Archive for February, 2011


Supermarket slider puzzle

Yesterday we wandered off to our local supermarket for our bi-weekly “in-between” shopping trip – this is the one where we only buy what we can carry in our backpacks or by hand. [On alternate weeks we do the “big shop” which involves finding a taxi to carry our bags home.]

In the fruit and veggie section, which was even more chaotic than usual, I felt like I was trapped inside a giant, “human + trolley + baskets” slider puzzle: you know the one where you have a puzzle made of a whole lot of little square pieces, and then you take one piece out and you shuffle the others left, up, right, down and all around, and then you have to try to put the picture back together again?

Well, there I was sandwiched between multiple trolleys going in different directions, some with drivers, some without; having my toes driven over and my knees rammed by the wheelie baskets and my waist being broad-sided by baskets carried by hand, trying to move from the fruit counter via the weighing section – where you have to go to get the plastic bags to put your produce in (maybe the other plastic bag points just ran out of supplies, or maybe someone is  worried about the bags being taken unnecessarily) – to the veggie section, and then back to the weighing station bravely manned by a lone weigher-person (who deserves a medal) amidst a horde of shoppers demanding for their fruit and veg to be weighed. In vain I looked for Husband to assist, and eventually spied him hiding out with the trolley on the outskirts, taking refuge behind the container with oranges.

I dragged him from his hiding place and dumped the bags of fruit with him, assigning him the task of entering into scrum at the weighing station, awarding him with the opportunity of taking on the “baskets + trolleys + people vs  harassed foreigner”,  while I waded upstream through the trolley stream flow slider puzzle to find pre-packed veggies that didn’t need weighing, so that we could avoid qualifying for the next round of aforementioned game!


Quiet streets, fireworks and sleepless nights

We are into the 5th day of the Spring Festival. The weather has been surprisingly warm which has made Spring seem a little closer. The streets near where we live are generally void of traffic – we had about 20 taxis to choose from when we went out to dinner the other night – usually we struggle to find one.

However, the fireworks are NOT quiet – there are intermittent explosions throughout the day, and then a few more spectacular displays in the evenings, reaching a crescendo at about midnight, then carrying on for a few more hours until around 2.30 in the morning, only to start again at about 5.30!

They are fun to watch, but after a while the noise tends to drown out the favourable impressions – our Western ears are clearly not in tune with these celebratory sounds! In our apartment complex, the fireworks have been “confined” to an area outside the main entrance – which our apartment overlooks. We also benefit from the display as set off by the complex directly across the Suzhou Creek and sundry other neighbourhood exhibitions. Everything echoes between the tall buildings, making it sound as if World War III has broken out right outside our windows!

Last night the fireworks were particularly exuberant – traditionally Day 5 (today) re-emphasises the need to welcome the god of wealth, and for some or other reason, it is very partial to lots of incredibly loud mortars and rockets and firecrackers. As a result, we are feeling somewhat sleep-deprived and feel entitled to additional days of holiday AFTER the Spring Festival is over!

There is a Chinese saying 入乡随俗- rúxiāngsuísú – the equivalent of ‘When in Rome do as the Romans do” – but what I would like to know is – do the Romans ever sleep? Or does this explain why the streets are so empty during the day….


The road is long

Learning a language is a journey… a long, long, very long journey.

Starting out it’s all new and exciting and the beginner lessons are easy and fun. And then the road begins to slope upwards. And it gets harder to maintain momentum and to make progress. Just when I think that I might have made a bit of headway, I look up and see how much further I have to go, and my progress grinds to a halt as I stumble over my own feet and feelings of inadequacy.

Maybe it’s easier if you are able to study on a full-time basis, but trying to juggle a full-time job and the rest of one’s life and fitting language study in the bits of time that remain, means that it is difficult to commit to it 100%. I am a bit of a perfectionist and it frustrates me beyond measure that I haven’t got this language thing sorted out.

My brain leans towards problem solving and numbers and trying to memorise vocabulary and tones just does not compute! I like digging into the meanings of words and the grammar constructs that one uses to put them together, but all this is a bit useless if you can’t just splat it into a conversation at moment’s notice. I’m trying to learn the language so that I can converse and communicate, not just know all the theory.

When I start feeling that I am slipping backwards I tend to want to go back to Chapter 1 so that I can reassure myself that I haven’t missed anything out; so that I can at least tick a few mental boxes. I hate the fact that there’s a possibility that I haven’t mastered ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING. And it is so depressing to realise that there are still some words in Chapter 5 that I can’t remember, even though I’ve been along this bit of the road so many times before. It’s enough to make you sit down and cry…

I keep trying to find new ways of learning – different strategies, new software aids, online podcasts. I have got into the habit of collecting new textbooks – my existing ones get so boring after Chapter 1 has been re-visited for the 50th time.

In the Hithchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams wrote about the babelfish that you could put into your ear as a translation device. I need someone to hurry up and invent one of those. Maybe I’m just lazy and these are all just excuses!

I guess that in the end it all boils down to the fact that I just have to put in the time and effort and walk up the hills – and there are quite a few – one step at a time. Right now it feels as though I am walking along the N1 somewhere in the middle of the Groot Karoo. The road stretches relentlessly towards the horizon and there’s no hint of a signpost marking the next milestone. I think I’ll just sit here for a while and take a little rest.


Happy Year of the Rabbit!

Tomorrow marks the start of the Spring Festival 春节 Chūn Jié– which is the first day of the Lunar Year and ends 15 days later with the Lantern Festival. The country is celebrating with a week-long holiday and many people return to their home-towns to spend time with their families. Tonight marks the passing of the old year and the night resounds with the sights and sounds of fireworks all over the city.

This video gives some further insight to the some of the background to Chinese New Year and the traditional customs involved:

Traditions have changed and often the reunion dinners enjoyed by families on this final day of the old year have moved out of the family home and into hotels and restaurants. For some migrant workers it has become too expensive and difficult to obtain train tickets to travel across the country at this busy time, and for some of the younger generation, it is a time for change and they make plans to travel elsewhere.
Homes and buildings are decorated with red lanterns; poems and blessings are written on red paper and placed on doors and windows; decorations depicting the traditional Chinese knot hang on the walls.

Traditions and superstitions abound….
  • All brooms, dustpans, and cleaning supplies are put away on the eve of the festival to keep the fortune of the New Year.
  • žFireworks are set off to welcome the New Year.
  • žAt the stroke of midnight, all doors and windows are opened to release the old year.
  • žAll debts should be paid, and nothing lent out, or you shall lend all year.
  • žFoul language should not be spoken on the New Year.
  • žIf you cry on the New Year’s day, you shall cry all year.
  • žPeople shouldn’t wash their hair on the New Year, or they will wash their luck away.
  • žWear red, as red is considered a bright and happy color, ensuring a bright and happy year.
  • žChildren & unmarried adults are given new, crisp dollar bills to bring them good luck in the New Year.

新年好 -祝你们 新年快乐 – 恭喜发财!

Xīnnián kuàile – xīnnián hǎo – gōngxī fācái!

Happy New Year

– Wishing you a prosperous and successful Year of the Rabbit!


Mystery shopper speaks

As the mystery shopper from the warmer climes of South East Asia, this is my perspective….

  • Shanghai airport is very easy to navigate around, so visitors don’t need anyone to meet them if they are going to take a taxi.  Signposting is good.
  • BEFORE leaving the airport, change foreign currency into RMB.  Easy as anything there, but a mission of note once in the city, where it took 58 minutes and much patience before being able to finalise a simple transaction.
  • My hosts organised the most spectacular snow display.  In fact, their planning was so good that I awoke on my very first morning to the most beautiful winter wonderland imaginable.  For those visitors who are not used to the weather, they even supply gloves and scarves.  But no earmuffs.  Or nose protectors.  My ears and nose almost froze off.
  • Their patience in the post office melee was exemplary.  I was afraid that the post office sortie was going to strain our friendship, but nothing of the sort.  It didn’t help that every Chinese gentleman and his wife were posting Chinese New Year parcels to their families in the provinces.  I wonder if they will get there?  Talking of which, I wonder if MY parcels will get there?
  • Finding taxis was one of the most frustrating experiences, but 2 years of living in Shanghai meant that it didn’t bother them at all.  You can’t call a taxi [Ed: you can call a taxi, but the times when you need it the most usually happens to be when everyone else wants one too: dinner time, raining, snowing, etc!] – you have to go onto the street corner and just wait patiently until one with a green light comes along.  It may take 5 minutes, but it may also take 30 minutes, so plan ahead if you have an appointment.  And beware the electric bicycles that come straight for you while waiting.  Especially at night, as they don’t see the need for lights for some reason.
  • Do not venture out without your Chinese speaking host.  After 2 short years of living there, she is amazing, and can hold a conversation with taxi drivers and everyone else.  And not just giving instructions – when they ask questions, she UNDERSTANDS them!!  And ANSWERS them! [Ed: It’s an illusion – but thanks for the encouragement] I did learn one word whilst there – Lu means road.  (I don’t think anyone else was, but I was pretty impressed at my language acquisition skills …) My host had no problem reverting to her mother tongue when cheated by an unscrupulous taxi driver – if he wanted, he could have learnt all sorts of choice English words that would have made a sailor blush.  [Ed: hmmmph – not sure I am happy with this remark!] No, it wasn’t so bad:)
  • Get used to squatty-potties, because that’s all one finds in most public places.  And perfect your aim, or get used to stripping down out of the 15 layers that you are wearing for the sub-zero temperatures.
  • And try and drag yourself away from the markets to do some sightseeing.  Shanghai is a stunning city, and awaits the opportunity to show off her delights.
I will be back.  Here’s hoping my hosts can face some more of me…… [Ed: You are welcome back any time – even for shopping! Thank you for your contribution to this blog.]

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 20 other followers


February 2011
« Jan   Mar »

%d bloggers like this: