Thursday, March 30, 2006

Little White Lies

The high school was told there would be a foreign teacher available to take the classes, and as the campus is a fair way out of Wuxi the high school is offering accommodation for the teacher as part of the deal.

There is no teacher - not yet. He is still in Australia. But the high school keeps asking when the teacher will come and teach.

So in the meantime my Peter has to fill in for a month. He is not about to go and live out at the school, he will have to commute.

That's okay, they said, there is a regular city bus that goes from Wuxi right to the school. It will take about thirty minutes. And he will be paid for travel time as well as teaching time.

So yesterday we decided to take the bus and time it. It took us 10 minutes to walk to the bus stop in Wuxi, (then we had to wait about 5 minutes). The bus stopped a mere 17 times (yeah! seventeen!) on the way there over bumpy out-of-town roads. The seats were all taken, we had to stand for most of the 40 minute ride. When we got off the bus we looked around and tried to guess which of the buildings was the actual school - they said the bus stops right outside. Well, it wasn't quite visible from the stop. It was down the road, around the corner, and along there over that hill - it took us 18 minutes at a fast clip.

When we got to the school it was a magnificent place. Wide open spaces - the sort of campus where a bike would be really useful. Again, a good 6 minutes walk from the front gate to the nearest teaching block. The teacher who greeted us was mildly amused that we had arrived by bus - how very traditional Chinese of us, she said.

So, on a good day - no rain or wind, no bags of books or materials to carry - it was an hour and a half trip, without allowing for getting-ready time in the classroom. And of course an hour and a half home again. That's a lot of overtime pay. If they stopped and thought about it long enough they would find it will cost them less to pay for a taxi than to pay for overtime ... saving an hour each way.

Of course the story that it was only a half-hour trip came from someone who never goes anywhere on a bus, and never walks further than the car park to the office.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Dying Day

That was strange right from the start. It was 6am, and Peter was already up - what could have got him out of bed? Then I heard the band. The indescribably bad brass band, hopelessly out of tune and out of time - with the beat and with each other - clawing their way from note to almost the next note ... There were several drums playing along, trying to keep up with each other and with the other instruments. I heard them torture something that resembled "What a friend we have in Jesus", and then - was that "Unchained Melody" ... well, there were a few notes there.

Another funeral, I suppose. No wonder Peter was up and at the computer reading the world news. I had a novel by the bed which I had almost finished, so I switched on the bedside lamp and got into it.

At seven-thirty, with an final agonised sigh, the music died. And at precisely the same moment the lamp went off, and the computer ... the power was off. Quickly, have a shower before the hot water cools, and go toast some bread over the gas.

When the power finally came back on late in the afternoon I was out at work but Peter was home. I was travelling back to town on the work bus when Peter rang. "I don't want you to panic when you get home and find the computer is gone. The power outage did something to Windows and the whole thing has crashed ... "

That was three days ago. And now here I am, back from the 'dead'!

Problem Solved

Peter sms-ed me when I was teaching a corporate class "i have 2 go to work now. the appt is full of workmen."

I figured it would be a good idea to use the facilities in the factory before heading home on the company bus. As I came through the Kang Xing Yuan entrance, I could see the lights on in our apartment, and as I climbed the 64 steps I could hear their voices and work noises.

I entered our apartment, and no one even noticed. They were all in the bathroom. The washing machine was in the middle of the main room, along with everything else out of the bathroom cupboard, off the shelves, towel-rails, hooks. I wandered hungrily into the kitchen - I'm pretty hungry by 7.30pm - but work was continuing in there too. I grabbed the kettle and a soup packet and found a spare power point in the main room to plug in and make myself a cup-a-soup.

Around 9.30pm they emerged, smiling, out of the bathroom, replacing the washing machine but leaving me to do the rest. I wandered in to admire their handiwork.

This is what the little man I had seen squatting in the bath for the last two hours had been doing:


Not pretty, but we hope it works. Apparently they worked out that the pipe coming out of the hot water system and into the wall had sprung a leak, and we have been filling the wall with hot water for several months ... our electricity bill is witness to that! So they cut it off:


There's the offending article in the middle of the wall. Then they re-routed it up through the ceiling and across to the bath, then also along the wall to the sink ... I wonder if that will work as a heated towel rail ... And then they drilled a hole through to the kitchen and put a pipe through there too (after I told then the other day I definitely did want to have hot water in the kitchen!)

That's a pretty scary-looking pipe arrangement in the bath. The landlord got onto his phone and had a conversation with our liaison person. I waited, expecting the house phone to ring again, and his wife kept flapping at him telling him to hand the phone to me. But he refused - he was muttering something to himself and beckoned me into the bathroom. This was his big moment, time to use the word he had heard on the phone and was practising under his breath. "Gent-a-lee!" he explained, lifting the tap handle up and down a few times. "Yes, gently, always gently!" I agreed, and he looked very pleased with himself.

We had a phone call today from the person who had been on the phone, wanting to make sure we had understood his message ok. She told us to "Always open the pipe softly".

Yeah, we'll do that!

Monday, March 20, 2006

It's in the walls

So on Sunday mornings people wake up and say: "Its boring today, lets go visit the foreigners and have a look around their bathroom and kitchen."

They were upset that we were changing the locks and promised to never do it again, always to tell us when they're coming and only to come when we are here. So eight oclock Sunday morning I get a phone call:

"The Landlord is coming today."

"Ok. When exactly?"

"Maybe ten. Maybe thirty."

"Ten minutes?"

"I don't know. This morning I think."

Time for a 20 second shower and pull some clothes on at least ...

Of course the sound I could hear outside in the stairwell was 'them' already here. They rang the doorbell and came in for a look. As usual, no water leaking anywhere in here. They went into the kitchen and looked at the tiles above the sink, chattering and pointing - I could feel another hole in the tiles coming on, more cardboard and sticky-tape.

Out came the mobile phone and a long conversation. Then the house phone rang and I answered.

"They are going to turn off the hot water in the kitchen. Is that okay?"

"Well, no, not really. Is this temporary? When will they turn it on again?"

"You will still have hot water in the bathroom. Just not in the kitchen."

Memories of last year at LongHu filling a bucket in the shower and lugging it to the kitchen to do the washing up. "Tell them its not okay. I want hot water in the kitchen ... do you want me to hand the phone to them now?"

"Oh no, its okay. Goodbye." I hung up and we all (me, landlord and wife, plumber) stood silently staring at each other with twitching nervous smiles. Finally the landlord's mobile rang.

More pointing, chatting, walking in and out of the bathroom and kitchen. Then the landlord made another phone call on his mobile. I waited. The house phone rang.

"Everything is okay. They will come back next week and fix the hole in the wall."

"So I still have hot water in the kitchen? And the bathroom?"

"Yes, everything is okay. They will fix the wall next week."

They all smiled and waved goodbye as they slipped out of the house slippers and back into their shoes and disappeared down the stairs ...

There is a big hole in the stairwell wall now, right through the slimy paint stuff that has gone so soft you can smear it with your fingers, through the plaster, and jaggedly into the red bricks this place is built with. There is a little water oozing out of the bricks and trickling very slowly down onto the floor. But the wet area on the wall is not so big now, the paint around the edges of the old damp patch has dried and is flaking off.

So what was that? What did having hot water in the kitchen have to do with anything?

Sunday, March 19, 2006

A visit to the market

It was our day off, and neither of us really had the energy to go travelling, so we decided to visit the tourist market area in town, Nanchang temple markets.

Nanchang temple market

I didn't have much purpose, there was nothing I was aiming to buy. I resisted the urge to have a ride in one of these blow-up animals ...

blow up animal rides

As always I was drawn to the part of the market where they have all sorts of cute little animals, like these chinchillas, or Russian hamsters.

russian hamsters

Maybe a plant instead. My last one, a touchy-feely shy plant (one that closes up when you touch it) seemed to have come to an end over winter.

buying plants

I like plants with personality - like my old shy plant. But something about this one particularly appealed to Peter. So it came home with us. On the bus.


Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Someone's been sitting in my chair

Well I knew the latest "drainage problem" would be a saga, didn't I? We were not totally surprised (though a little annoyed) to come home and find cigarette butts in the toilet. We know the landlord has a key and we expected that he might be letting the plumbers in during our absence - although, honestly, there is no water leaking or visible at all inside the apartment. And in the process of fooling around in our tiny bathroom they managed to break the door off the bathroom cabinet - well, these things happen.

After our previous (two) experiences firstly of the landlord actually unlocking the front door with his own key and walking in on me in the shower, and then another day ringing the doorbell and getting us out of bed in the morning (just because I said the words "we should be ready for the angry mob to return"?), it was with great trepidation that I stepped into the shower yesterday morning. The water had warmed up and I was just beginning to relax and enjoy myself ... yeah, the doorbell rang. Peter (in his pajamas) held them off at the front door until I could get out of the way and decent. So I did rather expect that they would be back later in the day after we went out to work.

When I came home I knew they had been in again because my key wouldn't work at first - they do something to the lock that means you have to turn the key around six times before it engages and opens the door. At first it was not obvious that anything else had been touched except that the lid of the little floor drain in the bathroom was open - understandable. But I remembered leaving the computer on when I went out, and it was off now. Then I tried to turn the air conditioner on - because of the complications of fiddling with controls in Chinese we usually leave it set how we like it and just switch off the power - and couldn't get it sorted for a while because someone had been adjusting it. I nearly tripped over the stool next to the phone - someone had been using the phone.

But the final straw was when I came to do a load of washing - and the washing powder was all used up! What was the "plumber" doing? Did he bring over a load of washing to do in my machine, or did he just fill his pockets with washing powder and take it with him??

I did notice yesterday that the stairwell wall outside apartment 102 is as wet as it is outside ours ... I probably should be doing my civic duty and ringing their doorbell (late at night and early morning is apparently the approved time) and pointing out to them that they also have a problem.

Don't get me wrong, its all part of the fun. We have spoken to our liaison person and asked her to speak to the landlord - who, by the way seems really nice and unlikely to be guilty of detergent theft! We don't want to have to change the locks, but it looks like we are going to have to.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Three Kingdoms

We visited the Three Kingdoms yesterday. It was not as difficult as we expected. We just hopped on a bus and when it stopped and they turned the engine off it was time to get off.

Talk about a boring job. He probably thought he was going to be a movie star, and instead he got the gate prize. This place is the local Hollywood.

Everything is ticky-tacky - this ship almost looks like a pop-stick model. But then we found the real pop-stick models.

Anyone who can take these props and turn them into a believable scene in the movies has earnt my respect.

The warriors were taking a lunch break when we got there.

Obviously when you are a movie actor you have a lot of time on your hands. These chaps were amusing themselves feeding the goldfish.

There were some very bored-looking actors in and around the actual scene that was being filmed. Some of them (on the red carpet there) were practising their spear moves.

The stage hands were responding to calls to move imitation braziers and stone blocks around.

For this patient little soldier it was all getting to be too much, and that rubber armour is so heavy.

But we had fun looking around.

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Sticky-Tape Saves the Day

Marvellous stuff, sticky tape - or adhesive tape, Sellotape, Scotchtape, Durex, 'bonding strip' (Buzz Lightyear) - it has many names and so many uses.

When we were kids one of my favourite toys was a cereal box, scissors and sticky tape. My brothers and I made the most amazing creations. There's not much you can't do with it - temporarily, at least.

In Zhengzhou we noticed wide sticky tape all around the skirting boards and window ledges in our apartment, keeping out the icy draughts.

I have even seen a bus here in Wuxi which relies on sticky tape to hold the windscreen in.

So I guess I shouldn't be surprised that when the mob came to fix our drainage problem and they made a big hole in the tiles on the outside of our bath, they fixed it with a piece of cardboard and some sticky tape.

They said a lot of things yesterday, and I understood a word here and there - including "ming tian" meaning "tomorrow". So I guess they will be back today. I had better make sure I have finished using the bathroom ...

Monday, March 6, 2006

Angry Mob No. 2

Today we have a "day off", so at about 9 am we were luxuriating in bed, enjoying a bit of a sleep-in. I was just commenting how lucky I was not to be caught on the loo last night - not like last time when the landlord let himself in just as I stepped out of the shower (yes, we always put the snib on the door now) and I said we had better be ready in case the "angry mob" returns this morning.

"You had to say it, didn't you!" bemoaned Peter as instantly the door-bell rang. I went to the door bedraggled and barefoot, (yes, clothed) straight out of bed - a non-verbal way of telling people they are disturbing us.

It was our friendly neighbour who had taken such an interest in our last water-related problem with the water-heater. She, and her kid, and husband, and another, were on their way down the stairs and felt it their civil duty to get us out of bed and inform us that the wall in the stair-well is wet. Apparently they all figured that since we don't speak Chinese (I know she knows this) it would make things clearer if each member of her mob spoke to us at the same time while gesticulating towards the damp wall.

Someone has even taken the trouble to write something by scratching in the soft wet plaster. That's helpful.

Women's Day Fun

I presume its International Women's Day. I noticed there was a lot of something going on in the courtyard below our kitchen window. I could see some tables set up, and there was a long, thick tug-o-war rope laid out. When the band of lady drummers started their little dance it was too much for my curiosity, I had to go and see.

I tried to stand to one side and stay out of the way, but I am way too noticeable for that. A guard came and challenged me (I think) and I tried to explain that I lived just 'up there' - then my landlord and his wife showed up (they had just been in our apartment looking at our "drainage problem" a few minutes before) and explained to the guard who I was.

So then the team of drummers came and made friends with me. We had a great time together!

One lady was obviously the organiser. She got all the women lined up like school kids - I kept explaining "ting bu dong" (I don't understand) because I didn't want to be in the line!

After some long-winded instructions which I really didn't "ting de dong", she gave them all little green slips of paper and they rushed off to line up at the various tables.

There was a chopsticks and marbles competition:

It was a race between two women, while another one timed them with her mobile.

Then there was a hoopla:

Then an interesting one I have never seen before - blow the ping-pong ball across the top of some glasses of water:

And then, instead of "pin-the-tail..." they had "Stick-the-nose...":

The lady in charge finally noticed me, and having had it explained to her who or what I was, she insisted on taking me into each queues and pushing me in front of the other patiently waiting women so I could have a go. I won fair and square on the ping-pong ball blowing, and won a prize of a packet of pickles. With the pin-the-nose she took my hand and directly led me to the right spot, and I "won" again.

Then someone with a huge video camera turned up - maybe from a TV station, I guess. They put the blindfold back on me to do it again for the camera ... and obviously it occured to them it was a little daft tying a yellow scarf around the face of someone you are about to photograph, so they lifted up the bottom edge to show part of my face. I won again, because I could actually see!

I had a go at hoopla, and won a little bottle of chocolate soy drink, I think. And then they insisted I try the marbles and chopsticks. They were pretty amazed that I managed to pick up any at all, so despite the fact that I didn't beat the lady next to me (I was glad I wasn't that good!) they gave me a prize for that too.

That's my prizes. I can read "preserved szechuan pickles", and the drink shows a piece of chocolate in something milky. But the other two - ? Tofu maybe.

Hey, it was fun. They were all so friendly and cheerful, it didn't matter that we didn't understand each other.

Drainage Problems

Its obvious that we have drainage problems. When we go out of our apartment and down the stairs past the wall that is adjacent to where our bathroom floor must be, there is an ever-increasing damp area -which is already peeling the fresh paint they applied after the last problem we had a few weeks back.

But inside there is nothing in evidence, everything looks normal on the surface.

So last night the doorbell rang. Its always a bit of a worry when the doorbell rings without the intercom having rung first. I was relieved firstly that I had just left the bathroom after trying to deal with the upset stomach I have had for a couple of days, and secondly that Peter answered the door because this would obviously be an exchange in the Mandarin-charades language which I was too weary to be involved with.

There was quite a mob that had gathered - who they all were we had no idea. They came rushing in and straight into the bathroom - obviously expecting to find something (like when I was driving our old HZ Kingswood and a valve broke and I opened the bonnet to release the seagull I was sure must be trapped inside.)

They left with puzzled looks and confused mutterings. No doubt, though, we have not heard the end of this.

Friday, March 3, 2006

The Shopping Game

Sometimes in English classes we play a "Shopping Game" as an interesting way to practise the sort of language you need to go shopping.

But in "real life" (if that's what this is) we play shopping games every time we venture out.

We like to try new things - which is pretty well everything here - and so yesterday we decided to try a different shop. Not down the back alley to the grubby little Sunny supermarket, not buying off the street vendors with their knee-high displays of produce. Let's go to one of the big shopping centres which we haven't tried yet. "RTMart".

So we went into the shop and wandered through the ground floor section with clothing and other household goods, picked up a couple of things to buy, and then wanted to find either a checkout or a way to the food section. After some fairly lost, aimless wandering we remembered that in a similar store the way out was tucked away in the back corner of the store, out of sight. Sure enough, there was the secret escalator to the second floor.

Pretty food

Obviously we were out for adventure, because when we found this in a section marked "handmade goodsand foods", we actually bought it.

The child in me told me there had to be lollies or something sweet, why else would you make pretty flowers ... I didn't realise how scary the thing on the bottom right corner there was until I opened the pack. We didn't stop there, we also bought one of these:

I remember from home economics lessons that you don't put raw meat next to anything, including vegetables, so maybe it was worrying about this which made me miss the other obvious points.These could not possibly be actual peeled prawns. Real prawns are not that colour, nor that perfect. Besides, prawns are not sold peeled here. I have a clear and recent memory of a refined young Chinese lady in a restaurant selecting a prawn with her chopsticks and placing the whole thing, shell and all, into her mouth but leaving the head protruding from her lips, chewing thoughtfully for a while, and then delicately leaning forward to spit the shell, tail, head etc onto a plate.

Underneath the pretty flowers and stuff it was all carrots. The other things - well I recognised the seaweed, and capsicum, and - were they snails, or duck's tongues? (I have heard that people eat them, but I'm not sure what one looks like) And the 'prawn' dish was almost entirely onions underneath. At least that had some taste. With both dishes I could not seem to entice any taste into the food (adding herbs, spices, sauces etc) nor out of it. I suppose if I was fond of hot, spicy chili I could have made a tasty meal. Otherwise, I found everything there - even the pretty flowers - had no taste at all, they might just as well have been sweet.

Pick an aisle, any aisle

And then there is that special game foreigners can play, being a people-magnet. Many times in a market-place we have taken pity on stalls that are getting ignored - simply standing there for a few seconds will draw potential customers from all over.

Somehow its a little more frustrating when the game is played in supermarket aisles with trolleys. We wanted to buy a glue-stick in the stationery aisle. All of a sudden, half the store realised they had the same need and were reaching across and around us, pushing our trolley here and there in their desperate attempts to grab some glue for themselves.

The maze

These shopping centres are carefully designed to foil any attempt at theft - it seems to be most peoples' greatest fear, that they will somehow be robbed.

On the way in, we did the right thing and stowed our back-packs in those little lockers where you press the button and a tiny flimsy piece of paper pops and out floats away on a puff of air - this is the way back into the locker so it needs to be guarded with your life. The locker popped open and I entombed my bag after carefully removing and pocketing things (like my glasses) I might need.

Our shopping completed, we came through the checkout - and I caught sight of the sign announcing the toilet, which I really wanted to visit before we went to lunch and/or caught the bus home. But ... I had forgotten to take my pack of tissues out of my bag. My galant husband said, "wait here, I'll go get it out of your bag in the locker". As I saw him disappear down the escalator I had the first feeling of foreboding - there was no 'up' escalator in that section of the store. Also, there was a security check between me and the toilet - I had to pass between those things that set off alarms and show my receipt to get out (and I didn't have the receipt, Peter did).

Of course, we'd have done much better to nip back into the store and buy some tissues - as we told each other some 20 minutes later when we were reunited after Peter had been downstairs, finally got his bearings and discovered the right set of lockers, realised he couldn't get back to me with the bag and had to stash it in a new locker, worked his way through the ground floor store, up the hidden eslcalator and through the maze of crowded supermarket aisles, and pushed past the customers at one of the check-outs. Oh, and when we finally both got down the escalator there were also conveniences on the ground floor that would have been a lot easier to access ...

All part of the fun of the game.