Owen in China 16: Of airports, universities and jobs (12th February, 2016)

201602121 E weatherHi everyone, this is Owen and this is my podcast for Friday 12th February, 2016. Like me, you’ve probably all been hearing and reading about the extreme weather in North America. There was a blizzard [1] on the East Coast that brought record amounts of snow. Here in Kunming, we also had some extreme weather. We were enjoying some nice weather and then, within two days, the temperature dropped from 18 degrees to -5 degrees. It came as quite a shock! We had snow and for two days the temperature stayed below zero. That is very uncommon here and it led to a few problems. The biggest problem was that a lot of water pipes burst [2]. Buildings here have solar panels on the roofs to collect sunlight to heat the water, so a lot of water pipes on the roofs burst and all these buildings had water pouring [3] off them.

Today, I’ll be talking about a trip to the airport, a university degree and a job offer. So let’s get started.


The other week Vittoria, my girlfriend, was on her way back to Kunming from Italy. I decided to go to the airport to pick her up. It was going to be a surprise though. She was arriving very late, so she wasn’t expecting me. Her flight was due at around 1 am but the last bus to the airport leaves at 11 pm, so I took a book with me to read while I waited for her. It was rather cold and miserable that night and I was rather tired after working all day. So the first thing I did when I got to the airport was buy a big cup of coffee. There were no seats, so I stood at the back of the arrivals hall with my coffee and my book. I started reading a short story about two young men at a college in the US. In the story they often go for walks together and they always pass the same old man. The two young men start to imagine what the old man’s story is. Where is he from? Which house does he live in? Does he have a family? What was his childhood like? How did he end up in this town? As I was reading, I kept looking up and watching all the people around me. I was looking out for Vittoria as I thought about their stories. Where are they from? Where have they been? It was late at night but there were still hundreds of people coming and going. I had a look at the arrivals board [4] and there were all these Chinese cities that I had never even heard of. I’m always amazed at the number of people who are on the move in China. Airports, train stations and coach stations - they always seem so big and crowded with thousands of people departing and arriving. As a child I always liked going to the airport and seeing all these people arriving home from their holidays. Here, though, it never looks like people are returning from a relaxing holiday. Everyone looked rather tired and cold. I stood there trying to spot Vittoria in the crowd. There weren't any foreigners around, so I thought it would be easy to spot her. I kept looking, sipping my coffee, thinking about everyone’s story. At some point I checked my watch and realised that her flight had arrived an hour ago. I got a bit nervous, so I decided to ruin [5] my surprise by calling her. She answered her phone and I asked: ’Have you arrived yet?’ She said: ‘Yes. I’m in a taxi. I’ll be home shortly [6].’ That’s when I realised that there was more than one arrivals door. How stupid of me.


Before we had all this terrible weather, I spent a lovely afternoon with a friend in a Chinese tea garden enjoying some local Yunnan tea. He’s from Anhui, which is a province on the east coast, next to Shanghai. The province doesn’t have a good reputation [7] in China. I’ve been told 201602121 E universitythat people from Anhui are not to be trusted. He’s studying at a university here in Kunming. He proudly told me that he’s the first person in his family to do a master’s degree. As we were having tea, he was telling me that he was very concerned about his thesis [8]. He told me he didn’t know how to go about [9] writing it. He looked genuinely [10] worried. It was the first time he’d had to write such a long paper and he wasn't getting any support from his supervisor. I’ve heard that a lot of professors and lecturers at universities here are busy working in the private sector, so they don't have much time for their students. My friend was writing his thesis about a new type of electronic barcode [11]. I didn't really understand what he was talking about when he was explaining it to me and he didn’t really seem very interested in it himself. He was complaining about the lack of resources at the university. He couldn’t do any practical experiments, so his whole thesis had to be based on theory. He sounded very unsure about it. Anyway, about a week later I saw him again. He looked very happy, so I asked him how he was getting on with his thesis. He had a big grin [12] on his face and said: ‘It’s all done. I’m finished!’ I asked him what he meant by finished and he proudly explained that he started writing one day and after two days he’d written the whole thing. I asked: ‘How is that possible?’ He looked at me and said: ’Well… it was easy… I just copy pasted.’ Apparently the university has software to check that you don't plagiarise [13], but he’d figured out that as long as he changed one out of every thirteen characters, he wouldn’t be caught. He seemed very happy about it all. He mentioned that the next step is to see his supervisor after Chinese New Year. That’s when he’ll find out if everything is OK with his thesis. He didn't seem at all worried. He was just a bit annoyed because he’ll have to spend a lot of money buying expensive cigarettes and alcohol for his supervisor just to make sure it all goes smoothly.


China is a strange place sometimes. A friend of a friend asked me recently if I would mind flying to Baoshan to attend a meeting with her. She offered to pay for the flight and a nice hotel room and two days’ salary. When I asked what it was that I would have to do exactly, she said: ‘Just go to a meeting to… you know… attend a meeting. Just be present at a meeting.’ The Chinese can be very vague [14] at times. I asked her to give me some more information. She explained in very few words that it was to do with real estate development. ‘Why me?’ I asked. She said they needed a foreign face. A middle-aged, white, businessman type to act like an architect and give a short presentation about British architecture. I said: ‘Well in that case I’m perfectly qualified! Ahh except… I’m not middle-aged yet.’ Unbelievable! It reminded me of my friend Claude in Beijing, whom I spoke about in my last podcast. A close friend of his, who is actually an architect, was once asked to do something similar [15] but was busy. He told them not to worry though, he knew someone else who could do it. So Claude, in his best suit and tie and pretending to be an architect, was paid to fly to Qingdao to give a presentation in French at a meeting about a huge government-funded project to do with artificial islands off the east coast of China. Nobody at the meeting understood a word of French, so Claude could talk about whatever he wanted, which is exactly what he did because he’s not an architect and he had no idea what the project was about. In the meantime the so-called [16] translator, whose company was paying Claude a very handsome sum [17] to be there, gave the actual presentation.


Well, that’s almost it for this month. Thank you all very much for listening. I hope you enjoyed it. Thank you, Raphaela, for your comment after my last podcast. I hope I didn't sound bitter when I spoke about my Chinese friends, who didn't seem to enjoy my food. It was meant to be funny. If you have any questions or you would just like to leave a comment, there is a comment box on our website www.podclub.ch. And don't forget our vocabulary trainer. The Chinese year is about to come to an end which means a holiday for all of us in China. I’ve heard that the largest migration of people on earth takes place during Chinese New Year. So a good holiday to spend at home. In two weeks Gerry will be back. My next podcast will be on the 11th of March. Until then, goodbye!

[1] blizzard: a very strong snowstorm with heavy winds
[2] to burst: here: to break open because of the cold weather
[3] to pour: here: to flow, to come off the roof
[4] arrivals board: the big screen where you can see which flights have arrived and which flights are about to arrive
[5] to ruin: here: to spoil
[6] shortly: soon
[7] reputation: the beliefs or opinions that are generally held about something
[8] thesis: here: a long piece of writing that is the final part of a university degree
[9] to go about: to begin or carry on with something
[10] genuinely: here: truly
[11] barcode: a machine-readable code in the form numbers and lines that you find it on products in shops
[12] grin: a broad smile
[13] to plagiarise: to copy somebody’s written work
[14] vague: unclear
[15] similar: almost the same
[16] so-called: here: pretending to be
[17] handsome sum: a lot of money


Käthi 22-02-2016 11:26
Hi Owen!
Thank you very much for your podcasts! It's always so interesting for me to hear about your experiences in China.That nation is sometimes for us foreigners a really strange place and the saying "Every country has its own customs" come true.
I wish you a good time!