Red Horse Lake (Chi Ma Hu (赤马湖)) English summer camp, Hunan province (湖南省) PART THREE OF THREE

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I had an absolute ball today…this morning we got up for a hike with the students. We rounded up at six-thirty am, but, because of the perplexingly ineffective organisation of the Chinese staff, we didn’t actually leave until eight fifteen. We wanted to leave earlier because it was HOT (remember that this is the middle of central China’s summer, so most days were in the high thirties).

We got into little rough ‘n’ tumble buses, and drove out to a hill about half an hour away. Of the foreigners, only me and Juliet came along. The bus trip was continually, fantastically, exotically entertaining…on a crowded old bus, driving down a single-lane road covered in drying chillies, with rice fields on either side stretching as far as the base of the nearest tree-covered hill, with little clay buildings here and there used for who knows what, green hills surrounding us, and, of course, the perpetually odd locals running around doing whatever the locals do…it was just amazing, because there was something weird to see no matter where I looked, not to mention the continual soundtrack of energetic kids happily juggling languages in the seats all around me. After happily drinking in this experience, we arrived at what was basically a bushland near a couple of hills.

Once there, we split up and just walked around the bush, passing crops here and there, and after maybe forty-five minutes, we ended up on top of a hill overlooking the valley…I have to stress, again, that after the pollution-choked industrial nightmare of Wuhan, I was in paradise…rolling green hills, blue sky, a horizon you could actually see into…I was so impressed.

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Something else unexpectedly fantastic was someone’s house, where we munched on some corncobs – this old guy was there, making a bed frame from bamboo, chiselling away the mortise section as Juliet had a chat with him in Mandarin. Like so many times in RHL, this guy showed me the real face of China – a simple guy, face canyoned from years of work in the fields, smiling modestly as he made his furniture by hand in a tiny little hut in the middle of a bush.

After a few hours of joyously exploring, we rendezvoused with the kids, bussed back to camp, had lunch, and then I had my first classes, which were half-hour long, one after the other. Because they were so short, they worked extremely well, because there was no time for anyone to get bored. I can’t remember the topics, either the first ones or those over the next couple of weeks – they changed every day, and every class (ages of students changed in every class, from maybe four to maybe fifteen).

I’ll fast-forward now, because for the next few days I basically taught four classes in the morning, and tried my best to run a burger joint at night. Yep, a burger joint – I mentioned earlier that part of the “vision” of this camp was to have foreigner-run cafés and restaurants and stuff, well, I’d become part of that vision, by doing whatever I could to transform what was basically a room with a counter in it, into a functional burger-making and burger-selling shop. We had a hotplate, deep fryer for the chips, a fridge for the soft drinks and plonk, shitloads of spuds and sauce, ever-changing supplies of stuff like buns and patties, and that was about it…but I tried my best to make it work, and, for at least a week, it was a very popular place with students and staff, Chinese and foreign alike. My background in hospitality served me well…very well. I didn’t want to go anywhere near a kitchen after my years of part-time work in them, but the lifestyle of teaching by day, and serving happy people for hours at night, was a one that I really dug, especially since I knew that the long-term plan was for me to train workers to replace me; therefore I’d only have a managerial/supervision role in the bar. That was the goal, which sounded hunky dory.

But, well, the long-term plan didn’t end up working, because the camp had some huge, fundamental problems. Namely, well…correct me if I’m wrong, but…most hamburger places have hamburgers in them. Is that just my warped sense of logic?

…welcome to one of the results of the politics/constantly inept organisation at RHL. During the vast majority of the time I ran this burger joint, I had no burgers to sell; only drinks, and, about half the time, chips. The reasons for this were that a) the supplies came from Changsha (not a problem for anyone organised), b), when they actually sent someone, they sent a Chinese person to do a westerner’s shopping (yes, it does make a difference – imagine if I sent you to a Chinese grocery shop, full of stuff you’ve never seen before), and c) directly opposing senses of priorities between the foreign and local people. I ordered supplies, and they came…once. I sold them all in one night. I ordered more. They came back incomplete and wrong. I ordered more. One delivery had six hundred buns with nothing to put in them – I kid you not. I still can’t believe it. Imagine getting a delivery of six hundred buns and nothing else. What were they thinking? Were they?

I still have no idea. One night, when the camp had over a hundred kids, we sold a hundred burgers and made over a thousand kuai. Surely someone noticed that?

In RHL, it didn’t seem to be about money, it seemed to be about themselves. Example after example emerged of the Chinese looking after themselves, and being extremely blatant about it (eg the majiang room they built, with foreigner’s money, right nextdoor to us). Basically, we were regarded as paid workers, and not the assets that we are regarded as in other places. It was entertaining to see all these almost childish politics and power struggles – but only because I didn’t have to have anything to do with it. In the early days, I knew I was leaving RHL, so it was all just amusing…but, later, when I wanted to move there, the more frustrating and disappointing it all became.

But…well…in any workplace, it’s the people you work with that make a job good or bad, and one of the two main reasons I loved working out there (the other was the environment) was the people. Me, Tom, David and his wife, Juliet, Jalal, Ron and Nadia were basically a core team of people (with Burroughs and Carol floating around the periphery somewhere, literally or otherwise), and I felt a sense of camaraderie that I’d not felt anywhere else in China…we looked out for each other all the time, and it often feel like a little family – at RHL, we were united in bewilderment.

There was also a mini-platoon of Chinese assistant teachers, present in every class, helping, hindering, or a perplexing cocktail of both, and generally wandering around the camp doing I-could-never-really-figure-out-what. These people were a mixed bag – some were consistently helpful (generally the girls), while others were about as functionally useful as a turd sanga (eg some guy in army greens who seemed to do absolutely nothing at all, even when there was a problem right in front of him). What they did reveal for me, however, was how spoiled some of these kids are from an early age…some of these “assistant teachers” were more like babysitters than any kind of teacher/guardian – they let them do anything, even (or especially?) when they’d been told by the foreigners that they couldn’t do something.

During one trip we took, we bumped into an old, single-room Buddhist temple/shrine, nextdoor to a local store (ie a hole in the wall with a fridge in it). This concrete-walled temple was amazing – it had huge coils of incense, a dozen or so, hanging off the ceiling. These huge coils, nearly a metre tall, gave the entire floor a soft mat of burned incense, and the whole room an air and fragrance of serenity. It was wonderful.

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Around day twelve, we got some visitors. Juliet had buggered off to Changsha, but she didn’t miss much by not seeing this motley crew.

Well, two of the crew weren’t that motley – two of them were my other employers from Wuhan (Australians). They’re pretty cool. Barry also lobbed, and he’s good company…but, as timing would have it, they came at the same time as, shall I call him, Bill Part Three.

Bill Part Three was, basically, a drunken asshole. He was ok when sober, but that was less than a quarter of the time I saw him. While drunk, he was an asshole that got everyone’s riles up – he was one of the most convincing arguments for sobriety I’d ever met. Everyone thought he was, at the very least, a tosser…at most, an abusive, selfish, sleazy, offensive, opinionated asshole. And, because I was the barkeep, I had to both put up with him, and keep fuelling his incessant gasbagging. He was, in the simplest nutshell, hard work. He was the kind of person that gets drunk at night, insults the crap out of you, but, in the morning, all is forgiven and forgotten…well, according to him. Look, to be fair, he might not be like this all this time, and might have let his hair down during his stay here…but the Bill Part Three I saw is a creature I never want to bump into again. He’s based down Hong Kong somewhere, which, for me, isn’t far enough away.

So who was he? Apparently, he was one of RHL’s financers…and the day after he got here, a second financer called Bill Part Four rolled up. He was good mates of Bill Part Three (sad but true), was another ex-army guy, and was generally a pretty good bloke. But when Bill Parts Three and Four got together, the amount of inebriated testosterone was ridiculous.

Bill Part Four was a full-blown entrepreneurial businessman, as far as I could tell, and RHL was just one of the pies he had his fingers in (not long after these drunken visits, he was sacked by the Chinese partners – because I became familiar with his character, it’s pretty obvious that this happened because he told to get people off their asses who were actually very comfortable on their asses. Very comfortable).

Bill Part Four was also a mate of one of the Chinese investors, who I’ll just call X. X seemed a pretty warm person, if a bit of a yarnspinner (he’s also the only Chinese partner who could speak English). With time, and the aid of a massively bloated grapevine, I discovered that he was less of a yarnspinner and more of a bullshitter (yes, there is a difference)…promise after promise kept getting made and never fulfilled. One of the motley crew described X very well – for anyone who remembers the TV show Minder, X was the Arthur Daley of RHL (he makes promises to people, grabs their money and runs). I also heard he spins yarns to the main Chinese financer, who, as a result, has no clue of what’s going on in his own backyard.

Another thing is how unashamedly nepotistic everything is here. Tons of the staff are somehow related – a brother-in-law here, a mate-of-a-mate there. The grapevine is downright distended with such revelations, and things click, and pennies drop, on a regular basis (especially in regards to people who should be sacked, but they’re related to someone – for instance the guy who drives the bus from Changsha to the camp, who has all the driving abilities, not to mention notions of timetables, of a schizophrenic lemur after a bucket bong of skunk). It’s good to know this, because it helps explain strange things when they invariably happen.

I’ll never forget one particular night with the motley crew…normally, we foreigners chow in one room, the Chinese people chow in another (for whatever cultural reasons – not sure, really). One thing many Chinese people love doing is getting smashed on baijiu, ie rice wine. There’s heaps of different types, from expensive, apparently aged, stuff, to stuff that was presumably made in a basement that afternoon. On this particular night, Tom and Bill Part Four decided to screw around with the Chinese security staff who were in the other room. Unannounced, one of them wandered in, to whom everyone cheered a hearty greeting, and poured him, and themselves, shall we say, far-too-generous bowls of this hideous, evil rice wine, which is at least fifty percent alcohol, which came out of a two-litre plastic bottle. Yep, plastic. They all yell ganbei, (干杯) which literally translates as “dry cup”, which means they need to chug it all. In English, it would be “bottoms up” or something like that – ganbei doesn’t just mean “cheers”, a mistake you often hear here.

So they all down a bowl of this aesophagus-stripping liquid…Tom was first, then Bill Part Four, then me (an experience my brain didn’t let me forget for a while), then Bill Part Four again, then me again…so, because we were all ganbei-ing, the entire security staff was plastered that night. I guess the only reason for mentioning this night is that, apparently, this is how you win street cred here – getting plastered with this stuff…and, well, if I said I didn’t have fun, I’d be lying. This, apparently, is one of the aspects of doing business here.

Around the fifteenth day…both the Bills had vamoosed (woohoo!!), and I was offered a contract with RHL. So, at this point, I had to weigh up pros and cons.

Many thoughts rattled around my head for a day or two – I guess you’ll have to wait for the director’s cut for them – but, well, it made more sense to stick out another year at Wuhan instead of moving to RHL permanently.

Having said that, if RHL could iron out its ripples (more like canyons and glaciers), I’d be writing this out there, instead of in Wuhan, like I’m doing now.

It’s such a bummer though…I really wanted to stay, especially after we moved buildings around the fifteenth day. This new room was a vast improvement…each morning in this new place, I went on the balcony and looked over the lake, took in the silence (spasmodically broken by the fireworks factory across the lake, the locals letting ‘em off 24/7, but hey), and I decided that I never wanted to see Wuhan again. I could happily stay here, and screw the politics. Well, that never eventuated…a couple of more straws broke the metaphorical back (I’ll tell you over a beer sometime…).

Well, what else happened during the last nights out there, before need to leave this wonderful chapter…another really notable night was when Tom shouted us out to a night on the “town”, ie a little five-horse village about twenty minutes away by bus. This night was just great fun, and I guess it was one of the nights that made me glad I got my butt to China at all. The bus was overcrowded, so a couple of us had to sit on other’s laps, but this ain’t uncommon here. So after being sardined for twenty minutes or so, we got to this restaurant place, had some not too bad grub, then drove out again to a KTV place. Because it was in rural Hunan, there were only about fifteen English songs to choose from, but hey we were all sozzled so we didn’t care.

I can’t say too much more about this night – you had to be there. Being out in this little club in the middle of nowhere, with a bunch of people I’d grown massively fond of over the past nearly three weeks, drunk on bad Chinese beer and dancing to, I think, Ricky Martin or somesuch gunk, was just plain fun. We had trying-to-be-sing-a-longs on the way home, which were definitely other cases of “you had to be there”. And, getting home, we saw the sky coated in stars. Stars are nowhere in Wuhan, but, on a clear night in RHL, the sky is the tapestry of light it always was before neon and pollution stole it. One night I saw six shooting stars within an hour, things that you never see in Wuhan – I was stoked.

So how can I wrap this all up? I suppose it wraps itself up…I won’t be moving to RHL, which makes me both happy and sad. I had such a great time out there, and the place has so much potential, it’s hard to say bye to it…but, I guess them’s the breaks. As far as I can tell (and the others seem to agree), the future of RHL is this – it will either close down within a couple of months, or the Chinese partners will wake up and start doing things that do not concern only themselves. Right now, the place desperately needs people like me, Juliet, David, Tom, and some others I met fleetingly who had also flown the coop, like Archie, Helen, and Bill Part Four, but it’s exactly these people – people with a clue, basically – that RHL’s Chinese complement is currently scaring away with waves of apathy, selfishness, inept organisation, unashamed nepotism, totally inadequate channels of communication, a lack of direct hierarchy, undelivered promises, a lack of accessible funding, and lack of control…all on top of the general daily political bullshit. But, well, I have a feeling that these people will only realise what they’ve been doing when all the foreigners have deserted them…fortunately or unfortunately, I’m now one of them. The burger place will close with me gone, simply because there’s no one else to open it – and they’ve lost, from what I heard, a popular teacher.

But well, that’s what they lost. But what I gained is a ton of great memories (as wanky as that sounds), an ok paycheck (haggled of course), and, something I didn’t see coming, a lot more confidence as a teacher – I’m actually good with kids. They really are like little sponges. Well, the ones that want to be…

So I’m back in Wuhan, Juliet, Nadia and Jalal have done the bolt, and I’ve left David and Tom out in woop woop to get this place up and running…my heart goes out to them. From what I saw, they’re pushing diarrhoea uphill, but, hey, a miracle might happen.

*Postscript*                                       

[It never did. In the years that followed, out of sheer curiosity, I kind of kept up with RHL by looking for it, in Chinese, on the internet. For a while, it seemed to have been turned into an army training place (on reflection, I think maybe that’s what it originally was), then it was a wedding reception joint, and now it seems to be just a little hotel in woop woop, as far as I can tell, from a Chinese posting on airbnb.com.au). So, yep, the RHL in these pages, and my memory, stays there. I’m happy with that].

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