Saturday, January 31, 2009

Photo essay: Shuang Qiao Gymnastic school

This week's photo essay is taken at Shuang Qiao gymnastic school for kids in Beijing. At this school, Chinese kids aged 4-11 train from a very young age in order to grow up and become China's next generation of gymnastic stars. 

The school is fairly young, it opened in 2003 and when I visited it (in May 2006) the headmaster told me that the competition for the school's spots was fierce. While a majority of the kids that I met were from Beijing there were also other children from far-away provinces. 

The headmaster told me that before any kid is accepted by the school they find out how tall the parents and the relatives of the child is, so that the risk of the child growing too tall for a career in gymnastic is minimal. 

Actually, when he told me this and I raised my eyebrows he looked at me and said: "well, just look at your own country and how tall people are over there. No wonder there are no good Swedish gymnasts." Fair enough!

Anyway, it was really interesting to visit this school and the children were adorable, curiously running up to me and then running away from me every time I tried to speak to them. 

Friday, January 30, 2009

Firecracker meltdown

Next year I am so going to Thailand

One thing I don't like about the CNY is that there is no end to the fireworks/firecrackers. I barely slept last night due to the constant sound of firecrackers being set off outside my window. At one point I was so sick of it I decided to skip sleeping and simply just get up and watch the 'fun' and I actually became a spectator of two quite interesting events taking place outside my bedroom window during the cold, Suzhou night.

Event one: Grandpa setting off fireworks wearing his finest silk, matching pyjamas. Son and grandson watching from the side, letting the old man do the job.

Event two: A black car pulling up at a parking spot. Three grown up Chinese men getting out, bringing with them what looks like a giant firecracker bomb. They place the 'bomb' on the ground (in the middle of all the cars), light it up, then run back into their car and speed off! As the car drive away the 'bomb' explodes and all the car alarm goes off... wow! Almost as if they were in some sort of firecracker battle?

(I waited expectantly for something else to happen after this 'hit and run' but 'unfortunately' that was it... Might go and have a look in a bit though, it sounds as if they are (still) blowing up the whole yard outside our window.)

Event three: Fireworks exploding outside our neighbors balcony, shedding some light on the dead chicken that they have hanging out there (dried meat it is a must during the CNY) 

Now, if setting off firecrackers during the CNY is meant to bring luck and fortune (and get rid of evil spirits -or something like that?) I can tell for sure that everyone (except for us) living in our complex are going to get dirt rich this year, the way they have been burning fireworks. I just wonder if people still believe in all of that or if the setting off firecrackers is more like something you 'should do' just because it's a new year... If so, how come people don't get sick of it? Fair enough, a day, two days.. maybe even three... but ONE week?! One week of non-stop explosions... Gosh, next CNY I really HAVE to get away from here (even though I have to admit that I enjoyed watching the old PJ man and the three 'battle guys' -the dead chicken I could have been without).

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Coming up: Mandarin level 5

While the CNY holiday coming to an end here in China we are about to enter February, a month that will come with new challenges and undertakings. For me, it means continuing my studies of Mandarin by taking on level 5 (there's a total of 8 levels) as well as a HSK course. Or, well, at least that is my ambitious plan, but let's see how I get on with it -and especially with that HSK course. (It's way easier to sound ambitious than to actually be it, but it's worth a try, right?!)

I've already bought the course books for level 5 and scared myself by opening them: We are talking academic texts, as well chapters where all the new words are explained in Chinese only (before it was the texts and the grammar, now it is the grammar, the texts AND the new words...Thank lord I have my little dictionary is all I can say).

I have no idea how many people I will be studying with this semester, but I am guessing that the majority of my classmates will be Japanese or Korean. Even though it sort of sucks being "the black sheep" of my class (I have been that since level 2 when I started ending up in classes where all my fellow classmates were from Asia and could read and write way better than me) it is also sort of inspiring. Being surrounded by classmates that are all smart and bright sort of pushes me to try a bit harder so that I don't make a total fool of myself (although that has happened too, at various times).

I was talking to a friend from Europe the other day who is about to take on Mandarin Level 2. Even though she has been taking private lessons for some months she is still all modest about skills and told me she doesn't feel comfortable to call for the waiter at restaurants yet (In China, you simply call 'Fu wu yuan!' in a loud voice when you want to order something. You don't have to YELL it although a lot of people do) and it was so funny to listen to her, as it was a deja-vu experience of how I was about 1.5 years ago.

I guess a lot of people go through the same things when learning Chinese. In the very beginning, you are like a mushroom, absorbing everything you learn as it will make your life in China so much easier when you can speak a a bit of Chinese. Also, the more you learn the more excited you get about what you know and you want to try and speak to everybody all the time. Then, you suddenly get all modest about your skills (as you realize, when you speak to Chinese people, that you actually don't know or understand that much), and frustrated as you feel as if you are getting nowhere even though you're studying and studying... But then, slooooowly, you improvements are starting to show and you start to feel more comfortable using your language skills. And then, you hit a point where you start having 'good days' and 'bad days' where you go from being close to fluent when discussing certain topics (on good days) to not being able to pronounce the most simple things (on bad days) or not even being able to ask for directions (on REALLY bad days!). I think that's where I am now (even though I haven't had a REALLY bad day for a while), and I desperately hope for my skills to continue to improve, so that I can stop feeling frustrated, and simply enjoy speaking the language.

Still, I wonder how long it is going to take for me until I hit that point. I know there is a total of 8 levels of Mandarin that you can study (one level = one semester, although I don't know how keen I am to spend another 2 years at the university -is it necessary? What's your opinion, fluent Chinese speakers?) and it is different from person to person how long you have to study at a university and how much you can continue learning by working in China.

I guess there is no other way to find out but to keep trying. In all sorts of ways.

Whoa whoa whoa...

What a wake-up call! When I turned on my computer this morning and realized that I had 60 new blog followers and 49 new comments I figured it couldn't just be just a coincidence. Then I read all the comments and realized my blog has been elected as a 'blog of note' by the blogger team. Cheers for that!! And cheers for all the comments and emails I have received! I have deleted some advertisement/ spam but most of your comments were nice ones! So cheers (again) for all of that!

I really enjoy living in China and keeping this blog, so I hope all the new people who've found their way here will enjoy reading about my daily encounters. I try to update on a daily basis. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Different worlds

Different way of looking at things

Yesterday came with a blue sky, a shining sun and running-friendly temperature, so we decided to be a bit active and go for a middle-of-the-day-run (something you normally aren't able to do). It was still quite chilly outside so we dressed accordingly: I was in a serious looking running set of matching pants and jacket (made for running during the Scandinavian winter so this is the real stuff.. making me look as a total running-geek, I swear that if you didn't know better you could have actually taken me for a professional runner), tomato-red Asics, GPS on arm, HR monitor on chest and watch on hand. Bf didn't look quite as cool as me but hands up for a fair effort: running shoes, Adidas pants and a sporty looking sweater. On our way to the gate we met a large group of caretakers that are working on the yards of our living complex. Dressed in blue, carrying their shovels and brooms, most of them were looking happy as ever. As it was around 1pm we guessed they'd all just had lunch and were on their way back to work.

I normally chit-chat to one of the women who works outside our building. She's in her early 50ies and is the sweetest thing, even though I can only understand about 20% of everything she's saying (we are talking heavy Suzhou dialect here!) Today, she was in the group of caretakers and when she saw me her face lit up:

-Hi Gu Niang (she calls me that), where are you off to today? Going to the city to do some shopping? Buy stuff? Or to a restaurant to eat?

-Eh.... no!! We are going for a run actually! Exercise, you know?

-Oh! Really!?

Once we passed each other I turned to my bf, going:

-Oh my... how can she think we are going shopping when we are dressed like THIS?! And we started laughing.

Then, I heard the group of caretakers:

-They are going running! Hahahhahaha... RUNNING?! On a day like this!? Hahahaha, laowais are so strange! And they all laughed their lungs out.

We sure come from different worlds.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

One week of time out

Taking some well-deserved time off. See you after the spring festival. 

So here we go again. A week of CNY celebrations kicked off 2 days ago. In a city like Suzhou, the results of China celebrating its most important yearly festive season, are evident. Shops and restaurants are in general closed and even my gym, that is pretty much ALWAYS open, has put a 3-day 'closed' sign on their door. In a way, it feels as if the whole country stops functioning. Sure, you can still grab your coffee at Starbucks or buy your groceries at small convenience stores like All days, and the guards at our complex are still looking bored and grumpy while guarding our gates. But try to go on with your daily activities, such as an afternoon of language exchange, and you'll hit a dead end. My two language exchange partners went back to their hometowns during the first week of January.

The whole of January have been an endless talk about the spring festival. And when everybody are busy planning something as big and as festive as the return to their home cities for a week of eating and celebrating with their near and dear ones, it is as if a good deal of the people here stop looking further into the future. We mainly noticed this when we in December tried to find a Chinese tutor for my bf (as he has decided that it's time to improve his vocabulary). It was useless:

"Sorry, no new students before the CNY!" they said at a Mandarin learning center.

"Sure, I can teach him" said a friend of mine. "But I cannot start until after the CNY!"

I understand them completely: the CNY is the biggest event of the year over here. But it was still more than one month away.

Another interesting thing we have noticed is that a lot of people don't want to take on any obligations related to the time after the CNY. I know that this is mainly because they are not sure they will return to their jobs/current cities of residence once the spring festival is over.

In my bf's case, the situation seemed to repeat itself: his company eventually found him a tutor that had agreed on coming in to give him a trial lesson two weeks BEFORE the CNY.

The same day as she was supposed to come the company received a phone call from her mom, telling them that her daughter wouldn't be able to come in for the lesson, or teach in the future, as she'd found a job in another city and was moving immediately.

Bad luck they thought, and continued looking.

I asked one of my Mandarin teachers from the university and she said she had a friend who could do it (although not start until after the CNY). However, when the company called him to set up the details around the job he too had decided to move town and job and said "thanks but no thanks" to everything.

Coincidental or just the way it is at this time of the year in China?

Well at least we have learned on thing: don't try to do anything in China before the CNY.

(Fingers crossed that my 2 language exchange partners return to Suzhou after the festival. I've kind of taken a liking to them)

Monday, January 26, 2009

祝大家新年快乐! 恭喜恭喜发财!


We had dinner at some friend's place and then walked through Suzhou's SIP district around midnight and W O W ! I am speechless!? For a while I thought a building was coming down or something, the sound from all the fireworks was so loud that we weren't able to speak to each other, not even scream to each other. If there is one thing Chinese people love and splurge on during CNY times, it is definitely fireworks.

Oh, something not so cool: people setting off fire crackers on their balconies?! Like, seriously, wtf?! That's just plain stupidity! And come on, it's not THAT hard to take the elevator down to the yard.

Although all in all, quite magnificent night in Suzhou. (even though my heart goes out to all the poor animals).

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Photo special: Zhu Jia Jiao

Athough I found the water village Zhu Jia Jiao to be a bit of a tourist trap, it sure resulted in a lot of pretty pictures! Or what do you guys think?

Some info about the town (from "Located in a suburb of Shanghai city, Zhujiajiao is an ancient water town well-known throughout the country, with a history of more than 1700 years. Covering an area of 47 square kilometers, the little fan-shaped town glimmers like a bright pearl in the landscape of lakes and mountains."

I am personally not sure if I would refer to the city as a 'glimmering bright pearl' but then again, I am not a writer for a traveling page... I think this city is worth a visit though as it is kind of cute in its own, little way and also... it is way cheaper to go for a boat ride on the canals of Zhu Jia Jiao than the ones in Venice :) 

I post a new photo essay every weekend. 

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Not what it looks like

Laowai and 'translator/'Guangzhou girl ' in Dalian 

Walking alone at Suzhou's main shopping street, Guan Qian Jie, attracts so much attention that I sometimes prefer catching the train to Shanghai and do my shopping there in order to avoid all the staring. Half of all the staring is probably all in my head, but well... there are still days when I simply cannot put up with walking on a street and having people pointing, sniggering and giving me shameless once-overs.

Sometimes I meet my Indonesian girlfriend for a day on town and this also results in curious stares. Mainly at her, then. Having the face of an Asian everybody thinks she is Chinese and takes for granted she's stuck with being my translator (as we communicated in a mix of Chinese and English). Forget about the fact that her Chinese is far from native-sounding, a lot of people actually think she's from Guangzhou. So, every time we head for, let's say a restaurant and want to order food, the waiters speak to her. It doesn't matter if I am the one ordering, or if it's me asking something about a dish. They just give me a pitiful look before they turn to her to explain. For her it's enough to just nod, do a little 'aaaa, ahhh ahhhh aaaaa' -sound, and they nod back, in some secret understanding?! (would never work for me, I am certain).

Last week we went to have a 15-kuai-manicure in Suzhou, and the girls polishing our nails both turned to my friend and started chatting to her, before one of them whispered: "By the way, that laowai, does she understands anything?!"
-Sure she does, I said, and they both stared at me. Still, they turned back to my friend and continued talking to her. As I hate not being included, I eventually said:
-Are you sure she's Chinese?
The girls looked so confused that me and my friend started laughing and explained that my friend's from Indonesia and that we are in the same Chinese course.
-Ohhhhh.. really?!?!?

Once this was out, I was suddenly included in the conversation. In fact, when the people around us heard us speak they formed a small circle around us just to listen to me speaking Chinese. It is kinds of funny that it still is considered such a 'wonder' to hear a laowai speak Chinese in China. Fair enough, it is a hard language to learn, but we are living in China... so it makes sense to be able to speak (at least a little bit of) the language of the country. But anyway, I was just happy to finally be a part of the conversation. Something tells me that if I hadn't revealed that my friend was Indonesian, rather than Chinese, I would have never got a chance to speak.

My Indonesian friend loves the fact that people take her for Chinese though. She gets a better price just by showing her face and rarely have to engage in 30-minutes-haggle-sessions like me. Her boyfriend's (the romantic guy) Chinese language skills are even better than hers (he sounds like a local) which he also benefits from when going shopping.

Once he was at an electronic market looking for some headphones. He stopped at a counter and looked at the headphones on display, asking the sales guy how much they were. The sales guy's reply:

-Oh, you wanna buy headphones? Well these ones on display are expensive, they are just for laowais. I'll grab some from the back for you. The same quality but cheaper.

Sad to think that regardless of how good my Chinese ever get, I don't think I'll get the same sort of treatment. Only for Chinese (fair enough) and Chinese looking laowais (unfair).

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

没有办法= 有办法 (not possible =possible)

Last wknd in Shanghai I went to a large department store on Huaihai Lu to get myself a mascara. I don't often buy make-up and never go for brands, except for when it comes to buying mascara. Then I get myself one from Elizabeth Arden.

I walked over to the usual, Elizabeth Arden counter where two sales girls were standing and explained what I wanted.

-Here are the mascaras, they said and pointed towards the make-up.

I noticed that the make-up counter had a new, more expensive kind of mascara than the one I normally buy.

-Do you have the old one still? I said. I would like to buy that one.

The sales girls looked at each other.

-This is the new one! It's really good! You should try!

Thing was, I wasn't up for paying more than I already pay for my mascara. And I wasn't interested in trying something new.

-No, I want the old one. Do you have it?

One girl said. Wait here.

Soon, she came back with what looked like a gift package (which was in fact a plastic toilet bag with stuff in it) with a mascara, some lip stuff and other make-up that I neither wanted nor needed.

-This one?! She said and waved the toilet bag in the air. It has your mascara. 400 kuai! Okay?

-Eh... no. I only want to buy the mascara. Is that not possible?

-If you don't want to buy the gift package it is not possible. 没办法  (mei ban fa -there's no way)

I looked at both girls. They seemed like sweet, nice people.

-Are you sure it is not possible? I really really REALLY want to buy this mascara and I always come to this store to buy it. Can't you look in your drawers if you have some old ones left that I can buy without paying for that whole gift package? I forced a big smile.

The girls exchanged looks. Then, one of them went over to a drawer, opened it, and took out a package of the old mascara that I wanted to buy.

-OK, here you go.

Yes, there I go. Some nagging, some extra asking, plus some friendly interaction and... taaaa daaaaaa: 没有办法 mei you ban fa = 有办法 you ban fa (Not possible = possible).

Same things happened when I turned up to run the women's 3000 m race at Suzhou University's sport's day. Since I didn't have my health certificate in order I was told I couldn't run.

-But my other teachers said I could! I tried.

-Sorry, without your health certificate it is impossible. 没有办法 (mei you ban fa), said the man in charge of the race registration.

30 minutes later I came second in my heat of the women's 3000 m race... without having presented them with a health certificate.

Impossible is nothing. At least not in China.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Substitute puppy

I've been nagging about a dog for god-knows-how-long-now. I come from a family that has always had dogs. All kinds: the small barky little, sit-on-your-knee-kind, the large, friendly, hairy Golden Retriever and the constantly hungry Labrador. On top of the dogs we've also had cats (the max being 2 cats and 2 dogs at the same time). And then a total of 4 children. (making me think that our neighbors must have considered our house to be a minor street ZOO when we were all growing up). My boyfriend also comes from a dog-loving family (they are currently hosting three large Samoyeds) so the reason why he won't let me get a dog isn't because he doesn't like dogs, but because we are in China. And sure, I know that he's right. It's not fair to get a dog here because once you decide to move home, the dog has to go through a long and painful plane ride, and if you thought you were the one a with limited amount of leg room then think about the dog. Besides, we are not allowed to have a pet in the complex where we live. And so on...

Sometime before Christmas I was so bitter about not getting a dog that I blamed my lack of long-distance running training on not having a fun running companion (although my boyfriend offered to run with me I declined and claimed he was too slow for me... gosh, what a load of bulls***?!). So, when we met up in China after Christmas he opened his suitcase and said: "Hey Jonna, I've got a little something for you...!" (making me first jump with joy before I got annoyed: we had decided NOT to exchange Christmas gifts this year?! We were supposed to be all frugal and stuff because of the credit crunch).

Since he'd already bought me something I obviously couldn't NOT take it though. So I reached out my hands, closed my eyes, and when I opened them I saw it: a Polar FT 80 watch. A fancy schmantzy high tech heart rate monitor for the serious runner. Ask for it to measure something and it does: distance: check. Calories burnt: check. Time: check. Km/hour: Check. Average speed/heart rate: Check.

The thing has a GPS as well as a system that saves every training result, adding them all up and sends you little messages at the end of each week, telling you about how you're going and what you should improve/concentrate on during the following week (so far it's been very friendly to me, telling me that my 'maximal training is improving' and that I am doing way more running than I should be). Even though I initially was a bit suspicious to the thing, I have to admit that it makes running a whole lot of more fun. It's almost as if the fact that you can see your results makes you instantly want to try harder, run for longer and go faster? Silly, I know, but that's the effect this HR monitor has on me.

Being such a fancy little gift, I quickly sensed that my boyfriend hadn't only bought it to boost my weekly mileage, but also to use it himself. IF we don't go running together that is. Because if we do, the GPS sits on my arm. Last time we went for a jog together I noticed that he was constantly looking at me, making me kind of nervous. What was wrong? Did I have a large spot on my top? Was I wearing my pants inside out? Was snot coming out of my nose?

-What's wrong? I eventually asked.
-Oh, I am just concerned to see how everything is going...
-Ah that's so sweet... I am fine thanks, no stitch or anything.
-Well I wasn't talking about you. I was talking about the HR monitor! Has the GPS found its satellites? Is the green light blinking? Did you press the right buttons?

So... we might not get a dog this year, but our new Polar FT 80 apparently does a good job as a substitute, making running more fun (for me) and turning us into more caring people (well, at least one of us). As long as my boyfriend doesn't let it sleep in the bed with us....

Monday, January 19, 2009

Speaking of romance...

Yesterday we were invited to a surprise birthday party. It was my Indonesian girlfriend turning 29 and her boyfriend had arranged for all of her closest friends to meet at a Thai restaurant (Thai by Simon in SIP, Suzhou -not bad!) that she's been wanting to go to for ages. I love surprise parties and her face expression (when she saw all of her friends there) was obviously quite priceless. After a yummy dinner we had been told that we were going to a bar at Suzhou's rainbow walk to eat birthday cake... So we all set off. Once at the bar there was a band playing and after 30 minutes of innocent tea/beer drinking, the band suddenly started playing "Happy Birthday." Then, one waiter carrying a giant chocolate birthday cake, another waiter carrying a large bouquet of 29 red roses, and the whole band came over to our table where they started dancing and continued singing and made sure that the whole bar was singing along. Over the top is an understatement. My friend looked more than overwhelmed!

After stuffing ourselves with cake (the good kind -and her favorite from the Taiwanese bakery '89 degrees', of course) we all went outside as the boyfriend had yet another surprise in his pocket... yup. Fireworks! LOADS of them. Only for her. And then... a 'lucky/wish lantern' for her to write her wish on, light up, and then set off into the sky. Me and my boyfriend just stood and watched, completely blown away by the amount of stuff he had arranged. None of us spoke on our way home. I guess we were both thinking the same thing: we have some things to learn!

Suzhou's Rainbow walk

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Photo special: the children of Daxi

When I asked you readers what you wanted more if in 2009 a lot of you said: 'photos.' So, I thought I could turn every Saturday into a 'photo special,' where I upload some photos from a special city/place/event that I've been to. How's that? Note: I am not professional photographer what so ever! I just... like to take photos, so don't expect anything fabulous. Just the normal, amateur shots from my years in China. 

Today's photos will be of children attending pre-school in the mountain village Daxi, in Yunnan. I visited this place in 2006 to follow the work of a volunteer organization operating in this area, called YID: Yunnan Institute of Development and I couldn't keep myself from going a bit  photo-crazy when I saw all the adorable children.

Some additional info about the YID: the YID is based in Yunnan Province's Yuxi Prefecture (although they operate in the poor mountain villages, like Daxi), and is a Sino-Danish non-governmental organization, non-formal adult education institute established in 2001. It aims to promote social development in China, Africa and India. Activities include educating people about health, hygiene and HIV, building schools and helping poor farmers with bio-gas and microfinance.

Teacher with a young pupil

Kids learning Mandarin (the people of Daxi belong to the Shansu minority group and have their own language) 

Adorable little girl (and a little boy who also wants to be in the picture behind her)


..and dancing. Always important in China!