it by being one of the most trendy places in the city.

Day 118 (21st of June, 2016) – Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

Today, I received some news. I found out that my HSK (international Chinese standards test) results had been released.

To remind you, I sat three exams:

    • HSKK (oral exam, pass mark 60/100)
    • HSK 4 (general exam, vocabulary of 1200, pass mark 180/300)
    • HSK 5 (general exam, vocabulary of 2500, pass mark 180/300)

Before arriving in China, I was at an HSK 3 level. I expected to pass the HSK 4 and dismally fail the HSK 5, but wanted to give it a shot anyway for the experience. After all, I plan on taking the HSK 5 when returning to study in Shanghai later in the year at which point I’d expect to get a better result.

My results were as follows:

    • HSKK: 82/100
    • HSK 4: 244/300

(drumroll)

    • HSK 5: 182/300

My HSK 4 was lower than expected, and my HSK 5 was higher than expected. Just high enough, in fact, that it was a pass. That’s an incredible achievement for me, and one which I’m not confident that I thoroughly deserve. A slightly easier exam on the day no doubt helped me.

To put into perspective how these results don’t make any sense, let me do the maths for you. Assume that vocabulary is directly linked to results (which, in this exam, I’d argue that it very much is).

Since I scored 81.3% in an exam where I was expected to know 1200 words, we can ascertain that I probably know around 976 words.

Now, 976 words represents 39% of the expected vocabulary of an HSK 5 student. It’s hardly a coincidence, then, that in my practice papers for HSK 5 I was scoring around 40%.

But, I passed with a mark of 60.7%. A whole 22 percentage points higher than would have been predicted from my HSK 4 performance.

So, what can I take out of all of that? Well, I know one of two things:

    • The exam was really, really easy.
    • I had a really, really good day.

I’d have to put it down to both. And maybe the hard preparation payed off a bit as well.

Passing the HSK 5 denotes fluency at a level where I am able to read Chinese newspapers and magazines, watch Chinese films and am capable of writing and delivering speeches in Chinese. I don’t know how much of that is true, but it’s good to know that I’m at least well on the way to doing all of those things with proficiency. The certificate also allows me to study any university degree in China or to go on television shows for foreigners, if for some reason either of those things one day attracted me.

I regret the day that my employer reads this and finds out about how I only just gained this certificate by the skin of my teeth, but then again I’ve already dropped one swear word in this blog post, so all sensibilities are out the window by now.

One of my strengths in academia has always been using success not as a cause for immediate celebration, but as a benchmark for my next result. As such, tonight was spent with my head down focusing on the exams tomorrow.

Day 119 (22nd of June, 2016) – Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

This morning marked the beginning of the exam period. At 8am I sat my Summary Exam and at 9:45am I had my Speaking Exam. Both subjects are some of the more demanding ones on my plate, so it was good to get a few of the harder tasks out of the way first.

I think my performance in both was very strong. It was almost like I’d seen the paper somewhere before. Oh yes, that’s right, they handed it to us at the beginning of the week.

It astounds me that anyone broke a sweat in that classroom. It was a test of self-discipline in committing yourself to memorisation for long hours rather than any measure of genuine intelligence.

I’m not someone who I would consider to have very strong memorisation skills. I find the task very daunting, to be frank. Whenever I’m told to memorise an essay or speech by rote, I’m often thrown back to the dark days of primary school public speaking competitions where the harder challenge was in remembering the speech rather than writing it.

I still remember with clarity my first conscious attempt at memorising something substantive – The Man from Snowy River for the MS Readathon. Although I remember doing that with some success, I have very vivid memories of experimenting cluelessly with different techniques to make something stick in my head. In some ways, I still don’t think that I’ve come up with a completely surefire way.

Immediately after the two exams, I went to one of the food halls for some lunch.

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Following this, I moved back to the café to set myself up for the rest of the day and evening. I was preparing for the reading and writing exams tomorrow. Reading was the only exam which we were not told the content of beforehand, and so I was actually looking forward to a more honest test of ability. After realising the lack of preparation materials I had, I asked a student who sat this course last semester if I could use his old exam paper for revision. He happily obliged.

My heart sank when I read the first question:

In the article on page 37 of your textbook, why does the reader like Ming Dynasty history?

A. Because he likes Chinese Horrible Histories
B. Because he likes the author of Chinese Horrible Histories
C. Because he enjoys Chinese Horrible Histories
D. Because he enjoys the author of Chinese Horrible Histories

I looked down in disbelief. All of the answers were correct – I could recall the text from having studied it in class. But instead of gaining a full grasp on the meaning behind the text, we were actually meant to memorise its EXACT WORDING. i.e. if you made the absurd claim that the reader ‘liked’ Horrible Histories rather than ‘enjoyed’ it, you would lose all the marks for the question.

But maybe this is the beauty of a language like this. Perhaps the nuanced and minute differences between ‘liking’ something and ‘enjoying’ it are relevant enough that they ought to be distinguished in an exam environment.

I quickly realised how futile any preparations were, so I made a deal with myself that I would study as much as I could until 10pm at which point I’d call it a day and resign to my fate.

As a bit of procrastination, I was flicking through my Facebook newsfeed on my phone when I came across a video of this year’s Riverview 1st XV in the change room going through their pump up routine. Naturally I wanted to watch it. My headphones were plugged into my computer listening to music, and so I paused the song in order to listen to the video on my phone. I had forgotten, stupidly, to unplug my headphones from my computer and instead switch them to my phone.

I failed to realise this throughout the whole video.

When the video began, I thought that it was unusually soft in my headphones, so I blasted it to full volume. After the three minute video ended, I looked around to realise that the whole café was staring at me. I had been playing the video out loud at full volume in a café with the volume of a library, thinking that the sound was coming through my headphones. Very embarrassing.

Day 120 (23rd of June, 2016) – Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

The reading exam was at 8am this morning, and I couldn’t believe my luck when I opened to the first page. The exam was, question for question, identical to the past paper I had borrowed from a friend the night before. I didn’t make an effort to hide the fact that I’d seen the paper before, since I’ve figured out that this isn’t an uncommon phenomenon over here. Instead, I finished the two hour exam in about half an hour and skipped out of the room to prepare for my next exam.

I dodged a bullet there. I feel for all the students who genuinely had to ponder over whether the reader ‘liked’ or ‘enjoyed’ Horrible Histories. Silly them. He obviously liked it, but he by no means enjoyed it.

The writing exam in the afternoon went well too. Writing out a memorised Chinese essay is actually quite good fun once you’re confident with it. From a macro perspective through a Western eye, it looks like a big, intricate artwork of lines and strokes collocated in a seemingly random order. I can still switch into that view if I want to. But swapping between that frame of mind and a Chinese understanding of the meaning conveyed by all of those lines is an even more incredible realisation.

Like yesterday, I bought my lunch in the food hall. Only this time, I tried out a different meal.

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I learned two new quite useful words today. I learned them both by just ‘picking them up’ rather than being taught them, which felt good. A lot of people claim that you can just ‘pick up a language’ if you live in an area for long enough. I don’t really buy that argument, especially with Chinese. You can go your whole life as a Westerner in China and never have to use a word of the language past the basics.

Further to that, though, you can only really ‘pick up’ new words in a conversation if you have an idea of what all of the surrounding words mean. If you just heard a babble of dialogue, you couldn’t deduce what anything means. If you heard this being said, on the other hand, then you’d more likely infer what the missing word means:

Person A: I need to go to the ________, do you know where it is?

Person B: The bathroom’s over there.

In this situation, it would be much easier to take an accurate guess that the unknown word means ‘toilet’. So in many ways, I think that you need to have a good grasp on a language before you can start taking shortcuts in learning it.

I was able to take one of those shortcuts today when reading a sign in a public bathroom. In Chinese, 方便 (fangbian) means ‘convenient’, but it can also be a polite way of saying that you need to go to the bathroom. I noticed in the bathroom that I was in that a sign was specifically forbidding people from flushing anything other than 小便 (small convenient) or 大便 (big convenient) down the bowl. I quickly worked out that these words are the Chinese equivalent of ‘doing a no. 1’ or ‘doing a no. 2’.

In the evening I wanted to change up the study environment. The pizza restaurant rarely has any other customers (it’s at this point that I’m realising why I always feel sick after pizza), and so I went there to get some dinner and work until bedtime.

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The weather today was pretty shocking. The torrential rain and gale force winds were enough to destroy my umbrella, but I didn’t really mind since it was a nice break from the unforgiving heat.

While eating dinner, I received a news notification to say that a tornado had passed through the northern part of Jiangsu Province (where Xuzhou is located), and that the death toll had reached 51. I hastily googled it, all the while the wind outside was growing stronger and stronger as things were whipped against the side of the building. I only wish that I could have taken a picture, but it was far too dangerous to go outside. Reports were very slow to come in, but I eventually worked out that the tornado had started in Yancheng (a city just a few hours drive away), and had torn through Peixian (the district of Xuzhou where I ate dog), tearing up all of the houses from their foundations. It was pretty surreal, really, that a place so close had been devastated on such a massive scale.

Just by the casual demeanour of the staff and few remaining customers in the restaurant, I sensed the fact that they had no clue of what was going outside. And so, against my brief protest, the restaurant staff shuffled us out of the building right on closing time at 10pm.

And so, I joined the streaming flood of students braving the wind and rain back to the dorms. I was in the middle of a group of a few hundred students, and I couldn’t help but think that if the tornado were to pass anywhere near Xuzhou’s city centre, we’d be picked up like Tic Tacs and whipped against the walls either side of us.

Settling back down in my room and flicking on the news, there wasn’t a single mention of it for the rest of the night. The only news agency reporting it online was the state-sponsored Xinhua News, which was the source for Western outlets’ reporting of the disaster. By the time the death toll had risen to 91, it became pretty apparent why there were so many deaths for something which you could seemingly escape the impact of. For one, there was no warning system set up. Not only a physical tornado alarm like most major cities have, but even any sort of widespread reporting in the media. And secondly, the state of a lot of the properties here is such that they would be uprooted in no time. Very sad.

I have no doubt that there were some students who woke up to the news that someone they knew had passed away in the tornado since it ripped through towns and districts where many of the students live.

Here’s a Chinese news article with a few pictures and videos from the event: http://www.js.chinanews.com/xz/news/2014/0610/12487.html

Day 121 (24th of June, 2016) – Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

I find sleeping in to be the most effective form of procrastination, because it’s easy to justify that it’s not a bad thing to get more sleep before an exam. Either way, I woke up at around 11am to begin my final few hours of revision before my last exams for this course.

The first exam was a practice HSK 4 test, which having passed recently didn’t require too much preparation. Afterwards, I sat a listening exam. Both went quite smoothly and I was relieved to walk out of those classrooms for the final time. I’m very proud of myself for having completed this Chinese course – it was undoubtedly one of the greatest challenges I have ever faced. Not so much a steep academic challenge as it was a serious mental challenge, and it feels very gratifying to have reached the end. I’m looking forward to reaping the benefits of an enhanced Chinese ability as I grow older.

The listening exam finished just before 6pm, and so I didn’t bother stopping by my room on the way to Fusion bar to celebrate. I was making my way through one of Xuzhou’s more modern pedestrian malls on the way to the bar when I snapped this photo.

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As we were walking through, I spotted a Westerner and said to my friend, “hey look, a clown”.

I realised my incredibly poor judgement when she looked up to see her best friend who she hadn’t seen in months.

I had a point, though.

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I wasn’t very well liked for the rest of the night.

The girls eventually forgot about it and I moved on to bigger (literally) and better things with my British friend. I was called back over for some translation work when, as is usual, the two girls were approached by a big Chinese boy looking to indulge in some baijiu with them.

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In some way or another I ended up at his table not to partake in the baijiu activities, but simply because I was having a good Chinese conversation.

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It was while I was sitting at this table that I overheard something which had me shoot straight up out of my seat.

“G’day mate, do you know anywhere we could get a feed around here?” croaked a thick Aussie accent.

“Do I know where to get some tucker or what?” I snapped back, my accent falling on grateful ears.

I was quickly introduced to a university group of eight, four of whom were Australian. Two were from Perth, and two were from Brisbane. They are studying here on a scholarship program for six months to complete some units in their mining degree. They’re at a university in Xuzhou called CUMT (I know what you just thought, but no), which I hadn’t heard of. Among the others in the group was a Toronto local, a New Yorker, a Kentucky (fried chicken) resident as well as someone from Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia. They’re were an incredibly friendly group. While we didn’t exchange bush tales, recite Banjo Patterson or do a corroboree, it still felt very Australian and made me feel at home.

Such a high density of Westerners attracted a few hawkers and salespeople, one of whom used a microphone to try and get our attention. I formulated an ingenious plan to gain access to his microphone so that my conversation could dominate the table more than usual, and successfully persuaded the salesman to join us for a drink. The before and after shot will tell you the rest.

I was able to show the Aussies the extent of Xuzhou’s nightlife before heading home a bit early in preparation for work the next day. Hopefully we’ll catch up again before I leave.

Day 122 (25th of June, 2016) – Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

I awoke bright and early to begin my last weekend of work at the English school. I had the usual Saturday morning slog of four straight classes before my lengthy three hour break, when I joined the rest of the staff in having a nap on my desk.

Lunch at my regular joint is going to be one of the things I will miss the most about Xuzhou. Almost every weekend since arriving I have eaten the same dish, and I have no regrets about that. It is a beautiful chicken and mushroom dish, doused in an unbelievable chilli oil. I had some company under my table too.

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Speaking of dogs, one took my seat on the way home today.

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Eventually I arrived back in my room. I battled off a lot of fatigue to watch the rugby before heading off to sleep. Another rough result, but the high-scoring back-and-forth game was an exciting watch.

I find myself increasingly annoyed that there aren’t any legitimate pay-per-view services for watching rugby online. People like me who are more than willing to pay to watch the sport on a legitimate, reliable service are left trawling through illegal streaming sites desperate to find just one link which works smoothly.

Day 123 (26th of June, 2016) – Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

Onwards I marched this morning to the last hard slog of work before an early retirement. What a tough life I have.

I treated myself to the luxury of a taxi on the way to work. The driver had even bought a Louis Vuitton floor mat.

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Most of the classes had responsive students and were good fun, and best of all, I had no foreigner-phobic students today. Even in my last class of the day, which was new, they still managed to brave it out with me. The new classes are always a lot of fun because I get to read out the roll in Chinese and then assign the children their new English names. Most of the time, their parents have already chosen one for them. If the parent leaves that column blank, then I get the privilege of choosing the name.

I was told to stick to one or two syllable names after my first day on the job when I named two kids ‘Ezekiel’ and ‘Mohammed’, neither of which could be accurately pronounced by the child. So, I made these choices for names today: Charlie, Roger, Jacqui and Bec. Most of them were off the top of my head, but Charlie was a deliberate choice as it’s my favourite boys name. I hope you like my taste in names.

The funniest names were the ones chosen by the parents. In the new class today, there were a few good ones: Moon, Yo-yo, Fly and Hence. HENCE. Yes, that’s right, there was a child named ‘Hence’. I whispered to my teacher’s assistant to ask where on Earth he got the name from.

“His Mum told me that she was struggling to choose one, so she opened up an English book and picked the word which sounded the nicest,” she explained.

So, with some reluctance, I accepted the boy’s name and continued the class.

I made my departure from the school quiet and aimed to tell people as late as possible without being rude so that there wasn’t time for drawn-out goodbyes. I discretely exited through the elevator as soon as I’d farewelled the people who I’d become closest to.

Back on the university campus, I taught my last class of English speaking. The three kids were crazy, predictably, since they knew that I was leaving. I didn’t mind too much, and the class quickly descended into a chalk fight. I made sure that they still learned something – we focused on dissecting idioms such as “When in Rome…”, “work hard play hard” and “seeing is believing”.

I’m heading out to Fusion bar again tonight to meet with Anthony, a British friend who is leaving Xuzhou tomorrow. He’s lived here for four years, so his departure is probably much more emotional for him than mine is for me. I’m also going there to meet with my Chinese friend, Todd. Todd and I have planned to catch a long distance bus tomorrow to Tai’erzhuang District in Zaozhuang City, Shandong. I’ve never heard of the place, so it should be a bit of an adventure.

It’ll make for an entertaining start to the next blog, hopefully.

Until next time,
Xavier.

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One thought on “The Tornado

  1. Xave,
    Thank you for the comprehensive updates each week, you are remarkable of what you have achieved in just 5-6 months in what I would describe as bloody hell, however as strong as you are you have not only survived, but excelled.
    I look forward to seeing you back in Sydney and with DE & Mum arrange another ininerary for you maybe. Love
    G & P

    Like

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