Campus Life, China, Food, University Teaching

Knock, Knock, Knock

I met a student at English Corner last week. A very enthusiastic student, she followed me out when I left and walked with me for half of my evening walk around campus. With reservations I gave her my phone number. Never a good idea, really. And I usually don’t. But she was just so . . . something.

Today is Sunday. In the western world that’s the weekend and it is sacrosanct. Around 5:30 PM this student gave me a call. Seeing who it was, I groaned. Yes, Amy, that’s why you shouldn’t give students your phone number. I was “busy” watching Fringe and didn’t feel like talking to her. So I ignored her call. Twice. I know, I know. You’re thinking it and I’m thinking it. What a _____ , Amy.

A short while later someone starts knocking on my door. I thought it was my friend Stephen who likes to mock Sheldon from “Big Bang Theory” who does this three quick knocks on the door in a row followed by your name thing, repeated on a loop until you open the door. Knock, knock, knock. Knock, knock, knock. Yeah, yeah. Coming.

Imagine my surprise when I open the door and find this student there. How does she know where I live?!? Admittedly most in the foreign teachers live in the same building on the same floor, but there’s still at least 30 apartments. I didn’t actually recognize her at first. Then she said that she’d been calling me, but I hadn’t answered. Uhhhh. Yeah, about that.

And why is she here on my doorstep? She brought me food. KFC, in fact. I don’t know the exact distance of the nearest KFC, but it’s a least 25 minutes away by bus. My mind was not functioning well and I wasn’t sure how to interpret this. Students do seem to have this distressing way of thinking that foreigners are like babes in the wood who do not have the intelligence or know-how to feed themselves. I’m like 60% sure that this wasn’t the motivation behind this surprise visit, but then I can’t entirely discount it . . .

I took the proffered bag and stood there a little dumbly for a few seconds. Was I supposed to invite her in? There was also another older woman with her. Her mother maybe? Whoa. So not prepared for this. I managed a ‘thank you,’ but was still trying to process this. Wah-how-what?! As no invitation seemed forthcoming from me, the student said good-bye and turned to leave. I shut my door and put the bag on my desk to stare at it confusedly. An unexpected turn of events.

Yes, I did explore my food. A chicken sandwich and two crispy chicken wings. And some smelly fish balls that I didn’t touch. I felt a little guilty as I ate, but no sense in letting it go to waste, right? I owe this student a very kind text message and/or phone call. And should probably take her out to lunch this week. I’m sure my reaction was not at all what she had in mind. But—seriously—how did she find out my room number?

It’s a little disconcerting, no?

Campus Life, China, Weather

Here We Go Again

Two old friends made an appearance this week. They haven’t been around for awhile, but not long enough that I’m pleased to have them back. They would be Heat and, even worse, Humidity.

September was a misery. I had never experienced humidity such as Zhuhai offers. When I was at university in southern California, the slight increase in humidity from the bone-dry heat of home seemed cause for complaint. Zhuhai was a level of discomfort previously unknown or even imagined. The heat took my breath away. I soon stopped turning my air-conditioner off, even when I left the apartment. It took too long for the room to cool down again otherwise.

October brought typhoons and their torrential rains. I waded to class on several occasions, pant legs wet to mid-thigh. The morning would be suffocatingly hot. Eight o’clock in the morning. Sweat rolling down my face. And then the rain would begin. Hot and wet. Those are always the words students use to describe our local climate.

Beginning mid-November the weather began to cool, for which I was terribly grateful. I could walk to class and not be a sweaty mess when I arrived, though it still didn’t take much for me to feel overheated. Scarves were a possibility. I enjoyed wearing a blazer I’d brought. Intermittent rain.

December and January the temperatures dipped. Teachers who’ve been here warned us that though the temperatures would not be that low, it would feel very, very cold. Especially inside. And they were right. My room was like stepping into a refrigerator. I bought a space heater to which I would rotate my feet to track with its oscillation. I bought a hot water bottle for my feet at night. I bought a throw blanket for sitting at my desk.

But all this only for my room. Temperatures outside didn’t require near so much. I could still be hot when teaching lessons, though none of the classrooms are heated. Southern China gets air-conditioners; northern China gets heaters. No, you can’t have both.

My vacation for Chinese New Year allowed me to experience some different climates: the pleasant warmth of Hainan and the brisk, biting cold of Shanghai. The day I returned to Guangdong the temperature was 25 degrees Celsius, a shock, but the next day a cold front moved in again.

Through these somewhat cooler months the thought always in the back of my mind was that this was temporary. Students always tell me that Zhuhai doesn’t have four seasons, but two. Summer and winter. And winter is always very short. So though I was sometimes tempted to complain about the cold, most complaints were not voiced. The cold was such a welcome surcease.

Wednesday morning the view from my window was overcast. Interpreting this to mean cooler temperatures I pulled out a long-sleeve sweater, scarf and blazer and layered nylons under my slacks. Yet a few minutes outside and I realized that this was not cold overcast. This was the humid overcast, especially of October. Uncomfortably hot on the way to class, I pulled off my blazer and rolled up my sleeves. Everything already sticking uncomfortably to my skin. In my classroom I pulled out tissues to blot my perspiring face and flapped my pant legs to get some circulation. As the sweat dripped down my back, seeming to collect in the hollow, and trailed down to my waistband to leave little chalky indicators in testament to the day’s heat, I bit back a groan. It would appear that summer is back in town, along with those two old friends of mine.

China, Educational System, Teaching, University Teaching

Today is Saturday, February 11, 2012. It’s now noon-ish. The new semester will begin on Monday, February 13th. Since work will recommence in less than 48 hours, you would assume that I would know my teaching schedule. However, in a foreign country, the most important lesson to remember is this: never assume anything. I will be able to go pick up my schedule later this afternoon. Gee, thanks. For, like, all the time to prepare.

Rule Number 1

China, Food, Travel

The Things I Carried

Any trip is certain to result in a number of purchases. Traveling from Hainan to Shanghai to Hangzhou to Suzhou back to Shanghai and finally to Zhuhai meant a lot of opportunities for shopping. Not only was I on the prowl for unique items and future gifts, but also I was resupplying for the spring semester when access to imported goods will be unlikely or very infrequent.

So, the things I carried, starting with the books and working clockwise:

1. Books
2. A National Geographic (English magazines are not available in Zhuhai)
3. Pirated movies and DVDs: the entire LOST show, Downton Abbey, and The Legend of 1900
4. Mini Twix bars (only the 2nd time seen in China)
5. Garlic powder
6. Starbucks Shanghai mug
7. Skor bars
8. Twinnings Vanilla tea
9. Stuffed Cat in distinctive blue and white fabric
10. Drip coffee packets
11. A hanging lucky cat
12. A Chinese seal with my name
13. Another lucky cat
14. Lucky cat earrings (Squee!!)
15. Wooden bracelets
16. Bajillion postcards
17. Special hair thingy for doing updos as seen demonstrated in a Chinese market (only 39 yuan!)

And a closer look at the books I carried.

I reread Atlas Shrugged again on the trip and Brideshead Revisited halfway through. The rest of the books will keep me occupied for the near future.

Reflecting on my packing for the trip I bemoan the items that were lugged everywhere, but never used. These included my ballet flats, my running shoes, my blazer, many assorted toiletry items, a lot of jewelry and decorative hair items. The things I wish I’d brought but didn’t were mainly antibiotic cream and more bandaids. When I cut my toe badly in Hainan I couldn’t find antibiotic cream anywhere. A saleslady trying to be helpful found me a bottle of antibacterial handgel. Well, it might work.

When we checked in at Shanghai airport my bag was over 20 kilos, but I think I will be glad I brought back everything I did!

China, Transportation, Travel

Trying to Leave on a Jetplane

My first domestic flight in China was Beijing to Zhuhai on September 5, 2011. Though it was only 7 in the morning Beijing was uncomfortably hot. Navigating the completely unfamiliar layout of the airport, I found my way downstairs to my “gate,” which looked much like Greyhound Station. I confusedly boarded a shuttle that then took me out to my tiny commuter plane. Conscious of my gigantic backpack (never again!) I made it to my row only to find my seat already occupied. When I finally squeezed into my tiny seat, embarrassed and exhausted, all I wanted was for the trip to be over. Just a few hours and I’d be that much closer. Everyone was on board. The cabin doors were closed. Yet we weren’t going anywhere. I dozed uncomfortably, finding myself jerking awake every few minutes looking around for some indication that we were moving. After maybe 30 minutes, we finally slowly made our way down the runway and took off. I was just grateful to be moving.

Flight delays. They happen. Unfortunately in China they seem to be the norm. Every flight I’ve had in China to date has left late. A grand total of 4 flight, but I still feel that’s significant. Or maybe I just have bad luck.

So really, we shouldn’t rush to get to our gate. It’s not leaving on time anyways. Our desperate dash to make our Hainan flight? Yep. The plane left late.

On top of the late takeoffs, we’ve also had our flights rescheduled several times. Twice on our flight to Hainan and once on the way to Shanghai.

So this morning, as we went to the departures hall to fly back to Zhuhai, there was a gigantic banner that said “Relax!” in English and Chinese, hanging floor to ceiling as we rode the escalator. I laughed. Yes, seriously. Just relax.

China, Food

Food, Glorious Food! – Part II

Let’s talk about food some more.

Soup. Many Chinese love soup. It’s an essential part of a meal. Now I like soup when the soup I is something like what we have in the States. Soups with many ingredients: vegetables, rice, potatoes, pasta and meat. And also different consistencies: stew-like, chowder-like, broth-based, etc. Minestrone. Chicken Noodle. Bean and Bacon. Beef Stew. That kind of thing.

However, that is not soup in the Chinese lexicon. Soup here, in my experience, is what we would call broth. Very clear soup with maybe a bone or two at the bottom. It really doesn’t have much flavor and I get very little enjoyment from eating it. My feelings on soup have been made clear to one Chinese teacher with whom I’ve occasionally had lunch. She is aghast that I don’t like soup. I have maintained my position. We’ve agreed to disagree. She can order soup for herself, but knows not to order any for me.

Dim sum. It’s a big deal here, especially as this is Guangdong—the home of dim sum. For the uninitiated, dim sum is like tapas for Chinese, but it’s eaten in the morning or afternoon. It’s many small items, such as dumplings or small buns, that are eaten together with tea. From my experience here, dim sum is ordered off a menu; there are no carts circulating as might be common in America.

Hot Pot. This is an interesting phenomenon whereby you go to a restaurant to have the pleasure of cooking your own food. Genius. In a serious hot pot restaurant every table will have a built-in pot. Other restaurants can offer hot pot, but it will simply be a pan and a hot plate. A specific type of broth is ordered and heated. Raw meat and fresh vegetables will be brought. Then you cook it all in the broth. Hot pot is an art. There are rules about what goes in the pot when and how long it stays in. If you do the wrong order, the flavors will get mixed. Disaster. I’ve honestly had very little hot pot, but it is such a big deal here that I couldn’t not mention it.

Dumplings. Delicious. I’m convinced that I love dumplings almost more for the vinegar than for the actual dumplings. Dumplings here are quite small, bite-sized, though there are of course many varieties throughout China. Usually they have a meat filling, combined with some other ingredients. Submersion/dipping in vinegar is customary, at least for me!

Wontons also fall under the category of dumplings. Wontons are a southern Chinese type of dumpling, usually meatier, using a different type of dough and wrapping. Here is Guangdong if you order wontons that usually means that you are getting wontons in a bowl of broth. This was a source of confusion to me until I figured out that all these terms really do matter. A dumpling is not the same thing as a wonton here. The terms are not interchangeable. You can order fried wontons sometimes, but it is nothing like wontons that we have in America. Aren’t wontons in America just like fried dough? It’s not something I usually order in the States.

In case you were wondering, a potsticker is also a type of dumpling, but it is fried whereas a standard dumpling—jiaozi—is not. Look at how much we are learning!

Chicken Feet. Yes, you read that correctly. Chicken feet are a yummy snack here! (Oo! Oo! Can I have the feet, mum? Can I?) Chicken feet are widely used in Chinese cuisine from what I’ve seen. You can also buy little snacky-type chicken feet in shrink-wrapped packages in the market in case you need something to gnaw on while you’re studying! Yay! No, I have not eaten any chicken feet.

(The Chinese teacher mentioned earlier ordered a special soup that featured black chicken feet. Apparently a real delicacy! They were very black.)

Tofu. I’ve been aware of tofu for a long time, but have never really eaten much of it. It used to occasionally appear in my house when I was a kid. My mom would decide that she wanted to cook with tofu and would buy a box of it, but it would inevitably end up getting thrown out after a week or two. So we never really ate it, just admired its strange consistency. In China there’s plenty of tofu and so many different kinds of it. Not just the box kind, but shredded tofu, fried tofu, strips of tofu, puffy cubes of tofu. I’ve found that I generally like tofu, but find the traditional tofu of my childhood—the jiggly kind—has almost zero flavor and is the very devil to pick up with chopsticks!

Now in the last edition of Food, Glorious Food, I mentioned the obsession with milk. Another use of milk, other than merely drinking it, is yogurt. There’s a yogurt section that’s not quite as extensive as the milk section, but still quite large in any grocery store of note. Overall the yogurt is quite similar to what’s available in America except for one important thing: the consistency. The yogurt in China is incredibly thin. As a result they are usually packaged with straws and not spoons. You puncture your yogurt like a Capri Sun and slurp away. I personally prefer a thicker yogurt and have identified a brand that is to my taste. That’s where my vast collection of collapsible spoons came from.

Having described in some detail Chinese food as I know it, I would now like to tell you a few things that real Chinese cuisine does not have. First off, there is no orange chicken. Really. Props to the people who invented it, but I’ve yet to see it here. In general I’ve seen very little deep-fried meat here. Secondly, egg rolls as they are known in America do not exist. There are spring rolls which are much lighter and less heavily fried. As I’ve mentioned, fried rice and chow mien are available, but they really aren’t the norm. That would be steamed rice. And there is just much less frying of anything in general. Last but not least, there are no fortune cookies here. Not a one. That’s pure America there.

On a related note, the scuttlebutt on the Internet is that Panda Express is considering opening branches in China. There was plenty of mocking in the comments sections of every article I read. (I was trying to verify whether this was actually happening or not.) You may scoff, but to be honest Panda Express would be an improvement on some of the “fast food” Chinese that is available here. Sarah and I have a particular horror of a very popular Chinese fast food chain called Kung Fu. We’ve eaten there only once. “Oh my god” punctuated the entire meal as we, disbelief on our faces, picked through our food for edible bits.

Panda Express, I think you’d be more welcome than you might expect!