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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 . . .

Awesome!

J

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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?!

J

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!!!

J

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!!!

J

Well, today was my birthday and Julianne and I went out for dinner at Maojia’s Restaurant with our student assistant and his girlfriend.

Apparently the owner of this restaurant is a relative of Mao’s and the menu has several of his favorite dishes. We ordered some of them and I took close-up shots of each dish which you can see on my flickr page.

I found it a ‘little’ ironic that the menu was a GIANT RED BOOK, lol. I should have snapped a picture but forgot to. There was a picture on the cover of Mao and some of his relatives and in particular the woman that owns the restaurant; I’m supposed to get an email soon with a link to the picture as it’s ‘famous in China’ so I’ll add that to this post.

Getting a taxi back to the apartment was a bit of a task with Saturday night traffic, and then, of course, we rear-ended another taxi . . . luckily it was just a tiny bump.

The driver got out of his car and looked like he was going to try and throw a fit to get some cash but I gave him my best teacher-look-of-don’t-you-dare-do-that and he hesitated, and I kept staring him down as the driver of our taxi got out to talk to him . . . and luckily the other driver decided he didn’t want to throw a temper tantrum, and gather a crowd of people around to hold a ‘street court judgement session’ which seems to happen in China with these kinds of situations. Before the other driver gave up, though, an old guy on a scooter stopped when we first bumped the taxi and said a comment, and two other guys then wandered over from the sidewalk. . . but luckily for Julianne and I the other driver gave up and drove off.

I guess the last thing to say about my birthday is that the Chinese weather gods must have decided to send me a gift today because the heat and humidity were pretty much absent when I headed out tonight for dinner. There was a blue sky, some nice sunlight, a good breeze, low humidity and the heat of summer was absent–nice!

J

Some people can use chopsticks and others hold two sticks in their hand like they’re paralyzed from the wrist down, lol.

After learning how to use Korean metal chopsticks to pick up small nuts, anything food that is wet or slimy, and NOODLES which are the ultimate metal chopstick test in my mind I’ve gotten quite good with them.

Tonight, however, I was reminded how some people can be ‘chopstick-challenged’ as I watched a friend trying to get noodles into her bowl . . . sorry “A,” it looked funny to me, lol.

The best part about all of this is “A” speaks Chinese fluently (she’d deny that, but she is really good) . . . but “A + chopsticks + noodles” = potential for disaster.

Anyways, dinner was GOOD tonight!

J

NOTE: To all people living in Asia (especially Korea) please don’t read this post as validating the MYTH/FALSE BELIEF that many people have about westerners/native English speakers being incapable of using chopsticks–some of us can use them very well, some moderately well, and some are hopelessly unable to use them.  Using chopsticks is NOT like brain surgery–as one Korean surgeon told a news reporter in a story I read (RIDICULOUS!)–and it’s more a matter of familiarity and practice than any kind of innate RACIAL ability!

Went out tonight for Chinese food with friends and left my camera and lenses inside the air conditioning to get a break from the heat and humidity.

While we all were getting settled at the table I snapped this picture with my iTouch camera.

The ubiquitous roll of toilet paper (used as napkins in Asia) sat front and center.

In the background, someone’s ‘sticker feng shui‘ had been shotgunned all over the wall, lol.

The best part of dinner was when I shot some pics of the dishes as they arrived and the hostess and server were ooing and ahhhing over them, lol. I thought of my Canon DSLR and Canon ES-71II 50mm lens aka my ‘food lens’ and the contrast in quality of picture . . . I think if I showed them shots I’ve taken of their food in the past from my GOOD camera their heads might explode . . .lol.

Dinner was YUMMY! However, at one point we were all glued to the TV as flooding video was shown from Beijing–nutbar!

As I write this I’m still feeling full from the good food which I will definitely miss once I’m back in Canada.

J