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.

Workin’ It

Today was my first full day working with the students.  It was a mixed bag.  They started me off with kids.  Pre-teen kids.  Who don’t speak much English.  Being taught by me.  Not exactly the sort of combination that makes for a stellar class.  The kids were fine, I’m just not the right teacher for that situation.

The next class, however, was adult students who are learning English for business.  This was a great class.  While their grasp of the language may not be fluent, their ideas and opinions on economics are definitely well-established.  I think they’re ready to start picking up a copy of the Wall Street Journal and commenting on how the US is doing things wrong.  🙂  
Their language skills are also quite good.  While they certainly have strong accents, the actual issues are small and quickly corrected when pointed out.  One thing I noticed in the class (6 students) is that when I corrected one student’s pronunciation, all of the rest of them immediately repeated the word correctly.  That sort of initiative is something  I rarely saw in my US students, and never in an entire class.
My third class wasn’t really a class.  It’s called “English Corner”, and is basically just a free talking session.  One of the other teacher uses the time to play word games.  Today, I used the time to ask them what sorts of things there are to do in Kunshan [1].  We talked about parks, stores, restaurants, festivals and “moon cakes”. 
There were about a dozen students in the room, and most of them talked.  I had to prod a few of the high-school students to get them to speak up, but for the most part, they joined in the conversation and had fun.
I have one more class from 7:40 to 8:30.  I really don’t have any idea what it will be like, but I have a worksheet in front me to hand out.  And…. Lynn, one of the support staff, just told me that another teacher is going to take the class, so I can go home.
Tomorrow is my day off, and then I’m back on Friday for another round.

[1] Just to give an understanding of the confusion between English and Mandarin (Chinese), “Kunshan” is pronouced “Quinn-shyahn”–the ‘y’ in the second syllable sounds like the beginning of “yes”.  Plus there’s the “tone”, which makes the first syllable sound like a question.  So, it’s more like “Quinn?-Shyahn”.   And Tsing Tao beer is pronounced “Ching Dow”–this is very important to know if you want a frosty beer at the end of the night.


So, the big news that I left out of the last post is this:  I’ve had a job offer.

Both Jason and I interviewed (via phone) with a school in Kun Shan (I’ll link to a map when I have a good net connection). The city is about 30 miles west of Shanghai and is listed at #5 for most important economic cities in China. The area is home to national headquarters for a wide range of major corporations.

The school itself is a private school catering to adults who are looking to advance in business.  This is exactly the kind of position I was hoping for.  Instead of having to deal with grade-school children who are just learning to speak, or even high-school students who can be apathetic about learning, I’ll be working with adults who have spent a lot of money for the opportunity to improve their English.  They *want* to be there, and they’re going to be demanding about their education.

I was about 90% ready to accept the offer right away, but Jason wanted to “sleep on it”–which is, apparently, a foreign concept to the Chinese.  We spent about 10 minutes explaining what “I’d like to sleep on it” means, and the concept behind it.

This is and example of how I notice the differences over here.  For me, it’s the little things that pop out.  The language, architecture, crazy driving, and other major differences all fall into the background for me. I’m in China, of course those things are going to be different.  But the little things really pop out.  People carrying (open) umbrellas on a sunny day.  They are, of course using them to keep the sun off, but it’s *just* different enough from what you’d expect to see that it leaps out.

Anyway… Today, we’ll officially be accepting the jobs, and tomorrow we’ll be on a train bus to Shanghai.

Dinner With “The Kids”

Aug 7, 04:00

Once again, I’m writing this offline instead of directly to the blog.  I’m finally in a place that has an internet connection… except for the fact that it doesn’t.  I think they’re sending the data by carrier pigeon–one byte at a time.  The connections here (at this hotel) are very flaky.  I was able to get online with no problem for about 5 minutes, then it just died.

Anyway…  Yesterday was a busy day.  I woke up early (about 06:00) after a great night’s sleep, and did a little reading.   Then it was time for the train ride to the mainland.  I wrote a little bit about it yesterday.  Getting to my destination involved:

Walking to the metro station
Taking a metro from Hong Kong to Kowloon
Walking across Kowloon to the train station
Taking a train from Hung Han (?) station to Lak Ma Chau
Discovering, half-way through the ride that I had to switch trains.
Going through immigration
Going through customs
Walking another mile to Jerry’s car
Walking from the *intended* hotel to another one
Finally settling in.

All of this was in 92-degree heat and high humidity, carrying a backpack and laptop bag and pulling a (small) suitcase.  I am going to lose *so much* weight here.  🙂

And then… we went out again (for lunch).
Back to the hotel for interviews
Back out for dinner
Back to the hotel to crash.

A little info on our “group”.  There are 5 teachers and 2 employees from Teach in China (the recruiting company).  Jerry and Helen worked their asses off getting us to our various destinations, dealing with logistics, setting up interviews, and keeping us informed.

As for the teachers:  There are 5 of us, as I said.  One is a Canadian man in his 30s. The other 3 are college students (at least one has not graduated yet, I think the two boys have).  When we went out for lunch, they asked Jerry to take them to a KFC or McDonald’s.  And… that’s where we went.  Well… that’s where *they* went.  Jason (the other “old guy”) and I asked Jerry to take us to a real restaurant.  While the kids were munching on McMeals, the three of us were eating noodles and dumplings.  Great stuff.

Jason and I gave the kids a bunch of shit for traveling half-way around the world and then eating McDonald’s.  During the afternoon, they decided they’d try some of the local food.  So, for dinner Hellen and Jerry took us to a local restaurant.  Let’s just say that it won’t be getting any 5-star ratings.  They ordered all the food for us and we just grabbed it off the serving plates.

First was a type of battered shrimp.  Very good.  I’m not sure what the primary spice was in the batter, but it tasted similar to ginger or fenugreek seed.  The only complaint (very small) was that they still had the legs on.  It was only a problem, because they’d get stuck in my teeth.  The kids, however, were “intimidated” by the shrimp.  One of them said she’d never had shrimp back home, so this  was *really* weird.  While  the rest of us were mowing down the shrimp, the kids were nibbling on one piece each.

Next came sausage and broccoli stems.  Not so good–and that’s not because the sausage slices looked like fried cat tongues, either.  The flavor was like sweet fat; that’s the only way I can describe it.  Nobody else ate it (including the locals), so I’m going to guess that it was supposed to taste better.

Next was a plate of sauteed mushroom stems and beef.  That was pretty good.  I think it could have used a little something more in the seasoning, but overall it was well done.

After that was chow mein–with a kick.  Besides the rice noodles and egg, there was a collection of vegetables and a lot of chilis.

Finally, duck bits in soy sauce.  The flavor was very good, but the meat… well… basically, they just took a whole duck and cut it into pieces–fat, bones, and all.  So you’d bite into a piece and crunch down on bone.  Luckily, by this time I was full.

The kids basically ate nothing but the rice and some of the noodles.  They made no qualms about the fact that they’ll be spending all their meals at KFC and McDonald’s while they’re here.

That is, of course, assuming that they last very long.  If you can’t handle some very basic food (most of it is stuff you’d find at a Chinese restaurant chain in the states), you’re not going to be able to handle the serious cultural differences inherent in this job.  I’m glad I won’t be around when the reality of it all sinks in for them.


[Aug 6th, written offline and posted later]

funny signs
click to embiggen

I spent the night in Hong Kong and made it into China today.  Only two minor snags:  1) I almost left my laptop back at a train station 2) I didn’t fill out a form at customs, and had to step out of line, fill it out, and go to the back of the line. As these things go, a really smooth time.

I don’t know if you can see it in the photo, but I just had to take a photo of this.  It’s a view out of the window of the apartment I stayed at last night.  The black sign says “Joyce Baker Design Studio”. The blue sign is for a bar across the street; it’s name is “Joyce is Not Here”.  *Brilliant* marketing.  🙂

bamboo balcony
click to embiggen

The second photo is of the building across the street.  That “balcony” you see is built from bamboo–and it’s about 10 stories up.

The last photo is from the hotel I’m staying in.  I just had to laugh.  Yes, there are condom displays on the end-table.  There’s also a big bowl of instant ramen on the shelf.  None of them are free, of course.

Condom display
click to embiggen

In the Air

[This was written offline and is just being posted]

I’m at 10,000 feet (rather low for an international flight) [Oops!  later on I realized it was 10,000 meters–about 32,000 feet] just starting to pass over Hudson Bay.  And… for some reason my in-flight information is in Spanish.   I’ll be posting this to the Geekistan blog once I’m in China and have access to the net.  As with all things on this trip, I have no clue when that will be.

I contacted a couple of you with a quick story of my delay, but I’ll go into a bit more detail here.

I made it to O’Hare with plenty of time to spare (thanks, Sean!), got checked in and past security with no problems or long waits, and found my gate.  That left me with about 3 hours to wait until my flight left.  About half an hour before the flight was going to leave, I notice a lot of people standing in line at the counter.  I got up to see what was going on… and saw the bad news:  the flight from ORD to DTW had been delayed by *three hours*.  Apparently the plane had mechanical difficulties in MSP, and they needed to fix it.

So… I got in line to see what could be done to fix this.  The staff handed out pre-printed sheets with phone numbers to call, so several of us got on the phone while standing in line.   Just as an aside:  It says something about how airlines run that they have a stack of pre-printed cards telling you who to call when your flight is delayed or canceled.

I manage to wade through the phone tree and get an actual person.  I quickly explain the situation, and she (of course) apologizes for the inconvenience and sets about seeing what can be done to help.

“Okay, sir.  We can put you on a later flight to Minneapolis, then from there to Narita Japan, and from there to Hong Kong.   The Chicago plane leaves at 12:07.”  From there she  went on to list the other flight times.  I can’t remember them, I just remember that I would get into Hong Kong at 10:30pm.

Then it struck me.  “Ma’am?  Did you say that the Chicago flight leaves at 12:07?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Umm… It’s 12:21 now.”

“….  oh.”

There’s only one flight from Detroit to Hong Kong each day, so I ended up flying to Detroit on the delayed flight, staying the night at a hotel (on Delta’s dime), and coming back to the airport this morning.  The ticketing desk was a little confused with my ticket (and lack of baggage–it stayed in the system and will meet me in Hong Kong (I HOPE!)).

Because of check-out time at the hotel, I ended up at the airport about 4 hours ahead of flight time.  Yay!  More time sitting in airports.  (Can you hear the sarcasm in my voice?)

I made it through security with only minimal hassle.  I was sent through the nudie-scanner, and they had to pat down one leg because I left my (paper) money in my pocket.  I didn’t hear them say anything about emptying out all my pockets, and paper money has never been an issue before.

I encoutered one thing that I’ve never dealt with before:  After having my boarding pass scanned and walking into the skyway structure (a building extension, not one of the extendo-arms you have on smaller flights), there was a cadre of police.  I’m guessing they were INS/ICE.  They weren’t TSA.   Everyone was pulled aside and informed about the rules on transporting money (which I already knew about, and was in no danger of being affected by; I didn’t have more than $10,000 on me).  I was asked to turn on my camera.  Not sure why.

And now I’m on a plane over the middle of nowhere Canada.  I was supposed to have a row all to myself, but there’s another guy sitting in the far seat.  At least there’s an empty chair between us.

The only disappointment about the flight is that I’m directly over the wing.  I was hoping I’d be able to see land when we flew over the north pole–just so that I can say I’ve seen the north pole.  🙂