Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Chinese influences in the Finnish work life

I won't have to miss China too much during my stay here...

The first day at work went well. I don’t know if I’ve made it clear, because a lot of people are asking so I better say it once again. I’m currently in Finland doing a 7 weeks summer vacancy at a media company where I used to work 3 years ago, before I moved to China. In the end of August I am going back to China, but until then I’m working full-time over here.

It’s strange to be back at a company that I left 3 years earlier. Although the number of employees have doubled since I left a lot of things still haven’t changed. The big boss is a Chinese man from Beijing. Very honest. Very straightforward. The first thing he said when he saw me in the meeting room yesterday morning was:

-Oh, I see our little Blondie is back from China. You know guys, 3 years ago this girl left our company to run away to China with her big love.

Polite smiles and muffled giggles. I felt kind of silly. “Ran away with my big love?!” What the f****?! And also, what boss refers to his employees as ‘little Blondie?!’

As soon as the meeting was underway, I also realized that things are like they always were.

It started with one of the guys arriving a little bit late:

-Oh Mika, said the big boss. Look at you. You look so tired and quiet. You probably have not slept well.

-Eh, well… I….

This was the standard back during ‘my days’ as well. Whoever came in late got a honest, slap in the face:

-Look at you today! You look real tired/ fat/ old/ dishevelled!

I can tell that the employees of today take it just as personal as I used to do back then. I particularly remember one time when the boss said I looked real ‘meaty.’ I swapped my lunch for oranges for the following 2 weeks.

Then, we went on to the meeting.

The big boss had just been to China and was supposed to give us a summary of what he’d been up to:

-Yeah, I had a lot of good, important meeting… made progress when it comes to the X project… and then I went to X province to meet with the head of X and we talked about xxxxxx….. And then I had to go to Beijing to comfort a friend whose wife just committed suicide… and then I had a successful meeting about cooperation in some sections with this xxxx group….

Wait… what.. hang on a second? Did he just said… suicide?!?!?!

Me and my workmates were discussing over lunch. I mean, he said it so fast and so briefly that it just blended together with all the other, important meetings he’d had?!

After discussing it for a while and listening to the sighs from my workmates it hit me:

-This still happens kind of often, doesn’t it? Some kind of important and inappropriate information is thrown into a meeting about something else?

-Sure does.
They said.

Yup, not much has changed! And it’s kind of interesting to get this ‘grind of Chinese spice’ in your every day life over here.

Post about running: how to tackle a hilly course?

Yesterday I did one of those things that I like the best about being here in Finland: I went for a run in the forest. The flat we’re living in over here is kind of great: 10 minutes from a big, beautiful lake, and 5 minutes to the forest (and 30 min on a bus to the city) For a nature bug like me it’s perfect. Running in the forest is just the best… I love every little bit about it: the nature, the soft ground (so good for your knees!), the air and the shadow. Perfect during warm, 30 degrees days like yesterday. However, this forest lap is kind of… tough. Forget about 11km/hours (with a 05-1,0 incline) on the treadmill… Even though I thought I was fit I realized after 20 minutes in the forest that I’m not… at all. The course is extremely hilly. When I say extremely I really mean it: up, down, up, down.. Constantly. There are maybe 3 small flat sections? Otherwise it’s mostly uphill…

One lap is something like 5-6 km. Peanuts! Yeah, or so I thought until I realized how those hills actually kill you! Fine for the first, 20 minutes… but the end section is just like one long hill… with little flat sections/downhill for recovery… oh man, I ALMOST gave up last night. But in the end I pushed myself and made it all the way back to the door. But I remember thinking when I was running: “uh… this is not really fun?! This is torture!” Although like always, afterwards it felt great.

However, I’d like to ask any fellow runner out there if you have any tips for how to tackle hills. The thing with me is, that I’m almost worse at running downhill than uphill. These hills are steep, and I’m scared of ‘letting go’ as I fear that the pressure on the knee (when you put your leg down in a steep downhill) is going to be too big. So I always hold back… meaning I don’t make the most of those downhills. Numerous friends that I’ve been running with have commented on it over the years, saying that I ‘lose’ a lot when I’m running downhill as I automatically slow down (meanwhile they are letting go and are flying forward). What’s the best way to do it? And, it is pathetic or pathetic to not be able to run a second, 5 km lap after that first one?! I have this long-term running goal for the summer: before I go back to China I’m going to do 3 laps in that forest. Although when I thought about that yesterday it sort of felt impossible. Anyways, any running tips are appreciated. Running in pancake-flat-Suzhou/Shanghai has spoilt me for the last 3 years… never thought hills could be such a challenge! Funny how easy you forget?!

Walking and running in the forests are two completely different things...

Monday, June 29, 2009

The first few days in Finland

So now I’m in Finland. And what can I say? It’s about 10 times as good as I had ever imagined. Not talking about the air, the green nature, the bird’s song, the extended hours of sunlight, the fact that you can drink the tap water, or the selection of non-sugar/low fat products in the grocery stores… Oh no, I’m talking about the fact that it’s summer over here. Real, warm, 28-30 degrees warm SUMMER!

You see, there’s this thing about summer in the nordic countries. This unwritten rule. This Scandinavian summer mantra, that goes something like: “hope for the best but expect the worse.” It’s a way for us to comfort ourselves, just in case the summer ‘rains away.’ Every single Scandinavian knows that even though we treasure summer, it’s kind of naïve to dream of sunshine and 30 degrees. Scandinavian summers aren’t really known for being ‘hot,’ and I can name numerous years when the summers have been cold and rainy (there was this one year when I still wore my winter jacket in June, and then that other year when there was still snow on the streets in May…), when umbrellas have sold gold and ice cream kiosks have hit bankruptcy. So, to step of the plane and be greeted by a clear blue sky, a bright shining sun at 28 degrees (and people in shorts?!) last Friday was kind of awesome. (A sort of summer novelty that I could totally get used to). Although just to remind you guys (and myself) of how rare this kind of weather is over here: this is the first time it has happened in the last 3 years…

I spent the weekend by a lake close to our flat (it’s like a 10 min bike ride… hah!), swimming, sun-bathing and catching up with friends from the past. On Saturday night we went out for some glasses of cider and I was sort of stoked by the fact that you can order yourself everything from dry, to normal, to low-sugar, non-fat cider from the bars?! Europe surely is a place of choices! Also, being able to sit outside in the sunlight until 11pm was kind of cool. My friend was laughing at my excitement, saying I reminded her of someone who’s never been to Scandinavia before. Funny how easily you forget.

On Sunday it was grocery-shopping time. I had been purposely avoiding it, knowing that I might not be able to handle it. And very well. As soon as I stepped into the store my heart started beating faster, and my mind felt kind of wild, almost as if I wanted to buy the whole shop and try to eat everything in there in one go… as a result of this, I came home with all kinds of strange things (5 different kind of cheese, salmiaki flavoured chocolate, gluten free biscuits and soy yoghurt?!) and none of the things that I really needed (potatoes, chicken, toothpaste and milk). “It’s the novelty of it all!” I comforted myself as I unpacked my bags. But seeing how much these ‘products of novelty’ in fact costs (yikes, it is expensive over here!) it better wear off sooner rather than later. Otherwise I’m going to end up spending every single euro of my hard earned salary on food. And that wasn’t really the plan…

Actually, speaking of food. I better go and get my lunch box ready now. When I spoke to my bf last night he reminded me to bring some lunch to work. First I just laughed at the idea, saying something like ‘come on, there’s a lot of Chinese people working there, of course we’ll go out for lunch!’ but then he reminded me of how expensive it is to go out for lunch over here, and I when he said it I did remember: you can’t really ‘go out for lunch’ over here like you do in China (well, at least now if you’re working with my salary). So, lunch box it is: salmon salad (!) with avocado (!!) and mozzarella cheese (!!!). (Actually, who needs to go out for lunch when you can eat food like that?!)

Today is my first day at work and I am feeling a little bit nervous but excited. Anyways, better get ready. Gosh, have to dress for the office now, rather than a lazy day at the lake/a day of Chinese classes at the university. This might take some time…

Friday, June 26, 2009

Why I don't want to open my windows

Discussing Suzhou's air quality with my landlord:

"But Jonna, why don't you open your windows to let in some fresh air?"

"Because there is no fresh air out there!"

"Sure it is! It's really fresh and good! And fresh air is good for you! Good for your health!"

"Yeah but this air is not good for my health. Look at the sky, it's all gray?! There's no fresh air."

"It's not gray.. it's just... foggy!"

"Fog, huh?"

Unfortunately, I don't know how to say the word "smog" in Chinese so the conversation ended there.

Anyways, the air is as it is. Nothing to whine about when you've chosen to live here. Although I cannot help but feeling a tiny little bit happy about the fact that I am, from today onwards, exchanging this:

....for this for the next 2 months. I'm off to Finland to do a 2 month summer vacancy at a company. Like my landlord said, there's nothing like a real, fresh breath of air!

(ps. I'll be blogging as usual from Finland... once I'm off the jet lag)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

White VS thin

Willing to tan to look skinny? (Tanning is, btw, very expensive over here! Not that I have ever tried it -I'm completely against tanning studios-, but I've written about it for some magazines and it's quite expensive).

Overheard conversation between 2 Chinese girls in the women’s changing room at the gym.

 Girl 1: I’m so fat! I don’t know what to do! I train and train but I am still so fat!

Girl 2: No, you’re not fat. (She Was NOT FAT! Geeez! I looked like a bulldozer next to her!). You’re just too white.

Girl 1: What do you mean? Too white?

Girl 2: Yes, look at your skin. It is too white. (Her skin was insanely white!) You need to get some sun. If your skin is too white it makes you look bigger than you are. Look at me. My skin is darker than yours. I look skinnier. Trust me. Try to get darker skin and you will look thin!

Girl 1: But I like white skin! I use a special lotion to get white skin!

Girl 2: White skin makes you look fat. Darker skin makes you look thin.

Girl 1: Oh… such a big problem. I don’t know what to do….


Yeah, what DO you do when two beauty ideals contradict themselves? I wonder what it most important to women over here: white skin or being thin? I would for some reason guess being thin, but then again, there’s a LOT of talk about white skin this and white skin that every time you hit a spa or a massage parlour so what do I know? 

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Summer survival essentials

Summer's most essential must have 'accessories'

Anyone who’s spend a summer in the Shanghai/Suzhou area (I am not sure how bad it is in the rest of the China, feel free to let me know all of you living in the dong bei/xi bei areas?!) knows how a bunch of aggressive mosquitoes easily can ruin your terrace night. I’ve done the mistake of enjoying a beer at a terrace without any mosquito repellent ONCE (wearing a short skirt) and the next morning, my legs looked like victims of the plague. For some reason, mosquitoes love my blood and my body reacts strongly to a bite, making the whole area around the bite swell and go red and then it itches non-stop for about 1 week (not exaggerating!). Since I love exercising and running this normally makes the itching/swelling even worse (I guess the skin gets irritated somehow when I sweat?), turning a running session into a painful experience. So, during summers in Suzhou I always spray myself (every little exposed skin part, I don’t forget the legs and the hands! Right now I have a bite on my finger as a result of sloppy spraying) with mosquito repellent before going out.

I buy my mosquito repellent from my local pharmacy. It’s a small bottle with a neon green liquid… yup, looks kind of scary and smells like absolute shi**, but I don’t care. As long as it helps I’m happy.

However, it still happens that I get bitten (there are, for instance 986489236498 mosquitoes inside the toilet stalls at our university. Try peeing while being attacked by 100 aggressive blood suckers? Yup. No can do. Even though my classroom is on the first floor I have started to take the stairs to the fifth floor every time I need to go to the bathroom. But there might still be some hungry little bastards, attacking you when you’re in a very vulnerable position… ). And once I am bitten I know it’s going to be hell. Sleepless nights of itching bites… Itchy running sessions…. Big, plague like (that leaves a scar if you itch them) spots on your legs…. uhhh… Awful!

That was until my lovely friend Monica introduced me to this fantastic little bottle of blue liquid: It goes under the name ‘refreshing water’ and smells like mint, and if you spray that on your bite it will stop itching… immediately! You can buy it from Watson (like fellow blogger Shopgirl, I love Watson! I can walk around in there for hours, just looking at unnecessary, but funny, things that I don’t need) for 14 kuais! When you pay that price you don’t only get the ‘after-bite-spray’ but you also get a mini bottle of mosquito repellent (the same, neon green one that I buy from the pharmacy). Not only does this spray stop the bite from itching, but I also experienced that it reduces the swelling of the bite.

Ahhh, since finding this thing I even dare to go and pee on the first floor of my university again. Fear mosquitoes no more!
Comes in a bag and looks like this at Watson
After-bite survival spray!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Education is everything?

Yesterday I met a Shanghainese girl who’d re-located to Suzhou with her husband because of work. Now, the distance between Shanghai and Suzhou isn't huge, and with a 45 min train ride you can get to ‘the other side’ without too much drama (the biggest drama might be buying the tickets). Still, the girl told me that she wasn’t so happy in Suzhou and that she constantly missed her family ‘back home.’

-Your family? But I thought your husband moved with you?
I asked. 

-He did. But my son didn’t. He’s just a child, so he's still living in Shanghai with my parents.

-But… like, why didn’t he move with you? Is it because your working so much over here that 
you don’t have time to look after him?

-Well yes… I am working a lot over here. But also, the school and education options are much better in Shanghai than Suzhou. So we figured we better leave him there. But I miss him so much!

-Is it just temporary?

-No, probably not. We are looking into buying a property here in Suzhou soon…

Wow. Now that’s when you realize just how important it is to have your kid in the ‘right’ school over here. Not that I didn't already knew. But sometimes you forget just HOW important it is to people. 

Monday, June 22, 2009

Not your everyday inquiry

It’s nothing out of the ordinary to have people running after you on the streets of Shanghai.

-Lady, lady, do you want to buy a bag, bag, shoes, shoes, watch, watch? Cheap price only for you!!!!!!!

I’ve also experienced more original approaches. Like one morning at the Shanghai’s People Square metro station. I was walking briskly from line 1 to line 2, when a young, Chinese boy suddenly turned up next to me, looking at me curiously.

-Hello! I saw you on the metro! He said in English.

-Oh, well hello then! I replied.

-Where are you from?


-Welcome to China!

-Thank you very much!

-Do you like China?

-I love China!

-Good. Me too.

We were walking like that for a while, until he said:

-Your skin is so white. I saw it on the metro. It’s beautiful.

-Oh… eh.. thanks. Well I actually prefer you Chinese people’s skin colour. I don’t like the super white skin (it was winter –you could have taken me for a sheet!)

-Well I like yours. Can I touch it?



-Eh…. I’m kind of in a rush.

I tried to speed up, but when I did, so did he.

We did some insane speed walking for a bit, until I stopped and reached out my hand.

-Nice to meet you! Now I will go!

There. Skin touched and stalking stopped. Both happy.

However, what happened last week in Shanghai is something I have never experienced before.

I was walking in the French Concession (it was soon after lunch time) when I suddenly heard someone yelling:

-Xiaojie, xiaojie! (miss, miss!)

First I just kept walking, thinking they were calling for someone else. After all, there were many ‘xiaojies’ in the street.

Then I suddenly felt how someone approached me from behind and ran up next to me.

-Wait, xiaojie! Can you speak Chinese?! Said a fairly young, tall Chinese boy.

-Eh.. Yeah. What’s up?

-Oh, you can speak?! That’s great! You see, I have this problem.

As soon as I heard the word ‘problem’ (wen ti in Chinese) I started to feel a bit suspicious.

-Can you please help me? Please help me with my problem?

-Eh… I don’t know actually. I am kind of on my way to somewhere…
I tried.

-Oh, but if you don’t have time today it will be OK if you help me tomorrow? Tomorrow is good too!

-I won’t be here tomorrow, I don’t live in Shanghai.

-Oh so then please help me today!

-Well.. I don’t know. What exactly is your big problem?

The boy hesitated and looked a bit tortured. I was expecting him to ask for money at this point. I have heard of similar scams/real stories (what do I know?) of people coming up asking for money to help them or their family.

I looked at the boy again. He looked as if he was in agony. Maybe he has some health problem, I thought.

-My problem is about love! He finally said.

-Love?! Well then I don’t think that I can help you…

-I want to meet a girl!

-Well sorry, can’t help you.

-I want to be intimate with a girl! I want to be intimate with YOU.

-Ehh…. What?!

I stopped. He stopped too.

-I want to be intimate with a girl, I want to….

-Stop it, stop it. I am not going to help you with that, OK? Good luck!

-But please, please I need your help!

-Like really, stop!

The guy kept repeating his ‘big problem’ and I began to feel quite uncomfortable, and started walking faster. But he kept following me.

-Leave me alone! I said.

For a moment he stopped and I walked on. Then I realized that he was still following me, and after a while he even started running after me (I can walk quite fast when I need to).

-Wait, wait, I need your heeeeelp! He yelled.

I had to stop and cause a minor scene for him to get that I wasn’t interested. But as soon as I we caught some fellow pedestrians attention (with some screaming) he finally gave up. And I sped off in an immaculate speed.

Now THAT has never happened before.

And hopefully never will again.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

HSK aftermath

Oh man, that was a hard exam. Hard, because there’s so much content and so little time?! I believe a lot of people (including me) could have scored much higher if we got twice the time to complete the different parts. Unfortunately that’s not the case and as a result I don’t think I did very well.

For those of you who have no idea what a HSK exam is, it’s an exam testing your Chinese language skills (for foreigners, obviously) but do you want to know a funny bit about it? It tests your listening skills, reading comprehension skills, your grammar skills, and your writing skills… and then you get a grade expressing how good your Chinese is. Anyone but me who think it’s funny that there’s no oral part? Just a thought… (although when you’re taking the advanced exam there apparently is an oral part. Just a shame that I’ll probably never be able to get there. Right now I am taking the intermediate exam).

The different parts are quite hard. I’ve only tried taking this exam once before (and then it wasn’t a ‘real HSK exam’ but just something that my university arranged for us) and then I did quite well on the listening part but terrible on all other parts, and especially the writing part (I think I scored something like 2 out of 15?! Haha!). Today was the complete opposite. The listening exam went completely downhill, I somehow never got into it and ended up not feeling so confident when picking my answers. The reading comprehension could have gone better if I would have been a bit more time conscious. When there was only 5 minutes left I hadn’t even started on the last essay…. So that one didn’t go so well.

The grammar part went so-so and the writing part was probably the best one… Even though I couldn’t write all the characters I wanted to write (hehe) I still felt that I knew the answers, and that’s enough for me.

Oh well, it was kind of fun to try taking a ‘real’ HSK exam. I will definitely take the next one too. And the next one, and the next one… Maybe it is like that, that you have to try a few times to get used to it, and then eventually you’re able to do better? Also, something I really have to work on for next time is my reading speed.

Although I have to say that HSK exam aren’t really ‘language skill confidence boosters’… but rather the opposite. The day I do well at one of those exams is the day I will tell others that I know this language. Until then, better study more!

Sleep deprived and HSK

Last night around 11 pm I remembered about the HSK exam this morning. Whoops! I’ve had too much on my mind lately and completely forgot about this exam. Haven’t prepared at all –baaaad me! Just turned on the radio to get used to listening as I assume the HSK exam will kick off with the listening test.

Unfortunately, since I remembered the exam a bit ‘in the last minute’ this made me kind of nervous (don’t ask why? It’s just a test… but still) and as a result I couldn’t fall asleep last night. And not as in it just took a bit longer to drift of to la la land.. oh no. We are talking being awake until the sun came up. Ahhhhh! So frustrating, especially when you are tired but still can’t fall asleep?

Not being able to fall asleep used to be something I only dealt with once or twice a year, but during the last year I’ve experiences quite a few periods of sleeping badly. I hate it –because not having slept well really slows you down the next day. It also effects things like eating and exercising –I lose a bit of my appetite when I am tired (very unusual for me.. I’m that kind of person who always can eat: regardless if I am heartbroken/ sick/ on an airplane…) and a lot of my training motivation. This last “not being able to sleep” period has been going on since before I went to Hainan.

I was suspecting it was the air con that kept me up so last night we tried turning it off.. But that didn’t help. I guess I have to try some more traditional methods.. what is it now that you’re supposed to eat/drink to sleep well? Warm milk? (I hate milk!) or ginseng? Or maybe a evening walk before going to bed? Yeah something like that.

ps. the photo I am trying to upload refuses to be uploaded. Sorry, no time to wait or I'll be late for the exam.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Anyone know the name of this fruit?

I ate it in Hainan.. seriously yummy but very sweet. Looks a bit like a potato when you just look at it, but don't be fooled by its looks... it's yum, yum, yum! 

Thursday, June 18, 2009

News, news, news!!!

Yey! Changes for the better!

Today the exam frenzy kicks off, with an essay exam. Funny this thing with writing essays in Chinese. I used to hate it. Now I kind of enjoy it. As long as we can use our dictionary while writing I don’t mind it. It’s kind of fun now when I can experiment a little bit more with the language than before, and also don’t need to look up every single little character that I want to write (yeah, because believe it or not, but I have actually managed to learn quite a few by heart! All those endless hours of character writing has finally paid off. Yey!).

Yesterday I went into the office and asked for a graduate certificate after this semester.

-OK, write down how long you’ve studied here on the back of your photo, said the woman with a tired voice. (Wow, they really keep track of you… not!)

I did.

-So, what’s next for you, she said in an attempt to be polite.

-I’m changing university.

-Oh that’s great.

4 seconds of silence.

-What do you mean you are changing university?

-Well, I have found a new university where I am going to continue my Chinese studies!

-Oh, you are moving?

-No, here in Suzhou.

-What?! We are the only university here in Suzhou?!

-Not anymore….

And yes, this is true. And yes, this is my latest news (that kind of make me happy thinking about!). I’ve found a new university in Suzhou. It has one of the longest and most silly names, mainly because it has a lot of exchange program with other universities. But I think the actual name goes: Xi’an Jiaotong Liverpool University.

It’s quite a new place, that’s been open for only a few years, so all of their facilities are new. It’s also more expensive than Suzhou uni. But with a complete different approach to learning compared to where I have studied before.

For instance, I’m going to study together with max two other students! And I’m very likely to have a few private classes a week. And, last time I spoke to one of the uni’s the teacher she suggested I would take a weekly Chinese History/Culture Class together with a bunch of Taiwanese students. (The reason why I will get so much ‘alone time’ is because I am the only ‘gao ji ban’ –high level class- student at their uni atm. So I guess all of this is party because of luck/timing too. But from what I was told the other students study in small classes. I think the max is 8 student/class, or even less)

I almost fell off the chair when she told me. Private classes + small classes + classes together with natives!? It’s simply too good to be true. And, what a chance for me to finally, really improve my Mandarin!! Ah, I’m so happy about all this!!! And I seriously cannot wait for next semester to start!

-So why are you changing uni? The teacher at Suzhou uni asked me, mouth still not quite closed.

-Well.. where do I start. I’m not very happy about my last semester, and especially not about the teachers. Like our spoken Chinese teacher. He spends the whole lesson speaking, but doesn’t give us a chance to say anything. If I need to listen to Chinese I can turn on the radio or the TV, I don’t need to pay for 4 classes/week of listening to a man reading our textbook.

-Oh I see.

-I believe many students have already told you guys this. And the students from last semester too.

-Eh… I don’t know.

-Well anyways. I’m looking forward to something new!

-I see. Good luck.

Yeah, good luck to them too! I’m off to new challenges!

And I guess that also answers the question of what I am going to do this fall. I’m going to give Mandarin one, final big go.

Who said anything about dressing for the season?

Body pump last night. I arrived early to get a hold of some of the smaller, 1 kg weights, and fixed up my little ‘corner.’ As usual, the class was delayed 15 minutes, which normally doesn’t bother me, although when it’s supposed to start at 8.10pm and end at 9pm, it’s already quite late. Oh well. Soon the instructor came running, apologizing at the same time for being late. Although by then I had already stopped being annoyed by her not being on time. I was too busy staring at her. Poor girl, because she must have felt like a ZOO animal.

But I couldn’t help myself:

Tight, black, stomach short singlet.

(If possible) tighter black super, mini short hot pants showing off a lot more than what’s considered to be flattering. Oh, and a bit ‘YUM!’ in white text on the bum!

And then….

Leather boots!

Yeah baby.

(It’s around 34 degrees and quite humid outside but who cares?)

Let’s get pumping.

It was one of the more interesting classes I’ve ever taken. And it also explains all the men in the class. Normally we are just girls fighting over the lightest weights. This time the men joined in. (I wonder if it was because of the hot pants or the boots)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Market research over dinner

Not your average bibimbap lunch

Last night I went out for dinner with the Korean family whose daughter I have been tutoring since I moved to Suzhou. Nowadays her English is so good that she doesn’t really need a tutor anymore, but over the years I have become good friends with her family (mom and 2 daughters. The dad is always away working), and since I discovered my love for Korean food I’ve enjoyed numerous dinners together with this family.

Every time we are out somewhere we attract curious stares from other people. I guess they don’t really get our connection. I don’t speak any Korean, the mom doesn’t speak any English, the youngest daughter is 5 and rarely speaks at all and the other daughter is 10 and speaks fluent English, Chinese and Korean. Yep. Bit of an odd bunch.

Yesterday the family took me to a (to me) new Korean restaurant where we ate everything from cold, spicy soup to BBQ and bibimbap. Delicious. I simply cannot get enough of kimchi!

I noticed that the waiters were watching us with curiosity mirrored in their eyes, and in the middle of our dinner the Korean manager suddenly came over and introduced himself. He spoke in Korean to the mom of the family, telling her that I was the first ‘western laowai’ to visit their restaurant and that they wanted ‘more people like me’ to come in the future, however, that they didn’t know how to ‘attract westerners.’

He then turned to me, and asked me everything from what Korean food I like to what Suzhou expat magazines I read (all in Korean of course, the daughter translated). Then it turned into asking me for personal advices of how he could market his restaurant. I was just sitting there, listening, nodding, and answering his questions with whatever came into my mind. When he was finally done he thanked us about 35 times and then sent in free dessert as a thank you!

When I rode my bike home later I couldn’t help but thinking “what on earth just happened?! Since when do I become an expat expert just because I have blonde hair?!” And since when do restaurants perform live market research at the dinner table with their restaurant guests?!

Got to say that people never stop to surprise me over here. And no day (or restaurant visit) is like the one before.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Another (lovely) visit to the bank

Banking in China: YEY!

I’m going to have nightmares about banks when I eventually leave China…

Last week’s Friday morning I went to an organization to pay a fee and was met by a phrase that you don’t often hear in China: “Oh, sorry. We don’t accept cash. You have to put the money into our account!”

“I have to put the money into….. but that means that I have to go to the bank?!” Yikes!

But wait, it gets better. Because I couldn’t go to just any bank. I had to go to the 农业银行 ‘Nong ye Bank’–the farmer’s bank. Wohooooo!

This bank isn’t as common as Bank Of China, so I jumped straight into a taxi and told the driver about my mission. He turned out to be a friendly, happy man who was totally up for the challenge of going for a “Nong Ye bank” hunt with me.

We passed around 83468346 other banks (or at least it felt like it) before we hit jackpot. As soon as I stepped into the bank I knew it was going to be a painful experience: Long lines of people that were standing disturbingly close to each other, and my presence resulted in the usual giggling (what IS it that is SO funny about me?! I keep wondering! A self-conscious person would die over here).

Since I’ve had the (un) pleasant experience of visiting banks in China before, I was determined not to commit the usual mistakes. I had a bagpack full of documents (everything from flight tickets to lease contracts to passport and student ID –you NEVER know what they want to see at a Chinese bank!), and, instead of simply lining up, I went to a bank man aka security guard sitting at a desk and told him about my errand. He stopped giggling as soon as he realized that I could speak Chinese, and just like that, I went from a ‘freak’ to a ‘smart laowai.’ (Love how that tends to happen more often nowadays). I presented him with my papers from the organization: some official documents with name, account number and so on. He glanced at it before he pulled out a drawer and handed me a slip. Tam-ta-daaaaam!

But his friendliness didn’t end there. Now when the ice was broken and he had realized that I was practically a local (…..) he wanted to ‘help’ me fill in the slip. Meaning: find out everything about my errand: Who was I paying to? How much? Why? Did I often come here to pay? Did I think the sum was appropriate? (there is no such a thing as privacy in China!)

We filled it together and then I went to line up. There were about 3 people in front of me, and 2 minutes after joining the line, there were another 6 behind me. The girl next to me was standing so close that when she coughed I could feel her breath in my neck. Mmmmmmm…. Fresh!

When I had been lining up for 10 minutes an old man suddenly arrived, and placed himself next to the line. He looked at us all, giggling nervously, showcasing some cash and a bankcard in his hand. He obviously wanted to put some money into his account, but, he wasn’t keen to line up. So he simply stood next to the line. It didn’t matter that the security guard came and told him. He still just stood there, giggling and waiting. And, when it was the man who was standing in front of me turn, the old man cut in:

-You don’t mind do you?! He said. It’s OK if I go first?!

I was just about to roll my eyes when the man in front of me said:

-Yes I do. Go and line up like everyone else.

The old man frowned and looked at me.

-Oh no no no…. not in front of me! I said.


When it finally became my turn I handed over the slip, a bag of documents and the money. The bank clerk clicked and clicked, looked at the slip, clicked a little bit more, and then started saying something into the microphone, which, by the way, must be the worse bank idea ever here in China. It’s simply impossible to hear a word that people who speak into it says?! People speak so fast anyways and when they speak into the microphone it just becomes a mash of words that sounds like “shshhshshshhshshshssssshhh.”

Fortunately, my new friend, the security guard, was keeping an eye on me and it didn’t take long before he came to my rescue.

-She’s saying that the account number you’ve filled is wrong. There is a 0 missing. You have to re-fill the slip.

At first, I refused, thinking everybody were up to some huge scam. But then, the clerk handed over a new slip where I saw the name of the organization I was supposed to pay to, and their account number. And she was right: the account number they had given me, was indeed missing a "0". The organization had given me the wrong number. Nice.

Some slip-filling, lining up and waiting later I finally handed over a slip with the correct account number. But the clerk still seemed to be having problems reading my numbers. In the end, she took a new slip and filled it herself. Then a nod and the magic words: Haode (=OK).

Done, for this time.

I immediately phoned the organization and told them about them giving me official papers with the wrong account number. At first the woman on the phone didn’t believe me, but 5 minutes later she called me back, laughing nervously and apologizing.

Well, that only took a good 1,5 hours of my Friday afternoon. And you want to know the best bit about it. In 2 months of so, I have to go back to the same bank. I seriously cannot wait! 

Monday, June 15, 2009

Repair time = circus and price war

Oh please dear receiver, don't ever break again!

There was a minor circus in our flat last Friday afternoon. As a result of both one air con and our receiver giving up we had no other choice but to call our landlords (something we try to avoid otherwise, anyone who’s lived in China knows what dealing with landlords is like) and ask them to send some repair people. Of course the landlords didn’t just settle for sending repair people, but they had to come themselves too (both of them: it’s a middle-aged, married couple) to inspect everything.

Starting with the TV problem, the repair guy received some serious gibes from our landlord because the receiver had broken only 1,5 years after it had been purchased (and, the warranty had expired 6 months earlier, leaving the landlord no choice but to buy a new one). Why had it broken so soon? Why had our neighbor’s receiver no problem? Why wasn’t it possible to repair the old one?

At first, the repair guy tried to actually explain the problem (“these things break sometimes!”), but when he realized that the landlords didn’t settle for that excuse he started pointing fingers to us.

Oh it’s the laowais! They have broken it! They don’t understand how to use these things.”

Too bad for him that I was sitting next to him, understanding about 96% of everything he was saying.

“What are you talking about? Why would we purposely break our own receiver?”

The accusation went on like that for a while, but soon I was pulled out of the discussion (it got more and more heated and I simply couldn’t keep up with my level of Chinese).

Soon people were standing up, screaming and pointing fingers at each other and when the landlord found out that he needed to pay 800 rmb for a new receiver I feared that he was going to start throwing things around.

He didn’t (phew!) although he kept yelling and arguing about the “poor quality,” saying that he “refused” to pay that much for that kind of bad quality.

I eventually left the room (get a headache from all the screaming, and also, it wasn’t fun when I couldn’t participate anymore) and when I came back I found out that the landlord had made a deal with the repair guy and that he was going to pay 600 rmb for the new (exact copy of the old) receiver.

I can’t help but thinking, that how can people over here expect a good quality when they always want to pay as little as possible? There’s this constant strive for buying cheap stuff in China. “Zai pianyi!” (“Come on, cheaper!”) is frequently used in price negotiation, and then still, the buyer expects the quality to be good?! It’s like they are constantly contradicting themselves, saying that “Oh we need this as cheap as possible!” and then when it breaks they get surprised, angry, and want compensation! Why not just pay some extra kuais and buy something decent? Or, make sure that you get an extra long warranty rather than a cheaper price? Because really, what’s the cheapest in the long run: Buying cheap things that break every now and then or paying a little bit extra and get a more decent quality?

Once the receiver was fixed it was the air con repair guy’s turn to arrive. Fortunately, the air con’s problem was fixable without a minor price war breaking out, but, as the guy took the air con apart I was told to go and clean the different filters (and man, were those filthy or what?!). I went out to our sink on the balcony where one half of the landlords later joined me. We cleaned the filters together and it didn’t take long before the sink was flooded!

Again, came the silly questions:

-Jonna, do you throw apples and stuff in your sink?

-Eh no. We put our trash in the bin like normal people. We actually don’t use this balcony sink. Only the ayi does when she cleans the mop.

-Oh, so the ayi must have put something into it!!!

Yeah, sure. Our ayi has nothing better to do but to stuff our sink with cotton pads. Of course. That has to be it.

Anyways, as a result of the sink being clogged the landlords had to call an additional team of repair guys who soon came to fix the sink (in total, there were three team of repair guys in our flat. And then every ‘team’ brought some of their ‘people’ –you know in China you should always arrive in a group of at least 3 people: So there can be one repairing and 2 extras, observing. Then it was me and the landlords. Yes, it was a circus). The clogging team arrived quickly and unclogged the sink with a bit of effort and laughter.

(However, the mystery of WHY the sink suddenly became clogged still remains unsolved. The landlord still blames our ayi).

Then it became pay time. The un-clogging team wanted 5 rmb for their instant arrival and problem solving. Five, single rmb coins.

-Oh my God so expensive! The landlord whined. Can we make it a bit cheaper? How about 2 rmb? I mean, when I first called I thought this sort of service was free?!

Not keen on having another second world war breaking out in our flat, I decided to step in.

-You know what, I will pay for that.

-Oh will you?! Well that’s great then,
 the landlord said, his whole face breaking into a smile for the first time since their arrival. (Man, it’s easy to make people happy over here).

Anyways, around 1 hour and 86493692634 cleaning and dust remarks later (another reason why I dread calling our landlords), plus some complaints because we don’t want to open our windows and allow the ‘fresh air’ to sweep through our flat (“Why not Jonna?! You know that fresh air is good for you, don’t you?” “Yes, but the air in Suzhou is everything from fresh. You can smell the pollution!” “Oh no it is not that bad! It is good with fresh air! They have made the air better lately!” –who are ‘they?’- “Well yes it is but trust me, this air is not fresh!” …..and so on), the landlords finally left. Oh man! I had to go and lay down after their departure, totally exhausted from 2,5 hours of defending myself. Let’s hope it’ll be a long while until something else breaks again. 

Friday, June 12, 2009

The umbrella people

Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s good that people over here are keen when it comes to protecting themselves from the dangerous sun. However, there’s a time and a place for everything, right, and when people start brining umbrellas to the beach and walk around with it while wearing their bathers (when the weather is cloudy) I feel that they might be contradicting themselves?  

Also, while we are on this subject. It’s fine that people walk around with these things in the city, although I wouldn’t mind if umbrella carriers paid a little bit more attention to how they carried their protective shield, or, to whom they pointed it at? I don’t know how many times I’ve been hit in the head by stranger’s umbrellas when crossing the street. And do people apologize for the fact that they almost umbrella-poked you in the eye? Never.


Thank God It’s Friday!! This week has been a bit mad, as a result of my Hainan trip. I’m so behind with everything (exercising, quality blogging, work, studying, preparing things for my upcoming trip, replying to people's emails... and so on. Sorry everyone who's awaiting replies!). My significant other went on a business trip before I went to Hainan and recently got back, so we haven’t seen each other for ages, hence why we are planning to spend some time together this weekend. I have no idea what we are doing, since he’s been responsible for the planning this time. And, he’s been very secretive about it all (highly unusual for a Finn of his character!) so to be honest with you I am not quite sure what is up, but I might be whisked away somewhere? (So if I don’t blog you know the reason why). 

Anyways, it will be nice to have one last relaxing weekend before the exam madness starts. Next Sunday = HSK exam and the following week, Monday-Friday = final exams in listening, speaking, grammar and writing class. Yup. I have some serious catching up to do. But let’s first enjoy the calmness before the storm. Have a great wknd everyone.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

4 days on Hainan Island -what to do

One might wonder… except for swimming and sweating in the sun, what else is there to do at Hainan island?

Well, actually… not that much.

It was way too warm to do any kind of shopping during daytime. Also, like I said in my previous blog post, clothes were too expensive anyways.

"shopping streets" in Dadong Bay.

Dadong Bay’s beach strip was well equipped with restaurants and bars. We tried some of the restaurants but weren’t overly impressed (like always: nice location but so-so food). Since Willing is a non-drinker we swapped the beers/cocktails for ice cream/fruit/sorbet every night. Suited me quite fine. I’m not that big on booze anyways.

We all know the importance of eating in China...

Enough food on the table?

What I did enjoy however, was morning beach power walks and pool swims. Poor Willing was dragged up at 7am every morning, forced down to the beach where we walked, ran (just a little bit, too hot actually) and then went for a swim. Or actually, now I am lying. I didn’t get her down to the beach every morning, because after our first ‘session’ she was so sore that she almost couldn’t get out of bed, and threw a towel at me when I tried to get her to come with me the next morning.

How can you resist a power walk when you see this? (well apparently because you are tired and because you hate power walking... I learned)

Swimming went a bit better though. And man, it was nice to swim again! No one spitting in the pool, no one zigzag swimming in front of you. No children playing exactly where you want to swim… And the tired, but fresh, feeling afterwards? Ahhh…. Wonderful! I might have to take up swimming this summer in Scandinavia.

When we weren’t eating, swimming, power walking, sun bathing or sleeping, we went to a spa where I had The Best Foot Massage Ever. And why? Well because they used cupping! On the feet! I’ve never tried this before and I would be dishonest if I said it was a pleasant experience, because it kind of hurt, but again… I felt really fresh afterwards, and it was kind of fun to try.

Possible to have a massage outside as well as inside
We preferred inside... 

There were also some famous hot springs that we were recommended to visit, but decided to skip. The thought of sitting in a hot spring when it’s 35 degrees and humid made me nauseous. Although apparently it’s quite an experience because in the water swims a bunch of small, hungry fishes that apparently enjoy eating people’s dead skin. So while you’re sitting there in the water, they are performing some sort of live peeling (read: nibbling on your body) on your skin, that (according to one local) “feels just like massage.” Some of my friends have tried this (we call it ‘fish peeling since I don’t know the official name) and they have liked it. Now I feel a bit bummed that I didn’t try, but oh well.. maybe next time!

What we did try, however, was the tourist bus to Sanya Bay (cheap and OK) and then a beach ride with what I guess can be called some sort of bike tuk tuk version. For 2 yuan he drove us along the beach where we ooohed and aaaaahed to everything. It was fun until we got off and he tried to convince us to go to some pearl market. We obviously refused.

You can also go on Banana Boat rides, try water skiing etc, but it was quite pricey so we skipped it. Also, I once tried water skiing in Indonesia and I couldn’t walk for 2 days afterwards. Much harder than what it looks like!

Other things to do on this island:

Eat ice cream...
Take photos
Go for a windy ride with the tourist bus

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Hainan -Dadong Bay, Russians and fishy fruit scales

Back in a rainy Suzhou after 4 amazing days in a beach paradise. Hainan surprised me in a lot of ways… first of all, it didn’t really feel like China, but more like a mini Thailand with a lot of Russians and Chinese tourists instead of Europeans. It was extremely touristy, and, I wouldn’t describe the Hainan locals (at the places where we were) as very friendly, but I believe that’s often the case with places that rely on tourism. Also, why didn’t anyone tell me about ‘Hainan-hua’?! There I came, thinking I would be in a perfect environment to practice my Mandarin, only to realize how different the local dialect was compared to Mandarin. It took me almost 2 days before I felt comfortable talking to people. The local dialect was so… different to listen to, and at first, a lot of things didn’t make any sense, taking me back to a very familiar feeling of not-understanding-anything-in-China…

We stayed at two different hotels at Dadong Bay in Sanya. There are apparently 3 different tourist spots to choose from in Sanya: Sanya Bay, Yalong Bay and Dadong Bay. Sanya Bay is the cheapest place, with the ‘least nice’ beach (although to me it looked pretty OK!). We went there once and found it OK, although a little bit empty in terms of life and people. Having said that, however, I should point out that now is not the high season for visiting Hainan. I believe that Sanya bay, like the rest of the island, gets quite packed during public holidays.

There’s also Yalong Bay, that’s said to be the nicest area with a lot of international five star hotels and private, beautiful beaches. Although we had intended to head over to take a look, we never made it. We simply enjoyed ourselves at the Dadong Bay area too much. There were so many restaurants, cafes, bars, shops and fruit vendors to keep us busy with, not to mention our hotel pool and the (very nice looking) beach. When we picked where to stay we read that Yalong Bay was quite expensive and maybe not so good when it comes to restaurant choices (unless you want to eat at your hotel every day). Neither me nor Willing are loaded in any way, so we felt that the five-star environment might not be for us (not in this lifetime…). Anyways, I really liked the liveliness of Dadong Bay and would recommend it to anyone who’s not going to Hainan for a honeymoon purpose.

Fellow Laowais who intend to visit Hainan, however, be aware! Everyone will take you for Russian, no matter what you look like. Now, I have lived one year in Finland (with a geographical closeness to Russia) so I thought I had seen a lot of Russians before (they tend to come to Helsinki to do a lot of shopping)… but when I came to Hainan I realized I hadn’t: because this place was like a mini Russia in a beach town! Russian shops, restaurants, locals speaking Russian, Russian men in overly small and tight beach shorts, insanely many women in string bikinis… We even spotted some fur shops!

The whole ‘oh another Russian laowai’ got tiresome pretty fast. Everywhere I went eager sales people came up to me trying to lure me into their restaurant/shop/fruit stall with some Russian ‘pick up’ lines. Most of the times I just walked by, but at times (when I was tired, dehydrated, and hungry) I actually said something quite nasty, like ‘”you know what, not every laowai here is a Russian!” in Chinese and walked on. This phrase was met with astonishment and laughter. One guy actually ran after me:

-Oh, miss! Sorry, I didn’t know! So where are you from then?

But I wasn’t in the mood for talking.

-Can’t you tell? I am from China!

-Ehhh….? You are… well… no… I mean…

-What? You can’t tell?

One girl in a shop must have been extra eager to sell, however, because when we pulled this line she looked at me and Willing for a long time, before she said:

-Yeah, actually… you guys look alike! Are you two sisters? (Willing is from Indonesia: she’s 10 cm shorter than me, half of my width, 20 shades darker, doesn’t suffer from the big-nose/big-feet-syndrome, and has skin that tans after 10 minutes in the sun). We stumbled out from that shop, laughing our guts out.

As for shopping though: it’s not to be recommended in the touristy parts of Hainan. Everything was quite pricey (for someone who’s used to picking up quite nice dresses for less than 100 kuai in Shanghai) and we limited our shopping to buying fruits only. The fruit shopping also proved tricky as we suspect there was something fishy with the fruit scales that the vendors used. We bought giant litchis (or King litchis as I believe they are called?) at one fruit stall for 10 rmb/ half kilo. Another vendor sold the same litchis for 8 rmb/ half kilo. However, his litchis were for some reason much ‘heavier’ than the ones we had previously bought, so in the end we got the same amount for the same money! Tricky business.

One day we caught a bus to a less touristy and more local shopping area (although I instantly suffered from the heat and caught the same bus back 20 minutes later! Haha!) which was much better. Willing spent some hours there and came back with bags full of exotic fruits and some cheap dresses.

OK, that’s enough for today I believe (did some of you fall asleep already?!). More Hainan photos and stories to come tomorrow!