‘Letters from Suzhou’
Published by SWAG
, Suzhou, Jiangsu, China.
Individual works and images © 2012 the Authors.
This compilation © 2012 SWAG.
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever without permission in writing from the publisher.
Opinions published in “Letters from Suzhou” are not necessarily those of the Printer or Designers.
China is a land of exotic mystery. It was the allure, beauty, history, a job or the sheer need of a job that brought this intrepid group of writers to Suzhou. This book is a collection of letters describing what they found in China. Some letters are sheer (and literal) poetry, some narrate drama and near misses, as well as plenty of East meets West experiences, with sometimes hilarious and heart-warming results.
The Suzhou Writers and Artists Group (SWAG) from left to right are: Linn Birkeland Seim, Michael R. Davis, Mark Critchley, Sherri Younger, Sybil Pretious, Jacqueline Bánki, Simon Broom and Jessie Michael
i love shanghai
ice, ice baby
Pleased to meet you…
Suzhou Walk Cape Cod memories
The Great Firewall
A Stitch in Time
Go with the Flow
The Pyjama Game
For all the Tea in China
Up or Out Baby
Medicated and Motivated?
Shop or Pop
Fireworks, Food and Flowers
Lost in Translation: Food and Chinglish
Baoying, the Real China
Wedding Number 1
For love of Auchan
Back Street Tailor
You want me to do what?
Banquet for the Senses
Email Message from O.M.
The Trip to ZhenJiang
Hold your Fire
Steering your way around Suzhou
Farewells and Almost There
Food in Suzhou
The National Pastime – Spitting
The Wall! The Wall!
The Forbidden City and a Bad Tourist Guide
Endangered – Water Villages of Suzhou
Hair-raising in China
My Suzhou Autumn
It all began with a small group of disparate expats (or should that be desperate?), each wanting to realize their writing ambitions – and in the process making one man’s dream come true.
Alexis LeFranc, manager of the Suzhou Bookworm in Shiquan Street, had been trying without success for three years to launch a creative writers’ group in the town he loved. Then suddenly, in the late summer of 2010, five local expats answered his advertisement in What’s on in Suzhou – and overnight a real writers’ group was in the making!
So every other Monday evening at 8pm, Alexis and these five wannabe writers sat around a table, drinking wine and coffee and reading the bits of prose, poetry and passion that each had brought to the table. Feedback and advice was carefully, tactfully, supportively and positively given by everyone – and well received. And to Alexis’ joy, these five came back for more! Each had their own projects – including a novel, articles for magazines, poetry based on paintings, and personal stories of their experiences in China. And after the meetings, each felt invigorated, energized and glad that they answered Alexis’ call.
Not only did they come back, they brought friends and colleagues with them too, helping the group to grow organically. But with the new members came questions: number one, what is the group called? No-one knew – there was no name! So ideas for names were invited for the very next meeting – and that’s when SWAG was born: Suzhou Writers and Artists Group. ‘Artists’ because two members at the time were also painters; and ‘Writers’ because… well, read this book.
The second question was: how can we get our writings ‘out there’? Two members had previously been in writers groups which had published their own anthologies. “What a great idea – we could do that!” they said. But what would they all write about? Somehow, the book should have a theme – a glue to hold it all together, a common thread. Then Sybil brought along the final piece of the jigsaw one evening with a letter she had written back home, entitled ‘Baoying, the Real China’. “That’s it!” they said. “We’ll all write ‘Letters from Suzhou’!”
So this book is the result of that project. Each letter has its own style, its own atmosphere, and its own slant on the amazing country of China towards which we have all been inextricably drawn. At times, it can be frustrating, mind-boggling, bewildering and just plain crazy to us ‘aliens’; but like a wonderful young child that we’ll never fully understand, we can’t help loving it just the same.
Suzhou Writers and Artists Group
Suzhou, Jiangsu, China
A lifelong fascination with words, and a career built out of the spoken and written word, has led Jacqueline to see herself as a wordsmith. From competing with school friends in reading the dictionary (can you imagine?) to a hunger for inquisitive reading a moment of exultation came with her purchase of a two-volume Oxford Dictionary as a university freshman.
It was while reading J R R Tolkien’s The Hobbit, at age 13, that she decided she wanted to be a writer. Precious. Her writing career began as a journalist in Melbourne, Australia. Her published creative writing includes poetry and short stories and there could even be a novel still bubbling under cobwebs somewhere. Jacqueline co-produced a radio program titled Writers At Work and interviewed writers of various ilks including: novelists, playwrights, poets and song writers where her equal love of live music was the signature to her shows.
Jacqueline served on the Board of Directors for the Victorian Writers’ Centre from 1993 to 1997 and directed the 1994 St Kilda Writers’ Festival, 1995 Boroondara Literary Festival and 1996 Poetry Corroboree. These events together with working in the arts and entertainment have infused her passion for the performing and visual arts. She participated in the 2011 & 2012 Suzhou International Literary Festivals.
She has been known to work in PR, brand & marketing, international communications and editor in a diverse career. Her sixth return to China, since 1997, sees her teaching English for Academic Purposes and as International Communications Coordinator for the English Language Centre, at Xi’an Jiaotong Liverpool University.
Her Chinese name is Huáng Yuè [Yellow Moon] reflecting her love of Chinese literature, traditional Chinese art forms and her current home of Suzhou.
These letters and poems are dedicated to her mother Pálma.
i love shanghai
wave from a pagoda balcony
shy of eye contact
talk of chinese calligraphy
the quirk as our eyes interlock
offering of fish cheeks
supple, soft, juicy
sweet and sour flesh
endlessly we click i love shanghai
caught in a moment
auspicious being cheeks
supple, soft, juicy
sweet and salty flesh
ice ice baby …
minus 35 degrees
first time i saw your face
singing [too soft-hearted
__]blue and black silk
dancing on ice
ice ice baby
vanilla ice häagen dazs
second time our eyes meet
singing too soft-hearted
yellow and red silk
dancing on ice
ice ice baby
steadily saw your face
singing too soft-hearted
dancing on sunshine
ice ice baby
pagoda to canal ride
forever see your face
[i honestly love you
__]blue and black silk
dancing on ice
ice ice baby
A charming yellow moon
smiled across the field
and winked at me
as if we had already met
During the summer evening
the melodious erhu
the evening wind
whisper – Hello my friend
nihao Huang Yue
Although it’s our first time to meet
the beauty of China
the charm of China
has already shown itself
黄月 (huáng yuè translated)
低语 —- 你好我的朋友
Pleased to Meet You …
11 April 2011
Thanks so much for the photos of the Chen boys. Wow so Odon is six months old already? I can hardly wait to meet him. You know the cliché that we used to smirk at ‘they grow up so fast’ well, it has come back like a boomerang. It was great to see Ewan take his first steps on Facetime too. It feels like literally moments ago that I held Ewan as a one month-old. I can never forget his soft breathing cooling me down, in that dreadful Singapore heat as he slept on my shoulder.
It’s so hard to keep up with you and Carl flying all over the world for your jobs. Who could have imagined that we would be living as expats at the same time? You asked me if I miss home…interesting word home. Oh no – here comes another cliché ‘home is where the heart is’. I agree with this to some extent.
Yes, I do miss Melbourne – coffee, nightlife and hiking. Suzi – my pooch! Yes, I do miss Australia – friends, beaches and VPN-free social networking!!BUT I am really enjoying life here in Suzhou. What about you? How are you settling into Singapore?
Remember the crazy intense teaching course I took when I told you and all my friends, ‘Don’t call me, I’ll call you’? All those hours of lesson planning, L2 research, language analysis and assignments plus an email from an ex-colleague Katherine all led me to one of my favourite cities in China. The ‘new’ areas of Suzhou are nothing special – it is my romanticized history and the canals of Suzhou that I am attracted to.
Tell you more about work and Suzhou another time because I just have to share my experiences of meeting my sponsor child here in Shaanxi Province, China.
Have you heard of Plan Australia? I volunteered with them during the 1996 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. I had thought of child sponsorship for many years. It was on the simultaneous occasions of my maternal grandmother’s passing and my fortieth birthday that I finally became sponsor of Rutema from Tanzania followed by Lielie in China a year later. Plan is one of the oldest and largest children’s development organisations in the world and it was while I was volunteering that my gut feeling said I would become a sponsor with them.
My visit to meet Lielie also started with an email. I contacted Plan International in Melbourne and within a day I had my Plan Welcome Letter, Plan China Visit Guide and Plan Visit Agreement Form. Rightly so, there were many requirements and a Police Check (yes mate, I did pass that!). Protection of children is paramount so visits need to align with Plan’s Child Protection Policy. There are more than thirty-four million children in China who live in poverty and mostly in rural Western China.
As the time drew closer, I started getting a little nervous but that was put on hold for a couple of days before my departure as I went to shop at a horridly populated store called Auchan and other less tortuous stores to gather gifts for Lielie, her siblings and the local school.
Nerves were also quelled by the journey to get there! Car from Suzhou (two hours) to Shanghai; flight to Xi’an (two hours twenty-five minutes); flight to Yu Lin (fifty minutes); drive to the county (two hours) and finally drive to the village (two hours) with a lot of waiting, speaking broken Chinese to ask for directions and water on top of the actual travel. This part of China is desert country, vast expanses of dry earth blotted with random trees. I felt like I was back in Xinjiang’s Gobi Desert. It was still only April but it was so hot! Supposedly Springtime!
Finally the SUV stopped …
“Pleased to meet you,” floated down a dusty meandering hill path in perfect English.
The home is not visible from the road as it is set right back into the arms of a dug-out hill.
There she was … dressed in white sports shoes, blue jeans, orange t-shirt … just like any other teenager. Well, what did you expect? I hear you ask. I am not sure but she just looked so healthy and happy. Perhaps I just thought she would look ragged or something but then, if she did, I would have been questioning why Plan contributions hadn’t given her some clothes. I have visited many poor communities and can safely say that Lielie’s community is much better off than others that I have seen.
Through sponsorship, Plan has done a lot in their community including repairs to the school, teaching materials and equipment, a latrine, sanitation, training of villagers about planting and animal breeding, an irrigation system, a health clinic, training of village doctors and repairs to village roads. A women’s activity centre is also established where women make insoles for shoes and other items that they can earn money from. Lielie’s family sustain themselves through farming or part time work when there is less farm work to do.
I asked Lielie, “Where did you learn such good English?” and she replied, “My teacher has a tape recorder and we can listen to English.” Later, I was told that she had focused on these four words as soon as she knew I was going to visit.
Now, I know we met through Africa Alive Campaign back in 1994, and did a lot of community awareness raising Ange, but this was so different to that. There I was standing in front of a fifteen-year old girl whose smile beamed right through me. In one of her letters to me she wrote, ‘Many people go out to find a better place to live. Only people with no ability to go out live here.’ Will she have the ability? Will she become a farmer like her mother? She continued, ‘My duty is to study hard now.’ Can education give her a different opportunity? I hope so – as long as she wants it.
One of the books that I gave Lielie was a bilingual Chinese-English dictionary. It had to be hard copy because batteries or electricity are a luxury for her family so an e-dictionary or electronic device was not practical. During the afternoon, I was outside with her brother Bing Bing, sister Yue and some other children from the neighborhood. Bing Bing was so excited about his shiny new football. The sun was belting down and the sky was amazingly blue – not a regular sight in Suzhou I have to admit. Why? Perhaps smog or pollution – ok, probably both.
Anyway, at one stage I realised that Lielie was not outside with the family and the numerous village onlookers. These included the cow, dog and chickens keeping a safe distance from the whirling orange ball. They had never seen the sight of a foreigner playing football (soccer) in their village before. The more they giggled – the more I kicked that ball – perspiration pulsating on my sizzling skin.
She had disappeared into another room of their cave dwelling with the dictionary and started to write a Thank You letter to me. ‘We laugh too much. Thank you for that.’ Lielie’s favourite subject at school is languages and I look forward to communicating more with her in English. She wants to be a teacher.
As you would know from your Chinese in-laws, food in China (and of course other cultures) is a main focus of each day so you can imagine me going into this village where they barely see anyone outside their ten km radius. It was no ordinary lunch – but one that would be served for Chinese New Year or a wedding! I should have heard alarm bells then. It was prepared by Lielie and her mother in an outside kitchen made of concrete and clay. I awkwardly fanned the fire by rotating a device to blow air onto the flames. Well, I had never done it like that before. In the Australian bush, we just get a piece of bark and fan the flames with that right? Again, everyone was awestruck by this alien sitting on the smallest of stools helping in the kitchen.
There was spinach, potato and carrot. Lielie’s father had borrowed a motor bike to go 20kms to get carrots – this made me feel awkward but then we would probably do something like that to get ingredients for our guests, too right? Rice is three RMB (AUD thirty cents) more per half kilo than potato. The first place in China where I have been and potato is the staple rather than rice. Then there was millet soup, fried bread (I know I am gluten free but I had to show gratitude so ate two pieces) and the hottest chilli paste I have ever come across. Just putting my nose to the jar made my eyes water. Again giggles. I took a small sample on the tip of my chopstick which made my soup explode down my esophagus. Sweetened soy milk always does the cooling trick!
During lunch, Lielie’s mother asked the usual questions. “Do you have children?” – No – “Why not? Are you married?” – No – “Why not?” Not happy with my answers she took my hand and showed me a spare room in their cave dwelling and said, “You can stay here and I can find you a husband OK?” Not at all surprised by this offer, but still a little embarrassed, I replied, “Hao de!” [OK] and she gave me a big hug saying, “Huānying jiějie!” [Welcome older sister].
The day would not have been complete without a visit to the local primary school which is a typical rural school with a blackboard, desks and stools in each classroom. And the compulsory whitewash which even my university in Suzhou has. The students and teachers had been waiting for me all day.
I asked some of their names and repeated it back to them which caused a chuckling uproar. The more they giggled – the more I exaggerated the pronunciation of their names – the more they giggled. I gave each of them pens and notebooks and the principal was grateful for the text books they could use for the next school year. Surrounded by all the five teachers in the principals’ office/bedroom, I sipped jasmine tea while he made a short speech. Guess what he said at the end? “We welcome you to teach English at our school.”
So many offers in just one afternoon – a job, lodging and a husband! Humbly, I declined each of these. Hmmm … maybe I will never get the chance to experience cave living in China but every time I look at the photos of the day, my lips turn upwards and I can taste that chilli again.
As the sun began to hide behind hills that housed all the 300 villagers, we started saying our goodbyes. One last exchange – Lielie’s mother gave me ten kilos of home grown millet and green beans. Innocently, I told her she should keep it for her children but my Plan host said that I should accept it as this is all that she could give me. I gratefully took the precious food and gave her my silk scarf from Suzhou. Lielie and her younger brother and sister also presented me with pictures they had drawn on Disney characters, the orange soccer ball and our lunch together. What can I say?
Walking arm-in-arm and laughing down the meandering path with Lielie’s mother, we headed back down to the SUV. Hugs and high fives all round.
Looking back as we drove away from this happy family, I wondered if I would meet Lielie again. Her smile and laughter are still blazing in the sunshine of my heart.
I was so pleased to meet Lielie!
Well, you must have the boys causing havoc by now – or have you read single paragraphs at many intervals – mummy style reading it’s called apparently. So much more to tell you but will do so when we catch up soon in sweltering Singapore. I’ll bring some photos too.
Cuddles to Ewan and Odon.
Hi to Carl.
I joined SWAG shortly after moving to Suzhou in January 2011. Coming to China by myself I had left behind a son in college, a cute Cape Cod bungalow, and an established engineering career in the USA. Volunteering has always been a passion so I signed up to assist with the Bookworm’s Literary Festival. While preparing for the event I attended a SWAG meeting, and although I’m not an English teacher or a writer they welcomed me into the group. I’ve kept journals since college and always wanted to become a real writer.
Writing for me is like coming home to a safe harbor. Between the pages, I find insights to current struggles, perspective from reading earlier entries, and a connection to divine grace. Over the years my private journal entries have transformed into many different forms: a speech at a women’s retreat, sultry love poems, thank you letters to friends who stood by me on my cancer journey, inspiration to start a single parent support group, and a funeral tribute to my grandmother. Besides writings, my journals contain sketches of my outrageous Halloween costumes, a tree-house design, my physics professor’s pre-flight checklist for bungee jumping, and pressed autumn leaves from Vermont.
Most, probably all, of my accomplishments have started as journal wishes that just kept showing up. Living abroad is no exception. While helping my son prepare for his semester abroad I wrote, “Jealous, wish I’d had this opportunity.” Shortly after that entry my manager announced at a staff meeting, “There’s an opportunity to work abroad, anyone interested?” This coincidence has happened so many times I just laughed and said to myself, “OK, God, pretty funny, guess it’s time to renew my passport.” So now, amid the joys and challenges of living and working in Suzhou, I continue to journal and share my letters home.
Suzhou Walk Cape Cod Memories
Walking out of glass lobby
Hazy sunrise, car horns,
Manicured gardens, gurgling fountains.
Thoughts drift home
Walking down porch steps
Rainbow sunshine, robin calls,
Sea grass sways, quiet lapping waves.
Strolling down LiGongDi
Jin Ji Hu pagoda, whispering willows,
Arched stone bridge, gold statues shine,
Recycle cart clangs.
Thoughts drift home
Osprey nest perched on Bay, rustling pines,
Low tide sandbar, diamond sparkle water,
Fishing skiff motors.
Returning to compound
Key in mail slot
Thoughts drift home
Walking on sea shell driveway,
Open driftwood mailbox
I can’t believe it’s been two months since I left our factory in New Jersey. Suzhou is starting to feel more like home but I still miss all of you. Outdoors, it’s a brilliant Spring day here with cherry blossoms just starting, and lots of sunshine. As I enter the plant though, it could be any of our manufacturing plants anywhere in the world.
One of things I liked about relocating within our Fortune 500 Company was that most of the standards and protocols are followed at every facility. Like how all the workstations use the same sky blue Lista cabinets, and the same color-coded tape outlines the incoming materials, equipment, wheeled carts and safety walkways. Yellow and black stripes mark caution in any language. Looking closer I see the same gage brands and inspection equipment. It’s comforting to see those brand names – Starret, Mitutoyo – the same as what I’m used to back home.
One striking difference is the red painted aisle-way through the middle of the manufacturing area that leads to my engineering office. Every morning I walk the same China red path, smell the combination of machine oil and grinding Cobalt Chrome, hear the symphony of CNC machines grinding and turning bars of metal and polyethylene plastic into medical implants that will soon be implanted into patients. As I make my way closer to the back of the 20,000 square meter open area I see the same operators concentrating at their workstations. No one looks up to say, “Zao shang hao” [Good morning]. They’re all too busy filling out paperwork and moving carts of totes filled with finished product. I like to come into work a little earlier than the official start time at 8:30. It allows me to check emails and get my first cup of tea before the chatter and interruptions of the day distract my focus. My office doesn’t have a door. It’s little more than just a high walled cubicle. The sound from the surrounding area spills in my office all day. Ninety-five percent of it is in Chinese so to me this background sound means nothing. But it can still be a nuisance as the volume level escalates when more than a few colleagues get excited about something and I have no idea what the fury is about.
But most of my day is spent out on the manufacturing area and in meetings. Meetings, although here, are less frequent than back home. More things happen here because of quanxi making attendance at meetings less of a priority for my Chinese colleagues. During my cross cultural workshop I learned that quanxi, is “It’s who you know, not what you know,” but it goes much deeper and reaches back into past generations.
The sound of a motor brings my thoughts back to the present moment. I look up from the red floor to see a forklift heading straight for me. Although all the forklift operators at our corporation, regardless of location, have exactly the same training it’s impossible to completely remove the speedy and chaotic driving habits from Chinese forklift drivers. The forklift scurries within inches of me and heads into the loading dock area.
The manufacturing areas are divided into teams or cells according to the type of materials used and products made. Each team runs as a semi-autonomous business unit and meets each day to discuss the previous day’s production, quality and any urgent issues. Each cell has a kiosk-like revolving bulletin board located within their manufacturing area. The board is updated each business day by the operation planner, quality engineer, and safety officer. As you know, it’s an integral part of our company culture, like meeting at the town “well” at the same time every day.
At home I could always count on running into a colleague that I needed to see at the 2:30 afternoon gatherings. Whether it was to get a last signature on a report or have a cross-functional informal conversation, this daily get-together kept our business moving forward at a consistent and predictable pace. The best informal group discussions would happen just after the official meeting had ended. It was always so much easier to reach consensus that way than at a formal meeting when there were implicit personal agendas that could override the matter at hand. When I arrived in China I guessed it would be different because of the language barrier but that business would still run consistently. After all, it was the same company and on paper looked the same. From my first week in Suzhou I attended the daily production meeting for my cell. The meeting time is posted on each kiosk so I just showed up and tried to fit in. Not an easy task considering my fair Irish complexion, auburn brown hair and middle age plumpness. Not to mention being the only woman among eight Chinese men, most of them young enough to be my son. It was easy to find me from the other side of the manufacturing area.
Early in my Chinese language lessons I was surprised to learn that “shen me shi hou” means “when.” It seemed like a lot of words for a simple English adverb. What I came to realize was that anything related to timing gets lost in translation. It’s more than just the literal translation. After the daily production meetings I would ask Jeff, my Chinese colleague, when the Nakamoura machine was due to arrive. This is a machine that’s used to turn plastic round bar into a hemisphere shaped dome, We were working on a new product release and I wanted to stay informed about the status of the project milestones. At our monthly project meetings we didn’t get into this level of detail so I thought this would be the perfect way to stay informed. It had always worked for me in the past.
So I asked, “When is the Nakamoura due to arrive?”
Each day Jeff would always repeat my question, “When is the machine coming? It’s coming here to Suzhou, I will show you where it will go.” And he would take off down the red pathway to show me the empty space and tape marks outlining the eventual location.
“No, when will it get here from Japan?” I would try again.
Wanting to satisfy my question but with just the slightest hint of frustration he would reply, “Yes, it is coming from Japan,” happy to give me a positive answer.
“Yes, but when?” at this point I’d just get a puzzled look.
Somehow, even before my language lesson about timing, I knew that there was something getting lost in translation. Why couldn’t I get this answer to a simple question? We were both speaking English. This should be easy and it’s not like I was asking for a detailed update; I just wanted to know when one turning machine would arrive at our plant.
But I persisted and each day I continued to show up for the production meeting. On Mondays we’d briefly chat, in English of course, about activities on the weekend: kite flying with their child, visiting family in Xi’an, playing in the company football league. After a few weeks I was starting to feel more a part of this group of Chinese men who spoke at a pace 100 times faster than my Chinese tutor. I was starting to pick up a word here and there – mostly engineering terms said in English, like “offsets, spindle, taper.” Plus I realized that nonverbal communication was my new best friend. Between the technical terms interspersed with Chinese, hand gestures and body posture I was able to figure out the severity and priority of what was being talked about. A few times I would even guess the topic in English and on one occasion I got it right, to their surprise and horror. Had I learned Chinese that quickly? Surely that could be the only explanation. My confidence was lifted that day. Baby steps.
Then one day I thought of asking Jeff the same question in a different way, “Where is the machine right now?”
“It’s in Shanghai customs.” Jeff answered as if it was as ubiquitous as the early afternoon smog outside the window near our kiosk.
“Oh, good.” I may not have gotten my final answer but at least I knew the machine was closer to being here. So, we got a routine going and every day I’d ask the same question, “Where is the machine today?”
He didn’t seem to get tired of me asking the same question every day. On the fifth day, Jeff told me it was in Suzhou customs. Progress, I was tempted to ask the old question – When will it get here? – but I resisted; I didn’t want to lose any ground. Another week went by and then one day he came over to my office before our daily production meeting with a big smile. He was excited as a little kid and I knew what the answer to my question was going to be today. I was getting pretty good at this nonverbal communication.
“The machine’s here isn’t it!” I exclaimed. His enthusiasm was contagious.
“Yes, how did you know?”
It was a small detail of a much larger project but I’d made a giant leap forward in my understanding of doing business in China.
I continue to be more accepted at the daily production meetings. They ask my advice about issues and want to know how the same situation is handled at the New Jersey plant. They also speak more English during our daily meetings. We’ve met somewhere in the middle. And now I know that any questions about timing can be very tricky. “When” is relative to the moment in time being discussed. As much as timing is everything back home; here it’s much more about the longer-term nature of time and relationship. Both aspects go hand in hand. Things are handled as they present themselves. The future will take care of itself; and we’ll deal with it together.
Please send warm greetings to all my friends without email or those I’ve missed here. One of these days I’ll call into the 2:30 meeting in New Jersey; but it will be 3:30 AM here in Suzhou so either I’ll get up very early or stay up very late.
Looking forward to connecting with all of you soon,
The Great Firewall
I’m sure you’re busy with classes and hopefully studying for your mid-terms. I’m also sure that you took some time out to celebrate Halloween last weekend. What outrageous costume did you come up with this year? Even though you’re in college and past the days of going out to trick or treat I hope you continued our family’s tradition of celebrating Halloween.
After all the years of making your childhood costumes, this year was a chance for me to design a costume that reflected a theme from my year in China. I began to ponder what events stood out for me or what I wanted say about living in China that could also be fun and playful as a costume. This holiday has always been a creative outlet for me and being in China put a new and interesting twist on the process. While searching online for ideas and waiting and waiting for my VPN to connect it dawned on me, “The Great Firewall of China.” I could make a costume that combined the Great Wall of China and internet censorship. One of the things I love about Halloween is the anonymity and freedom of expression to be anything or anybody, real or imagined. So, with sketches and lists of things I needed, I began the yearly scavenger hunt for costume components. That’s always part of the fun of creating something original; to look around for bits and pieces of ordinary and odd things that when put together just right become something original and brand new. This year’s list included a fishing net, logos of internet websites (banned and China-only), a straw triangle hat I bought in Yangshou, scrap bits from the fabric market, battery powered Christmas lights, a black wig, geisha makeup, and red sparkly pumps.
As the thirty-first approached I frantically put the finishing touches on my costume. With lots of hot glue, some sewing, and twist ties to hold everything together I was thrilled to see my idea come to life. My” internet” was a neon yellow plastic fishnet that had website logos like Twitter , Facebook and You-tube stuck on the outside of the net and a strategic hole with the letters VPN woven into it to show how it’s possible to get around this with a Virtual Private Network. The idea was to portray how some websites are on the outside of China and not allowed into the harmonized internet within the Mainland. A red silk ribbon was woven around the outside and used to keep my ‘net shawl around my shoulders. My shirt represented the Great Wall. It was made of gray satin with off the shoulder step sleeves and a scoop neckline that I had brushed with black ink to look like the worn steps of the actual wall. Attached to the shirt were logos of China’s websites including Alibaba, Youku, QQ, and Taobao.Theses websites are similar to Facebook and You-Tube. My skirt was full of fiery strips of chiffon and tulle that were ablaze to represent the firewall of China’s internet. To top it off I wore a traditional triangle straw Chinese hat with little white lights glued on as to represent satellites. A black wig, red pumps and white face makeup completed the ensemble.
I felt a bit self-conscious as I walked over to Zapata’s Mexican Bar to meet my friends for a night out on town. I got a few strange looks but I think people here are used to expats doing silly things. I did see a few parents with their kids in costume so that eased my anxiety about going out in public dressed as the Chinese internet. When I walked into the dimly light bar I felt even better. The place was decked out with jack-o-lanterns, dry ice cauldrons, and orange lights strung on the ceiling with spooky background music coming from the DJ’s balcony. There were lots of other Halloween enthusiasts, expat and Chinese.
“Good,” I thought, “I may stand out in my one-of-a-kind costume but at least I’m not the only one dressed up.” Nobody recognized me. The first sign of a good costume, anonymity, check.
The second confirmation was explaining what I was and seeing my friend’s expressions, “Oh, I get it now, very clever.” So far so good.
We stayed at Zapata’s for one drink and then got taxis down to Bar Street to take in the sites there. Pulp Fiction was packed with people inside and spilling out onto the street. There were revelers in costumes and some in street clothes just taking pictures. I saw a guy in a Cookie Monster costume and thought of you. Remember your first first grade parade when I made a blue fur costume with Styrofoam eyes. This guy had the same outfit but he kept having to take his head off to drink his beer. While we were finishing our drinks standing in the street a women in a Catholic school girl costume asked if she could take my picture.
“I like your costume,” she said as she took a photo on with her i-phone. A few of her friends gave me the thumbs up when they noticed a photo I had on the back of my internet shawl. It was a picture of a famous exile who’s been living in India for the past fifty years. I had strategically put his picture away from my face. No need to ask for trouble.
We continued our fun at Jane’s Pub, the Bookworm and then decided it was time for some techno music and dancing. We taxied over to walking street and went to In Pub, a local discotheque complete with bartenders juggling fire flame bottles and smoke filled parquet postage stamp sized dance floors. This place is a local favorite and it took us a while to find an open table. Just as our drinks were served I felt someone tug at my hat. In an instant it was gone and I saw my hat being passed around the table next to us. One by one each person tried it on while someone else took a photo with their phone. I’ve been in China long enough to know that eventually I’d get my hat back, maybe not in the same shape but I didn’t mind sharing my creation with them. Confirmation number three: other people wanting to wear parts of my costume. I loved see them having fun with it and took some photos. They always gave me the sideways peace sign just as I took each photo. My hat made its way around most of the tables. It was easy to spot because the tiny halogen lights stood out like stars on a moonless night. Although my hat was a huge success nobody seemed to get the costume. Everybody was taken in by the American woman dressed up as Chinese person complete with neon lights. The only comments I got were, “Cool hat” or “Nice costume.” At least that’s what I thought they were saying; it was tough to hear over the blaring techno.
As the night turned into early morning we made our way back towards SIP. Our final stop was Pravda, a Russian dance club on Li Gong Di which stays open as long as they have patrons. The music was still going and there was actually room on the dance floor. We saw some of the same costumes from Pulp Fiction. I nodded to the Cookie Monster who had lost one of his eyes and about half of his blueness. I was having the same molting problem; pieces of fire were falling off my skirt and dancing across the floor. Confirmation number for a successful costume – losing pieces of the costume at the end of the night. Along with bits of fire a few more logos came loose from my shawl. I reached down to pick up “May 35th” and a Heath Ledger Joker look-alike got it first and said, “Ah, another coded message, I’ve been finding these scattered around all night.” I guess I’d been losing pieces earlier than I thought. You might be wondering what the date is; it refers to a square in Beijing where people gather the same year you were born. Before I started to lose essential pieces of my costume I figured it was time to head home.
So my first Halloween in China was a lot of fun. Hope your last Halloween as a college student was fun too. Next year you’ll be making plans for life after college. As you think about your future remember that just like our outrageous costume ideas, no idea is too wacky, farfetched or lofty. I believe in you and just as the one day of Halloween gives us the chance to be bold and reinvent ourselves it’s possible, even encouraged, to do that in our real lives. It’s just that Halloween lets our inner wishes, hopes and dreams come out in the open for one day with full anonymity. But that spark is always there, a small flame that starts our new dreams, so dream big Zach.
February 27, 2012
It was great to Skype with you yesterday and find out your good news about Paula’s pregnancy. It’s hard to believe that you will be a grandmother. To me, you’re still too young for that label but I know your youthful spirit will bring a more updated meaning to that term. You’ve always been a few years ahead of me in the passages of womanhood. I will continue to see you as my trail blazer on our journey.
As you know, each year, this date brings a time of reflection and pause for me. I still remember the phone call I made to you that day. How you dropped what you were doing, and came over to my house right away with flowers and a big hug. We went for a walk and just having you by my side took away some of the shock; putting one foot in front of other gave me back a sense of control I had lost that day. Feeling the bright February afternoon sun warming my face reminded me that spring, my favorite season, was coming. It was exactly the medicine I needed that day. More than anything though I remember feeling comforted by knowing that you had taken the same journey I was about to take. And you not only survived, but you were healthy, happy, and walking right beside me.
You’re not one to give direct advice but I remember that day you said, “This is a time to really do what is best for you, to take care of yourself first, maybe for the first time. There is nothing like facing your mortality to put things in perspective.”
You were right, of course. Hearing the words, “You have cancer,” had brought a clarity that I had never had before. As I talked about doctor’s appointments, scans, and all the confusing terms of breast cancer (stages, types, treatment options) you listened quietly, nodding and sharing your experience. With this clarity I found my new mantra, “If it helps me, it stays. If it hurts me, it’s gone.” You helped me find the words that day that made it much easier to make all the other decisions I had to face.
I remember that we also talked about what was going on in your life at that time. You were turning fifty that year and were planning a trip to China with Kate. She was going to the Yangtze River Delta to photograph the towns that would soon be flooded due to the Three Gorges dam project. As I listened to your travel plans I thought, “Life really can go on after cancer. If Pam made it through, I can too.” I also imagined how many hundreds of thousands of lives were rapidly changing along the Yangtze River. They had also received news, like me, that life as they knew it was about to change. And like me, I was sure they had a sense of losing control and having no idea what lay ahead. Already, without knowing it, I had made a connection to China.
The months passed and I did make it through surgeries, chemotherapy, reconstruction, and healing. You took me to a chemotherapy treatment right before you left for China and I remember we laughed about how to know what to pack to go to China and how were you going to survive on rice and dumplings for a month. Neither of us knew then how modern China was or how international the food would be. We laughed again after you returned and shared your pictures and stories of China. I was surprised with the contrast of old temples and modern skyscrapers. What struck me most though were the faces of women, young and old, in the cities and the villages. There was such a contrast in their expressions; from the lines on the faces of old women from the soon- to-be flooded villages to the high fashion models from the cities. I remember looking at the pictures and thinking, "These are really interesting but I've never had any interest in actually going to China myself." Never say never, right?
When the opportunity for me to go to China came along you were the first person I called. “You’ll never guess what job offer I just had?” I remember your reaction of laughter and excitement when I told you, “China!” We were both surprised and thrilled at the same time. I would be taking a journey to China just as you had a few years earlier. This would be yet another connection we would have on our life journeys.
So now, after living in Suzhou for over a year, I reflect on how much life has changed in five years. How the opportunity to go to China happened so easily and quickly. How I just knew that it was meant to be. That I would follow in your footsteps was no coincidence. Today I wore my signature pink shirt to show my breast cancer survivorship, but even my pink ribbon pin went unnoticed. It’s a topic that is not openly discussed here. Although breast cancer rates among Chinese women remains low compared to Western countries, the rates among Shanghai’s women has risen thirty percent over the last ten years. I’ve tried speaking with my Chinese women friends; asking if their mothers go for yearly mammograms. I could tell they were uncomfortable. When I asked if anyone knew someone who had had breast cancer I didn’t get any responses; just downward looks and awkward silences. I’m sure it’s partially a cultural difference not to share family hardships but I do miss the openness of American women. As you know, I volunteered for support groups back home but here there hasn’t been that opportunity. I went to a Singaporean doctor in Suzhou and asked about breast cancer survivor groups for expats but he politely showed me the door.
So my time in Suzhou has brought a quiet reflection on being a breast cancer survivor. It’s been an inward journey that has given me the opportunity to work on accepting my “adjusted and augmented” body. The opportunities abound. At Powerhouse Gym I still have to try and not look shocked to see all the naked girls in the locker room. Women are nonchalantly drying their long black hair in front of the mirror without a stitch of clothes or even a towel. Girls chatting casually not even noticing that I’m trying to walk by and avoid touching their bare bodies. There’s always at least one really confident woman sizing herself up in the full length mirror as she puts on underwear. You would think it would get easier for me to see so many real breasts and feel OK with my manufactured ones. These women seem so comfortable with their bodies, which is different from the modesty at the gyms in the US. I wish I could take on their carefree attitude. It’s ironic how I made the connection with women’s faces from your China photos and now I’m comparing their perky, smaller breasts with my scarred, perfectly formed implants. It’s so easy to notice the differences and focus on my imperfections.
But this five year milestone puts it all in perspective and reminds me that no matter what shape I am, it’s better to be healthy and cancer free. I’m truly grateful for each day to be here in China, to literally be anywhere. When I faced my mortality five years ago I thought I might not make it to my fifth year. And so now, at fifty-two, after taking the cancer journey I’m taking the China journey, just as you did.
It’s been so great to share my China blog with you; knowing that we share the same joy and gratitude for each day we have. Thanks for following along and commenting as we share this time together. Your joyful spirit transcends our miles apart and the years in between our China journeys.
Give my best to Paula. It’s time for me to close and take a walk. The weather is improving here. Spring is on the way. The palm trees have been unwrapped and I see the women have returned to tending the flower beds. Spring flowers will be blooming soon; new life is on its way, here and back home with Paula.
My mum told me that because I was good at school, and had a positive attitude towards life, I should go far. I didn’t know if China was far enough for her, but that’s where I ended up – and all because of a teaching job I landed at a Shanghai international school in August 2008.
I’m not sure if it was the quality of my teaching or my aftershave, but after two years in Shanghai my boss suggested a move to nearby Suzhou. I think it was promotion… Couldn’t adapt at first – spent the first week frantically looking for metro stations, and even took up smoking in an effort to simulate the pollution of Shanghai. Eventually, though, I managed to calm down and adjust to ‘boring Suzhou,’ as it’s known in Shanghai (and ‘Heaven on Earth’ to everyone else).
I didn’t know a soul when I arrived – and then a breakthrough! I discovered a club that meets at the Bookworm every two weeks – a really nice, friendly group of like-minded people – and I suddenly felt at one with kindred spirits. Then I discovered I was crap at chess, so I joined a writers’ group instead.
So, in case you’re interested, I’m from the UK (a country that would fit into China twenty-one times) and I began writing because my mum said that write was better than wrong. Many people say my writing is very funny, which is a bit worrying because I’m trying to be serious. Oh, and I’ve written a book called ‘Julie & Me in China,’ which is all about my life in Shanghai with my crazy girlfriend Julie (please don’t tell her I said ‘crazy’).
I think that’s all…
A Stitch in Time
5th August, 2011
Thanks for your letter. Good to hear you’re well, and that you enjoyed the recent women’s guild visit to the horticultural fair in Kendal. I really didn’t know you could do that with a fresh cucumber…
Yes, my move to Suzhou went smoothly and I’ve settled into a new apartment close to my school. When I say ‘close’, I mean that if I stand on the balcony, the school security guards wonder what I’m doing back at work.
Anyway, I’m looking forward to the challenge of working in a new school in a new location this September. Yes, the name Suzhou Industrial Park does conjure up factories with chimneys billowing smoke – but actually it’s nothing like that. It’s a very modern part of the city, with beautiful lakes and a much quieter – and cleaner – atmosphere compared to Shanghai. It does have a lot of companies, but these are mostly banks and retail businesses like Toshiba, L’Oreal and one company with the unfortunate name of Wanke (pronounced wanker). They may want to rethink that one.
Thanks for asking how I am, and glad to hear that my last email made you laugh. But when I said the nurses had me in stitches, I actually meant that literally.
Fortunately, the scars have just about healed now. I don’t think I ever really told you all the details of my accident in Shanghai – didn’t want to worry you at the time. Despite what a witness said, it was not a car that knocked me over – just my own stupid fault. I remember I was running for the bus, and reached into my pocket for the two Yuan I needed for the fare (about twenty pence). The next thing I knew, I was lying on the pavement with a crowd of people looking down at me. I can only think that I tripped on the pile of stones at the roadside where they were building a new road (or maybe preparing my tombstone). With one hand holding my bag and the other in my coat pocket, I had nothing except my head to break my fall! Yes, I know it sounded a bit horrific to facture my skull in two places and have twenty-two stitches in my face, but I think I was quite lucky not to need an operation.
Jeff Wu from the school came with me to the hospital, which was a relief as no-one seemed to speak English there. Anyway, the nurses began stitching up my face right away – no anaesthetic or anything like that – and I remember feeling lots of small stabbing pains whilst two of them worked quickly to sew me up.
The hospital was very busy and very open, as pretty much all the Chinese hospitals are, with people passing in and out all the time, and few private areas. So everyone could see me being stitched up, and my gruesome face. I must have looked like a monster! (Yes, I know – I always look beautiful to you Mum).
After that, I was whisked away to the x-ray room so they could take pictures of my head. I did ask them to photograph my best side, but they didn’t quite get it. Then I had to wait about thirty minutes for a doctor to give me a diagnosis.
When the x-ray results finally arrived, the doc said I had two fractures, and he was a little concerned about the one on the right side of my face. But seeing as they had limited facilities at this hospital, he suggested I should go to a larger facility to better assess the damage.
Jeff was great, and went with me to a large hospital in downtown Shanghai which had a department just for foreigners. It was like a four-star hotel, with nice carpets and flowers and (I later discovered) four-star prices. Whilst the consultation fee in the Chinese part of the hospital was fifty Yuan (about five pounds), I had to pay five hundred Yuan in the foreigners’ department – plus another seven hundred for medication! My jaw dropped (quite easily, since it was broken in two places). All the nurses and reception girls spoke English, which was a help – but I could hear the meter running every time I asked a question.
I was x-rayed again, though on more modern equipment this time, and a doctor looked at the results with me. He pointed out the fractures and said I might need an operation to fix one of them, but they would need a detailed CT scan to know for sure. He spoke some English, but because Jeff was there he mostly used Chinese. Then he told me the x-ray showed up something interesting: a fragment of tooth buried where it shouldn’t be. It had sheared off when my face met the concrete pavement (guess which one was harder?) and the nurses at the emergency hospital had sewed the tooth into my bottom lip!
“No problem,” he said, “I will remove it.”
And so he did – without anaesthetic! He removed the stitches and then cut into my lip, digging out the piece of tooth. Finally he sewed it up again. Boy, it was painful, and tears streamed down my cheeks. If only he’d told me what information he wanted, I would have talked straightaway.
Anyway, when I returned to the hospital the next day, the CT scan revealed that despite the break to my bottom jaw, I didn’t need to have an operation. However, I had to eat only liquid foods for the next three weeks, and I should try not to talk – and certainly not laugh. You can probably guess that I was not really in the mood for laughing at that point. Apparently the jaw would heal itself in about six to eight weeks. The doctor also told me to avoid eating meat, spicy food, and drinking alcohol for two months– to speed up the healing process. Well, as you know, I haven’t eaten meat for over twenty years, so that wasn’t a problem – though I really did fancy a stiff brandy.
As I said, the consultation, treatment and medication were quite expensive, but Jeff told me it would all be covered by the school’s insurance – including the taxi rides to and from the hospital – so that was a relief. The downtown hospital gave me both Chinese and Western medicines and, I have to say, I much preferred the look of the Chinese variety, and never used the Western ones – which were basically antibiotics. You know I’m not a big fan of those.
The guys at work were really nice, and several teachers and my boss visited me at home. “Does your face hurt?” my boss asked. “No, not any more…” I said carefully. I half expected him to reply, “Well, it’s killing me!” (an old joke from my school days). But instead he said, “Well, I’m glad to hear that Simon.”
Once I got back to work, scars and all, I wondered what the others would say. “Do I look okay?” I asked Maggie, a girl in Admin, when she welcomed me back.
“Sure… you don’t look any different Simon,” she said.
People here are so nice… and such great liars.
7th September, 2011
Thanks for your chatty letter – it’s always good to get your news from England. Yes, I’m almost fully recovered from the accident I had back in February, and I’m just as ugly as ever.
You asked about Chinese horoscopes – and I looked up your sign for you straightaway. Because you were born at midnight on 27 January, it does mean you’re a cross between a Pig and a Rat. But I wouldn’t read anything into that.
Glad to hear you’re thinking of coming over to Suzhou in the New Year – it’ll be great to see you again! And yes, I’ll definitely keep an eye out for a nice Chinese girl for you. Actually, you don’t have to look far. I was in a restaurant the other day, all on my own, and a young attractive girl entered and spoke quickly to the waitress. The next thing I know, she’s sitting at my table! The waitress asked if this was all right, and I said “Mei wenti” (that was not her name, it means ‘no problem’ in Chinese).
“Ni hao,” the girl said. “Ni hao..,” I replied carefully. The staff seemed bemused. My waitress asked if this arrangement was okay, and I smiled. Then we both ordered and Daisy (her name apparently) had the same as me. I asked what she did for a living. She didn’t understand, so I said, “Wo shi laoshi.”
“Oh, teacher!” she exclaimed, and I nodded. “And you?” I asked. “Dancer,” she said, demonstrating her profession in her chair. “Oh,” I said, “and where do you dance?”
“Where would you like me to dance?” she asked. This was getting interesting now. “You mean, you’d dance for me personally?” I asked. “Hao de,” [certainly], she replied, adding “Would you like to come to my home?”
At this point, I started to get a bit of a stiff leg (I think it was my leg). Must have been the anticipation of all that dancing. Then I had one of those moments where a crossroads suddenly appears, and you have to decide which path to take. (Personally, I prefer roundabouts.)
“And where is home?” I asked.
“Zai na bian,” she said, pointing towards an apartment block opposite. Now, I should tell you that we were sitting in a Buddhist Vegetarian Restaurant, and I don’t think they’d seen a lot of dancing daisies. Consequently, the restaurant staff were suddenly very interested (I think they had bets on whether or not I’d go with her). I hesitated for a moment, weighing up the pros and cons, and then I suddenly saw Julie’s face in my mind’s eye.
Well, you’ve probably guessed the rest… And I’ll take you to that restaurant too… perhaps you can meet Daisy?
All the best,
Go with the Flow
25th October, 2011
Thanks for your email, really glad to hear that you’ve finally found the woman of your dreams in England. Pity about the five kids in tow – but hey, you can always start your own netball team. By the way, did you know that one in every five people in the world is Chinese? Perhaps you should take another look at those kids.
You’re right about the Chinese, though. ‘Inscrutable’ is definitely a good word to describe them: difficult to understand, difficult to know. But I think that’s because we try to make their words and actions fit into our way of thinking, our way of life, and it doesn’t work. You really have to go with the flow over here – live and let live. I’ve had to do plenty of that in the last four years since I arrived, I can tell you.
We have a magazine here called What’s on in Suzhou, which is pretty handy. It’s a monthly calendar of everything that’s going on in the City – club meetings, sports, music gigs, restaurants and bars. Well, I was taking a peek at this last weekend and happened to see that a new Fish n’ Chip shop had just opened downtown! Yes, god’s honest truth – a bloody fish and chippie right here in Suzhou, China. Well, just had to go and take a look, didn’t I?
First impression: it was a tad small. You could squeeze perhaps a couple of Chinese children in there, and then it was full. Anyway, it happened to be empty when I got there, so I took a deep breath, jumped inside and took a gander at the menu. Straightaway, I fancied the battered cod and chips – fantastic! Only thing was, when I ordered it, the Chinese guy looked me in the eye and said “Mei you” (which sounds like ‘mayo’). Well, unfortunately that doesn’t mean mayonnaise over here, it means ‘don’t have.’ So I thought, okay – be flexible, no worries – just choose again. I went for the grilled flounder and chips. But guess what? Flounder was also “Mei you.” Ok, don’t be put off, I thought, there must have something available. So I pointed to the picture which was labelled, ‘Deep fried fish and chips’, and said, “Zhe ge” [this one]. He shrugged, smiled, and said (yes, you’ve guessed it), “Mei you.” Now, in the past, back home, I would have said, “Well, what the fk do you have?”. But this is China, and when in Rome… So I said, as calmly as possible, “Ni you shenme?” [what do you have], and he said, “Chips.”
So, not one of the restaurants I’d recommend here – but hey, the birds enjoyed the chips. Well, they would have done if there were any in the street. They’re all kept in cages, believe it or not, and many are eaten! Yes, the only birds you’ll hear singing in the streets are the ones at KTV. That’s Karaoke Television, by the way. But it’s nothing like what we have back home Rod, oh no. You and me, we’ve been to old Karaoke where we get pissed then sing something like ‘Angels’ by Robbie Williams, and everyone else is pissed too, so no-one knows whether you’re singing in tune or not, or even the right song. Here, the girls take it very seriously. They rent a room together, and have a sort of KTV private party with lots of little snacks – and they drink tea and coffee! What’s that all about!?
Anyway, I digress… Yes, the teaching job’s going well, thanks for asking. No, the girl’s don’t wear Kimonos here – that’s Japan. And they only wear the Qipao for special occasions – and certainly not in school. The students here are just like teenagers all over the world – except that they actually sit in their seats at school, and don’t flash their tits at the teacher, don’t wear jewellery or makeup (not allowed), and they work hard, doing all their homework. They never swear (that I know of), and actually bow to teachers in the corridors. What am I talking about – they’re nothing like teenagers anywhere else in the world!
Yes, of course you’re welcome to come over next year Rod. I’ve got a nice little pad close to the school with a spare room. But now you’re hitched I’m not sure I could accommodate the entire netball team. I’m on the second floor, which is actually the first in England. Didn’t want a place too high up (vertigo) and the fourth is generally no-no here (the Chinese words for ‘four’ and ‘death’ being pretty much the same). I suppose someone has to live on the fourth floor. Oh yes – just remembered: Mr Wang, a physics teacher from our school. He used to live there until he fell off his balcony one evening. I think he was attempting to replicate one of Galileo’s famous experiments at the time.
Next time I move house I’m thinking of getting an apartment on the eighth floor, because eight is a lucky number in China, and the Chinese for eight is ‘ba’, which is pronounced ‘bar’, and the idea of living in a boozer is quite appealing.
Take care mate,
The Pyjama Game
8th November, 2011
Do you remember when Grandpa Broom used to leave the house in his pyjamas and go walkabouts? Quite often, he went to the local boozer, and then the landlord would call the cops, and the next thing we knew they were at our door asking Dad to go and identify the old guy in the nightwear down at the local Police Station. At the time, we all thought this was just a case of Grandpa going a bit doolally. But since moving to China, I’ve realized an astonishing truth: Grandpa wasn’t senile at all – he was just trying to be Shanghainese!
I came to this conclusion a few months after arriving in Shanghai. There I was in Tesco’s supermarket (yes, we’ve got one here!) and suddenly a couple appeared dressed in nothing but their pyjamas! I had to do a double take. At first I guessed they must be senile – like old Grandpa – and if I’d known enough Chinese I might have called the security guards. Fortunately, I didn’t. The same day, I saw four other people in their pyjamas walking the streets, bold as brass. And no, they weren’t on their way to a pyjama party – they were just following the fashion in this part of China.
I talked to Wendy about this (a Chinese girl I know – please don’t tell Julie!), and she told me that people don’t wear just any pyjamas in the streets – certainly not. They have their sleeping pyjamas, and their going out pair. Very thoughtful I suppose. When I moved to Suzhou, I thought I’d seen the end of it – but no! Just the other day, there was this bloke going about his business in a very fetching pale green silk set.
I have to say that, to date, I’ve not seen any foreigners following the same fashion – but give me time. That new pair you sent me for my birthday could be exactly what I need to walk around Jinji Lake one Sunday afternoon. Can’t wait to see the locals’ faces! But just in case you’re thinking of wearing your nightdress down Kendal High Street, I have to say that it might take a little time for the fashion to catch on over there – so just put that thought on hold for now Mum.
In other ways, the city people here dress more or less how folk do back home, and look pretty Western (the girls look pretty and Western actually). But here’s one big difference in fashion. You know how the girls in England are always trying to darken their skin – using make-up, going to sun-tanning centres, soaking up the sun abroad – anything to stop looking pasty white. Well, here it’s the complete opposite. The girls in China want to look pasty white! They don’t want brown skin, at any cost, and they certainly won’t sunbathe. In fact, they carry umbrellas everywhere they go, and hate for one minute to be caught in the sun without one – or at least a very big hat.
Last summer, it was a lovely sunny day and I said to Wendy, “Hey, it’s such a beautiful day, let’s go for a long walk.” And she said, “What – you want me to get dark skin?” And I replied, “Yes – I love dark skin!” And she said, “You’re crazy Simon!”
Not only that, but the girls here buy all these products to make their skin whiter! Most skin creams and shower-gels have a special whitening ingredient to stop them looking like primitive natives, as they see it. Amazing! It doesn’t matter how many times I tell people at work that it’s the complete opposite in the UK, I just end up wasting my breath. This is one area where the girls here certainly do not want to follow Western fashions.
One more thing… I had a phone call a couple of weeks ago from my old mate Phil from my uni days in Manchester. Well, if you recall, he’d emigrated to New Zealand a few years back after getting hitched to a Kiwi girl, and we’d kept in touch on and off. Then, out of the blue, he said he’d be flying to Shanghai in a few days’ time, and then coming on over to Suzhou!
I have to say, it was great to see him again, and we had a good chat and a bit of a laugh about the old days over a few beers. Then, when we were talking about the tourists sites in downtown Suzhou, he said, “Well, if you don’t mind Simon, mate, I’d rather take a look at wedding dresses.” That was a surprise, I can tell you. But apparently a year ago he’d started his own jewellery business, specializing in wedding jewellery – tiaras, necklaces, bracelets, that sort of thing – which had gone really well; and it wasn’t a giant leap from there to wedding dresses. Then his new Kiwi wife researched suppliers and discovered that one of top places in South East Asia for wedding paraphernalia was Suzhou! Would you believe it?
So off Phil and I went to downtown Wedding Street to look for samples for his business. When we arrived at the area (not far from one of Suzhou’s famous landmark ‘Tiger Hill’), we couldn’t believe how many wedding shops there were – it seemed like hundreds of them! Not just a street, a whole square as well – all showing off dozens of white and red dresses in all sorts of designs, and selling everything you could ever want for your wedding (No mum, I didn’t take Julie – give me a break!) Now, as you can imagine, two western blokes looking at Wedding dresses in China did sort of standout, and we were greeted by quite a few inquisitive stares, I can tell you.
To be on the safe side, I left Phil to take a gander around the stores on his own, whilst I stood nonchalantly outside, trying to look cool about the whole thing. Then in one store, he couldn’t see the wedding dresses anywhere, so he asked me to talk to the assistant in Chinese. So we both went back inside and I said to one of the girls in my best Mandarin, “Please tell me, where are your wedding clothes?” And the girl replied, “You want for gay?”
He was on his own after that.
For all the Tea in China
21st November, 2011
It’s great to hear that you and your new lady are definitely coming over to China next summer – can’t wait to see you again. Actually, I was talking to Julie the other day about you visiting us in Suzhou, and I said, “I’d give all the tea in China to see my mate Rod again.”
“There isn’t any tea in China,” she replied.
“What are you talking about Jules?” I said. “They make the bloody stuff here!”
“It’s spelled C-H-I-N-A… no ‘T’,” she said.
So I guess that told me. Thought I’d better tell you this so you know what you’re letting yourself in for when you visit.
It was actually because of this insane conversation that I found myself in a tea shop the other day. There I was, heading for the supermarket, and I noticed this pretty Chinese girl smiling at me from the doorway of a tea shop as I passed. They have lots of these little shops in Suzhou where you can try hundreds of different teas from all over China, and if any take your fancy you can buy a packet or two.
Well, I have to say that the little filly by the door did take my fancy, and I was drawn in like an iron ball to a magnet. The next thing I knew, I was sitting at a table with cups of green and brown liquid staring at me, surrounded by three girls in qipaos. They really knew very little English, so I gave them the old Chinese. (When I say ‘the old Chinese,’ I don’t mean I was talking in some ancient Chinese dialect – I was just being colloquial).
Anyway, it was a very funny atmosphere, with them laughing at my Chinese, and me laughing at them laughing. The tea was great… I tried Oolong from Taiwan, Longjing from Hangzhou, Dongding from Suzhou, and tea with flowers in it! I just had to buy some, so I pointed at one cup and said “Zhege” [this one], giving her the thumbs up sign. Then I said “Duo shao qian?” [how much money], and one girl told me the price. God, it cost a packet! But I suppose I was spending a packet to buy a packet, so that seemed fair enough. Every time I bought some tea, the girls smiled and touched my arm, which felt rather nice I must say, so I ended up buying quite a lot.
“You want try one more?” one of the girls asked me. Then I suddenly remembered the tea Julie and me used to drink in our local Chinese restaurant back home. It was really tasty.
“I’d like to try Jasmine,” I said. That amused her no end. How was I to know that she was called Jasmine?
Then, just when I was about to go, Jasmine said, “You want pot?” Now I know that a long time ago in Chinese history, some bad, bad country sold opium and cannabis to the locals, which caused a bit of a stink in China, I can tell you. Can’t remember the name of the country that did this, but I’m sure that us Brits tried to stop it. Anyway, it now appeared that the Chinese were trying to sell the stuff back – right here in this little tea shop near a supermarket in Suzhou! I didn’t want to be impolite, so I said “Okay.”
So when you come over to see us in, Rod, we’ve got lots of Chinese teas for you to try – and you can drink them out of the lovely teapot I bought in that little shop.
All the best,
14th December, 2011
Glad to hear you liked my tea story – and yes, I’ll take you to that tea shop when you come over in the summer (as well as that vegetarian restaurant where I met Daisy, of course).
Do you remember when I lived on the Isle of Bute in Scotland, and my address was ’19 Battery Place’? Well, my thoughts went back to my old address last weekend when I had a little problem with my gas cooker.
As you know, I often cook dinner at home now. Well, it’s no good asking Julie to do it. I’m not saying she can’t cook, but she did burn the cornflakes once. Yes, the cornflakes! There I was getting ready for work one morning, when I could suddenly smell something burning. So I followed my nose to the kitchen, and there was Julie fanning smoke out of the window!
“Christ Julie, what are you doing?” I said.
“It’s breakfast,” she replied. “Well, it was.”
Apparently, when she went to get the cornflakes from the cupboard that morning, she found that someone had left the packet open overnight, and the golden flakes of corn had gone golden soft. Then inspiration! She suddenly remembered a little trick her mum always used in this situation, which was to put the oven on full heat and pop a tray of cornflakes in there for about 30 seconds. This may well have worked like magic – if Julie hadn’t got distracted by some wally on a television (it was a cookery programme, ironically).
Anyway, the cornflakes were cremated and given a proper burial at sea (down the toilet), and Julie said she was never going to cook ever again. “Cooking is not in my genes,” she claimed. So that was why I was the one cooking dinner last weekend.
I feel I’m Italian at heart, so there I was cooking shell-shaped pasta, bubbling away quite happily for about five minutes. Then suddenly the gas stopped. So I tried switching it on and off a couple of times, but nothing. Immediately, I thought I knew what it was: we’d run out of money.
This had happened before, and on that occasion I had go to a utilities office in Shi hui fang, not far from the Fraser Suites building in the SIP, where you can top up your gas and water cards. You give a nice lady with a nice smile some money and your card which she recharges for you. Easily done, so I thought I’d just repeat the process. It was getting late, so I ran up the road, card in hand, and reached the office – just as it had closed. Mmm…So back home to very al dente pasta.
The next day, I returned to the same office, and got three hundred kwai added to the card. The lady did give me a strange look, and said something in Chinese about there already being money on the card, but I wasn’t really listening. Sorted – or so I thought. Back home, I slotted the card into the gas unit, and sure enough it registered the new money on the digital display. However, to my dismay, still no gas. What a bummer. So I called my landlord, and he came round to take a look. He was flummoxed too. He checked all the pipes and connections – but nothing amiss. I’ve never seen him look so puzzled. Then, as he put the card back into the unit, the display lit up – and so did his face. “Ah,” he said, “No battery!” “No battery?” I said. “Shi de,” [yes] he replied, removing a grey plastic panel to reveal four AA batteries. Well, blow me, I thought. You’ve got to have batteries to run your bloody gas cooker!
So there’s a lesson for all us expats in China. When your gas seems to run out, before running off to top up your card, always look at the battery place – which is why I thought of my old address in Scotland.
All the best mate,
15th February, 2012
Hope you’re okay mate – how’s the wedding dress business going? Planning on another trip to Suzhou this year? Let me know when you’re ready for another adventure. Actually, I’ve just come back from quite an adventure of my own.
It all began when Julie said she was going home to England to see her mum and dad for the Chinese New Year holiday – and did I want to come too? Well, as you know, her dad’s in prison for GBH and her mum’s an alcoholic, so it didn’t seem such a cheery place for a holiday. So I said, “Thanks Jules, but my mate Phil’s coming over from New Zealand, so I think I’d better stay in China.” That was a complete fabrication, of course; but I didn’t want to see her mum again after she pinched my bum last Christmas Eve.
Anyway, I was at school finishing up things before the hols, and one of the girls from Admin (Wendy) asked me if I was going home for the New Year holiday. I said, no, I was staying in China, and so she asked what I would be doing. “Oh, nothing much,” I said, “maybe a bit of lesson preparation, watching movies – that sort of thing.”
“On your own?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. She thought this was terrible, and I shouldn’t be yi ge ren [alone] for Chinese New Year – so why not come with her to Tianshui?
“Tianshui?” I said, “Where’s that?” And then she told me that Tianshui was her hometown in Gansu Province, Central China, and I was welcome to spend the holiday with her family! What she didn’t tell me was that I’d have to spend over eighteen bloody hours on a train to get there!
I discovered this when I went to buy my ticket with Wendy. We were waiting in the queue at the train ticket office in Shi hui fang, and she said “What type of bed do you want Simon?”
“Come again?” I said. “Are we booking a train journey or a hotel?”
She confirmed the former, and I asked how long the train journey would be. She looked at the train schedule, and then said, “This one takes eighteen hours, forty minutes.”
“Eighteen hours!” I exclaimed. “Isn’t there a faster train?”
“This is the fast train,” she replied.
For the bed, I could choose hard or soft. “What’s the difference?” I asked.
“One is harder,” she said. Duh!
“I mean the difference in price?”
“Oh, hard is 350 kwai and soft is 530 kwai.” I’ve tried hard Chinese beds… great for your back , but crap if you want to sleep. So soft it was.
Two days later, there I was with Wendy, hurrying along the platform at Suzhou railway station looking for our carriage. Now I have to tell you that this train was not one of those modern high-speed bullet trains I’d gotten used to travelling between Suzhou and Shanghai. Oh no, this was a completely different animal. If the Suzhou-Shanghai train was a gazelle, this one was more like a donkey.
So, we got on the train, and Wendy showed me my compartment. It was an old-fashioned sleeper, with two bunk beds for four people. I put my gear on one of the top bunk beds, and said, “See you later Wendy.”
“Where you going?” She asked.
“I’m not going anywhere – this is my compartment, right?”
“And mine,” she replied. Well, I knew she was friendly, and maybe this was my lucky day…
“Okay, I said with undoing my belt.”
“NO! “ she exclaimed.
Just then two more people entered the compartment – a old woman, and a younger one with a small child. And that was when I discovered that in China, there’s no separation of the sexes on trains – and you don’t take your clothes off!
Despite the softer bed, I can’t say I got much sleep, mainly due to the lights going on and off, the train stopping and starting, and someone’s phone ringing (and not just a ring – this was a complete pop album). I’m not saying whose phone that was, but Wendy kept whispering ‘sorry’.
We arrived in Tianshui the next day, and I was greeted by the sight of thick snow everywhere. Snow, snow, thick thick snow. Wendy’s sister Li met us at the station, and Li’s husband drove us to my hotel. Along the way, we crossed the main City river – which was completely frozen over. I was told that actually the temperature had warmed quite a bit in the past few days – reaching a high of minus seven degree Celsius! Nice.
I was pretty knackered after the train journey, and after a quick lunch with Wendy’s sisters and brother-in-laws, I got to put my head down at the hotel. I woke up at about six-thirty, and it was dark. I really wasn’t sure if it was morning or evening at first – and then Wendy phoned to say she was calling for me in ten minutes: we were going for dinner with her family!
The restaurant was just a fifteen minute walk from the hotel. We had to walk carefully because it was very, very icy. She led me to a big room full of people, who gave me warm welcoming smiles. I was first introduced to her father, and then her uncle, her sisters and their husbands, her cousins, and lastly her nieces and nephews. Quite a family. I was placed next to her father, with Wendy to my right, and she introduced me as her friend. Everyone was watching me very carefully, and it felt very weird. I began thinking that I could really do with a drink to cope with all this, just as a waitress brought round two bottles of booze. The first was something called bai jiu, and the second hong jiu.
Now, here’s a top tip for you Phil: the next time you’re in China, and you want wine, don’t go by the name! Hong jiu literally mean red alcohol, which is red wine. Similarly bai jiu translates as white alcohol, but this is not white wine! Oh, no – you don’t want to take a big glass of this stuff – trust me. ‘Good’ bai jiu is usually around fifty-six percent proof – much stronger than anything you can drink in the UK. Just a sniff of this stuff can get you drunk. So I politely declined the white liquor, and got a nice glass of French red wine instead. Super. By this time, piles of food were building up on the big round, revolving table. I’d been in China long enough to know that you mustn’t touch the food until the host begins to eat – in this case Wendy’s dad. After about ten minutes of chat, he raised his glass and toasted ‘our special friend from England’ (that was me, in case you’re wondering Phil). Then her dad began to take some food, signaling the rest of us to get stuck in.
Well, I must say, they like their mutton up here! There was tons of it. But fortunately, there were enough veggies (including some great dou fu) and a bit of fish for me. Anyway, I was chatting with Wendy, grabbing the grub from the table as it passed, and suddenly her sister Yi’s husband (called Ping) came over to say hello, his glass full of bai jiu. He welcomed me to China, and said gan bei, downing his drink in one. Well, I’ve been well versed in this custom, Phil, and I followed suit, showing my empty glass so he could see I’d done the same. All smiles. More eating, followed by more wine and more toasting. Every time I emptied my glass, it was magically filled by the waitress. It wasn’t long before everyone had been round to my seat to toast me… and then it began all over again. Christ! I must have drunk a bottle and half of wine that night.
By the end of the evening, Ping and I we were really friendly, and he asked me if I played snooker. Well, I can knock the ball around a pool table a bit, and snooker must be pretty much the same – so I said, “Sure – d’you fancy a game then mate?” And he said ‘yes,’ so straight after dinner off to a snooker club he knew. I thought I’d better not show him up (us Brits having invented the game and all that), so I didn’t try too hard at first, and let him pocket a few. But he seemed to pick up the game pretty quickly, and started a bit of a break going. I gave him lots of encouragement, shouting “hao qiu,” [good shot!] and “piao liang,” [beautiful] as I’ve heard them say over here. Well, I seemed to be saying those words quite a lot as his little break got to twenty, thirty, and then over eighty! When I did eventually get to have a go, I did pot a couple of balls myself (unfortunately, not the right ones), and he did in fact win the game by one or two shots (120 to seven).
“Mmm… I said to Wendy after the game, “Your brother-in-law’s not bad on the old snooker table.”
“Yes, he should be,” she replied, “he’s number three in China.”
All the best mate,
Linn Birkeland Seim
I have this crazy alter ego—she calls herself Reality Chick and pops out at the most inconvenient times with the most inappropriate agendas. This time she wants to illustrate how grim it can look if someone decides to belittle someone based on assumptions and generalisations, better known as gossip. “What if I do this to you pretending that I’m the rest of the writers’ group?” she suggested. She didn’t wait for my answer…
“Apparently Linn is an engineer and had this great career in management consulting or something. If it were so great, then what is she doing at home with kids? She probably had a mental breakdown or an affair with her boss and they got discovered or something. There is a rumour that she has cleared land mines in Angola, but the only thing we have seen her clear is red wine. A lot of the stay-at-home wives have issues with alcohol and medication.
She has this degree in fluid mechanics, which we assume, enables her to fix aircraft jet engines, right? Quite frankly, that’s a pretty useless set of skills to drag to a writer’s group. On top of it all, she throws a fit if what we write is not logical. This is art, not rocket science, God-damnit!
The only writing merit she can show off is her post as a student magazine journalist. Reportedly she is still persona-non-grata with all the female researchers of Scandinavia’s largest research organization. Go figure!
Being a travel geek, she has shelf-meters of travel knick-knacks: travel hair dryer, travel condoms (XS, eg. to save space), travel mouse (for the laptop), solar-powered travel charger, universal earplugs, avalanche transceiver and beaconer. The only thing she does not have is some useful information about accommodation, flights and F&B for the destination in her writing. She usually starts off by fucking up and it usually just goes downhill from there. Who arrived in Tokyo seven minutes before the world’s fifth largest earthquake? Who grazed the Utøya-massacre, the most barbaric atrocities in her home country since the Viking-era? And she’s not only a danger to herself: once she had her boyfriend travelling on the outside of a train from Prague to somewhere in the Czech boonies
Looking for trouble? Look no further!”
And Voila! How you might look from the outside …she chuckles.
‘Up or out’, baby
Receiving your letter I am sitting in my little writer’s den on the third floor in my Chinese home. The view out my window is compelling and a world apart from what I left behind. I cannot decide whether it’s the chubby springtime magnolia, the sweet perfumed fall osmanthus or the faithful yearlong bamboo bush, that’s my favourite. In my little dwelling I have my computer, my camera and my globe. In addition to my family and friends, that’s my world now.
I understand your confusion and disappointment in me. As your mentor and career counsellor, I admit to having personally failed in all areas that I encouraged you to pursue. Let me try to explain: from when we are little girls we are told that we can achieve the same things as men. It’s just that one day your uterus takes over. That’s what happened to me. I think it all started with a phone conversation with my friend Emma. It led me to distress over women’s role in society. Why were we to pursue prestigious education and glorious careers, if the social context of the society we live in forces us to give it up once we have a family?
My husband was at the time leading a project on his company’s expansion in China. One day he said: “You know we have the opportunity to go to China, right? But I have already told them it’s out of the question because it would mean you’d have to give up on your career for two years.” I confirmed with a snort.
Emma and I had been standing shoulder-to-shoulder through the war the last seven years. And if there were to be two women who were going to make it through the insanities of this business, it was to be bloody us! Her call rocked my world. “You’re doing WHAT? You’re joking now, right?” The shock of what she said must have hit me hard because I uncharacteristically stopped jotting on the computer. Emma is telling me she’s contemplating moving to Vietnam because her new boyfriend has been offered a position at the embassy.
“You are not going to abandon ship for the first and best male specimen who shows up at your door, are you?” I storm out of the open-plan office and away from curious ears.
“Ok, that you are crazy in love and that you are pregnant and stuff, but honestly! We have been working soo hard for so many years for this. There is not a living soul in the firm who will remember you when you come back. It’s ‘up or out’ baby, remember that!” I am furious—stupid woman! Thank God she has me to bring her back to her senses and away from these romantic reveries.
“But I will be on maternity leave anyway,” she endeavours.
“Yes, and that’s fine and all,” I continue. “But what the HELL are you going to do down there? Are you just going to look after children? How much fun do you think that is? Or are you going to be one of those housewives with high hair, pants-lining up under their arms arranging charity balls? Ha, I’d like to see that Emma-dear,” I cry in contempt. “Or maybe you could become one of those mums whose brains are ninety-percent occupied by baby excrement and the rest by play-dough? Ha, I bet you don’t even know what play-dough is, do you?” I triumph. Time is due to knock her on the head with the very fact that I am a mum and she is not:
“Believe me! They can talk about this for hours while sipping ttheir cold lattés. But the problem isn’t that they’re doing this for hours. The real problem is that they’re doing this for hours year in and year out. Do you hear me?” I shout.
I prepare for my final precision strike. “And how many friends like that do you have today?” I interrogate. Without waiting for her answer, I continue. “None! See? There’s a reason for that Emma. If you don’t hit it off with them here, what the hell makes you think you will in freakin’ Vietnam?”
“But I do have one: Hilda.” Emma’s voice is low and defensive.
“Doesn’t count!” I scream. “That’s family so you have to be friends with her! There’s a reason for our not having friends like that you know Emma-mine. They don’t like us and we definitely do not like them!” And with that I finished my prosecution of Emma.
So you see Anna, as a fellow management consultant I am sure that you understand my upheaval. Despite of my furious outcry, Emma’s reverie does not pass. Soon pictures of smiley and tanned faces are popping up in my inbox. With the efficiency of a businesswoman, Emma is listing up her perks: “Chef, maid, nanny and driver”. I hear myself snorting in contempt. Why would she want more staff to manage when it obviously was possible to pull it off without any at all and have a blossoming career… “member of a tennis club”…I snort again.
So when Emma’s plunge is a confirmed fact, my husband one day says with an indifferent air, “We have found the right man to take over in China. I wouldn’t have taken you anyway though. You wouldn’t have handled it. Two weeks of you being idle and we would have been heading down the path of divorce.” I grunt and send him a look that could kill.
Regardless of Emma’s happiness, quite determined I was dear Anna, to counteract in a language she would understand. I still believed it possible to minimise the damage of her career blunder. If we could plan and execute the merger of two dinosaur public agencies or turn around a bust multinational, it had to be God-damn possible to figure out how to handle two careers and a baby…It was just a question of good planning and streamlined execution. Consequently, I start to jot down the outlines of a plan. Emma was the only person who could challenge my throne as the ‘Mother Hen’ of the century. We both agreed that if we were to have these children, we were going to do it properly. Best practices were explored and established and the right balance between safety concerns and freedom in childrearing was not left to ‘laissez-faire’ either.
In order not to lose out too much career-wise, we had to have these children quickly and efficiently like a well-oiled assembly line. That again raised a few puzzles that we couldn’t quite figure out, Anna. Let’s say one had three kids in three years, how the hell was one supposed to simultaneously breastfeed all three when one only had two tits—convinced as we were that kids wouldn’t live to see daylight unless they were properly breastfed up to school age at least…There were so many parameters to control! I suggested to Emma we might set up an Excel spreadsheet with underlying macros that could take care of changes in key parameters. This again raised other puzzles: how the hell did mothers who did not have access to essentials like Excel spreadsheets, ‘The Ultimate Guide to Infant Sleeping Patterns 1-3’, ‘Breastfeed or Die (yes, both of you!) 1-10’, ‘Child Health – the Bio-Dynamic and Aura-Enhancing Approach’ and last, but not least, the ‘Medical
Encyclopaedia’ volumes 1-3000 (see Med. School curriculum), actually manage to raise their children? Not to speak of our own pot-smoking-hippie-mums who raised us on non-organic (iiikkkh!) milk powder. How far couldn’t we have gone, if our mothers hadn’t given us such a hair-raising start in life? So it was clear, Anna, I knew that if I were to make a plan that would convince my dear Emma, it would have to be ‘State of the Art’. Neither of us were about to jeopardise our children’s future by ignorance and neglect.
To my surprise, making this plan turned out to be easier than presumed. After all, I was writing about my own life. Here is what I wrote:
Child goes to bed. Parent 1 is in his sports gear with the gym bag under his arm ready to go for an efficient work-out. During that time Parent 2 has to be very productive at home. The books say that it is bad enough that one-year-olds pass the whole day at day-care, so she has to make sure that the time she spends with the child after work is ‘quality time’. That means no sneaking around doing housework as long as the child is awake. Get your fingers off those dirty dishes! When the child is in bed however, you are free to do the dinner dishes and prepare the bread-maker for tomorrow’s lunch. (children need fibre, so store bread is a no-no. You don’t want a constipated child, do you?) To save time tomorrow, prepare the next day’s organic and bio-dynamic dinner. New research shows that children might grow horns on their forehead if they are exposed to artificial fertilizers, so go green! Preferably bike out to the countryside to get the ingredients. Peel an organic root and put it in water for pre-dinner snack. “Children may get sick of being hungry”, ref. dr. med. Guru. And God forbid the child gets sick! You really don’t have time for that. Remember the time you were running around the neighbourhood with a sick child under your arm looking for a person on the dole so you could attend a work-meeting? Then it’s time to do laundry and prepare next day’s school bag as well as find clothes for yourself and the child. Iron.
This has to be done in half an hour, because you need the time between 8.30 and midnight to finish off work. You obviously cannot leave work at 4.30 for day-care pick-up by 5 and still expect not to work at night.
PS: schedule all conference calls to this time of the night so that you can multitask.
Unless you are asleep on the computer with the US hot-wig still on the the ear going on about ‘Strategy in Action’ or the firm’s last shot at ‘Work-life balance’measures, light candles in the bedroom while you rub off the keyboard stamps on your forehead. Decorate the bed with fresh rose petals, slip into your negligée, arrange yourself invitingly on the bed and wait for your partner. Remember a solid couple is the foundation of a happy family!
I have proved to myself that it is possible Anna, but the bigger question was whether this was really what I wanted out of my life. Emma’s solution appeared more and more plausible. My real passions were travel, writing and photography. Moreover my husband refused to comply with my minute-by-minute control of our lives in general and his life in particular. That left a lot to me–it became harder and harder to make the days add up. When my uterus announced the arrival of a second child, I found myself picking up a Mandarin dictionary at the bookstore.
Medicated and motivated
I have good news: it is ok to combine Prozac and alcohol! This important piece of information reached me in the eleventh hour as China kept on testing my nerves. Listen to this:
One of the more flabbergasting experiences for most foreigners is the health screen for the Chinese Visa. I step into a building bigger than Versailles and meet the nervous eyes of hundreds of other aliens right off the boat lined up to have their bodies checked by the Chinese government. The cause of the inauspicious look on their faces increasingly dawns on me as I start reading the signs on the doors: Mental department, Gynaecological department, STD (sexually transmitted diseases) department, Surgery department, Nuclear Medicine department etc. Being a diagnosed germaphobic hypochondriac with a severe case of ‘white coat’syndrome, only sniffing in the significance of these names makes my knees turn to jelly. Right before I’m about to hit the floor, a ‘white-coat’ grabs my arm and I am appropriately ushered straight into the Mental department. It will be three hours before I see my husband and his secretary again. I don’t remember in detail what happened in there, but I answered some questions and next thing I know, I have electrodes tacked to my scull. Coming out, I felt a lot better though! My husband actually wants me to go back!
Talking about which, our relationship had a rocky start in China after I received the following call:
Xiao Jie [Miss]: Hello. I am Taylor. I have your husband’s pants.
Tai Tai [Mrs, e.g. me]: Wow! Really? I must say…my husband hasn’t been wasting his time here, huh?
Xiao Jie: When do you want to pick them up?
Tai Tai: Well…normally my husband has to pick up his misplaced pants himself.
Xiao Jie: You can pick them up in my
Tai Tai: What? I don’t go to ‘stores’ like
Xiao Jie: Ok, but your driver can pick them
up. I already have his number.
Tai Tai: OMG! Who are you again?
Xiao Jie: The Dragon Phoenix tailor…
Tai Tai: Oh….ok. I will have them picked
up by this afternoon
It wasn’t only the relationship that suffered in the beginning. If you think you still look young, shut up! Unless you’re under eighteen, you don’t! And when they say, “You look so young!” don’t answer, “Because I am young moron!”. If you are over eighteen, for them, you aren’t. Sorry…”You look so young!” is one of the finest compliments they can give you, and the appropriate answer is, “Thank you,” preferably followed by a cheesy “so do you!” You do want to make friends here, don’t you?
If you wonder why I’m not working here in China, the simple reason is that I wouldn’t pass the ‘Foreign Expert Certificate’-test that aliens need to complete to get their work visas. The following question appears in the test: ‘To which extent do you radiate inner joy?’ You have to be above three (from one to five) to pass the test. In my current condition, I am certain my radiation level is too low even with Prozac and alcohol combined. The test is to ensure that no depressed and/or stupid aliens may gain access to the homeland.
Your friend Linn,
Stupid & depressed alien reporting live from her couch in the middle of the day.
Shop or pop
You were totally right! It was naive of me to believe that I could successfully become a domesticated so-called ‘happy homemaker’. The truth is that I am a failure even in carrying out the core competency of their trade, namely ‘shopping’. Yes, you heard right! From having been the university’s uncrowned shopping queen celebrated for one-liners like, “Wanna run amok with the Visa cards?” I am now reduced to a walk-on in a Chinese performance. Listen to this:
I am on my daily stint of errands with varying members of the ape flock in tow: pick up visa card (ATM-devoured – damn! Again!), drop off item at the dry cleaner’s, buy new bags for the vacuum cleaner. That sort of thing…
The first few months, I strode boldly into the stores with a determined and efficient expression. Armed with my Mandarin dictionary (yes, that one!) nothing could stop me. I told myself: “I’m a God-damn ‘happy homemaker’, and this is what they do!” Most times I lurched sideways out of the shop there half-an-hour later like a beaten woman and a failed professional: mission unaccomplished!
Imagine you were here shopping with me; this is how the drama would unfold. Help me figure out where it’s going wrong, ok?
A distinct swish runs through the staff as we enter the store – “Yoo hooo! Foreigners in the store! Who cares what they want, let the party begin!” I quickly realize I need to be exceptionally crisp, clear and concise in order for them to understand that I’m not there for a social visit: the purpose is solely to purchase new bags for the vacuum cleaner. A note with the brand name and the model number is handed over. Three smiling, curious faces surround me. None of them seem to have the slightest idea what a vacuum cleaner is and much less that it occasionally needs to change its interiors. Nevertheless they jabber non-stop. In between I try in vain to squeeze in a clarifying word or two. The hullabaloo increases with the confusion. More and more helpful faces pop up. The magic number is ten! There’s gotta be at least ten! Chinese people cannot operate under that limit. And for anything at all to be solved, the decibel level has to reach severe risk of ‘chronic hearing deficiency’ and/or ‘mental breakdown in faint-hearted, neurotic lao wai [foreigner]’ since all ten blabber vigorously in unison. “If only one of them could shut up and listen!” I hear myself thinking.
The point of no return is reached when they pick up their phones and start calling for reinforcements amongst friends and relatives. “Come and watch! Lao wai here”, “huang se de toufa [yellow hair]…(thanks!), “hen bai” [very white]…(thanks again!), “da bize” [big nose]…(WTF?!?), “ke ai xiao hai” [cute kids]…(well…ok!) The crowd is multiplying exponentially and each child has his/hers personal herd of admirers. Wait! Where’s the baby?! Panic strikes and a rush of cold runs down my spine. I find her chuckling on someone’s arm in the staff room. The store manager’s grandmother is feeding my borderline obese, three-year-old son dumplings. The five-year-old princess is hosting a photo session scurrying around the premises tailed by an armada of mobile camera ‘paparazzis’. I hear myself hollering desperately: “Hey! I’m a C-U-S-T-O-M-E-R and this is supposed to be a store. Right! Riiight?”…The staff remains admiringly unaffected. Nobody is listening and even less so looking up. This situation is calling for the bigger guns. I start making vacuuming movements with my arms while I’m sweeping over the floor imitating the “vroooooooom” sound of my vacuumer. That did it. Now I’m getting a few curious looks. The manager manages to tear herself away from the ‘ke ai xiao hai’ and approaches me. I sigh with relief. Finally someone‘s got it!
But no! She only wants my email address because foreigners are’sooo funny! (Thanks again!).
So Ella, see? It’s not that easy to be a ‘happy homemaker’. Luckily I have you so I can see how well I could have done if I hadn’t contracted the HAUS (hyper-active-uterus-syndrome).
What do you mean me “behaving like a spoilt expat-brat only complaining about everyday hassles and petty incidents” in my letters? That’s not true! The other day I had ten minutes between a manicure and a lady’s lunch and I sat down at Starbucks reflecting on my experience as a foreigner in China. Do you know what I realized? I am right here witnessing the most amazing happening in recent human history: namely hundreds of millions of people are lifted out of extreme poverty over a ten-twenty year period. In human historical terms, that’s practically a blink of an eye! Tagging it ‘development help’, the western countries have tried to do the same on different continents with varying success the last half century. It didn’t work very well, did it?
The beauty of it is that even behind the high expat-walls, glimpses of this can be seen in my everyday life. Our driver, a former truck driver, has gone from being a victim of a money-sucking shark of an employer to becoming a self-employed businessman. Owner of not only ONE car, but also a truck! There is one thing you can never take away from the Chinese and that’s their sense of business. The combination of opportunity and talent is hard to beat. And when a billion Chinese not only jump but also decide to start their own business, the world is a dumbfounded witness to record growths and a skyrocketing surge in general living standards.
14 Feb 2011, BBC News:
“China overtakes Japan as world’s second-biggest economy.
Our Ayi [auntie- helper] was a farmer in the countryside before she came to the big city seeking her luck. Now, she is the proud provider for a husband, two kids, one set of parents, one set of parents-in-law and possibly the rest of a village in Henan Province. Best of all, she can now support her daughter through university, studying to become an engineer. In one single generation a major leap up the social ladder and a surge in living standards for the whole family! Pensions assured!
These stories are in grim contrast to foreign newspapers headlines:
14 Feb 2011, AP:
“The United States remains deeply concerned about the human rights situation in China.”
18 Feb 2011, The New Yorker:
“Letter from China: A Dictatorship Without a Dictator.”
Should I now say to Ayi:
“Hey Ayi! Why don’t you become politically active? Man the barricades, girl! You know this country isn’t a true democracy, right?”
Ok, let’s smell the coffee! As long as foreign newspapers are more upset over the situation than the Chinese general public, there isn’t going to be a grassroots revolution. The country will take its time, just as the political leadership suggests. The West seems to forget that it took us approximately two hundred years from the Industrial Revolution started until where we are today. Do we expect China to do the same or even go beyond that in a decade or two? Hardly having recovered from the last ‘Great Leap Forward’, we expect them to do another one on the fly? In the words of Nobel Prize winner Robert E. Lucas Jr.: “For the first time in history, the living standards of the masses of ordinary people have begun to undergo sustained growth….Nothing remotely like this economic behaviour has happened before.” He was talking about the Industrial Revolution…
Over the course of my years in China, I have exchanged my Starbucks for Simon’s. The change was abrupt and unexpected, but when it happened it was probably overdue. Simon’s is located on the corner diametrically opposite Starbucks. If Starbucks is west, then Simon’s is east. As a true Asian restaurant, the light is always grimly on and smoking is encouraged. To me it’s a question of being in China or being in China…taking baby steps out of the expat bubble.
To re-establish yin-yang, east-west…
Michael R. Davis
Michael R. Davis is a professional historian, teacher, author and lawyer who has led a very active career. Originally from Ipswich, England, Michael relocated to the United States as a child. While in the USA he achieved advanced degrees in history and law, the later when teaching secondary school and attending law school at night. He became a criminal trial lawyer and worked both as a successful defence attorney and prosecutor. He still maintains his law licences and is licensed to practice in front of the United States Supreme Court. He returned to teaching in 1997 and has taught in USA, Britain, Uzbekistan, and Hungary.
He was deputy head in a London school for several years and a part-time Magistrate. He published his first novel, Before the Falling Dark in 2001. Since then has written four other novels; Eustace the Monk, Landwaster, Jordan the Leper and The Relic Thief, which was released October 2011. In addition to his novels, Michael has also, published a children’s book, The Hiccoughing Dragon, a paper, ‘Depicting the Death of Brothers in the Bayeux Tapestry,’ published in the proceedings of a conference hosted by the British Museum and a biography of Henry of Blois, Prince Bishop of the 12^th^ Century Renaissance. Henry of Blois was bishop of Winchester and brother of King Stephen. This last book was well received by historians and in 2011 Michael was nominated and inducted as a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. Also a sought after historical speaker, Michael will be presenting a paper at the University of York in the summer of 2012. Currently Michael is teaching history in Suzhou and working on his various writing projects and his next novels, Special Measures and A Bottle of Jin.
September 09, 2011
It was a glorious two months in the U.K. with lovely cool weather and the mellow grey skies, which suits my generally curmudgeonly nature. Besides my usual habit of roaming around monastic ruins and old cemeteries, I worked on giving my teaching materials an additional polish before flying to China. I was excited. For years I had wanted to see China and mainly due to religious reasons had resisted visiting. However, when the Dalai Lama absolutely encouraged people to travel and work in China, I felt that I had the green light to go and see it. After all, China is an historian’s paradise, having far more buildings, gardens and temples that are older and still in intact than in Europe. However, my journey didn’t start on an auspicious note.
I had called Air Emirates and was assured by two different people that I was allowed two thirty kg bags and could place two bags in the plane’s hold. Well upon arrival, I found that I was allowed two bags, but only thirty kg total. Then began the furious jettisoning of ‘non-essential’ personal items. What the hell is non-essential when you plan on living on the other side of the world for an extended period? Textbooks could be mailed and are handed to my best friend, who is standing there with the patience of Job. The Bose IPod stereo, a multi-region DVD player, some clothing, my bottles of HP sauce, a large can of Bisto gravy, and box of Birds custard, as well as other western comfort food, suddenly went back to the house of my best friend awaiting January’s return to retrieve them. Now suitably sweaty, frustrated and praying that there were no more hurdles, I waited to board.
My excitement of going to China only slightly diminished. I didn’t have to wait long before boarding. The sudden abandonment of personal items had shortened a leisurely wait to an almost immediate boarding. Time to get ‘on’ the plane; this is a phrase which bothers me greatly, being a language freak. I don’t know about you kids, I want to get ‘in’ the plane; going to China ‘on’ the plane could be very drafty and cold, but I digress. I was jammed between two rather heavy-set Middle Eastern women, complete with hijabs, darker moustaches than mine and who looked faintly disquieted at having me between them. Any attempt at a renegotiation of seating ended after a few seconds when I realized they didn’t speak English. Ok, resigned to my fate, I buckled up, put on my iPod, set the playlist for Bach’s Motets, and closed my eyes. I leaned back and….achoo. Not a little sneeze, but one which caught me by surprise and threatened severe whiplash, nerve injury and concussion if I had connected with anything heavy and unyielding object. The only good thing about the sneeze was my row companions, acting as if I had Ebola, each moved as far away from me as the seat widths would permit and remained that way for the duration of the first leg of the flight to Dubai.
Then I noticed that little tell-tale tickling at the back of the throat, you know the one that tells you had better get your medicines sorted, the tea in the kettle, call the boss and settle in for the cold’s version of a typhoon. Christ, after a year of robust health I was going to come down with a cold on my way to China. I tried to sleep, but this cold virus must have been having a competition with other viruses on the plane to see how fast it could knock me out with the full symptoms. By the time I arrived at Shanghai, I was jet-lagged and feeling like last week’s leftovers ready for the bin. I tried to put on a brave face when I met my colleague who had been sent to meet me, as well as the new art teacher. Then when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, I stepped outside.
Now, I have been in Nepal and India right before monsoon rains, and was a lawyer in Arkansas where it can get hot, humid, and sticky like fly-paper, but nothing had prepared me for the heat and humidity which waited for me when I walked outside. If it was any more humid, I would need be a fish, or at least an aquatic amphibian that required the permanent presence of water. My skin was suddenly covered in a glossy sheen of moisture, rivulets of water were pouring off my head and my clothing was sodden in seconds. The air conditioning of the van, while welcome, caused me to become chilled in my damp clothing. “Oh, here comes pneumonia,” I thought. My now feeble reserves were seriously weakening; if this was a castle siege I would be raising the white flag and surrendering.
Everyone talked brightly in the van and I did my best not to give my curmudgeonly side an outing at this juncture, so I made feeble small talk and tried to take in my first views of China from the window. But the talking became a blur as did the passing countryside. I remember only lots of signs in Chinese, waterways and a heavy grey tinge to the sky. China might have been welcoming me, but I was in no condition to welcome China. I perked up with anticipation at the news that we were finally nearing the hotel where we would be housed until a flat was arranged. The blessed thought of opening my suitcase, dosing myself with everything in my arsenal of drugs and going thermonuclear on the cold, then crawling into bed to welcome sleep was quickly quelled when I was informed I had a few minutes to go upstairs, freshen up before being taken out to dinner.
My bags were taken to my room. I nearly tore off the suitcase locks and consumed the medication, like a drug addict who had broken into pharmacy, before jumping into the shower and trying to revive myself. I towelled off and quickly dressed, the whole time having semi-carnal thoughts of the big comfortable bed in the air-conditioned room. A few minutes later I came down for dinner and finally met my new boss, whom I had been corresponding with for some months, praying he didn’t think I looked like something that needed to be hauled off to the knackerman.
Dinner went by in a blur; I think I had chicken, which I ate in a subdued manner. Heat, humidity jet-lag, sickness and drugs are not good dinner companions. But somehow, I got through it and cannot begin to tell you the ecstasy of the feeling of clean sheets on my skin as I turned off the light and was asleep before my head hit the pillow. Waking up the next morning, I could tell this cold was changing…. I recognized the symptoms of its transmogrification into a chest and sinus infection. Someone please just call the undertaker now…this was going to get bad.
The day started as a bad Bulwer-Lytton novel; it was a hot and sultry day and only got worse from there. The heat and humidity were taxing my reserves and my clean laundry, as I was changing shirts frequently. And to plagiarize from an English language publication I saw in the hotel, ‘my svelte undercarriage had gone from freshly talcumed to swamp nuts in 10.1 seconds.’ I had a ten o’clock meeting at the school. To make matters worse, damn it, I was running out of drugs.
And so it went on for over a week, dragging my scurvy ass into work and trying to get something accomplished before slinking back home and collapsing into bed. Finally two things turned around my, thus far, awful China experience. My boss took pity on me and gave me the label for some Chinese tea which he claimed would help. I was in no condition to argue the relative merits of Chinese vs. Western Medicine and gladly purchased this tea. The effects were nearly instantaneous and I was a convert. But that only took care of symptoms, I still felt like a dead cat which had been lying on the M1 motorway for days: the more you ran over it the flatter it got. One of the Chinese staff translated Amoxicillin into Chinese. So began the ten day course of antibiotics. So nearly three weeks after arriving in China, I am well, back to fighting shape and have started teaching and am ready to see my neck of the woods, but for that my dear children, you will have to wait for my next letter.
September 18, 2011
Well, more from dear old dad, and yes, my daughter, I got your email complaining that you really didn’t get much of a feel for China from my first letter. See, you do understand the old man perfectly. For the first week I really didn’t have a feel, or much in the way of impressions, due to my situation; but I’ve already bored you enough about that, so let’s move on. I want to write about Suzhou and what I have observed.
The Rough Guide to China calls Suzhou the ‘Venice of East.’ Well, if they mean there are navigable canals all over the place, then I suppose so, but the similarity between Venice and Suzhou stops there. Venice is on the edge of the Adriatic Sea and the water is salty, or at least brackish. Suzhou sits about ninety kilometres from the China Sea, so the water here is more of a dirty brownish-green. You aren’t likely to catch any diseases from the Venetian canals, but I wouldn’t want a mouthful of Suzhou canal water. People fish in it, mainly for crap….err…. carp…think that must have been a Freudian slip of the fingers there. The canals don’t seem to form a coherent pattern as many legs in the canal just dead end. However, I presume that might be because of more modern road constructions. Yet, I see boats in the canals every morning with nets picking up litter so they try to keep them cleanish. Indeed today, with the roads, the canals are mainly for tourist boats. Yet at one time the canals were vital to the city.
The town has a history going back at least to 500 B.C., and the canals were then used then as avenues for shipping and there was a large grain storage business here. The city was important enough to have massive city walls and gates. Most of these walls and gates were destroyed in the Taiping rebellion of the 1860’s. There is only one of the ancient city gates, dating from the 14th century, and a portion of the walls left. Yes, I know I sound like a history teacher…I am one, you have had thirty years to get over it. I had an opportunity to walk along the top of the wall. Much broader than the castle walls in England, probably five times as wide, and even taller. The gate house housed two portcullises, one for land traffic and one which blocked the water entrance to the city. But it wasn’t the medieval fortification which warmed me to Suzhou; it was the gardens and the temples.
There are several lovely gardens in Suzhou, with equally lovely names: The Humble Administrator’s Garden, Couple’s Garden of the Master of the Nets, Garden to Linger In and Lion’s Grove Garden. I used to think that oriental gardens were the province of the Japanese, but I was wrong. The gardens make use of space with plantings and water features. Walls suddenly disappear and you are in literally a different world. The oddly shaped metamorphic rocks from south China are used to create viewing stones and your mind takes you to forests, lakes and distant mountains, all within a few hectares. All the gardens have hundreds of bonsai trees, and make me want to resume my bonsai hobby…but I don’t think they would let me take these very old trees out of gardens…damn! I will explore all these gardens again in the spring when the Lotus are in bloom and maybe if we get snow, see a couple of them then.
The various temples had probably the most powerful draw on me. Likewise given lovely names, Blue Wave Pavilion, West Garden Temple, North Temple Pagoda, Twin Pagodas and Cold Mountain Temple, they are still a haven of peace and tranquility…and you will need it after you get past the shops of tourist tat (including red guard caps and pictures of Barack Obama dressed as Mao Zedong) and the dozens of touts wanting to be your guide. But once inside, I always find it a homecoming. The main forecourt is usually crowded with people burning incense and offering prayers. There is generally a building with statues of beings who have reached enlightenment, the Lohans. All the statues in these buildings have different faces and expressions. The main temple has, of course, Lord Buddha. It is here that I usually feel most at home. There is quite a bit of similarity between the monasteries here and those I stayed in while in Nepal and Northern India. A final smaller temple is usually devoted to the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, who in China isn’t male, but female and called, Guanyin. I have probably have spent more time in the temples than in the gardens.
I had a lovely experience at a local temple. I had gone to see the twin pagodas, two stupas which had been built by pupils to honour their teachers (I hope my pupils build a stupa to me lol). Anyway, on the way there, I spotted a little temple which had no sign and no tourists, so on the way back from the pagodas I stopped in. I put my camera in my bag and purchased my incense and said my prayers and did a perambulation clockwise around the temple, chanting. Of course, since I can’t pray in Chinese, I was praying my normal hundred syllable mantra in Sanskrit. I raised a few eyebrows and a few smiles. But once I got into the main temple, I removed my shoes (though I noticed that the Chinese did not). I did my prostrations and was sitting there chanting the heart sutra. Suddenly I heard someone chanting with me, also in Sanskrit. It was one of the monks from the temple, who I later found out was originally from Tibet. It was one of those moments, where two people bond without having a conversation. For thirty minutes we sat together praying and at the end, he took my hands and we touched foreheads in the manner of Tibetan Buddhists and he hugged me.
He introduced himself, and I, not knowing why, introduced myself by the Tibetan name I was given when I took refuge in Upper Mustang back in 1994, Psultrum Phunsok, Man of Abundant Luck. He hugged me again, and walked me toward the private quarters of the monks where I was served tea. Fortunately it was Chinese tea and not that horrid salted, rancid yak butter tea I vowed never to have again. For about twenty minutes we sat, neither could speak with the other, but enjoying the warmth of a common faith. I have been back a couple of times and he always joins me for prayers. I have to learn Chinese.
Well that concludes this missive, and give my grandchildren a kiss from me.
October 15, 2011
Remember the various David Attenborough specials with the wide camera shots of wildebeest, zebra, and other grass eating mammals moving in a huge crowded swatch across the African veldt. They are packed together (to mix metaphors) like sardines while they graze, always keeping an eye out for predators. I know how those animals feel. East Nanjing Road is exactly like that, and there are predators and scavengers there as well. The predators are nothing as graceful or majestic as lions, leopards or cheetahs, but more like hyenas and jackals. Walking down the street they rush in, trying to cut you out and separate you from the rest of the human herd. Each predator has a unique cry, the most common being, “Hey, hey, would you like to buy a Rolex?” They were fake watches, of course, but it was a way of trying to lure some unsuspecting herd beasts away and to take a bite out of their wallets (or worse). The night doesn’t offer the herd any protection either. In fact at night it is worse. The street is lit by huge garish neon signs which distract the prey, so that the predators can dart in unawares. Other minor predators were offering all sorts of cheap tourist tat, like wheels for your shoes and slingshot pinwheels that flashed colours in the sky. I didn’t watch them, as I thought by looking at them, it would allow another one of the pack to dart in and lift my wallet. My hand was firmly in my pocket and around my wallet ([mainly because I am a grizzled and cynical world traveller). The scavengers were in plain view, the poor, homeless and destitute, picking over the refuse. They were separating plastic bottles and cardboard boxes from the rubbish bins to sell for whatever they could, or eating discarded food.
I have been to and lived in large cities, London, Budapest, Denver and Tashkent, and have visited numerous others, but nothing prepared me for the hustle (in so many meanings of the term) and bustle of Shanghai. Suzhou has a lot of people, but a lot of green space and there are places I can go and see relatively few people. But even the parks in Shanghai were chock-a-block with people. To be fair, I did spend four days there during a major national holiday. While I enjoyed the sights, I was never so glad to leave a city in my life. I don’t see myself repeating the experience in this lifetime. But East Nanjing Road was my real introduction to Shanghai and informed my view of the remainder of the trip. I won’t bore you with an itemized travel log, but give you a few of the highlights of the trip.
Mao Zedong died in 1976 and since his death China has undergone a tremendous change. Thirty-five years after his death, I’m sure he would be dismayed by the way China has adopted capitalism, but probably would be pleased at how the Chinese are beginning to dominate the global economy. In my very limited observation, it appears that the Chinese aren’t sure how to deal with the legacy of Mao (probably more on this after I have had some more time to process it). There is a lovely statue to the workers overlooking the river, but on the other side is the modern development of huge skyscrapers in Pudong (which does look stunning at night, though you still have to jostle through thousands of people to see it.).
One of the offshoots of this ‘what do we do with Mao’ complex, is an obscure and out of the way museum. It is called the Propaganda Poster Museum and Centre. It is located in the basement of an apartment block. But if you look in The Rough Guide to China , it’s there. This gallery has every propaganda poster ever made from 1945 until 1980. As you can imagine, the predominant colour on the posters is red and at least three-fourths of them have Mao Zedong on them, exhorting the masses, holding up his little red book. There are plenty of anti-Yankee- imperialism and the Chinese version of ‘workers of the world unite’ themes as well. Being a Cold War baby, and having grown up hearing about ‘Red China’ and the evil communists, it was quite mind-blowing to see the propaganda from the other side. I took several pictures and will be using them in class to give my presentations less of a western slant.
Yu Yaun Gardens and Bazaar are in the heart of the old downtown. You know the words Bazaar and Bizarre seem related. They certainly are here; Yu Yaun Bazaar is Bizarre, a fake old shopping centre around a garden hundreds of years old. Imagine a large shopping mall, mainly one story, in Chinese classical architecture with the ornamental tiles, the long up-curving eaves and lots of lovely scroll and woodwork. Paper lanterns and banners hang from upper stories (again, remember, all modern copies, though well done). Add to that every type of business you can think of from herbal medicine and clothing to Starbucks, and Burger King all competing with loud and obnoxious signs polluting the buildings. There are of course the masses of heaving people and various street vendors selling meat on a stick, some of it easily identifiable, others…not so identifiable. Well, I had to ask…chicken intestines and duck tongue, I declined to purchase, though I could have had some chicken feet. I was asked the other day if I saw the sparrows on a stick, and I said, “Thankfully, no.” My distaste for that was just cultural prejudice, and I do admire the Chinese for the lack of waste in the actual eating of the animal.
But there were two other foods on offer which gave the market this wafting and lingering fragrance of open sewer. One was durian fruit, which if you can get past the smell, tastes a bit like smelly cream custard (assuming you can hold your nose as you taste it as I did, after all if the sainted Dickie Attenborough can do it, so can I). The smell was described by travel writer Richard Sterling, “… its odour is best described as pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock.” I won’t dispute his imagery. The other food is stinky tofu. Imagine blue cheese which has gone bad and then left on the countertop for six months and you have some idea.
Anyway, you push through the crowds; feeling like you are a salmon swimming upstream, then someone lets off a string of fireworks (another topic for another day). You have an overpowering desire to fling yourself to the ground and look for the sniper, but you couldn’t because you would be trampled. Well my nerves were frazzled, and with an olfactory gland wishing I had a cold when I finally made it to the ancient gardens. Though it was heaving with people, the Chinese design gardens with walls and gardens with gardens, lots of little alcoves with hidden treasures, so you turn into one of these passages, and you are alone, with your thoughts and some lovely plants, bonsai trees hundreds of years old, and viewing stones which transport you out of Shanghai to some distant mountains. It is a chance to catch your breath and regain your wits before flinging yourself back into the throng of people.
I visited several other temples and museums, and wandered around the French Concession, but my overall impression is that there are too many people in Shanghai for my taste. I don’t know if I told you, but my boss wrote me about two months after taking this job, saying there was an opening in Shanghai if I wanted it, I’m so glad I didn’t take it. Four days in Shanghai made me think of Suzhou as a much quieter and calmer place. I couldn’t wait to get home to my lovely, calm and quiet flat where the only noises were the gently wafting strains of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti. Definitely if you come over next year, Shanghai is a must see, but you’ll forgive me if I let you see Shanghai on your own, and join you later.
Well, love to the family.
Fireworks, Food and Flowers
November 29, 2011
The smell of cordite and grey clouds of acrid smoke filled the air. Bright flashes were launched and exploded on the pavement. The explosions reverberated around the concrete buildings and rattled the glass of my bedroom window. It made my ear drums ache and I had an overwhelming desire to fling myself to the ground for protection. No, it wasn’t Libya, or some other city in the Middle East, but my very own Suzhou. It was six o’clock in the morning and it lasted for nearly thirty minutes. The Chinese are firework mad. In four months of observation I can’t make heads or tails of when or why they will launch a volley of fireworks. Just last night, around eight o’clock, I was sitting here working on my next novel when my peace and quiet was shattered with explosions and bright flashes. I went out to my balcony and it looked like Roman candles going off. At least there was entertainment with this display and not just explosions. I have been told they set them off for weddings, moving into a new house and almost any special occasion. Lots of special occasions here! On the way back from the market I heard the explosions and saw flashes in the sky as people were lighting the firecrackers and throwing them from the balcony. It is still unnerving, but I daresay I will get used to it, though it would help if there was some obvious celebration, rather than a couple of blokes standing outside flinging fireworks to the ground.
But fireworks aren’t the only surprise I have found in China. After years in our corporate disposable west I admire the Chinese in so many ways. Food is one of those areas where I am filled with admiration, dismay, wonder and shock, and not always in equal measure. In the West we don’t eat much offal, and the younger generation hardly at all. As a child my mom would make giblet gravy out of chicken liver, gizzard and heart, and I would eat it if served. Likewise, beef or lamb liver occasionally graced our table and beef tongue sandwiches were great. But that was about the extent of it. The Chinese, by contrast, waste very little and have invented a whole cuisine on offal. What would have ended up going to the dog food plant in the West is happily devoured here in preference to choicer cuts of meat. A good example of this is chicken’s feet. The Chinese equivalent of fast food shop will have trays and trays of chicken’s feet, marinated in different sauces. The Chinese love them and tell me they taste great and have a lovely crunch. I believe half of that statement, and I’ll let you guess which half.
Pig’s feet are popular here, as they are in the deep south of the United States, so that didn’t surprise me, but chicken and duck intestines….that brought me up short. Honestly, I went into a restaurant with a Chinese friend and they offered me a piece of their dessert which was sort of blancmange topped with sugared duck intestine. Fish heads are also very popular here; evidently there is some very tasty meat in the cheek, though while you eat the fish stares back at you. There are so many other dishes which I can’t figure out what they are, so for the moment I’ll call it mystery meat. More on this subject as I make further discoveries.
Now, while I admire the Chinese in their nearly complete use of an animal, they waste a lot. For example, at a recent hotpot meal, there are several huge boiling pots of broth, in which all manner of food is dumped. Beef, chicken, seafood of several types, vegetables and tofu, and everyone fishes out what they want. More and more food is brought until everyone is finally full. Don’t get me wrong, it was delicious, but at the end of the meal, the hotpot still had food and the table was covered in uncooked food. I have seen the school and restaurants wheeling out huge bins of discarded food. I am informed by a reliable source that the waste is sent to animal farms. Remember when we were kids and we were told when we left any food that “there are starving kids in China?” What are Chinese kids being told?
You asked about my personal life and if I was dating. Well, I can happily report that for a little over a month I was surrounded by flowers. I had met and dated, two girls named Lily as well as a Rose, Jasmine, Lavender and Iris. There was even a Meadow and a Willow! This wasn’t intentional, but it was definitely a wide ranging selection. Rose, told me on our first date that she was thirty-five, and wanted to marry and have children as soon as possible (Well, since I have three grown children so much for Rose). One of the Lilies announced on our second date that as soon as we were married her mother would have to live with us (How did marriage suddenly come into a second dinner conversation, much less a potential mother-in-law?). Meadow had a three year old daughter and she wanted a foreign husband so her daughter could attend school outside of China (Nice to know you are wanted eh?). Willow didn’t want her parents to move in with us, just that we send them 3,000 RMB (£300) a month (presumably to keep them away). Well it was fairly easy to weed those particular flowers from my garden of love and I was left with four very lovely and attractive floral selections. Who did I pick? But I’ll tell you about that later (or not).
Love to the family.
Lost in Translation: Food and Chinglish
February 29, 2012
Forgive my delay in writing, but have been trying to get my latest novel finished and delivered to my publisher. Wish I could have some of your wife’s lovely Hungarian fare, as I am ready for a change. I love Chinese food, but dining in China is nearly always an adventure. I have previously addressed some of the more unusual culinary offerings to be had, but now I want to tell you about some of the more interesting translation problems. Chinese is a pictographic language, and each character represents a concept as well as a sound. So when they translate from Chinese into English, they are often very literal, such as “wash after relief” over a sink in a men’s toilet or “deformed man’s toilet” for the handicap stall. At worst the translations are confusing if not actually mind-blowing, such as a sign on the metro which said, “I like your smile, but unlike you, put your shoes on my face.” These weird translations have been dubbed “Chinglish” and there are numerous hilarious books listing the various gaffes of Chinese translation. However, I want to focus on the Chinglish which has made eating in China both and an adventure and high entertainment.
I went to frozen Harbin for the Chinese New Year and, as the sun went down, decided I wanted to have a famous Harbin Hotpot (for which the area is noted), to warm me up after slogging around all day in minus twenty-three degree temperatures. There was a large restaurant with a queue of Chinese waiting to get in; I was mystified because the name of the restaurant was “Restaurant Gruel.” Well, I suppose years of reading Oliver Twist has me preconditioned to some grey runny porridge. I had to check it out. What I found was a Congee Restaurant, which is indeed rice porridge, but which is very tasty and is white. Curiosity sated, I continued looking for a hotpot restaurant. I found a very nice one, and was relieved that they had a menu in English, because pointing out what looks tasty on the menu has frequently left me looking at something in front of me which I wouldn’t touch with bargepole when set in front of me.
I’m not a big fan of lung at the best of times, an occasional liver and onions in a brown sauce is ok, but what do you make of a “man and wife lung slice?” There was a section of the menu labelled, “unripe food”, which looking at the pictures was a limited sashimi and sushi selection. The drink portion of the menu, had several teas and juices; orange juice, apple juice and “strange juice”!
Just last week I had a lovely Chinese dinner with twelve of my colleagues. The best part of the entertainment was trying to figure out the menu. Fortunately several of my Chinese colleagues had good English skills and they laughed as hard as the rest of us. The most bizarre dish was “Thai Pepper Jane Bacteria Donkey.” We still haven’t found out what the Jane portion of it meant, but it was hot pepper and mushroom donkey meat. “Grilled crap” featured prominently on the menu, but since it was under the fish section it was easy to figure out…though I noted that no one at our table ordered it.
A pizza place nearby (though what I was served was unlike any pizza I have ever had), had one pizza which was euphemistically called “Pastoral Scenery of Pisa.” But far more weird was the “Chocolate Tuna Pizza”.
But to make this letter more interesting let’s see if you can figure out these bizarre dishes from a restaurant down the street: “Chicken without sexual life,” Red burned lion head”, “Government abuse chicken”, and “Bean curd made by a pock-marked woman”?
I thought about making you wait until my next letter, but won’t be so cruel, so here you go with the answers. Chicken without sexual life” – Tong Zi Ji童子鸡 . The proper English translation should be “Spring Chicken“, and refers to young chickens which have been bred for eating (for less than three months). “Red burned lion head” – Hong Sao Shi Zi Tou红烧狮子头. The proper English translation should be “Freshly Stewed Pork-balls“ – note that it’s actually pork, but the fact that it looks like lion head, is why it’s called Lion Head. “Government abuse chicken” – Gong Bao Ji Ding宫爆鸡.The proper English translation should be “Chicken with Cashew Nut” or as in the U.K., “Kung Pao Chicken.” I don’t know its historical origin, but there must be a history anecdote that leads to why it was literally named “Court Abused Chicken”. Finally “Bean curd made by a pock-marked woman” – Mapo Doufu麻婆豆腐. Theproper English translation should be “Beancurd withspicy mince-pork”) – it’s a Sichuan food.
Well, that’s it for this letter and looking forward to seeing you and the family in July. You asked about my garden of love… I’m sorry to report that flower wilted, but have taken up with a Thomas Hardy novel for nonce…and if you don’t get the literary reference…think D’Urberville.
Love to the family
According to her family Sybil is an amazing mother, daughter, granny, sister, friend, teacher, colleague, traveller, adventurer, writer, artist and a phenomenal woman. That would probably look good as an epitaph on her tombstone! Sybil was born and raised in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and lived in South Africa for many years. She has lived, taught and travelled in many countries and enjoys writing about her experiences. She also enjoys painting and drama.
Aside:Her journey to China and Suzhou came about through her ability to grasp an opportunity when it presented itself. She arrived in China in 2006 after leaving her teaching post at an International School in Mozambique. Her friends and family were skeptical about what she would find in Suzhou and especially in an Industrial Park. They were very interested in, and relieved by the regular emails that she sent back telling them about the people she had met and the adventures she had had while travelling in and out of China. Some of these experiences appear as letters in this anthology and show her love for the country and people of China. Her Chinese name Peng Huan Ling is always admired by Chinese people who read it. ‘Peng’ is the name of an ancient country and is also used as a surname, ‘Huan’ means creative and ‘Ling’ means wise or able to see the future.
She joined the Suzhou Writers and Artists Group (SWAG) and has enjoyed the support and help given freely by the members. Her writing is mainly non-fiction and memoir, drawn from life in Africa, China and other countries she has visited. As to the future, she hopes to write and paint more regularly as her official teaching life comes to a close. The current book she is writing tells the story of a family running a trading store in rural South Africa against the background of the tumultuous years leading up to the first democratic election in 1994.
Baoying: Real China (?)
Dear Family and Friends
At last, the China you all imagined I had come to!
On the way back from one of my trips on the train to Shanghai, I met this lovely Chinese girl, Jessica. We have had several meals together in Suzhou, some with her friends and one with her fiancé Jack. She is a PA to the boss of a big firm and Jack works for Samsung – very long hours. He has to do this to keep his job because apparently everyone wants to work for Samsung! I was really flattered when she asked if I would like to go home with her and Jack to visit her parents and grandparents.
Her home is in Yangzhou and her Grandparents live in Baoying, a rural farming area in the north of Jiangsu province and about four hours by bus from Suzhou. Jessica came to fetch me on the Saturday morning and we travelled on a very full bus from the North Bus Station in Suzhou, me clutching the presents I had bought for the family, mainly luxury food, on my lap, together with my back pack. It was not a comfortable position for a four hour journey. I had asked the advice of my Chinese colleagues at school about what presents I should take and they had intimated that for older people food was the best present. The bus stopped twice for toilet breaks and I was surprised that the stopping places were similar to our freeway ‘Ultra Cities’ in SA, except these were much smaller and the toilets were the usual Asian ones, where my poor knees suffer as I bend them delicately while desperately looking round for something to hold onto so that I don’t collapse into the deposits beneath. This is when I wish I was a man. Jessica stood guard outside to make sure I came out unharmed by the experience.
The roads, all beautifully tarred and lined with lovely trees, were not what I had expected out in the country. I’m used to long roads- sometimes tar, sometimes dirt - and rolling grasslands in South Africa rather than what I experienced here. When we finally arrived at the Bus Station in Yangzhou we were met by Jessica’s father who had borrowed the second uncle’s car. Second uncle owns a construction firm and he appears to have Government contracts for the construction of offices - hence the smart car. Jessica’s father was slim, with startlingly fine features and a ‘naughty boy’ look about him. Her mother was more solidly built with a kindly, patient demeanour. She had slightly protruding front teeth.
I was thoroughly welcomed by the two of them with a sort of double clasp of both hands and we then walked to an unpretentious restaurant, up the stairs and into a room where a round table with the usual round swivel in the middle was set. I was welcomed into the seat of honour. That means you get to sit in the chair that directly faces the door – I’m not quite sure of the reason for this. And of course I was introduced to the one rule of dining that embarrassed me – I, as the honoured guest, had to take the first taste of all the dishes before anyone else could touch them.
As is usual with Chinese meals, dishes were brought out in endless succession of tantalizing colours, smells and eventually tastes. I tried everything and really enjoyed it all, especially some of the fish. I was told the eyes were the best part and naturally the honoured guest gets to eat them, so I ate them when they were offered – well I think I swallowed them whole and tried not to think of what I was consuming! I said they were very tasty and of course they might well have been. Second and third uncles and aunts were there and an alarming amount of protruding teeth smiled at me. A veritable orthodontist’s paradise! Grandfather was there as well. He was very distinguished looking old man who looked a bit like Paul Newman, one of my favourite actors, though I never thought that Paul looked Asian.
Throughout the meal everyone toasted everyone else with much back slapping and laughter, shouting, “Ganbei”, especially every time grandfather drank or smoked – apparently as a mark of respect you have to imitate what grandfather does. The men drank wine and beer while the women mainly drank orange squash. I got to drink a small glass of beer! It pays to be the honoured guest.
Jessica was really mad with Jack who seemed to be involved in more toasts than anyone else. She said he was saying all the wrong things. All the men also smoked endlessly but I tried not to show my disapproval. Smoking in China is very popular and is not banned anywhere although I hear people saying this might happen.
After lunch we were transported to second uncle’s home which was a bit grander than the rest. We were given watermelon before continuing on our journey. The local temple which was like most others I had seen, had a very beautiful white jade Buddha. I was not allowed to photograph it. They said it was bad luck for the temple to do so.
Throughout the time since we had left Suzhou I had not seen another European, nor had I heard any English apart from what was spoken to me by Jessica and Jack! Many people stared and of course the kids were really curious about me, hiding behind their mothers and peering out waiting for me to be an ogre. I just made funny faces and hid my face behind my hand which made them laugh. I think that my Chinese friends could not understand how I got around China without speaking Chinese. My communication, however, is not always with words! The body and especially the hands perform wonders of enlightenment in many different languages.
Jessica and I went to a little Supermarket to get presents for her second uncle’s family. She took quite a while picking out various things and lots of sweets for the children.
Then it was time to get into the car – four of us squashed in the back to go to view the new Government buildings built by uncle’s construction firm – very big and impressive they were too. At this time Jessica asked me if I would like to stay in a hotel or stay in their home. I had noticed that she and her family had been chatting amongst themselves and looking at me whilst doing so. Of course I asked to stay with them (this was the real experience I had come for) and there was much discussion amongst the family again. I suspect that Jack and Jessica had told them about my lovely apartment and they thought I probably wouldn’t survive at their place!
At last we were on the road to the countryside which borders on the Grand Canal. This canal runs from Beijing to Hangzhou, a distance of 1776km, and the oldest part of it was started in the
Fifth century BC and has twenty four locks and sixty bridges, all dug and built by Chinese labourers.
“Don’t these people build anything small,” I wondered to myself. On the canal great barges ply back and forth carrying sand, pebbles and rocks used in construction. Beside the canal are great heaps of rock and stone. Again the road, which is good tar, is lined with tall beautiful trees.
Then came the best part of the adventure – we turned onto a narrow concrete road (one car width and not another car in sight) with narrow water filled furrows alongside and fields of ripened yellow wheat waving beyond them. This is the season of wheat and when it is harvested they will plant rice which will be picked in October. This is fertile land indeed. We turned down an even narrower road made of red bricks and later just sand. We stopped to look at the melons growing in greenhouses covered in plastic. Further along the road we could not move a put-putting pump engine, which was pumping water from one canal to another, and blocking our way. We tried to squeeze past but couldn’t, and in the end Jessica’s father had to get out and call the owner and together they moved it and we got past by a hair’s breadth.
After a few more sharp turns, where I was sure we would land in the furrow, there we were at Jessica’s parents’ house in the country. I was told it was over 100 years old. It was quite basic, with rough peeling, painted walls and an entrance arch with old roses on either side, which lead into an open courtyard with a concrete crumbling floor. Inside, again were plain concrete floors and odd furniture – some quite new and other pieces had decidedly seen better days. There were suitcases and cases of drinks and duvets, etc. all piled on the sides against the walls. Jessica said that her parents did not often use the house. They usually stayed with grandfather and his new wife just down the road.
I wanted to go for a walk while the young ones had a sleep. They were both very tired as they work long hours. I said I was very happy to go alone. I set out with my camera but I soon spotted that I was being trailed at a distance by Jack who was worried that I might get lost! I felt guilty, having deprived him of his sleep. The narrow walkways, with ducks and geese paddling furiously in shallow furrows and ducklings and goslings trying to keep up, were a lovely respite from the tarred roads and manicured gardens of Suzhou and somehow took me way back to early childhood memories of farms in Gatooma, Rhodesia. I apologized and walked back with him and felt as though I could breathe deeply without my lungs drawing in polluted air.
In the evening I was taken next door to another aunt whose home had a shower. Hmmmm, yes, a shower? It was like an attic room on the ground floor with a really low ceiling and a bath/shower that I couldn’t possibly get into without bumping myself! So I just used the shower head to vaguely water myself and bent double to soap and wash the nether parts, and dry myself with a tiny towel I had remembered to bring with me. I then tried to change into my pyjamas. Getting changed was even worse as I couldn’t stand up. In the middle of it all with half my pyjamas round my ankles, Jessica popped her head in to see how was doing – me in the dripping half nude and trying to point my foot in the right direction to get it into the leg part. “Um, okay,” I mumbled, trying to place the small towel strategically over the parts that hadn’t got into the pyjamas yet. Finally I stepped out and feeling somewhat strange I put on a jacket as I still had to walk out into the road to get back to the house! The fact that, in China, many people walk round in their pyjamas even in Shanghai streets escaped me at that moment. One of the aunts walking with us stroked my tanned, mottled arm and asked Jessica what was wrong with my skin!
In the evening we sat in one of the rooms which doubled as a bedroom/lounge, watching TV all in Chinese and everyone chatting also in Chinese. These are the times when I know I should make more of an effort to learn Chinese, but I know I will never get to that level. I felt isolated but I could get Jessica to translate every now and then.
We ate a light supper of rice porridge and beans which was very pleasant. Jessica asked me if I minded sharing a double bed with her, which I said would be no problem. Before bed I had to go to the toilet. Jessica apologized and brought out a cute china potty with a lid. I did my bit in that and she carted it away for me – shades of my early childhood in Rhodesia again! The bed was a typical hard Chinese one with an old thick quilt. We had one quilt each. I snuggled in and I was surprised at how well I slept – not even the slightest backache. However, before we nodded off I became Jessica’s confidante as she told me of her love problems and asked my advice. I was mostly at a loss to advise her as I am not really well versed in Chinese customs yet, but she seemed happy to listen to what I had to say anyway. Maybe my voice was consoling and she didn’t really have anyone else to tell. I was woken very early, not to the song of birds or a cock’s crow but to a loud caterwauling which was apparently a call for all the workers to get to their work!
I got up a little later and went to wash my teeth in the kitchen sink and then I went to the toilet – horrific – a rectangular hole in the floor of a small room with no door, and a sloping away pit that you could see the bottom of! Yuk! I got in and out of there really quickly! It was even worse than the long drops of Kibo Hut on Kilimanjaro!
Breakfast was simple but really interesting and included fascinating rice wrapped in cane leaves to look like an ice cream. It tasted really good.
Lunch is always the main meal and that morning Jessica’s mother had got up at five to go to the market to purchase fresh fish, prawns and vegetables. There were strange looking creatures that looked like great big ‘Parktown Prawns’ – a kind of giant cockroach – that we had in Johannesburg and were alive and kicking. The fish was swimming around in a bowl – can’t get food much fresher than that! All the vegetables – eggplant, Chinese cabbage, other greens and beans were being meticulously prepared on the concrete floor of the courtyard. Five relatives/friends had come to help. One lady was cutting off the legs of the still kicking ‘prawns’. A goose was also being prepared – luckily I didn’t view the slaughter or de-feathering of that.
During the morning they took me to pick my own watermelons, which was fun as I crept along bent over in the hothouse and passed the melons out. They were round and green striped, but when broken open were yellow, not pink. They tasted really good and six of them were boxed on the spot for me to take home as a present.
During lunch time I was surrounded by ten men (Jessica’s father had invited all his work mates) and Jessica sat beside me. Her mother and the other ladies, who had toiled all morning, were not part of the meal – I mean they didn’t partake of the meal. We drank and ate and went through numerous toasts. I was allowed some rice wine and everyone wanted to toast me with, “Ganbei” and bottoms up! I did not drain the glass each time. One of the men said he had a daughter in Canada but further conversation was difficult. It seemed that I was accepted as ‘one of the boys’ for the moment.
Finally, after relaxing for a while, we were fetched in yet another car belonging to Jessica’s uncle and we made our way back to catch the bus and to make the four hour return journey to Suzhou. My acceptance as part of the family and their hospitality made me feel very special, but I think that this is a typical occurrence if you are lucky enough to have a good Chinese friend.
Take care everyone and try to visit sometime. You will have an amazing time here.
Wedding Number One
27Sept – 1 Oct 2008
Dear Family and Friends
I think you will remember my letter about Baoying and the Chinese country experience with my friends Jessica and Jack. Well I was later invited to their wedding during Golden Week (beginning of October) in Yangzhou. I was a little surprised that they were getting married because Jessica had told me during our week in Baoying that she was in love with someone else. I discovered that they were both going along with what their two families wanted. It was not a good recipe for a lasting marriage.
I hadn’t seen Jack for a very long time, so I was very pleasantly surprised to see how slim he was and to hear how much his English had improved, when he came to pick me up from my apartment. We had a driver to take us to Yangzhou and we had to stop after two hours in Nantong to pick up his grandmother and grandfather. I was put in the front seat next to the driver, his grandparents being too shy to sit next to me. The new freeway is very western with all the signs in English and Chinese, even with 100m travelling distance between cars marked! Nantong he told me is a big, rich city, the wealth coming from cotton fabric and leather. I spotted some cotton plants along the way and memories took me back to childhood days on farms in Gatooma, Rhodesia.
His grandmother was seventy four and was short, round and chubby; his grandfather, very thin, not many teeth and not well looking. I could see that despite lack of common language his grandmother and I were going to get on very well, and we did – a very special lady. Jack chatted non-stop on many subjects and he was proud of China and the government for the way they had handled the Olympic Games and the earthquake in Sichuan province. In fact he was extremely proud of China emerging as a nation of note on the world stage.
In Yangzhou Jack’s parents gave me a great welcome. His mother was jolly, very round faced, had curled medium length hair and smiled a lot, just like Jack. He has a stepfather, who was always very smartly turned out and often seemed to have a joke to share. Jack was proud of translating for me. His own father died very young of liver cancer so he never knew him.
I was served a lovely luncheon meal. There were two types of fish, soy beans, sliced pork, tomato and egg soup, shrimps and many more dishes. Yum! Yum! It’s so nice and relaxing, eating with a Chinese family. You don’t have to watch your manners! They do not have a tablecloth and any bits like prawn tails that you don’t eat just go on the table – looks a bit of mess by the time it’s finished but it’s all quickly cleaned away at the end of the meal. I then went to the one room to have a lie down but there was so much chattering, laughter and noise going on I didn’t sleep much! They wanted me to watch TV but I was not very interested in watching a Chinese talk show where the presenters and their ‘victims’ appear to shout at each other throughout the show.
And then the main bedroom needed to be decorated for the bridal couple. Opposite the bed high on the wall a large photo of Jack and Jessica in their wedding clothes was put up. Oh yes, I forgot to tell you that a couple of weeks before the wedding they had to go to have pre-wedding photos taken in three or four different costumes. Two albums were made up for them as well as a very large scroll and the picture in the bedroom, and this cost about 3000RMB. Across the ceiling his father and uncle hung Christmas-like decorations and two very big red Chinese decorations for good luck. One fell down! And it had to be put up again. I wondered if this signified anything but didn’t like to ask in case it was bad luck. On the doors were red Chinese charactesr sayings such things as ‘100 years Good Fortune’, ‘Congratulations and Good Luck’. I thought they would need a lot of good fortune to stay together for one hundred years!
I removed myself to the dining room to write and was brought green tea in a wine glass! Grandmother came to sit next to me and we communicated very well and ended up comparing whether we both had false teeth! She could not understand why I was on my own with no man. I failed to convince her that I was perfectly happy.
There was not too much privacy and when I went to the toilet the door did not lock and I found myself literally ‘caught with my pants down’ as it squeaked open only to be hastily banged shut by me!
I asked to see Jack’s Mother’s dress for the wedding and was surprised to see it was black velvet with a sort of purple patterned bolero. My Chinese friends in Suzhou had said that I should not wear anything black because it would be bad luck for the couple! Maybe taboos are breaking down in these more modern times.
Later Jack, his mother and I went off to see the Mistress of Ceremonies for the wedding. I stayed in the car while they went into this florist-looking shop. Then after a while Jack came out and said he had something to ask me. I met the Mistress of Ceremonies who was charming. She had been taking notes about me and then Jack asked if I would speak at the wedding and if I would also sing. Help! I said I would happily talk – my Chinese teacher Michelle in Suzhou had primed me on this but she omitted to tell me I might have to sing. I said I thought it would be better if I just spoke (and had a translator for most of what I wished to say).
Then back home and the Chinese Space program was on television so we watched the three spacemen and listened to their messages – a great moment for China. Interestingly an American scientist who was being interviewed said that American students were not all that interested in studying maths and science because it was too easy to make money in other ways! Consequently there was some difficulty in finding suitable candidates and scientists for the space programs in the US. Chinese students, on the other hand, are very proud to be able to study these subjects and so China has limitless resources in this area.
Then time for a ‘bath’. There was no bath or shower so I gave myself a ‘lick and a promise’ as my mother would have called it and then everyone left to go and stay at an aunt’s apartment and leaving me with one room and a double bed to myself. Jack was in the other room. My bed had a bamboo pillow which is difficult to describe. It was not uncomfortable to sleep on but I covered it with part of the duvet just to make it a little softer.
On Sunday I had to convince Jack that I would be safe going walking on my own while he and his step father went to organize some more wedding details. I think he probably secretly had me ‘tailed’ for protection, but off I set at about 8am walking swiftly along streets and making sure I noticed where I was going. I drew lots of stares of course, being the only foreigner, a woman and on my own, but I kept going till I reached a Park which had a small lake and funfair. Wandering through some trees I heard the come hither sound of a flute playing. I went up some stairs and there sat a man with what looked like a bamboo flute which made a pure clear sound. I sat down to listen and he picked another tune and then called to someone. A woman came up the stairs and I had my very own concert as she sang with him, the sound echoing charmingly through the trees. How special, just for me!
On the other side of the park I followed more music. This time out in the open, ballroom music could be heard and there were many couples dancing gracefully to the music. It reminded me of Central Park in New York where couples waltzed under the statue of Shakespeare! I watched for a while and then my feet could not keep still and I descended the steps to dance on my own. A little old lady came up to me and offered her arms and so we danced together. It is such a long time since I danced like that so I’m afraid my eyes were on my feet a lot of the time, but it felt wonderful. Of course quite an audience gathered and all clapped when we were finished. Again, how kind of them to let me join in on a whim! I had given my camera to a young man so that he could take some amusing photos of us and other couples.
When I got back Jack was hard at his studying of English. With his laptop and mp3 player he was taking dictation. In fact he took his laptop with him even when we went walking just in case there was a word he didn’t know. He said that he studied English for two hours each day. No wonder he had improved so much. It seems that Chinese people are generally very hard working and conscientious about their study. They have to be because there is always someone to take their place if they don’t keep up. He kept talking about me being rich. I think he has this impression because I travel so much.
My age makes me a real curiosity with the people here. They cannot understand why a person of my age would want to be on my own or why I move so fast! Actually in Chinese years I was sixty-seven years old at that time, and they always want to know what animal year I was (Chinese Horoscope) so that they can calculate for themselves just how old I was. I am born in the year of the horse. I had said that I was sixty-six which was right, but not in Chinese years.
Later Jack and his mum went to pay respects to his dead father and to tell him that Jack was getting married. They took little paper boats and fake paper money to burn at the graveside.
That night I slept at his aunt’s place, a modern apartment, quite like mine except that in the basement were two rooms with tables for the game of mahjong. I had a big bedroom with a double-bed and en suite basin and toilet. The main bathroom had a shower. His aunt was really sweet and attentive. On Monday morning it was time to get back to Jack’s parents for a breakfast of dumplings. I do miss my fruit in the morning. There was so much laughter and fun in this household. It was very uplifting. When I was reading or writing at the table there was always the smell of food or cigarette smoke. Oh my! Those people smoked at every opportunity. The groom’s family were expected to provide everyone with cigarettes at the wedding – how clever of the cigarette companies…
On Monday night there was dinner for about eighty people at a restaurant – friends and family of the groom. I did not change. One uncle’s wife asked why I was in my T-shirt and not smartly dressed! I was apparently underdressed! Most of the children were frightened of me at first because, of course, they have not seen a European before. Indeed, I did not see another person like me all the four days I was there! Eventually though they warmed to my antics. After the dinner I had to go to the aunt’s place. It was very funny because I tried to ride on the back of her bike on the carrier. My knees bent like hairpins, were way up in the air and it was very uncomfortable as I kept sliding down towards her seat! Eventually we called for a rickshaw. However, I could not take my bags with me so had no clean clothes, pajamas or toothbrush. This was the only time I felt really irritated during the four days. The aunt did what she could and found a new toothbrush. I slept in my clothes.
Tuesday 30th October and the day of the wedding… I went shopping with the two young students, daughters of uncles. It was fun being with them. Lots of giggles! I had a rest when we got back and then dressed in my Burmese skirt and Chinese top. I thought I looked good. However the rest of the 300 guests at the wedding were dressed in everyday clothes, denims and nothing bright. Apparently you are not supposed to outshine the wedding party. No one told me that (not that I could have outdone the bride at my age!). I had checked my clothes with my Chinese friends in Suzhou who thought I looked great.
And so at last we went to the Hotel at 6pm where the wedding was to be held. The groom’s family paid for everything. I wasn’t allowed to pay for anything at all the whole time I was there. The hotel room was beautifully decorated just like for a Western wedding. There was an archway and an aisle with flowers and sparklers ready to be lit. Food was brought to the tables. The clear white alcohol for the men, and coke and lemonade for the ladies were the drinks. We waited and waited, the tables filling with people chattering and socialising. This is the time that you give your hong bao [present of money] to the uncle who was marking it down and counting it. It’s such a good idea to give money as its much more practical; but also a bit embarrassing when he announces to all and sundry just how much you have given.
At last, the bridal couple appeared. Jessica was dressed in white. She had three changes of dresses during the day, one of which is red for good luck.
They were clapped onto the stage decorated with a picture of themselves, a ‘throne’ and the MC shouting on her microphone. The couple were introduced to the parents, making a bow and answering questions and clasping each other in a circle.
The Mistress of Ceremonies then talked and suddenly everyone around me was saying, “That’s you!” She had apparently called my Chinese name which is Peng Huan Ling and I hadn’t heard it. I got up and walked to the stage and stood between Jessica and Jack and said my bit through the microphone: ‘Gongxi nimen, zhu fu nimen and bai nien hao he’, which is to say, “Congratulations, good luck and one hundred years of happiness!” After that I spoke in English with Jack translating. I said I was honoured to be invited to the wedding, that I was fortunate to have two very kind, caring and generous friends and I thanked the families and finally wished them many years of happiness. Everyone clapped. I guess they were being polite!
Entertainment followed during which the bridal couple did a karaoke number and Jack and his stepfather carried Jessica down the aisle and back to much hilarity and laughter. Finally they went round to all the tables chatting with friends and family offering cigarettes which Jessica lit and then left.
And that seemed to be a signal for the ladies to take out plastic packets and gather any leftover food from the tables to take home.
Yet another uncle and aunt offered to have me for the night, again in a modern apartment. When I got there they phoned their daughter to speak to me because she was away studying and they wanted me to see how well she spoke English.
Finally Jack’s mum called for me to go back to their apartment to say goodbye to Jack and Jessica before they went to Baoying and Jessica’s family.
I walked into the place and sat down waiting for them to go. At that moment an almighty row broke out between Jessica and Jack with his mother shouting and ranting as well. Eventually Jessica grabbed her bags and moved towards the door; but with that Jack and his mother dragged her into the room and threw her on the bed and banged the door close, with further shouting ensuing. By this time I was really upset with the way they were treating her, but felt I could not interfere.
Eventually his mother came out crying and threw some tablets down on the table. I thought they looked like contraceptive pills and thought that’s what the fight was about. How wrong I was. They turned out to be the Mother’s blood pressure pills and she was hastily taking them to calm herself down! I was trying to calm her and she was trying to calm me as I was in tears by now as well.
It turned out that I was the center of the disruption because Jack had told Jessica that they were not going to Baoying to her parent’s home because they had to wait and see me off on the bus at one o’clock. Jessica was upset because she really wanted to be with her family. Finally Jack’s grandfather came to talk to Jessica and she calmed down. She eventually apologized to me, which made me feel really bad for her. I just held her tight. It seemed such extreme reactions on everyone’s part but then I didn’t understand, did I, coming from a culture where women could have a say.
And finally I was on the bus, and then home feeling quite exhausted, but once again very happy and blessed to have been included in this celebration.
P.S.: Sadly two years later they divorced and I wondered again about the Good luck decoration that had fallen during the decorating of the marital bedroom and the point of arranged marriages.
For Love of Auchan
Dearest Barb and Jean
I just had to tell you of my experience in our very large local Supermarket called Auchan here in Suzhou. I needed to get some Chinese New Year gifts and so made the pilgrimage. You can’t pick a ‘good’ time to go because it is always excessively busy. Remember our visits to the OK Bazaars in Durban? Well multiply the experience by fifty- but this time with Chinese, not African bodies!
I walked into Auchan, past the 110 check- outs (yes, that’s not a mistake), to the left, and on into the centre of the vast cavern of a shop where I stood next to a display of red toy rabbits. It was a red world in there. I suppose it could be mistaken for Mars. It was almost the Chinese New Year, the year of the Rabbit, and I stood awhile just observing. It was a hairy journey in, with jerky movements, sudden stops to avoid collisions and generally a feeling of unease. What would I encounter in this large foreign supermarket?
I stopped for a while to get my bearings and from my vantage point I had a commanding view as people were passing by all the time and the merchandise nearest me could be clearly seen. Enormous piles of every single item anyone could possibly dream of for the Chinese New Year celebrations, plus the rabbits – a red and gold rash.
Where there were chairs in the centre aisle a young mother fed her baby, a father held his son asleep in his arms. These were the lucky ones. Out there it was everyone for themselves- and a war zone.
It was wall to wall people pushing trolleys, pulling smaller baskets on wheels, carrying baskets and filling them to the brim. It would be a sane idea for everyone to have a license to drive a trolley, but this is where driver madness is not contained. Even the kids in Auchan drive pedal push cars without licenses.
“Hey, watch my toe!” I shouted at a kid who ran past, pushing a pile of bunnies over.
I was just about to set off on my quest, having gathered courage, when I was again nearly swept away by a young maniac whizzing by on roller skates – “Is this allowed in a supermarket?” I wondered? But this is China and I was informed that he was one of the employees! Nothing could possibly surprise me now.
I started to push, cowering behind my trolley and trying to travel in the wake of a fearsome looking cleaner carving a path through the worried shoppers. An elderly Chinese lady looked in my trolley and shook her head and proceeded to take out a couple of items and replace them with her own choice. “What are you doing?” I shouted at her. “This is my trolley and I’ll buy what I damn well like.” The Chinese lady looked surprised and scuttled away. I grabbed some red and gold boxes with biscuits and nuts in them for the presents and started out for the real food section.
Then along came a family. It’s not a good idea to bring kids in here. This one attacked a mile high stack of sweet jars and the lot came toppling down as assistants scurried around retrieving the plastic jars (luckily). As the family’s trolley drew level the kid started shouting, pointing at the pile of red bunnies. The whole family proceeded to pick up a bunny, chattering away while tickling it and rubbing it. Finally they picked one and put it in the trolley.
I suddenly come across live crabs and turtles swimming. Did I just hit the ocean, I mean Auchan? Clearly that was not the case because I was not surrounded by water but the crabs and turtles were in glass tanks and there are big fish with their noses pressed against the glass, mouths gaping in silent cry. I felt like saying, “I’m sorry I can’t free you, I have another mission to accomplish.” Some were floating upside down completely disorientated in this small space. It was not a pretty sight.
Round the corner I went and there were mountainous baskets filled high with rice. What is a Chinese Supermarket without rice after all? Running their fingers through it in ecstasy were two men who discussed the pros and cons of each grain. It was a love affair to remember.
Then I heard screaming voices as two middle aged ladies shouted at each other while fighting over a rather juicy looking piece of meat. In the butchery there was the chilling sound of a saw and heavy thumping of meat being beaten on the blocks. Who would want to eat this severely traumatized meat?
Now this is ridiculous – there was a girl riding a full size bike, or rather wobbling a bike through the crowds apparently trying it out ready for the traffic on the roads outside! Good luck to her and all who tremble in her path.
Finally I got to the Check-Out and started to place the items on the counter. Behind me a lady, standing so close I could feel the weave of her dress leant down, picked up one of my New Year rabbits, hugged it and said, “What a cute red New Year rabbit you’ve got and so cuddly too. Mmmmmwa!” That was the kiss she planted on the rabbit. I smiled and all the angst of Auchan faded into insignificance…
When are both of you coming to experience China? I have so much to show you.
A Wristy Business
Remember in July I came home to South Africa with my left arm in plaster and a sling and we never had much time to talk? Well, now that I’m back in China I thought I would just fill you in on how it happened and my experiences in the medical systems of both countries.
I am embarrassed to tell you the source of my injury ,but that’s part of the story and part of me too.
On May 13 (not a Friday) we had our Early Year’s Sports Day. At the end we had the parents’/teacher’s race. None of the younger teachers wanted to volunteer for the race saying that the teachers always lost. I thought it might be fun anyway and I’m too old to worry about embarrassing myself, so I said I would be part of it. We were in pairs. The race consisted of one partner of the pair pulling the other partner, who was sitting on a scooter board, across the hall and then returning, galloping back to back with a ball between them and arms linked. My partner was a young and busty teacher. She asked if I wanted to sit on the board or pull it. Through my mind flashed an image of me sitting on the board and then when she tugged, me flying off the back onto the floor. I said that I would pull the board.
“Ready, Steady, Go!” I grabbed the rope of the scooter board and tugged. Sue was much heavier than I had anticipated. My hand slipped from the rope and I fell backwards onto my left wrist. “Aaaah! Think I’ll just lie here and play dead.” But my mind had other thoughts and I heard all the cheering and the adrenalin was high so instead I got up, grabbed the rope again with my right hand, pulled Kate to the other side, held arms behind our backs with ball in place and galloped back. God, that was the longest, most painful race I have ever participated in.
At the end I slunk off cradling my poor wrist and made my way to the school nurse. No-one knew that there was anything wrong or how much it hurt. Michelle, the Chinese teacher I worked with, realized something was not right and ran after me. The school nurse put ice on it and off we went to Kowloon Hospital in Suzhou. This is an imposing modern hospital and we made our way to the VIP Clinic which is mainly for foreigners. The nurses speak English. One of the nurses had asked me previously what VIP meant. I was embarrassed to tell her. It’s a bit presumptuous of us isn’t?
The doctor asked how recently it had happened and immediately took an x-ray, gave me a local anaesthetic, and proceeded to pull and twist the arm, presumably to re-align the bones. I didn’t feel any pain. I had another x-ray and he seemed satisfied with his handiwork. He then put what I can only call a ‘half cast’ (plastic) on my arm and a flimsy bandage round my neck holding it in place. It was not comfortable. Within a few days I was back and asking him to give me a more substantial cast. Looking at the x-ray he said that perhaps I needed an operation (this was the same x-ray that he had perused a few days previously when he decided that I did not need an operation!) and asked the nurse to take me to the operating section of the hospital.
The nurse was a chatty young lady and she asked me about my friends and family. She seemed a bit taken aback when I said that I had no family in China. “Who will look after you and bring you food when you are in the hospital?” she asked. “Do you have any friends? You should phone your friends.” I immediately phoned my friend Lily, who said she could try to look after me. We took the lift to the eighth floor and I was shown the room I would occupy. The room was bare apart from a stand with a catheter. “Where do I sleep?” “Oh, we will bring in a bed.” Well I can tell you, that was a relief. So I was duly booked in to return the following day.
Back at school I relayed my story. The Head told me that I should get another opinion and Lily very kindly said that she would take me to a very good bone setting doctor at the Chinese Medical Hospital. I agreed.
At this hospital they wanted to know my name to register me. No, they could not write my English name because the computer did not write English letters. I gave them my Chinese name. I paid a small amount (I think more than the Chinese pay but still minimal) and went to wait. There did not seem to be any waiting order but eventually Lily pushed forward for us.
We entered a very small room with old dirty white walls in which a doctor and nurse shared a table. There were no pretentions about being a famous doctor here. The doctor looked at the x-rays and pronounced that I definitely did not need an operation. Relief! He then proceeded to pull and twist my arm (no anaesthetic) till I thought I would faint. Finally, I let out a yell and next thing the door opened and there were many people staring at me in my agony and chattering away. He explained to Lily that it was better to get the bones in place and then the healing and dexterity afterwards would be better.
Once again I left with my arm in a rather makeshift bamboo sling. It was very sore right then, but by the next day it was feeling much better. I returned again a week later. Similarly, the same treatment, with the nurse holding my arm at the elbow and the doctor pulling and twisting it. The pain seemed worse. I went out cradling my arm and whimpering. I wondered if I could take the pain again.
The following day was our International Day at school. I arrived at the time I was to be on duty at one of the stalls. The Deputy Head of school took one look at my drawn face and told me that she would see to it that I went to Shanghai for more conventional treatment. They arranged a car for the next day. I came back with a normal full cast on my arm and had to keep it on until I arrived back in South Africa. Travelling with the cast on had certain advantages as I received help and consideration from many people.
The day after I landed in Johannesburg my brother took me to have the cast taken off. The modern hospital I went to was all efficiency. I might have told a different story had I gone to one of the crowded Government hospitals in South Africa.
Waiting was in strict order and there were people of all sizes, shapes and colours. My turn came and I couldn’t believe my eyes as I walked into the consulting room. An Asian doctor greeted me. With the formalities done and my arm now free, I glanced at the certificates on the wall. One was from the Suzhou Medical College which became part of the Soochow University in 2004! But no time for chatting as I was shooed out and off to the payment center. No interested faces peering at me here although, again if I had been to a Government Hospital in Johannesburg my tale may have been different.
The physiotherapist I went to see had travelled a lot, but not to China. We immediately had rapport. I had three appointments in Johannesburg during which she applied heat treatment and gently showed me how to exercise the wrist. I despaired as my wrist would hardly move in any direction. My holiday lasted another three weeks and I diligently did the exercises and kept a support brace on. It took five months before I had reasonable dexterity and now I wouldn’t know that I had broken it.
What I wonder, though, is, if I had had the gumption to carry on with the Chinese treatment, would the result have been even better and faster? I think that isolating the wrist in a full cast weakens the muscles more than necessary but who knows? I don’t want to have another broken wrist to test out my theory!
Lots of love and make sure you take a trip to China soon.
Back Street Tailor
I feel faint
At the onslaught to my senses.
Narrow open shop,
Advertising his trade.
Tailor busy cutting
Rolls of fabric
The come hither look,
Invite my fingers
To slide, rub, slide over the grain,
Pure ecstasy for my hands,
Starved of sexual stimulation.
The colours, patterns
Smooth as silk.
An ancient sewing machine,
Calling from long gone times,
Dirty, rusty, the name hardly visible
Ah! but it says,
“See, stroke, feel.
I am the creator,
Of splendidly made garments
You will wear.”
The tailor observes,
Black eyes registering satisfaction
At me smoothing, stroking
At my love affair
With the body of bolts
His raison d’etre.
I gesture and mumble,
Indicate fabric, colour
Peer at a page of patterns
Point in silence
Draw on paper
I demonstrate a price
The inevitable calculator
One language we all understand.
He indicates, writes
A time to collect my treasure.
I leave marvelling at
Communication without language
And the banquet that enriches my senses.
You want me to do what?
I thought you would appreciate these signs that I have found during my travels in China. I look forward to the interpretations in your reply. I think you might be banned from quite a few places as you might be caught whiffling or something equally odorous.
You can visit The Shanghai Civilized Park – not quite sure whether they would accept you, and you will be asked to ‘Be Careful to the Step’, ‘Beware of Water’ and to ‘Keep the flowers in the trees and show you are a gentlemen’ and ‘Keep your steps off the Plants.’ I was totally baffled by the sign that stated, ‘Please Fatoing Water’. The grass is very sensitive too: ‘Green grass in park. Be careful enough not to tread on me’. You will also be advised to ‘Do nothing evil. Do everything good’ and please DO NOT overstep the guardrail’ while being ‘Careful of the precipice’.
In another park there is ‘Westbrook surrounded by Verdure’. You will be told that there should be ‘No Swimming, Fishing and Whiffling in the Pond’ and you will be reminded that ‘As a beautiful Environment is on all of us, please Omnivorously put the Weste Gerage Can.’
There is a sign with ‘Forty Topping Tourist Attractions in China’ but you will need to be very careful as a tourist as one sign states: ‘Transportation, Disposal of Tourists and Tour Guide Service.’
Shopping can be hazardous too. Don’t take Lyn to the shop selling ‘Chinese Dress and dress for Archaic Woman’or to The Odorous Restaurant which has Cnsine’.
If you need to call anyone you could try to use an ‘Intelligent Public Phone’. I didn’t feel qualified to use it. There is a Tourist Complaint phone as well so you should be all right. But another sign invites you to ‘Do it after thinking’…
And watch your step when you are told, ‘Careful to wet’ or ‘Refuses to go upstairs’ or ‘Please don’t touch in bad weather’ and ‘Forbid High Altitude to throw a thing’. I know you couldn’t resist doing that.
I’m glad you have given up smoking because you might have trouble with this one: ‘No smoking while you are moving.’
You will be glad to know that our university in Suzhou has a Civilised Unit in Jiangsu Province.
At a hostel where you are told you can have ‘Tnternet chitchat, The thtrd floo can loor on the nwhole sight of the town for free’ you should also ‘Green the ancient town and promote the civilization everywhere’
I hope I’ve lured you to visit soon. Love to you and the family.
Banquet For the Senses
The number 47 bus rattles to a stop
Human mass oozes onto it,
Me in its midst.
Put my one Yuan in the slot,
Bus driver shouts “Yi Xia .”
Standing like beer bottles in a crate.
Career round a corner.
Five stops later
Squeeze my way to the exit
An extra push from behind
I hit the tarmac
Cross the road
Down a narrow alley-way.
Start of the sense attack.
It’s a skinny lane,
Bustling with activity.
A scooter threads it way past,
Hardly room for it.
A family of four balanced precariously,
The littlest boy facing backwards
My nose lifts to a waft of fish
A young boy scooping a live fish,
Re-slushing an already slushy walkway.
In shallow bowls
Dopey crabs clamber their scratchy way
Hopelessly on top of each other
Intent to escape.
Ancient white crumbling walls ..
Large squat bulbous frogs blob together
Ducks splayed out, legs tied,
beaks gaping noiselessly
Chickens clucky together
In an eternal chatter.
Chicken heads and feet
Detached from bodies,
Sit in gruesome splendour .
Armpit smelling tofu,
Cuts of meat roughly chopped
Providing a fly feast.
Long life noodles and mushrooms
In bland contrast.
High pitched Chinese chatter
Enticing – taste, buy, try the wares.
Nose lifts again
Steaming bamboo steamers
Moon cakes with intricate markings,
Make the tongue in my mind
Want to reinvent itself.
Oily puddles reflect
Colours and scents
Fruit, vegetable, imagination
It’s a banquet for the senses.
(Stephanie) Mark Critchley
In the late, late 1950s it was still difficult to determine the sex of your unborn child. So Mark’s parents took no chances and settled on dual gender names early on in the pregnancy. When the poor child was born ambidextrous, bilingual and, well … carrying a raft of other ambiguities from Day One … it was decided to keep the dual naming convention in case s/he ever decided to swap gender once, twice (or…“three times a lady”). Yes, mock you may. Anyway, consequently, in such a unique nursery ambiance, with pink dresses and a military crew cut, childhood taunts and incredulous ‘doctor & nurse’ inspections became the norm, and in desperation ‘Mark’ found solace … first in letters, then later (after learning the alphabet), in romantic poetry and novels, and much more recently in gin.
Hir literary bent began to make itself felt in early puberty, with a first book of romantic urges and laments heavily influenced by the Latin poets Juvenal, Horace and … of course … Catullus, the naughtiest one of all. In High School, then later at University, where s/he became known as TCW (The Critchless Wonder), s/he transitioned from poetry to prose, editing many student arts magazines to the great detriment of hir actual studies. Enough said.
Complicated, protean and flitting between genres, styles and half a dozen European languages in each opus, ‘Mark’ is still as yet a virginal publishing enigma. Blowing from continent to continent, and periodically incontinent, ‘Mark’ is currently moored in Suzhou, for reasons known only to hir Shrink. Until the wind changes, that is, or s/he runs out of steamed dumplings.
In the meantime, dear reader, please continue to send all generous donations to Critchless Wonders International, c/o Grand Cayman, next door to Cuba. Due for completion in April 2014, the Grand Frisbeean Pagoda fund still needs another two million Roubles.
God bless you, one and all.
Email message from O.M.
1st October, 2011
Hi my beautiful,
Sorry to come back to you a bit late, me ole china. Here’s some background to my work and life in Suzhou.
I share an office with Kate, a friendly and helpful Aussie lady. We are good friends now, and help each other a lot as the week gets so busy here. Kate has lived in China for more than two years and knows her way around, so she has helped me to settle in many tiny ways. My friend Joey’s Chinese wife has also been very kind and helpful. You rely on people like this in order to get some sense of belonging. Like me, Kate is teaching foundation year, and has the very opposite timetable to me – when I teach she’s in the office all week, and when she teaches, I’m in the office. So somehow we leave notes and manage to get everything done. My third good mate here is Pablo, the IT Prof. whose wife I worked with in Liverpool. Anyway, Pablo is helping me with advice on the money side: claims, banking, money transfers, etc. and he takes me out with his friends (now friends!) on Friday evenings.
I know it’s tempting fate to say this, but … I haven’t had the Delhi belly once so far, and quite a few others HAVE! It was the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival on 15th September and my best student Luke got me some strange foods in a hamper: lots of cakes and biscuits, some jelly-like Japanese-style sweets (perhaps like biting into a midget’s boob), plus a pack of pig trotters. I have eaten most things from the hamper now, but it took some nerve to start on the piggy trotters. I even bought a bottle of red wine (supposedly French Cahors, but strangely only a fiver a bottle, whilst most western wines are over a tenner due to import taxes…!). Anyway, the plan was to try and gulp some trotter down with a gobful of vino. In fact, as it happens, Luke was right – the trotter was rather delicious, just like the finest of hams!
Now emboldened by this alimentary success, I’m about to try some Jews Ear Fungus in a stir-fry tonight, so we shall see what effect if any that has on me! The Latin name is Auricularia Auricula, and according to Wikipedia it grows mainly on elder trees. The Bushcraft UK web site says it makes a good stir fry, so we’ll see. Don’t worry, I have BUPA Essential worldwide health insurance cover, my card came through yesterday!
My accommodation is modern but noisy at night in the bedroom, so I moved my mattress into the lounge and it is perfectly quiet in there! I can even watch telly in bed now. The place is twenty mins’ walk from work, but there are many buses, some are even free. I can jump on one and be there in five minutes if I need to. My bathroom sink is actually in the living room, so I can shave and watch TV at the same time. I’m starting to watch a lot of TV whilst doing other things!! There is a loo with shower, and then a good size kitchen[_. _]YES… you can just about see the TV from those locations too, if that’s what you’re itching to ask!! That’s it really in terms of accommodation, except that I’m on the fifth floor of a new sixteen-story block.
I went to a great Confucius festival in town last Sat with some students and two other teachers. I’ll try to send you some photos from it when I’m next in the office. It had many people attending, at a temple in town, and it lasted over two hours. There were children chanting, women dancing in costume and men giving speeches and singing. Also, they had many ancient instruments there that they were playing. It’s Big C’s (Confucius’) 2,562nd birthday apparently. Remind me to send you the photos if I forget. Tomorrow I’m going with my student Luke to stay overnight with his family in Zhenjiang, not too far away up the Yangtze River – it’s the pig trotter capital of China, so I may have to sample that delight again I think!!
Anyway, let’s see what happens. More on this later, luv & lollipops…
The O.M. xx
The Trip to ZhenJiang
4th October 2011
Hi again, my little beauty,
I’ve been away to Luke’s hometown for a couple of days, and it was an inspiring experience. He’s from Zhenjiang, which is in the same province as Suzhou, but is about 250km away. It took an hour by fast train. The maximum speed the train went was 296km per hour, because there is a sign in each carriage showing its current speed. Dunno how fast that was in miles per hour – could it be 180? On the way there I went with Luke and another student, but coming back I had to do it all on my own! Oh well, even though I could hardly communicate, people were kind. It seems to be the same everywhere, if I treat them respectfully. Anyway, I got back OK by train and then travelled thirty mins on the local number two express bus once I had made it to the station in Suzhou.
I actually stayed in Luke’s dad’s hotel in Zhenjiang, which is a reasonable four star joint with comfortable rooms. His parents took us out for several posh meals, most notable of which was last night’s. It was in a restaurant on top of a big hotel, which rotated slowly round so that your view changed all the time as you ate your meal. I think the Liverpool Post Office tower restaurant does the same thing, or at least it used to. We had some shark fin soup, which also had a little boiled seahorse in each bowl (yurghhh!). It didn’t seem anything special taste-wise, but apparently is renowned for its medicinal qualities. At least nobody has offered me any donkey willy to sample yet, so I’m grateful for that ;-). Apart from its truly ubiquitous pig trotters, Zhenjiang is equally famous in China for its special black vinegar, which the locals pour into small side bowls, and use for dipping pork dumplings into, especially during Chinese New Year.
I had a bit of a shock in the men’s toilets though, in Suzhou station. Everything is always busy in this country, but I managed to weave my way past the cubicles to get to a free urinal at the far end. Then I noticed something. Half of the cubicle doors were not shut, yet people were squatting to crap over those holes in the ground that they call Turkish toilets. I couldn’t believe my eyes, so I looked to make sure I was not hallucinating. I saw a stationmaster in his uniform, yes with his hat still on, who had whizzed his kecks down in one of the unclosed cubicles, and was crapping like a good’un right in front of me, looking at me like: “What’s your problem mate? This is perfectly normal…!” My theory from this experience is that people are so fed up getting knocked over into the crapper when others also desperate for a poo keep trying to open the door on them constantly, they might as well leave the blessed door open to show they haven’t finished yet. And save losing their balance repeatedly! Or maybe this is an extension of another weird phenomenon I’ve noticed: little kids don’t have nappies, they just wear trousers with a split in, so that anytime they want to do their business, they simply squat on the pavement (or wherever else they are, including a shopping mall), and their trousers magically part coz there’s no seam in the undercarriage. Anyway, it’s different, I’ll give ‘em that, and I suppose it saves buying expensive Pampers.
Just to change the subject a bit, we went to two Buddhist temples during my trip to Luke’s, and the one we went to this morning is on an island in the Yangtze River (supposed to be the second longest river in the world!). So we had to take a crowded ferry, but it was OK. The ferry boat was like a floating pagoda itself, with a roof in the style of a Buddhist temple. It was operated by monks, most of whom wore a habit including an orange sheet over one shoulder. They are shaven-headed too. The temples were surrounded by wonderful gardens and lakes, and it was possible to hire rowing boats and even motor boats. I lit a load of super-size joss sticks that resemble Guy Fawkes rockets, and did a prayer ritual, but was so taken by the actions that I forgot to pray anything! We all stank like an old bonfire afterwards too, as the incense has no perfumed aroma to it. The gardens were lovingly cared-for, and the temples and Buddha statues were beautifully maintained. I forgot my camera as usual, but Luke says he will give me some of his photos next week. His grandfather got us into all the temples for free, because he was the architect who designed them. There’s influence for you!
Well, that’s all for now fella. It would be good to hear from you again. Let me know when some breaking news develops (!). In the meantime, keep fighting on mate, and don’t let anyone discourage you from reaching your dreams.
Love to all the troops back at base,
The O.M. xx
Hold Your Fire
17th November 2011
I hope you are still improving steadily. Sorry those medical insurance bastards didn’t compensate you regarding the prosthetic limb in the end. Fancy telling you to your face that you didn’t have a leg to stand on…can’t your lawyer even make a claim for bad taste? Anyway, I hope this letter cheers you up. Here’s another snapshot of how life in Suzhou marches to quite a different beat from back home!
This Wednesday was our half-yearly fire drill at work. Nothing spectacular, you might say. On the contrary, it was a work of great oriental mastery. First of all, staff and students were kindly alerted one week ahead by email. This gave all the departments the chance to completely reschedule their four o’clock Wednesday classes so that no students would be in the building at that time the alarm went off and … er, … get in the way. It was thought to be a very considerate approach for late November, as it would be very chilly outside if the students had to hang around in their class groups for twenty minutes or so. When I reflected on this however, I couldn’t help thinking that the whole point of the exercise was to train staff and students how to evacuate safely and quickly with the minimum of inconvenience. I remembered the fire wardens in offices in the West: they had to check there was nobody in the loo, count how long it took for their team to get out to their appointed safe zone, call the roll, and then wait for the signal to go back indoors. Fire practice was always a rather jolly occasion, as we shuffled and hopped from one foot to another, teeth chattering, happy to have an extra mental break from the slog, and for some, a welcome drag on a cigarette.
I was determined to stay at my post and see what was actually going to happen when the bell went. Even if my students were not going to be around, I felt that I had to undergo the experience, just to be able to lead them to safety if there was ever a real emergency. For one thing, I had never gone right to the bottom of the nearest stairs from my classroom. This was a legitimate chance to investigate. Would it lead us anywhere sensible in an emergency?
So, on the appointed day of the practice last week, I left my classroom and ran up the stairs to my office on the fifth floor at three o’clock, one hour before the action was due to commence. I saw one of my students hanging around outside the office, waiting to meet me about her essay progress. She was staring out of the window at some events unfolding outside, and didn’t seem to notice me approaching. As I turned to see what she was looking at, I noticed all our security guards lined up like soldiers, being inspected by their ‘Captain’ outside the building. The Chinese national anthem was playing loudly with a fair amount of distortion from some ersatz audio speakers, and they were undergoing a form of military drill – saluting their glorious leader, standing to attention, then turning to the left and right on his command. They all seemed to be wearing the same size uniform, whether they were tall, short, fat or thin. For some, trousers were half-mast, whilst for others jacket sleeves hid their hands, like drab extras from the Beijing opera. Arranged around them in very neat groupings were all the bright red and black extinguishers, fire blanket containers, first aid kits, and other necessary fire-fighting tackle. Along the sides of the troops their fire hoses were uncoiled into symmetrically parallel lines, and the whole show was most compelling to behold. I guessed that the man in charge would perhaps even inspect the equipment to see that it was still serviceable.
Hmmm … Once more, I felt a small wave of uncertainty waft over me, melting my enjoyment of this piece of improv theatre. What if all the brave fire bobbies were out doing their synchronized firefighting show with full kit spread over the pavement in front of bemused passers-by, and meanwhile we had a real emergency on the sixth floor of the building? I shuddered and turned unsteadily into my office, burying this thought deep into the ‘Don’t Even Go There’ section of my brain.
Another student had arranged to meet me at four o’clock to talk about her essay. I had suggested the appointment, even though she had shown surprise and reminded me of the fire drill at this time. When I arrived at my classroom it was exactly four PM, and of course Linda the student was nowhere to be found. Her timekeeping was never her most endearing trait, even on a normal lecture day. I was loitering, waiting to hear a fire alarm, but there seemed to be nothing. Finally, I heard a kind of whispering noise, first in Chinese, then in English. It was coming through my classroom speakers (normally used with the computer for listening exercises). After the second time of listening, I could hear a very polite voice asking quietly in broken English if we could please leave the building. Oh…. so that’s the fire alarm!! The penny dropped, and I followed my imagined route downstairs and out to the afternoon sun. Well, not quite. At the bottom of the stairs was a set of padlocked glass doors, so I moved along the corridor back towards the centre of the building. Ah, and here was a very smart security guy just outside the door, directing me and one or two other stragglers out of the main entrance to the safety of the car park and pavement.
Once outside, I joined the small, select and mildly shivering audience to watch the continuing antics of the core of the firefighting troupe. Now they had lit a smoke bomb in the middle of the pavement. The red smoke billowing from it looked most impressive, and the Captain was screaming a torrent of military-style instructions in Chinese, presumably for his stiffly mechanical team of underlings to attack this pretend fire with professional gusto. I turned on my heel with a sigh, and headed for the nearest coffee shop.
Then on the following Friday evening at the usual teachers’ R&R session in the local restaurant, one senior colleague recounted that something similar had happened last year too. However, on that occasion there had been an email warning everyone of a display in putting out pseudo-fires, and that nobody should go near the designated incendiary device during the ‘sensitive operation’. The story goes that all the staff stood back and respectfully kept their distance, whilst the students enthusiastically rushed forward and crowded round the fuming object, taking photos of it (and each other) with their mobile phones.
On second thoughts, what a good idea! I think that if they have another of these displays for the spring semester, I’ll be ready with my video camera, and shove everyone out of the way myself to get some hottest shots in town!
Love to all meanwhile, and keep the home fires burning. SMARK
Steering your way around Suzhou
26th February 2012
Dear Doris & Boris,
Hi. How are you both? I hope the operation went well, and you are starting to enjoy freedom now after being joined at the ‘hip & nip’ – as you like to put it – for all these years. Just think, you can finally enjoy reading the Sunday papers on the toilet without the other one holding their nose. Ah well … life’s simple pleasures, eh? Er … yes, right then. Let’s get down to business. My Top Secret report follows.
You have been well briefed on my covert capers in and around Suzhou since last August, masquerading behind my male-sided ID. And yes, in case you were going to ask again-as you always do, damn the pair of you! – I’m still managing to stay one step ahead of the UK tax authorities, Boko Haram AND the Salvation Army, thank God. So, no need to worry, for now at least. If you don’t receive my next scheduled status report by St. Swithun’s Day, please don’t hesitate to get onto MI6 forthwith, and activate contingency plan C2.4/1. Got it? Remember also: please avoid ordering any green sprouting vegetables until I let you know that the coast is clear. This is critical to the success of our operation. Even one gherkin could blow the whole thing wide open. So hold your nerve both of you, and never say die. We are nearly there, I promise you.
Anyway, back to more prosaic matters. As part of our organization’s strategic plan for me to disappear from prying Western eyes for a while, and become as invisible as possible in this most populous of nations, I have some progress to report to you: after a few hiccups, burps and farts, the language learning is finally going pretty well now. I have calculated that at the current rate of progress I could be proficient in Putong-hua by around the year 2050. I am already planning my ninetieth birthday speech in Chinese.
I must admit, at first it seemed so impossibly hard to grasp what anyone here was trying to say to me. Yes, it was almost as bad as moving to Glasgow. However … things are now slowly starting to change since I met … well, Yuhu. That’s her code name in case you hadn’t guessed, her real name is thankfully completely unpronounceable – very handy in hostage torture scenarios, as it distracts interrogators for hours while they brawl with each over correct pronunciation and spelling after she answers Question 1. Then usually they are all too tired or badly injured to carry on, and she escapes. I believe you heard rumours that she is a pregnant one-legged pensioner with extreme halitosis, but I assure you that this is not all true. The halitosis was purely temporary during the wild garlic season. Too much information? Sorry.
Back to language learning, yes. It is a key priority. I am trying hard to learn all the usual beginners’ patter in Chinese. According to my specially commissioned local tutor, the most important Level One phrases for survival in Suzhou are as follows:
: “Hello, two beers please”. “What are you doing tonight?” “How about a […CHOOSE YOUR OWN WORD HERE from the attached Censored List]?” and, “Ouch! That hurt!”
: “Could you take us to the Bookworm, please? Here is the address.” “What do you mean, you don’t know where the hell it is?” “I’ll swear you went past it twice in the last half an hour!” and “Oh beggar it – just drop me at Guan Qian Street again and I’ll walk.”
: “XXL size longjohns please,” “These size L ones aren’t big enough for a ten-year-old – can I return them?” and “Sorry, the stain won’t come off, even with bleach.”
: “Please serve my pudding and coffee AFTER the starter and main course this time,” “Thank you, your dumplings are divine madam … and the food is also very delicious,” and “Is this a genuine Singapore Laksa, or is your roof leaking?”
: “What time was the last bus?” “Please try hawking up phlegm in the waste basket provided, or out of the window,” and “Get your elbow/knee out of my ear/armpit/genitalia, my dear fellow.”
So you can see I’m learning the right stuff. On the subject of local travel, one great way I have discovered of keeping warm in the winter whilst maintaining low energy bills in one’s apartment, is to use the Dushu Lake Higher Education Town’s free 888 bus. To avoid paying the princely sum of one or two RMB on regular bus transport, all students wait for this magic number to turn up at the stop in the morning, and then heave on together in a massive amorphous scrum. Since it’s a circular bus route, you can go round and round repeatedly all day, cosying up to all manner of fluffy be-coated and be-hatted individuals. It is so hard to push through from the front entrance door to the exit in the middle that you often eventually give up trying to get off, and just spend a few hours snoozing aboard it with everyone else. The gentle rocking motion is marvellous if you have had a poor night’s sleep in your freezing apartment. So you’re completely refreshed when you get off the bus back at your apartment at around five in the afternoon.
All ex-pats seem to have a similar experience with the buses when they first arrive in Suzhou. Some however, never get through this phase. Take my Kiwi friend Esther for example. We have all had frustrating experiences of getting on what we assumed was the right bus late in the evening, to go the four or five stops home to our apartment. After lulling us into a false sense of security, it suddenly diverts through a number of desolate industrial estates, zooms round a mass of unrecognizable villages with enormous pot-holes in strategic places along the road, and ends up at its terminus on a dodgy housing estate with roaming, sniffing dogs picking at the rubbish. Hmmm… no fun at nine thirty in the evening, when all we wanted to do was get home and crash out. Now we have to wait for one to go back to the place where we got on in the first place. So, we say to ourselves, OK, that was the 128. Don’t take that bus ever again! Now, what about the 812, the 228 and the 218? Surely the right one must be of those? And so it goes on. There are also buses with a green snow flake before the number, and buses with a yellow squiggle after the number. Same number, different symbol with it, and I have found to my regular peril that they do in fact go on vastly divergent routes. Most confusing…
Anyway, to come back to Esther, bless her. She is one of the older colleagues in my team of crack professionals. Last weekend, even after seven months working here, she still managed to get hopelessly lost going from bus to bus for an elapsed time of seven hours. I think she found a new shopping mall by accident and took a break from her sojourns to refuel in a café there. But that was more or less her full Sunday gone in a twink. I guess that having no bus map, no reading glasses and not understanding Chinese doesn’t help her in this case, but…well, she still gets fooled every time by the ‘snowflake’ number two and the ‘squiggle’ number two bus. In the end, last Sunday, I believe she just gave up and got a taxi home, showing her multi-lingual address card to the driver. Although she had had another adventurous day on the buses, at that point the poor dear had also forgotten what she had originally gone out for.
Buses in Suzhou certainly have an effect on the local people too. They are very soporific. Many times when coming east to Dushu Lake Higher Education Town from the centre of Suzhou, within a few stops, everyone who has a seat falls asleep. Heads loll and roll, even crashing against windows, mouths drool and people sway around in their seat as the bus turns round corners. I have even had several people who were next to me snoozing with their head on my shoulder! I guess it is due to working so hard, and doing so many long hours, something you rarely see in Europe nowadays.
On the other hand it’s much less easy to fall asleep in one of Suzhou’s pedal rickshaws, especially on a Saturday afternoon in the traffic jams. Their drivers are pretty fly, to say the least. Everyone says “Be careful, they are crooks!” But I guess they could be seen in a more positive light as mere opportunists, classic chancers. As you ride in a rickshaw, you are closer to nature. In the centre of Suzhou on a Saturday afternoon this actually means the worst elements of human nature: cutting up e-bikes, performing the most daring manoeuvres in front of wildly honking bus and taxi drivers (the true Kings of the Road here), and hearing your driver swearing at grannies and toddlers who don’t get out of his way quick enough. This is definitely the fastest form of transport during weekend shopping hours, as your peddler stops for no one. You can bypass traffic via the pavement, cut down secret back alleys, and even probably cut across people’s back gardens, through their veggie patches and washing lines if necessary, to get from A to B. Only the slicing canals stop this guy, but he knows all the bridges, including the pedestrian ones. Another reason why you don’t completely relax in the rickshaw is that you are working on your strategy to stop him ripping you off at the end of the ride. He has very basic English, but is careful to quote “Thirty RMB” before you embark, in a special accent that will sound like “Fifty RMB” by the time you stagger off, ready for a strong drink. All said and done, I still admire these back entry aces and their little game, much harder to police than your everyday taxi man with his regulated meter.
Well that’s the end of my latest report. Fight the good fight, with all thy … mmm, whatever you’ve got to hand, I suppose. Be good, the pair of you. Stay alert at your posts – it’s a matter of life and death at this end. And no more screw-ups, like in Kuwait three years ago… you owe me big time. Elephants never forget, and the truth might just emerge one day if you don’t keep playing ball. No need to spell it out further.
1st April 2012
Shanghai Pudong Airport
Oh dear… I don’t know how to tell you this. You’ll never guess what’s happened … or maybe you already have. Sigh … in fact, knowing you, you’ve probably been patiently waiting months for me to go and press that old self-destruct button again. Like I always do, and – I know – like you say, you’re always the one who takes me in, picks up the pieces and labours to get me back on track again.
Guess who’s being deported once more. Yep. Better believe it. How many countries is it now? I’m sure you could tell me straightaway, but I can’t bear to go into it, it sticks like crusted vomit in my craw. Too many ‘If Only’s and ‘What If’s are tagged to each sordid episode for my liking.
“What happened this time?” I can hear you asking. Do you really want to know? Well, I suppose I owe you an explanation, since you’ll be investing yet more time and money in straightening me out again. As ever, it started with something simple, like an innocent Saturday lunchtime meal out with friends. Nine of us at the Secret Recipe restaurant in Times Square East of Suzhou city centre, having a jolly time and ingesting some fine food and wine. Yes, WINE. Sorry. Somehow I started drinking again. It just kind of snook up on me, and carried me off in its beguiling torrent. That’s the only way I can describe it. One simple lapse, one moment’s lack of concentrated willpower, and … WHAM! … here we are again. The secret rebel emerges, the anti-superhero. It followed the usual pattern, of course. You know, arguing over a simple mistake in the bill, and causing a huge fracas. First with the manager and then with the security guys he called for backup. Subsequently with the Police, one of whom I slapped. I was completely out of my mind. So …my friends have completely disowned me, of course. They didn’t want to be interviewed or anything, they just wanted to forget me and go. I’ve kind of got used to that reaction over the years, and I don’t really blame them at all.
So, to cut another long story short, as a consequence I’ve been in clink for 10 days. Although I was basically kept in a cage with ten other like-minded gentlemen (boozers, petty criminals and other familiar suspects), with a very public bucket to do my business in and a five-star stretch of concrete to sleep on, the guards have been gracious to me. They even seemed a little apologetic at fining me 5,000 RMB on my release to go and collect my belongings before departure.
Sorry to require your tender ministrations again, Bud. I’m not proud of it. I must be your life work by now, or something. At least it has been nearly three years since the last episode, back in Kuwait. You must have wondered what had happened to me recently. Maybe I’ve learnt something this time. Haha, you say in disdain. No, really.
Listen, I’ve been reflecting on why certain types of people end up abroad as lone, wandering expats. There are so many of us, with so many excuses. Is it really love of travel, as many of them claim? A few expats do indeed have fabulous international career opportunities, but they tend to go with their family in tow, and gravitate to international school circles and the privileged life that surrounds them. No, the loners are either penny-pinching – in it to make a financial killing then repatriate every last damn cent to some real estate dream back in the West – or, well … there are rather a lot of us misfits. To be quite frank.
Yes, why are we all here? What is the issue that has made us feel apart, different from our compatriots in the West? So much so, that we can’t bear to be there. Why won’t the UK, USA, Australia or Canada have us anymore? Should this rag-tag bunch of bastard walking wounded be the work-a-day ambassadors for our great first-world civilisations out East? It’s possible that many half-baked Whities feel respected, some frisson of importance when they walk down a street in Jeddah, Accra, Manila or Ho Chi Minh City. Something that they would never get from the locals back in Manchester or Melbourne. If this is the case, it’s addictive for sure. We’re special, we feel different. Whether we are closet gay, divorce-scarred, or seen as just plain weird within our community of origin, we are special here, and to varying degrees we can lord it. Our flaws can be buried in novelty, at least for as long as we stay focused and don’t let the mask slip. And who knows, we may get lucky in the meantime and REALLY integrate somewhere, someday.
You know, Bud, despite the trouble I’ve caused here, I do also feel a strange affinity to the Chinese man-in-the-street. A kind of brotherhood, a shared sense of “I know how it is for you, mate” … and occasionally through a knowing glance and nod from a complete stranger on the bus or in the supermarket, I feel some kind of connection. From things I have seen and felt in Suzhou, there is also an equally unspoken rebellion against control, against authority and the wearily accepted order of things. We could be brothers in arms, without saying as much. Look at the little guys, drafted in from the countryside to slave on the building sites or in factories as human machines. After work, once they get back to their polystyrene portakabins or tarpaulin hovels, they sneak out along the canalside to do a bit of clandestine fishing, or clear a secluded patch of land and grow some veggies for themselves in their secret garden. Perhaps they don’t need to do this to survive anymore, but something long-internalised within the peasant psyche compels them to engage in this. It’s all done on the quiet, either unknown or tolerated by their ‘Shifu’ [the boss]. As long as it doesn’t make too many ripples. Go too far though, and they know the full weight of the law will be applied to crush them.
An English friend of mine, who last year contributed to stocking a newly built man-made lake with lots of handsome fish just outside Suzhou, was angered in the extreme to find little bands of Chinese workmen sneaking up to the pond at dusk, trying to catch all the fish. The red mist came down and he screamed at them in English, snatching at their fishing rods and nets. He couldn’t understand that this is how these poor guys are programmed, how they express themselves, how they learnt to rebel, to carve an identity for themselves. They just looked bemused at this unhinged raver, spitting vitriol and chasing them off in a cloud of incomprehensible cussing. Whose country is it, after all?
These everyday guys are not only pragmatic secret rebels, they’re tenacious at it too, and I find that equally admirable, although a bit scary on occasion. They are quite happy to completely ignore rules, if these get in the way of a simpler way of doing things. A recent true incident was when a local bridge was being built across a waterway in Hangzhou. This would save a great deal of time in making it to the next navigable crossing along the river, then coming all the way back to this point on the other side again. As the bridge was in partial construction stage, the authorities put metal bars at each end to prevent traffic and pedestrians from attempting to cross until it was finished. Chinese don’t exactly hang around when undertaking construction projects, but the locals got so impatient to try to use this useful new crossing that everyone started passing their e-bikes, rickshaws, tuctucs, bicycles, etc. under the barriers, risking it along the narrow usable section of the bridge. Totally unsafe of course, no protective barriers to prevent people from falling off the sides in their hunger to cross more quickly. In reply, the authorities tried to add concrete block barriers at each end to stop illicit access. Not for long. Ad hoc ramps were then constructed up and over the enhanced ramparts, and even more people continued to storm the bridge out of working hours, as their preferred crossing. In reply, the bridge builders heightened the obstacles at both ends even further. Still undeterred, the locals’ attempts continued unabated, so much so that the last thing I saw was a couple of real life family cars stuck teetering on the peaks of these barriers, trying to get themselves over the nearly-finished bridge. These vehicles needed a group of strong guys to heave them off their stranded perches, but I’m in no doubt they eventually managed to get across through sheer bloody-minded determination and disregard for rules that make no sense to them.
Yes, yes, I’m really gonna miss Suzhou, Bud. It’s crept into my soul over these past months, and so too has China as a whole. You can literally inhale the great can-do attitude; the open recognition of just how precarious life and everything in it really is; and how you’ve got to charge full-pelt at life to make your mark on it while you can. I shall miss this terribly.
Ahem. By the way old amigo, how are you fixed to pick me up at the airport at seven o’clock tomorrow evening? Aah!!!…I knew you would!
THANKS in advance for always being there for me.
Your friend in need, SMARK
A. Jessie Michael, a practicing English Language lecturer and consultant from cosmopolitan Malaysia, is also mainly a leisure writer of short stories, (leisure being stolen moments of sanity in between demands of a full and extended family life). She weaves her stories from memories, seeing possibilities and telling tales from life’s twists and turns. She has bagged prizes in several short story writing competitions in Malaysia and won mention in regional short story competitions. These stories have been published in Malaysian magazines and some of them have been compiled in a co-authored anthology called Snapshots.
Suzhou happened to Jessie – a chance encounter with an old friend, a casual remark, a spontaneous response. These brought her to Suzhou on a six-month post-retirement stint which extended for another two years. In Suzhou, in the grace of the old city and in the company of the Suzhou Writers and Artists Group, Jessie found the opportunity to indulge in prose and poetry.
Her letters and poems from Suzhou are dedicated to her four beautiful daughters and her gorgeous grandchildren.
Farewells and almost there
9 February 2009
My dearest girls,
You really need not have worried so much about me, though leaving home alone was a little hard.
I have the loveliest group of lady friends in Petaling Jaya. My fridge was bare but I was overfed. There were lunches, teas and dinners. Friends prayed with me and over me. The day before I left, I drove on a whim to Assunta Children’s society to see their new building. I was invited in for a tour. As a bonus, Sr. Regina from Shanghai prayed over me in their beautiful prayer room. She was thrilled that I was going to her home city which she had left so many years ago.
I said farewell to my plants and left them to Ben and Mercy’s good care. The apartment was clean and the laundry done but I left some untidiness so that it would not feel so abandoned. My apartment will definitely miss me!
Packing for China had annoyed me thoroughly. I swore I was going to buy an industrial weighing machine for all of you international travelling children who have broken my current bathroom scales weighing bags heavier than you are.
If you travel alone you are disadvantaged. Whether you are two feet or six feet tall, baggage on MAS [Malaysian Airlines] economy class is limited to twenty-five kilograms. You have to be a Platinum Enrich member to qualify for thirty-five kilograms. How do you relocate to a new country with twenty-five kilograms, especially if you are female? O why didn’t I join the corporate world and merit business class travel?
My relocation allowance allowed me a seventeen kilogram excess baggage but my scales insisted my bags were seventeen kilograms in excess of that! This was the same machine that tricks me into thinking that I am two kilograms lighter than I actually am. After much poking, pulling, and removing and replacing stuff from bag to bag and weighing and reweighing, I opted to leave some vanity jars behind (in the false hope of buying them cheaper in China). My carry-on bag probably weighed heavier than my check-in luggage!
It was mercifully quiet at Kuala Lumpur Central Station, which was good after the annoyance with the taxi driver who tried to dislodge me on the wrong lane, not bothering that I had three bags to drag across two pavements and two lanes. I protested loudly (my speciality) and made him back out ten meters and swing into the correct drop-off lane.
Finally at the station’s check-in counter, I heaved my bags on to the belt and was aghast to find I was only five kilograms overweight! Either the MAS machine or mine was busted. At least I did not overshoot my allowance. Thank heavens no one weighed my hand-luggage!
The train ride to KLIA was uneventful but I always enjoy the breather it affords. At the escalator to the departure hall I was jostled and pushed aside by a man dragging a bag who decided he should be in front. I jostled back and got on the first step of the escalator before he did and he kept a respectful distance behind after that. Little did I know I would soon become an expert at this. The shuttle to the international terminal was already leaving and I jumped in before the doors closed.
Two hours later I was on a plane overflowing with Chinese people but having lived among so many races in Malaysia it did not bother me. The flight was uneventful and the food was bad but at Pudong Airport I did have a meet-and-greet man who grabbed my trolley, motioned me to follow him and raced off. The two hour ride to Suzhou was silent, two people muted by alien tongues. I could have been kidnapped and would not have known it. I took in the sights of splendid highways cutting through drab housing and industrial buildings, vegetation quivering in the winter winds. Finally Suzhou – a bustling city full of shops as we would see in Petaling Street.
I was booked into a hotel for two days while my apartment near the school was readied with the help of a wisp of a girl who was supposed to be the liaison officer of sorts. Long story short, a male lecturer had lived there and definitely did not meet my standards of cleanliness. I had to insist on an ayi [maid] to clean the place and then had to spend a whole day supervising her, for she was quite blind to dirt.
I am finally settled in. It is a decent sized, two bed- roomed, ground floor apartment with a little study to boot. The only strange thing is that there are no clothes cupboards in both the rooms. The landlady insists that I can hang my clothes in the coat closet in the sitting room. I think it has something to do with cupboards not being in the contract. But a microwave was in the contract and there wasn’t one in the kitchen so I stomped my foot and insisted on having one.
And now my dears I have to get to the wet market to fill the fridge before I report to school on Monday. I am really lucky. The market is just across the road from my apartment compound. I dare not venture into the shops to order food until I find a shop with a bilingual menu.
I‘ll tell you all about my shopping adventures in my next mail.
Loads of love
Food in Suzhou
10 February 2009
Hi again girls
I was forewarned by the pessimists back home –“The food is really not very palatable. It is oily, even has a peculiar smell. Don’t forget your pickles and Baba curry powder packets. You won’t find your regular breakfast foods!”
Well, I have been here two weeks and swear I have expanded. Chili and spicy seems to be a specialty here.It is in everything – soups, noodles, and meat dishes. The fresh market sells dried and fresh bird chili but I have not yet seen the regular fresh red chillies. There is a large green variety which does not burn the tongue at all. But the bird chilli makes life worth living. An added bonus is the shelves are stocked with varieties of hot chili oil bottles. To ease my conscience Ipour out the top layer of oil from the bottles and spread the rest the chili on sandwiches, eat it with rice and veges and even convert it into a sambal^^1^^ with some lemon juice, onions and tomatoes!
Roti Boy types of bread and buns and cream puffs and cakes loaded with cream are very popular in the many cake and bread shops here but I would give and arm and a leg for a loaf of brown wheat or multi grain bread. I cannot find wholemeal flour anywhere in town except a 3 kilo bag on the imported-goods shelves in Carrefour. (Yes! Wonders! We have a Carrefour – called Jar-le-fu in Chinese and Carry For in English). But what will I do with a three kg bag! That would produce a year’s worth of chapattis! And there is no Milo. Woe is me but my hips should be happy
But Guess what! I found oats! The forever-cooking variety in the wet market and the quick- cooking variety in a classy departmental store down the road. And corn flakes and olive oil. OK, I sacrificed the cornflakes and bought oats for breakfast (processed foods are BAD) and settled for a small bottle of grapeseed oil out of sheer curiosity.
I must say my friend Maggie was right. The vegetables in the wet market are very fresh and unbelievably cheap. I have begun to think in Yuan and try some ridiculous bargaining with the ladies manning the stalls. I am greatly elated when they agree to reduce something by a couple of Yuan and only at the end when I sum up do I realize I paid about three RMB for at least four types of vegetables and wonder what the heck I was bargaining about!
Chicken is scarce in the wet market (remember SARS) but there’s loads of pork and some fish. Found fresh, white pomfret the size of my whole palm for RMB 2.50 and was over the moon! Had ikangoreng [fried fish] for dinner. Most fish are fresh water and I saw some strange looking prawns. Cuts of beef, mutton, chicken and pork and peeled prawns are also sold in chilled packets for easy cooking, but I of course had to buy a big chicken leg and get the lady to skin it and chop it! Luckily I am a foreigner – the only Indian who enters the market, so she was amused. Otherwise she might have verbally abused me!
And why am I marketing and cooking? Because though the place abounds with food shops, the food abounds with monosodium glutamate. In China the dreaded additive is sold in big packets and honoured with the name of gourmet powder, flavour powder etc. At the local mini market I have found the gourmet powder shelf but I still cannot find a packet of salt! The good shops are expensive for daily meals and the smaller shops do sell palatable food. But two days of that and I was gatal [itchy]^^2^^ the skin variety I mean. Thank heavens I brought Clarinase.
Fruits, I must say, are not cheap at all. Seasonal fruits go for a song though. I bought strawberries for next to nothing and glutted on them and paid dearly with an attack of bumps on my arms! And I found the strangest variety of mini oranges (not the kumquats back home). These are the size of cherry tomatoes, have very thin skin, and the flesh which you scoop out with a spoon, Tastes like heaven
On the way to school I see shops selling varieties of precooked meats but I am not going anywhere near them. There is no telling which body parts they are and how long they have been sitting there. However my two favourite roadside stalls are the Chinese-style savoury roti chanai^^3^^ and rolled thosai^^4^^stalls outside the market!
All in all it is fun. I gesticulate and point and grunt and several of the stallholders immediately have a conference to translate what I want – usually wrong, until someone figures it out or I find the item. Then we all laugh and they are quite happy that I can say dui buqi, bukeqi, xie xie and ZaiJian [sorry, it’s alright, thank you, and goodbye].
PS. Woe is me! I found Milo ice cream and bought it – desperation.
14 February 2009
Finally it’s the weekend!
Woke up to find the apartment swarming with black ants! I tracked their soldierly columns and they led me to a small hole in the kitchen wall from which the midget army was pouring out. How to seal the hole? The only thing available among my bare belongings that had the remote possibility of solving the problem was toothpaste! The hole was efficiently sealed, the army outside fell into disarray and was swept up, tipped into the sink and washed down with hot water. I think the army did not like their teeth cleaned. No ants so far and I feel very clever.
School is not too bad. We prepare kids for Toefl, IELTS, and Cambridge ESL exams.
The kids are like kids everywhere – homework not done, talking in the mother tongue, and being Chinese-educated, rather inflexible but on the whole polite.
We do not have to report to work at fixed times but the time-table cleverly ensures we are on the premises from eight to four-thirty most days. However, if we start at nine we can go in at about then and if we finish at noon and do not have a meeting we can leave. Also we can leave for a while if we have a long break between classes. As long as we are not irresponsibly loafing around town, it is pretty relaxed. Everyone works hard, or seems to, and of course there are those who will announce how hard they work.
I have not wandered far in this one week as it was cold and I only wanted to get home for tea. But the road I live on is amazing for all its tiny shops that sell everything. Also there are stalls around the market where I found the Chinese version of roti chanai androlled thosai with egg and spring onions which I mentioned in my previous letter. Just seventy-five sen. Very nice. Also bought strawberries for about two ringgit for which I would have paid twenty-four ringgit in Malaysia. O yes, there is a shop in Shanghai called Bhoomi that will courier us Indian ingredients like dhall if we phone them. How cool is that? Unfortunately I cannot be bothered with too much fussy cooking.
I have befriended a mature Filipino lady, also new to the school, and we plan to go to the Church of Lady of Seven sorrows this Sunday for the English service. It will be our first foray into the city in a cab. There are also two ladies from India. One is married to a local Chinese and the other has left two tiny kids with her husband and parents in India to earn a better income here. Many of the teachers here are quite nomadic, having worked in some country or other before moving on to the next. We are quite a hotchpotch.
The weather has finally lifted and the sun and cherry blossoms are peeping out. I have abandoned my goose feather and woollen jackets for the spring jacket but I have been warned of rain. I have forgotten to buy an umbrella!
The internet connection here is the pits. For the last two days it was fine from my apartment. Now it is playing up again! I am writing this on word document and will have to cut and paste it on gmail tomorrow from my office.
It is annoying because I cannot call anyone on Skype. So if you love me call me on the numbers that Yvette gave. Yvette and June, thank you for calling
OK, must stop grumbling. Life is good otherwise.
Tomorrow I am walking down the street to check out what I can buy where. I need floor mats, clothes hangers and kitchen towels.
Take care. Happy Valentine’s Day!
The National Pastime – Spitting
25 February 2009
Thank you so much for all your phone calls. It was a quiet birthday. My Filipino friend and I went out for an expensive dinner.
The weather is still very chilly so I have not been venturing out much but there is something that has been buzzing in my head that I just have got to write to you about.
Spitting. Yes – spitting!
Nowhere in the world has spitting been developed into such a fine art as it is in China, except perhaps in betel leaf and tobacco chewing communities. In the latter at least you know the reason for the spitting. And what emerges is a stream in bloody red or brown and you can tell where exactly the projectile fell from the splatter of colour it leaves. And in our minds’ eye we (or at least I) have stereotyped the appearance of the betel leaf and tobacco chewers – old dhoti- clad men or sari-clad grandmothers or sarong- clad mak-chiks and pak-chiks of a by-gone generation who all probably eventually perished from diseases brought on by the habit.^^5^^
In China, everybody spits anywhere and everywhere – the market sellers, the food sellers, housewives returning from the market, the young men rushing to work in dapper suits and carrying briefcases and laptops, businessmen looking like their premier, the old men doing Tai Ji in the local parks, beautiful ladies in suave woollen jackets knee high boots, tights and sporting a chic hairdo. Grandmothers minding the babies do it and you know the babies will soon learn how to do it. Spitting is forbidden in schools but teachers do it and students do it. And nobody is chewing anything!
Though I grew up at a time when Malaysia did have spitters, education has eradicated most of the habit and if anyone did spit in your presence you would look disapprovingly. In China you cannot for it would be far easier to seek out the rare ones who do not spit and look approvingly (as if they cared!) The spitter certainly does not care. There is no embarrassment or apology. It is as second nature as breathing.
The art of spitting is a process. It involves a loud clearing of the throat followed by a louder aspiration of all phlegm lodged in the lungs, throat, air passages or wherever, into the mouth. Then a quick pucker of the mouth and push of the tongue – a very strong muscle – and a projectile is produced. Most of us do this process in the bathroom in the mornings and that too, discreetly so as not to wake up the neighbours. Of course there are still the odd old men who will do their aspirations as if their insides were being turned out. In china it is an all day long phenomenon especially in the winter.
The amazing thing is that I have never yet seen anybody being hit by spit! People flow like a stream of water- pedestrians, cyclists, trishaws, and motorcyclists. I am one of them. There is spitting behind, in front, beside, across. I hear the preliminary and the actual sounds of spitting, behind me, beside me. I see spit flying out of the shop door on to the pavement right before my eyes as I move forward. Never once have I been hit or witnessed anyone else being hit. Amazing!
I have grown accustomed to the sound but I refuse to look down when walking. Dog poo is easier to avoid. The habit is discouraged in places of learning, banks and modern service premises but it will take a long while to educate the multitudes on the health hazards of public spitting
Meanwhile it breaks my heart to see a devastatingly handsome young man or beautiful girl do this until I realize they love each other just the same!
PS Please get your shots before you come!
The Wall! The Wall!
25 June 2009
My dear girls,
Guess what I just did?
What was the point of being in China if I was not going to see The Wall?
As a child I had learnt of the wonders of the ancient world, – The Hanging Gardens of Babylon… blah blah blah … and The Great Wall of China. Or was it on a separate list of wonders? I cannot remember but in my teens, thanks to world geography, and to the relentless drilling and drumming of Sister Monica on the history and geography of China, I acquired a somewhat intimate knowledge of Emperor Shi Huang Ti and The Great Wall. Pictures and TV helped. Yet I had never seen a single world wonder!
In the years that it took me to eventually come to China, China had contributed to the seven wonders of the modern world – the Terra Cotta soldiers of Xian!
Now there were two wonders to see. Time was running out. I was working Monday to Friday. Yvette was threatening me not to leave China without visiting The Great Wall. Providentially Thevi arrived and Thevi knew I would never see these wonders alone. A weekend just was not enough, so I buried my conscience, organised a tour with my reliable tour agent, lied to the school, feigned food poisoning, played hooky on Friday 12th June and left for Beijing on Thursday 11th June afternoon. Once airborne, my guilt dissipated. Thevi and I were off to climb The Wall!
Beijing was a mass of traffic flow and swathed in dry heat. Then there was the miscommunication about the hotel. We had requested for one near a train station thinking we could catch the subway for some independent action in the evening but we were booked into a hotel next to the Beijing West Railway Station. As they say – TIC – this is China where everything is miscommunication. In compensation we had an excellent guide – Lucy Lu – young confident, vibrant, humorous and dutiful to a T.
The Wall at Baidaling was ominous. It ribboned over the tops of the mountain, looking deceptively like a scenic painting – gold on green – until we began climbing it! Since the wall undulates with the mountains, you either climb or descend on most stretches. Where we were there were no cable cars to take us to the top towers. Just as I was about to launch on my very own historic climb I came across a group of four middle aged ladies from India sitting in the shade of the wall just a few steps up.
“Aren’t you climbing?” I asked.
“Oh no, no,” came the smiling replies. “This is far enough for us.”
“Hmm!” I thought to myself. “Maybe cases of heart problem.”
So taking a deep breath, we began. The steps are of varying heights. One step may be a foot high and the other at least two feet. Our target was the first watch tower at a height of about six stories!
For some reason that became obvious very soon, Lucy decided to be rear general. Barely half way up the first storey of the approximate six, I realized that I was being overtaken by young and old locals literally trotting up the steps. I on the other hand was clutching on to the railing and already panting. Thevi was one storey ahead of me and stopping every few minutes to check on my progress. Lucy was one step behind me, probably cursing. Finally I told both of them to go ahead at their own pace and wait for me at the first tower. Good friend Thevi bolted off but Lucy, feeling terribly responsible for me waited at every break in the series of steps to ask if I was OK. Was I OK? Sure I was. By two stories high I was not walking but hoisting myself by the railings. By four stories my first bottle of water was gone, I stopped to catch my breath every few steps and I was double bent. Two more storeys to go! Lucy looked worried but I crusaded on, wheezing and literally on hands and knees. Hurray! I made it to the first tower!
I was about to celebrate but to my alarm I suddenly heard my heart. It was somewhere outside my ears and it was not beating but fibrillating – like a rumbling machine with a bad battery. Caution being the better part of valour, I crawled into a shaded corner, leaned against the wall, pulled out my second bottle of water and waited for my heart to calm down. Thevi had been impatiently waiting for me.
“Are you going to the next tower?” she asked enthusiastically.
“Not unless you want to accompany my corpse home. But you go ahead,” I replied generously. “I will wait here till my heart recovers or stops completely.”
Without a prick of a conscience she disappeared.
Lucy was relieved to hear I was going no further and decided to go down to ground level and wait for us. I sat there, humbled by my own frailty and by the sights. An old, grey, local couple walked into the tower, as if they were having a stroll and walked out to climb the next level as though to visit a neighbour. It was the foreigners who had a tougher time. The view even from the first tower level was unforgettable – the vast expanse of green mountains and the wonder of this wall coloured in, in gold and brown and antsy men crawling on it in swarms.
It took a good half an hour for my heart to return to a normal beat, by which time Thevi was back and we headed down. This time it was hilarity in reverse, trying not to crack an ankle by taking a two foot drop. I was reduced to taking one step at a time with two feet, thereby doubling the time of my descent. I met again the wise Indian ladies sitting on the lower steps awaiting their younger members of their group.
As usual we were accosted at the first landing by a souvenir shop where I promptly bought a T- shirt that screamed, “I CLIMBED THE GREAT WALL.”
To be continued. Our next stop – The Forbidden city.
Love and hugs and lucky to be alive
Forbidden City, Xian and a bad tourist guide
30 June 2009
Hi again girls,
I am glad you liked my last letter and are looking forward to another. Well here we go.
Despite being almost dead from conquering The Wall, I had no choice but to go on with the next part of the tour. Did I tell you I paid good, hard earned money for this escapade?
A close drive away, were the Ming Tombs. In death as in life, the emperors merited equal opulence. However what the tourists see is the large mounds, some wooded, while the actual ornate tombs lie unexcavated beneath, in a cordoned off area.
The treat for the late noon was the Forbidden City – déjà vu if you have seen the movie “The Last Emperor”. Such opulence and intelligence in architecture is hard to match in any other empire. Space and distance indicated the remove of the emperor from the common people. More the power, the more the distance and space. Hence the approach to the emperor’s reception halls involves traversing several huge courtyards, each at a higher level than the other, reaching for the heavens.
If we could be privy to all the intrigues of the wives and concubines within the confines of the walls they imprisoned themselves in, it would put the tales of The Thousand and One Nights to shame. Besides the usual royal memorabilia of royal seats, incense burners, shields and swords, Lucy gleefully filled us in on how the concubines collected each night in a holding room, waiting for one of them to be summoned to the royal chamber. First she was stripped naked and rolled in a quilt and carried to the emperor over an Eunuch’s shoulder, a precaution to prevent a jealous concubine from concealing a weapon in her clothing! Meanwhile, the empress snored in the next chamber, presumably happy to get some sleep and be spared the emperor’s excess of sexual appetite.
Having paid tribute to the Forbidden City, so forbidden that it was burned and pillaged several times by invaders including the British, we decided to do a quick tour of the Olympic site. I was disappointed. The beautiful structures of the “bird’s nest” and the ‘Ice Cube” looked utterly out of place in their settings. The surrounding hotels and shops were a distraction. They needed to be showcased by themselves, in a wide space to give them perspective. But then who am I to judge? I am sure the architect was happy.
That evening we had a dinner date with Thevi’s old friend down at embassy row – all glitter, glamour, lights, pubs, eateries and boutiques – the condemned western decadence so necessary to join the rest of the civilized world. It took us one hour by cab through gridlocked traffic to traverse the ten kilometres to dinner
The next morning we reversed into historical glory again at the royal garden grounds of the famed Summer Palace with its lake and long corridor and summer crowds. Lucy again supplied us with stories of how a Dowager Empress embezzled and misused funds to further beautify the grounds for her old age comfort and how she kept her son useless and powerless so that she could reign instead of him. Lucy was certainly an anti-monarchist. The intricacies of the Chinese Emperors Courts are certainly unmatched.
We gave the famed Square a miss. Too painful.
That evening we left for Xian where we were met by a truly useless and arrogant male tourist guide who kept confusing his information and insisted we follow his strict schedule. We discovered soon enough from his bragging that he was a trained engineer, now parading as a tourist guide; hence his ability to speak some English. When we asked why he was not an engineer any more he said he found this job more exciting. We guessed he lost his previous job. Thankfully he abandoned us for a while at the Museum of the Terracotta Warriors so we were able to do that in peace. I am not going to tell you about the excavation site in this letter because it is something you have just got to see for yourself. Suffice to say we were bowled over and it will take me a while to recover from the wonder of it. On the way out the guide had the audacity to shout at us that we were delaying lunch! That did it.
That evening he argued with us that we should not go into the Muslim Street. It was not on the schedule and The MCP was quite sure we would be robbed. We stood our ground and went there anyway without him, snapped photographs, ate street food, bought souvenirs and emerged unscathed. At the airport we handed him the minimum tip and swore to take revenge on him.
We arrived home at about 2.00 AM Monday morning, dead sleepy but happy. I had an early class and went to work trying to look alive and awake. Never said a word about my weekend. Thevi slept till noon.
That evening we rang my trusted travel agent to lodge a complaint about the guide and the agent promised that he would write formally to the guy’s agency in Xian. We trust he lost his job – again.
Endangered – Water villages of Suzhou
Thank you so much for all the birthday phone calls. It was a treat to have so many calls in one day. I was thinking it might be nice to have a birthday every few months or so just to hear from everybody and to see Facebook greetings, from every which friend, but that would also get me to the grave faster, would it not?
I spent my birthday in one of my favourite places in Suzhou – a water-village. These are found on the outskirts of the city, crisscrossed by canals, where time almost stands still, especially in the winter when tourists are not visiting. They are preserved as historical scenic sites but are fast being overtaken at the peripheries by furious apartment and hotel building.
Lu Zhi and Tongli are 2 such villages. I must have visited each at least four times. The first time was with my Malaysian Chinese friend who thinks she ought to have been born mainland Chinese. Consequently she feels that like the locals she does not have to pay the entry fee that is imposed upon the foreigners.
The fee is charged for the parts of the village which house art, curio and food shops and the gardens, temples and historic buildings. The income gives partial livelihood to local and often non-local traders. The real village however is a step-back in time, and nonchalantly walking in gives you an insight into a dying way of life – an old rotting boat on the edge of the water, holding containers of live fish and a pot of bright red phloxes nearby in incongruous contrast; a lady squatting in a narrow cobbled street, gutting fish which she probably bought from the boat; through a dark doorway, four old men sit in a 6 sq. foot space playing Chinese chess; at the edge of a canal a mother washes down a dirty child and a man washes a dirtier bucket; an old couple squats on stools side by side in their doorway sharing a meal of porridge and watching the village goings- on. We say “ Ni Hao ” and they grin back in delight; in a cubby hole of a shop a lady displays bales of cloth and the outfits she has sewn, many of which will find their way into the city shops to be sold for a large profit probably to someone like me; next to her, a barber trims his neighbour’s hair and further down a man repairs the village bicycles; In the alleyways, a hotchpotch of box- beds grow leafy vegetables and there are gourds growing on some rooftops. Life is quiet and slow.
Turn a corner and the vibrancy of the tourist world hits you. At the height of summer curio shops are full and prices are high. The air is thick with the aroma of roasted hock, smoked chicken, pan-fried pies, dumplings and the famed, fried stinky tofu. I stop to buy a portion of it topped with chilli sauce to eat along our way. The place is a festival of colour and noise. The sweet seller is bellowing out to the tourists to watch how he pulls candy. He has looped a length of it around a metal pole and pulls at it with all his might till it lengthens and turns stringy; he repeats the process many times till the sugar mass turns into a layered sweet which is sliced before it hardens. We stop at an artist’s shop; he is my friend’s painting teacher. We browse through his prolific works of copy art which he does effortlessly and his excited wife offers us her freshly made pan- fried pancakes
Shops line the canals on either side selling colourful trinkets and craft, scarves and accessories. Beautiful Ancient stone-step bridges span the water every few hundred meters. Visitors are posing on every one to be photographed. A chorus floats in the air in native dialect. It is the boat-ladies serenading their tourist passengers while rowing in the canals. Suzhou imitating Venice imitating Suzhou? Their grandmothers would have ferried wares down the canal. Now the ladies are government employees. Two years ago the ladies were older, their melodious voices carried far and they were expert boat-handlers. This time our boat lady is young. She sings off-key and knocks the boat against the canal wall, into another boat and into the pier, all for seventy Yuan. We thank her and in poor Mandarin try and tell her she did a good job. And she smiles and tries to speak English. “My name Qi Yun, Welcome China.” I don’t know which was worse.
Since we did not buy tickets (I know – how disgraceful) my friend and I cannot go into any of the gardens or tourist spots, so we wander off to the far end of the village where a canal spreads into a large expanse of water. The paddy fields and vegetable beds I remembered from two years ago are gone and row upon row of apartments have sprouted instead. We peep over the wall of a building compound and see a basement car-park – a foreboding sign of impending traffic invasion. There is beautiful bridge over the water and we climb its steps to the middle and sit for a rest, looking out over the water away from the awful new buildings. Will there be a bridge here next year?
Well if I am still here next year I will let you know.
I am sending you a poem I wrote after visiting the water village. I hope you enjoy it.
Hugs and blessings
IN TONG LI
Soft plop of the oar
Gentle swish of wake
Peaceful waters mirror
From my house to yours.
Shadows of Lovers lingering here
Children playing in glee
Tea drinking friends
After day’s hard labour
Mandolin sounds dancing with the wind
Where are they now?
Spring left long ago
Aged faces wander around
Trying to live 1000 year old lives
While tourists haggle
At migrants’ stalls
1 May 2011
My dear Patrick,
How are you doing? I am sorry for my long silence but keeping in touch with my girls in different time zones takes up a lot of my time. I can’t believe that I am actually back in China after leaving in the summer of 2009. And so much has developed and changed since then. You will be interested in what I have learnt about this country, though not surprised of course since CCTV 9 has done a great job of enlightening the world since before and after the Olympics.
I knew China was a different country from the tumultuous days of Pearl S. Buck and Han Suyin and that my perceptions were coloured by our history and geography lessons and the Chinese communities we grew up with in Malaysia
Anyhow, before I came to China I read an excellent book on Chinese etiquette in the business world. I also looked through many blogs of teachers working in China. The book prepared me well for certain kinds of behaviour and I had a few surprises in that area. It gave a good insight into the why’s and wherefores of Chinese behaviour. Much of it is mired in the historical and cultural experiences of the people and is now embedded as an ethnic trait (even in generations that have never seen their motherland), which in turn has led to the stereotyping. Of course this is true of all ethnic groups who carry incongruous practices to foreign lands. Even when they have assimilated to a certain degree, fossilised ethnic traits of behaviour remain. (Sorry, as typical of me I have forgotten the names of the book and the author).
What I am most surprised about however is how media outside China have collaborated to keep China’s development hidden, even more than China hid itself all these years. Even our own family’s perception was that I might be flying backwards into the dark ages. I myself expected a little more but not this much.
A few observations just from my Suzhou experience may serve to illustrate this point.
Suzhou is considered by the locals as a sleepy hollow even with its seven- million population but it is a city of beautiful canals, lakes and gardens. China, now taking pride in its treasures has restored its old ruins and walls and gazetted them either nationally or under the United Nations as cultural heritage. Gardens are a very big thing and these as well as museums and other tourist sites are professionally maintained and we have to pay to get into them. No hawkers are allowed inside
The city is very clean – human labour is plentiful and industrious. The streets are extremely broad with dual carriage either way for cars, separate bus lanes, cycle and motorbike and rickshaw lanes, and very broad pavements. All the traffic lights and pedestrian crossing lights work. Public transport is plentiful and very honest.
Public toilets are kept clean as are toilets in restaurants. There are wet markets every few blocks and amazingly they are always dry! And they do not stink. The people walk their dogs but no dog poo on the ground.
The highways connecting the cities are world class. I travel to Shanghai by bullet train in 20 minutes. The railway station even when it is very madly crowded is very well organised. Shanghai has a great underground system connected to the railway system. If you are reminded of Singapore, remember Singapore is just a microcosm of Shanghai. At the Suzhou and Shanghai Railway stations taxis queues are well-organised and controlled that so that even if the queue is long you can get a taxi within ten or fifteen minutes.
I travelled to Nanjing the old capital of China in a car with a young Chinese couple. They were very proud of their city and the highways. Nanjing is a huge thriving city within its massive historical walls and steeped in history like Malacca, with the link of Cheng He. I got excited about seeing Admiral Cheng He’s statue and the original site of his shipping fleet. And in the local history museum I found a huge map of Asia, showing Cheng He’s journeys and his port of call in Malacca. More excitement followed explaining to my host where I was born and relating the whole Hang Li Po story to them.
It was Palm Sunday and we were at a Buddhist Temple because my host somehow gained Taoist and Buddhist beliefs from his mother while his wife is an avid atheist (as are all my students). He picked up some joss sticks and politely handed me a few. Out of deference to him and his faith I accepted and so I said three Hail Mary’s in front a Buddha statue, while waving joss sticks in place of lighting candles and praying for the young couple’s well- being. I am sure Jesus understood.
I also went to Sun Yat Sen’s house and found the displays to be of international standard.
Most homes in China are old but things are changing fast. Apartments are fast replacing old houses. Farmers are turning to cottage industry. The authorities are revamping the health care system and in the hope of more international clout are talking loudly about human rights.
Of course abuse and corruption exists. It will take a long time to change the old communist thinking. On a micro-level, it is still one-track; government is right, you-do- as-I-say mentality. In schools and colleges, students and the administration lack creativity beyond the text book, only learn for the exams, and the policy in school is more punishment than reward. Counsellors are only now making an appearance.
Teachers do not have too much autonomy in class and creative teaching is difficult because the administration will want to know why you are not doing what everybody else is doing. If the students are preparing for overseas study, their whole mind set has to be changed and the fear is that the students will be forever changed.
I think the authorities have an issue – on the one hand to be seen as modern and fit to rule the world, through modern infrastructure, cosmetic compliance to international standards of human rights and law and increasing international relations, and on the other hand to control this mass of people so that everything is neat and tidy and the Party does not lose control of leadership.
I saw Delhi last year – total disorganisation on the streets and alleys, poverty visible everywhere. But a long stream of the poorest labourers, mostly women, led a screaming labour union protest through the streets of the capital, aided by the police for traffic control and cheered on by all the passers-by.
Hard choices – food in the belly, or food for the soul.
On that philosophical note, I must say goodbye and go mark some essays.
Regards to Mel, the kids and mum. Take care and do write.
Souzhou’s Soldier Trees.
the trees do not bend,
they do not dance in the breeze.
lovers do not linger under trees,
and children do not climb their branches.
squirrels do not scurry up the trunks,
And birds do not nest among the leaves.
they are soldier trees,
they grow in straight rows
they are sentries
Keeping vigil day and night
Hair-raising in China
10 November, 2011
My dear girls,
Don’t worry. I am still in one piece and I hope my grand-children are too. How come other kids collect trophy bruises and my grandchildren collect broken bones, broken teeth and a thorn in the eye? And these are girls!!
Speaking of girls, the strange thing I notice is that female students here have sensible short or long hair, well – maintained. In other words, no hairstyle in particular. The boys on the other hand must definitely spend more time at the hairdresser’s than the girls. And the hairdressers, who are mostly male, obviously have a field day experimenting on them. There is really a lot a guy can do with short straight spiky hair as soon as he has escaped his mother’s clutches. There is the skunk, the torpedo, the windswept, the veil, and the electrocuted. The bald, the Mohawk and the braided look have not arrived yet in campus. Perhaps a little too drastic for the powers above.
My own experiences with Chinese hairdressers in China have not only proven how stressful the lack of Mandarin can be but also left my hair quite traumatized. One would think at my age I would have more sense. Chinese hairdressers, born into the straight (and narrow) are convinced that curly hair is the work of the devil and that highlights in the hair should be in neon lights.
When I lived in the Suzhou historic city, I used to pass by a hair salon on my way to the bank. The boys working there would rush out the door to stare, and comment. I would say ‘‘Ni Hao” [Hello] and they would collapse in laughter and shout “Ni Hao” back at me, completely mesmerised by this chocolate apparition. One day, after despairing over my unkempt greying hair, I decided on a hair-makeover. Boy! Did I get one? Boldly, I marched into the shop, ignoring the boys’ stares, grabbed the nearest hairstyle books and found one head with a nice hairstyle and highlights which I liked. I pointed at it repeatedly and at my head. The boys kept saying “Shenme? Shenme? [What? What?]
Then the head cutter (master cutter in our lingo) trotted over and voila! He knew ten words of English and even produced a sheet of hair-colour sample curls. We chose a base colour and a highlight colour, with me telling him, no, actually showing him many times that I needed only about five bits of highlight. He started on my head and let his assistant continue. I felt quite confident. Meanwhile the other lads pulled up chairs and sat around me. Was it my skin? My bushy eyebrows? My long lashes? My not so aquiline nose? My white teeth? I felt like a medical specimen surrounded by interns.
Three hours later, my hair was washed and dried and horrors! I had bright gold highlights all over my dark brown head. I screamed “NO!NO!NO!” The head cutter ran over and declared “Piao Liang!” [Beautiful!]
I screamed “No” even louder. Luckily “no” was in his high frequency vocabulary list. Through my distress and desperate hand signals he fathomed I wanted less highlights of a deeper tone. “I do again” he said with an emphasis on the “I”. Did I have a choice? How was I to go to work looking like a blazing Christmas tree? Another two agonizing hours on the same chair and by the time he finished I was just too tired to care that he had actually done a good repair job.
Needless to say I never went back and I got really short cuts when I went home for the holidays, which would grow out during the semester
But hope springs eternal in the human breast, and what is the other expression? Vanity, thy name is woman? Actually I should blame you girls for saying my hair was too short and that I should grow it out. Worst advice I ever took. I grew it out but it needed such pampering to behave itself and in the height of summer it got all curly, clingy and damp. So off I went to another hairdresser – in campus. I chose the shop because it looked posh! And mind you this time my Chinese vocabulary had increased to quite a few adjectives, nouns and verbs, which when selectively strung together with gestures do make good sense.
Again the gaggle of boys vying for attention and amidst much noise I settled down to a treatment, wash trim and blow dry. I did not fuss too much and the end product did not look too bad at all – until the next day. Mind you, most of us wake up with bird’s nest hair but I saw the wreck of the Hesperus staring back at me in the mirror. My hair stuck out like twigs! I brushed it and the twigs merely pointed downwards. I wet it and blew it. Twigs again. The morons had straightened my curly hair in the mistaken notion that I wanted (needed) to be Chinese and have Chinese hair. It is called flattening the profile and making uniformity I think and straight hair is one way.
I was in tears. Nothing worked. Neither oil nor conditioner. The hair would absorb nothing. It would not respond to clips and bands. It just stuck out to just below my ears like a flat broom and all I needed was a broom handle on top of my head to complete the picture. When I went home for the summer friends politely said I looked different. My Malaysian hairdresser said – “No hope. Just grow and cut.” All he could do was a treatment to soften the hair until the next wash.
I returned to Suzhou determined not to focus on my hair – an impossible task since I have to look in the mirror to clean my teeth, put on my face and brush the damn brush. The twigs had now turned to hay as the hair lengthened and I had taken to tying it into a ponytail that stuck out perpendicular to my head.
Hope appeared in the form of Jacqueline who came prancing into my office flouncing her newly done hair and crediting it all to darling Eric. It turned out Eric did a few other heads in campus as well, including an especially good cut for an especially difficult head.
A phone call and an appointment was made and I was at Eric’s before his doors opened. I was that desperate. Eric speaks in monotones –“yes,” “no,” “what time?” “OK.” And if you fuss while he is working you get a terse, “I haven’t finished yet”
I was prepared for anything. Nothing could be worse than the broom I already had. And when Eric was done pruning, moussing and shaping, I finally had hair and not hay. And short again.
Love and hugs
16 January 2012
I hope you do not think this letter too rude for a mum to write. I know how embarrassed you can get by some of the things I do and say. Well I was once as young as you and a lot of that youth has lingered so, I for one, am not complaining! The blessing of age is that you lose your filters and therefore can sound youthful again.
You know how I am always interested in the direction China is going and I am always telling all of you to wake up, get off your high horses and take note before China overwhelms the world now that it practices an open door policy in many areas. Well, there is one area where the open door policy has always thrived in China. It is also an area where the closed door policy is fast taking over. China’s catapulting into the twenty-first century has brought with it twenty-first century amenities especially in the sanitary department; squat flush toilets, seat flush toilets and (alleluia) toilets for the handicapped, for which my reluctant knees are so very grateful.
However, China travels at two speeds. Cars are marketed before driving schools are established; roads are constructed but road rules are not learned or enforced; modern toilets are built but modern toilet etiquette is not taught. Hold it! I am wrong. Their toilet etiquette is different from mine. Theirs – open door; mine- closed door policy.
Believe me, I have lived long enough to have graduated from the out-house bucket system toilet to the in-house squatting- flushing system to the sit-on- a-seat and flush system, and now with bidet taps thank you. My first exposure to the au-naturel-anywhere-you-please system was over forty years ago in a bus filled with a gaggle of girlfriends, trundling through the streets of the colourful smorgasbord that is Jaipur in India. One girl piped up as she looked out the window,“ Why are these women sitting in a circle on the side of the road? Having a meeting or something?” A more enlightened friend enlightened us. The whole busload screamed and made puking noises. Mind you, the scene was utterly decent. With their exquisite Rajasthani skirts ballooned around them, they exposed nothing and looked really a pretty sight until you realized what they were up to.
My first exposure to exposure of the toilet kind, happened, of all places, in the church washrooms in Suzhou. After freezing in the stone church, I just had to go. As I approached the doors of the ladies side, I was assailed by a very loud monologue. Stepping in, I was literally struck in the face by an incongruent sight – a wide open cubicle door, a drain running the stretch of all the cubicles, a mature lady squatting over the drain, pants down, moons exposed, mobile phone in the hand and she screaming into it. She did not care a twit who saw her. What has remained with me is the irony of this open-door policy juxtaposed with the age of technology; mercifully, there was a badly flushing seat toilet in the corner.
The notion of China being the centre of the fashion trade certainly faced the royal flush with my open-door-policy encounter at the railway station ladies’ room. I was waiting in queue as all cubicle doors were shut. One door was broken so no one was using the cubicle. In marched a fashion icon all stylish in black. A winter hat, gloves, a belted dress, tights, boots with stiletto heels and a sprinkling of bling. She made straight for the broken door, hitched up her dress, pulled down her lower garments right in front of the waiting queue, stepped into the cubicle, did a turn around and squatted with the door wide open. Horrified, I turned the other way to wait for the door opposite to open, Then I heard a voice behind me and turned slightly to see the woman’s hand waving at me and pointing to under the door I was waiting for. From her low perch she could see that the cubicle was empty. How kind of her! Muttering “xie xie” into the air I dashed in and locked the door. Two minutes later I stepped out and there she still was, all smiles and trying to start a conversation with me. I bolted.
Once in a water village, when a group of girlfriends decided they needed the ladies, we went hunting and stumbled upon a public toilet. It was a small, rectangular building with two entrances, one on either side, but with no doors. Inside, a single drain ran all the way down the length of the structure. – No cubicles. Outside, the villagers walked to and fro about their business. We gave it a pass and did bladder control exercises instead. Oh the bane of being foreign women in China in search of a loo!
Nothing beats my friend P’s experience however. We had stopped at the postcard shop on Ping Jiang Lu in Suzhou’s Historic Street, to drink the best spice tea in the world. It also had a good toilet so we decide it would be tea and toilets. I went first while P watched our bags. Then P went to join the short queue. She was gone quite a long while and returned livid. “I was waiting almost twenty minutes” she spluttered. “And you know what? A boy and a girl came out! I know it is unisex but what the hell were they doing in there together?
I laughed. “It happens in aeroplanes too,” I told her. “And you know how small those toilets are?”
So what is it with toilets that makes us so prudish? While nudist colonies abound, and nude communal bathing is a cultural norm in Japan and nobody cares when naked Sadhus jump into the Ganges, while exhibitionists strut their stuff in gym and swimming pool showers and pornography is everywhere, passing off as art and literature, why is the closed-door toilet policy preferable to the open door?
Just a thinking question, No answer required.
Loads of hugs
8 Feb. 2012
Dear friends and family
It has been a long, nice two years in Suzhou. (Not counting February to July of 2009). During this time I have made many friends – all younger than me and the Malaysians call me ibu, aunty – never mind lah – some respect ma!^^6^^
I have learnt enough Mandarin words, numbers, facial expressions and loud tones to bargain down prices of clothes and all things touristy by one third. After all the raving and ranting on both sides, the shopkeepers usually give me the thumbs -up and tell me I am pretty good (I know the word for "clever" and "good!")
I can get around by taxi pretty much anywhere with a map, an address card and a mobile phone. Some taxis use the GPS so that helps.
Taxi riding can be amusing. I get in and say Ni Hao and “Can you take me to (name of place)?” – all this in my expert Mandarin of course. The taxi driver who speaks absolutely no English looks flabbergasted at a chocolate coloured lady making Chinese sounding noises. I repeat myself and point at the map or show him the card. He peers at the writing. Then he digs around in the dashboard pocket or above the windscreen shades and finds a pair of ancient spectacles, usually with one ear bar missing. Donning the spectacles he peers again at the map or card, looks at me and repeats the name of my destination, exactly as I spoke it, but with great emphasis and spraying spittle. I am convinced that he expects a hotchpotch to spew out of my mouth and when I do say things correctly his brain has already presumed it is wrong and will not register my sounds. So his repeating it is his way of ensuring this stupid foreigner is actually saying things right!
Can’t blame him after what I do to my students!
Then a few minutes into the ride, when he has registered that I did actually speak to him in Mandarin, he bursts into friendly conversation at native speed. That’s when I stop showing off and say my most fluent phrase in the local tongue, “Sorry I don’t understand. I speak only a little Chinese.” Then I shut up. At the end of the journey I surprise him again by telling him in Mandarin to “turn left turn right and left again and OK stop here. What is the cost? Receipt please and thank you and goodbye.” He beams with nationalistic pride.
Well, besides dealing with taxi drivers, I have also learnt to deal with ruthless sales women and with tinkers and tailors. With saleswomen, always start at one third the asking price. The sales woman quoted 300Yuan for a painting my friend wanted and almost paid for. I shushed my friend and locked horns with the lady and got the painting for a hundred and fifty Yuan. It is all an act. Start with a hundred and horrify the lady. Wave your hand and walk off. Lady calls you back, reduces price, you don’t agree but offer a wee bit more than one hundred, she wants two hundred, you say a hundred and forty over your departing shoulder, she says a hundred and fifty and you agree to save her face and let her have the last word because you only wanted to pay a hundred and fifty in the first place. I just love it. The other ploy is that half way into the bargaining I inform her that I am not a tourist but a Suzhouren (a person of Suzhou) and a teacher. The price is invariably reduced.
We have found a little lady in the ground floor open space under the student dorms who wheels a sewing machine in every day and does hemming and patching, putting elastic in loose pants(we lose weight in China – no curry puffs and thosai) and mends zips and buttons. What a boon!
A more professional tailor in the city now knows my body shape and taste in materials and sews like a dream.
My latest milestone in Mandarin is learning time, days and dates, months and years. I practice these on the photocopy girl in the office who is very pleased to reverse roles and teach me for a change. My favourite site to learn desperately needed phrases like ‘dry clean my pants’ or “ I need a train ticket to Shanghai.” is Google translate. One day out of pure frustration I taught myself two humbling phrases – “I forget easily” and “I am slow (witted)”. I use it readily with my Tai Ji teacher because I can never remember the next step. Tai Ji is a beautiful art but I am culturally confused what with ballet, Scottish dances, lenggang and bharathanatyam.^^7^^ I have a long way to go in Tai Ji but memory and fingers-everywhere aside, I am dexterous enough to do it without too much effort. I took a break during the exam season but I must start again religiously. The teacher is very very good and comes to the house and I will never be able to learn it in Malaysia.
The University is changing and growing and staff come and go. Three years is the most people can take of this life especially if they are used to bacon and eggs breakfasts and have not married a local girl. The newest government rule last year was that all English language teachers have to take a national test and have their details put into a national data base for employers. You should have heard the uproar here. Many thought it was a personal affront to their intelligence – how dare the stupid Chinese Government give them a test with stupid questions in bad English and ask for their accreditation, etc., etc., and the test is so long and you do not have time to finish blah, blah. I kept reminding them that there were many English speaking hitch-hikers who ended up teaching English and they were giving all of us professional teachers a bad name. It seemed a good rule for China to clean out the scum. Long story short, we sat for the test. Mainly it was a general knowledge cum methodology questions about teaching English in China. I scored eighty-three with time to spare and now no one will tell me their marks! One guy said, “Wow!” so I told him that since I am older I am allowed to be wiser.
The other new rule is that University expat staff retire at sixty-five (the rule was always there but the government. has decided to stop bending the rules and follow the straight and narrow like other countries) A good rule too because old unhealthy expat staff with heart and pressure problems are a liability. Unfortunately I am as healthy as a horse.
So,. in the light of the sixty-five year old cut off point, I am now in my final semester in China.
I may never pass this way again.
Thanks to all those who sent encouraging or positive thoughts. To all those who have been actively or passively dreaming of visiting China while I am here, this is the final call:
It’s now or never,
Come soon to China
Soon it may be too late
2013 will certainly be too late
Best times are 2012 APRIL, MAY, END JUNE, JULY. AUGUST. By August 2012 I will gulongtikar [wrap it up]
Oh, I forgot to add that my Chinese students have given me a Chinese name – Hei Meigui. GUESS!
My Suzhou Autumn
Autumn has delayed its paintbrush
The leaves are hardly turning
Hush! Do not turn the page
In autumn my heart is lingering
Grace on the edge of age
But winter furtively creeps in
Freezing the stubborn green leaves
Hush! Do turn away
My soul is in this Suzhou Autumn
Gently keeping age at bay
1sambal – a spicy Malaysian dish of ground chillies
2gatal –malay word meaning itchy, colloquoial expression for horny
3roti chanai – puffy pan-grilled bread of Malaysian/Indian origin
4Indian savoury pancakes
5makchik/pakchik – malay word for uncle/aunty but also used for any elderly males and females
6lah and ma – Malay and and Chinese colloquial expressions used at the end of words, phrases and sentence to make emphasis
7Lenggang – Malay dance form. Bharathanatyam – Indian classical dance form
It all began with a small group of disparate expats (or is that desperate?), each wanting to realize their writing ambitions – and in the process making one man’s dream come true. Alexis LeFranc, manager of the Suzhou Bookworm in Shiquan Street, had been trying without success for three years to launch a creative writers' group in the town he loved. Then suddenly, in the late summer of 2010, five local expats answered his advertisement in What’s on in Suzhou – and overnight a real writers’ group was in the making! So every other Monday evening at 8pm, Alexis and these five wannabe writers sat around a table, drinking wine and coffee and reading the bits of prose, poetry and passion that each had brought to the table. Feedback and advice was carefully, tactfully, supportively and positively given by everyone - and well received. And to Alexis’ joy, these five came back for more! Each had their own projects – including a novel, articles for magazines, poetry based on paintings, and personal stories of their experiences in China. And after the meetings, each felt invigorated, energized and glad that they answered Alexis’ call. Not only did they come back, they brought friends and colleagues with them too, helping the group to grow organically. But with the new members came questions: number one, what is the group called? No-one knew – there was no name! So ideas for names were invited for the very next meeting - and that’s when SWAG was born: Suzhou Writers and Artists Group. ‘Artists’ because two members at the time were also painters; and ‘Writers’ because… well, read this book. The second question was: how can we get our writings ‘out there’? Two members had previously been in writers groups which had published their own anthologies. “What a great idea – we could do that!” they said. But what would they all write about? Somehow, the book should have a theme – a glue to hold it all together, a common thread. Then Sybil brought along the final piece of the jigsaw one evening with a letter she had written back home, entitled ‘Baoying, the Real China’. “That’s it!” they said. “We’ll all write ‘Letters from Suzhou’!” So this book is the result of that project. Each letter has its own style, its own atmosphere, and its own slant on the amazing country of China towards which we have all been inextricably drawn. At times, it can be frustrating, mind-boggling, bewildering and just plain crazy to us ‘aliens’; but like a wonderful young child that we’ll never fully understand, we can’t help loving it just the same.