Bad Moon Rising – a short story from China.

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After a happy, prolonged period of stabilization and life-altering romance, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in grey, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and travelling.

I can pinpoint the exact moment our seemingly idyllic teaching jobs began to unravel. It wasn’t an earth-shattering incident, but it did represent the tumbling of the first domino, setting in motion a string of bizarre events that would ultimately sour our Beijing dream. “I need to speak to you guys,” said Lily one afternoon. We were gathered round the kitchen counter at school in the prep hour before lessons. “Today is my last day, I’m leaving!”

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Enlightening! – a short story from China.

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After a happy, prolonged period of stabilisation and life-altering romance, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in grey, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and travelling.

“So what do you think?” grinned Candy as we shuffled inside the apartment. There was an engulfing silence as S and I undertook a brief inspection. I looked at S. S looked at me. We both looked at Candy. Candy grinned back cluelessly. Dear, oh dear.

There were no words to describe what we thought of the flat. A conventional dictionary-sourced option may have been something along the lines of filthy or disgusting; but in reality this joint was a whole new level of skank that required a yet to be invented adjective. “Um… is a little dirty,” giggled Candy nervously. But I just glared back at her, which instantaneously wiped the silly smile off her face.

“Um… Maggie told us this place was brand new?” I managed with a bleak shake of my head. But now Candy was stuttering incomprehensibly and making a pig’s ear of trying to get Maggie on speed dial. Looking utterly depressed, S sighed, arms folded, bottom lip pushed out as I stood there picturing a local vagrant rejecting this hole with a patronising laugh before returning to his cardboard box back in the alley.

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Camp America – a short story from China.

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After a happy, prolonged period of stabilisation and life-altering romance, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in grey, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and travelling.

It was a warm, smoggy Beijing morning as we boarded the bus at Dongzhimen, taking our place among the throng of fidgety hopefuls. There were about fifty of us in total and even at that early stage I got the distinct feeling that as Europeans, S and I were heavily outnumbered. Zac from Oregon had packed a sweater in case it got cold at night. Steve from Philadelphia was wearing a new pair of sneakers fresh from a Beijing market. And Sandy from San Diego was flashing a picture of her nephew around, a chubby little thing wearing nothing but a diaper. Everyone agreed the photo was awesome.

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My Photographs: Top 5 Shangdi, Beijing.

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Enlightener Education, April 2014. The sleepy, unremarkable little Beijing neighbourhood of Shangdi stands as the dictionary definition of a non-place. There is very little to see and even less to do, save for a sizeable collection of restaurants and local stores, a lone bakery and a big ass supermarket. And yet somehow this is where I lived for two years teaching English at a small language school. Despite its many frustrations, I have great memories from my time at Enlightener Education. This shot was taken during a Saturday afternoon drama class, the kids and I rehearsing a short Harry Potter themed play. Matteo (left) was a boy genius with a Michael Jackson fetish. Gawain meanwhile (middle) struggled with the language and refused to accept that his name should in fact be Gavin, while Jerry (right) was one of the nicest boys I’ve ever taught, his heavy Beijing farmer’s accent bringing a smile to my face as he shrarred and arred his way through the script.

MOMA, June 2014. The school was located on this large residential complex, a short walk from my apartment. The families that lived there were very wealthy and I saw some amazing apartments within those identical cookie cutter tower blocks. This shot was taken on a depressingly polluted afternoon. I had to cycle down to Enlightener’s sister school with Annie, one of my teaching assistants. Armed with a pair of rickety bicycles and my trusty facemask, I half wondered if the smog would swallow us up along the way.

Local Hypermarket August 2014. Shangdi’s massive local hypermarket was always an interesting affair. Chicken feet and duck tongues in the snack section, staff following you around and watching your every move for reasons unknown. This massive open-air aquarium in the middle of the shop floor never failed to make me giggle, especially people’s attempts to scoop up their chosen fish with the provided nets.  

Zero Restaurant, September 2014. My American buddy Anthony worked with me at Enlightener and lived one floor up from my studio in the same high rise. To keep ourselves entertained, we carried out a forensic investigation of the local restaurant scene. With no idea what each place was actually called, we devised a numerical system based on the order each joint was discovered. “You wanna grab lunch at 2?” he’d ask me, or I might suggest we do some dishes at 3. There was also a barbecue joint we called Muslim and a pricier place down by the subway station we christened fancy. We referred to the little street side restaurant in this photo as Zero, as it was actually closer to our building than both 1 and 2. The food was always deliciously greasetastic; Mama Zero always welcomed us with a wide smile and we did our best to ignore the suspicious chemical smell that lingered by the front door. The ghostly spectre of the Lenovo factory in the background only added to the street’s pervading feel of hopelessness.

Enlightener Education, January 2015. I couldn’t wait to get out of Shangdi in the end. My boss was a nightmare, Anthony was moving on and I’d saved up enough money to embark on an extended travel route through Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia. But it was tough leaving some of my students behind. Take Clare, Snow and Sofia for example, three ridiculously cute little girls who’d stamped their feet, cried and hissed at me during our first lesson together. It had taken months for them to trust me, almost a year before they’d come sprinting into school to hit me with aggressive full-force hugs: “Leeeeeeeeeeighton!!!!” Sometimes I think about what went down the day they came to school and discovered I’d gone. One day I will return to Shangdi and they’ll have changed beyond recognition.