The Last Post in China

Chinese Word of the Day: 再见
(zai4 jian4 literally “again see”) goodbye

This is it for The Man in China. I’ll be in China no more, at least not for the foreseeable future. These last few days have been very emotional. Panda’s parents came all the way from Xing Tai, near Beijing, to say goodbye to us and take us to lunch. Wang Yijing’s parents came from Suzhou for the same purpose. Elaine phoned from Hangzhou and got all teary on the phone to Ruth. We had our last ride with Xiao He this morning, and we all got a bit teary. I’m writing this on the fast train to Shanghai where we will have lunch with the two Jennies and their husbands, plus Robin, Armstrong, Air, and our old Chinese teacher, Frank Chen. We still owe Frank 150RMB from our last lesson a year and a half ago, and we’ll finally remember to pay him back. I don’t know how much more of this parting stuff I can take.

I’m carrying my Italian violin, which I will leave with Jenny.

The Violin Story

I bought my Italian violin, a G.Guarneri del Gesù Il Cannone copy, in Toronto back in the days when I had money. It was made by Maurizio Tadioli an award winning violin maker who teaches violin making in Cremona and learned his art and craft at the feet of his grandfather, Carlo Pizzamiglio. It has the most beautiful tone, especially on the D string.

One hot summer day eight years ago when I was on my way to the airport in Weihai to go home for the holiday, I put my Tadioli violin on the ledge under the cab’s back window… and forgot it there when I went into the airport with my luggage from the trunk. I remembered seconds later, and rushed out screaming, but the cab was already gone and I had no receipt.

Our friend Ellen went to great lengths to get my violin back, contacting radio stations and newspapers with my sad story, but by the time it was in her hands it had ridden on that ledge at the back of the cab for two days in the intense heat of a Weihai summer. The finger board had melted off. The cloth cover inside the case had melted into the finish.

It’s worth noting that the cab driver refused a substantial reward for returning the instrument. Such has been our experience of the Chinese people.

Picture:  My poor damaged Tadioli violin.The following summer I had the violin put back together by Brian Hoover on Bowen Island in B.C. That’s when I learned that the nut was missing. Also, it had developed a wolf note on the G string and the finish was a disaster. Brian did what he could for it, and probably a bit of adjustment would cure the wolf note if I had time to wait, but I didn’t and I was not happy.

I contacted Maurizio and asked him if he had any advice on refinishing it. Here’s his reply.

Hello and thanks for your message.
I’m very afraid to what’s happened to my/your violin…. Please, don’t make any work and don’t give the violin to any maker to retouch or above all to revarnish!!! This is a special work that has to be done by the maker of the instrument. I’m sure that we can find the way to return the violin to me to fix the work. Don’t worry about the cost. I can make something special because I’ll be happy if my violin will return as before.

Let me know.
All the best,

I should have expected this, I suppose. Maurizio is not a hack factory worker; he’s an artist making pedigree instruments. I hung the Tadioli Il Cannone on our living room wall and there it served as room decoration for the past seven years. But now we’re leaving China and it’s time to do something.

I contacted Maurizio again and asked him for shipping instructions. Here is his reply:

Dear Mr. David,
Thank you so much to be back with the update of the violin.
In October I’ll be in Shanghai.
Keep in touch.
All the best,

And that’s why I’m now taking my violin to Shanghai. We’ll leave it with Jenny and hopefully Maurizio will be able to take it back to Cremona with him in October.

In a year or so, if Ruth and I are able to afford a trip to Italy, I’ll get to meet the maker of my violin, pay him whatever he asks for the refinishing job, and return with it to Canada. Whew.

 A Few Words about Jiangnan University and North American College

Our administration discovered that they had paid Ruth half of her travel bonus before schedule, so Roy in the office explained that she wouldn’t be getting as much money as I would get when we leave. Ruth pointed out that this would have caused her to pay more taxes than she should have paid. Roy said he would look into it. Here’s what he wrote a few days later:

Hi Ruth,

Thank you for reminding me of the difference in tax. I have calculated the difference. It is 55. You will get 550+55=605.

Best regards,


And here’s what I wrote back to him.

Roy, I have to tell you what a pleasure it is to deal with you and the rest of the staff here, especially in comparison with our previous university.  There our concerns over taxation were met with a refusal to consider the question, and a contract offer that we were obviously going to refuse.

You guys are great and I’m going to say so on my website unless you write immediately to stop me.

BTW, I’m told that some people actually read my website after all these years.  Who’da thunk it, eh?

Warmest regards

We have been very happy with our administration at Jiangnan University. They have been consistently friendly, considerate, and helpful. There has been a very appreciated lack of micro-management. They really made us feel like we were part of a family, and they cared about us. This, as I said to Roy, stands in stark contrast to previous employers in China.

If you are offered a job here, that’s all you really need to know. We wouldn’t have stayed for seven years if they hadn’t been good to us.

 So Long 三军车 (san1 lun2 che1) three wheeled vehicle/tricycle

I gave my trusty garbage bike to the wonderful woman who has kept your apartment stairway clean all these years. She seemed delighted to have it.

Picture:  Our cleaning lady and her inherited trike.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China She seemed delighted to have it.

Picture:  David and our jovial cleaning lady.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

-Ruth Anderson photo

A Few Thoughts on China

I tell people that coming to China has been the best decision of my life, and this is very true. It was a steep learning curve, but felt like a rebirth of my brain and a return to childhood, that time when I knew nothing and had to learn things like numbers and counting. It’s been fun.

With very few exceptions, the Chinese people are golden. They are friendly and helpful to a fault and their hospitality is unbelievable. I think much of this is due to the cache of the Western world, giving any foreigner high status here. But I also think it’s part of the Chinese nature, a result of their collective culture.

Of course there are things we didn’t like. I think China is making a huge mistake when they block websites, especially websites like the Khan Academy, a fantastic collection of educational videos. But just blocking Facebook and Twitter and Youtube is doing damage to their country. For a while I bought the idea that China was doing this because of the fear of unrest, trying to get control of the communications between citizens, and this may be a large part of the truth. This way they know that the servers are in China, and can be shut down at a moment’s notice. But also I came to believe that it was because China wants to give their own networks a leg up, and don’t want an Internet that is totally dominated by foreign powers. They now have this. They have their own version of Youtube (YouKu) Twitter (Weixin) and Facebook (XiaoNei) and Google (Baidu), and these have more users than any of the Western versions. It’s time China opened up completely to the West. To fail to do so is to follow the same thinking that lead to their defeat during the Opium Wars – isolationism and resistance to foreign thought.

We won’t miss the 没用的保安 (mei2 yang4 de bao3 an1), the useless guards that seemed to serve no purpose except to prevent our driver or moving van from getting to our apartment door. And we certainly won’t miss the walls and gates. There’s a mote around this campus, and our closest gate will never allow our taxi to enter.  There’s another gate at the entrance to our apartments buildings, and it closes and locks at 11:00pm, though we can still enter through the pedestrian door.  There’s a wall and gate around the other foreign teacher apartments, near the North gate, and that one requires a pass card, or buzzing the service station staff, for entrance.  It used to be that we could ride our bikes directly to those apartments, but a wall was put up across the back road so now we must ride around.  It feels like there are walls and gates and guards everywhere.  Our students have a hard time believing that in Canada there are no barricades or guards at the entrance to the campuses. But the Chinese do love their walls, their gates and their guards.  We don’t, though perhaps we would if we had their history.

Final Days

Picture:  Our seven boxes ready to float off to Canada in the campus post office.  jiangnan University, Wuxi, ChinaThese past few days have been hectic. In addition to the big box we’d already shipped, we’ve packed up seven boxes of stuff that cumulatively might be worth the postage but mostly contain memorabilia and junk I should probably leave behind, with a few exceptions such as my magnificent Beijing Opera robe. We’ve given away anything of value that we didn’t want to take with us – our small electric oven, our crock pot, our pots, plates, cutlery, vacuum cleaner, fans, heaters, lamps, electric blanket -mostly to Panda and Gloria. Panda arranged for a hardware dealer to come and buy all my tools, my welding setup, grinder, and drill plus assorted wrenches, files, hammers and screw drivers. I was surprised to score almost a hundred bucks Canadian for the lot.  This still leaves a pile of small items for Panda to sell or give away as she sees fit.

Jeanette will be returning in the Fall, so I’ll leave her my bike. Ruth gave her bike to Panda. My left over boxes of helmets all went to the man at the bike store, to sell or give away.

We knew that we would be going to Shanghai today, and would have no time to get to the post office or bank after this, so everything except the very final packing has been done. Yesterday we got to the bank and exchanged our RMB for Canadian.  I picked up a couple of strings of pearls for my sister to give away. Now we can relax, party and visit until the van comes to take us to the airport tomorrow morning.

So today we had a final ride with Xiao He and a first class fast train to Shanghai, arriving about ten thirty, which was time enough to get to music street for a final visit with the maker of my Shanghai violin. I wanted to pick up a new case, since they are bound to be cheaper here than in Canada.

Picture:  a final visit to the maker of my Shanghai violin.Picture:  Two generations of violin makers.  Shanghai, ChinaWe made it in to Zen Restaurant in Raffles Plaza by 11:45am, just in time to join Lv Min and Simon.

Picture:  Lv min and Simon in Zen, Raffles Plaza, ShanghaiLv Min and Simon came bearing gifts, a saki bottle and glasses set for me and a beautiful shirt for Ruth.  We took a private room, and soon Robin, Air, and Armstrong joined us, all students from our days teaching in Weihai six years ago.

Picture:  Lv Min and Ruth in Zen, Raffles Plaza, Shanghai

Picture:  Frank Chen and David with Frank's present.  Zen restaurant, Raffles Plaza, Shanghai

Picture:  Frank Chen and Ruth with Ruth's present.  Zen restaurant, Raffles Plaza, ShanghaiArmstrong came all the way from Hangzhou to have lunch with us.

Picture:  David with Armstrong, Zen Restaurant, Raffle's Plaza, Shanghai

-Ruth Anderson photo

Picture:  Ruth with Air, Zen Restaurant, Raffle's Plaza, ShanghaiAgain it was an emotional time. Ruth ordered a fantastic spread of our favourite Zen food, including three dishes of chicken feet in bean sauce, a favourite of mine, shrimp dumplings, pineapple rice, wild mushrooms and meat, pork slices, sweet and sour pork, sausage and rice, cooked lettuce, lettuce leafs with something tasty on them, pot stickers, popcorn shrimp, Peking duck with toufu wrap, and a durian pastry, all finished off with the traditional watermelon. I was a bit disappointed that Zen no longer serves the ginseng tea I used to drink by the potful, but aside from that no complaints at all. Two of the things we will really miss about China is the food, and the prices. Zen is a classy restaurant with great food. Never the less, when I picked up the tab for the meal it came to 933RMB to feed ten people. Less than $150 Canadian. Less than $15 Canadian per person. At that price even poor English teachers can afford to look like big shots.

Picture:  David and Ruth and friends, Zen Restaurant, Raffle's Plaza, ShanghaiWe handed off the Maurizio Tadioli Il Cannone to Jenny…Picture:  Xiao Qiang and Jenny with my Tadioli violin.  Zen Restaurant, Raffles Plaze, Shanghai, China paid Frank Chen the money we owed him… Picture:  Ruth hugs Frank Chen.  Zen Restaurant, Raffles Plaze, Shanghai, China

and had a wonderful time with our young friends from Weihai. All in all, a perfect way to wrap up our time in China.

Picture:  Armstrong and David.  Zen Restaurant, Raffles Plaze, Shanghai, China

-Ruth Anderson photo

I’m writing this on the train back to Wuxi. We said goodbye to Frank Chen in the subway, with him going South and us going North. Jenny and her husband went with us on the subway as far as the Shanghai train station.

At the Shanghai railway ticket station we got our tickets for this train, leaving at 3:15. We’ll be back in Wuxi by four o’clock, and home by five.

Picture:  Ticket lineup Shanghai railway station ticket office.  Shanghai, ChinaAnd another first for China. In the ticket lineup, a young man seemed to be jumping the line. In fact he was just joining his girlfriend at the ticket booth, but an older gentleman scolded him and told him to get to the back of the line. We’ve never seen such behavior before in China. I’d always assumed that recognition of a lineup was simply optional, and that nobody wants to lose face by complaining when somebody jumps the queue.

The Last Night in Wuxi

We got home about five o’clock.  Panda and Gloria were waiting for us.  After I had a shower, a nap and a vodka tonic we all heading into the village for a barbeque.  Ruth packed our wine glasses and a bottle of Spanish red wine.

Picture:  Gloria, David and Panda in Shitang Cun, Wuxi, China

-Ruth Anderson photo

Picture:  Student celebrate the end of the term.  Shitang Cun barbecue, Wuxi, ChinaWe enjoyed another feast while a table of recent graduates next to us got roaring, puking drunk.  We ignored them.

DSC08785Picture: Shitang Cun street barbecue, Wuxi, China And we had a great time soaking up the atmosphere for he last time.

tPicture:  Panda and Gloria enjoy the street barbecue, Shitang Cun, Wuxi, ChinaThere’s a lot we’re going to miss about China.  Most of all our friends and the good times we’ve had here.

Picture:  Gloria at the street barbecue.  Shitang Cun, Wuxi, China

And that’s all she wrote.  End of the story.  We all got pleasantly tipsy amid the wonderful street ambiance.  Then Ruth and I went home to finish the final details of our departure, Ruth to look at customs requirements and me to do this post.

It’s now twenty after one in the morning.  Our ride to the airport comes at 9:30am.

Time to call it a day, and the end of a nine year China adventure.

As always, I welcome your comments.

Proving My Point About Helmets

Chinese word of the day:  头盔
(tou2 kui1)  helmet

Jack says he wasn’t riding fast.  Far from it. He was coming in the little east gate of the campus.  Ahead of him was the traffic barricade and a pylon.  He was leaning forward on his handlebars to look around the pylon and didn’t notice that there was a two inch drop in the pavement.  Going over it, the bump caused his hands to slip off his handlebars and because all his weight was forward, down he went.  It happened just that fast.

Picture: Jack with the helmet that saved his head.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, ChinaJack landed on the back of his head.  Here’s what his helmet looks like.

Picture; The back of Jack's helmet, split and broken.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, ChinaLately I’ve been feeling a bit silly about wearing my helmet all the time, and preaching to students about the value of a helmet.  There is a loud and vocal, if misinformed, anti-helmet lobby that is active now, including a TEDx talk by a very persuasive man who has spent several years researching and campaigning to get people to stop wearing helmets and revoke helmet laws. (Strange fixation on his part, and it’s my belief that he’ll be responsible for quite a few deaths before he himself is dead and forgotten.) A good friend of mine bought the arguments, and told me that she is no longer intends to wear a helmet.

The anti-helmet activists make some valid points, and we don’t want a “nanny state” with laws about every possible hazard and danger, but helmets still make good sense.  My brain is too valuable to me to put it at risk simply to feel the wind in my hair.  I continued to tell students about bike helmets, and to wear my own.  But really, I lost my inspiration and initiative and lately… yes, I’ve been feeling a bit foolish.  Nobody else on campus wears a helmet, except for my wife and Jack.  I haven’t fallen off in years.  Riding a bike doesn’t feel dangerous.

And now Jack proves my point.  I don’t know whether he would have been seriously hurt, or suffered any brain damage, in his fall.  We can be fairly sure he would at least have had a headache and a bump.  He could have lost everything – his short term memory, his long term memory, his ability to remember his own name, his ability to control his body, his ability to teach a class.  He could have lost it all.  I’m very glad he was wearing his helmet.  And I’m glad he renewed my faith in my bike helmet campaign.

It’s a nice bit of closure as we’re about to leave China and return to life in Canada.

The Big Box

Chinese word of the day: 箱子
(xiang1zi) chest, box, case

After endless phone calls and much help from the wonderful Panda Wang, we decided that the best way to get our stuff back to Canada was to buy a big box and ship it by sea.  We don’t care how long it takes to arrive.  Accordingly we went back to the small commodities market and tried to buy one of the used equipment cases in one of the booths.  They wouldn’t sell just the case, because there was a flat screen TV inside it, but they did offer to make us a custom case for a great price:  1,100RMB = $203.13 Canadian at today’s exchange rate.  I suppose this is overkill for a shipping crate, but it sure is a beauty of a box.

The big box was delivered while we were away in Shuibian.  It was waiting for us on our return and it is very impressive. I hate to think what a box like this would cost in Canada, but I’m sure I couldn’t get one for two hundred bucks.  That wouldn’t cover the cost of materials, let alone the locks, wheels, and the rest of the hardware.

Picture:  the hardware on our big box.  Wuxi, China

Picture: Ruth in the process of packing the big box. Jiangnan University, Wuxi, ChinaSo next came the loading.  Ruth considers herself a master of the use of space, and I don’t argue with that assessment.  She packed the box with everything long, big, or heavy that we thought has enough value to justify the shipping cost.  She made everything fit so snugly that nothing is going to rattle or bump into anything else. The list includes my old dead Mac, which I want for parts when I get home, a classical guitar, a banjo, two mandolins, two erhu, two pipa, three Chinese drums, two Chinese chess tables with stands, a suitcase full of video gear, our lighting kit, my heavy duty tripod and microphone boom, and a whole pile of bits and pieces,  the whole packed in with sheets and clothing.  Loaded the box weighed between 200 and 300 kg., far too heavy for us to carry down the stairs.  So so that called for documenting how things fit, emptying the box, taking the box down to the yard, and filling it up again.

Picture:  The boys from the shipping company ready to take the box away.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, ChinaNothing is ever Simple Here in China

We expected the moving company to bring in a truck to take our box away.  But that would be too easy.  The guards wouldn’t allow the truck on campus.  So the two guys from the moving company walked the box to the little East gate.  Good thing it was on wheels.

Picture:  Walking the big box to the little East gate.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, ChinaIn the photo above he is calling Panda to ask why the foreigners are following them.  Don’t we trust them?  We got Panda to explain that we just wanted to see the box go on to the truck, and take some pictures.

Picture:  Loading the big box onto the truck.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

-Ruth Anderson photo

I think it was a good thing they had my help getting the box onto the truck.  I was surprised to find that they had no loading planks, which would have made the job easy.

There are still a lot of questions around this shipment.  The shippers were reluctant to take it without sending it through a customs broker.  Supposedly no broker is needed if we send it by air, and simply declare that goods are to follow us when we clear customs, but that would cost a fortune.  For some unknown reason, sending it by sea will call for a customs broker.  That will also more than double the cost, according to their estimate.  So we sent it off and told them we will arrange for a customs broker when it arrives in Vancouver.  No doubt that will take some phone calls and discussion, but at least we can do that in English.

Our Panda Has Flown from the Nest

Panda has been sleeping on our living room floor for the past couple of months while she gets her business doing medical/dental liaison for foreigners up and running.  It’s been just wonderful having her as a house guest, and we hate to see her move out.  But her timing was very good.  She’s found a really classy apartment close to the South gate of the campus.

Picture:  Panda Wang with her parents.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, ChinaToday her parents are visiting from Nangong near Beijing.  They took us out for dinner last night, yet another feast, and will cook dumplings in our apartment this evening.

That’s it for Classes

It’s been an emotional couple of days.  This morning I had my last class in China.  I can’t really believe that it’s been nine years since this adventure began, nor that it’s now coming to an end.

Picture:  My final class with 10BA1.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, ChinaFor the most part, I’ve enjoyed teaching in China and loved my students.  I’m going to miss them, and miss this lifestyle.

I Do Love Chinglish

I snapped this picture while we waited at a stop light.  All they needed was the letter B and and a bit of letter shuffling and they would have had it right.

Picture:  Chinglish sign on a car trunk.  "Baby on Road" Wuxi, China

Our Dog is in Canada

Chinese Word of the Day:  旅游者(lv3 you2 zhe3) tourist, traveller, visitor

Our dog is in Canada, well and happy in the care of my wonderful dog loving sister Catherine, and what a relief that is.  The weather here this week has turned stifling and humid.  We got GouGou out of China in the nick of time.  The airlines won’t fly a dog if it’s too hot on the tarmac.

Picture: Our Belgian neighbours say goodbye to GouGou.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, ChinaOur Belgian neighbours say goodbye to GuoGuo.

A week ago today I loaded GouGou’s travelling cage, her 房子 (fang2 zi, house), into the back seat of Xiao He’s car,  packed the full size plastic skeleton into the trunk along with my viola, encouraged our dog to get into her fang and we were off to the North Gate to collect my sister.  Ruth bade a tearful farewell to our dog and we headed off to Pudong Airport.  Xiao He kindly stopped at a Starbucks on our way out of town, so I had a latte and a restroom break.  Catherine wisely refused any liquid beverage, remembering her last trip to Pudong and her desperate need for a washroom on arrival.  It was a long drive.  By the time we got there, both of us were counting the seconds before we could make it through the washroom entrance.

GouGou was much admired by our fellow passengers as we moved her through the long line to the check in counter.  A Chinese gentleman behind us assured us that his son had recently sent a dog to Canada and the animal arrived happy and healthy.  At the check in there was a lot of measuring and weighing and a $240 charge for sending the dog. I had to pay 1,140RMB to fly the skeleton, which is just about what I paid for it in Shanghai.  But aside from the not unexpected fees, everything went smoothly. GouGou’s papers were in order.  Nobody tried to put her through the ex-ray machine.  A nice young man wheeled her and the skeleton away to special handling.  Catherine and I sighed with relief and went up the escalator to the bar for a gin and tonic and a light lunch.  Both really hit the spot.

Our Final Soft Sleeper Train Ride in China

After seeing Cath off at security, I made my way to the Metro/Maglev station.  Three yuan would have taken me by subway to the city centre, but fifty yuan on the maglev would do it a lot faster.  Remembering the subway ride as very long and tedious, I bit the bullet and bought a maglev ticket.  A stop at People Square for another Starbucks latte and I heard from Ruth that she was on the train and almost to the main Shanghai railway station.  She was holding, along with our guitar and her overnight bag, our tickets for Xingan in Jiangxi province.  Ruth had to transfer from the train to line one on the subway and make her way to the South Shanghai station where she had a ten or fifteen minute wait before I, warm Starbucks raisin scone in hand for her, got off the subway to join her at Exit 4.

We found our waiting lounge at the South Shanghai railway station, and soon were joined by Jenny.  As luck would have it we’d managed to get on the same train to her home town, or more accurately Xingan, the town a mere twenty-two kilometres from her home village of Shuibian.

Picture: On board the train in soft sleeper to Shuibian, ChinaOn board the train we discovered that though the numbers of our berths were sequential, we had been assigned different cabins.  That was quickly solved when the young man who had the bunk across from me offered to trade. Soft sleeper on a train is our very favourite mode of travel, especially in China.  It’s just so great to lie there in comfort and watch the country roll by.  Unfortunately most of this trip was at night, so there wasn’t much to see.  We shared our cabin with two pleasant young gentlemen. After the rigours of the day, I slept quite soundly.

Picture: a boy marvels at the foreigners in the market at Xingan, ChinaWe arrived in Xingan early in the rainy morning, and were met at the train station by Jenny’s brother with a nice old beater of a diesel crew cab pickup truck.  Luggage went into the back and we all crowded in: me, Jenny, her husband Xiao Qiang, and Ruth in the back seat and Jenny’s friend with her baby and the driver’s eldest boy in the passenger front seat.  A short ride took us to a street market where Jenny’s grandmother was selling, but in our case forcefully giving away, steamed cobs of corn still in the husk.  We all enjoyed a noodle breakfast at a tiny restaurant before loading up for the trip to Jenny’s village.

Picturee:  Jenny's village in the distance.  Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

Jenny’s village has changed a little since our last visit almost five years ago.  There is construction everywhere, and signs of the prosperity brought by jobs away from the farms.  The recent prosperity is evident in the grandeur of its houses, the more modern of which are three story concrete buildings faced with ceramic tile.

Picture:  Jenny at the door to her uncle's home in Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

Picture:  Proud prosperity in front of the old houses.  Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

-Ruth Anderson photo

The old village, crumbling into ruin, still exists behind the new.

Picture:  the old village behind the new buildings.  Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

Picture:  Jenny's uncle and nephew, Shuibian, Jiangzi, China

Living for a few days in the house that Jenny’s father built is a constant reminder that our organizational systems were all invented. Most of them are lacking here.  There’s no place designated as a makeup or shaving station.  No hooks for clothing outside the shower doors.  There is a stand with a single cold water tap outside the bathroom and kitchen, but no mirror or shelves.  The refrigerator does exist, but in a separate room from the kitchen, possibly as a result of the feng shui principle that cold should be kept away from hot.  Jenny’s father has renovated since our last visit. The old kitchen in the back has been replaced by a stairway to the added top floor, and cooking is now done in a small separate building a few steps from the front door.

Here:s Ruth’s description of the “kitchen”, taken from the China update she’s about to send to her mailing list:

Not Quite Like Back Home — Kitchen
Words can be deceiving. Just as ‘house’ doesn’t conjure up (for this Canadian at least) the apartment-like structures that many of the villagers now live in, the word ‘kitchen’ doesn’t bring you close to seeing the rooms where most cooking is done here. Jenny’s fathers new kitchen is not like any kitchen I have seen back in Canada, so clear from your mind any preconceived notions of kitchen, remove appliances and cupboards and laminate counters. Replace these with a square concrete room about 8 to 10 feet to a side. Stand in a doorway in one corner and look into a fairly dark room lit primarily (and dramatically) by the one window on the wall across from the door. Note the one bare bulb hanging from the ceiling that will light the room once the sun goes down.

To the left of the window, jutting into the room four or five feet, is the cooking area, which consists of a giant built-in wok — at least 2 and a half feet across — where most of the food is cooked and, I discovered later in the evening, the dishes are washed when it doubles as a sink. Leaning against the wall, behind the wok, is a large round wooden lid that can cover the wok when not in use.

Picture:  The cooking room in Jenny's father's house, Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

There is a smaller wok (which Jenny tells me is used mainly for soups), inset, but removable, between the large one and the window wall. There is a third cooking area in the corner, wedged between the other two, with a large pot set into it.

The cooking areas are all heated from underneath by wood fires fed through separate square openings in the side of the concrete cooking area. The openings to feed the fires are not covered, lending a nice glow to the space after dark, and a certain primal flavour whenever they burn. To the left of the doorway is wood for the fire, stacks of twigs, branch pieces and split logs, organized by kind, piled to mid-thigh height. It is in easy reach of the fire openings under the biggest wok.

      Across from the doorway, under the window, runs a narrow counter, providing a work and staging space. There is a wooden table just inside the doorway on the right. If it is close to a meal time this may be covered with bowls of food that have been cooked, in preparation for them to be brought to the table in the main living space of the house.

The kitchen and the entire cooking area, like the rest of the house, is made of concrete. There are modern touches in this new kitchen though: the counter under the window has a layer of large white tiles on the surface and around the woks you will see a faux-wood laminate that looks the same as the flooring in the third-floor room we were given to stay in. There is a sink, but you will have to turn around to see it. It is outside and across from the doorway to the kitchen, and it isn’t really a sink per se, but a tap that runs above and onto a tiled counter. The water just runs freely to the ground.                                          -Ruth Anderson

Next to the kitchen is a new bathroom with a squat toilet and a shower. The shower only has cold water. Jenny told us a mouse destroyed the hot water line.

Speaking of Squat Toilets

The toilets are a bigger issue than you might imagine. There’s almost no way I can use a squat toilet as intended. First of all, I can’t squat worth diddly. And when I do, there’s a problem with getting all the excrement in its intended receptacle without making a mess that is difficult to clean up. Fortunately there was a solution, though not a comfortable and dignified one.  The toilet in Jenny’s Father’s house is actually raised a few inches above the floor of the shower.  That meant I could sit on it.

Bath Time

Picture:  Bath time with two boys in the old wash tub in Shuibian, Jiangxi, ChinaThe adults use the shower, but for the kids it’s bath time like grandma used to do it.

Food Preparation

Much of the domestic activity takes place outdoors, centred around the well.  Nothing is wasted.

Picture:  Food preparation and laundry around the family well.  Shuibian, Jiangxi, ChinaThe intestines of the goose are opened and washed, becoming part of the soup or stew.

While we were there it was time for the annual cleaning of the well at Jenny’s uncle’s place.

Picture: Cleaning the well in Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

-Ruth Anderson photo

Ruth has more great pictures up on her Flickr site, or will have soon.

Picture:  Wringing out the bed sheets, hand washing in Shuibian, Jiangxi, ChinaThe well is the centre of activity, and the washing is still done with a wash board and tub, with water drawn from the well with a bucket on a rope.

Dinner Time

I’m told that meals are normally much simpler than we experienced, but this was Dragon Boat Festival, a time for eating zongzi (sticky rice with pork cooked in a banana leaf) and feasting from multiple bowls containing multiple creatures – frog, turtle, goose, fish, pork, eel, chicken, and veggies – all washed down with bowls of home made rice wine.

Picture: Making zongzi.  Shuibian, Jiangxi, ChinaThe women of the family are expert zongzi makers.

Picture: Making zongzi.  Shuibian, Jiangxi, ChinaDinner was always a feast.

Picture:  Jenny's family at the festival feast.  Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

Picture:  Jeny and Xiao Qiang at dinner.  Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

These are hard working farmers.  They are proud of their food and wine, and my bowl was impossible to empty.  Endless toasts, endless injunctions to 喝酒 (he1 jiu3, drink wine), followed by immediate topping up of the wine bowl, made monitoring my intake impossible.  I could only judge how much I had drunk by how drunk I seemed to be, and fortunately that didn’t seem to get out of hand.

Picture:  Bowl of rice wine.Picture:  Boy with slices of watermelon, Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

Picture:  the family enjoys a festival meal in Shuibian, Jiangxi, ChinaThe homes all have concrete floors.  Any scraps of food or bones simply fall on the floor, to be scavenged by the chickens or dogs and swept up later if inedible.  This is one aspect of the lifestyle I can really appreciate.  We westerners are all so anal about our living space.  There are other ways to deal with life.

Picture:  Chickens are welcome in the living room.  In fact, they have their own dooor.  Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

Picture:  Chicken and chicks in the living room, Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

-Ruth Anderson photo


If I had to come up with one word to describe Jenny’s village, it would be “texture”.  The old walls, the pathways, the various surfaces, all have delightful texture and colour.  This is not something we see in a modern city.

Picture;  Xiao Qiang and Jenny in her old village.  Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

Picture:  Chickens and a mossy wall, Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

Picture: a back alley in the old village, Shuibian, Jiangxi, ChinaThen There’s the Countryside

Picture:  The shining green fields of Shuibian, Jiangxi, ChinaIncreasing rice prices have brought prosperity to many rural areas.

Picture:  The shining green fields of Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

The land around the village is stunningly beautiful at this time of year.  I was constantly reminded of the line from the song, 童年 (Tong2 Nian2, Childhood)

(Yang2guang1 xia4 qing1ting2 fei1guo4 lai2 yi1 pian4 pian4 lv4you2you2 de dao4tian2,
In the summer sun the dragon fly skims the shining green rice paddies.)

And that’s just what was happening.  In the summer sun, the dragon flies were flying in formation, squadrons of mosquito eaters patrolling the beautiful green fields.

Picture:  Tobacco field, Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

Unfortunately many of the rice paddies have been replaced with the cash crop you see in the picture above – tobacco.  Jenny says that this may not last, as fewer and fewer Chinese are smoking.  China is changing.

This is a place where the 水牛 (shui niu, water cow) is still in important component of rice farming, though we were seeing more and more of the robo-mules sitting in the fields.

Picture: A robomule in a field near Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

-Ruth Anderson photo

There must be practical advantages to the cold metal tractors, but they sure don’t have the charm of the beasts.

Picture: Farmer ploughing with a water buffalo near Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

-Ruth Anderson photo

I suppose a lack of charm is something for a foreigner to lament, when we aren’t the one walking behind the water buffalo pulled plough.

Picture:  A water buffalo wallows in his pond near Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

Picture:  A farmer walks his cow home after a hard day of ploughing.  Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

A Different Attitude Toward Life

I remember my uncle Bill knocking down the swallow nests in his garage because they pooped on his car.  In this place, they consider swallows a bringer of good fortune, and welcome them right into their living rooms.  And this is how they deal with the poop:

Picture: Swallow nests with poop catchers in a living room in Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

-Ruth Anderson photo

There were swallows flying in and out of these nests as we enjoyed the visit to Genny’s grandparents.  These cardboard poop catchers solved the droppings problem.  Swallows eat mosquitoes.  That seems like a darn good reason to encourage them.  It made me sad to think of my uncle knocking down those nests when he could have hung a poop catcher under them and enjoyed the free mosquito control.

On the Train Back to Shanghai

Unfortunately we missed our chance to buy tickets for the Wednesday train back to Shanghai, and couldn’t leave until Friday.  That was embarrassing because it’s the first time either of us have missed classes.  We sent a text message to our assistant Dean, Linda Song, and got a rather terse reply: “I see”.  不好意思 (bu2 hao3 yi4 si, feel very embarrassed).  I could read a world of meaning into that message, but there was nothing to be done about the situation, of course.  Travel at any time around a Chinese festival like 端午节 (duan1 wu3 jie2, dragon boat festival) is always difficult as the whole country heads from the big cities to the home village for a family celebration, just as Jenny and her husband did.

Picture: David in his longji, aboard the train for Shanghai.

-Ruth Anderson photo

I’m writing this on the train back to Shanghai. The long ji I bought in Thailand is serving me well. What a great garment this is for hot and humid weather, and I suppose the fact that I am a foreigner is contributing to the acceptance of this dress-like attire by my fellow passengers, none of whom seem to be giving me a second glance. It was with great relief that I shed my heavy trousers with the bulging pockets. (Actually, the reason my longji isn’t hanging with its usual elegance is that I have my trousers on underneath it.  I almost forgot to get this picture, and didn’t want to shed the trousers to take it. ) I wonder whether the world will ever be more accepting of gender specific clothing on the wrong gender. Maybe men have a battle to fight similar to the one women fought to gain the acceptance of trousers.

I mentioned the longji. Perhaps I should also mention the huangjiu I’m drinking. It’s been a feature of every meal since we arrived, home made rice wine by the bowl full with constant toasts and directives to he jiu. Since I expressed appreciation of this beverage, Jenny’s father gave me a two litre bottle to sustain me for the journey homeward. I’m working my way through it, but there will be enough left to share with Panda and Gloria on our arrival.

Time for a Rant

Chinese Word of the Day:  毕业
(bi4 ye4 ) graduate

Picture:  an example of a limerick.  North Ameridcan College of Jiangnan University, Wuxi, ChinaThere once was a lady from Wuxi
Who liked eating all kinds of sushi
she said I’m not Japanese
But I’d like some more please
I’ll eat all the uni I do see

I had to make up this limerick because all the examples I could remember involve unusual sexual positions or genitalia. “Limerick”, rather improbably, was one of the words on the students’ vocabulary list.

Our last half term of teaching in China and we’ve been teaching grammar.  This is stuff our students have been studying since primary school, so it isn’t much of a challenge for them.  For me the challenge is teaching something that is absolutely useless in the real world.  Unless one is going to be a teacher of grammar, I can think of no reason why anybody would need to know that a gerund is a verb that has been turned into a noun by adding -ing.  Yes, I can understand that such a word is used as a noun, but why on earth would anybody need to know the name for it, and be able to identify it as opposed to, say, an infinitive.

So that’s my first complaint.  The material seems to have been invented by an anal retentive academic with a fetish for classification and naming beyond what has any real value.  Seriously.  You people out there in the real world;  Do you use the word “gerund” in your daily conversation?  Do you know what that word means?  Do you care what that word means?  But that’s only the first complaint.  My main problem is that prescriptive grammar tries to tell people how the language should be used, but nobody follows the rules.  Now everybody says “Who are you going with?”  not “Whom are you going with?” or more elegantly ‘With whom are you going?”  To use the latter constructions would mark one as a pompous pedant and certainly set one apart from native speakers of English.

But that’s not the worst of it with this course.  Not only does no normal person obey the prescribed rules of grammar, even the person writing the book couldn’t figure out the rules and follow them.  An infinitive was clearly explained as a verb that could be used as a noun when combined with “to” as in the sentence: “To swim is my greatest joy.”  but the examples given include sentences like “To most people he appeared to be normal.”, in which “to” is a preposition and “to most people” is a prepositional phrase, definitely NOT an infinitive.

Then there’s the book’s confusion about clauses and phrases.  A clause supposedly differs from a phrase in that the former has a subject and predicate.  So in the sentence, “O’Henry, an American author, was known for his surprise endings.” the words “an American author” form an appositive phrase, not a subordinate clause.  Yet there it is in the examples, as an example of a subordinate clause.

So not only have I been struggling to teach something that is totally useless, and has no application in the real world outside of the profession of grammar teachers, I have been struggling to teach it while correcting the mistakes in the book that is supposed to support the subject.

I can understand teaching students that “their” is possessive, “there” indicates position, and “they’re” is a contraction of “they are”.

I can understand teaching that “its” is the possessive while “it’s” is a contraction of “it is”, or that “who’s” is a contraction of “who is” while “whose” is the possessive.

I can understand teaching that “your” is possessive and “you’re” is a contraction of “you are.”  I wish half the people posting on the Internet understood this distinction.

But if there is any value in knowing the definition of an appositive phrase, it is beyond me to see it.

It will be a real pleasure to finish this term, complete the paperwork, and walk away forever from prescriptive grammar.

So, What Am I Teaching?

For their written assignment, the students must generate a paragraph that begins with a simple declarative sentence (subject + predicate) that can serve as a topic sentence, followed by a compound sentence (independent clause + conjunction + independent clause), followed by a complex sentence (independent clause + subordinate clause in any order), followed by a compound-complex sentence (two or more independent clauses with a subordinate clause, again in any order), and finally completed with a simple declarative sentence that can serve as a conclusion.

Picture: an example of various sentence structures forming a paragraph.  North American College of jiangnan University, Wuxi, ChinaAbove is an example I generated.  It’s colour coded with blue under the independent clauses, red under the subordinate clauses, and yellow under the conjunctions.  This is not the way to create great prose, but at least it shows how a variety of sentence structures can form a paragraph.

Here’s another:  I have been trying to convince the students that a topic sentence like: “My best friend is a lovely girl.” really conveys no information at all.  Here’s an example I generated to illustrate the potential of using actual description.

Picture: a paragraph combining the different types of sentence structures.  North American College of Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

I’ve asked the students to at least try to pick a subject that interests them, and generate sentences that are interesting, amusing, silly, or otherwise worth reading.  Perhaps my examples are not sufficient inspiration, but I’m hopeful that my final marking in China will not be yet another exercise in painful tedium.

Collecting the Sister in Shanghai

My sister Catherine arrived last week from Vancouver.  She’s here to take our dog back to Canada.  It turned out to be cheaper to buy her a return ticket and have a visit with her than it would have been to send the dog by itself.  GouGou’s name is pronounced GoGo = “dog dog” in Chinese.  The Chinese favour double syllable names for dogs; Names like FeiFei (fat fat) or WangWang (woof woof).  She can’t fly with us when we leave at the end of the month because Air Canada will not accept a dog after June 20 and our contracts run to June 30.  Hence the visit from Catherine.

I caught the Gao (high speed) train in to Shanghai and took the subway to the airport to meet Cath’s flight.

Picture: The gao train glides into Wuxi, station.  Wuxi, ChinaI still have a hard time believing these trains are happening right now.  Truly we are living in the future.

Picture:  the train speed listed as 292 km/hr. on the Wuxi-Shanghai run.  Almost 300 klicks and as smooth as sitting in my living room.  Acceleration so gentle that I hardly feel it.  You can tell that the gentleman in the picture below is on the edge of his seat with the adrenalin and thrill of such speed.

Picture: passengers sleep on board the Wuxi-Shanghai gao train.  ChinaTheyAnd then into Shanghai with its amazing subway system, so well designed that even a foreigner can find his way with no problem.  I am always impressed with the system.  Less so with the passengers, many of whom seem incapable of understanding that letting passengers off the train before they try to board is a good idea.

Picture: people unclear on the concept of not blocking the exiting passengers.  Shanghai, ChinaThe double layers of doors are a great improvement.  They prevent anybody from being pushed onto the track in front of an approaching train, and prevent suicides, which I know happen in Toronto far more frequently than you would ever imagine.  What they don’t do is prevent people from standing in front of them when passengers are trying to get off the train.Picture:  people unclear on the concept of letting the exiting passengers out before crowding in.  Shanghai subway station, Shanghai, ChinaDespite the brass arrows inlaid right into the platform, there are always people who stand right in front of the doors and push to board while the passengers are trying to get out of the car.

Cath’s Visit

We’ve had a wonderful time with my sister for the past ten days.  On her last visit she was cheated out of a day in Shanghai by a call to fill in for a missing teacher, so she was looking forward to a day in the city.  During this visit she also got in a day trip to Nanjing with Gloria and Panda

Picture:  Cath, George, Panda, at lunch in Wuxi, ChinaGeorge had us out for a hotpot lunch with the daughter of one of his father’s associates, a girl who needed to practice her English with foreigners.  He also drove us to a new park along the lakeside where GouGou could run off leash and we could admire the flowers.

Picture:  Gloria, Catherine, and Ruth in Wuxi, ChinaTheyGloria, Catherine and Ruth and I (behind the camera, of course) had fun shopping and exploring Wuxi.

Picture: Sister Catherine in Shanghai, ChinaAnd Cath got her day in Shanghai.  That’s the famous Pearl Tower in the background.Picture: Where's Catherine, lost in the crowd at a market in  Shanghai, ChinaTime to play “Where’s Catherine”.  She’s in the picture, and I can see her.  My sister had a limited shopping list.  She wanted to buy some fans for children to play with, and some trinkets for other family members.  Really just an excuse to get into the markets of Shanghai, which we did with a vengeance.  Ruth had a bit of stomach trouble so she stayed behind at a Subway restaurant while Catherine and I and our friend Chen WeiWei, who had come to Shanghai for the day with us, explored the pet market and antique street.

Wrapping up the Term

One of my classes invited us all to a restaurant for an end of term feast.  Despite what might seem like hostility and attitude expressed on the T-shirt below, the students were all friendly and welcoming, and we had a great time.

Picture: Student in Fxck School T-shirt, Wuxi, ChinaThe students laid on a great dinner feast, complete with beer and bai jiu (pronounced like “buy Joe”, Chinese vodka) and thousand year old eggs.  I’m going to miss these fine young people.

Cath has been renting one of the vacant apartments in the foreign teachers’ building for her stay here: 80 yuan/night ($13.30 Canadian/night) for a clean and comfortable suite that includes a living room, bedroom, kitchen, bathroom with western toilet, shower, and washing machine.  A bargain.  Last night we all gathered there and had pizza delivered from Papa Johns.  We’ve been working this weekend, because that gives us three days off for the Dragon Boat Festival holiday.  GouGou has had her last visit to her beloved campus island park.  I gave her a bath.  We’ve applied the topical medicine, protecting her from fleas, ticks, and heart worms.  All her paperwork is in order and her reservation for the flight has been checked and double checked.  Tomorrow we’ve arranged for our favourite driver, Xiao He, to come to our apartment to take me, GouGou and Catherine to the Shanghai Pudong airport where I’ll see them off to Canada.  We’re ready.

Once again it’s Graduation Time

I always find this time of year rather bitter sweet.  The students we first met four years ago are now graduating, and I’m frequently stopped on campus with a request for a picture.  They are moving on, though many of them will be going for “further studies” because the job market for a mere BA is bleak.  And of course this is our last year in China, and we are moving on as well.  Sigh.  It’s time, but that doesn’t make it feel better.

Picture:  Da Dawei with four of his former students. Juangnan University, Wuxi, ChinaThe students have made me feel welcome and valued here.  I hope they all have a bright and happy future.