Owen in China 21: Of exams, explorers and smells (July 1st, 2016)

Hi everyone, this is Owen and this is my podcast for Friday 1st July, 2016. Vittoria and I are getting ready for our summer holiday here. Just one more week until we fly to Europe for more than two months. We’re very excited to be spending the summer back home. Originally, we weren’t going to spend such a long time there, but then a friend decided to get married in September, which was a great excuse for us to extend our holiday.

Today, I’ll be talking about a big and important school exam in China, a trip to the birthplace of a Chinese explorer and smells.

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Two weeks ago was the time all senior high school students in China dread [1]. It was time for the gaokao. The gaokao is the university entrance exam. It takes two days and all senior high school students in China sit the exam at the same time. The results determine [2] which university they can go to. There are only so many good universities, so the competition is fierce [3]. High school students in China study like crazy for this exam. It’s not uncommon for them to spend 10 to 12 hours a day at school and after that they spend four hours doing homework at home. A lot of them don't do anything besides studying during their last three years of high school. Most people here don't like the education system. They complain about the quality of the education and the pressure on the kids. But if your family doesn't have the money to send you to a private school and to a university abroad, you have no choice but to study as hard as everyone else. One of the main reasons for emigrating from China is education. A friend was telling me about her two-year-old daughter recently. Her daughter will turn three in the autumn and will start kindergarten. Even at that level there’s a lot of competition. Kindergarten isn’t free here, so not only do you have to pay but you also have to find a place in a good school. My friend was telling me that she found one she likes but, because of the large number of applicants, she’ll have to bribe [4] someone to get her daughter a place. She has a good friend who works at the kindergarten and she’ll pay her to get her daughter a place. The bribe, of course, is in addition to the yearly tuition fees [5]. My friend doesn’t know how big the bribe should be, so she’s asking all her friends what they think is a reasonable amount. As I’ve mentioned before, China is very corrupt, but having to bribe someone to get your child into kindergarten seems a bit much [6] to me. Then again, that’s the way things work here.

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20160701 E Zheng HeI visited a place called Kunyang this month. It’s at the south end of Dianchi lake, which stretches [7] south of Kunming. Getting there was easy enough. There’s a bus from the centre of Kunming straight to Kunyang. Unfortunately, there was an accident ahead of us on the road, so we got stuck in a long traffic jam. What should have been a 40-minute bus ride ended up taking more than three hours. I didn’t get an early start that day and I knew the last bus back to Kunming was at six o’clock, so the unexpected delay was very annoying. It didn’t really matter in the end though. When we did eventually get there, it turned out that there wasn't very much to see anyway. The reason I went to Kunyang is that it’s the birthplace of Zheng He. Until recently I’d never heard of Zheng He but he’s quite an important figure in Chinese history. He lived during the Ming dynasty, which lasted from 1368 to 1644. His family were part of a Muslim minority in China at the time. He was captured and castrated by the Ming armies as a child but later became an admiral in the Chinese navy and sailed the world. His fleet [8] was significantly [9] bigger than any of the European explorers’ fleets. He also travelled the world before all the big European explorers. I have heard some Chinese claim that he was the first person to sail around the world, but I think that is to be taken with a grain of salt [10]. Nevertheless, he was undoubtedly one of the world’s first and great sailors, who with his crew visited some far-flung [11] places, from the Indian subcontinent, to East Africa and possibly Australia. They say he was a lot more peaceful than his European counterparts. Supposedly his aim was to establish friendly relations and trade ties. He arrived with precious Chinese porcelain, silk and tea and returned home with ivory, myrrh and even a giraffe. As the Chinese invest more and more in East Africa these days, they like to mention Zheng He as a reminder of their peaceful intentions contrary to the West. So during my outing to his hometown I was hoping to find out a little more about the man. I made it to the Zheng He park up on a hill overlooking Kunyang and Dianchi lake, where there was a large statue of the man. There wasn’t a proper museum though, so I didn’t find out much. Have any of you ever heard of Zheng He? I don’t remember his name ever being mentioned when we learnt about Columbus at school. Why do we not know more about him?

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There isn't much I can’t find in Kunming. The things I can’t find I have learnt to live without. Some things I can’t get here I miss a lot though. Fresh croissants, for example. However, most things I completely forget about until I go home. The longer I stay away, the less I miss things, especially food. And as I mentioned I can get a lot of things here. There is one thing though which I can’t find here and that is hair wax [12]. I’ve been using the same hair wax for years and years, so I usually get a family member to post it to me. Unfortunately though, my trusted [13] wax is no longer [14] in production. But my sister very kindly sent me a box with a selection of new products to try out. There were five different types of hair wax in the box and the one I chose to try first looks and feels very similar to the one I used to use. I carefully applied [15] it to my hair after my shower in the morning. It looked good, so I set off for work in a good mood. On my way to work, whenever there was any wind or I moved my head, I got a whiff [16] of my hair. I really liked the smell but it was somehow very familiar. It’s a very particular lemony [17] scent, which put me in an excellent mood. It brought back happy memories but I couldn’t say of what at first. I tried quickly moving my head up and down, so I could get another smell of it. People watching me on the bus must have thought I was a bit crazy. And then it struck me that my new hair wax smells just like my aunt and uncle’s downstairs bathroom. How strange is that? I haven’t been in their house for more than 10 years but I can remember exactly what their bathroom smells like. I don’t have any particular memories of their bathroom, but I have great memories of their house and the times I spent there. Admittedly [18] though, it feels a little strange to be walking around with hair smelling of a bathroom. Talking of smells, China smells very different to back home. To my nose, the smells here are very strong. The food, the houses, even the water smells different. It’s probably all connected to the food people prepare and eat. Take garlic, for example. This country is crazy about garlic. Some people chew [19] raw garlic for breakfast. Apart from the garlic breath in the morning, the people here don't have much of a smell. For them, on the other hand, foreigners are really stinky. They’ve told me we all smell like kebabs.

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Well, that’s all from me. This was my last podcast before the summer holiday. Because the podclub is taking a short summer break, we’re organising a special competition for our listeners. The competition is sponsored by m-electronics and you can win some fantastic JBL Everest headphones. In order to participate you have to live in Switzerland and you must email your answer to kontakt@podclub.ch. All you have to do is answer this question: When will the next podcast go online? Once again: When will the next podcast go online? As always you can find all the episodes on our website podclub.ch or by downloading our app and you can also download our vocabulary trainer, which now has new and improved features. Thank you for listening. I wish you all a very nice summer and I look forward to being back again after the break. Goodbye!


[1] to dread: to really not look forward to something
[2] to determine: to decide
[3] fierce: very strong
[4] to bribe: to give money or a gift to someone, often to public officials, as a way to make them help you
[5] tuition fees: money you pay to attend a school or university
[6] a bit much: unreasonable
[7] to stretch: to extend over an area
[8] fleet: a group of ships
[9] significantly: considerably
[10] with a grain of salt: sceptically
[11] far-flung: distant
[12] hair wax: a product to put in hair
[13] trusted: reliable
[14] no longer: not anymore
[15] to apply: here; to put
[16] a whiff: a smell that is only smelt briefly
[17] lemony: smelling of lemon
[18] admittedly: it must be said
[19] to chew: to bite and work food in the mouth using your teeth