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My Passionate Affair

If you have been following these blogs so far, you could be forgiven for thinking that I'm spending my entire time in China eating, or riding up and down the thirty five floors of my hotel in the mirrored lift, asking hapless lift-mates 'does my bum look big in this?'

This is the moment where you learn that life is pretty tough at the coal face of music assessment in China. I knew the week was going to be bad, when I woke abruptly early on Monday morning, straight from a dream in which I and my daughter had been artificially inseminating three elephants.

Why three??

Anyway...although the week has not been about elephants, bodily functions do come into it, exposing an unhappy synthesis of Western frailty and neurosis alongside the Eastern modus vivendi; not always the easiest of matches I may tell you. If you're delicate, now is the moment to insert a Government Health Warning.

Let's talk about bodily functions: in this country, people spit a lot. They do it without apology, or even forewarning. They clear their throats as though preparing for a home-made tonsillectomy...and then they flob their prize into...well, wherever they happen to be passing.

I hear that noise every hour of every day that I'm in China; and believe you me, it gets you down after a bit. I mean, I know it's not my country, and it is theirs; but to me, it's the equivalent of picking your nose in public...but actually, that's comme d'habitude here too. Last week in Zara, I watched in fascination as a woman used the huge mirrored wall in the central aisle of the shop to reflect herself squeezing out her blackheads. They were on her face, so I suppose I should be grateful...

In my slightly-leftie-very-middle-class way, I have been trying to come to terms with these issues of Up Front Bodily Functions; but at this point, I'm stuck: I totally get it that people need to clear their throats; and I also get it that the smog in this country is enough to make anyone develop coughing habits to rival a llama with croup, but what I'm not clear about, is why it all has to end in a slick of slime on the sidewalk.

While we're on the subject, let me tell you a thing or two about Chinese loos: according to A A Gill, the Chinese are 'extemporarily scattalogical' about toilet functions; and after two extended trips here, I have to agree: loos are no fun in China. If you haven't experienced a squatting loo before, then China is the place to start: it had to be pointed out to me the first time I came here (five years ago) that most loos are squatting ones. I had my doubts about them then, but five years down the track, my quads are even less happy about the experience than they were then. Imagine if your muscles gave way in the middle of a 'performance', and you collapsed? My colleague pointed out to me that there is a 'european' loo at the end of the line of stalls where we are working; but that has its own horror, in that here in China, no one puts paper down the loo.

I leave it to your imagination to consider the contents of the bin beside the 'european' loo.

In other news this week, we have encountered illness: one of my colleagues fell prey to Bird Flu, which is rampant here apparently.

As is measles. The symptoms of Bird Flu are horrible - very high fever, aches and pains, and a week of utter misery. Compounded by the vacuum of activity available to you in an Chinese business hotel: CNN News is about the summit of aspiration here, and when something comes on that the Chinese government doesn't like, the picture goes, and you suddenly get a burst of Chinese Youth singing and dancing irrelevantly in some fictitious Chinese square. Convalescence would necessarily be as short as possible in order to avoid emotional complications I feel.

The illness thing has a slightly sinister undercurrent here, because in this part of the world, there is a tradition of wearing face masks if you are ill. I notice that in this hotel, there are people wearing 'designer' face masks - not those things your dentist would wear when he has a good poke around in your mouth, but something fitted, black, rubbery. Very James Bond. Or possibly less salubrious...but how would I know...?

I find these face masks alarming; but I have come to find those who don't wear face masks much more terrifying...because it the Non Face Mask Wearers who bring germs to your table.

Along with the spitting issue, there is a non-interventionist policy with regards to snot here: so a child will arrive for an exam, sniff, sneeze and snivel its way through the process, no tissue in sight. It will wipe its snot all over the piano, the books, and you; they will cough open-mouthed at your face.

I'm not suggesting that these things don't happen elsewhere - they do; but there is something very outré about the Chinese approach to bodily functions. I have seen children being held up by their parent to defecate on the pavement. I have heard men (I fear it is men...) hawking and spitting into the swimming pool of my hotel. I have observed spitting at the breakfast table...I tell you, it takes a strong mentality to cope with some of this!

But then it dawned on me that here, tissues are the spawn of the devil. They harbour the illness. They conduct the germs. It is we, the Westerners, who are gross in our love of blowing our snot into paper, holding it, maybe even shoving it up our sleeves...to the Chinese, this is the absolute epitome of bad manners and grossness. In my mind, their perspective seems to relate somehow to the Medieval idea of humours...get them out, get them out, don't harbour them.

I'm still not okay with the hawking and spitting though; and my colleague and I have christened our In House Spitter, Harry the Hawker: we work in the basement of the Shenzhen Concert Hall. It's a bit like being incarcerated in the artist's loos at the Royal Festival Hall in London - miles of linoleum basement corridors, rooms that were clearly designed as boiler rooms, only there are companies who sell music lessons operating there now. It all makes sense in a mad kind of way, because an entire business can operate in spaces that would normally offer nothing more than a few rattling pipes. Only of course, there are no windows, so you start to crave the light after the first hour or so.

Every day, I hear Harry The Hawker starting up: there's a kind of 'turn-the-engine-over-see-how-it-goes' noise first of all - an early morning, gravelly, deep-seated mucus sort of sound; and then the flob. My colleague and I have spent three weeks listening to Harry; and really, it's amazing how endlessly versatile and inventive he is: I can be quietly writing my reports in the lunch break, and then suddenly there he is round three corners, grinding his mucal gears. I think it may have something to do with his smoking habit actually: no smoking in the building of course; but Harry clearly goes round the back of the Hall and smokes in between coughing sessions. I think he stands right by the air conditioning unit, and puffs into it, because quietly and unbidden, the second-hand smoke enters my room through the ether. He's really quite the guy this Harry...

I'm at the end of week three; so I'm at the stage where I'm slightly sentimental about things like fresh air, Radio 3, marmite toast and TEA! Oh what I would give for a cup of tea...and for cheese that isn't first cousin to a floor tile...

Meanwhile, I should tell you who the passionate affair is with: it's my antibacterial wipes. I'm on them all day, wiping piano keys, tables, books, my hands...it's the dream ticket.

One more week to go

; and I hope no more dreams about elephants...