Friday, December 30, 2005

Family Vehicle

I was waiting at the bus-stop, again. It was a relatively quiet day, cold but not too windy. I noticed a wheelchair coming my way in the bike lane. My attention was mostly drawn by the little chap in the bright red track suit who was ensconced on his grandmother's broad lap as she was pushed along in the wheelchair. Like so many Chinese youngsters this time of year, he was so rugged up that he was like a starfish on the beach, and he just lay there. I was smiling at him and trying to catch his eye - as one does with these placid youngsters - and I glanced up at the proud grandmother who had such a firm hold on him. It was only as they drew alongside me that I noticed the grandfather - probably the owner of the wheelchair - on whose lap they were both sitting. He had a grey wheezy look about him, and I wondered how on earth he breathed or whether his poor old heart could pump blood along his crushed veins.

Then I saw the daughter - mother of the child, I suppose - who was pushing the wheelchair, taking her family for a walk in the brisk air. She was brown-skinned from hours of outdoor labour, obviously as strong as an ox, but also proud and happy. She gave me a broad gap-toothed grin as she passed and strode on down the street to ... I wonder where she was taking them?

Once again, I had didn't have a camera ready, so I drew a sketch from memory:

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Our Thirty-oneth

Yesterday we celebrated thirty-one years of marital bliss.

Peter totally surprised me first-thing in the morning with a large parcel, elegantly wrapped in two plastic bags sticky-taped together. I shook it ... no rattle. Not heavy enough for a book. Couldn't smell any interesting chocolatey smells, and anyway it was too light for that too. Or so I thought.

This is the biggest box of chocolates I have ever received! And the lightest. 36 little cardboard packages, each containing two tiny Hershey's kisses. The whole thing comes down to 375 grams of chocolate. American made, maybe, but definitely Chinese packaging.

So then we hopped aboard a bus and went into town together. We got off near the centre of town and walked north. That's when we saw

The Big Chook

I know chickens like to scratch around in the dirt, but this is ridiculous.

We escaped from the chicken and went on up to a shopping centre we hadn't visited before. Its English name is "Trust Mart". Now there's an interesting concept in the Chinese market place. The centre was big and spacious and there were no crowds at all, so we spent a pleasant couple of hours browsing around. We even managed to find some apple-drinking-vinegar which we became very fond of in Zhengzhou but haven't been able to get here. Mind you, it wasn't nearly as tasty as the stuff we got last year.

Enough of that, we decided to cross the road and catch a bus back to the city centre rather than walking as it had begun to rain. We were at one of those huge intersections which takes a good minute to walk across, but fortunately there was an underpass. So we headed down the steps along with other pedestrians. Once you are underground things are often confusing, but there seemed to be only one tunnel to walk along and we were relieved to emerge once again into the clear air. Our instincts were right, the tunnel had taken us in the wrong direction and we were now on the corner diagonally opposite where we wanted to be. There was nothing for it but to head over land across the intersection.

Back in the city centre we decided on lunch in Pizza Hut - the creme-de-la-creme of restaurants if price is anything to go on. What would you think if you had to pay sixty or seventy bucks for a lunch-sized pan pizza? But it was nice. Sometimes you just need a little bit of home! Real mozarella stringy cheese, and not a chopstick in sight.

We were about to leave after our delicious lunch when I suddenly remembered the washroom facilities at Pizza Hut are usually well worth visiting too. A tall sad-looking Chinese employee held the door open for me as I entered the "ladies", and then stood around leaning on her mop handle while I relaxed on the clean white western-style loo. As I left she stepped into the stall to mop and wipe everything down for the next customer. At least she had waited til I was done - in some of the Chinese-style public conveniences if your stall door doesn't lock over-enthusiastic cleaning staff will reach in and start mopping while you are still busy ...

To complete our happy day we then crossed the road and enjoyed a dessert and coffee at Starbucks.

Yeah, 31 happy years ...

Monday, December 26, 2005

School Christmas

They thought it would be nice for the children at the "bilingual" primary school to be visited by some foreign teachers during their Christmas celebrations. So we were told to prepare some activities to do with them, and we were to spend a couple of happy hours visiting their classrooms and bringing Christmas cheer.

Well, the arrangements were pretty bodgy - we were seriously misled as to the age of the students, and number of classes. So I found myself being physically pushed into the centre of a classroom full of five-year-olds - I had an activity prepared for older children who had possibly learnt a few more words of English and some self-control. As I stood in the centre of the classroom I saw that the desks (which I had hoped to use for the activity) were pushed back against the walls, and the little darlings were sitting around on chairs screaming (literally) with excitement. Their rosy cheeks were sticky and grubby from eating lollies all morning - most of their normal food has very little sugar - and they were as high as kites.

I had to do a quick think on my feet, trying to dredge up an "activity" that could be done safely - for me and them - in this situation. It had to be something that required no language skills, and very little space ... and I was coming up blank. One of our lovely office girls was with me, and she had a CD player and a CD - I had no idea what was on the CD (had not had a chance to listen to it) other than "Christmas songs". And she had no idea how to work the CD player which she had grabbed on the way out the door.

This was one of those "performing monkey" situations that ESL teachers hate. Someone somewhere sometime (and I hope, for their sake, they have already "passed on") gave the people of China the idea that foreign teachers like to "sing a song or do a dance". No chance, even if I could. So what did I do? What would you do if you had to survive for about 15 minutes in this situation?

Well I started with: "Hello" - it's the one English word they all know - and they chorused back, "Hellooo!" Then I tried, "How are you?" and they all screamed, "Ahmm fahhn, anda you?" Well, that is what they are taught in schools. I had a go at, "Merry Christmas!" "Merry Christmas!" and I was fast running out of ideas. The only other thing I was fairly confident they could handle was, "What is your name?" - so I went around the room randomly asking the little upturned faces and getting "My name is ...." Chinese names that I couldn't repeat accurately.

I asked Alice to play some music, and their teacher (in a tiny mousey voice) and I together managed to get them to understand musical statues. But after one little soldier nearly lost his front teeth (a lot of the little boys had toy guns with them) I gave that a miss. I tried getting boys and girls to "dance" separately - "now the boys" ... "now the girls" ... - but there seemed to be a great deal of confusion about which was which, I guess those two words weren't in their vocabulary yet. Listening wasn't a strong point in either language.

Some moments that will stay with me:

In one class I turned the tables and suggested one of them might like to perform. The teacher volunteered a little pixie-girl who she said had very good English. She was tiny for her age, but came confidently to the middle of the room where she sang and flapped her little arms and spun around, and they all joined in.

In another class I spied a spare tiny chair, so I grabbed it and sat myself in their circle. A chunky little man two chairs up made a big show of leaning away from me, almost squashing the kid next to him to avoid being near me. So I grabbed him and sat him on my knee. The other kids were greatly amused and he had the attention he obviously needed!

In one of the classes there was a little boy who had just spent a year in Australia - what a gorgeous little kid he was! He came out and tried to translate for me as the kids asked me questions ... yes, by this stage I'd decided that getting them to ask me questions was by far the safest strategy, at least with these students who were a year older!

One little boy - another cute chunky kid - desperately wanted to show off his extremely limited English. He kept putting up his hand, but then he would stumble and stall, or just say silly meaningless things. Finally he stood up and started reading out of his book. "I am a boy. I am a good boy. I am learning English ... I am slim..." At this point the teacher suddenly realised he had his book open and stopped him. "You are not slim. You are fat!" she scolded him.

In my sixth and final classroom they had some banger things - they shoot paper everywhere - to let off. Can you imagine doing that in the classroom in Oz? They wanted me to be in the middle of the room so that I would get showered in coloured paper, but I backed away nearer the door. The teacher and her assistant were struggling with several of these cardboard tubes, holding them high in the air and twisting the bottom of them to make them explode. The children wanted to be involved too, and were swinging on the teacher's arms and pulling on the cardboard tubes. I thought about how I would have insisted that everyone was seated in their chair with their lips buttoned and their arms folded at a time like this. There was mayhem and screaming, and finally to everyone's relief there was a loud bang and a shower of green and red strips of paper.

And it was over at last. We headed back to the principal's office. When we had arrived two hours before they had presented each of us with a paper cup of boiling hot Chinese tea, and instantly anounced that it was time to go. Our cups were still sitting there, so they hotted them up and we had a quick cuppa and headed home.

We were each presented with a generous gift for our little effort. There was a lovely little mug with a matching lid. And some pre-stamped postcards. And a little Chinese doll. And an electric jug.

I guess they had no idea Peter and I were married. Hmm. One already in the kitchen. One for the bedroom, and one for the study ...

A Chinese Christmas

We decided that this year we would make our Christmas Day special by attending church, especially as it fell on a Sunday anyway. We had not attended church in China before - we have had considerable difficulty finding out when and where to go.


The church in Wuxi is a big obvious building, but it is in a busy construction site - all the buildings around it seem to be being re-built or renovated. There is a massive hole in the ground right in front of it, and the air is full of the sound of jack-hammers. I suppose that eventually the church building itself will be out of sight behind some monumental sky-scraper building.

We worked our way along the hoarding around the site, and finally found an open gate with people streaming in. There seemed to be a service of some sort already going on in the church itself, and a large crowd was pressing into the doorway trying to see what was going on. There were also crowds of people heading into another building nearby which was labelled as church offices. Then there were other people sitting around on wooden chairs outside just having a cuppa. Others were just standing gawking at the construction pit and machinery. No one paid much attention to us, not even the other couple of foreigners we saw standing around.

After we had wandered around a little, a Chinese couple came up to us and said hello. They had been in Australia for a few years, and had just come back to visit Wuxi for a few months. They tried to find out for us when and where there was an English service - information we had was 10 am, but they were told by someone around it wasn't until 10.30. So we all decided to go across the road for a cuppa at Macca's while we waited, it gave us a chance to get to know each other a little.

When we came back we went into the big church - there were already a lot of people in there, but no foreigners and it wasn't really looking like it would be an English service.

We sat in a pew - this one had obviously been left empty because the floor there had been used as a toddler's toilet during the previous service - and Peter was having fun taking photos of a cute baby nearby. Suddenly a lady in the pew in front noticed us and started excitably explaining something to us in Chinese, she kept grabbing my arm and trying to drag me away toward the front of the church. Our Chinese friends realised she was saying we were in the wrong place, and we let her lead us right up to the front of the church, across to the other side, out a door and up some stairs.

The "English" service had obviously been going for some time - since 9.30 we found out later - and the tiny classroom sized room was packed. We were grabbed again and led down to the front where they found a couple of spare kindergarten-sized chairs for us to sit on. We were hard up against the piano, and right under the noses of the young pastor who was preaching in Chinese, and a Chinese lady who was translating into English.

And a movie

Our new Chinese friends said they had been planning to meet other friends and go to see a movie at the cinema - would we like to join them? Well, why not, do what the people are doing.

She phoned her friend who went to find out whether this new exciting Chinese movie had English subtitles, and the message soon came back that it did, so we decided to give it a try. Soon we were seated in a small cinema with a tub of multicoloured popcorn, right down near the front.

The movie was magnificent. There is no other way to describe it. Everything was extravagant, overdone maybe, very Chinese. And yes, there were subtitles - in Chinese. Our friends got up and took us back out of the cinema - we had been promised English subtitles. Well, unfortunately we would have to come back to the 3.30 session for that. We considered going in to a different small cinema to watch "Harry Potter" with English subtitles, but that would somehow spoil the experience. So we went back in and sat and watched it in Chinese. We were amazed how much we did understand, both of the spoken and written words, and of course we had our friends there to explain and interpret.

It seems that every Chinese person would like to be a super-hero, to be able to run at the speed of light, and to fly, and to fight by leaping and spinning, to appear and disappear. I have endured small amounts of Chinese movies on TV that are full of this stuff. But this one was so big in every way, and not just because it was on the big screen. It was like a peek into the Chinese psyche, and a reminder that our cultures are so very different.

Christmas Dinner

We came out of the movie with that funny lost feeling you can have after watching an epic - it had felt like about five hours, but apparently it was only two - and we were hungry. A friend in Australia had asked me what I would be having for Christmas lunch, and this was the moment to find out.

We went across the road into a food court - we had thought to eat there before the movie, but it was too crowded to get in the door. We are often in the city at lunchtime on a Sunday, and it is always difficult to find somewhere that's not too crowded.

We had a big bowl of noodles each, and a little plate of meat. It was very filling and satisfying, and different from any other Christmas lunch we've had.

Bus ride home

Well, the city was packed, far more than usual. We decided to catch a bus as close as possible to it's starting point, because the buses were all bursting full. As we approached one of the stops where there are buses heading in our direction, there was a crowd that extended out into the road, filling the first traffic lane. There was a bus just arriving, not one we wanted, and the crowd surged towards it. Then we saw down the street our bus approaching. We forced our way through the crowd and arrived just as it pulled up. We were almost the first ones there, but in no time there were shoulders and elbows pushing their way between us and the bus door. Being slightly taller than many of those around him, Peter managed to reach over their heads and grab hold of the rail on the door of the bus. A strange murmur went through the crowd as he pulled himself towards the door. I grabbed hold of the back of his jacket so as not to get separated, and was amused to see several other hands holding on there too.

We managed to get on, and grabbed a standing space quite close to the back exit door. The people just kept pouring on, and we just stood our ground and held on to our selected handles. Finally the bus rumbled off the mark and around the corner. At the next stop it halted only long enough to let one person leap out of the back door - the driver did not open the front door to let anyone on. As we drove on we heard yelling and someone banging on the side of the bus.

When we clambered out at our stop and climbed up to our apartment we felt like we had had a long day, but it was only about three o'clock in the afternoon. Plenty of time still to settle down and watch a good $1 DVD in English.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Shopping with Alice

Doing "bookshop" is not fun. It's not hard work, it's just boring, and it makes my legs ache standing still for so long. But when there are not enough clients to fill our timetables with lessons that dazzle, we get landed with a few stints there in the bookshop. It's "performing monkey" time, just stand there and look foreign, attract attention, get prospective new clients so intrigued they just have to come over and have a closer look at us. While one of the office girls stands with us and does all the real work: - "Excuse me, blah blah blah..." The (hopefully) new client chats with them, occasionally glancing at the foreigner curiously - no idea what they are saying, but we smile and nod.

But it is fun to have some time chatting with whichever of the girls has also landed bookshop duty. Remember Alice? (She featured in "I love work"). She and I were doing bookshop together today, and neither of us had our hearts in it, I must admit. I casually asked if she knew where I could buy some knitting yarn - feel like keeping my fingers busy with some crochetting while we watch some of those six yuan (one dollar) DVDs on these cold cold evenings, and the blanket I started last year is too big to be fun any more (takes a whole ball of yarn to go around once.) Alice's eyes lit up - they sparkle with mischief on her saddest days - at a chance to go shopping, her favourite sport! She suggested that if I wasn't doing anything after bookshop she would go with me to find some.

What was even better, from her point of view, was when I suggested a couple of minutes before knock-off time that maybe we could go now. That set her to chuckling, and she slipped her arm happily into mine as we set off into the crowded street.

She had no idea where to go, but after all her sales training she was not at all averse to bowling up to the nearest startled pedestian and ask them if they knew. Apparently nobody did know, so we headed in the direction of one of the really big department stores, places I normally avoid, especially at times like Sunday afternoon. "Commercial Mansion," the three metre high words announced, and Alice stood there for a while and practised saying it until she got it right - I am often curious as to who the English names are put there for, is it really just so Alice can practise her English?

Once inside Alice started questioning people again, and we were pointed in the direction of an enquiries counter. At least I think it was. A big sign announced "Meet Your Every Demand". Hmm. I had some thoughts ... but I was fairly sure the two girls slouching around reading magazines behind the desk did not even know any English, Alice had enough trouble attracting their attention in Chinese to ask her question about knitting yarn.

Third floor, they told her. That was when I noticed the escalators. And the solid mass of people around the bottom of them. I am not fond of crowds, and by myself I would have walked back out of the shop. But Alice took my arm and we barged right in there, pushing with the rest, until we found our feet on the escalator steps. Just as well we were heading for the third floor, because as we came out the top of the first escalator we were in the hub of the crowd that spun around to the right and continued on up.

Once again Alice ran around looking for someone to ask for information, which is just as well because the only place that sold yarn was down a spooky little alley-way between a couple of shops that were boarded up for rennovations - it was not at all obvious that people were even allowed in that area.

The lady in the shop was looking down her nose at me, I am sure of that. I was obviously not her usual class of customer. This was a shop where they tailor beautiful suits for people, and I guess you could ask to have something knitted for you with the yarns as well. I told Alice it was really too expensive - I was glad the lady didn't speak English. Bold little Alice asked if they offered a discount, and chuckled a bit when she told me this shop did not give discounts. That was obvious enough.

It was good yarn though, Alice kept pointing out - I could see that. Not like the knotty home-made stuff I bought in Xiao Qiao last year. Real merino wool, apparently, and sold by the kilo. It looked like it would cost me about a hundred bucks for a kilo, but I had no idea how much I needed - I'm used to buying wool in ounces or by the ball. Eventually I was persuaded to buy a half-kilo, as this would apparently be enough to make a vest or the like.

Now I come to look at it, I have never bought a half-kilo of wool in a presentation box like this! There are four large balls and two half-sized balls, each in their own little plastic-moulded hole. And the box! What happened to stuffing it all in a plastic bag and tying a knot in the top? How will I know which ball to start with? How guilty will I feel if this project fails or remains unfinished? I don't even have a pattern, just a vague idea in my head ... is it okay to do that when the wool comes in a presentation box?

I guess I'll sit and stare at it a while longer.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Dangerous Streets

When we were little kids we were taught how to cross the street:

Look right, look left, look right again. If it's all clear, walk straight across. Walk, don't run.

Well, I would spend my whole life on this side of the street if I tried to do that here. Of course, here we have to look left first - but also check to the right for vehicles going the "wrong" way. (I forgot the other day and blithely stepped into the path of a stealth scooter which swerved around me, almost onto the correct side of the street.) But also it's extremely rare for any street to ever be clear enough to walk straight across. It's still true that it's not a good idea to run. "Don't run, and don't stop," is good advice.

Some of our Chinese friends find it amusing that we always try to cross the street where there is a crosswalk. I'm told that it was only last September or so that it became law in China that drivers must not run into pedestrians on crosswalks. Not that they have to stop at a crosswalk if there are pedestrians crossing! Oh, no! Honk, swerve around them (but don't stop), threaten (by surging at them), flash your headlights at them in warning, but don't run them down.

Maybe they forgot to tell everyone the new law. But when all else fails there is a very general rule that everyone understands quite well: "Anything goes as long as you don't bump into anything."

When I travel to an out-lying district to teach on-site lessons to employees of a French company, they send a driver to pick me up from the office. This man has driving skills which I admire immensely. He arrives outside our office at the worst possible time, just when the two schools - a primary school next to our office and a high school opposite the office - are discharging their pupils. It is a scene of utter chaos.

Parents (and grand-parents) and excited children are streaming along and across the road in all directions, carrying school-bags and boarding all manner of vehicles - cars, vans, public buses, taxis, bikes, trikes, scooters, motor-bikes - eager to get home out of the cold wind. Vehicles are parked, and double or triple parked all over the place, some are trying to back out or do u-turns, while a flotilla of large public buses have stopped out in the middle of the road-way because the bus-stop is full of children and adults who are flooding out onto the road, pushing and shoving to be first onto the bus. There is a lot of honking - apparently without it no one would know where anyone else was - and an amazing amount of patience.

When things reach a stale-mate and no one can move at all for a few minutes, until traffic lights further down the street change maybe, the drivers just sit and honk or flash their lights and the pedestrians and two-wheelers continue to weave their way through the mess. The weird thing is that no one gets angry - no shouting, no waving of fists - as there would be for sure overseas.

In the middle of all this my big black car arrives, on the other side of the road facing the wrong way. He gently u-turns through all the mayhem, and stops at the kerb-side. He greets me and helps me do up my seat-belt , and then we inch our way through the madding crowd. After the first couple of streets in the city centre things open up a bit, he takes his right hand off the horn, and picks up the pace. He drives aggressively - no waiting around unnecessarily - and skilfully. He seems to know just how fast he can drive head-on at an obstacle, (other vehicle, pedestrian, red traffic light) so that he barely needs to change gears as he flits past. He plays a nice Chinese music CD as we travel, and ... I am learning to relax and trust his judgement.

This week Peter was not so lucky. He takes a taxi to an off-site class, and he had a taxi-driver who obviously didn't hear about the pedestrian crossing law. He ran smack-bang into the side of a chap riding his electric bike across a zebra crossing. Naturally it can be pretty serious for a tax-driver if he is involved in an accident, it could cost him his licence and his livelihood.

The taxi-driver jumped out (leaving the meter running) picked the guy up, and pulled up his trouser leg and shirt in the raw wind to examine his injuries. There was a lot of discussion going on, and a crowd gathered to watch the show - much more entertaining than TV! The driver rushed back to the vehicle and dragged out a packet of cigarettes and tried desperately to get the man to have one - but he just batted them away. Then he got more generous and started trying to tuck a hundred yuan bill into the man's clothing, but he continued to wave him off. This was worth much more than a cigarette, or even a hundred bucks! In the end the driver weakened, and gave him three hundred bills and some smaller notes - probably all he had - and the matter was settled.

It was hard for Peter to know what to do in this situation - should he jump out into the cold and hail another taxi, then he would have to pay the initial 8 yuan all over again. As it was a trip to work, he needed a taxi receipt to claim the fare back anyway. Finally the driver got back in the cab and drove him to his destination, and proceeded to charge him the full fare that was on the meter, despite the twenty-minute interlude at the crosswalk. Of course, the taxi-driver was feeling aggressive and very stressed, and when your Chinese vocabulary is limited to about ten stuttering phrases, it usually seems best just to give in and pay.

The taxi driver was very lucky that the police didn't show up of course. A friend of ours recently had a similar experience of being in a taxi that hit a cyclist, but on this occasion the police turned up and had to be paid too.

Stay on the path

So I have learnt to cross the street - lane by lane - even by myself. And I am even learning to be safe on the footpath. This is where bikes - and often cars too - are parked, so there is still a good chance of being run over.

Last week we saw the police "cleaning up" the city centre - strictly speaking motor-bikes are not allowed in the CBD - so the they were picking up parked motor-bikes and loading them onto the back of a truck to cart them away. How frustrating would that be? It's hard enough to find a parking spot for your vehicle without the hassle of having it carted away while you are busy.

It can be hard for the street-sellers too - those wonderful little people who deliver such cheap delicious treats to the side-walk - the police were carting them away too. Presumably there is some sort of payment they should make, or a licence they should buy. Or they just shouldn't park so much in the way. These people are always extremely mobile, ready to up-anchor and flit away at a moment's notice, but still a lot of them got caught.

Meat-on-a-stick is always great, they have little barbecues on wheels - you can just see the man on the left is fanning his fire. And then there is the fruit-on-a-stick - coated in a crackly caramel toffee, and often wrapped in edible rice-paper as well.

Sometimes there are the most amazing smells. Often there are people selling "stinky tofu" - fried fermented bean-curd - which has a strong burning toilet-related smell. They say if you can get past the smell it's delicious, but I haven't been game yet.

In the cinemas in Oz the advertising time often starts with "Can you smell the popcorn?..." I, for one, have always loved the smell of the popcorn in the movie theatre, though I'm not that interested in eating it.

Well that is nothing in comparison to the popcorn they sell on the streets. The delectable aroma grabs you as you come around a corner, and there she is, a lady with a tiny tricycle cart and a pressure-cooker on the back. She adds sugar and butter and flavours of your choice to the mix, and out comes the most delicious, crisp, fresh, irresistible popcorn ever. For three yuan she will hand you a large plastic shopping-bag full of it, and you set off with intentions to share it with all your friends and relations. But by the time you tie up the handles to board the bus as it arrives, you notice you have absent-mindedly already munched your way through half of it ...

Looking Up

My husband says I have a tendancy to fall in holes - well, I did once when we were walking on the beach and I disappeared into a hole and he had gone a few metres before he missed me ... but that's another story. Public health and safety have a whole different meaning here in China, and it really is each indiviual's responsibility to make sure they don't step into that unguarded open manhole, or trip over that welding mesh sticking out of the concrete, or stumble on uneven pavers. But in between steps, when I am sure it is safe, I like to look up from time to time too.

I am amazed when I am at my kitchen window in our apartment how few people coming down the drive ever glance up - not me, I always stare up at all the windows that have lights on and wonder who lives there and what their lives are like.

Quite apart from the wild beauty of Chinese electrical wiring, there are so many interesting things to see - plants, roof-top gardens, interesting architectural add-ons, and occasionally someone on the roof cleaning up and about to drop a piece of masonry or something ...

Here are some men demolishing a building in the city centre. Some of the work is done by a large machine with a jack-hammer fitting. But most, it seems, is actually done like this by little men with hammers and the like. On the ground an army of trike-rider men are sitting in their tiny trailers on pieces of cardboard or whatever they can find to make it more comfortable - talking, playing cards, waiting for there to be enough rubble for them to cart some away.

Down the bottom of the photo there is some woven bamboo. This is very thoughtfully there for my protection, because this is one of the main city thoroughfare walking alley-ways.

So it's good to be a little aware of what is going on over your head, as long as you watch your step, and look out for vehicles at the same time.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Waiting at the Stop

Lately I seem to have developed a knack for missing the bus. Not that there are really set times for the bus to arrive - as far as we know - but I always seem to be just coming through the "Kang Xing Yuan" entrance archway as the bus arrives at the other side of the road. It's too far, and too dangerous, to run to catch it, and yelling - even if I knew the right words! - would be useless. It's usually about 20 minutes or so between buses, but sometimes we get lucky and one bus catches up to another so it may only be ten minutes. Of course it works the other way too, and recently I have had to wait up to 45minutes.

Twenty minutes is a long time to stand on one spot. Especially as the temperature this week has been dropping below zero, and there has been a bitterly cold wind roaring down Jian Kang Lu. It was enough to get me into my quilted, padded (duck-down), hooded, full-length red coat that I had specially made for me in Zhengzhou last year.

(This picture was taken in Zhengzhou last year the day I got the coat.)

The red seems to be an unfortunate choice of colour, although the Chinese may consider it "lucky". I had been feeling a bit down at the time, and knowing that bright colours can help to lift the flagging spirit, I decided to be bold. Due to my more than Chinese (ample) girth, I have regretted that decision many times, especially when the playful young ladies at work here call me "big red..."

My classes at the moment are spaced out such that I need to go in to the office and back twice in a day - unless I want to wander round town in the freezing wind, or sit around the office for hours at a time in between.

So, twice a day I have stood and glowed like a big red beacon on Jian Kang Lu for up to 45 minutes at a time ... stamping my feet and doing a little bit of a dance just to keep the blood flowing. Basically making a spectacle of myself, I suppose. Brightening the lives of the little men who are fixing the road.

The wall and the pavement are gone now.

The sidewalk by the bus-stop has always been treacherous. There is a new (unfinished) block of apartments just there, with a wall to protect pedestrians from the machinery and work around the flats. So this week the wall was finally knocked down, and the uneven pavers ripped up to lay a new sidewalk. In the meantime, us unfortunate people waiting for a bus are left stamping our feet and doing our little dance out on the road-way, among the bikes, motorbikes, and side-walk workmen with their barrows and dumpster-trucks full of bricks and sand.

So the workmen and I have got to know each other a little. So much so that yesterday as Peter and I went down to wait for a bus together I was met with a broad grin by the little fellow with the barrow. He's a likeable little chap - really quite short of stature - with only one eye. Because of this limitation he walks with a side-to-side wagging of his head, very similar to some cartoon characters. As I waited for buses he went back and forth and back and forth with his little barrow, carrying pavers from over there where they had been dropped off the truck to over here where the men were at work laying them. Each time he went by me with a pleasant half-smile and a bit of a stare, and I guess I stared back as I paused in my little feet-warming stomp.

The other men were not so memorable, though I have had lots of time to observe their paver-laying techniques. Having had a go at laying brick-pavers when we built our house in West Oz, I was quite impressed with the relaxed way they were getting on with the job. Despite having string-lines to guide, they seemed quite unconcerned about obvious but slight irregularities - until their supervisor, in his smart (clean) overcoat, showed up. He didn't get his hands even the tiniest bit dirty, but he did a lot of waving and pointing and picking up of the rubber-mallet to demonstrate the proper method, all the time speaking to them quietly and gently. It seemed obvious that he was speaking from his own experience.

One young man was driving a little dumpster-truck back and forth. This incredibly low-geared, slow-moving vehicle was obviously a big step up from the chaps who were pushing their barrows by hand. Although it could carry several barrow-loads at a go, it's speed was less than the walking pace of a barrow man. So this young man was showing off a little, laying back in his seat with his foot up on the dash and his hands behind his head, just letting his machine trundle slowly past as he had a good long stare and a bit of a leer at me. He was so busy watching my foot-stomping and my red coat that he didn't notice his truck had taken a bit of a turn and slowly went off-course, trapping a man with a flat-tyred barrow between his truck and the freshly-laid kerb edge, unable to hear the warning shouts above his engine noise. He then tried to back up, but by then the barrow had jammed under the vehicle and between the front and back wheels.

I was beginning to think that the number 40 bus I had missed might be the last bus ever to stop at this place - maybe there was one of those unreadable (to me) Chinese notices somewhere about - when another lady came and joined me. A moment later a number 3 bus came down the road headed for it's terminus about 100 metres away round the corner. She took off and ran around the corner to meet it as it began it's return trip. Unfortunately that bus wasn't going where I needed to go. And anyway, surely my bus would be coming soon ...

Monday, December 5, 2005

Visitors from Zhengzhou

Last year when the college administration at LongHu found that we would not be renewing our contract for the following year, they asked if Peter would be willing to correspond (by email) with prospective new teachers. And so we came to get to know Jenny and Ian from the Gold Coast (Queensland, Australia) who later took our place at China Australia College near Zhengzhou. It was rather fun, after all the to-ing and fro-ing of emails, that last weekend they were able to use their four-day weekend to visit us here in Wuxi.

It was lovely to talk "Oz" for a bit, to use all the idioms and expressions we are comfortable with, without having to explain ourselves. And to compare notes about how things were, and now are, at the college at LongHu.

We went to see the "Big Buddha" again, because everyone who comes to Wuxi has to see that ( ... but if we get any more visitors we'll point the way and they can go see it by themselves.) This time it was a cool, slightly drizzly day. So the bus was much less crowded.

We got there just in time for the fountain-and-music show.

Then we climbed up and saw the fat buddha with all the naughty babies running all over him.

We touched the hand,

but didn't damage it ...

And we found out where baby braziers (crucibles?) come from. (Can you see the little one under there?)

Then we climbed up the steps to admire the view.

There are always people lighting candles, and there are large tubs of water under the dripping candles to keep everything safe. But someone manage to set light to the wax floating on the water, and there was a funny incident to watch from our vantage point as a man ran inside to get a fire extinguisher, which he handed to this young girl before getting himself to a safe distance.

As we headed out of the Ma Shan area we were assaulted on all sides by desperate salespeople huddled in their little shops nearby, desperately wanting to sell a few artefacts or souvenirs to over-generous tourists. We are not at all sure what punishment we avoided at this shop:

So finally we all headed back to our little apartment. After climbing all those steps, Ian and Jenny slept soundly despite the hard bed. It is a special two-sided mattress, with a hard side and a soft side. The hard side is just wood with cloth stretched over it. The soft side has a thin layer of foam under the cloth.

The next day we wandered through the wet city of Wuxi, and Jenny bought herself a new coat. Then it was time for them to catch the sleeper train back to Zhengzhou. Overnight, while they were on the train, the temperature dropped dramatically both here and in Zhengzhou - winter arrived!

Sunday, December 4, 2005

No more tin

So Wuxi used to be a tin mining town. And now the tin is all used up - hence the name "Wuxi" meaning just that.

When you visit Wuxi you can see the hill where the mine was from most places in the city. And it is now the place for a lovely park. We visited there during our October break when there was a lantern display in the park. We weren't quite sure what to expect from a display of lanterns, we certainly weren't expecting these magnificent wire and silk models.

There were other attractions too, like this stall selling lollipops. They were made on-the-spot from hot toffee quickly shaped into intricate designs from the Chinese zodiac. Little darling here really couldn't wait and wanted to get his hand onto the unfinished still-soft confectionary. Which he succeeded in doing moments after the photo was taken.

Warning, warning.

And then there was the chair-lift, which looked like it could be fun, despite the misty, rainy weather that day.

I always imagine the worst - especially in a place like this where public health and safety are handled differently from our own country. So I was very careful to read all of the instructions before I handed over my money for a ride.

And I didn't frolic once. And I'm glad it didn't stop half-way because I definitely would have felt some panic despite their instructions.

Too hard to read? Here is what it says:

1. Please line up to buy tickets and get into the chair lift one by one. Keep the ticket for check when going out. Otherwise you have to buy the ticket again. Children under 1.2m should buy half-price tickets, while children over 1.2m should buy full-price-tickets.

2. Anyone who have heart disease, high blood pressure, mental disease, vertigo disease, acrophobia, acute infection disease, or is the drunk, the disabled, a kid under 1.2m without parents-companion are not allowed to take the chairlift in order to avoid any accident.

3. When sitting on the chairlift, the behaviors such as smoking, squatting, standing and frolicking are forbidden.

4. Any explosive, inflammable, toxic and dangerous articles as well as handbags over 5kg are not allowed into the chairlift.

5. Don't little and damage the facilities. Passengers have to pay any damages.

6. Don't feel panic when suddenly stopped in the middle way or any technical problems occur, please follow attendants' instructions.

7. When the chairlift is coming into the station, please follow the attendant's instructions to exit the station. Don't stay in the station to take pictures.

Thank you for your cooperation and hope to see you again.

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Time to change the beds ...

You've got to hand it to them - the Chinese know what they are doing when it comes to gardening. Not that their methods would work so well in the harsh Australian environment, but they are certainly masters of their own domain.

We plan ahead. We plant tiny trees, and dream of the day when they will be tall enough to give us some shade. We try to plant a garden bed with some plants that will look good in winter, and some for summer too.

But not here. Gardens are instant, complete with fully-grown trees. The planning happens elsewhere, and the trees arrive on the back of a truck with their foliage dragging behind on the ground and their root-ball all tied up with rope. They are hoisted into position with wooden supports on each side and their trunks bound with rope, supposedly to protect them from the shock of being moved.

The road at our back gate has been under road-works for the past few months. Until a couple of weeks ago there was nothing to see except piles of dirt and heavy machinery. Now the road service is laid, and lines are painted, barriers are up, and the gardens are in place too.

Elsewhere, this is the time of year to change the beds. Armies of gardening staff pull the summer shrubs out of garden beds, bind up their roots and put them away until next year, and pop the winter bushes into place. They give them a bit of a trim - bushes and hedges are generally trimmed into interesting shapes, they could be Chinese words for all we know - and voila! The winter garden is ready.

... and paint the trees.

When we noticed last year that the big trees along the sides of the roads were all painted white up to about a metre high, we presumed it was for ease of visibility - especially as the light poles are similarly painted. Then we noticed acres of tiny trees - probably the ones that will later be transplanted when they are fully grown - all with their spindly trunks also painted white. Well, maybe someone was bored and thought it would look nice.

Now winter is upon us, and we noticed that they are doing it again. All the trees that are not bound up with rope - or in some cases what looks more like white plastic - are presently having their trunks painted white. Even the forests of tiny trees away from the road have all been thoroughly sloshed with the white liquid. It does look rather neat, but we are guessing it is some kind of winter protection - only guessing, because no one seems willing or able to tell us why it is done. Maybe, from their point of view, it has always been so, it's like asking why the sky is blue, it's not something to be questioned.

Colour comes in pots

Then there are the glorious flower displays. Sometimes the gardeners will arive with a truckload of already flowering plants, and pull them out of their pots to place directly into the ground. But mostly the displays are just made up of plants still in their little plastic-bag pots attractively arranged.

Sometimes they will even build a wire model, such as a dragon, and put the flower-pots into it at all sorts of angles.