The three Lattitude volunteers did their Teaching Practices yesterday and flew off to their placements today. Their lessons went well, though they had to be felixble as the usual 12-14 student numbers unexpectedly dropped to 3-5 (many local schools had insisted that their students turn up - on a Saturday afternoon - to hand in their holiday homework!?). Now starts the real challenge for the volunteers as they face classes of 50-60 students on a daily basis. Good luck!
It's that time of year again when I spend a week training teenagers to be English teachers on behalf of the NGO, "Lattitude". We usually have 20 or more volunteers, but this intake is only three [see photo above, having a Chinese language lesson with "Jolly"], so we've condensed the course down and are managing to race through the various modules in 6 days instead of 8. All three are Australian with one about to start a degree, one half way through one and one having just finished one. As ever, I'm enjoying the "gear-change" from my usual teaching of school children.
Amongst JD's two favourite activities are riding the 1RMB (10p) children's rides outside the local shops, and picking up a brush and dustpan to try to collect rubbish! The trouble comes when he starts to do both at the same time! Shaking a brush whilst standing up in a rocking jeep would tax anyone's skills, but he somehow manages to keep upright, whilst also pointing out each "car", "bus", and "bike" which passes the shop. Talk about multi-tasking!
Toilet signs in China continue to be a great source of amusement to me. Only occasionally do you find a completely correct one. These are from Heijing, for example. "Male:man" sounds like a postal worked to me, while "Female" really shouldn't have an "i" in it! But the one below was rather impressive, with pictures of two ancient Chinese folk guarding the entrances to the different sexes' entrances. Very regal!
One of the most contrasting cultural differences between Westerners and the Chinese is the preferred skin colour. Many Westerners like to have a tan to show they are affluent enough to take holidays in the sun, while most Chinese (women, at least) go to great lengths to keep their skin as fair as possible to show that they are affluent enough not to be working outside in the sun! Usually this takes the form of a hat or sun-visor. Whitening face cream is also popular. But recently tourists at Chinese beaches have been seen wearing these "face-kinis", a bizarre whole-head covering that allows them to swim and enjoy the warmth without risking their faces turning brown in any way. It reminds me some of the wrestlers on the old Saturday afternoon wrestling show in the UK!
We returned from Heijing yesterday evening with two extra passengers in the car. While Jiajia and I were looking for a toy gift for JD we came across a farmer selling baby ducks (or so we thought - turns out they were geese!). I picked one up and it said, jokingly, it could be a cute present for JD. At 7RMB (70p) each, we suddenly found we had bought two, before considering the full consequences of having a pair of food-guzzling, fast-growing, ever-pooping birds in the house! We managed to get them home in a box and, on arrival, JD was genuinely delighted when we showed him what was inside. "GaGoo!" he kept shouting at them (his word for "bird", derived from the sound of a cuckoo often heard outside his bedroom). Now I just need to Google "raising geese" to see what fun we are in for over the next few months! We're hoping they last longer than the goldfish!
Heijing attracts few tourists, at least not westerners, so it has maintained a very traditional way of life; cobbled streets, horse and carts and a market every Sunday. We had fun today checking out the various stalls where local specialities include salt (carved into a variety of shapes), wild mushrooms and pear vinegar. We did make one impulse buy, but more of that tomorrow. In the afternoon, we took a horse and cart to a nearby salt factory, now a museum. The exhibits themselves were a bit ho-hum, but the flowers, dragonflies and water-boatmen (insects that skim on the surface of the water) were fascinating. In the afternoon, I played mahjong with three of the family, holding my own if not actually making any money!
Jiajia and I are spending this weekend with friends ("DL" and her family) in Heijing, a very well-preserved ancient town, built on the proceeds of a salt mine. Jiajia and I went there once before, 4 years ago, but it rained the whole time which dampened our enthusiasm. This time though we are having lovely sunshine and use of DL's recently purchased property here. And what a place! A hundred-year old, 25 room mansion built for a salt magnate, and later owned by a leader of the Kuomingtang (the army who opposed Mao Zedong's Communists). Each of the rooms has original period furniture and the whole place screams history!
Exploring each room in turn leads to new discoveries and interesting stories. These painted-over panels, for example, extol the virtues of Mao Zedong and the Communist Party - the house wasn't always owned by the Kuomingtang! And at the "back" of the house, a large concrete gateway had once been added, with a hammer and sickle carved above it - now bricked shut again. We had no running water at first (we're used to that!) but managed to get a single tap working later. What DL and family plan to do with this place (and the substantial land that came with it) is anyone's guess but, in the meantime, we are very lucky to have the run of the place.
Our nanny and I took JD to the Train Museum yesteday afternoon. It was always quite a good museum, but was refurbished and reorganised through last year and is now really excellent. The half a dozen real trains on display have been moved inside the museum itself (they used to be in a nearby covered siding) and all the exhibits have been spruced up, with English translations added. JD has finally twigged the difference between a bus and a train. The only disappointment is that you are no longer allowed to climb inside the trains and carriages as you were before. Oh, and the cafeteria charges 10RMB for a can of soda (2.5RMB in the shop outside!). Otherwise, we were chuffed...
Jiajia, JD and I headed for the Yunnan Provincial Library this morning, having heard there is a weekly, public Storytime session for young children, led by a friend of ours, Elisa (with her blond daughter Thora very much in attendance). We struggled to make it there in time - it's quite a trek for us - but still managed to enjoy all the stories and songs, and were able to meet other parents afterwards with their young kids. The sessions will end in a couple of weeks as the children return to school, but it was worth the trip and interesting to see the huge library inside in any case.
JD has a vocabulary of over 50 words now and seems to pick up a new one every day or so. Yesterday he said his own Chinese name for the first time. His first word ever was "shark"!? He particularly enjoys pointing out cars, buses, lights, babies and lanterns as we walk along the street. His oddest word is "DIE!", which means he want to play with my iPad, specifically to watch the video of "Dumb ways to die"! Check it out here if you've never seen it before. Hardly appropriate, but...
My online weblog celebrates its 9th Birthday today, five of which have been on this Weebly platform. I started it (on a Yahoo blog service) as I joined VSO for a second time back in August 2005 and have averaged an entry every other day since then - over 1600 entries! Thanks to those of you who pop in for a read every now and again. It makes the effort worthwhile. Do add a message in the "Guestbook" above if you have a moment sometimes. Happy Birthday, Blog!
Both JD and Jiajia came out in a red rash yesterday, so we battled our way to the hospital this morning (40 minute queue just to get into the car park). Thankfully we have a good friend ("DL") in the hospital who took us straight to the skin specialist who said it was probably an allergic reaction to our local caterpillars(!) who are currently descending from the trees near our house in their dozens on thin threads which are all too easy to walk into. Whilst there, I mentioned my "tennis elbow" which has been a constant pain for well over a year now, despite two injections and a course of physiotherapy. DL whisked us straight off to the top bone doctor, who recognised me from 8 months ago. He confirmed that the only long-term treatment continues to be rest (not so easy with a toddler who wants lifting and a mouse on the right side of the computer!) though he said another steroid injection would give me 6-8 weeks with less pain, which would at least help me sleep, etc. And the injection was nowhere near as painful as I made out for the photo, either!
We bought a house, car, shoes, wads of cash and clothes today. Well, more accurately, Jiajia bought them. And they are all made of paper!
Yes, it's that time of year again - Hungry Ghost Festival - when ancestors are remembered by burning paper representations of whatever we think they'll be needing in the afterlife. I did query whether Jiajia's dead grandma could ever actually drive, but she pointed out that she was also burning the chauffeur inside the car. So I guess that's OK!
It was amazing how many households hold their own little rituals. To start with an open circle is chalked on the ground. There were 30-40 of these along the pavement areas of the neighbourhood by the end. Then the paper goods are burned, and finally a small bowl of food is left at the circle's opening.
One of the bonuses of the flat we use in Shenzhen is the swimming pool in neighbourhood. With sweltering daytime temperatures and humidity, it's a blessing to spend some floodlit time in the pool in the evening. As I took JD into the pool for the first time, I was keen to take it easy and let him get used to the experience. Some chance! Within seconds he was laughing, kicking his feet, splashing me and having a truly wonderful time!
As a family, the Hiders have never been the most confident of swimmers. So maybe his confidence was from the dozen times he visited the play centre as a baby, where he floated and kicked with an inflatable ring round his neck? Or maybe the daily splashing in the bath? Anyhow, it was a holiday highlight.
We've spent a fun few days here. Jiajia has been combining our holiday with some work - she visits the factory outlet markets here every month to stock up on the latest brand fashions. JD and I have been spending at least part of the day walking round with her, meeting her various contacts there who have been really thrilled to finally see JD after all the photos. None less so than "Mink Lady" [centre] who treated us to a nice meal alongside her business partner and her son [right and far right]. And JD has quickly got the hang of wandering into total strangers' shops with a beaming smile and leaving ten minutes later with free stuff (grapes, candy, toys, etc!).
The flat where we're staying in Shenzhen doesn't have internet connection, but news is trickling through of a really bad earthquake in NE Yunnan. It's some way from Kunming, where we live, but close to where I worked for a year in Zhaotong. Many hundreds dead I believe, with thousands losing their houses. Awful.
We made it safely to Shenzhen yesterday. JD had a lot to cope with; our Nanny leaving for a well-earned week's holiday, long taxi to the airport, some turbulence on the flight, long taxi to a new flat where we're staying and a temperatures of 33-35ºC, with 90% humidity. His curiousity throughout the journey overcame any upset, but he was tired by the evening.
The journey was made a little easier by travelling as VIPs and in first class! Jiajia gets VIP service at airports as a special Bank of China customer and had also earlier spotted that first class was only 200-300RMB (£20-30) more expensive than economy. The extra space and better food were certainly welcome! We'll be in Shenzhen for a week looking after our toddler 24/7 without anyone else helping. Should be fun.
Past blog entries