Friday, April 28, 2006

Holiday Expenses

My life is a holiday. At least I try to keep it that way. We decided when we came to China we would not work too hard, just enough to keep our heads above water. Primary School teachers in Western Australia are not well-paid in terms of how hard they work, nor in comparison to teachers in other states, but with both of us slaving away week by week you'd have thought we could have been "comfortably off". So as we watched ourselves sliding further into debt year by year, we hoped that running away to China would at least put a stop to the endless spending. We would just need to work hard enough to get by.

So 51 years old, and 30 years married, we declared ourselves "semi-retired" and spent a glorious year working 10-days-on then 4-days-off, but only 15 (or less) lessons a week, and travelling around China on those long weekends.

This year we have stepped up the pace a little: we are now each working up to 20 hours a week. We earn a little more money and even save some. But now with only two days off each week, and rarely two consecutive days, and only one day off together (if we're lucky) ... we are missing those long weekends of last year.

May Holidays

Everybody says its best not to travel on the national holidays, everywhere is so crowded and everything is so expensive. But we are doing it anyway.

We are going on a cruise on the Yangtse, to have a look at the Three Gorges Dam. With a tour group. Well, it was arranged by our office liaison person, and being deaf, dumb and illiterate we just have to do a certain amount of trusting. Whatever happens, and however it turns out, it will be an adventure. And it will be a change from teaching the little emperors. (For a whole week I will not have to sing "5 little ducks" or "Open, shut them". I'm not even going to take my finger puppets with me.)

We booked the tickets and we paid the bill, and when the costs were all added up, there was an extra amount on the bill: 400 RMB each for being foreigners. Because they can, of course.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Five Little Ducks

five little ducks

I was teaching my little emperors again ... and it was the second class of the day.

The kids in the first class were brilliant. I had told the story of "Little Red Riding Hood" to this amazing class of four year olds. One little girl was actually wearing a little red jacket with a red hood, so I chose her to play the main part. I had masks on sticks, and I got kids to come up and act it out, repeating simple sentences - these kids are so good. They loved it when the big bad wolf had to growl, and it was even better when Little Red had to scream. And then 'the worker' in the forest heard her and came running ... I couldn't afford to let him get too violent so he had to say, "Go away, Wolf!" - and they thought that was amusing too.

Then I took a little break in the hallway - I was exhausted after an hour of enthusiastic teaching, and my voice was nearly gone. It sounded like a riot was happening in the class I was headed to next. The 'B' class of four year olds. Last time I took that class I ended up just sitting there staring at them - after teaching them "Open, shut them" (which they found highly amusing) all my other tried and tested ideas had failed on them and I was unable to think of anything else that would "work". And the teachers in this classroom didn't seem to understand what I said, so I couldn't say, "Could you explain to the children that they have to stop laughing and screaming if I am to tell them a story."

I went into the classroom - some of the children were seated ready for me, but there were some boys fighting in the corner, and another little boy was crawling under a bookshelf in the reading corner. I said, "Hello!" as cheerfully as I could muster, and they all laughed, some of them falling off their chairs onto the floor to do so. I sighed and sat down on the tiny wooden chair at the front to wait for the teachers to settle them down. Then I launched into my Red Riding Hood story, with pictures, that had gone down so well in the other room. I couldn't get more than a few words out before the riot started again. I sat and waited, and when things were quieter started again. After several attempts, I thought maybe I'll just shout my way through this ... but my voice just cracked and no one paid any attention. So I sat and thought some more.

I decided to move onto the next part of my lesson. I would try to teach the song

Five Little Ducks

I had some finger puppets in my bag, five little white 'ducks' - well, actually one of them was a bright red parrot, but I figured they might not notice. I slipped the puppets onto the fingers of one hand, held them up and started to sing. To my amazement, things began to quieten down. When the ducks went "over the hill and far away", I put my hand down behind my back, and then while everyone was now watching my other hand being "Mother Duck said, 'Quack! Quack! ...", I flicked one of the puppets off my fingers onto the floor behind my chair. When I brought my hand back out in front with "Only four little ducks came back!" I had everyone's rapt attention. Even the teachers. I realised this may be the first time they had understood me.

One of the teachers said something to the others and came down to the front of the room. She leaned over and peeked behind my chair, and then nodded at the others - clever girl, she had worked out where the other duck went!

I had to repeat the whole song several times - they seemed to enjoy it just as much every time. And then I chose some children to each have a puppet placed carefully on their tiny grubby finger - they seemed incapable of doing it themselves, they expected me to do it for them - and another child who could prove herself capable of saying "Quack!" correctly got to be "Mother Duck". I sang the song and led them around the room and 'far away' where I persuaded one of them to stay (the class teachers soon got the hang of this and came and stood to hold onto the lost ducky) while the others 'came back'. Of course this scenario had to also be repeated several times to allow as many children as possible to have a turn.

I had survived another lesson at the Kindy. Next week its the five year olds. Then its the May holidays. So I don't have to face that class for another three weeks!

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Press What?

Due to timetable restraints, it was the first time in weeks we were to have a "DAY OFF TOGETHER", so we were rather looking forward to going somewhere together for a change.

But then in one of the boxes (9-11am) on the whiteboard timetable appeared this message:


"Ok, I pressed it and nothing happened", Peter wrote below it. And we were left to wonder what it meant.

Over the next few days, with careful questioning we managed to extract the information that what it was referring to was a

Press Conference

We still don't know whether our Chinese boss

  • hadn't yet planned what would happen, or
  • had made plans but didn't want to tell anyone, or
  • had made plans and presumed we are all mind-readers ...

whichever it is, it is certainly the Chinese disease that leaves us foreign experts so frustrated so often.

We were told to wear ties and dress up a bit, and to be there at 9am ... but it was only by chance that one of us decided to confirm that "there" meant "here" (no where else having been mentioned at this stage, the night before as we were leaving work), only to find that it meant "Oh, no! Of course not! In the hotel down the road and round the corner ..." After some more questions we found out the floor number - which was actually the wrong one anyway.

We dutifully showed up, appropriately dressed, on our day off, but the press didn't. It was about an hour later that they dribbled in with cameras and notepads.

Do we have to say anything? "Oh, no, of course not!" ... and then as the camera turns ..."Ok, now they are asking this question, could you answer it on camera please ..."

Well, it seemed to go well enough, despite all the lack of information and misinformation.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Morroco looks nice

So we were thinking that Morocco might be a place to try next. Some people there must want to learn English and pay us lots of money to teach them.

But information is a bit scarce.

Anyone out there can tell us anything about Morocco?

You know, Casablanca, and all that.


So. What do you know?

Friday, April 7, 2006

Winning at Charades

Its so much easier if you can go into a shop, see what you want, and pick it up and take it to the checkout to purchase it. But here sometimes the simplest of things are not apparent in the big shops, the ones with checkouts.

I have a sewing machine - because being able to sew up a little something, to make or to fix something, has always been part of me, part of who I am and what I do, and I found it very frustrating when I couldn't. Sure, there are lots of little people out there on street corners and in alleys, eager to do my bidding for very little cost on their little treadley machines. But then I have to explain what it is I want, and sometimes I just want to try this or that.

When I came to do my first little sewing task on my new machine it was very difficult because I had forgotten to buy any dress-makers' pins. That, I soon realised, was because I had not seen any in the shops. You can get needles, though, so I completed the task with needles clumsily holding my seams together.

Elastic. I could really do with some of that, it has so many uses. But I hadn't been able to find any of that either. Oh, for a "Spotlight" store! I looked up the Chinese word for 'elastic', and promptly forgot it, and wandered past the big fabric warehouse place in Wuxi. There are lots of little shops all kind of jammed together, and the ones on the outside have a little glass counter with a few small reels of thread and packets of needles.

There was a friendly looking lady at one of these counters, and very eager to sell me something. Everything I looked vaguely towards she dragged out and laid hopefully on the counter. Peter made "stretchy" motions with his hands, and some fine elastic appeared. I tried "bigger/wider" with my hands and the type I needed also appeared from somewhere deep down behind the counter. So we tried for "pins", but kept coming up with needles. I grabbed a piece of paper and drew a pin. The lady and her companion looked a little startled at first, and a discussion between them ensued. Finally the light-bulb came on and they brought out a packet of pins.

A thousand pins. Do you buy them by the "jin" (half kilo) or by 20's or what? She seemed reluctant to break open the packet, so in the end I bought the lot.

elastic and pins

Oh, No!

We have a few DVDs. Well, quite a few.

dvd collection

They are not all in this picture, of course. We have some at work that we use for work. And we have given a lot away. And those tartan and raindrop folders are bursting full - its not at all obvious how many are in there.

But we need them, really. The boxed sets are some of our favourite series - the stuff you watch while you have dinner, just something short and light-hearted. The rest of them are movies that you watch once and then tuck away for a rainy day, or else 'bin' them if they are no good at all (a lot of them go that way!)

They are cracking down

And now that rainy day seems to be here, we might have to re-watch some of those movies. All of our favourite (and not-so-favourite) dvd shops have been closed.

Sunday, April 2, 2006

Feeling Fishy

"What do you want for lunch? I'm thinking I might go grab some baozi."

"I don't feel like baozi."

Ever since my last upset stomach which was immediately after eating the Wuxi specialty dumplings - xiao long bao - with their lovely sweet juicy meat, same as in the rou bao (meat filled steamed bread-rolls) that Peter is so fond of. I don't know if the dumplings caused the upset, its just that anything that has been tasted coming and going no longer has any appeal ...

"What do you want?"

"I want fish and chips. You know, a piece of battered fish, and you break it open and there's all that succulent white fish inside ... "

Not fish that is in the middle of a lazy-susan and you reach out with your trembling chopsticks to grab a piece and lift it carefully across to your tiny bowl without losing too much on the way ... only to find that you've picked a piece that consists almost entirely of bones.

Off Peter went, and I rummaged around in the cupboard and found a tin of tuna, and made myself some fresh salad with lettuce and tomato and cucumber. He hadn't returned, so I got on with my lunch, and cleaned up the kitchen a bit - still no Peter. I was beginning to wonder if something could have actually happened to him.

Finally he came home and proudly handed me a red plastic bag. "Very fresh!" he commented as I put the bag on the kitchen counter and watched it proceed to jump around - not quite the fish and chips I'd had in mind!

"Its okay, the guy scaled it and removed the stomach." Obviously the fish wasn't too pleased about that! "I'll fillet it for you, and you can have some lovely fish just like back home."

fresh fish from the market

He took it out of the bag, and it must have caught sight of the knife. It leapt around and splattered blood all over the place - it would have gone out the window and landed four floors down if we hadn't quickly closed the window.

Well, yeah, he filleted it, and I fried it - but the bones seemed to still be an inherent part of the flesh. It was very tasty, but hard work to eat. The second fish I decided to steam whole, and it tasted good too. I don't think I've ever had a bonier fish, though.

Day of the Dead

The day of the dead came early this year - at least here it did. I am told it is supposed to be on April 5th.

I came home from work, and they were busy building this house.

paper huse

Such a beautiful little house, all made of paper. There was even furniture, which was carefully placed inside, piece by piece. And lots of paper bags and big pink parcels, also placed inside. Then little scraps of paper were scattered in and around the house. A number of piles of paper had already been burnt at spots around the house. They carried on and fussed so - someone would put a parcel down here, and then someone else would pick it up and put it somewhere else, then then another person would come along and pick it up and put it down a few times. And they walked round and round and in and out of the house checking everything and adding more sticky-tape here and there.

Finally it was time - well, it was almost dark. The Buddhist monks came out - there were about eight of them - and loaded their bits and pieces into their expensive-looking car and motorbikes. Then they played their music, fireworks were let off, and the house was lit.

paper house burning

It only took a few minutes to reduce the whole flimsy structure to a pile of ashes. By then the monks were in their vehicles and away, leaving the happy family to clean up ... assured that their dead rellies had lots of new gifts ...

Saturday, April 1, 2006

Little Emperors

I didn't come to China to teach little kids - I have done that for years and years and years ... hmmm, too long ... in Australia and I came here for a change. I love teaching corporate classes, real people, big people, people I can relate to. I know kids are people too, but in a different way ...

But suddenly I am back teaching kindergarten again. Ooh, hard work. The all-singing, all-dancing, all-piano-playing Lucy Show. Its very hard to teach the little tikes without becoming the performing monkey - well, clown more like it. And don't the children love it!

They phoned me and asked if I would make sure I wore bright coloured clothes. Hmmm.

All the little emperors (5 yr olds, 30+ to a class) were dressed in uniform, a sort of beige tartan. I have seen a lot of people wearing coats and scarves of this exact pattern and colour, there must be a factory around here that makes it. All the little boys and little girls in the same ridiculous clothes - rather reminded me of the Von Trapp family ...

Well, how hard can it be, to keep the little blighters entertained for an hour or so? All sitting around in a neat semi-circle on their little wooden chairs, eager upturned faces ... and there is another bigger, but still very low, wooden chair for me out the front. And they are watching and waiting. What on earth are they expecting?

I launch into telling a story - the three bears, and Goldilocks (the girl with yellow hair - "yellow!" they whisper back with something like awe, but more likely they just suddenly recognised a word I said.) Of course this is made a whole lot harder with the language barrier - at this stage I don't really know if they are understanding any of it. The little girls are fascinated - or at least well-behaved - but the boys are getting restless already. Time to really get into character. So I'm on my feet, doing actions and voices - and they are loving it of course. They did warn me that today was "photo day" and they are certainly taking lots of pics of me prancing around. I try to get them all to join in with the repetitive voices bits: "Someone's been sitting in my chair ..." and all that, but nothing doing there.

End of story, I'm exhausted, brilliant performance, Lucy ... I flop back into the little wooden chair and glance at the clock. Aaahh! 20 minutes gone! And there are the little eager faces - now more excited - looking for more.

I have a teddy bear in my bag. We practise saying "Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear ..." rhythmically until we can all do it just right. And then I teach them the rest of the rhyme: "Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear, turn around..." We do the actions, line by line, then cumulatively until we have done it all. We stand up and do it again, and I choose some little girls, and then some little boys to perform it for us. Then we do it all again.

The clock has dragged its hand around another 20 minutes. My throat is sore and I hate Teddy Bears. Oh look, there's a piano. I remember a kid's song or two from teaching in Australia. So how about we learn "I'm going to Kentucky" because that's easy to play and we can all prance around being "Senorita"s. The children get very excitable, especially the boys, and they are not at all interested in learning the word "Senorita". I have been sitting at the piano to play and then leaping up and coming back to the circle to demonstrate, then back to the piano. Let's get back to the wooden chair and settle things down.

I can't believe it - still 15 more minutes! I'm dying here. Then I remember - "Open, Shut them ..." kids love that little hand song from Play School. And it saves the day. Every single child learns it off by heart and has to have a chance to stand up and perform, they are all so pleased with themselves.

Only a minute left, and the Chinese assistant comes up to me and says, "I think its time to go to the other class now." Aaaaaaaaaaah!

As I launched into the story for the second time, feeling like a veteran, I realised they had not saved the best til last - this was the second class for so many reasons. The Chinese teachers were working hard in the background, removing disruptive kids from the circle and seating them off to the side at various spots. The kids still loved the story, and the teddy bear rhyme with actions worked quite well - but I was getting better at it now and it went even quicker. "Senorita" was a bad flop with this crowd, "Open, shut them" was brilliant ... and I still had 10 minutes left!

It felt like the end of a hard day's work. Next week will be different, because next week I won't have these two classes, I'll have the four year olds. What on earth can I do for two hours with them?