Thursday, 24 September 2009

The incurable travel bug ....

Since I have made the decision to depart China, I feel like a tourist again. I constantly have my Lonely Planet open, working out new places to visit before I head off. I know for sure that I will be back in China again - I still want to explore the Yunnan province and head up the the North West to see that part of China as well as the 'stans. But, these places require more than a weekend, so they will have to remain on the wish list at the moment. I head off on my last real holiday tonight and it will be jam packed. I board the train at 7.30pm tonight and arrive tomorrow morning in Tunxi (aka Huang Shan city) where I will have 3 days to explore Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain) and the surrounding villages. My first stop will be either a pub or an internet cafe to watch Geelong beat St Kilda in the AFL Grand Final, before I head off up the mountain singing 'We are Geelong, the greatest team of all!'. I travel back to Shanghai on Monday night (another 13 hours on the train) to meet Dad before flying up to Xian then onto Beijing before introducing Dad to the delights of Wuxi. I hope that I never lose the travel bug!

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Taking a risk .... taking a new direction ....

When I was younger, I always thought that I would be the kind of girl who would be married with kids by the time I was 25. Not to be. When I began my teaching degree, I always thought I would be a PE teacher working in socially disadvantaged schools. Not to be. Here I am, aged 28, having worked in two of the most privileged schools in Melbourne and now living in China. Recently, the plan has been to complete another 2 year contract in Asia then head to Europe for a few years before returning home. Again, not to be! My life is taking a new and exciting direction. I have made the difficult decision to leave China early to take up a very unusual teaching position with a unique lifestyle opportunity. I have taken a private teaching position with a Canadian family who divides their time predominantly between Calgary in Canada and Sydney in Australia. Time is also spent travelling in Europe and on an island off the west coast of Canada. I will be working with the family to educate their two children, 9 year old Brennan and 5 year old Rory. The opportunity was simply too good to pass up – complete teaching freedom and a lifestyle very suited to my interests. What more could a horse mad girl love more than living on a 5000 acre ranch near the Rocky Mountains? The ranch is predominantly cattle and horses and offers every equestrian activity under the sun – a dream for me! Being able to live in Australia for some months of the year is very alluring as well, a short flight away from Mum, family and friends, and only a few hours drive away from Dad. It is a risk for sure, but I have decided to put aside all my ‘what if’ questions and go for it – life is too short to sit and wonder. For now, I have three months left in China to enjoy my favourite things here – travel, massage, Uberfood, street food and great friends.

The humble rice cooker ....

Nobody I know in Australia uses a rice cooker. It seems to be one of those gadgets that seems like a good idea at the time but quickly makes it to the back of the cupboard along with the foot spa, soda stream machine and bread maker that someone was once given for Christmas. Not so in China where the rice cooker is one’s best friend - big restaurants use them, street stalls use them and nearly every apartment comes with one. I wonder why they lie dusty and unused in so many Australian homes? They are incredibly useful and so quick – simply load it up with rice and water, hit ‘cook’, and presto, a bowl of rice ready in minutes. No stirring, no boiling over, no messy pots (and stoves) to clean up – amazing! You can even steam your fish, meat, vegetables, jiaozi (dumplings) while the rice is cooking. My only gripe with my wonderful rice cooker is that I still haven’t worked out how to get it to cook brown rice without half of it sticking to the pot. The humble rice cooker is a gadget that no family should be without and should definitely not be sitting dormant at the back of a cupboard. So, guess what my family are all getting for Christmas?

Monday, 21 September 2009

Gym observations .....

I truly admire anyone who goes to the gym (or anywhere else) to get fit and know that it’s not right to laugh at people in the gym, but I did have a (silent) giggle at the sight that I came across at the gym the other night. I walked into the group fitness room to sneak around the back, grab a mat and have a good stretching session. Picture this ..... four reasonably 'built' Chinese men wearing bike shorts and singlet tops at the front of the room all with a large weight on their shoulders, squatting in front of a large group of middle aged women who were all squatting with smaller weights on their shoulders. The class was not unusually big (maybe about 15, predominantly female, participants), so why were four instructors needed?! You could see how proud they all were of their weight lifting abilities and that it was very much a chance for them to show off their muscles in front of an admiring audience of female participants. It was quite an amusing sight. One of the instructors is multi talented and I often see him leading classes such as body pump, body combat, hip hop and ballet classes (okay, maybe not ballet). He has a unique outfit for each class – bike shorts and singlet for pump, boxing gloves for combat (despite the fact that he actually isn’t hitting anything or anyone) and a sparkling cap, ‘street’ clothes with one pant leg rolled up for hip hop (I don’t really get the one pant leg rolled up). ‘Normal’ western workout gear just doesn’t exist here in China where the gym dress code is extremely broad. The interesting sights at the gym certainly make the time fly by!

Sunday, 20 September 2009

We are Geelong, the greatest team of all ......

For the third year running, Geelong have made it into the AFL grand final. Despite the fairly boring game which produced a flogging by about 70 points, it was fantastic to see Geelong make it through to the final. However, it presents a dilemma for me now… I stay in Wuxi or Shanghai to watch the final or do I take a risk and hope that I can find it screened in a smaller city somewhere in China? We begin our holidays at 1.30 pm on Friday and as always, I am hoping to leave Wuxi as soon as possible to take advantage of the holiday time. My choices are: 1) Stay in Wuxi to watch the final (12pm on Saturday) and leave Saturday night to have about 2.5 days wherever I go. Or 2) Leave Wuxi at 1.35pm on Friday to travel somewhere a little more remote (currently considering Wuyuan, south of Wuxi) and hope that I can find the footy on a big screen or on the internet somewhere. Because I am hoping to go somewhere off the beaten track, it will take longer to get there, so more time is needed for travel – Wuyuan is about 6 hours from Shanghai by bus, however, I’m not a fan of long distance bus travel, so I am thinking of flying to a nearby town from Shanghai then jumping on a bus for only 1.5 hours. The travel hassle will hopefully be worth it – Wuyuan is known for its small, beautiful villages. There are some great walks to do between villages which look amazing. But the question remains, where will I watch Geelong beat the Saints?

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Simple minds ....

What happens when you put a group of teachers together with a fridge full of beer and a bathroom with a Japanese style toilet? A lot of toilet jokes and giggles apparently. This is exactly what happened when I hosted Friday night drinks at my apartment at the end of the week. Who would have thought that a toilet that warms your behind, then washes and dries it for you, would cause so much laughter? A bunch of teachers turned from intelligent and mature beings into immature characters who were amused by such simple things! After another busy week at work, it was a great way to unwind – good company, some drinks and a Japanese toilet!

Thursday, 17 September 2009

More travel writing!

The new Wuxilife magazine came out today, featuring not only another article of mine, but yours truly appearing as the 'featured expat'! Adorning the back page of the magazine is a huge picture, along with an interview - very funny. The kids here at school all thought it was highly amusing as well. The article was about the Great Wall Marathon and hopefully it will inspire others to sign up to not only run, but be part of an amazing experience on one of the seven wonders of the world. Have a good weekend everyone!

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Weddings, weddings, weddings ......

No, I'm not getting married! But, several people I know are, so I thought I'd take a moment to consider cultural differences. I have never been to a Chinese wedding, but got my first invite today. It's a lovely pink card with the words, 'Forever joined in happiness. Love makes the woeld go round' - yes, love does make the woeld go around! Unsure of who I knew well enough to receive this invite, I curiously opened it up. I have been invited to the wedding of Mr Meng's (our school driver) daughter who I have never met before (in fact, I didn't even know that Mr Meng had a daughter!). And not just me, but the entire staff! If we are all invited, I wonder how big the wedding is?! Unfortunately, the wedding is during the holidays so I won't be able to attend, but I was appreciative of the invite. The wedding is being held at a hotel in Wuxi at the very precise time of 11.18 am on a Saturday morning. According to a colleague, getting married at a time with an '8' in it, is very lucky. '8' is a very lucky number, whilst all Chinese people will shy away from the number '4' whose character (word) sounds very similar to the character for death. Then we got chatting about presents - what do you take to a Chinese wedding? It seems that any present will do and my Chinese colleague thought it was hilarious that we gave toasters, crockery and dishwashers as gifts to newly weds. And dresses? Again, according to my colleague, a lot of Chinese women are going for western style dresses (think lacy, puffy meringue dresses) rather than the traditional red and gold dresses that bring luck. I've never been to a friend's wedding before, so was quite looking forward to going to this Chinese one to make comparisons when I head home at Christmas time for two weddings. Both Australians are being held in very different settings - one on the beach and one at a winery - but both I know will be beautiful, relaxed and fun! Now, I just need to find a man ...... (or not, I'm having too much fun on my own at the moment!

Monday, 14 September 2009

Wuxi makes the world news .....

Well, in the food safety world at least. Last week I received an email from my aunt, Jenny who happens to work in this industry (she knows everything there is to know about cheese!), informing me that Wuxi had in fact made the news. Here is the article: 300 people ill in suspected food poisoning in E CHINA city 09.sep.09 Xinhua News Agency NANJING -- More than 300 employees of a pipe manufacturing company are suspected victims of food poisoning in an east China city Wednesday, local authorities said. The 300 employees of Seamless Oil Pipe Company Ltd. in Wuxi City, Jiangsu Province asked for leave Wednesday morning and the company found the employees had begun going to hospital late Tuesday, said an official with the municipal health bureau. The initial investigation showed that the unsanitary conditions in the company's canteen caused the suspected food poisoning, the official said. Maybe I should pass this onto the catering company that provides our lunches, maybe it will inspire them to feed us something more edible.

Off the beaten track .....

Now that Wuxi is no longer on the tourist trail outlined by the Lonely Planet, most things can be considered an authentic Chinese experience. Yesterday it was a beautiful day, so instead of going to the gym, I decided to head off the beaten track and onto a very (literally) beaten track in the New District. I began by cycling out past school where there is an area I’ve been curious about a for a while. It seemed like there might have been farmland beyond the factories and yes, there was! I spent a very enjoyable afternoon bouncing along the narrow farmers paths, past carefully tended vegetable patches and a variety of homes. The homes ranged from a basic shell of a home covered with plastic bags to small, run down apartment buildings. The only commonality between the homes was the huge piles of rubbish that littered the outside environment. Imagine looking out your window every day and seeing rubbish strewn everywhere and smelling the putrid smell of it decomposing and being incinerated. Awful. But, despite this uninspiring view, all the people I came across were friendly and welcomed me with a big grin and a 'Nihao!' as I bounced my way past them. The most beautiful aspect of the afternoon was the silence - not a sound to be heard. It was hard to believe I was only 30 minutes away from my noisy, but luxurious apartment on Chang Jiang Road. As I headed back into the modern world, I stumbled across a large open air market. What an experience this was! Fresh fruit, vegetables, tofu, pickled vegetables, meats, fish .... there was something for everyone. I ended up buying some fruit and veg - $1.50 for peaches, bananas, lettuce, cucumber and some bokchoy. I declined the offer to purchase the meat and fish - some of it you couldn't even see for the flies. It reminded me of the stories I used to tell the MLC girls about life on the Victorian goldfields - well, this is life in modern China! Men sat at their butcher stands swishing away flies with large poles covered with plastic bags while women caught fresh fish as they attempted to jump out of tanks and onto the floor. It was a hustling, bustling 'real' market place and I hope I can find it again. I then headed back to Chang Jiang Road and was surprised to find myself at the back of the massage place - of course, I couldn't pass it without popping in to say hello (and maybe have a massage!).

Saturday, 12 September 2009

The sun is shining ....

Yes, the sun is shining, the sky is (relatively) blue, life is good. After a very stressful week at work (my bags were nearly packed mid week), I have enjoyed a wonderfully relaxing weekend. I began the weekend with a workout and early night on Friday, before getting up early on Saturday morning to do some journal writing and heading back to the gym for a run. I ventured into Nan Chang Temple markets to have a wander in the afternoon where I was sucked into the crowd of hundreds of loud Chinese people. I enjoyed looking around the stalls and eating some food on a stick before heading home. A late afternoon nap, followed by a massage completed the day, and I was ready for the highly anticipated event of the weekend ..... a 4 course dinner at Uberfood with some good friends. I have shown considerable constraint since I've been back - I waited a whole month before I enjoyed the 4 course dinner. I'll quickly tantalise your taste buds with a description of what we ate. First, we enjoyed a complementary starter of mini scrambled egg, salmon and fish eggs followed by an entree of 3 soups (tomato, mushroom fish) and a second entree of salmon salad (Uberfood speciality salad has cranberries - what an amazing taste!). We cleansed our palate with a sorbet before tucking into a mouthwatering main of chicken breast with lentil sauce and mashed potatoes. Dessert was to die for - tiramasu with baileys sauce and oranges, mmmmmmm. It even rivals Mum's tiramasu (sorry Mum!). What more can a girl ask for on a Saturday night in Wuxi? Great company, great food, great wine, relaxing atmosphere....lovely. Today is going to be another relaxing day - reading, gym, another massage, some cooking and an early night. Ready to face whatever EtonHouse has to throw at me this week! Have a good week everyone!

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Token laowai ....... again

Once again, I played the role of token laowai at an official event yesterday. The occasion was the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China and it also happened to be Teachers Day here in China (happy Teachers Day to all teachers!) Belynda and I were whisked off to the afternoon event where we were entertained by 27 musical and theatrical performances by Chinese students and Chinese teachers....yes, that's right the teachers performed! Which we found quite amusing because earlier this week, we were told that EtonHouse teachers had to rehearse and perform a song at a similar upcoming event. Ah, no. There is no way that I will be getting on a stage and singing to an Mandarin! (not unless there is an audience of less than 5 and we can all drink copious amounts of beer first which would be needed for the audience if I were to sing). Not going to happen. So, I found it hilarious that so many teachers would readily agree to this. Whilst all 27 performances were occuring, there was a big screen behind them showing a series of random images - Wuxi factories, the Wuxi skyline, pictures of nature and a huge selection of images of Chairman Mao during his reign. Notice the lack of pictures of schools with students and teachers? Funny, considering that this is what we were meant to be celebrating. Perhaps the most random images were those of the railway line that was recently (2006) built in Tibet. This footage screened whilst the token minority Tibetan dance was performed. Obviously, the irony of Tibet featuring in what was essentially a celebration of the Cultural Revolution, escaped the organisers. In between the ear splitting singing of traditional Chinese songs and the beautifully choreographed modern dances was the presentation of the National Teaching Awards. Winners from all over China were gathered to receive a huge bunch of flowers and other gifts. This led me to wonder, what constitutes good teaching in China? Is it how many students can you fit into your classroom? Or perhaps how many textbooks you can get through in a year? Who knows. After two hours of showing our white faces (there was one dedicated laowai row), we were excused and sent home. Quite frankly, I'm getting a little tired of having to appear at things just because I have a white face - imagine if, in Australia, we started including people just because they have brown or black skin? It simply wouldn't be allowed to happen.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

All the admiration in the world ......

We have some pretty amazing students here at EtonHouse Wuxi. The swimming program began this week, with yours truly in charge. After a slightly stressful morning (the school is also lucky enough to have an EAL teacher who can't read!! Don't ask), the swimming program turned out to be a great success. Where does the admiration part come in? Well, many Asian children (Japanese excepted generally) don't grow up with the same water safety and swimming culture that many other countries, such as Australia do. So, for many children, Wednesday was their first time in a swimming pool. I can proudly say that there were no tears, no teachers were scratched or bruised and every single child had a huge grin on their face. Two girls in particular are who I am aiming the admiration at. These two girls have just arrived in China from Korea with a handful of English words between them and both had never been swimming. They were the only two kids in the senior swimming group with no experience, so understandably were nervous. Can you imagine being taught something as scary and risky as swimming in a loud environment, in a language that is totally foreign to you? It would be like me doing a sky dive for the first time whilst listening to instructions from a Korean instructor - totally terrifying. So, for these girls to be willing to let me pick them up and dunk them up and down in the water was an incredibly scary thing. Sure, they were scared at first, but within seconds, their faces lit up with pure joy. What an amazing feeling.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Goal setting

After stuffing myself silly with ‘normal’ foods in Australia and drinking loads of wine, I came back to China determined to get back into my fitness regime. Although I love running and am really enjoying sessions at the gym, I need something to aim for, otherwise I’m more likely to say yes to that glass of wine and massage rather than hit the gym. Aiming for the Great Wall Marathon was a fantastic challenge and just what I needed to keep me on track. So, in a quiet moment last week, I asked my friend, ‘Google’ for some suggestions. China seems to have heaps of running events, so there were many to choose from. I decided upon the Hangzhou ‘short’ marathon (14km) in mid November and then the Shanghai marathon in November, although I still need to decide on the distance – 42km, 21km or 4.5km? At this stage, I’m thinking of the 4.5km distance as the race is apparently quite boring – flat and nothing to look at. It’s also a race that I think I could train for to run a little more quickly (and with less training time). Hangzhou will be great, it’s a city on my travel list and to go there for a run would be fabulous. It is meant to be a very beautiful area and the run sounds great. Now, I just need this heat to disappear so that I can run without drowning in my own sweat.

Monday, 7 September 2009

A new western restaurant in town .....

Just before I headed back to Australia for the summer, a new five star hotel opened up in Wuxi, about a five minute walk from my apartment. Naturally, us expats were keen sample their western ‘luxury’ foods on offer. A group of us headed to the Millennium on Sunday for a Fathers Day brunch (despite the fact that all the Dads left their kids at home with the ayis!). At a pricey 260 rmb plus 15% surcharge (about $70 all up), we were looking forward to a relaxing afternoon of feasting. The selection of food was great, beautiful looking western treats on offer but the hot food was all slightly cold which was disappointing. But the dessert looked amazing. As most people know, I have just a slight sweet tooth, so was very keen to sample the delicious looking cakes. Again, I was disappointed – most cakes tasted a little stale and were Chinese style, not something you want at a western buffet. The two best things about the lunch were the free flowing bubbles (12 to 5pm – not bad!) and the sexy European chef who provided an afternoon of eye candy. To entertain us during the afternoon, we looked out the huge glass windows and watched a team of Chinese staff members attempt to clean the dirty looking fountain. This was amusing for several reasons. Firstly, it took about 6 people over 5 hours (they were there when we arrived and still there when we left). Secondly, they had some sort of industrial vacuum cleaner IN the fountain, trailing the power cord through the water. And finally, a guy in a suit (obviously a manager of some kind) wearing gumboots decided to come out and have a go at the cleaning. Yes, I did take a photo but as you can see, I am still unable to load the pictures. To top off a lazy Sunday of too much (disappointing) food and (not so disappointing) bubbles, I headed to one of my favourite places in Wuxi – Fushiwu – where I enjoyed a 90 minute foot massage followed by a 90 minute body massage. This relaxing day bought some lessons to be learnt. One – When in China, eat Chinese food, you won’t be disappointed (unless, of course it is Uberfood!). Two – It is possible to drag a power cord through water and not electrocute yourself. Three – Life is good when there is champagne and massage involved.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Leaving the text book behind .....

I decided to make a bold move last week by asking Grace, my Chinese teacher, if we could not use the text book for the lesson. I wanted to practice ordering food and learning the names of my favourite Chinese dishes. This seemed to cause a much confusion! Poor Grace didn’t quite know what to do though, despite having prepared a photo copy of another Chinese/English text about food. The lessons are always very predictable and both of us know how much of the text we can get through in an hour (not a lot considering my lack of practice and constant questions). Without the ordered headings of kewen (text), shengci (new words) and lianxi (exercises), to guide the lesson, Grace seemed very unsure of what to do. The lesson was a success though, I now know how to order the dishes I like and I was successful in doing so when I went back to the newly discovered dumpling restaurant for the third time that week. Grace is going to test me when we go out to dinner next week – she is not allowed to do any speaking to the waitress. The next step in my Chinese cuisine education is learning how to make some of these dishes. Grace and I plan to have a cooking night with her friend (and my new language partner), Chris. Jiaozi (dumplings), fan qie chao ji dan (fried egg and tomato), ba si pinguo (apple and toffee) here we come!

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Initiation into Early Childhood Education

As part of my role this year, I am spending a lot more time in classrooms. Nearly all the English as an Additional Language support will be in the classrooms, working with teachers to plan and teach lessons that allow the EAL students (most of EtonHouse!) to access the curriculum content. This week, I’ve had a ball taking each class while the class teacher assesses the students. I’m also in classes for a lot of PYP support, helping teachers to plan and teach inquiry lessons. Being in any class from Year 1 to 9, I can handle and really enjoy. But ....... Nursery, Reception?! Two year olds? Three year olds? Four year olds? They scare the hell out of me. So you can imagine my horror on Friday when their teacher, Belynda, was called away for a phone conference, and I was asked to step into the youngest class of the school! The class time went well (I sat and was fed carefully cooked plastic fruit and vegetables), it was lunch time where things went downhill. I am used to sitting with the kids, reminding them to eat their vegetables, not feeding them. One poor little girl was so tired she refused to eat and would only eat when I fed her. As I was concentrating on getting the food into her mouth, one of the two year olds decided to throw a tantrum and bang her head on the table, resulting in blood and a screaming child! How did this manage to happen on my watch?!! Needless to say, I was relieved when Belynda returned to her classroom. I definitely needed a drink last night!

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Wuxi ......... Cut from the travel bible!

Yes, you read correctly………Wuxi has been cut from the latest edition of the China Lonely Planet! My current home town has gone from being described as ‘smoggy and characterless’ to not even rating a passing mention in the updated Lonely Planet guide. After not really doing anything touristy in Wuxi last year, I was searching the new edition hoping to gain a little bit of an insight into the attractions that Wuxi does have to offer, namely a couple of parks and Lake Taihu (although there are other nicer places to see the lake, Suzhou mainly). So you can imagine my horror when I couldn’t even find Wuxi in the index! As a colleague mentioned today whilst we were discussing the issue, “At least there won’t be any tourists coming through” – Ah, I don’t recall fighting off hordes of tourists in Wuxi in the previous year! I’ve also been reading my China bible to plan the first lot of holidays, coming up in only four weeks! Ah, the life of a teacher in China! Dad and his partner, Carla arrive half way through the holidays, so I’ve been having fun planning an itinerary for them, a tough job considering they are only here for 10 days and want to see all the main sights as well as catch up with me. The plan so far is for me to meet them in Shanghai and then head up to Xian for four days to face the mighty Terracotta Warriors, before they brave the Chinese train system to Beijing and I take a more civilised flight back to work in Wuxi. I still have four days to kill before they arrive, so I am planning to head to either the Huang Shan mountain or the lake side city of Hangzhou. Somewhere where I can do some walking in a beautiful location (albeit with thousands of Chinese tourists!) is what I am after. So, while Wuxi has been struck off the tourist route, surely that must mean that its place has been filled with other more tourist worthy sights in China?! Also, does it mean that I’m getting a more authentic experience, living in a ‘non-tourist’ city?!