"Short stories and travel reports from my life adventures around the globe".

Enlightening! A short story from China.

Training school demo class Shangdi Beijing

Enlightening! A short story from China.

After a prolonged period of stability, I finally bid Belgium farewell in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in grey, uneventful Brussels, I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and traveling.


“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, she 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 apartment. A conventional dictionary-sourced response may have resulted in something along the lines of filthy or disgusting. But in reality this joint was a whole new level of awful that required a yet to be invented adjective.

“Um… is a little dirty,” giggled Candy nervously.

“Maggie told us this place was brand new?” I said, with a bleak shake of my head. Now Candy was stuttering incomprehensibly. And making a pig’s ear out of trying to get Maggie on speed dial. Unable to make contact, Candy was clearly at a complete loss as to what to do.

It was ten o’clock at night and we both had to start work in just under forty-eight hours. The apartment, in all its immense dreadfulness, was at least a five minute walk from our school. At this point it made sense to stay, even though I really wanted to put my foot down and demand a new place.

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I could only imagine how much hassle it would be for the agency to find us a new apartment at such short notice. “I guess we better sleep on it,” I told her, with a defeated yawn. Hence we bade Candy good night. On her way out, she treated us to more of her signature nervous laughter, apologising all the way out of the front door and down the stairs.

Short stories from China

Enlightening! A short story from China.

Dragging our luggage inside from the hallway, we decided to go straight to bed and pray for a morning miracle. Perhaps the apartment wasn’t as bad as we thought. Maybe we could whip it into shape with a positive attitude and some elbow grease. Possibly the agency could send some some kind of Chinese Mary Poppins who would sing a song and magically sort everything out.

Enlightening! A short story from China.

Enlightening! A short story from China.

“Sorry guys, but it’s going to take more than a spoonful of sugar to fix this shit”.

After the draining tedium of Camp America, we finally caught up on a decent night’s sleep. Consequently, we awoke to bags of newfound enthusiasm and a steely resolve to transform our miserable hovel into something resembling a home.

First, we made a list of things the agency needed to sort out. There were broken light bulbs, an unresponsive stereo system and faulty electrical sockets. A fridge that wasn’t cold and a soiled section of carpet in the bedroom. They’d also lied to us about the telephone, the microwave and kitchen utensils, all of which failed to exist. “I seeeeee,” said Jordan, another agency rep with a different brand of nervous laughter.

“I will tell Maggie. Maybe in a few days someone can fixing”. 

Holding out little hope of any meaningful assistance, we got dressed, downed some coffee and jumped onto the Beijing subway at Shangdi. Thankfully, it was just a short, three-stop journey to Zhichunlu, home to a colossal Wal Mart.

Enlightening! A short story from China

Enlightening! A short story from China.

We emerged two hours later armed to the teeth with bulging bags of cutlery, plates, cups, cooking utensils and a bin. We also grabbed an iron, a mop, a broom, pillows, toilet roll and a shit load of cleaning products. Back at our Shangdi fleapit, we rolled up our sleeves and got on with what had to be done.

Adventures in hygiene Enlightening! a short story from China

Ready for the Great Shangdi Cleanup of August 2009.

We swept and mopped the floors. I spent over an hour scrubbing the kitchen, with its grimy black stove and crusty counter tops. It was exceptionally hard work and, to compound matters, some parts of the apartment proved so dusty it sent S into a coughing fit.

Disgusting apartment in Beijing.

Enlightening! A short story from China.

I was going to suggest we open the windows, before realising the air outside was probably worse! And  then our spirits suddenly lifted when S happened upon a vacuum cleaner in the bedroom cupboard. “Oh lord, what are the chances this thing actually works?” I pondered, before plugging it in. “Yes!” cried S, punching the air, as the hulking thing churned into life. 

Enlightening! A short story from China.

Cleaning up an awful apartment in Beijing

Doing my best Freddy Mercury impression.

By the end of the day our Shangdi apartment was sparkling! And then we were off to a local plant shop for some much-needed greenery. Spontaneously, we decided to pick up a pair of Japanese Fighting Fish as pets for our reinvented home.

One was a feisty, bright-orange killing machine that we called Bei”. The other fish, deep-blue and somewhat lethargic, we named “Jing”. Totally clueless as to what Japanese fighting fish actually were, we foolishly housed them together. Having nearly ripped each other to shreds, we subsequently put them in separate bowls so they could live happier, longer lives.

Enlightening! A short story from China.

Bei (right) and Jing. Not the best of friends.

With our pets installed, we threw a map of Beijing up on the wall and scattered our numerous plants about the place. The majority of this greenery found its way into our enclosed balcony, which we christened The Jungle. We thought it would be the perfect spot for some peaceful reading. Until we realised the balcony overlooked a primary school playground.

At Home in Shangdi.

Enlightening! A short story from China by Leighton Travels

Enlightening! A short story from China.

In stark contrast to the hard graft of cleaning our living quarters, our first weeks at school were a piece of cake! As a brand new business we didn’t actually have any students to teach. Thus we began crafting decorations in order to make the school look… well.. more school-like. 

In this regard it was S who led the way. Armed with card, colouring pens, glue and scissors, she created a giant tree for one of the classrooms. Working with her Chinese teaching assistant Lily, she then decorated her skeletal creation with craft leaves, apples, oranges and pears.

English classroom decoration in Beijing.

S and Lily working on classroom design.

Elsewhere, we dedicated various walls to the days of the week, months, shapes, colours, numbers, animals and weather. I’d never been much of an arts and crafts guy, so I kept my contributions simple by making vocabulary cards. I felt sure the decorations would attract parents and play a direct role in the kids’ language growth. Day by day, piece by piece, it was starting to look and feel like a cosy little school.

Enlightening! A short story from China.

Days of the Week English classroom decoration

Enlightening! A short story from China.

While we decorated, Trudy the school principal and owner sat glued to the phone trying to lure in potential students for demo classes. “Leighton! We have two girls coming tomorrow!” she trilled one afternoon. “Please, prepare a class that will make them fall in love with English. It must be enlightening!” 

Enlightener Education Beijing.

Enlightening! A short story from China.

The demo situation certainly took some getting used to. Basically, parents would bring their kids in for a free thirty minute trial class. Such classes had to be well prepared. Unfortunately for me though, the information Trudy gave me before each demo rarely harmonised with the reality come show time.

Teaching English to kids in Beijing.

Psyching myself up for another demo.

“Tomorrow there will be four children aged 4-6.

They are coming maybe 16:00!” she announced one day.

So I scuttled off to my classroom to prepare a suitable lesson. I photocopied course book pages, devised a few games and prepared an appropriate song with props. The next day only one student turned up. He came forty five minutes early and had literally his entire family in tow. This included the dreaded grandmother, who kept interrupting my lesson to incessantly nag poor Kevin.

“Sit up straight!” 

“Speak clearly!”

“Listen to the teacher”.

On our second week the demos started to roll in thick and fast. Slowly but surely we got used to the chaos that each day brought. There was a fair bit of pressure, what with the parents watching my every move from the back of the room. Moreover, adding to the general anxiety, I had Trudy standing in the corner of the classroom sweating profusely and grinning like a maniac. 

English demo class in Beijing Enlightening! A short story from China

One of my many demos, August 2009.

At the end of each demo everyone filed out and the parents would sit at Trudy’s desk for deep discussions. All but a select few spoke any English. I guessed their decision was purely made on intuition and Trudy’s skills of persuasion. Looking back, it was all a great adventure and an enlightening window into Chinese culture. 

Training school demo class Shangdi Beijing

Enlightening! A short story from China.

Happily, new students began trickling in. By the end of the month we both had a handful of classes. “Thank you so much for your hard work!” gushed Trudy one afternoon. “Please let me take you to dinner tonight!”

Trudy had been exceptionally generous since our arrival. Every day she brought us snacks and home-baked pastries. She even treated us to lunch and dinner on several occasions, including a visit to the fancy hotpot restaurant across the road.

Beijing Hotpot.

Chinese hotpot, so good.

Dinners with Trudy were always a huge feast and she went to great lengths to ensure we were happy. As such, I thought nothing of it when she asked me to teach her son Happy in between my regular classes. It was, I figured, the least I could do while I didn’t have a full schedule. 

“One day Happy go to study in America!” she told me. 

“Please… give him all your wisdom!”

I really enjoyed my classes with Happy, a polite boy genius rocking the Harry Potter look. He was like a human sponge, no matter what I taught him he retained everything and had an amazing knack for pronunciation. “Happy really love your lesson!” oozed Trudy. “He always find your teaching so enlightening!” 

English training school Shangdi Beijing

Happy in class, September 2009.

However, as great as he was with me in class, Happy’s dynamic with Trudy was a whole other story. “No way!” was his default response whenever she asked him to do something. He also had quite the temper. In fact, I’d often awkwardly look away whenever he descended into one of his violent tantrums.

Little boy tantrum.

Happy in tantrum mode, an artist’s impression.

This usually involved him slamming doors, stamping his feet and flinging his school bag across the floor. On one infamous occasion he actually kicked his mum in the leg with a vicious kung fu move! I recall standing there utterly speechless. The poor woman had only told him to save his chocolate bar until after dinner!

Enlightening! A short story from China.

Beijing Exhibition Centre.

Beijing Exhibition Centre.

Photo courtesy of N509FZ.

One day we arrived at school, only to be bundled back outside by a highly excitable Trudy. “Let’s go!” she sang, waving her car keys at us. “Today we go to the book fair… very big event! My school needs better books!” And so we drove across the city to The Beijing Exhibition Center. The traffic was so appalling it took us over two hours to get there. 

Beijing International Book Fair.

Beijing International Book Fair.

The centre was mind-boggling, with floors and floors of books in pretty much every language you could think of. The English section was humongous and every time I picked something up Trudy asked me “Do you like it? Is it good? Can I buy it?”

We ended up grabbing a bunch of classics like Hansel and Gretel, The Gingerbread Man and Rapunzel. We also came away with a pile of pop-up books, including Don’t You Dare, Dragon and What’s the time Mr. Wolf?

Inside Beijing International Book Fair.

Enlightening! A short story from China.

During that visit, we decided that my classes would follow the Primary Colors Series, an action-packed curriculum aimed at kids between the ages of six and twelve. The books followed the adventures of a group of children who travel around the world in their flying car.

Enlightening! A short story from China.

Primary Colors English language coursebook

“Trudy sounds ideal!” exclaimed Risa, sipping from her glass of wine. “You guys have seriously lucked out,” echoed Richard. “Our principal doesn’t even know our names. And if someone is literally one minute late, she docks their pay”. 

We had finally gotten around to throwing a housewarming party. It was a great opportunity to hook back up with a few of our fellow Camp America survivors, including Marc, Amy, Baltimore Steven and Rosey. I’ll never forget how I had to go to Shangdi Subway station to pick them all up. Then lead everyone back to our apartment in a motorcade of rickshaws and motorbikes.  

House party Shangdi Beijing August 2009.

Our Shangdi house warming party, September 2009.

Just over a month into our Beijing adventure, things were going well. We were still in that glorious honeymoon period where everything was new and exciting. The pollution hadn’t given us the blues yet. For now the vast cultural differences that would eventually begin to wear us down felt kooky and amusing.

We’d also yet to see the other side of Trudy. Still, on that perfect night, with the wine flowing and the snacks rapidly disappearing, all was well with our Beijing lives.

‘Enlightening!’ is the tenth chapter of my short story series Challenged in China.

I’ve also written hundreds of travel reports from all across China.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

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  • christinenovalarue


    August 13, 2023 - 4:21 pm Reply
  • kagould17

    Yikes. The best time to show someone a crappy apartment is late at night. Glad you were able to make it livable Leighton. I can only imaging the bureaucracy required to change to another spot. The teaching situation sounds like something out of the Wild West, but I imagine that is how most new ESL schools start in another country. Can’t wait for your story on Trudy’s other side. Cheers. Allan

    August 13, 2023 - 5:02 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Yeah, it would have taken days if not weeks for them to find something else for us. And even then they would probably have charged us for taking a “non-agency” joint. Scandalous really. It was very Wild West indeed and even considering everything we went through that year, I still think we were one of the “lucky” ones. Thanks for following along Allan.

      August 13, 2023 - 5:56 pm Reply
  • Memo

    I remember cleaning our apartment in Zhongshan. The kitchen and bathroom took days. And it had been inhabited by previous English teachers for the school. Hard to believe every foreign teacher was a total slob. At least you got to actually teach English. We were mostly assigned to schools where their Chinese teachers taught to the state test. In the end it was enlightening though. Long Live Jing!

    August 13, 2023 - 5:41 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Oh lord Memo, I feel your pain. I have never encountered such filth since. I recall Mary telling me how disappointing that teaching post was, it sounds like you had it worse than we did in many ways. Jing was a trooper who outlived Bei and, as you know, went on to become a minor radio celebrity.

      August 13, 2023 - 5:58 pm Reply
  • Stan

    what an engaging chapter leighton. how admirable that you simply rolled up your sleeves and did what had to be done to make the apartment bearable. trudy’s disorganisation would have driven me up the wall, no amount of free snacks and lunches could have made up for that. i fear i would have walked early doors and now i see that things potentially get worse. still decorating the place looked fun and i wager that there was a great deal of reward to building the student base from the ground up

    August 13, 2023 - 6:04 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Stan, glad you enjoyed this instalment. The free stuff was fun and novel in the beginning but soon wore off as you’ll see as the series progresses. Trudy was a curious character, we really liked her in the beginning but yeah… don’t want to give too much away ha ha. It was exciting and rewarding in those early months to see how the school grew and developed.

      August 13, 2023 - 6:13 pm Reply
  • Toonsarah

    Your post is as enlightening as your theme 🙂 I was fascinated by your accounts of the school and horrified by the state of your apartment. You did so well to turn it into a welcoming home!

    August 13, 2023 - 7:25 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Sarah, I’m glad that you were both enlightened and horrified. Kinda what I was going for ha ha. I think we did make that place as homely as humanly possible. Later on in the series we managed to move into a substantially nicer joint. Looking forward to sharing that.

      August 13, 2023 - 9:19 pm Reply
  • Mike and Kellye Hefner

    A filthy apartment would’ve made me want to go back to Belgium. It sounds like you guys didn’t have much of a choice but to clean it yourselves. I’m glad that worked out well for you because your classes and students sound so worthwhile. I bet you are so good with those kids, Leighton! As for Trudy, I am anxious to hear more about her “other side”.

    August 13, 2023 - 7:58 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Kellye. We definitely did the right thing by taking ownership of the apartment. I reckon we’d have been waiting around for weeks if it had been left up to the crappy agency. I think I was pretty good with the kids 😉 Although that wasn’t always fully appreciated, as you will discover…

      August 13, 2023 - 8:14 pm Reply

    So interesting that I can’t wait for the next instalment, particularly the “other side” of Trudy… and I’m guessing the brat story is going somewhere as well. I don’t know if you read or follow Giacomo’s site, he too has told great stories of the teaching English abroad life – Naples, not Beijing though. I think some of his tales would’ve resonate with you. Very much looking forward to the next chapters of this unfolding tale.

    August 13, 2023 - 10:28 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      I haven’t read Giacomo as yet, thanks for the heads up. Cheers for keeping up with the series.

      August 14, 2023 - 8:02 am Reply
  • Lyssy In The City

    Glad you were able to make the most out of the apartment! These tales are so entertaining, you sure have a trove of stories to tell. I’m always chuckling along 🙂

    August 13, 2023 - 11:23 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Lyssy. There are too many more to share over the years, not sure I’ll ever get on top of it all.

      August 14, 2023 - 8:04 am Reply
  • Annie Berger

    Amusing tale of your experiences teaching in Beijing. Happy sounds like a mad genius – don’t you wonder how he turned out all these years later? You left me wanting a lot more, Leighton!

    August 14, 2023 - 12:17 am Reply
    • Leighton

      So…. I actually ended up doing a second year at the same school some years later. So there’s plenty more from Happy to come in both this series and a future collection. The last time I saw him he was around 14 and heading for The U.S. (Boston area) to do a semester of school over there. Thanks for reading Annie, the next one is out on Wednesday.

      August 14, 2023 - 8:07 am Reply
  • salsaworldtraveler

    I was afraid that after all your hard work you might be assigned to another apartment. I never suspected that there were auditions involved for these classes.

    August 14, 2023 - 3:07 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha, that would have been a hoot. The demos were nerve-racking in the beginning but before too long we were knocking them out 2-3 times a day on autopilot. Thanks for checking in John.

      August 14, 2023 - 8:13 am Reply
  • wetanddustyroads

    A whole new approach to the words ‘brand new’ I suppose! But, as has been proven so many times before, a positive attitude (and hard work) can make a big difference! The parents (and Trudy) certainly didn’t know what an asset as a teacher you were … if only they knew about 40D! Could it be Happy that brought out Trudy’s ‘other side’?

    August 14, 2023 - 11:06 am Reply
    • Leighton

      I think this teaching post is where I truly cut my teeth as an educator of kids. I found my ‘place’ in teaching during this year I’d say, despite all the chaos that unfolded. Fast forward 14 years and I’m still teaching exclusively kids, but now on my own terms. Trudy… I’m sorry to say that it was only Trudy who brought out her other side ha ha. Thanks Corna for always reading so carefully and your fun observations.

      August 14, 2023 - 12:48 pm Reply
  • Anna

    The dirty apartment has given me flash back PTSD to an apartment I stayed in a few years back. I’m feeling sick just thinking about it! Lol.

    August 14, 2023 - 12:22 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Oh dear, it sounds pretty rough Anna. Where was it? Take a deep breath…

      August 14, 2023 - 12:52 pm Reply
      • Anna

        Lol the worst thing is it was in southern France, at my husbands brothers apartament. He had been living there for 2 years on behalf of the Peruvian navy. He hadn’t cleaned once in that time. Like never cleaned! He had his 15 year old daughter come live with him for 6 months and she didn’t lift a finger either! The floor was covered in hair and oil and sticky. The bathroom was horrendous. We couldn’t leave for a hotel as it would look bad! So my husband and I spent a whole day cleaning. After we bought everything to clean with of course! I never ate in the house… I just couldn’t. I couldn’t believe it as my husband and his parents are clean freaks! After that trip I said we never stay with any of his relatives again lol.

        August 14, 2023 - 12:55 pm
      • Leighton

        Wow, they are some impressive levels of slobbery. I think Sladja would’ve reacted exactly the same.

        August 14, 2023 - 1:00 pm
      • Anna

        It was shocking to me as he is a disciplined… he is so high up in the Peruvian navy that the president had to sign off on it! He is clean cut and discipline but obviously thinks he doesn’t ever have to clean! It was crazy and I was shocked! I’d never seen a place like it!

        August 14, 2023 - 1:02 pm
  • qprgary

    You’re a better man than me mate, I’d be on the next plane out.

    August 14, 2023 - 2:47 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha ha, you haven’t read the half of it yet Gary. Somehow though I stuck it out until the end of the year.

      August 14, 2023 - 2:49 pm Reply
  • Travels Through My Lens

    I was cringing as I read about your filthy apartment, particularly the crusty counters; yuck. Your students (except for ‘Happy’) sound delightful and I imagine they idolized you and S. I wonder if Happy ever attended school in the US? Great story, Leighton. I’m looking forward to reading more, particularly about Trudy’s dark side!

    August 14, 2023 - 4:32 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Tricia, hope all is well with you in sunny (?) France. Yes, Happy did go to the U.S. some years later to do a semester somewhere in the Boston (Massachusetts) region. That’s the last I heard of him, he would be in his ears 20s now I think.

      August 14, 2023 - 8:31 pm Reply
      • Travels Through My Lens

        It’s not too sunny in our little corner of France; summer has passed us by. I hope Happy enjoyed his time in the US, and at some point learned to control his temper!

        August 14, 2023 - 10:37 pm
  • Mallee Stanley

    And did all the items on your broken list get fixed?

    August 14, 2023 - 6:40 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Um… I think we fixed most of the little things. ourselves. They fixed one or two of the bigger issues and eventually we moved into a new place when some even bigger issues kept resurfacing. Ah, China.

      August 14, 2023 - 8:33 pm Reply
  • Monkey's Tale

    I’ve never thought of a school having to recruit new students with demo lessons. That would be tricky until you knew what the parents expected/wanted. The apartment sounds like a nightmare but looks great by the housewarming party!

    August 14, 2023 - 9:33 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      The free demo class is king in China. Every single language school going offers it and competition is fierce. Knowing what the parents wanted/expected was never a luxury I had. Other than being “fun” I suppose. In most cases if you threw a lot of energy at it and had the kids laughing there was a good chance of selling a package. On the whole parents didn’t speak much/any English themselves and certainly wouldn’t have been able to identify solid methodology. Yes, we got there in the end with the apartment! Thanks for reading and commenting Maggie, I know it’s challenging for you guys out there in terms of WIFI.

      August 14, 2023 - 10:19 pm Reply
  • grandmisadventures

    What an interesting way to do classes. I bet those demo classes really taught you how to be a good teacher being able to take the day for what it is and adapt lessons at a moments notice to fit the class. But also, how stressful to have an interrupting grandma commenting through your lesson. The other side of Trudy…can’t wait to read that! 🙂

    August 14, 2023 - 9:37 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Absolutely Meg. They really did help me cut my teeth and after a week of demos you’d never be nervous about doing a class in front of people again. Ach, the grandmas were the worst! A few of them would answer mobile phone calls during class and noisily chat away as I tried to do my thing. Trudy… all will be revealed 😉

      August 14, 2023 - 10:21 pm Reply
  • NortheastAllie

    This definitely sounds like an adventure! It is interesting how they had almost an interview type style to schooling there. The housewarming party looked like it was an awesome get together!

    August 14, 2023 - 11:29 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading Allie!

      August 15, 2023 - 12:07 am Reply
  • Little Miss Traveller

    A fascinating account of your first month in China Leighton. You all worked so hard to clean up the apartment and make it feel like a home but it must have been disheartening to arrive there late at night and walk in to find it in such a mess.

    August 15, 2023 - 1:42 am Reply
    • Leighton

      It certainly wasn’t an ideal start. But like anything in China and adjustment of expectations and some DIY usually sorts things out. Thanks for checking in Marion!

      August 15, 2023 - 9:00 am Reply
  • WanderingCanadians

    Oh gosh, your accommodations sound rough. Good call on doing a deep clean and buying some plants to spruce it up. Those demos sound stressful, but glad to hear that you helped attract some new students. I can’t wait to read more.

    August 15, 2023 - 2:44 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for following along, the next chapter is out on Wednesday.

      August 15, 2023 - 2:47 pm Reply
  • Rebecca

    Despite the shoddy start with your accommodation, you really spruced it up and made it your home! And a house-warming party it certainly was! Your students were all too adorable, and I wonder how they’re doing today, as they’re probably all grown up now! Perhaps some of them were inspired by your lessons and continued to pursue English!

    August 16, 2023 - 5:08 am Reply
    • Leighton

      The adorable factor will be ramped up in the upcoming chapters Rebecca. I think Chinese kids are among the very cutest in the world. And yes, most of the boys and girls I taught back in 2009 will be in their late teens early twenties by now. What a sobering thought!

      August 16, 2023 - 9:37 am Reply
  • anoush

    Another fantastic instalment, Leighton, pleasure to read as always. Some of my friends spent a couple of years teaching in China and they had similarly horrific apartment stories. Strange to think that this is acceptable to give someone such a filthy flat. You certainly made it look like a home.

    August 16, 2023 - 9:38 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      It is a depressingly family’s story from anyone who’s lived in China as an English teacher. Typically such apartments are free or offered at a greatly reduced price. So the thinking is: “Like it or lump it!” Thanks for reading Anoush.

      August 16, 2023 - 9:41 pm Reply

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