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. . . A Few of My Favorite Things

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Wok and Roll

I bought a wok. Since my apartment did not come with a stove and as theoretically we are not supposed to have gas burners, my only options was this glorified hot plate thing. I have no idea if there is another name for these things. The only reference I have is a hot plate. But I associate hot plates as being capable of only heating up soup and making mac ‘n cheese. People who live in Motel 6 have hot plates. These hot plates are of a higher order; they are multi-function hot plates.

Back to the wok. It came with my hot plate and another standard saucepan sort-of-thing. I was enthusiastic about being a wok owner. I set up my hot plate and looked at it for a few days. We were getting used to one another. Since the manual is all in Chinese and so are all the buttons I was a little hesitant to have a go at it.

My first endeavor was modest: pasta with garlic and onions. After cooking the pasta I thought I’d grill my onion and garlic in the wok and then toss them with the pasta. Errr. Not a success. As I scrubbed encrusted pasta off my wok I pondered what had gone wrong. Did I need more oil? Sometime the next day I remembered the cast-iron pans at my brother’s house—heavy pans with years of intentional crustiness. The internet confirmed my suspicions and the next day I “seasoned” my wok by coating it with oil and cooking it a number of times. My next attempt was much tastier and easier to clean up.

One thing I really want to learn how to cook Chinese-style is vegetables. I think stir-fried veggies are just delicious; I could handle being a vegetarian if I knew how to cook veggies like that. So now that my wok is ready to go, that’s the first thing I want to work on. Wok on!

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The Little Things

Those little things that you notice that are different from home:

Multi-purpose Tissues: I have not seen a Western napkin since I arrived. Tissues are used for noses, mouth, hands, and those further south regions as well. It’s BYOT in all the school facilities, from the canteen to the restroom. In a nice restaurant they might deposit a small package of tissues on the table. In some of the working-class barbeque joints, there is a roll of toilet paper provided on the table.

Grocery Bags: In addition to tissues, you must also remember to bring bags with you when you go shopping. Bags are not provided, but for those people who forget you can purchase them right at the check-out area. And none of this complimentary bagging of groceries. That’s your job. One store had long tables right after check out for you to transfer your items from your cart to your bags.

Umbrellas: Not just for rain. The campus is a veritable sea of umbrellas, protecting the ladies from the harsh rays of the sun. The occasional guy will wield one, but it’s considered slightly less manly to do so.

Produce Purchases: Buying produce requires that you take all items to the weighing station to be weighed and labeled. If you perhaps didn’t know this there is a small scene when you are checking out. I’ve abandoned produce several times as I didn’t notice the weighing station. They seal the bags with this little machine and then slap the price sticker on. The tape they close the bags with makes reusing them trickier. Bags have suddenly become a precious commodity.

Vitamin-Bottle Gum: Chewing gum is sold in what looks like vitamin bottles.

Plates: I can’t find a normal one. I have a 10-pack of paper plates I found at the school market that I’ve been trying to conserve.

That’s it for now. More to come.

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Life in a Construction Zone

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Several people from the department came to help me get checked into my apartment. They all speak very good English and are very kind. All of the new foreign teachers were supposed to have been placed in the same building as the existing foreign teachers. However, only a few days before we started arriving they were informed that we would all be placed in the new building. This new building is nine-stories and will have shops and restaurants on the ground floor. When it is finished, that is. Surprise!

Apparently the building was a hole in the ground just 8 months ago and a week before we arrived it would have been uninhabitable. Considering that, they really have made quite phenomenal progress. Floors 9-4 are more or less complete and furnished, but the rest has a ways to go.

To enter the building, you walk up a concrete ramp, down a pathway of plywood boards to the first stairwell. You climb 4 short flights of stairs to the 2nd floor. Then you walk down 2 sides of the building to the single operational elevator and ride it to your floor. Or you might just take the stairs if the power is out. The stairwells and the hallways are full of hazardous items and slippery surfaces. Personal injury lawyers would lurk around every corner were this not China. The unfinished floors are a sea of bamboo scaffolding. I get the willies just looking at workman scampering around on it.

Once you arrive at my door, however, things are clean and more-or-less finished. A beautiful green bamboo-looking door leads into my unexpectedly all-new studio apartment. At first glance it’s gorgeous and it’s mine. All mine. After the initial glamour a few disappointments are realized. I have only my bed and desk chair to relax in—no sofa or armchair. Though there is a cooking hood, there is only a microwave. Entertaining people means you are effectively entertaining them in your bedroom—no separate sitting room as was promised. A lovely view of a brick wall off my balcony. This in addition to uninstalled Internet and TV—the reason for the delay in responding to emails and writing blog posts. Though overall I suppose I am pleased with my apartment there were enough unexpected surprises to leave me with some mixed emotions.

Work commences every morning at 7 AM. Generally I have been awake slightly earlier and have been amused by the punctual resumption of work with the arrival of the 7 o’clock hour. At 6:59 all is silent; at 7:01 there is a flurry of hammering and the starting up sounds of cranes and drills. There is a definite sense of workmen posed, hammers and materials in hand as the supervisor holds his watch up, waiting for that minute hand to cross over the 12. Waaaaait for it. Waaait for it. Go!

Most evenings work has stopped at a reasonable hour. However, last evening there was a gigantic crane working perilously close to the balconies and sliding glass doors of people across the hall. At 10:30 I was surprised; at midnight I was downright annoyed. I resisted the urge to text the vice dean because I know they are trying to get the building done quickly. It just doesn’t make it very fun for the people trying to inhabit it.

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Communication, Cultural Differences, Transportation, Travel

The Kick-Off

Well, the Internet just when down. I came to the library for the express purpose of checking my email and writing the inaugural address of my China blog. Apparently that will have to wait. Fortunately Georgia taught me a great deal about flexibility.

China. What’s most surprising to me at the moment is how well everything has gone.

After the usual discomforts of traveling (17.5 hours airplane time, a slight higher number of layover hours, and a couple extra hours of transportation to/from the airport) I arrived at my university in Zhuhai on Monday, September 5th around 2 PM. Hooray.

The transfer from airport to university had been a cause of some concern to me. The instructions from my contact had been to have the taxi driver call her for directions and call again when we arrived. This displayed a slight cultural difference. I can’t imagine getting into a cab in the States and asking the driver to call someone. On their personal cell phone? Using their personal minutes? As a suburban resident I don’t have a lot of experience with taxis, but never in my television and motion picture watching experience have I seen this done. And ask a student to call someone for me? I don’t speak Mandarin. Though, post-Georgia, my non-verbal skills are off the charts. (Amy wandering the campus pointing at a phone number on a piece of paper and miming making a phone call with a pleading look on her face while dragging two 50 lb suitcases, a backpack, and a guitar). Surely you can understand my concern going into this.

However, it all went according to plan. Except I had the girl at the tourist information center in the airport call my contact. She wrote the place I was going to in Chinese and I just handed that to my taxi driver. I was the only foreigner in the airport and attracted more notice than I really cared for. Polite smile on my face, I ignored all the independent taxi drivers swarming around and the many loud incomprehensible comments and went to the first official looking taxi in line outside.

It was a long drive. Long. Long enough to start wondering if I was being given the extra-special-foreigner tour though I wasn’t. The view from the window was tropical, yet very industrial. Huge complexes, office buildings, and residential developments interspersed between lush forested areas. And all very new looking. Maybe 40 minutes in the taxi driver start a right-hand turn into a wide, straight avenue and draws my attention to a sign that I just manage to catch: Beijing Normal Univeristy, Zhuhai. I give him the universal sign of approval: a thumbs up. (I was mocked for my frequent use of the thumbs up in Georgia, but I maintain that it is one of the most useful non-verbal communication strategies I know).

I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting. I knew the university was relatively new (10 year anniversary this semester), but driving into the campus my first thoughts were of how . . . university-ish it looked. I could’ve just arrived at a UC or CSU for all I knew. Aren’t I supposed to be in China?

The sadly cobbled-together bits I know about China did not prepare me well for this. And neither did Georgia. Everything I see reinforces my initial realization that my life in China will be quite different from my experiences in Georgia. I’m excited.

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