Archive for the ‘Stories about living in Changsha’ Category

Today was a pretty good 2nd last day in China . . . although I spent most of the morning and afternoon indoors because it’s now like an outdoor sauna in Changsha with an average temperture during the day of 35 and with humidity factored in you get 40+ . . . ugh!

Julianne and I did venture out around 6pm to go to a tea house downtown with our student assistant and his girlfriend.  I didn’t know what to expect but hoped it would be nice–and it was awesome!

I brought along my Canon 1v film camera because I wanted to shoot the last 10 frames on the roll in it.  I should have brought my Canon 400D (aka Rebel Xti or Kiss Digital X) because the outside of the tea house had traditional red lanterns and wooden architecture!  I’ll post the film pics I took after I get them processed in Canada.  I really hope they turn out well because the tea house was a fantastic last outing to do with our friends.

Inside the main entrance there were traditional clay pots and cups made by artists who specialize in the methods.  We then headed up some really old looking wooden stairs that sagged a little when I stepped on them which made me a little apprehensive.  On the second floor we walked into a beautiful large open room with high ceilings.

In the center of the room was a four-wooden-pillar covered seating booth with old tree stump stools and wonderful looking cups and a tea set.  The lighting was calming and Julianne and I were impressed with the general atmosphere.  Wooden Buddha statues, clay traditional tea pots and cups, herbal teas, and other traditional tea house decor gave the place a very wonderful look that, yes, I keep emphasizing, lol.

We were led by a short Chinese woman (not wearing high heels!) in a traditional flower print dress down a hall with paper lanterns and traditional style wooden paneling on the walls to a small room with four chairs and a table.  We sat down and a few minutes later the woman came back with a traditional tea set.

In South Korea I was fortunate enough to have experienced traditional Buddhist tea ceremonies on more than one occassion so I was very curious to see how it would be the same and/or differ.  From what I remember it seems like the woman only did about half of the steps I recall witnessing by a Korean English teacher and friend who studied for years with a Japanese traditional tea ceremony master.   Also, the tea set she used seemed rather cheap although the tea itself (green tea) was fantastic in quality.

We also had plates of fruits (watermelon, canteloupe, etc) and it went very nicely with the green tea.  Julianne and I talked with our friends for nearly two hours, and had a great time discussing everything from cultural differences in Chinese family upbringings to education system differences to how Julianne and I met for the first time . . . it was a really nice evening.

I’m still kicking myself for not bringing my digital camera because the instant upload to the Net and blog about it convenience was absent–but that’s part of the pleasure and fun of film photography.

I’m just hoping that half of the 10 frames I shot are ‘upload worthy.’

Anyways, time to go do some packing.

Only one day left in China–woo!


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Well, Julianne and I are slowly nearing the end of our time in China–we leave in a couple days.

It’s been extremely hot and humid outside now for several days. Sometimes there’s a semi-cooling breeze that keeps things tolerable in the shade, and sometimes there’s not and you begin to feel like you’re walking through an outdoor sauna . . . and it’s only going to get hotter as the summer progresses!

Anyways, tonight we went out for dinner with friends. One of them had a brother visiting from America, and they had just returned from Beijing and traveling around doing the tourist thing.

We went out for Korean food and had a good time talking about the brother’s first experiences in China. I also got a great picture of him trying kimchi for the first time–he pretty much did the classic contortion and smile to try and hide the shock at how spicy/sour/salty/unlike-anything-you’ve-ever-eaten-in-your-entire-life-before-face . . . it was FANTASTIC!

Later, as we were walking around to do some shopping I saw a classic THIS IS CHINA nighttime street scene.

Shirtless, cold beers, snacks, and sitting with friends by the street having a good time . . .



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Julianne’s Brownies, originally uploaded by Serenity in China.

At Metro you can buy Betty Crocker brownie mix . . . yum.

While I think I’m a fairly decent cook when it comes to baking and making western style foods–Julianne is a thousand times better.

I’ve made brownies using the Betty Crocker mix, and thought they were good.

Then I tried Julianne’s brownies that she made with another package of the same Betty Crocker mix . . .

Julianne’s brownies are superior–no contest.

This morning Julianne baked up a ‘last batch of brownies in China’ for us . . .

Don’t they look good?!


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Julianne and I get asked a lot by our students and other university teachers here in China if we like Chinese food and how often we eat it, etc.

We really like Chinese food and there are very few dishes we’ve come across that we didn’t like when eating at the restaurants in Changsha.

We also, of course, like to eat western foods from North America, and foods from other cultures like India, for example.

Since we haven’t heard of any Indian restaurants in Changsha we decided to make some curry style chicken when we came across a packet of seasonings in Metro (similar to COSTCO) a few weeks ago.

The only problem was that even with the ‘prepared’ seasonings the recipe on the package called for ingredients and items we don’t have in our apartment. We also knew we couldn’t find them in Metro.

Anyways, Julianne improvised with what we had in our kitchen and produced a really good tasting curry-esque chicken dish (I’m sure substituting ketchup for pureed tomato might have altered the dish a wee bit, lol).

As a side dish we had baked potatoes which are surprisingly cheap to buy here.

It is possible to cook western/foreign food dishes here in Changsha but it pays to bring spices you love from home on the plane. You can get quite a few at Metro and Carrefour, but others are impossible to find.

Next week I’ll be back in Canada and can’t wait to go into a grocery store and experience the extreme reverse-culture-shock of seeing so many choices . . . it really hits home how privileged one is to live in Canada after being overseas for several years.

Happy Canada Day!!!


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This afternoon Julianne and I headed to a Bank of China location that I’ve used several times now for exchanging RMB in Canadian dollars, and doing international money transfers too.

WARNING: This post is one of the rare times I let myself rant about a living and working in China issue.

I did all of my usual overkill preparation because I know a trip to the bank in China is never without surprises and often involves situations that foreigners cannot conceive of as possible.

For those outside China considering living and working here I’ll share the list of things I bring with me to the banks here.

1. passport

2. Foreign Expert Permit

3. a copy of my contract

4. my home country bank account number and general info (transit#/location, street address)

5.  all past money transfer papers (so the bank officer can refer to it when she forgets how to do something/doesn’t know what to do something)

6. ***a native speaking Chinese friend (often CRITICAL to any kind of success with even simple banking tasks)

7. a statement of income signed and stamped by my university

8.  any and all other papers, things, rabbits’ feet, lucky charms, four-leaf clovers, etc

And even then don’t even dare to think that your efforts will be successful . . .

Let me explain.

This afternoon Julianne, myself, and our Chinese friend walked into the bank.  I immediately noticed a new security guard who was making his presence quite conspicuous as he strutted around with a big black ugly nightstick in his hand.  While our Chinese friend walked over to the banking officers, Security Guard Gump, as I have decided to name him, immediately joined the conversation in Mandarin between our friend and a bank officer.

Julianne and I stood back watching, and the security guard began answering and dominating the entire conversation . . . yeah, Mr. I-probably-never-went-to-high-school-and-certainly-don’t-work-for-the-bank-as-a-bank-officer-and-never-got-any-training-on-international-banking-policies-and-procedures decided that he was going to run the show . . . WTF?

And then things began to get even ‘better’ . . . the two bank officers, one of whom is the bank manager, then tell our Chinese friend that I cannot exchange X RMB value because it is over the 500.00 USD maximum per day for foreigners . . .

I ask my friend to translate (although both officers have some English ability) that I had already done several exchanges for amounts over the 500.00 USD exchange maximum because, as THEY HAD INSTRUCTED ME TO, I had submitted a signed and stamped statement of income from my employer.

The response to this was that that ‘didn’t matter’ and that because the amount I wanted to exchange from RMB into Canadian currency was much higher than usual (I had brought my airplane reimbursement money to exchange and send home) they now wanted a signed and stamped form from the local income tax office authorizing such a large amount of RMB to be exchanged into Canadian dollars . . . the kick in the ass being that these two bank ‘officers’ had previously stated that the statement of income form, if signed and stamped by my employer, would allow me to “exchange as much RMB per day/visit to the bank as I wanted” to do . . .

Lesson to take from this: Do not trust or believe anything you are told to be policy/rules/law/truth at a bank in China. (NOTE: Yes, I KNOW I am generalizing, but I think the caveat here has merit and stand by it.)

Then to add to the developing insanity the security guard tells our Chinese friend that there can be no international money transfers done after 3pm (the rule is 9am to 3pm)–yet the bank officers sitting 10 feet away had done TWO TRANSFERS for me in the past, both of which had taken place after 3pm . . .

I tried telling my friend to ignore the security guard and to actually speak to a bank clerk or officer.  He walked over to one of the clerks behind a window and, of course, Security Guard Gump followed a foot away.  Our friend asked the clerk a question–and Gump answered for him.

At this point I’m sure if a pulse and blood pressure monitor had been attached to my body it’d have been accelerating past what is considered normal and healthy . . . I tried to stay calm and not yell at Gump and tell him to go back to the door and watch for hot chicks and smoke cigarettes–you know, the normal duties that he actually might have qualifications and training for.

Our Chinese friend walks back over to Julianne and I, closely followed by Gump, and I ask my friend AGAIN to talk directly to the bank officers.  We walk over to the officers’ desks and Gump walks around to stand behind the two women officers radiating a ‘supervisory’ stance and body language.

I ask our friend to ask the bank officers why they are a) saying no to a currency exchange when I got the statement of income form stamped and signed for them? And  b) why they won’t do an international money transfer after 3pm when they’ve done them before for me?

Our friend translates their answers for me.  One of them claims they don’t have the statement of income form for me–to which Julianne responds in an exasperated voice that they always have gotten out their copy along with my other paper work every time I’ve visited in the past, so why is today different? No response is given other than staring at the desk and saying nothing.

The security guard then tries to start jimmer-jabbering away at our friend and I cut him off–and for once, he shuts up; this was probably due to the flames that were beginning to shoot out of my eyes at the ridiculousness of the whole situation.

Then the suggestion of Julianne and I going to the downtown central branch location is made (translation: go away and leave us alone) and the phone is picked up by a third bank officer who enquires about whether or not we can do a large RMB to Canadian exchange and then an international transfer–no dice.

The two bank officers that I’ve dealt with repeat for the 10th time that I have to go to the local income tax office and get a signed and stamped form giving me permission to exchange my airfare reimbursement into Canadian currency and to do a money transfer to my account in Canada . . .

I look at Julianne and my friend and say it’s time to leave.   We head outside and discuss what we’re going to do.  I repeat my objections to Security Guard Gump’s intrusive and unwelcomed presence.  Our friend tries to explain that he’s simply being ‘warm-hearted’ and ‘wants to help us really bad.’  I look at him and say that that’s not the case from where I stand.

While we are talking Gump walks out of the bank and up to us to say something else.  I glare at him, say ‘no, no’ and wave my hands at him to go away.  He finally does after one last attempt at ‘helping’ us.  Argh.

Our friend then suggests we head to his bank, ICBC, and we head out of the area towards his bank.

During the walk I try to explain that for Julianne and I there are two basic situations where we will not make efforts to follow a foreign culture: illness/injury in a hospital, and at the bank where personal and confidential banking information and money are involved.  He understands what we’re saying and the cultural background behind it, but at the same time continues to insist on his presentation of the underlying motivation behind Gump’s behaviors . . . sometimes, even with a Chinese person who has lived in other countries and has high levels of English ability it is impossible to get across the ‘other’s’ point of view.  I do, however, credit him for respecting Julianne and I in regards to how difficult things can be in certain situations in China.

We arrive at our friend’s bank, and walk over to the VIP section. Our friend asks about international money transfers and learns that because the location of the bank is on a university campus they don’t do transactions like that, lol.  While waiting inside the walled off VIP area (though the door to it was open) an old man wanders over and pokes his head through to stare and listen in on our friend’s conversation . . . seriously, I really would love to know if Chinese cultural taboos don’t cover this kind of situation when it involves Chinese-person A and Chinese-person B–is it really acceptable for a stranger to walk over and stand in close proximity to a customer and bank officer discussing banking details?  I doubt it, but then again, when foreign and in China I suspect all too often the taboos don’t hold any weight with many people here when interacting with foreigners.

Julianne and I walk outside, laughing, and ready to give up for the day on what apparently is a mission of EPIC challenges and obstacles.  Our friend rejoins us and suggests that we try heading downtown to the central large branch location.  I ask him if he thinks we can get there with enough time left to do our tasks (assuming that it will take at MINIMUM 1-2 hours). He tells me he thinks we can do it.

I ask him what time the bank downtown closes but he isn’t sure.  He runs back inside and makes a phone call.  If we get there by 4:40pm (at the time it was 3:50pm) we’d be able to do what we need to get done.

We walk across the university campus and stand on the street trying to hail a taxi but can’t get one.  Then we decide to take the bus.

About 15 minutes later we get off the bus and we play Frogger crossing the street and it’s then that our friend tells us he’s unsure of where the bank is, and that he’ll ask someone.  Luckily, the bank was only a couple blocks away.

Walking inside Julianne and I immediately appreciate the well air-conditioned interior (the first bank location was pretty warm, and the second not bad but not good either) and a much nicer interior decor.

We walk over to a row of bank officer desks and our friend begins asking about how to exchange RMB into Canadian dollars, and how to do an international money transfer.  After about 2 minutes of back and forth question and answer between him and the bank officer things seem to begin to progress.

It’s at this point that I should mention that we had given up on using the Bank of China to exchange money currencees and to do an international transfer.  Our friend had agreed to use his own account and to exchange the money and send it for us.  Luckily for Julianne and I, we trust him and know that he won’t steal our money! Otherwise we would have had to fly back with large amounts of RMB and then try exchanging them with our home country banks–from what I know of trying to exchange Korean won (dollars) back in Canada you ALWAYS get a crappy exchange rate once you’re outside of Korea, and I assumed the same would apply if I had to exchange RMB back inside Canada!

Our friend gets things fairly sorted out and begins filling out forms.  It’s then that a SECOND bank officer gets involved (who knows why) and I’m asked to produce a “SWIFT” number for my bank in Canada.  I had heard of swift numbers from other expats in Korea but I’ve never had to use one for money transfers to Canada.

I try to explain that I’ve sent several money transfers from inside China to Canada and that this is the first time being told I ‘must’ have one . . . but the bank officer insists.

I pull out my ‘transit number’ and bank account number but am pretty sure the ‘transit number’ is just a branch location signifier (it is) and this goes nowhere fast . . . the bank officer, after a minute of fast talking in Mandarin to my friend, picks up her phone and a 3 minute dialogue takes place with her ‘boss’ and with a lot of facial contortions and worried sighs and groans from the bank officer . . .

All of which resulted in learning that, yep, I don’t need a swift number to send money to my Canadian account. (Though apparently it’s ‘better’ if you do have one–I’m gonna do some research about this later.)

During the course of filling out bank forms and asking and answering dozens of questions several Chinese people just walked up to the desk where my friend, Julianne, and I were doing our thing and began talking to the bank officer . . . I seriously dislike this rude and invasive behavior, especially when each person ALWAYS LOOKS DOWN AT MY PERSONAL BANKING INFORMATION!  The bank officers never ask them to wait their turn or go get a number from the machine that stands by the entrance . . . one guy who did this was cut off by our Chinese friend because he needed to ask something about the form he was filling in, and as the guy stood there waiting to  continue asking his own questions he looked down and began perusing the bank forms we were filling out–at which point I snapped my fingers at him and said no and waved him away to which he had some small good grace to look a little embarrassed and he stepped back from the desk.

After starting this ‘epic’ journey to the bank to exchange my airfare reimbursement and send money to my Canadian account we had . . .

. . . been to THREE banks . . .

. . . been trying for nearly THREE HOURS . . .

And finally, after much perservearance and help from our Chinese friend (THANK YOU!!!) we accomplished our tasks.

Thus endeth my rant and story.

85 hours to Canada!!!


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Julianne and I arrived in Changsha at the beginning of last September and supposedly missed the worst of the heat and humidity . . . but it looks like we’re going to get a taste of it before we leave in July with the way things are going!

Right now the temperature is 34°C, Feels like: 42° . . . Ohhhhh . . .

We went out this morning around 11am to grab an early lunch and while we were only outside for about forty-five minutes by the time we got back we needed showers.  Basically, if you go outside you get to have a ‘perma-glisten-of-sweat’ coating your body within minutes . . . nice.

I wanted to go back to Martyr’s Park to shoot more of the lotus blossoms but decided the air-conditioned apartment was a much nicer place to spend the day.  I might try going early tomorrow morning but the humidity is so high that it really doesn’t make a difference what time od day you go outside and how high the temperature is–if you go outside you sweat.

The only other place I’ve experienced this kind of heat and humidity–actually it was worse, but not by a whole lot–was when I went to Jamaica as a teenager in August with a youth group to paint a school and build a house.  I remember that stepping out of the air-conditioned plane into the summer heat and humidity of Jamaica was, as I put it at the time, ‘like stepping into a bowl of steaming  hot soup.’  I’d never experienced anything like it back in Canada and that memory will be with me forever.

Changsha might just put itself up there for a close second place–or maybe even a tie, who knows?

Now the question for tonight is how badly Julianne and I want Chinese food (we haven’t eaten it for a few days and want some) versus how badly we want to avoid the heat and humidity outside.

We’re going to go out.  I just hope the restaurant has some air conditioning on!!!


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Tonight the power went out again . . . so we grabbed candles and books we’re currently reading . . .

Julianne is reading “Matriarch” by Karen Traviss, number four in the Wess’har Wars series (one of my new favorite Sci-Fi authors that I found a couple years ago).

In terms of cross-cultural discourse and current global issues the series is BRILLIANT. I can’t recommend it enough if you like Sci-Fi.

I guess the Chinese power gods decided to be kind tonight and only withhold modern amenities for twenty minutes–as you can see from me writing up this blog . . . that being said . . .

KNOCK ON WOOD! (I wonder if there’s a Chinese equivalent to that idiom?)


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Last night I was watching a movie when the power crashed plunging the living into complete darkness . . . I went to get my flashlight which I keep on my bedside table and met Julianne at the bedroom door carrying a candle and lighter . . .

We lit two candles and lay in bed wondering when the power would come back on.  I decided to go brush my teeth since the power wouldn’t likely return any time soon and I’d end up falling asleep only to discover that there was no water too–nice.

As far as drinking water goes we usually have two 5 gallon drums of drinking water in our apartment with one of them on the go at any given time–so if the water hadn’t ‘turned back on’ by morning we’d be fine.  One of the native teachers we know told us when we first arrived that this happens periodically and that she keeps refilled large water bottles in the cupboards of her kitchen . . . I did that too but after a while stopped because it didn’t seem to be necessary . . . especially after we got our little water cooler and the 5 gallon drums.

Anyways, as we lay in bed we could hear loud voices outside the apartment that sounded very angry–and it was after midnight.  This was unusual because after 12am things usually quiet down a fair bit (at least relative to inside China).

Eventually Julianne fell asleep and I picked up “A Clash of Kings” by George R. R. Martin which I am re-reading for the third time as we watch the HBO mini-series of “A Game of Thrones” which is pretty good–Tyrion Lannister has to be my all time favorite casting of the main characters on the show.

After about forty-five mintues the power came back on so I went and turned back on the air conditioning on low power so the apartment wouldn’t feel like a sub-tropical garden when we woke up in the morning.

I’m going to try and get out of the apartment today regardless of heat and humidity and walk around.  While it’s nice being inside the air conditioned apartment I’m beginng to get a bad case of cabin fever . . .

And one can only surf, or rather ‘sloth the Net’ so much, read, watch TV shows and movies, and nap so much . . . and then you have to go outside and ‘enjoy’ the sweltering humidity and heat of Changsha’s rainy season.



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Pharmacy in China, originally uploaded by Serenity in China.

How many pharmacy workers does it take to help a laowai get his medicine?

No, that is not the opening of a joke–though it could be.

This afternoon Julianne and I went on a hunt to find an over the counter muscle relaxant for my shoulder (it’s having ‘issues’). We walked into the pharmacy armed with a small list of over the counter relaxant names we’d found on the Net hoping that we might get lucky and find one of them here in China . . .

About 2 seconds after we entered and I pulled out the list we were surrounded by five pharmacy workers–I won’t use the label “pharmacist” because I really doubt that translates both culturally and in terms of training and knowledge from English into the Chinese context.

Two of them began examining the list with a look I know all too well from inside the EFL/ESL classroom when, at the beginning of my career, I would have mistakenly selected a reading passage that is too difficult for a lesson . . . the “I’m-trying-as-hard-as-I-can-but-have-no-idea-what-this-is” face is one I know well, and the girls, while trying to hide it, had full on expressions of it.

I should say that I really appreciate that here in China the store clerks will actually try to communicate and interact, regardless of English language ability, with a foreigner because in South Korea the clerks all too often get a case of the ‘oh-shit-it’s-a-waygook/migook (‘foreigner’)’ and all too often give you terrible service and attitude/hide/runaway, etc. At least here most of the Chinese clerks/service people Julianne and I have interacted with will TRY–we both really appreciate that!

Back to the story . . .

Another worker, upon seeing that neither Julianne or I have enough Chinese language skills to converse in a pharmacy situation (seriously, that is SPECIALIZED LANGUAGE), began yelling across the hall to one of her friends who speaks some English . . . which was nice of her, but I also thought to myself how many Chinese people are able to speak English in a pharmacy situation? It’s not easy for them too!

Thus it was that Julianne and I were surrounded by six Chinese women all very curious and wanting to help but unable to help that I had a very brief chat with the nominated girl-who-speaks-English who was VERY happy to get to practice her speaking skills (minimal as they were) . . .

After visually confirming for myself that there were no names of over the counter relaxants I was trying to find on the shelves, or anything that looked like it might fit the bill, I gave up and we said thank you and left.

The band of girls dispersed as we left the store and the ‘English speaker’ said, “Thank you. See you next.”

I guess the ‘moral,’ or rather ‘lesson,’ of this story is don’t go to a pharmacy without a Chinese friend who is fluent in English, has an English-Chinese dictionary, and possibly an electronic translator that also has medical terms too . . . and maybe even better do research at home on the Net to find the terms and words you need in Mandarin with your Chinese friend before you even venture out to find a pharmacy.

The problem is that even after all of that you may not be successful. I guess then if you still need the medicine it’s time to go see a doctor . . . but I’m trying really hard to avoid that if at all possible as there is a whole other set of issues that come up.


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Last night around 1:30am the first power blackout of 2011 summer happened here in Changsha.  I was awake and watching a movie when suddenly the air conditioning and lamp died, and my laptop cut to battery power . . .

I went to the bedroom and grabbed a flashlight I always keep on my nighttable and then went to our kitchen and grabbed candles and a lighter.  I always keep a flashlight by my bedside in case of a blackout or fire (not being able to see in darkness and smoke can kill you).

Having a flashlight also has turned out to be incredibly useful for giving to our apartment handyman whenever he’s had to change a light bulb in the dark, lol, and, of course, to check for dead mice and rats in our kitchen after poison bait was put in place to try and get rid of them (last count, 10 dead rats/mice . . .).

Yesterday Julianne and two friends of ours headed out to Shao Shan to visit Mao’s birthdplace.  Julianne is processing and editing pictures she took and I’ll link to a few later this week and share some of her stories.  I, however, stayed home due to a shoulder muscle injury that has me trying to stay as immobile as is possible . . . after hearing about Julianne and the girls’ trip, though, I don’t think I missed much–more on that later.

Well, nothing really interesting happened today other than while walking to dinner tonight some nitwit walking down the street with a bicycle and loudspeaker decided he’d yell at the four laowai as we walked past him.  I don’t know what he was saying but he had his cranky-face on and I imagine it wasn’t flattering . . . oh well.

Hopefully my shoulder will be back to 100% soon so I can go out and take more pictures for my blog.  Last night was the first time in several nights that I was actually able to sleep for more than 2 hours at a time due to pain . . . hopefully tonight will be the same and the muscles will realign themselves completely and the knots will undo themselves too.

Wish me luck,

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