Monday, November 30, 2009

Where it's at

Ah, time. In the scheme of things, this should have been the hardest week of all but it was pretty smooth. I agreed on and moved into an apartment; did my first lessons; had broadband installed; sat through endless bureaucracy and have settled into a nice routine.
Moving in was a little bit of a crisis in itself. Working late into the evening and then settling into my home without bedclothes nor crockery, I was a little bit panicked to get some of the necessities of life. Fortunately I have a massive supermarket close to my place that has everything.
Just 100 metres from my apartment is a daily food market with the freshest most wonderful vegetables. The long eggplant I had yesterday was as close to perfection as you can really get in life, art or the sciences; there were mushrooms galore; the choi-sam came with a gift: when I put it on the chopping board, in the corner of my eyes saw something dark moved under a leaf; lifting it found a creature that moved like a little like a worm, one end of it stretched into a pointy tentacle that reached out into the direction it wished to go, placing it and peristaltically creeped ahead. It was leech. The first I'd ever seen. The only drawback is what a colleague referred to as WAT (white-added tax); some of the prices sound dubiously high (by chinese standards) and usually I just refuse - they may expect bargaining but I'm hardly in the mood.
Tomorrow morning will be my first real chance to explore my unpolished gem of a neighbourhood. Tomorrow will also entail having a lesson observed by the boss. Since she grilled a senior teacher just yesterday, I'm hoping (a) that everything goes dreamily; (b) that if it doesn't she shows some leniency for someone finding their feet in our system.
It's nice to have proper home.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


353: This number is one of the first things I see when I descend into the subway each morning; It is the number of days before the start of the Asian Games in Guangzhou. I arrived at 363 and thus it gives a me an in-your-face reminder every morning of the time as it passes. Ten days it has been and ten days that have been crawling by regardless of happiness and frustration.
Yesterday, I would have begged for euthanasia to escape from the bureaucratic hoops to be leaped through to become a resident worker. It all seems so needless really but then I'm obviously oblivious to the benefits of the system of forms, of going from one small office to another, of photocopying and of Chinese triplicate (not real triplicate, because you have to do the same form more than three times).
But now with most of the process done, I'm on the verge of moving into my new apartment and settling down properly. Once there I can buy a pantry worth of food and spices; I can invite people over (my current room is no good for guests); and I can walk to work in 10 minutes. I can't wait to get over that line. My landlord seems a good man (that being said, I thought my last landlord in NZ would be decent when I first met her) and has been very patient and helpful as we went through the steps.
I've got a Cantonese teacher now and after one lesson, boy does my head hurt. I think I'll have a ferocious learning curve ahead of me but will hopefully get the hang of it soon. By the end of it, a reasonably spoken sentence would half stick and half go astray. The most peculiar thing is that after chatting in Cantonese, Mandarin seems so, so easy. It is as if the brain turbo-charges to cope with the Cantonese so that when the Mandarin comes it is even easier than usual.
Real work is about to begin! My flurry of blogs may be about to cease. While I was dropping some documents into my school's head office in the north, one of the teacher liaisons came up to me and suggested I be head of the social committee for my school and around for Guangzhou. I suddenly thought of the shock of a full schedule, my obsession with language, my move and suddenly I felt I was rather not feeling like it. But we'll see...

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Red, white and green
As someone with a rather experimental tendency when it comes to food, it is a delight to have such an excellent variety here in Guangzhou. I live near a very average small-scale supermarket, and yet I can get the most delicious things: mangosteens, dragon fruit and chinese mountain yams. They have plentiful beans and mushrooms; nuts and grains. Cooking dinner (and leaving some for lunch) is never a problem.
And you need to keep healthy in the city. Pressures push us everywhere, and sometimes it surges us places faster than we could ever imagine. Well, that is the case on the subway at rush hour. My lord! When everyone needs to catch the train at the same time, you'll catch it whether you like it or not, and if you don't catch it, you won't be catching anything for half an hour. There is a logic there that can be understood after close study of the physics of sunspots, solar flares and the solar wind. Fortunately, on Tuesday when we did go at rush hour the surge was strong enough for both me and my orientation friend to squash onto the train.
And even when you're not at peak the pressure remains: Beep; beep; beep; SHRIEK! That was the sounds transcribed in Jiangnanxi station on Tuesday night as a girl did a feet-first long-jump style leap to make the train before the fourth beep announcing the rapid shutting of the doors. She and her trailing shoulder bag made it by millimetres before the jaws of the doors drew shut. Fortunately the door on the other side was shut for she would have passed right through at that speed.
The general foreigners here are a strange bunch. I noticed this in the past too. As a person who makes eye contact with pretty much anyone with their eyes up coming the other way, I reckon that foreigners avoid my eyes much more than the locals. I think only one pedestrian foreigner has done anymore than dash their eyes away. I gave him a polynesian chin-raise with a polite smile; he smiled back.
But then, apart from my colleagues (who seem like a good bunch), I think I'll try and give foreigners a polite distance anyway. I went to meet a relation of a friend last night and fell right into a pocket of westernism, swedes, germans and a British-born chinese playing a game of Risk with beer; it was strangely uninteresting.
A week has passed since I arrived and it feels like at least a month. I'm on the verge of agreeing on an apartment; my work is falling into place (I'm chomping at the bit to begin, in all honesty); the weather is still rather agreeable; and I'm watching a horror movie on public TV: Awesome.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

After the early faze
Last night I got home and struggled to sleep for the first time. It was nothing to do with jet-lag or unfamiliarity; it was excitement and anxiety after my first day on site at my school. And I should have slept because I was knackered. I haven't worked in so many weeks that to sustain concentration, to constantly deal with people and absorb copious acronyms and institutional knowledge was rather taxing. On the subway last night I felt too tired to do anything. I could have fallen asleep so heavy were my eyelids. This morning, though, I woke after the sun for the first time since arriving, meaning that I'm not far from running on Chinese time.
My workplace has been an enjoyable discovery. My workmates, both foreign and local, have been very easy to get along with. The school already had one Canadian, one Brit and one American so I add another flavour of English. In the two branches I've visited this week, I'm the only antipodean. The majority of foreign teachers are Americans. The students are cute. I'm still about two weeks away from my actual teaching but it has been good to be amongst it all. I do feel part of the team.
I'd like to officially retract that dreadful title that I bestowed upon Guangzhou: Guangzhou is not the arsehole of China. On Tuesday I went to a similar place to that which I visited in 2000 (can't be sure it was the same) and what a change has occurred: The people are probably less foreigner-struck than when I was in Shanghai two years ago; It is a great deal cleaner; Beggars are not on every corner; The people, aside from the service, have been great to chat with. Last night while I was waiting for my food at a local eatery, a young man (Lin Huangjie) sat down on the neighbouring table also waiting, we started a nice conversation and though he had some interesting thoughts about the difficulties of learning English, he refused to speak with me using English.
Yesterday may also mark the time that my Chinese study was reignited. Ever since my birthday the heat and fire of my study have been weak; even being here I didn't feel interested in pushing myself to learn. Two colleagues and I enjoyed a lesson with the visiting teacher. It was better than I had imagined although my demands of a lesson will probably see me seeking another teacher to supplement my studey. There seems to be a slight issue inherent in the class. When it was just my two colleagues in the lesson, the less proficient of the two was quite inhibited by his more fluent classmate (the Canadian is a very unrestrained speaker). And now there is a newer, more fluent fish in the pond; apparently he was even more affected. The teacher took me aside at the end of the lesson to let me know about this and we discussed teaching methods to deal with it.
I managed to make my first vendetta though as part of my quest to bring a good service culture to China. A colleague that I went apartment hunting with and I went to a "korean" restaurant. We ordered and within ten minutes my dish came - I didn't start waiting for the other order to come through. Ten more minutes passed and I grabbed a waiter and he grunted that he'd check. We chatted and after another ten minutes I grabbed the same waiter and asked him again where the dish was; he grunted again and headed to the kitchen. Then suddenly all the waiters swarmed over to our order sheet and then to the table next to ours where a lady was eating a certain Chicken Curry Rice that we'd also ordered. The orders were somehow confused and became the one. After about ten minutes the dish arrived. I told my companion that I'd like to raise hell / a complaint on payment, but mainly for the purposes of language practice and making a not-to-subtle point. But it didn't end there: after finally starting our meal, I asked for some tissues; they came but when the same waiter delivered them he added a charge that was even more of a red rag to a bull. When we went up to pay, I camped us at the till and explained how dissatisfied we were and how it was completely unacceptable. The staff scurried around; signals came back and forth from the kitchen; and even when they refused to recognise any obligation on their part to show any goodwill, I stayed camped at the till. The boss came out and said: "We're very busy here and these things happen, sir." I continued telling him that this was not good enough. He appeared to be starting to crack. But we decided just to pay the bill and tell him that we'd mention the service here to our friends in our language school. After leaving the restaurant, I felt myself rather untactful and suddenly much better ways to reason them into the ground appeared to me. God save the next restaurateur who crosses me.
Cantonese has been on the menu too this week and it has been good to be in the environment to hear it and learn it. When I walked with an agent to help me find an apartment, he'd always talk to the landlords in cantonese and I caught quite a bit of it. And the basics comments are all immediately understood. But, boy, I've got a long way to go (and a year to do it).
I've got a well-timed day off today. Whoever designed the schedule for new teachers had it pretty much right. I'll have another two days of "work" and then another day off on Sunday.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Settle down now!
I've had a day here now: I've been approached by hawkers; eaten my first street food; smelt that funny "Please let that be anything other than sewage?" odour that wafts out of drains in the city; and been pushed in front of by little old ladies. Yes, if the sign after customs hadn't said it already, I'm indeed in China.
The hotel was almost a joke the moment I arrived. The internet didn't work; the TV was misconnected; the clock is perpetually 11:40; the bathroom light blew within minutes; and though the room had a kitchen, it was short of almost everything. An intercom call brought a worker up to attend to all of the problems. Before I left New Zealand, I had been pleased to see that I had a breakfast provided with the room, and had a picture in my mind of a small scale buffet with some nice warm Chinese breakfast food, rice porridge, perhaps. In the morning, I descended to the lobby, hungry since about 4am and was faced with an unattended reception, so I asked the doorman who dialed a staff member. A sleepy-eyed receptionist came down and informed me that breakfast would come with the room cleaning people at around this time. So I headed back to the room to find two processed, packaged cakes and a bottle of orange juice: A let down of sorts. But it is a room and now that I've done some shopping, figured out how things work, slept well and had a wander around, I'm at least comfortable.
My neighbourhood is reasonably uninspiring, but it has a good supermarket nearby (with some organic products!) and it looks like it has a reasonable cafe opposite (stocks wine too, NZ labels only, buy them by the bottle at ridiculous prices!). The trees are pleasingly verdant; a big difference from the limp, grey "greenery" of Shanghai and Beijing when I visited. I haven't yet had to take any evasive action while crossing roads. My new shoes have now really met Chinese pavements, too, which really is the fastest way to depreciate an asset ever.
I headed out at noon on my first tentative journey into the subway network, emerging at the famous Guangxiao temple and then heading over to the shopping strip of Beijing Road.
"May I ask you a question?" I was asked in English by a young woman as I waited at an intersection.
I thought that there was no harm in allowing her the pleasure of a single question with me: "Hăo!" I assented. Her face collapsed: "Oh. You speak Chinese. Nevermind. I was going to ask you if wanted a guide," she replied in Chinese, disappointed and walked away.
Oh and the most unbelieveable sight of the day? Definitely the men selling tiger paws on the footpath. Actually, that might be the most extraordinary thing ever. I'll have to think back to all the wackiest things I've ever seen in this country. I also found a rather outstanding spelling mistake on a sign ("STSRBUCKA").
From tomorrow onward my world will become a bit more routine with work beginning. But not real work, just starting the settling in process and visa requirements etc. It should be fun!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Final daze

And so I'm amid the slow process of airport transits – definitely away from where I started from, but still a seeming eternity from Guangzhou and my welcoming party there. It is only eight in the morning and I have four hours to kill till my connecting flight. And I'm in Starbucks, which of all places will be home for this time, drinking an Americano. And though they claim to have free wireless broadband, it seems not to be accessible anywhere in the terminal space I'm confined to; this'll probably be sent once I'm in Guanzhou.

It was a long day on Friday, day of the flight, which could have gone smoother, but I can thank my lucky stars that, so far, I don't seem to have forgotten anything. Both Thursday and Friday proved that even with plentiful time to prepare, my brain still managed to leave many tricky tasks till the last moment; but still leave just enough time to complete everything before a rush to the airport. It is always the way.

The pre-big trip anxiety only hit me on the drive to the airport in fact, showing that this drawn out lead-in really did rob me of the nervous energy it would have otherwise provided for at least a week preceding departure. This meant that I slept well the night before I left. But now, it has dawned on me properly: I'm starting a long adventure from which the relaxation of home is as further away as it will ever be; my feet will always feel in the air till they're back on home soil; I'll have curious eyes on me every day; and I'll have a long time to adapt to my new city and to connect myself in with the Chinese world.

Airports always play on my nerves as I subconsciously think about all the things that can go wrong, wrong entrances I could go through, forms that could be filled out incorrectly and wrong places to go and fruit and pocket knives I could accidentally stow in the wrong bag. I may have done something wrong already: I'd packed a bottle of Ginger Liquour in my check-in luggage to act as a gift or, if no recipient becomes obvious, for my own consumption in Guangzhou. Last night I went to duty-free where I took forever to make the decision of buying a NZ-made gin (gin being another spirit I seem to enjoy). However, the man at the desk told me I could only bring a litre of alcohol into Hong Kong. I didn't even think of the combined volume of the gin and the liquour in my bag; that puts me up to 1450mls of drink, and a bottle of the size in my check-in does show up on the scan of luggage meaning that I should declare or face a potential fine. Fortunately it wasn't the most expensive bottle, should it be taken off me later.

The flight to Hong Kong, from whence I write this, was very smooth. (500) Days of Summer was the best movie in the entertainment book and it was worth the watch (I do like everything Gordon Joseph-Levitt, if that is his name, is in though).  The Last King of Scotland was probably good except for being constantly obscured by my ever lowering eyelids; Forest Whitaker makes you forget that he really isn't Idi Amin; I didn't see the end though – the curtains came down. I had a few short patches of sleep but otherwise cruised through the flight peacefully half-awake/half-asleep. The Other Man was my movie of the dozy morning, clunking its plot along but getting at peace with itself by the end.

If the delays and my fall at Cathedral Cove were some sort of karmic stop-signs telling me I had made the wrong decision to come to China, there have been plenty of other interesting personal coincidences telling me that this enterprise is right. As I boarded the plane, walking through Business class, I looked over at a passenger at the same time as he looked over at me. We both recognised each other immediately. He had been one of my students six years ago. Although he was a native of Qingdao (on the northern coast) and had been staying in New Zealand for most of the time since, he had started a company near Guangzhou in the last two years with a family friend. He visited me later in Economy with his business card and said we should meet later.  It is always nice to have these lucky meetings.

And of coincidences and decisions, back in Auckland Airport waiting an hour to leave, I bought a hot chocolate and read in my freshly delivered Forest & Bird magazine about the degradation of waterways due to dairy farming. I pondered an interesting resolution: to be dairy-free for this whole Chinese endeavour, where realistically possible. My flight meal was already vegan (the airlines smartly give a vegan meal to all who have moral qualms about food), which brings me back to the huge Americano to my right (a really, really long black). I've been popping Raw Cacao beans as if they were candy. Such a principle would gladly avoid the generally horrid milk in China and keep me away from foreign temptations. But we'll see. I'll probably be offered a slice of cheesecake somewhere and scoff it without any moral restraint at all, and probably have my expectations let down with a tremendous clatter (in terms of western food here, things that look like a duck, don't necessarily quack or taste like a duck).

And so as I sit in the bastion of capitalism and epitome of a soulless café, I sit and ponder whether I'll find a cheap voltage adaptor soon before my cyber enjoyment runs out. And wonder how softly I'll land into Guangzhou, the erstwhile "Arsehole of China", and my home for the next year.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


In the lead up to my departure, I've been enjoying food and drink. I doubt whether this is the best strategy: indulging in all the things I enjoy could lead to the feeling of deprivation once on Chinese shores. But not mind that, I've had fun.

Avocados so plentiful and creamy; yoghurt so smooth and rich; cheeses: gouda, blue and brie; chocolate from mid-dark to the darkest night; coffee brewed and prepared to its astringent best; breads light and pure; raw cacao beans; macadamia crunch; dainty ports drunk at the wrong part of the meal; manuka honey spread on beautiful toast bread; gin and tonic, hitting the spot; crepes thin and well filled with the sweetest filling; falafels and tabbouleh so morish and satisfying; milk so white and full; pure organic juice from any fruit; sandwiches with gherkins, beetroot and egg; hummus with garlic and golden kiwifruit scooped with a yellow plastic spoon.

Blogger is one of the websites that are not necessarily accessible in China. This blog was sent via e-mail, the only way I'll be able to continue on this site. And perhaps with such wonderful foods mentioned, I'm best if I don't see the foods listed once I'm in a place where they are no longer obtainable.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

The long and winding road

In June I got the news that triggered thoughts of flying away, and now, five months later, here I am with less than a week left before departure. It has been a rather trying time. I'd thought I be gone long before this time - I've been unemployed for six weeks - but there can always be reasons for such things.

Though I've been denied time with my sister in the UK and travel in Europe with my friends, I've gained in terms of time spent with my mother and friends here and the new connections I've made with my extended family. I've had time to contemplate, as well as explore my country and prepare for my trip.

This being a rather large endeavour for me, it has been nice to have time to adjust to the idea too and think about what goals I have and how I'll carry them out.