Karaoke and (K)ultural misfits

Adjusting has been interesting, occasionally stressful and definitely tiring but 99% immensely satisfying. For the first time in many years I got up and sang and danced in front of a bunch of colleagues and virtual strangers at Karaoke and enjoyed myself thoroughly. I did not feel self-conscious nor out of place. Karaoke rocks!

Add to that the amazing karaoke bars…your own private sound proof lounge room with food and drink served, four microphones, comfortable seating, two massive TV’s and computerised jukebox and they have turned karaoke into something fun and relaxing. Far from people being embarrassed and ridiculed in an Aussie pub, with a machine on stage in front of the whole pub; this was about fun and just enjoying yourself and not judging each other – but cheering each other on.

It’s interesting when I get to meet more of the westerners that come to live and teach in China. There is an easy camaraderie that occurs very quickly. Three of us were chatting before we went out to KTV (Karaoke) and I asked what my English and Welsh colleagues thought binds us together.

The answers were to do with lack of jobs we think are meaningful in our home countries and a desire to not live a mainstream life. Many of us are different in our own cultures because of the current politics (both personal and national) in our home countries. Some might label us misfits. But if this is what a misfit looks like, then I am happy to be a misfit. For me, experiences will always trump the accumulation of possessions or the appearance of status.

One of the common threads of some discussions about this matter has been in relation to what I will call the “mouse wheel” of western culture. The other is about how people perceive their realities and how heavily influenced that is by a very powerful western media.

Conversations in the staff room and at “foreigner functions” have all revealed just how little we all miss being saturated with Kim Kardashian bullshit. Most of us living here agree that people who aspire to fame and wealth are shallow. Almost all of us are passionately bored (ha!) with celebrity culture and working for a bigger house/car.

The team of people I work with (and socialise with) are very different yet we all make big efforts to take care of each other, both Chinese and foreign. Not in any intrusive or meddling way – but offers of “what do you need?”, “have you eaten today?”, “have you been to this place yet?” are never far away. No one hesitate s to say “you looked like you were not doing so well today, can I help?”

All of us have interesting life stories. I don’t feel like the odd one out here where often I do in Australia; all of us loath the conservatism becoming more prevalent in the world today and in western culture.

All of us don’t “sweat the small stuff” and just get on and do. The reality is that adjusting here is quite difficult (but highly rewarding) and you are like a baby for a long time (I’m going to be for a long time yet). If rapid change and very few English speakers will worry you, don’t come for a contract here.

One of my English colleagues commented the other day that the last place he would travel to is an English speaking country, that he finds this exceptionally boring. I agreed. That is the type of people in my office, always up for a challenge, easily bored with the comfort zone. We are Australian, English, Welsh, Irish, African (Ghana, Cameroon), American, Algerian-Canadian, Canadian and French.

The team of people here are a very non-judgemental bunch of people, if a comment is made about someone being difficult it is done with reference to their experiences not as a personal attack. Then it is about how to better support them.

I feel very home with this mad bunch of extrovert intellectuals. They have worked very hard to make me feel comfortable and at home and I am very grateful. We allow each other space to vent and support one another rather than judge.

We come from a range of backgrounds, but a lot come from disciplines like psychology, social and political science and all of them are clever (in my humble opinion).   I am the only Australian in Guiyang (that I currently know of) and the only anthropologist but I am with like minds, very much so.

Despite the portrayal in the media, there are more personal freedoms visible here in Guiyang than I ever imagined and in some respect more progressive views than in my home country. I cannot stress this enough, just how limited the perspectives we get through the media are.

Take for instance the recent frozen berry scandal in Australia (hepatitis A in frozen imported berries). People were carrying on like China had the worst food standards in the world. Yet I have been in countries with dreadful food standards and where I currently am is NOT one of them.   Even the street vendors can suffer big fines and/or imprisonment for unclean oil and food that makes people ill. This is monitored and policed more than I have seen in Australia.

Yet an isolated incident (out of billions of imports uncontaminated) was blown up by the Australian media and a whole range of indignant western vilification of Chinese food products covered the real issue. I am not saying that the people who suffered from this did not suffer, not at all. But the real issue was that Australia has totally neglected its local farmers and that a majority of people are slaves to just two or three large supermarkets.

Chinese imports are not the problem here, its Australian complacency about food security. In the streets here are dozens of grocers and suppliers of food. I don’t go to one place and I don’t expect one place to provide for all my needs. I wash my food before I eat it with clean water. If I am unhappy about a product, I simply go somewhere else –same as I did in Australia (part of the real food network and tried to avoid supermarkets when I could).

The interesting thing was that some people in Australia thought that me coming here to work and write part time was a step backwards for me (including myself at one point but only fleetingly). I wonder how much of this is because of the negative views constantly fed to us by the media about any other non-Anglo, non-English speaking countries?

Some people commented I would find it too easy. One individual commented that this was the kind of work people did when there was nothing left for people to do; whatever that was supposed to mean? Ironically, all of these people who said this did not have any experience doing what I am doing or have done anything outside of a limited range of experiences within their own culture. So that is their choice and not mine!

But all of these negatives couldn’t be further from the truth. I have been an adult educator for a long time (on and off). But teaching classes of children from ages three to sixteen in three action packed days is certainly challenging and difficult. On Sunday I taught six year olds, had a five minute break and then into a class with fifteen year olds with quite high level skills. I might teach two young groups, one pre-teen, then teenagers, then three year olds – with ten minute breaks in between for five hours then a brief lunch and an afternoon of the same.

It requires a huge amount of creativity and “thinking on your feet”. I’m doing okay, a lot of work to be done yet to feel I am good at this, but it’s going well for me and I am enjoying it and more motivated and enthusiastic than I have been for about six years.

I suppose, to sum up, nothing is as it seems; best to not judge or surmise and find out what is out there. Get away from the TV and the newspapers and open your eyes.

Walking to work – A short stroll from “Ming to Modernity”

My walk to work is nothing short of magic. 

Guiyang is situated in one of the least developed regions of China, once ruled over by Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis).   It is one of the smallest of China’s cities with a population of a mere 4.4 million.

Walking the 1.5 km to work is, as I have mentioned in a previous post, a complete delight. With each block there is a new sight and experience.

It’s like walking through time in some respects. There are pockets of town like areas still wedged in between modern high rise. Some of the lane ways in between the large modern four lane city streets are like the market towns of old.   You can see the same connection to the old village ways of living even in my own apartment complex.

This morning I walked through the car parks and weave my way in between the two other apartment blocks between mine and the road. I passed people boiling bok choy and Chinese cabbage to sell to restaurants and street vendors out the side of their ground floor apartment. It’s a large fire pot in the lane, the side door to apartment open and the kids rushing in and out. The hot coals under the fire burn red and the bundles of produce are stacked along the side wall.

They say hello to me now, and I always wave at the kids. Of an evening you can often here the group of children from this apartment rushing around playing out in the courtyard/carpark. It’s lovely to hear the sounds of their shouts and laughter as they play.

This morning a man was walking down the lane into the apartment complex carrying a freshly killed (unplucked) goose and a large hare. When I get the 50m out of the complex and onto the road I turn right and pass the dog grooming salon and peak through to see what divinely pampered creatures are there. On the way home they turn on a massive red neon sign that says in both Chinese and English “SPA”; for dogs, not humans.

Then another 30m and the village-like markets I have described. I love walking past these, food carts, fresh fruit and vegetables straight from the outlaying farming areas and prayer beads and some jewellery. There is an entire laneway that is pet products to the right and a complex of low rent shops that I have not yet fully explored that the locals shop at. I figure this will be my regular shopping spot and I have picked up some yummy treats here.

In the mornings, under the highway overpass that covers the market here, there are groups of people gathered sitting on their back baskets. These large baskets shaped to fit on your back are hoisted on like back packs and double as comfortable seats. They await an employer and sometimes there are many waiting and sometimes very few.

There are two areas like this one on my journey and they are the places I dwell the longest. You also see people with bamboo poles across their shoulders with two suspended baskets on the ends full of produce in these locations, a stark contrast from the rest of the walk through modern shopping areas. The food carts vary and there are a few that are clearly permanent and they are the ones I tend to gravitate to. Noodles and a variety of other things I cannot yet name and will describe at a later date – but nonetheless very tasty. A favourite sells delicious bacon and egg omelettes. Next to them is a stall with egg based pastries with a variety of fillings and shapes and sizes.

Some of the shops here sell massive urns with bluestone Chinese glazing with magnificent designs and one shop sells the most diving jade and other gem stone jewellery and statues. These more exclusive shops are tucked away inside the markets where you wouldn’t expect to find them. Unless you are a sticky beak like me! These are the places the locals buys beautiful things to grace their homes, not cheap crap, but things crafted by artisans.

Then within 100m you go from the old to the new and the Hunter shopping mall which is as glitzy as any in any other large city in the world. This is where the street is fronted by Pizza Hut, KFC and Starbucks as well as H&M fashion. In front of the high end shopping are fewer street vendors and I tend to walk more briskly pass.

I will sometimes stop at the Laodongmen relic site (see pics) behind which is the public primary school I teach at on Monday afternoons.

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It has the most divine eatery tucked up the side of it. Rows of little coal grills and they bring you skewers with vegetables and meats of your choosing (and tofu) and you cook them yourself and enjoy the heat of the fire as well. It’s a pleasant spot and I just love the way the seating is arranged, low benches and tables that encourage groups of four to six people to eat and enjoy close conversation. They are in a wide but quiet thoroughfare and are spread out far enough between them to create a leisurely eating experience right in the middle of the city.

In the mornings there is tai chi here and public dancing in the evenings. The rest of the way, the last 700m is largely shops until I get to work and every day I notice more and more. I do love my walks to work.

Coffee Craziness and Cat Cafes

Long time, no blog entry – many humble apologies, it’s a case of just trying to get my head around my new environment as well as a new job.

As many people who know me are aware, I’m a serious coffee addict.

In fact if I don’t get a decent coffee by one in the afternoon I get a caffeine withdrawal headache. In my research on living in China I found out that coffee is only a fairly new phenomenon in China. I was a bit concerned and have made it my mission in life since arriving here to find good coffee shops.

I have found a couple near me and had some interesting experiences.   Sometimes what is served is more like chai. Sometimes it’s like a sweet hazelnut milky concoction. It’s also more expensive than a three or four course meal here. For the prize of a quality coffee here you can buy four large meals.

My first decent phrase of Mandarin was “I would like a coffee with milk please”. I learned quickly to make sure I also said “hot”, after getting cold coffee twice.

But it has been a great way to great to know some of the streets around my apartment and finally today I found the very best coffee I have had in China and probably better than most places in the world I have visited.  IMG_0568

It is in a side alley where I could not have known unless taken there by my housemate Karin.    IMG_0567

I am also in love with the “Cat Café” culture of China. Contrary to the racist stereotyping I have heard from a lot of Australians about Chinese people eating cats and dogs (oh how many times have I heard that from ignorant Aussies!), there is a huge pet culture here.

Every large street in the city has at least two pet grooming salons and veterinarians are everywhere. Maybe in larger numbers than human health services! But don’t quote me, I could be wrong.

Just near my apartment there is a long alley way of stall after stall of small market shops and trolley vendors selling pet supplies and pets. The pets are not too prolific and are in better condition than what I see in some Australian pet stores.   Puppies are displayed on velvet cushions and groomed and preened for onlookers.

When I walk down the streets in the mornings, dogs are walked everywhere, people consciously picking up poop after their dogs. Dogs are better dressed than most humans!

Next to where I live is a large and very high-end shopping complex which is sharply contrasted by simple markets within 50m. I walk past both every day and I have to say I enjoy the street markets much more.   But inside the very exclusive Hunter shopping complex is a dress shop with exactly the types of dresses I like (and a big price tag to match). You are greeted at the door by the most beautiful little chocolate toy poodle dressed as well as the human beings. She sits at your feet and implores you to come in and shop…oh….as if it wasn’t hard enough to walk by anyway!

Finally, I want to mention the “cat cafes” of Guiyang. Here, if you cannot have a pet and love cats, you can come for a coffee and a cuddle with a most accommodating feline.

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The owners of these cafes pride themselves on quality cat petting experiences and the cats are clean and well behaved companions. Fabulous!

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I shall be doing this regularly and resisting the urge to own a pet – because I just don’t know where I will be in twelve months and this is the next best thing. I am going to endeavour to get to know a neighbour with a cute dog too…

Four kilometres, a funeral and Jiaxiu tower…

Today was a lesson in dominant culture perception! I took a video of the noise associated with a function near my home.  I thought it was a wedding, turned out to be a funeral.

White is not weddings here, red is weddings and white is for funerals.

The noise and activity will go on for three days for this funeral.

On other matters I walked four kilometres looking for good coffee and found a funky coffee house 800 m from home.  Plus I spent time at the fabulous Jiaxiu Tower built in 1597 🙂 which I intend to hang out more because it’s less than 500m from my home 🙂

Alarm clock – REAL gongs! 

*When I first wrote this post – I thought this was a wedding, it turns out it is a funeral! Lesson in dominant culture perception 101 – White is for funerals here and red is for weddings.*

Today is my day off and I’m happy to be able to sleep in til 9 – for me that’s a grand sleep in.

But today something gorgeous happened. I awoke to the sounds of gongs and voices drifting up from the street.

I wandered down six flights of stairs to see two large tents wedged in between apartment buildings.

There is a large white hanging decorative lantern hanging on the lane way corner.  I could not see in and of course I chose to be respectful as clearly this is a private function.

I recorded a little video for you.

http://youtu.be/YXYOxvW_12c

But in all the modernity – here was local culture, wedged in between high density accomodation and car parks. There might not be a whole lot of money involved or a ritzy wedding planner, but a whole lot of history instead 🙂

Satisfying Sensory Slavery

I can’t help but feel, just six days since I arrived in China; that my senses are somewhat overloaded. But I cannot say that is a bad thing; not at all. I can feel new parts of my brain snapping to attention as the sensory input floods in. I find myself more tired than usual, but that also could be to do with the six plus kilometres a day I am walking in addition to about 15 flights of stairs daily.

There is no lift to my six story apartment and I am pleased for that. I have been slack since coming back from Nepal with exercise and it was time to get moving again. I intend to only rest one day a week and my days off will be filled with walking and writing.

This is the first time in my life that I have lived in the downtown central part of a large city. I thought I would find it challenging but I love it.

My walk to work is a delight and each time I notice more and more about this enormously high density environment.

In my travels to non-English speaking countries outside of most westerners comfort zones I have often found other travellers lamenting on “what there is not”. For me it has always been about “what there is that I haven’t seen before” rather than focussing on the “what is not here that is at home”.

I don’t wish to compare my existence in my home country to this existence because I think that’s nothing short of madness. Some things will be alike and some will be vastly different, but dwelling on what you miss or think is missing is like complaining about no clouds in the sky – things are as they are, not how we think they “should” be.

I am connected to the world and not separate from it, so how can I miss anything? Yes, I have no doubt that in a few months I will want to see my friends and family and I think of them often now, but not with any negativity attached to it.  I try not to think of it as “missing”.  I love them and they love me, it’s as simple as that.  That I can’t see them in person does not make them any less present in my thoughts or in my world, it just makes them further away geographically.

Often I think of it like “Connor would like that, Mum would love that, Velvet would enjoy that, Rene would laugh at that and Larni would be in there dancing with them…”, rather than seeing any of this experience as negative.

On the way to work is a public park and in the morning’s there is Tai chi and Badminton. One side is Tai chi like I imagined and the other side is like a more upbeat, dance like version.   It seems to be older people right in the middle of the city, but that might be because of the time (it’s about 8 am) and the earlier times might attract younger people, but I can’t be sure of that yet.

I am aware there is dancing at night too and I want to join in on both eventually, when I am more settled in.

Two things I have found fascinating but were not like I expected:

  1. People’s love affairs with their dogs here. Like the pet pampering club I photographed in Pudong in Shanghai, right near my home is a larger version here in Guiyang. My neighbours have very preened and spoiled canines of all shapes and sizes and mainly recognisable pure breeds. They are prone to dressing up the smaller ones in some very elaborate doggie outfits. When I think I can ask someone nicely in Mandarin if I can photograph their dog/s I will do and post them.
  2. Busy but not angry streets. The traffic lights are timed for both cars and pedestrians and it makes for very calm but still busy driving and walking. You know exactly when you will get a green light or a green walk symbol. No one sits irritated at the lights. People walk slowly through the streets even when it’s super busy during the week. Where I walk to and from work is a very busy part of the city, commercially and socially, yet it’s pleasantly calm in a busy way.   People have less personal space but people don’t crowd you either.

For the first time one of my neighbours said hello to me today. I have passed her a couple of times and today she stopped and said “Hello” and then continued speaking in Mandarin. I figured out she was asking me where I lived and I pointed up and said “number 604”. She smiled and said “Goodbye” – so I think I answered the question correctly.

I have some mandarin I have learned but I’m not using it just yet. I want to listen a whole lot more yet and when I do speak I hope my pronunciation will be better for having listened well. When I have tried a couple of key things like “yummy thank you” in front of my Chinese colleagues I have done pretty well so far. My regular teaching days will be Friday afternoons, full days on Saturday and Sunday and Monday afternoons. It leaves me with Tuesday through to Thursday to my own devices. This week I am training and will only have had Monday and Thursday off and it’s been full on – but I’ve loved every minute.

So I’m going to continue to enjoy my sensory slavery and will include some pictures soon.