Quesnel residents discover a day in the life of a Chinese student

School in China starts early and stays open late with mid-day break

Quesnel Junior School and Correlieu Secondary School students; if you think you’ve got it rough attending school in Quesnel, read on.

The majority of students at both schools here live at home in Langfang. Several hundred live in the school dormitory, which is attached to the apartment block for foreign teachers. A few from out-of -town (such as Beijing) rent nearby apartments.

Breakfast for the dorm students is at 6:30 a.m. in the cafeteria.

Before the first class, contingents of students have already swarmed throughout the campus sweeping up any debris from the previous day. No custodial service here!

The first class begins at 7:30 with a second at 8:30. After a short break at 9:30, students, by grade level, flood the 800-metre track and jog the mandatory two laps without complaint.

Then it’s study hall until 10:30.

At noon, the third class ends and a two-hour lunch begins. Dorm students have 45 minutes in the cafeteria and then it’s back to their rooms to rest and many sleep! By 12:30, there’s not a peep from the dorm rooms.

I was a little perplexed when I would see hundreds of students leaving the classroom buildings and running as fast as they could to the cafeteria. Was the food that good?

Again, ask a student and you’ll get a straight answer: If you are at the end of the cafeteria line all you may get to eat is a scoop of rice!

Local students make their way home for lunch or may visit local eateries.

The throngs from the dorms and home return to classes by 2 p.m. and the afternoon classes begin.

Dinner break is at 6 p.m. and then it’s back to the classrooms for study and homework completion. The study hall ends at 9:40 p.m. and everyone makes their way home. Most dorm students will continue with study/homework until 11 p.m. when it’s officially lights out.

Some, even, have left the dorm complaining the “lights out” policy does not give them enough time for study.

The Chinese speak loudly. To foreigners they sound like they are shouting and arguing with one them enough time for study.

And the cycle repeats day after day and on Saturdays as well! Amazingly, the students are just as chipper at the end of the day as they were at 7 a.m. And you think you’ve had a long day?

First Adventure to Walmart

We knew before leaving Canada there were two “hypermarket” grocery stores in Langfang; Carrefour (France) and Walmart.

Carrefour is located in the basement of a large shopping mall about three blocks from the school. We had quite a relaxed experience on our first visit; wide aisles, shelf product labels in English, a reasonable variety of “Western” foods (mostly from Europe and Australia), and not at all crowded. Returning teachers to the school arrived at the end of August and advised us to try Walmart for cheaper prices.

Langfang Walmart, like Carrefour, is located in a shopping plaza and occupies two floors. Other than the absence of a large parking lot, the store resembles its parent stores in North America: familiar blue sign with yellow spokes and orderly rows of shopping carts just outside the main entrance.

Once we entered, however, any sense of shopping sanity immediately vanished. The noise was close to deafening! LED TV screens are positioned at the front of many aisles advertising selected products. Scattered throughout are “sales associates” noisily hawking the deals of the week.

Every aisle on the food floor was jammed with shoppers, all pushing and shoving their carts to jockey for a position near a merchandise shelf.

Immediately I realized this was a “dog eat dog” situation: only the strongest hand on the cart handle would survive. Push, shove, push, shove; carts scraping against the next.

We finally made it through the crowd to the poultry counters. Raw chicken parts are displayed on a bed of ice. Many shoppers ignore the tongs provided next to the tray and inspect the chicken breasts with their bare hands!

I was on the receiving end of many stares as I slipped a plastic bag over the hand to grab a couple pieces from the bottom of the pile.

The pork counters are the same. Fresh eggs in cartons and large “milk” crates (for bulk purchase) are not in refrigerated cases; simply stacked up on a shelf.

Food safety has obviously been sacrificed to meet traditional Chinese shopping habits. Only beef cuts (completely unrecognizable) are under glass in a refrigerated unit attended to by a store butcher.

Pork and poultry prices are approximately 50 per cent cheaper than B.C.; shellfish and beef prices are in line with what you would pay in Quesnel.

The seafood section has several dozen varieties of fish displayed on trays of ice (again, unrecognizable) while a dozen or so massive aquariums house live specimens (basa and carp are the only two I know).

To make a selection for live fish, you (or an attendant) grab a net and deposit your victim in a plastic tray. The attendant will dispatch your catch and dress it for you.

Most fruit and vegetables will be found in large bins; an attendant will weigh and price your bagged selections. Our view, is produce would be 50-60 per cent less than British Columbia, although we do expect rising prices as the winter months approach.

Shopping for canned, bottled or packaged foods can be difficult. Unlike Carrefour, shelf labels are all in Mandarin. The camera function on my Google Translate app has been a lifesaver for reading restaurant menus but rarely gives anywhere near an accurate translation for food product labels.

Many Chinese words and phrases simply don’t translate well to English. What I initially thought were digestive biscuits were in fact dog treats! The best you can do in many cases is make a somewhat “educated” guess based on packaging pictures.

However, not all products are a mystery; Oreos and Doritos are the same in Mandarin as English. Other than domestic brands (Great Wall), wines are imported mainly from Europe and Australia and command premium prices (although we did find Yellowtail from Australia on sale for $7.90 CDN). Domestic brands of beer (Snow, Harbin, and Tsingtao) can be had for as little as $2 CDN for a six pack.

Lessons learned from our Walmart adventure: shop early in the morning, don’t buy more than you can reasonably carry; lugging seven large shopping bags (mop handle included) to the nearest taxi stand was an endurance contest we don’t wish to repeat, and above all try and maintain a sense of humour!

Ron England and his wife, Gill, are working in China.

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