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August 27, 2004

"Yi shou jiao qian, yi shou jiao huo."

This means, "On the one hand, give money; on the other hand, give goods." In one of my Chinese language textbooks, it follows, "That's easy" as a foreign student's answer to his Chinese teacher's question, "Do you know how to buy goods in China?" The teacher's response is, "Let's go see!" After a couple of pages of fast-talking market vendors and inaccurate scales, the teacher rhetorically asks, "So, is it really as easy as 'Yi shou jiao qian, yi shou jiao huo'?" I've had several recent experiences that confirm Teacher Wang's insight.

Last week, I stopped at our neighborhood bakery to pick up some bread. There are actually half a dozen bakeries within a 10-minute walk of our apartment, but we patronize this particular one because it caters somewhat to Western tastes in bread. Most Chinese breads are soft and sweet, but this bakery also has several styles that are firmer and not sweet, even a multi-grain bread and a partially-whole-wheat sandwish loaf. Also, we've gotten to know the owner, Ms. Chen, who worked in California in the 1990s and speaks English about like I speak Chinese. While paying at the check-out counter (and correcting the clerk's error in counting change), I chatted away with Ms. Chen. Finally, as I started looking around for my bag of two loaves and a pair of pastries, we all realized that a petty thief had taken advantage of our socializing and run off with my bag. Ms. Chen cheerfully refilled my order, but we all learned a lesson.

Last Saturday, Terry and I decided to eat lunch out, just before we did our weekly supermarket shopping. We intended to go to Da Niang Shui Jiao (Old Auntie's Dumplings), which offers delicious vegetarian jiaozi (dumplings). On the way, though, we encountered a sidewalk vendor frying up jianbing (think flat breads, which we have talked about previously). These really looked tasty. They had an egg fried onto one side and were then rolled up around some lightly sauteed vegetables. I asked how much, and the "xiaofan" (street vendor) replied 5 rmb (about $.65). That seemed a little high by Chinese standards, but still a bargain to us, so we ordered two. They were delicious. So, when I was out running some lunch-hour errands three days later, I retured to the same place. This time, a different woman was running the stand. Also, a mother and daugher were in line ahead of me. I watched the mother pay a 5 rmb bill for two jiangbing and get a 1 rmb coin in change. Aha! The other xiaofan "meng wo" (cheated me). My price was also 2 rmb this time. Now, I can't wait to encounter the first vendor and inform her that my price will be 2 rmb from now on!

My final recent buying experience involves a couple of key-chain "flash memory" devices. These are removable computer storage disks that can hold 32, 64, 128, or 256 KB of data and (as the name implies) are small enough to attach to a key chain. Terry and I have both been nervous about the data on our computer at home -- especially her genealogical tables and my scholarly manuscripts. (Almost every week, our Chinese teacher has a new story about a friend whose apartment has been robbed.) So, we decided we would each buy a 128 KB memory unit. Gu Peng, an office colleague, helped me select one at a shop near our office. I chose a SONY, even though at 408 rmb it was 25% more than the Chinese brands, because he said the quality was probably a little better. Terry tried it out, and it worked great. When I returned a few days later to buy another, though, this merchant was "mai wan le" (sold out). So, I went to another seller, but this one had an advertised price of 509 rmb. This time, another colleague Wang Zhigang was with me. He helped me explain my previous purchase (and show my receipt) and tried to get this seller to accept 408 rmb. The manager explained that it was impossible. He said the other seller must have brought his goods into Nantong from another city where the wholesale price was lower. He did agree to come down to 460 rmb, though. To verify that explanation, Wang Zhigang checked with the guy who sells us computer, and after a day he did in fact validate the second seller's story. So, the next day, I went by myself to the second shop. Since a different salesclerk was at the desk, I had to explain all the preceding in Chinese, and she had to go back through two levels of supervision to get approval for discounting the price to 460 rmb. It worked! The clerk's compliment of my Chinese ability was a bit overblown, but I was quite pleased with myself, nevertheless.

Moral of the stories (which all had happy endings): No, it isn't as simple here as "Yi shou jiao qian, yi shou huo"! -Norty

Posted by now at 03:07 PM

Elevator Chinese

Every once in a while, something reminds me that (despite my own perceptions) I really am making gradual progress in learning Chinese.

When Terry and I returned in late July from our visit to the US, we spent a few days in Shanghai -- first, to see our respective dentists, then to go to our synagogue. As we left the fifth-floor Sino-Canadian Dental Clinic, our elevator issued an automated announcement as it stopped at each floor -- for example, "Si lou dao le, qing zou hao." This little jingle, more sung than voiced, means (roughly) "We've arrived at the fourth floor, take it easy." The neat thing was that I suddenly realized I simply understood this series of announcements, without having to stop and mentally translate them. Ah, when will everything I hear start to sound like that? -- Norty

Posted by now at 02:57 PM

August 03, 2004

How to watch a political convention when you don't have English language TV

I'm sure no one who is reading this will be surprised to find out that Norty and I are fervent John Kerry supporters.

We really wanted to hear his acceptance speech at the convention, but we were pretty sure it wouldn't be carried on Chinese television, and we don't get an English-language station in our apartment. However, the hotels here usually carry CNN, which we knew would carry the speech in its entirety. Norty had the bright idea of renting a hotel room for the day of Kerry's speech (it was 10 AM here, of course). So, that's what we did. I thought it was a really fine speech. Not a Bill Clinton style great speech, but very effective. I'll try to refrain from too much political commentary on the weblog, but I have to say it will be so nice to have a president who speaks English as a first language!

Posted by now at 04:41 PM

August 01, 2004

Back in the PRC

So, here we are, back in "our Nantong" (that's what our friend, Gwen, calls it).

The weather has been just as ghastly as we were told it would be in July, but it seems to be cooling off a bit. Thank God for air conditioning! I can't imagine how anyone lives here without it. Fortunately, the Chinese don't have the same prejudice about AC in the summer that they have about heating in the winter. Unfortunately, it isn't just the unbearable heat and humidity that makes it so unpleasant outside; it's also the smell. Garbage collection is kind of erratic, and people tend to just toss garbage in the street, and right now the heat is cooking all of it into a pungent mess. Yuck! The other unlovely thing is the half-naked men. I can't quite figure this out. The women obviously dress in much lighter clothing in the summer, but they stay dressed. The guys, on the other hand, pretty much take everything off that they can get away with. I can't tell you the number of men I've seen walking around in their underwear! (My informal survey reveals (pun intended) that Chinese men are about evenly divided in their preference for boxers or tighty-whities.) Of course, some of the guys are mighty cute, but I still wish they'd get dressed.

Our trip home was wonderful, but incredibly hectic. That's because my darling husband tried to pack in about twice as many things to do as we really had time for. Nevertheless, it was a blast. The first neat thing was walking around LAX waiting for our connecting flight and seeing all the lovely varieties of Americans - and not being stared at because I'm a blue-eyed blonde! I think I appreciate American diversity more now than I ever have. The best of all, of course, was seeing friends and family. I guess I won't recap the trip since this is supposed to be a weblog about our time in China, but I do want to tell everyone how great it was to see you. And, I have to say what a pleasure it was to meet Paul's fiancee. Jo is a complete sweetheart - smart, funny, and divinely tall (sort of Greek-goddessy). Paul obviously has great taste in women!

So, what have we been doing since we got back? Well, first we spent a few days in Shanghai so we could see our dentist and spend Shabbat at our Shanghai synagogue. Then home to Nantong. The first thing I did was unpack the memory foam mattress pad I bought in the States and put it on our rock-hard Chinese bed. What bliss! No aching back every morning! (Not that I'm going to stop going for my weekly massage, but now it will just be a pleasure and not a necessity.)

Since we've been back, we have added two new activities to our repertoire of things to do for fun: karaoke and ballroom dancing.

Karaoke is a different experience here than in the US. Instead of a cheap sound system in a noisy bar where you sing in front of a room full of strangers, there are private rooms with fabulous sound systems and you just sing with your friends. I'm not sure what it is about the sound system, but it makes everyone sound like they're singing in the shower. Some kind of reverb, I guess. Anyway, it makes even a poor singer sound pretty good and a good singer sound amazing. Most of the songs on the playlist are Chinese, of course, but there were enough English-language songs for Norty and me to sing a few. It was a lot of fun.

We went dancing last night. The place we went is like an old-fashioned dance hall in the US, but with lots of neon, flickering colored lights and disco balls. It isn't a bar, so people go there just to dance, not to drink, and the dance floor is huge. No live music, but the sound system was very good, and not too loud. It costs 3 RMB (less than 50 cents) for 3 hours of dancing! The place was packed. I would guess that most of the people there were in their 30s or 40s, so this was definitely not a hip hop kind of crowd (thank God!). I just love Chinese-style ballroom dancing. It's similar enough to Western-style dancing that I could pick it up fairly quickly, and, for some reason, Norty finds it a lot easier. Just like our dancing experience in Shanghai, I found myself dancing with a lot of Chinese men. One of them, in particular, was a really good teacher, so I think I was doing pretty well by the end of the evening. Unlike Shanghai, this time a couple of the guys made passes at me while we were dancing. Fortunately, they both understood "no" even when spoken in English, and they both apologized and we went on dancing with no further problem. I don't think they were really very serious about it, anyway; I just think they were trying to see what would happen.

So, we are becoming quite the social butterflies. Karaoke, ballroom dancing, playing pool at Captain's bar, dinner with friends - a never-ending round of frivolity and fun! This is way more social life than we had in KC!!

That's it for now. Love to everyone.

Posted by now at 07:25 PM