Saturday, May 30, 2009

New object of obsession

It's almost (but only almost!) as much fun as running...!

I have a new obsession, and for once it’s not something edible… rather, this is something that can benefit my health, namely: bodypump.

Do we all know what bodypump is?

Well, in case we don’t, let’s get a quote from Wikipedia in: “BodyPump® is a weight-based group-fitness program, created and distributed globally by Les Mills International. Created in 1991 by Phillip Mills, it is now found in over 70 countries and 10,000 health-clubs and gyms worldwide.” (source: Wikipedia) More about bodypump here.

I have tried bodypump in numerous countries, including Finland, Australia and now China. And I have to say that China beats the other two! Why? Well, because over here, bodypump is completely unpretentious! Forget about competing with others about who’s got the most weights on their bar. In fact, forget about even glancing at others! Forget comparing tight/nice outfits, well-shaped arms or legs… Bodypump in China is simply like a fun, relaxed sort of… circus.

The instructor does half of the job. Never have I seen anyone with more energy on that stage. Say what you want about the quality of gyms in China, but at my gym, the trainers go all in, every single time. They might turn up looking a bit tired and worn out (after all, most of them work 7 days/week) but once the headset is on and the music is playing they sort of transform into a yelling, yet inspiring, mini-hulk, urging everyone to lift more, more, more!

Another interesting thing about bodypump in China: The class participants are 99% girls. There are more men at the Pilates and salsa classes than at bodypump…. Turning the class into a non-testosterone, girl’s party where giggling is totally OK. And, I can do the MOST push-ups in the whole class. Now that has never, ever happened before (and certainly never will again).

Obviously, there are some small downsides with the class too. Such as, you have to fight for the smallest, 1 kg weights. Or actually, you have to turn up 30 minutes prior to the class to even get a chance to grab one. Because the small, 1 kg weight is the most popular thing in this class. Some girls use three of them that they add to the bar, leaving the rest of us to choose from 5 kg and 2 kg ones… It’s a tad bit annoying, because there’s a big of a difference from lifting 12 kg (2 x 5 kg + 2 x 1 kg) and 14 kg (2 x 5 kg + 2 x 2 kg), (meanwhile they are lifting 6 kg!) In fact, last time, when the instructor asked us all if it was really heavy enough, and nobody said anything, I was crawling around on the floor with a heavy bar on top of me, unable to speak because of the exhaustion. Yeah, this class completely kills me. We are talking spaghetti legs, “I’m going to throw up”-feeling and 3 day-muscle soreness afterwards. But that’s just how I like it. Or, OK, I could do without the “I’m going to throw up”-feeling, but I am guessing that’s just now in the beginning.

There’s a dramatic touch to the class too. Once we finish a song and a movement, and it’s time to put down the bar and stretch those aching muscles, everybody (including the instructor) just drops their weight bars to the floor (simultaneously) creating a loud BOOOOOOOM sound. I’m the only one who’s putting my bar down in a more civilized manner, as I don’t really see the point of just dropping the bar. (What if it will hit my toe?!) Also, I am the only one standing in a little pool of sweat once the class finishes, but that’s something I am quite used to (I sweat a lot!). But the nice thing about it here: nobody cares. It’s almost as when I discovered that when you go for a run at 5am in the morning in Suzhou, nobody gives a s*** about the fact that you are a laowai, have a big nose/bum/head (?). Also, nobody has (yet!) turned up in heals in this class, making me feel as if it’s even more ‘real’ that the free weights section at the gym where girls are working out in mini skirts and pumps.

Yeah, what can I say. I’m hooked. Bodypump is now part of my weekly workout routine (I try to go twice/week). And I’m loving every part of it.

(Ps. Enjoyed this gym story post? Then you might enjoy this one too!)

Friday, May 29, 2009

Upcoming TV show

It's about as crazy as these 2 muppets look on this shot...

There’s apparently a competition for foreigners studying Chinese in the beginning of June in Nanjing. Participants need to take a written test, answer some questions about Chinese culture, and do some sort of performance (singing, dancing, opera, you name it!). The best ones qualifies to the final that will take place later this year in Beijing.

I am not kidding now, but pretty much every single student in my class have been asked to participate. Basically everyone, except for me. Aooooch.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think my Mandarin is fantastic in any way… but when they asked some people whose ‘kouyu’ (spoken Chinese) is quite poor, and I still didn’t get asked, I felt kind of low….

….until I got a phone call. From Suzhou’s local TV station. With a request to have me on one of their talk show!

So guess who’s making her SECOND (da ta daaaaaa!) TV appearance this year?! Yup, me. Apparently I am going to be taught some local dialect on the TV show, because the idea of this show is to compare local Suzhou-hua to the standard Mandarin (pu tong hua). I would lie if I said that I wasn't nervous, because everything will be entirely in Chinese. But when I talked to one of their journalists on the phone and asked her if she really thought my Chinese level was good enough, she said:

-Well, we just had a whole phone conversation in Chinese so yes. Your level is good enough!

OK then.

So next week, while some people are going to Nanjing to compete in some competition (pfffft!), I am going to Suzhou’s TV station to learn local dialect, hagga hagga! (hagga= haode = OK in Suzhou-hua -that's about how much I know of the local dialect!) Stay tuned!

(ehhhh, although… who am I kidding? This brave face I am putting on is just a façade. I am actually scared to death).

Thursday, May 28, 2009


I’ve been thinking and thinking… and the more I think the more I realize that I am not that keen on doing another semester (level 6 out of 8) of Mandarin at Suzhou University… I’m just a bit over the whole university thing. I feel it is too much of a lecture, and at this point, I don’t need to listen to others anymore (I prefer listening to my radio anyways), but speak, and practice everything that I already know! New vocabulary I can learn on my own. Texts and books I can read on my own. But I would like a teacher a few times a week in order to keep the motivation and also the discipline.. If I would study completely on my own I know how it would go –I would rarely open the book! And never write Chinese characters.

The problem (like always) is the visa…. I don’t know how to obtain a student visa unless I am studying at a university? Does anyone know if it is possible to get a student visa (for at least 6 months, with multiple entries) from any other education institution than a Chinese university? Yesterday I was researching Suzhou’s private mandarin schools (Boland, New Concept Mandarin etc) but none of their courses seemed suitable, and also, they didn’t mention anything about a student visa, so I am guessing that that one is a dead end. I would so much love to have a private tutor for 1,5 hours/ every day… I think my Chinese could really improve if I did that. But having a tutor AND going to the university is going to be too expensive.. And only having a tutor doesn't solve the visa issue... Ah, this visa thing is a true pain.

Anyways, I know this is a long shot but I still thought I’d ask you guys if you know of any ‘banfa.’

(one other reason why I don’t want to pay for another semester at the university is because I am thinking about starting to apply for jobs. Not English teaching jobs, but something that I really want to do).

Ps. I'll be in Sh for the next couple of days so I don't know how much I'll be able to view my blog in case you are wondering why your comment isn't being published. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Must do for a "tough" laowai: nag, be a bit rude and not swallow everything hook, line and sinker

Yeah, I'm such a tough cookie... (geeez... NOT!)

Yesterday I went to pick up the dress I ordered for my ‘bride’s maid part’ on my sisters upcoming wedding. It was absolutely perfect: blue, flattering, tight at the right spots, correct length (I can’t do long dresses) and so on, but then I tried it on and realized that the tailor must have forgotten that I actually have some curves, and hadn’t made enough room for my chest. I could wear it and it looked perfect, but it was fairly uncomfortable and a bit hard to breathe once the zipper was pulled up.

Five Chinese women (shop assistants as well as customer) gushed around me, but my friend Willing (who’s Indonesian, so everybody always thinks that she’s Chinese and that she’s my translator) saw the pain in my eyes.

-You’ve made it too tight, I complained. I cannot breathe in this!
-Oh of courses you can! It looks good!
Said one.
-It’s just the first time when you are trying it on. It will expand, (!?) said another.
-It should be tight otherwise it will fall off! Said a third.

But I wasn’t that easy to convince. When they realized that I really wanted them to make some more boob-room, the attitude changed:

-Well we don’t change dresses here, you can find a tailor from the street! Mei ban fa! (there’s no way!)
-Yeah, it’s just a small change but we don’t do it… Just go to another shop and ask.
-It won’t be expensive, they can probably change it for you for 20 yuan!

I felt my face getting more and more red (partly because the dress was so tight and partly because I was angry at their lame excuses).

-Listen, I’ve paid a lot of money for this dress and I am not leaving until you have fixed it for me. What is this bulls*** you are telling me? I am not going to use an outside tailor! Of course you are going to help me, this is your problem as much as it is mine!

The whole shop fell silent, and then one girl finally got up, asked me to follow her to the third floor where she pushed me into a small room that had a sewing machine (ta daaaaa!), pulled the dress of my body and started cutting it.

-We normally don’t do this… she said.
I said. So I really appreciate your effort (and the sewing machine is just there for decoration?)

Downstairs were Willing with the other ladies.

-That laowai is pretty tough! One woman told Willing. She just wouldn’t leave like they normally do. (“Like they normally do….” What the f***!)
-Well, of course she wouldn’t, said Willing. First you have to change her dress.
-Yeah but… normally laowais listen. She wouldn’t listen.
-… because you were lying to her!
Said Willing (I love how Willing always steps into the ‘translator part’).

20 minutes later my dress had magically gotten some new boob-space and I was smiling like a sun. Again, a classic example where ‘mei you ban fa’ (there is no way!) turns into a solution within only 20 minutes and some nagging. If I’ve learned anything from China it is to nag! Nodding, saying ‘OK’ and being grateful gets you nowhere. And only results in beautiful dresses that are too tight to wear…

(Ps. After my dress incident I had a lovely day at the wedding street, running in and out of shops, trying on one cup-cake dress after another… I know this has to stop, since I am not even close to getting married, but it’s simply irresistible to resist! I also ended up ordering myself 2 more dresses, and one for my mom. Not wedding dresses, just short ones, this time making sure the tailor would take not of the fact that I am not pancake-flat).

These pictures doesn't do the dress justice, but will have to do for now. I'll try it on tonight and maybe add some shots of me wearing it later... Cute, huh?

Gotta love the bow!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Tipping situtations

Yesterday I ended up in an office on the other side of Suzhou city (SND –Suzhou’s New District). Around one hour before it was time to go home I called the ’gypsy taxi driver’ that I bumped into on the road some weeks ago and asked if he could pick me up (He charges 30 yuan for a fare that normally costs 50 yuan). Sure he could.

But, he was a bit too eager to come and get me, and called me back already at 5.30pm, saying he was on the parking lot waiting. I wasn’t supposed to leave until 6pm. I thought he would get annoyed and leave (waiting for 30 min at some parking lot won’t earn him any money), so imagine my surprise when I walked out at 6pm and saw him waving at me from his car. He then drove me home, chatting to me the whole way (he was sooooo curious and so happy that we could communicate, telling me about his family back in Henan –he had 3 kids, 2 daughters and 1 son, and they were all in school. And he saw them once a year). When he was driving I asked him if the fare would still be 30 yuan, despite him having to wait.

-Yeah, of course! he said.

Although I’m a total softy for nice people so when I got out I gave him 35 yuan. He almost refused to take the extra 5 yuan that I offered, saying that it wasn’t my fault that he had had to wait. Sure, he was right, but I still felt like giving him a little bit extra. In the end he took it, and he looked sooooo genuinely happy. I was waving with two hands once he drove off.

China’s definitely not a place where you tip people for services, but sometimes (when people are just really nice, or make a big effort) I make exceptions. Like once when I handed in my Sony recorder for repairing and the guy told me it would take over 2 weeks and I almost burst out in tears because I needed it so much. Then he went and got me his own, Sony recorder and said I could use that one for the next two weeks, being completely modest about it. I thanked him so many times that in the end, he almost pushed me out of the door. When I came back 2 weeks later I had bought him a small gift (just some candies) but he refused to take it and just pushed it back at me. Tipping him didn’t work either. However meager it felt, I just had to say ‘thank you!’ and walk away.

So, when you bump into people like these 2 guys, it’s hard to imagine that just some blocks away there are people that have been tipped too much and too many times, and therefore act completely superficial when it comes to giving back change. That’s the case with many of the waiters working at the restaurant strip near our house here in Suzhou. This is a popular restaurant area, filled with (mainly) foreigners 7 days/week. Although the food is nothing special, the area is quite nice (mainly because you can sit outside), but you can tell that the waiters working there have been tipped a bit too much.

About 1 year ago (the last time I was there, I have boycotted it since) and ate with three of my friends, I paid for our meal and was expecting to get 25 yuan in change back. We waited for 20 minutes before I went to ask about it. The staff acted completely oblivious, asking me things like: “What change!? There was no change from your charge?!” making me lose my temper. In the end I went up to the waiter who had taken the money and asked him for my 25 yuan. He looked at me as if I was garbage from the trash, said something like: “oh my, you want your change back?!” and pulled a 20 from his pocket and threw it on the table. “25!” I said, which resulted in another superficial grin before he reluctantly pulled another 5 yuan from his pocket. Yeah, like I said…. I’ve never gone back since. I realize that this situation occurs many times every day, but unlike me, many foreigners (especially after some beers) don’t bother to ask for their change.

Since China’s a traditionally isn’t a place where people tip, it’s interesting to see that there are so many different attitudes towards it today…

Monday, May 25, 2009

Photo special: Eat this

Running short on time this morning, so I figured I’d start this week with a tempting food photo special… starting with the deserts and snacks of course, just like you should (ehhhh)….

I slept so badly last night, my alarm was set on 5am in order to have time for a morning run/walk, but when it rang I simply couldn’t get myself out of bed. Oh well, there’s a new morning tomorrow, I’ll give it another try then.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Almost missing out on a discount

pay attention to details when shopping...

I paid a visit to Watson yesterday, and decided to buy myself a body scrub. Like always, I paid little attention to which one I chose, and went up to the counter to pay. Once it was my turn the shop assistant behind the counter grabbed the body scrub from my basket and looked at her colleague who also looked at the scrub.

-Isn’t that the scrub that we have a special promotion on right now? Said the colleague in Chinese to the shop assistant. You buy one and you get one free?

-Yeah it is, said the girl holding the scrub in the hand. But I mean.. she’s a laowai, how would she know?

-Oh, so you’re not going to tell her?

-Well….? The shop assistant shrugged her shoulders, so I decided it was time to step in.

-Buy one get one for free you said? Well then I should go and get myself another one immediately!

Oh the long faces of the girls behind the counter.

-She understands!!! Said the colleague. The shop assistant holding the scrub in her hand said nothing, just stared at me, wide-eyed.

When I came back, waving my additional, free scrub to her she still looked kind of shocked. Almost as if she wasn’t expecting me to come back with the right thing.

-I don’t want to miss out on free gifts! I said.

The colleague giggled, while the shop assistant who put it in my bag said nothing.

Now, it was ‘just’ a body scrub this time, but oh my oh my….! I am SO HAPPY that I understand Chinese. Think of all the things you might miss out on ‘just because you’re a laowai’ and because you don’t understand the language otherwise?

It’s actually funny, because not all Watsons are like the one I visited yesterday. I remember when I first came to Shanghai, and visited a Watson to get some paper napkins (you always have to carry around your own paper over here… as public toilets are non-paper-equipped). I grabbed a big pack of napkins and walked over to the counter to pay, when a shop assistant came running after me with another large package, trying to get me to take that one too.

I was clueless and confused, I had no idea what she was telling me (in Chinese of course, which I by then didn’t understand one iota of!) and got annoyed when she kept handing me an additional package of napkins.

-No no, it’s OK! I just want to buy one! I said. But just like my Chinese was zero, her English was zero, and as a result we just stood there, pushing a large package of paper napkins at each other.

It took another shop assistants assistance before the situation was resolved. She spoke a little bit of English and came up to me, dragged me back to where I had grabbed the paper napkins from, pointed at a promotion sign that had some Chinese character that I didn’t understand and said:

-Buy one. One free.


Big, relief-sigh from me, and the two shop assistants. And I thanked the persistent lady running after me with the free package of napkins at least 4 times.

But it’s obviously not always that you’re this ‘lucky.’ And then it’s quite nice to know your Chinese. At least I never get bored of 'shocking' people here. 

Friday, May 22, 2009

My effort to fit in

There are days when I am out riding my bike, get overtaken by a big truck where two young Chinese boys are hanging out of the window, yelling: ‘HELLOOOOOOOOOO!’,  and I just smile, and wave back.

But then there are days when I pass by ayis that out with their grandchildren, and notice that the ayi is pointing at me, telling the kid: “Look, look at the big laowai! Look at the her big nose!,” and feel like yelling: ‘Stop talking about me like that! I’m not a ZOO animal!’

These feelings are totally dependent on my mood of the day. What I can find cute one day can suddenly become unbearable on another day.

It has crossed my mind to dye my hair dark, just so that I would fit in a bit better. However, seeing that I’ve always been blonde, I figured it would be quite a big change, so I decided to start off by getting myself a wig (for bad days only!). 

At first at the wig store, none of the young, cute Chinese girls understood why I wanted to hide my ‘yellow mane’ under a wig. After having explained my reasons, however, they all nodded and made a real effort to fit me into one of their wigs, even combing my new, dark, Pocahontas mane for me.

As we all can tell, however, a wig is never going to be an option.

Gotta give them credit for their effort...
A bit like the scary girl in 'the ring', right?
Not a short one either!

But it was fun to try!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Advices from an "expert"

None of these... and none of anything else either, btw...

One of my foreign friends (Brazilian/Japanese) has been struggling with her weight for the last year or so. Although we have all told her the usual stuff: ”drink a lot of water, exercise, eat a lot of fruit and veggies and stay away from sweets and bread!”, she’s had a very moderate weight-loss success, so some weeks ago she decided (without telling us!) to go and see a Chinese nutritionist. She figured that since Chinese girls are so skinny, a diet according to some Chinese food specialist must be THE way to lose those unwanted kilos.

We were all quite shocked when we heard about it, but wait, it gets better… I almost fell off my chair when my friend told me what she’d been advised to eat:

Salads and fruits all day long. Only half of the amount of what one would normally eat.

Avoid meat, rice, bread, noodles, sweets, pancakes… well, basically, avoid everything except for salad and fruits.

Drink: tea and water.

However, in order to ‘clean out’ the body completely, no food or fluid can be eaten/drunk after 6pm at night.

-What? You can’t have a glass of water after 6pm at night? I asked.


-But it’s almost 30 degrees outside. Aren’t you scared of becoming dehydrated?

-Well, she’s a nutritionist… she should know what she’s talking about, right?

Oh lord. I try to tell my friend over and over again no to listen to this b***s***. Anyone can lost weight by just eating salad and not drinking a lot of water… but how to keep it off when you go back to eating normally again –that’s the challenge. I asked my friend how much she’d paid to get this ‘information.’

-400 yuan.


Now awaits our personal challenge: to convince our friend to start drinking water again after 6pm.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Upcoming spur of the moment trip

Hello, beach life! (picture from a trip to Thailand in 2007... I don't have any photos of Hainan, and I don't wanna steal someone else's  from the net, so I figured this one has to do for now... Just to set the mood!)

I have some rather fantastic news!

My classmate, travel partner and dear friend Willing (from Indonesia) has decided to leave China (booohhhh!) for at least 6 months, and she asked me if I was interested in doing a ‘final trip together’ before she went home.

Of course I was. Although my wallet wasn’t.

So I told her I’d love to go for a long wknd trip, but that my maximum possible ticket spending amount would be 1000 rmb. Willing promised to do some research, and 2 days later I got a sms:

-How about Hainan Island? I’ve found a 900 rmb return flight ticket, including taxes.

I pondered for about 20 seconds before I wrote back:

“Book it.”

So, as a result of this, me and Willing are going to Hainan island in the beginning of June! I am so excited! To get the cheap tickets we have to fly there late at night and leave early in the morning, but hostels/hotels are quite cheap there at the moment (we’ve only been looking for a little bit, but you can find something quite decent for 100 rmb/person/night). I am personally not too fussed about the hotel. Sure, it would be nice to stay at some fancy resort, but a holiday for me is all about being outside and experience things, so in the end, the hotel doesn’t matter that much. As long as it has a bed, an air con and a shower (and no cockroaches or bugs –or OK, not loads of them anyways) I am happy!

All in all we’ll have 4 days to lie on the beach and explore the island. I’ve heard that Hainan isn’t the most exciting place on earth (people have told me it’s ‘just a beach resort’), but it actually doesn’t matter. Sometimes it’s nice just to relax and take it easy. I’ll be working all summer anyways, so I guess this can be seen as my mini-holiday before going home!

Hainan, here I come!!

Anything I must do/eat/see when I’m there? Hainan-ers, or Hainan-travelers, feel free to speak!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Quickest workout ever

While some struggle to the end, others give up easy...

Yesterday I asked my one of my Chinese friends, A, is we could meet up and do some work together.

-No sorry, I have some other important plans.

Fine, no problems. So I went to the gym instead and started off by almost killing myself with a 6 km race-run at the treadmill (It’s too hot now for me to stay on the treadmill for a whole hour, so instead I try to do the best I can within 30 minutes. For some reason I always tend to lose my self control after 10 minutes, when a hectic adding of incline/speed starts, which always results in me almost falling off the machine at the end of each run… but well, what can I say? At least I get a good workout out of it?!). During my 2 minutes of cool down, I suddenly heard someone yell:


It was my friend, A, looking like sporty spice herself in a pair of Adidas pants and a cool, Nike sport top that she kept pulling up in order to show off more of her flat belly.

-Oh hi, here to run too? I asked. ("Important plans")

-Yeah… wow. Look at you! You really work out seriously!

-Just a 30-minute run,
I said. What are you doing?

-Some running, maybe some weights. 

-OK, well I will go and do some weights… I said and got off the treadmill. I guess I see you later at the machines.

10 minutes later I was training my legs when A approach me.

-Oh my gosh. You are like… really serious about this?! she said when she saw me. 

-Eh… well… it’s a gym. So I come here to work out.

-But why? You are not fat?

-Well, neither are you, but you still train, right? What are you doing now?

-I am done.


-Yeah, well I did some running… I am tired now.

-Oh… OK.

-Now I am going to have a long shower to cool off.

….and that was it. All the fancy gym clothes can only take you so far. You also need to put in a little bit of effort, but well, maybe next time. Although I bet that according to her… why should she, she’s not ‘fat’ after all?

(I am personally impressed that someone actually takes time off to go to the gym and run for just 10 minutes, and calls it 'important plans').

Monday, May 18, 2009

Taxi dramas and highlights

Ahhhhh! I cannot post photos with the proxy server I am using… oh the pain! I was going to do a photo special today seeing that it hasn’t happened so much in between last night and now… Sorry guys, you’ll have to do without photos for a while. Boooooring –I know, but I can’t really do anything about it at the moment. This week is a bit hysterical as well, so I don’t have time to look into better options at the moment (and I am not that keen on the thought of moving my blog).

Anyways, I thought I’d share some taxi stories that I have come across during my years in China. First, some notes about using an illegitimate car (a ‘gypsy car’ –is that the correct word in English?) in China… I know many people have tried this and told horror stories, but I’m telling you, if you manage to find a good one you can get quite a good deal.

I recently had a quite good experience. It happened one day when me and a friend were stranded in the rain in SND (Suzhou’s New district, the other side of the city to where I live), frenetically waving for a cab. A black car pulled up in front of us and asked where we wanted to go. I was like… ‘eh, nowhere with you!’ but my friend (Chinese) started negotiating a price, and after a while she said: “Ok, he’ll take us for 30 kuai, jump in!” (with a normal taxi it’s normally around 50 kuai). I was hesitating, wondering if it was really safe, but my friend seemed certain.

And sure. Not only did this guy take us straight home for 30 kuai, he also gave us his phone number and asked us to call him whenever we needed a ride again. Since then we actually haven’t got a chance to use him, but I still have to say I was pleasantly surprised by the experience, considering how many taxi horror stories I have heard from people here in China.

One of my friends once took a (legal) taxi to the airport in Changsha. On the middle of the highway the driver suddenly stopped, claimed the meter was broken and asked her for 80 kuai (the ride was normally 40) to get her to her destination. Her Chinese is very limited, AND, she had a flight to catch, so she agreed in an instant. What else can you do in a situation like that?

During the registration to Shanghai marathon in 2006 I was told another story. At the registration, I bumped into a lot of fellow runners that I started chatting to. One of them, a tall (close to 2 meters), big foreigner who had flown in from Dalian, asked me how much a taxi from the airport to his hotel (in Pudong) normally would be. He then told me that he’d caught a cab where the driver had gone around with him in circles for ages, before stopping the car, saying he couldn’t get his luggage unless he gave him 500 kuai. The man didn’t speak any Chinese and felt helpless and lost and eventually paid half of the money in order to get his bags, then got out of the car and had to catch another taxi to his hotel.

Another friend I know once tried to use a ‘gypsy car’ at the Shanghai airport, but was arrested at the spot and taken to the police station where he had to identify the driver. He personally wasn't charged however.

So yeah, taxis sure are subjects of dramas here in China!

But there are not only bad stories going around. I have personally been very lucky with my taxi rides over the years. Once I was going to a restaurant and noticed the driver was going in the wrong direction. But I told him straight away and he felt so ashamed he turned off the meter and let me go for free.

And once in Beijing (back in 2006) I met a driver who had started to study English as part of Beijing’s ‘let’s teach our taxi drivers English so that they can communicate with tourists during the Beijing Olympics’ –project, and who was so happy to have me in his car. During our ride he told me everything he could say in English (everything from: ‘it is a red light. I will stop and wait for the green light’ to ‘look, that is a big square to your left!’ and ‘In Beijing we like to eat noodles!’) In fact, he was so excited about using his vocabulary that he completely forgot about paying attention to where he was driving, and as a result, what should have been a 20 min ride became a 1 hour ride. For free though, as he soon realized he’d missed my exit.

OK, enough of morning anecdotes, now I better get myself transported to the university where my exam is about to take place.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Blogger blocked

A blog less wknd due to several reasons:

-Blogger has been blocked and although I can use proxy servers it is slooooow and paaaaainful, especially for someone as impatient as me. I get a nervous breakdown (almost) when I have to wait for pages to load.

-Exam tomorrow. I've locked myself inside our flat with my books and trays of homemade cookies for the last few days. Yeah, I took the opportunity to be all housewifely and stuff... Actually went much better than expected even though I went out of ingredients and ended up using 3 different kinds of flours for my cookies (normal, whole wheat, and soy flour). I still cannot believe I lived my first 2 years in China without an oven
-Due to a wknd of Chinese characters and cookie eating, nothing interesting has come my way... so yeah, I thought I'd spare you the boring post.

But from tomorrow onwards, I'll be back on track! Let's just hope that blogger becomes accessible in China again sooner rather than later.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Teachers and 'teachers'

Not for anyone

One of my Chinese friends in Suzhou is really keen to learn English, so at the beginning of this year she signed up for a course for adults at an English School. It wasn’t any cheap program, but the school assured her that they had great teachers and good teaching methods.

She started the course and was happy with most of her classes. The teachers kept changing, and everything was good until she one day came to class where a young, American girl was teaching. My friend and her classmates found the class quite unprofessional: the content was light and unprepared and way too simple for the level they were on.

Some other classes followed in the same spirit and after a while the students decided to bring it up with the teacher, as they felt they weren’t learning anything from the class.

However, when they asked the teacher to make the class a bit harder and prepare some different content, the teacher was offended. She claimed that her class was fine as it was and that no other class had ever complained. The students went to the school board with their complaint but got a similar response.

One of the students was friends with another English teacher at the school and found out that the young English teacher was in fact a student herself living in Suzhou, who was teaching on a part time basis to be able to pay for her own expenses. She didn’t have any real teaching degree and no interest to devote time or effort into teaching. She knew the school was in need of teachers and wasn’t worried about losing her job.

I think it is a shame that there are so many English language 'teachers’ like that here in China. Those ones that come here just to party and have fun and then take a teaching job in order to get by… but in real life they have no interest to teach. It’s a shame as well for those REAL teachers who really come here in order to teach English. The ones that have a teaching degree, and/or who devote time and puts in an effort to give a good class.

There’s a huge need for English teachers in China that has made it too simple for any foreigner to pick up a teaching job. I have been offered a job at numerous schools here in Suzhou that I have all declined. I am no teacher. My English isn’t prefect. I would never want to waste anyone’s time and money by giving them lessons that might not be up to a good standard. I do tutor a 10-year old Korean girl, but that was because her parents insisted I would do so, DESPITE me not being a real teacher (I’ve told them that 100 times). They simply wanted her to improve her communication skills, so that’s what I focus on when I go to her house once a week. 

During my years in Shanghai and Suzhou I have met so many English teachers. It almost feels as if every second foreigner living here is a teacher. One guy that I met even told me that it was annoying to work as a teacher here, because there are so may young people who are working as teachers and who are not taking their jobs seriously, giving the industry a bad name. But it’s hard to say who there is to blame for the situation: There’s a huge need for teachers and therefore it’s easy for anyone to get a job. And a lot of people (despite not having a teaching degree) do a great job. It’s just a shame that it’s so easy for those who don’t to still get (and keep) a job.

Likewise, there are so many Chinese language 'teachers’ here… Teachers that offer you their private lessons for a not-so-cheap price, but who actually cannot teach. I’ve tried quite a few and they have more or less been the same; showing up at my house with nothing but their handbag, asking me what I want to learn. Never prepared any sort of topics or exercises, or offering any input. I actually gave up last semester and decided to settle for language exchange instead. Likewise did my Chinese friend. I mean, why pay someone when you might as well learn the same amount from talking to a friend.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The story of one of China's million migrant workers

The main reason why I moved to China was to learn Chinese. After having traveled to China (for work) and felt the frustration of not being able to communicate well with the Chinese people I interviewed during my trips (I always had to use a translator and I felt I never got any ’real’ answers… almost as if my questions got lost in the translation), I felt that I wanted to learn the language in order to really be able to understand the country/ the culture/ the people.

After almost 2 years of studying I feel I am maybe half way. And really, what a difference it makes just because I am now able to ask those questions myself. I almost feel as if I am getting 'the other side of the story' now when I can (pretty much) communicate with anyone, without having to use a third part. 

Yesterday me and a Chinese friend went for a foot massage. As always when I go for a massage, I almost enjoy talking to the masseur more than the actual massage. This time was no exception. The young boy rubbing my feet was from Shaanxi and was over the moon when he realized how well we could actually communicate. I told him about where I am from, and what my country is like (and for once I didn’t hear things like: ‘ah your country is so good. You guys have so much money’) and he seemed genuinely interested. What was more interesting, however, was to hear about his life.

He’d grown up in a very poor family in Xi’an of Shaanxi. He had to drop out of school at a very young age in order to work and support the family. He headed straight to Guangzhou and the factories where he worked for 6 years, not returning to his family even once (!). Then, the financial crisis resulted in him being laid-off, and he had to go somewhere else in order to find a new job and keep the money coming.

He ended up in Suzhou and found a job as a masseur at the spa where I had gone to. He works there every day, 7 days a week, 8.30am-10-11pm, and then he has a few hours of free time. He said that after work he enjoyed going to night markets and that he rarely went to bed before 2am in the morning, only to get up 4 hours later.

One could think that he told his life story with a depressed, sad voice, but actually, it was quite the opposite. He was positive and happy and said he was lucky to have found a job. He also said he thought sleep was overrated and that he didn’t need so much of it.

The Chinese girl that I had come to the spa with (who is a complete opposite to this migrant worker from Xi’an: her parents have bought her a flat where she can live without wasting a penny) was listening to the boy’s story with moderate interest. Once he had finished she said:

-Only 4 hours sleep? I couldn’t do that. I need at least 8.

And the boy replied:

-When you are under a lot of pressure you can definitely do with only 4 hours.

The thing with the boy’s life story is that it is definitely not unique. Millions of Chinese migrant workers share similar experiences. Still, I cannot help but feeling for the boy. It’s a strange feeling, something between admiration and sadness. I’m sad that he has to live so far away from his family, but I admire him for all the work he’s doing just to support them.

Also, hearing a story like this really makes you ponder. There he is, having almost nothing, being far away from his family and STILL smiling and feeling happy/lucky in life. And there I am, complaining about trivial things such as the heat and about my boss spitting too much… I know the contrast is too big to even be compared but I don’t know. It still gives you something to think about. And that’s kind of nice.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

It's getting LOUD in here

Don't say it. Scream it.

When learning Chinese at a Chinese university, reading out loud is a popular method used by most teachers that I know. One thing I have noticed, however, is that the higher the level I get to, the louder the teachers want us to read. On the first, hesitative levels (1, 2, maybe even 3) it was totally OK to read a bit quietly, but now, oh no… now we are supposed to scream out the words so that the teacher can address any pronunciation problems easier. I have a bit of a problem with this since I am not the ‘loud’ kind of person. Also, quite often we are asked to read together (the whole class) and the sound of 15 + students SCREAMING out the text is more than enough to give you a headache. Also, just like I am more of a ‘quiet’ person there are also a few ‘loud’ ones in class, so those are the ones that take over during the screaming sessions.

I often take the opportunity to go to the bathroom during the screa… sorry, reading session, because you know what? Even though the bathroom is located quite far from our classroom, I can walk there, lock myself into a little booth, and still hear EVERYTHING that is going on in my classroom! That’s how loud it is! One day I actually thought about parking myself at the bench outside the classroom and listen (more comfortable sound level), but I figured others might find that a bit weird so I didn’t.

It’s not only me who thinks it is loud. Just the other day our teacher (and old, old lady) told us that she feels so exhausted after our lessons that she sometimes have to take a nap! A nap! Because she’s been talking so loudly! I laughed so much when I heard this.

One might wonder why she continues to exhaust herself during our lessons by being so loud, but according to her, it’s the way things should be done in China.

Chinese students have to read out very loud when they are in class. You guys are no exception!” she has told us.

Maybe the reading out loud in school is the reason why so many people are quite loud in China in general. Take our neighbors for instance. I know everything that goes on in their flat. What the children are eating, when they need to go to the bathroom, when they have done something bad, or something good… their ayi has the loudest, most piercing voice I have come across here in China. And she’s not afraid to use it.

In restauarnats you also sometimes have to fight to make yourself heard. Especially if the place is 热闹 ‘re nao’ (=”bustling with life and excitement, a lively place.” Re nao is a veeeery popular word here in China!). I like that there is some life and noise at restaurants (quite an opposite to restaurants in Sweden!) but sometimes it is almost laughable that it’s so loud and noisy that you cannot even talk to your friend sitting across the table.

I once tried to explain this in class. We were asked if we preferred bustling or quiet restaurants when eating out. I said that I prefer to go out and be surrounded by a lot of people, but that sometimes, I preferred a quiet, calm restaurant where I can hear my own thoughts. My message didn’t get across however. Instead, the teacher called me ‘anti-social.’

So, if you want to stay on top of your game over here, clear your throat and don’t hesitate to make yourself heard!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Going crazy in the heat

How to cope with the heat? Just 'nap it out'...

Summer in Suzhou is a humid story. The downside with the beginning of it all (which is taking place at this very moment, yesterday we had a whopping 35 degrees and I felt as if I was riding my bike through a sauna) is that very few places turn on their air con until June. That’s the case with my gym. Keen to get back into the exercise buzz again (after a week of flu and resting) I decided that an outdoor run was impossible in this sauna weather, so I opted for the gym and the treadmill. Unfortunately, the gym hadn’t turned on their air con yet, but keen as I was, I decided to still go for that run. Bad choice.

After 6 km I hit a point where I thought my head was going to explode. I had to stop, even though I was running at a very comfortable 10km/hour pace. The after sweating was rather overwhelming. I am one of those people that sweat quite easily anyways, and after a 35 min run in a room where there’s at last 32 degrees, the sweat just wouldn’t stop dripping off my body. With my head feeling as if it was burning from inside, I felt so uncomfortable that I didn’t really know what to do. I tried to walk around for a bit and find a cooler space, but there wasn't any. Then I yelled a little bit at the trainers, asking them to turn on the air con, but it was useless.

-You just can’t run in this heat, one of them said. I mean, I am just standing here still and I am also really sweaty! 

-That’s not a solution! I said. And really, it isn’t. I mean, the whole point with a gym is that you’re supposed to be able to exercise there, right?

Another place that is yet to turn on their air con is my university. Since I ride my bike to school I am quite warm (and, ehum, sweaty) when I get there already, and listening to a teacher explaining new grammar rules while sliding around on your seat (sorry, too much information maybe?!) for 3 hours isn’t a hit. I find it so hard to concentrate when I am warm. Maybe I should start bringing a mini fan with me everywhere?

Another one that seems to have been slightly hit by the heat wave is my dear boyfriend. He caught the last train from Shanghai to Suzhou the other day. Exhausted from a day in the sun he managed to fall asleep and when he woke up the train was just pulling up at a station. So he got up and got off. Never mind the fact that Suzhou was the final destination and that the people around him didn’t move from their seats. Never mind the fact that when he walked out on the platform he felt that he didn’t really recognize himself. It wasn’t until the train started rolling again when he realized that he’d gotten off the train at one station too early, namely at Kunshan, and had to get an expensive 40 minute taxi ride to end up in Suzhou. If it would have been me we would have just shrugged our shoulders, as it isn’t usual for me to pull off stunts like this… but my boyfriend is the sort of guy that never gets lost/misses a train/ takes the wrong turn. So I find this situation rather hilarious.

And it isn't just us going mad in the heat, our dear ayi also seems to have lost it a little bit. I had left her a note and some money to order us water the other day (which is nothing out of the ordinary, she has done this a lot of times before), but when I came home she was gone and so were all our empty bottles (the large kinds!) of water. After 10 minutes she came back, CARRYING three giant bottles.

-What have you done?! I asked you to order the water, not to physically go and get it?! I exclaimed. It’s 35 degrees out there!

-Well I thought I would go and then you don’t have to pay the delivery fee!

Oh lord. Of course I had to pay the delivery fee (+ extras) still. Although this time it went to my ayi rather than the water delivery company. And why she did this? No idea. She's never physically gone to get water before (and the phone was working!) 

I had about 3 showers yesterday. One in the morning, one after the gym and one after a bike ride to our local food shop which isn't located far from our house. And this is just the beginning. Summer is here. Although we have to wait until June to turn on the air cons. Lovely. 

Monday, May 11, 2009

Ride with me (or not!)

I was in Shanghai this weekend. On Saturday I caught up with some people from the company where I am going to work this summer, as they were in Shanghai on a business trips, and had brought an employment contract for me to sign. One of the women from the company is more or less my ’idol.’ She’s in her late 40ies and speaks perfect Chinese. And when I say perfect I really mean perfect. Unless it was for her white hair and super blue eyes and tall height (ehhh) you could have taken her for a local. She used to be married to a Chinese man and has studied Chinese for 5 years in Beijing, so it all makes sense… still, she’s quite an inspiration.

Anyways, we were having dinner and started talking about driving in China. I don’t have any Chinese driver’s license and I’m not planning to get one either (I’d love to live for another year or so at least!) but a lot of foreigners that I know in Suzhou have. It’s apparently quite easy to get a driver’s license over here if you already have one from your country of origin. You just have to take some theory test, and since the test is entirely in Chinese, you need to get a translator/interpreter to come with you on the test day. I know that there is one Chinese woman in Suzhou who is particularly popular, as she has worked for most of the people that I know.

She started off as an innocent translator, going to the tests and translating the questions. Then came the day when she was at the test with a foreigner and realized that the foreigner didn’t really know the answers to the questions. Since she was sitting there next to him, and knew all the answers by heart (it is apparently always the same test every time), she decided to help him out. Once she’d done it once it became more of a common practice… and then, she realized that there was big business to be made, and offered a service of her taking the test, but typing the foreigner’s name on the test paper. It couldn’t have been easier for foreigners to get their Chinese driver’s licensee in Suzhou. They didn’t even have to show up on the exam day!

Although after some months the police smelled something fishy and decided to investigate her, so then she had to actually start brining the foreigner to the test in person again. Although she’s still taking the test for them, telling them what key to press (it’s a computer test).

When we shared this story with my Finnish translator friend, she laughed and told me that once, a Chinese man who was living in Finland and who wanted to get a Finnish driver’s license, hired her to be his translator during the test. She agreed to do the job, and told him that the test was quite hard and that he had to study and prepare well for it.

During the test day, they sat down in front of the computer, the first question showed up and she translated it for him.

-Yeah, OK, he said. And nodded to her. And then….?

-And then what?

-And then… what’s the correct answer? You’re going to tell me that too, right?

-Eh… no. The answer to the question you need to know yourself!

Face loss big time! My friend felt embarrassed by the guy’s requirement and the Chinese man felt embarrassed by the fact that he had thought that when he hired the translator, he also hired someone who could take the test for him. A sweaty hour in front of the computer followed, with suspicious looks from the test supervisor. In the end, the man failed his test and he never hired my friend to re-take the test again.

Note to self: when bumping into a foreigner in China/a Chinese person abroad with a Chinese/foreign driver's license, ask how they got it. I wonder how many people who actually take that test themselves. 

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The upside down world

When I was a little kid one of my favorite activities was so play in my sandbox. Most of the playtime was spent digging holes. My parents used to joke with me and say: “Don’t dig too deep, then you’ll end up at the other side of earth, in China!” (I think a lot of people recognize that little ‘saying’) Of course that only triggered me to dig deeper as I was extremely curious about what China would be like. My best friend Emma told me that since China was on the other side of earth (this was before we looked at an earth globe, maps and stuff… I am talking about a time when I was 5 years old) everything over there was upside down. And then we dug together, keen to enter a more exciting environment than the backside of my house.

“Unfortunately” it would take another 19 years or so before I ended up in China. Although now when I am here I can tell you one thing, sometimes I feel like this place really IS upside-down!

The other day I was having lunch with a Chinese friend. Since summer has hit Suzhou I was wearing a singlet and a skirt. We were eating a spicy pot mix of chicken and veggies and ordered a large jug of suan mei tang (a sweet plum juice) to balance the chili. The jug came (quite huge) and I reached for it to pour some juice into my friend’s glass. While I was holding the (heavy) jug, I caught my friend staring at my arms:

-Jonna… your arm…it's so…. Big!

-Big? Oh you mean this? I said, jokingly, and flexed my arm, showing a modest biceps muscle. I’ve been doing weights since the beginning of this year and finally the results are starting to show!

-Oh my god!
She said. You have like… muscles. Visible muscles.


-Oh poor you! How did that happen? What are you going to do to get rid of them?

-Eh…. Nothing. I’ve worked out for 4 months to even get them!

-But… it’s muscles. Your arms look bigger. Not like mine.
She pointed at her stick thin arm, even flexed it to show that there was no sign, what-so-ever from a biceps muscle.

-Well, ehum… you know… I didn’t really know what to say. I mean, in my world, toned arms are quite nice looking. But in her world, obviously, toned arms is a big no-no.

-So you think my arms look too big?! I finally asked, already knowing the answer.

-Yes. Too big. But just stop training and it will be better.

(That’s something you don’t often hear).

I don’t know. Arms are too big? Hips are too big? Nose it too large? Ahhhh, how do you actually manage to live here and feel good about yourself?!

Well there's no way actually. Better to just laugh about it. And remind myself that in China, some things really are ‘upside down!’

And am I going to stop toning my arms? (Before you all start telling me that ‘muscle women aren’t hot’ let me reveal something: my new arm muscles are quite tiny…. My boyfriend laughed out loud when I told him about this). No way. In my (according to my friend: 'quite upside down') world, toned arms rock!

We are not talking body builder arms as you see... like this and with a tiny little muscle (this pic is from last summer). 

Friday, May 8, 2009

Traveling in Yunnan -what's good and what's not?

I can’t believe it’s already Friday?! Time flies. Today I have a quite busy day ahead, as well as a confrontation with the spitting boss, that as from today might be my ex boss. Let’s see how it goes.

Got some exciting news though! Since I’ve been living here for some years now and mom has already visited me twice we decided that during her visit this year we’re going to see some more than just the obvious (Shanghai, Suzhou, Beijing, Hangzhou). I suggested Tibet but mom thought it was ’too faraway’ so now we’ve decided to go to Yunnan. I’ve already been to Yunnan once, although that time it wasn’t really a sightseeing and leisure trip, but more like a visit to the poorest, most isolated mountain areas in the province to report in some ongoing development.

This time, however, I’ll travel for fun and I cannot wait to see the Tiger Leaping Gorge, Dali and Shangri-La. I’ve already done some reading online (I try to stay away from Lonely Planets when I travel, simply because I like to rely more on locals than on a book). I still have a lot of research to do but I’d like to ask you guys if you have any personal advices/recommendations for traveling in Yunnan? You don’t need to link to any site or anything, I can find those myself, and also, I don’t want everything mapped out for me… I just meant that if you have traveled there and visited those places that I mentioned… were they any nice? I’ve heard a lot of mixed comments about Dali. Some say that it can be a bit of a tourist trap, something I’d love to avoid, but then some say it’s a real beautiful place… so all advices are appreciated!

We’ll be heading to Yunnan in the very beginning of September, basically as soon as I get back to China after my Finnish summer, and as usual when it comes to traveling I can’t wait! China’s just so huge and there’s so much to see! I almost feel stressed when I think about it. The trip to Yunnan isn’t going to be any luxurious, five-star hotel kind… both me and my mom are sporty spices (mom has even done a half-marathon: go mom!!) so we like to move a lot by foot of possible.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Some news

I’ve felt a little bit out of love with China since the beginning of this year. I am not quite sure what it is about, can’t put my finger on it, but there’s just something that is stopping me from enjoying everything to its fully. I’ve written about this before and like some people have pointed out, it might have to do with the fact that I’ve now been here for a while and that’s it’s not as ‘new and exciting’ as before… although I kind of like that everything aren't 'new and exciting.' Comparing to when I first came to Shanghai in 2006, spoke no Chinese and had no idea about anything, I prefer this… I have no problems getting around anymore (language wise), I know which places I like/dislike, and so on… but, that bubbly ‘I-love-China’ feeling that I used to possess seems to have gone missing. Along with my motivation, and some other happy-to-be-here feelings.

So, I’ve decided to do something about it.

I’m moving home.

Yeah, I know it might sound a bit drastic but I have really thought about it and I feel this is the best thing to do. I am far from native in Chinese but I feel I have a good enough level to still get a job.


Geez, you thought you’d get rid of me that easy?! No no, not moving anywhere, but still getting a change of scene. I’ve been offered a summer vacancy at a media company (focused on China) in Finland. And I’ve said yes. So during July and August I’ll be working full-time in Finland, making radio shows and news/travel stories about China…

It’s actually a quite good situation. My boss is Chinese (although not the spitting kind, I’m done with those), and my workmates are from all over the world, including China. So, I’ll not only be writing about China every day, but I’ll also be in a ‘fairly’ Chinese environment, although I’ll still be able to breathe the freshest air, go for long runs in the forest (the REAL forest. Not just some lame field with some flowers), and swim in clean lakes (Yes I know, I am going there for work but the beauty of Scandinavian summers is that the sun stays up until late every night, so you can go for a evening dip every night at 9pm without getting lost in the darkness). I couldn’t ask for more. Since I’ll be fairly close to Sweden (a 3 hour bus ride + a 2 hour plane ride + a 1 hour train ride –OK, not mega close but closer than now!) I’ll also get a chance to go home and spend some time with my sister and her baby Sam (that I haven’t even met!!), the rest of the family, my friends and relatives… And sometimes that’s just what you need to get some new energy. At least that’s how it works for me. I need a (preferably large) dose of near and dear ones every now and then to be able to function.

I know there are still 2 months or so to go, and a lot of things will happen before I go but I just wanted to share it today for some reason (maybe I’ve still got some fever left from that flu making me all ‘I want to share everything with everyone?!’). But I am really looking forward to getting a longer change of scene and a chance to think everything over. There’s still a decision to be made at the end of this year (should we stay or should we go –and if we go, then where do we go?! Where’s ‘home’? If we stay –where do we stay, and what do we do?).

Anyways, I just wanted to share it. I’ll still be blogging from over there (how could I not. I am more or less addicted by now) and I won’t go until July so not much will change for the time being.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Let's blame it on the flu

Who is this air-headed girl and what has she done with Jonna? (and what's with the hat?!) 

Yesterday morning I woke up feeling everything but flash: feverish, pounding head, thick, sore throat and heavy eyes. Decided straight away to stay in bed.

That worked for about 20 minutes until I woke up again, and decided to get up. I was in no condition to attend my classes or even try to get on with my must-dos, so I simply parked myself in front of the TV and did something I rarely do: watched TV for 6 hours straight.

Like every other person on this planet (I assume) I hate being sick. I hate not having the energy to do stuff, to not be able to study, read or function like a normal, healthy person… but most of all, I hate not being able to exercise. Also, when I am sick my appetite becomes all weird. Suddenly nothing but chocolate tastes good (I think it is a girl thing?!).

So the day went as predicted: me, parked in front of the TV with a huge chocolate bar as my only company. Just when I was about to hit my 7th hour of useless TV watching, I looked at my mobile phone that showed “5th of May, 2pm” and for some reason, the date made me a bit thoughtful… Suddenly I was sure that there was something special about this date… something that I had promised myself not to forget. Something that I really, really had to do….

I thought and thought about it until it finally hit me.

Last day to sign up for June’s HSK exam. Today. Fifth of May.

Panic arrived in an instant. Last time there was an HSK opportunity I missed the sign up date with 2 weeks (!) and the office people almost shoved me out of their door when I came in (2 weeks after the final date), begging for them to still let me sign up for the exam. I couldn’t let the same thing happen this time.

I had a quick shower and felt a pang of guilt when I almost slipped on the chocolate bar wrap that I had gracefully thrown on the floor (is it only me who turns into a lazy, couch-potato-I-don’t-care-about-anything-anymore when I am sick? I strongly dislike this ‘sick’ character but I don’t know how to get rid of her?) So, as I put on some clothes, I decided that I might as well… walk to the university. Yup. Walk. Normally I ride my bike and that takes me around 10-15 minutes. Walking takes about 30 minutes (one way). But for some reason I convinced myself that a ‘little walk’ was just what I needed in order to feel better after such an un-productive day.

So off I went. I probably scared the sh** out of fellow pedestrians with my coughing, sneezing and panting… they were looking at me as if I was a carrier of the swine flu. But once I had started striding nothing could stop me, and within 30 minutes I had reached the university office.

-Hi, I panted when I came in, sweat running down my face. I would like to register for the HSK exam in June!

The Chinese woman typing at her computer flinched a bit when she looked up at me.

-Eh… I’m afraid that’s not possible today.

-What? Why not!? Oh no, don’t tell me? Am I too late?!

-Late?! Ehh…. No no. Well, the sign up date isn’t until May 18!

I looked at the woman. Was she joking? May 18? It couldn’t be? I mean, my brain had been so convinced that it was on May 5? Why would my brain just believe that? Why would I just get so hung up on a date unless it was somehow important?

-Like… listen. I know it is today! The last day to sign up is today, May 5! Please let me sign up! I tried.

The woman gave me a long look. I’m not sure I want to know what went through her head while she was looking at me: Red, watery eyes. Runny nose. Sweaty. Slightly swollen face. Greasy hair and un-made up face. Actually, as I was standing there trying to convince an office lady to let me sign up 2 weeks prior to the sign up date it hit me that I actually might come across as a bit of a freak. Whoops.

-The sign up date is on May 18, she said with a firm voice. So you can come back then!

I felt like a total idiot. Why on earth had my brain somehow thought it was today? Was the fever that high?!

-Like.. I was so sure it was on May 5th… is there something else important on today? I tried, partly to save some of my lost face.

-Eh… nothing that I know of… although… are you OK? She asked. You don’t look very… well.

-A flu… and then I walked here…
I mumbled.

-Good exercise! She pointed out.

Yup. Sure was.

I walked all the way back home too where I finished another chocolate bar, feeling like one of the Biggest Idiots on Earth, constantly looking at the date on my phone and trying to remember what was so special about May 5.

Turns out, there wasn’t anything special. Or, if there was, I never remembered it. Today it is May 6 and I woke up feeling much better than yesterday (still got a cold but the throat is better and the fever seems to be gone). So say what you want about my little brain-less power walk, and my air-headed office stunt, but at least it kicked some of my flu!

Now I just have to make sure I kick the rumor of me being the HSK lunatic girl.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

"It’s a man’s job to carry heavy things!" -enough said to get him to carry your handbag?

It started off as a friendly, yet mocking conversation between two western guys and a Chinese girl at a company. One of their visiting-from-overseas colleagues had just showed them a handbag that he had picked up for his girlfriend back home. While they praised his choice of handbag with moderate excitement, they started joking about it as soon as he turned them his back.

-You know, maybe that handbag wasn’t for his girlfriend after all? Said one guy.

-Hehe, no, maybe he’s been so inspired by all the Chinese men he has seen carrying around handbags that he decided to get one for himself? Said the other guy.

-It is definitely his color! Said the Chinese girl.

They all laughed heartily together.

-But actually… what’s that whole thing about men carrying their women’s handbags here in China? Asked one of the guys once they had calmed down. Why don’t you carry your own purse?

The girl gave him a startled look, obviously hinting that he'd just asked a very stupid question. 

-Because it’s heavy!
 she said.

-Heavy? But it’s your own stuff? Why do you have to carry with you so much stuff that your bag is too heavy for you to carry on your own?

-It’s a man’s job to carry heavy things!

-But like.. when you buy your handbag, don’t you then pick and match it after what you are wearing that very day?

Silence from the girl.

-Isn’t the bag… like… a part of your outfit?

-You guys just don’t get it. The man should carry the woman’s bag. It’s his job.

Angrily, the woman strutted off.

End of story. 

However, when I tried the same argument meanwhile handing my boyfriend my pink little clutch he rejected it as if it was poison. Regardless of how ‘heavy’ I thought it was.

How do the girls down here do it?! Like, seriously?

Monday, May 4, 2009

Western restaurants in Suzhou

Sticking to Chinese restaurants in Suzhou saves you the disappointment  (as well as some kuais!) 

What a weekend!! I’ve been doing everything but surfing the net, just the way it should be (don’t get me wrong, I love blogging and writing but I tend to spend too much time in front of my computer every day already, so when I can get away from it during the weekends I see it as a good thing!).

Friday’s brunch was outstanding. Everyone drank too much except for me. I ate too much. Oh well. No one (including me) was surprised.

I rarely eat at western restaurants here in Suzhou, mainly because I don’t think there are any good ones in (I prefer to make my own western food if I get cravings). This weekend, however, we made an exception and went to a restaurant at Suzhou’s rainbow walk. One of the reasons why I don’t like most of the western restaurants here in Suzhou is because the service is normally quite poor. When the staff at a western restaurant sees that you are a laowai, they refuse to speak Chinese with you and as a result… everything goes wrong, wrong, wrong.

Another reason why I don’t like western restaurants here is because they are quite often extremely overpriced! For the money you pay at a western restaurant here in Suzhou you can eat five times at a Chinese one. Worth thinking about.

Anyways. Our weekend-dining-experience was yet another reminder why we should continue cooking our own food. I ordered an apple pie (45 yuan -one of those ready-made pies that come straight form the freezer) that came with a tiny bit of cream. I don’t like cream, so I asked for some vanilla ice cream instead.

-You want to order some extra ice cream? Asked the waitress.

-Yes please. Some vanilla ice cream please.

-OK no problem!

Then we waited. And waited. And waited. Twenty minutes (!) went by and I asked about my ice cream twice.

-Oh, they are making it! Said the waitress.

Sure they are. Making vanilla ice cream from scratch. I don't think so. 

Finally on waiter appeared, carrying a plate with one single scoop of strawberry ice cream.

-Eh… I ordered vanilla! I said, slightly annoyed.

-Oh I am so sorry! He said.

Another five minutes went by. Then another waiter came with the SAME plate of (slightly melted) strawberry ice cream and put it on our table.

-Here’s your ice cream!

-But… like.. what the… I’ve already sent this back. I ordered vanilla ice cream.

-Oh!! I am so sorry!

Ten minutes later the single scoop of icy and lumpy vanilla ice cream came (15 yuan). By then, our pie had gone very cold. And the whole experience wasn’t that great anymore.

Like I said, no point eating out when it only makes you annoyed.

(we had to wait another 30 minutes for the bill too but that’s another story).

It occurred to me when I sat there that it’s actually not the staff’s fault. They obviously didn’t know the difference between vanilla and strawberry, because no one has trained them. Which makes me think of Starbucks in China… I don’t know about the staff’s English in general, because I rarely speak to them about the weather, but one thing is for sure, they almost always get you order right. Ask them for low fat milk, extra this and none of that and you’ll get it. If they mess it up they’ll re-make your coffee, or upgrade you for free… I know they have some sort of Starbuck’s manual/training program that they have to go through before they start working there, and I wonder why more western restaurants aren’t going for the same thing? Is it because of the owner’s lack of China experience, or is it because of plain laziness? Because seriously, they cannot honestly believe that adding an extra amount of 10 staff that don’t know the difference between vanilla and strawberry are going to make things better, can they? Or maybe they can.

Cheaper and tastier!