I'm up to date with all my blogs again (well, I was when I started to write this entry about two weeks ago…) so I thought I'd write another blog update with some thoughts on China. I'll try and answer some of the questions people have asked me in letters and emails and cover some of the generic stuff in China that people at home don't know about. I'll also include some stories from our China time so far that I've so far forgotten to include in other blogs!
Firstly, I'm going to start with one day in Nanchang and the stupid things done/said by Beth, Rob and Cat respectively. They probably won't thank me for this and people reading this might find it's more of a 'you had to be there kind of moment' but I can assure you at the time they were hilarious. I'll start with Rob as he's my partner… We're in a supermarket and we noticed a shelf of 'jeans condoms' as we were queuing- none of us had heard of these and had no idea what that meant. We were pretty certain making them from denim wouldn't work too well and were almost at our wits end when Rob suggested his genius explanation. 'Maybe they don't have ends on, y'know, like trousers.' A split second of silence then Beth and I were literally in stitches. Beth was slapping her leg and we both had tears while Rob took a moment to realise what he'd just said. Unfortunately, the comment 'I was just thinking aloud' didn't quite save him and we reminded him at regular intervals for the rest of the day. Possible the stupidest was Beth (of course, who else…) while we were waiting for our film time in the cinema just before watching Woman in Black. Beth, Cat and I were sitting on one side of the seating while Rob was sitting on the other side engrossed in texting. Beth randomly decided to wolf whistle at him and I followed it up with another, slightly louder, wolf whistle. I thought nothing of this until Beth looked round at Cat and I with a look of child like astonishment on her face. 'Did you hear that guys? Someone copied my whistle!' She looked so shocked we assumed she must be joking. She wasn't. She whistled again and I copied her and once again we were greeted with Beth's look of wide-eyed amazement looking around the seating area for the cheeky culprit. Cat and I couldn't quite believe this was happening and Beth started to whistle some more, each time changing the tune then quickly looking round for who was whistling. Of course it was still me. I whistled every time I looked round for the 'culprit' and Cat got in on the act by pretending to look and blocking me from Beth's view for enough time to allow another whistle. Eventually Beth saw me whistle and I assumed the game was up when she said 'Dan you just whistled that time?' I replied with 'Yeah, I did that time, I thought it'd be funny' to which Beth replied 'oh, ok then' and continued various tunes to find her mysterious Chinese whistler. Eventually we couldn't keep from laughing any longer and Beth caught on. It took her a hell of a long time though and watching her shocked face was an absolutely priceless moment. Cat doesn't escape completely though, in the taxi after the cinema she randomly turned around to inform us she'd just seen a sign saying no trumpets were allowed down this street. We were all confused and wondered why on earth they wouldn't want trumpets down here. Cat had been pretty serious and we had no reason to doubt her plus we'd seen enough weird stuff in China to make that possible. It seemed unlikely though, especially since we hadn't seen or heard of anyone playing the trumpet in our whole time in China. We left the subject and 10 minutes later Cat shouted at us that the same sign was up ahead. Of course it wasn't a trumpet; it was a horn and meant that drivers weren't allowed to beep on this street. For once, I was the one that made it through the day without doing/saying something stupid and I thought I'd share that proud day with everyone at home.
On to more serious stuff, the letters I've received often ask questions about weather, holidays, my school, my apartment, learning Chinese, what other activites we do, the food and the traffic among other things. I won't cover them all here but I'll write about them all in the near future to explain things. I forget that some things I now see as normal will sound pretty crazy to people back home.
I'll start with a topic close to my heart, the food. The most important thing you should know is that we literally live off rice. It has become our staple diet and we have a bowlful (or twenty) at every single meal. For breakfast I buy five meat baozi from a little shop round the corner for 2Y and eat them in school. Baozi's are basically a kind of steamed bread which could be filled with pretty much anything. They're a standard breakfast or snack in China. Sometimes I might push the boat out a bit and buy jiaozi (Chinese dumplings) which are also very common here and often eaten for breakfast along with rice porridge (they have about a billion different types of this stuff and none of it is nice). For lunch and dinner we eat in the school's dining hall where we get a slab of rice and a few ladles of whatever the giant bowls are full of on that day. We get to go and serve ourselves and choose what we want and it usually costs me around 5Y per meal. The food in the dining hall is pretty good although sometimes the choice just does not look appealing at all so we scarper and grab a meal at a noodle restaurant near our flat. They don't eat much meat here though. Rob and I tend to go for any dish with any meat and it's usually a disappointing amount. They also cannot fathom the thought of having a cold meal, the prospect just isn't on their radar. We've been true to our word and got stuck in to every dish we set our minds to though. We've eaten plenty of strange things and my list now stands at a chicken head, duck feet, pig brains, chicken testicles, dog, frog, lots and lots of bamboo, fish eyes, fried duck tongues, some fried lizard/insect things on sticks, dragon fruit and as of today, tortoise. For those that are wondering, I wasn't a fan of the pig brain. It tasted alright but was very mushy. I boiled that at a hotpot restaurant along with the chicken testicles - they tasted much better. Dog tasted ok but was extremely chewy and the duck tongues were just crispy. Frog looks absolutely revolting but tastes really good and is nice meat just lacking in quantity. Tortoise again is nice enough but it's a battle to get past the shell and all the bits of gristle and bone.
You might remember my brief descriptions of the traffic when we first arrived in China and although it's still absolutely mental we're beginning to see a kind of ordered pattern emerging under the chaos. Of course, being on the right hand side of the road now feels natural and I tend to bike on the right without even thinking about it now. I spent a few weeks where daydreaming on my bike meant drifting into the British side of the road and into oncoming traffic. Not that it matters much because everyone goes on whatever side of the road they want to anyway. I've noticed that Chinese drivers are very different to British drivers though. For a start, even if they've just accelerated to overtake someone and they have with an open road, a high speed limit and a fast car, they're perfectly content to drive like they're going for a Sunday picnic. They always tend to keep pretty slow, with the exception of some mental taxi and tuc-tuc drivers in the cities and very important people who have lots of cars. They also use their horns incessantly but not to show anger or frustration. I've never seen a Chinese driver get angry; they just continue to calmly weave their way through the myriad of battered vehicles. No-one bats an eyelid when someone beeps at them and we can now see that the horn actually is a safety feature, they use it to let the 5 people on the motorbike in front know that they're about to overtake them. Because they're always overtaking they're always beeping. Personally, I think that the few cars that use headlights here are more dangerous than those without. On the odd occasion that I'm biking in Yihuang in the dark (I try to avoid it at all costs, don't worry!) my eyes get accustomed to the dark and you can make out the shapes on the road up ahead and they can see me. Suddenly a car comes along with bright, 'safe' lights and the glare plunges everything else into blackness. Ok, so I can see one car. But now no one can see the road-tripping family on a bike, the baby playing in the middle of the road, the man riding a bike tethered to a water buffalo, the woman squatting in the road because she just couldn't wait to find a loo and the variety of battered tuc-tucs, cars and bikes that make crossing the road a pleasure here. Sitting in an actual car, however, you can begin to follow the driver's intent. What we first interpreted as a mad man forcing his vehicle into tiny spaces in an effort to terrify the foreigners we now see as a mutual understanding on the roads. If there's a space in front of you move into it, don't consider consequences or the fact another car's doing the same thing, just go for it. Someone will give way and it won't be you and in this fashion the traffic bumps along. This of course is in cities; Yihuang's far too small to have any significant traffic.
We've seen some sights on the roads that have made us stop and stare… Some really have to be seen to be believed and I wish I'd managed to get some example photos. It is no exaggeration when I say that it is common to pile up a tiny tuc-tuc or small lorry with a load literally three times it's size. The load towers over the cab and hangs far over both sides and the back while a pathetic engine splutters under the load. There's a lot of tuc-tucs here, especially in Yihuang where larger cars often aren't necessary - and some are hilariously small. One of my favourite sights has to be the man transporting fish on a motorbike. He had a huge transparent bin liner tied to each handle bar which he was trying to balance. Each bag was filled with water and stuffed with some pretty big fish and I couldn't help but stare as he wobbled away down the road. Another man was somehow carrying gas canisters (I've now seen this twice) and had three of the very big containers of gas bottles balanced on the back of his motorbike. They were neatly arranged in a precarious pyramid and attached with a single piece of fraying cord. Also, apart from the serious bikers, nobody at all wears helmets here. I think the mass of a bulky helmet would interrupt with the nationally popular Chinese game of 'how many people can you cram on a motorbike.' The most we've counted is 5 and although we've counted this a few times now they seem reluctant to go for the magical high score of 6. I was also surprised to find my road blocked by a water buffalo the other day. I was on my way to get breakfast and it was just staring me down in the middle of the road. I biked around it, giving it a wide berth, and tried to think why it was tied to a bike left in the center of the road. My question was answered once I'd bought breakfast - I turned round to see a tiny old man perched on a bike hitting the water buffalo which was trotting away down the road pulling the man on his bike along with it, I'd like to give that mode of transport a shot if I'm hoenst. Finally, for a nation that is obsessed with being safe to the point of being ridiculous they have some very strange ways of going about it. We've seen example of this across Chinese life here but I'll stick to traffic for the time being. For some reason, drinking cold water and going camping are dangerous activities yet no-one ever wears seatbelts. I mean there are seatbelts in most cars but using them is taking things a bit too far. In fact most cars actively discourage seatbelts and most drivers have fitted big cushions and mats over the seatbelts so that no-one at all can use them. A few drivers have made an effort though and plug it in…then put it behind their backs, what's the point? A few go one step further and actually wear the belt…but then don't plug it in. I haven't seen a single driver who's put two and two together for the sake of his safety, although you can be certain the water he's drinking is hot and he won't be going camping this weekend.
Sorry it's been a while, got some catching up to do. Also had lots of problems uploading photos but think I've got that sorted tonight, I'll get more on soon!