Monthly Archives: February 2012

Camel tasting

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Friday night I attended the Berlitz New Year’s Celebration. The invitation list included the staff, teachers, and current and former students. There were about 40 people in attendance. I sat with my teacher, another teacher Chinese teacher who was very nice, and the director’s 16-year old son. It was held in a churrascaria which is a Brazilian restaurant where waiters come around to the table with all kinds of skewered meats. It’s a carnivore’s delight.  The Chinese waiters were cute in their gaucho uniforms that included cowboy hats, jeans, denim shirts and red bandanas tied around their necks. I’m chuckling as I write this. 🙂 The buffet had grilled veggies, corn-on-the-cob, braised celery (which is delicious but very Chinese), fried rice, and all kinds of typical Chinese fare.  This was all done to the accompaniment of a roving Brazilian trio that consisted of a drummer, guitarist, and a scantily clad woman who offered up tambourines to the diners and then practically gave out lap dances. Actually, she did do a lap dance. She was wearing what looked like a tube dress that barely covered her and was about 3 dress sizes too small. She must have used double-sided carpet tape because there is no way that the law of physics kept it in up and down at the same time. The restaurant was quite a fusion of cultures and the Chinese must love it because the place was full. Like China, it was  loud, chaotic, and over the top.

So…imagine my surprise when one of the meats that was offered was camel! Yep, camel. I know there are camels in China, we saw them as we walked the souvenir junket at the Great Wall. 😉 I also know that camel meat is eaten but in China? Now we’re tossing the Middle East into the mix? I thought I was an ignorant American but my 3 dinner companions were also surprised. They sent him away but I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to try camel! I called him back, red bandana and all, and we all ended up getting a piece to try.                                                               **************************************IT WAS THE WORST THING I HAVE EVER EATEN!*********************************
It was even worse than pig blood custard!  Flavor wise it really didn’t taste like much of anything. It was the texture that was so gut-wrenching awful. It was like eating a car tire that had been mixed with gristle. Now that I think about it that was the flavor as well. Somehow I choked down the bite that I took. My teacher gagged and very politely spit out the remains in her napkin. The other Chinese teacher didn’t even bother after she saw my teacher’s reaction. Director’s son ate his whole slice, I do not know how. Perhaps we were served the hump and the delicacy is the rump. Maybe it needs to be slow cooked in a sauce and not barbecued. Do the Chinese even know how to prepare camel properly? I have no idea! (I don’t think so!) All I know is that that box has been checked. No need to revisit camel tasting.
 
3:30 PM – 48°

No running this morning

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I woke up this morning to the thickest fog I think I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t even see the river which is only about 50 yards from my building. I’m guessing at that number because as my family would tell you I can’t measure distances to save my life. And this was fog, not smog. Traffic was a bit heavier going to my lesson this morning and I couldn’t help but wonder how many bicyclists and pedestrians were hit by cars early this morning.

5PM – 78°

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What do you mean I can’t have the car?

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Today was one of those rare days when Anders and I both needed the car at the same time.  He had to pick up a colleague at the airport and I had a Mandarin lesson. What to do, what to do? Anders asked one of his team members if I could use her driver. She’s at work all day and he doesn’t do anything (pretty nice gig). Not sure what the driver thought but fellow P&Ger said of course. For the record, I was prepared to take a taxi. I’m not 100% spoiled…yet. 😉

Yesterday when I told Ben that he was driving to the airport he was concerned that I was going to have to cancel my lesson. I told him that Anders was going to find a substitute driver at the office and I would be fine. He told me to tell Anders that he would talk to the driver and tell him what he needed to do. When Anders came home and we were talking about the plan he said that Ben did a bit of a background check (what, Ben didn’t know the guy?!?!) and he found out that he spoke a bit of English. Good to know but I speak enough Mandarin that I can manage.

Berlitz has moved to a new location and parking is not available. I have no idea where Ben is when I call him to tell him I’m done with my lesson but it takes him about 5 minutes to arrive at the building. Ben told me that when I was done today to call him and he would relay the message to the new driver. Now…I’m more than capable of saying in both Mandarin and Cantonese that I’m ready and to come pick me up but that wasn’t gonna fly. I told Ben I could do it but no, he insisted that I call him. He even reminded me AGAIN when I got out of  the car to call him when I was done. I concede that I’m well on my way to being 100% spoiled. I can only imagine what the substitute driver thought, “I’m picking her up at Berlitz where she’s learning to speak Chinese and she can’t even make a simple phone call to tell me that she’s ready?” That’s what I’d be thinking but I’m judgemental!

When I got in the car (thank heavens he did not jump out and open the door for me) I thanked him and told him to take my home (he already knew that but I had to prove to him the that the lessons weren’t a total waste). Not another word came out of my mouth until he got me home and I said thank you very much and goodbye. I spoke 4 phrases to the man and he didn’t need to hear any of them.  I have been told that I’m too polite for  China, they just don’t say please and thank you and hello and goodbye all the time. He knew he was taking me home, I know Ben told him exactly where he was going because once he got in the apartment complex he went straight to the front of my building.  It was a very quiet car ride and a glimpse of what it would be like if I didn’t have Ben who:

A) speaks pretty good English and is getting better all the time with me yapping in his ear

B) is gregarious

C) is fun AND funny

I am lucky indeed.

3PM – 74°

A little insight on Chinese schools

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This post is for my wonderful niece A who allows me to use her room when I visit. She wanted to know what Chinese schools are like. I asked Ben a few questions and he was more than happy to answer.

The school day starts at 7:30. The students have until 8:00 to read. They are not being taught, they are just expected to read and study. Morning classes are from 8-12 and last about 45 minutes each.  They study math, history, science, Chinese, and English. The subjects are similar to American schools.

Students have lunch from 12-2. If you live close you can go home to eat and rest. If not, you stay at school and eat at the cafeteria from 12-1 and are expected to nap from 1-2. No kidding! You sleep or at least try to. There is no talking. If you attend a good school they have beds for you, otherwise you sleep on tables, benches, or any flat surface you can find.

Afternoon classes are from 2-4. From 4-5 the students then have something similar to a study hall. They read and study what they were taught during the day. There are teachers present so if a student has a question that is the time to ask. In high school the study hall goes from 4-6. They have one hour for dinner and go back to classes from 7-9 or 9:30!!! In high school, there are usually classes on the weekend. Ben said it’s like overtime. 🙂

Homework is given and usually takes 1-2 hours to complete. I have heard and read though that homework in China is becoming a problem because they are given so much. My Chinese teacher told me that when she was in 3rd grade her mother complained to the school because she was regularly given homework that took 3-4 hours to complete. She had homework one night until midnight and still wasn’t finished!

They do not study music or art in school. If they want to do that they can do it in the afternoon during the “study hall” time and it’s not at the school. They make their own arrangements. They have to have permission and the cost is their own. The school does not provide that for them. If a child is very good they can go to an art or music school. It’s like the US where there are special schools for special talents or interests.

Transportation is not usually provided. Most parents or grandparents take younger kids to school. When they are about 10-12 years old they walk to school, ride their bikes, or take public transportation. A lot of kids in rural China  live far from their school so they end up staying during the week and going home on weekends. We saw a school like that when we were going to the Great Wall. It was very isolated and the school had to have dorms for kids that didn’t live in the village.

As in the US, there are some schools that are better than others. You can only go to the school where  you’re registered to live. If the school isn’t a good one, parents that can afford it will buy an apartment in the good school area to get the ID so that their child can attend.

Chinese students usually work very hard in school. Most of them want to go to university and to get into the best you must have top grades. Competition is very tough for spots at the top colleges. I read an article in the paper a few weeks ago about schools that were illegally holding classes during the Chinese New Year break.  I guess there is so much pressure for students to go to college that secondary schools were using the opportunity to teach during the vacation time. This did not sit well with the government and they shut them down when possible. One mother that was interviewed was upset that  her daughter’s school was closed. She said that this gave the students who were able to continue classes during the break an unfair advantage and she was going to have to find another option for her daughter.

So Ben’s high school experience, 20 years ago, went like this. He was chosen to play water polo in high school. His parents do not live in GZ city, they live outside so he stayed at the GZ school during the week. He rode his bike home on Friday and back to school on Sunday. I don’t know how far it is exactly because he told me this a long time ago but I think it’s about 20 miles. He left the school at 4AM  to go to the pool for 2 hours of training and then went to classes in the morning. The pool and the school are about 5-7 miles away from each other. He rode his bike to and from the pool. He had class in the afternoon but did not stay for the study hall part because he was back in the pool for training. Then he returned to school at night for dinner and homework. It started all over again the next day at 4AM. Every day he rode his bike back and forth between school and pool 2 times for 4 hours of pool training and 6 hours of classes! I can only imagine how much food he used to eat. He told me that his coach had to complain to the school to give them more food because they didn’t get enough. He also told Andrew and me that he and  his teammates used to go to a farmer’s orchard and steal fruit. They never got caught. He had quite the twinkle in his eye when he told us that. All of this work paid off though because the GZ Under 18 water polo team was #1 in China the 3 years he was on it.

So A, I hope this answers your questions about Chinese schools. Want to come live with me and you can learn first-hand what it’s like? 😉 You know I’d love it.

Random thoughts

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  • My orchid bloomed. They are tiny flowers, no smell, and my cat likes to eat the leaves. I’m quite proud that it didn’t die in the first week. Now to keep it alive I have to track down some “medicine water”.
  • I’m learning a few words in Cantonese! They are all phrases and sentences that I can use with Ben. He’s teaching me and I always have my “Ben book” in the car so I can write down what he teaches. Why the heck am I doing this? And do  you know how difficult it is to write an oral language?
  • Beauty is cultural. Asians stay OUT of the sun and use skin whitening products and we LIKE the sun and do stupid things like tanning beds and spray tans. Just like people who over-indulge in spray tanning and are orange, there are Asian women that over-indulge in bleaching their skin and look dead.
  • The Chinese word for eye is yanjing and eyeglasses is yanjing. The only difference is the tone on the last syllable. Now add the word for eyelid which is yanjian and I have myself a train wreck. Anders and I bought 4 pairs of glasses for the same price that we paid for 1/2 a pair in the US! Anyway, when I asked Ben to take me to pick up my new glasses I told him to take me to pick up my new eyes! Yeah, that was one of those lessons that I’ll never forget and will never confuse the 2 again.
  • We went to the Guangzhou Opera House for a concert on Valentine’s Day with friends of ours. It’s the second concert I’ve attended in China and I’m amazed at the number of young children that go. I think it’s wonderful that their parents do that for them. Now for the really amazing part – they are so well-behaved! The only interruption at the concert on Tuesday was a cell phone and I’m fairly certain that it didn’t belong to a 6 year-old.
  • There was a special drawing (prize not artwork) at the concert and believe it or not an Irishman won. How that happened is beyond me. The feature performer drew the winning ticket and was English. I bet most of the audience thought it was rigged.  
  • Before we moved to China I was a tad concerned about natural disasters i.e. earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis. I Googled and GZ is not in an earthquake zone. Our biggest threat is from flooding and typhoons. Somehow that  made me feel safer about moving here. Despite that we were awakened at 2:30AM with the bed gently swaying. The closet doors were also rattling a bit.  I knew that when 2 of my brothers got Facebook accounts something was going to happen 😉
  • This is for Anders. In my post about Mr. C. I said that the first thing we were shown was a live pearl. I stand corrected, of course we weren’t shown a live pearl but a live oyster. OK Anders? Will you stop teasing me about it now?  Huh, will ya? 🙂
  • The apartment across from us is still being renovated and it still looks like a bomb hit it and if we live here for 5 years it still won’t be done.
  • Anders has to find a new spa. They are closed. I guess not too many people liked having their belly buttons moved to their backs via their internal organs.
  • Ben’s daughter is 6 months old today and absolutely beautiful.

3:30PM – 61°

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Shanghai wrap-up

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I have decided that I will need to make a scrapbook of the adornments that I photograph in China.  They call out to me, not sure what they say but I love them. Here are a few from Shanghai. I threw in a few signs as well.

3PM – 81°

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Shanghai weekend

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Qing ren jie kuai le! Happy Valentine’s Day!

Disclaimer: Weather makes a big difference in one’s perception when visiting a place for the first time.

That said, I wasn’t bowled over by Shanghai. I don’t know if it’s because it was SNOWING when I arrived, was gloomy the whole weekend, or it was just too big for me to get a sense of the people. I think it’s more of the latter.

I arrived at around noon on Friday and it was snowing and it continued for a good portion of the afternoon. The rest of the day was wet, cold, dark, and miserable. We walked to lunch which was in the same complex as the hotel so we didn’t even walk out into the weather. We had dim sum at Din Tai Fung. It wasn’t cheap but oh my, it was delicious. It was so good that we went back for lunch on Sunday before we went to the airport. We spent the rest of the day in our room and horror of horrors, ordered room service for dinner. That’s how crummy it was outside. Getting the email from J put a spark back into us and suddenly Saturday was looking  brighter.

As I said yesterday, we met J and his colleague E for a bit of shopping and then went out for an early lunch.  Again, the restaurant was fabulous. The Lost Heaven is a restaurant that specializes in Yunnan food and couldn’t have been better. It was across the street from The Bund which is the name of the riverfront walk in Shanghai. It was a pleasant walk. I can only imagine how beautiful it must be when the sun is out and there are leaves on the trees. The skyline is spectacular.

We walked to Shanghai’s most famous shopping street, Nanjing Road. It was very crowded and quite honestly, we were not impressed. We did walk by an Apple store and it was packed. There was a line inside the store that easily had 150+ people waiting!

It was as we were making our way to Yu Gardens that we met sweet Mr. C from yesterday’s post. After our pearl shopping and tea tasting J and E had to leave to prepare for a meeting so just Anders and I went in the garden. It was beautiful, of course. It was fun because it is rather like a maze. I’m sure we didn’t see all of it but I would go back to Shanghai just to see the garden in full bloom, or any bloom for the matter. 😉 The bazaar around Yu Gardens is a full of shops selling pearls, traditional Chinese medicines, food, and souvenirs. Mr. C told us that the buildings were only 10 years old and that kind of turned me off.  Anders and I didn’t linger there after exiting the gardens.

We were leaving Sunday but had time in the morning to visit a Buddhist Temple that was a 15 minute walk from our hotel. Jing’an Temple was spectacular. It was odd that way it was surrounded by ultra-modern skyscrapers. I could barely take a picture without one of them in the background. But again, that’s China and very indicative of the country: they preserve the ancient amidst the new. Lots of people were throwing coins into the large incense burner. It was 30 feet tall and had the most wonderful little bells on the eaves that chimed every time the wind blew. They must have been made of tin because it was a light tinkling sound and they were everywhere. I actually didn’t mind when the cold wind blew because the sound of the bells was so sweet.

Three things made our visit to Shanghai great; seeing J again, Din Tai Fung and the Lost Heaven restaurants, and Mr. C! If the weather had been nicer I’m sure I would have had a very different impression of the city. I have checked the box on Shanghai and am planning our next adventure in China. I think it has to be Xi’an to see the terracotta warriors only I believe we have to wait until April.  Anders said he doesn’t care where we go, he just doesn’t want to deal with cold weather!

4PM – 80° 🙂

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Chance meeting = trip highlight

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Anders and I returned yesterday from a trip to Shanghai. I will write more about our impressions of Shanghai and what we did tomorrow. Today I want to write about the highlight. There were actually 2 highlights and the first one will be brief and needs to be explained as it’s part of the second one.

We had a friend living in the apartment complex that was here on business and his family was back in the States. We had a lot of fun with J before he went back to the States unexpectedly for business reasons (he’s not a P&Ger). We missed his company but thought about him often and kept in touch through email.

Anders went to a city about 1 1/2 hours outside of Shanghai last Wednesday for business. I flew to Shanghai on Friday to meet him there for a long weekend (I swore I was going to accompany him on every business trip). Imagine our surprise when we got an email from J that he was traveling with a colleague and they would be arriving in Shanghai on Friday night!!! We made plans to meet J and E the next day.

What a thrill to see him again. It was also very nice to meet E. After a bit of  shopping for J’s wife, an amazing lunch, and some sightseeing we decided to see one more place. After getting out of the taxi and while trying to get our bearings, Anders said that he was having a hard time finding our destination on the map. A Chinese gentleman ( I will refer to him as Mr. C) heard him and said that he was going to his shop and would show us the way. During our 15 minute or so walk through large crowds he managed to talk to all 4 of us individually and we learned that he owned a pearl shop.  Upon learning about Mr. C’s shop I asked him if he would show it to us. I knew that I wouldn’t be walking out empty-handed. I had wanted to buy green pearls but hadn’t gotten around to the GZ pearl market. I decided that I might as well buy from him. I LOVE meeting the people who own the businesses or are the craftsmen.  I think he was quite pleased and proud that I asked. I didn’t confer with the rest of my party but sometimes men just have to go along with the lady in the group.

We walked up several flights of stairs and landed in his pearl shop.  He had explained on the way that he owns the business with his friend. They have their own freshwater pearl farm 250km. away and all of the work is controlled by them. The first thing we were shown was a live pearl. He had his assistant open it for us and inside were 17 pearls! I didn’t know you could get so many. He told us that most weren’t usable but still…do you know how cool it was to see that many pearls in one shell? I made my way to the green pearls. Pearls naturally come in colors of white, lavender, gray, and pink…I think. I wasn’t paying too much attention because I was scanning the display cases 😉 I knew that green pearls were dyed, that’s OK. They’re still real pearls! Mr. C came over after I had chosen my necklace, bracelet, and earrings. He talked to the sales clerk and gave me a GREAT deal. I paid $75 for all three. I did not negotiate or bargain, I knew I was already getting a very good deal. The surprise is that E decided to buy as well for his wife! Mr. C was simply on his way to work, bumped into 4 Americans that were trying to find their way, offered to help, and ended up selling 3 strands of pearls, 1 bracelet, and 1 pair of earrings. Talk about karma!

While I was waiting for E to conclude his business Mr. C asked me if I would share a cup of tea with him.  I was honored that he asked and of course I accepted. The older one gets that more one realizes that sometimes there is a right answer. We all had a tea tasting with 4 different types. Tea really is an art in China. We sat and chatted for about 30 minutes and Mr. C was very open and honest about what it was like growing up and living in China. He lived through the Cultural Revolution where he and his family worked on a farm for 9 years. During that time there were no books and no music. Can you imagine not being able to read a book or listen to music for 9 years?!?! He has seen a lot of change in his country and was more than happy to share his experiences. He was also EXTREMELY knowledgable about the US. He knew the nicknames for every state Anders and I were born in and lived in.

Eventually we had to leave but I can’t tell you what a treat it was to meet Mr. C. I will never forget him and will certainly think about him every time I put on my pearls.

4PM – 73° (woohoo – it’s been 2 weeks since I saw the sun and only the second day in a month!)

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To and fro Starbucks

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In the past 3 weeks we’ve seen the sun for one whole day and have had spotty sightings of it on 2 other occasions. Last week on its only full-day appearance I walked to Starbucks with a lively step. It really felt like Spring. The flowers even seemed to know it was their only shot for a while at the sun’s warmth.

I’m not sure what’s in season in the Pearl River but the fishing boats have been out almost every day for the past 2 weeks or so. Maybe the carp are bigger or the turtles are meatier but the fisherman have been working hard. I hear the putt-putt of their lawnmower motors often.

These are just a few photos I took with my phone. I was so excited to be out on a warm, sunny day that I forgot my camera. Thank goodness for modern technology and that I actually remembered I could take a picture with my phone. I usually forget.

 6PM – 62°

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Hong bao

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When I started writing this post, Anders was at a luncheon with his team handing out hong bao. What? You don’t know what a hong bao is? It’s a red envelope that contains MONEY! It’s very traditional in China to give gifts of money for weddings, funerals, and Chinese New Year.

Before we even moved here Anders received some coaching from a Chinese friend about the hong bao practice for Chinese New Year. Different cultures have different gift-giving practices and it can be a minefield. Hong bao are always given and received with both hands.  Numbers play a very big part. It’s considered good luck to include an amount with an 8 because the pronunciation of 8 in Chinese sounds like the word that means to get rich. You NEVER include a 4 in the amount as that is similar in pronunciation to the verb to die. Only new money is given. ATM’s in the city actually ran out. I don’t know what the people did that withdrew old money. One simply does not give it. I’m sure that if you do all kinds of bad things will happen. D and her mother, yes her mother, started getting new money for Anders a while ago.

I’m going to keep this post about hong bao at the office.  There is a lot more to it for the rest of China but I don’t have to know about that. Evidently it causes a lot of stress for some people because they are expected to give out so many and it can be financially draining. China is a very reciprocal society.

We were told that a lot of secretaries have hong bao stuffing parties! Their bosses give them what they need and they use it as an excuse to get together and eat and gossip. See? People are the same everywhere in the world. Anders and I didn’t think it was as meaningful to have his admin fill them. This is a gift from him! So we spent about an hour counting, folding, and inserting RMB in red envelopes. I folded and inserted my RMB with Chairman Mao facing up. 🙂

For 15 days, from the first day of the Lunar New Year until 15 days after, people at the office can ask anyone higher up for a hong bao. Now they don’t just come up, hold out their hand, and say give me. They approach the boss, say, “Gong xi fa cai”, and are rewarded with a red envelope. It’s that simple. This is Trick-or-Treating for Chinese adults. However  no jokes need to be told, no songs are sung, and there are no costumes. Gong xi fa cai  means, “wishing you a wealthy year.”

Anders had to have hong bao for all the people who work on his team. There are about 40. He was very diplomatic in that he kept the amount the same for everybody, other people gave according to position. Keep in mind you only give to people who are lower in rank and you only ask to receive from people who are higher in rank. The Chinese are very hierarchical as well. I’ll answer the question right now:  Anders did not ask anyone. You get to a certain point and it’s just tacky. He’s at that point and he’s not tacky. 😉

He was also told that people he barely knows at P&G will ask him and he needed to be prepared. So how do you handle that? He had a lucky draw. He had an additional 100 envelopes or so prepared. The RMB amount varied from 5( 80¢) to 100($16). There were only 3 of the 100RMB hong bao so it’s just a matter of luck.

The office was closed for the week from Jan. 23-27 so he only started handing out the hong bao last Monday. He said that it was fun. 2 or 3 people usually approached his desk and if they were women they giggled. I also bet that if they were giggling their hands were covering their mouths.  And sure enough, people that he barely knew asked him. Most everyone was back to work today after a 2-week holiday and that’s why there was a luncheon. One cannot ask for a hong bao after today so D asked Anders if he wanted to have a lunch with his team to hand out red envelopes to those that were away and to celebrate the New Year. 

Our first Chinese New Year comes to an end today. People are back to work and school, shops are open, traffic is back to normal, and the hong bao are gone until next year. I wonder if I can buy them at 50% off. 🙂

PS – Ben got a real nice hong bao.

3PM – 75°

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