Sunday, January 25, 2015

Daily Life, Part IV: The Cost of Living in China

When we were small I remember when someone said something that seemed unrelated to the conversation people would retort, "What's that got to do with the price of eggs in China?"  The saying itself doesn't have much to do with getting off topic either, but there you are.
Exactly what IS the price of eggs in China?  Well, for me it's a wet market purchase, so if you follow my blog regularly you'll know that I'm not quite sure what I pay for things there, because they ball up all your purchases and announce a price, all without a receipt.  But the price of things in China is an interesting topic.
Some things are much cheaper than the U.S., and others are outrageously expensive.  In the first category I would put most Chinese restaurants, and by Chinese I mean those that are serving mostly Chinese people, and also those Chinese who are NOT part of the burgeoning consumer-class of pretty well-off people who are very much into conspicuous consumption.  Just your average Chinese citizen can get a pretty good meal for a few bucks.  In my last blog I wrote about a restaurant that is probably for fairly affluent customers, but the bill was still only around 12 USD.  However, if you go to many of the very new restaurants here, Chinese, Korean, or Japanese, and all of the western menu ones, you are going to pay high end prices.  It's good food, but your bill for two is going to be similar to what you would pay in America, which is NOT what I'm looking for while I'm not in America. Today for brunch I paid 8 USD for a waffle.  It had some other weird stuff on the plate, a scoop of vanilla ice cream with unripe mango, but still, that was steep. Coffee drinks are another example of high end products.  While I'm not a coffee drinker, S is and I'm always a little alarmed at how much those fancy mocha, latte whip-creamy-type coffees are.  However, I'm pretty sure they are expensive in the U.S. as well.
Produce is another subject.  Fruit is usually cheaper, though when I buy blueberries here I pay 20 RMB, which is 3.20 USD for a half-pint.  However, I don't fuss about it because (1) they have fresh, quality blueberries for sale, which I never saw in India and (2) it's amazing that they have them fresh here this time of the year and (3) they are supposed to be a super healthy food, so I put this item under "health needs" on my budget instead of food.  Avocados, same story.  I paid 12 RMB (2 bucks) for an avocado, and I thank my lucky stars I can enjoy the luscious fruit once more.  Vegetables are cheap, extremely cheap.  Even beautiful, diverse, extremely fresh mushrooms are about 1/4 of the cost they would be in America.
Clothing is another item where racing to be Western (or just consumers) has resulted in quite expensive clothing.  I was at a gym in Chengdu and saw some great yoga pants.  They were over 100 USD. I thought I wasn't calculating correctly but the Chengdu Panda pulled me away, warning me that the price of clothing would not be Indian-like.  Not even close.  If I go to H & M or Mango, I can expect to pay what Europeans are paying for the clothes, if I can find my size, which the marketers of the stores smartly decided wasn't going to be the size of the average Chinese shopper.  High end clothing items abound, including shoes.  I found a Clarks Shoes store, and saw a shoe I bought for 50 USD over the summer; they were 240 dollars here, American dollars, not the Chinese RMB. The import taxes for luxury goods must be crazy high, or the stores think crazy people will buy them.  Which is another fact of life here; while there is a good supply of high end malls selling high end goods, there are NOT people lining up to buy the goods in the high end shops that I see.  Of course that could be because rich people don't shop on the weekends like us normals, or it could be that they send normal looking people to do their shopping for them.  I can't tell, and have no inside information on this yet.
Our apartment is 6000 RMB/month, which is about 1,000 USD. It's got 3 bedrooms, one quite small, but I wonder how much cheaper that is than a similar sized city in US.  I've not rented an apartment for a long time in the U.S. so I couldn't say.  Our utilities are probably pretty cheap, but the way in which I pay for them makes it difficult to tell. Here's how the school figured out would be easiest for us.  They assign us a realtor who helps us find an apartment.  After we have our apartment that person then becomes our life line to anything local.  We can call them with any question, and many do.  However, for the paying of the utilities, I give this real estate agent some cash.  They then receive all our bills for internet, gas, electricity and pay the bills until they are out of money, at which point they call and request more money.  When they come to collect the money, they give us all the old receipts for the bills they've paid.  That's all great but the receipts are in Mandarin, so I pretend to look them over then toss them.
Last, the price of services in China seems strikingly low for the most part.  I imagine it's due to the billion or so people who live here, but it's a good thing for us.  We recently got our motorcycle, really an electric bike, repaired for 5 kuai, which is less than a dollar.  I had to pay a guy to come put nails in my wall, and he charged me by the nail, which was 10 rm., which was pretty steep.  I'm afraid he charged me the infamous ex-pat tax.  I would have done it myself, but I couldn't find either a nail nor a hardware store.  He came without a hammer, though, so I had to lend him mine.  I wanted to charge him a "didn't-come-prepared" tax.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

10 Great Things about India

It's impossible to list all the great things I've experienced in India, especially all the kind-hearted people, but there are a few that deserve special mention, along with some final photos the last day we were in India.

1.     Mangoes, the best I’ve ever consumed.  Also the Keralan epicurean delights of appam, dosas, and the coconut curries, and the paneer of the north and the lassis from M.I. Road in Jaipur
2.     Fabulous Textiles, hand-block prints, embroidery work, silks, and cottons
3.     Mughal era Palaces:  Udaipur’s, Jodphur’s, and Jaipur’s were all winners
4.     Sari Shops:  Both the products and the shopping experience.  Saris are the coolest clothing I’ve ever worn, and probably ever will.
5.     Nature, from the gorgeous coffee plantations of Wayanad, to the especially exotic birds like kingfishers, green bee eaters, and water fowl of every color of the rainbow
6.     The beach at Kovalam, 30 minutes from our home in Trivandrum.  We didn’t get there often enough, but it was enough just to know it was there if we needed to escape.
7.     Great traditions and festivals of both the Rajastanis and Keralan people, especially Devali in Jaipur and Onam in Trivandrum
8.     The people, all the friends we made and all the people who were friendly and curious and very pro-American
9.     Cheap books
10. JLF:  Jaipur Literature Festival:  enuf said

There are dozens of other things, but I'm here in China now, and it's time to say good-bye to India for now.
Here's a link to the my new blog which will illustrate my life in China….
Ambassador:  Soon to be Discontinued
Squid and Coconut Chips Keralan Style

Crazy Nature…Elvis is in the House on this one!

Bright colors like this house down our street

Again with the crazy looks from the birds with the rat tail

Durga Temple full of color and Hindu symbolism

Famous Temple with Loads of Gold in the Basement!

Just because we can, we do...

Maha's Famous Banana Masala Chips and Sunset from Plane on way to China

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Jaipur Redux

Today is our last day in Trivandrum, and there is some unfinished business to report.  First, I was in Jaipur last week for a week, and it was an unhuman temperature of 49-50 degrees.  You do the conversion; it’s too scary for me.  I worked with a great group of  women who I’ve been training for 2 years as master trainers and they were great fun as usual.  Picture below.  It was great fun to see old friends, old haunts, and see the peacocks in full strut at Rambagh Palace. Here are some great pictures of various poses the peacocks struck:

I also failed to post my “Monsoon is Here” blog, because I couldn’t get my super short videos (7 seconds) to load for some reason. Here are some pics of monsoon time:  Let me just describe the wind bending the trees:  There was lots.  The monsoon weather here is a little odd, because I expected daily sheets of rain, backed up gutters, flooding in the streets, etc, but it’s been much much less than that.  We have had 2-3 days where it doesn’t rain at all and sometimes it’s gorgeous weather with a cool ocean breeze and sunny skies.  Some days it’s sultry and humid to a point where it eventually rains just to relieve itself of the humidity.  I was told that Trivandrum doesn’t receive “the rains” nearly as much as most other parts of Kerala, for some unknown reason, and there is worry here that they are receiving far too little and will suffer in the future.  There are also some clicks of a textile showcumsale at the bottom of the hill where I may or may not have purchased the gorgeous handsewn dupatta the man is holding up… Look for it on our sofa in China when you come visit.

Enough on the rain, the big news since my last blog is we’re headed to China!  I’ve got a great job in Suzhou, China, about 30 minutes by bullet train to the north of Shanghai, on the eastern seaboard.  It’s an IB school, and I’ll be coordinating ESL programs and also teaching, probably 4th grade.  It’s a private school which was constructed with the purpose of teaching the kids of ex-pats who are working on the IT Park.  We will be living in a gated compound of some sort and it has lots of Western amenities, so it will be a change for us from here.  The school’s population is quite similar to that of Weber’s, so I’m looking forward to working with about 40 nationalities.  Here’s the link to the school: Caution:  It’s such a bright future you may need sunglasses!  It’s a welcome return to the world of the knee-high humans, and the administration and school seem very welcoming and organized.  Yes, organized, sigh….

Tomorrow I’ll be writing my last Land of the Coconuts blog, with a list of favorites from India and a link to a new blog site, Iowa Laoshi in the Middle Kingdom, which will chronicle first our two-week visit to Chengdu and #1 daughter which starts on July 4,  then our two years in Suzhou (yep, signed a 2-year contract, but there were enough perks on the contract I didn’t read that calendar part carefully. )  After having to pack up everything for the 3rd time in as many years, I’m ready to put down some roots, and hope we will see lots more of Daughter #1, and probably #2 as well, craving the China vibe. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

World Cup a la Kerala

There are some times when I miss having a TV, and right about now is one of them, the advent of the World Cup.  I've got the fever, and I don't want the cure, I just want a TV.  S. wants a TV, too, but so he can watch his beloved Spurs win the NBA.  It's not going to happen for either of us, and forget about a sports bar where we might watch it, except someone is going to sponsor a televising of a game, but it's at the techno park outside the city I've never been to, so again, not going to happen.
At least I'm in the right state for World Cup news, because Kerala is one of the few states in the country that doesn't equate sports with cricket and more cricket.  There is even a league in the state, and some people have organized a tournament along the coast to honor the World Cup.  16 teams will vie for the ability to be in the semi-finals, and they will be held the day before the real ones, and the Keralan teams will wear the colors of the teams who are actually in the semis.  Sounds like a good time, but I can't even Google this city and get anything, so I don't think I'll be partaking of the fun.  Spellings are a bit arbitrary, to say the least.
In other WC (World Cup) news, I read a great piece in our local newspaper about a couple of octogenarians who are set to attend their 9th consecutive World Cup games in Brazil.  They are shown holding up their air tickets in the attending photo and they look pretty intense.  They are quoted as saying …."You cannot even imagine how seriously we take the World Cup."  I think I can, actually.  They might be my new role models.  They said they went to their first ones in Spain a few decades back and saw how much of a party atmosphere it was, so decided they should go to all of them.  They live on a very modest pension but save carefully for each WC.  People with their eyes on the prize, I would say! Safe travels and get these people a vuvuzuela, or whatever the Brazilian equivalent of that is.
BTW, VIVA MEXICO… Tonight against Cameroon (sorry, younger daughter).  I do like Eto, but Mexico is home of beans and rice and all things sabroso, so, once again, √ĀNDALE, MEXICO!

In other more mundane news, there was an article yesterday about a scientific breakthrough regarding malaria in the labs of London.  One scientist declared a "huge advancement" in the reduction and possible eradication of the disease, because they have perfected the serum for a vaccine that renders mosquitos doomed to produce only male offspring, which don't bite.
First of all, what's with all the anger biting,  female sisters of 6 legs???  Second, I think this pronouncement is a little premature, as the procedure involves injecting a serum that alters the genetic code.  Think about it…. Have they figured out a way to get all the mosquitos to get in line for their shots?  Or perhaps perfected a secret wrestling move to pin them down?  There were no particulars about this part of the game, so I am thinking there is still more work to do.  I think it's reminiscent of the Aesop Fable of Belling the Cat.  It will be a wonderful day when malaria is arrested and perhaps eliminated, but there was another article right under it about how polio eradication may miss another goal.  Lots of work to do in the global health arena, but I know one woman who is ON IT.

Finally, sadly, more shootings in our country.  Such a great country with such a huge glaring Achilles Heel.  It was interesting to see even Obama show some frustration over how to respond, although I'm sure that's his usual emotion on most days given the ineptitude of Congress to do much of anything. When I talk about it to nonAmericans, I try to explain that legislators are mostly scared of the powerful gun lobby, the NRA.  That doesn't make any sense to them, or to me, but it's the sad truth.  How did we ever permit our legislators to be bought and sold and is there a way to put the Genie (money) back in the bottle?  No answer for that one.
Happy picture for the ending….The walled gate across the street from our apartment complex was newly painted, and then the rains washed it.  Pretty, isn't it?  I love the Malayalam print but also the incredibly long word written in Roman script as well.  I don't know what it means because all I can see on the other side of the gate is an empty lot with some banana plants and coconut trees.  Beats me!

Monsoon Season Arrives

While we were in Delhi last week we read that the monsoon had reached our fair city, which is about as close to the tip of India as you can get, save one other city where few people live.  This idea of the monsoon's arrival was confirmed by my Keralan students that week, but when our driver picked us up from the airport and I asked him how the monsoon was going, he laughed and looked at me a little funny and said, "There is no monsoon yet, mam. Tomorrow night it will come.  This is just a little rain."

So much for weather accuracy, which is equally poor on the plains of the Miwest  as it is in the deep south of India.  Of course he was right, and last Sunday the rains began in earnest.  It is so far very enjoyable, no floods, no one getting hurt.  The awful humidity of May is forgotten, replaced by fresh breezes which sometimes erupt into gales, which herald an upcoming downpour.  When the rain begins, it is mostly silent, so you can hear it hit all the greenery, and not much else.  Occasionally there is a rumble of thunder, but that's not typical.  Mostly the humidity builds, the grey clouds roll through, and when it's at its threshold, the sky opens and down comes the rain.  I tried to capture it on my camera, but it's hard to film rain, so it looks like it's not raining.  However, if you look into the horizon you see what appears to be a mist or fog, which is actually light rain.  Sometimes the rain is pouring sheets of intensity, but that doesn't seem to last too long.  I read in today's newspaper that the "real monsoon intensity" will be felt from "…tonight onward" whatever that means.
I like the way the rain is washing the buildings like this museum at our park at the bottom of the hill, making everything a little  brighter, as does the gentle light fil

Neem tree comes into full bloom just as Monsoon rains arrive.
tered through the clouds.  I have relearned my rule of watching the natives and copying them, because today I was ready to head to the florist when I noticed a strong breeze and no one on the street.  I decided to sit on the terrace and get a little film of the winds and see what developed.  An hour later the rain stopped and people started to appear, so I put on my shoes and grabbed my purse, and my umbrella, and was on my way.  There is a relaxed, quieter pace now that the rains have arrived, and I'm all for it.  The children started school on the first of the month, too, so there are far fewer Indian tourist buses on the street leading to our apartment.  So far, monsoon is working well for me.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Beginning of the End

Sitting in a car in a traffic snarl in Delhi seems an apt time to begin a blog.  It feels somehow familiar being back in the north of the country; I turned in recognition when I heard someone use a familiar Hindi phrase yesterday.  That was odd in itself because I only know about 10 or 15 phrases, but still, it’s more than I’ve accomplished in Malayalam.  I’m eager to eat some grilled paneer, that dreamy spongy tofu-like cheese of the north, because in the south they serve it hard and flavorless and rarely grilled, where the tandoor ovens are always cooking something yummy in the north. 
Delhi is still a snarly, steamy, congested concrete jungle. I’m currently reading Capital by Rana Dasgupta, which is a riveting account of how Delhi broke free from economic controls in the 1990s and the subsequent consequences of the growth. Actually it’s much more than that, and it’s filled with anecdotes and stories that make you forget you’re reading a nonfiction account of the history of a city, which is always a plus for me!  I’m only about half way through it, but it’s a great read for anyone who wants to get one person’s perspective on what is wrong and right with the nation’s capital.  He makes a lot of interesting assertions, which he doesn’t bother to back up with research, so I’m also a fan for that attitude.  Throw your opinions around and let others worry about their merit, I say!

We’re on the first leg of a farewell tour of some of our Indian haunts, and it’s always a respite to come here for the great international restaurants and pampering hotels.  There is a certain patisserie here that always seems to draw me in; here's a picture of why.

Flowers in our room.
A word about our current hotel, The Lalit, is also warranted.  When you are a returning customer of a certain level star hotel here in India, you are greeted by name at the door by someone whose job it is to make you feel special.  They whisk you away to your room for signing in (no need to stand in line with the riff raff, you are their “valued client”) where you are feted with fresh flowers, chocolates, massage and meal coupons.  It makes me worry about fitting in my work with all this pampering there is to be done… I could definitely learn to make this a habit, but I believe this is it for the fancy hotels and such.