China, Cultural Differences, Transportation

Shuttle Buses and Differences in Etiqutte

Following up on my post about the taxis in Xi’an, I thought I’d discuss another transportation aspect of my life here: the shuttle bus. As mentioned before, the teachers’ shuttle bus provided by my college is the best and surest way or getting out to my campus, which is a 45-minute to 1-hour trip depending on traffic conditions.

Xi’an is a city with a huge number of universities. It is third in number of universities after Beijing and Shanghai. Most of the universities have an original campus and a “new” campus. “New” campuses have become necessary as universities have grown and unsurprisingly they are all located on the outskirts of the city. As faculty may potentially have classes on both campuses and public transportation may not be sufficient, many universities provide shuttle bus service from various central pick-up points out to these distant locales.*

The shuttle is different than other transportation I’ve taken in China. It is a private bus exclusively for faculty and staff of the college. Gloriously enough everyone has a seat. (It would be a whole separate blog post to talk about the pleasures of standing in crowded conditions for long, bumpy bus rides.) So fortunately there is no sardine factor. It’s also completely free, which means that there’s no fumbling for transportation cards or cash. I think it’s a wonderful service to offer to the faculty and staff and it seems very well used. Third there’s the bus itself, which is far more comfortable than city buses and has a number of features that will be discussed next.

Riding the shuttle bus has also been a great place for noticing some small cultural behaviors that may be slightly different from what one would expect in the States. It is very true that you learn a great deal about your own culture by spending time in a different one. I will attempt to summarize briefly:

1. In the States if you take a seat on the end of a row, it is more or less expected that you will scoot to the inside seat by the window if more people are boarding the bus. This does not appear to be an expectation in China as the person on the end will often merely move their knees to the side to allow someone to get to the window seat. They may stand up to allow them in if it’s absolutely necessary. Maybe the person prefers the aisle seat? Maybe they’ll be getting off soon? I can’t always know. It just seems to be the norm here.
2. On the shuttle bus, everyone knows the route of the shuttle and chooses their seat to avoid the sun. I’ve boarded the bus before and been briefly puzzled by one side is quite full and the other completely empty. This relates to the Chinese preference for pale skin—women in particular. In the same way that American women are vigorously applying tanning lotion, Chinese women are equally vigorously applying whitening lotions. So of course they don’t want to sit in the sun.
3. Along with #2 is #3—curtains. If the shady side of the bus is full and one must sit on the sunny side the curtains will be immediately closed. As I’m not as concerned about sun exposure, I sort of like having the curtains open.
4. My bus leaves at 1:10 which is smack-dab in the middle of naptime. Yes, sir, naptime is alive and well in China. Work/school will break around 11:30 or 12 and not start again until around 2. Most people here prefer to eat a very quick lunch and then grab some zzz’s until they have to head back. So this means that the bus ride is essentially nap time for most. People board the bus, put back their seat, and seem to instantly fall asleep. Man, I wish I could do that!
5. However, when the bus makes that right turn into the college campus, all the nappers seem to have this sixth sense. They immediately snap awake, put up their seats and are standing before the bus has even come to a complete stop. You’ve gotta be quick because the disembarking is very much first-come-first-served. If you’re not up and in the aisle, you’ll probably be waiting for almost the entire bus to get off before you get your chance. Whereas in the States I feel like we unload from the front to the back, here it’s more the opposite.

* Though car ownership is definitely on the rise, driving to work does not seem very common.

China, Travel

Getting to Know You: Xi’an

When looking at a map of China, it has been noted that there is some resemblance to a certain feathered fowl in profile. There’s the big feathered backside of Xinjiang, the neck and head of the northeast and a nice slopping tummy of coastal provinces. If one uses that mental image to assist in locating my current placement then one should look right in the middle—top of the wing height—and you should spot my city. If you threw a dart at a map of China, you might have money coming to you if you hit Xi’an. It’s not the bull’s-eye, but it’s pretty darn close!

Xi'an Map

Now, some of you might be wondering about the apostrophe in its name. Actually, probably the first thing you’re wondering about is how to pronounce that ‘x’! Of course real Mandarin uses characters, but China also has a standardized system for using Roman letters, called ‘pinyin’, for which foreigners are very grateful.

In short, Mandarin has two “sh”-type sounds, neither of which is the same as the English “sh”. The ‘x’ is a “sh”-sound in the front of your mouth with lips more widely spread. It’s like you’re getting ready to smile. The ‘an’ uses a soft ‘a’—a Spanish “Ana” rather than an English “Anna”. Okay, now you are ready! Smile and say “Xi’an!” Great job.

Now, the apostrophe is due to the fact that there exists in Mandarin the syllable “xian” which be represented by a single character and be pronounced differently according to the rules of pinyin. So the apostrophe alerts us to the fact that we need to pronounce each part separately. It’s not one syllable, but two. Good?

Xi’an’s been around for awhile—a mere 3000 years or so. With all that history to play with, it’s had a few name changes. From our comfortable seat in the present, going back and then fast forwarding through all the changes seems like a Mickey Mouse VHS complete with the high pitch squeaking of voices. Fenghao! Chang’an! Daxing! Xi’an! Fengyuan! Anxi! Jingzhao! Xijing! Xi’an! Sheesh. “Xi” means ‘west’ and “an” means ‘peace,’ so all together it can be understood as “western peace.” Peace is good.

With all that history, Xi’an has a lot to offer in terms of historical sites, the most famous of which is the Terracotta Warriors of the Emperor Qin Shi Huang. It also has an intact city wall upon which one can ride bicycles. It has pagodas, and palaces, and parks—oh my! It also has a lot of noodles and buns and other tasty snacks. And most importantly—it has me! (So come visit!**)

**It was reported to me that this past spring there was an exhibition of Terracotta Warriors at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Those who saw it said it was very good. That’s very nice—I’m happy they had a good time. However, certain people who saw said exhibition seemed to imply that having seen said exhibition no longer felt any need or inclination to come visit Xi’an as they had already seen what Xi’an had to offer. Ahem. I respectfully think that’s kind of missing the point. If you’ve already seen the Golden Gate Bridge, should you not come visit San Francisco? I’m trying to appeal to logic, but I’m not above wheedling and, of course, begging is still on the table.

Campus Life, China, Travel, University Teaching

End of an Era

June was a time of good-byes. Goodbye to another semester, but more importantly to my students, friends, and colleagues in Zhuhai. At that point I knew I would not be returning in the fall. So not only was there the usual end-of-the-semester madness of marking papers and final exams, but there was also a great deal of paperwork for the new job (to be explained), packing up of my apartment, and all those aforementioned goodbyes.

I came to Zhuhai in September of 2011. It was my first time to even visit China, much less to live there. I remember how the entire flight to China (San Francisco –> Vancouver –> Beijing –> Zhuhai) I was a mess, truly a ball of nerves. Even after arriving, there was quite a long nervous period of adjustment. It took time to get comfortable, to make friends, and to understand the ropes at the university. My relative comfort at the end of my first year was hard-won. I would never have expected that I would return for a second year. But I did. And I had a great year.

The best part of Zhuhai was definitely the people. It would not have been the same without my wonderful friend Sarah, with whom I took innumerable long walks and drank enough Nescafe to float a boat or two. And Stephen, the Kiwi I met on my first day, who introduced me to so much of China and took me along on many an adventure. The three of us had so many great trips and many a comfortable day around campus and town. Sniff, sniff. I’ll miss them!

Then there was the wider circle of other foreign teachers, some positively kooky, others lots of fun, with whom I shared many a conversation and meal or just guzzled cheap Tsingtaos with.

Then there were my local colleagues in the department, English teachers who reached out to me at the very beginning and became good friends. Vivid personalities all around who gave me better understanding of local culture and just how things worked (or didn’t work) in China. I owe them big time for all their many kindnesses to me and all those meals that they insisted on paying for! (I must discuss the “hosting” issue in China sometime.)

And the students. Ah! The students. With their wonderful English names, Chinese sense of style and genius for asking questions deemed inappropriate from an American standpoint. In my mere four semesters at BNUZ I estimate I taught somewhere around 2500 students. Of those only a few became good friends, but many remained kind, familiar faces around campus that always said hello. Those that became friends will hopefully remain friends for a long time.

Let’s not forget Zhuhai herself, who was not without her own charm. I remember looking up Zhuhai on a map and being pleased that it was a coastal city. It also lived up to its reputation of being a green, comfortably small city by Chinese standards, with lovely landscaping everywhere and year-round greenery due to its semi-tropical climate. I think I might regret leaving Zhuhai in the near future. I’m understanding now why students would go on and on about the “great environment.”

I’ll certainly miss our beautiful university campus—I didn’t know how good I had it! We may have not been the best university academically speaking, but I think our campus must make at least some most-beautiful lists.

And I’ll certainly miss Cantonese food, especially all those lovely perfectly prepared vegetable. Sigh. And morning tea. And washing my dishes at restaurants. And listening to them talk on their cellphones in public places.

Yes, it was a great two years. And it was hard to leave. But—as they say—it was time. If I stayed longer in Zhuhai I think it would’ve been because I was afraid to move on. Just because something is good does not mean that the next thing will not also be good—or maybe even better! So here’s to the also-good or even better!

Transportation, Travel

Can you say “whoops”?

I think I was a little drunk on Auckland, almost giddy from the natural setting. This feeling of being surrounded on all sides by beautiful blue water, rolling green hills, and nothing but blue sky and perfect clouds above. And throw in the most perfect weather imaginable, too. All my photos seem to reflect this amazed, disbelieving quality. I took more and more photos and they just seemed to get better and better.

It was sad to contemplate leaving Auckland after having seen so little, but unfortunately we had a schedule we needed to stick to. So in the morning we packed up our bags and went to investigate rental cars.

Rental cars. Oh. My. God. What a disaster. Stephen and I had a long list of agencies and fliers and naively assumed that it would be easy-peazy. Drivers’ licenses: check. Credit card: check. Green light—go! Yes, theoretically that is how it works if the rental cars were not INSANELY EXPENSIVE* with all sorts of MADDENING small print involved. It didn’t help that we were going to a city that most agencies didn’t have a depot in. Nor did it help that we had thought to rent the car for only two or three days. And it positively, absolutely did not help that we only wanted a one-way rental. Uh-uh. Nope. Not good.

Stephen and I trundled up and down the avenue with our rolley suitcases bumping along behind us. We went to one agency. Sorry, no depot in that city. We trundled to the next agency: Sorry, minimum of 7 day rental. We jay-walked across the street to yet another agency: sorry, one-way rentals have a BILLION dollar non-negotiable fee. It was truly like one of those movie scenes. Up the street. Down the street. Heads getting lower with every failure. I see us through the eyes of the rental agency rep’s. Boy, those kids don’t understand a thing about renting a car, do they, Al? Yeah, kids these days, Bob.

This was the point where my mental didn’t-you-know-you’re-an-idiot voice kicked in—that helpful little voice that clearly highlights all your failures, even when they’ve already been brought to your attention. I heard several helpful messages from my little friend, such as “Well, Amy, EVERYbody knows that you have to reserve a rental car in advance.” And, “You should’ve thought about this a bit sooner.” Sigh. Yes, yes, I know. Colossal failure.

The situation looked rather bleak. If we couldn’t get a rental car we would be stuck in Auckland for another day because we’d already missed all the busses and there wasn’t a train where we were going. (This is something we will discuss later.)

After comparison pricing every agency up and down the street, Stephen and I realized we were going to have to get a 7 day rental, which would cancel out the one-way fee. By doing a 7-day rental we would have a car for all of our North Island adventures and would be able to get a fresh car when we arrived at the South Island to get us from Picton to Nelson. It was the best of a bad situation. Yes, yes, brought on by our own lack of planning. We were clear on that.

So we plunked down a credit card for a cool half grand and went to see our valiant steed, err, vehicle. Behold! A Sunny Nissan! Choice of all poor overseas English teachers traveling in expensive Western countries who after having lived in China for the last 6 months refuse to ride a bus around a prime road trip nation! Drive, Sunny, drive! Onwards to the horizon! Yee-haw!

. . . and though we were really not that pleased about the price involved, I think this is an accurate reflection of our feelings as we pulled out of Auckland, heading for State Highway 1.

*A somewhat subjective statement based on the then current contents of my bank account.


Getting to Know You: Auckland

In Auckland we had the pleasure of staying with some of Stephen’s friends. They rent a beautiful house on the outskirts of Auckland which was like living in a forest. The first night we arrived we’d planned to go out, but upon arriving at the house we both fell asleep and slept like the dead. It had been a long trip. I woke up around 9:30 PM to find that our hostess had kindly ordered in some pizza. Dinner and some browsing of the Kiwi TV offerings and then I happily went back to bed.

We only had about 2 ½ days in Auckland, but I think we tried to make the best of them. In the morning we saw the downtown, especially around the harbor, and then took the ferry to Davenport, a charming little town on the other side of the water.

A fish and chips shop was our first port of call. We took it down to the park on the shore and watched the foraging of the beady-eyed seagulls. Though I am not a huge fish fan, I must admit it tasted really good. We ate our chips with Wattie’s Tomato Sauce, the famous local brand. (Stephen informed that that the term “ketchup” would only be used at McDonalds. Well, excuuuse me!)

Feeling replete, we went to climb Mt. Victoria, though I felt the “Mt.” was being used in a somewhat generous sense—a smallish hill really. The views from the top were fantastic though and I suppose it was then that I really began to appreciate that blue New Zealand sky. Even in the photos it was amazing.

In the late afternoon we went to Mission Bay, which was a lovely drive from the downtown. We gorged on creamy, smooth ice cream from Mӧvenpick, a Swiss brand. We sucked the bottom of our cones, trying to prevent getting ice cream all over our hands, and I positioned myself carefully so as to prevent getting ice cream in my hair. Then we went to see the hilltop Rose Garden, catching a stunning sunset. We’d hoped to catch the sunset at Mt. Eden also, but were a little too late, so we settled for a quick trip around the giant crater. In the evening, I fulfilled one of those lingering life to-do’s by watching “The Shining.” Honestly, the book was way scarier.

Day two in Auckland featured a lot of old friend visiting. We had lunch with a Chinese friend of Stephen’s. She and her husband and two children are now New Zealand residents. The children spoke a charming childish Mandarin; I was enchanted. We crossed the Harbor Bridge to have lunch at a Malaysian restaurant. After lunch they kindly drove us all the way back to downtown and dropped us off at the Auckland War Memorial Museum in the interestingly named Auckland Domain—a large park-like area. We were just in time to catch the Maori cultural show—an enjoyable, lighthearted, but professional show. The museum itself was excellent. The only problem was that I didn’t have enough time to give it the attention it deserved. It was very interesting to learn about New Zealand involvement within British Empire, WWI, WII, and beyond. Unfortunately by the end I was practically running through the exhibits.

We strolled through the domain and hit up a convenience store or “dairy” for water and snacks. We continued on to the neighborhood of Parnell, observing some lawn bowling on the way. Lawn bowling, really? Parnell is a posh little area, all wine bars and expensive boutiques. We met another friend of Stephen’s at a one of those aforementioned wine bars. And not just any friend—a Bradley Cooper double! Really! I almost wondered if there was something Stephen hadn’t told me . . . The friend’s girlfriend spoke a New Zealand dialect that I had the hardest time understanding. I felt like I understood two words out of ten. We followed our wine with dinner at a Turkish restaurant and ended the day with another flat white.

I can’t say that I saw everything in Auckland and of course wish I’d had time to see more, but I left with an impression of green hills, wind, water, and lots of beautiful blue sky.

Cultural Differences, Food, Travel

In which we arrive in Auckland

Arriving in Auckland, one of my fondest memories was going into the convenience store to get some water. We meant to just grab a bottle of water and go, but we were positively arrested by the sight of hundreds of products that we hadn’t seen in what seemed like years. There were soft drinks, snacks, chocolates, chips—oh my! The surest way to an expats heart is through his/her stomach! We’ll walk a hundred miles for Twix.

And not just food, but the marvel of English newspapers and magazines. I’ve often pondered my lust for magazines when I am abroad. Though I’m hardly an avid reader at home, I develop a serious craving as soon as they are no longer easily available. Every Chinese language newsstand is a reminder of this hole in my life. Sniff, sniff.

Stephen and I exclaimed our way through the convenience store, I’m sure much to the surprise and then amusement of the staff. We checked our greed, reminding ourselves that this would not be the only convenience store we encountered in New Zealand. Scanning our stack of free tourist pamphlets and brochures, we caught the Airport Express bus to downtown Auckland. The ride was enjoyable as Stephen excitedly pointed out familiar places in the passing scenery and filled me in on his time living in Auckland.

First impression of downtown Auckland was favorable. Not a New York or Los Angeles, but a respectably urban downtown. A nice hilly quality in some parts. We hauled our luggage to the Britomart luggage lockers, causing me to already regret my packing choices. Stephen called his friend we were going to stay with and we settled down in a café to wait for her.

Amusing experience #2 was attempting to order coffee at the café. The menu didn’t look anything like an American or even British menu. I was presented with the choice of a short black, long black, flat white, or cappuccino. Uhhh. I asked Stephen for clarification, but a coffee-drinker he is not. No help there. Becoming quickly aware that I was, indeed, not in Kansas anymore, I humbled myself and asked the girl behind the counter what a flat white was. She must have not been asked that before, because her explanation was not very helpful. Sooo, like coffee and milk? Okay. But what’s the difference between that and a latte? Uhhhh. Blink, blink. Not wanting to be an irritating foreigner, I decided to take my chances with the flat white. I also couldn’t resist ordering an apricot “slice,” which I suppose Americans would call an apricot “bar”. Apricots! Wah! Me no see long time! We realized quickly that the availability of fresh summer fruits was going to be one of the unexpected benefits of visiting New Zealand at this time.

I sipped my coffee and nibbled on my apricot slice and thought that things seemed to be getting off on a good foot.


New Zealand Prologue

I am long overdue to blog about my trip to New Zealand. I returned over a month ago, but almost immediately started the new semester and didn’t have time. Things have settled down now; we’re on week five of the term. So I don’t really have an excuse.

It’s tough to get started because it felt like it was a really long trip even though it was only 3 weeks. But there was a lot of traveling in that time.

How to begin?

Well, the basics, I suppose. I went to New Zealand with my friend/coworker, Stephen. At the beginning of last year, Stephen was the first person I made a good connection with. We’ve been good friends since then. We’ve done a fair bit of traveling together and lots of just hanging out around Zhuhai.

Stephen’s a Kiwi, but his parents moved to Australia. So for summer holidays, he usually goes to see his parents. As a result, he hadn’t been back to New Zealand for 6+ years. He had the idea of going “home” during Spring Festival. Sometime in November he mentioned it to me and sort of flippantly asked me if I wanted to come along.

Although I’ve always wanted to visit New Zealand, I initially was hesitant. My plan all along had been to travel in Asia: Thailand, Malaysia, maybe Indonesia. I was also concerned about money because NZ is not a budget destination. And we’d never traveled 3 weeks together before. Would we kill each other? So I had some concerns.

On the other hand, I saw that this was a unique opportunity. If I went with Stephen I would have a very different experience than if I went by myself. I would be traveling with a local. I’d get the inside scoop on all manner of daily life stuff. Like a private tour guide. Hah. And we’d be staying with a number of his family and friends, so I’d get to meet lots of other Kiwis. Get a feel for their life, for local culture, etc.

Weighing the pros and cons, I was leaning towards going, assuming we could do it on a reasonable budget. A deal breaker for me though was when Stephen said he wanted to drive around New Zealand. A road trip! What Californian can resist the call of the open road? Not this one. That was the point when I began seriously investigating going.

Airfare to New Zealand was dismayingly high. To the point where I despaired of going. However, Stephen somehow found a excellent deal through Malaysian Airlines: $975 round trip. Buying the tickets felt a little surreal. I’m going to New Zealand?!?

Since it was Stephen’s first time back in years, he had a number of people and places he wanted to visit. I also wanted to see as many of the big things as possible. Together we worked out an itinerary that managed to cover most of both, a whirlwind tour of both islands in 3 weeks. Our list was Auckland, Matamata, Rotorua, Palmerston North, Wellington (North Island), Nelson, Christchurch, Queenstown, and Dunedin (South Island). Plus there would be lots of things we would stop to see on the way between places.

First stop: Auckland