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The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Living abroad is not for everyone, and some countries are definitely easier to live in than others. China is certainly not the hardest of places to live, but there are, as one would expect, frustrations and language barriers, and you learn only as much as you want to. Sadly, some never learn anything and spend their time wondering why the country they chose to live in, is not more like their own.  In any place there are things that irritate you and there is no getting away from that, but living in a different country should be an adventure, something to soak up and learn about. Differences are good, they make us more interesting, and the way a person deals with them really determines how much they will enjoy the experience.

I like to talk to people and find out what it’s like to be a local, how normal everyday people, just like me, live, in this country that is so widely different from my own. Usually, that system works for me, but China is slightly different, even from other parts of Asia I have lived in. Today’s China is accessible, but the China that existed when I grew up is a different kettle of fish. One needs to go back at least two generations to learn how much life has changed and that is not an easy task when you can’t speak the language. The young are mostly unaware of what China was like before they were born. They grew up in this era , this China, but the ‘new’ China is not like the old.

The ‘new’ China is about growth and on an individual basis, it is about money – having lots of it! This is nowhere more obvious than in Shenzhen, the first city built expressly for profit making, privately owned commerce; the first city to benefit from billions of foreign investment dollars; a city that is now being touted as the fastest growing city in the world. Here in a population of somewhere around 14 million people, (depending on the source you use), there are 85 billionaires (measured in $US)!! The number of millionaires is not clear but one can take a guess at the preponderance of the rich.

On any given day, when the school bell rings, the small road outside the school I work in is literally jammed with Mercedes sports cars, BMWs, Jaguars and Porsches. These are parked in the given spaces, but when those are full, they simply block up the road. No-one asks them to move and they won’t, not until they collect their little treasures and then they squash, squeeze and toot their way out into mainstream traffic.  Ferraris are not an uncommon sight and Lamborghinis, though not as often seen, do brave the traffic in Shenzhen. Yesterday, for the first time, I saw a child delivered home in a Rolls Royce! 

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In contrast to the obvious wealth of some, is the more obvious lack of it for the many.  The bulk of the workers, who generate the output that creates this wealth, come from rural China and they have little to no experience of living in a city. They too, are here to get ahead in the great race for riches, many having left their families hundreds of miles away. It is the same phenomenon that occurs in all developing countries, but in such concentration, with everyone living literally on top of one another, it is both interesting, and frustrating.  

This year is the first time I’ve seen cars occasionally stop at pedestrian crossings, although buses still bully their way through regardless of foot traffic. On the footpaths, not much has changed. Electric bikes and scooters still creep up on you and then toot for you to move out of the way. Push bikes too, seem not to understand that pavements are designed for foot traffic. Strangely, the Chinese think nothing of it and simply move aside to let them pass, a testament to the different way we look at things. I marvel at their patience with traffic on pavements when mine so often deserts me and I have to bite my tongue.

With everyone living in high rise apartments, people come outside at regular intervals to take in the air.  There are a plentiful number of parks about, but if you don’t live near one, there is always somewhere.

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Wide tiled plazas are common and for the not so wealthy, this is where a lot of socialising goes on. Small children sit astride ride ons or in their pushchairs and groups of adults sit around playing cards.

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Mobile carts sell nuts or sugar cane juice and families simply stroll. Where I live, the doorway of a local dept store is a favourite place to sit. Women bring small plastic stools and their tiny charges play as they sit in the doorway enjoying air conditioning that they don’t have to pay for. Again, no one complains or moves them on; if you want to go in and shop, you must step around them in order to enter.  Life is, for the most part, pretty laid back and pleasant.

In the new China too, consumerism is alive and well and capitalism has raised its ugly head. A person is more often than not judged on the amount they earn or the image they present. Not much different from the ‘west’ there. It’s all economics and everyone is looking for that ‘better’ life, whether through a good marriage or just hard graft.

Advertisements are everywhere…you simply cannot escape them. Taxis, lifts, trains and buses all have television screens blaring ad after ad at you. Big buildings are adorned with huge television screens, all advertising one thing or another, and although at night this lights the place up nicely, the constant bombardment of advertising drives me doollally. Commercial television is much the same as at home I dare say, but I don’t watch it as it’s all in Chinese. Only one station, from Hong Kong, has programmes and news in English so I turn that one on now and then. However, just as you are getting interested in some news item or other, there is an ad break. Nothing new there you say? Well, there is a difference. Here, the commercial break doesn’t wait for the end of an item.  In fact the announcer is more than likely still talking when the break comes. Also, whilst the ads are on, the news continues and by the time you get back to it (after the ads), half the news is lost to you. This happens during movies too. It’s quite amusing in some ways, but I do miss a good news broadcast.

It takes flexibility to live among people you cant really communicate with and to whom different things matter. You can’t expect that they follow the same rules as you do. Sometimes what we see as plain good manners (and can be sorely lacking in parts of our own communities) just doesn’t apply there.   Here, for instance, pushing in (queue jumping) is a common trait; staring too, is commonplace; spitting and coughing into the air is just plain scary and I won’t even mention the toileting of kids in public areas like pavements or plazas. But then again, I can count on one hand the number of times I have had a seat given up for me on an Australian bus or train, yet here this is very much the norm. There is no hesitation at all and they do the same for small children.  Here, they greet you as you walk into a store, they are not shy about talking to you (albeit in another language) and students at school show respect for their teachers. In fact, there is a general respect for anyone older.  I like that a lot. 

In some ways though, you could be anywhere in the world. Headphones are a common sight and I never cease to be amazed at how much time people spend tap, tap tapping on their phones. It is beyond me what they have to talk about or how small things amuse. Even when people have dinner together or simply go to a café with friends, it is common to see one or all playing with their phones rather than talking to each other. Mobile phones lend themselves to rudeness, no matter the country or the economic status of the person wielding one. But, this is the age of technology and there is plenty of it about. There are malls in Shenzhen purely devoted to the sale of mobile phones, where row upon row of shops sell the same thing. The same holds true for computers. Technology is the master of seduction and has the world firmly in its grip.

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This is the new China, the one that the rest of the world will grow up with; the one that will economically dominate this century. It hasn’t yet completely found its feet, but is well on the way. In a country of more than a billion people, the changes and development that have occurred in the last thirty five years are nothing short of amazing. But this China is still in transition and thankfully the old ways still mingle with the new. Within family groups, grandparents are very important and many generations of children have been brought up by them, whilst parents worked to provide. This is still evident today.  New mothers generally go back to work after two months and then grandparents take over. There are no childcare centres as we know them and there is no after school care. Here, if grandparents cannot fill the gap, then someone must be hired privately to do the job. Family bonds are very strong and it is not uncommon for three generations to live in the same home.

It remains to be seen how the younger generations of today will handle their more mature years. Many have grown up in families restricted under the one child rule where everything possible has been lavished upon that one child. These children are growing up in a world where only the fittest survive, where the strongest win and many have had everything handed to them. They have no notion of a world without mobile phones and computers; a world without Facebook and Twitter (or the Chinese equivalents). Will they keep up the traditions of their elders? The very essence of China is theirs to carry forward. I sincerely hope they do. The world needs different cultures; we cant all be the same. Diversity is wonderful and no, it isn’t always easy, but it’s always exciting and the world can do with some exciting.

Ouch!!!

The weather here is almost always humid. I don’t mean a little bit either. There are times of year when it’s hard to stay dry and my handbag contents always include a fan and a small towel. Wet wipes are also nice.  They say you get used to it, but you don’t. The worst humidity happens in the summer when I am away on holiday for several weeks. Before leaving, it is customary to place closet camels about the flat and especially in cupboards to avoid things like mold etc.

However, leaving your Italian snakeskin shoes in the closet (with a closet camel)….

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 is obviously not a wise thing to do when you go away for the summer.

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Sob……

Missing

Other than people, there are things I really miss about home. The birds in the back yard. Well, back yards for that matter….

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Rainbow Lorikeets

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Eastern Rosella

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Crested Dove, Myna Bird, Eastern Rosella, Rainbow Lorikeets

In a completely different vein, I miss the freedom this baby gives me…

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Spinning in China, or at least in Shenzhen, is a bit of a novelty. It’s quite normal to see someone sitting on a tiny stool in the street knitting, but when I sit and spindle in public, I immediately draw a crowd.

They ask questions in Chinese and we try to communicate in sign language. Some of it gets through, but most is lost on the wind. Almost no one passes by without having a long look and even men will stop and watch for a while.

It’s not that spinning isn’t done here. I know of a factory in Hebei where the owner has some 500 women employed, just for hand spinning. I hope to get up there one day; I’d really like to see that.

Chinese spinning wheels are not what most of us would expect to see. They were invented in China about 1000 years ago in response to the ever increasing demand for silk. There are many paintings depicting them as they were…

…and today, they look pretty much the same. I’d really like to see them in use. They cost about $250, which is expensive for the average worker or family so I dare say that many families make their own.

Although my knitting mojo appears to have abandoned me for the time being, my spinning mojo has not.  Recently, I’ve managed a box full of homespun of all sorts and what a delight it was.

I spun some glorious natural black llama, which I bought at the Bendi Sheep Show….oh how I wish I had bought more of this. However, I did end up with 417 delightful yards of fingering weight yarn. It’s super soft and has a lovely sheen. This is much blacker in real life….but you can see the lovely shine it has.

And there are now 610 yards of natural fawn alpaca/silk – sport (ish) weight.

This 1450 yds of  Canopy – somewhere between sport and double knit weight – used to be 690g of SCF swBFL/Tussah batts. I am in awe of this colourway. It’s wonderfully rich and should look a little tweedy.

SCF Polwarth in Green Tea netted me 510 yards of sport(ish) weight yarn. I cannot for the life of me get this colour right in a photo. I have tried so many times to get the olive tones right, but the light here is harsh, and I seem unable to capture this them correctly. This is as close as I could get.

This is SCF merino/baby alpaca in Mahogany. I doubt I’ll knit this one at night, but the colour is incredible. It has so many tiny flecks of colour through it that on first glance you just don’t notice. I love this one!  In real life this is darker, think deliciously rich dark chocolate with those tiny flecks of colour.

Haven’t I been the busy girl then?

Love Over Gold – SCF Polwarth. I’ll never cease to be amazed at how much yardage you can get from this particular fibre. I spun up 530 yards of heavy fingering from 115 g. It’s a little thick and thin, but actually I don’t mind that.

TADA!!!  Am I pleased with myself?  Yes sir!

The Green, Green Grass…

I have always thought Australia had a good number of public parks and gardens, and for the lifestyle there I suppose we do. Here though, because virtually everyone lives in high rise apartment blocks, having somewhere to go with your kids, or just for a nice walk, is extremely important.

Some compounds have really lovely gardens like this one on the 5th floor of my old complex.

 

Lower down, on the second floor, was a larger area where the kids could ride their bikes safely and grannies and nannies could sit and talk while their young charges pottered about.

 

The compound I live in now is sorely lacking in these facilities. It is in an older part of town, but it is closer to work and my apartment is much better/bigger than my last one. The shopping is not as easy (language-wise) as before either, but the area is more family orientated and as such, is quieter, and more what we would call ‘respectable’. It is true that you simply can’t have it all.

With no real play areas in the compound, we are left with the plaza around the building complex. Here kids can ride bikes fairly safely, taking into account that some people are there for shopping only. There are outdoor tables and these are usually occupied by people playing cards and the bench seats are almost always occupied by elderly men, out for some fresh air, some friendly conversation, or just to watch the world go by.

But back to parks – the number of parks here is astounding!

Shenzhen is an ecological garden city and half of its total area – approx 2000 square kilometres, half of which is water – is under a form of environmental protection that bans construction. The urban green belt in developed areas is a whopping 45%! This, within a bustling city of some 15 million people; a city that is now officially the most crowded city in China; that is ranked the 5th most densely populated city in the world – 7500 people per square kilometre – behind only Bombay, Calcutta, Lagos and Karachi.  All that greenery makes living in a city this size, very pleasant.

Every day, we walk to and from school, almost exclusively through a park. It is cooler under the shade trees and there are small hillocks which are a lot of fun to run up, and even more fun to roll down.

 

One of our favourite weekend parks is laced with paved pathways and shaded seating areas. There are larger paved areas too, where small children can roller blade or cycle, or where they can play with the large wooden spinning tops which seem to be very popular here. There is a pond where carp can sometimes be seen and in the wooded areas, the sound of traffic fades and birds twitter away feeling quite safe from the hustle.

 

On any given weekend, you will find the parks full of people by mid afternoon (we tend to go much earlier to avoid the crowds). It is a popular place for families and their children. The open grassy areas allow for informal games of badminton, picnics, kite flying, or just plain running around.

Kite flying is very popular with all ages. From the small child’s kite bouncing around  to the huge kites that soar to heights way above the high rise buildings, controlled by reels so large they are strapped to the flier’s body. I particularly love the ones with the very long tails.   We have yet to try our small one…

Cruising Down the River….

If  you have never taken a river cruise anywhere, then you should. For a few hours, you can escape the rat race, the hustle and bustle of everyday life; for a few hours you can trade the sounds of traffic and the smell of exhaust for the gentle lapping of water and (if you’re lucky) the intoxicating elixir of fresh air.

I had this pleasure for four hours, cruising down the Li River from Guilin to Yangshuo.

We boarded early and our seats were next to the window on the ground floor of one of many riverboats that make the trip daily. This is where the guides all spend their time, having made this trip many times before. They prefer to sit and chat over tea whilst their charges head up to the observation deck and stand in awe of the scenery.

It is breathtakingly beautiful. On this day, there was no blue sky, even as the morning wore off; it was grey and the air was filled with mist, and yet it held us spellbound.

I stood there for hours, the silence of the river broken only by the soft hum of boats and the constant clicking of cameras. There was little talking, but now and then there was the soft buzz of a conversation.

The river is flanked by karsts – tall peaks, eroded over time into tower like structures, seen in very few parts of the world as they are here. It is scenery commonly depicted in Chinese paintings.

We were in no way alone, with so many craft on the water, but one could have been forgiven for feeling that we were. There was unexpected wildlife and here and there, the odd glimpse of a home.

Caspar stood too – for a long time – watching all the boats in front of us turn and disappear before we rounded the same corner and saw them again. He watched as chefs cooked at the back of the riverboat in front and he loved the tiny bamboo rafts and houseboats, also making the journey. When they blew their horns he burst into peals of laughter, bringing smiles to those close to us as he jumped up and down singing “Again, again!”

But eventually he went downstairs and joined the guides, where he held court and entertained them in between coming back upstairs to tell me some snippet or other.

After four idyllic hours, our destination was in sight and there was excitement that we would see another new place – Yangshuo.

 

Yangshuo is nestled at the base of several karsts and is split into two quite distinct sections. There is the main township, which looks like any other small town – traffic, offices, traffic lights and hustle. This held little interest for us. Caspar and I were only there a short time and so we stayed right in the middle of the tourist area…just a hop and a skip from West Street.

West Street is a hive of activity as it is filled with small stores selling all manner of souvenirs, crafts and tat. Other than this there are bars aplenty and cafes and restaurants of every type imaginable. Tiny guesthouses are the go here; they are cheap, comfortable and in the middle of all the action. Ours was in a narrow alley and was cool and very pleasant.

We wandered up and down the streets and alleys looking briefly, but Caspar wanted to go back down to the river and so finally, he wanted a ride on a bamboo raft (most of which are made from PVC pipes these days)

Once he had made up his mind, he loved it. We were so low that he could feel the spray of the water and he could shout “Hello!” to other rafters as they passed; he dared stand when our raft bounced over their wash and he lamented the fact that our raft didn’t have a dragonhead like some of the others.

We ate at street cafés and drank exotic mocktails but eventually got tired of the crowds and went back to our room where it was quieter.  That wasn’t to last because the bars fire up and play loud music throughout the evening and into the wee hours, but Caspar can sleep through anything and I didn’t find it difficult.

We got up early in the morning, counting on beating the crowds, most of whom would likely sleep late.  The morning was clear and it was already quite warm. The street was very quiet with many of the little shops just opening, but the craftsmen/women were already busy.

We stopped to watch a young girl weaving and a man doing Chinese calligraphy on scrolls, but the most fun was Caspar having his portrait painted onto a tee shirt. He sat very still while it was being done and he soon gathered a crowd.  It took about half an hour and I was surprised by his patience, but it was obviously worth it and he was well chuffed with the outcome.

We wandered down to the river for a last look. The raft owners were not all there yet and the few that were, lazed about in the morning shadows. Local women washed clothes in the ponds and there was a general air of normalcy before the main thrust of the tourist day began. We quite happily sat and watched the river slowly come to life.

We were picked up after a last lunch and taken back to Guilin by car, and though the scenery on the way was rather nice, my heart was left on a riverboat overlooked by strange mountain peaks.

 

 

 

 

Guilin

During one of my breaks, Caspar and I headed off to Guilin in the Guangxi province. This is the first time I’ve actually used a guide here, but English is not widely spoken in China and this would also give me access to a car, which would take us to the various places we wanted to go. We had an itinerary, but because it was not a tour, we could chop and change it as we liked.

Being picked up and taken to a hotel by someone who speaks English is just wonderful. Sophie our guide would pick us up the next morning to go to our first destination, so Caspar and I had the afternoon to ourselves to explore the city a little.

Guilin is quite a big city and it sits on the banks of the Li River. The sky was clear and the day warm, so off we headed to wherever our feet took us. As it happened, we ended up on the riverbank where walkways trace the river’s edge.

 

Many people were out walking with families or just sitting, taking in the spring sunshine.  Some shady areas were full of people sitting at small tables, playing cards and as usual, Caspar drew a lot of attention from the locals. Another group were playing mahjong, but when I asked, they would not let me take photos.

 

We wandered a long time by the river and I tried to tempt Caspar with a bamboo raft ride on the river, but he thought that it looked a little flimsy and was not about to give it a try. Let me just explain that Caspar has no real love for water, so his reticence was not unexpected. Still, the holiday was yet young and I had river activities planned for later on.

We finally left the river to take a short look at the part of town we were in. Mostly, I find that a city is a city is a city; they might be old or more modern, but in essence, they are pretty much all the same. I like to look for corners that don’t fit with the rest and I found one just like that – a small nondescript street, where one building caught my eye. The shutters were elaborately carved and gilded, reminding me of my childhood home and the Chinese furniture that my parents had.

 

The next morning we headed off to Reed Flute Cave. This is a large cave full of stalactites and stalagmites and some awesome rock formations.  It got its name form the reeds outside the cave and people used to make flutes from them, I was told.

I’ve been in a lot of caves but I’ve never seen formations like these, they are truly magnificent and many of them are lit up with colour, which gives the whole place a really eerie look.

Many of the formations had names, typically what they thought the formation looked like, but it was fun trying to pick out different shapes in the dim light.

Caspar was fascinated and we had talked about how long these ‘tites and mites’ take to form, so he was in awe of their sheer size. There were several small rock pools throughout the cave that were difficult to see and the lighting was such that they looked like deep gaping holes or crevasses, which gave us both a start on several occasions.

In the main part of the cavern, they do a music and light show, which is really beautiful and held us spellbound for a while.

We finished up buying some flutes – of course – but sadly, these were plastic, not made of reeds.

Then we went off to eat a huge Chinese banquet in a local restaurant before heading off to Elephant Trunk Hill, named after one of the rock formations there. This is one of the landmark attractions in Guilin and is a popular place for locals and tourists alike.

We wandered through the gardens towards the Li River where the rock formation was clearly obvious.  Also on the riverbank was a long boat with two cormorants, posing, as they knew they must, I dare say.

The birds were traditionally trained and used for fishing. They would dive into the water and bring the fish back to their owners in the boat. Lines or bands around their necks would ensure that they didn’t swallow the fish they caught. I suspect they got their share of the haul once their jobs were done. This type of fishing isn’t typically done today but birds are still trained here and there and there are ‘shows’ in some areas for tourists.  For a small fee, you could have a Kodak moment, with the elephant trunk hill behind you – two birds with one stone, so to speak.

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