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!