Wednesday, January 25, 2006

All my bags are packed

Off to sunny Oz today! And I'm sitting here packed and ready too early.

Not that there was much packing to do. Just a change of clothes inside my case, which is inside Peter's case. We figure we will be able to fill both cases coming back, even though we only have two weeks to buy up big on the Vegemite and Metamucil. Yes, folks, those are the two things we crave and can't seem to get here.

We decided to book a taxi from here straight to Pudong airport - with two of us travelling it's not much more that the cost of bus/taxi + train + taxi/bus + train ... not to mention the incredible hassle. So had we been taking the regular bus-train thing we would have been long gone by now and already pushing our way through crowds. As it is, I find myself with time on my hands.

The next two weeks I will be relying on an internet cafe. So I guess that will keep me fairly quiet, blog-wise.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Standing on Ceremony

This time the fireworks sounded closer than usual, so I was curious enough to look out of the window.

There is a favourite spot for drawing white circles and having smokey noisy ceremonies - and today there is another white circle there. A little stack of straw was tied up ready to be lit.

But the noise that had drawn me to the window came from further over where there was a group of people letting off fireworks and standing with their hands over their ears.

I am not sure if they were sheltering from the continuing drizzle, or just trying to get as far away as possible from the smoke, noise, and cloud of scraps of red paper.

Then they were each handed incense sticks, and the little bonfire was lit.

Each person leant over the fire to throw in some tiny scraps of paper, maybe to light the incense sticks and then they lifted one leg as if stepping right over the fire and continued on around it to the doorway.

It seemed a little strange at a time like this for a workman to have left his ladder in the doorway just where people needed to get through. But as I watched each person walk carefully along the ladder, standing on the rungs and not between them, and then the last person picked up the ladder and took it in with him, I realised the ladder was all part of the ceremony too.

I would love to know what it all means. Anyone?

Friday, January 20, 2006

Wet wet wet

Its been raining for ever. Well, at least for the last four days - without even a pause.

Last year we tried to get used to the idea that winter in China - besides being at the "wrong" time of year from our point of view - was dry, whereas summer was wet. And in Zhengzhou winter was very cold and very dry. Even the snow felt dry, like fine sand, impossible to make any kind of snowball.

But right here right now it is winter and it is thoroughly wet. On my day off I stayed in the apartment all day, there really wasn't any point in going out.

The schools seem to have mostly closed for the Spring break, and the streeets are full of people jostling their way around puddles and between cars and bikes, and poking each other with umbrella points. New Year is just over a week away, and everyone is frantically buying up armloads of big colourful boxes and gift-bags full of specially-displayed treats to give to and share with friends and rellies at New Year.

It's really cold as well as wet. Everyone is bundled up in thick padded coats, little kids wearing so many layers they look like stranded starfish on a beach, hardly able to move their limbs. In Zhengzhou many buildings had thick padded blankets to push past in their doorways at this time of year. Here they mostly just have heavy duty wide thick plastic strips that flop back and give you an almighty "thwack!" if you are not careful when following someone else through a doorway.

The wind has got in on the act too. The icy blast swirls around buildings and down alleys, giving no clue as to which way it will push you and your umbrella next. Every now and then it seems to blow directly up from the pavement threatening to fill the skies with myriads of Chinese Mary Poppinses each clinging defiantly to their umbrella handle.

New Year is an excellent excuse to let off lots of fireworks, a pastime the Chinese seem to be particularly fond of. And obviously there is a need for plenty of practise beforehand, because already they can be heard all over the city at irregular intervals day and night. Unfortunately the rain has put a bit of a dampener on this activity too. Not to be beaten, the people who live below us in our building decided the stairwell was a good place to let some off. Several times we heard the door creak open, some scuffling sounds then a hurried creak and door-slam, and immediately the stairwell was full of loud sound and acrid smoke.

So yesterday I had to finally leave the apartment and go to work. Obviously a twenty minute walk through the rain and wind would be neither pleasant nor sensible. But a taxi-ride seemed extravagant as the buses were running. I didn't relish the possibility of a long wait for the infrequent number 40 bus that goes from outside our apartment front gates to our office front door. So I decided I would go just around the corner and catch the old beaten-up but more frequent number 3.

As I stepped out of the shelter of the Kang Xing Yuan entrance arch I almost regretted my decision at once. But I bravely dodged a few puddles and avoided some umbrella prods, safely reaching the roadway. I waited for a car to pass, then gripping my little blue umbrella down over my shoulders I headed out to the middle line. I chose my spot carefully so the cars coming the other way wouldn't hit any puddles as they swished past me.

The wind noticed me, and came roaring down Jiang Kang Lu and up under my feeble umbrella, flipping it inside out and reducing it to a tangled mess of wire and plastic in my cold wet hands. Safely across the road I stood dripping on the pavement and considered whether to chuck the battered remnants of my umbrella into the gutter and run (haha! yes, right!) to the bus stop. However, after a few moments I discovered that once I had untangled the wires a little the whole thing was quite happy to resume its normal umbrella shape and once again offer me some protection from the continuing drizzley rain. So I went on round the corner where I found that the bus shelter was crowded with elderly Chinese folk and I had to wait in the rain alongside some neat petite Chinese girls with their tidy, well-behaved umbrellas. The fact that there were so many people waiting was an encouragement - at least I hadn't just missed a bus, one should be along very soon.

Getting off the number 3 I still had a bit of a trudge through the blustery wet streets to our office, and I arrived with wet feet, trousers splashed up to the knees and (unbeknownst to me) the bottom half of my jacket at the back soaked due to the inadequacy of my umbrella. I readied my teaching materials and then had to sit and wait a while for the taxi (which had got stuck in the more congested than usual traffic) to take me to the factory 45 minutes away where I would teach.

By the time I got out of the taxi the wetness of my jacket had seeped into my other clothes, leaving me with a embarassingly wet backside. Well, I just had to make sure I didn't turn my back on the class.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Home for the holidays

Someone was asking, " How do the Chinese celebrate their New Year?"

Well, apart from letting off lots of fireworks, everyone tries to go home for the New Year.

We are going to do that too. Home to Oz for two weeks. We will arrive in Perth on January 26th - which is our special National Day, "Australia Day". There will be fireworks, thousands will flock to Perth and have a picnic on the Swan River foreshore to see the big display.

We will visit our house, our family home, in Rockingham, south of Perth. Even though it's a five bedroom house, it has always been full of people. We built it when our kids were small, and they grew up there. It has a lovely big kitchen where there was always plenty of food and good fellowship. We rarely had to wonder where our teenagers were - they were mostly at our place along with their friends. I would cook bucket-loads of food, and in no time the fridge would be empty again. It seemed everyone had "fridge rights" at our house.

And then our son and his wife and kids lived there too, and we came to China.

But now it's empty. The kids have all moved on and so have we.

So it's time to go say goodbye to our house. But also to visit our kids in their homes and to impose ourselves on them for a bit ...

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Trained Monkey

This is how ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers sometimes feel in countries like China. "Come on," they say, "Sing a song or do a dance..." We are trained to teach, but we are asked to perform.

Understandable though. We see some kids who have been learning English in school for years, and never actually met a real live English speaker. Some kids are terrified - but then we don't know what the adults around them have told them about us "Laowai". Other kids are just dying for a chance to try out those phrases they have been mimicking from their Chinese English teachers. And they want to hear someone "say something" in this language they have been learning, hopefully something meaningful.

Which still doesn't really explain why they ask for a song or dance. Except maybe that they are taught English in the form of little songs with dances. It's a good way to practise and learn, as long as they realise it's not 'real'. I have stood there and listened to "Dear Teacher" belted out in their piping voices, it was almost enough to draw tears to my eyes ... imagine our children back home singing this to their teacher.

But, back to the monkey. Poor little chap. Look at how his little feet are on top of each other to get away from the cold pavement, and one little hand is tucked away while the other keeps a watch over the chain that is likely to be yanked again at any moment. My family had a pet one of these when I was a child (in Nigeria) and he could be quite vicious. But he loved mashed potato and would pop it into his cheeks and jump up and down making monkey noises ... like maybe it was too hot.

This photo cost three kuai. They were using this little chap to beg on the street. Anyone who paid him any attention was then asked for money.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Public Hanging

I am tired of waiting at the bus stop. And now the weather has suddenly become a lot friendlier, soaring to the dizzy heights of 10 degrees most days. The road at the front of our apartments (where I usually wait for the bus) is not a very nice place to wait, even worse to walk - what with the "splooshie pavers" (see previous post 10/10/05), and the narrow sidewalk being full of workmen cutting, welding and spray-painting metal frames, not to mention the ladies in the red-light "hairdressers" shops calling out.

The road at the back gate of the apartments has been recently re-surfaced, and there are proper bus-stops with shelters, and railing between the traffic-lanes and bike-lane, and garden beds and trees with marble seats around them ... it's quite a pleasant place really. It's a good place to catch a bus, they are very frequent - unlike the ones I have to wait for on the other road - but they don't go close to our office.

So I have taken to walking to work along the back road quite a lot lately.

Hmm. Just when I thought it was safe to walk on the pavement. Apparently they haven't quite finished putting in all of the fully-grown trees.

Its rather interesting to watch. And it's not like they don't let you get up as close as you want to have a good look. A new truckload of trees had just arrived, and the crane was to lifting them over the barrier between the car section of the road and the bike section, and dropping them near the prapared holes in the side-walk.

There was an army of little men waiting to bind up the trunks with rope - it seems to be a special rope of something like plaited grass. Then then popped them in the ground with fertilizers and irrigation tubes, and propped them up with four poles. Another worker came along and fitted marble edging around each bed and voila! Instant old trees.

I suppose the odd thing is the way no one except us weird foreigners seemed to pay much attention.

You'd think even from the point of view of personal safety people would be a little more interested. Have they really seen it that many times before?

Or are they just being inscrutable?

Bottom of the Canal

We were walking along the alley by the small canal. At first all we noticed was a red helmet that kept bobbing up over the bushes in a most curious manner. So we went to take a closer look - being the curious foreigners that we are.

Part of the canal has been temporarily dammed up so that they can dredge out the next section. The workmen needed some water in a bucket, but the canal water was just out of reach, so they made themselves this dandy little scoop out of a helmet and a bamboo pole.

Then they returned to their task in the bottom of the canal that had the water drained out of it.

So that's what's at the bottom of the canal. Just imagine if you fell into the canal...

Good Food

Chinese food is great, interesting, different - different from "Chinese" food in Australia. Sometimes we just need a familiar taste, we get to craving something like a piece of bread (without that weird sweet taste all the "bread" here has), or a bowl of stewed apple and custard ... all those old favourites from long ago.

We purchased a little oven recently. Just big enough to cook some bread and maybe a roast or some biscuits, a few old favourites.

We search the shelves of the various shops that sell some "western" foods or ingredients. We have bought endless packets of white powders and brought them home to try out to see what is flour (self-raising or plain?), or baking powder, or sugar ... we accidentally bought "m.s.g". instead of sugar once.

So Peter was very excited when he found this supply of custard powder, so we will never run out!

Oh, and that's our new oven too.

We also finally found some baking powder ... but only in the same size as the custard. And some vanilla flavour - but it's a tin of white powder, not at all what I'm used to using.

I did manage to make some scones. And this is my first batch of bread rolls.

And those funny little ball things are a fruit, but I don't know what it's called. Inside they are sort of translucent white, with a biggish black seed - quite nice.

Despite all that we went out to lunch today. We have found that Champion Pizza do my favourite spaghetti bol (well "Italian mince noodles"), and they have an incredible pepper steak which along with a fruit salad plate and a glass of wine is only 22 kuai (less than $4).

Mmm sooo tender!

Sunday, January 8, 2006

Learning Chinese

When we first came to China people wondered how on earth we would manage without being able to speak Chinese. Well, it's not hard - "point, grunt, wave money" will get us almost anything we want.

But it is frustrating finding ourselves "deaf, dumb and illiterate". And despite the efforts of many "English as a Second Language" teachers, like ourselves, we do not meet many Chinese who can hold a conversation in English in the marketplace for instance.

Last year we picked up a scattering of mis-pronounced words, it was hard to find anyone who would actively help in our language learning and our time was heavily taken up with teaching English rather than learning Chinese.

So it has been delightful since we came to Wuxi to actually have a few Chinese lessons. Our teacher is Shoresun, one of the delightful young ladies who work at our office.

And she doesn't confine our studies to the classroom. She took us out to a restaurants to help us learn some of those tricky food words. (Although sometimes when you know what it is called you still don't know what it is...) And she went with us for a lovely afternoon at Li Hu. It's a delightful park with a lake ("hu") where people like to have their wedding photos taken.

And a great place for art students to get in some practise.

But, back to the learning Chinese.

It is, of course, a tonal language. We have tones in English, but they are mostly used to express our emotions, to indicate a question or the like. We try to copy the sounds we hear - well, it's simple enough: "ma", "ma", "ma", "ma" ... except that those are all supposed to sound different.

"Your tones are all the same!" laughs Shoresun.

It's all in the eyebrows, and chin, I think. If I make my eyebrows go up and down, and push my chin down into my chest, at the right moments, then I can produce some different tones.

And I have stared and stared at those characters - the little squiggly things that are writing - and I can remember some of them. Not just what they say in Chinese (with the tone!) but what they mean in English. I can even draw quite a few of them. Sometimes I recognise some of them in a sign as we travel down the road.

I was feeling quite proud of myself the other day with my little pile of cards that I have "learnt" measured up against the unlearnt ones. But then I remembered how far I still have to go. Imagine, if you will, sitting down to eat a plate of food - well, several platefuls. After ploughing your way through the first one or two you start to feel quite pleased with yourself ... and then you look up and notice that you are trying to eat a whole whale, and you have just been nibbling on the end of one flipper.

Well, yes, I am feeling a little daunted.

Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Trees Bearing Fruit

At the bus stop. Again. Nowadays its a much more pleasant place, despite the weather. Instead of the narrow uneven pavement there is now a wide brick-paved sidewalk. And the construction site wall is replaced with a magnificent garden bed. There are neatly trimmed bushes and shrubs, green grass, and fully-grown trees still in their plastic-and-rope wrap.

What kind of trees can you plant fully-grown, and be confident that they will flourish so well? You can always tell a tree by its fruit, and these ones are already bearing.

Obviously they are Underwear Trees.

Dried stuff

When we saw them harvesting the corn last year, we were hopeful of buying some - but to our amazement they seemed to put it all out to dry. First they dried it on the cob, then they scraped it off and left the kernels drying on the pavements.

Then there were cabbage and lettuce leaves laid out all over the place - on roof-tops, pavements, even hanging from washing lines. And later canola plants, and so on.

This year we are in the city, and so we see much less of these kinds of arrangements. But I think the lady who lives across and down from us must be a country girl.

She does all her washing - lots and lots of it - in the sink on her balcony. And she has herbs growing in pots on the edge of the balcony. In the summer she often laid out various fruits and little fish on large flat baskets to dry in the sun. The apartment seems to have two floors, she appears on the balcony above too, cleaning everything there meticulously and putting foods out to dry. In this photo the man is laying out what looks like large fish on the rails to dry.

You can also see on the third balcony up, someone else is also drying some leaves on the ledge.

But recently we were amazed by the developments on the second balcony. It looks like they are making beef-jerky, there are poles with strips of meat hanging to dry. They have been there for several weeks. And now:

Well, we have to admit, we are somewhat intrigued. How can you dry such large pieces of meat, and why would you? And what about the smog dust that settles on everything ...

Mind you, back in Zhengzhou we often saw a field full of noodles hung over lines drying in the dusty air by the main road.

And then, walking down the alley the other day we saw that this lady is not the only one who hangs out large chunks of meat to dry.

Makes you pause before you bite into your next dish of meat.

Monday, January 2, 2006

Cosy Curtains

After the first two months here our electricity bill was a horrendous four hundred bucks. And now it's winter, and we find we need the heater on most of the time when we are home in the apartment. One of the delightful things about this apartment is the lovely spacious main room. Another is the large kitchen with it's wide spread of windows. Add to that an open door way between the kitchen and main room, and there is no way to keep this place warm.

It occurred to us that if we could close off the kitchen area then maybe we could keep the main room warm. Sure, that's easy, just go buy some curtains and curtain rods ...

First we took a photo of our doorway and window next to it.

Then I measured it up and drew a picture of the doorway with curtains in it and the measurements written in. Armed with these and the words "chuang lian" (curtain) we found a tiny shop with curtains hanging all around and a lady busy sewing. She was most impressed with our preparations, got straight onto her mobile and ordered the quantity of our chosen material, and told us it would be ready "ming tian" (tomorrow).

As you can see, there was considerable excitement when we returned to pick up the finished articles. Its moments like these that make it all so much more fun.

So, it was easy really. Easier than making them myself.

Spooky Alley

Its one thing to pay a few dollars to take a spooky ride in Side-Show Alley at the Royal Show, its quite another to find yourself down some dark alley in the backstreets of a Chinese city, not being sure which way is home.

Which is what Peter did one night. He decided to trust his sense of direction, and turned off to find a short-cut home along the bank of one of the many canals. But it got narrower and darker, and took a great many twists and turns, and when he finally emerged on a main road he was totally confused about where he was. Not realising he was only a few metres from our gate, he walked all the way back along the alley and came home another way!

So today as we were walking into the city, we decided to put that ghost to rest, and headed off down the Spooky Alley. And what an interesting little place it is by daylight.

This little home along the edge of a small canal reminded us of Happy the Hamster's nest, full of things she has brought home in her pouch.

Living on the waterfront, be it ocean, river, or canal, is as popular in China as it is overseas, even though it's usually best not to look too closely at the quality of the water itself. And what could be better than a home that actually floats on the water.

It's all very picturesque, but it makes you wonder what it's really like actually sleeping somewhere like that on a cold winter's night. Our apartment doesn't float on water but it's warm and cosy.

Further along we came to a section with shops. They all look very open and friendly in daylight, especially this little bakery.

Decisions, decisions! The cakes we can buy here (though we rarely have!) are often beautifully elaborate, and coated in thick layers of imitation cream.

Along the canal there are regular traffic bridges as well as a number of the classical little humpy footbridges. They always have steep steps up and down again, with a narrow ramp section for people pushing bikes or motorbikes.

We really enjoy living in Wuxi, there are so many interesting sights, even just wandering around the back streets.