Friday, November 20, 2009


While I was working in Canada at the back end of the '90s I developed the habit of writing a weekly e-mail 'bulletin' to friends back in the UK as a way of keeping in touch.  (Yes, we had real, one-to-one communication back in those days, rather than just broadcasting personal information into the void via Facebook or Twitter.)  I continued to do this intermittently over the next couple of years when I'd returned to the UK (since I'd made a lot of new friends in North America; and I was working such stupid hours - and for so little  money - that I wasn't even seeing very much of the people I knew in London).

When I moved to China, communication by telephone became nearly impossible (bothersomely expensive, even with IP cards; and that 8-hour time difference is a bitch to work around), so the bulletins once again became a regular and essential means of sharing news.

When I started out, I was keeping them down to 700 or 800 words each, but they slowly grew longer (typically 1,200 words, but sometimes 1,500 or even 2,000) and, I fear, began to tax the patience of my friends.  Well, no - people just stopped reading them.  So I moved on to blogging instead.

However, I just happened upon my batch of 'China Bulletins' while copying over some files from my old computer, and I thought I might start to share occasional snippets from them on here.

This is one of my very first ones, from the beginning of September 2002 (I titled it The Searchers).


The early days of life in a 'third world' country (a label no doubt outmoded and un-PC, and one which the Chinese would take umbrage at...... but if the shit fits.....) are a constant quest:  even buying toothpaste can be a gumption-testing challenge (although I must confess that life in this respect is far, far easier than it was when I last visited China: there is a huge hypermarket that sells almost everything only about a 10-minute walk away; and almost all the packaging has some English on it these days.... so routine shopping is still time-consuming, but a lot less of an ordeal than it might be).

I spent most of my first week trying to track down a bottle-opener (having unaccountably left my beloved Swiss Army penknife behind in England), an item which does not appear to be for sale in any shop, and which is hard to enquire about when you don't know the Chinese for it (and my Chinese colleagues seemed strangely reticent about telling me - oh, how they love to tease the foreign devils!).  I thought my mime was pretty unambiguous, but it tended to produce only laughter rather than assistance.  I eventually persuaded the manageress of our nearest mini-supermarket to give me hers (using my patented shrug-and-smile method of communication), but what I had taken to be an international-goodwill-gesture on her part appeared to result in a hefty 15yuan surcharge on my bill.  I am assured by tittering Chinese colleagues that this is far and away the most expensive bottle-opener in China, but I don't regard the expense as too unreasonable, and it is now my most prized possession: it has talismanic properties beyond its immediate practical use.

I am generally rather scornful of those who cling to their Western comforts (in Beijing these days you can live a fully Western lifestyle if you have enough money: it is, for example, possible to get a pizza delivery in exchange for one of your less important limbs; most of the other teachers here are pursuing this course to some extent, presumably at the expense of their life savings or their credit rating), but I decided that I would allow myself only the indulgence of an occasional slice of toast.  I have located bread (now quite common, though not very good), margarine (butter also now quite common, but prohibitively expensive for regular consumption), strawberry jam (but, alas, no marmalade), and an electric toaster (an expensive Western import..... local consumer electrical goods are pretty cheap, but they haven't cottoned on to this one yet). Now, the one thing that continues to defeat me is a knife for spreading the jam'n'marge: still utterly unobtainable out here?!  I wish I had kept the Lufthansa cutlery from the flight out (surely the only airline in the world that is still providing large, sharp, metal knives with its dreadful inflight meals?).

I rediscovered the original Disappearing Restaurant that had been so sapping my confidence in ever being able to find my way around here, though I am still plagued by a nagging conviction that it is not quite where we had left it.  My latest bugbear as I struggle to master the amorphous local geography is the Disappearing Doughnut Shop.

At least these difficulties have provided plenty of ice-breaking activities for my class, as I set them to answer queries like: "Where can I get my hair cut?" (without being charged 50yuan and offered 'something for the weekend'); "Where can I go to the cinema?" (invariably provoking the incredulous response: "Why would you want to go to the cinema when you can watch VCDs at home??"); "Where can I buy English-language books and newspapers?"; etc., etc., etc.
Oh yes, it's a constant quest.


The Nag said...

Have you found a modern day "Horace"?

Froog said...

I am the modern Horace!

The Nag said...

as in a fly in Canada... .

Froog said...

Oh, gosh, I'd almost forgotten him - Horace the dipso pet housefly.

I should write about him on here sometime.

Oddly enough, houseflies are just about unknown out here. Never had one in my apartment, anyway.

Worrying, really. It suggests huge amounts of DVD in the environment.

Someone pointed out to me just recently that there aren't any rats either....

Froog said...

"DVD" in the environment? What a weird typo! Of course, I meant DDT.