Earmuffs anyone? How about goggles? Would you like a pair of gloves and workboots?
Why let these little annoyances get in the way of a good time? Just walk past any urban construction site or home improvement-related store and you’ll see it. The free (reckless disregard?) approach to workplace safety. Johnny Qu and Rex Li will be dismantling, welding, nailing and sawing anything from metal to wood to plastic etcetera. Corrosive chemicals might be added to the mix too.
“She’ll be right” demonstrates a typical Kiwi approach to life. It’s not always the most sensible. “One nail will do mate” (when two or three would guarantee quality). This, however, is nothing compared to the stuff we see going on in southern China. Let’s take a look at what must get affected by such laissez-faire behaviour.
I’ve never seen a pair of earmuffs on a construction worker. Large construction sites boast about worker safety but it’s the truth. Despite the crash of construction and bash of demolition, most workers wander about the site with ears fully exposed. Jackhammers are some of the loudest tools around, only outdone by a jet engine, gunshot, rocket, or firecracker! Yet jackhammer operators and bystanders allow their ears to soak up all the available noise. I’ve included a decibel chart to put the jackhammer’s dulcet tones into a wider perspective:
Wait, do you mean that exposure to 120 decibels for 10 hours a day might actually cause long-term hearing impairment? Yikes.
Note that “normal” conversation sits at 60 db on this chart. The Cantonese I know rarely ever have “normal” conversations. The chart could be adjusted to reflect local conditions – 110 dbs might be more accurate. Babies are loud – Cantonese are often louder.
Sparks will fly baby when I set my eyes on you….. It sounds like a hard rock song from the 1980s. It might very well be the soundtrack to a movie about welders. No safety goggles in sight (excuse the pun) as their eyes sit mere inches from blindness. One wants to go up and educate them about the importance of workplace safety but this would be akin to a conversation between the English and Americans on the rules of cricket.
In many countries, butchers and fishery workers use mesh gloves to protect against knife slippages. No such luck here. It brings new meaning to the term fish fingers.
Do you really think a pair of sneakers (or leather slip ons) is going to protect your toes from the weight of a concrete slab? Workers (or better yet, construction managers) – buy yourselves some steel-capped boots! Now that’s foot for thought, isn’t it?
Possibly the safest part of the human body. Or is it? Most construction workers get a pretty yellow or red helmet to wear on site. The robustness of these helmets is unknown to the casual observer such as me. The worrying thing is that I’ve seen similar looking helmets in toy shops.
This gets tricky with the whole truth, lies, and damn statistics deal. A workplace law was passed in 2002 focusing on certain, risky industries but there were (like any new law) gaping holes that were highlighted by several large-scale workplace catastrophes. A 2014 amendment has brought the death rate down (if the stats are actually accurate) and foreign-owned companies are under pressure to comply. It’s bad publicity if you lose half your staff in one morning.
Life in Lifts.com reports only what it sees. Large-scale building sites were not visited during the writing of this blog. That said, several small-scale operations were observed in action. Jackhammer teams sans earmuffs, relaxed carpenters with circular saws, sparkly sidewalk welders, the wet market pork hackers, maskless maintenance men carrying buckets of strong-smelling (liquid) chemicals…..
Thank you again for your time – they’re not making any more of it so your support is much appreciated. Leave a comment or a like below!
Hello dear reader! Have you had a good summer holiday? Maybe it’s winter where you are. New Zealand readers have been rocked by rain and worn down by wind gusts.
The Life in Lifts team has been away from Southern China for much of the past two months visiting cool places like Scandinavia and New Zealand. This blog back was intended to be about the behaviours of Chinese tourists abroad – thing is, we saw so few of them that there was little to write about. The ones we did see behaved far better than tourists from other countries.
A Chat with the Oldies
This “oldies” term is a little unfair. They may be senior citizens but they’re active, vivacious, and intelligent. It was a real pleasure to give a talk to the Tasman Bay (ex-Probus) Club in Nelson, New Zealand. About 70 to 80 people squashed into a small hall on a horribly wet day. It was their monthly meeting and I was the main speaker. China is an incredibly broad subject so I stuck to the area I live – Guangzhou.
We chatted about the bizarre results of Chinglish (on signposts and t-shirts); school life and the lives of senior citizens; food; street life; how Chinese regard Westerners; and a bit about the Mandarin language. A number of good questions were asked and I did try to answer as best I could.
My eight-year-old, Miss K, demonstrated the differences between Mandarin and Cantonese (which Lonely Planet once suggested were as great as those between Spanish and French) and we gave a brief lesson on the very basics of Mandarin. They were a great audience and laughed at most jokes. I think it hit home to them just how different life is here. They live in a city of about 30,000 people. Guangzhou has a population of at least 14 million (though I think this figure maybe somewhat understated). Worlds apart in size.
I wish more of my regular students here in China would behave like the Tasman Club members!
We’ll be back with another blog some time next week. Cheerio.
I have a bunch of good classes filled with great students and super attitudes. Their homework is nearly always completed and many make a real effort to attend class despite having conflicting arrangements. One girl, Lucy, even turned down a weekend holiday in a 5-star resort to attend my English class. I couldn’t believe it. Others race from family dinners or dance recitals, make up still on their faces. Their level of commitment can never be questioned.
Then there’s the Sunday afternoon class. I’ve kept a wee diary of what happens whenever you put a bunch of lazy kids together. I hope you enjoy reading this more than I did teaching them!
Harriet – The best of this motley crew, she is actually a good student who puts in the work. Homework is usually done well and she takes things very seriously. I feel a bit sorry for her being stuck with the other three kids.
Jeremy – A skinny 10-year-old boy that tries desperately to be funny but doesn’t always succeed. Jeremy has quite a few talents (math, piano, sport) but doesn’t always use his brain as evidenced by his struggles in learning Bingo rules.
Celia – Skinny younger sister of Jeremy. Seems to be smarter than her brother but also hellbent on jeopardising her own future. Her great-aunt warned me – “Don’t trust this one, she’s trouble!” I didn’t quite follow her meaning, until well into this semester.
Jordie – A supposed math genius that hasn’t learned to tell the time yet. He’s always late. A chubby nine-year-old with a mild but rather unsophisticated personality.
Week 1 – The class forms three weeks after all other lessons are already in flow. It was surprising there was a timeslot available for them to use. The contact parent hadn’t checked her messages (sent in February) to arrange a class. English levels are rusty (e.g. “My beast friend is Tommy” and “My sausages (science) teacher is Mr. Wang.” Celia gets my name wrong (I only taught her 10 times last term).
Week 2 – Can someone let me into your apartment? No-one bothers to let the teacher into the class. A ten-minute fiasco ensues as I thrice ring Block Five’s downstairs doorbell. I’m left waiting while the kids wait upstairs. Nobody has thought to go downstairs and let me in, not even Daddy Pig (a nickname I’ve given Jeremy and Celia’s father).
A new member (Harriet) joins the class. Things should improve as she is a top student. Games are played and Harriet wins every one, Jeremy is furious and violently beats the armrest of an expensive armchair.
Week 3 –“Our parents have just invested in a new Chinese restaurant at the local mall” the Yang kids tell me. Goody I think, perhaps I’ll get a free meal (yeah right, they’ve never even offered so much as a glass of water).
Week 4 – Harriet’s mother attends the lesson and gets to witness all manner of bad behaviour from the Yang siblings. Celia flips the middle finger at her brother while my back is turned. Accusations fly and the two of them burst into tears. This really is a bad cartoon. Harriet’s politely mother describes the siblings and Yang family in general as chaotic.
Week 5 – We’ve switched venues! We’re at Harriet’s apartment in Block Seven. There is a test today. Celia has gone missing in action. Jordie has joined the class as an additional member and scores 6/10. Not too bad for someone who hadn’t prepared. Harriet’s little brother, Kevin (aged five) offers everyone snacks and refreshments, several times over.
Week 6 – Still no Celia. I don’t think she wants to come to class! Jeremy has a temper tantrum in class. Jordie hasn’t done his homework – about three minutes worth of fill-in-the-blank exercises and a quick read of his textbook. Apparently, this is too onerous. Little Kevin seems to enjoy / follow the lesson more than Jordie.
Week 7 – No Jordie today. No reason was given. I think we can guess. Celia arrives 20 minutes late. Harriet’s little brother makes his presence known by climbing all over Jeremy during the lesson.
Week 8 – Jordie is given a yellow card warning for repeated laziness. He had recently been to our apartment for a (free) make-up lesson on Tuesday. He’d enjoyed our hospitality and got to play with Rachel Rabbit. Clear instructions were given as to which pages he should do. Total homework time – 10 minutes. Result – no homework done. The thought of this backbreaking homework load was obviously more than he could bear.
A flushed and book-less Celia is 30 minutes late. She gets my name wrong too (“Hello Cherry”). Celia also has a blub (cry) when it dawns on her realising that she’ll end up last place in a game we’re playing (revision Celia?).
Week 9 – It’s presentation day – the students are to display and introduce their freshly made advertisements (in poster form). They’ve had four weeks to prepare. Jeremy surprises me with a wonderful advertisement for cake. Jordie and Celia hide somewhere in the garden. Kevin is becoming a bloody nuisance and is threatened with court-marshal unless he behaves. Harriet’s presentation is compromised by her little brother’s clown antics. Mother is called to come home from work and take him away.
Week 10 – Celia doesn’t want to have the lesson in Harriet’s apartment so we shift back to her place. Jeremy scores exceptionally well in the much harder second test. He takes pride in outscoring Harriet. We’ve finally turned the corner with him. This is what teachers live for – the blossoming of a student’s true ability. I return home elated.
Week 11 – Celia hiding in her bedroom. Apparently, they’ve been away all weekend at a n exclusive resort and mummy forgot to inform her of tonight’s English lesson. Where is Jordie? Jeremy starts the lesson well enough but becomes a gibbering mess by the end of it all. What happened?
Week 12 – The kids have been given a lecture by Coach KJ tonight. Harriet escapes censure as she has done little wrong and most things very well. Jeremy nods in agreement and promises to perform better. Jordie does his homework. Celia is a no-show, hiding in her bedroom the entire lesson. Am I some sort of monster? I didn’t raise my voice or hiss. No, I’m assured – Celia is a dreadful student who causes her school teachers quite a few headaches.
Week 13 – A rather uneventful lesson – thank goodness, though Celia arrives an hour late. She had been playing downstairs. Am wondering how their parent’s restaurant investment is going.
Week 14 – I had to slap myself in the face. Was this some sort of a dream? All four kids were in attendance. All had done their homework including “Clean-book Celia”. Praise was lavished upon them (though in reality, they’d done the bare minimum and only half what some classes willingly do). Stickers for everyone!
Week 15 – There’s a test today. Jeremy and Harriet perform well. Jordie barely scraps though and Celia scores a whopping 35%. She is disappointed, hoping to score 100% from absolutely no revision. Still no sign of those restaurant vouchers.
Week 16 – “boo hoo hoo”. The sound of Celia crying in her bedroom. Stay there little girl, for everyone’s sake! Jeremy has a remarkably clean looking book which suggests he hasn’t done a spot of homework this week. Harriet is perfect as always. She must be wondering why she is stuck with these buffoon students. Jordie was absent having gone somewhere to take photographs.
Week 17 – The semester’s final lesson. The circus is coming to an end! I’ve prepared three of their favourite games plus some very cool gifts. It’s 4:40pm and I’ve rung the doorbell three times. Where are they?
“#@#$%$@#$%” – they’ve forgotten today’s lesson!
I wander down to the river, feeling like a jilted lover, and curse the horror that is this class!
This is a diary of one very atypical class, taken from notes made throughout the term. I cannot emphasize enough just how superb most of my other classes have been this semester. You’re always going to get that one group that stands out for their complete lack of self-awareness or diligence. The 4:45pm class takes out the 2018 Classroom Circus Award. But wait – there’s more! I’ve just been told – they intend to continue with me next term! Nuts.
I’ve been told that quite a few people have ended up with food poisoning from that restaurant! One diner even found a metal bolt in her fried rice.
Life from Southern China’s most beautiful elevators
It has been a while since we wrote about lifts.
There has been little to report from Block Six during June. People had behaved themselves during the month of June. Dogs, mattresses, kind old ladies, angry old ladies, household refuse, and schoolkids have gone about their collective business in an orderly fashion. Lift C’s advertisement for square dancing finals – a shared first prize of two million RMB was the only peculiarity, till last week.
Pigeon Face (and Son)
They’re at it again. Is it possible to be any more annoying? Horace (a seven-year-old boy) and Mrs. Pigeonface (his mother) are inventing new ways to bother others.
Just shut the bleedin’ thing
Lift B (the middle elevator) has a door closing issue – a disease known as Shutting Hindrance Impediment Termination (or S.H.I.T.). The close button needs to be pressed and held for a minimum of five seconds to successfully shut the doors. Horace pushed the button for a duration of three seconds, and repeated this action not once – but five times with predictable results.
Ten bad-tempered people were squeezed into the elevator and in beast mode. The doors opened, an old man entered and Horace pressed the “shut door” button for three seconds – VOILA! The doors opened again. The lift remained motionless and the attraction of a Korean soap opera (downloaded to a mobile phone) rendered Madame Pigeonface inoperative. Passengers sighed loudly, a final act of protest before the remaining veneer of civility gave way to explosive language.
Horace, you need to press the button for five seconds. Your mother hasn’t taught you to count but trust us on this one. She’s living out vicarious moments in suburban Seoul – you’re present – in the here and now! The penny dropped and we reached the first floor after a ten-year journey.
My wife found the whole experience amusing. Luckily for Pigeonface and Son, she wasn’t in a rush (Hell hath no fury like a Cantonese scorned).
Horace my boy, what better place to stop and slowly tie your shoelace than in the doorway of a big apartment block during rush hour. Forget the fact that there are acres of space both inside and outside the door. Forget that the seven people behind you are also trying to exit the building. Forget that anyone else on earth exists…..
Follow the leader
Last week Miss K, my eight-year-old, and I saw Mrs. Pigeonface and Horace on the way to school.
What are they going to do now? Nothing surely, they’re on their way to school. What can they do? One could make up an exaggerated story for the purpose of a blog but this is China. One doesn’t have to look far for inspiration. We passed them on a pedestrian crossing and tried to get out of their orbit. Quickly.
Miss K and I walked and talked. We discussed the usual things – her classmates, exams, the weather, changes to the neighbourhood (a new gym had opened, the newsstand now sold princess stickers, no that arthritic dog did not look cute, why were those men still drinking out the front of their restaurant at 7:45am?) when we heard little footsteps right behind us. Was it an assailant?
It was Horace. He was walking so close behind us that his nose was touching our backs. Mrs. Pigeonface was 50 metres behind. We looked at him angrily but this didn’t seem to register. I said something rude in English (which he wouldn’t understand) and this privacy pestering continued for the next five minutes. It took forever to shake him but his fitness wasn’t up to ours and he tired on the home stretch.
Having dropped Miss K at school, I mustered my worst stink eye (an American term?) to aim at Horace (who was yet to reach the gates). No use, he’d fallen in love with a large snail traversing a gutter and was single-mindedly following its progress.
Elevators are wonderful repositories for germs and bugs. It’s not unusual to be coughed or sneezed on (inside a lift) during a typical week. Spare a moment for Mr. Hill, a long-suffering Canadian, when an old lady liftgoer (mouth uncovered) coughed four times and then shared these germs with several flicks of her fan.
Lip smacking good
Poor Mr. Hill also had to tolerate the loud despatch of a banana in the same lift. There is nothing quite like the sound of someone chewing a banana with their mouth wide open. Slow, deliberate, masticated chewing. The devourer’s glee. The observer’s misery.
Coming up in future posts: product packaging, security guards, exam time in China, and tone deafness!
I think that’s probably enough for the moment, don’t you Uncle Tommy?
(Actual conversation, March 2018)
There are a lot of really good English speakers in China. They’re often the ones who have started learning English at a young age, and despite the rote-style learning of school English lessons and dry-as-dust textbooks. They’ve beaten the odds of achieving fluency by overcoming such challenges. At some point, a good number of students would have enrolled in extra-curricular English classes, gone on to study English at university and retained much of the extensive vocabulary delivered to them during this time. There are also those that, despite limited academic opportunities, managed to gain fluency by chatting with any foreigner they could get their hands on.
Some youngsters from poor families became fluent English speakers while working in Western restaurants.
There are also a lot of people who can’t or aren’t willing to speak English in China. Reasons of shyness and patriotism are two examples. That’s okay. We don’t need to import cultural hegemonism here and demand that everyone speak English. That said, it can be fascinating to hear the English words emitted from their mouths:
“Bah-nah-xia” What was that? Oh – banana! Great.
This writer has butchered many a Chinese word over the past 18 years. People have generally been polite and smiled in a confused sort of a way. They nodded despite not having a clue about what had just been said. Many of my students rolled about laughing whenever I translated my own classroom instructions. How about that for pronunciational motivation? Ask them to raise their hands and (mistakenly) say “pig feet, pig feet!” Mispronounce traffic jam and get foot ache, ask them to wait but instead mumble something about murder – goodness! Talk about loss of face.
A few of the older folk can speak Russian, or bits of it. That was their foreign language of choice during 1950s China. They’re the hardest students to teach. You really can’t teach old (do we have to use the word dogs here?) “codgers” new linguistic tricks. My mother in law (64 at the time of this blog) can count to ten. So can her husband:
It starts slow and speeds up at number six and reaches an epic speed by ten. It’s as if by slowing down they’ll stop and forget everything. Like riding a bicycle, they’re going to fall over if they peddle too slowly. The in-laws speak Cantonese well and can use mobile phones with impressive ability. They’re handy with the wok and very efficient in their tasks. Both are punctual and never late. Most of their generation are the same. But as English students…..
The younger students have trouble with certain English sounds including the th digraph (a fancy way of saying consonant cluster – the t and h phonemes). You can repeat both the voiceless- (this, that, those) and the voiced- (three, throw) fricatives (more linguistic jargon) and end up with:
this = dis
that = dat
those = doze
three = fee
throw = srow
Show them how to place their tongue between their teeth and watch the spittle fly! Encouraged by this, I created a nasty little tongue twister:
These three fleas have free fees
As the 2018 Soccer World Cup progresses, it’s a good time to learn the names of some of the participating countries (“China is terrible at soccer” they all say – I don’t know, my country is currently ranked 120th, 40 places below China). Portugal, Peru, and Argentina are particularly tricky for many to pronounce. Australia is another difficult one.
They inadvertently swear:
“My father is a bastard” (actually – “My father is a bus driver”)
“I’m wearing a brown shit” (shirt)
These are easy mistakes to make though the prevalence of Western computer games and the assorted potty mouth language of the accompanying soundtrack has introduced a world of colourful slang to the vocabularies of many students. This is concerning when you’re trying to teach “We Will Rock You” by Queen. The word rock lends itself to naughty substitution.
Some words and phrases are correctable. These include:
Hamburger politics (Happy Birthday), sanka yew (Thank you), of (for), for (of), mudder (mother), sheesh-atar (sister), older body bra (older brother – I kid you not).
Yes I’ve poked a bit of fun at the locals today. Especially Uncle Tommy. My two year old has just overheard me enunciating “ploduckachee” and has begun excitedly running around the apartment yelling “PLODUCKACHEE!” My mother-in-law (her grandmother and uncle Tommy’s older sister) has no idea what she’s trying to say, thinks it’s impeccable English and time for a nappy (diaper) change.
On a conclusory note, it’s worth noting that I’ve heard and read better English from people here in China than I have from many of the populace back in New Zealand. There is something to admire about the determination and hard-work it must have taken to achieve this sort of fluency.
Thanks for the likes and the feedback. It’s much appreciated.
Oh you would, would you? Well, here’s a brief guide to life behind the wheel….
Mad, crazy, exasperating, liberating, corner-cutting, speeding, texting, laughing, traffic jams, more traffic jams, swerving, braking, swearing, sweating, time-wasting, dangerous, good highways, pot-holed roads, wobbly cyclists, cyclists heading in wrong direction, red light runners…..
Another of the Life In Lifts breakout blogs – this is a blog about the wonders of driving in China. I swear I’ve sworn more on the roads here than at any other stage of my life – including my student days at Paraparaumu College. Driving in China will set you up for adventures in “tamer” places like New York or London. San Francisco’s convoluted one-way streets were a breeze after I’d mastered driving here, though Vietnam and India might be a little trickier.
Getting into the heads of the other drivers is an essential part of driving here. What reckless thing are they going to do next?
Oh my, the road narrows ahead to a single lane and some lunatic is about to overtake you on the wrong side of the road? Let him (yes it’s always a him). It’s not worth the wreck. You’ve got a green light? Congratulations, how long did you wait? Ten minutes? Great, now prepare to be ambushed by at least three cyclists and a couple of scooters who will unfailingly cross your path. Red lights don’t count for two-wheelers here!
There’s too much to cover in a single blog and this is only an introduction to the life of a foreign driver. Let’s start by highlighting a few of the peculiarities of driving in China.
Toddlers on Laps
Yes this happens, more than you’d think. Grandpa (or Dad) drives somewhere with a two year old on his lap. It’s all a big laugh as the kid fiddles with headlights, indicators, and the steering wheel – while the car is in motion. Very cute. Not.
All Day Rush Hour Traffic
Guangzhou isn’t the only Chinese city with traffic jams, Beijing and Shanghai have their moments too. Anyone from a big city will regal you with tales of woe and go. Guangzhou seems to have particular places that are always jammed up. I know, I used to live in such an area for 13. Long. And. Tedious. Years. It shouldn’t take two and a half hours to drive a 10 kilometre distance but it has been achieved (more than once). Sometimes late at night too. Please plan accordingly. Avoid Fridays.
What are those?
Merge like a zip. The graceful art of coming together in a union of vehicles, effortlessly and harmoniously to enter highway on-ramps, avoid roadworks, or circumnavigate accidents and broken down trucks. I once tried this approach and was rewarded with a….
A car that piggy backs another. A small gap in traffic can be exploited and a waiting car doth not haveth the same level of acceleration / pick up as a car in motion. The act of allowing another car into a space ahead is rewarded with a 5 minute wait and a bellow of horns from vehicles behind as you wait for 20 aggressive piggy-backers to pass. A downside to this (or upside if you’ve been wronged?) is the occasional nose-to-tail accident.
Wait at Green Light Day
Green lights are a free for all, except on Wait at Green Light Days (which can be a monthly, weekly, or daily event depending on your luck). Light turns green and car sits there motionless. A gentle horn beep from cars behind might waken the driver but they’re probably engaged in something funny on their mobile phone. Can’t you wait till the next green? They’re busy!
A Dollar Each Way
Taken from the betting option at the horse races. You put a dollar on a win and a place. It works the same for lane changing here. Can’t decide which lane to drive in? No problem, take the dollar each way approach and drive down the middle of the dividing strip and enjoy both lanes!
Driving instructors are said to discourage students from using their indicators as these encourage other drivers to speed up and close the gap. Why on earth would you let fellow drivers know your intention to switch lanes? They’ll do everything humanly possible to prevent you entering their space!
Life in the Fast Lane
It is a curiosity to know why the lanes are divided into fast and slow. No-one pays the slightest attention. The impatient BMW will clock up speeds of 120km per hour in a cycle lane while the ever-reliable Nissan Sunny potters at 25km p/h in the fast lane.
Has no-one told drivers here about the sheer stupidity of reversing on a highway just because you’ve missed your exit? There is little more terrifying than driving around a highway bend at 90km p/h to discover a car reversing towards you!
The bottom of the transit food chain, this category has no rights. Your footpath can be used by a driver whenever he / she (again, usually a he) feels like it.
This photo should sum it up:
Everyone and everything gets to play on the roads here. They have their own rules and it’s our own laziness for not bothering to learn them!
And thus ends an introduction to life behind the wheel in southern China. There are many amusing road stories to share but it is “beyond the scope of this article” to expand on these at this time.
It was a party with cake, popcorn, and helium balloons? Again, so what?
It was a two year old’s birthday party and there was a playground outside with swings and slides! Hold on, you’re 41. What are you doing at a two year old’s birthday party?
Here’s a little backgrounder:
There are several paths you can take as an expat in China. These include:
fleeing a messy situation back home and finding refuge in one of the expat bars
coming for the cultural experience and spending your free time exploring the historic sights
working as part of a large multinational corporation travelling to far-flung places to liaise / negotiate / battle with partners, suppliers, and clients.
Some Westerners spend very little time interacting with the locals as many daily chores are handled for them. Their kids attend an international school and the whole family exists in a small but pleasant support bubble.
Then there are those of us who planned a short stay in China but ended up marrying a local. Eighteen years later…. our kids go to local schools and our work timetables are decidedly antisocial. We interact more with the locals and less with other expats. It’s not a deliberate act of snobbery.
So, when you’re invited to a Westerner’s birthday party – you accept! It’s hard not to get excited. Especially when you’ve missed her older brother’s birthday and have learned of cake, balloons, liquorice, cookies, barbecued meat, televised rugby, and beer. And also when you know that cultured, well-mannered South Africans will be there – family men with healthy values.
I got the afternoon off to attend.
Yes, but how do you know a two year old anyway? What could you possibly have in common with her?
She often models with my younger daughter. The birthday girl, we’ll call her Miss S, is very busy as is her brother. The blonde haired, blue-eyed pair both model about six days a week, their mother allows them a day off to rest. Both kids seem to enjoy the nature of their modelling work, dressing up and posing for photographers.
My family of four arrived at the venue in the city’s south on a sweltering Saturday afternoon. It was held on the roof of the father’s factory. The company exports all sorts of things (including jukeboxes) to clients worldwide. One of the staff had used her interior decorating skills to design and construct a small room complete with pool table and bar. A jukebox was also set up to play grunge songs from the 1990s. Violently colourful party food was placed on the pool table. At the centre of it all was a large two-layered rainbow / chocolate cake and, in support, a homemade carrot cake. The theme was Trolls – a Dreamworks animated movie popular among youngsters. Attendees had Troll wigs (in this heat?), Troll masks, Troll snacks, and Troll gift bags to take home.
Fathers, beers in hand, chatted to other fathers. The wives conversed on picnic benches shaded by large umbrellas. The children, almost all of them blonde haired ran breathlessly around the roof area, oblivious to the heat. One by one, the men came up to me to shake hands and introduce themselves. They were polite and welcoming. A tall bloke offered to put the rugby on the television for me and then spent half an hour battling the Great Firewall of China to make this happen. He is the company’s I.T. manager – thankfully. He remarked that the Chinese made great staff – “they do as they’re told!”
An older tattooed and shaven headed man introduced himself as Rocky. He drove the barbecue. His two kids were older, 15 and 13, (again) blonde haired and very well-mannered. His wife had experienced a dozen different jobs, including psychologist, social worker, caterer, and HR manager.
Another fellow had played rep rugby back in South Africa and was willing to engage in long and informed discussions about our national teams. He mentioned that a number of his countrymen who were getting out of the Republic and settling in New Zealand and Australia. He thought life in China was preferable to an unsettled life back home.
This would be a routine gathering in my native New Zealand. Nothing to write a blog about. But here’s the thing, we weren’t back home. Opportunities to attend such gatherings (when you’re so far out of the expat loop) are so few and far between. I was an entirely sober observer as there’s a zero tolerance for drink driving in China. My observations weren’t compromised by a belly full of beer and birthday cheer – merely soda or tonic water.
There were only two Chinese there – my wife, and a heavily made up young woman who sat at the bar and looked bored out of her mind.
We sang the birthday song after Miss S (fresh from a nappy / diaper change) had been extracted from beneath the bar stools having performed a wriggly belly crawl the length of the room and she blew out her candles. This was different from a typical Chinese kid’s birthday party (the chaotic nature of which is fascinating to observe).
The barbecue sizzled and laughter filled the outside area. Everyone seemed to know everyone else. As the new guy, I’d been made to feel welcome. There were no awkward cultural barriers, or standoffishness. Our daughters were playing happily with children they’d only just met. No-one was pointing or staring at them. There was no bullying. They fitted right in. They weren’t special, extra-beautiful, or “foreigners”. Just themselves. The adults, unsurprisingly (but very refreshingly all the same), behaved differently from those who frequented the expat bar scene (of which the less said the better).
Not a word of Mandarin was heard. No rice was consumed. I like both immensely but we all need a break sometimes don’t we?
I asked my eight year old for her thoughts on the evening:
“It was great fun, people were nice and the kids all ate with their mouths closed!”
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It’s hard not to. Yes – judge others. We see someone in an elevator and leap to some conclusion about who they are, what their values might be, their manners or lack of, financial status, their hometown and the behaviours typical of people from these places etc. etc. We might have seen the car they’ve just parked downstairs (“Oh, he drives an expensive model Volvo”, “She drives a beaten up Ford Fiesta”) and make judgements about their personalities based on these thoughts.
We can be correct in our judgement. Kids who push past lift-entering seniors display a clear lack of family education. Boys (and girls for that matter) who think it cute to flip the bird and swear like troopers adds further evidence to our rapidly conceived perception that they are indeed little buggers. You’re unlikely to invite the workman to afternoon tea when he has just cleared the contents of his nose all over the elevator floor.
It’s harder to judge those lift passengers that don’t make eye contact or smile. Why are they frowning? Are they arrogant? Do they have a superiority complex or are they of the cold-hearted ilk, y’know – the ones that might go off for a sandwich while you lie bleeding to death somewhere, desperately in need of aid?
There were a couple of incidents that occurred last week that reminded me not to jump quite so quickly to conclusions.
An old lady was pushing a small child some distance behind me as I entered the elevator. Being a good citizen, I held the door open for her walked slowly to, and then causally manoeuvred the pushchair in, the elevator. She didn’t look at me. On the short duration to the 12th floor I thought of all the things I could write about her on this blog. Her lack of manners or respect for others, the fact that her grandchild was likely to form the same bad habits as she and so on. Were her adult children as rude as her? What was the future of Chinese society if everyone forgot to say thank you, please, and sorry? A vision of self-centered and narcissitic hell?
The lift stopped at her floor and she tried to exit. The clumsily-designed pushchair took a while to move forward. I held the door and tried to make things as easy for her as possible (all the while thinking negative things about her lack of appreciation). She headed out behind the pushchair and stopped, turned to face me and paused to say: “Thank you very much!”. I almost fell over with surprise.
A nouveau-rich couple also earned my scorn for being aloof and standoffish. They never said hello or made small talk whenever we met in the lift. I formed an unfavourable impression of them and created a storyline with them as the central characters:
Poor couple from destitute village suddenly acquire great wealth when a developer buys their land and offers a generous compensation. This was like winning the lottery. They buy an apartment in our compound and use the left over money to purchase a Mercedes Benz SUV. They’re new-rich. They don’t need to speak to commoners anymore.
I encountered them by the elevator lobby in the carpark.
“Excuse me, is this yours?” the man asked.
In his hand was an expensive Apple iPod recently purchased in the United States. Indeed it was mine (my daughter’s actually). It had fallen out of my backpack as I was looking for my house keys. Someone could easily have pocketed that little item. I was surprised by his honesty and her pleasant nature. We got chatting and it turns out they have a child about to enter my daughter’s school over the road. We have plenty of other things in common too. They seemed educated and now present a cheerful smile whenever we meet. The immortal words of a primary school teacher rang true in my ears:
Don’t judge a book by its cover!
STOP PRESS: As this blog was about to go live, another incident occurred which reminded me not to judge others. Our upstairs neighbours have, at times, driven us nuts with a litany of minor offences involving noise and movement at strange hours. We had a typhoon on Friday morning with flooding everywhere. The wind sent the rain sideways and rendered umbrellas and raincoats pointless. I’d dropped off my daughter by the school gates and was strategising the best way home (through the crowds of umbrella-wielding folk). The journey looked bleak with large puddles, overflowing drainpipes, and other obstacles lying in wait. What luck! The upstairs neighbours just happened to be passing by in their large BMW. They stopped and motioned me to jump in. Their choice of out-dated jerky techno music was particularly funny (“Jump on down to the funky sound!”) but the car was spotless and they were friendly. I got home a lot drier than otherwise. A big thumbs up to them.
Thanks Mr. Girvan. Don’t judge a book by its cover.
PS: There are some exceptions to the rule. I was sneezed on last night by a construction worker. I felt particles on my forearm. He didn’t seem to understand what he’d just done. There was no apology, only a blank stare. I formed a judgement about him.
Guangzhou’s Youth Park is a bit of a contradiction in terms. It was designed by the city’s leaders in honour of the youth. Why then is everyone in this park over 65?
It’s a nice place to go for a stroll before the day gets too hot. Lush tropical vegetation lines the circular path that leads from the busy South Coast Road around about five acres of flat riverside city land. A bored-looking guard keeps an eye on park activity from the comfort of a battered office chair. He must observe a lot. He recognises everyone but acknowledges no-one.
Palm trees line the route that snakes past tai chi warriors, hacky sackers (using the Chinese equivalent of a feather attached to a rubber base), the Old Ladies Book Club (15 white-haired women all reading the same book), middle-aged but very fit men shooting hoop (basketball), a Soviet-era gymnasium – complete with rusty equipment, and a modern outdoor exercise area for people to loosen muscles, joints, and other connective tissue.
I’m starting to recognise a few of the regulars. They’d almost certainly recognise the only caucasian male to regularly visit the park. Uncle Jimmy Liang (my wife’s relative) does shirtless laps of the park at least twice a week and spends the rest of his time sipping tea with his workout buddies inside of the gym. The tea provides fortification for all the sets of ultra heavy bench presses and squats he does with perfect form (I kid you not – and this guy is at least 65).
No-one outside of this part of the old Liwan District seems to know about the Youth Park. This secluded spot is deep and mystic, undisclosed and unknown. I might be exaggerating its finer points here. Truth is, it’s a nice little spot to escape from the chaos that is Guangzhou – a city of over 14 million urban dwellers. There are plenty of bigger (and better) parks here but they all have Wikipedia entries. Apparently this place doesn’t.
You certainly wouldn’t want to arrange a family or work-related team building session here. Thirty minutes is quite enough thank you very much. It’s an oasis of unobtrusiveness, a place to enjoy a moment of mindfulness before being whacked about the head (figuratively speaking) by the chaotic nature of Cantonese life.
As a 41 year old man I’m at least 20 years younger than everybody else here. In this sense, looking around at all the oldies, the Youth Park lives up to its name – and makes this visitor feel young again!
No, not really. Just an average evening in Block Six’s lobby. No-one was around – just me. I’d endured an hour on Guangzhou’s busiest roads with highly-skilled and considerate (ho ho ho) drivers. Class had ended late and parents had wanted to talk. By the time I’d eventually reached the apartment lobby, home seemed within reach. The lift arrived.
It’s hard to spell what static might sound like. I’d like to attempt it here:
Most of us have had the pleasure of hearing static at some point or another. It’s a popular form of torture. I heard static in Lift B. It was coming from the emergency contact speaker located above the elevator buttons. If ever in trouble, people can press the emergency contact button and converse with somebody at the other end. I swiped my card and the elevator doors closed.
There it was again.
(Voices in Chinese) There he goes, ramble ramble, foreigner, ramble (indecipherable rapid-speed Mandarin)
I could hear people, young women to be precise, speaking. I guess they were the operators who “man” the phones for the elevator company. Maybe they work for the building management department. They come from a distant, unknown land.
Operators: Ramble, ramble, look at that big nose of his, so sharp, ramble ramble
Hold on, I have a big sharp nose…
Operators: Ramble, he’s very tall, ramble, I think he’s from New Zealand, ramble, laughter
I’m relatively tall, from New Zeal…. the blighters are talking about me! They don’t realise that they’ve left the microphone on – they’re live, on-air!
Operators: He’s got two cute daughters, kcccccrrrrccccsssssccchh, big eyes, very white skin, the older one is shy…
I turn around and face the elevator camera, located in the top left corner.
Operators: Ramble, ramble, can he hear us? Yes, I think he can, no, surely not…
Pointing my teacherly index finger in the camera’s direction, I produce my sternest frown.
Operators: Oh my goodness he CAN hear us, heaven’s…
The doors open at my floor and I begin to exit. There’s a panicked clunk, the sound that’s made when someone switches off a mic attached to a PA system.
And THAT was the last time anything was ever heard from these voluminously nosy young women – girls really, who enjoyed chatting so very publicly about their beloved lift passengers!
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