Oh Yeah… Work.

So, as Mom has pointed out, I haven’t really talked about work at all.  Yes, I do actually work.  My life isn’t just random food.  🙂

We don’t have fixed schedules at the school, so things are quite random.  The start and end of the work day are always the same, but what happens in between is anybody’s guess.  Each teacher is assigned between 3 and 5 classes a day, each class lasting 50 minutes.  Some of them are formal classes, others are just group discussion.

Classes are divided up 3 ways:  skill  level, size, and topic.  The beginning students all work with the Chinese teachers, so I don’t have  them in class.  I get mid-level and advanced students.

There are 3 sizes of classes, face-to-face classes (limited to 4 students) normal classes (not limited, but usually no more than 8), and group classes (not limited,  but usually no more than 12).

Finally there are the topics.  C (cultural), S (scholastic), and O (business).  Each week has a theme (this week it’s “Nature vs. Nurture”, last week it was “Extreme”).

You’re assigned your classes at the start of the week, you print out your lessons, and off you go.  Fairly straight-forward stuff.

Of course… with the advanced students, the official lesson can end rather quickly.  That’s when it’s time to veer off on tangents and just converse with them.  While there are some students who are shy and need to be prodded to join the conversations, most of my students enjoy interacting and talking.  That makes things a lot easier.

I’ll have to see if I can get photos of some of them to post here.   I don’t want to write anything specific about them until I know that it’s okay with them.

Dinner with the Gang

A couple nights ago, several of us went out to a small restaurant down the road from here.  Sherry took it upon herself to order for everyone.  There’s this thing about going out to eat in China–there’s no such thing as “just a little food”.    If they don’t have to stack plates on top of one another, then you haven’t ordered enough.  The photo below is just part of what was ordered.

Chinese food

The stuff at the bottom left is a sort of shrimp pastry; chopped shrimp wrapped in something like phylo dough, and deep fried. Very good.  To the right of that is shrimp in a spicy sauce.  They serve their shrimp with the shells on, so it’s always a big chore to eat them. Continuing counter-clockwise are some fried dumplings.  Also very good.  At the top is steamed brocolli with a soy sauce on it.  Quite tasty.  To the left of that is prickly pears with something in them.  I didn’t eat any of those, as I was getting full.

Now I would like to draw your attention to the plate at the center.  Those are eggs.  Yes… eggs.  The whites had the look and consistency of silicone caulk, and the yolks looked like something scraped off the bottom of a farmer’s shoe.  I have no idea what they tasted like.  I’m adventurous, but there are certain limits I just can’t cross.  That was on of them.

Oh… and to top off the night:

Chinese Budweiser
They MADE me drink it!

A Taste of Home

Crossing the river on Bailu Lu

I did a bit of searching online in the hopes of finding some cheese (it’s been 3 weeks since I left home, and I haven’t had *any* cheese).  One of the places that came up was the Oasis Bar.

It’s an “American” bar in the heart of Kunshan.  It’s a tiny little place in an ally off of Bailu Lu (Bailu Middle Road), about 2km from home.  Not too bad of a walk (especially now that I know where it is, and won’t be backtracking after wrong turns).

I sat and talked with an Irish businessman (who sounds more like he’s from Beloit instead of Belfast), had a couple pints of Guiness, and ate perhaps the best hamburger I’ve ever had (sorry, Annette).  They import the beef from Australia, and process it themselves on-site.  Absolutely delicious.

The place is tiny, but they have a pool table (free), a foosball game, and darts (I took a couple photos with my phone, but they didn’t turn out).  While they call themselves a “sports bar”, it’s more of a good old-fashioned pub that happens to have various sports playing on the TVs.  The stereo was playing, but was low enough that you could talk at a normal level and still be heard.  It ended up being a bit of an expensive night (about 170RMB, so just under $30), but it was definitely worth it.  I just might turn into a regular.

The Bus Ride

Chinese farm space
Hey Wally: get the combine, I see corn.

One of the “adventures” I’ve glossed over is the bus ride from Shenzhen to Kunshan.   It was… memorable–which sucks, because I’d like to forget it.  🙂

When we got ready to travel to Kunshan, the airports were shut down because of the typhoon that had just passed through the area of Shanghai.  There aren’t any high-speed trains that service Shenzhen to Kunshan.  So… we were left with a bus ride.  This was not something I was looking forward to.  However, I was told that it was a “sleeper bus”.  I’d be able to stretch out and lay down for the trip.  Hey… that doesn’t sound so bad.

Umm…. yeah.  That’s really not as pleasant as it sounds.  First of all, the bunks are built for Chinese people–not Americans who are almost 6-feet tall.  Secondly, the bunks have a “reclining” structure to them that can’t change, so every bump on the road causes you to slide down a bit–while your pants stay in the same place.  And, to top it off, the bus was so old that during the heavy rain storms we passed through, the AC vents acted like rain gutters, dumping water all over several of the bunks.

Take a look at the photos below.  We spent 23 hours on that bus.  Most of the time, it was so full that there were people sleeping in the aisles.

Jason and I spoke no Mandarin, and nobody on the bus spoke English. We knew the name of the city we were going to, but not how to pronounce it.  Technically, we didn’t even know the city name.  We were told “Kunshan”, but that’s just the name of the part of Suzhou where the school is–essentially the “neighborhood”.

The only thing we knew was that the bus driver had a piece of paper with the phone number of Sherry (whom we’d never met), and was supposed to give her a call when we got to our destination.

Yep… definitely an “adventure”.

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The More Things Change…

…The more they stay the same.  Dealing with the phone company in China is just like back home–only here you have an excuse for not understanding what the contract says.  🙂

Monday (today as I’m writing this) was my day off. I slept in late (05:00 or so), did a load of laundry, and scrubbed down part of the balcony (there’s a stone counter top and tile floor) while I waited for the laundry to dry.

Around noon, I headed out to take care of a couple simple errands:

  1. Get a SIM card for my “burner phone” (cheap pay-as-you-go cell phone), with the help of Lyra[1] (on of the students) as a translator.
  2. Sign up for internet at the apartment (also with Lyra’s help)
  3. Do some shopping (sandals, shorts, a wok, groceries)
  4. Go to the photo store to get some passport-style photos taken (all visitors must register with the local police, and the forms require a photo)
  5. Register with the police (Sherry would do all the complicated stuff, Jason and I should only need to sign the forms

That should take… 2 maybe 2-1/2 hours, right?

SIX hours later, I staggered up the stairs into my appartment.

1) Clothes, groceries, etc: No sandals. The one time I *want* someone to come help me at Carrefour, there’s nobody in sight. I dug through boxes, but the labeling system is apparently random (the shoe labeled #32 is not in the box marked #32). I did, however, get some nice pork cutlets, green peppers, fresh garlic, celery, and some frozen peas. I also picked up a cheap wok and two wine glasses (One night of drinking wine from disposable plastic cups is enough, thank you). I didn’t get everything I wanted, but I got most of it.

2) The SIM card: For those who don’t know, almost all cell phones have a “Subscriber Identification Module” card (I think that’s what it stands for) that tells the phone what your phone number is, who your phone company is, and stuff like that. The school bought an el-cheapo phone for me (all I really need), so that they can get a hold of me if need be. I didn’t have my passport with me when we bought the phone, so we couldn’t set up an account. So, Lyra and I walked a couple blocks to China Mobile (One of 2 telephone companies in China–dealing only with cell phones), and she explained the various plans I could choose from. That went fairly smoothly. Oh… and I got a jug of laundry soap as a “free gift” for signing up. Don’t ask me, I have no clue. We did, however, need laundry soap, so I ignored the complete randomness of it all and accepted it happily.

3a) On the way back from the cell phone place, Lyra and I stopped at the other phone company, China Telecom, to get internet hooked up at the appartment. Here’s where things start getting out of hand. The plans are rather cheap (169 RMB per month for 8MB service)[2]. The catch? They require a minimum 2-year contract, and there’s an 800 RMB penalty for early cancelation. ACK! I can’t sign up for that without consulting Jason, first. So… back to the school.

This is my day off, remember? And so far, I’m spending way too much time at the school.

3b) I talk to Jason, and he’s okay with the contract and penalty. Basically he says “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” Okay. So internet is back on the list of things to do today.

4) Ruby has been volunteered to take Jason and I down to the photo store to get our “passport” photos taken for the police registration and, I’m sure, umpteen other things that we’ll find out about later. A short walk and 30 RMB later, we have a stack of little photos.[3] They’re not exactly the best photos of me ever taken, but they meet the government requirements, so I’m satisfied.

3c) While Jason goes back to teach his next class, Ruby agrees to come with me to the China Telecom office (just around the corner from the school) to get the internet hooked up. And… here we go again. Yes, I understand that it’s a 2-year contract. No, I don’t want cable TV included. What? I’m required to get a cell phone plan in order to get internet in my apartment? WTF?? At this point, I’m hot, I’m tired, I’m confused, I’m frustrated (but dealing with it all calmly). I pick a phone that I like; a nice simple Android with 3G capability. And… they only have one in the store, and it’s broken. *headdesk*. Okay. I pick another one. Then they hand me the bill. 608 RMB! Now… remember: Everything is written in Chinese, I have no idea what is being said, and all my information is coming through a translator (who admits that she has no clue about some of what the salesgirls are saying). Imagine walking into the phone company and finding that everything is in Chinese. That is *exactly* what I was dealing with.

Okay… fine. We need the internet connection, I was thinking about getting a smartphone at some point (since mine doesn’t work here[4]) and, to be perfectly honest, I’m about ready to collapse from the heat. I pull out my credit card to pay and…. they don’t take credit cards.

Someone just shoot me now. Are you F***ing kidding me?? A telephone company that’s cash only?? And I only have 550 RMB in my pocket. I run to the ATM–only to find that it won’t let me do anything (this is the exact same machine that let me withdraw 1,000 RMB this morning). So I run (yes, actually run) past the phone compay, up 3 flights of stairs, to the school, where I make Jason give me 100 RMB. I then run back to the phone company and pay.

Then, it’s a 2km hike back home (in the heat, carrying a bag of groceries, a wok, and an umbrella), up 6 flights of stairs, and into my apartment.

A cold shower, a dinner of glazed pork & veggies over rice noodles, and a glass of wine, and I’m almost back to human.

The day wasn’t all bad, though.

I took a very casual stroll to the school this morning, along a “back way”. Rather than taking the main road, I followed a tree-lined back street with a cobblestone walk. Along the way, two boys–maybe 12 or 14 years old–were walking on a cross street. They were glancing at me and talking suspiciously between themselves. Finally, one of them look at me and said “Hello!” in English. I smiled and said “Hello” right back. One jabbed the other with his elbow to say “See. I told you!” 🙂

About a block later, a rickshaw driver gave me another “Hello” in English. Then tried to get me to buy a ride (all of that was in Chinese). I replied with a friendly “no” in Mandarin and walked on. He smiled and laughed.

The locals are starting to recognize me (as one of only 2 white guys in the area, it’s not hard). I get friendly smiles as I walk by (as well as a lot of amazed stares), and I’ve become a “regular” at a couple of the small food stalls. I no longer have to do a complex mime routine to get my tsai bao (steamed, sweet bread “dumplings” filled with vegetables; I just learned the name this afternoon). I just walk up, tell her how many I want, and hand her the money. When I get back to Lodi, I am so going to have a talk with Kira and the boys at the China Wok; I’m going to want some real Chinese food. This stuff is delicious. All this food talk deserves its own write up later.

I’ll leave you with a few photos I took from my balcony this morning. This is my neighborhood, seen from 6 stories up.

[1] Pronounced “Lie-rah”. She’s one of the adult students, about mid-level in her English skills. I thought it would be good practice for her to translate between the sales associates and me.

[2] The exchange rate is roughly 6:1, so 169 RMB is a little under $30

[3] Now… let me explain something about the weather today. The actual temperature is somewhere around 35 degrees Celsius. That’s about 95F. The projected heat index was 43C (110F). Fortunately the humidity was only around 80% (he said sarcasticly). And, because I was going to be at the school, I had to wear long pants (to hide my tattoos).

[4] Well… that’s not quite true. It *does* work here, just not the way that Verizon told me. I turned it on for about 1 hour and did nothing more than check my e-mail, and I got a warning saying I had used more than $50 in data. Verizon will be getting an earful from me and losing my business.

It’s the Little Things

As I said in my last post, it’s sometimes hard to remember that I’m in another country–another culture. There are all of the blatant reminders, but they don’t sink in. They’re so big and so constant that you tend to tune them out.

It’s the little things that really tend to throw me.

  • The light switches for a room are almost always *outside* the room. I’ll walk into a room, reach for the switch, only to remember that I have to walk back out to find it.
  • The light switches (which are toggles, not flip-switches like in the US) all go “the wrong way”. To turn a light on, you push the bottom of the toggle instead of the top.
  • The steps are all too short. The rise is about 6 inches instead of the typical 8 or 9 inches in the US. I’m getting used to it, but I still find myself stepping too high. They’re also too shallow, so either my heel (going up) or my toes (coming down) hang over the edge. I’ve just taken to walking stairs on tip-toe to keep from missing the edge and falling to my death.

Stranger in a Strange Land

One of the strangest parts of being here in China is remembering that I am the foreigner. I know it sounds silly, but even with all the blatant reminders, it’s still easy to forget.  For example, when they talk about the “foreign teachers” at school, I keep forgetting that they’re talking about me.

On the other hand, there *are* all those blatant reminders.  The most obvious is the language.  When you’re dealing with any of the European languages, there’s at least enough common ancestry between them to get some of the basics across.  Here, the language is so completely different, that there’s no common ground.  In many cases, the ideas can’t even be properly expressed in the other language.  Sometimes it turns out to be a complex cultural difference, other times, it’s something incredibly simple (to the native speaker).  Jason spent several minutes trying to explain the meaning of “mild weather” to our boss.  I’ve had students stumble for minutes trying to describe something that is a simple, common word (and idea) to them.

One of the slightly disconcerting reminders that I’m the “stranger in a strange land”, is the stares.  Since reaching mainland China (Hong Kong is full of “foreigners”), I haven’t seen a single white person[1] who wasn’t one of the teachers at our recruiter’s office or at the current school.  I’ve seen only 1 black man–and from what I could see of the conversation, it looked like he may have been a former teacher brought in by our recruiters.

The last big reminder was hammered home today when I went shopping:  I’m Gulliver in Lilliput.  I’m a giant here. I went to Carrefour (a department store like Wal-Mart) to get some new sandals and some light-weight shirts and pants for work.  I found a sandal I liked, pulled the display shoe off the rack and held it to my feet.  It was about 2 inches short.  I asked (okay, pointed and gestured at) an employee for help finding that shoe in a larger size, and after looking around for a while, she just shook her head.

Then I wandered down to the shirts.  I found 3 of them that I liked; 2 in XXL and one a 42 (the largest sizes they had).  Two of them just fit, and the third (an XXL, that turned out to be a 41) is just a bit too tight  to wear.  This last one is going to be my “scale” to see if I’m losing weight (see last entry). For now, I’ll wear it around the house without buttoning it.  If, however, I get to the point that I can button it without looking like a sausage, I’ll know that all this walking and sweating is actually doing something.  🙂

[1] Caucasian, that is; there are a lot of Chinese people whose skin is “whiter” than mine.

Livin’ It

I’ve talked about getting here, I’ve talked about the start of work, but I have yet to talk about “home”.

On the drive from the bus stop to the apartment, Sherry (our boss) said that Jason and I would be living in a “mansion”. We thought she was joking. And then we walked into the place.  I forgot to bring the photos with me to work, so I can’t post them right now.  I’ll try to remember them tomorrow.

It’s a 2-bedroom, 2-bath apartment with cathedral ceilings in the living room, and an upstairs that overlooks the main area. It has a good-sized kitchen (3mx3m) a small dining room, an office, an indoor balcony, a small open side area on the balcony, and two large bedrooms. Upstairs walks out to an exterior vestibule (which looks like it will be a great green house in the colder months) and an open balcony with an exterior sink.

The floors and trim are all beautiful blonde wood, as are the plethora of built-in cabinets and closets. There are recessed lights everywhere, and even a huge chandelier hanging from the cathedral ceiling. The doors are all glass–many of them with fancy leaded designs.

It’s huge, comfortable, and absolutely gorgeous.

Of course, nothing comes without a price. In this case, that price is 91 stairs. We’re on the 6th floor of an apartment complex that doesn’t have an elevator. So… in order to get to my lovely home, I have to walk up 91 steps–with no AC and no lights (thank God for the flashlight app on my phone!)

Which gives me a segue into another topic…

I’m pretty sure I’m going to end up losing a lot of weight while I’m here. I’ve already found myself eating a lot less. Mostly, I think it’s due to the heat (and a little bit because I can’t order food at a restaurant unless there are pictures on the menu). Then there’s the fact that I’m sweating out what feels like 3 gallons of water a day (some days, my clothes are completely soaked through).

Then, of course, there’s the walking. It’s the only way I have to get around, so I’m walking a lot. Work is about a mile to a mile and a half away from home (there may be a short-cut, but I haven’t gone looking yet), so I’m getting at least 2 miles of walking in every day. The nearest western-style grocery store (Carrefour; a French sort of Wal-Mart) is another quarter mile past work.[1] I walked down to work and back early this morning, and then down to Carrefour and back late this morning. That’s a lot of walking, and I did it all before noon.

If my sleep schedule stays the way it is (I’ve been waking up between 03:00 and 05:00), I might consider trying to join in the Tai Chi that goes on in the park across from work. That would mean walking down there around 06:00, doing the Tai Chi (and being humiliated by little old ladies who are in far better shape than I am), walking back home to have breakfast, shower, and do chores around the house, then walk back down to work late in the morning. It’s a nice thought, but I’m not sure I’ll have the energy to actually do it. 🙂

Well… today is my day off, and I know for a fact that the convenience store downstairs has TsingTao in the cooler. It tastes like a Chinese Budweiser, but hey… you take what you can get, right?

[1] For the record: Carrying a 3-liter bottle of oil, by a little plastic handle, for a mile and a half really hurts. My fingers were almost numb when I got home. Luckily, that amount of cooking oil should last us a long time.