2020: The Year that China Took Over China!

Taylor who?

Taylor Swift

Never heard of her!

And that just about sums up the year in China. A year that most of us would like to see eff off and never return. It started well enough but by February the wheels had begun to wobble.

Why on earth would you go back to China?

We spent February in New Zealand. News of some mysterious virus was coming out of Wuhan, China. Kiwis were really good, asking if my inlaws were okay. A cousin gave us some masks to take back to China as did my father. I also heard plenty of the following:

Don’t go back!

You’ll be mad to go back to that environment!

Stay here in New Zealand!

On the return flight, a fellow passenger asked me why I would dare take my family back to China when things were so uncertain. Wasn’t there this COVID-19 epidemic (it wasn’t quite a pandemic then). He obviously hadn’t met my determined wife! The passenger was from Indonesia and had yet to face the COVID calamity in his own country.

Auckland Airport seemed to be relaxed about the threat of a global pandemic, letting all and sundry into the country without performing checks of any kind. Before long, many Chinese cities were beginning to allow citizens freedom of movement while much of the West was now under lockdown.

Face masks became the new normal.

Online Learning

This was a strange thing. Kids were supposed to log on at a designated time every morning. Our daughter slept through at least one art lesson while her mother stepped in to answer questions and pretend to be Miss K. Schools reopened in May, much to the delight of parents nationwide. Several videos were posted of elated parents (dancing) following their sunken-hearted offspring to school.

America and Trump

The United States became rather unpopular this year. It was pointed out via media (and, rather eagerly by some locals here) that China’s main rival was a basket case. The U.S. president had apparently lost his mind and was “trouble making”. A group of nine year olds told me just how bad America had become one Saturday evening in August:

Thousands are dying

America wants to bully us and take over our territory!

The president is a war-monger. All this is true. I read about it in the newspaper.

Then it appeared that Australia was next in the firing line. I started seeing a lot more NZ steak in the local supermarket. Aussie wine was supposed to become more expensive. I saw a bottle of their Shiraz at half price the next day (January 2021 update – no Aussie steak in the local supermarket now!).

The Five Star Experience

Unable to travel internationally, we visited a number of good quality hotels near Guangzhou during July and August. The Sheraton was having a special in Nansha. The Intercontinental was going cheap in Shenzhen. The Garden Hotel, a large building shaped like a cruise-ship, was taking 40% off etc. We learned a lot about buffets, pools, and hotel gyms. A certain type of Chinese consumer frequented these hotels. Marketers could almost write a strategy based on the middle class Mr and Mrs Wang, such was the level of uniformity to a certain behaviour. They all wore dressing gowns to breakfast for a start!

Breakfast Buffoon!


It didn’t take long before the mountains of homework started piling up on Miss K’s desk. It got particularly bad in June and again in December. Exams loom then and one has to be able to recite lengthy passages from the Chinese textbook. I’m impressed at the mathematical ability of students here. A number of older students speak really good English too. And yes, it’s important to embrace your heritage and take some pride in your country but… some of the stuff kids were being asked to do was a bit much. A number of the fathers were up till 1am colouring in propaganda posters so that their beloved children could get seven hours of sleep.

Inward Focus

There has been a real shift inwards with popular culture. Kids used to enjoy a mix of local and western music, movies, and literature. Big stars like Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, and Beyonce have been replaced by local versions. One handsome young man is called Cai Xukun. I’d never heard a note from him, let alone seen his face, but the constant questioning about him from students piqued my interest and I searched him out on Apple Music (they use their own versions in China now). There he was, under the name Kun.

Kun – big in China, perhaps not quite so big overseas.

I set about tearing into this imposter, much like I had with Milli Vanilli and Ricky Martin. Turns out he’s not that bad. The music is certainly 2020 and he can hold a tune. Original? No. But then much of the stuff on Billboard is not original.

The cinemas mostly show domestically-produced films now. I haven’t been to see them so can’t comment on the quality. Netflix has released some great films and TV programs this year but the Hollywood remakes that we’ve seen over the last few years are getting tired. Ironically, the worst of Western film seems to be the most popular here.

A very different focus

China has changed dramatically from being a place hellbent on importing Western luxury products, copying Western folkways, eating Western food, sending kids to Western universities, and looking to the West for inspiration. They’ve had plenty of reasons in 2020 to doubt the West’s ability to remain at the forefront of everything. Pretty much all the foreign beer is locally brewed and a good number of people now use Huawei mobile phones. KFC sells rice dishes.

Hang, even Christmas was delayed

Christmas has been put back to January the 8th” said one second grader in mid-December. Judging by the lack of Christmas spirit (no trees outside shopping centres) you’d be forgiven for believing her.

There has been real sorrow across the world in 2020. It has been a year like no other. Here in little old Guangzhou, raising a family and keeping out of trouble, I’d say it has been okay.

Life in Lifts Rating: 7.5 (out of 10)

Postscript in 2021

VPN issues have often prevented the author’s access to WordPress, hence the delay in publishing this post. We had more visitors to Lifeinlifts.com than any other year. Thanks so much for your support!

No monkey business in the pools please!

Dinosaurs Mountain, Dinosaurs Sea

To avoid nasty dinosaurs one must jump in the sea.

This is the narrative of an eight year old. There are flaws with this logic which is probably why we don’t have youngsters running countries or performing complicated tasks like surgery or mechanical engineering. Could you imagine if a great power like the United States was ever run by an infant? I’m veering into dangerous territory here…

An eight year old once thought that if they lived in the era of big, carnivorous dinosaurs then the safest place would be the sea. A rampaging t-rex would have no interest in following someone into the water. Then my mother (yes, the eight year old was me) bought a book about sea dinosaurs. There were some nasty, bad tempered looking creatures in those pages which shot my theory to bits.

The Chinese have a saying – “People mountain, people sea“. It means that wherever you go, there are people. You can’t escape them. I have began to apply this bit of wisdom to my own circumstances and the abundance of children in all areas of life.

Where are we going with this conversation?

Your children are the land dinosaurs. The fiery pocket-rocket upstarts might be considered the carnivores – tyrannosaurus rex etc., whereas the milder but occasionally recalcitrant child would be the herbivore – think stegosaurus or triceratops. You might be able to find refuge in areas outside the home. This would be the sea. Perhaps your workplace is kid-free. A sports club or yoga group might be a nice release from a pouty face or high-pitched squeal! Go ahead and enjoy the water – harass a herring or flummox a flying fish. The sharks are nothing compared to what I’ve got.

Hello Daddy!

It’s about my job, you see. It’s an enjoyable job too. Parents reading this blog will understand just how tough it can be to raise kids (the land dinosaurs). Tantrums, homework, and sibling spats are just some of the dangers we face offset with periods of peace and harmony. Most (not all) parents will be able to escape at some point by heading off to an occupation (the sea) that doesn’t involve children. My job involves kids. It is kids. There is no escaping down to the pub with workmates on a Friday night. Kids on land, kids in the sea – which is not necessarily a bad thing. Life would be pretty dull without children around. It’s just…

It’s just that is has been quite a year (for everyone) and many private teachers didn’t get much of a break over the summer holiday. Oh well, if the money is good, best take it. We are on to week 13 now and things are getting a bit tiring.

Dinosaurs Say the Darnedest Things

Armed with notebook, I jotted down some of the things recently uttered by the sea dinosaurs in the jurassic classroom. All experienced dino-hunters (teachers) have heard naughty words, broken up fights, witnessed pant wetting (though pooey pants haven’t reached my island yet), mopped vomit, and inhaled mystery smells – “room clearers” that allow no space for other forms of life. Here is a snapshot of life in dinosaur-infested, southern Chinese waters during a weekend in late November 2020. All comments are in Chinese unless otherwise noted. Much of this chatter happens during break times but not always.

Why is your nose so big?” – Jacky, 4 (teleosaurus).

Hello ice-cream teacher” – Walter, 5 (mosasaurus).

I’m going to smack you on the bum!” – Jimmy, 5 (ichthyosaurus).

My favourite cartoon character is Bum Bum (unintentional faux pas – he was supposed to say SpongeBob Squarepants) ” – Tiger, 10 (elasmosaurus, spoken in English).

China doesn’t have any shortcomings” – Thomas, 8 (tankenginosaurus).

America’s president behaves like a little boy” – Kevin, 13 (trumposaurus, spoken in English).

Teacher, why are you drinking beer?” – Kyle, 9 (alkoholosaurus, upon seeing my can of Monster Energy drink).

Sam: “How many pencils do you have Justin?

Justin: “Swimming.” (This troubled conversation was in English)

I serve at the pleasure of Ultraman!” – Jacky, 8 (kronosaurus). Ultraman was a popular Japanese TV show. He said this before introducing a sofa cushion to an expensive globe that then crashed loudly onto the floor.

Ultraman dealing with wayward globes.

Imagine the Alternative

It could be the other way around. One could live alone or without the sound of little feet pounding up and down the hall. There is nothing wrong with this. Plenty of happy people live dinosaur-free (or with a pet as a companion) and they wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m not sure this is for me though… As I type, a radio blasts aggressive Cantonese sounds from the Kitchen. It belongs to my mother-in-law (a pterodactyl perhaps? Ho ho). We refer to her as the Adult (a secret code word we can use). Ten years of the Adult’s ear-shatteringly loud radio has made an impact. What would one do without it? One takes a sort of perverted comfort in the pain. Stockholm syndrome comes to mind. Not sure why.

Have you seen my radio?

One could work in an office. Here I’m reminded of the stale mid-1990s workplace. I’m sure it is very different now. Older, chauvinistic alpha men ruled the roost with a “harden up” approach to younger, more emotional, subordinates. What the heck was mental health awareness? Meetings were long, drawn-out affairs with someone called Mary or Dennis, wanting to reconfirm what we’d just spent an hour confirming. It is no surprise that most of my best line managers were female. They were empathetic to struggling youngsters but they also knew when valuable time was being wasted. Perhaps the sea is not so bad after all.

One Week Later

My second daughter, my little oviraptor, has taken an interest in dinosaurs. She pours over an encyclopaedia of world knowledge complete with science and high culture. She could learn about land mammals, Machu Picchu, the solar system, Ancient Greece, or Indian civilisation. Instead, we find ourselves at pages 98 to 112. Dinosaurs. I’ve seen some familiar faces. Old bosses, neighbours, grumpy high school classmates, an ex-girlfriend. The oviraptor asks why a corythosaurus (helmet lizard) is looking on retardedly while its mate is being ripped to shreds by a T-rex. Why did the deinonychus hunt in packs? I mumble something snarky about society not having changed much. She doesn’t know what society means.

Corythosaurus – not the smartest

Then we’re back in class. Walter is now jumping up and down on a coffee table and leaping into a newly bought Christmas tree. I think to distract him by pointing at a large, yellow horse.

Walter, what’s that?

A stinky fart!” he replies in Chinese.

I guess that’s what you call exstinktion.

China’s Furry Relationship with Animals

It was once said, in the Lonely Planet China Guidebook, that Chinese regarded beaches with some level of bemusement. They’d roll up their slacks and go ankle-deep in the waves. The beach was more an occasion than an activity. Pretty young things would pose for photos in front of the expansive ocean and show loved ones miles away back home where they’d been. Nervous laughter would be shared when waves crashed a little too violently near fully clothed patrons.

You could say that animals fit into a similar category of bemusement. Sure, there are plenty of people that keep pets and these animals are well looked after, judging by their shiny coats and rotund bellies. My good friend, Mr. Hill, has a cat. Sure, he’s Canadian but his wife is a local. The cat is like an adopted son and enjoys imported snacks from around the globe. His fur is shiny too. Yes, the locals love their pets. But…

One only has to visit a wet market here to see how some animals are treated. You know what a wet market is, right? I think we all do after the emergence of COVID-19. It wasn’t a familiar word to many people outside of China 12 months ago. Hygiene standards have improved markedly here in Guangzhou since the crazy wild animal market was shut down in 2001. You could buy anything you wanted be it armadillo, alligator, civet cat, skunk, snake, squirrel, baby tiger, raccoon or monkey. Some people thought that such exotic animals were delicious. The neighbourhood restaurant offered Cat N’ Cobra, near our apartment in 2003. I still remember the look on that cat’s face. There’s not much to be happy about on death row.

Animals were for eating, not keeping. In ’02, I got more attention from the others visitors at the local zoo than did the animals. No wonder the chimpanzees got jealous.

Then along came SARS.

Pied stilt soup, crocodile steaks, and braised snake were banished from the menu. An awareness was growing among the wider population of the need to leave animals in their natural habitats.

Fast forward to July 2020 and a world in the midst of a global pandemic. Our daughters needed some cheer so we took them to the catchily-named Gelin Dongzhuang Farm Park. We’d been to Disneyland and been impressed by the magnitude of the place but this was something else. You wouldn’t see wild animals here, rather the ones that might populate a farm back home.

Gelin Dongzhuang is a 40 minute drive south of Guangzhou. It’s out in the sticks so there’s plenty of parking (so long as you go during school hours and not during a public holiday – perhaps 2am might be best) and friendly local staff.

Chick Interation – according to the sign

First up, it was a visit to the bird area. The website had proudly mentioned peacocks and turkeys. We didn’t quite expect to see them sharing the same enclosure.

“Come now everyone – look! The peacock has just opened his tail feathers!” bellowed an attendant’s voice through a muffled megaphone. Most people were trying to avoid the tropical rain and thus ignored the staff member’s enthusiasm.

For a set fee, you could feed chicks. This smelt of a ripoff, but exhausted parents were more than happy to send their offspring over to the gated area to kid-handle tiny birds. Anything to buy a few minutes of peace. It was awful to see just how strong a grip little hands might have on a bird’s neck or wings. I rescued a few dazed chicks and put them to one side under a tree. One-by-one, they came to, regaining consciousness, only to be hit by a second wave of children. Perhaps this is a kind of metaphor for COVID-19.

Brings new meaning to the term “scoring chicks”

Next it was the rabbits. Again, you had to pay for the privilege of feeding the park’s animals. What a win-win for the owners. Not many business models would be that fail-safe. There were more cellphones than bunnies inside the gated area – primarily for photo-taking. This is Mei-ling with a white rabbit, this is Mei-ling and her husband with two black rabbits, this is Mei-ling’s daughter holding a brown rabbit, this is a humourous shot of Mei-ling pretending to eat a rabbit etc.

The bloated budgies weren’t interested in our food and perched themselves high up in the cages to digest half the province’s grain supplies. You had to watch out for their little backsides lined up in a row, though it’s good luck to get plopped on by a bird (apparently). We wandered off. People-watching was more interesting anyway.

There were goats and a sheep. And a large artificial grass hill for kids to slide down on. Again, great for people watching.

Dazed but (thankfully) not dead

The park wasn’t particularly large and we came to the star attraction, the headlining act if you will – the pony rides. Not sure where the ponies went but two largish horses were in a paddock that also housed a lake. One mare seemed to be unemployed, snacking on carrots (for a fee you could feed this aging white horse) and the other was getting rather stroppy in the 35 degree heat. The line began to grow as the poor horse walked repeatedly on a one kilometre track around the lake. The park attendant responded by booting it in the ribs. Karma will be a fine thing one day…

You’re not allowed into China just yet but when the borders eventually reopen, make sure you head to Gelin Dongzhuang Farm Park to see just how the locals interact with animals. They find foreigners fascinating and here is your chance to do a bit of staring in return. Just remember to smile and say “Ni hao!” They’ll then turn their attention back to the animals and everyone will be happy.

A Quick Word….

Thanks for waiting nearly three months for this post – one that has been beset by WordPress, VPN, and photo editing troubles. And don’t forget that kids (and life) get in the way! LifeinLifts.com‘s last post I Knew Wuhan Before It Was a Virus had the site’s record number of views. Very encouraging for the editorial team. A massive thanks to you – the reader!

I knew Wuhan before it was a virus

Yellow Crane Tower, Wuhan, China

There seems to be a bit of debate going on about where the virus came from. Donald Trump (and a few scientists) point to China. The Chinese think that American soldiers may have brought it with them. And of course, there are the conspiracy theories.

Lifeinlifts.com doesn’t want to expand on that particular thread. Just check out social media for a barrage of Sino-US finger-pointing.

I’d like instead to write about Wuhan and Hubei, two names that weren’t particularly well known six months ago. They’re incredibly well known now, aren’t they? New acquaintances used to ask “So, have you been in Guangzhou all this time?

I’d reply that yes, I had been in Guangzhou for the most part.

Oh, where were you before Guangzhou?


Confused silence. “Where’s that?”

“Y’know, Wuhan…”


And the question would be asked repeatedly throughout the years. This, despite Wuhan acting as a major transportation hub – a kind of China Chicago. The population was bigger than Guangzhou back then. Now it’s China’s ninth-largest city at 11 million. Guangzhou ranks fifth. Wuhan is also the provincial capital of Hubei.

Western China Experts know of Hubei. Some travelled (note the use of the past tense) to Wuhan regularly on business. All Chinese know of Hubei. It has some pretty significant ancient history and is also home to the Three Gorges Dam.

In late 2000, a Wuhan local taught me how to count in Chinese. We were on a 14-hour train ride to his hometown. No-one on the train spoke English. The station, while it was large by New Zealand standards, was nothing like the large, ultra-modern Wuhan station seen on the news in recent months.

Wuhan station in 2019

October, 2000

My “minders” had met me at the platform with a welcoming placard designed for a female teacher. They quickly hid it from view when they saw my hairy face. We drove through the large industrial city towards the western outskirts. They told me that Wuhan was actually a combination of three cities: Hankou (where I’d arrived), Wuchang (Chairman Mao wrote a famous poem about a Wuchang fish), and Hanyang. There was a massive bridge that spanned the Yangtze River, a tall tower, and a beautiful, large pagoda. The city was enormous, polluted and, for a boy from New Zealand, all very overwhelming.


I was off to live in Jingmen – a small city four hours inland.

We found a restaurant in the middle of nowhere. The food was good but the experience weird. Mr Yang, a minor leader at my new school, toasted me for every sip of beer I took. I sipped, he sculled. Miss Liu, my contact for the year, didn’t drink. The driver sat outside.

The restaurant toilets were another culture shock. The urinal was a long white-tiled trough. It reminded me of the old ANZ Bank headquarters in Wellington. Another white-tiled trough acted as a zone principale – the place for number twos. A partitioned area, that was merely a metre in height between cubicles, was designed for squatting. Below lay a slightly angled (for better flow) communal drain than ran under all the cubicles. You could see the fruit of your neighbours’ efforts if you picked the right cubicle. There would be no keeping of secrets here.

There would be no peeing either. Even the most mentally resilient man would succumb to stagefright with the staring that accompanied this foreigner’s (bathroom) entrance. Oh, the culture shock! We wouldn’t pass another bathroom for two hours.

And we didn’t return to Wuhan for three months.

January 2001

East Lake. Photo by V Menkov.

Wuhan was prettier in the spring. Mr Yang took me on a guided tour of some of the well-known sites of Wuhan. There was a nice restaurant lunch, paid for by the school, and a drive around the Wuhan University campus – a well-respected institute and scene of pitched battles in the mid-Sixties between Red Guard factions. We visited the East Lake and saw, from a distance, Chairman Mao’s villa that he took refuge in during the chaotic Cultural Revolution. We ate in another fancy restaurant that evening, again courtesy of the school.

A really good photo of the Wuhan University Admin Building by someone calling themselves Howchou (this name actually translates into Very Ugly or Very Stinky, depending on the tone – but this photo is anything but ugly). The university was recently ranked 9th in China.

The food in Wuhan was really good. Spicy good. Lots of tofu and eggplant.

I missed my flight to Hong Kong the next day and let out a few expletives in Mr Yang’s company over some miscommunication about the departure time. He delighted in his recognition of the F-bomb and let out a genuine laugh. The airport was practically empty. Few could afford to fly back then. They managed another plane ticket – this time to Shenzhen. I think there were only ten people on the plane. I can only imagine just how large the Wuhan Tianhe International Airport is nowadays.

April 2001

A pal and I made a quick visit here to catch a flight to watch rugby in Shanghai. Wuhan was bustling at that time but seemed light years behind its coastal cousin. I mean Shanghai had Subway sandwiches and Irish pubs. Wuhan only had McDonald’s.

May 2001

The Hubei Provincial High School English Speech Finals were held in Wuhan. Memories are now vague except for the very talented students in attendance. My student Kathy was a hardworking soul but no match for the talent on show that day. She may have lost but McDonald’s was a good consolation prize – like a beacon of Michelin-level dining (due to the absence of almost any Western food in Jingmen).

mcdonalds signages
Like a naughty dream…

Hubei students were very diligent – they needed to be – their parents were on the bones of their backsides back then. The economy wasn’t particularly strong in 2001. How times have changed.

May 2020

It would be great to return to Hubei one day. Those earnest young students will now be harried parents working in a variety of careers. Many of my former colleagues will have retired. You wonder how they were affected by COVID-19 and if they’re okay. They were practical people and many pearls of wisdom were gathered from a year in Hubei.

I wish them well.

The Canton Quarantine!

The following blog entry was written three weeks ago – before the whole world went crazy.

The Canton Quarantine!

Hello from the land of beautiful isolation.


Here you can experience the wonder of uncertainty. The uncertainty of not knowing when school starts. The uncertainty of not knowing when you can resume your job. The unfamiliarity of cabin fever. Four adults and two kids for much of the day. This must be what life on a fishing vessel feels like.

blue fishing boat

I don’t suppose they let kids live on fishing vessels.

I’ve often wondered what my temperature is but now I have the luxury of getting it checked three to four times within an hour. During a trip to the supermarket (once at the entrance to the mall, once when entering the supermarket, and again when returning to my compound). I was 35.3 degrees upstairs and 36.0 degrees five minutes later in the local Starbucks.

We had been enjoying a two week holiday in New Zealand when Covid-19 struck. I’d hardly cried at the opportunity to spend another 14 days in the shaky isles. We swam in lakes and oceans, enjoyed geothermal hotpools and I’d even sampled Kerosene Creek. It took days to get the rusty smell off my shorts.

Mount Maunganui, February 2020

What about our jobs in China?  Would we get paid any time soon?  Would the jobs still be there?  These thoughts played out in the background on our visits to tourist sites around the North Island.

There was the Spider House – a motel unit in Rotorua that had spiders in every room. It terrified the girls and they were happy to leave (we’d picked it especially for them as it had a pool and trampoline). A holiday park with large dinosaurs in every nook and cranny and a lovely but overcrowded pool. We stayed three nights in a Tauranga motel boasting unaltered 1970s interior design.


The news was coming in thick and fast about China’s coronavirus. This has got to affect the sharemarket I thought. Then I had a coffee and promptly forgot about the sharemarket. Bugger.

Everyone eventually tires of living out of a suitcase. It was time to return to China.

Not wanting to sound like a snob here, but I rarely regard airport cleaners and security guards with envy. These must be trying jobs at the best of times, but as I stood near the check-in counters at Auckland International Airport, I actually wished I could go home with them. They got to stay in New Zealand!

We arrived in Singapore to a mix of masks and mugs (exposed faces). Our flight to Guangzhou was the emptiest I’d seen it in years. Even more than the early 2000s before China got rich. Every passenger was masked up. I’d never worn one before and it was irritating. The coronavirus (now named Covid-19) was beginning to feel very real.


Fancy getting a whole row to myself.


This good fortune had a flip side – at arrival when the men in Ghostbuster / Astronaut suits (Officials? Doctors?) boarded the plane. Someone seated three rows behind me had a fever. This resulted in passengers in rows 52 (me) to 59 getting taken off the plane to a separate area for processing. My family sat in row 51 and thus we were separated. I’d never seen such a large airport this empty. What had once been re nao (Chinese for lively) was like a hospital ward in the early hours of the morning. The tiled floors and white walls didn’t help the ambience.

There was a lot of passport checking and photocopying (the trees screamed out in pain at the amount of paper wasted). And jetlag. Fortunately, my family and I were reunited an hour later.

Life in the City

The streets were deserted and all (but two) exits to our compound were wired shut. Checkpoints were set up at parks and other public places. From a speaker, a recorded female voice warmly reminded citizens to wash hands thoroughly, avoid crowds, and exercise regularly.


Security guards stood ready with electronic thermometers. The supermarket seemed pretty well-stocked. Plenty of fruit, vegetables, and toilet paper. Not the massive shortages witnessed in some parts of the country. There were fewer dairy products than before, so I bought a block of Irish cheese just in case.

Flag raising ceremony via the iPad.

School eventually returned, albeit via the iPad. Kids took this as an opportunity to send rude emojis to each other during the lessons. To say that there were teething problems would be a bit of an understatement. I’ve had to keep our four year old away from the “classroom.”  This has become a fulltime job.

Three Weeks Later

We’re getting used to this sort of life. China is slowly getting back on its feet again while the rest of the world seems to have caught the Covid-19 bug. Miss K lies on her bed half asleep while the math teacher speaks animately through the iPad. I’ll take a walk, the same one I always take and see more vehicles and people than yesterday. No one knows when school will start again.

“Plasticised” taxi in Guangzhou. Photo courtesy of K.Hill.

There seems to be confusion here as to where the virus actually originated. It has been suggested by some that COVID-19 actually originated in America!

We’re thinking of New Zealand – a country that has just gone into total lockdown for four weeks. And, we will think of those globally in a much worse situation than ours. Keep strong. We will pull through!

Thanks for reading.









The Cake Test

She came bearing cake!  

Actually, she came out of the kitchen with a beautifully decorated chocolate cake bought from the bakery downstairs. I made some dull-witted comment about it being someone’s birthday. She, lacking a sense of humour at the best of times, frowned and said “No.” The cake was duly placed on the dining table.

The lesson continued for another five minutes before the kids scrambled to the table for an after-class snack.

Line up kids” she said with the passion of a bored immigration official.

Would they offer me a piece? And if they did, should I accept it?  It was already 9pm and I’d yet to have dinner. My abs of steel hadn’t exactly been on display recently. Would a slice of cake affect my ability to fit into that new pair of jeans?

One by one, the students collected their consignments. I engaged in a faux-packing of my belongings. Buying time, I fluffed around with textbooks, a small Sony wireless speaker, a thermos containing coffee, a manic looking dog hand-puppet, whiteboard markers…

The parents were now being offered slices of cake.

blueberries cake chocolate chocolate cake

I zipped up my bag with the following realisation: the buggers aren’t going to offer me a piece!   Or would they? I had second thoughts. I’d been overly quick to judge people (erroneously) in times past.

Shoes were slipped on and goodbyes were said. No offer of cake, I opened and shut, the door. And there I stood, waiting an interminable age for an elevator to arrive. Cakeless. Had I just been cake-snobbed?  Nineteen years in this country and I could count the number of cake-snobbing incidents on one hand.

It wasn’t about the cake. It was about the gesture. This act of snubbery won’t make-or-bake our relationship but it has made me question their commitment to my lessons.

The Cake Test

Lifeinlifts.com decided to conduct a little “light” research. Was it rude to offer cake to everyone in the apartment other than the teacher? What was the current societal standing of teachers in China? How often did this sort of cake-snobbery happen?  Did the snobbery occur only with cake, or with other food/drink items too?

Not wanting to jump on to the increasingly-popular China-bashing bandwagon, we decided to conduct a little survey over four days. The aim – to ascertain whether cake snobbery is a normal behaviour in China. I’d never really paid attention before.


Japanese-style cheesecake was offered in the first class (which I politely declined). Häagen-Dazs ice-cream cake was offered in the second. Goodness. One could get fat.



Lemon water was refreshing in one morning class while coffee and fruit were provided in the 1:30pm lesson. Toblerone chocolate was dished out to all and sundry in the 5pm lesson. Good stuff!

Triangles have never been so fun! What’s your favourite shape? This staple of airport duty-free shops is very popular on the Mainland.


A cantaloupe?  Wow, I didn’t expect to be given one of these melons. Not much from the other classes today, but then I am there to teach – not there to scoff cake. Two of the venues were in classroom settings and perhaps not the most appropriate places to break bread (or cake).



Nothing offered by the first two classes – but then a glass of water is a rarefied object in those parts. I did, however, score a packet of freshly ground drip coffee from the third lesson – score!

They are in the coffee business


The Findings

So, is it okay (in China) to cake snob your child’s teacher while feeding everyone else in the room?

No, it is not. And the number of people I spoke to about this incident agree that it was, deliberate or not, the height of rudeness. One major finding in this little piece of cake research is that I’ve realised just how generous people are here. Tea, earphones, melons, cookies, snacks, mooncakes, wine (before it became seen as a form of corruption), sandwiches are just some of the things that get offered to me on a regular basis.

Chinese hosts might dare I say it, be as (if not more) generous as their Western counterparts. One must try and find good from the bad and posit that without this act of thoughtlessness, I may well have continued taking the other clients for granted.

Here ends blog post number 49. Thanks so much for the support this year. Great to see readers from all over the world join us in 2019. It has been the icing on the…



The Carpark of No Parks


They were cutting down trees last week. That’s why I had to park a block over by the 113 Middle School. It added 10 minutes to my journey. Such is life at the Carpark of No Parks. Nestled in a dated-looking compound constructed during the early 1990s, the architects of those days couldn’t envision a modern China with cars. You bought an apartment, a refrigerator, a microwave oven, and a bicycle. With these purchases, you were made.

Along came the boom years and everyone started buying a car. At first, they were Volkswagon Santanas (“lame” said an American living in Taiwan – they were driving luxury European cars there), then Japanese brands such as Honda, Toyota, and Nissan, before the arrival of German engineering (Porsche, BMW, Audi, and Mercedes).


I first entered the Carpark of No Parks in 2018. Yes, there is ample parking, right next to the classroom. Yes, traffic is great in the afternoons. Yes, you’ll have no problems etc. etc.  Those little white lies (told to me by a parent) turned into the Wednesday of Many Headaches. Traffic was appalling – jams galore. Once you’d made it through the hell that is Guangzhou traffic you’d be greeted with an impersonal, unempathetic witches hat (an orange traffic cone).

This meant: “Don’t bother entering – you’re shit out of luck.

On the rare occasion that a park was available, one had to muster all skill/patience to manoeuvre the vehicle up on to curbside corner – mere millimetres from another vehicle. There was the 200 metre reverse-round-a-corner challenge – instructions given in a dialectical form of Mandarin that even a local would struggle to understand. The upside of this exercise? Valuable parking practice (of course).

Toyota, RAV-4, one owner, good condition, low km’s…

A small group of parking attendants policed the area. Their dark skins divulged their southern Hainanese origins. They wore jet-black uniforms, not unlike those of an elite police squad (or the Khmer Rouge?). One gangly fellow, we’ll call him Jacob, assisted me in performing the 200-metre-reverse-round-a-corner-and-up-on-to-the-sidewalk-between-two-old-cars-challenge. He happened upon a newly-bought banana sitting on the passenger’s seat.

I’ll take that!” he said, reaching into the car via the open window. I sat dumbfounded as he walked off with my pre-class snack.


The weeks passed and many bananas were shared. Spring Festival came and Jacob asked for a red envelope (lucky money). “Sorry, I don’t have cash.” I said.

“That’s alright. I have WeChat. Why don’t you just transfer money directly to my account?” he helpfully suggested.

No, I was already paying for a park but gave him five RMB as a tip. I didn’t want my car scratched.

We entered a yellow patch. Times became good and carparks were aplenty. You could choose where and how you parked. Jacob and pals still turned up hinting for bananas and money. They were given small amounts of both.  It appears that the old maxim really does hold true – money opens doors.

If only I could get Jacob to open mine.

“What else have got stashed away in there?”


Thanks for your support and comments. This is Lifeinlifts.com’s 48th blog. Join us in celebration when we reach the 50th blog. We’ll have street beers and barbequed squid across the road!

Chinese vs. Americans (Part 2)

The Americans lead the Chinese 2-1. Part two of this blog (click here for Part 1) examines three other constructs – driving behaviour, customer service, and worldliness/interest in others (or general curiosity).

Thanks for your comments about Part 1.  They were much appreciated!

Driving Behaviour



It’s not as bad as it is in Vietnam” said someone recently. No, driving in China isn’t as bad as it is in Vietnam. It’s not as hair-raisingly dangerous for a start. But self-improvement is the process of making things better – not self-congratulatory rhetoric that, at the very least, you’re not the worst. Best not to have a superiority complex over the unruly!

Where do we begin?  Driving in Guangdong Province is easy when you’re aware of all the nutters who populate the roads. Rules are offered as a suggestion, not as a hard and fast rule. What’s wrong with reversing up a highway offramp (because you took the wrong exit) or driving in the wrong direction to save a minute getting to the nearest U-turn? Use that mobile phone while exceeding the speed limit! Many countries have traffic signs that ask drivers to merge like a zip. This is a good, civilised idea for bottleneck situations.

Rapid lane changing, queue jumping, bossiness and bullying were all covered in an earlier blog (Driving China Mad – June 2018). Nothing has changed. People still watch their favourite sitcoms when driving. This affects their ability to drive straight and at a  semi-decent speed. Toddlers help daddy drive the car. Terrified, shit-scared, learners populate the expressway fast lane.


As for the Americans? They do merge like a zip (great job Los Angeles!), queue in an orderly fashion (witnessed at George Washington Bridge, NYC; or Everton, Washington). They stop at red and go on green. They don’t park as well as the Chinese but when you’ve got enormous car parks then you’d don’t need to be so skilful.

Winner: The United States (easily). USA 3 China 1.

Customer Service


Good customer service.

Customer service is difficult to define precisely due to the variables at play. Company culture,  employee attitudes, customer temperament, and external factors (such as whether people are having a good day or how inclement is the weather) can affect human interaction. How about the kids? Are they naughty today? Did your boss just scream at you in her office?  Are you in an irritable and argumentative mood?  Maybe you just got married, won the lottery, or won free tickets to your favourite concert.

These are but some of the factors that will influence a customer service experience.


We compared the places that involved customer interaction e.g. supermarkets, gas stations, small shops (bakeries, convenience stores, pharmacies/drug stores, clothing stores), restaurants, and airlines. The United States has well-known companies such as Walmart, Walgreens, Trader Joe’s, Target, GAP, CVS, BP, Exxon, Denny’s, Wendy’s, Subway, McDonald’s, 7-Eleven, Circle K, United and American Airlines. Phew! Goodness, I’ve forgotten Starbucks.

architecture building business city
“You don’t drink coffee, you drink Starbucks!”

China also has many of the above and some of its own including Vanguard supermarkets and the C-Store chain, plus the Japanese-owned Family Mart convenience stores. There are an awful lot of Chinese airlines nowadays too. Restaurants are often ma and pa setups but there are hundreds (thousands in KFC’s instance) of Yankee fast food places throughout China.


The Americans and Chinese are not as different as you think. Staff will greet you with a smile and a hello or ni hao if they’re in the mood. You might be asked if you need assistance. An employee might bring you a clothing item in three different colours and in as many sizes.

Or they might just look at their mobile phone.

Or chat with each other and ignore you.

“Sir, keep your hand behind the glass!!”  – “Assertive” server in pizzeria/salad bar, Seattle 2019.

It’s not my fault we don’t have your car. Don’t blame me. I don’t order the cars!” – Avis employee (loudly) to a teary customer, Philadelphia, 2017.

“I’m gonna get a soda pop.” – customer service officer to a long queue of customers, California, 2014. It took him 20 minutes to return.

Starbucks staff are much friendlier in China. I won’t delve into the deep and meaningful reasons here. Are they better paid than their American counterparts? Chinese are also a lot more patient at restaurants and fastfood outlets. There’s little in the way of the eye-rolling, or the impatient sighs that we witnessed (not just to us I might add) in the American food service industry, but many Chinese workers DO look downright bored.

Lifeinlifts.com discussed levels of friendliness in relation to a city’s size (i.e. the smaller the city, the nicer the folk) in Part One.  Were it not for the helpfulness of a number of railway staff during Chinese National Day Holiday (are you reading this AMTRAK?) then the U.S. would win this category. The empathy shown towards a flustered Westerner and his preschool-aged daughter during National Day, battling the squash of a few million fellow travellers, has given China bonus points.

Surprise Winner: China (current score: USA 3 China 2)

Worldliness / Interest in Others

“What d’ya mean you haven’t heard of Albuquerque?”


“Where are you from?”  A question I heard more times in one day in Canada than two weeks in the States.

The prevalence of worldliness or curiosity was, in America, determined, by the size of the city. It appeared that once one got out of the city, any city, people were more likely to take note of your accent, ask a little bit about your origins, and generally relax!

attraction building city hotel
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The lovely citizens of Las Vegas:

“Oh, New Zealand!  Yes, we flew over it on our way to Nigeria!”

“Nooo Zeeland?  No, never heard of it. Is it in Europe?”

“What is that?”

At least they bothered to ask.

No one did in Boston, Philly, Seattle, L.A., San Diego, Portland, Honululu, or New York.

That’s okay, they’re busy.

Note the lack of research into middle-American cities?  That’s because I haven’t been there yet!  Texans might be the friendliest people in the world. You never know.  The Windy City (Chicago) might be a haven of fantastically interesting and interested people.

Guangzhou has a larger population than the above U.S. cities (except New York) and the people (not only the local Police) take great interest in quizzing foreigners about their country of origin. They have an impressive knowledge of many countries around the world. It is as if they’ve all been studying the CIA World Factbook.

Chinese stranger:Where are you from?

Me: New Zealand

Chinese stranger:Oh, New Zealand.  A primarily agricultural country based in the South Pacific. It has large numbers of beef cattle and it has a strong dairy industry too…

road between trees near snow capped mountains
Ah, New Zealand. It has large numbers of beef cattle and it has a strong dairy industry too!

He went on to discuss forestry and tourism before I cut him short. I’d just put my baby daughter to sleep. His excited musings were beginning to disturb her.

Many Chinese men have enormous geographical knowledge. What can I say?  They’re curious. Men and women love to travel and experience new things.

The majority of Americans that I met while (travelling) inside the U.S. didn’t seem that interested in the outside world. They had everything they needed and didn’t feel the need to look further afield than their own city, state or country. Not saying that’s bad or good. Just sayin’.

Winner: China

And the score is tied!  We might need a tie-breaker. Perhaps we could discuss the issue of personal safety?

And that ends this month’s blog. Thank you very much for reading!  Please leave a comment in the comments section below.







Chinese vs. Americans (Pt.1)

So who’s better?  Chinese or Americans?  Who is smarter?  Stronger?  Sexier?  More productive and agile?  Which country is better, smarter, prettier, stronger etc.?

What do you think?  Are you able to put away your prejudices, biased thinking and generalisations and make a considered response to the questions above?

The provocative blog title is designed to A) provide clickbait for this blog and B) to get you thinking about the (rather obvious) differences and surprising similarities between the countries of the People’s Republic of China and the United States of America. The blog’s timing is fortuitous considering that both countries are locked in the middle of a trade war. Perhaps the leaders will take note!


Courtesy Getty Images


This debate is broken into two parts due to the number of categories. These include friendliness, manners, patriotism, driving behaviour, customer service, and geographical knowledge / interest in other cultures. Each country will “compete” for each section and the winner allocated a point. The country with the most points wins.

Part One covers friendliness, manners, and patriotism.


It is suggested that one best read this blog with an open mind. Yes, I’ve lived in China for over 19 years and visited the U.S. on many occasions but both countries are enormous. One cannot compare a Cantonese lawyer with a Beijing bicycle repairman. Nor can one assume that a Manhattan fashion designer shares a lot in common with a lumberjack from Bend, Oregon.

That said, I am in daily contact with people from all corners of China. There are noticeable differences in their dialects, diet, customs, and beliefs. Lifeinlifts.com is going to try and put aside all these potential discrepancies and throw caution to the wind. New Zealanders are rather neutral when debating the merits of Americans and the Chinese. We don’t tend to take sides. At least not with these two giants.

So… let’s compare apples with oranges and conduct the most unscientific research of the year!

Category One: Friendliness


This category includes smiles, greetings, and small talk. Both countries are pretty friendly once you get outside of the big smoke. Even some of the larger cities here in China will have people who come up to you and say:

“Hello, good morning, sorry, please, thank you”

All in the one sentence! Would you get this sort of approach in Jersey City? I think not. The majority of people here (southern China) seem to keep their heads down and frown earnestly.

Americans seem to be very friendly in some of the smaller places, and in bigger places like Portland (Oregon), and Boston. Other places (looking at you Seattle and Philadelphia) were not quite so warm. It is beyond the scope (or word limit) of this blog to go into any sort of depth about this category. Shall we flip a coin? No, I’ll go with personal experiences.

Winner: China

Category Two: Manners

This includes common courtesies like please and thank you. We factor in other mannerly elements such as queuing in lines, holding the door open for others, spitting and littering in public, laughing and mocking people behind their backs (but in full view of others), talking loudly in elevators, etc.

There are some very polite people here that would put my countrymen to shame but…  the amount of crude behaviour witnessed here on a daily basis is extraordinary. It appears that some people haven’t been told that it is not okay to hurl litter out the car window or defecate in public places. Please note that the data is not influenced by the author’s own cultural bias. If someone is p*ssing on the street at lunchtime then they’re p*ssing on the street at lunchtime!

Other examples of loutish conduct include smoking in enclosed spaces and cursing loudly in front of grandmothers and babies. I hasten to add that most people don’t behave like that in the parts I live. It’s just that I see it every single day. Every. Single. Day.

Image from China Daily

This uncouth, boorish decorum doesn’t appear to be as common in the United States. Maybe I need to live in a dangerous, lower socio-economic area (Detroit? St. Louis? Baltimore?) for 19 years to provide balance to the findings. However, people still queued politely for Wendy’s in a lower socio-economic part of Philadephia that I visited.

There were pleases and thank yous in the States but too many saying “What?” for my liking. I’d prefer “Pardon?” That’s just me. Every culture is different sure, but I felt the United States might have the edge over China in this category.

Winner: The United States 

Category Three: Patriotism

Gearing up towards National Day (October 1st)

How much do you love your country?  What do you like about it?  What did the history books say about the founders of your country? How many national flags do you see as you go about your everyday life?

It’s okay to be patriotic, it really is. No, seriously.

I decided to perform a national flag count in two random places. The USA was represented by a largely rural area in Washington State – the drive from Port Angeles to the Hama Hama Oyster Saloon (120kms or 75 miles).

Screen Shot 2019-09-16 at 9.57.08 AM

The Chinese sample was taken during a drive from my apartment building to the Guangzhou South Railway Station (23kms or 14 miles). The distances aren’t exactly similar but we won’t let that skew the findings. There was nobody living in that part of Washington State and those 23 kilometres in the Chinese sample represented one of the most densely populated areas in the world.

Screen Shot 2019-09-16 at 9.59.43 AM

Data results (flags counted):

USA – 32

China – 27

Winner: The United States (a bit lucky too as National Day is upon us in China. I noticed, post-blog, that there were two national flags on every street light – that’s over 100 flags per street! China should really win this but the flags are only here on a temporary basis).

So, at the end of Part One, The United States leads China 2 to 1. Can China come back in Part Two and claim the mantle of Best People, Best Country?

Thank you for reading. Stay tuned for Part Two!

The Worst Music in the World

What do you think is the worst music in the world?  The worst genre?  The genre that parades itself as music but, in your opinion, isn’t actually music – but noise?

My father called hip-hop the “travesty of music“. Heavy metal doesn’t rock his boat either.

N.W.A. – not everybody’s cup of tea

I’d answer that the worst music in the world is Cantonese Opera. There, said it – online even. I’ve been saying it to myself for 18 years now – pretty much the entire duration I’ve lived in Canton / Guangzhou. My parents-in-law love it. I’ve endured it most mornings and feel that it’s time to share this genre with the world.


Music can grow on the listener. Familiarity often breeds approval. Your pal’s taste in jazz may become less irritating once you’ve become accustomed to the jarring, loose rhythmic instrumentation of a late-sixties Miles Davis album (think Bitches Brew). Country music is another grower with its warm melodies and folkish, working-class lyrics.


So, what does Cantonese Opera sound like?  There are high pitched feminine squeals, cymbal crashes, wooden tapping, alien instrumentation, climaxes and lulls, artillery fire and lullabies. It’s hard to categorize something that is so very foreign to Western ears. Complicated time structures and banjo-like string instruments, heavy make-up and elaborate costumes, traditional roles, and characters and representations of history. When you consider the included acrobatics, martial arts, and complex footwork performed then one realises Cantonese Opera isn’t as simplistically raucous as it first appears.

No, that’s not a banjo on the far right.

One cannot say that it is an idiotic genre or music or that it is appreciated by idiots. The Chinese are an intelligent group of people. They wouldn’t settle for rubbish, surely.

Actors need to learn a range of skills to become well-rounded in this genre. Cantonese Opera was also used as a propaganda vehicle by leaders in earlier times. It was also used to tell audiences stories of good moral and ethical behaviour before formal education became widespread in China.

It is well beyond the scope of this humble blog to explain in detail the inner workings of Cantonese Opera. This really would be the blind leading the blind. There is a lot to explain and the truly interested could consult Google or Wikipedia to learn more. The Wikipedia entry bizarrely mentioned a rift between two famous Cantonese Opera performers. It involved cake.

“You never thanked me for the cake!”

Lifeinlifts.com is able, however, share some photos from the local Cantonese Opera Museum. Yes, there is a museum dedicated to this traditional Chinese art form. I’ve been here twice and remained as puzzled as ever by Cantonese Opera.

A New Zealand-based friend asked me about the popularity of Cantonese Opera. Who actually likes it?  What age group?  The over 50s seem to enjoy it though some primary aged students have taken up the artform in recent years. I’ve asked my students many times:

“Who here likes Cantonese Opera?”

The answer is always (yes always) a resounding “NO!”

Beard supplies

The museum is actually very well presented, using a mix of open spaces, lighting, technology, and tradition (check out the garden at the entrance – wow!). Cantonese Opera is a royal pain the backside when played at 6am through a distorted transistor radio.  Thank my mother-in-law for that. It’s also pretty bad on a Sunday night after a heavy weekend of teaching. That said, even I enjoyed a visit here.


I’ll leave you with an interesting video on display at the museum. It features a man, quite an esteemed actor apparently, playing the role of a villain (or wild boar – take your pick). So enjoyable it was – I watched it three times.

Thanks for your support!