Monday, May 31, 2010

Summer fruit

I'ts interesting to watch the changing of seasonal fruits as seen on the hand, bicycle and motorbike carts of the street vendors.

The pineapples that were so plentiful seem to be getting harder to find lately; I'm hoping that this is because of the greater variety of fruits available rather than because the season is over, as the small sweet pineapples here are one of my favorites.

Strawberries came and went so quickly I only got them once. Being from California, where strawberries are in season for 8 months, I didn't realize the season would be so short. The strawberries here are smaller, sweeter, more fragrant, and in shape more like a wild strawberry (sort of ovoid and lumpy instead of triangular).

After the strawberries came coconuts, then melons in many unfamiliar shapes, sizes and colors. Most of the pineapple-on-a-stick vendors now have melon in addition to pineapple. Yesterday I got a chunk of a small, white-fleshed, incredibly sweet melon. Uncut, it is about the size, shape and color of a large yellow grapefruit. From searching the web, I think it might be a Canary melon.

Appearing this week on hand carts I saw mulberries (not in little baskets as you would expect in the west, rather just piled in the cart), some vendors have white (sort of greenish) and light colored ones, and other vendors have ones that are dark like blackberries. For those who don't know what a mulberry is, the fruit looks a lot like a blackberry but grows on a tree, and has a milder flavor.

Also appearing on hand carts were apricots, but they were so small I thought they would not be sweet. A few weeks ago I bought a huge bag of white nectarines (miscommunication, didn't really want so many!), and they were sooooo sour, even after letting them ripen. Some fruits really need to ripen on the tree to taste their best.

Today at the store, I bought a dragonfruit (wikipedia article, octoviana article), a bizarre-looking fruit which I have seen whole and cut open and have been curious about. According to the first article, it comes from a cactus. Two of my colleagues said that they taste good. I will post an update here in this entry once I taste it.

For those of you who are wondering about my health, today was the last day of antibiotic and I'm still blowing my nose and coughing. Sometimes it's hard to tell if a cold is on its way out or still going, I will reserve judgement until tomorrow. Trying to save up my rest today and tomorrow, because there will be extra-long work hours this week too due to some promotional classes and the Children's Day party.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Summer colds and Chinese breakfast

Yes, the title is a non-sequitur, but it will help me remember what I'm supposed to be writing about. I have a sinus infection that is giving me quite a headache/earache combination at the moment, so I will keep this brief.

I have only had this cold for a few days, but it was quite clear by this morning that I have a sinus infection (I will spare you the details), so I started taking the azithromycin I had on hand from the pharmacy. A co-worker dropped by and gave me some Chinese cough syrups that she doesn't like the taste of. One of them says it will help with laryngitis, so I took that as my voice is a wreck today and I need to be fit to teach for the weekend.

Skipped our two-hour Chinese lesson today so that I could stay home and rest, and for a wonder I actually slept for three hours during the day. It's 8pm now and I've got as much done on lessons as I can stand for today, so I will go to bed shortly.

As for Chinese Breakfast, I found a website by that name. It is archaic and poorly laid out, and apparently hasn't been updated since the 90's, but contains some really wonderful pictures and information about Chinese street food, and breads in particular. Much of this I see every day at the street vendors, as this is a bread-eating region.

Following the links, I also found another section, where the author has collected information and photos of the farmers selling their goods.

The weather has been hot lately, in the 80's and 90's. As far as I'm concerned it would be fine if it didn't get any hotter, but as it's only May, I suspect that summer will be mostly in the 90's. I haven't needed a jacket or a blanket in weeks. I'm not hot enough yet to turn on the air conditioner, especially since it's in the living room where I don't spend so much time, but I did see a small fan on sale cheap at the department store near the university and hopefully can pick one up this weekend.

This evening it is raining softly after an initial heavy downpour that flooded the courtyard, which has no drainage to speak of. The air has cooled down so nicely now.

Last but not least, I have an important career decision to make and am not at liberty to discuss the details yet, so please keep me in your thoughts and prayers.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

By Request

My uncle requested more photos of my surroundings, so when I went to do errands today I took some photos on the way out.

This is taken from the courtyard entrance, looking into the courtyard and slightly toward the left. The buildings visible in this picture are all part of the complex. What you can see of my apartment is the kitchen on the left and the curtain on the right is the laundry alcove.
Turning straight on from the courtyard entrance, you can see our very nice sculpture of a bird feeding its chicks on the nest. In the background is a hill which looks rather pretty but cannot be seen from most angles due to all the tall buildings in the area. Sadly, the view from my windows is solely of the other buildings in the complex, but at least the courtyard is nice. Now that the weather is warmer the courtyard is quite a gathering place for the neighbors - the dancing ladies who are still practicing whatever it is every night, the grammas with toddlers, the oldsters using the fitness equipment (the purple things on the right hand side), and the handful of semi-feral cats.
Turning around and walking partway down the steps at the courtyard entrance, I can see the parking lot and the construction site across the way. Construction hours are apparently 6am to midnight, it's pretty noisy but not too bad with the windows shut.
Turning to the right, more parking lot, and some old Quonset huts of unknown usage across the street which were the first landmark I could recognize nearby.
The view to the left, looking up the street and more of the construction site. Beyond that are mostly old industrial buildings (you can see them in my storm photos with the lilac trees), which will probably be torn down before long to make way for more new buildings. Our complex is only a couple of years old, with two more complexes being built between ours and the main street; I'm not sure what is going up across the street, but I'd guess more apartments.
I have stepped out into the parking lot and this is a photo of the entrance to the underground parking garage. You can see the sculpture above; the steps leading to the courtyard entrance are to the right.
View of the complex from the street. The buildings in the front contain business shopfronts which were all empty when I arrived, now a couple of them seem to be at least partially tenanted. I'm hoping a restaurant will move in... a noodle shop would be nice.
View looking up the street to the left. On the left of the picture is our parking lot and on the right the construction site across the street.
Here I have turned right and walked about 100m down the street to the intersection on the busy street below where I catch the bus, it's a main thoroughfare heading out of town to the east (right). In the foreground is a taxi, most of them are this color/make/model (Volkswagen). They are plentiful here, and very cheap (under 10 yuan = about US$1.50), which probably encourages me to cut my time closer than I ought, since it's usually easy to get a cab if I'm running late!
I have now crossed the intersection and walked about 1000m to the right/east to my bus stop. The main thoroughfares have these kind of frontage streets which are mostly used by carts, mopeds, bicycles and so on, but sometimes also cars. On the right of the frontage street is the bus stop and newspaper seller, on the left side corner is where all the street vendors set up outdoor restaurants in the morning. I will try to get a photo of them
Now standing at the bus stop looking to my far left. This is early afternoon, so there is very little traffic at this time.
Looking to the near left. Oh look, another taxi! Also a bank; there seem to be more bank branches here than anywhere I've ever seen in my life. I'm not sure why they need so many of them.
Looking to the near right or more accurately straight across; you can see the bus stop and one of the new apartment buildings (the black one).
Toward the far right; the two new complexes. the black one has one building and the white one has two. In the center behind and between them you can just see the corner of my building peeking out. When I arrived the driveway that goes up between the two buildings and to my buildings was just mud, now it's paved and they are putting stonework trim on the planters.Hope you enjoyed the home tour! :)

Monday, May 17, 2010

Qingdao postponed, pics of Daming Lake

Due to my colleague having a severe bout of asthma, we decided to postpone our trip to Qingdao that we had planned for this week; luckily, the train tickets were refundable prior to departure time, less a 20% fee.

So I had the day free today. Went to the grocery store and then, inspired by my colleague and I constantly battling coughs and colds, I decided to make some garlic chicken noodle soup. It turned out awful; I used some ingredients I don't use at home and the tastes were not right at all. I used chicken necks to make the broth, where I normally use commercial broth and white meat. I used curry powder and ground red pepper instead of flakes, neither of which tasted like at home. I used some kind of long onion that is bigger than a spring onion and smaller than a leek, also tasted different. I added some slices of ginger, which simply didn't go with the rest. and to top it off, I put the cooked noodles in the colander to drain and then forgot about them while picking meat off the cooked necks, so they turned into a stuck together mass. If it were any one ingredient it would be OK, but the combination of so many unfamiliar things just did not work at all, I hated the taste of it. Ugh. Instant ramen tonight, I guess. Lesson learned: don't use more than one or two unfamiliar ingredients in a recipe!

I was surprised to find a miniature lake on the kitchen counter around my electric kettle after filling it this afternoon; looks like it has sprung a leak on the side where the see-through window is. Will probably go out tomorrow in search of a new one, since I have really enjoyed the convenience of it and it likely won't cost much more than a regular kettle.

Here are a few photos of our walk around Daming Lake 2 weeks ago. Part of the lake's perimeter is gated with a substantial fee to get in, but we were able to walk about a third of the way around it and across the islands and bridges for free.

Near the ticket gate, on the opposite side from where we started, we bought one of my favorite street foods here, a slab of pineapple on a stick. The pineapples here are smaller than at home, and have deeper flower blossoms, but they seem to be sweeter and the center core is less fibrous so no waste there. The locals have this great way of cutting out the blossoms in a spiral so as not to waste any pineapple when peeling, leaving the leaves on it and wrapping the fruit in plastic bags to keep it clean. I tried to do this at home once and not only did it take a long time, but I discovered that I had paid a lot more for it than if I had bought a prepared one, since they are sold by weight and quite a bit gets trimmed off. Pineapple sellers are a very common (and welcome) sight on the streets, and I often buy either a chunk to munch on or a whole peeled one to take home. It seems they are available almost year round because parts of China are far enough south to have a subtropical climate.

But I digress... now, back to our walk around the lake.

Don't be fooled - although it looks like an authentic temple, according to my colleagues this was just built within the last year. Inside appears to be a museum, with yet another hefty admission fee.
Another view of the structure, I took this shot because the contrast between the park buildings and the industrial high-rise in the background was interesting.
It was hot, near 90 degrees, but as you can see from the ripples on the water, there was a good breeze that kept it quite pleasant, for which I was very grateful.
I love the reflections in this picture. I'm not a great photographer, but every now and then I get a good one!
This building on the street side of the lake had a restaurant in it, which was emitting tempting smells and had gorgeous views of the lake, but which looked quite expensive. The street vendors sell such yummy things at such incredibly cheap prices that I often choose them over a restaurant, unless I want a place to sit and relax for a longer time. In any case, if you zoom in on this picture you will see that not only is the decorative paint under the eaves incredible, the ends of the beams are decorated with what looks like the red name stamps used by artists to sign their work; it's the first time I've seen this, usually one sees circular tiles with a family crest .

This picture shows a little tour boat that one can take around the lake, and it also shows another instance of the contrast between the park and its very industrial urban surroundings. The giant construction cranes are a typical sight here in Jinan, as many old structures are being torn down and new buildings built. Unfortunately, it also means construction noise from 6am to midnight and a lot of dirt and grit in the air, on the sidewalks, and everywhere.
Daming Lake is a good place to spend a hot afternoon as it's cooled by the water and there are plenty of shady spots. Someday I will find out what is inside the tall structure too.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Misc. Pics

Here are some miscellaneous pictures of my apartment and school. (Edited to add: this apartment is extremely large and luxurious by Chinese standards of living.)

I bought "friends" for my plants, one for the big one and one for the small one.

Here is a picture of my bedroom taken just after I arrived here; the laundry room is just an extension of the bedroom so I had a lovely view of my laundry, and the room absorbed the heat from the windows that make up the outside wall. The second photo shows the new curtain I had installed between the two, it makes a huge difference both in appearance and in temperature, for which I will be tremendously grateful when the summer heat arrives.

More pics of the apartment. First shot is taken from the front door, as you can see there is one long main room that is both living and dining room, and the kitchen is an alcove attached to it. Clockwise you can see my plants, the TV, the refrigerator, the kitchen, the air conditioner, the water dispenser, the sofa, and the dining table. The door to the bathroom is directly to my left, and the door to the bedroom is on the left between the plants and the TV.
A closer look at the kitchenette. From left, rice cooker, stove, sink. The stove is brand new, which is great. From what I gather, the previous male teachers who lived here never cooked at all. In the left corner is a microwave which cannot be seen in the photo.
View of the living room from the kitchen end. Clockwise from left: sofa, dining table, radiator, front door, coat rack, plants. The door to the bathroom is around the corner to the right at the far end.
The bathroom is a small tiled room, with a drain in the floor for the shower. I have a handheld shower mounted above the blue mat that is stuck on the wall. You can see my makeshift drain cover in the corner, it does help to keep the smell down. On the right is the radiator and the sink, on the left is the toilet. There is a small hot water tank above the toilet; without a low-flow showerhead, I have to shower efficiently or I run out of hot water. The red bucket doubles as a cleaning bucket and a water reservoir, as colleagues have told me that the water was shut off a few times in the last year, sometimes for several days. I'm hoping that it won't happen but keep water in the bucket anyway.

This is a mystery grain that I bought and cooked. At first I thought it was millet, but I realize that the grains are much too large to be millet. Anyone know what this is?

These pictures were taken at the main school. The first picture shows one of the staircases (the place is laid out like a maze above the ground floor shops), on which is a picture of the school's mascot overlaid with "inspirational" sayings in English and Chinese.
The next two shots are of the women's toilet at the school. Note that we have SOAP, which is a rarity here. I don't think any of the children use it, but I certainly do!
The toilets flush with water, but the plumbing is not an enclosed system, rather goes down into a hole or pit of some kind and then down to the sewer. As the weather warms up, the smell of these bathrooms on days when several hundred children are at the school is becoming pretty ripe.
Toilet paper is not put in the toilet but rather in waste paper baskets, apparently because the sewage is used in the farmers' fields. If that doesn't make you wash your food, nothing will.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

End of the weekend

Tuesday night, and the beginning of another work week for me. We have a meeting tomorrow morning and with my changed schedule, I will have no time at home for lesson planning tomorrow at all, so I spent several much of today working.

A colleague and I are hoping to take a trip to Qingdao on our "weekend" next Monday and Tuesday and come home Wednesday, so I am also trying to get some of next week's work prepped because I have to head for class at 3:30pm on Wednesdays.

Yesterday she and I went to a local park/botanical garden here in Jinan. We were both pleasantly surprised how nice the park was, especially since there was no admission fee. It is a nice large park with a little lake, and trees and rose arbors everywhere. Most of the roses had few blossoms but a million buds, so we hope to go back in a couple of weeks when the roses are blooming like crazy. There is even a miniature amusement park inside it. I'm getting very behind on uploading photos...

As far as health goes, the antibiotic seems to have worked, the infection is gone and I have just a little irritation-cough from time to time. If I could get rid of that, I think I might finally be able to stop catching every virus in the vicinity.

Chinese language lessons are helping a lot; my vocabulary is still quite limited, but spoken Chinese is finally starting to sound like LANGUAGE to me instead of just sound, which is a huge breakthrough.

After two-plus months, I'm finally beginning to adjust to life here. The city is looking nicer with the leaves on the trees; although nothing can make it less urban than it is, the trees make a big difference. I'm now able to get around more easily by bus and direct the taxi drivers without pointing at my map.

I'm getting used to teaching children - the long hours on the weekends are still exhausting, but I'm recovering more quickly each week and am no longer twisted with anxiety at the start of each week. I sure wish I had had at least ONE class in early childhood education... I never envisioned myself teaching this age group. The kids are very cute, but they can be a real handful at times, and I'm sure there are "tricks of the trade" that it would have been useful to know.

I had a mini-scare with my laptop, I thought the sound card had died because the sound had dropped to barely audible suddenly a few weeks ago and was unable to make outgoing calls this morning. However, I had a local computer guy come out to look at it tonight, and it turns out that I had toggled a mute switch and didn't realize it. Embarrassing, but I'm very happy that my laptop is OK, as I can't afford to replace it. All's well that ends well.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Getting healthy... I hope

Still working on getting healthy. On Sunday the symptoms indicated a sinus infection (I will spare you the unpleasant details), so I finally started the antibiotic course. Seems to be clearing up now, although there is still a bit of junk to cough up and my ears feel sensitive. I would really like to get well... I'm getting sick and tired of being sick and tired!

The new classes I'm subbing are going well, and the kids are cute, but I sure miss my own kindergarten class. I hope that I will be able to go back to it when we are fully staffed; at this point it's unknown how long I will be subbing.

This is the heavy part of my week, I worked on lesson plans until time to go to school today, and will do the same on Thursday and Friday, then Saturday and Sunday are the marathon teaching days as usual.

Last week's company trip to the themed gardens was nice, the weather was good and it felt great to get some air and sunshine. I have over a hundred pictures even after deleting the bad ones, so I'll have to go through them again and pick just the best ones. Unfortunately, I was really sick that day and the trip probably pushed my body too hard. (See first paragraph.)

Yesterday I went with a colleague to see Daming Lake. It was a hot day, around 90 degrees F, but there was enough wind to make it bearable even for me. I was really tired after just 3 hours of walking around, so we had lunch, hit the big supermarket and then came home. Lots of pictures from there to go through as well.

Time for me to hit the showers and then crash. More next week.