A Short Post About Height

There are three things that English people immediately think of when you tell them you are moving to Beijing, and two of those get mentioned. People always ask about the pollution and the language and I’ve lots to say about both of those things, believe me. What people are thinking about, but not talking about (unless you’re my friend Marcus) is people’s heights. The idea that Chinese people are short is one of those things that every British person both knows and knows probably isn’t true. It’s a silly, slightly racist, stereotype that we really should have outgrown, by now. It’s also, a little bit, true. I mean, not for everybody, obviously. There are a billion Chinese people, after all, so quite a few of them are really quite lofty.

Him, for instance. He probably affects the average height a bit.

Him, for instance. He probably affects the average height a bit.

So no, I don’t tower over people. In fact I’d say I know about as many Chinese men who are taller than me than are shorter, but that is a significant difference to the UK where I’d conservatively estimate that 7 out of 10 men are taller than me. I’d also say, based on nothing but observation, that the height difference is more marked in women than in men. Here’s an interesting photograph.

I have absolutely nothing to say about this.

I have absolutely nothing to say about this.

It shows Sarah ironing. We may never see its like again. I post it not (solely) to tease my wife but to show how low the ironing board is. This is the board at its highest setting. I can’t use it – I mean, I don’t want to anyway but – on the one occasion when I tried it gave me back ache.

What’s less well known about height in China, and much more fascinating, is the way it’s used as a sorting or grouping mechanism in Chinese schools. You see, there isn’t an alphabet*. So there’s no such thing as alphabetical order. So there’s no way of getting small children to line up for registration. So they line up in height order. Logical, enough. They continue to do this throughout education and into adult, working life. If you don’t know what’s going on, and for ages I didn’t, it can be very strange. Here’s a photo of the guards at school coming in for lunch. They walk in single file like this. It’s like a baffling, Far Eastern version of that Two Ronnies sketch. And they never change the order! The tall guy always gets to eat first, and he clearly needs it the least.

Harrow guards queueing for food.

Harrow guards queueing for food.

Classic British Comedy Sketch

Classic British Comedy Sketch

Next week, weather. It’s minus-ten here! Happy New Year, all.

*There is a way of ordering traditional Chinese characters, actually, which sort of works a bit like an alphabet and is used in the writing dictionaries and ordering libraries. It’s based on the “radicals” or the first few strokes of a character. I can’t explain it any further than that because I don’t know it. It appears to be fiendishly complicated, like so many things here. Certainly, school children wouldn’t be able to understand it and apply it to their own names in time for a school day to consist of anything other than the taking of a register.



The Backhouse family head for work

The Backhouse family head for work

So, yeah, it’s been a while. Sorry about that. Basically, at some point after my last blog entry, Africa decided it was going to try and kill us. I’m not going into it, but there were multiple hospitalisations, tropical diseases, intransigent employers and men with machetes. It was not a good year.

Still, onwards and upwards, right? We got the hell out, eventually, and I went and worked in a comp in Weston-super-mare for a few months. Met some lovely people, most of whom were leaving. I experienced the indescribable delight of having a student shout “who the fuck are you?” at an Ofsted inspector. The inspector, rudely I thought, declined to answer, but chose instead to make a note of something on her clipboard. I can’t imagine what. Anyway, she bafflingly spent less than the required twenty minutes in my room so I was denied the Outstanding grade that should rightfully have been mine. Still bitter. Seriously, there may have been fewer elephants but for genuine thrills and terror you’d be better off reading a blog by any one of the majority of British teachers who don’t bugger off to the other side of the world at a moment’s notice.

Which we’ve done again. Five months in Weston was more than enough, and anyway, I’d already got another job sorted out. I’m now HOD at a right posh school in Beijing. I shan’t tell you which one, though I managed to be discreet enough about Saints whilst I was there, I think. That’s Saint Andrew’s International High School, Blantyre, Malawi. Turn left out of the tin airport, take the third right after the begging leper. Watch out for the lone man painting the lines on the road by hand.

China is an odd place. This is perhaps obvious. We’ve been in Beijing two months now and still have almost no idea about the city. The sheer size of it is incredibly intimidating. For example, I have been out for a drink in Sanlitun, the most popular expat drinking area, twice now. The reason this has happened so infrequently is because Sanlitun takes forty five minutes in a taxi, and that’s if the roads are clear, which they absolutely never are. That’s like living in Bristol, but deciding to go for a drink in Cardiff, or Swindon. Obviously, you wouldn’t do that. I mean, even if Cardiff or Swindon weren’t bloody awful places filled with illiterates bleeding into kebabs, they’re just too far away.

Anyway, I’ve got lots to say, but haven’t really ordered my thoughts yet. I want to talk about the language, 50% of which consists of the noise “shur”; the pollution, which is awful and oppressive; my job, which I’m already messing up in an amusing fashion; Wei, my housekeeper, who is delightful; and the fun of teaching in a really, really posh place. A mid-level British Royal is coming to visit tomorrow; I’m planning on teaching that Wordsworth poem about the French revolution, all day long.

For now though, here’s a picture of noun waving the Chinese flag in Tian’an’men square, he’s a big hit here, and hasn’t he grown?

Every single other person in Tiananmen that day photographed him, so I thought I would too.

Every single other person in Tiananmen that day photographed him, so I thought I would too.

Baffling neck-ache

So, despite me specifically saying that I wasn’t being hyperbolic, some people are apparently disbelieving me when I say that Lawrence the tailor is the oddest man on Earth. So, doubters, here’s a photo.


First things first, he doesn’t actually work as a janitor for Kwik-Save. He has made that coat himself. He chose the materials, including the lurid yellow accents, and constructed that bad boy for his own sartorial pleasure. Note especially the dressing gown style belt,  the huge sleeve turn-ups and the fact that beneath the coat he is wearing a powder blue onesie, also of his own design. The fact that he is carrying a bowling ball bag seems hardly worth mentioning. Especially as he has another bag on his head. Clearly, this is not a prop-forward-insulting-a-woman-who-wouldn’t-have-sex-with-him-in-a-thousand-years type bag on the head; no, this is a holdall filled with, I happen to know, trainers and bananas. So, yeah, desperately, desperately strange.

The bag on the head, though, is actually not that weird. It being filled with sports shoes and fruit is unusual, don’t get me wrong, but his choosing to transport it in that fashion is pretty standard here. On-the-head is how most things are carried in Africa. This is nice, in a way, because it’s one of the quasi-racist things you know about Africa before you get here, and it’s reassuring to know that it actually happens, and isn’t just a colonialist fabrication. See also mud huts, grass skirts and rain-making dances. It’s a bit peculiar, though, when you think about it. It isn’t necessarily odd that it happens so much here, it’s just that it doesn’t happen elsewhere. I mean, either it’s the easiest and best way of carrying stuff, or it isn’t. If it is, why doesn’t it happen in Europe? If it isn’t (and it isn’t, I mean obviously it isn’t) then why does it happen here?

I’ve seen some remarkable things balanced on people’s heads since got to Malawi. I’ve seen small girls carrying their purses up there, despite having perfectly good pockets; I’ve seen small girls carrying massive barrels of water for miles, too. I’ve seen men carrying huge bags of charcoal balanced on their heads, and women with wide trays of hard-boiled eggs. I once saw a man carrying an aluminium window frame on his head; it was huge, and must have extended fifteen feet in either direction before and behind him. He was walking along the side of the road, having a conversation with another man walking beside him. Every time he wanted to make a point to his companion he’d turn his head to look at him, and the window frame (which I guess must have come from an office building, such was it’s length,) would ponderously swing into the road, causing all the cars to veer into the oncoming traffic on the other side of the road.

Why this happens, why neck pain is better than sore arms or Swiss finishing school style posture is so important, is just one of the many, many things I don’t understand.

Anyhoo, short one this time. I think I’m going to talk about bleaking next time. Obviously, you don’t know what that is, and I’m happily going to leave you in suspense.


They know their audience; you have to say that for them. The induction bumph sent by the school to prospective new teachers was, in hindsight, a masterful piece of propaganda, which played perfectly to the inherent prejudices of its readership. You see, there are a wide variety of people who end up teaching in Africa: usually classified as mercenaries, missionaries and misfits (to which we must add my own classification, mistakes), but they all have one thing in common. They all think there’s something pretty cool about going to Africa. They are all, for want of a better word (arseholes?), travellers. If you ever want to witness a long, reductive and soul destroying example of smug one-upmanship (and why wouldn’t you?) then ask a group of ex-pat teachers about railway journeys or pubs or food poisoning and see how long it takes someone to reminisce about the Trans-Siberian railway, a bar in far Bombay or the time they got dysentery in Antarctica. It won’t be long. The new teacher’s handbook we were sent understood this tendency very well, and subtly played on it to whet the travel-snob appetites of the prospective employees. For example, Blantyre was described as “not a beautiful city, but one with a certain charm” Now seriously, who wants a beautiful city? A beautiful city is one where tourists arrive on coaches to stare slack jawed at churches before eating overpriced pastiches of local cuisine in Disneyfied restaurants. These are not places that people who really travel go to. A certain charm, though, sounds ideal; you imagine a bustling, exciting, alien place where one can immerse oneself in the local culture and have experiences that one can bore other traveller types with in future pub gardens. What you get, in Blantyre at least, is a place with all the charm of Swindon, albeit Swindon after a nuclear holocaust. “A certain charm” is a clever way of putting it, though, as, in the same way that the Simpsons taught us that “zero is a percentage” so no charm is a certain amount of charm.

One of the subtle, dog-whistle style passages in the handbook was referring to clothes and shopping. There are very few opportunities to buy clothes and shoes of a western quality, the handbook truthfully states, but many people instead find it agreeable to have clothes made by a tailor. Indeed, the school has a tailor on retainer for just this purpose. This, to a travel-snob audience, instantly brings to mind the extensive and marvellous tailoring opportunities of South-east Asia, and Thailand and Vietnam in particular. (Not to me, mind, I haven’t been. Too many tourists. I went to Belarus instead. Got cholera. It was awesome.) The reality is a little different. The school does indeed have a tailor on retainer, or at least there’s a man who lives in a cupboard on the site who calls himself a tailor. He doesn’t have a sewing machine, though, which is a bit of a problem. There are other tailors around, though, and we use one called Lawrence. Lawrence is, and I’ve thought about this, so don’t accuse me of hyperbole, the oddest man I’ve ever met. For a start, he won’t come inside. He comes into the flat, but then immediately asks if he can go outside to the garden, as he’s hot. It’s always hot, and it’s cooler in the flat, but Lawrence must go outside. I wondered if he were merely indulging in some heavy forelock-tugging style behaviour. After all, he, like many Malawians, insists on calling me “master,” and that maybe he was uncomfortable inside the house of the mzungus, but if so, he might not be so forceful about it. He certainly wouldn’t insist on us standing in the garden to be measured, in full view of the neighbours. That also doesn’t explain his bizarre habit of ululating loudly in noun’s face, to his utter bemusement; nor his insistence on making any customer try on any work he’s done for them immediately, and then applauding when it fits. The one occasion where he didn’t applaud was when he was particularly pleased with a skirt he’d made for Sarah, and broke into an impromptu jig when he saw her in it. The main issue, though, is that he is utterly incomprehensible. He spent a long time trying to get us to commission him to make throw pillows, only we spent several weeks being unsure what it was we were being offered. His pronunciation of pillow was mangled so much that we thought he was offering to make us tin openers. I cannot possibly, in writing, explain how “pillow” can become “tin openers” but you’ll have to take my word for it that it did. We were baffled as to why a tailor would make tin openers, or why anyone would want a handcrafted tin opener, or why the construction of a tin opener would require him to buy zips and materials. We didn’t want a tin opener, but that was ok, because we didn’t want throw pillows either.

So, having things made for you in Malawi is not the enjoyable, quasi-glamorous affair I’m led to believe it is in Bangkok; but even that isn’t the real problem. No, the real problem is, as usual, the fact that there is nothing to buy here. An example, in case you think I am exaggerating, for Christmas this year Sarah bought me a cook book (I don’t cook much) and a cheese grater (there is no cheese in Malawi.) I bought her a Pot Noodle (a real one, it cost an absolute bloody fortune) and a chitenge. The chitenge is the sarong-like wrap worn by Malawian women. Under Banda (the first one, not the sainted Joyce) there were legal restrictions on the dress of the citizens and women had to wear a full skirt in public. Skirts are expensive, Malawians are poor and the chitenge is the most efficient way not to get arrested. The habit has stuck, and though Malawian women no longer risk incarceration for showing their knees (nor Malawian men for not shaving) the chitenge has become a sort of national dress. The patterns on them are remarkable: some beautiful, some baffling; some with adverts, some with politician’s faces. You can buy chitenges with patterns for specific occasions like Mother’s day. The one I got for Sarah at Christmas is green and yellow, and covered in hammers. It looks like someone with colour blindness had tried to re-create the Brick in the Wall video from memory. She got Lawrence to turn it into a skirt, he danced, everyone was happy. Merry Christmas.
The problem came when she attempted to return the favour. I have a pair of trousers that I have worn almost to the point of destruction. They aren’t especially fetching, but they are comfortable. I think they came from ASDA. They are three quarter length cut offs, with combat pockets, in khaki. I love them, and wear them a lot. This is in part because I moved to live in a foreign country bringing with me exactly four pairs of leg coverings. We brought approximately half a ton of stuff with us; all of it for the baby. That said, I wore them a fair bit in the summer in Britain as well, so they are favourites. She decided to have them recreated for me, and so she and Lawrence went to Lambat’s, the Indian run fabric shop, to choose some material. My existing trousers are, as I said, made of plain khaki material, so Sarah decided to buy plain material for the replacements. Unfortunately, the choice was not huge. She bought three sets of fabric, each plain, all polyester. The first, and least offensive were a dark brown colour. If you were forced to describe it, you’d describe it in exactly the way you’re thinking of describing a dark brown colour. As if someone has been eating a lot of fibre. The next, and second most awful, are the pale blue. This would be best described as coming from the dress uniforms of the Air Force of a particularly effete country. And then the green, oh God, the green, this shiny polyester is the colour of the suit a leprechaun might wear to a court summons in 1978. What makes the trousers worse is the fact that Lawrence has removed any details from them that might have made them look like combats – there are no thigh pockets, nor a drawstring; rather they each look like a pair of hideous suit trousers that have, inexplicably, had the lower third of their legs removed. I’ll get some photos of them, and the hammer skirt, and put them up, but for now, simply enjoy the mental images.

So. Many. Elephants.

Why don’t they drown? I mean, that’s their nose they’re filling with water.

A bushpig. Like a warthog but rarer and prettier. And, I think, likely to be tastier. That’ll be why they’re rarer, right?

So, I still haven’t got the pics of Nyala Park from John, so you’ll have to wait for them. I do, however, have the pics of Mvuu, so I’ll show you a few of those, but I should explain where we went first. Mvuu (means “hippo” in Chichewa) Lodge is in Liwonde national park. Liwonde is the biggest and most famous of Malawi’s parks and is one of the few places where you can do “big five” game watching. We were skint, and feeling sorry for ourselves, and regretting coming because I’m now being paid less than a main pay scale teacher would get in the UK despite being a head of department (and what a department!*). So, we did what everybody does when they haven’t got any money: we decided to go and spend two nights at Malawi’s most expensive retreat. “Malawi’s most expensive” sounds like a “world’s tallest dwarf” thing, I know, but in fact, Mvuu’s advertised costs are over three hundred dollars per person per night, if you come from outside Malawi. It was less than that for us because we are African residents (that feels really weird to say) but it was still pretty pricey. It was so, so worth it.
To get to Mvuu you drive past the Zomba plateau, which is awesome and craggy and beautiful. Zomba, the smallish town nestled at the bottom of the plateau is a charming little place, with actual houses and grass rather than dogs and sand. It used to be the capital when Malawi was still Nyasaland and everything stopped for tea. It’s becoming weirdly fashionable to find positive things to say about the British Empire, and I don’t want to do that, because, you know, plunder, genocide and oppression, but we were right about Zomba. If I were building an International school in Malawi, (and let me count the reasons why I’m not) then I’d do it in Zomba not Blantyre. The plateau deserves its own post, and pics, so I’ll put it off till then, but I’ll just tell you that as well as being beautiful, it also has a genuine micro-climate, where it is never too hot, never absolutely freezing, and makes for some of the most fertile land in Africa. You can buy Himalayan raspberries and strawberries all year round. It’s perfect.
Having driven past the plateau for what felt like hours, we motored on up toward the lake, before taking the Mzuzu turning and then driving through the villages to get to the gate for Liwonde National park. This drive is both exciting and sobering. It’s about ten miles from the highway, and takes about forty-five minutes because of the terrain. The guard at the gate told me that my original plan to drive back through the park wouldn’t work because I wasn’t in a “real” four by four. I was hurt and defensive on the part of my Suzuki, as it had done brilliantly driving through the villages. The “roads” were, in essence, concrete-hard, single track ploughed fields. They also wended their way through the most brutal poverty we’d yet seen. The horrifying thing is that it is in fact quite picturesque. Rural poverty is less grubby than urban poverty, and things like barefoot children somehow seem less horrifying, despite the fact that these children have even fewer life chances than the ones in the city. They can’t work for, or beg from, Mzungus for a start. The only Mzungus these kids see are the ones sweeping past in air conditioned SUVs on their way to their hundred pound a night safari park. These kids won’t see that much money in a lifetime, and there would be nothing to buy with it if they did. The kids, indeed all the people, in the village closest to the park live perhaps ten miles from the highway, and then another fifteen miles from the nearest town. It might as well be a thousand miles, as you couldn’t walk that far in a day, not on these roads and without shoes, and anyway, why would you bother? It certainly put the luxury we were about the experience into perspective; especially as the guide told us two men from the villages had been killed by elephants the night before, and that crocodiles had eaten over sixty people on the river in the last twelve months.
You get to the actual Lodge by boat, after leaving your car under a grove of Borassus palms, with cormorants and fish eagles roosting in them. The boat trip is just across the river, perhaps half a mile at this point, but we saw a herd of elephants and lots of hippos, and, as I said, fish eagles, so we knew we were in for a good time. We knew we were going to see a lot of hippos** as the Upper Shire is the most hippo-heavy area in the world, there’s a hippo every fifteen metres on this part of the river, but the elephant concentration was a wonderful surprise. Elephants are amazing things. It goes without saying that they are massive, and that they are peculiarly shaped. This is what we know about elephants – huge and funny looking. The thing that isn’t really understood, or wasn’t really understood by me, anyway, is that they are also bloody scary. I think it’s because there are so many cartoons of them and children’s toys. Noun’s got two elephants, for a start.**** The first thing you actually think when you see an elephant is “Jesus, that thing is certainly going to kill me.” As you can see form the pics, one or two of them probably wanted to. At one point on a night drive a massive cow stood in front of the Land Rover for about ten minutes, flapping her ears in aggression. You can’t reverse from an elephant, because it’ll charge; you can’t honk your horn or drive at it, because it’ll charge. What you have to do is wait, and eventually, it’ll either kill you or go away. This one went away.

This is the one. It's genuinely deciding whether to kill us all. Sarah took this, her hand was quite steady, all things considered.

This is the one. It’s genuinely deciding whether to kill us all. Sarah took this, her hand was quite steady, all things considered.

Anyway, I’m all out of sequence. We got to the lodge, by boat, seeing herds of big grey things, and we went to our tent. Tent is a misnomer really, although they do have canvas roofs, as they are stone built cabins with king-size beds, a lovely wooden cot for noun, plumbed bathrooms, solar showers and a gorgeous khonde.***** The staff were brilliant, and brought our meals to our tent every night because noun was asleep. One night we sat on the gorgeous khonde watching what I’m pretty sure was a partial lunar eclipse, listening to hippos grunting and crocodiles splashing in the water****** about fifteen feet away. It was pretty bloody awesome.

The one thing that was a problem was that we got placed, logically enough, with the other family group with children. I’m not going to go into great detail, because it would be unfair, and though it seems unlikely they may stumble across this one day and be hurt, but the other family group with children were an utter bloody nightmare. We are extremely lucky with noun, and I’m not going to pretend it is anything but luck. Since birth he’s been a happy, charming little boy and no trouble to anyone. He tends to sleep on Sarah when we go on game trips and when he’s awake he’s fun and easy. He doesn’t scream and he’s too little to run around. Also, it must be harder with two, so I’m trying to be fair; but the other people were a walking textbook in colossally bad parenting.  I knew we were in trouble when the father gave the little girl not one but three bottles of coke on the night drive. They made no effort to hang on to them and stop them running and climbing around the open boat surrounded by crocodiles. At one point during a night safari the little boy (about five) was climbing over the seats of the open land rover and fell onto the edge of the car. He could have fallen under the wheels, which is terrible enough, but then he screamed, loudly for ten minutes as his mother shouted at him to be quiet. Obviously, he scared away all the animals, which is bad enough, but I’d like you to consider this for a minute. It’s dark – I mean pitch black – we’re in an open topped car in the middle of the African bush, an infant is screaming in distress and somewhere – possibly right over there – are lions. Actual bloody eat your face off lions. That wasn’t fun. Also not fun was the fact that they were in the next tent to us, so when the kids started screaming at half past four in the morning and their parents did nothing to stop them, well, no sleep for us.  The people in the other tents wouldn’t look at us in the morning and we realized it was because they, sensibly enough, assumed that the awful bloody racket that kept them up came from the baby, not the two kids aged four and seven. The second morning there Sarah took our guide David aside and told him we weren’t going on the boat safari with them again, but that they’d have to sort out a different boat for us. He was a bit resistant, but then one of the kids ran headlong into the table of the nice American missionary group who held prayer meetings over breakfast and started screaming again, and he didn’t argue any more.

Look! A baby one!

Seiously, how adorable is that?

We assumed we’d get put in a different, but established boat, but in fact we got given a boat all to ourselves for the last trip, and it was absolutely stupendous. We saw lots of animals over the weekend – elephants, obviously, hippos, crocodiles, buffaloes, warthogs, bushpigs, baboons, monkeys, eagles, kingfishers, a Pel’s fishing owl – but on the last trip we saw something both terrifying and incredible. Elephants have a complex social structure, which I’m not going to explain here*******. One thing I will quickly describe, though, is the way the males live. There’s one big bull attached to each herd, but the rest of the elephants in that herd are either females or juveniles. Other adult males live solitary lives until mating season as rogue bulls, but there’s a period, between being a juvenile and being an adult male where the adolescent bull elephants live together in what the guides referred to as the bachelor herd. In no mammal society is this a good idea. Just look at British boarding schools. I don’t know if adolescent elephants do the main thing for which British boarding schools are famous – I imagine that biscuits are hard to come by –  but they do fight a lot, and that is what we saw on the last day. Not only did we see about five elephants fighting – and really going for it too, all tusks and lashing each other with noses – but the fight spilled off the river bank, like cowboys rolling out of a saloon, and carried on in the water. The sheer size and fury of these animals was magnificent. I’ll never forget it.

I think I’ll write about school next. No more elephants for a while. I might take some exciting action shots of my y7 displays for you. Laters.

*I will talk about this soon. I’ll describe the school, and the board of governors and the management, and the department. All of it. I’ll even tell you the mooncup story. But, for now, more elephants. Sorry. I know this is just me showing off my holiday snaps.

**People here say “hippo” and “elephant” for the plural. “Lots of hippo . . . a herd of elephant” – that sort of thing. It feels pretentious to me, and ridiculous. I like things to be consistent, and unless I’m to start referring to “two cat in the bedroom” then I’m sticking with the S, as we use in the UK***
***They say “UK” as well, rather than “the UK.” “I’m just back from UK, I missed the marauding packs of feral dog.” This is another thing that I’m not doing.

****One of them, Nelson, is a gay, Glaswegian elephant. The other, Daphne, is from Boston and used to work on Broadway. He also has Bernard, the Cornish anarchist hippo, but that’s another story.

*****Veranda. I’m not saying Hippo, but I’m picking up some of the lingo.

******I told Sarah they were waves. It took her a couple of days to say “Hang on. Waves? It was a river.” But by that point we were back in Blantyre so it was cool.

*******I could, honest. Oh yes. I know lots about elephants, me.

Off she went with a trampety tramp

We saw a lot of elephants that weekend. Unlike, say impalas, they don’t get boring. This was the first one.

Apparently they really are yawning. the guide explained why standing about in the water all day was so tiring, but I forget the reason. Sorry.
A bird. as usual, I don’t know what it is.

Really pleased with this one. Gorgeous picture of a baboon watching the sunset. If he had a gin and tonic in hand it couldn’t be more perfect.

Run, you blackguard!

Run, you blackguard!

Take that, and that!

Take that, and that!