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China stories

Writing routines

Writing on a regular basis still requires a little practice. This goes just as much for my blog as it does for my Chinese characters! It’s hard to keep a routine going when all your trusted routines seem to malfunction, like going out for a late lunch on the weekend means you end up eating together with the wait staff. Of course the lack of routines makes life more interesting so I guess it’s better than boredom.

Every class my teacher gives me five Chinese characters to add to my collection. The idea being that I practice them at home and increase my written vocabulary. I’m happy I can already read the ‘mind your head’ signs and can sometimes work out the name of a store. Although I think some stores may still apply the right to left writing so even the character recognizer (or should I say cheat-app) on my phone sometimes gets confused.

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Reading about China

I recently dusted off the book Wild Swans by Jung Chang and started reading it again. Rarely do I read books twice but I read this one many years ago and recall it impressed me. It was before I ever thought I would be living in China so I am now reading it with different eyes.

Someone asked me recently if I had read any books about China and I decided to have a look on the bookshelf, both wooden and digital. Apart from the obvious culture-shock-avoiding and roads-less-travelled type of guides, there are a few more books I have enjoyed.

River Town by Peter Hessler, an American Peace Corps volunteer who spent two years in Fuling (Sichuan province) in 1996, teaching English at the local college. He recently returned to the river town and wrote an article about it for the National Geographic: Return to River Town.

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Survivor

This week I finished my last Chinese class as a ‘Survivor‘. An appropriate title for a beginner course as it feels like surviving most of the time. Keeping my head above the water as a sea of strange sounds tries to drown me!

As I was writing my presentation for the end of the last module (I have survived three) I once again realised how much there is still to learn. Remembering words is easy. Remembering their tone marks, not so much. And that’s of course exactly the part that makes you screw up the pronounciation, gets you strange looks, etc etc. I am considering signing up for the next level 3 HSK exam as this may be the proverbial Dutch stick I need behind the door. On the bright side, I am able to tell a joke and a few taxi drivers have laughed at them. Now you can never be sure they are laughing at the joke as I can imagine my speech is funny to them too but so far the laughing has only occurred at the punch line and not during the whole ‘conversation’ so I think I’m ok.

In the meantime I continue to survive all sorts of things, good and bad, in this strange but wonderful land. From tasty pancakes to floating pigs, when its good its good but when its bad, it really is bad. It makes China very interesting but also hard to comprehend at times. But I continue to the next level of my course which is called ‘Social‘ so who knows I may be able to chat about it over a cup of coffee soon.

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The noodle machine

It’s official. I am working again.

It did not take long to get used to this time (3 days to be precise). I’ve become a pro at starting new jobs having started a few in the last couple of years. This time it will hopefully be a little less short-lived as so far I am enjoying the journey (literally). Getting up early is a little easier in these parts of the world. As we are a good bit further south, there is not so much of that dreaded and depressing winter morning darkness going on, which makes getting up all that much more bearable, although some will disagree.

To get the earlier of the two trains, I leave the house at 7am. A driver (whom I pay…) collects me from the house. It’s a different person each time but always holding up an A4 sheet with my first name. It’s a little funny having some guy standing outside your door holding a piece of paper with your name on it but it beats looking for a taxi any day.

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We rest rest and go more fast fast

Since we have moved to China my English has definitely deteriorated. I won’t even mention my Dutch as that has been going down the tube for a long time (I found myself saying ‘helpte’ recently, which obviously only makes sense to those who speak Dutch and even then it may not).

I’m not sure if it has something to do with trying to make myself understood in English or if it is just because I am learning a new language which has a different structure (although sometimes it feels like it has none at all). Maybe it’s a combination of both. For example saying ‘more better’, instead of just saying it the correct way sometimes helps. In Chinese the adjective does not change, instead they add a word so for example faster is translated as ‘more fast’. The more Chinese I learn, the more I can hear it coming through when Chinese people speak English.

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The coffee machine

Sometimes living in a foreign culture puts you in touch with the less pleasant parts of your personality especially when your patience gets tested and even more so when you are not a very patient person to begin with.

When we returned to China after our little Christmas break in Europe, things just weren’t the same. With my appetite gone and my previous enthusiasm for learning Chinese evaporated into thin air, they all started turning against me… or so it seemed.

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The laughing driver

Sometimes I forget how big Suzhou is. Today I took a trip across town to find the fabric and flea market. The taxi driver laughed when I showed him the taxi card I took from the handy color coded book. I normally don’t bring taxi cards since this forces me to practice my Mandarin but this time I was unsure of the name so I cheated. When the driver laughed I could not tell if it was about the pink taxi card or the chosen destination.

When I took out my phone to check the map, the driver laughed again. I told him in my best Chinese that I like looking at the map so I can familiarize myself with my surroundings and thus get my bearings. I didn’t really say all of this, just some words. Then I said Suzhou is very big and he said it was not. That was the end of our conversation.

As we arrived the driver pointed at the gate of the market and started laughing again. I just smiled back. It was hard to tell what kind of laugh it was but it seems to happen to me a lot. It generally makes me a little uncomfortable as it sounds like an “I’m laughing at you” laugh. Since I could hardly (read I was unable to) ask him what he was laughing about I remained in the dark. I was hoping the market would enlighten me, in the sense that if it was really shit, I knew what he had been laughing about. Then it would for sure have been an “I can’t believe you are going to this place” laugh…

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The wheel keeps on turning

Driving in China is not really an option. Firstly because I would need a Chinese licence (this can be overcome) and secondly because I value my life. So instead I’ve been having a go at sitting behind a different kind of wheel. This one stays indoors and can be found at a local ceramics studio hidden in a very far corner of an anonymous car park. It would have stayed undiscovered if it hadn’t been for an article in a local magazine and a little encouragement from a new German friend.

pottery wheel

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