August 28th: Laowai

And so tonight we experience some of the worst aspects of China.  And maybe one of the best.

Bronwen falls head first (literally) after tripping over a cable left outside a busy Metro (underground) station, landing on her forehead (feet caught under the cable).  Lying on the floor with me trying to sit her up, nobody, and I mean nobody, offers to help.  Or even looks concerned.  The security men stay fixed to their stools.  The commuters pass by with small glances at the commotion.  Some of the construction workers look on expressionless.  Some of them… laugh.

Bronwen sits up and has somehow managed to avoid knocking herself out.  I realise Bronwen is not as seriously injured as I feared and start looking for the guy in charge.  A construction worker with fetid alcohol breath takes charge and begins shouting at me in Chinese.  I start gesticulating at the cable being stepped over by the passers-by and they hastily withdraw it.  Bronwen, now on her feet, demands to speak to the laoban (boss).  The construction workers laugh a little more.   Bronwen is bleeding from the cut on her upper lip and the huge graze on her knee.  A lump is forming on her forehead.

I call our friend Rachel (who is not a native Mandarin speaker but is near-fluent) to see if she can speak to the man who appears to be in charge, but he refuses to take the phone.  Another guy speaks to her, but offers no help.  Rachel works nearby, and offers to come and meet us with her Chinese co-worker and we gratefully accept.

Meanwhile, I call the number listed on the back of our health insurance card.  A recorded message informs me the number is not in use.  I call twice more, checking the number carefully, with the same result.  The construction workers gather in number.  Alcohol-breath guy begins shouting at us again.  The cable appears once more with bunting wrapped around it.

Tim texts me the number for International SOS, our travel insurance company, and they quickly get a doctor to speak to Bronwen on the phone.   Bronwen’s lump on the head continues to grow.  The doctor on the phone recommends a local hospital with English spoken; we agree to go.

Rachel and her co-worker Ashley arrive.  Ashley takes control and identifies a different construction guy in charge and translates for us.  The construction workers want to know why we just don’t go to the nearby hospital and just disappear.  She explains that because we’re foreigners, that isn’t going to work out for us.  She gets the guy to agree to take us to our preferred hospital and to pay for any treatment.  Now worried that we haven’t just quietly slipped away into the night, they seem to just want the problem to go away.

They organise a driver and head off to the hospital with Bronwen, Rachel and Ashley; I follow-on in a taxi.  At the hospital, the construction company guy waits nervously as he realises Ashley won’t let us do the normal British thing and attempt to shrug it all off.  After an hour or so, Bronwen is discharged with mild concussion (huge lump on the head), a number of bruises and a big limp.  The construction company guy pays the bill contritely and bids his farewell.

Rachel – you are a true friend.  Thankyou again for helping us out.

Ashley – thank you for taking time away from your family to travel with Bronwen to the hospital, negotiating with the construction company and explaining the problem to the hospital staff.   So much appreciated.

August 27th: Qingdao vs. Olney (Beer Festivals)

Beach near the beer festival

On the beach late at night…

The sea always looks more appealing in the dark.  Of indeterminable colour and levels of cleanliness, the moonlit sea offers a different perspective to that available to the normal hordes of daytime beach visitors.  On Saturday evening, following our trip to Qingdao’s beer festival, the group of people we’d adopted(/been adopted by) headed down to the beach to experience the warmth of the late night Yellow Sea .   A few people paddling (Richard heading off into the distance for a while); a few straight into the sea for a full-on swim and a few observers bemused by it all.  After a couple of hours, and with our small group now swollen in numbers, Bron and I made a dignified exit as the newcomers continued to lower the group’s average age.

Rewinding a bit…

Qingdao Beer Festival

Inside one of the tents with our new temporary friends.

Qingdao beer festival vs. Olney beer festival then.  Olney wins for beer, friends and relaxation.  Qingdao wins for sheer unpredictability.   We’d met Arey, an American bloke teaching economics in Nanjing, whilst queuing for free tickets*.  Brad, an Australian we found ensconced by an air conditioning unit, also joined us as we wandered from bizarre beer tent to bizarre beer tent.  We met up with Richard around the same time as a few of Arey’s friends appeared and managed to find a table big enough to accommodate all of us in one of the less noisy tents.  Our evening meal – home-prepared seafood and sausages  – provided for free by some lovely, generous Chinese ladies sat next to us.  I’m not sure whether it was pity or sheer generosity, but Richard, Brad and I were incredibly appreciative (the rest of the table missing out due to lack of proximity to our friendly ladies).

Beers from all over the world, but not a single British beer to be found (and I have no idea how Budweiser managed to sneak their way in).  A few decent dark German beers did the job, with the festival closing relatively early (a little after ten).  It was then that somebody had the bright idea of heading down towards the sea.

It’s a strange phenomenon in which people of different nationalities are drawn together simply by being laowai (a casual Chinese word for foreigner).  There’s a shared perspective seemingly unique to China and is on occasion one of the highlights of living here.  There’s a point at which age doesn’t come into it (as the pictures attest), but the later the night became, the older we began to feel.  I have no idea what time our temporary friends decided to call it a night.

Qingdao Beaches

Bron on one of Qingdao’s several beaches

The rest of our weekend in Qingdao was more cultural in nature; visits to various seafront exhibits and a shedload of walking along the extended coastline.  Many thanks to Anny (our Chinese Finance Director) for allowing us to stay in her house; a few strange looks from her neighbours but a great base for our Qingdao exploration.  Qingdao is a mixture of a beautiful coastline, mountains and scenery Shanghai could only dream of.  It also appears to have some of the worst roads in China, with the traffic forced to crawl along due to the potholes, divots and missing surfaces in abundance.

Qingdao Pier

Rent a terrorist

Halfway down Qingdao’s crowded, popular pier, we noticed a few men dressed as terrorists with fake guns and hidden faces.  I’m not sure if anywhere else in the world posing to have your photo taken with a fake gun pointed at you would be considered a tourist attraction.

Our trip to Qingdao was supposed to give us a relaxing break away from our recent hectic couple of weeks in Shanghai.  On Wednesday we’d been over to Isaac and Chong’s nearby apartment to experience their ayi’s Indian cooking skills.  Available for hire in October, we’ll definitely be trying to make use of her services.  On Thursday night we’d been to a strange old Japanese restaurant over in Pudong (deep fried everything) to say goodbye to Simone as she heads back to Germany, hopefully returning later in the year.

Back to work tomorrow.

*”If you’re not Chinese, ring this number for free tickets” said the online message.  We did, it worked. It saved us the equivalent of £1.

August 22nd: Beijing Bikinis

The man in the photograph perfectly demonstrates a clothes-style I’m reliably informed is referred to as the “Beijing Bikini”.  Since it’s so bloomin’ hot outside, rolling up one’s top to allow the air to cool one’s belly seems an eminently sensible idea (a fashion unique to men in China it appears).  Having spent 2 hours exploring some of the older areas of Shanghai with Bron and Rachel in the heat of Sunday afternoon I was inclined to join in.  But fortunately for the locals, my t-shirt tan remains intact.

A box of insects

Boxes of insects. And feeding bowls.

There are those far better qualified than I to comment on how animals are treated in China (yeah, copout).  Instead, it was with quiet bewilderment that we stumbled through the huge plant/insect/animal market on Xizang Lu.  Five months in and sometimes I feel we’re no closer to understanding certain elements of Chinese culture.  Crickets in tiny cages; insects in small plastic boxes with what appears to be feeding trays filled with salt; lidded metal pots containing other mysterious insects.  All available for you to take home today.

So from bees to pies;

From the ridiculous to the sublime:

Glo London does probably the world’s best steak pie.  Guaranteed to take at least 2 days to digest, but well worth the effort.   The visiting family Burgess, now in week four of their visit to east Asia, had apparently had sufficient intake of local cuisine to necessitate a trip to a British-style gastro pub/bar.  We joined JB, his wife and 2 kids on Tuesday night for the most comforting of comfort foods in an attempt to avoid any further weight loss.   The food was excellent; my only complaint being the lack of British beers on offer (Guinness did the job though).

Monday’s attempt at comfort food was somewhat less successful: the lump of meat in our fridge clearly labeled in English as “best bacon” turned out not to bacon waiting to be sliced, but instead a chunk of uncooked ham.   At least that’s what we now think, since slicing it and grilling it seemed to turn the meat into pure salt.

Old streets of Shanghai

Old streets of Shanghai, with the new just appearing in the upper left.

Park near The Bund

Bron and Rach near The Bund. In bamboo world.

August 19th: Shelled Bees

Southern Barbarian Menu

What could be more tempting that menu item 101…

Bees.  I probably won’t order them again.  Honeybees; those treasured pollinators and honey producers appearing on a food menu inevitably pulled the right curiosity strings.  That they came with portions of grasshoppers and bamboo worms was an added bonus.  Pre-shelled, de-striped and similar to small peanuts in appearance, eating them felt very, very wrong.  The grasshoppers were as crunchy as you would probably imagine, their tiny bodies disintegrating the moment they come into contact with teeth.  The worms were pretty much tasteless (although I have to admit trying to just swallow them whole).  Photographic evidence after the meal reveals the preference for bees.

Insect selection

Bees, grasshoppers and worms to accompany your cucumber.

What the hell are we doing!

Insects gone

An empty (insect) plate…

We’re eating bees – and from I understand, actually bee pupae!

Bron eating grasshoppers

Bron goes for yet another grasshopper

Unless someone can point out a mistranslation and they were actually soft, white beans…

Hot Pot

Aprons all round…

Wednesday night with the Brainchild Gang (“Brainchildren”, suggests Heather) took us to a nearby Hot Pot restaurant famous for its customer service, with the staff providing headbands for the ladies, plastic bags for mobile phones and of course great big aprons to protect oneself from the inevitable mess.  Friendly service indeed, with Summer (our waiter) giving us his mobile number to suggest we call ahead directly to check he’s there next time we visit.  The noodle acrobat (not sure what else to call him) softens the noodles by whizzing them around akin to a rhythmic gymnast, as close to your head and the floor as he can get.  Sadly, we had trainee noodle acrobat.  Three attempts later and three broken sets of noodles later, he gave up trying.

Internations, the organisation either acting as a business networking or social blind-dating organisation for ex-pats depending on your perspective, had arranged a get-together at De Refter on Thursday night.  Impossible to resist due to being 1 minute down the road, we had another good night with a good few Belgian beers (but very little food).  There’s either an abundance of Germans in Shanghai or we’re inexplicably drawn toward them; regardless, an entertaining evening with a few German co-drinkers including me feeling compelled to staunchly defend my position on Princess Diana (“Yes, I know it was incredibly sad she died so young, as it is for anyone.  But since I didn’t know her personally, I have no idea why everybody else felt they did”).  I have no recollection of why this topic came up.

Bar Constellation

Craig, me and Rachel prior to Rachel’s absinthe snorting attempt.

As Helke was so keen to point out in her wonderfully German way, I’m not as young as I used to be: “You’re the oldest person I know apart from my parents”, a phrase uttered so seemingly out of the blue we had Rachel almost snorting absinthe up her nose from laughing so much.  This at around 3am on Saturday morning in Bar Constellation, a cocktail bar we’re getting to know a little too well.  A friend of Rachel’s was intrigued enough about the absinthe cocktail to give it a go, and so peer pressure forced (subjective use of the word) me to join in.  This after visits to Dr Wine and Dr Beer earlier in the evening (perfectly named, although as mentioned in a previous post, Dr Beer isn’t a real doctor – he’s a bit plastic).

I can’t interact with young children at the best of the time, and I’m sure they can sense the fear.  Chinese children exacerbate the problem, since language provides an additional barrier.  A co-worker of Rachel’s had brought his 3-year old son along to Dr Beer, who for the most part sat quietly and amused himself.  He quickly discovered a new game – pick up pieces of discarded food and attempt to rub them into the arm of the uncomfortable Brit.  When the Brit can only say things to him in Chinese such as “Would you like a beer?”, and “You do what?” this was obviously an invitation to continue the game until he got bored (which was well beyond my boredom threshold).

2am to bed on Sunday morning wasn’t the early night I’d been hoping for, following our insect-laded meal in Southern Barbarian with Jo, Elouise, Haydn, and Ryan.  Largely down to our ill-fated trip to the Big Bamboo to see Liverpool lose 3-0 to West Brom.

Alcohol artificially keeps me awake – I hit the pillow and drop to sleep like Usain Bolt running a 100m sprint (that’s quickly, not making lightning symbols).  The problem for me isn’t the socialising, which is of course thoroughly enjoyable and stops us missing home; it’s the next-day tiredness which if we’re not careful will mean our exploration of Shanghai happens between 9pm and 4am and not 12 hours the other way.

The continued exploration of the “Gourmet Zone” nearby isn’t helping – since it’s one of those too convenient 2-minute-away sort of places.  Full of restaurants (and bees), we’ve been there three times this week.

You know it’s hot when (an occasional series, parts 1 and 2):

  1. The hot tap in the shower becomes superfluous (and a cold shower is an impossibility)
  2. Toothpaste melts

I have no idea why (an occasional series, part 1):

  1. Toilet rolls in China come individually wrapped

August 12th: Observations of a Returning Brit

Our house shakes.  Randomly.  Sometimes no shakes for hours; on occasion, several second-long rumblings within a few minutes of each other.  Sufficiently subtle as to not interfere with anything in particular, but noticeable enough to question whether geologists have missed the tiniest of shifting tectonic plates beneath Shanghai.   No trains pass underneath the house (Metro lines 1 and 10 one kilometre to the South, Metro line 7 one kilometre to the North), and no planes seem to pass above us.   It’s a bit of a mystery, but something we should probably remember to point out to any future visitors.

One motivating factor for learning to speak Mandarin is the sheer frustration of not being able to partake in any meaningful conversations with anyone local (other than in English that is).   Back in the UK, certain elements of the press rancorously berate newcomers to Britain who can’t speak English (and in some cases, revel in delight when non English-speakers are refused entry).   It’s worthwhile considering this from the opposite perspective; Shanghai has many foreign immigrants, ex-pats and visitors who cannot speak a word of Mandarin.  The locals expect this; Westerners who can converse in the local language are seemingly very rare (and this is spoken language only – reading and writing in Chinese would take even longer to master).  Were it not for signs and public transport announcements in both Chinese and English, Shanghai would be nigh-on impossible to navigate.  We’ll continue to study Mandarin but it’s unlikely we’ll reach a point of any real proficiency before our time in Shanghai reaches its end.

Things the Chinese have in common with Americans (an occasional series), parts 1 and 2.

  1. Both follow a strange version of English*
  2. Both like to do their business into a plunge pool.  What is it with half-filling the toilet with water?

We’ve been back for two days now.  Other than eating in a Thai restaurant which turned out not to be Thai and me losing 3-1 to Bronwen at pool, we haven’t done a great deal.  Being back is a little odd; I suspect things will be back to normal once the Olympics is over and done with.

* Americans have an international hold on English which causes confusion to both my Chinese keyboard and my spellchecker.

August 8th: Olympic (calamari) Rings

Olympic canapés, Olympic mini-pizzas and Olympic fish & chips (well, calamari to keep up the circular/ring theme) – the culinary genius of Mr Seed provided the undoubted gastronomic highlight of our short trip back to the UK.  Complete with Olympic Spatchcock Chicken to represent the four nations making up the UK, joined as they are by one solid tasty chicken body.

Scepticism comes to me as naturally as bewilderment comes to Boris; I can freely admit to being convinced we (speaking on behalf of the nation) would cock-up the Olympics.  From sponsorship deference to missing security guards, I was fully expecting a disaster.  But, apart from the organising committee seemingly forgetting Brits like to drink (and hence huge queues being a constant theme at the Olympic Park bars) everything ran smoothly, from the friendliness of the volunteers and ever-present army (no doubt preferring to be in London than elsewhere) to the newly built rail line, taking us from Kings Cross to Stratford in about 6 minutes (not quite Maglev speed, but not bad).

Bron and I had perfect seats in the Olympic Stadium to see Jess Ennis compete in 6 out of 7 events of her Gold medal winning heptathlon performance.  And I just about caught Usain Bolt run his first heat of the 100m after my panicked Olympic sprint from the bar to back to the stadium.

The ensuing mini-tour of the UK was tiring but excellent; great to see so many friends and family in such a short space of time.  And a special thanks to Diane for putting us up in Peterborough for 3 days; the Wills household becoming our temporary Olympic lodgings.

8 days back in the UK just hasn’t been long enough.  Even though I’ve probably managed to get through 4 month’s worth of ale in the space of just over a week (making up for the lack of a decent British pint in Shanghai), it’s felt incredibly rushed. We’ve been looked after by friends and family alike, and (whisky kicking in now) we’ll miss them all.  Heading back to Shanghai with mixed feelings – will be great to be back, but the UK in the height of summer just about beats anywhere on the planet (that I’ve been to anyway).  And from the riots of 12 months ago to this year’s Olympic medal haul, this little island appears to have risen from the despondency and gloom caused by its current beleaguered, misguided government to compete and entertain on a world stage.