Shanghai – Old Town – New Town


We started some days in Shanghai with a plan. A walk, a metro ride, a destination – but then sometimes things changed. Sometimes our Apple map app (Google maps banned in China) led us down blind alleys, conflicted with street signs… and Shanghai is still China, and not all of its 25 million people can speak English or help you out on any street corner and point you in the right (or left) direction.

There were some days when we wanted a quiet space and a bit of old China, and so it was when we went in search of Shanghai’s Old Town. Our search, which seemed simple to begin with, ended up leading us down cool tree-lined streets, which dissolved into sweltering, bustling intersections, but eventually, thankfully, led us down onto metro platforms, saw us wrestling with water vending machines, and ended up with us standing and swaying and sipping a strangely flavoured water (what was it?).

We switched metro lines to eventually arrive (the app said a 15-minute walk, thank goodness it was only 5 in the oppressive heat) at the Old Town.

The Old Town is rather a tourist trap. The best bits are the curved bridges over the tepid river filled with huge leafed water lilies with big pink flowers drooping in the heat, and the curved old rooftops, and the curved lanes lined with red pillars. We jostled our way down the curiosity shop-lined streets, buying only two cheap items, an old-fashioned fan, which I immediately put to good use and a small painted tile for my cool courtyard back home.

Hungry, we eyed the food on offer, not sure of the meat and heat combination. Eventually, we bought some chicken pieces on sticks and found a seat at a communal table. The chicken kebabs were good and spicy and the table was cool.

We left Old Town, which, although genuine, is also a kind of theme park, and made our way back to the modern chrome of the metro. The metro rail is incredibly and wonderfully efficient and absolutely spotless. Riding on it, as we did again later when we travelled that evening to meet a friend of a friend, we were even more impressed as we unintentionally encountered rush hour. The throngs of people are enormous, but everyone moves swiftly and in an orderly way. And so the mass of moving people never once (in our experience) bottlenecked or pushed and shoved. The trains pulled in and out every few minutes and people passed in and out of the automated doors. I hardly ever found a seat available, and it was crowded, but there was room for everyone and the air was comfortably cool. We alighted at East Nanjing Road, which is a hub of people and skyscrapers featuring large neon billboards. There was an exciting buzz in the air amongst all the many people gathered down there. Some used the little motorised trains to move the length of the long boulevard past the oblong glowing Apple Store, which is the entire length of one building, whilst above it, Florence and the Machine opened her gentle arms a mile wide, and serenely gazed down on us all. We found our way through the people to the Press Cafe and Bar, which is housed in one of Shanghai’s lovely old Art Deco buildings. It was a real newspaper press building in the 1920’s. (Established as the Chinese daily news called The Shun Pao in 1872.) Inside it is a double volume space under a white ornately plastered ceiling. There are walls of old black and white Chinese press photographs and L and I sat down and ordered cold beers. Benjack joined us and we talked happily for a number of hours and shared platters of tzatziki and fried calamari, chicken and mango salads and tasty pumpkin gnocchi. Ben has lived in China for over 20 years as an architect and the conversation was fascinating and insightful as he talked about the new rapidly emerging China.

Inside the Press Cafe and Bar

We parted late and down the road, towards the river, we could see that the lights of The Bund were on all around – illuminating the tops of buildings, and the Pearl TV Towers red and blue and purple lights blinked at us. We would visit it again another night. It was late and although the streets of the Bund were steamy and sultry we resisted its charms until another time.

A few days later we visited The Bund again and enjoyed the dramatic change as the lights came on and the buildings became ablaze with colour.

 

 

Shanghai Cheese

Our first few days in Shanghai have largely revolved around food. The pursuit of cheese to be more precise. L had done our homework and sourced a couple of tempting restaurants and cafes in the FFC (Former French Concession, where we are staying). We have not eaten any cheese to speak of for the last seven months, and those who know us might remember that cheese in all its forms has always been a big passion of ours.

When we realized that we would not be returning home, but instead be spending some steamy weeks in Shanghai we went out of our way to find the things we would miss by not going home.

Turns out we did not need to go out of our way but could keep to the cool Plane tree planted (apparently by the French over 100 years ago – what a good idea!) streets of the FFC.

On our first night, we walked a fair distance in the early evening to find Cheese.co. We found it down a small street and chose to sit out on the veranda, where we could catch a little cool breeze, as it rustled through the green cicada sounding leaves above us. We ordered cold beers and struggled to choose our toasties from the wide selection on the menu. Eventually, we choose a duck and mozzarella and onion marmalade toasted between sourdough bread as well as a salami and tomato pesto and a few other cheeses melted together in a sandwich.

We waited for our order with anticipation and sat back on our bar stools to watch the street in front of us as we sipped our beers. It was a busy and yet very quiet street, filled as it was with great moving streams of electric scooters. I envied them as they passed. All scooter riders ride without helmets in China and so they pass sedately by, with their hair flowing back in the breeze. Young couples, him often with his shirt open and billowing, her often side saddle hands loosely linked on her lap, or sitting with her cool milky limbs astride her boy and clinging. There were families too, a little one sometimes standing in front, little hands holding onto the side mirrors with another child squished between their fathers back and their mother behind. I noted many foreigners amongst the cool passing throng. Young men with pretty girls riding pillion, and other older grey fox men, some of whom had lived in Shanghai for over 20 years. Some talked to each other as they meandered past, some peddling sedately on bicycles.

Around us at other tables sat mostly young Americans. They were drinking beer and fussing over a Staffie called Buster. I could not shake some images from movies in my mind, mainly about GI’s and Vietnam I suppose, and pavement cafes and endless clouds of scooters going by. But this is no war zone. Instead, this is Shanghai, the City of Dreams.

The toasted sandwiches were a revelation. We shared them half and half, savouring every mouthful and then we strolled home in the dark, under the now silent trees, so safe and happy.

The still hot evening streets were flanked with Shanghai skyscrapers in part, lit up by great glowing neon billboards, filling the night with dazzling and blazing colour above the trees and the warm tarmac.

The next day we embarked on part two of our cheese quest.

In Lanzhou, we have eaten a so-called pizza once or twice and have been severely disappointed, and unfortunately made ill by them. Let’s not go into that now…

Palatino Roman Restaurant was a place sourced by L. It featured stunning reviews and real Italian, or as the ad said, “Roman cuisine.” We found it, small and stuck away, through a cluttered garden of vines and verandas. Inside were a couple of older Italian men speaking in rapid Italian to the owner, an elegant Chinese woman who switched from Italian to flawless English to greet us as we entered. We were led upstairs to the dimly lit and very cool intimate space and shown to a table. The menu was exciting, not cheap, but affordable for us. It was pure Italian bliss. The Italian men joined us upstairs and so our entire meal was eaten to a soundtrack of an Italian conversation, for which we were grateful. L and I took our first mouthful and as the very thin crust crunched and crumbled between our fingers our eyes met and I think it was me who said it first “I feel so happy right now.”

Ah! The power of food!

We ate pizzas topped with thin slivers of Parma ham, piled with crispy rocket leaves, oozing with stringy mozzarella, shiny with salami, and we plunged into a shared salad of green and black olives, capers, artichokes, chunks of mozzarella, and juicy sliced tomatoes. We sloshed all with fragrant extra virgin olive oil and a drizzle of black balsamic vinegar. And so ended our cheese odyssey.

But no doubt there will probably be a second journey before we finally head home.

 

 

The Muslim Quarter in Xi’an

Xian

Lex and Michelle - Holi FestivalAfter our shower, in which we failed to remove all the Holi Festival paint, we set off, me with a pink streak in my hair and L with a flash of pink in his beard, to visit the Muslim Quarter street market, set within the walls of old Xi’an.

It had stopped raining, and we were grateful for that as we climbed aboard the bus that would take us there.
Xi’an is even more beautiful at night, which we discovered as we travelled through the wonderfully lit streets.

Muslim market
We got off at the Drum Temple and strolled to the entrance to the Muslim Market, where people stood on the few small stone pillars there, for the purpose of taking selfies, featuring the brightly lit and colourfully detailed Drum Temple in the background.

lady selling chicken sticks
The streets of the Muslim Market were filled with people, and the sidewalks crowded with a multitude of stalls all manned by Muslims, wearing their distinctive little white hats. The women had their heads draped and covered by fabric decorated with silver or gold brocade and white lace.

They all laboured intensely at their various stalls exhibiting their skills of pounding sugar, or peeling the flesh cleanly off the bones of an animal (mutton or beef?) leaving the skeleton to hang, picked completely clean of flesh as if by some large bird of prey.

Slicing meat
Women demonstrated their skill in making ice cream over a frosty steel plate, spreading and scraping and finally rolling the ice cream into bud like spirals, and then placing them together into a small tub, like so many rosebuds.

At one stall a man pushed a millstone around, like a mule would, crushing a mound of chillies and then scooping them all up into jars with oil (one of which L bought).
The variety of stalls were endless and the street, flanked on either side by ancient buildings visible above the stalls, stretched on for miles.

Making spicy lamb pita pockets, which L loved!

Every now and again a Muslim man would stand out on the pavement outside his stall and bark some words, almost aggressively, at the passing crowd. I suppose he was advertising his wares.

Lady selling gourds
I wondered about this community, the Hui, and stood still in the street, gazing at their marvellous faces, all toiling together under the soft yellow glow of the lights. I wondered if they were mostly family-run stalls, sisters and brothers, uncles and aunts, and young men and women with the destiny of their roles already written as they were born.

We hardly bought any food (we were still full from our Indian dining..). We opted, instead, to spend some money at a silver jewellery store, mainly because of the woman seated at the entrance, dressed in a kind of silver armour and an elaborate headdress, who was banging away at a strip of bright silver.


L decided that we should buy a pair of extraordinary earrings there for me ….made of ‘canary stone’, which is what our Chinese translation app told us they were made of, but later we found out it was yellow jade.
The transaction was sealed by the saleslady pouring a colourless tea into small blue porcelain bowls, each of which contained a small fish charm made of silver. We both drank our tea and the deal was sealed.

Later we bought a small book of Mao Tse Tungs quotations, simply because I loved its redness and we managed to bargain the stall owner down from 80 yuan to 20 yuan.


Later we drank cappuccinos under the very modern roof of a nearby Starbucks and viewed the brightly lit Bell Tower in the middle of the busy street above us.
We were tired and gladly walked out to catch a bus, and we slept very well under the crisp white linen in our hotel room.

Tobacconist at Muslim market
Tobacconist at Muslim market

Lamb shanks and beef noodles

Beef Noodles are the Lanzhou national dish.

A Muslim friend took us out one day to experience them at a Muslim Restaurant, assuring us that this was the restaurant that provided the best beef.
We followed him around the Restaurant, moving from counter to counter, being handed a platter of thinly sliced beef, then a couple of dishes of vegetables (chunky chopped cucumber, pink crunchy radishes and bright orange cabbage in a vinegary dressing), and finally large bowls of soupy noodles ( L chose the spicy one – great spoonfuls of red chillies were ladled into it).
We found a place at the communal tables and sat down. We picked up slivers of succulent beef with our chopsticks and dropped them into our bowls of noodles. The beef softened and we shovelled them into our mouths along with the long strands of noodles which we bit off. It was all pretty delicious. In between mouthfuls, we ate the fresh cold vegetables.

A young lady waitress came and befriended us. She was a student she told us and this was her family’s restaurant. She communicated with us in a mixture of English, Chinese and German. We sort of figured it out. Sweet girl!

L and I appreciate being shown around but there came a day when we ventured into a Chinese restaurant on our own.

We could have gone to 26”pizza. But where would have been the fun in that?
We chose the Restaurant for it’s Union Jack seats which we could see in the window. It seemed popular and the photos of dishes in the window looked good, reasonably priced, and so we went inside.
The menu did not feature a word of English. We tried to use our Chinese translation app. It wasn’t very helpful. No one in the Restaurant could help us, but I liked the traditional Chinese pictures painted all around the walls. I liked the big front doors painted brightly, featuring fearsome Chinese warriors and gentle watercolour scenes of the countryside.
We pointed out two dishes and they arrived. They turned out to be two HUGE platters, one with lamb ribs, very crisp and juicy but covered in red chillies. The other was what had looked like chicken in the photograph but turned out to be something… which we never figured out…but there were also peanuts and such an immense amount of chillies that even L could not manage it.
Oh well, we called for COKE, which we assumed was an international word. It isn’t.
We got a coke in the end, and we were gratefully able to wash away some of the burn.


A week or so later we visited another Muslim Restaurant with the same friend and our Chinese speaking Romanian, who could translate!
The food, delicious roasted lamb shanks and a platter of sweet and sour chicken, a fresh salad and some spicy potatoes was wonderful.
The whole meal was washed down with a tea consisting of dried dates, dried litchis, dried flowers (not sure which), lots of green tea leaves and a lump of sugar crystals. Our large glass mugs were continuously topped up with warm water. The tea improved with time.

We don’t go to Restaurants that often, perhaps once a week. The Chinese food Restaurants are very, very cheap. The lamb shank meal was expensive and cost us each about R45,00 (under $4)!

Normally, over the holidays, we have been eating our daily meal at the canteen in the Wanhua building next door. They invited us to join them for lunch over the holiday season, and so we do. We are the only teachers there.
We pay a small amount with WeChat and sit down with the workers there, some in blue jackets, some in red, some in suits, some in designer coats. By the vast majority of them, we are now hardly noticed.
The lady in charge is helpful and friendly. Her English is a whole lot better than just about anyone else we have met.
Most days a trip to the canteen is enough for us, or sometimes we buy a few containers of food and take it back to the flat to be heated up and eaten later.
We sit around our table with our bowls and red chopsticks and dip into the containers of tofu, or noodles, rice or beef with lots of red peppers.
It feels as good as any restaurant, with the sun streaming into the room, our favourite photos turning around on the flat screen and some soft blues playing.

lounge

Cake and Cappuccinos

Our search for the perfect cappuccino has often pushed us out, onto buses and pavements, quite often in temperatures as low as – 20.

CakeEarly on in our stay in Lanzhou, the word CAKE stood out for me – often the only English word I could read amongst all the other Chinese shop signage.

I never associated CAKE with China. But I was wrong.
We were treated to our first cake after we had only been in China for a couple days. It tasted good but it was the way it was decorated that really impressed me.

Later we explored the shop that had supplied the cake for ourselves. The shop is called ‘Holiland’ and both the shop’s contents and its displays have amazed and amused us ever since.

boobie cakeI have yet to find out which occasion would warrant the purchase of the ‘booby’ cake – but there is always at least one displayed at ‘Holiland’, iced and ready.

When you do buy a cake you are also given a slim gift box of noodles to take home. It’s just a ‘Holiland’ thing…

We have enjoyed cake in other places, namely with a cappuccino on the side.

Coffee bars have become our favourite place to hang out, whether it be 501, Starbucks or Caffe Bene.

I am writing this whilst sitting on a large squashy leather couch in our favourite (thus far) coffee bar – Caffe Bene.
One of the reasons that I think we like it is because we can catch the no 88 bus just outside the school, and then go with it over the Yellow River, which is wonderful. We can look down on the icy brown river, sluggishly moving through its icy banks, flanked by bare trees on either side. We can get off the bus very close to Caffe Bene and be inside its cosy warm interior within a matter of minutes.

All the coffee bars which we have visited thus far have a few things in common:
– They are all really big and can seat a lot of people
– They just about all feature the Union Jack design on either chairs or tables
– They all serve excellent cappuccinos, fruit teas and juices
– Most of them serve slices of pizza
– Waffles are also popular
– They all serve CAKE
– No one minds how long you stay – all day if you like…

Right now L and I have been here for about one and a half hours. Our laptops and books are all spread out over our low kist-like Union Jack coffee table. There are electric points at most of the tables here and our cell phones are plugged in to charge. There is excellent WiFi.
You are also allowed to smoke inside the Coffee Bars in China. I, personally, quite like that fact…
The ceilings are often high and there doesn’t seem to be much smoke hanging around. Maybe they remind me of another time when I was young and everywhere I went I remember as being smoky. Anyway.


The first time we ordered a piece of cake (to share) at 501 we were each given a little black plastic fork as well as two sets of silver crockery. Later we were offered hot water from a silver jug, and when we nodded the young waiter poured the water over the foamy dregs of our cappuccino! Yet another lost in translation incident!


At 501 you are given a Teddy Bear when you place your order. Teddy then sits with you to be collected when your order arrives.
Youngsters arrived in groups into 501, boys mostly, to sit with cell phones and cigarettes and chat over bottles of beer. The music was mostly rap that day, featuring very unsuitable English words. The F-bomb and rude names for women were really not properly understood I believe, and the music was shrugged off, along with the ash from their cigarettes, flicked into coffee grind filled ashtrays.

On our first visit to a Starbucks we ordered a slice of cheesecake (cheesecake is popular), only it was not cheesecake that arrived. We had been so confident of our order that day – the Chinese boy with blonde streaks in his hair seemed to understand our English so well!
We bumped into our sweet Chinese fixer that day – which was like a miracle – to bump into one of the few people we know amongst the teeming throngs of people in Lanzhou.

It was snowing that day as well, and L took a wonderful photo of 2 monks, asking for directions, from the icy Starbucks doorway.

But the no 88 bus Caffe Bene remains our favourite.


As I sit here there is a hubbub of Chinese voices around me. The music here is mostly bluesy, or old 1930s jazz, sometimes with the raw touch of a Janis Joplin standard.
People are working on laptops, sometimes chatting, looking up from cell phones, laughing with red lip-sticked mouths, flicking their long dark haired fringes.
The people next to me order a pizza, it may have a sweet potato topping, or beef, or something fruity.
Maybe L and I will negotiate something plain – a Marguerite?
Anyway, we will probably be here for hours yet.
Like everyone else.

The Market

Brush salesman

On Saturday we set out to go shopping. We had no real plan, apart from a visit to the bank

We wandered past Wu-mart and kept walking, and around the corner, we came upon a market.

morning marketThe market ran down both sides of a side street. It was full of people and ran along the street for quite a long way.
We decided to venture down it.

There were many stalls, all very interesting and different from the markets that I know.

Fresh fishThere were stalls selling fish. The fish were kept alive in big red square baths, with fresh water being pumped around them as they lay there twisting and flicking their tails. We did not buy any, but if we had, our fish would have been killed, scaled and gutted for us while we waited.

Live chickens being soldThere were live chickens being sold. They were kept in wire and steel cages, from where they were taken out and weighed for customers. I didn’t wait around to see whether they were killed and cleaned then and there or not. We had to move on

The narrow walkway not only catered for pedestrians but also for three-wheelers and motorbikes and bicycles, all moving up and down, shopping and making deliveries.

Brush salesmanAn old man sold an assortment of brushes from his bicycle parked in the middle of the road.

Fruit and vegetablesThe fruit and vegetables were very fresh and crispy and brightly coloured. They were all set out in rows and were very cheap, but as we planned to be out for a while we did not buy any.

Colourful herbsThere were also tables groaning under bags of spices, loads of chillies, chopped finely or roughly, piles of a yellow powder (surely it was turmeric), dried green herbs (which ones?), and a pile of light pink powder (no idea what that could be).
I recognised piles of cinnamon bark, bundles of bay leaves, clusters of star anise and bunches of fresh coriander. I guessed at what other powders could be, but it didn’t matter, as I wasn’t buying.
What I did buy was ginger. I wanted a piece so that we could cut off thin slices to put in the hot water that the Chinese serve to you everywhere and which we have started drinking as well.
Anyway – I gave too much money (it wasn’t much) and ended up with 5 huge pieces of ginger!
Shopping from markets with no language is an art that I have yet to master!

We bought some crispy little round pastries to nibble on. They tasted of oil, but they went down well, as we ate them, strolling along in the icy morning.

Fresh meatThere were a lot of meat stalls, with the meat lying out on open tables in the freezing air. They seemed to be sold as large chunks of meat, not cut into steaks or chops or cubes or ribs. There was not much pork for sale, we noticed, as most of the stallholders at the market appeared to be Muslim, with the flat planes of Mongolia carved on their faces.

Green TeaWe stopped at a stall where a man sold piles of green tea. We did not have a container in which we could carry a small amount, nor do we have a teapot or a strainer. The man at the stall had a little English, in that he could say ‘Green tea’ and he gave us permission to photograph his stall, although he himself moved out of the shot.

A truck load of freshly made pasta
A truck load of freshly made pasta

We were beckoned over by a lady selling tofu (a lot of it is served to us in the school cafeteria). She was selling from a large bucket of chilli tofu (her husband knew the word ‘hot’) and another bucket of plain tofu. She gave us a little taster of each and so we bought a square – not so much because we wanted it but because we felt obliged to her. We did not pay much for it, and I carried it in my coat pocket, wrapped in plastic, for the rest of the morning.

Bicycle graveyardWe strolled on and the row of market stalls ended. We found ourselves in a rather dilapidated part of town, filled with workers, trucks and impatient men on 3 wheelers. There were little warehouses everywhere and towering flats above strung with ropes of black cable and windows caged in with bars.

Muslim restaurantI saw a small Muslim restaurant in which I glimpsed groups of smoking men talking and eating together around smoky tables.

We emerged back out onto the Main Road, having walked in a loop. We wandered into a health pharmacy, looking for some basic medication. L used our Chinese/English app to describe what we needed, as well as to read the packaging. We got what we needed, and amongst much smiling and reading of cell phone scenes, we paid and left.

Crossing Chinese roads no longer phases us, apart from the very real danger that we might look the wrong way for oncoming traffic.
We started feeling a little concerned about the tofu in my pocket, and so we headed home.

Food

Charlies Burger

Food plays a big part in our lives here.

Everything about it is so foreign – buying it, preparing it and eating it, both at home and in restaurants.

I have started to call our lives in Lanzhou – FULL IMMERSION – as life here is so totally different, so very intensely Chinese.

An English teacher friend just returned from a long weekend in Shanghai. She said she loved it. There is a lot of English there – she said. She also mentioned the beauty of the city, the buildings and the architecture. She mentioned hearing the English language being spoken everywhere. She even mentioned that she had found a bookshop that sold a wide variety of English books!

L and I are glad to be in Lanzhou. We like the fact that life is very unplugged from the West here. As a result,  we are being driven to learn to speak a little more Chinese, and we are learning a lot, both about China and about ourselves.

But we have pencilled Shanghai in on our calendars…

Curry night Last Friday night a couple of the other foreign teachers cooked for us. We lapped up South African curry and rice (with tomato and onion, banana and cucumber sambals on the side.)

A young Indian teacher also contributed to the meal, making us delicious Basmati rice with spices. He also made us  ‘Chicken 65’, which, we found out, is a type of spicy chicken nugget dish, served with a coriander dip. A wonderful multi-cultural meal!

Meals like that one do a lot to assist with the reality of FULL IMMERSION!

The other thing to do, we discussed, with our friends, who have been here a lot longer than us, is to find a way to lift your face up from under the water every now and then – so as to breathe a little familiar air occasionally.

With this idea in mind, we travelled out with them on Sunday morning. Firstly, we met some friends of theirs, gathered at a meeting in downtown Lanzhou.

Lanzhou, I am told, contains about 7 universities. This means that a large percentage of the population here are students and lecturers. And it is within these communities that one encounters more foreigners.

We have already met a couple of foreign students.  I think that they are impressive, because, although most are postgraduate, in order to study here, they have all spent a year studying to read and write Chinese, before they launched into their further studies! As a result, there are a bunch of Americans, Romanians, Indians and Africans who I have now met, who can speak, and write pretty good Chinese!

Meeting with them to make friends and to chat about life in Lanzhou ( a couple of  American doctors have been here for over 11 years already!) was like a breath of fresh air.

After the meeting we ventured further into Lanzhou, catching a No 118 bus, which we had never done before.

Our destination was ‘Charlie’s Burgers’.

Charlies BurgerThe exterior gave a hint of what awaited us inside. It was bright and fun! The interior downstairs was cluttered with huge lollipops which hung from the ceiling (and a Christmas tree with lights on – still in the corner – the Christmas decorations are kept up for months…)

Charlies Burger - interior

We were warmly greeted by a young Chinese waitress, in a checked red shirt and Stetson, who spoke to us in rapid Chinese.

Charlies BurgerWe followed her up the yellow pumpkin lantern lit stairs (décor left over from the Halloween festival…)

We were shown to a table and given four very large, very English menus. I felt a strange sense of relief begin to flow over me. All was so familiar, there was even American music playing!

Held within the large menu were large glossy pictures of an assortment of burgers. Most of the hamburgers were quite normal, some had a distinctly Chinese flavour, but all came with fries, and we even ordered cokes!

Charlies BurgerWe were issued silver knives and forks to eat with! Our orders were taken by a waitress who continued to speak to us in fluent Chinese, even when it became very apparent that we could not understand a word. Never mind – pointing to the pictures made our orders clear enough!

As I waited I glanced around the room and was entertained by some of the signs around the room.

Charlies Burger

‘Charlie’s burger join us for happy’

‘We want you smiling’

As we waited we were incessantly served hot water from a waitress, who circled around all the tables with a jug.

In China cups of hot water are given to you everywhere – even in the queue at the bank!

The meal arrived and it was as yummy a burger as I have ever had. The cokes were good too, only recognisable by their distinctive red and white colours.

Lanzhou shopping mallWe moved on from there to a very posh mall – think Sandton or Cavendish – filled with designer shops spread over 4 or more floors. We were in search of coffee!

Cafe BeneWe found Caffé Bene and walked into its dim interior. The tables and chairs were filled with Chinese people, who were just about all on cell phones. Not much conversation was happening, and in many ways, it all felt very familiar as well. Apart, that is, from the menu blackboards, which were covered in pretty and intricate chalky Chinese letters.

Lex in queue to order cappuccinoThere were a variety of cheesecakes behind the glass in neon-lit counters. There were perfect cappuccinos, with delicate hearts drawn in the foam. We sat on comfy chairs covered in Union Jacks. There were design references to steampunk here and there. There was a picture of the New York skyline on one wall. There was a repetitive Calvin Klein advert being shown on a large flat screen. The models were Western and sulky and far too skinny. Perhaps I could have been anywhere.

Perhaps.

Mall entertainment for kidsBut then I would have had to drown out the loud voice behind the microphone outside – directing operations and activities that were taking place in the very large children’s play area, down on the ground floor of the mall. I would have had to ignore all the people stopping in their tracks to look at our strange group of tall South Africans…

Later, at home, I lay down to rest and shut my eyes. Scenes from the day played themselves out behind my eyelids, to a very loud Chinese soundtrack.

It’s a con really, I decided, to think that one can find any place within China that is anything but Chinese.

China is everywhere.

It is strange and other, and I doubt very much whether anything about it (pretend American or not), will ever be anything even remotely near familiar.

Chinese shopping mall

The Foreign Office

At the moment there are only 7 of us in the foreign teachers’ office.

The office is warm, with a view of some of Lanzhou’s new tall buildings. Many of them have only appeared over the last 2 years I have been told. Apparently, Lanzhou is growing at an incredible rate.

my workstationI have been assigned to a desk and have been given an impressive array of stationery. I have colourful circle magnets on my filing cabinet and an assortment of pens and pads and little sets of drawers.
I have always loved stationery and it is plentiful and cheap here, because ‘everything made in China.’

The other teachers are finishing the terms’ reports, and observing from the outside (my favourite place to be), I have noted that there are quite a few complications due to a fair number of instructions being lost in translation.
Another factor is that it seems that the children, sometimes on a whim, change their English names. As their English names were never given to them by their parents, they are quite free to be changed. Charles has now become Bob, and Kingsley is now Liam. And the Chinese teachers, whose job it is to translate all English comments, do not know the childrens’ English names in the first place!

I have been trying to do Lesson Plans for the next term, and to some extent, I have succeeded. But it’s strange to be planning for a situation that I have no way of understanding.

The children have already left the school for their break. When we arrived lessons had stopped for the term, but we met many of the children anyway, who were still writing their Chinese exams.

– Hello. Hello. –
The children chorus, with broad smiles, adding
– What is your name? –

We respond with Hellos, and our name, and ask their names in return.

The conversations continue over meals in the dining hall. On the first day, we were handed trays piled with a lot of everything and a plastic spoon.

foodSince then we have learned. Now we stand in the queue with our empty trays and point to whatever we select. We pick up a set of black plastic chopsticks like everyone else and find a place to sit at the tables.

The food is good, an assortment of stir-fried saucy meat or vegetable dishes.
In Lanzhou, there is always a touch, or more than a touch, of chilli. We ladle a spoonful of sticky rice onto our tray.

There are often white rolls or buns, like dumplings, to be found on the side. Sometimes, hidden within their white softness there is a secret filling.
There is also always a pot of soup. Thin and watery, sometimes containing thin transparent bunches of seaweed or Gojiba seeds or ginger or an assortment of other unknown ingredients, it is to be drunk from small silver bowls.

Much has had to be accomplished in these first days at the school for L and me.
We are driven everywhere by our young Chinese fixer and the drivers employed by the school. We ride in one of two cars. Once the wrong car came for us – wrong because its registration number ended in the wrong number for that particular day. Certain numbers can only be driven on, for example, Tuesday and Thursday and Saturdays, and other numbers on Mondays and Wednesdays and Sundays.

Some of the main streets are becoming quite familiar, and once, when we were out, the car stopped and we were taken for a walk through a part of town that we had not seen before.

I bought two small purchases from a shop filled with cute little typical Chinese design objects.
Michelle with maskI bought a mask to wear when walking along the road (but when I tried it on, I did find it to be quite claustrophobic…) and a little ring attached to a sticker to stick to my phone (I have seen many Chinese people using this addition – but I have yet to actually use it…)
They will probably remain in my drawer, as memorabilia of the time spent here.

Back in the office, my thoughts are disturbed by the sound, much like a tune played on a xylophone which signals a change of period.
Chimes are also played – they sound like a Grandfathers clock, with never more or less than 4 chimes.
It’s much gentler than the siren or school bell that I am used to. In fact, here the day starts with a tune, which, L pointed out, is very much like the opening soundtrack to a daily soapie or sitcom. A voice comes in at the end, which encourages the children to make their way to class.

Every now and then music is played over the intercom. Earlier today it was a Christmas song by Justin Bieber. No one seems to know who or why particular music has been selected. It is always English music, and it is called ‘in between lesson music’.
A lot of the words of these songs are lost on the students, but the beat no doubt puts a spring in their step, as they move from class to class.

The various melodies never fail but to put a smile on my face. No doubt the novelty of it all will eventually wear off, but for now, I remain amused.