Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Wedding Anniversary and a Hamster

We went out to dinner last night (celebrating our 30th) in a very classy western restaurant in Zhengzhou, one with a chef from US. We had steak, and spaghetti bol, and pizza, and cheesecake, all that kind of keen stuff! It was a very pleasant experience. Bea came with us and George too.

While we were wandering around town waiting to meet up with George (who came on a different bus) we came across one of the many street vendors with caged animals for sale – and she was selling baby hamsters!! Peter told me to listen to my conscience, the decision would be mine … I chose one that was running in a wheel, rather than the one the vendor pulled from its mother’s teat to show me! He’s a cute little chap (pretty sure it’s a boy) and of course I have called it after my childhood pet hamster in England: Happy (II)! The lady gave it to me in one of the tiny cages – they are about 5” x 5” x 10” – and I also bought one of the exercise wheels – they are completely enclosed, he can’t go in and out at will. She had him in the wheel hanging off the side of a cardboard box, running for his life in the sub-zero weather! But they originate in Siberia or somewhere, don’t they? Or maybe it was Syria …

So when we went into the restaurant I wrapped him, wheel and all, in my scarf, and put him on the seat next to me. He really enjoyed the bread-stick I slipped to him – the rest of the time he curled up and slept. When we got home I put him in a nice big box with paper, and a little box for a nest, and a toilet jar. By this morning he had chewed up all the paper and stuffed it in his nest, and made good use of his jar!! How do they know? This morning I watched him stuffing tissue paper into his cheeks to take into his nest. I went down to the local market and bought him some bok choy, which he is rather keen on, along with carrots and oats, and of course Corn Flakes (I decided we could spare a few from the precious box we recently bought at the Western Food shop at the other side of town.)

Monday, December 20, 2004

Winter Days

Its very, VERY cold here. We have a thermometer hanging outside the kitchen window and we go and peek at it regularly - especially first thing in the morning. The last four days has been our four-day break, and it’s been hovering between 2 and 4 all day, and down to -1 overnight. Today it crept up to 6. And the humidity it shows too, it’s been 100% almost every day for a while now. So it’s cold and damp, and murky looking. We keep hoping that we will see some snow soon to make up for the cold.

So we are all into long-johns - winter underwear! I don't usually feel cold, but even I am glad to be wearing long leggings under my jeans. You should see the babies around here. They put so many layers on them they can't bend or move.

But, despite the fact that it's winter, there is still plenty of fruit for sale, cheap too. The nicest fruit we have here is nashi pears - they call them "apple pears", I think. They are huge and juicy and sweet, much better than the ones we had in Australia. The bananas here are beautiful too - they must bring them from south China. Lately we have got some really nice mandarins. We have found some nice tomatos recently too. They are big and pink, and they stay firm and ripe and delicious for ages - you would expect them to go off quickly if you bought them that coloured in Australia. Sometimes we get nice carrots, and celery (but I hate celery). But greens ... they put their lettucey stuff out to dry. We don't know what the point of that is. Anything green we do get in our food is soggy, or its seaweed - bleh! I just don't like black plasticky seaweed, or frilly sea sponge, or sea slug ... or any of that stuff!

Bea is not keen on the food! Despite telling us she was looking forward to a "full on" experience, she's a typical teenage wimp when it comes to food. "I can't help what I don't like!" she says. The only thing we have found she is comfortable eating regularly is toast (even though all the bread here always has that strange sweet taste) with "tiny cheese" - the only cheese we can get is little foil-covered squares of cream-cheese designed for little kids. We can't get margarine, and butter is occasionally available at 2yuan (Chinese dollars) for one of those little individual serves..., so the tiny cheese (also 2yuan for a slightly bigger square) helps. Our friend from Beijing visited recently, and brought some Vegemite as a special treat. You can't get it here, but in Beijing its 52yuan for a little jar!

We are getting better at using buses, and have been further a field this weekend. We purchased a map of Zhengzhou city - all in Chinese, of course - which we found has bus numbers (tiny little red numbers!) in between the Chinese characters. We also found that just standing on the pavement looking at the map is really useful, people come from everywhere who know a word or two of English and want to help.

I've always hated bartering. But the other day Bea saw a little jade bottle she wanted for a gift for a friend, and Peter told me to go ahead and bargain. The lady wrote down the number 160(yuan), so I turned to walk away - way out of my range! But the crowd that had begun to gather shouted for us to come back and write down an offer. Feeling very bold, I wrote '30'. She came back with '50'. (So much for the 160!) This was when I realized that 30 was probably above what I wanted to pay in the first place, and I wasn't about to go higher, and I should have been more bold. So, we walked away. But they called us back and said they would accept the 30! Well, in the end I paid 30, pleased that I got it down from 160, but feeling that I still paid way too much. Us white guys must have "sucker" written all over us!

They are offering Bea work here. I am not sure that she is ready for that, though her father is keen for her to try. Between finishing high school, and culture shock, I don't want to push her to hard.

The power went off twice yesterday. And our (reverse cycle) air conditioner in our main room has totally died. And my bike is un-ridable and needs fixing. And our remote control is broken - which matters because without it we can't watch DVDs in colour, only black and white, because for some reason that feature only works with the remote. And just now I plugged our portable blow-heater into a powerboard ... and the powerboard went up in flames. And our main door-lock is broken - Peter got a key jammed and now it won't work at all.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Where the sun don't shine

The students/my kids here are really nice. I am going to miss them too when they go to Australia in January. Then, I suppose, I will have to start on the next class. Peter’s 'kids' (students) are a lot older and not so cute and helpless as mine. Mine are like teenagers back in the 50s, back in "Happy Days" or something - not in the way they dress, but in their innocence and naiveté.

We were standing outside the college front gate today, talking about the little section of grass there (rarely see lawn here) which still had snow on it four days after the rest of the snow had melted. That's because the sun never shines there. So now we know, we have found 'it', that mysterious place ... you know! When someone tells you they will "stick it where the sun don't shine" ... its here! All we need to do now is find the land of missing pens and pencils. I think that might be in China somewhere too.

The babies here are so cute. They look really fat, but that's mostly because its cold and they put layers and layers of clothes on them ‘til they can hardly move. Over the top they usually wear like a little back-to-front shirt, tied at the back, to stop them getting their clothes dirty. And pretty well everyone wears sleeve protectors on their arms - like a sleeve just from the elbow to the wrist - so you don't get the sleeves of your winter clothes messy. Clever little Orientals!

We have a saying here - "Nothing is ever as it seems". We keep proving that over and over. Like you buy some pretty foil-wrapped lollies, and find little meaty things inside, and what looks like colourful malteesers are soy nut things. There are so many things to taste and try, because you don't know until you do.

And all the time people are chattering at you in Chinese. It just never occurs to them that you don't get it. And then if you make dumb hand-signs at them they assume you are deaf and first shout louder, and then write it down in Chinese for you. Of course, Peter delights in saying all sorts of silly things back to them, "That's easy for you to say!" and the like. The poor taxi driver who brought us home from the city, Zhengzhou, last night had some thoughts about the unfairness of the fare he had agreed on ( by hand signs) with us before we even got into his taxi ... we can only guess what they were!

Friday, November 26, 2004

First snow and feather eggs

Its really cold!

A couple of days ago the weather was really nasty. Cold and windy, and raining, and the sky looked even dirtier than usual. We were so glad that the power didn't go off for very long at a time - we had a few short cuts. Then during the night I got up for the toilet at 3am and noticed that it was snowing quite heavily. By morning there was a thick blanket of snow. (Its only November yet!) Peter was so excited, running around taking photos and wanting to play with it - it was really hard to get him going in time for his 8am lesson!

My first lesson was 10am, and by then it had started to snow again, very heavily. The road was thick snow and very icy, and my usual 2 minute bike ride, or five minute walk, to the college took a lot longer. I got there with snow all over me, and on my present curls it forms quite a halo! One of the Chinese men teachers was quite excited by the sight of me, muttering "so beautiful ...". They love brown curly hair, even if it does have a few strands of grey now.

At recess time, which is usually time for their "Yi, er, san, si..." (1,2,3,4...) physical jerks, they all played in the snow instead. Kids (even the older ones) love playing with snow, even when they see lots of it every year! Peter was right in there, of course. There is a small courtyard in the middle of the college, and groups were on the roof-top and balconies on opposite sides throwing snow back and forth. One boy had a huge ball he made, about 2 feet across, and was carrying it around for ages until he found his opportune moment to get behind Peter and dump it on his head! Peter was glad he has taken to wearing a thick felt hat! My students were bringing snowballs into the classroom. No one seemed to mind. I saw the fairly elderly, usually very decorous, Chinese male deputy running down the hall with a student (carrying a snowball) in hot pursuit! One of the older female teachers was chucking snowballs too.

Today it is bright and clear - the sky is blue and the air is crisp and very cold. There is still a lot of snow lying around, and you have to be very careful of icy patches. The front steps of our building don't get any sun, and the top step is just smooth ice. But I have actually finished my lessons for today and I'm planning to get stuck into some crocheting and get my jumper finished. I'm not sure that it will be wearable in public, I'm just putting it together bit by bit out of a pattern idea in my head, but it will be warm. I'll wear it to bed if nothing else! I'm also half-way through a nice bright blanket to put on the sofa (and cover our/my knees in the evening).

When the power is on and the satellite is right we get a TV channel called CCTV 9 (China Central TV) - "world news from a Chinese perspective", and its all in English (or at least with English subtitles when they are speaking Chinese). Its very interesting, lots of documentaries about different parts of China and stuff like that as well as news. They did a thing about World Public Toilet Day - but they only went into some of the ones in big cities like Beijing where it was a bit stinky ... they haven't been where we've been!

Our Canadian colleague has been having problems with her toilet. After nine years in China she still hasn't caught on to how poor the plumbing system is. You are not supposed to put paper down it - so we are really careful and flush frequently and use the thin stuff etc. But she has been putting vegetable peelings and things in hers! "Its not like I put a whole carrot down there or something," she said. She had the work men up in her apartment putting the long thing down the pipe and making a big mess - which she was left to clean up later. Hopefully she will learn.

On the Sunday "they did it to us again". When we woke up, the power was already off. When they do that, it’s not an accident, "they" are using it elsewhere, and it doesn't come back on ‘til after dark. And the water disappears too, it all drains back down the pipes. Once again we weren't ready for it. Next Sunday I'll be ready - and it probably won't happen! What really annoyed us too was that we have a little gas stove in the apartments' shared kitchen area, and (if we had caught the water before it went off) we could at least have had a hot drink. But there has recently been a suspicion of a gas leak, so they took away the gas bottle to "fix" it and never returned it. We spent most of the day down in the local village where they cook with gas and there is plenty of cheap food. But by 6pm we were home huddled around our candle waiting for the power (it gets dark about 5), which came back about half past six.

We had an interesting meal down in the village lately. Everyone was queuing up for some yummy looking potatoes on a stick, deep-fried, three on a stick for 1 "kwai" (Chinese dollar, worth about 16c). Or maybe they were dumplings - we thought we might try some because they were obviously very popular. There are always lots of things on sticks, and that day there were even kidneys on a stick and other interesting delicacies. (At one market you can get about 10 cicadas on a stick, or ten tiny hearts - never seen anyone buy them though). So we got stuck into the crispy outside of these ... mmm, maybe they are eggs. There was something rather crunchy in mine. It was dark, because it was an "evening snacks" market. Peter noticed his was dark inside, but then they always soak their eggs in tea and stuff and make them look weird. Then Peter thought maybe they had inserted one of those kidneys we had seen on the other stall. We wandered over to where there was a bit more light.

You've guessed?? When Peter saw the tiny wing with pin feathers we realized. People call them "feather eggs". Eggs with a partly grown chick inside. Bleh! We dropped them into the gutter where they throw all their rubbish ...

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Trip to Dalian

I am so glad of these mits with the fingers missing - its so hard to type in regular gloves.

It’s SO cold! And it’s only the middle of November ... Last night we had our first snow.

It’s only just over a week ago that George (our Canadian co-worker who lives upstairs in our apartment), Peter and I set off to visit Dalian. We had no college "minder" with us because the whole college had been grounded (teachers and students) because of misbehaviour and low standards. Well, that’s what they told us.

Anyway, It’s a long way, and we only had 4 1/2 days. We set off on Wednesday afternoon on a sleeper bus. There are floor level and top level beds along each window - five along each side - and another row down the middle. As you get on, they hand you a plastic bag for your shoes. And the rest of the time you are pretty much confined to your bunk which is about 18" wide (narrower than George and Peter's shoulders) and probably a bit less than 6' long (George's feet were hanging over). Each bunk has a mattress (Chinese rock-hard style) and a thing that you can lie on or under (sort of a heavy quilt) and a pillow.

Contrary to what we were told, there were no toilet stops. There was a toilet on the bus - not western style! - it was a bit of a nightmare. There were a pair of oversize shower-slippers outside the toilet door so you could slip them on and not get your feet wet. Inside the toilet room there was the customary squat arrangement with a bar to hold onto so you don't fall. And an open window, with freezing cold air blasting in ... it was quite an experience. Once again, poor old George couldn't stand up straight in there, and the window was at a very embarrassing height for him.

So there weren't any food stops either - despite what we had been told. Not being therefore prepared we only had a few nibblies with us for the whole 20 hours. George felt that was a good thing, less food less trips to the toilet!

Then, in the early hours of the morning, we were staring blearily out the window of this high-speed bus roaring along the expressway at around 150km/hr, and we noticed patches of white in the fields - yep, snow. We started reading the road-signs and worked out we were only an hour or two from Dalian, and the bus stopped briefly here and there to let people off. Then they stopped in the middle of nowhere, nothing except a few taxis waiting to pick people up ... and someone poked their head in the door and said "Hullo! Hullo!" So "Hullo!" we replied cheerfully, but then gradually realized we were being told to get off the bus. Finally, reluctantly, we slipped our shoes back on and staggered off the bus in great disarray. Then we found there was a little bus behind our big one, that would take us into Dalian.

We stayed in a magnificent hotel in Dalian. We were on the 16th floor with amazing views which Peter had to keep taking pictures of. After our first night there we went to see the school where George will be teaching in February - we might (or might not) go there later. We really like Dalian, it’s where we originally wanted to go - so clean, and there are hills and the ocean. But it doesn't feel so Chinese as it does here. Henan province is one of the poorer ones (I think down south is poorest) and we are in a poor semi-rural area - which is kind of nice in its own way. But George will be teaching kids, and we don't want to do that any more - even though they got all excited at the prospect of a music teacher (when they heard that’s what I used to do) because they are planning to begin a music program. It would be nice to go to Dalian, and to see George again, we get on really well with him.

Then we had a couple of days to enjoy the sights of Dalian before heading back. We took the train coming back (we were told there were no seats on the way over but had no trouble booking a fare back).

The train was sooo much better. The bunks were a smidge wider, and longer, and you could actually walk between them ... and sit up! And you could buy food at some stations on the way (but this time we were prepared!) The toilet was much more bearable, frequently washed down, and there were sinks to wash at (and a mirror) and hot water on tap...a corridor to walk up and down. All in all, quite pleasant. We did not have a private berth (called "soft sleeper"), we took berths in a "hard sleeper", which doesn't mean that they are any harder than usual, only that there are six to a cabin - 3 levels. We only had one Chinese room-mate. We nicknamed him "'Nora", and he kept George awake most of the night!

Its funny sharing a cabin or bus with a bunch of people you have never met and can't communicate with - it still has a very family feel, totally non-threatening. They all wear thick full-body warm underwear. They take off their fancy business suits and flop down in their knitted woolen trousers and jumpers. But in the morning the men particularly continued to strut around in their underwear (well, it was warm on the train), looking a little bit ridiculous.

The staff takes good care of you. They come and take your ticket off you and give you a plastic card-token with your bed number, and your ticket goes in the appropriate slot in their file. Shortly before your stop they bring back your ticket, and tell you when you will arrive, giving you time to get packed up and organized. Then just before the station they gather all the disembarkees in a special section at the end of the carriage, and lock the doors on both sides so no one gets lost or misplaced. And they help you off in an orderly fashion.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

New Bikes

We have just finished the longest stint - 13 days of straight teaching without break. Not so bad for us (only 2 or 3 lessons a day), just a bit hard to keep track of which days is which. But for the students, it was all too much. A couple of nights ago a fight broke out in the dormitory between some of my boys and some boys in another class. As a result I have been missing 5 boys for the last two days - I presume they were on suspension or something, their parents took them home. One of them had a badly cut hand.

I have become very fond of the kids in my class. They certainly don't misbehave for me, I don't have to yell at them (never have) and they no longer sleep in class. It may be partly my interesting teaching.(!) It’s also the fact that it’s dawning on them they will be in Australia in a very short time.

At least the rest of this semester now will follow the regular plan - 10 days on then 4 off. This 4 days we are all so tired we just want to sit around at home. The next time we want to travel to Dalian. You can find that in your atlas up in the North-east on a peninsular hanging down ... quite a long way. We intend to take a train and a boat ... Our friend upstairs, the Canadian, is starting a job there in February and would like to take a look. We had originally hoped to work there so we would like to look too.

We are really looking forward to our youngest daughter joining us in a few weeks time when she finishes her year 12 exams. She is looking for an experience that will grow and mature her, and I'm sure it will that! In many ways a far more worthwhile thing to put on her resume than some of the courses she could go on at this stage.

We bought bicycles the other day. They are very cheap in Australian terms, about $60 for the two. Mind you, on the first day after I rode it home I found I could go downhill but not up - the pedals just slipped round and round. So we took it back and they "fixed" it. Now I can go up hill but not down, I can't free-wheel because it goes "gronk-gronk-gronk" - not a good noise! Peter's one grinds all the time. So tomorrow they both go back for some work!
But anyway, now it takes 2 minutes instead of 7 to get to college from home. (And one can come home between lessons for the toilet if necessary!) And we can nip down to the local shops, as well as ride around our local, very quiet, neighbourhood. One is supposed to ride/drive on the right, and we mostly do, but on the main roads there are big bike-paths separated from the road by hedges so they are very safe. Bikes never seem to have lights. But then, at night time a lot of cars seem to drive without lights too (!!) And at the same time there seem to be people walking around on the road and across the road ... I don't know!

While my bike was being fixed yesterday (and I was in class) Peter found a fire-works shop next to the bike shop ... ! Boys will be boys. He only got the loud bangy ones, no pretty ones, but they were very cheap, and he has had lots of fun with them. Apparently we are allowed to have them here because we are not in the city.

Well, I am really whacked. We had a late night last night, one way and another. Then we were awoken at 6am this morning with a nuisance phone call - some sort of sales thing I guess, or maybe the college hasn't paid it's phone bill, who can tell. Just a recorded Chinese voice, same thing over and over. It kept up most of the day until about 3pm. Now its 10pm and it’s just started again. I might leave the phone off the hook.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Autumn Holiday

Back from our one week Autumn break, and "hard" at work again, Peter came down with his third bout of diarrhea. He doesn’t really need anyone to translate for him when he goes to the Chinese doctor now, she knows as soon as she sees him! After going through all the pantomimes for headache, joint pains and sore throat, he was glad that he knew the word for diarrhea!

We had a good holiday. Peter was feeling very adventurous; I not so much so. We had been warned about crowds on transport over the holiday period. Also, the college likes to send a staff member as minder with us when we go anywhere ... some find this useful, but some foreign staff get tired of being baby-sat! Peter was keen for us to break out on our own for a change, but this is never easy. We announced (as per instructions) we would be traveling to Luoyang, 3 hours away by bus, and of course 2 Chinese staff suddenly wanted to go there too.

On the way there I faced my nemesis - a genuine Chinese back-shed toilet. After paying “point 5 kwai” (50c) I went out the back, past the dog and cat and through the mud, into the door-less shed marked with the Chinese symbol for “woman”. No internal walls, no door (just as well, it would be pitch black with a door) and there were six cement slots in the floor, and a bit of a smell, of course. After that, I figured I can go anywhere! I have been a lot more adventurous and tolerant of crowds since then.

Anyway, we had a nice overnight in Luoyang at a hotel. Then they took us out to show us the "Grotto" - 15000 Buddhas of various sizes carved out of the sides of the hills, at various levels. And millions of Chinese climbing up and down stairs to view and photograph them. After an hour and a half of these stairs and jostling crowds and Buddhas, we announced to our college minders that we really had had enough! They were staggered - this had cost 80 kwai each to see, and we haven't seen it all yet! There was a temple to see too, and another one down the road all included in the cost. But no, we were insistent that we were too tired and had seen enough temples and Buddhas.

After that we told them that we had really had enough and wanted to return directly to college. Again they were surprised, and we ended up coming back on the bus by ourselves, and then getting a taxi from Zz city back to the college, feeling quite adventurous.

The next day we headed off into Zhengzhou city again and successfully bought ourselves a DVD player and Chinese SIM cards for our mobile phones - quite tricky, but we found that grunting and gesturing and waving money usually works ... and in this case an assistant showed up in the DVD shop who knew a few words of English! We asked this sweet little girl for directions to a phone shop and she accompanied us (carrying our newly purchased DVD player for us) across a busy intersection and down the road to a phone shop, and then stayed there with us for half an hour to make sure our purchase went smoothly - talk about service!

So, feeling very clever, the next day we headed off again into the city (without a minder) to catch a train to nearby Kaifeng, about an hour away. We had a student we knew in Kaifeng, but had to catch a train first. There were long queues at the station, and lots of confusing Chinese signs. The place was huge, like an airport. Finally, in frustration, we approached a policeman and just said "Kaifeng?" He spoke excellent English, and went to the head of a very long queue and purchased us "soft sit-up" (numbered seats) tickets! After that it was easy.

We met our friend in Kaifeng. And then, suddenly, a college staff member turned up! They always know where we are! We get the impression that the college staff worry about us getting lost, mugged or breaking some law. Still, we had a good time. They took us to a very nice park and in the evening we ate in the amazing "evening snack market" - literally hundreds of little snack carts turn up to the central square in this town every evening to sell their wares, Chinese foods of every variety all being cooked right there on the spot and served as takeaways.

And over all, the strident sound of a Chinese opera singer was blaring out from a restaurant directly overhead from where we dined. It really was quite spectacular. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes Peter just about wore out the camera. He even took a couple of minutes of video. What a shame it couldn’t record the smells and tastes too. We sat upstairs in a restaurant that opened onto the square, (the same restaurant that had the opera singer on the top floor) eating dumplings and other delicacies!

The next morning we returned to the spot to find that everything had been dismantled and removed. Traffic now flowed across the same area. By 6pm it would all be back, ready for another busy night.

The next day we looked at another park then decided to head home. But the train was all booked. We were told there was a bus that came directly here to LongHu (“Dragon Lake” where the college is) without going to Zhengzhou ... but that was booked too. So then we had to go back on the regular slow bus via Zhengzhou. And the staff member came too.

When we got to Zhengzhou we tried to get a taxi to the bus station to catch the LongHu bus, but they were very busy and had upped their prices because of that. Finally one guy with a mini-bus said he would take us for a reasonable price ... and proceeded to pile another three people and their sacks of rice into the same taxi.

As soon as we set off he said he thought the LongHu bus would be very crowded and persuaded us to let him take us all the way. We agreed on a price and set off, through the little back alleys to the home of the other people. After we dropped them off, the Chinese teacher with us argued with the driver and got a lower price because of the extra passengers.

But then he got his own back. He continued on through the back alleys and picked up his mother. And then he went somewhere else, stopped the car again and ran off into the distance and returned with his little daughter. Putting her in the car, he disappeared again for ages and came back with a bag of food! We didn't mind too much - it was all interesting and quite relaxing, but the Chinese teacher had a bit of a grizzle!

So now we are back, and back into the routine, if you can call it that. Our first day back, a Friday, was a Thursday schedule. And then Saturday was a Monday, and Sunday was a Tuesday. It’s so hard to keep track of what day is which, especially Sundays! The next few days - Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday - were (naturally) a Wednesday, Thursday and Friday schedule. Thursday is a Monday, Friday is a Friday of course, and the next day (Saturday) will be another Monday, followed, I think, by another Sunday which is actually a Tuesday ... Because of recent holidays and stuff, things are a bit messed up and we have to work 13 days straight - really hard on the students! But at least we don't have too much to do on any one day.

Saturday, October 9, 2004

Around Town

So far we have found the people of Zhengzhou to be honest as the day is long. On our first trip to the markets an old man (who looked like he would own very little) pointed out that we had dropped a banknote. He was keen for us not to lose it. Yesterday a lady chased us forty metres down the road to give us back some money that she had realised she had overcharged us.

We had great fun buying a doona yesterday. The weather is alreading turning a lot cooler and getting a bit nippy over night. It's a welcome relief from the stickiness of August.
The little man in the little shop down the road started off by waving his hands in a "Come on you've got to be kidding" motion when we started asking in English for a bigger than single size. The man in the next shop began berating him for missing out on a sale, so the first man listened and watched while we went through our pantomimes waving and arms and grunting out the very few words of Mandarin we have so far. The inscrutable stare suddenly turned into a spark of recognition when I picked out a phrase meaning "wider" from our phrasebook, and I started holding up a quilt and comparing widths. We almost saw a light bulb suddenly flash above his head. He bounded into the back of the store and came back with a queen sized doona. After haggling it down from 200 RNB to 160, we marched off with it, smiles all round.

We spotted a spooky little cafe that looked to be straight out of the Torres Strait (where we lived during the 1980's)with its outdoor cooking over a big greasy stove and various concoctions bubbling or sizzling away with lots of noise and smoke.

Inside the cafe bit there was a certain very rustic charm about the place. Not quite a fixer-uperer, more like a pusher-overer. Electrical wiring just twisted together, exposed, looped across the walls. Laundry taps hanging over a huge sink. Bare concrete floor awash with litter. Long-ago painted now grimy walls with vivid signs of many a repair or attempted construction. And a huge cracked mirror covering one wall.

What we had spotted was Peter’s favourite dish - Chinese "dumplings" (jaozi) which are like a small steamed pasties. We ordered by pointing and speaking in English. The lady responded with "Jaozi" and led us inside where she cleaned down a table for us. We also ordered a couple of bottles of Coke, which she sent her son across the way to another shop to collect. She brought us each a bowl of soup which we hadn't ordered but I suspect is standard for any order.

It’s a bit like Australian restaurants sometimes bringing water to the table. Chinese in these parts always have soup of some kind as part of a meal, usually a clear vegetable soup. This one had coriander floating in it in great abundance. It was rather relaxing sitting in relative gloom with a ceiling fan blasting onto us, while watching the world go by in the market just metres way out in the sunlight. Eventually our dumplings arrived, a large plateful each with the chili dipping sauce. We battled to eat so many but managed to squeeze the last one down. They were delicious and very filling. This banquet cost us 12RMB. In Oz dollars that is $2 including the Cokes. But we are paid in RMB, so let's call it $12. Still cheap.

Zhengzhou traffic is just amazing. Often three wheels or five! Yes I had trouble imaging that the first time I heard about 5 wheeled vehicles; four on the back and one on the front. Some are basically a motorbike with a cart, but all joined up to make one vehicle. Some are a cart pulled by what looks like a very big rotary hoe without the hoe blades. The driver holds onto enormous handlebar type things that remind me of the handles of a reel mower. It's all joined up like a horse and cart. Weird. Cars would only account for about 10% of road users. Oh, and there are lots of "Cat Weasel" tricycles, if you ever saw the series on TV when you were a kid. Some motorized and some strictly pedal. Lots of bicycles and scooters. Some motorbikes (legally limited to 150cc) carrying three people.

Lots of pedestrians meandering across madhouse roads. Horns honking continuously. Huge loads being carried on tiny vehicles, with more people perched high on top of the loads. Achingly slow tractors chug-chug-chugging their way through all this with heavy loads of bricks or soil on their trailers. We saw some little men pulling genuine hand carts today; heavy-looking crude wooden carts with melons and corn loaded into them. Peter is building up quite a collection of digital photos of these things. The last guy teaching here took over 6000 photos in 6 months. I reckon Peter will beat that no sweat.

Friday, October 8, 2004


We have noticed that babies in China are different - they are very content, rarely cry in public, never have a "dummy" in their mouth, rarely travel in pushers, and are obviously very precious to their faimilies. So what else is different?

People around here just throw rubbish on the ground, it doesn't bother them. After all, it is someone else's job to clean it up later, so don't take their job away. I even got told off by one lady when I stowed my ribbish in my bike basket to carry it til I could find a bin - she was very definite that it should go on the ground.

Chinese toilet rolls are a bit funny. Many of them don't have a cardboard core, and they are quite a bit wider, and the paper is more like crepe paper. It has perforations, sort of, but when you try to tear it, first it stretches, then it tears the other way into long thin streamers ... It takes a really strong grasping in both hands and a good tug to tear a piece off. If you really persist with pulling it, sometimes it just king of explodes into tiny pieces which float down like confetti.

And by now you are wondering where this is going, ay?

The toilet paper is used for everything - so I guess it’s not necessarily "toilet paper" as such. It is quite acceptable in a homely restaurant for them to discreetly hand you a little rolled up piece of this paper instead of serviettes - at least I think that is why they hand it to you! Most people use it and throw it on the floor of course. (They also clear their throats and spit there, but it’s best not to think about that too much!) Better restaurants actually have a little holder with the roll in, and a hole in the top so you can delicately pull it out when you need it - except there is nothing delicate about tearing this paper, it really is a two-hand job, as I said! At least if it as an 'al fresco' restaurant (i.e. bright pink plastic chairs on the pavement) then the roll of paper doesn't all go blowing away.

But, back to the babies. Can you imagine how it would be if everyone threw their disposable nappies on the ground like they do the paper? So, isn't it good that they don't do that??

Babies don't wear nappies, except maybe tiny babies - you don't see many of those. They wear split-crotch pants. The little boys and girls tend to dress alike, and it could be hard to tell which is which until their hair grows long enough to put in piggy tails (for girls) but this way you can soon see what sort of little kiddy it is. I was looking at some little trousers the other day, and realizing that maybe they would be just a bit breezy for them! I am waiting to see what happens in winter. Maybe they come to some other arrangement.

winter babies

Eating in the canteen

I have been learning to eat with chopsticks. The ones they give you here at the college canteen are in a long thin paper bag with "sterilized" printed on it, but the bag is open one end, and the chopsticks are wooden and usually still wet, so you can't help wondering!

We were so worried about trying to be polite here, but that hardly seems an issue any more. Ok, so you don't put your fingers in your mouth. If you find a bone or something icky in your mouth (and the "meat" is mostly bone with a little something wrapped around it) you can very delicately take it from you slightly parted lips with your chop-sticks - not too hard (with practice) if it is something big like a chicken head, but it can be tricky with fish-bones. So in a case like that you just open your mouth slightly (not too much now) and go "phlew!" and spit it onto the table. Or the floor, though that is a little insensitive because it makes it slippery for others. Only things like tissues and chopstick wrappers generally go on the floor.

So, about noises! It's ok! Especially with noodles. Just slurp away. Pick a few up with your chopsticks and start slurping. And as for managing with chopsticks... its really, really easy. You either hold your bowl up near your mouth - right under your chin or lips is ok - or you put your mouth down near your bowl or dish. In our canteen they use those big metal trays (like in "MASH") with little compartments, and they give you a little metal bowl as well. You can use it any way you wish. I like to have my rice in my bowl. Most people get some soupy stuff in their bowl and drink it straight out of there. So I have seen people sitting there with their chin or lips down at table level trying to slurp straight from the tray because its too hard to pick the tray up.

Then there are the big things. They always have these steamed buns - they just look like a lump of uncooked dough, but they are actually quite light. Sometimes they are shaped like a big lump, other times they are all sort of twisty. These things you can pick up with your fingers and bite, and dip it into your gravy on your tray or whatever. Or you can spear it with your chopsticks and pick it up and bite bits off, or delicately hold it between your chopsticks and bite bits off. Then there are things like greasy fried pizza base, and they give you big triangles of it. That's nice, although its greasy - a bit different from everything else! Some people manage that with chopsticks, others use fingers.

Oh, and about the chicken head. I wasn't kidding. Peter was staring at the bits of chicken on his plate one day, and suddenly realised one of them was a head. Not much meat on that, but a tasty little eyeball or two if you want it and maybe the comb part isn't too bad - he didn't try it! He’s such a little favourite, the next day he was served up with a foot. And sometimes he even gets a couple of heads – but I’ve never had one.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Mood Festival

We had a memo from the college saying this is the "mood festival" - it certainly has put my class into a funny mood. They are all really frisky, grabbing each other and throwing things and changing seats all the time - fortunately I know who they all are now!

Actually its the autumn moon festival, and there was a big yellow moon last night. The days are really hazy and humid, it looks smoky but you can't smell smoke. Everyone is eating "moon cakes" - they are like little pies with special things inside. Some of them are really nice. Some have like a thick fruity jelly-ish paste inside, I think its lotus paste - I think they are the best. Others have like fruity, crunchy, nutty sweet stuff - the kids reckon they are 'disgusting' (I said 'that's a good English word to use'). Then there are the surprises, like a fish filling when you are expecting something sweet …

But at night there are lots of fireworks - not the pretty ones, just the loud bangy ones. And last night it sounded like they were launching them through a pipe so they exploded high in the air.

Sunday, September 26, 2004


Today is Tuesday here - well, "day 2" in the timetable. I have no lessons this morning, but three this afternoon at 2.50, 3.45 and 4.40. That last one is a real killer, "graveyard shift"! It finishes at 5.25pm when my stomach is telling me its time for tea, and the students are all sitting there counting down the minutes. Mind you, they have more lessons after tea, but at least they do get a break before them.
With this being a private college our students don't have to do all the "political training". We can hear them at another uni/college/school not far from here from early morning til late at night. Sounds like a polital rally, calling and shouting and repeating slogans at the tops of their voices.

Last night we went to a wedding. Our deputy principal was getting married and invited all the staff to a special dinner at the college. It was a nice change from the usual rice and wild gourd laced with hot peppers. Its amazing what "the smoking man" (our canteen chef who regularly comes and watches us eat, and yells complaints at us in Chinese out of the corner of his mouth, while puffing smoke all over us) can come up with when he puts his mind to it!!

Anyway, there were lots of speeches. Everyone laughed a lot - except the few of us at our table who are "foreign teachers"! No one would give us a translation. Then there was the drinking ceremony, which went on while the traditional Chinese feasting went ahead - plates being brought out and placed on the “lazy susan” in the middle of each table and everyone pulling bits off with their chopsticks. Fortunately we are reasonably adept with our chopsticks now. The bride and groom and MC went to each guest with a tray with three little cups, like egg cups, and a bottle of their "white wine". It is a strong liqueur, smells foul, and obviously there is no need to clean the cups between use, nothing could live in that!

Peter did his bit - drank his three cups for the happiness of the couple. But I just told them my doctor wouldn't let me - I was finding it a bit stressful. The single Canadian guy had got himself tanked up before he even went and was in fine form refilling everyone's glasses and talking loudly. The tiny Canadian lady went ahead and drank her three, whispering "save me Jesus" between each one, and then sat down swinging her legs, and with her face going all shades of red and purple. The Sri Lankan, a Moslem, sat and neither ate nor drank the whole time. Our new Filipina teacher, sitting next to me, got louder and more drunk - until she ate a lolly and discovered she had a hole in her tooth. She wasn't drunk enough to cover that pain! We were most relieved when the party suddenly broke up at about 9.30pm.

Wednesday, September 1, 2004

Getting Started

I am sitting at this incredibly old, grotty computer - just now I pressed the "enter" key and it stuck and the cursor went spinning down the page before I could unstick it ...

Talk of sticking, my wrists are sticking to the desk, I'm so hot and sweaty.

But we are having lots of fun.

There was the "Opening Ceremony" for the college this morning, for the new semester. We were introduced, lots of things were said about us in Chinese and they all clapped. Then we sat down on these little stools behind a bench thing covered with red velvet. My stool was rotten (I noticed later) and almost collapsed - I managed to catch myself, and also not to giggle openly, which would have been most inappropriate!

I love the vehicles. They remind me of movies like Mad Max or Waterworld.

Yesterday we saw one that looked like a modified lawn mower or rotary hoe (with two wheels and a handle reaching back) being driven by a guy sitting on a trailer that was being towed by it. There are little blue three-wheeled trucks everywhere, like trucks with only one wheel at the front, and carrying heavy loads of bricks or sand, and making a loud slow deep "put-put" noise.

The little motor-bike taxis are fun to travel in - the back half of the motorbike is a little trailer that can seat up to about six people.

Its not all just fun you know - I had to do some work today. I had to teach two lessons with one class ... that's it for today. Its very hot and humid today, and for some reason the air conditioners in the college itself are off (we still have air conditioning in our unit) - don't know if they are broken - it doesn't seem likely because each room has its own split-system unit - or they have been turned off to save money. So the poor "kids" (teenagers) keep falling asleep at their desks.

(Yes, he is genuinely fast asleep - he was amazed when I showed him the photo later!)

They have no qualms about putting their heads down for a sleep because they can't be bothered to try to listen any more. Even when I make the lesson a real interesting one, they are just too hot and tired.

We went out to a restaurant last night, right here in this complex that our college is part of. Just a few of the teachers went; paid for by a traveling teacher-person from Adelaide (she has some sort of special organizing job.) We five were the only ones in the restaurant; there were lots of staff around. And they didn't have any rice and very few other dishes because we hadn't warned them we were coming.

There are two Canadians teaching here. A chap who lives upstairs from us, and a funny little lady who mutters to herself a lot (after being in China 'alone' for 9 years). Downstairs there is supposed to be a Filipina lady, but she seems to have "done a runner" and not shown up this term. Also downstairs is the Sri Lanka guy who does the computers. Last night he fixed up this computer in our apartment with an ASDL (?) connection. Brilliant!

We are told there are about 280 foreigners in Zhengzhou (a city of about 5 million). I guess that's why people walk down the street just to stand in front of us and have a really good stare.

Monday, August 30, 2004

Starting off

The day of flying here was fairly harassing, but now we are here, and over our initial bewilderment.

Everything at this college was apparently once very grand - huge majestic buildings - but now all a bit decrepit. We are told they are planning to build and move to a new campus next September. (Well, we’ll see.)

Our apartment is on the third floor (my knees are gradually adjusting!) and quite large ...but sort of big and empty and strange. The Chinese understanding of shower and toilet and kitchen are a little different from ours... but it's quite livable.

Everything is very secure with big heavy metal burglar-proof doors. It takes three keys to get into our place. The college itself has a guarded gate, and is in a complex called New City of Long Hu (Dragon Lake) which is walled, gated and guarded. There are other organizations in the complex such as a police academy - the place is crawling with dozens of police cars.

We eat in the student canteen, and the food is "delicious and nutritious" and very Chinese. I can't get used to drinking a (metal) bowlful of bland "porridge" with every meal like they do. It’s like a very runny tasteless hot porridge/soup which they ladle out of a huge pot. But most of the other food is ok, and not a bit like "Chinese" in Australia.

We are about 45mins out of the big city - Zhengzhou. We went there the other day in our college bus to buy a few essentials. The foods and delicacies available in the shops were amazing and different (and the ones we tried were delightful).

We have our timetables and start work tomorrow. I only have twelve classes a week and Peter has fifteen - but we work on a two week rotation: two five-day weeks then four days off. Tomorrow I only have one class, and it’s in the afternoon. The next day I have one double lesson in the morning then nothing for the rest of the day. Some days are like that! But on Thursday I have five classes. (wow!) Our first classes are at 8.10am. Then each class goes for 45 minutes followed by a 10min break. There is a longer break between periods 2 and 3 when the students do enforced exercises. Then after period 4 its lunch, followed by a siesta break until 2.50pm!! Then there are three more classes before tea. I have classes in the afternoon on some days, but only in periods 5 and/or 7. Then there are two more periods after tea - but we never have to do any of those.

Our classes are very small. My main class is the largest with 23. I have them for 3 double lessons a week. It is a second year English immersion class - they call in "All Subjects In English", and I do "Listening and Speaking" with them. The first year ASIE class has only 15 students. Peter's main class, which he teaches for a double lesson every day, is the second year IELTS class ( that's preparation for the international English language test). There are 12 students in his class, and only 6 in the year one IELTS class. I have each of these four classes 3 times a fortnight for "Communication" That's a syllabus-free open-ended type course that I am really looking forward to. There are other classes in the school that we don't teach, and there are Chinese teachers who teach them Social Studies, Maths, and Reading and Writing (in "English") as well.

There is a Sri Lankan chap who has been here for 11 years and does the IT and teaching computer. Poor guy struggles away with very old Pentium 1 computers, and he hasn't really been in the outside world to see what is going on these days. Like the buildings, nothing gets replaced or properly repaired, just patched up. Our apartment is a mass of odd wires and cables sticky-taped up walls and along edges - some still in use and some defunct, but all very dusty...

The students are all in their late teens or older and seem very nice so far. Today is a day off and some of the students have gone for a walk to a local vineyard because they have never seen one. Peter has gone with them, but I stayed because the food has begun to disagree with me and I didn't fancy a long walk in the present heat and oppressive humidity. I came up to our office to check our emails on this beaten up old computer ... we have been promised a better one in our apartment "tomorrow or the next day".