Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Dream date destination: Häagen-Dazs

My no 1 choice, Baskin-Robbins -not good enough for a young Chinese girl? Well actually, there are no Baskin-Robbins in Shanghai (yet?).

Yesterday I had coffee with a Chinese male friend and as usual we started talking about dating and love in China (I can't help myself from asking him about the standards over here.. I just find it so interesting/different to where I come from). I asked him where he'd take a girl for a date and he instantly replied:


Now, for those of you who do not know: Häagen-Dazs is probably the most high profile luxury ice cream brand in China. It's mad, I know, as I have munched on much better scoops at both Ben & Jerry's and Baskin-Robbins, but for some reason, Häagen-Dazs has earned a reputation of being the crème de la crème of ice cream here in China (well, price wise I believe it is).

Häagen-Dazs is especilly loved by China’s urban elite and middle classes who turn a casual trip to an ice cream bar into a family event for Sunday afternoons. I have been to a Häagen-Dazs once in Shanghai, and I was actually a bit appalled. When I've visited Häagen-Dazs before in places like Indonesia (I spent a summer on Bali in 2002 and became a Häagen-Dazs regular) it has been a nice, but casual place where u get good ice cream. In China, however, it's like... an upmarket ice cream restaurant?! They have tables with pink chairs and waiters that are passing around expensive-looking menus before taking your order... And the ice cream? Well, except for the traditional scoops, u can choose from actual 'ice cream meals' that cost way more than a regular meal at a Chinese restaurant. We are talking about 100 kuai for a sweets here... what happened to the Chinese 'let's not splurge' attitude?!

During my one (and only) visit I watched parents with their little princess/prince children eating away, painting an image almost identical to the scary commercial photos of 'one happy Häagen-Dazs family.' Well, maybe it's actually considered to be a real 'happy pill' over here, because according to my Chinese friend, Häagen-Dazs isn't only the choice for spoit children and their folks, but it also scores high on a young girls list of 'dream dates.'

-Most young girls have a romantic idea of Häagen-Dazs, my friend explained. And then it's about brand image. Everybody know Häagen-Dazs... they know it is a good brand. Eating there gives you status.

(Wow. I never knew a scoop of ice cream could have so many hidden meanings!?)

When my Chinese friend asked me if a guy had ever taken me to a Häagen-Dazs ice cream bar for a date, I said no with a smirk.

-Oh, how come?
-Well... I guess Ice cream doesn't have such a high status where I come from.
-So where do u go on dates?
-Eh... cafes... restaurants... a bar... parks... hm... basketball games... a guy once took me to the ZOO?!
-The ZOO?
It was now his turn to look appalled.

Yup. I guess a ZOO would be on the very bottom of a Häagen-Dazs-loving girl's list of dream dates...

Monday, September 29, 2008

Questionable toys

"Smash me against the ground, it's so much fun!!"

Five out of the last 8 DVDs I bought have been unusable. If it's not the sound that isn't synchronized, it's bad picture quality, or, the DVD makes my player do obnoxious sounds. Sure, a DVD is cheap over here (5 kuai if you are Chinese, 7 kuai for foreigners -right?) but why bother to make shit? Seriously? Why are there so many shit products floating around here? Someone still has to make the DVD, put it in its cover, put plastic around the cover ('the more the better' -seems to be the approach to plastic covers in China) and take it to the DVD shop. That's quite a lot of work in order to produce nothing. To make matters worse (for me) and better (for them) I am the lazy kind of customer, who rarely bothers to go back and complain when something isn't working. I rather shrug my shoulders and turn to another DVD shop for my next purchase. I know that's my bad.... but well, yeah. That's just my bad.

When it comes to making useless products, however, China must be a leading country. If you don't believe just walk the streets of Shanghai for a day and you'll see what I mean. People are selling everything from dough-like-dolls that you can smash against the ground to electric soft animal toys that barks and meows.

Those toys, however, are nothing to what I came across in Beijing. Yes my friends, take a look at this beauty: a plastic spoon with shrimp-fried-rice.

I got it from my best Beijing friend Panda. She told me it was the latest hottest thing in China.

-You can purchase them from the Internet! They're so funny! I have a carrot and a capsicum at home, and look at his cabbage, that I have attached to my bag!!!

Oh yes, because as a matter of fact... the plastic spoon is attached to a string so that you can attach it to your phone/bag/keys.... Fun, huh?!

As I never found myself RLOL (isn't that how it's supposed to be said? I'm trying to learn how to be witty and modern) over my rice-spoon, I simply put it on a shelf in our bedroom when I got back from Beijing.

Two weeks later, I was typing away on my computer when our ayi suddenly appeared from our bedroom with a disturbed look on her face.

-Do you want to save this or? She said, looking a bit disgusted as she held out the plastic rice-spoon.
-Eh.... well... actually... I stopped short as I was watching her face. She looked truly disgusted. And she never does. Then it hit me. She must think it is real?! She's seen it sitting on a shelf for 2 weeks and she thinks that it's real?!?!
-It's not real you know! I said and got up from my chair. It's a.... toy! I grabbed the spoon from her hand and touched the rice-bit with my fingers. See, it's not real rice. It's just... a toy!

The look on our ayi's face?! Priceless. Relieved is an understatement. And I don't blame her. I can imagine her thinking: "Thank lord they are not freaks that are keeping spoons of shrimp-rice on their bedroom shelves for a night snack."

She laughed nervously and I could sense that her mind were going elsewhere...: "what on earth are you -a grown up woman- doing with this -a plastic rice-spoon and a toy for kids- on your shelf?!"

-Ehum, would you like it? I offered. You could give it to your daughter? Or to some kid? (I had to regain her trust)

Of course she wanted it. I think she really likes presents this ayi, or, she's just being polite, because she always wants everything I offer her: our old vacuum cleaner? Yes please! Finnish chocolate? Absolutely! Plastic rice spoon toy?? YES!!!

I have no idea if she tossed or kept it -but neither way, it's one of those 'toys' that represent a production that I find completely unnecessary over here. Like... why even bother? Seeing how excited my Beijing friend was over this piece of plastic, I guess I shouldn't be speaking since I'm obviously not the production company's target audience (although I have to say.. when I was a kid I played with My Little Pony and Barbies... if today's kids have to play with squishy toys and plastic food I feel sorry for them).

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Chinese pharmacies

I am still (!) sick (what the f****) so life hasn't been that exciting during the last few days.. I got sick of watching DVDs yesterday so I went to school... only to cough my face red during lunch with my classmates. (It must have been the spicy mapu dofu) A Korean classmate tried to comfort me:

-don't worry, my face also gets red when I drink alcohol.


So... today I went to the pharmacy (I am becoming a regular!) to stack up with some heavier drugs. Many westerners that I know over here are a bit reluctant to visit the Chinese pharmacies... I personally think they are great! Their staff are always friendly, helpful and best of all: their drugs are cheap cheap cheap!!! Of course, it is recommended that u google whatever u have bought before u use it... Once I ended up with heavy sleeping pills that are normally not available unless prescribed (those ones went to the bin). I have also heard of friends buying medicines that are forbidden in Europe as they have an iffy side effect: death. (as I said: google first, then use!!!) So obviously u should be a bit careful with what u buy there (A safe buy is their green, bad smelling mosquito repellent).

When it comes to cold relieves, I think most of their stuff is pretty harmless, although taste wise... YUK! I asked the lady in the pharmacy before I bought the stuff about the taste, and she said it wasn't too bad.... well, I guess we have completely different taste buds then... because seriously: yuk, yuk, yuk. The cough medicine I got was OK but the powder that should be dissolved in water before u drink it (It's supposed to help a sore throat) looked and tasted the same... and let me tell u this much: the fluid was dark brown.

Ah I am just hoping for this flu to disappear but it seems to be the stubborn kind. Tomorrow the golden week is starting and the streets will be filled with people. Would love to be able to join them...

Friday, September 26, 2008

Wake up call

I already can't wait for tomorrow

Don't u just love it when....

-U wake up in the morning, and your final light bulb shatters as you turn on the bathroom light. (bathroom = now unusable unless u bring a flash light). On top of that, a large, black spider (!) comes crawling out from the broken lamp (!?) and starts climbing the wall.

-U notice that the super glue that u (for no particular reason) bought last week at Carrefour has glued itself to your bookshelf. Never used it, just put it on the shelf. I guess it decided to take its own destiny in its own hands (or tube?) when it decided to attach itself. (I wonder how much we'll be charged for the shelf? Something tells me that our landlord won't let us get away with that...)

-Ur throat is still killing you, although it's been 3.5 days of drinking hot water, tea, lemon and u name it. Come on virus. Depart this body now!

-U spill toothpaste on your top.

-U run out of muesli.

-U run out of patience.

-It's a minor rain storm out there.
-And it's not even 9 am?!!!

Gosh, I SO should have stayed in bed today!!!! Only comfort is that at least it's NOT Monday....

A service-minded mentality -not here quite yet

Help yourslef

I am still waiting for the day when 'service-minded' becomes a well-known phrase in China. I understand that it takes time for this sort of expression to establish itself, and especially in a country where there have never been such thing... but still. Like yesterday, we ordered in (via Sherpas Suzhou)

-Yeah so I'd like to order from XXXX.
-What is the number of your order?
-Well I'd like the hamburger... hm.. where is it... ah.. I can't find it on the menu?
-I am sorry, I'd like to order a hamburger but I can't find it from your menu?
-Eh... well, do you have any hamburger?
-What is the number of your order?
-Hm.. Well I can't find it from your menu... Maybe it is just on the online menu?
-Okay. Well tell me the number.
-Well, I am not online right now... Wait a minute... Ah, I'll have to call you back, OK?

It's just like... they are completely oblivious to when to step in and ask if you need their assistance? There are TWO burgers on their menu and still they can't help you out if you don't know the correct 'number.'

Then you get to a place like Starbucks where the staff are completely over the top: cheerful, happy and so eager to take your order that u are barely given time to make up your mind about if you want a blueberry or a chocolate muffin?

I don't know what I prefer, but I guess I am leaning towards Starbucks. A smile is always better than an 'oh' or an 'ok' when you are asking for assistance.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Travelling during a public holiday in China (my first, and last attempt)

So the October Holiday is almost here and the talk of the town is: 'Where r u going? When r u leaving? How much were your tickets?' Like usual, I am planning on staying put during the holiday. My bf is off to India anyways for a work trip, and seeing how sick I still am I don't think travelling alone would have been any fun. I am actually not a big fan of those holidays, because the cities get so d*** packed with people as EVERYONE wants to travel at the same time. I understand the need for those holidays (it is basically to insure that Chinese people will get some holiday during the year as their employer isn't obliged to give them annual leave. Or, even if they are, most companies won't do it) but u can't get away from the fact that it's a mess out there, especially on the trains.

Earlier this year I did my first (and probably last!) attempt to travel during a public holiday week, namely the CNY. I was planning to go to Seoul, and in order to avoid being crammed with millions of people I left a little bit before the holiday.

This might have worked if it wasn't for the fact that this year, it started snowing in China. It started snowing, and it kept snowing. And snowing. And with the snow came the chaos.

I needed to get from Suzhou to Shanghai in order to fly to Seoul from Pudong's international airport. Although I already had my train ticket organized, I felt a bit worried about the taxi situation since the streets were covered in snow and ice, and very slippery. I therefore ordered myself a private taxi (or a 'black car' as they call it over here) and left my flat 2 hours prior to my train was supposed to depart.

Getting from my place to the train station (which normally takes between 20-30 min depending on traffic) took about 1.5 hours with the black car, and this turned out to be the smallest problem during my journey, even though I didn’t know that then. The closer we got to the train station, the slower we had to go, as there was a major traffic jam around the station. In the end, I got scared of missing my train, so I decided to ditch my car and decided to walk the last bit.

Walking the last bit proved to be a bad choice. There were pools of melted water everywhere and since they are doing construction work at the Suzhou railway station (building a metro) all the roads were basically mud, covered in dirty snow. I was soaking wet up to my knees within five minutes, and kept slipping on the ice. I dragged my heavy bag along (forget about rolling it) and thought that as soon as I would make it to the train station things would be easier. That was, until I saw the train station.

My initial though was that it looked as if there was a riot. Outside the entry they had put up a fence, and there were several police men, soldiers (?) and guards surrounding it. Around the fence, were hundreds of people screaming, waving their tickets, and trying to push their way into the station. I just stood and stared for a while. How on earth would I get into the station? The police men kept hitting and pushing people that tried to get in and the people outside the fence kept pushing to get in. An old Chinese man walked by and gave me a puzzled look, before he turned around and asked if I wanted him to help me with my suitcase.

-No thanks! I said. I will do it myself.
-You will never make it by yourself.
He said. Just look.
I did look, mouth open, for another 20 seconds.
-Still don't want any help? he asked.
-Eh... if it's no problem maybe you can help me?
He laughed briefly before he picked up my bag.

Who was this man? This old, thin, but very strong man? I have no idea! Why did he help me? Still no idea! I just know he completely saved me! He never asked for any money. He was just simply kind enough to first push my bag through the throngs of people, and in the end THROW it over the fence, Then, he turned around and grabbed me (who had fallen on the ground as a result of a slippery ground and people pushing me from everywhere) and did the same with me (no, actually, he never threw me over the fence, but he pushed me forward until I hit the little opening gate where a guard stood to check tickets -although they barely checked tickets because they didn't let anyone in-). The old man yelled something to him, I waved my ticket and I was let through. When I turned around to thank the man he had already disappeared in the ocean of people. Amazing! I nowadays refer to him as 'the nice old man who saved me during that winter day at the train station.'

I thought that at this point, I should be good, although my train was departing in five minutes, so I collected my bag and set off to find out what platform my train was leaving from. As soon as I walked inside the train station, however, I realised why they were so reluctant to let people in. The train station was already packed with people. They were standing everywhere. In the stairs. On the grounds. On the chairs. In the toilet area. There were no open space, and a board with departing train information revealed that all the incoming and departing trains were delayed. My train, who was supposed to leave in 5 minutes, was not even listed on any board. A minor feeling of panic hit me, as I was looking around. How was I supposed to get to Shanghai? There were so many people inside the terminal, and so much luggage and stuff lying around.

I decided to do what 50 other people were doing and go to the information desk and ask. At the information desk I saw a guy who had a ticket to the same train as me. I decided to pair up with him. He was kind of young and looked terrified when explained (with my broken Chinese) that I was planning to follow him around in case he found out a way to get to Shanghai. The information desk wasn't helpful so we started walking around. (Although he was kind of fast and with my gigantic suitcase I had difficulties keeping up with him). We went into one waiting lounge. No news. Into another. Packed. Into a third.

In the third waiting lounge the gate to the platform was open and two women were yelling 'Shanghai, are you going to Shanghai? Hurry hurry all of you that are going to Shanghai!'

Me and the young boy exchange looks before we set of running. We ran through the gates and then up some stairs, down some stairs (don’t ask me how I did this with my mega suitcase? It’s still a mystery to me) and then we hit the platform that had a train just standing there, waiting to go to Shanghai. We threw ourselves on the train that to my big surprise was half empty! The people inside gave us some strange looks but I was too relieved to care. I was just so happy to get on that train. Ten minutes later it left and I even got a seat in the middle of a group of Chinese men who spend the whole hour of the train ride smoking, but I didn't care. I don't think I've ever felt happier to be on a train?!

Yeah, so that's my horror/happy memory of travelling in China during a public holiday. Obviously this was a special case since there was snow on the ground, and normally there isn’t. I know that many people were not half as lucky as me during that CNY. A lot of people, especially in southern China, were stuck in train stations or on trains for days.

I have one old and one young man to thank for my trip being so 'smooth.'

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Postponed running comeback

Not sure how this happened, but I am sick like a dog today! Yesterday morning I felt a slight itch in my throat…. Later the same day I started feeling cold and from there it just went out of control: within some hours my throat was clogged, my head ached, I had high fever and felt awful. Today the fever has dropped but the throat is still a mess and my head feels heavy. So much for doing a comeback on the treadmill this week, hah! Instead I am sitting in my bed feeling sorry for myself. I HATE BEING SICK! I hate not being able to train, to eat, to get on with my daily duties (I tried taking strong painkillers to get rid of the worse headache so that I could still be focussed enough to study or something, but it didn’t help. My head still feels like it weighs 100 pounds). Obviously, it’s not the end of the world, I bet I will get better soon, but it’s still so frustrating when it comes out of nowhere and just hits you like a sledgehammer. Oh well. Let’s hope I’m fit for fight soon again.

Actually, I better be. Yesterday I signed up to participate in a ‘sporting event’ held at my uni after the October holiday. I wanted to run the 5000 m race but it was only for boys (arrrggghhh!!!) so I had to settle for the women’s 3000 m. I have never participated in a short-distance race before so this will be interesting. I guess everybody will think I am really fast when they first see my long legs but well, they sure are going to be surprised because I am not a ‘speed’ runner at all.. in fact, I am all about long-distance. I can easily go for 1.5 to 2 hours, and I believe if I pushed myself I could run for even 3 hours, but 3000 m in a fast speed? Haha! Well, like I said, it will be interesting!

Since I can’t find enough inspiration to write a good post today, I guess I better leave it at this. I guess I should mention that I was sadly shocked when I heard of what happened in Finland yesterday morning; the school shot out. Awful. Having a lot of bonds to Finland it makes you feel a bit extra sad. As sad as when u read about the Sanlu milk scandal. Wow –in a way I am ‘happy’ that this blog is not about current affairs because it would mainly be depressing. So much sh** happening all around the world a.t.m. I guess everything feels extra dark on a day like this when u can’t even go out and embrace the sunlight. Anyways, I am off to have another kiwi, if you have any suggestions for super-cures, please feel free to share.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Being a vegetarian in China

Tofu, anyone?

When I first moved to China I was a vegetarian. I'd been that since I was 16 (don't even remember why but it had something to do with me not liking the taste of meat?) and I wasn't planning to change. It didn't take me long to discover, however, that the term 'vegetarian' wasn't that useful in China. You tell the waiters you don't eat meat and they'll nod their heads and serve you tofu floating around in minced meat. Or, your eggplant will in a pot that also contains tiny meat pieces. Or, like once when I was in Yunnan, I ordered tofu that came with slices of pink ham.

-But I don't eat meat?! I told the waiter.
-It is not meat. It's a spice, that gives the taste. It's part of the dish! She replied.

After 2 months in China I gave up. We were in a restaurant and in came ribs, beef, and you name it. I took a rib and started munching. No one reacted. Cool. And that's how I left the vegetarian life and became a meat-eater again. (In case anyone wonders, I had a vague stomach pain that very night but except for that nothing big changed when I started eating meat after 8 years of being meat free. Only thing worth mentioning is that I got fuller faster and didn't have to eat full bowls of pasta anymore. I guess I should add that I still don't 'crave''meat, at least not pork which I still don't really like, so I mainly eat chicken and fish and the occasional hamburger -which is great. Gosh, I can't believe I didn't eat hamburgers for that long?!)

Anyways, last wknd in Shanghai I met a friend of a friend (British guy) who was travelling through China with his friends. He had been a vegetarian since he was 10 (now I believe he was in his late 20-ies) and in order not to ruin his diet he carried around a piece of paper with some Chinese characters that he showed at different restaurants.

-I have no idea what it says, he told me. But every time I show it people long quite concerned and I have never been served meat. I am positively surprised as I thought it was going to be hell to be a vegetarian in China.

I asked to see the paper. It said something like: "If this man eats meat, any kind of it, he will get very sick"

Doh. No wonder he got concerned nods. I am very impressed that it worked though!

So, maybe that's a tip to all you vegetarians planning to visit China. Because you know, just because it says 'tofu' on the menu doesn't mean it's only tofu in the bowl your are being served. Using meat as a 'taste enchancer' is a common standard over here.

I personally don't regret starting to eat meat (my dad is soooooo proud of me and have told me various times that now I am a 'real woman' again -gosh? Meathead or what?!? Haha!) and I am not worried about the meat over here like many tourists are.

I normally do project work for a German company twice a year and every time I have lunch with their Germans visitors, that are here only for the project work that goes on for 2-3 weeks, they are sitting there picking in their salads or fish free sushi. They are so scared of even touching a bit of meat/fish here that it's almost laughable. When they see me eat meat they always ask: "Aren't you scared of eating dogs?!" (and this is at very standard -even western- restaurants) and I always answer "No... I am not scared of eating dogs because we are not in a very dog-eating part of China, and, we are not in Korea... so you don't have to worry about that." And still, they roll their eyes behind my back as if I am 'the most naive thing'....

Having said all of this, vegetarian food in China can be great -you just have to find the right restaurants. There are some 'all vegetarian' restaurants in Shanghai, where 'Vegetarian Kitchen' is the best one I have tried. I also found a really good one in Beijing when I was there during the Olympics, but more about that some other time.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Stitches gone -safe to run again?

Today it is FINALLY time to remove the stitches on my stomach (from the birthmark removal) after 13 loooong days. Now, is it safe to go for a run straight after the stitches have been removed? (I know many of you might regard that as a stupid question, but I am really good at asking stupid things, so why not?) I know I wasn't supposed to run while I had the stitches as I wasn't supposed to sweat too much. But now when they r gone, is the skin thick enough to endure some serious sweating? (it's 32 degrees out there.. I believe I will sweat, ehum, GLOW like a pig if I go for a 10 km run). Oh please people, say yes! I have longed for a run as much as kids long for Xmas when they r 5...

Shanghai over Suzhou, every wknd


I hope everybody had a good wknd! I certainly did. I went to Shanghai on Sat morning to spend the day running 'Shanghai-business' and then to later catch up with friends that I haven't seen for too long and enjoy a bit of the Shanghai Jazz festival in Jing'an park. I have to say I was positively surprised about the jazz festival. I am normally not into jazz, but it was truly inspiring to see that so many locals had turned up for the event (the park was packed -all tickets had sold out. I was lucky to be my friend Stella's '+1' -thank lord for friends that work in media!-)

The main attraction of the night was Taiwanese jazz-pop singer-songwriter Joanna Wang (who's being referred to as 'China's Norah Jones' -although I have to say that Ms Wang was quite a bit better than Ms Jones.. in my own, humble opinion) but the band that played after Wang, Incognito, was also worth mentioning, as they put on a good concert. Once the festival had finished (Incognito was apparently told to stop playing before they wanted to... -I guess it has to do with government regulations- as they weren't that happy about it) we were starving and decided to hit one of the few options for 'after midnight meals': Grandma's kitchen, on Nanjing Xi Lu. This is a Cantonese restaurant chain, and it was way above expectations (I am normally not big on Cantonese food) although that might have got something to do with the fact that we were absolutely starving when we got there, and ordered almost everything from the menu.. (the perk of being a group of 11 is that u can hardly ever order too much). We rolled from the restaurant to the Shelter (see 'a bomb shelter nighclub' post for more info about this place) which is apparently still the coolest place to party in Shanghai. Everyone was there! Old friend I haven't seen for ages were downing cheap beers and later dancing them away on the small, and packed dance floor. In the end, it got a bit smokey for my taste (something that quite easily happens in a tiny venue where people smoke a lot -the smoking in nightclubs ban is still far away from Shanghai) and I left quite early, around 2am.

Still, it was so much fun to be out with my old friends in Shanghai again. If there's something I miss now when I am living in Suzhou it is the nights out in Shanghai. There's always a lot of fun, young and happy people out and about, which is a total opposite to the nightlife scene in Suzhou.. I bet in 10 years time or so the Suzhou nightlife will have become a bit more sophisticated, but until then I will continue catching the train to Shanghai for partying.

Friday, September 19, 2008

No more bully teachers

You need to be no Sherlock Homes in order to figure our that I am struggling with the Chinese characters. Not so much with reading them, but with writing them, by hand.

It is a well-established and well known fact at Chinese universities that 'OuMei ren' (meaning: people from Europe and America) have difficulties with handwriting characters. Since everyone knows this, both my Chinese teachers and my Asian classmates have up been more lenient and forgiving with my ugly (and similar to a three-year-old) handwriting. Main thing is that I CAN write something and that people can understand it, rather than how it looks, right?

Well, that was the norm, up until yesterday.

As I've mentioned before I've been getting some bad vibes from my new teachers, and especially from one of them. She's been doing this sort of 'fake smile' thing, meaning: she walks around looking happy and cheerful, until u ask her about something she gets all troubled and annoyed and asks you to use your dictionary.

Yesterday she was really on my back. I got to answer several questions and then I was asked to go and write a sentence on the blackboard (together with 3 Korean students).

I know that my handwriting is terrible, so I had a laugh about it while I wrote. And so did my teacher. She was honestly standing next to me, giggling, while I wrote. (Fair enough, I am happy to entertain) When I afterwards sat down the teacher started going through our sentences. She started with me (note that this was a grammar exercise, not a hanzi exercise).

-Does anyone think this sentence is OK? She asked.
-Yes, everyone said.
-You don't see any mistake???
-Well I can tell there is a BIG mistake! Jonna here hasn't done a FULL STOP at the end of the sentence. Jonna -you have to make a full stop at the end of the sentence, otherwise we don't know that it has finished.
Me: -eh.... ok.
She: -And I have noticed that when you do your full stop in your exercise books you do it as a 'dot'. In China, a full stop should be a round circle!! You HAVE to learn this! (while she said this she drew one dot and one fuller circle on the board). Then... there is eh... haha... well... Jonna your handwriting is very interesting, don't you all think?! VEEEERY interesting! Do you know you write the wrong way?
-Eh... yes, well, I just....
-You don't write according to the rules. This is something very basic.. you should write like... bla bla bla bla..
(stats going through writing rules that I know about but don't follow -due to one simple reason: I simply can't memorize them all and I think it is better I learn how the character look and know how to write it, than learning it specifically according to the rules. Main thing is that people can read it, right?)

Oh my oh my... She went on and on, telling everyone about how I did it (BAD) and how it should be done... I was just sitting there, starring. So was the rest of the class. If I were them I would have been quite annoyed with the fact that the teacher spent so much time commenting on some one's handwriting when we were doing a grammar exercise.

Finally the class was over and I caught myself feeling quite tense.

Then suddenly the teacher said:
-Oh, if someone wants to change class it is okay because we are too many students in this class, meanwhile the other level 4 class have less students.

Do I need to mention that I was the first student who signed up to change?!

I now have a male teacher most of the time (that I've had before -and I know he is great!) and I am sooooo happy! Constructive criticism, sure, but there's a limit right? No more bully teachers from now on!

Oh... and after school that day I met one of my former classmates. We talked for a bit before she said: "You know what. I could clearly see what you wrote on the blackboard."


And that's why we call him 'Mr Indian Embassy'

Today my boyfriend made an interesting phone call to the Indian embassy hotline:

-Hello! I am calling to ask about visas.
-Wait a minute.

(screaming in Chinese in the background)

-I am sorry, the person you are looking for is not here. Can you give us your name and we will call you back?
-Eh... sure.. but just to make sure... this is the Indian Embassy right??
-Okay Mr Indian Embassy! We will call you back as soon as we can! Bye!
(hangs up the phone)

What the f*** just happened?!?!!

(FYI: it WAS the Indian embassy indeed. Someone else from my bf's company called back 5 min later just to make sure)

Why five when u can have six??

We just got back from our local fruit shop. It's a great (and cheap -despite being located inside our living complex) little shop that sells everything from kiwis to mangoes. Being big fruit consumers, we are there every second or third day.

Today, we bought the usual: 5 bananas and a bag of kiwis.

When the friendly woman behind the counter put our fruit on the scale she gave us a long look and asked:

-Is it in your country considered luck to buy five bananas? We were a bit startled.
-Eh... no?
-So why do you always buy it? Five bananas. Why not six? That's a better number.

Oh, our bad. Even numbers it is. Everywhere. Even when u buy your banans. Take note!

It's all about talking

This blog has been a lot about studying Chinese lately, sorry if I have managed to bore some of you, but I guess the fact that uni started last week and my new class was a bit different (especially teacher wise!) made me inspired to do some posts. I'll now try to cut down on the 'learning Mandarin posts' however, as I guess it can get repetitive after a while.

Just one last thing: I have decided not to take the HSK course this semester. Why? well, simply because I don't want to spend more time on listening in a classroom! I want to use what I already know, not just stare in a book and write characters. The other day at the gym I started talking to a lovely young Chinese girl called Catherine. We clicked instantly, exchanged numbers and yesterday we met for coffee (How ironic that I just wrote about the fact that I don't have any Chinese female friends in Suzhou...). We only speak Chinese and she understands me fine and to my big surprise, I also understand HER fine?! (this is something I've had a problem with before..-understanding random people. Because they all have different dialects and speak so faaaast!) I also noticed when I spoke to her, that it wasn't that hard to speak anymore.. the sentences just came flying, and I could talk about much more than the usual things like 'where I come from, what job I have done, what food I like to eat and my hobbies'... Awesome. Sure, there's still a while until I'll be discussing politics, but the fact that I can already have a bit deeper conversations makes me excited!

Somehow, without really noticing it myself I must have improved at least a liiiiittle bit. I still don't really believe it, because it sure doesn't feel like it when I am in class, but the main thing is not what u can say in class but how much u can use your Chinese in your every day life, right? So... I think I need more of the speaking bit and less of starring at my books. Actually, in our grammar class our teacher has told us that she won't give us too much homework (which is otherwise the standard) because she wants us to have time to go out and speak/hang out with our Chinese friends. Sounds good to me!

I was thinking that on top of meeting with Catherine and speaking to my gym friends every now and then it would also be good to find some sort of job.Before I was thinking about a kindergarten.. I could offer working there for free 1-2 afternoons/week just to practice speaking to the kids. But then again? I am really not a kids person?! (not at all.. when kids see me they normally start crying. I think they can sense that I am not a natural) I just thought this sort of job would be good because kids are normally more forgiving if you make mistakes than grown ups... And, we are probably on the same speaking level? Hm.. well, let's see. I have to figure something out. What other job could I do, mainly to improve my Chinese? Any suggestions? How have other people gone on from studying to working? But anyways, no HSK for me this semester. Maybe next year. Maybe never.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Helping out a friend -only when asked for?

Yesterday at the gym I ran into my friend Rocky... he looked a bit tired so I asked if he was OK.

-Yeah I am OK, although last night there was a fire in my apartment.

Turns out that a fire had started from an electric mosquito killer that had been placed under a couch next to Rocky's bed (not the smartest placement, no, although Rocky said he'd put it there before without any problems). Rocky had woken up by feeling hot, and then he'd seen that his couch, clothes rack and floor was on fire. He woke up his brother and they managed to put out the fire.

It was kind of weird to listen to his story. He sounded somewhere between calm and terrified. He kept saying he was so happy that he'd only lost 'things' and that nothing had happened to him and his brother (who is actually his cousin, but u know how it goes here... cousins are brothers and sisters to the Chinese).

In the end, Rocky lost all of his clothes, shoes, some other stuff, the couch and his computer got a bit burned and ruined. Obviously I offered everything I could think of (new clothes? No!, Old clothes? No. Kitchen stuff? No, don't need. Shoes? No. Bag? No. ANYTHING? No!!) Seriously, he wouldn't even accept a t-shirt from me? He almost seemed a bit angry when I kept asking if there was something I could do. For me, helping out a friend that has suffered something as terrible as a fire is a natural thing, however. I don't feel good if I can't do anything?

I kept thinking to myself when I walked home, that is this one of those situations when a Chinese will just always say 'no!' as the offer of help because that is the polite/right way to do it (Just like u should always reply 'oh no, not as all!' when someone pays you a compliment saying that you are pretty or that your clothes look nice). Or, did he simply say no because he meant no? It's sometimes hard to understand my Chinese friends because they can be so vague. They never want to trouble me by asking for help with anything, and then in obvious situations like this, when there's been a fire and I get told in detail about the 'losses,' as well as the fact that he doesn't have any money to fix the big burn mark and the hole on the floor, I get a big 'NO!' when I offer some help?

So when CAN you then offer your help over here? Only when asked directly for?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Some thoughts about the school system over here....

In my previous job I got to meet and interview a lot of foreign CEOs based in China. When I asked them about problems at their work place, they all said similar things:

"Well, it's hard to get the Chinese workers to take on responsibilities"

"It's always quiet at my meetings! I talk -and the Chinese staff are quiet."

"Nobody ever tells me when they run into a problem. Instead the problem snowballs into something huge before it is revealed and then it is normally too late to solve it."

Having studied a little bit more than a year at a Chinese university, I am starting to understand where these problems come from.

I must have been lucky with my teachers before because they have all been encouraging, helpful and happy. But the teachers I have now? Well, sure, they are friendly, but their attitude to mistakes?! Ridiculous!!!

Just the other day we had the infamous 听写'ting xie' (this means that the teacher reads characters that u then have to write down). Once we finished she told us to pass out papers over to a class mate and correct each other's. Then she said:

-So, if your friend have gotten EVERYTHING right, you should write 很好!(= 'Hen hao!' very good!). If he or she has gotten only one mistake you can write 好! (= 'Hao!' good!) and if he or she has TWO mistakes you write 加油! (= 'Jia You!' A cheerful encouragement).
-What if someone has more mistakes than 2? I asked.
-Hm... well, ehum... She looked very uncomfortable and looked at me as if I was some sort of freak, as if she was thinking: "What do you mean, MORE than 2 mistakes??! That's unacceptable!" She actually never answered me on that one.

(I guess I don't even have to mention that I had FAR more mistakes than 2?!)

When our papers had been corrected and given back to us, the teacher walked around the class glancing over our shoulders to see if we were a 很好 'hen hao', 好 'hao' or 加油 'jia you' student.
She stopped at the Japanese boy sitting in front of me, whose paper I had corrected (he was a spotless 很好 'hen hao!')

-Very good! she said approvingly.
He beamed.

Then she moved on to me. (who got so nervous that I did a lame attempt to covering some of my mistakes with my hand. Imagine that!)

-Jonna?! Is this your paper? (Her voice got all icy, or was it just me imagining?!) so many mistakes? Why did you write this character (pointing at one) when I read "亲qin?" That is not okay! You have to correct all of these and study at home. A lot! Okay?

-Yes teacher.

Oh my... and this is just one example. Our spoken teacher engages in another 'sport.'

She keeps talking about the importance of us all TALKING as much as possible during class (which is sometimes hard seeing that she's VERY good at talking herself, leaving less time for us to talk since we always first have to listen to her for about 30 min). When she finally passes around a question, and asks everyone to answer, she is very open about who she thinks can talk and who she thinks cannot.

To someone she thinks can speak she doesn't hold back on the compliments:

-Listen to this student! she speaks really well, clear and fluently. Very good! Very good! You should all do the same.

To someone who she thinks cannot speak she's not as cheerful:

-You need to go home and practice more.

Sure, I get it. I am not studying in Scandinavia (where negative feedback like this is rare) anymore but in China. Things are different. But I just know how these comment some days can make me feel? It's not that encouraging to hear that you cannot speak, or that because u made 5 mistakes you are a BAD (suck ass! although they would never say that) student?! It doesn't really makes u feel like studying harder... rather, it makes u feel a bit useless. Despite not being 8 years old anymore.

So, imagine having these sort of teachers from when u are a little child. U do your best but maybe that's not enough, or even worse, maybe u make a MISTAKE (boooh!!)... and u get this sort of feedback (something tells me that our teachers are not even that harsh... they are probably 'nicer' to us since we are lao wais... so then just imagine how the are to the Chinese kids)?! Well, you certainly won't do that mistake again. Or at least you will try not to. But it's impossible. Everyone makes mistakes sooner or later. So therefore u start hiding them. You shy away from responsibility so that you can always blame someone else. Or, you simply shut up so that u won't risk saying something that might be wrong?

Hm... all those foreign CEOs should take a class at a Chinese uni and then they wouldn't have to wonder anymore why their staff are so scared of making mistakes/taking on responsibilities.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

HSK or not?

A lot of questions this early Tue morning… but this one I don’t really know how to tackle. The uni where I am studying is offering the usual HSK course this fall and I don’t know if I should take it or not? For those of you who are not familiar with the term ‘HSK’, here goes (from an HSK test homepage):

“The Chinese Proficiency Test (HSK) is China's national standardized test designed and developed by the HSK Center of Beijing Language and Culture University to assess the Chinese language proficiency of non-native speakers (including foreigners, overseas Chinese and students from Chinese national minorities).”

Since I started studying Mandarin I have been a little bit against the whole ‘HSK thing’ since I am not studying to score well on some test (that only test your grammar/writing/reading and listening skills –so basically u can be good on the paper and then if you have no speaking skills it won’t matter) but to be able to speak and use the language in my every day life (and hopefully later in my career). But then I met a girl this semester, an American girl, who has gone from level 2 to level 4 (!) simply by taking the HSK course and doing really well on the test. She said the HSK course had helped her with both vocabulary and grammar and that made me think… “hm… maybe that course isn’t that bad after all?!’

Although I already know I won’t do well on the test. I am a smaller disaster when it comes to handwriting Chinese characters. Give me a computer and I’ll do okay but by hand… nope. It won’t happen unless I have my best friend aka my electronic dictionary next to me… I simply find it impossible to memorize all those strokes in my head and scribble down an essay. I am deeply impressed by those who can, however.

I have heard from many people that the HSK course is quite hard, that the tempo is really high and that u basically have to know what the class is about before you go in there otherwise you’ll be lost… so hm.. I can’t say that it sounds appealing. But that smart girl who went from level 2 to 4 is definitely an inspiration… Hm… Anyone reading this blog that has taken the HSK test? What did you think? Does it help with vocabulary? Or is it simply about self studying a lot and then quickly reviewing it in the class? I definitely don’t need another class that I am struggling to keep up with, I already have three and that is more than enough…

Huangzhou half marathon VS Shanghai half marathon

Lake race

It's not been SIX days since I last hit the gym. SIX BLOODY DAYS??! My whole body is itching. I feel as if I have lost my shape/fitness entirely and that it's going to be h*** to get back into my daily training routine... obviously this isn't true at all, but rather a lot of exaggeration from me, as it shouldn't be that hard to get going again, but it just FEELS like that a.t.m. It's still another week until I can remove the stitches but obviously I cannot wait that long so I've decided to hit the gym tonight already. I mean, I did the HHH-run, and I survived? It can't be that bad for the stitches with a bit of sweat, the main thing is that u don't stretch that area, right?

Since we are on the training topic -I am thinking about running Huangzhou half marathon rather than the Shanghai race. Huangzhou h/m is on Nov 9 and it goes around a huge lake that is said to be 'very beautiful' (I wouldn't know, since I haven't been yet) and that actually sounds more appealing than running next to the cars in Shanghai. Also, the Huangzhou race starts at 8.30am rather than 7.30am. Since I am not a morning runner this might help a little bit (at least I won't have to get up at 3am just to have breakfast. With a 8.30am start maybe it is enough if I get up at... 4.30am? I have to eat some hours in advance to avoid getting a stitch while running). I guess the only downside is that the Huangzhou race is quite soon, Nov 9, meanwhile the Shanghai race isn't until Nov 30... So I miss out on some training.. but well, I don't know how much that matters in the end. Right now it looks like I am going to run in Huangzhou at least, let's see what I've decided in a week.

Anyone else interested in running the h/m or the full marathon in Huangzhou? Here's a link to the race: http://www.hangzhou-marathon.com/

Monday, September 15, 2008

Split the bill -not always a smart choice

Today's a public holiday in China (yey! I love the fact that it's on a MONDAY) so I won't write a long blog post. I just thought I'd share something funny that happened last Sat at a bar in Ligongdi, in Suzhou. I was meeting a bunch of Finnish Hash House Harriers at a bar (I was the only girl and therefore the only one who went home to shower, something that isn't in general approved in the HHH-community). When I cam to the bar the guys had already had a beer and a shot each, and I sat down with the menu to decide what to drink. One of the guys said:

-Hey Jonna if you decide to have a Gin and Tonic then order one for everyone. If you decide to have something else then order 7 G&T for us.

I decided to also go for a G&T and ordered 8 G&T. The waiter just looked at me. I had to write it down on his paper for him and specify that the drinks were for everyone but he still gave me the odd glance.

Soon, 8 G&Ts appeared, everyone drank and were happy. When we'd finished these drinks we decided to head somewhere else to eat and asked for the bill (not specifying if we wanted to split it or pay together... we just asked for the bill). Five minutes later 3 different waiters came and handed out 8 different bills, one to each one of us. Only funny thing is, that while my bf and the other guys were charged for a beer and a shot, I got a 320 kuai bill for 'eight G&T.'

Ahhhh hilarious! It just shows that they sometime don't think before they do things here... bill all the men for their drinks and then the girl for the 8 drinks she ordered for everyone... Obviously we sent all the bills back and asked to get a new bill with everything together... but still. It was just so funny!

Anyways, yesterday we went back to the same bar for an 'after dinner mint' (in a smaller group) and when it was time to get the bill the waiter asked:

-so do you want everything together now, and not like yesterday?
-That's right.

Good girl. I think from now on she'll always make sure.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

My first Hash House Harriers' run

Although I made a promise to myself not to run for at least 5 days (since I have stitches on my belly from the birthmark removal) I had to break it, when the Shanghai Hash House Harriers teamed up with Suzhou Hash House Harriers (Meaning: 7 Finnish men and Me) for a trail run in the hills of Taihu Lake.

I have never been to a HHH run before, so being a 'virgin HHH' (as they so nicely put it) I had no idea what to expect.

Does all of you know what the HHH is? Hm... well how do I describe it? They call themselves 'drinkers with a running problem.' On their world homepage it says:

Now with 1872 hash groups registered in the world directory located in almost every major city in the world and 178 countries, it is easier than ever for you to find fun, trail, and friendship where you live. The Hash House Harriers is a more social version of Hare and Hounds, where you join the pack of hounds (runners) to chase down the trail set by the hare or hares (other runners), then gather together for a bit of social activity known as the On In or Down Down with refreshment, humor, song and sometimes a feast.

What this basically means is: 2 guys are 'hares'. They run 15 minutes before the other group starts, and mark the trail. They also put out false marks, in order to confuse you and have u getting lost. So it's not simply a run, it is more like a 'finding the trail run', and for ambitious trail-lookers (Or FRB -'front running bastards' as they are called in the HHH world) this can mean running in the wrong direction for 2 km, only to have to turn back when other find out that the trail is actually supposed to go the other way.

The trail is marked by signs called 'flour'... simply because it is... a pile of baking flour! And therefore quite easy to spot and find. They also draw check points (circles) and fake check points (3 lines) to have u confused. Once you hit a check point, of a 'flour' point, you should shout 'ON ON' as a sign to the runners behind you that you are on the right track.

Sounds silly? Well trust me, when I first heard it all I was like 'For real?!' but once we started running I understood it all much better. Runners get lost all the time and the shouting of 'on on!' to signal that u r on the right trail, is more or less crucial, not the least for slow runners.

There is a choice of a long run (about 10km but in hilly conditions so it feels like... 15 km) and a short run (about 6km and not as hilly). Some people simply walk the short trail and although I had planned to do the same, I couldn't help myself from running the long run once I was out there... It was simply too tempting! :)

The weather was humid and hot when we started off at 2pm at a hill next to Taihu Lake. After only 10 minutes of running/hiking/climbing up a huge hill, we were all soaking wet of sweat.. that's when I decided that I might as well run it, since I was already sweating so much... anyways, and on it went.

Like I said, since this was my first HHH run I had no idea to expect.... but honestly.. it was really a lot of great fun! Well, first of all, the running part -I LOVED, And running in the nature and through small Chinese country villages made the experience even better! Forget about cars and roads and running on concrete.... finally I got a taste of nature. Wonderful!

10 min into the run and already soaked...

View from the (killer) hill. (and no, we were not running on the roads...)

View from the hill

Me and my bf did a quite good effort seeing this was our first run. Around 2km from the goal there was a sign on the road saying 'beers are straight ahead'. This sign made all the FRB speed as if there was no tomorrow... and because of their excitement they all missed the marked right turn and ran an extra 4 km and ended up getting real lost. We were a bit behind the FRB but saw the sign, and ended up in the 'top 10' of people who'd finished the race. Not that this matters in any way... it's not a competition, but a fun run, but it was still nice to finish in the top (especially when u are competative like me) I think it took us around 1.5 hours to finish, and we finished even before the people who took the short run! Like I said: hilly conditions!!! A lot of climbing involved, both up and down (at some places u had to use your hands in order not to fall. Yes baby, we are talking real steep!)

Hill running -not a 'pretty' sport...

Once everyone reached the end point there were 2 big eskys full of beers and water waiting for us and then followed the 'down down' ceremony... which is basically a time when u make fun of/humiliate everyone who has said or done something funny during the run. This might not sound like fun but it was actually quite hilarious. Three American guys were in charge of several speeches and called up people to the 'stage' where they were rewarded or penalised (both with a glass of beer) for various deeds. I was called up for 3 different reasons: 1. Being a Suzhou HHH, 2. Being a HHH virgin and 3. Having a Chinese character tattoo on my angle (this is another story, I will write more about this some other time but NO, I did not do this tattoo in China but when I was 16 and 'rebelious' and YES, I regret it very much!).

The ceremony also included 'baptizing' 2 new HHH as they had successfully participated in their second run. HHR all have silly names like 'No Balls' 'Bionic Bimbo' and 'King Piss' (yeah I know, ridiculous, I didn't come up with them). The new runners (2 Finns) were named 'Siemens Belly' (for his somewhat 'Buddha'-like belly) and 'Happy Finish'. The ceremony involved a lot of beers and some mud and is nothing I ever wish to be involved in...

After the 'down down' ceremony we were served dinner at a nearby restaurant. Then the Suzhou HHH took a mini bus back to Suzhou where we continued partying all nite long... If you like running and don't mind making fun of yourself I strongly recommend you to participate in a HHH-run. I know I will do it again! Also, I guess this is as close as u can get to a 'runner's club' in Suzhou.

'Down Down' time

Baptizing time

Friday, September 12, 2008

Getting to know people

Bonding with kids in Yunnan

I was chatting to a friend from Australia the other day, and he expressed something I have been meaning to write about for a while: that despite being in China, it's quite hard to get (good) Chinese friends here.

He has some great, Chinese female friend (most who he has got to know though work or via work mates), but when I asked him about male friends, he shook his head.

-Non, zero... I don't know how to approach them? It feels like they are not interested in getting to know me?

Hm... funny. I have had the same feeling about Chinese girls... :) In Shanghai I have a bunch of great and amazing Chinese girlfriends. In Suzhou, however, I have none! Here I have gotten to know a bunch of Chinese guys instead (and to be honest -in general I feel it is easier to talk to the guys than to the girls here.. )

Actually, the girlfriends that I already have, weren't that easy to find. Most of them are former work mates from when I worked at a city magazine in Shanghai, and even with them it took a while to bond. (It didn't happen over working overtime, doing stories together or having lunch -but during a spontaneous night out on Volar. And what a night then!)

But before I met this bunch of girls, I had some interesting moments while trying to get to know others. One girl in particular, Lynn, was so excited when we met at a bar one month after I had arrived in Shanghai. Forget about checking out guys and drinking cocktails. Me and Lynn spent the night talking about our experiences of studying in Australia (she'd studied in Sydney for 4 years meanwhile I had been in Perth for 3.5 years). I was thrilled. At that time I couldn't speak any Chinese and Lynn's English was great. She seemed fun, outgoing and happy. We decided to have dinner sometime during the next week.

We met for dinner at a quite fancy Cantonese place. I let her do the ordering (which took more than 40 minutes) and we ended up with a bunch of different dishes that she barely touched herself. She was too busy talking. She'd told me during the night we met about her boyfriend who was still in Australia (he was originally from Hong Kong -but now living in Sydney with his family. His parents didn't approve of his relationship with Lynn) and about him wanting to break up with her now when she was back in China. I listened compassionately, offered some advices and showed some sympathy.

I'd say that I am normally a good listener. I don't mind letting people pour out their hearts to me and I am happy to offer advices... but... there's a limit, right? After 1 hour I had eaten more than half of all the food Lynn had ordered (she still had barely touched anything) and said about 2 things except for: 'no way, he said that?!' 'Really?!' and 'That's awful!' I was getting a bit bored.

Carefully i tried to change the conversation to something else, commenting on the food being good.

-Yeah but I don't want to eat it. I don't want to look fat the next time I see him (he was coming to visit her... I think? Or, she was visiting him? I don't remember)
-But you are already tiny? I tried (girl's love hearing that -and besides, she WAS! I felt like a giant next to her)
-Noooooo! I am noooooot! she said! I need to lose some weight!
-So do you do any exercise? I tried, still keen to get the conversation moving.
-I have a gym membership! She said.
-Haha, yes but do you use it?
-Not yet. But I am planning to do yoga!
-Ah, I personally like running...
I tried, before I was interrupted:
-Oh my god, I miss him so muuuuuuuch!!!!!!!!!!!

OK so shifting the conversation wasn't working... I decided to be more involved in hers.
-You know what? I said. I also have an ex boyfriend in Australia so I know what u feel.. it is hard to move on!
This caught her attention.
-But... you have a boyfriend here in China too don't you?
-Yes... but when I left Australia I also left my boyfriend there... that was really hard at that time I remember. It took me a long time to get over him.
-Oh, so you have an ex boyfriend?
-Yes... Well I have a couple of ex boyfriends.
-And now you have a new one!?
-You're such a slut!!!

Slut? who? ME?! Sure, she said it with a cheeky smile but I still felt as if I was about to fall of my chair. If I was a slut, she was an obsessive-ex-girlfriend. But I couldn't tell her that... could I?

I didn't. But then again, we never had dinner again. That night at the Cantonese restaurant was our first and last meal together.

Lynn actually called me some weeks later asking me if I wanted to come shopping with her. I did, and it was a disaster. We spent 45 minutes in one shop on Xinle Lu where she tried on a pair of jeans, a top, a hat, and shoes, and bought nothing. She then took me to another shop on the same street and told me this shop carried exclusive designs from Hong Kong. I browsed for a while and in the neat piles of sweaters I found a knitted V-neck jumper from 'Divided' (a section from H&M) with a price tag of 700 rmb (this was before H&M came to China). When I tried to explain this to her she looked at me as I was from another planet and once again explained to me that the clothes here were 'exclusive' and 'only from Hong Kong.'

That was the last time we caught up and to be honest -I wasn't that sad that we never got any closer. I mean, some people you click with and some you don't. Nothing to fret about. Now I just laugh about it. but I remember back then -being new in China and not having any idea of how to find good girlfriends, that I thought "wow... this is going to be some different years in China!"

Anyways, what I am trying to say is... it takes some time to get to know people here (but it's worth some patience.. I mean, those girlfriends that I have now are awesome. Well worth waiting for). And I guess that maybe some western guys have experienced the same things with Chinese male friends that I first did with Chinese girls: that we are quite different, think differently and share different life experiences. But that's nothing worth losing sleep over, just keep trying until you find someone you click with. As long as they don't call you 'slut'.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Stupid, stupid me.

Tomorrow's square in Shanghai

One birthmark removal later and I am a poor, and angry person.

Now, I know that some of your are going to think I am the most naive thing when u hear about this, but I'd still like to share it to warn other (naive as me) people so that they don't make the same mistake.

In July this year I started doing long runs and as a result of the heat, the time and the heavy sweating my sports bra started rubbing against one birth mark, eventually making it bleed and fall off. I freaked out a little bit and called a hospital in Shanghai to find out about birthmark removal.

-Sure no problem. Said the woman on the phone. You should come in for a consulting. This month that is free.
-How much do you charge for the actual removal?
-We charge per square millimeter, so 100-200 kuai per millimeter. It depends how it looks. Is it big?
-No, it's tiny. A dot.
-Well then it shouldn't be any problem. I think I can book you half an hour and the doctor can remove it straight away.

One week later I went to see the dermatologist at Parkway Health (some fancy hospital located on Tomorrow Square in Shanghai. This was NOT the hospital I had called when I made the appointment but this is to where I was referred). He looked at the birthmark and said I should remove it.

-Sure, go ahead, I said.
-Eh, ok, let's make an appointment.
-No, let's do it now
! I said.
-Eh... no... the people that can do it has already left for today. Sorry. You have to come back. Shall I make you a new appointment?

OK, at this point I got a bit annoyed. I had come from Suzhou to have it removed. Besides, doesn't a dermatologist know how to remove birth marks? Does he need others to do it for him? Apparently so. I was told to come back another day. I was leaving for Sweden, however, and couldn't make it back before the end of summer.

When I got back to China about one month ago the birthmark hadn't given me any problems... until I went for a long run in the humid heat and it started bleeding. I made a new appointment for birthmark removal and yesterday I went in to have it done.

This time it was a new dermatologist, he was really nice and professional and yadi yadi and he took his time explaining everything for me. I have a fear for needles so I almost fainted when I got the anaesthesia shot (childish I know but I can't really control it? It just happens when I do a blood test or take a shot...) but except for that it was OK. Until... I got the bill.

-That will be 4080 kuai.
-No. 4080.

Yes, 4080 kuai for a the REMOVAL of a BIRTHMARK?!!!
-U kidding right? I asked the nurse, although I could tell on her face that she wasn't. And I could also tell on her face that she wasn't used to patients reacting the way I did when they saw their bill.

Obviously I couldn't do anything else but to pay, make an appointment for the stitch removal and leave. Now I am anxiously awaiting the response from my insurance company... meanwhile feeling like a total idiot. Why didn't I just ask how much he would charge for it all BEFORE he started cutting? Why, why, why....? Why am I such an idiot?!!! I am going to call the same number today though and ask again for a new price quote because seriously -shouldn't they be a bit more open about the price before they start treating their patients? Or shouldn't he have said: 'well now I have to cut a quite big piece of skin so this is going to cost you... xxx' At least that is what they did when I went to the dentist here. They showed me the total cost before doing anything.

Anyways, like I said, this is just a story I'd like to share so that other that are walking around in 'birthmark removal thoughts' doesn't proceed with it at Parkway Health. This is obviously the the creme de la cream of health care, and not a place for 'people on a budget' (like me).

Having had this experience, and being 4000 kuai poorer that yesterday morning, I have now learned that never, ever assume anything. And always ask for the exact price. Not that I didn't already know that. But now I know it even more.

(And, as if this wasn't enough -now I cannot run for 10 days?! Ahhhoooochh! Well, this I already knew about but normally when I am angry or frustrated I go for a run to wind down. What now? Taking a walk?! Damn!)

Go on -tell me how stupid I am for not finding out the exact price before getting it removed. This one's on me.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Why I shouldn't be around kids

Yesterday I had a lesson with my brilliant student Yoon-He. Yoon-He is a 10 year old Korean girl. She's one of the brightest people I have ever met. I really don't understand why her parents insist on having her going to private lessons, but in a way it doesn't matter because it means I can spend time with her. She's already fluent in English, Korean and Chinese, (her Chinese is so much better than mine that it is painful!) and she plays the piano and when she grows up she wants to be a professional translator for 'important business people'. Is it possible NOT to admire her?! If she had a fan club I'd be in it.

A small background to WHY I teach this girl:

On an ordinary day of studying at Starbucks in January this year I was approached by 2 Korean women who asked if I could teach their kids English. I pointed out that I am neither a native speaker, NOR teaching material (in fact, I am terrible with kids: they see me, they cry), but they really insisted so I said I would give it a go.

The first time I went to Yoon-Hee's home both her mom and dad were there. On the table was a pile of English books. Yoon Hee's dad first had a deep conversation with me, explaining (on very broken English) that his daughter needed help with listening/reading/pronunciation/writing/grammar... well, pretty much everything. I then met Yoon-Hee, a cute but quiet little girl who looked a bit scared.

In the beginning she barely said anything as she was so shy. After 2 lessons, however, we started getting along fine and she also started to talk. And once she started talking... she didn't stop.

Basically, Yoon-He didn't need any private lessons in English. She just needed someone to 'break the ice' with her to get her talking. Now she's moved up to the 'fastest group of English students' in her class and her parents think this is all because of me (they love me). We have already been out to Mc Donald's (Yoon-Hee's choice) to celebrate: me, Yoon-Hee, the mom and Yoon-Hee's 4 year old little sister. We had chicken nuggets and talked about what Yoon-Hee should eat to grow as tall as me. It was a blast.

I still go to their house once a week and me and Yoon-Hee talk about everything from the Olympic Games in Beijing (her favorite topic at the moment) to her three boyfriends. Yesterday, however, a new side to Yoon-Hee appeared.

I was telling her (on her request) about my summer holiday in Sweden.

-Did you see your mom?
-Was she happy?
-Did you go to Beijing to watch the Olympic Games?
-yes I did, it was a lot of fun!
-Did your mom go with you?
-No, I went with my boyfriend.
-Do you sleep with your boyfriend?
-I.... ehh... WHAT?
-Do you sleep with your boyfriend?
-Do I what?!
-Do you....
-No, no, I hear you... but you know, you can't ask me that?!
-Haha, so you do?
-Eh.... that's private!
-I think you do!

Oh my. I have a feeling her parents are not going to love me that much anymore when she tells them what we talked about during our last lesson.

Bonding at the traffic lights

On my way to school at the traffic lights, a huge scooter with a tiny blond woman pulls up next to me and my too-small-for-me-but-it-was-the-best-I-could-do-bike. We look at each other.

-I hate this! She says.
-Me too. I agree. I get so angry when I ride my bike here.
-I am so scared!
-I am so frustrated.
-I am so scared!
She says again.

The lights go green and I watch the little woman on her big scooter go in for a left turn. She gets suck between a bunch of bikes and taxis coming from the other side and looks miserable.

Later we meet at the bike parking lot of the university.

-I hate this scooter, she says.
-Get a bike.
-I tried to tell my husband but he insisted on getting me this.
-Your husband doesn't have to ride it every day does he?
-True. I will tell him to get me a bike.
-He should know that scooters are boytoys.
-He should. Thanks.

And I have made a new friend!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

New semester, new class, new assignments, new challenges

Two of last year's classmates (Japanese Anna and Korean Ashley) listening to Swedish music from my iPod. Unfortunatley none of these girls are in my class anymore

Yesterday was my 'first day in school' and I noted some nice surprises... for starters, my class was quite small, only 18 students! (For being a class at a Chi uni this is SMALL! Last semester I our class had about 30 students) Considering the fact that at least 5 students will drop out throughout the semester this is even more great. Less student -more chance to talk. Me like!

Moving on, it wasn't just Japanese, Koreans and me in the class: My class has 2 Americans (although one seems to be an ABC), one girl from Malaysia, one guy from Turkey and one girl from Indonesia (that I studied with last semester). The rest are Japanese and Koreans. This is a highly international mix at this level I must say. Fun!!

The teachers seem nice and harsh (I like harsh!), and so far one is male. I REALLY like to have male teachers, mainly because in their classes there is no such thing as 'giggling' but rather you move straight to the point. Greeeeat!

Finally, we get a chance to study business Chinese this semester. It's a non-compulsory afternoon class (on Mondays..... hmm) but I am def going to take it. I don't understand why they don't replace that essay writing class with business Chinese. Much more useful! But but.

What else.. well, hm... oh, yeah, we got some 'assignments':

* We have to keep a journal in Chinese and write in it each and every day. Let me tell u this -my journal is going to be the most dry thing u can imagine, simply stating the same things over and over again ("The weather is nice. My stomach hurts. I have forgotten so many characters. Today I ran for 1.5 hours..." yadi, yadi, yadi....)

* We have to start buying a Chinese newspaper at least once a week and read and review one article from it. (Yikes!) Anyone know the most simple Chinese newspaper? Something with soft, human interest stories?! (And no, I am not going to cheat and buy Shanghai Daily)

* We have to watch TV/DVDs in Chinese (with no subtitles)... For this I am planning to ask for some assistance from my Hunan friends to help me buy something good (and fairly easy). Otherwise I know I'll just go to the shop and end up with a Korean soap opera instead of a Chinese one. (Korean soap operas are big in China). If anyone knows some Chinese soap/TV/comedy show that is fairly easy, please give me a shout!

As you hear -I am going to be a busy bee this fall. Right now it feels kind of exciting though. I bet in one week I won't feel the same.

Another side note: new faces replacing old seems to be the case at Suzhou Uni!? From just spending one morning at the campus I realised that pretty much all of the students from last semester are gone and that 86493649863 new foreigners has arrived. You can really tell that it has become trendy/popular to study Chinese amongst Westerners... there were just so many of them?! Only in the last 2 years the amount of Westerners studying Chinese at Chinese universities seems to have increased with 100%.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Bringing business to dinner

Yesterday I had dinner with my Chinese friend Nike that I haven't seen for a while. I thought the dinner (at my fave, Sichuan place -although yesterday it wasn't so good. I think we ordered the wrong dishes) was going to be all about catching up so imagine my surprised when Nike pulled out some brochures and papers and wanted to talk business? We are not really in the same branch, but still he thought we could somehow cooperate, and on it went... It was quite interesting, and when we had finished talking he put all his papers back and we started talking about basketball and fishing.

Say what you want about the timing, but one thing is for sure: the Chinese really know how to mix business with leisure. I don't know how it happened, but we have already scheduled our 'next' meeting for sometime this week?

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Studying Mandarin Q&A

I have been getting a lot of emails lately from people asking me different things related to studying Mandarin in China. In the beginning I answered to all of those emails but since a lot of people have similar questions I figured I could just do a "Studying Mandarin Q&A" post. If anyone has additional questions, please email them or post them in the comment field. Oh, and one more thing. Obviously my answers are based on my personal experience, meaning, there might be other ways to do things.

1. Is it hard to secure a spot at a Chinese University?

No. If you send your application and pay the registration fee in time I don't think it should be any problem to get in. Studying Mandarin in Shanghai is becoming more and more popular for every year however, so obviously it is good to apply early, and maybe follow up your application with one (or two, three, four? -don't expect to get the right person the first time u call) phone call. The spring semester is normally Feb-Jul, and the fall semester is normally Sep-Jan (out of the 3 unis I have studied at, Jiaotong, Shanghai Uni and Suzhou Uni, only Jiaotong has had a one-week Xmas break).

2. How much does it cost to study for one semester?

It depends where u study. In Shanghai I paid between 9000-10,000 rmb for one semester. This includes books, visa, registration fee and medical check.
In Suzhou it's cheaper, around 8000 rmb including books but not visa. I bet it is cheaper at other universities in other cities. It might be worth researching.

3. What about visa?

Visa is a tricky question to answer, because the application process is apparently a bit different depending where you come from, and especially, what visa you apply for. Also, the rules keeps changing so I don't want to say too much -as I might be wrong!! When it comes to the length of your STUDENT visa, however, that is decided on how long you plan to study. If you pay for 2 semesters -you'll get a one year student visa. If you pay for one semester, your visa will be for one semester. It is not hard to extend your visa when you are in China though -as long as you have a reason to be here.

The payment and the visa issue happens IN China. When you first apply for your student visa (via the Chinese embassy in your country) you will get a temporary (one month I believe) visa that you can enter China with. You have to change into a residence permit once u get to China. This is not hard in any way: some universities help with it, so just go straight to your uni and ask them what you need to do.

4. What about changing a student visa to a working visa?

It shouldn't be any problems. Once you get a job your employer should sponsor you with a working visa and they should also take care of the (somewhat tricky and long) visa process. Ask your employer about this straight away when you get a job.

5. How much Mandarin will I know after one semester?

This is obviously completely personal -it depends how much work you're willing to put in. Studying Mandrin is not easy in any way, it's nothing for the lazy bum as it requires a lot of home studies, especially if you want to master the characters. In one semester, however, I'd say you learned the basics of Mandarin, and a lot of useful phrases that you can use in your every day life. You won't be able to have deeper conversations in Mandarin however, unless you are some super smart genius.. (well at least I don't know anyone who has managed this but nothing is impossible, right?).

OK, these are the most common questions that I can think of now.. but like I said, if there's something else, feel free to ask and I will update this post.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Level 4 -bring it on.

New book explaining grammar

Old book explaining grammar (spot any differnce?)

I went to pick up the books for my new uni course yesterday.... that was, ehum, interesting. Except for one Indonesian girl that I studied with last semester I didn't recognize any of the other students lining up to register/ask questions/buy books/complain about the characters in their books being too hard (?).

Eventually it was my turn to sign up to a class (there were only 2 classes to choose from for level 4, last semester there were 3 -I guess the students are getting less and less the higher the level u study) and get my books. When I later came home I flicked through some pages of my grammar book just to get an idea of what I was getting into, and I noticed the following:

Bad news number 1: there is no English explanations in my new books. (except for the list of new words that obviously has an English translation). In terms of texts this shouldn't be any problem, but in terms of grammar I think it's going to be really hard only to have new grammatical terms explained in Chinese.

Bad news number 2: I have to take another essay writing class (I reluctantly took one last semester) as this class is part of the program. This just feels so meaningless. If they'd let us use the computers when writing it wouldn't be so terrible, but handwriting?! Seriously? It's just too hard, not to mention time consuming?!

Bad news number 3: All books are heavy and thick: that means we'll be studying quite fast. Yikes!

Bad news number 4: In the 'speaking class' text book there's about 35-40 new words per chapter. In the grammar text book there's at least 70 (!) new words for every chapter. One word often consist of at least 2 characters. That adds up to being quite a hefty sum of characters to learn. For every chapter. Whoa.

So, these are all the bad news I can think of a.t.m.

Good news, however (because there has to be some good news... right? Or so I tell myself): I am moving forward in this slow, and painful 'learning Mandarin process' and I'll probably be able to pick up heaps of new stuff this semester. (It's all about attitude, right?)

Friday, September 5, 2008

Little muscle guy strikes again

Yesterday at the gym I ran into a certain "guy" (read my post from June 19, "Attempted pick up (?) at the gym") which I have almost successfully been avoiding since then. Only thing that happened after his attempted pick up (?) at the gym is that we met at Starbucks and he convinced me to give him my mobile number. After a lot of excuses I ended up giving him an old Shanghai number (I considered giving a phony number but since we hang out at the same spots I knew that wouldn't work. Also, seeing that he knows that I have a bf I figured that maybe he simply just wants to be friends afterall...), and soon after that I went on a holiday, so I never had to deal with the rest.

Yesterday, however, he 'caught' me, and I had to talk to him.

-Hey, have u moved to Shanghai? he asked (hm.. seeing that we were standing at a gym at 7pm in Suzhou I couldn't help but feeling that this question was a bit stupid?!)
-Nope. Still here. (In flesh and blood as u can see, I almost added).
-Well I tried to call you but your phone was off?
-I've been on a holiday overseas.
-But the number you gave me is a Shanghai number.
-Yes, I have 2 numbers since I often work in Shanghai.
-So you should give me your Suzhou number.
-Ehum... nah, I don't think that is necessary.
-Why not?
(WHY NOT?! Geeez... not getting it, are we?!) -Well, I still use the Shanghai number so that should be enough.
-But come on, give me your Suzhou number
(by this time we were in the middle of the gym and he had taken out his phone, ready to get my number. I felt like a complete fool as a smaller audience -including my trainer friends- were watching).
-Ehum, u can just use the Shanghai number... I said (probably looking like a tomato by that time). I better go now!
-But last time I tried it it didn't work?
-Well that is because the phone was turned off?! I have been abroad!
-Ok then... well I thought we could go for coffee!?
-Eh, I am late for my class, BYE!!!
And so I escaped to the changing rooms.

Holy crap. I am having big regrets of convincing myself that giving him my number -as a FRIEND- was OK (although I know this was a terrible mistake. I should stop being so damn nice all the time and just say: NO!). If he still calls I don't know what to say to be more obvious? Or, is this just some sort of gym-behavior he's doing, walking around with his phone and collecting phone numbers so that he can look cool to the guys and like a dickhead to the girls? Anyways, I know I won't be picking up my Shanghai phone for a while.