Friday, March 16, 2018


There is a time in life when everything is about to happen. A few moments when it does. And then a time shortly after when it resumes. And now it is resuming.

Looking backwards through the smoke and rubble of the past was a four week long holiday; a helter-skelter technology-hamstrung four weeks in the office; the hustle and/or bustle of the Christmas period travels and feasting; the marathon and its anticipation; the struggle for fitness and confidence in my own health; work stretching me to the limit while I still focussed mainly on running... that backward glance was a busy 6-7 months. And now I can look ahead to a comparatively anodyne and relaxed "start to the year".

It does feel like a beginning, a reset. There is nothing on the horizon. There's just life, routine and simplicity.

Today was the first Friday since I came back. Everything has fit together. It started at 5am in the morning with a 10km run. This was the longest run since late December. In the 2.5 months before this run, I'd run a mere 52.7km, and it's been a challenge of restraint, stupidity and desire. My left knee which had been a nuisance since August 2017 got really stroppy with me after bouncing on a trampoline on New Year's Eve, and I struggle to run more than 3km in a single sitting. I strengthened and waited but it still bothered me till eventually I went back to the physio, who redirected me onto a specialist. With him I had my first MRI of my life. Regrettably that was just a few days before our trip to China. Less than 48 hours before departing the result came out was interpreted by my physio and said onto me: Keep strengthening, don't stop running.

So I did. I ran in the village for the first time ever. It was a thrill. But I was thwarted twice over: while sitting feasting and drinking I suddenly turned to my left and felt a pinch around my ribs; anesthetised by the drink I didn't notice for long; the next day I noticed my ankle was a bit sore pre-run. This is relatively normal for me. I have flat feet and they are never 100% happy to be feet, let alone running. As this was a feeling similar to what I had had before, I ran despite it. But the run after it though feeling OK at the time had a huge effect. My ribs ached and my ankle twinged. My ribs were sore with any movement so my plan of exercise went out the window. That alone would have precluded running but even if it hadn't, my swollen ankle was going to be an obstacle. And then in this pain, we travelled to Chengdu with heavy suitcases... After which it felt marginally better. Then we went to Guangzhou last week where I ran again but regretted it afterwards, feeling beaten up and miserable.

My specialist had booked me this morning so I decided that I had to know how my knee was and chose to run 3km. My knee was fine it appeared, but concern for my ribs and ankle cut the run short. The next day however I didn't have any after effects, which led me to today.

My alarm rang out at 5am. I didn't like it. I got up nonetheless. I could still feel the discomfort in my ankle but after a walk down the hall it wasn't obvious. I kitted up and went for a run. I pushed it - 10km is a reasonable morning effort. I felt the same as I had after 3km. My knee didn't irk me at all, but my ribs and ankle were clearly urging me to finish. I showered and went to the specialist who showed me the MRI scans: I'd split my tendinosus (a tendon). But he was taken aback that I ran 10km without discomfort and said I should still do strengthening work (which I will do). And now I have the challenging choice. I was silly enough to book a half marathon for Sunday. I might try it and try only to get to the end. I'll rest well, strengthen and think about it.

But that was all sorted at 7:25am. The day was still yet to get on with itself! I headed home, picked up the wife, headed to work and observed a teacher. He's a nice fellow who was introduced to our school while I was away. He's an awesome teacher and even more awesome because he likes our place and thinks I'm an OK kinda guy, and is best friends with our senior teacher. Good teachers set us up for stability. Then out the door I met my boss, who had the talk I'd hoped for. And she gave me the answers I wanted. So I feel happy staying where I am. We had a nice staff lunch and after a korean dinner with soju, I feel a nice calm with the year ahead.

It's time to resume and I like where this is going.

Monday, March 05, 2018

To health: Credit where due

I can't recall how many times I've recounted experiences with the Chinese medical system, either on this blog or real-time. Whether it's the upstairs-downstairs healthcare, or playing medical tag, with an audience of gawkers, poor Hippocratic attitudes, pushing in, and pushing away, it had always been a ride. I remember warning teachers: you just need to get a medical cert for your sick leave; the rest is a story to tell your folks.

But credit where credit is due to the humble Chinese hospital: it's better now by a long way. It's all about using its obvious strength while ameliorating its weakness with technology. China already had economies of scale. A single hospital has everything - but previously it was a Byzantine bureaucracy of paper and payments: register here, diagnosis there, payments here, treatment there, pay for your medicine/treatment here, collect it there, curl up in a ball and cry/die here.

Now there are payment terminals everywhere, scanning a QR code allows you to pay everything cashlessly. Now you can be treated and tracked simply. Technology serves the masses. Treatment are a salve rather than a rack.

It is a disaster that I've had contact with the medical system thrice on this trip. My sidestrain from eating. My wife's digestive distress. But travel should be about experiencing and in that area I can't complain.

Since I'm often with a glass on this trip: Here's to health.

Post-script: the strange picture is a plastic bag in a ball. They're sold from a vending machine with a QR code. There is no complimentary bag when you collect your meds. It's part of that move to reduce plastic waste.

Friday, March 02, 2018

City Review: Chengdu

We had a window of time to travel out of Guangdong and despite my having been there twice already we decided to go to Chengdu. Not that I was disappointed. My previous two visits impressed me and this visit was not any different. In my previous trips, I'd done some of the "key experiences" like seeing pandas, going to teahouses and eating spicy food. But had also done two specific out-of-town experiences Emei Mountain and Leshan's big Buddha. This time we spent it all inside the city and still found a lot to do.

Hotel review: Buddhazen (near Wenshu Yuan (Manjushri Monastery): 4 stars out of 5

A beautiful classical building right next to a large monastery? It's as good as it sounds. Everything is old wood, perpendicular corridors and spiritual. The emphasise the connection with Zen Buddhism. The service was humble and quick. We would stay there again without hesitation. The only drawbacks were a slight odour from the plumping, a seemingly non-live TV broadcast and an average quality foot massage. But those are minor compared to the enjoyment of living in and returning to such a comfortable place.

Favourite placesDu Fu's Thatched Cottage: 4 stars out of 5; Shujing Fang Baijiu Museum: 5 stars out of 5

These were two places I went to for the first time on this trip and both would be high recommendations, although most appropriate to people with a bit of a knowledge of Chinese and Chinese culture. Du Fu was never one of my favourite Chinese poets. (For the record, I loved the alcoholic poets more, even when I was teetotal, namely: Tao Yuanming and Li Bai.) But after going to his recreated thatched cottage and the grounds around it I may finally have gained an appreciation. The poems I liked best were his war-time poems. During his life there was a large-scale rebellion against the Tang Dynasty and a lot of his works focus on the pains of war that any modern reader could see are just as true today. One non-war poem that took pride of place on the cottage grounds was a dedication to Spring in Chengdu:
Good rain knows its time,
It falls when it becomes Spring,
It follows the wind and enters by night,
It moistens all with fine, silent drops,
Its mists cloak the rural paths.
All that can be seen through it are the lights on riverboats,
And when it dawns the red of the sun can be seen through the moist fog,
The damp, heavy flowers decorate this city of Chengdu.

The poems were great but the grounds themselves are beautiful. Highly recommended.

Now an alkie like myself has to love Sichuan province. Of the top 4 baijiu brands by market share, 3 are made in Sichuan. Number three is Shuijing Fang which is made in Chengdu. And a few years ago when they were expanding the factory, the diggers revealed that the same site had been used since the Tang Dynasty. (Which incidentally could mean that Du Fu might have drunk wine from there!) It's one of the oldest proven places of Chinese wine production. Archaeologists have even shown that the bacteria that was present at the time is the same as is used now.

The museum itself takes you through the production process and even gives you a sample of the first drawn spirits, at about 68% alcohol. Wooooo! One sip is enough. They show you the art of their bottles. (And in fact Chinese wine bottles are far more artistic than the simple elegance of western wine and spirit bottles.)

Restaurant review: Bashu Dazhaimen Hotpot (Caishi Street, Qingyang district, Chengdu): 5 stars out of 5.

I'll throw in a restaurant review because simply it really shows service mind, which had been a rare thing in China. Every trip to Chengdu requires a trip to a hotpot restaurant. At first I baulked about walking far to one with a good review arguing that we weren't connoisseurs, and there were places on every street. But I was persuaded and we went to this one. My arguing and the required persuasion had probably delayed us to the point that we had to wait for a table. This was the first impressive point though. If you have to wait, they give you a voucher that takes 15 yuan off your bill, provide you with cordial, sunflower seeds and another snack. We didn't have to wait long and the waiter was very attentive. In fact there was one moment that I thought nailed attentiveness. A staff member gave us our cutlery and I thought I noticed a small smear of chili oil on my cup. I checked with my finger and no sooner than I did the waiter switched it without a word. The food was great, too. Overall, there are lessons even a New Zealand restaurant could learn from them, which is rare.

City review: 5 stars out of 5.

Chengdu. Three visits and three pleasant times spent. But there are so many small things which make you feel good. Whether it be the main at the guokui shop who used tongs to handle money and plastic gloves with food. The general cleanness of the surrounds. The proliferation of bicycles. The unobtrusiveness of people and service in general.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

If a tree falls in the forest...

China is an interesting place to be. Armed police and army troops march obviously. Tourists march on.

A friend mentions that something with knives happened in Beijing. Not in the news. Tourists march on.

We go from a station to a station. The blood goes from a city to a city. We march on.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

A slice of life

I'm standing on the second floor of my family-in-law's home looking out the window. I happen to be peeing into a Chinese toilet, a detail which you might think I should omit but it took more skill at that moment because I was mildly inebriated (more about that later). As I look, I spot my grandfather-in-law, A-Gung, feeding the chickens. He's 95 years old but is still the perfection of how old people should live, keeping active and in routine. Just ten minutes before, I'd completed a near one hour conversation with him, which is lengthy by my standards. I tire at that length in Cantonese. He's really tough to understand, not just because he speaks even Qingyuan dialect as his second language (he actually speaks dialect Hakka as his mother tongue) and has missing teeth etc. but also because he's old and grew up in a hugely different cultural context.

We talked about of all things: sport, and then golf which is a prestige, expensive sport in China but is much more accessible in New Zealand. From there the conversation gravitated to the Chinese obsessive topic of money, who has it and who doesn't, before talking about houses. First the family over the road, then my younger brother-in-law's new home and then back to history with Chairman Mao. I can follow Waangleng accent of my family-in-law well, even when drunk, but that isn't the reason why I'm mildly inebriated talking in the yard. The reason lies in Saamgok accented Cantonese. (NB: Waangleng, Saamgok and Gwongtau are all villages in Qingyuan.)

An hour previous I'd been drinking and eating with my wife's Saamgok cousins. These are not the cousins who featured earlier in this blog. I still remember my first encounters with the cousins: It was at my younger brother-in-law's banquet; I'd had one round of food and drink; happily drunk, I went downstairs again to be sociable and caught another round of food and sat down at a table. Fourth uncle and two of the cousins were there and keen to meet me. They immediately asked me to drink and I gleefully agreed. They finished their cups in one go and I, as an afterthought after a first sip, finished mine. Then a wife from another branch of the family swooped around with a two litre mineral water bottle filled with her old man's homebrew and liberally poured everyone at the table with it. They drank and I drank, and I wisely took some time out after that to recover from the sudden dose of strong alcohol. Apart from some time-outs, I managed than banquet well.

These were the same cousins who I was sitting with one hour previous to now. Perhaps I should talk about what happened just four days previous. We went to their mother's hometown of Gwongtau. Gwongtau is a special place for me because I really enjoy the company of Fourth Uncle, my mother-in-law's brother, though I struggle with his Gwongtau accent. We get along because he doesn't hold my struggle against me. Anyway, at this visit four days ago it was his first time back from the hospital. He'd been really sick. And not just rather sick, but very sick and not just one kind of sick, but many kinds of sick. When I heard that news in New Zealand, it was rather upsetting and I was really glad to be seeing him again at my table in Gwongtau, even with the cousins.

The three cousins are individually lovely. Caan-wing, perhaps because of his likeness to Joe Pesci, has always seemed kind and funny. I remember him the most clearly from that first wipe-out at the banquet. Caan-tong has been village chief for many years, all bluster yet with feeling. And then Caan-gan who played with his grandchildren with so much affection that it almost blindsides you to his sneakiness with drink.

It was these three cousins I drank with four days ago and the same that I drank with an hour ago. Four days ago still ranks as an embarrassment. When we went to Gwongtau I first went to Third Uncle's home and was immediately invited to drink. Did I mention he brewed his own spirits? Either way, I enjoyed, sip-by-sip, his masterpiece of brewing, about two shots in total. Then went over to Fourth Uncle's to eat. They gave me the big cup and I didn't fight it. I should have. I drank and enjoyed and there was a little bit of to-and-fro, not helped by the fact that I don't quite understand Saamgok accent and why I had to drink particular rounds. To cut a long story short, I later got into a car to see my brother-in-law-in-law with his head hanging out the window. He was more trolleyed than me. I thought it strange until he started throwing up down the side of the car. It may have been in sympathy, or may have been because I'd drunk as much, if not more than he, that I too started throwing up, at first inside the car, then with my head out of my window with my brother-in-law-in-law. Hence the embarrassment.

That had been four days ago, and unfortunately, bad gossips spreads fast, so on this day everyone was asking me in a sarcastic tone about my desire to drink today. (My brother-in-law-in-law was at work today. Lucky thing, he got to avoid this inquisition!) Anyway, today I faced my bullies. Caan-tong in particular was full of tactics to get me back under the table. To put it simply, he's village chief for a reason. He's drunk more and had more battles (and scars) than I could ever wish. And he positioned himself well. I had control of the bottles early and he had the control later. When I wanted to switch to white wine (made of grapes, lower alcohol) he insisted I drank brandy. Now that brandy happened to be one I bought at Auckland Airport thus not a fake product and had been quite the hit on both occasions it was drunk. But I wanted to vary my alcohol as well as take it easier. He wasn't going to have a bar of it. Twice we comically fought physically to fill my glass. On one occasion he won. Another time I won. Either way, I can be glad to say I got to the end standing proud and able to talk to my grandfather-in-law in a coherent way an hour later.

These kind of battles can be eschewed if you avoid the drinks table altogether. I just wish the drinks table didn't entail Sun-Tzu's Art of War. I like to drink and do not need help getting drunk. But for others it's a game.

Which brings me back to my conversation with A-Gung. I asked him about his knees and he said his right knee needs a rub every morning just to get going. I'm reading Being Mortal right now which talks a lot about the secrets to an enjoyable last phase to life and I must say he really has it. I hope I can see him again.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Doing it for the kids

The cousins came over. Not the direct cousins, but the cousins of the same generation yet a few branches over, perhaps 3rd or 4th cousins in the western terms. It's a rowdy visit. All three, three men, seem quite astonishingly self-confident and haughty in their postures. I can only talk about their postures because they so speak quickly in dialect with references and irony that I follow little of what they're going on about. They come over to the home one by one, number 1 comes in a sits as if he owns the place, smokes and offers me a cigarette, which I refuse. He's the largest of the three and has a gravelly voice. Number 2 strides in afterwards and loudly jokes before sitting, offering me a cigarette, which I refuse. As they are drinkers and the place they're actually meant to be visiting next door has no drinkers at all, our family begin lunch preparations. My father and I and are the most regular drinkers within the 100m radius of the home. Number 3 comes in quietly and offers me a cigarette, which I refuse. He has a few discreet words with my father-in-law, and then the food comes in and the St Remy XO brandy, which I'd brought in Auckland duty free, is poured.

It doesn't take long for it to become apparent that number 3 can't hold his liquor. After the first glass he gets quite emotional especially about the help my father-in-law gave to him in Guangzhou in tough times. He was starving at a point was given food. Hearing about my father-in-law's Guangzhou time is jarring because I only got to know him once he was already in the village, where he was clearly in his element. He worked in construction in Guangzhou for a time and later failed as a paint shop owner in central Qingyuan before returning back to the countryside with debts. But he is a genuinely kind man and I'll reiterate what I have hopefully said many times: I'm very lucky to have such an open-hearted, accepting person as my father-in-law. Number 3 can't keep his voice, arms or tone down. My father-in-law has to almost bring his arms down physically and asks him repeatedly to keep these things in the past. When another cousin from another branch comes in, number 3 still in heightened emotion dresses him down for his lack of support for his father and family (being "unfilial"). This is quite an animated but not atypical new year scene in China. Through all this drama there is a mini-scene that I'd like to focus on which is almost a distraction from this scene of drunken sentimentality.

As number 3 gets into his stride of gratitude, the child of number 2 charge into the room, grab his father's bowl from in front of him and run away. He's tailed by his cousin, the son of number 1. I was shocked by this brazen food robbery, but number 2 puffs his cigarette and his son brings back the bowl. The two children notice me and then get into a pushing match toward me to say something to me. What they would like the other to say is lost on me and likely lost on them, too. I entertain them trying to get them to tell me their names by first teaching them how to say "My name is.." but they run away. I ignore them but later get up to talk to them. One runs into the bathroom to hide so I hold the door shut. He eventually tries to get out but has to say "My name is..." to get out. I'm such an evil teacher. Both run away after that but it is just another refraction of a social trend in China that we see in our classes in Auckland, namely, undisciplined, unfocussed youth.

They're everywhere. There was probably an evolution where the Cultural Revolution did a bit of a moral reset, the One Child policy warped all the attention to a single child who grew up in unprecedented wealth and then that overindulged child was then expected to produce and raise a child, if not two. Any of these "links" in the procreative chain could give birth to a rather uncontrollable child. I went to the number 2 and said that his son was quite bright, and he shook his head and said he was "lazy".

Another tale was an anecdote shared during the "visiting of relatives" yesterday. A young auntie of ours told us how a similar situation brewed. Third Uncle's son had gotten married and had recently had a child. But the son had the best of the good life as an only son and had always had his parents do everything for him. After the child was born, both he and his wife did very little to do any of the hard work care of the child, preferring to play computer games till late, not waking in the morning and getting lunch from KFC. They were there to play with children of course.

These stories travel far over new year as all the people return to home town and each round of "visiting relatives" is a whirlpool of gossip. Children are China's future. It's going to be an interesting ride.

Monday, February 19, 2018


When I was self-employed between 2005 to 2008, most of my students were learning English, but incredibly three were with me to learn Mandarin Chinese. When the possibility of teaching them first was proposed by one of my clients, it seemed rather bizarre. My Chinese, though useful, wasn't anywhere close to fluent. But I had teaching technique, a firm understanding of the basics and nothing better to do with my time (and I fancied giving it a lash). Two were marketing people who had to go to China or Taiwan, while the other, an older gentleman, went to China on occasion but I believe he took the lessons as a benefit of his job to help him fight the ageing process, rather than for work. He wanted to learn to read and write which were the most difficult skills of all.

Two of them had had a long connection with China, both having visited in the 80's. I remember being jealous of them and that they had really gotten to see the speed of development by visiting at different times since. China, to be clear, has been one of the fastest developing societies in the history of the world. At that stage I'd been to the Mainland twice, in 2000 and 2003 and would be going in 2007 and felt I had only a snapshot of this change. One of my students had gone to China exactly in 1980 just a few years after China re-opened its economy. Now I'm the one with a bit of scope especially with my access to the back stories and better understanding of official and unofficial history. My association with the Mainland is almost 18 years old. It does spin the head to reflect on the changes.

Guangzhou was one of the greatest point of references in that. It was my first steps into China from Taiwan in August 2000. Back then, there were no direct flights between Taiwan and the Mainland. We had to fly to Hong Kong to apply for a visa and then cross the border. We disembarked in a dusty, unattractive area. A dirty child approached me with a flower, which I assumed was a "gimmick" for beggars and moved quickly away from her. It didn't really appeal at all as a city. Jump forward ten years and I was living happily in it.

Qingyuan, just 70km up the road, is also developing at breakneck speed. It was a backwater to the metropolis of Guangzhou but is surging, now a third tier city. (China categorises its cities in tiers.) I spent time here in 2015 before we left and had a brief visit in 2016, and now in 2018. In these few years there is a noticeable change. I almost fell over as cars gave way to pedestrians on a huge crossing in the central city. (It was written in big letters but the fact that they actually stopped confused and then moved me.) Bus stops now have detailed information. The bus announcements come in English as well as Mandarin and Cantonese. All priority seats on the bus were filled by priority people (e.g. the elderly, children or the unwell). There are road signs that are helpful in finding places you want to go to. There is another bridge is crossing the Bei River. The dimsum we ate yesterday was almost at Guangzhou's standard. The traffic just felt a little less chaotic. (I almost would feel comfortable driving here.) Some of the small "feeling" changes are the most significant because it reflects an improvement in attitudes and habits.

The villages are where there is the littlest change. The villages themselves get moved around by development after all. My in-laws home, the only home I have known them in is about 10 years old. The previous home, which was apparently much more basic, was moved by a motorway development (which makes getting here all the so much easier). We visited my brother-in-law's abandoned old village which still has most of its buildings still remaining despite all the residents moved to the "new village". The homes are beautiful. But due to a dam project which would make the ground water undrinkable they were moved about 500 metres and rebuild the homes, but in a much more modern way. 

These new homes may be moved too. Two new modern roads have been built either side of the "block" of land that my parents-in-law live in and when the urban area expands again, they'll be moved, either into apartments or have the village move over one more time. That's why things don't change. Why improve the infrastructure to a constantly moving or disappearing village system which mainly is where they old people stay to keep the home fires burning (a bit like ahi kaa). I hope my grandfather-in-law will never have to move again and can keep feeding the chickens till the day he doesn't.

As a result in the villages, the rubbish is still collectively dumped. Roads are narrow and concrete. And the water and power can be iffy. But as nostalgic as we can be about it, it's not the most comfortable place to live for modern people. It's a way of life that might have done it's dash.

I remember watching the movie Dragon Boat which had villagers in Guangzhou being moved out of their villages to make way for the High Education Megacentre (aka University Island). The elderly even when moved to the comfort of air conditioned apartments were often sadder and depressed. It uprooted them from their purpose, habits and rituals.

I hope my in-laws when the day comes can adjust to a new life. I feel lucky to have been able to see and experience it.