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.