Well, they go to work or school as usual. Some might wear a Santa hat and others might give a small gift or attend a Christmas Eve event somewhere around the city. Some lucky souls get the day off if they work for a foreign company or Western consulate.
Christmas really is an excuse for the marketers to sharpen their knives and target the growing middle class with their disposable income.
How do Chinese kids regard Christmas?
“Western Countries have Christmas because China has the Chinese New Year.”
– Bernard, 8
“Father Christmas was born on Christmas Day.”
– Yoyo, 9
“Our teacher says we’re not allowed to celebrate Christmas because it’s a Western festival!”
– Kevin, 10
“I hate Christmas because it’s not a Chinese holiday”
– Damon, 5
A matter of religion
As foreign guests in China, we’re not allowed to discuss (or promulgate) political views or religion. It’s a little difficult to discuss the matter of Jesus with the students.
“KJ, can you tell us a little bit more about Jesus?” A child might ask.
“Um, er, perhaps you’d better ask your parents. They will probably be able to explain things better” I answer.
Play them some music instead
“Feliz Navidad” (Jose Feliciano) is a popular song to teach. Students have trouble with the second line but then most Westerners do too. Go on – can you tell me what comes after Feliz Navidad? Prospero…
Michael Buble does a fine version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”. The horn section enters suddenly within the first minute – guaranteed to wake any sleepers. Justin Bieber’s version is also surprisingly catchy.
How has Christmas changed in China over the years?
In 2000, I lived out in the sticks somewhere in Hubei province. There was little evidence that Christmas even existed. The kindly Education Bureau put on a lavish Christmas Eve party for about ten westerners living in the city. We ate great Chinese food. The section chief wandered over to our table and wished us a “Merry Crimmus!”
The next day we bought a couple of live chickens from the local market and invited them for dinner.
In Guangzhou, we had about three Christmases with members of the Australian Consulate. This was great fun as there was always good shiraz at these parties. The carpet was white. The stains took an age to remove!
A Cockney mate hosted us at his place for a number of years. We played Monopoly and listened to Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” (repeatedly). In 2008, we even got served Brussels Sprouts! Can you imagine the excitement?
In 2011, inside a 4-star American hotel restaurant, the food was as cardboard as the surroundings. It appeared to cater to young Chinese lovers who treated Christmas as a romantic occasion.
A party was held in an old colonial-style villa (2013). The food was exceptional that year but the highlight was the old Chinese lady that danced voraciously to “Gangnam Style”.
We’ve had Christmas at our apartment the past couple of years. Stragglers of all shapes and sizes have appeared. You can order a turkey from a number of places and even get cranberry sauce to go with it. Plum pudding is still a trifle (ho ho – a pun!) difficult to find as is dry bubbly. However, it’s almost as good as being at home.
And, Guangzhou’s weather is always good on December 25th.
Some supermarkets sell every product Christmassy. You’ll pay for it though. Most supermarkets cater to the local market and sell chocolates and fruit. Yawn.
So from all of us here – the accountants, cleaners, marketers, publicists, rabbits, and writers – we’d like to wish you all a very Merry Lifeinlifts Christmas!
Oh yes – there’s a free chocolate fish if you can tell me the second line of Feliz Navidad! I know it – but do you?
Here’s a little collection of oddities for your weekend. Something to take your mind off the Christmas rush. These are events that may occur to anyone foreign-looking in China during a typical week. It’s never a dull moment.
This is a rather nasty little Cantonese term which translates to foreign devil / ghost. The locals don’t usually mean any harm by it and there are times when it doesn’t really matter. But if you’re having a bad day and someone calls you Gweilo, you can muster up your best Cantonese rebuke and say:
“Now come on mate, that’s uncalled for”
Bananas in Pajamas
There are times when you may wish you’d walked, or taken public transportation to a destination. Car parks are hard to come by in many cities – especially one with over 14 million people. An attendant will direct you to a narrow spot in the corner. Sometimes you might need to reverse around corners and over humps, bumps, and curbs to successfully park your vehicle.
One young fellow assisted me to a park and proceeded to give instructions (despite my car having side cameras). Fully aware of his value, he placed one arm inside my open passenger window and helped himself to a pre-lesson banana.
“I’m having this, okay?”
He wondered off grinning at my open-jawed expression. If a half-rotten banana can guarantee me a car park on Wednesdays then I’ll be bringing him a bunch of Dole’s finest next week.
Shout, Shout, Let it All Out
A good friend of mine was inside a university campus waiting for his lesson to begin. He was on the phone to his father back in Canada. He heard some shouting in really bad English and turned around to see what the kerfuffle was all about. Lo and behold, a man was addressing him in very loud, aggressive English:
“Hey you! You come China! You American, you Russian? Hey! Hey!”
He took off down the road trying to avoid the rambunctious character who was drawing attention from onlookers and passersby. My friend’s father was growing concerned:
“Are you alright son?”
Their conversation was further interrupted: “Hey, you! You speak England? Hey!”
“Yes Dad,” he answered calmly “this is a very regular occurrence in China.”
A lesson finished and we piled back into the lift. One mother was carrying a strange bowl of something.
“They’re duck tongues” she said. “Would you like to try one?” She seemed pretty insistent. Was she trying to shock? I obliged her and tried one.
They were rather stringy but had quite a good, gamey, flavour. If you’re interested in importing duck tongues to your local market, let me know on:
Eddy is a four year old. He learns English with the big kids (the five and six year olds). His name used to be spelt Eddie but his father hated the last three letters and its reference to death. Eddy regularly makes baby sounds during class and has a penchant for wiggling his bottom at others. He has stated a taste for dog sh*t (his words, not mine) when the class was asked to name their favourite foods. He outdid himself on Monday night with a lunge towards a rather full rubbish bin (trash can). Not content to merely touch, he proceeded to lick the bin’s rim and squeal in delight.
What is there to do but shake one’s head.
Due to the large number of queries about Rachel Rabbit’s health, we can confirm that she is still alive and well in Guangzhou city. This writer was approached by family members seeking permission to “do the deed” and rub out Rachel in time for Christmas dinner. It took one look into her hopeful eyes to decide that the execution would be delayed. Well, until the next time she misbehaves…..
I hope you enjoyed this little collection of snippets from southern China. Please leave a message below or spread the love and share this site.
Pets in apartment buildings. It might work. It might not. Plenty of Chinese keep pets in small spaces and seem to do a good job of it too. I’ve seen some pretty healthy looking dogs in the elevators here – shiny coats and big white teeth etc. You can always keep a turtle, goldfish or a parrot or two. A friend of mine keeps a cat which might just be the most spoilt animal in the city.
How about a rabbit?
What could go wrong? They’re not large or dangerous. They’re cute and very affectionate. Intelligent too. They’re clean and do their business in the cage. They don’t rip up sofas or table legs with sharp claws and don’t need to be walked twice a day.
So in November 2017, we bought a rabbit.
It was very cute and was small enough to fit in the palm of one’s hand. Miss K called her Rachel. It seemed like a good name – Rachel Rabbit. Similar to the rabbits (Rebecca and Richard) on the Peppa Pig cartoon series.
It all went so well. Quality time was spent with Rachel as she became one of the family. We invested heavily in her future, buying the finest food and cage, allowing her inside the apartment during cold winter nights. Another rabbit named Tutu was not so lucky. It froze to death on an apartment balcony.
Things began to change.
Rachel began to eat pot plants and flowers. She learned to open her cage door by rubbing her black nose against the wire. A string was tied to keep the door shut. She ate through the string. Her tastes moved from plants to furniture upholstery, to foam workout mats to cardboard boxes.
She climbed atop four large, stacked, wobbly boxes, and escaped injury by box-surfing her way down when they toppled over. She started making herself at home on our beds. This disgusted and terrified my wife who was looking for any excuse to “get rid of that bloody rabbit.”
One of my students asked: “Does your rabbit like to eat apples?”
“Yes,” I replied “Apple iPhone recharging cords!”
A “Lock Hare Up!” campaign was launched by my in-laws. They told both my daughters that Rachel was going to the butchers as soon as we departed China for our Scandinavian holiday. I lobbied on Rachel’s behalf on the grounds that:
She was cute
She was tender and didn’t bite the kids
She could stay in our bathroom during the hot summer months and behave herself well
We’d just buy a replacement rabbit as soon as we returned from abroad if Rachel was “disappeared”
We won our case and Rachel received a stay of execution. Life went on as usual. She hopped around our apartment and considered herself chastened.
It’s Been Nice Gnawing You
A rabbit’s memory is not what it used to be. Pretty soon Rachel was back to her old tricks. A television cord was destroyed during a trip to Hong Kong (the inlaws looked after our place during our absence) and Rachel began pooing in the bathroom (wait, you’re supposed to do your business there, right? Yes but you’re not supposed to dance in it afterward). She burrowed her way into the clothes wardrobe and got stuck in the land of jeans and slacks. Luckily we found her before she expired.
In the past two months, she has left behind a trail of destruction which includes:
a 7-11 umbrella
two lesson plan books
a BMW-branded backpack
a pair of Asics running shoes
the leather from a dining chair
several plastic shopping bags
three cardboard boxes
the cover of Mao: A Life (Philip Short)
and the rubber lining from the shower door
Yes, she’d even began wrecking the one place she was allowed to stay without causing trouble. And the moulting. Did we mention the moulting?
We Carrot Decide
So we need you, the reader, to help make up our minds. Should the rabbit stay or should it be sent to the market in time for a nice, wintery, rabbit stew?
On the one paw, she’s incredibly annoying. Her destructive ambitions know no limits. On the other paw, she’s part of the family, cuddly, and very patient with the girls. She will sit in your lap for hours content in your company as you watch TV, chat with friends, or prepare lessons.
So it’s down the rabbit hole we go. Should she stay or should she go? Dear reader – her future is now in your hands. Leave a comment below (please!).
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.
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!
Thanks for reading. Feel free to leave a comment at the bottom of this post!
Not something that happens much in China. Here, strangers don’t usually make eye contact unless they get caught out having a sneaky glance. I’ve seen this, though less frequently, in Western settings too. Perhaps being in the company of a smiling foreigner has emboldened the local to make small talk without the fear of losing face. People from all walks of life will chat to me if there are is no-one else around. Add another couple of locals to the mix and they become frigid, looking ahead glacially or at a crack in the floor.
Here is a collection of the most commonly asked questions from the local Chinese, to me – a foreigner. Some of these questions are asked surprisingly often. Bold italicised texts represents the questioner, my answers are written in standard font.
What do you have for breakfast?Cereal, you? Oh we have congee. Sometimes buns and yoghurt.
Do you like Chinese food? Yes, it’s very nice. Do you like Western food? No. It has no flavour. (spoken mainly by adults – kids here seem to love pizza and fries)
Have you eaten? Not yet. What? How come you haven’t eaten yet? You must be famished. Oh no, it’s okay – I had a sandwich before. A sandwich? You poor thing!
Are you going to drink anything with that sandwich? It looks so dry. Actually there’s margarine and relish inside my sandwich so it’s not too dry. (unconvinced) Hmmm.
Are you used to China? I’ve been here a while but there are some days things can get a bit tough. (nervous laugh) Ha ha.
China is pretty great isn’t it? It certainly is a big place. I guess you could say some things are great.
How much do you make a month? Polite smile and noncommittal reply given here but thinking “more than you buddy.” Actually there are a lot of rich people here now, but they wouldn’t ask such a rude question.
She’s very quiet (older woman referring to my younger daughter). Can she speak? Yes she’s over 2 now – she can speak three languages. Three languages, good Lord – she’s a genius!
Questions asked outside of the elevator:
What sort of car do you drive? A Toyota Crown. You? A BMW 7 Series. My wife drives a Tesla. Ouch.
How much do you make a month? Here we go again. (This question is answered several times a day in the rural areas and perhaps once or twice a month in the city)
Do you like Japan? Yes, I like Japan. Why? We hate Japan. I drive a Toyota and eat sushi. Japanese people seem very polite and friendly. The cities are clean. By the way, what car does your father drive? A Honda.
How long to drive from China to New Zealand? You can’t actually drive to New Zealand. Why? Because there’s a bloody big ocean in the way. Oh. (Admittedly a gardener asked this question)
Don’t you need something to drink with that sandwich?No thanks. Here let me get you some ketchup. No, it’s okay. (fetching ketchup) Oh, don’t be so polite!
You’re only wearing one layer of clothing? Yes that’s right. How come? It’s 28 degrees outside. Yes but there’s some wind. Oh I’d call that a warm and gentle breeze.
Are Western meals difficult to prepare? No, not really. Chinese food can be very difficult to prepare, especially when compared to Western food. You guys have hamburgers every night, right?
And so ends another episode of Lift Digest, where some questions were deliciously innocent and some were….. rather hard to swallow.