Monthly Archives: August 2011
Before moving to Wuxi, I lived all my life in England, which means I had 30-ahem years where more than one day of 25°C + was described as a heat wave. There would be a rush on fans and barbecues, ice cream would sell out etc. So, when I read the description of Wuxi’s climate as being sub-tropical with August being the hottest month I didn’t really realise what that meant. After nearly two weeks here, I am starting to understand.
The temperature has averaged about 29-30°C since we have been here. However, it is very humid, so it actually feels about 10°C hotter. It doesn’t really get any cooler at night. So, I get up in the morning, shower, blow-dry my hair, get dressed and go out. Five minutes after leaving the nice air-conditioned apartment I find I am covered in a fine layer of sweat and my hair has turned into a giant frizz ball. 15 minutes later and I am searching desperately for anywhere that might have air-conditioning and my plans to explore the city are abandoned. So, I come home, have another shower and start again.
The heat makes it pretty difficult to sleep at night, especially when combined with the super hard mattresses (you can buy wooden mattresses toppers to make your bed even more uncomfortable if you choose). I wonder whether this explains the phenomenon of ‘people sleeping in strange places’ we have observed around the city. It is not unusual to see people asleep on furniture in Walmart, on a bench outside a restaurant, on a wall, on the pavement or even balanced across their scooter trolley and a railing. It seems to be quite an acceptable thing to do and I might be giving it a go myself if it doesn’t start to cool down soon.
Before travelling to China, John took quite a few Mandarin lessons with Dr X. I attended a few lessons, but not as many as John. Although, Wuxi is a big city, English isn’t widely spoken, so learning to communicate is a priority for both of us. My ideal situation would be to attend a group class during the day, so I can get to know some other students at the same time. John has to be at school from 7.30 to 16.00 every day, so he really just wants an hour or two on a Saturday.
It is surprising how difficult it has been to organise. A company was recommended by one of John’s colleagues, but they could only offer one-to-one lessons and we would each have had to pay for over £1,000 in advance – in cash. I have since been in touch with a school that might have another beginner starting lessons soon who I could pair up with. We are also meeting up with a teacher on Thursday who was recommended by another of John’s colleagues and who may be able to offer us one-to-one lessons.
In the meantime, we are muddling by as best we can using dictionaries and phase-books. We have had some success – John managed to arrange a delivery of water for our water cooler and I (kind of) translated the instructions for our new electric slow cooker. We have also had some near misses – John bought a pot noodle and asked the shopkeeper for his money (instead of chopsticks), he bumped into someone and said ‘you’re welcome’ rather than ‘sorry’. I will be pleased to able to communicate by a means other than smiling, nodding and looking like an idiot.
Last Friday, we went for dinner in a hot pot restaurant with a couple of John’s English colleagues. It was really nice to be able to speak to them ‘normally’ and it was so relaxing just to be able to speak English and be understood. I am starting to appreciate why expats might want to stick together and just socialise amongst themselves. However, one of our objectives in coming to China was to reach a certain competency in Chinese so we will have to persevere.
It has been raining a lot over the past couple of days. Today the rain has been absolutely torrential. John had his first day at work and got drenched on the way home – no taxi drivers would let him in their car because he was too wet. It makes us feel quite at home, apart from the rain is still quite warm and as soon as it stops everywhere gets steamy.
John doesn’t actually start teaching until next week. Today and tomorrow he has a big conference for all his company’s foreign teachers from all over China. I think he has found it to be a bit of a shock being with lots of English speaking people again.
On Tuesday we took a walk to Xihui Park (about 30 minutes from our apartment). It was very beautiful and peaceful. On the way there we crossed over the Jinghang Canal, the longest canal in the world – travelling all the way from Beijing to Hangzhou (south of Wuxi). There were massive, dirty freight barges travelling up and down it. In contrast to these big industrial boats, under the canal bridge we saw couples practising ballroom dancing.
The park itself was lovely. There is a path leading up to the Dragon Light Pagoda on top of Xi Shan which overlooks the city. Given the current temperature we decided to explore this in the autumn, when the weather is a bit cooler. However, we did travel up in a cable car from the park to the further away Hui Shan. We were a bit wary of the little gondolas (just large enough for two) but the views on the way up and at the top were well worth it, if a bit hazy.
Yesterday we spent most of the day gearing up for John’s first day at work. We have discovered (through an unfortunate chain of events) that our apartment block has a very efficient way of dealing with plumbing emergencies. On a similar topic, we are also making note of any places with loos that are okay to use when out and about: so far, posh department stores seem to be the best option (think Harvey Nichols). I would have thought MacDonalds toilets would be okay – they aren’t.
While John has been working, I have spent today catching up with paperwork (making sure we don’t overspend) and shopping. John has decided to stay beard-free, so today I bought him an electric shaver from Wallmart. I had help from a lovely assistant who spoke really good English. Without her help I never would have worked out that the assistant in the booth has to give you a ticket, which you take to a cash desk on the next floor, then return to collect your item. The same system applied in the department store where I bought my new handbag (a replacement for the much-loved one that went to the charity shop in what I am calling ‘the great excess baggage purge’). We used to have a similar system when I worked at Foyles Bookshop in London. I now appreciate how confused the non-English speaking customers must have been.
I had lunch today from the steamed dumpling stall on the corner of our block. Each dumpling is almost the size of a fist, they cost about 10-15p each, you buy them straight from the steamer and never know what will be inside (at least I don’t). Sometimes they are filled with meat, sometimes cabbage and sometimes something mysterious. They are delicious.
We moved into our apartment today. It is brilliant to have our own space. We are now both a bit weary from shopping for household items and cleaning (a deep clean of the bathroom and kitchen was a necessity, not just me being fussy).
So, to make up for this being such a short post, visit John’s Wuxi Frisbee blog to see a tour of our apartment (among many other exciting things):
So far, today has been a day of exploring. We got up very late after a restless night, I think the jet lag is catching up with us, and decided to get a feel for the city on foot. The last couple of days have been really hot (30 C and very humid), but today felt a bit cooler – at least, at first.
We wanted to know how far it was to walk from the hotel, downtown, to our new apartment and then from the apartment to John’s school. At first, it felt okay, but the humidity sort of sneaks up on you, so by the time we reached Wallmart (around the corner from our apartment) we were glad to duck inside and take advantage of the air conditioning.
Wuxi is a very modern city and there were some preconceptions I had which I have now had to revise. For example, I thought the streets might be quite dirty, but there are loads of people constantly sweeping them, so they are cleaner than in Macclesfield (which has a real problem with litter and dog poo). On the other hand, some side streets are grubbier and men and small children seem quite happy to wee in the street. Rather than nappies, some babies prefer the bottom-less trouser look, which can only lead to mess.
Traffic is reasonably busy (I guess, it might be busier after the summer) and there is some pollution and smog. However, this isn’t as bad as in some European cities and it isn’t a patch on Moscow. When we visited Moscow last April, the smog was really thick in places and you could feel it on your skin and in your hair, I dread to think what August would have been like there.
There are fewer bicycles on the road than I imagined, but the scooters are just crazy. Polly told us that you don’t need a licence to ride a scooter and it really shows. Hardly anyone wears a helmet, and you often see whole families (mum, dad and small child) all balanced on the same scooter. If balancing many crates, shopping bags or large watermelons on a small scooter was an Olympic sport, China would take all the medals. It is amazing, and terrifying, to watch.
As we hoped, the people we have all met so far have been really lovely and helpful. Polly has been brilliant and really did her best to make us feel welcome, and Alex and Amber were great. The people in the shops and restaurants have also been really friendly and helpful. We have been practicing Chinese wherever possible and John has been asking a million and one questions to anyone and everyone.
Wallmart was nice a cool and we had a good nosy around. It sells pretty much everything, so will be very handy for kitting out our apartment. It is really like any Wallmart/ ASDA in Britain or America. The main difference is that in the meat/ fish section you can buy live fish, eels, frogs and even turtles. At least you know it is fresh, I suppose.
The walk from our new apartment to John’s school was an easy 25 minutes, even in the heat of the day. It is great to think he won’t need to worry about negotiating public transport from day one. From the outside, the school looks really big and grand with lovely ornamental gardens.
We completed our circuit by walking back to the hotel. Walking into the cool lobby was bliss.
We are really enjoying being here in China. It is a bit like being a child again: the sights, sounds and smells are all new and we don’t really know what is going on most of the time. However, that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Yesterday, Alex (who is an estate agent) and his wife, Amber, took us to visit three apartments in the hope one would be suitable.
The first apartment we saw was very new; it had only just been finished. It was on the 15th floor of a brand new apartment block and was very modern inside. However, the surroundings were still being completed and there was a lot of building work going on. The second apartment was on the fifth floor of an older block in a residential area (just behind a big Wallmart). The inside was a bit more shabby and frilly (the air conditioners seem to be wearing knickers), but there were nice gardens outside and it was a bit closer to John’s school. The third apartment was downtown. The location was great and on paper the apartment seemed good, especially as it was split level. However, inside it was dingy and dirty and the layout was a bit odd.
After a little consideration we decided to take the second apartment. Alex did some negotiating with the landlady to bring the rent down a bit, and then we met up with her yesterday to sign the paperwork and pay the deposit. Alex dropped the key off for us today and we can move in on Monday. It feels great to have our own place.
We also managed to sort ourselves out with Chinese phones yesterday – with much assistance from Polly. We decided we wanted to get new phones as well as a sim card (my current phone is on its last legs and John wanted a new toy). It took quite a lot of to-ing and fro-ing to figure out the phone we wanted and the paperwork for the sim card seemed to take forever. On top of this, they just laughed when I tried to pay by credit card so I had to go and find a cash point. We are learning that in China, people definitely prefer cash even for expensive purchases and for the apartment deposit.
Last night John and I popped out to a small café/ restaurant for dinner. The menu was all in Chinese, none of the staff spoke much English and we had forgotten our phrase book. Despite this, we managed to order a beer each and some food. The first course consisted of three cold dishes: one of cabbage and pine nuts, one of duck and the other of chicken. Unfortunately, the duck and chicken dishes were more bone than meat. The chicken dish even included a foot. If it was hot, I think we would have given it a go; as it was, we just did our best to pick the meat from around the bones. We were sitting in a corner, so the other customers didn’t have to witness us being so picky. Luckily, the second course was an enormous, piping hot prawn and rice soup. It was delicious and very filling. We knew the food would be different from Wok’s Cooking in Macclesfield, but we are only just learning what that actually means.
Well, we have now spent our first couple of days in Wuxi.
The journey from Macclesfield to Wuxi was okay. We stayed at the Radisson Hotel at Manchester Airport on Wednesday night as we had to leave our little house all ready for our tenants to move into. It was great to be able to relax and go for a swim before our flight on Thursday afternoon.
We flew with Qatar Airways from Manchester via Doha. Our enormous suitcases took us over the allowance and left us with a hefty charge, but we were expecting the worst so weren’t surprised. It is hard to travel light when you don’t know what to expect at the other end.
The flight was fine, but a bit draining. The section from Manchester to Doha was okay. It was a huge plane and the seats were arranged so that we didn’t have anyone else next to us. There was a good entertainments system with individual screens and movie choices, so we spent a lot of the journey watching films and TV.
The leg from Doha to Shanghai was a bit more taxing. We were both so tired and were sitting behind a row of small babies who took it in turns to complain loudly about life’s indignities. So, neither of us had much sleep.
We were met at the other end by Lilian from the Shanghai office of the company that organised John’s teaching position. We were expecting to get the train, but instead she put us on a coach (the train would have meant a change in Shanghai which might have been a bit complicated). We had it in mind that the train would only take 45 minutes, so weren’t really prepared for the 3 hour coach trip! But the coach was air conditioned and comfy and it was really exciting to see the views of China from the window.
Polly, the centre coordinator from John’s school, met us from the coach. We had a bit of trouble fitting our enormous suitcases into the taxi to the hotel. In the end, we had one on the back seat and the other in the open boot with half poking. Every time we went over a bump we thought we would lose half our worldly goods!
We checked into the hotel and John managed to have a shower, but Polly felt the hotel was a bit shabby (it was a bit rough around the edges, but would have been okay). She insisted in upgrading us to a better hotel. So, we packed up our bags and waited for Polly’s friend Alex to pick us up to take us there. We were feeling a bit fraught by now (we hadn’t eaten since the plane and it was now nearly 9pm). When we arrived at the hotel, the Grand Park Wuxi, we were glad we agreed to move. It is really smart and has a bath. We are staying on the 16th floor!
People tend to eat earlier in Wuxi, so restaurants were now closed, so Alex drove Polly and us to KFC (!) to get some tea. Not very Chinese, but we would have been happy with anything at this point.
There is now almost exactly (to the hour) one week before we leave the UK for China. The country seem to be taken over by riots and economic chaos, so maybe now is the right time to leave.
Since my last post we have had a nice few weeks planning, packing and saying goodbye to the people we care about. John broke up from school a few weeks ago and it has been great to spend some time together. I think we are both really itching to get there though and find out all about it.