Archive for March, 2012

Big bag of frogs anyone?

Found (or rather nearly stepped on) at my local market.


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Licenced to drive

I’m feeling an enormous sense of achievement. The other day I passed my test and am now the proud owner of a Chinese driving licence. Oh yes.

As I already have a licence (actually two) I didn’t have to do the actual practical test but I did have to do the theory test. You wouldn’t think that would be that difficult as driving signs and regulations are pretty much the same the world over aren’t they?

Actually the test is pretty difficult. This is in part because you have to learn answers to approximately 1000 questions (the book is almost 200 pages) but also because the questions are in Chinglish (I bet they used Google translate for it all). But actually what makes it particularly difficult is the fact that a significant proportion of the questions are completely bonkers. I’ll give you an example of an actual question:

What’s the correct answer?

After a vehicle falls into water, the wrong method for the driver to rescue himself is to:

A)   Close the window to prevent water from flowing into the vehicle

B)   Immediately use hand to open the door

C)   Let the water to fill up the driver’s cab so that the water pressure both inside and outside is equal

D)   Use a large plastic bag to cover the head and tight the neck closely.
Well, I thought that anything that involves putting a plastic bag over your head HAS to be the LAST solution to any problem, and therefore the right answer. It isn’t. The right answer is A. So it’s better to put a bag over your head than close the window. Ooooookaaaaay.

There are a series of first aid questions that are somewhat confusing. There is one where the correct answer is “cushioned limb folding”. I have no idea what that involves, only that it is the right thing to do in cases of “upper shank bleeding”, whatever that is. Then of course there are all the police hand signals – you’d think that the sign for “go left” would involve some pointing in a general leftwards direction. Well it doesn’t…

Alarmingly there are also a surprising number of questions that relate to cars losing control of brakes or steering or falling into water. Obviously those are big concerns here.  That and honking at everything that moves (largely encouraged).

I think you’re probably getting the picture. The bottom line is you just have to learn the questions and answers as you have to score at least 90 out of 100 questions to pass. I’m feeling super smug as I managed 97%. Woo woo.

Now I have my licence – the good news is that it lasts six years, the better news is that it allows me to drive cars (no chance) and any sort of motorbike. Watch out Shanghai.



Learning Chinese – it’s all Greek to me


I’ve been going to Chinese lessons for the last few weeks. I’m enjoying it but it really it is astonishingly different to any other language I know. After a couple of languages it gets easier as you find out how you learn and you start to recognise patterns and similarities/ common roots. None of the languages I speak is remotely helpful for learning Mandarin however. For the first time in my life I’ve had to sit down and learn vocab lists – and as for remembering the characters – let’s just say it’s a slow process.

Then there’s the pronunciation. Mandarin has 4/5 tones depending on whether you count a neutral one. The tones completely changes the meaning of words. I’m pretty much tone deaf so this isn’t easy for me. I’m also pretty sure I’ve said some mad things in the past judging by some of the looks I’ve had.

Maybe fortunately given that I’m not great at replicating or hearing the tones, it’s also a language that is very much context based  – ie you mostly need a sentence/ context around a word to understand its meaning. That makes it tricky if you don’t possess enough vocabulary to create the sentence to put the word into. I spent a week trying to buy a needle by saying “needle” in Mandarin. This was monumentally ineffective even when I showed people the character. I ended up having a lot more luck with a photograph. Actually this is usually my starting point now. Google images has come to my rescue on many occasions.

One thing that I do really appreciate about Mandarin is its relative simplicity. If you can make yourself understood without some of the words, it’s Ok just to take them out. I have spent ages learning tenses in various languages, but it seems that in Chinese, even these are only used when absolutely necessary. For example, if you say “Last week….” you don’t have to go to the trouble of using the past tense as it is obvious that last week is in the past. Good huh? They don’t have any nonsense like past historic either.

On the subject of verbs, what are the first verbs you learn in most languages, or at least the ones that you use most often? They have to be “to be” and “to have”. Mandarin has those of course but they just aren’t used as much. You don’t say “I have a cold” or “I am ill”, you say “I cold” or “I sick”. Not only does it make things easier but it also explains a lot about how many Chinese people often speak English….Even better, you don’t decline the verbs – so hurrah for that :-)

The way that words are contstructed makes some sense if you can decipher the logic behind them. Eg a film/ movie is dianying – electric shadow, a mobile phone is a shouji (hand machine) and aeroplane is a fei ji (flying machine). Now I think about it, the last two are remarkably similar to the German Handy and Flugzeug. Maybe I’ve found some similarities after all.

One thing that is definitely very different is the concept of measure words – all nouns come in measures of something. Some are easy – eg drinks come in bei or ping – glasses or bottles (these are beizi or pingzi if not being used as measure words) but then trousers and fish come in measures of tiao – long flat things I think and  horses come in measures of pi- which is apparently a large flat thing – which horses emphatically aren’t. I think I should stop trying to make sense of this and just learn them…

Beyond the everyday vocabulary, apparently it gets more complex.I have heard that there can be heated debates among Chinese people about the appropriate measure for certain  things (although apparently they have no problem with pi for horses….)

So the good news is that I am learning, it’s going to be a long slog though, full of the dreaded vocab lists. Progress is at a glacial speed but that said, I am definitely understanding more and more.


Dan Bing – the BEST Shanghai street food

There are many small markets around the apartment here – they sell a varied assortment of fresh vegetables, live fish and chickens and eggs. I love the energy of these markets – they are always bustling hives of activity where there’s always something going on. Usually it’s a lot of shouting but sometimes you can see someone chasing a live fish or frog as it makes a bid for freedom across the street. They also sometimes sell cooked foods – often dumplings, filled bread-like things and many items I just can’t identify. This week a couple of friends introduced me to one of the amazing street snacks they sell here – the dan bing.

These are essentially crepes – made with a batter that looks suspiciously like wallpaper paste. This is spread on a large round hot plate. When cooked, an egg is cracked over the top and incorporated into the pancake.  Then come the herbs, the other small ingredients, the spicy sauce, the unidentified brown sauce that looks like chocolate but isn’t, then a mystery crunchy thing. It is rolled, cut in half and presented in a small plastic bag. You have to eat it immediately – which prompts thumbs up and smiles from all the locals as they know it is delicious. Actually it is inspired. It is soft and crunchy, spicy and fresh.

I was introduced to this just the other day and I’ve already been back. It’s also ridiculously cheap – 3 kwai (about 45cents) a one egg version and 4 kwai if you want to go crazy and have two eggs inside…I think I could eat this every day. The only snag is that it’s a breakfast food so you have to get there before around 9am or it will have run out and been shut down. I still think I’ll be a regular at this particular stall though..

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The Dragon of Yan’An Road

Just where the main East West Yan’An road intersects with the main North South road there is an unusual pillar with striking golden carved dragons circling it.

It turns out that there is a story behind it. A modern day legend. I’ve heard various similar versions – here’s a combination of them:

Back when they were building this important intersection in the mid-late 90s the construction hit a snag. When digging the foundations all the machinery reached a point where it couldn’t dig any deeper. The construction crew consulted geologists in case the rock there was particularly hard. It turned out to be the same rock as everywhere else – and certainly nothing that the excavators should have been able to deal with. Time went on, with the construction delay causing concerns at many levels of the city’s politicians, not least of all because of the costs that were mounting every day. It’s not as if they had a choice to move the intersection of the roads…

Eventually, almost at their wit’s end, those in charge of construction turned to the lead priest at the local Jing-an temple to take a look. He did and quickly proclaimed that the problem was the dragon that was sleeping under the proposed site of the new pillar. The construction crews implored him to help. He didn’t want to, afraid that disturbing the dragon would cause bad luck to befall those involved. More and more senior people put pressure on him and he eventually gave in and performed a sort of dragon exorcism (I’m quite sure it isn’t actually called that….).

A matter of weeks later the priest died and bad luck affected many of those involved. To appease the dragon, clearly pretty unhappy with having to change his sleeping place, they decided to honour him with a beautiful pillar covered in dragons.



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Flight from Hell

I was pretty pleased with the upgrade I managed to secure heading to Barcelona, but it seems that making this archaic process work used up ALL my travel karma. Last Sunday, returning from Barcelona via Munich to Shanghai I experienced the most utterly miserable flight experience of my life. I was disappointed that there wasn’t availability for an upgrade to try out my second shiny United certificate but I was absolutely not prepared for what happened.

I still have Gold Star Alliance status so I boarded early in the process. Much later in the boarding process the passenger who had the neighbouring seat arrived. To say that this man was morbidly obese does not fully explain his size. He took some minutes to squeeze himself into his seat – although in actual fact much of him failed to squeeze into his seat and essentially overflowed over the armrests on both sides. Needless to say he needed a seatbelt extension, although in the event of an incident, even without a belt he would have remained firmly wedged in his seat as his belly was braced against the seat back in front of him. His tray table was unique in having a more unpleasant flight experience than I did. Think I’m exaggerating? Nope. Here’s the picture.

I was of course horrified at the prospect of spending the eleven hour flight without the benefit of the use of a significant proportion of my seat. It is a source of considerable regret that I did not immediately call a member of the cabin crew and insist on the exclusive use of the entirety of the seat I had paid for. I did not, however as a) it was late in the boarding process, the cabin crew looked really busy and I didn’t want to hold up departure, b) given how long it took the gentleman to get into his seat I thought it would take too long for him to stand up to let me talk to the cabin crew and, being British I was uncomfortable about complaining about this man’s excess weight across the top of his gargantuan bulk. So I resolved to find another seat once the plane had reached cruising altitude.

When the plane reached altitude and the fasten seatbelt signs were switched off I duly headed off to speak to them. I spoke to two separate cabin crew members to ask for another seat. Both told me that the flight was fully booked so there was nowhere to move to. Both were somewhat evasive when I explained the problem and were reluctant to help in any way despite the fact that I was very close to tears on hearing this news.

As a result I experienced the most unpleasant flight of my life – with my left arm and shoulder mostly squashed under the monumental vastness of my fellow passenger. It goes without saying that I was unable to sleep for the duration. The incredible bulk next to me had no such problems however, so for many hours I experienced a prolonged and frankly revolting series of full body twitches and shivers as he moved in his sleep. Do I also need to mention that it felt like sitting next to a furnace because of the heat he produced?

It is now several days later and I’m still horrified by the experience. I do think that Lufthansa neglected their duty of care. Not only is it reasonable to expect to use the seat you paid for, but in the event of an incident I would have been effectively trapped in my seat – so the lack of an effective Lufthansa policy in this matter is also a safety issue.

I want to share my feelings with Lufthansa. Lufthansa don’t want to know about opinions. There’s a generic compliment/ complaint email form buried somewhere in the website. I don’t want a generic email – I want to complain to an actual human being- preferably one responsible for customer relations. I know these people exist in Lufthansa, but they are impossible to find (check LinkedIn and see if you can find any…). As a result I’m writing to pretty much anyone I can think of as a sort of personal therapy. I really want to share this experience with them though (not by phone as they can’t then see the photo) so if anyone has any Lufthansa contacts please let me know.

*update 18the March* – I have been in correspondence with Lufthansa for the last week or so. So far they have offered frankly insulting compensation. So far it appears while they are extremely rigorous in policing excess baggage, they are not so strict when it comes to excess body. So they won’t make you share your seat with somebody’s excess bag, however they have no issues with you having to share it with somebody’s excess blubber. The correspondence continues.