Monday, December 16, 2013

Have a Nice Shopping

China has supermarkets.  They even have Wal Marts, although they are a Chinese version and their cheap Chinese crap is domestic rather than imported.   I don't my really like Wal Mart. Besides being an odious corporation owned by a soulless, blood sucking, parasitic family, it's a crappy place to shop, both home and abroad.  There is one a mere 10 minute walk from our flat, but has very little that I can't get elsewhere, and it's actually a lot more expensive than other stores.
The other supermarkets vary in quality, service and price.  They have meat departments, produce and Chinese groceries.  You can generally get peanut butter, mayonnaise, and jam, but very few dairy products other than yogurt.  Cheese and butter require extra effort.  Although I used to shop for everything at supermarkets, these days I only get stuff like beer, rice, dry noodles, powdered milk and such from them.   I generally go to a grocery chain called "Chain Mart".  (motto: "Have a nice shopping!")   I think it's called Chain Mart because it is a chain of supermarkets and not because of the symbolic shackles its employees endure.
Chinese people can be very annoying in a supermarket.  For one thing, there are a lot of them, so it's always crowded.  They operate a shopping cart about as well as they drive a car.  They cut in front of you, and manage to block aisles and produce bins with little effort.  They jostle each other at the produce racks and cut in line.  My favorite is the person who gets off an escalator (these are big supermarkets)  and immediately stops, resulting in a consumer pileup behind them.   All supermarkets (other than Wal Mart, which is always understaffed) have a surplus of workers in every aisle who try to get you to buy whatever the management wants to buy, generally more expensive items.  "Welly good!" they beam as they shove the product in your face.
I get my produce, tofu, nuts, meat, seafood, and other fresh stuff at what a Chinese friend calls "the dirty market".  "Dirty markets" are the large barn like places with mostly women in numerous stations hawking all manner of fresh goods.  It's a far superior shopping experience.  Everything is very fresh, mostly local.  The prices are much lower.  And what I like best of all is the interaction with the same ladies each time I come in.  These are tough women who work long hours and don't take crap from anyone.  Since I'm the only foreigner who ever comes into this place, I'm well known and enjoy the extra attention.  I have my usual favorite women I buy from.  I have someone I get eggs from, tofu lady, garlic and ginger woman, the dumpling sisters who make their wontons and dumplings on the spot and have great homemade noodles, the mushroom family, the dry goods girls, and numerous veggie ladies.  Even though it's crowded there too, there is more room to maneuver.  And of course, it's real China, with commerce being conducted like it has been for the past few thousand years.

 Duck, chicken, pigeon and 1,000 year eggs.
 Nuts and stuff
 All kinds of mushrooms

Today's catch
Dumpling Sisters
Pork belly is a favorite.
I get around sometimes on the back of a lady friend's electric motor bike.  We sometimes go shopping together, and it adds to the adventure since she has the same style of motoring as the clowns with the motorbike taxi services.  You get another interesting perspective into the Chinese psyche as you watch people pull out in front of you, or step off the curb into heavy traffic without looking.  I think a good 10% of the population does this.  The general consensus is that many are hoping to get hit in order to collect a settlement.  I think they mostly are just space cadets and are fortunate that most people are driving slowly enough to avoid hitting them.  Perhaps they are civic minded folks who are just doing their bit to help keep the population under control.  No matter, it's all part of the fun of living here.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Opera Man vs Boss Communist

We've settled into our new apartment quite nicely.  It's located on the faculty housing campus of Ocean University.  The actual university is located about 20 km outside of town, but a lot of the faculty live here in the city.
It's a gated community of sorts with a bunch of 8-10 story walk up apartment buildings, a quiet street with speed bumps, and a big sports park with tennis courts, basketball court, croquet court, exercise devices and a track.  Our sixth floor flat overlooks the park.  It's very quiet and peaceful during the day and night, but early mornings and evenings are a different story, and the area becomes a noisy hive of activity.   
Around 6:00 am the first fitness fanatics come out.  These folks tend to be somewhat quiet, but the noise gradually increases as more people come out.  There are joggers, Tai Chi groups, dancers, and geezers on the exercise devices.  Music comes on the PA system from somewhere.  The music is on some kind of timer, and consists of the exact same Chinese classical songs every day.  It's pleasant, nondescript,  flutey stuff, kind of generic.  However, at 7:30 comes the piece I call "Opera Man".  It's a 10 minute number which features a little bit of chorale work broken up by a baritone soloist singing the same phrase that ends on a long E note.  This phrase occurs frequently in the song.  The same music is played in the evening, so that if you are not sick of "Opera Man", you soon will be.  I find now that the E note brings out in me a kind of loathing usually reserved for Justin Bieber or Rush Limbaugh.  Other than "Opera Man", I rather enjoy the activity and noise, especially the kids playing in the evenings after school.  It's nice to hear joyful noise from them.  It shows that their souls haven't been completely crushed by their long, grueling school days.  Of course, it's just a brief respite before they go home for dinner and 3 hours of homework.
When we first moved in, I heard some angry shouting coming from outside.  It sounded pretty serious, like something that would lead to blows or hacking.  I ran out to the balcony and looked down and saw a couple of septuagenarians, a man and woman, nose to nose, hollering at each other about (and I am not making this up) croquet!
They worked things out and continued the game, with the man shouting out whatever the hell he had to say throughout the game.  There is a group of geezers that play every morning below us on a sand court and they give the same enthusiasm to croquet as others might to a pick up basketball game.  Or hockey.
The main yeller is an old guy that seems to think he is some kind of Bobby Knight croquet meister.  He uses the same tone and volume that he probably used in his younger days when he was denouncing someone, and he struts around the court shouting instructions, encouragement, or abuse.  I call him Boss Communist.
One morning, I noticed it was quieter than usual, and walked out to see if anyone was playing.  They were, but B.C. was nowhere to be seen,  the Red Queen King was not there!  People were chatting in normal tones, broken up with some polite chuckles, just like normal croquet.  What happened to him?  Did someone poison his tea?  Did the neighbors complain?  Was he banished to a work camp?  A week went by, much more quietly until one morning, when a shout was heard.  I looked out and saw him, looking a little less cocky, and with a bandage on the back of his hand, indicating that he had been under the weather and had gotten the requisite IV treatments needed for whatever knocked him down.  Within a few days, he was back in full noise.  Hockey/croquet has resumed.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Another Hong Kong Trip

We took a three day holiday to Hong Kong this week.  With the help of a student, I used a Chinese website to book a very discounted, under booked flight from Zhanjiang for just a few dollars more than the cost of the bus.  So instead of a 9 hour bus ride we had a one hour flight that landed us there in time for lunch.
We headed to a favorite Indian restaurant and had a yummy beef dish plus some vegetable curry, rice and naan.  We requested spicy, and it was rather nuclear.  I forget the name of it, but it comes in a color similar to molten lava that is just beginning to cool.  We liked it!  It made our noses pink and our eyes moist.  We ordered extra beer, not because we needed it, but because we wanted some.
One of the things we like about Hong Kong is the chance to eat stuff we can't get in Zhanjiang.  We had Whoppers at Burger King, Subway sandwiches, a Starbucks breakfast, and Sausage McMuffins with egg.  If you think that going to the Asian food capital and eating American crap is gauche, too bad!  We get plenty of great Asian food where we live.  We did have one good Hong Kong seafood dinner, though.
The second day, after making sure that our spicy lunch from the previous day was thoroughly driven from our systems we headed to Lantau Island.  There are some cool things to do and see there, and we opted for the cable car ride up to the Po Lin monastery and giant bronze Tian Tan Buddha.
We took the subway and train to the cable car base and queued up for about 45 minutes to get on.  I can't imagine what it must be like on weekends.  The ride is a lot of fun, 5.7 km of breathtaking views. Or at least they are breathtaking if the day is crystal clear.  It was partly cloudy and a bit hazy, so we managed to hang on to our breath, but it was still cool.
Seeing a big line of people behind me always gives me great satisfaction.

High priced souvenirs.

We got off at the top where there is a "village" which is really a bunch of restaurants and souvenir shops.  This is where we had our Subway sandwiches.  Very Zen.  Souvenir shops at religious site are nothing new in the world.  Most of the items they were hawking were either tasteful religious items at a premium price or lower end religious items at a price that was more than one should pay for such geegaws.  There were also t-shirts and Bubba hats with images of the cable car and the "village" on them.  I didn't look too closely, but I did not see any I ♥ Buddha shirts.
We saw the Buddha.  At one time it was the largest bronze sitting Buddha in the world, but the Chinese decided to build a bigger one, in fact they are a Buddha building binge.
For an extra 30 Hong Kong dollars we were able to go into the base of the statue where there is a lovely gallery of calligraphy and paintings.  This fee is an "offering", but in return you get an ice cream bar and a bottle of water.
We left before the crowd did, and rode the cable car back down. We headed into town to do some shopping.  We usually stay in Mongkok, which is the electronics selling center of town.  It's always busy at night with people crowding the streets and shops shopping for all things electronic from cameras to smart phones. The new iPhone is out, and there were some enterprising folks on the sidewalks hawking what appeared to be the new thing.  Maybe. I don't know and really don't care.  I have no desire to part with that much money for one of those toys, but I can tell you that dangerous number of the citizens here walk around plugged into some device, eyes glued to the screen while walking into each other.
Hawking iPhones.

I did have a woman pulling a small suitcase on wheels cut in front of me while yakking on her phone.  She ran over my foot, and even though it caused the case to bounce and lurch, she was blissfully unaware that she had even done anything.  It didn't hurt.  Since she was headed for a bus stop, one can assume that she doesn't drive, which is probably for the best.
One task that is always on our list of things to do in Hong Kong is to buy baby formula.  Our friends back in China with babies insist on it.  Chinese people do not trust baby formula that they purchase on the mainland, including western name brands.  This is due to the fact that in 2008 rat bastards adulterated milk by adding melamine to it in order to give false protein readings and make a few extra bucks.  Hundreds of thousands of children were sickened and several died.  There are still instances of this happening.
Purchasing milk powder and formula in Hong Kong by mainland folks was becoming an epidemic of sorts.  Hong Kong residents were finding that milk prices were skyrocketing and formula was often unavailable.  The Chinese government placed serious restrictions on how much milk can be brought in, with 2 big cans being the limit.  Penalties are severe, and all luggage is electronically screened.  We each bring back 2 cans every time we go there, although we could bring back a dozen each and still would have people wanting.
We took the bus back to Zhanjiang since cheap flights were unavailable, and on our way out I saw this sign outside a police station warning nice old ladies about underhanded sharky women who try to sell you get rich schemes.  In Hong Kong milk is safe and the police are here to keep nice old ladies protected from land sharks.

Sunday, October 13, 2013


Click the pix for larger picture.
Aging with dignity.

My lower back has been doing nothing but causing me pain and grief since returning to China.  Too many hours of sitting in trains, planes and buses took its toll.  I also moved to a new apartment, I'm spending more time sitting at my desk. And dammit, I'm just getting older!
I went to my old standby pain specialist who delights in tortuous pinches and pokes which provide instant relief once his painful ministrations subside.  Not much help there.  I decided to visit the acupuncturist.
He guided me to a room where I submitted myself to having my pants pulled down to expose half my ass, and then having needles inserted into the tight muscles in my lower back and buns.  
He then attached these to an electrical pulsing current that caused involuntary twitching akin to the dead frog kicking leg experiments in high school biology class.
All the while a four year old girl watched round eyed from the doorway.  She was more than a little frightened, but my hairy white bum had her captivated like a baby deer in the headlights.
I've had this treatment before, and like before it was quite effective at both relaxing my back and relieving the pain.  The cost was 35 RMB or about $5.75.  At that price I think I'll make this a regular thing. 

It's horrifying, but I can't stop watching!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Long Road Back

The summer holiday was great. We had seven weeks of no teaching. It was especially nice because I was fed up with my primary employer and had been ready to move on a mere six weeks into the school year. However, I persevered and made it to the end. Or almost the end. I grew weary of waiting for them to give us a definite date that the school year would end. This was a common practice with this organization. They rarely had any idea when events would happen, including beginning and ending of terms until just a few weeks, or even days before. Since I needed to book tickets, and prices always go up as you near your departure date, I went ahead and booked our tickets for the ninth of July. Sometime around the middle of June, they decided that the last day of the term would be July 12. I was close enough and they were probably glad to see me and my pickiness go. Summer was great. I had quality time with family and friends. I enjoyed the great outdoors, eating, drinking good beer, eating, playing music, eating, playing golf, drinking water from the tap and eating. Somehow, I gained weight. Our trip back was long, but uneventful. We flew on Taiwan's EVA Airlines (motto: half a glass of wine is enough for a twelve hour flight) which left Seattle at 2 am and after a stopover in Taipei, plopped us in Hong Kong at 10 am the next day. We spent most of the next 20 hours sleeping, although we did take a break from this for some meals and shopping. A nine hour bus ride the next day got us to Zhanjiang just in time for the taxi shift change so we waited about 25 minutes for a bus to take us near our apartment. We had brought a LOT of stuff back with us, so we had been humping 25 pound packs and dragging 50 pound wheeled suitcases around Seattle, and Hong Kong. The novelty was wearing off by the time we had hauled everything over a couple of blocks of uneven sidewalk and up the four flights of stairs to our flat. However, the key still worked and we walked into a clean apartment with all plants alive and only one dead cockroach on the floor. This was Wednesday evening, and I had my first class Friday evening and a full weekend of lessons after that. No time for jet lag! We also had been informed that we would need to move since our landlady wanted to take advantage of the real estate boom and sell the apartment before the bubble burst. On Saturday I looked at a decent place, much bigger than the old place, nearby on the University campus for only $32 more a month. I paid 6 months rent in advance the following Monday, and we moved seven days later. I hate moving, even to a nicer place, and this place is a lot nicer. It has a lot of windows and is much brighter. It has 3 bedrooms and an office. It has a much larger living room. Our old place had a balcony where you did your laundry and hung your clothes. The new place has a balcony and a room for laundry with lots of windows so you stuff dries quickly. (Nobody in Zhanjiang uses a clothes dryer.) It even has a western toilet instead of a squatty potty! Anyway, I hate moving. When we first came here five years ago, we had all our possessions in two massive suitcases and a couple of carry ons. It took a small truck two trips to move all the stuff we have amassed since. There is a lot of furniture. There are a lot of clothes. There are books. Office supplies. Kitchen stuff. Plants. (Movers hate plants.) These guys moved us the last time and they are good at it. They are strong. One little guy balances a full sized mattress on his back and goes up the stairs, no problem. They can haul their weight in stuff. Up stairs. Up six flights of stairs, which is where our new place is, the sixth floor of a nine story walk up. Nine stories—Chinese people are tough! We have always lived on the fourth floor here. Three apartments, all on the fourth floor. Nobody wants to live on the fourth floor because the number 4 is bad luck here. So they rent it to foreigners... We finally have an apartment that isn't cursed. Not as good as the eighth floor. 8 is really good luck, but not worth the climb, I think. Anyway, within two weeks I had gone back to work, partied with my friends, and moved, all without the luxury of recovering from jet lag. I celebrated by getting a dandy head cold and spending a couple of days in bed sleeping. I would wake up periodically to blow my nose and unpack. The place is nearly together. I don't have internet yet, but it will happen soon now that I have given money to China Telecom. Their technician will arrive sometime in the next few weeks, will only speak Cantonese, and need to borrow tools, but will somehow manage to get things working. Later.... I now have internet (obviously). It's horrible service! I think that the data is deposited into a bin and hauled by underpaid laborers up the stairs before being dumped on the doorstep, then sorted by undertrained tech school grads and manually inserted into the cable. It's all you can get on the campus, which may explain a lot about why China lags behind many places in the world in higher education. However, I had discovered that a cell phone company offers a wireless internet service and subscribed to it. It's good, and it's portable, and I am up and running.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Five Year Economic Development Zone

Zhanjiang is in the midst of a Five Year Economic Development Zone makeover.  Last year it was given FYEDZ status and big changes have been happening.  The big picture projects are centered around a major expansion of the port.  It is a very underutilized deep water port which is the closest port China has to all points south, including the Middle East.  This means oil.  The refining capacity is being increased.  Rail lines are coming, including high speed trains.  There is a new airport in the works.  Buildings are going up at a dizzying pace.  Lots of money is being poured into the place, much of it actually going into projects after satisfying the greed of those who control the projects.  Schools are being built.  Roads are being improved.  Bus and ferry stations are being replaced.  This is pretty impressive stuff.
There is also a big effort to improve Zhanjiang's image.  Zhanjiang has no image, per se.  It is an unknown backwater of 7 million souls.  Most people here are just a generation or two removed from rural life.  It is kind of a mega village.  The people are mostly what the urbanites here snidely refer to as "countryside people".  They litter, they spit, they pee in the bushes.  In general they are lacking in social graces.  Many are small entrepreneurs.  They have fruit carts.  They sell vegetables on tarps on the sidewalks.  They run businesses out or closet sized shops that spill out onto the sidewalks.  They have unlicensed cafes that spill out onto the sidewalks.  The sidewalks are crowded, with wares, tables, stinky tofu stands, meat, produce, motorbikes, and people.  It has its charms, and is a centuries old tradition here.
The people in charge of Zhanjiang's new image are changing all this.  Early this year, trash bins went up on my street about every 20 meters or so.  A couple of months ago, our favorite barbecue place, an awesome enterprise that was rolled out across the street every night, was shut down.  Then businesses started closing--unlicensed, I suppose.  Then all the food stands, fruit carts, and street vendors disappeared.  All the retailers that used to spill out onto the sidewalks have all their wares crammed into their too small shops.  These shops were for all practical purposes, night storage places.  Even the old guys who used to set up their card tables and play cards on the sidewalks are gone.  Sidewalks are clear and walking is a cinch.  It's boring, and it has ruined the livelihoods of countless people.  Some economic plan!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Career Shift

Hmm. Not much going on in this blog lately.  I've been very busy, with two jobs, and now a third project in the development stage that sucks just about all the energy that's left.
After this school year I will be making another job shift.  I'll be leaving the International Kindergarten and working for a learning center that I helped start.  It's a place that I worked in in my spare time, and has grown and grown with demand for my classes outpacing my energy and spare time.  
I have a generous pay plan and fewer hours.  It's also just across the street from my apartment.  Perfect.
I will also be working with an electronics company on a sort of secret project that will involve electronical stuff and English teaching.
Although the kindergarten was a major improvement over teaching at the #1 Middle School, it left much to be desired.  I'll get into that more later.  
I only have a little over four weeks before the school year ends and we head back to the US for the summer.  I'm looking forward to the rest.  I could use a break from crowds, humidity, horns, death defying street crossing, kids, Cantonese, and watery beer.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Is Our Children Learning English?

Sometimes I hear from students that I used to teach.  I received a text message from a high school student the other night.  She asked:
"What's the difference between A MAJORITY OF and THE MAJORITY OF?  which one is used more often by native speakers?"
I sensed that she had encountered one of many trick questions that the English Education Cabal uses to make learning English one of the more challenging things a student in China will try to do.  I answered:
"Either is OK."  
I then received two messages, back to back:
"which one is formal in written English?"
"I mean in the exam"
I knew it!  It was one of many questions that appear on their abysmal written exams!  The sadists who create these exams have no desire to show how well students have learned English.  They don't care if kids learn English or not.  They only want to trip them up.   The Chinese "experts" responsible for creating the curriculum for English education are nearly complete failures.  A few students manage to learn English in spite of the schools, but they do this by seeking outside help.
First the schools concentrate on vocabulary, and much of it is irrelevant to every day lives of students.  They keep having to learn new words every day, which they are tested on in written tests.  They never use the words, and they become forgotten.  During the Olympics I saw a vocabulary list for a fourth grader that included "javelin" and "Greco Roman wrestling". 
Later, in high school, the exams concentrate on obscure grammar, and much of it is obsolete.  It seems that the intention is to make something akin to a high stakes TV game show rather than to teach the language.  There is little effort to exercise common language, and virtually no students graduate from high school with and ability to carry on even a rudimentary conversation.  Here is a common encounter that a foreigner will have on the street in China:
Adolescent Boy in a group of adolescent boys:  "HELLO!"
Foreigner:  "Hello."
Boys all laugh.
Foreigner:  "How are you?"
Blank looks from the boys followed by nervous laughter.
This actually happens a lot.  I have stopped answering adolescent boys who say "hello".
Getting back to the text messaging saga--I felt that a Chinese English teacher could explain this better since they might know what the "correct" answer was on the exam.  I answered:  "I have no idea.  This is one of those crazy questions that only happen in Chinese English exams.  Ask you Chinese English teacher."
When I taught high school students questions like this were a daily occurrence.  Generally, I could provide the grammatically correct answer, and often I would tell them that even though this was technically correct, we never actually spoke like this.  Then I would tell them the common phrase.
I'm glad to be teaching kindergarten now.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

French Colonial Zhanjiang

I live in an area of Zhanjiang that I call the “French Quarter”.  For fewer than 50 years this city was part of the French colonial empire.  It had been deeded to the French in 1898 for 100 years and they hoped to get good use of its excellent natural port.  The Wikipediaversion of this story is here.  It was a fishing village called Guangzhouwan.
The problem as I see it was that there was not a lot of resources to exploit.  The area has excellent farm land and growing conditions and the fishery at the time was outstanding.  About all they managed to do was to scrape out some coal, and build a railroad.  They also supported missionaries and built a church which stands today. At one point there were some 250 French folks living here, but I imagine that it was not the most exciting place to spend your life, unless you enjoyed swatting mosquitoes.
There is some interesting architecture left over here that hasn’t met the wrecking ball.  Some government buildings and the church are still in use, and a lighthouse is a feature in a park.  Most are kind of derelict dwellings with cobbled walls filling in what were once arched, open verandas and it makes for some interesting sightseeing.
I have found a lot of old images of the area in the form of postcards being sold online.  Here they some of the good ones along with some of what’s left today.
Click the pix for a larger view.

This is the Catholic church just down the street.

Here is the church today.  There is mass every Sunday.
The church is in the background.  This was taken fairly close to where our apartment building is now.
Although it has fallen into disrepair, this building holds offices for the police.

Besides the church, this government building is the best preserved of the old French buildings

These are some buildings around the neighborhood.  There are even some cobblestone streets.

A couple of French kids with their local counterparts.