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April 25, 2004

Chinese flea market

This past Tuesday, the electricity was turned off almost all day in our building, for some reason that was never clear to me.

(It is scheduled to happen again this week.) So, the five of us found a variety of things to do that didn’t required using our office’s electricity. For me, one of those activities was making my first visit to a Chinese second-hand market. I enjoyed the experience, just as I do in the U.S. This market has stalls for everything - bicycles (I bought 2 for Terry and myself for 180 rmb, or about $22), kitchen appliances, televisions and DVD players (I bought a 220-volt VHS player, which I need for some Chinese language materials), lathes and mills, furniture, etc. My real purpose was to buy a “new” desk for my office, as were one short. I found a respectable polished wood desk for 250 rmb (about $30). So, how did the three of us get back (Gwen and Wang Zhigang from our office came with me.) The three of us rode bicycles. (Wang Zhigang bought one, too, to replace one that was recently stolen.) For the desk, we hired a “ren li che” (people powered vehicle) driver. These are large tricycles with a small flatbed in the back. Other versions have a seat for taxiing people around town. The drivers work really hard. I paid our 5 rmb more than the 25 he quoted to take our desk on a 4-5 mile ride to our office building. At that point, Wang Zhigang and I had a humorous moment of recognition. No electricity meant no elevator - but our office is on the fifth floor! We asked the building guards whether we could store the desk in their stationhouse overnight, but they said they couldn’t do that. So, Wang Zhigang (who is just a little slighter of build than I) and I carried the desk up five flights of stairs. A couple of people heading to their own floor helped for a flight or two, and Gwen’s boyfriend Liu Zheng was their to meet her for lunch and also helped a little. It was an experience to remember. -- Norty

Posted by now at 07:05 AM

work and travel

The last three weeks have been pretty intense, working at least 70 hours.

For to of the weeks, was on the road with colleagues from Nantong and Nanjing, visiting factories in the Ningbo and Wenzhou / Taizhou areas. We were resolving or heading off quality problems, scoping out prospective new vendors, and smoothing out initial deliveries on a big project. By the time I finished checking email in the evening, it was usually close to or beyond midnight. (I did get in a few games of xiangqi with Liu Sheng - and even won once.) For the most part, I find China’s public transportation system better than that of the United States - for travel between and well as within cities. There are frequent buses between any pair of decent-sized cities, and trains connecting most that are south of the Yangzi River. The buses are ok when they are on U.S.-style highways, but when they go through towns their horns blare annoyingly all the time. I love the trains in China. They go 30-40 miles an hour and are peaceful. Like much else in China, they remind me of the United States in the 1950s. Since Nantong is on the north side of the Yangzi, I usually have to take a bus to Shanghai to go somewhere else. That takes 3 - 4-1/2 hours, almost half of it crossing the river by ferry, depending on traffic. Buses have first priority for getting onto the ferry, though, zooming past long lines of cars. So, the first week I took a bus to Shanghai, then a train to Ningbo. The second week, I took a bus in the other direction to Nanjing, so two of us could meet two others from our Nanjing office and fly together to Wenzhou, a city along the east coast of China that is several hundred miles south of Ningbo, which itself is south of Shanghai. At work, we hired someone new this month, a woman named Ding Binbin, who has some managerial background and just returned from getting a business degree in Holland. She is helping me take on some work on “new part development” that Harlan decided to transfer from Kansas City. After two weeks largely out of town, it took me more long hours to catch up with work that had piled up. Gradually, what was a chaotic situation is becoming somewhat routine. Speaking of travel, the May Day holiday (which Chinese people are endlessly surprised to learn was started by the American labor movement in the 1880s) is coming next week. Terry and I have bought overnight train tickets from Shanghai to Wuhan, where we will visit our friends Johnny and Grace (Honggen and Xiaohong). We are looking forward to the trip. -- Norty

Posted by now at 07:03 AM

April 20, 2004

Almost Famous

Sorry, everyone. I didn’t realize how long it has been since I made an entry to the weblog. I’ve really been busy. As Norty said, I’ve become a minor celebrity at my school.

It’s probably because my students think I’m completely crazy, and, therefore, they find me entertaining. Chinese people are quite reserved with body language and gestures, so they think exuberant Americans are fascinating lunatics. Whatever the reason, I’ve been invited to participate in a whole bunch of activities. So far, I’ve given a speech to the Student English Union, and I’ve been interviewed on the student radio station (with my voice broadcast over loudspeakers all over campus!). The English Union event was great fun. Norty went with me for moral support and occasional translation services. I spoke for about a half an hour, and then the students bombarded us with questions for the next hour and a half. You would really find that amazing if you knew how reluctant the students usually are to speak English in front of a group.

The radio interview had a couple of moments of high hilarity. The interviewer insisted that I select 3 songs to be played before and after the show and during the break in the middle. I picked the only 3 songs I could find with English names. One of them was “Sound of Silence.” But when the song started, what I heard was not Simon and Garfunkle. What I heard was a version rendered in wildly mispronounced English by a group who had obviously learned the song phonetically. Then, there was the interviewer’s valiant, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to pronounce “Prairie Village.” I was giggling so much after the ersatz Simon and Garfunkle song that I wasn’t able to get myself completely under control before we went live again, so the whole campus got to hear me basically laughing like a loon. You can’t imagine how weird that sounds over loudspeakers!

Yesterday, I spent the afternoon with a group of teachers who came from my school and several of the other colleges in Nantong. They are starting an English club of their own. I went with Antonia Caster, an English teacher at NTIT who is from the UK. (Whatever stereotype I might have cherished about reserved English people has been completely destroyed by Antonia and the two other Brits I’ve met here. They make me look reserved!) Anyway, we just sat around and chatted in an informal way with the Chinese teachers and had a really nice time. The group is planning to go on some kind of day trip for the next meeting – perhaps to the beach, which is about a 2-hour bus ride from here. They promised to teach me how to do “beach disco.” That is apparently a dance that people do on the beach to make the crabs come up out of the sand so they can be caught and turned into soup. It does sound like fun, but I confess to some reservations about helping to lure the poor crabs to their doom.

Tomorrow, I’m giving another talk to a group of students from the Textile Design department. One of my classes is entirely composed of students from that department. Oddly enough, even though they struggle harder than my other classes, they are the most fun. And I think they must enjoy my lessons. That class is the only one I have with a perfect attendance record!

A few other odds and ends: Passover was a little strange. For the first seder, it was just Norty and me. He asked the Four Questions and I answered! Then Norty had to take an emergency trip out of town, so for the second seder, it was just me! It seemed too weird to ask myself questions, so I had a rather nice time looking things up in the Tanakh. BTW: If you’ve never read the Book of Joel, give it a try. Most interesting.

Our home-cooking standards have been given a boost by the discovery of the City Market Delivery Service. The City Market is a store in Shanghai that specializes in Western grocery items. They also make deliveries to Nantong twice a month at no charge! Their food is expensive, but it’s really nice to be able to get what I need to make spaghetti, chili, hummus, etc.

Another addition on the creature-comforts front is my weekly massage. 60RMB (about $7.50) for an hour of pure bliss! Chinese massages are different than massages in the US. For one thing, you remain fully clothed. Then the masseur or masseuse places a sheet over you and you get massaged through that. I thought it was kind of odd at first, but it really feels wonderful. They concentrate on all the knots and tight places, and they go at it pretty hard. Just about the time you start to think, “By golly, that hurts”, the weirdest thing happens, and the tight spot just kind of melts away in a wave of heat. Amazing!

Spring is definitely here. Maybe even summer – yesterday it was in the 80s. Norty celebrated by buying two used bicycles for us. They’re a bit ratty looking, but they work just fine, and they won’t attract the attention of thieves the way new bikes would. I hope we’ll get a chance to try them out this weekend, but, as I may have mentioned, the traffic here is completely insane, so I’m a little nervous.

The last new thing is that we have started taking Chinese lessons. The teacher is a college professor who comes to our apartment once a week. Naturally, he and Norty are working at a pretty high level, while I am still struggling to learn how to pronounce the letters and to get the tones right. I now have a lot more sympathy for Chinese people trying to pronounce “Prairie Village”!

That’s it for now. Bye.

Posted by now at 07:55 PM