Monthly Archives: September 2010

Chinese Hospitals, Redux

Okay, so my vast and sincere apologies for being so negligent this past week. I know some of you check compulsively to see if I’ve updated (i.e. that I’m still alive) and I apologize to those of you who are office-mates of said compulsive checkers for making them cranky. I owe you all tales of tall, shiny buildings; of short but thrilling ocean passages; of travolaters and How I Thought I Was In NYC (Or Possibly San Francisco) For Most Of Last Week. I promise to write about Hong Kong and all its majesty next post.

I do have a good excuse, though– both for my negligence and also for doing this post first.

You see, I’ve been quite ill of late. Nothing too serious, so don’t put your worry hats on. Just a touch of tonsillitis/ear infection/wracking cough. Or, as certain Hong Kongers like to call it, Southern China Throat. I now have the pollution anecdote to beat all pollution anecdotes: “Oh, you think your city’s air is polluted? Well, in Shenzhen I got tonsillitis just from breathing.” Ooh yeah.

So anyway, I’ve been a bit under the weather this week, and haven’t had much energy for anything but sitting still and trying not to swallow. Of course, I’ve still been going to work, and my fellow teachers noticed that I was looking a bit peaked, so first I was sent off to go see the school nurse, who basically said, “Yep. You need to go to the hospital. But here, have some antibiotics, you stubborn foreigner.” Because of course, I thought, I’ll just wait and see if it gets better. That was, after all, only Day 3 of this whole adventure.

Well, by Day 6, it still felt like I’d swallowed a pin cushion, so my contact teacher, Wallace (the bilingual Chinese teacher at the school who gets paid big bucks to take care of the waijiao) walked into my office to check up on me, took one look at me, and said, “Ok, we will go to the clinic this afternoon.” I pretty much did not have a choice.

Now, remember how I told you all about the efficiency of Chinese hospitals when we had our medical examination scavenger hunt?

Well, the efficiency hasn’t changed. I was in and out of the Nanshan Hospital in less than an hour, after an exam that consisted of the doctor (who spoke just enough English that we could communicate) using a tongue depressor to look down my throat, giving a cursory listen to my lungs, and asking if I was taking any medications. He was slightly surprised when I shook out my bag and showed him the arsenal of sudafed, Tylenol, Advil, and cefalexin that I had been experimenting with over the previous few days. He was particularly intrigued by the Advil, because I don’t think Ibuprofen is really very popular here. Usually (as I discovered) you can find paracetemol (which is basically acetaminophen, aka Tylenol) in the drugstores here, but Ibuprofen is not widely used. He told me to quit taking everything else, asked if I would be willing to try some Chinese medicines (to which I responded, “Absolutely. Bring it on.”) and wrote me a prescription for a few different things. Then I was sent on my way. This whole examination took roughly 10 minutes.

I tripped obligingly down the hall to the pharmacy. The way the hospitals here work is you pay a registration fee, about Y7 ($1 US) and then if you are given a prescription, you pay for that at the same time you pay for your exam and before you pick up the actual medication. The cost of three medications and an exam was Y70– about $10 US.Then you get a little prescription ticket which you take over to the pharmacy girl in the window across the room, and she doles out your medications in a little plastic baggie and sends you on your way. Again, in and out in less than an hour.

So then comes the fun part: figuring out exactly what the doctor has, in fact, ordered.

I carted home my bag of prizes, and before putting any of them into my mouth, attempted to ascertain what, precisely, each one was. This turned into a little adventure, requiring the aid of a Chinese dictionary, a character-search tool on my iPod which allows hand-written input, and the wonders of the Google search engine.  It took some doing, but I did manage to puzzle it out.

The first and most official-looking package turned out to be erythromycin antibiotics. It was actually reassuringly easy to read this one, requiring only the aid of the dictionary. The dosages were also written plainly on the packaging, so I went about the next two with happy abandon.

Until I started reading the second package, and found myself staring at what was translating to “grape/licorice glycerin elixir to the right of methadone.” Huh. Wasn’t totally sure I necessarily wanted to ingest that particular combination of verbiage, let alone the substance which it described. Trusty Google, however, came to my rescue, and after a little bit of searching I found the website of the company which produces this particular thing, and discovered to actually be dextromethorphan guaifenisen syrup– essentially, Robitussin. Hooray! Cough expectorant! Something I recognize….

The last one still has me giggling, though. This is one of those traditional Chinese medicines, and the characters on the packaging read, “Compound of fish-and-prawn-smelling vegetable medicine kernels.”

Needless to say, some hilarity followed.

I now actually know what this means, though it took me a few days to figure it out. After doing a little detective work, and talking to a new Chinese friend (I’ll have to write about her in a minute), I discovered exactly what kind of vegetable matter it is: Houttuynia cordata, which is a plant native to Southeast Asia and prized for its efficacy in fighting respiratory ailments. The plant is actually called “fish-smelling herb” in Chinese, which explains the truly bizarre name on the medicine package. Notably, Houttuynia compounds were used extensively in fighting the SARS outbreak which began in Guangdong province (that would be here) in 2002. The medicine itself comes in little packages filled with small brown kernels, which look and smell pretty much exactly like fish food. However, the taste is not unlike brown sugar, and once added to hot water, is actually a surprisingly pleasant experience.

This Chinese friend, incidentally, is one I made recently through my adventures in the music department. She’s a piano teacher here at the school and she’s fairly young, somewhat close to my age; maybe a few years older. She speaks about as much English as I do Chinese (which is to say, not very much) but we connected over piano music and we’re having fun trying to learn to communicate with each other. She’s a dear, too– she lives in the same building that I do, and when she heard that I wasn’t feeling well, she came padding down the hall to see what was going on. With her help I figured out the veggie kernels business, and she also told me about a traditional Chinese remedy which seemed to involve pears, rock sugar, and some kind of mushroom. She promised to return the next day with the ingredients to show me how to make it.

She showed up with a crock pot, and, sure enough, a bag full of white pears, rock sugar, and some weird white fungus. She couldn’t really explain what it was, but she wrote the name of it down for me so I could do my own investigating. It’s called silver-ear fungus, and it’s a white lacy-looking thing which is used in Chinese cuisine, traditionally in sweet applications because it doesn’t really have any flavor– mostly it’s a textural component.  It’s sold dried, but becomes very gelatinous when exposed to water. Odd, but actually kind of good, especially if, like me, you enjoy a good bubble tea with the tapioca pearls. Anyway, it’s supposed to have some excellent medicinal properties as well, so my friend showed me how to make this concoction and offered to loan me her crockpot for a few days so I could keep making it, until I feel better. What a sweetheart. I guess in China, your friends don’t bring you chicken soup– they bring you gelatinous-fungus-pear-sugar stuff.

Anyway, I seem to be somewhat on the mend now, which is good because I’m slated to head out to a place called Guilin for National Week vacation on Friday.  I also promise to return soon to discuss Hong Kong, but for now I have some fish-scented-herb tea to drink. Over and out.

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The Shenzhen Shopping Experience

In the States, I’m not a huge shopper. I kind of detest it, actually, unless it in some way involves books. Or shoes. But I was never really a mallrat as a kid and I tend to be the “get in, get out, get it done” kind of shopper, even for groceries and the like.

Shopping in Shenzhen is a whole different experience, however. To start with, the shopping culture here is very stratified between Chinese and Western goods; the expensive malls in downtown Futian and Nanshan host Xpress- and Gap-type clothing stores with (for China) exorbitant price tags. Ok, for example: Y1200 for a pair of shoes. I lived on less than that for the entire first month I was in the country. That’s like a year’s worth of baozi! But Franco Sarto is Franco Sarto no matter where you are, and that’s roughly $200 USD at present.  The more traditional markets have T-shirts for less than Y20,  the mid-range shops looking more like Y50-Y60 for a shirt or skirt. The upshot of all this is, name brand shopping here is a whole different animal.

Personally, I think the Chinese clothes are way cuter anyway.

So the shopping venues are:

1. Fancy Western malls, like Futian’s Coco Park or Nanshan’s Coastal City. Which is, sidenote, also home to the city’s first Burger King. Yeah. Swankety McSwank. By the way, I have only recently discovered that American fast food in China is vastly, vastly superior to American fast food in America. This is probably partly because they add things like chili paste and soy sauce to the cooking process, but I also strongly suspect that the addition of MSG has a great deal to do with it as well.

2. Street stalls, which sell T-shirts alongside fans, decks of cards, and holiday decorations. Our favorite is the T-shirt from Beijing which reads, “I (heart) BJ.” Don’t judge. You’d laugh too.

3. Dongmen shopping district: the mecca of Chinese goods in Shenzhen. The sheer quantity of goods in Dongmen is somewhat overwhelming. The district is roughly 5 or 6 blocks long and several blocks deep, with covered malls running willy-nilly into open-air markets and shop-lined streets. One of the weirdest things we saw in Dongmen was a police inspection– usually the streets are completely stacked with racks and boxes and other displays from the shops that line them; but when the shopkeepers get word that a police officer is on their way, like magic the entire block gets cleared, all that stuff finds its way into the already-crammed shops and within about 20 seconds you go from tripping over shirt-racks to completely clear cobblestone alleys. We walked into a street just as this was happening, and it was actually pretty eerie. (And we, of course, made inappropriate jokes like, “Oh no, the white people are coming! Hide your inexpensive goods!”) As I said though, it’s a little overwhelming. Instead of being neatly or intuitively laid out, department-style, Dongmen is basically barnacled with hundreds and hundreds of tiny boutique-like shops, many of them with the same or similar clothing, crammed around the occasional jade-seller or DVD store. It’s a real trip.

I’ve gone on for quite a bit about the clothing stores, but there are two other shopping experiences of note that I have had recently. I’d like to tell you a bit about Book City, and then wrap up with a discussion of supermarkets. Save the most bizarre for last.

Shenzhen Shu Cheng literally means “Shenzhen’s Book City.” This is a mall in Futian district which is devoted pretty much entirely to the printed word, with maybe a couple of croissant shops thrown in for good measure. Oh, and there’s a KFC. But everything else is pure, unadulterated ink-and-paper goodness. Now, it is a mall, so there are probably a dozen different stores, each catering to a certain genre or subset of books; there’s one that’s devoted mainly to periodicals; there’s what I can only assume is the technical book store, since it appears to be about computers and the like; there’s a place called “Book Experience” which is, at two floors of wall-to-wall bookshelves, basically the Chinese version of the Cedar Hills Powell’s (sorry, non-Portlanders); and, there is an International Bookstore. With books in English. Now, the selection is very limited, and also very weighted towards Classic literature– lots of Austen and Melville, the Brontes make an appearance here and there, etc.– but they do have some new fiction too.

Okay. Slight aside. Chinese is a character-based language. It has no alphabet. As such, there is no such thing as “alphabetization.” At all. It’s not a concept that exists in their language, and so I’ve noticed that the shelf organization of the English language books tends to be somewhat (COMPLETELY) counterintuitive to a native English-speaker. It’s maybe concept-based, but please explain to me how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wound up next to Walt Whitman, Tolstoy, and Edgar Allen Poe, with Steven King cuddling up to some random Fantasy series across the other side of the store from Dean Koontz. Someone please explain this to me, because I am completely baffled.

Anyway, despite its organizational oddities, Book City is a little haven for a stranded, starving bibliophile like myself.

On to the…. Supermarkets!

Actually I’m going to bundle of a couple of things in here, and talk about convenient shopping in general. We have lots of vending machines, lots of little bitty convenience stores, and many open-air market stalls, as well as a few supermarkets of varying quality. Let’s take a walk down the street, and I’ll point them out to you as we pass.

Ah, there goes the 76 bus. If we were to hop on, for 2 kuai and a 15 minute ride we would wind up at Coastal City, where we would find a Jusco and a Carrefour. These are the places to go if you have a craving for “international food,” i.e. pasta fixings, anything vaguely resembling Western condiments, and cheese. Also, Jusco has the best cheap sushi ever.

But back to my neighborhood, on one side of the street you find the entrance to a place that is “real China,” a set of interconnected alleyways that are absolutely overflowing with market stalls of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as some noodle and dumpling stands and a meat market. With live chickens. And turtles. And fish. And sometimes the fish or their eel friends are just kinda chillin’ on the floor. No big deal. The fruit- and veggie-stalls are far and away my favorite though, especially the dragon-fruit and the carrots. Carrots here do not mess around, man. They are huge, thick, round carrots like you see in little kids’ cartoons.

Oh, look, some vending machines. How normal and not at all– wait. Wait. Do you see the package of chicken feet up there in the top row? Oh, yeah, and the jean-flavoured condoms on the bottom shelf. Yeah, I have no idea either. Sometimes this vending machine is sitting next to one of those claw games that you used to play at the arcade, except instead of toys, this claw game plays for cigarette packs. No kidding.

The convenience stores, like that one over there, usually are dark little holes snugged up between little restaurants and maybe a China Mobile, and are full of bizarre dried and preserved foods, along with (usually) an ice-cream freezer and a drinks fridge. These are what we come here for. Incidentally, to divulge some more of our inappropriate humor, there is an ice-cream bar here called “Magnum.”  You can just guess the jokes that come from that.

Okay I promise this is the last thing. Grocery stores are grocery stores pretty much wherever you go, whether they have Mac & Cheese in a box (oh man, if anyone wants to send me an industrial-sized box of Annie’s White Cheddar Shells, you will be my favorite person forever. No kidding. This is shameless begging that is happening right here) or Kimchee in jars. Hands down weirdest thing I have ever seen in a grocery store though?

A whole oxtail. Just chilling. Literally. In an otherwise empty frozen foods case. Creeped me the eff out, let me tell ya.

So that’s shopping in Shenzhen. Stay tuned for stories of Mid-Autumn Festival, moon-cakes, and adventures in Hong Kong!

We Have Weather Happening

It’s actually odd that I chose today to write this post, for a couple of reasons. First of all, apologies for spamming your RSS feed with updates this week. Last week was crazy busy and I got neglectful, so I’m trying to make it up by being pity and erudite (points if you can Name That Quote) and prolific this week.

Second, the weather is stunningly beautiful today. Not too muggy, though that will probably change as soon as I have to step outside on my trek to Chinese Class, and sunny and gorgeous blue skies.

The blue skies, however, are a product of the less-than-savory weather that has been going on for the last few days.

Shenzhen is, as I mentioned, a massively populated city in a sub-tropical climate. As a result, the default weather is hot, humid to the point of dampness, sticky, hazy, and overall mildly uncomfortable. I mean, we’ve gotten used to it. But most of the time, people hide out in air-conditioned rooms and figure out the shortest distance between the blessed, AC sanctuary of where they are and the hopefully also blessed, AC sanctuary of where they are headed.

Some days, though. Some days, your day will begin as a sunny-ish, hazy hot Shenzhen day. You walk into a restaurant for 20 minutes to have lunch, and when you walk out– lo and behold, it’s an absolutely torrential downpour, and Noah’s Flood is happening on the street and sidewalks, and you’re thinking, ‘darn it, why did I think runners were a good idea’ as you mince gingerly through the sludgy sidewalk river (did I mention about the walking surfaces in China? Ugh) and hope hope hope you can get that brown sliminess off of your Adidas at some point.

The rain makes a show of stopping at some point about 30 minutes later, and you poke your head cautiously back outside, tenderly sticking out a hand to see if there are any falling drops. It seems ok, but now you know better than to trust it, so you don your rain jacket and head back out on whatever errand it was you were on your way to do when the Rainpocalypse happened.

Storm clouds loom ominously in the distance, but they look like they are hovering over those poor sods in Futian district, even possibly over Hong Kong, so Nanshan should be safe for a bit. And, obligingly, the weather holds while you make your pilgrimage to the grocery store for supplies, and starts dripping again but not very earnestly as you board the bus back home. It holds until you walk in your front door, and then, as if on cue, the apartment building explodes with noise as raindrops the size of quarters come pelting at your windows. This storm is quickly followed by Thunder and Lightning– and yes, they deserve Capitalization. One of my friends had the bizarre experience of having his apartment actually hit by lightning during this particular storm, so badly that it blew out the ethernet cable port on his computer. Not even kidding. He’s been trying to find a USB replacement for a few days now.

The weather in and of itself is pretty exciting, especially as we usually get 2 or 3 days of this kind of thing all at once. It keeps you constantly on your toes. My favorite part of this whole weather situation, though, is not the weather itself. No, my favorite part is that all of the sidewalk surfaces in my school, not to mention many of the sidewalks around town, are either made entirely of smooth polished granite or marble, or have tiles of it set into the normal sidewalk.

Imagine walking this on a normal day. Okay, whatever. Kind of strange but also pretty.

Now imagine walking this when it’s been raining for 4 days and you are wearing flip-flops. With zero traction.

On the plus side, when it rains like that, the following days boast gorgeous blue skies, and a small respite from the muggy haze. So who can really begrudge a few terribly, horribly, embarrassing, losing battles with gravity?

Gravity should get a handicap.  Marble tile, indeed.

Shen Da Fu Zhong, An Introduction

I beg J.D. Salinger’s pardon for the gross plagiarism of today’s title.

This is my school post. I’ve been here a few weeks, time enough to get to know my students and the faculty and enough to start to tell you about what life is like here at the Shenzhen University Attached Middle School.

Okay, first of all. Let me tell you about the name. I wish I could give you a website to explore, but we seem not to have one. Shen Da Fu Zhong is a “Middle School” (which means both Junior and Senior High) that is affiliated with Shenzhen University, specifically the Normal University– aka Teacher’s College. I believe this means that a lot of teachers come to us from Shen Da, not necessarily that  lot of students continue on to Shen Da. In China, the stunning reality is that only 10% of students who finish high school make it into the highly competitive Chinese universities. That number is probably skewed somewhat higher here at my school, which is one of the best in the city. We also have a subset of students who are studying A-Level courses, for entrance to university in the United Kingdom.

My students, whom I have mentioned before, are Junior II and Senior II– which shakes out to 8th grade and 11th grade. I teach 4 sections of Juniors and 9 sections of seniors. Each grade has their particular quirks, as does each class. But let me tell you some things that are true for most Chinese students.

They study hard. And they study all the time. Many a night I’ve walked home from dinner at 7:00, 8:00 pm to find the lights still on in the classrooms and students still hard at work. (I was actually treated to a delightful concert the other night when I walked by the music building at 7:30 at night and there were students inside practicing a classical Chinese ensemble of some sort.) During the week they live on campus in dormitories, small rooms with 8 or 10 students in bunks. On the weekends, they all go home to their families. A welcome respite for students and for the residential faculty.

The other thing is, Chinese students are usually quite disciplined in their behaviour. They sit neatly at their desks, studiously do their work, and listen intently to the instructor who stands on the platform at the head of the classroom. However, caveat:  all this breaks down somewhat when the Foreign Teacher walks into the classroom, because hey, we’re the wacky foreigners and we don’t give grades.

In my Seniors, this comes out as apathy. A lot of them try to get away with doing homework for other classes. Blatantly. They’re usually pretty good about putting it away when I walk around the class, as a small show of respect, but usually it comes right back out. I’ve started dealing with this by randomly calling on students to read what they’ve written or say out loud what they talked about during individual or pair work. The other way to deal with it is to keep them engaged, so teaching them about American music, for example, has done some good. Especially when loud and obnoxious punk rock comes blaring out of the speakers. Or when I beat box in front of the class. Yeah. That got their attention. But they tend to be very smart and capable, and there are a few that are absolutely delightful, wanting to chit chat after class or getting really into the class work, and a couple who regularly stop into my office and spend an hour sitting and talking with me.

My Juniors, on the other hand, are mainly just wild. They chatter all through class. Will. Not. Shut. Up. At least the older Juniors seem to have outgrown the tendency to break out in violence in the middle of class (oh, there are some excellent horror stories from other teachers) but it’s extremely difficult to get them to be quiet for more than a few minutes at a time. I’ve decided to take it and roll with it. They love games and are incredibly competitive, so if there’s a chance of winning points, they are far more likely to speak English and participate. The other thing I’ve learned with them is, even if they don’t show much respect they actually do really like us just because we’re foreign and therefore interesting, so showing a sort of theatrical approval or disapproval is actually a pretty powerful tool. Thank you, drama training. And they are quite charming, despite the behavioural stuff. The Juniors don’t come to my office, but they certainly want to chit chat after class, especially if I give in and talk to them about Justin Bieber (shudder) or Gossip Girl.

The faculty here at Shen Da Fu Zhong are quite wonderful. Because we teach all over the place, Stephanie (my co-CTLC-er) were sort of put randomly into one of the English offices which had room. So we find ourselves in the Senior I office with an assortment of Chinese English teachers, all of whom have been wonderful and welcoming, and one of whom, Anna, is the single best thing that has happened to us since we got here. Anna’s English is quite good, so she quickly took over the job of babysitting the Waijiao’s, and then I think realized that we’re actually pretty cool. So we eat lunch together often, and Anna has been comfortable enough to ask me questions about English grammar and vocabulary that she will be working on with her students. In return, she is an invaluable source of information about day-to-day needs (“Anna, how on earth do we get to the bank?”) and lots of fun to boot.

It’s a fairly large faculty, which we knew already, but the point came home when we all went out to Teacher’s Day celebrations. Teacher’s Day is this wonderful day dedicated to the appreciation of teachers, which many countries in the world observe. The People’s Republic of China celebrates their Teacher’s Day on September 10th, and it is a BIG DEAL. Students bring in all kinds of goodies for their teachers (I received a jade plant, which is now sitting in all its verdant loveliness on my desk; a mug which assures me that I am the best, always; and a handwritten card informing me that “Madam, I like your class and your teaching. Thanks for your great teach and please give us a lovely class. Ok?” Be still, my heart), while the school gives bonuses (woo!) and then throws us a banquet. Fancy banquet. Seventeen-course meal kind of fancy banquet. Our faculty is big enough that we had to rent out the entire hall of a restaurant down the street from the school. We sat around chatting for a couple of hours, munching on sunflower seeds and peanuts (well, not me on the peanuts) while the waiters flitted about filling wineglasses and preparing baijiu thimbles in expectation of the rampant drunkenness which was about to ensue. After speeches by the headmaster and assistant headmaster, the food began arriving and the toasting began. And never ended. We began dinner at around 8pm, finally leaving the restaurant after midnight, having spent the entire evening being goaded and egged on and “ganbei”ed by various teachers and administrators. Side note. “Ganbei” means “Dry Glass”– essentially, bottoms up. We had luckily been warned about this tradition by other teachers, and so managed to a) refill each others’ glasses b) only a little each time. Good move. We were not the sorriest heads the next morning by a long shot. By the time we left the restaurant, the staff had already taken down all our decorations, put out half of the lights, and set up for the next morning’s dim sum.

Oh right, and then the administrators kidnapped us to KTV. Which is better known as Karaoke. What a strange night.

Okay, I have students about to stop in to chat. Back later to fulfill all those story promises I have been making for ages and have not yet written about.

ETA: Tonight I met some of the music students, the Senior II’s who are focusing on music and so they don’t have my conversational English class. I met them when I poked my head into what looked like a fairly empty hall full of practice rooms, and started playing Debussy and looked up to find a half-dozen inquisitive faces lurking outside the glass door. So what did I do? Invited them in. Played for them. Listened to them play. Had what I would consider was generally one of the best, most enjoyable nights I have spent in this country.  Thank you, SDFZ!

Why China is Weird, Part 3

Let’s begin this post with a bit of a preface.

The things that one sees in China which one might label “strange” are probably no more strange than things one would see anywhere else in the world. What makes the Chinese version of strange so intriguing is the sheer abundance of such bizarre sights as a police officer on a bicycle getting stuck to the back of a motorbike and, when said motorbike stops suddenly, being flung headfirst onto the sidewalk where he sits up and curses the motorbike-rider, who shrugs and drives calmly away. Regretfully, I did not witness this incident first hand so that is all the more information I can give you on the situation. But the point is, stories like this one, and ones more insane, get slung around by all the foreigners when we meet on the weekends for meals and excursions.

So here are three that caught my eye this week.

1. I’ve already discussed the somewhat eccentric nature of Chinese children and their bathroom habits, but this one sort of took the cake for me. I was wandering the aisles of Carrefour, which is a European-style grocery chain here. Lo and behold, there is a small child, standing with legs spread in the checkout line, happily peeing all over the floor. While his dad nonchalantly paid for groceries. See if I ever pick up anything off the floor anywhere in China.

2. I did not fully appreciate the meaning of the words “hot” and “muggy” until I moved to sub-tropical China. Over the last few weeks I have sweated in places I didn’t even know could sweat. Boys, cover your ears for a moment– ladies, if you have ever had the unfortunate experience of removing your bra and pouring a small pond out of your underwire, you know what I’m talking about. If you have not, you are now imagining it.  My apologies.

The Chinese folks have developed a number of strategies to deal with this particular problem. (One of these days, when I get my act together, I will post photographic proof of these things I am telling you.) We’ve gotten used to such exhibits as the Chinese fan, which comes in two breeds– the delicate, modestly-sized paper-and-bamboo ladies fan with which most of you are familiar, I am sure; and what I like to call the Man-Fan, which is simply a ridiculously large version of the one that the ladies carry. This particular piece of equipment is very handy to have on crowded buses, or in crowded streets, or at crowded tourist attractions, or… Even if you are not the proud owner of a fan, Man-Fan or otherwise, you can reap the benefits of this tool. Simply sidle up to a person who is thusly equipped, stand unobtrusively to their left (to their right, if they’re a south-paw) and revel in the glorious breeze issued forth from their vigorous fanning action.

Another favorite strategy, this one particular to Chinese men, is the shirt-roll. You take the bottom edge of your shirt, and either fold it or roll it up so that it reaches no lower than your pectorals and your stomach is bare to the elements. Then you walk around or, if you’re a little more traditional, take your man fan and hunker down into a heel-squat sit. It must be pretty comfortable, because you see it everywhere.

There are many other coping strategies, but this third one is the best I’ve seen lately, and the one that truly falls into the “Why China is Weird” category. Whilst on the bus home from excursions the other night, I was gazing out the window at the passers-by. Suddenly, into my view popped a bicycle. This in and of itself is not unusual. Bicycles are an incredibly popular form of transportation around here. One of these days I will do a post purely about the insanity of the bicycle traffic; but this is not that post. No, what caught my eye was–in this order– the fact that there was a woman with a polka-dotted dress standing on the back of the bicycle (with no helmet, of course, as this is China), that she was holding onto the shoulders of the guy in front of her, and that the guy was almost completely naked. I couldn’t tell if the small scrap of cloth he was wearing was a loincloth or a pair of Tighty-Whiteys. But whatever it was, it wasn’t much. I’m willing to bet he was feeling pretty cool.

3. People sell the absolute weirdest crap in the streets. I mean, there are the normal weird food things like durian (oh the horror) and dried squid and various mystery meats on sticks, and there are the normal not really weird but slightly surprising stands selling magazines out of cardboard boxes, DVDs that are most likely pirated, and various wooden instruments. But then you get the truly strange. Like the woman who had set up shop in the middle of a park outside of Book City (glorious glorious Book City– that is also a post for another day), with a bunch of ducklings. Which she was selling. In plastic crates. Of course, when we walked by, the ducklings were out on the lawn, peeping their little hearts out, while smallish children ran among them, picking them up and putting them out in various places all over the grass. The traumatized little ducklings were trying to huddle together, making little patches of yellow fuzz all over the lawn, and every once in a while a parent would relent and some happy little kid would make off with a small duck enclosed in a little plastic crate.

Mull on that for a bit. Here I leave you, with the promise that I will return soon with yarns of Book City, bicycle traffic, and the strange and wonderful holiday known as Teacher’s Day.

Mass Transit– emphasis on “mass”

A lot of people live in China. A lot. My current home is also home to at least 13 million other people, and that’s just at last count. Shenzhen is not the largest city in China, but it doesn’t miss by much– at recent count, Shanghai clocks in with 17 million, Beijing coming in second with around 14 million, and Shenzhen and Guangzhou each contributing roughly 10-13 million.

Moving 13 million people around a city requires, as you probably imagine, a rather extensive network of public transportation sharing the road with an absolute swarm of cars and trucks.  The Shenzhen buses, as I’ve mentioned before, are pretty great as a rule– clean, air-conditioned, there are televisions that show random Chinese shows and America’s Funniest Home Videos. Being stuck on a bus for a while, which you are because Shenzhen is HUGE, is not the worst way to spend an hour.

Unless it’s rush hour.

The following is a guide to not getting lost/separated/crushed/run over/groped inappropriately (welcome or not) on a rush hour bus in Shenzhen, people.

Step 1: Collect all the members of your group at one bus stop. Make sure you are not trying to move a group of more than 3 or 4 people. Otherwise bad things will happen. People will get left behind.

Step 2: Gape in horror as the first bus rolls by, jammed completely packed with people pressed against the doors and windows.  Then curse in frustration as it chugs merrily along without opening the doors.

Step 3: Realize it was probably a good thing you didn’t try to get on that bus. Besides, the next one will be along in a couple of minutes.

Step 4: Stare open-mouthed as the next bus, equally packed, pulls up.  This is going to be tougher than you thought.

Step 5: Steel yourselves. Make sure you have a head count. This might get a little hairy.

Step 6: The third iteration of your bus pulls up. (Three’s the charm, right?) You sprint to get ahead of the throng, feeling your friends’ hands on your arm as you all try to stay together. You momentarily form a wall as you clamber onto the bus together. Once you’ve made it up the step you scramble for a handrail or seat to grab to steady yourself against the press of humanity that has followed you aboard. Once you have some semblance of equanimity returned to you, you look around and try to spot the other foreigners on the bus. Do this now, before you get too many stops away, in case you have to try to dash off the bus at the next stop to catch up with the stragglers.

Step 7: Cough it up. Shenzhen buses have two methods for paying fare. On fixed-fare buses, you swipe your metro card against an electronic pad and it deducts from your balance. On the variable-fare buses, there is a person (usually a woman) whose job it is to walk around with a little card scanner and visit each new arrival on the bus to scan their card or take their fare. Both of these processes become slightly more complicated when there are roughly 150 people on a bus that is supposed to seat 40, and you are climbing in helter-skelter through any available opening (i.e. front and back doors).

Shenzhen-ers have developed a couple of rituals to help with this process. On the bus with the woman who walks around, she basically stands at one of the doors, let’s call it the back door, and as soon as the doors close she holds out the scanner in the direction of the throng that just boarded and people perform some amazing contortionist acts to swipe their cards against it. She then makes her way up the (completely occluded) bus aisle towards the front door, and repeats the process. By this time, often the bus has reached a new stop, so she repeats the process all over again, this time starting at the front and making her way to the back.

On the fixed-fare buses, with the scanner at the front door, the process is slightly different. After you clamber onto the bus, one industrious passenger proceeds to collect all the metro cards from the new arrivals. The stack is passed forward amongst the passengers to the crowd standing basically in the driver’s lap, and one of them obligingly scans each of the cards (or drops the coins in the coin receptacle), stacks them back together, and passes them back down the bus to their owners. Without fail, every single time I have seen this done, I have gotten my own metro card back intact with almost stunning alacrity. Amazing. In a city known for its pickpockets, the respect for the bus fare somewhat astounds.

Step 8: Settle in. You’ve navigated the treacherous mounting process, you’ve paid your fare; now you get to relax and enjoy the sardine aspect of the bus ride. Basically you just have to accept the fact that there is absolutely no personal space, and trying to keep any semblance of it will just make you nuts. So you become perfectly okay with the fact that you are pressed rather closely up against the guy in front of you, and the girl to the side might lean up against you and/or grab your arm to steady herself because she’s hanging out in the middle of the aisle with no hand holds so she’s braced against you and maybe the guy on the other side of her, who’s holding on for dear life to the pole next to the driver. There is also probably another smallish woman who has hopped up onto the seats, feet placed carefully so as not to step on the folks sitting in said seats, and she may have a thigh or, depending how short she is, a butt cheek, pressed nonchalantly against the side of your head. Especially when you go around corners. Oh, and don’t mind that woman sitting nearby who suffers from motion sickness; someone will pass her one of the plastic bags that are provided on every bus just for this purpose.

Step 9: Disembarking. Depending on your final destination, you might be one of the lucky souls who watches the bus slowly empty out as you get further and further away from the middle of the city. Suddenly you feel the blessed relief of the air-conditioner, and your foot is no longer being stood upon by a small child (or small adult). Eventually you might even get a chance to sit down as the throng subsides slowly.

But usually you are not that lucky. Usually, you are getting off at one of the stops in the middle of the route, along with 30 other people. And there are usually another 30 trying to get on at the same time. So again, you steel yourself, take a deep breath, look around for your travel-mates, and start getting into position to bolt from the vehicle. If your Chinese is not completely atrocious (or even if it is) you can tell the people around you, “I need to get off the bus” and they will begin to shuffle and press you forward closer to the door. Finally the bus stops, the doors fly open, and you push like an infant exiting the womb, flinging yourself into space for a moment before landing on the concrete (blessed, blessed concrete) and ducking out of the way of the people trying to fill the space you just vacated. One of your friends might have an oversized purse that is caught between two other passengers, and you might have to rush over and yank on her until she and her bag come free and land with you on the sidewalk. A few seconds later, the bus doors close once more and it peels away, and you are left, somewhat breathless, glad of your relatively unscathed state and slightly bewildered by all of the breathing room you now have and the fact that you can move your arms.

Rinse.

Repeat.

Count your fingers, toes, and handbags, and then proceed to scuttle merrily off to whatever activity it was for which you chose to brave the harrowing gauntlet of the Shenzhen mass transit system at rush hour. You mad fool, you.

So, who forgot to tell the foreign teachers that there are uniforms?

On the first day of classes, and following that, every Monday morning at 7:20 am, there is a Flag Raising Ceremony that takes place on the  school’s soccer pitch. The students and teachers all turn out, line up, and do a bit of marching whilst the Chinese National Anthem plays and the National Flag is raised up the flagpole by Chinese soldiers. Then another song is played and two other flags, which I can only assume are for the city and the school, are raised as well. At this ceremony, all the students wear their normal school uniforms. Also at this ceremony, the teachers all wear their uniforms.

Which someone neglected to tell the waijiao (foreign teachers).

My co-teacher and I rolled up to the soccer field at 7:15 to find the students and teachers all in smart lines, the students in matching blue and white, the teachers in matching black and white. Stephanie and I looked at each other in slight panic, realising that even in neutral -colored, teacher-appropriate clothing, we stood out like a couple of very sore thumbs. You can do nothing at this point but shrug and get in the back of the line, and try not to blush too much when all the students turn to give you curious stares.

Flag ceremony accomplished, we trundled off to our office to prepare for our first day of classes.

I may have mentioned my teaching load here before, but in this context it bears repeating. I am teaching 13 classes a week, 2-3 per day, to 8th graders and 11th graders (Junior 2 and Senior 2). My class load is actually quite Senior-heavy, with 9 senior classes and only 4 junior classes. Since I taught juniors in Beijing, I was far more apprehensive about the 11th graders. Turns out, they are quite charming. And smart. And also, incredibly reticent. They are going to need some hardcore teeth-pulling to get them to volunteer for anything. On the other hand, the juniors are a wild bunch, quick to erupt into cacophony but also quick to settle and listen, which I greatly appreciate. (Maybe once the novelty of having a foreign teacher wears off, this will become more difficult, but I’m hoping to whip them into shape a little before that happens…) I’ve already had one student make an after-class appointment to just come in and chat with me about American music– also to bitch about her other English teacher, which I think was the real purpose of the visit. But anyway, I have some truly delightful students and I haven’t even met all of them yet.

Did I mention, however, how the waijiao didn’t know about the uniforms? Today, I had another brilliant what-the-foreign-teacher-doesn’t-know experience. I showed up for my second class today, good and ready to do battle with the juniors’ attention deficiency; arrived, only to find out that my kouyu (conversation) class had been cancelled in favor of a science examination. Okay, fine. I trundled back to my office to wait out the 50 minutes until my next (and final) class of the day. Arrived at that class to find out that this examination was grade-wide, still going on, and that yet another of my classes was cancelled in its favor. Awesome. So I went back to my office again, this time bumping into one of the Chinese English teachers who work in my office, and with whom I had exchanged pleasant, “Have a good class” right before leaving. She was quite confused to see me back so soon, and marched me back down to the classroom I was supposed to be in, sussed out what was happening, then marched back down to our office and made a few prompt and pointed phone calls to the head of the junior 2 teachers. Out of this, I got an apology, and an opportunity to reschedule the class. For 4:10. Today.

Sigh. At least I won’t have to play catch-up with a random Thursday class period next week…

Life in Shenzhen: The Expat Edition

Shenzhen is a bizarre place to live, but I find it to be so in the best of ways. It is a city of contradictions, of stone-floor squat toilets within spitting distance of Sephora, of 3-kuai meat skewers around the corner from an 80-kuai cheeseburger; a concentrated microcosm of what I will hazard to guess is true in many parts of urban China. Ah, the strange and wonderful nature of a developing nation.

Let’s take a quick peek at the profile of the city. If Greater Shenzhen were boiled down to an intersection, stretched out in front of you would be the main drag– busy, noisy, full of buses and expensive foreign cars and flashy neon signs. Like Beijing, which is the only other big city to which I’ve been here, in Shenzhen gaudiness is king, and the louder and more brightly colored your establishment is, the more likely people will choose it.  (This is of course not universally true, but it does explain to preponderance of LED displays one finds on a walk through Futian, Luohu, and northern Nanshan…)

Intersecting the main road, you would find a street that is maybe quieter in terms of traffic, but is full of the sound and fury of construction and development. Shenzhen is constantly under construction. The area near my school, for example, is evidently owned by a group of Hong Kong businessmen who are attempting to turn it into the city center in the next 10 years. Currently, the view out my apartment window looks over a shipping container yard and a highway that is almost completely bumper-to-bumper trucks, 24/7. Five to ten years from now, it’s going to be Shenzhen’s Manhattan. Until then, southern Nanshan is a district of cranes.

Running between and around these two large streets you will find a network of alleyways and side streets. These will be a mishmash of street food culture, family-owned restaurants, and menial industry. This is where you will find Chinese groceries and the guy on a bicycle with a bunch of coolers selling soymilk and honey sesame buns for 2 kuai (about 40 cents); where you will find fruit stands selling everything from peaches to durian (oh, the sweet smell of durian in the morning); where you will find car washes and bike shops and fans and paper lanterns. These “authentic China” streets, as we have taken to calling them, appear out of nowhere from amidst the flash and glare of the neon, and while it ought to be jarring, at this point, those are the places that feel more real and more comfortable. You really know you’re in China when you find these places, and they are not few if you know where to look.

Finally, and perhaps most bizarre, are the expat districts. These you will find just off the main drag, usually near a mall or other centrally located convenience– or near the major transportation hubs. My personal favorite is a place called Hai Shang Shi Jie— literally, Seaworld. It just does not get more bizarre than this place. Seaworld is about three or four blocks long, right on the water at Shekou Harbor (where one finds the ferry to Hong Kong and Macao) and filled with Macauley’s Irish Pub, Bombay Indian restaurant, the obligatory KFC and McDonald’s, Tex-Mex, All-You-Can-Eat/Drink Teppanyaki (Japanese-style hibachi, like Beni Hana or Northampton’s Osaka to those at home)… basically, if it’s foreign, you find it here. There is a boat moored permanently in the harbor, some kind of cruise-y looking thing that I guess is mostly hotel but on the main decks there are a couple of bars. At the prow, you walk into a bar called X-Ta-Sea, home to (you guessed it) neon lights, foofy beverages and loud music by an actually pretty legit cover band who play everything from Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” to Sean Kingston’s “Fire Burning.” If you wander out of X-Ta-Sea in the direction of the boat’s aft, you pass a tiled hall with a grand piano sitting behind a fountain, and then you spot the wine and cigar store that is underneath a staircase which leads up to a spot called Captain’s Club. Captain’s Club is a small, quiet bar with mahogony and red-leather furnishings; you feel like you’ve stepped into 1890’s London when you walk into this place. Now remember, people, I am living in China. And yet, you cannot find a Chinese restaurant in Seaworld to save your life. You also cannot find a meal that is less than 35 kuai.

This is a good time to take a moment to talk about pecuniary matters. Specifically, the buying power of the Chinese Renminbi (CNY to those in the financial industry). You’ve heard me refer to this unit of money alternatively as the yuan, the kuai, or the RMB. It is all of those things, usually yuan at the counter in a store and kuai when you’re talking amongst yourselves about the price of things, and RMB only when exchanging currency. Currently, there are roughly7 kuai or so to an American Dollar, but its buying power is nowhere near that simple.

In some cases, the buying power of one kuai is roughly equivalent to the buying power of $1 US. On the street, you can get a plate of steamed dumplings for 3 or 4 kuai– plenty of food for one person. Other street food is similarly priced, especially in Beijing. At a Chinese-style restaurant, in the alleys where the street food lives, a substantial supper dish like a noodle bowl or a plate of beef with green beans will run you somwhere on the order of 8 to 12 kuai. A trip on the bus or metro is about 2 kuai. So here, it’s almost a one-to-one correlation between what a dollar would buy you in the US and what a kuai can buy you from a street vendor.

On the other hand, once you wander away from the street, and into more Western territory, a single drink will cost you 55 kuai at a club, and a meal at Macauley’s will run you about Y60-85. All-you-can-eat Teppanyaki is Y150 for 2 hours. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. DVD’s are ridiculously cheap, as I found the entire series, and I do mean all seven seasons, of The West Wing for Y210 (about $30). Might be coming home with that one. Cabs are also cheap, around 10 kuai to start and then usually no more than 40 kuai or so to get from one end of a district to another.

So basically, on the cheap (read: real Chinese) end of things, the kuai is pretty useful; but once you get in to the expat lifestyle it can be pretty steep. The way I see it, it’s the difference between thinking in dollars versus thinking in yuan; you can survive in the expat districts only if you think in Western money, lest you have a conniption over parting with more than Y100 for a single meal. Remember it’s less than $20. I’ve found that I’ve started thinking in kuai, though, so I really have to make that justification to myself. I have a feeling I’ll not be spending too much time in Seaworld. Give me my simple alleyway fare, as at the family-owned restaurant across the street from my apartment; give me a chance to eat simple, good food, and a necessity to practice my Chinese to communicate with the shop owners, and I will enjoy my China experience plenty.

With an All-you-can-eat Teppanyaki night every now and again. This is, after all, Shenzhen.