Friday, November 25, 2005

Drippy Drama

I stumbled across the apartment from our bedroom to the bathroom at four in the morning, being careful to open my eyes only the barest slit in order to preserve my sleepiness, hoping that I could easily slide back into bed and off to sleep again. But then I heard it, that tiny noise ... there was definitely something dripping.

Remembering our experience in LongHu when a burst pipe in the apartment above resulted in icy cold water dripping into our bedroom in the early hours of the morning, I had learnt that it is usually worthwhile checking up on dripping sounds. Opening my eyes a little more, and turning on the bathroom light, I noticed that the hot water system was dripping onto the washing machine. No big deal, back to bed and worry about it later.

But the damage was done, I couldn't just go back to sleep. I lay there and wondered what I should have done, and soon I was up again. The water was definitely coming from the water heater and not from the ceiling above, and it was dripping quite fast from at least three different spots. The bathroom floor was already puddled and slippery. So I put down towels and turned off supply taps and tried again to sleep.

In the morning we found the drips had continued unabated despite turning off taps. So we told our contact person at work and we were told the landlord would come in and fix the problem.

So the next day they all came. The landlady - sweet little person - and her tall thin husband, and son who actually knew a little bit of English. And the "professional man" who was to replace the hot water system. They chattered and argued amongst themselves, and there was coming and going, up and down the stairs. They discovered in the process that our intercom handpiece doesn't always work - and they seemed dissatisfied with our system of giving it a good hit every time. The doorbell also chose this time to stop sounding like a cow's last gasp, it gave up the ghost completely and fell silent. And the bathroom heater - one of those with heat lamps and a built-in exhaust fan - had never worked, but with winter well on it's way in they said they would replace that too. The electrician would be called, another professional person.

That's our front door, on the right, next to the troublesome intercom phone. The narrow little door with the imitation stain-glass window is the bathroom. So this little corner of the world is where everyone wanted to be.

So it was like living in Grand Central Station for a while. I was glad I didn't need the toilet - our little bathroom was full of people. The apartment door was left open for all the coming and going, and our neighbour happened by and was curious as to what was going on. She wandered in to have a chat with the landlady and the workmen, noticed me sitting there trying to do some lesson preparation and indulged herself in a good long stare. Then she asked the other people about me - I don't know all the words, but I do know the word for "understand" - and being reassured that I didn't have a clue she proceeded to wander into my kitchen and have a good snoop around.

I had to go out to work - at least there was a toilet I could use at work, albeit a "squat". By the end of the day's lessons I was feeling quite out of sorts, having had my whole daily routine - such as it is - turned around. It was so nice to come home to a nice hot shower. And what a difference! Instead of the previous barest trickle of warm water, we now have a gushing hot shower. But the dripping - now from the pipes - was much worse. We had buckets and containers catching the drips, and we had to turn off all the supply taps overnight.

So over the next few days they all came back again, and again. It took several attempts to fix the leaking pipes - they dug a big hole in the wall out in the stairwell - and then they had to keep coming back to check if it was fixed. A man came and put in the bathroom heater - mmm! warmth! - on another day. And then they all came back and took the intercom handpiece apart and fixed that. The next day they checked the pipes again.

Our brand new water heater, complete with shiny pipes and taps - no more rust stains on the wall and no more dripping!

Yesterday I had some sort of stomach thing - up late at night befriending the porcelain. So this morning - as I don't have a lesson till this evening - I luxuriated in bed, planning maybe a long hot bath, now that our water is all hot and gushy. In the end I got up about 10 and languished in the shower instead. The phone rang and Peter answered - it was our boss in Shanghai. As I started getting out of the shower and wrapped myself in one of our large bathsheets (unlike locally available towels), I was vaguely aware of a noise at the apartment door. Peter was still on the phone and I was almost wrapped when the whole bunch (including the neighbour!) burst in through the door. Apparently the water heater needed another check-up - ? And of course they needed to fix the door-bell which would of warned me of their impending embarrassment. And, yes, they were more embarrassed than I was.

Its all over bar the shouting

So I had never thought much about this expression, but I think I just found out what it means.

Another workman just turned up on my doorstep. He didn't ring the "bell", just banged on the door with the back of his hand. He was already quite upset, he had been shouting on his phone in the stairwell before he started hitting the door. He had a bucket and other equipment with him, and was apparently upset about the fact that the wall outside our apartment is all fixed. The other day there was a hole in it, then it was filled in with some black stuff that made the whole stairwell smell like vomit, then they plastered it over, then someone painted it in the same flaking grey as everything else - you really couldn't tell there had been anything there. (We have often been amazed by the ability of workmen in this country to erect buildings that look ancient, flaking and worn down from day one.) I was guessing it was his job to plaster the wall and someone had jumped in ahead of him, but I had nothing useful I could tell him, I hadn't even seen who had fixed the wall, it just happened. He was sniffing the wall (I guess he knows about these smells too) and running up and down the flight of stairs to the nearest window, and shouting angrily in his phone.

My caring neighbour could stand it no longer - you can only see so much through a peep-hole! - and she suddenly decided the outside of her door needed polishing. She came out with a cloth and wiped it down, said a few words to the workman, and then popped back inside. I figured there was not much to gain by leaving my door wide open and letting all that cold air in, so I pulled it to so he could check inside again without hurting his hand if he needed to.

Mrs Care-a-lot decided it was, after all, her business, and came back out into the stairwell for a really good go at him. The argument became increasingly heated and I was sure I would soon hear blows. Another man's voice (her husband?) tried to gently intervene a few times. Suddenly she pulled my door open and stepped inside - I have no idea what she hoped to acheive, she knew I was there - and then she looked a little embarrassed (a first for her) and closed the door.

All is quiet now. Hopefully if the saying is true it's all over now!

Well, almost

This whole drippy drama started over a week ago now. This morning there was another man banging on the door - then he apparently noticed the doorbell and used that. I was ready for the worst as I opened the door, thinking the angry ant was back. But here was another "professional man" from the water heater company, neatly dressed in the company uniform, nodding and bowing a little, shuffling his feet nervously about wanting to enter my apartment. He came in quietly and checked everything, ran the hot water, checked the guages, and then asked me to sign a piece of paper - in triplicate, I got to keep the pink copy. I was reminded again of why we so enjoy living and working here, the people are so gentle and polite. It's a pleasure dealing with them.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

I love work!

The place where we work is fairly unimpressive from the outside. The red and yellow sign is about our school - and there are similar red and yellow signs on posts right down the street to make sure people can find us. The biggish windows to the left of the sign above the red awning are our classrooms.

Once you go in and up the lift (or stairs) to the second floor, you are met by one or more of the delightful young ladies at the front desk. This is Alice, who is always smiling and friendly.

Down the end of the hallway - through the glass door and turn to the right - is the teachers' office. We are four full-time and two part-time teachers and this is where we sometimes get together, where we can relax, or do preparation, or go on the computer.

Then there is the resource room. This little bookshelf contains a wealth of useful materials. In Australia we had much larger resources collections in schools - but a lot of it was out of date and useless for so many reasons. This little stash is well-organised and maintained and all useful!

But what about the actual classrooms, the coal-face, where the real work happens? They are bright and airy, with desks and bright red and yellow plastic chairs to seat up to about 15 students in a class. That's because our classes are all small. Here is a kids open class - that's why there are parents present. They have come for a demonstration lesson to see if they want to pour their hard-earned cash into having their precious offspring learn English here.

But neither Peter nor I are teaching kids classes now - it's a really nice change after years of teaching kids in Australia! Gone are the days of playground duty, money collections, policy writing, anecdotal records about kids' misbehaviour, writing school reports - all the blah stuff about teaching primary school that have nothing to do with your actual teaching skillls.

We teach two main types of classes. Conversational classes are for individuals who want to improve their English, and they are privately funded. Business classes are funded by corporations who want their employees to improve their English. Corporate classes are sometimes in the classrooms at our centre, and sometimes we go to their workplace and teach there.

So, why do I love my job? It is such a pleasant, friendly place to work. Not only because of my work colleagues, but the people I get to teach are so wonderful to get to know.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Hitching a Ride

I love watching the barges on the canal.

Its partly about the sounds. After the apparent mayhem of the streets with constant horns honking and pedestrians and cyclists weaving their way among buses, taxis and private cars, there just seems to be so much more order on the river. So I turn my back on the busy road and the traffic sounds are swallowed up in the deep throb of the boat engines - pitched so low that it is more of a feeling than a sound -and the gentle swishing of the water around the hulls.

At first it is not obvious that the tall majestic barges are one and the same as the water-level boats with water sloshing over their bows. They go down to Shanghai loaded to the max, and return sitting proud and high in the water.

So this boat - above - is empty, and this boat - below - is just as big but its full.

And then there are the barge trains - sometimes we see up to about twenty barges all joined together.

We were amused to see this at the tail end of a long barge train. There was a little runabout tied to the last barge, and then this fisherman has hooked himself on and is tagging along.

As each barge goes past we catch a glimpse of their lives. Sometimes we see lady sitting on the deck holding onto a small child. Often there are steaming cooking pots behind the wheelhouse. There are usually pots with plants sitting around, and someone hosing down or cleaning the deck. I saw a lady washing her hair, squatting on the deck pouring water over her soapy locks. And there is the ubiquitous washing hanging on the deck.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Hanging the Washing

We see a great many interesting things, all of them different from what we see back "home". There are some really big differences, like the big Buddha, but then there are zillions of little everyday things that don't remind us of home.

The Grand Canal through Wuxi is only one street away from our apartment block, and we love to go and just watch the traffic up and down. Its just like the street, with lanes of traffic in both directions, and impatient vehicles wanting to overtake others, except so much quieter. Nothing to hear except the deep thrumming of the engines and the splashing of water.

In this picture, the boat on the left is heading towards us, but the wheelhouse is at the stern and because of the large load the driver can barely see where he is going. The person on the bow is responsible for waving a hand - usually holding a flag - to indicate to the man at the wheel where he needs to steer. With lots of bridges of various sizes to navigate under as well as other vessels to avoid, the lady on the bow is kept pretty busy.

Its a fascinating scene to watch, and it makes an interesting picture. (We have a large number of photos of the grand canal in our collection!) But this one is of particular interest to me because of the background. I worry about the washing hanging out of the apartment windows.

When I travel through a city with tall apartment blocks - and there are one or two of those in China! - I find myself looking up in fascination at the washing hanging way above my head. I think it takes a certain amount of nerve to be able to dangle your clothing out there like that, especially big things like blankets.

Our bedroom opens onto an enclosed balcony, with sliding windows at floor level and above, and a set of hanging poles that can be lowered and raised with a rope on a pulley. It's great, I feel totally safe - and so does my washing. Unfortuately, we are discovering that Wuxi's weather is very humid more often than not, and sometimes I do wish that we also had some outside hanging poles like most of the other apartments around here.

This is part of the view from my kitchen window - its always interesting! This is a fairly clear day, so someone has decided to use the trees in the courtyard for a temporary clothesline. At least this is within the apartment complex. On fine days the city streets in some parts of town are so full of washing lines that its harder than usual to walk down the pavements. Some people make use of road-side bushes and shrubs to air their bedding on. When we stayed in Qingdao last winter our hotel room overlooked an intersection which had a large roundabout. A thoughtful city administration had filled the roundabout with exercise equipment, which was well used by health-conscious city-dwellers every morning. And then on fine days the whole roundabout sprouted washing lines and wet washing. Can you imagine doing that in Australia?

I read in the news a few weeks ago that in Hong Kong there are now laundry police to stop people doing that, and they will confiscate washing hanging in public places. It seems a pity, there is something very Chinese about hanging washing all over the place.

The streets can be rather dirty, and the air may often be polluted, but the people here are generally meticulously clean. I love watching (from my kitchen) as they hang their washing. First you have to go out on your balcony and wipe everything down. The hanging poles themselves get very dusty, and the windows and window-ledges can leave dirty smudges on your clothes. Each balcony has black wrought-iron bars up to waist high, and if you hang washing outside on rails then the clothes will doubtless blow back and come into contact with this railing, and so this also needs to be carefully wiped down before you can start dangling clothes out there. There are a quite a few minutes of good, hard work to be done getting the area ready. And, if - as many still do - you wash your clothes by hand, washing day is all in all quite a busy time. I have nothing but admiration for the women who live here and who are so careful and neat.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Dying to get off the Bus

I never catch buses at home (in Australia). Almost everyone has a car, the bus service is not that great and it's relatively expensive unless you have some kind on concession card. So when you do see a bus go past there are usually only a few people on it, all sitting politely upright on their seats, staring forwards. When someone wants to get on they wait patiently at a bus stop - they usually have an idea what time the bus should arrive - and stick their hand out to hail the bus when they see it. And when you want to get off you ring the little bell and the driver stops gently at the next stop for you. Of course, none of that happens here.

The bus service is brilliant - lots and lots of buses going to all sorts of places, and quite cheap. We can go almost everywhere by bus, and we pore over our Chinese map reading the bus numbers and working out how to get to where we need to be. A bus trip costs 1 RMB regardless of where you go, unless you get on a "K" bus - new, air conditioned, usually has an actual gearbox and clutch - and you pay 2 RMB for the same privilege. Most routes have both types of bus, its just the luck of the draw which one shows up when you are waiting.

Last year in Long Hu we caught a country bus to get to the city, it was only 2.5 RMB for the one hour of being bounced around into the city, and then we would go from there on the city buses. Country buses are great, there is a real family atmosphere.

They mostly follow a particular route, unless one or more passengers decide they would like to go somewhere else closer to where they live. And they don't have particular stops, you can flag one down anywhere you see one. And you can carry animals or pets if you want to. They have a driver and a conductor, and the conductor hangs out the window encouraging people to get on when things are a bit lean.

There was a bus station in Zhengzhou where the Long Hu country bus turned around, and we could buy a ticket there, go through the security screening and get on the bus - that cost 3 RMB, and apparently the bus station kept that money. Then any fares picked up along the route outside the bus station, the driver would keep the money (only 2.5) and use it to buy petrol. Sometimes we would be waiting on the road and the bus would be very slow in coming because he was creeping along trying to pick up enough passengers to get enough money to buy petrol on the way back.

In Wuxi, of course its all city buses, and they follow definite routes and stop at prescribed bus stops. However, as Peter discovered to his loss, they don't always stop at every stop if they can't see anyone waiting and if there are no passengers standing anxiously by the door waiting to get off.

Getting onto a bus can be a fairly physical experience, especially if the bus is already full and there are quite a few people waiting. Yesterday I was standing behind a bunch - can't really call it a queue! - of about ten people struggling to get onto a bus. I didn't feel an urgent need to be on in a hurry, so instead of leaning against the person in front of me I left a physical gap of a couple of inches. A man came hurrying up from behind me, saw my gap and shouldered his way into it.

Buses do not have two neat rows of seats and an aisle down the middle. There are various seats at different levels. On a K bus the back seats are up a series of steps, and at the front there are two high rows (over the wheels) facing inwards.

(This is a typical K bus.)

There is always an large open space in the middle for standing, and there are rails and hanging loops for holding onto. Often if you are standing there is very little chance of falling over despite the lurching of the bus because everybody is packed in so tight there is nowhere to fall. If you are lucky enough to catch sight of a seat to sit down on, then there is no guarantee of comfort. Some of the seats are over a wheel and there is nowhere to put your feet, its like sitting on a floor-level seat, knees up under your chin. If you do snag a seat and people are standing, then they will be hanging onto your chair-back, and leaning across you to hang onto the rail by the window - many of these people are two short of stature to actually hang onto the roof-rail.

We have learnt that if you have to stand, its best to be near a door - preferably the middle/back getting-off door. So the other day I found myself near the door, holding onto a seat back facing the opposite window. And the bus was crammed, I could feel bodies against mine on every side.The lady on the seat to my left wanted to get off, and had to struggle to clamber under the arm of the man next to me who was holding onto her seat-back. To my surprise he then pushed his child into the seat. There were slightly indignant looks all round - children travel free and are not really entitled to a seat, but people often do this for 'little darling'. I wasn't fussed, I didn't want to sit down in case I couldn't get off when it was my stop. Then the person on my right wriggled their way out of the seat to get off. I had noticed an elderly man to my right who was using a walking stick - by rights someone should have given him a seat already - and I motioned for him to take the seat rather than me. Before he could move a man came from behind me, wriggled and pushed his way around me and under my arm and plopped himself down on the seat, staring steadfastly out of the window to avoid the inscrutable stares. Nevertheless I read disgust on the face of walking-stick man. However, he can't have been all bad, because a little later he shifted over on his seat to give an inch to a woman to rest half-a-cheek on. I'm guessing he knew her, but not well enough to give up the whole seat.

This week I tried something new. I joined a group of expat ladies here in Wuxi, and went out to lunch with them. They met at a restaurant in a part of town where I had not been, so I took a taxi there because I wasn't sure how to find the restaurant. It was an interesting meal, I felt like maybe I was the only native-born English speaker because although these women were all 'foreigners' they were mostly from European countries such as Holland, France, Germany etc. I made friends with a lovely Dutch Chinese lady who was next to me at the table and who spoke excellent English as well as of course Chinese and Dutch. After the meal she came out to the street with me to help me catch a bus home. I wasn't totally sure which bus to catch and in which direction and where the bus stop was, and she helped me find the spot, made sure I had the right bus, and waited in the light drizzly rain with me for the bus to arrive. As always, so caring and generous. She was a little concerned for my safety on the bus, having had an unfortunate experience herself, and I was feeling a little out on a limb being in an unfamiliar place without Peter.

So when the bus arrived and it was a real clunker and packed full of people, I had a moment of hesitation - I almost turned around to say, "No, I'll catch a taxi." Then I thought, "I can do this," and I clambered up the steep steps and took my place right next to the driver at the head of the steps - because that was all that was left. I waved to my friend, the bus driver started the bus (this was one of those that turns the engine off every time he slows down or stops) crunched the gears, and lurched off.

A few metres down the road the person in the seat closest to the door stood up and started struggling their way through the crush to the back door to get off at the next stop. No one else moved and I knew I was riding the bus til the end of the route and I wouldn't need to push my way off, so I plopped myself down. The seat had no foot room, so I sat sideways until the next stop when I pulled my knees up under my chin to stop people trampling on my toes as they got on.

The engine in this bus was worse than most, and the driver was having a real struggle. It seemed like the bus was stalling of its own accord, and he was having difficulty restarting it. At each stop people were getting off, and now there were only a few people left. Besides me, there was a frail-looking little old man with a walking stick, and a number of dark labourer-type men, one of whom was fast asleep in a seat with his head lolling over into the aisle.

We arrrived at the end of the line and the driver stopped the bus and quickly opened the engine cover and started working on the engine. The little old man decided he would rather get off the front door as the other was a little crowded but the driver yelled loudly at him. He had a stick which was to prop the engine cover open with, and he waved it in the air at him pointing at the back door.

This was when he noticed sleeping man. A lot of people seem to go to sleep on the bus, somehow they just doze off despite the noise and the bustle. But this guy wasn't dozing, he was definitely out to it. The driver yelled even more loudly - obviously he was not having a good day. He walked up and banged his stick on the chair next to sleeping man. No response, not even a twitch.

I don't know. Maybe he was deaf. Or dead. I had to get off the bus.

Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Welcome to My China

Yesterday was my 'day off' but I went into the office anyway for a Chinese lesson - which was cancelled because no one else showed up. So, instead of rushing back after the lesson to make sure I was at home to let the cleaner in, I had time on my hands and I thought I may as well walk home and look out for a hairdresser on the way. I know there are big, fancy hairdressers in the city centre, but I thought a nice little suburban one would do.

Coming down our street, carefully walking on the very edge of the pavement I managed not to step on any of the pavers that suddenly tip and splash very bad water all over your feet. I passed a young lady who was washing her hair on the side-walk - pouring water over her head to rinse out the shampoo into the gutter. I peered briefly into each shop that displayed a barber's pole, but they only had a few girls sitting around on a sofa or preening themselves on a chair in front of a mirror on the wall.

I was almost home, just before the knee-high fruit-stall under a canvas awning, and I noticed what looked like a genuine hairdressers. There were six chairs, each facing a mirror with a little glass shelf, three on each side wall. An imitation grape-vine (bearing huge plastic strawberries, tiny plastic bananas, and almost real-looking plastic mandarins) decorated the white walls, winding its way over and around each mirror. A lady was sitting under one of those hair-dryer hoods with her hair in curlers - this had to be a hairdressers!

"Just do it!" I told myself as I moved away from the knee-high fruit-stall, and down the step through the doorway.

There were startled looks all round. Two young men, obviously hair-stylists (longish dyed, styled hair) stood up, and came towards me. I indicated with snipping fingers that I wanted a hair-cut. They all looked quite concerned, and chattered excitedly amongst themselves. An older woman, presumably the boss started giving instructions to the two young men, and they invited me to come through to the back room. I did the snippy fingers thing again and tried to explain that I didn't want a wash, just a cut. But I wasn't getting through so I decided I may as well go on through, what's the worst that could happen?

As I stuck my head through the doorway into the back room there were more startled looks. A couple of girls were in there, lounging around and talking. There was one of those "lie-down-and have-your-hair-washed" sinks - an orange vinyl bed leading up to a black sink - and one of the girls was doing her laundry in it. Hurriedly she removed her wet underwear from the sink, and one of the boys grabbed a towel and wiped down the orange lounge. I lay myself down with my head over the sink and tried to think relaxing thoughts, still with my hand-bag over my shoulder and still clutching my umbrella in one hand under the plastic cloak they put over me.

I heard them talking and I recognised the words "ting de dong" which means "hear and understand". I chuckled and said out loud "bu ting de dong" meaning "not hear and understand", which I hoped would leave them wondering just how much I was understanding.

The young laundry girl did my wash. The shampoo bottle must have been nearly empty because she pumped and pumped it into her hand - I wonder if she had been using the shampoo to wash her clothes too. She massaged my head thoroughly with strong fingers. Suddenly she leaned over my face and smiled and said, "Welcome to my China!" I guess she had been working hard at remembering a few words from English lessons at school. I smiled and replied "Xie Xie! Thank you!" and felt a little more relaxed.

The wash was done and it was one of the boys turn to cut my hair. He showed me with his fingers how much he was intending to cut off, and I nodded, and he got on with it. He worked quickly and confidently and I tried not to worry about the results. I was glad he didn't do too much moussing and blowdrying. And at least my hair wasn't flopping in my face any more.

I managed to ask the cost in Chinese - aware that I should have asked before I started - and I thought he said 18. I fumbled in my purse and handed the boss-lady two tens. Said, "thank you" and popped the money straight into a locked box, and it was obvious I wasn't getting any change. I said my good-byes and headed out the door.

A little old man was coming towards me, I was half aware as I fumbled to put my purse away that he wasn't getting out of the way. I looked up and realised he was holding an enamel cup and leering at me hopefully. I popped a coin into his cup and he let me pass.

And I still had time to get home before the cleaner arrived.

Sunday, November 6, 2005

Puddle Nuts

What was I thinking? I looked to the left (I remember to look that way first now) to check for bikes and scooters coming that way, quickly checked to the right and took a little step back for the scooter that was heading down the wrong side of the road. Then I headed out across the bike lane after the fast bike and before the slow one, and out across the first lane behind that taxi whose driver was looking at me hoping for a fare from a foreigner, waited with my toes on the yellow line looking to the right and waited for the van and taxi coming that way, crossed the lane quickly before the big black car - then I went along the road a few paces to find the narrowest section of that long lake of a puddle, nimbly jumped over into the other bike lane (those who know me, stop laughing!) dodged around a couple of bikes and stealth (silent, electric) scooters, ducked under the loops of low-hanging tangled power-lines, stepped around the hole in the pavement... and I was at the bus stop, waiting for a bus to get me to work.

This is my street, where my home is. At one time I would have considered this street uncrossable, now I go back and forth several times a day - and this is one of the quieter streets. But it wasn't the effort of crossing the street that made me gasp and back up against the wall as far away as possible from the street. I had just stopped to think about how big and how muddy those puddles were. This was the most rain I had seen since we came here, and I wasn't really prepared for it. Sure, I had my umbrella with me. But what was I thinking wearing white jeans?

I saw a lady standing at the other side of the street, where I had been standing hesitating a few moments before. She was dressed sensibly like everyone else in dark colours, and she had two plastic bags of shopping which she set down at her feet on the ground. She seemed to be waiting for someone, and she was standing right out at the edge of the road past the bike lane. Just then the number 3 bus came down the road - it doesn't stop here and was going quite fast. It hit a puddle full pelt and a wall of muddy water washed over our lady on the road side. She just stood there, blinking with surprise. Well, at least it wasn't me in my white jeans.

Cute Curry Bunny

A colleague at work mentioned this wonderful little curry restaurant down a dark, narrow alley in the city, so we decided to try it. We had tried in vain in Zhengzhou to find genuine curry, not just more peppers.

His directions were easy enough to follow. We found the alley and it was dark. In the distance we could see some twinkling lights (like Christmas tree lights). So we decided we would head down that far, and if that wasn't it then we would just come back. We weren't quite sure how to recognise it, we hadn't asked if there were any English words, we thought maybe our noses would indicate that it was the right place.

But there it was, under the twinkling lights, with "Curry House" printed neatly above the door. We were welcomed in by the eager staff, and shown to a table.

The menus didn't have any English words, but there were pictures and numbers, which was all we needed. The food arrived very quickly with a young waiter carrying a tray and a young waitress taking the plates to put them carefully on the table. The food was beautifully presented - we were particularly taken with this little tomato bunny - couldn't bear to eat him!

We had two different dishes and a couple of sides. The bowl of rice seemed to be just part of the deal - or maybe it was mentioned in the Chinese words in the menu. We were given a cup of tea as soon as we sat down, and every time we sipped from it someone would step forward and top it up.

I used to find it a little annoying, being constantly watched over like that, but I've got used to it and think its very nice - in fact if I'm in a restaurant where they don't do that I feel let down.

The meal only cost us about $4 each, and was thoroughly satisfying and enjoyable. I am sure we will be eating there again.

Saturday, November 5, 2005

Through the Looking Glass

When we first entered the college at Long Hu we were amazed to see a large mirror on a stand right near the entrance. In this photo you can just see part of it at the bottom of the stairs.

We thought maybe this had once been a ballet school or some such - why else would anyone need such a large mirror?

We also noticed the lack of a mirror - other than the tiny one in the bathroom cabinet - in our apartment; and other teachers had the same problem. I found myself checking my clothing before going to work by looking at my reflection in the TV. The students were maybe lacking mirrors in their apartments too - some of them had tiny hand-mirrors that they gazed into in class when they didn't feel like concentrating anymore. After a while these teenagers managed to break their mirrors, and I often saw them peering lovingly into a dangerous-looking shard of mirror. One day in Zhengzhou I came across a little shop that sold mirrors - the long thin kind that you hang on your bedroom wall - and I carried one home on the bus, carefully. That was the same day that Bea bought herself a long Chinese sword and brought that home on the bus too, that was another adventure.

It took us a while to find the mirror shop. We had been looking out for places where we might get one, and so we started noticing them. We noticed, for instance, that our favourite tiny dumpling restaurant down the muddy street in the village of Xiao Qiao ("Little Bridge"), while lacking in most facilities, nevertheless had a full wall-sized mirror - albeit with cracks across it (sticky-taped). We wondered where they got it, how they got it in there, and why they had obviously put all of their funds into purchasing the wall mirror rather than other furniture.

And we noticed that other schools we visited had similar large mirrors near their entrance. We would see staff and students alike spending considerable amounts of time preening themselves in front of the mirror, paying no heed to others coming down the stairs and wanting to get past - or wanting their turn with the mirror.

Fast food restaurants, such as Micky D's, have a joint (men and women) wash-stand and mirror outside of the public facilities. So, while munching into a burger and fries, we could often sit there and watch the young and the apparently egotistic admiring themselves and fixing up their facial blemishes.

The young people are particularly fastidious about their hair. I guess it irritates them fiercely that there are so many people with the same hair, and they just want to be different, individual. I am intrigued that anyone can spend that much time checking and re-checking that each and every spikey strand is pointing upwards at exactly the right angle.

My first haircut in this dark-haired country was a surprisingly pleasant experience. My hair is fading - faded - auburn, and naturally wavy, very fine and quite thick ... apparently exactly what so many of them would like to have, minus the occasional silver strand. Down in the village near the university there is a whole street of hairdresser's shops, so I just walked along and picked about the third one along, at random as I had no real basis for my decision. The guy who seemed to be in charge had a few words of English, and remarkably offered me the "no wash, just cut" option, which I was glad of. The whole business only took a few minutes - despite the obvious need for the chap cutting my hair to play with it for an extended period of time and for everyone round about to gather and discuss it. And it only cost me 8 RMB - just over a dollar. And I was very pleased with the result.

When (my 18 year old daughter) Bea was coming to the end of her time in China, she decided she wanted to change her hairstyle, so we asked our minder to take us to a hairdresser in Zhengzhou - she said she knew a very good one. I decided I may as well have another trim while we were there. Bea had a pleasant hair-cut experience, with the young staff all gathering around to play with her hair for a good fifteen minutes or so before being game to cut it. It only cost her about $4 (25 RMB) - not bad for such a classy establishment.

There was no one available immediately to do my hair, unless I was willing to have the best and most expensive one, that would cost me $8 (50 RMB) - I figured I could probably afford that.

Well, that was a different experience. After being clothed in a special gown, then having my hair washed - lying down on my back, a new sensation - and my head massaged, and then my ears lovingly and gently cleaned, I was seated in front of the mirror ready for his lordship to work his magic.

He wasn't cutting very much off, tiny fragments with each snip. I sat there watching the customer opposite me who already had a number 3 cut having his hair checked and individual strands scissor-snipped a millimeter at a time, then combed and blown and snipped some more - I couldn't understand the words, but it appeared the hairdresser said that it was all done but the client was unhappy so they went back to the sink to wash it again and then sat down to work on it some more. Meanwhile my man worked and worked at mine, millimetres at a snip. Finally he seemed to have finished - but it was only a pause, there were more stages yet. There was the teasing and the blow-drying (although my hair was already thoroughly dry) and the plumping out - I was beginning to be afraid of ending up like Mary Tyler-Moore. He continued for more than an hour, while Bea finished her stint and sat "reading" a (Chinese) magazine and smiling patiently.

In the end he did a reasonable job, once I got home and washed it and pushed it all back into shape. My next "do" in Wuxi on the way through to Oz for our holiday was a similar experience. This time I was treated to a shoulder and neck massage, and arms, hands, fingers for a good half an hour by a young chap before the master appeared and was ready to cut my hair. This one had his own special technique - he would take a small lock of hair and twist it, then snip into it two or three times with the point of his scissors. He did this over and over ... and over for an hour or so.

And now I am afraid because I really need another haircut. There appear to be a lot of hairdressers along our street - they have the turning stripey poles. But at night they have red lights, so do they actually cut hair at all?

Maybe I'll just grow my hair.

Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Meat-on-a-stick beats KFC hands down

I must admit, there is a lot of Chinese food that I really don't like. Its not so bad here in Wuxi where the food is much more acceptable to the western palate - especially one that is sensitive to peppers. In Australia, like most people, I really enjoyed the food in Chinese restaurants, but that is not what they serve here, nor in Zhengzhou, and certainly not in the school canteen at LongHu.

So every now and then, we just feel tired of struggling to get through a plate of unfamiliar food, and we need the comfort of a nosh-up at a western restaurant, like KFC. Of course when we were in LongHu it was an hour or more on a rattley bus to indulge in such a treat. Here in Wuxi they are on every street corner.

In LongHu, though, the street food was great. So many interesting and tasty bites, cooked and served straight into your hand on a stick or in a bag. The meat-on-a-stick people had their little charcoal burners on wheels, and as the sun went down they wheeled them into their favourite spot, lit their little fires, and started blowing the flames with a hand-held fan as smoke billowed out across the street.

And then there were so many others. Pancake type concoctions, and sweet potatoes ready-cooked, and noodle mixtures, and "bai-zi-mo" hamburger-type food.

Of course many of these delicious snacks can be found on the streets of Wuxi at certain places. But they are also available in wonderful little permanent kiosks like this one.

The smile and the wave are all part of the friendly service. Gotta love 'em.

Beware of Happy Tunes

No longer do phones go "Ring! Ring!" There seems to be an unending variety of tunes and sounds available as "ring tones" - people even pay money to avail themselves of a favourite tune. My old phone used to quack like a duck when I received a message - that was the only way I could get myself to pay attention to it when there were so many other little tunes out there.

Our kids were at first delighted when we got a 22 tune musical doorbell for our home in Australia. The novelty soon wore off, though, and although we never got around to changing it or getting rid of it we always knew when it did ring that it was a stranger who was not aware how cross we would be when we opened the door to someone who had dared to press that little button.

Here in China, even our land-line house phone plays an innocuous little tune. I usually sit and listen to the first few bars feeling quite puzzled, then I inevitably jump up and announce unnecessarily. "that's the phone!" Just can't help myself. The intercom, on the other hand, sounds like a phone. And when that rings it takes all my concentration to drag myself away from the silent phone to the doorway to answer the intercom instead, "Wei?"

In public, especially on the bus, there are phones ringing constantly, and I just ignore them now. So for my mobile I had to select a darling little annoying ring-tone: It sounds like an old fashioned phone ringing at first - which, of course, has me thinking muddled thoughts about answering an intercom somewhere - and then my pocket starts talking to me saying "Hello! Hello!" Then I come to with a start and realise its mine.

But all of these little tunes are actually quite harmless. Its the really big, wet bruisers that you have to watch out for. I was standing at the bus stop yesterday. The sight of a dainty lady in pointy heels trying frantically to remove herself from the roadway alerted me to the danger moments before I heard the first strains of "Happy Birthday..." A water truck came roaring down the middle of the road at break-neck speed, squirting a two-and-a-half car-lane wide spray of water over the road to - ? Well, it wasn't dusty that I could see. We did have someone express to us once that it was designed to wash the road.

I reckon it must be fun driving that truck, though.