Everywhere I look in this area I can see the school, big, imposing… and fee paying. Although it’s not the most expensive school in the city, parents do pay 10,000 rnb/y (£1000) for the pleasure of having their kids educated here. Given that the average wage in Tianjin is between 3,000-5,000 rnb a month that makes these kids rich (even if they do pale in comparison of the top 1%). The view out of the big window of the main building looks out into downtown Tianjin and it’s major building works. The place most of these kids are aiming for.
Two steps outside the school though, you catch a glimpse of another China. Here, house doors are covered with Chinese New Years decorations (believed to protect those who live inside), little corner shops with crickets in cages (Jiminy!), and old men sitting outside playing Chinese Chess. What is most surprising is that around a school, there are also quite a few derelict shops. There doesn’t seem to be much interest in investing money locally.
China grew rich and changed so fast its not a place where old and new exist alongside each other, it’s where they literally crash into one another (warning: gapyah blog/guide book line). For a lot of people this experience is similar to that old friend from home that won’t leave you alone to hang out with your new glitzy University friends, and keeps wanting to visit old haunts when all you want to do is go to the college bar and pretend you’ve always been this ‘cool’. However, usually these friends are also the ones who are best able to remind you who you are and why on earth you decided to study Anthropology.
Shi Wei is a small village in the North of Inner Mongolia on the border with Russia, surrounded by grasslands, Mongolian horses and forest (totally satisfying my Mongolia stereotypes). At the end of the village is a long fence marking the Russian border and another village on the other side of the fence, no more than 10 km away from where you’re standing.
The locals in the village are an odd mixture of Russian and Chinese; blue eyes and black hair were all equally common. We stayed in the home of a local family who had turned their house into a home-stay. The husband explained that his wife was half Russian and half Chinese, that’s why she had such ‘beautiful blue eyes’. Most of the people we met tried to speak Russian to us at first, because anyone white was, obviously, Russian… Sadly my Russian is limited to ‘da’. Any street signs were in Chinese, Russian and Mongolian (also sometimes in questionable English) and breakfast was either Russian bread or Chinese dumplings.
This border village was in many ways similar to any border village; a mid point between two cultures.These villages have more in common with each other than they do with their capital city. Places like this are a reminder that borders and nations are not discreet walls where one language, people and culture end and another abruptly begins. In fact, you probably wouldn’t know the difference between the two villages, apart from the arbitrary fence placed between them indicating they’re bureaucratically controlled by one central government rather than another.
This is what Autumn looks like in Inner-Mongolia. Up, at the top of the country, literally half an 10 minutes from the Russian border, the skies are clear and the stories of smog in China sound far-fetched.
It’s very hard to explain what Tianjin is like, especially because using phrases like ‘a bewildering mix of new and old’ sounds like a line from a very cringey guidebook or a stuck-up gap year kid’s blog…
Saturday, I went on a 3 mile walk from where I live, along the river, up to the central train station. On the walk we walked past the main food market, the basic design and energy of which probably hasn’t changed for centuries, given this port city’s long history of trade. Next we walked past the former colonial concession areas, given to European countries after the second opium war, complete with embassies and churches. The war forcefully opened China up to foreign trade in 1860. The last European concession was abolished the same year communist revolution took place (1949). Although home grown, it used ideas imported from a German philosopher. Memories of this revolution stood in the middle of the colonial area in the form of a civil war memorial. Finally, the 21st century, with China’s mass trade with the rest of the world and the growth of Tianjin to the 4th biggest city in China was echoed in the final leg of the walk, nearing the centre of town, covered in sparkly skyscrapers.
This is me. Tianjin Foreign Languages School. I teach about 350 of the 2000 students. The 13-14 year olds (hooray for puberty!).
The students are definitely much harder workers than in the UK, with a starting time of 7:30 am (yes, that means I start then too) and a finishing time of about 7 pm in the senior school. They also stop and bow every time they see a teacher in the corridor and say ‘Nihau Lau shi’, or ‘Hello teacher’, when it’s me. The chopsticks in the cafeteria are a bit of a novelty, and so is the pleasant orchestral theme that’s played instead of an obnoxiously loud bell at the start of every lesson. Finally, the mass synchronised exercises the students do (still working on getting a photo of this) during the breaks are very different from the games of ‘it’ that I’m used to.
Other than that, it looks, feels and sounds probably exactly like every other secondary school on the planet. The boys still refuse to sit next to the girls. Loud students still groan when you move them to sit apart from their friends. And the word homework is still met with a groan.