When last our saga left off, you (dear readers) were promised an update on our apartment. I am sorry to say you will have to wait a bit longer on that one, as we are still waiting on our air shipment to leave the US. I see not point in painting a half finished picture for you…Instead what I have to offer is a glimpse into what the past two weeks have been like as we adjust to our new living situation over here in China.
A lot of our adjusting so far has had to do with the fact that our one way commute to work can be between 1:30-2 hours, and to get around we have our own personal driver who goes by Jacky. This means we leave the house around 6:20am, and don’t get back until close to 6pm. In order to counteract the unusually high amount of sitting around we do now, we opted to get ourselves an Ayi (translates to “aunt”) to clean our apartment, do our laundry, and make us dinner to free up our evenings for exercise and playtime with our pets. The major reason we wanted an Ayi was to take our dog on walks during the day while we are at work. (Now we just need the weather to cool off a little so we can get Kenobi over here.) Our Ayi is named Shao Lu, she cannot be more than 5-10 years older than we are, and so far she has proven to be a fantastic cook. The cleaning and laundry is nice too, but if I am being completely honest, we are really excited about all of the different food we can eat over here!
We were told that is is customary to give gifts in certain situations in China and that people highly value things made outside of China (particularly the US). We do not really know what most of these situations are yet, but we happened to be carrying a few items for other expats with us (we have officially joined the “expat training company”) and one was a gift for their driver. Ok, so we knew we had to get something for our driver. Great. What? Our Mandarin teacher in the US suggested getting some chocolates for him, so that’s exactly what we did. We gave them to him last week, told him they were made with cherries from our home state, and he thanked us. Yesterday we received a very nice looking tea set with read leaves painted on it. It can be plugged in to heat the water before steeping our tea. Of course he gave us a better gift than we gave him, now we are left wondering what our next move it? Do we get him something bigger? Now I can understand why Sheldon Cooper has such an aversion to gifts…Anyway, we are quite excited to give the tea set a test run with the local Suzhou green tea Jacky helped us buy. Which brings me to my next and most important learning thus far…
IF YOU’RE NOT CHINESE, YOU PAY MORE
In the US if you want to pay less for something, your only option is to become a thrifty couponer or shop around to find the best price. Here, there are countless opportunities to barter and haggle over the perceived value of an item you want to purchase. Couple that with the fact that our Mandarin/Chinese is not very good (almost non-existant) and it is very easy to get taken advantage of. Enter Jacky. The day we went to get tea he suggested a place and drove us to it. We went in, found the tea shop, and started looking around and trying to figure out which tea we wanted. By the time Jacky came in to save us the woman behind the counter was trying to sell us the third most expensive green tea in the shop and get us to buy pretty tins to put it in. We knew we didn’t want fancy containers and did not need one of the “best” teas in there, but communicating that to the sales woman was difficult. Her assumption was likely that westerners have money and it made sense to try to sell us more than we needed. We were just trying to figure out what standard sizes/amounts were so we could buy some tea! We ended up paying the equivalent of $20 for ~6 months worth of tea, but only after Jacky stepped in and told us what we most likely wanted.
This weekend we tried our luck at the local plant and animal market in Suzhou. You could smell the animal section several yards away, everything from squirrels and pigeons to puppies, kitties, and fish. The pigeons are for eating; I am not sure about the squirrels. The rest seem to be house pets (they do not typically eat dogs this far north we were told). The reason we went to the market though, was to find some house plants! We walked the whole street to see what all was for sale first, neither of us wanting to make the first move. Once we saw everything that was available we set to work with me buying an orchid first. The woman selling them asked for 65 yuan ($11), so I suggested 50 ($8.25). She only hesitated a little, asked if we wanted just one plant, then has us show her which one we wanted. Add another 10 yuan for a pot and I ended up paying just under $10. I was quite happy with that as I would easily pay $5-10 more back home, but perhaps you can get them cheaper at a China street market…Next it was David’s turn to get a fun red and white plant of which neither of us knows the name (yet). Asking price 70 yuan, counter offer 60 yuan. No hesitation by the seller. We paid too much. Oops. Again, paying $10 for a large fun tropical plant we have not seen at home did not seem to bad to us at the time. Then we ran into our driver who was buying some fish food to bring home. He followed us and helped
translate for the next two plant purchases. Small spikey almost succulent looking plant with a pot 13 yuan ($2.25) and cactus already potted 15 yuan ($2.50). David said it best “I think prices went down when Jacky showed up” and he didn’t even have to haggle! On the plus side, we know bonsai trees really are expensive in comparison, as the “Jacky” asking price was 250 yuan. We were not out to win “lets make a deal” that day, we just wanted to get what we considered to be some reasonably priced plants to liven up the apartment. Now we believe what we have heard several times before though: you have not really gotten a good deal until the seller rejects your counter offer, you walk away, and they chase you down the street to accept it. Maybe another day.
DRIVING AND TRAFFIC
Perhaps one of the better known facts about China (other than the air pollution) is the seemingly chaotic, and at times terrifying, driving. Lines in the road are a a mere suggestion, if you can fit your car between two obstacles that is totally acceptable. Stopping in the far right lane to let people out of a car and waiting there for them to return is fine. Horns are used constantly not out of anger, but just to let people know you are there. I am surprised at the number of close calls I have seen with none resulting in any kind of damage. One thing to note though, I have not noticed any drivers looking down at their phones while driving on China. I am convinced it would instantly cause an accident. We are not allowed to drive a vehicle while we are here (company policy), so they were kind enough to provide us a personal driver who works 6 days a week to get us around town and to work. We have had fun with our driver so far. He is trying to learn English and we are trying to learn Chinese (Mandarin), but his English is much better than our Chinese. If only Mandarin had been an option growing up and I could see into the future that I would one day want to use it, but I digress…Jacky has told us he likes soccer (he likes a Spanish team best) and is really into the NBA. He also likes StarWars and Captain America. He even knew the name of the girl in the Popeye the sailor man cartoons which we both forgot: Olive (oil). Our favorite thing Jacky has introduced us to so far are meat moon pies. Words cannot describe how delicious this meat filled pastry is, you will just have to take a trip to Suzhou and try one for yourself!