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[Image: Graffiti, China -style. Reproduced kind courtesy of my travelling companion on the trip, Liam Turner].

Thursday 13th November

For the second day in a row the sky is blue, and the Sun is properly-bright, not just an orange disc. Apparently this does happen now and again, when the wind blows in a favourable direction and nudges the dust-smog along to settle over some other unfortunate people.

It’s clearly good weather for photography. This morning, I got asked by some kids (a few of the students on-campus can make a workmanlike-attempt at English) if they could have their photograph taken with me. I would like to think that this is because they are aware of my emerging fame as a writer of crap-poetry, but I know only too well, it’s simply a measure of the current novelty value of a western face. It won’t be like that in five years’ time.

It’s time to come-clean on what I’m doing here (to earn a living). I’m teaching at a local University. And after four days, some of the students with a bit of English at their disposal have decided that I’m not an ogre, and have started talking to me. They are even volunteering to help me out around here.

At lunchtime they took me to ‘the canteen’. It’s a drawn-out system. Step 1: you go to the food counter and tell a woman what you want (in my case, by pointing). She then tells you how much it’s gonna cost Step 2: You then go to the other side of the canteen to buy a voucher for that amount, and in step 3 you go back to the food counter to hand in your voucher in exchange for the food. Obviously by the time you get back to the food counter, many others have turned up to engage in Step 1, so it’s hardly efficient.

My food today was a duck dish, and boiled rice. I was grateful for anything that wasn’t noodles. In the duck dish were other things (vegetables). I picked up this vegetable that looked like a Swiss-cheese but made out of what looked like potato, and asked my student what it was. She didn’t know the English for it, so she stuck the Mandarin word into her translator-device and showed me the answer on the screen. It said “Lotus Root”. She looked at me and said: “you don’t have this in England?” looking quite dismayed, as if I were missing out on one of life’s great essentials. “Too cold in winter” I replied.

I tucked-into my ‘duck’, to discover that it was actually around ninety per cent duck-bone. And so was everyone else’s. And they all began to gnaw the meat and toss the bones onto the long canteen-table. Soon everyone was bone-tossing (in the best-possible sense). Twenty minutes later, the table was covered in duck bones – the discard pile of many students. I was still on the dreaded chop-sticks, but my embarrassment was not so acute this time because the rice was clumpy, you know when it sticks together by virtue of its own starch? So it was possible to get several hundred grains in one chop-‘grab’. But then I made the mistake of pouring some of my duck fat onto my rice (for flavour), and that had the effect of un-bonding the grains, so rather than face more public shame I pretended I was full.

We left the table, and I turned back to see that a very wrinkly fella in once-white overalls had appeared, and he had the job of clearing all the bone bits off the tables and collecting them in a big silver bowl. Tomorrow’s duck-soup perhaps?

Next, I asked the student (‘Alex’) if she would help me sort my laundry out. She took me to this place – (and yes, it really was like a Chinese Laundry in there). As instructed, I started to open my bag and get my washing out, and noticed several girls giggling behind me. Onto the table I had placed my dirty washing, exactly as told-to. Except that my dirty washing included a weeks-worth of boxers and socks. It was at this point that a red-faced Alex explained that Chinese Laundries don’t do boxers or socks. So I was left with no choice but to re-pack my purple-stripey undercrackers into my rucksack.

“What do I do with these, then?” I asked of Alex. The answer was that people wash their own ‘smalls’ in the bath. So that’s where mine are at the moment. In my hotel room bath. I bet the punters in the Yuda Palace don’t need to do it this way.

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