Friday, February 27, 2009

Slowly getting used to things

Yesterday I met with my language partner and she was curious to hear about how I was getting on at level 5…. Well, that’s until she heard that I am not doing so well. Fortunately, she’s one of the kindest people I know, so she decided to take me under her wing and help me. So on Sunday we are having a whole day of Chinese where I will not only be practicing on using all the 4982634896239462934692364 new words I am learning every day (it is a bit over the top I have to say), but also will head to a bookshop and get a Chinese dictionary… I adore my own little electronic life-saving dictionary, but I have come to this point where we are studying so many new words that the dictionary cannot explain, so I figured it would be good to get myself a Chinese one (and one that shows how each and every word should be used, since our teachers don’t want to bother explaining that).

It’s been a somewhat shaky week in school. One thing that I still have to get used to is the aggressive atmosphere amongst my classmates. EVERYBODY wants to talk, ALL THE TIME! Me, not being the aggressive kid, can just forget about it (and to be quite honest, I guess that suits me fine… at least at this point!)

Also, the discussions we are supposed to have during our oral class always snowballs into something completely different. Like the other day when we were talking about what jobs are the most popular ones in our countries (and I had nicely prepared a few things I wanted to say)… Well, it didn’t take long before one of the smart kids (the guy with the degree) turned that discussion into a 10 minutes speech about what the credit crunch is doing to the people of his country. Soon we were out on deep waters and I couldn’t follow anymore. It’s kind of sad that the teachers doesn’t direct the discussion back to where it should be, but so far they have fallen head over heals for this ‘extremely intelligent laowai’ and gives him as much room as he wants, which he, of course, it happy to take (I personally still don’t really understand what he does in my class because it is obviously too easy for him? He speaks and reads extremely well, and every time the teachers explain some grammar he already knows it and asks about something far more complicated. It would be like me going back to level 2 or 3 where I already knew everything? No, I don’t see the point, but I suppose he has his reasons?).

Also, because there are so many words constantly being spoken, I am finding it impossible to keep up with it all. Except for the 60 new words of each chapter there are another 40 new words that comes up during every class. First I decided to write them all down in a notebook, but when I did I noticed that only after 2 days I had gone through more than 10 pages… So now I am being more selective. I mean, there is no point for me to try to push 100 new words into my brain every day? No good will come out of that (only headache). Rather, I’ll focus on the most important ones and just learn how to use those.

Anyways, I think it is all going to turn out fine in the end. I have decided to see it as an advantage (to study together with so many whiz-kids) rather than as a disadvantage. Sure, I don’t get to speak so much during class but it’s OK. I have my Chinese friends to practice with. And as for all the new words that we are going through… I reckon that in the end, maybe it will even help me to advance faster? Today I am signing up for the HSK course as well, so from March onwards I will have even more books to study!

“You’re going to take on that one too?!” my boyfriend asked me last night, seeing that he's seen how busy I've been this week with trying to keep up with my class. But I am thinking yeah, why not? It’s already so hard that I doubt that it can get any harder.  

Also, yesterday my language partner asked me: ‘where do you want to go with your Chinese –like, how good do you want to get?’ and I guess that is a good question. For the last month or so she’s been telling me that I should get a job rather than studying and just continue to advance by communicating with my Chinese workmates. And I guess she has a point, especially since I am mainly after being able to communicate orally and read in Chinese (however cool it would be, I know I will never fully learn how to master the writing). Although at this point, I still don’t think I am good enough to get a job and totally rely on my Chinese… but who knows, maybe after this semester?

(bah, what a boring Friday post!! Next week will be more cheerful -promise!) 

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Cancelling at last minute -no biggy?

OK, well I'll just eat all this  alone then...

I was talking to one of my Shanghainese friends the other day and asked her about what she’d done during the wknd. (Unlike a lot of my friends here she didn’t just reply: “sleeping!”). She told me that she’d gone to a Japanese restaurant to catch up with an old school friend, but the friend had never turned up.  

-What?! I asked, clearly surprised. What happened? Did your friend have an accident or did you have a fight or something?

-No… well I went to the restaurant and waited for her for 2 hours (!!!). It was kind of annoying since I was really hungry but I read some magazines while I was waiting. In the end I was sad that she couldn’t make it but she was really busy at work.

I was astonished by her kindness! If a friend stood me up like that I am not sure that I could have said as many nice things about her, well at least not only 4 days afterwards. But the more time I spend in China, the more I realize that ‘cancelling things at last minute/not showing up/ having people waiting for you’ is not considered to be a biggy over here. 

Remember the western guy that I wrote about in the ‘go dutch’ post? Well, in the end he never had to experience any ‘who-is-going-to-pay-drama’ because the girls spent the whole day cancelling on him. First they cancelled lunch 30 min prior to it happening. Then it was said that they were going to play pool at 5pm. When he still hadn’t heard anything from them at 4.30pm he decided to give it all a complete miss (I guess on the bright side he saved a lot of money). 

The worse ‘stood-up’ I have experienced here in China, however, occurred when I worked at a city magazine and was supposed to go and interview some rugby (?) team that were practicing in Shanghai’s eastern part, Pudong, on Saturdays. I had arranged for a photographer to come with me, but when the day came I woke up with tonsillitis and couldn’t get out of bed. I spent the morning trying to get someone to cover for me, and then called the photographer to inform him that I wasn’t coming.

Turns out, however, that neither was he.

-Oh, I don’t think I can make it either.

-Why not? Are you also sick?

-No, but I am on the train.


-Yeah, I am on my way to Guangzhou!

I find the funniest bit in this story to be the fact that I called him… Imagine if I wouldn’t have woken up sick, and gone out to interview the team and we all would have stood there (me and the beefy guys) waiting for the photographer. How completely unprofessional! But he didn’t even apologize. In the end I almost felt like as if it was my fault that he didn’t show up. I should have reminded him and double-checked (Fortunately, the story turned out well in the end. Since neither the photographer nor me could attend I simply postponed it all).

I still don’t really understand why people have such a relaxed attitude towards ‘not turning up/ cancelling on your friends at the last minute.’ I personally find it kind of…rude. Although that is obviously because where I come from, it is not considered to be OK to just ‘not show up’ or to be 2 hours late. And I think that despite the fact that ‘when in Rome,’ this is one of those things I will never get used to/do myself.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

"你去哪儿玩儿?"/ "Where do you go for fun?"

I had an interesting conversation with a foot masseur the other day. While he was frowning at my extremely ugly toes I felt I needed to explain that I wasn’t actually born like that, but that the reason why some of them are… ehum, black, is because I like running (and no matter what shoes I put on there is one nail that always goes black. I reckon my feet might be a bit defamed, but that’s another story).

My interest in running was kind of interesting to the guy. He continued asking me how often I run and if I consider it to be ‘fun’ or if I do it just because I ‘have to.’ No, I consider running to fun, I answered (partly true… at least on some days) and then he wanted to know what else I do for fun here in Suzhou. Like, during weekends and such.

-I often go the gym, or I hang out with friends at cafés and restaurants. If I want to go shopping I normally go to Shanghai. If the weather is bad I like to stay home and read or write, or watch a movie...

-How about Suzhou's bar street? (the infamous Shiquan Jie)

-Not really (not my cup of tea –well at least not in Suzhou) So how about you?


-Yeah, what do you do for fun?

-I go to the Suzhou gardens. Have you been?

-Yes once.

-Ah, I have been one and a half time.

-One and a half?

-Yeah. I went to one garden once. And then I have been outside another one. So one and a half.

-But you said you go there for fun?


-But you have only been once?

-One and a half!

-Yeah, OK. But what else do you do for fun?

-I already told you!

-Except for the garden, where else do you go?

I don’t know why I couldn’t get across this second time. But the guy never gave me a clear answer. It was as if I had stepped over the line asking what else he likes to do when he is not in/outside a famous Suzhou garden.

So I asked another friend what she does for fun during her weekends in Suzhou.

-Sleep, she said.

-Just sleep?

-And go to different restaurants. Sometimes I go swimming.

-Oh cool.

-Well I have only been once.

-Oh, OK.

Hm… so is that the deal here. You’ve been once and you add it to your list of fun? In that case my list of fun is also a fair bit more interesting than what I first mentioned: horseback riding at a cowboy ranch outside Suzhou (more about that some other time), HHH 3-hour-run at the Taihu Lake, daytrip to Zhu Jia Jiao, mini-marathon around Jinji Hu (I got lost) as well as brunch at the Sheraton. Yup, just once but it was great fun!

Yup, just some regular weekend activity over here.... Let me introduce my friend Luke! 

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

They are just trying to scare us, right?

I miss my old classmates...

So far, Mandarin level 5 has been nothing but scary. I don’t know if that is the teachers intentions during the first, intensive weeks (when you haven’t quite worked up your ‘writing-character-speed' yet), but if it is, they are definitely successful. There’s been a lot of ‘comparison’ of students. A lot of praising. Some verbal caning. Some ‘warnings’ (“My exams are really hard and I suggest that if you don’t understand even 90% of what I am saying, that you stop wasting anyone’s time and jump down to level 4”) as well as some ‘shocking information’ (such as the fact that our grammar teacher won’t “waste any time” on explaining how to use the 79 new words for each chapter. We have to do that ourselves). Also, stupid questions are not acceptable, however, if you have a nut that you seriously cannot crack, and that you notice that a lot of classmates also have a problem with, it is OK to ask.

We also have to keep 3 notebooks. One for writing sentences. One for ting xie (which is a weekly character test). And one for… yeah, to be quite honest with you, I should probably already head down to level 4 because I didn’t quite get what the third book was for. And I didn’t dare to ask. But it’s still early days, so I guess I figure it out with time.

My classmates, then, is another story. As always, a highly ambitious bunch. But this time it is almost over the top. There are two people (one Korean girl and one European guy, I didn’t quite get where he was from –hm, another sign that I need to jump down one level?) who already have degrees in Chinese studies, but who haven’t ‘used their Chinese for some years’ and feel they need some ‘freshen up.’ They are both fluent to that extent that I don’t understand half of what they are saying. The girl speaks really fast and the boy says things like “I am studying Chinese in order to expand my world-view” (I had to look it up in my dictionary), speaks with a heavy dong-bei accent and had previously worked as a Chinese translator (“although it was eight years ago so my Chinese has gone really bad now” –eh… yeah, sure, whatever).

What are they doing in my class?! Them, with their fancy degrees in Chinese studies are going to learn together with me, who have only studied for 1,5 years?! Don’t get me wrong, I am going nowhere, I finished level 4 on a quite high score, although I cannot help but wondering how the gap between two levels can be so wide? I almost wish there was a 4,5 class….

(Even though I keep reminding myself ‘not to compare myself with them’ it is a bit hard not too. Although trust me, I am doing my outmost. Repeating it to myself at least once ever 10 minutes)

Our grammar teacher (an old, old lady) already told us that she’s not going to "baby" us by using vocabulary that we already know when she speaks. Rather, she’s going to be using a lot of new words, to make it harder for us. She also said that all of us probably won’t pass her exams, and pointed towards a tall, western guy seated at the front. Not until later, when the guy introduced himself did we understand what she meant: this guy is taking level 5 for the third time (!) this semester. He apparently has a lot of problems with the characters (hm.. sounds familiar...) and hasn’t yet managed to pass the exams.

Well one thing is for sure, I am going to study my a** off so that it’s not me sitting there again next semester saying that I find ‘writing Chinese characters’ to be my biggest problem. NO way. I am moving on. One semester at time. Regardless of tough teachers and over-ambitious classmates. Here we go.

Monday, February 23, 2009

How I lost my potential training buddy

Last week at the gym I was in for a weight session. I’m not going to lie and say that I enjoy doing weights, but after several gibes from the men in my life (boyfriend, little brother, even dad at times, saying things like “no real runner neglects her upper body”) I decided to give my ’upper body muscles’ a go some eight months ago (however, so far I am not too impressed with the results. Instead of feeling ’fit’ I often look myself in the mirror and get this feeling I look bigger than I used to do… although that can just be the result of me spending too much time with my super skinny and tiny looking Chinese female friends).

Anyway, since weights are not my fave thing to do, I was utterly happy when I entered the gym and immediately bumped into my trainer friend Rocky (who's originally from Hunan) who had already finished work and who was also getting ready for a training session.

-Wanna train together? He asked.


Fancy bumping into him like that! He’s not only good company to a normally boring-1-hour-weight-session, but since he doesn’t speak any English its an excellent opportunity for me to rely on my Chinese.

We started off at the free weights section, lifting, chatting (OK, I did most of the chatting), encouraging each other and getting all red-faced and stuff (I had to try a little bit extra since I was working out with a trainer). I have to say that Rocky had a very interesting way of training. I have been taught (once again by the muscle men in my life) to start as heavy as possible and then go lighter in case I cannot finish my repetitions. But Rocky started fairly light and then went heavier (telling me I was making it 'too easy for myself' since I was not doing the same as him. I could tell by the look in his eyes that he didn’t believe me when I, in a high-pitched voice, tried to explain that ‘I started lifting this heavy one, and it was so heavy that now I can only lift this lighter weight’).

Still, all was good until Rocky suggested we’d do a stomach machine (stomach curl I think it is called). I normally don’t do this machine (regular sit-ups is my religion) but was happy to tag along to enjoy the company. Rocky started off and while he worked himself sweaty on the machine I rambled on and on about how much I wanted to go to Hunan and all the things I wanted to eat there.

I was so busy chatting that once Rocky was done and it was my turn to sit down I didn’t even stop but continued to talk while doing the stomach movement. 15 repetitions later I looked up, still talking, only to find Rocky looking at me with a wild expression on his face.

-You…. Did… the same weights as…. Me?! And it wasn’t even hard for you?

-Oh? Did I?

I hadn’t even noticed. In fact, I hadn’t even paid attention to what I was doing, nevertheless how much weight was on the machine?! I was too busy talking about spicy eggplant.

-Eh… ehum… yes. Although it was… hard! I offered, seeing that Rocky didn’t seem to be very much in love with the thought of me being as strong as him.

-You western girls are too strong!! I am too weak! I really have to get stronger. Why am I so skinny… oh my gosh… (我的天啊。。。)

-Eh, no really?! It’s… all the running you know?! Gives you great abs! You should try it sometime! I tried.

Although I had clearly lost him.

The final 3 repetitions he added some insane numbers of weight to the stomach curl, probably to prove to himself that he wasn’t ‘as weak as he though,’ although the pain mirrored in his face when he tried to work the machine was hard to watch (I, on the other side ended up removing some weight in an effort to make him feel better).

We finished off in the stretching room where Rocky kept going on and on about western women being ‘太厉害’ (tai lihai –too tough) and about him having to work out ‘more’ and ‘harder’ to 'get more fit.' 

Oh dear. All over some silly machine that I don’t even normally use?! I’m guessing that in the future, I’ll be working out alone. 

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Long wknd in Changsha?

mmmmm... Hunan dishes...

A friend of mine and I are planning a spontaneous, weekend escape to Changsha in Hunan. I have been wanting to go to Hunan for ages, mainly because of all the yummy/spicy food… I have read that Changsha city is nothing special, but we weren’t thinking about spending too much time in the city, but rather just having the city as our base point and doing some day trips to near-by attraction such as the Yuelu landscapes…

Unfortunately we don’t have time to travel further into Hunan (this time) because we were only going to be away for 3-4 days.

I am still thinking that it could be nice with a change of scene. What do you guys reckon –has anyone who’s been to Changsha any travel tips? I am not a huge sightseeing bug, but maybe there’s something that would be nice to see? (how are the Yule landscapes –anyone?) Chatting to locals is probably what I enjoy the most, so if we end up going, that will be a big part of the trip.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Photo special: Shanghai's old town

Yes, the Old town of Shanghai is a total tourist trap, however, I still find it kind of cozy, with yummy xiaolongbaos (a type of baozi with soup inside), not to mention the fact that it's a good place for people watching and photo snapping. (Note, all these photos weren't taken on the same day -as you might notice there's a bit of different season going on).

I'd never recommend anyone to go there for shopping, Shanghai has much better places for that, however, the Yu Yuan is kind of nice (but give that famous -and expensive- tea house in the middle of the garden a miss).

Friday, February 20, 2009

Little things that make your day

Even though me and the guards working at our complex in general get along well and enjoy some quality game time together, there has to be someone living around here that doesn’t like me.

I was shocked yesterday morning when I went down to the bike parking lot and discovered that my precious bike had been ‘vandalized’: someone had stolen (!) the bike bell, ruined the backlight and tried to steel my geeky, old-lady-style bike basket (although they might have been caught in the act because it was still hanging onto my bike on a mere screw). Since I rely so much on my bike I decided to get it fixed by once, despite the fact that it was raining cats and dogs outside.

Now, there’s a thing with me and shops. If I find a shop, let’s say a bike shop, that I like, no matter where in the city it is located, I will always return there. Last time my bike was in need of some aid I went to a small, dirty little place located at the other end of Suzhou to where I live (don’t ask me what I was doing there –I assume that I was out ‘enjoying a bike ride’ or something like that?). Since I got immaculate service from two old men running the shop, I had no other choice but to return to this very shop.

Sure, I did get a bit wet but it was well worth the trip (although going on a bike ride without a bike bell was like pure torture. I almost killed myself as well as a bunch of pedestrians. Note to self: there is no such thing as riding a bike without a bike bell over here). I’m not sure if the repair guy recognized me although I think so, because he gave me a friendly giggle when he saw me, completely soaked, standing in his shop. (Last time I was there –to get a new bike basket- I managed to impress him as I knew the Chinese word for both basket (篮子-lan zi) and tire (轮胎 -lun tai) and he called me a ‘smart laowai’ before we said our goodbyes).

-My bike needs some repairing! I said.

-Oh I can tell it does! He said. You want a new bell?

-Yes please.

-What kind?

-The cheapest one you’ve got (I was considering the fact that someone living in our complex might be collecting bike bells so I figured I would go for something quite tacky looking in order to not have it stolen again).

He went to a bag and grabbed a pink, shiny bell.

-Have you got something even cheaper? Not so good looking?

This made him smile a little, before he nodded and went into another room. He came back carrying a low-key, black, boring looking bell.

-Perfect. I said. Does it work?

He tried it for me, but there was no ringing sound. Actually, it barely made any sound at all. Just a low, rusty sounding ‘rrrrrrr.’

-OK, no, I can’t use that! I said. How much is the pink one?

-5 kuai.

-OK I will take that one then. How much is this one by the way (pointed at the black, useless bell).

-4 kuai.

-But it doesn’t even make a sound?! Does anyone buy it?

We both laughed. (I guess cheap bastards like me do)

He changed my bike bell and fixed the backlight and the basket. While he was at it, he also did some extra ‘touching up’ on my bike.

Meanwhile he was fixing my bike another customer walked in, keen to buy a bike. Oblivious to the fact that the old man was busy, he started asking around and touching bikes in the shop. I was expecting the repair guy to abandon my bike to make a sale, but nope… he was so devoted to repairing my bike that he didn’t even care about his new customer, who in the end left –bike-less. 

Once the old man was done (and my bike was shining like a new one!) I gave him a 10 kuai-note and said:

-Is 10 kuai enough?

-No! I already told you. Five kuai.


-I already told you. 5 kuai for the bell. Now wait here I will bring you your change.

Wow. Now that’s a conversation I don’t often have in China.

Some minutes later I left on my as-good-as-new looking bike, happy as a day. Going back to places where you've gotten good service sure is the way to go in China. I'm already looking forward to my next visit. 

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The (language) competition is ON

Yesterday when I was having lunch, a western guy and a Chinese man came in and sat down some tables away from me. I couldn’t hear exactly what they were saying, but one thing did I grasp, and that was that the western guy spoke PERFECT Chinese. I was so impressed I could barely eat. I almost considered going up to him and just telling him how inspiring it was to listen to him. Then I realized that If I did, I would (more or less) come across like some sort of ‘Chinese language groupie.’ So, instead of continuing eavesdropping, I straightened my back, plugged in my computer, and got on with my own stuff.

I find westerner who can speak Chinese well very impressive/inspiring, because you know that they must have spent a loooot of time learning it, and that they (unless they are some sort of language geniuses) must have at least gone through SOME of the ups and downs of learning Chinese that I am currently going through.

Unfortunately, there are also an annoying group of Chinese speaking laowais, who not only love showing off their skills, but who are also ‘competing’ with other Chinese learners.

My friend Anna (who speaks Chinese quite well, but who is quite humble about her skills) bumped into one of those guys in a bar. She was standing in the bar, and said something in Chinese to the bargirl. The western guy standing next to her picked up on what she said and asked her (in Chinese) if she could speak Chinese.

-Yeah, I am studying, Anna answered (in English)

-So where are you from? (In Chinese?)

-Finland (In English). And you?

-England (in Chinese).

Anna was starting to feel a bit weird. Why was this English guy chatting her up, IN CHINESE at a bar? However, the guy just kept doing his ‘thing,’ and went on by telling Anna (in Chinese) about his studies in economics, and how he was in China to ‘do business’ (aren’t they all?).

Once he finished he gave her a questioning look.

-Am I speaking too fast? Is my language too hard for you? Do you understand everything I am saying? He said, in a very slow, condescending way (still in Chinese).

-I understand. Sounds great, and good luck with your business, (way too polite) Anna replied, obviously fed up with his one-way-conversation.

-But really, do you understand the word 经济 (jing ji –economics)?


-So what does it mean?


-Wow, I am impressed! Most foreign Chinese speakers don’t understand hard words like ‘economics.’ You must really understand Chinese. Why don’t you speak a little so that I can listen to you?

-Eh… no… I’d rather not…like, my Chinese is not that good.

Triumphant smile from him before he proceeded by telling her about his business in China, about how he had learned Chinese and nowadays relied on it completely… After 5 minutes of monologue he suddenly asked: do you want to go out sometime?

-NO! said Anna. And left.

When Anna shared this story with me I was laughing out loud. Seriously, what sort of person does something like that? Sure, you are happy that you can speak Chinese, but come on… there’s a time and a place for everything, and I don’t believe that trying to chat up a fellow loawai, IN CHINESE, is going to make you lucky. Also, I personally have a bit of a problem with people that are so eager to show off their skills that they don’t even wait for the right moment. (Maybe that’s because I am so humble about my own Chinese –I would never dream of trying to chat to another foreigner in Chinese if we could both speak English and if no other Chinese/non-English speakers were around).

I have noticed that there can be a bit of a ‘competition’ between fellow Chinese studying laowais, especially at a place like the university where everybody are learning. People want to know ‘how good you are/how your pronunciation is/how many characters you can read and write’ and compare themselves. It’s easy to get sucked into it all and start comparing yourself to others, however, I try not to since I am not learning to get a high score, but rather, learning for life.

Also, I find the whole ‘comparing yourself with fellow laowais’ kind of useless. For starters, I feel that laowai-Chinese and Chinese-Chinese isn’t the same thing (it is like some months ago when the Koreans in my class made a joke in Chinese and only the other Koreans and the teacher laughed. Me and my Japanese classmates looked at each other, completely confused as we didn’t get it. “Don’t worry,” the Korean student then said. “Remember that we speak Chinese with a Korean accent! Only Koreans understand!” And then we all laughed), and secondly, at this point of learning the language, I still feel that my pronunciation gets worse when I speak to non-native Chinese speakers (like my classmates). I don’t know why exactly, but it is the same when I speak English. I believe that I sound much better when I speak English to native English speakers than I do when I speak English to… let’s say Finns or Germans. I think I subconsciously concentrate a bit more, and also aim for sounding less ‘Swedish’ and more ‘English’ than as usual.

Any Chinese-learner out there who understand what I mean?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

SHE in China at "Blog interviewer"

Someone recommended my blog to a page called "Blog Interviewer" and as a result, I've been interviewed by them. Noting super interesting, I just thought I'd mention it. The Blog Interview page features a bunch of blogs, so maybe you'll find something you like from their link selection. And, you should of course add your own blog to their list! Read the full (although short!) interview here

Public snog spot

None of my Shanghai couple friends are very outgoing when it comes to showing emotions. I think I have seen one couple kiss ONCE, and that was at a nightclub far beyond closing hours. While holding hands is considered OK, snogging in public over here seems to be a real no-go.

That being said, there is a clear exception. A city-snog-zone. A place where you can kiss, hug and embrace each other, without worrying about taking stepping over the 'what's-considered-OK-for-public-snogging-line'. Yes, of course I am talking about the Shanghai metro/subway. While traveling underground a lot of couple take the opportunity to glance into their significant other's eyes, and maybe have a little snog while they are at it (no, we are not talking anything outrageous here... it's all innocent... but considering people so rarely show emotions while out in the open, it still kind of stands out).

Don't get me wrong, I don't think there is anything wrong with showing affection, however, the choice of place has left me puzzled. Why the metro? It's not really a sexy place, is it? Why not.... let's say.... the mall? Or the park? Or the street? I wonder if it's the same in other Chinese that have an underground system. Do people there use the subway for snogging too? Or, is Shanghai's metro officially China's number one public snog spot?

While I am continuing to feel confused about this, I might as well list some other popular metro activities:

* Cutting your nails
* Napping
* Eating
* Competing/racing for free seats
* Reading the newspaper (my personal favorite)
* Talking on the phone
* Playing computer games
* Sms:ing
* Handing out advertisements
* Selling things (maps, papers...)

If I have forgotten something, feel free to add.

Oh, one more thing. While metro snogs might be common going public about them isn't as hot. In the beginning of last year a couple filed a law suit as their metro snog was made public. Yikes!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Is it rude to go dutch/ AA制?

Delicious... up until pay time when it goes sour...

A friend of mine (male, early 30ies, laowai) expressed a small concern the other day over dinner. He had been invited to meet up with two of his Chinese female friends the next day for a game of pool.

However, the game of pool had suddenly snowballed into a game of pool followed dinner (which he was OK with), until it became a game of pool, dinner, AND karaoke.

For starters he wasn't into karaoke.

Second of all, he wasn't keen to pay for it all.

-Well, why don't you just split the bill then? I asked.

-They are Shanghai girls. They expect me to fork the bill.


-Yeah, last time we went out for dinner and drinks. They even brought an extra friend. All of them have boyfriends so it wasn't like a date or anything. Still, when the bill came no one did an even slight attempt to reach for their wallet. All was paid by me.

-So why didn't you say anything?

-I don't know... I guess I am just bad at that sort of things. I feel so uncomfortable asking them to chip in. Mainly because they are all expecting me to pay.

I have heard similar stories to this one before, although that time from my Taiwanese male friend who asked a girl out for a date. When he turned up for dinner, however, he realized that she had brought her 2 girlfriends and he ended up having to pay the dinner for all of them. When my friend told me this he said it was nothing strange about that, but rather, that it was the common standard over here.

(really? Going for a date and bringing your two girlfriends? Ladies -anyone- have you done that?!?)

But back to my laowai friend.

He felt it was 'rude' of him to ask them to chip in for the bill, as they believe it is the man who should pay. Always. Friendly dinner or date.

But I have to say that I personally find this sort of thinking kind of.... out of date. Sure, if the guy asks the girl out on a date. Then many men and women consider it to be the guy's job to take care of the bill. But when going out with a friend, who already has a hubby/boyfriend back home, and who in addition to getting a free dinner herself brings some girlfriends who wants to eat too? Then I reckon going dutch is the thing. I mean, if you don't even know that third person, then why should you pay for her food? Just because she is a girl? Not every single guy is loaded -Chinese or laowai.

I told my male friend this, and even though he nodded in agreement I could see in his eyes that he wasn't likely to ask the girls to split the bills with him the next time he ended up in a similar situation.  

Gosh, sometimes it is good to be a girl and not to have to worry to be considered 'rude' when you ask to split the bill. I always go dutch. Female or male friend -why should they pay for my dinner? (or why should I pay for theirs -I am far from the loaded laowai). Unless they have specifically invited me out for a dinner treat I reckon there is nothing wrong with AA制 as it is called in China. (AA制 means 平均分担帐单 -each person in a group of people equally shares the bill of a dinner/ a drink).

What do you guys think? Is it considered rude by a guy to ask his female friend to AA制? Or shall he just pay, every single time, with a smile on his face?

Monday, February 16, 2009

The "zhe ge/na ge-Chinese"

"It's... 那个那个......nice!"

Me and a workmate came up with the term "the zhe ge/na ge (literally means 这个 'this one/那个 that one') -Chinese" when we were working together in Shanghai in the beginning of 2007. At that time, our knowledge of Chinese was extremely moderate and we used to challenge each other do complete every day tasks despite our language limitations.

It was during one slow Monday afternoon when my workmate decided to head down to the AllDays (convenience store) to get us some cheer-us-up-and-make-this-afternoon-pass-faster-ice-cream that the 'zhe ge/na ge-Chinese' was born. I wanted to challenge my workmate to do something harder than picking up an ice cream from the freezer, and therefore asked him to buy me a pre-paid mobile phone card as I was out of credit.

-Eh, ehhh.... ehhhhh... he was sounding, standing halfway out the door, looking ready for ice cream but not quite ready to buy me a pre-paid mobile phone card.

-It's easy! I said, totally capable of reading his mind. ("how the h*** do I buy that sort of card when I barely know the word 'pre paid!?") Just use your imagination!

-Sure, he said, being all brave and unwilling to admit himself defeated and incapable of living the China life to its fully without any knowledge of Chinese.

Fifteen minutes later he came back with a huge grin (as well as some ice cream) on his face, dropped one ice cream, one snickers (he obviously knew me well) and one mobile pre-paid card on my desk.

-So how did you manage? I asked, offering half of my Snickers as a polite gesture (I knew he would decline. After working with me for 2 months he had learned how important it was for me to have my chocolate to myself).

-Well... I just used a bit of 'zhe ge' 'na ge,' he said, still grinning, and demonstrating his actions by holding up his mobile phone to me, pretending I was the AllDays woman. I just pointed at this and said 'zhe ge' and then pointed behind the counter where they keep the pre-paid cards and said 'na ge.'

I was impressed. But since that day I realized that there was a LOT of things you could do in Shanghai only by using the words 'zhe ge/na ge.' You could, for instance order food if the restaurant had a foreign-friendly picture-menu (simply by pointing at the colorful photo and say 'zhe ge'). You could also buy clothes (you just pointed at the clothes saying 'zhe ge,' and when the guy gave you an outrageous price you'd grab the calculator from his hand, type something more moderate, say 'na ge' and show it to him), buy mobile pre-paid cards (like my friend), buy fruits/magazines/snacks from street vendors, and so on... in fact, with a little bit of imagination, you could get on quite well in Shanghai only by using the 'zhe ge/ na ge' -Chinese.

Now, before all of you start yelling protests and tell me that I am 'completely out of my mind,' let me remind you, that this was BEFORE I knew any Chinese. And to be quite honest with you all, I still reckon that 'zhe ge' and 'na ge' is some of the best survival Chinese there is. At least you won't have to go hungry with that in your luggage.

However, once I started learning Chinese, I obviously realized that it was quite... ehum, lame, to overuse those two words. Also, because in Chinese, 'zhe ge' or 'na ge' can be used kind of like a 'fill the silence word' while you are looking for another word.. (just like the English 'like')

Still, it's survival potential is evident. And, some months ago I also learned that by using the 'zhe ge/na ge' Chinese, you can boost your status and call yourself 'Mandarin knowledgeable.' 

It happened one night when we went out for dinner: a large group of laowais and some visitors from home. One of the guys who had been living in China for some 2 years wanted to shine a little bit extra and offered to order the food. We then watched as he had a 'zhe ge/na ge' conversation with the waiter, adding some extra words such as 'pi jiu' (啤酒 beer) and 'mi fan' (米饭 rice). Our visitors from home, not understanding a single word of Chinese, were extremely impressed.

-Wow, your Chinese is really good! One of them said to the guy.
-Nah... well... yeah, obviously it helps to know the basics in order to live in China! said the "zhe ge/na ge/pi jiu/mi fan -guy." You could tell that he enjoyed the compliment.
-So how long have you been learning? asked another not-understanding-a-lick-of-Chinese-visitor.
-Well... you know... most of the Chinese I know I have picked up by listening to locals. And then I have studied a bit on my own too. You know. It's not an easy language. Takes a lot of time. And a lot of practicing.
-No... it sounds really hard! But obviously you can get on quite well with it?
-Yeah, totally. I know enough every-day Chinese to get on well.

I had to bite my tongue not to say anything and in the end I am happy I didn't. I mean, in a way, this guy was doing the same thing as I did when I first came here, relying on the little things he knew to get by. Nothing wrong with that. But seriously... Admitting that your Chinese is 'quite good' and that you've 'studying hard and picked it up by listening to locals'..... naaaaah. Dude, that takes a little bit more than that, right?!

A week later we were back at dinner. However this time, it was me, the same group of laowais, some Chinese guys and no visitors from home.

While we were talking (in English), I couldn't help but noticing how the "zhe ge/na ge/pi jiu/mi fan -guy", threw in some Chinese words every here and there. This time, he used the 'zhe ge/na ge' Chinese just like the Chinese use it, to 'fill the silence while looking for the right word', as well as some other words to demonstrate his knowledge of the language.

It was 'very mama huhu this' ('very so-so' -by the way, how can something be 'very so-so'?), and 'na ge' great food... And then, when describing the way to a bar that we were talking about, he kept saying things like 'first you go straight, then you go zuo guai, na ge na ge, you guai and then you are there' (he literally said: 'go straight... like, like... turn left, turn right...') In the end it almost became embarrassing as I could tell that the Chinese guys were having some difficulties understanding all the 'na ge' and 'zhe ge' that were thrown into the conversation without making any sense. Still, being all polite and nice, and capable of understanding how much this guy wanted to show off, one of the Chinese guys said (at the end of the dinner):

-Wow, your Chinese is quite good!

....making the e zhe ge/na ge/pi jiu/mi fan -guy shine like a sun.

I haven't had dinner with him since but sometimes I wonder if he is still 'showing off,' at the same time as I am hoping that he has added some new words to his vocabulary.

I'm just thinking to myself that I know how bad it sounds when someone Swedish (who has been living abroad) speaks to another Swede in Swedish, but throws in English words every here and there... ("Och sen åkte vi vidare till en plats som var sådär totally crazy! Jag menar, alla va bara helt faboulous and stuff. Och vi va så completely happy!"). This makes me think that being Chinese and listening to a laowai going "and then we went upstairs, 那个那个, and everybody were 这个这个 happy!" can't be that much fun. In fact, it must sound quite.... ehum, stupid? 

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Photo special: Lost in a forest in Yunnan

When you are living in cities like Suzhou or Shanghai you easily forget that there is more to China than 24-7 consumption/entertainment and commercial streets like Nanjing and Huaihai Lu. Fortunately, China is far from a 'block of concrete and skyscrapers.' In 2006 i travelled to some poor and undeveloped areas of Yunnan and I am so happy that I got a chance to experience that side of China too. I spent some nights at farmer's villages where the annual income was around 500 rmb. Even though the village people were poor they were extremely friendly and generous, cooking me dinners and making sure I was having a good time. In the village where I stayed there was only one household that had a TV so every night the whole village came over to watch Chinese TV shows that they didn't even understand. (These village people belongs to the Shansu minority group and speak a language called 'yi' and most of the grown ups don't understand any Mandarin).

During my time in Yunnan, I also got a chance to see some nature, and I spent half a day trekking a gorgeous forest (that I unfortunately have forgotten the name of...) Well, actually, it was supposed to be a 2-hour trek, but as usual when I am around, we got lost -big time! We had thought that it would be a good idea to do this trek before breakfast so it was on empty stomachs we walked around the muddy forest, slipping and sliding, bumping into women picking mushrooms and men taking care of the forest, and we didn't make it back to our car until 5 hours later! During the 30 min drive from the forest to the city no one uttered a word, we were all so hungry. And the lunch we had in the city is probably one of the best lunches I have ever had in my entire life.

Anyway, it was a great experience and what a beautiful forest. So green and full of life.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Hooked on Chinese children's shows

Hey buddy, wanna hang out?!

Gosh, why did you guys tell me to start watching Chinese TV?! I mean, sure, I have known I should do it for the last year or so, as it is supposed to be a really good way to practice your Chinese listening skills. But to be quite honest, I haven't got around to do it. And why? Well, for starters, I don't like to watch TV. I get all restless when I have to sit still for a long time without being productive. Also, I find Chinese TV programs to be.... quite... ehum... cheesy. But, nevertheless, I have now started watching. And I am hooked. On children's shows. Yesterday I spent 1 hour in front of the TV watching a show about a little boy who was experiencing difficulties as his mom got angry for everything. Someone 'above' must have heard his prayers because then he ended up getting a 'happy mom magic water' from some Chinese children living in space (gotta love shows with space kids!) that he sprayed on his mom, and then she was happy, DESPITE him only scoring 99% on his exam (instead of 100%). I loooooved this show. We are talking cheesy, but simple conversations, exaggerated acting, ridiculous plot and big, bold hanzi subtitles. Actually, I never thought I would say this, but I found myself constantly glancing on the hanzi, as I almost understand MORE of the characters than the speech?! Hm.. how did that happen? Only one year ago I remember naming 'reading characters' as my biggest problem. Funny when you improve without really noticing it.

As for the TV shows, I know I should probably move on from watching space kids handing out 'magic water' to help kid's unhappy mothers, but the sad truth is that after the kid's show came the news, and then my newly won gosh-I-am-quite-smart-confidence dropped like a penny in a lucky fountain. The news show used all 'grown up' Chinese and also, they spoke so faaaaast. Impossible for me to follow. I guess I'll stick to the kid's shows for now.

Some years ago I met a European girl in Shanghai who spoke perfect Chinese. She told me she'd only studied at the university for one year, then she got a job at a local kindergarten where she'd worked for 2 years. Being constantly surrounded by Chinese children, her Chinese improved and she was now fluent, although she admitted that her Chinese friends sometimes raised their eyebrows when they heard her 'highly childish' expressions.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Unwanted speed check

Where running is meant to take place...( It's my own fault. I should keep away from running in traffic).

So there I am, out on my Sunday Suzhou run... enjoying the fact that the sky is quite blue (only quite) and that my legs are feeling light. Listening to music like usual, completely in my own world... until I realize that a car is driving next to me, or actually, it is not driving next to me... it is CREEPING forward in my jogging pace, with a mom, a dad and 2 Chinese kids curiously observing me. When I first notice them I sort of flinch, as I wasn't expecting to see a black car next to me, but then I realize that I am running on the bike lane, where the car must have been parked as it is now on its way back out to the big street. Maybe I am in their way, I think to myself, even though I can clearly see that there is enough space for them to pass me and drive off. In fact, there is no other vehicle or people in this bike lane. But still, just to make sure I do a little jump step to get up on the pavement (pavements are very high in Suzhou) but still, the car doesn't leave. It is still creeping forward in my pace, with waving children from the back window, and a highly interested/amused husband looking at me from the front window. Actually, he keeps looking at me, then back at his wife who is driving, saying something, then back at me, and then back at his wife... The driving wife also looks quite focused. What on earth are they doing?!

We go on like that for a while, looking at each other, until it hits me... hang on a minute.. are they... no, they couldn't be, could they? Are they checking my running speed?

Ah, how could I be so stupid! I mean, here I am, just going for a run, relaxing my mind, trying to keep fit.
And there they are, out on a Sunday drive, spotting a laowai who's out running (yeah, how crazy is that) and decide to drive next to her to see how fast she is really going.

Nobody asked me if I wanted to be part of this speed check, I think and stop on the spot, watching the car's passenger's faces go all disappointed as they continued their slow ride forward without me next to them. As expected, once they don't have me jogging next to their car, they increase their speed and disappear.

And I can go back to "enjoying" my jog. Gosh, I miss running in the forest.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Shameless curiosity

No need to be discreet when taking photos of strangers without asking 

The lack of privacy is evident in China. Over here it is totally OK to ask each other about everything from your monthly salary to why you aren't married yet. (Anyone who has lived in China for more than a month probably nods their head in recognition now). But then there is another sort of 'breach' of privacy, that probably doesn't even cross the mind of some of you, unless you come from an as 'private sphere concerned' country as I do: in Sweden there should be clearly visible spaces between people in a line to the ATM, also, even if someone is wearing a pink bunny costume and walking down the street, you only glance at him discreetly, rather than staring and pointing (until he has passed you, then you are free to turn around and stare and go 'OH MY GOSH! Did you just see that?! What was he thinking stepping out dressed like that!').

But in China, it is totally acceptable to stare, to point, to wave hello to strangers (not to mention to yell 'HELLO!' to strangers, even if you're just passing them with your car), and just to be... curious in general. When first moved here I found the shameless staring from strangers to be the one thing I couldn't get used to. I always thought there was something wrong with me, like a big snot coming out from my nose, ketchup on my top or that I'd forgotten to pull up my zipper. Then, I remember the first time I tried to read a Chinese newspaper in the Shanghai metro, and I found five other Chinese people to be reading the very same page as me, over my shoulder. First I got annoyed, thinking 'what the h***, get your own paper!' But then I started thinking and realized that... 'what's the harm? They are only reading the same page as me?' and stopped caring.

Yesterday I was sitting at a cafe trying to learn 79 new characters when I saw a young Chinese girl sitting opposite me next to the window, reading and filling in some papers. Outside the window was a parking guard, who must have been bored to death with telling cars where and where not to park, because he was leaning onto the window, squinting, and reading the same paper as the young girl. It must have been something kind of amusing, because at times he sniggered. (I also assume he was a bit of a slow reader because when she turned the page over I could see that he got slightly annoyed. For a short moment I almost expected him to bang on the window and mouth something like 'turn back the page, I wasn't finished!', but then reality checked back into me). It looked so funny, especially the fact that the girl was so oblivious to it.

At various times when I have been waiting for my train to Shanghai at Suzhou's train station I have picked up my Chinese books or flash cards and tried to study. But it doesn't really work. It takes less than 40 seconds before a small circle of Chinese people form around me, telling me that 'those simple characters even my son knows, and he is only 8!' or that I am writing with the wrong stroke order (however, that I am 'not bad for being a laowai.') It's cute and helpful at some times, and annoying those days when I really just want to write, and not be compared to someone's five year old genius son (I already get it -they are ALL smarter than me! No need to rub it in).

It's the same when buying groceries here. People are extremely curious to see what I am cooking for dinner, and especially.. how much it costs!! Or, like once at a restaurant, I was having a spicy meal with a friend and we ordered a jug of sweet plum juice (酸梅汤 -suan mei tang) to help us cope with all the chili peppers. The Chinese couple next to us kept looking at our jug, obviously wondering what it was. Some moments later they got up to leave, and the woman walked over to us and looked at the bill that the waiter had already placed on our table.

-Ah, it is suan mei tang they are drinking!! She said loudly to her male company. 20 kuai for a jug!! Too expensive!

And there we were, sipping away.

I actually don't find it as annoying as I thought I first would (only the shameless staring, especially when I am having a bad hair day or is in a generally grumpy mood), but more like... amusing! Obviously, it has also affected me, and turned me into a person that is way too curious and blunt to fit into the Swedish world of 'discreetness' and 'politeness' Only last summer when I was back in Scandinavia I found myself extremely curious at what other people were eating at cafes, how much they spent on shampoos when grocery shopping and how many people ordered beer during lunch hours. My friends almost didn't put up with me, telling me to 'stop staring at strangers' and that I didn't have to stand so close to others while lining up somewhere, and that there was no point giving people who crossed between a line the evil eye, because they were just crossing between the line, and not trying to cut in line. Oh well, what can I say? When in Rome.....

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Job offer

Yeah, look at that swing and that style... (not to mention the 2 scared people in the background, keeping a safe distance from me). I am definitely personal trainer material!

Last Sunday at the gym I was working some weights when one of my trainer friends, Rocky, came up to me.

-You La, how are things?

(I don't love when people start talking to me while I am doing weights, but I am so used to it by now that I have almost stopped caring).

Once I'd finished my rep we started chatting, and soon we started talking about the what the sad economic situation was doing to us.

-Hey, if you need a job maybe you could come here and work!? Rocky suddenly said.

-Eh... work at this gym you mean?!

-Yeah! You could be a trainer! It would be great!!

-I am not sure if I could be a trainer...

-Sure you could. You love sports and training! You come here almost every day! And look at you! You're so.... tall and fit...! You could totally be a trainer. I bet there are many girls here wishing they were as tall as you are!

-Rocky, I can't really train someone to be tall?!

-Eh... nah... well....

-And we both know I am twice as wide as most Chinese girls here.

-Yeah, true... well.

-So why on earth would they want me to train them?

(Rocky thinking for a short moment)

-OK, fair enough. Even though I still think a lot of Chinese girls would like to train with a tall girl it is true that they are already smaller than you. But you can train all the laowais!

-Most laowais are already tall so what could I do for them?
(I couldn't help myself. I had to say that!)

-Well there are many fat laowais here! I bet compared to them you are fit.

Yup, and that's the story how I got offered a job at my gym: To train fat laowais and short Chinese girls. Thanks but no thanks! 

Another interesting thing that I was also told is that when you are working as a PT in China, your job is not simply to train your customers. You should also be an annoying phone stalker. As many people are too lazy to come and train every day, Rocky explained to me that it is your job to call them a few times a week day and ask them why they haven't been training lately. This is done in order to push them to come to the gym more often.

-Does this include sending text messages? I asked.

-Yeah. Text messages and phone calls, asking them why they haven't been here for one week. They need that sort of push. They need someone to tell them.

So there we go. Anyone wondering why you're getting all those phone calls from your trainers at the gym -they are just thinking about your very best! (and I've cracked yet another nut here in China). 

Upcoming challenge: Yangzhou half marathon

About time for another challenge. This pic is from Shanghai's half marathon back in 2006.

I have a hate/love relationship with running. Some days I almost feel like crying when I am putting on my sneakers and heading out for a run, while other days I cannot wait to get out there. It's kind of strange. I have been running for some years now (except for a 9 month break due to a broken and slowly healed left foot, A black spot on my otherwise quite clean record). There was a time when I wanted to push myself and be a really fast runner. Yeah, for a while I was even considering going on a diet to get lighter and run faster... (gosh!) But the thought of restricting what I eat (read: what I love! I am a total food junkie, especially here in China) was just so appalling that I gave up those thoughts about 1 hour after I starting thinking about it. Nah, screw being lighter! Screw being faster. I run because I enjoy it, and especially if I can keep a relatively comfortable pace (at least so comfortable that I am not out of breath when I am done), somewhere around 10/10.5/11km/hour. Obviously, the longer the run, the slower the pace.

Yesterday was one of those I-love-running-days and I did a good 9 mile on the treadmill (the sky was too sad looking for me to run outside. Big downside with running in China: running outside is not that fun; I hate running when the air is bad, and all that traffic that you have to run next do doesn't make matters any better) and it felt really good. So when I came home I started thinking that maybe it's about time I sign up for a half marathon this year (and no pathetic mini marathon like last year). Not to break any speed record or anything (my fastest half marathon is 1:50, my slowest is... 2:05), but more just to.. do it! I'd like to run something else than the most obvious races this year (Beijing marathon, Shanghai marathon) so I was thinking... maybe Yangzhou half marathon could be something? According to this Suzhou blogger it's on April 26 (although how hot will it be by then? I have a goldfish memory so I don't really remember how hot it was at the end of April last year. I cannot stand running when it is all humid and stuff), and the location seems to be quite good.. not too hard to get to from Suzhou (I have to look up what train I could catch there).

Has anyone run this race? How's the course? Flat/hilly? Is it a popular race? What about scenery -anything nice to look at while running? The Yangzhou Half Marathon homepage is kind of confusing (and their online sign up link doesn't seem to work), at least the English version, so I am going to give the Chinese version a throughout look later on today. But yeah, I have to say that the thought of getting another half marathon under my belt is kind of appealing. (Also, running races in China is kind of interesting. Fellow runners turn up wearing everything from plastic bags on their heads to jeans, skirts and sandals. It's kind of wacky! And then there are all the 'senior runners' that have their last smoke on the starting line...) Not to mention what a great excuse a race is for going on a little wknd trip and seeing something new!