Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Chinese kitchens and the joy of plumbing. I just had to post a classic chinese moment that you will be sure to run into if you are teaching in China. A few posts back I showed you a different view of this kitchen, rather nice tiles, big with cabinettes. As you can see from this picture the plumbing is not built into the wall. China is modern up to a certain point. I was doing some marketing for my newest program, and went to the kitchen to get a coffee and I noticed water on the floor and on the countertop. Looking up I saw it was coming from the pipe in the picture, the one on the left near the top. I jumped up and looked at it and was pretty shocked. The 90 degree elbow was cracked on the backside, and had been glued back in and the connector at the straight piece was barely long enough to fit inside the coupling. Well needless to say it had to be fix like right now. I hustled out to the mini hardware store. There's one or two in every neighborhood, bought the pipe, the elbow, the coupling and the hacksaw, eighteen yuan, or about 2.12 US. Since I would have to cut the pipe right above the elbow, there would be a slight slant to the coupling. So I made my marks started cutting and hoped the resident above me would not be using her kitchen sink. Well no such luck. It was getting close to dinner so I couldn't have timed it worse. Several times I had to try and catch the outflow with the old pipe and try and aim it at the sink. Once it flowed out on top of my head. I did finally get the pieces dry enough to put on the adhesive, like abs, and got it connected and hoped it would dry properly. It all worked out, but that brings me to another oddity that you have. Since all the plumbing is in a line, you are constantly hearing the drainage. None have proper traps, ie goosenecks so the fumes of the drains will back up. If you have done any plumbing you know that is a good idea, if you don't want your bathroom to smell like a sewer. All drains are hooked up with flexible hoses into an open pipe which goes through the concrete and then connects to the main pipe in the apartment below. Like a v.

When my father saw this method he commented that it made a lot of sense and maybe that was the better way. Perhaps. It was much easier to work on then some of the plumbing nightmares in my barn apartment back home. I could understand my fathers feelings as he had spent many hours doing those kind of things at his place. That is part of what I call the half-assed way of doing things. Somebody just glued that gaping hole on the backside of the elbow with mass amounts of contact adhesive and and hoped it would work. This might have been the worker who plumbed it or the owner. The pipe is much thiner than what is in the west. You will definately have a few pools of water. I have had them in every apartment I have had and replaced something in every place I have lived in. All and all it's a beautiful kitchen with more electric than any other I have seen. It might have been an easier job, if my Chinese was better I could have asked the upstairs resident to wait 30 min. while I fixed it but it's not that good.

Just another day of fun in China.

Larry aka worldtour

Friday, May 19, 2006

Teachers in China usually live on campus, or are provided with modest housing that is adequate but not too nice. I lived on a campus when I first came to China. It was somehow associated with Beida, (Peking University, or Beijing University), it was basically a dorm room or like a hotel room. It was not near anything except the 5th ring road which meant there was still some agriculture and apartment buildings but it was not near anything. It really was designed to keep the teachers isolated. This is a throw back to the old days in China which had designated living areas for foreigners. It was modern, quite nice but it did not give you a "real" experience in regard to living. After moving to Harbin because of SARS, I have never lived in this type of situation again. The picture here is my current home/school. As you can see it is quite spacious and quite nice. Most Chinese could not afford this. Most teachers could but prefer to save money as this would take about half of their salary. It is not only the nicest place I have lived in here in China but the nicest place I have ever lived in. Well let me qualify that, the nicest place that I have completely paid for by myself. I don't want to mislead anyone as you will never be provided with a place as nice as this. You will be provided with an average apartment that will be about 40 square meters, which will have two main rooms, a kitchen and a small bath which probably will not have a shower in it. You may have to buy a hot water heater. This is the way a large portion of the population lives. They shower at public bath houses, carry their little baskets from their homes to their shower. Well I just can't live that way.

That brings me to another point of culture that is interesting and a bit strange, to the western mind. There are many contradictions here, most Chinese have homes that are very well kept. They may be very nice inside, when the exteriors are very unattractive. Even though most keep a very nice house, the don't hesitate to throw crap out of their windows onto the streets or exteriors of the buildings. Street markets are littered with food, papers, plastic bags, fish guts, donkey dung, you name it it's there. Not to mention the gallons of spit on the streets, which comes from men women boys girls, gramma, gramps. There must be something in the culture that says you should never swallow anything. You see spit in elevators, stairs, restaurants, where ever there are people. So, there are a lot of jobs for street cleaners. They are everywhere, and streets do get cleaned, the debris is cleaned up and there is a short time when it is not littered. It is just a never ending cycle of filth and cleaning up. In the west we have garbage day when the truck comes and picks up your can. Here, everyday people just tie up the trash in plastic bags and put it outside their apartment door, it is then picked up by the workers who will sort through it by hand and remove any recyclable that have not already been saved by the resident. The toilet paper is also thrown out as it is not flushed. Go figure. There are thousands of people who scour the streets pushing hand carts to collect cardboard, bottles, plastic, metal. They carry an upside down bucket of plastic between the handles of the cart and bang away with a rubber hose, starting quite early in the morning and continue to the evening. That and the totally insane use of the car horn are probably the two most annoying aspects of living here. Here's a cultural bias example. I used to live near a sportsman's club in Washington. It was really a rifle range, and starting at nine in the morning the sound of gunfire could go on all day. You learn to ignore it, someone asks what's that and you say, what? I have not managed to do that with the car horns or the recycler's bang on the buckets. You see this the nature of a bias, something you can't forgive in others but do yourself. Another example, the trains don't bother me and I live near the tracks, which run through the middle of the city, but the car horns drive me nuts. I have tried to deal with my own inability to ignore it and I figure it is connected with my attitude towards Chinese drivers. Now anyone that lives in the states has probably commented under their breath, errrr, Asian driver. I could spot them blocks away as we have a large Asian population in the Puget sound area. I know that many of them were born in the states too. Of course this is a sort of prejudice and a generalization, but how many Asian race car drivers do you know? There is a sort of awe and wonder about it here as everyone has the same crazy habits. You wonder how it all manages to function with not just the occasional knuckle head, but 99 percent of the population doing it this way. The police drive as bad as everyone else, there are no traffic patrols, no cruisers waiting to catch you, no stopping at red lights when turning, no stop signs at most intersections. People walk in the streets and drive on the sidewalks, literally!

As an American we imagine our society is very free and we can do as we please, what we don't realize is the intense order of our society which governs our behavior. We do not think of our society as a police state, which it is, in contrast to China. I still don't know what the police do, as most of what they do is not visible to me. We chide China for having the Great Firewall on the net, but don't even blink when it is revealed that there is a database of all phone calls since 911. Chinese people are very patriotic, like Americans, very proud and yet very detached politically. Perhaps this comes from the one party system, but we are only a two party system. It works for them and things are changing fast, but many things that need changing remain. Perhaps this is just priorities. This will probably change too. When I was young, made in Japan meant cheap as in poor quality, this is not the case today. I can remember playing with a very small model car that was made from a juice can. There are some companies that are emerging as leaders in quality such as Haier, or Lenovo. They will flourish but the crap will remain as long as wages are low. As long as you can navigate the system, any decent business man can make a killing here in China. This is what the Germans, Japanese and others including to a lesser degree American companies have done, but it requires a sort of company culture, or re education.

Well that's it for this post, hope you enjoyed it and got some insights. I also want to stress the point that I enjoy living here very much and have a great time teaching my students and enjoy the differences in the culture.

Larry Rhoe aka worldtour

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Here is a very nice Chinese Kitchen. Most teachers in China would be jealous of this kitchen. You may get one as nice as this if you teach at a University, but chances are it will not be this nice. In the last post I told you a little about my big change here in Harbin. No job at the university and so I had to move fast to secure my income. If you have been following along you know that I taught both at a university and at my own school. Since the owner of the license basically screwed me over, I discontinued the rent where I was teaching and got as far removed from this unethical person as I could. It has proven to be a good move and I am picking up new students every week. One thing about North Americans is our system makes it easier to "take a chance" and be more of an entrepreneur. Anyone who seriously wants to make some extra money can do it quite easily as long as they are willing to spend the time. There is still a shortage of foreign teachers compared to the need. So, you can find many ways to do it. Always try to talk to other teachers at the school and hear for yourself how the teacher is treated. You should keep in mind too that there may be some resentment as you will be making a higher salary than many Chinese peers. A little generosity goes a long way. Be generous with your time, take your peers out for dinner or drinks. This can really help you out. They will really appreciate it too. It is not expensive so you can afford to be generous too.

When renting an apartment there are many things to consider. I have to say the most important thing is to be near your work. You want to be able to walk to work as the busses are really crowded and I also feel a little independence goes a long way. You also really get a feel for the culture when you live as everyone else does. There will be some strange things that happen too. For instance, I spent 18 months at my last apartment and it was nice, but getting out was a real pain, due to the pigheaded landlord. When I moved in it had been remodeled and had a hot water heater, plumbed to both the bathroom shower, sink and kitchen on the shared wall. However, the hoses were all cheap and three of them became non functional with in the first month. Within the first week the water heater quit working. I called and asked if the owner was going to replace it and he said no. So I bought one, put it in myself replaced the hoses with good ones and never had a problem again. One thing you will notice with housing is that many things are done in what we in the west call a "half-assed" way. Workmanship is not valued and it's rather irritating. Especially for someone like myself whose only quirk of perfectionism is attached to building and doing things right and once. Like the old carpenters adage, cut once, measure twice. You see this sort of thing everywhere. Painters who slop in on, get it all over the floors, rooms with only one electrical outlet, paper glued over windows to stop the cold air. The list goes on and on and you see it in many things. On the other hand some artist do incredible works in carving, painting, music.

Back to the landlord. When I moved out the landlord tried to make me pay for the defective water heater that I had used for one week. He even sent his two sons to try and batter me into paying. Very irritating and irrational. This is also a general state that works on your head in China. There are so many irrational things, no logic, and frankly downright idiotic customs that go on in daily life, that you may never get used to. It's a cultural thing, I realize that but it does not stop it from bugging you, or muttering under your breath, things like, idiot, ass, putz. So this guy must have talked to the movers, and came to my new home three times. I thought his son was going to break my windows as he banged on them. He seriously thought I should pay for a water heater that did not work after my first week. Finally I asked my girlfriend to take these morons to the police station and we would abide by what they said. The police said no way and that was the end of it.

I should add that most westerners I know here, feel the same way about most of the same things. Such as Chinese speaking. First, to our ear most conversations sound like they are angry and arguing. It is not a pretty language to our ear. A string of mono syllabic words and a sort of whining sing song, especially with the women. You may even choose a woman based on the degree of whining. It is pervasive, and again to most it has an irritating effect. The level of speech is really almost shouting. I could always hear phone conversations on the fourth floor of my apartment from the streets. The Chinese don't seem to care who hears what they are saying, or perhaps they do, I don't know which. There is not a lot of privacy, young people have nowhere to go, don't move out of their parents home until they marry, it is also quite common for young couples to live with their parents. Parents may purchase a home for their children, or buy a new one and leave the older one for the kids. Parents do everything for the child, pamper, coddle, lionize and in return children are responsible for the parents in their old age.

Mostly, living in China is great and it grows on you. People are generally nice, friendly, can be generous and you will make some great friends. You just have to adjust culturally and try not to let the little things, like crazy driving, the noise, and all the rest get to you. If you can do that you will love it.

Larry aka worldtour

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Biting the bullet in China. It's been a while since I updated as my entire life in China has been turned upside down. It's probably for the best, in any case it is what is. Well, I no longer have one of the best paying jobs in China. Boo Hoo. The owner of the license at the school I was running screwed me, and I moved both my home and my students.

Just when you think things are going as they should, ka boom! I knew I had problems with the owner of the school. The problem being, he was a hot head, and I can be that way too, I give as good as I get. I knew that but I didn't know that he would just totally ignore a contract he signed and not compensate me for the year and one half that I put in to the school. Let me explain as to be fair. I bought in with a partner for 30,000 yuan we paid him a percentage of net and rented a room from him, so he pulled out over 60,000. At the end of the contract we, my partner and I would become majority owners. Well that didn't happen even though the contract stated this clearly as a condition of fulfilling the contract's time period. In the end my students followed me so that might be equated to 60% of the business. Perhaps more, so now I have to pursue the license on my own and see if I can muster up enough guanxi to get it done.

I would say that this type of business relationship is not uncommon. I guess until you have the real deal, the personal experience it's hard to judge opinions about this aspect of doing business in China. I recall a peer at the university who ranted on and on about the perils of business in China. He professed that the mind set is, if you get cheated in business it's your own fault as everyone tries to cheat you in business. Of course this screams of stereotype, or generalization, but one does see and hear of it. I thought at the time his comments were painted with too broad a brush, however I am nearer his viewpoint now, having gone through it.

One thing I did right was have the rents on my apartment and classrooms due at the same time. That may sound strange, but it allowed me to get a big apartment and hold my classes at my home, for only a little more. The picture is the outside of my home/school. Thank God I saved my dough from that high paying job I "lost". A good plan pays off. Some of you, if you are thinking about China, might see the opportunity to increase your income and it can be done in various ways. Private tutoring is possible. Moonlighting on your off days, especially if you are a university teacher. There are many ways to do it. As I said before, the university teaching was a real challenge, caused by low level students and general malaise. I taught at "my" school for the more traditional perks of teaching, as felt after the gestalt! Now it is my only source of income as I was informed too late to get another university job here in Harbin.

Basically my lifestyle has completely changed in regard to schedule. I work three days per week, except this week which is the May Day holiday week. Those kids MUST be in classes. Here is a basic breakdown of what it has cost. I think this will illustrate the cost of living quite well. Home/school 2500 rmb per month about 312 dollars. Couch and two arm chairs 1100 rmb about 130 dollars. Four wood tables with 16 wood chairs 600 rmb. Curtains 12 dollars. Two Chinese speaking English teachers, about 800 rmb per month. My partner Michel 1000 rmb for the books and everything else she does. When I reach 100 students that will be pretty comfortable now I have an average Chinese salary after expenses.

There were lots of challenges over the last month, transfer the events in your environment and then double it. I hope to get to some specifics in the following posts about the manic landlord, the classroom search, the scumbag license holder and some of the good stuff too. Hey it's all good if you make it good. Just remember if I didn't like it I'd go home. It's a very interesting life, and many good things to enjoy. Till next time.

Larry aka worldtour