The First Days (Part 2)

Settling in

Wuhan is hot. Wuhan is Humid. As I write this (30/8/12), it’s currently 9.30pm, and it’s 32ºC and hazy. Being international students, we actually get truly spoiled compared to the locals. I’ve been hiding indoors for most of the day in air-conditioned comfort watching buildings 1-2km away disappear and reappear from the haze.

The room I have been allocated – a single room, acquired through good old-fashioned insider dealing – is actually incredibly nice (but with a few quirks). I have my own bathroom, a reasonable amount of built-in wardrobe space, varnished wood desk, chair, nightstand, dresser and bedframe, a TV and a double bed in a tiled floor room that’s about 10 square meters with a 3 square meter entry corridor.

Unfortunately they seem to have also made the matress out of wood. I can’t seem to make any impression in it with any amount of force, and I’m going to roach bomb the room when I’m at class next week.

The bathroom also enjoys some silliness – Rather than build proper drains, there are two big holes in the tiles that disappear into the nether and are filled with plastic inserts. I believe that the inserts are primarily designed to collect nasty stuff and to a lesser extent stop you from falling in. Oh, and China doesn’t believe in S-bends either.

It would also be incredibly easy to electrocute myself in the shower by carelessly aiming the head onto the powerpoint that feeds the hot water heater, but I guess that’s survival of the fittest in action.

The power points throughout the university (and as far as I’ve seen, Wuhan) are actually quite clever (even if their placement is questionable). Given the very liberal application of ‘standards’ throughout the city, the powerpoints maximise compatibility by having 220V sockets for US, EU and Chinese (which is almost exactly upside-down Australian and works with all 3-pin Australian plugs). The power boards go even further with UK and others that I don’t recognise.

Apart from the furnishings, a desklamp, phone and kettle, the apartment is bare and the first thing I did after unloading my bags was go shopping with Robby.

A few hours later, and I have managed to collect some snacks and drinks, all the household supplies I’ll need for quite some time, a few Litres of water, a second hand water cooler (but no cooler bottle, they’re out until next week), a second hand griller/oven and Settlers of Catan for a total of around 150AUD (just under 1000CNY).

Earlier I mentioned that the international students are spoiled, and this is most apparent when you look at the horribly run-down dorms in the building next to Robby’s. The contrast is bleak and I wouldn’t blame any local for resenting us purely on our accommodation.

Technology (Or lack thereof)

China is all about paper. Bureaucracy exists primarily on paper. If it’s also on the computer then that’s nice, but paper always wins.

In all of the shops around the university computers are for entertainment, not business tools. I haven’t seen a single shop owner use a computer for anything other than watching movies while they wait for customers (edit: okay I found one – the printers kind of need one). In Australia, as items are rung up on the register, you have the price shown on a big shiny display (or at a minimum, numbers on the register). In the corner stores, Numbers are punched into a talking calculator and then show to you.

In my quest for internet (which is still ongoing, 2 weeks later), it struck me as odd that there were no mac instructions. In fact, no mention of Macs anywhere – faqs, help, anything.

After thinking about it for a while, the reason dawned on me: Unlike say UNSW, where about a third to half of the students have a Mac, Macs basically don’t exist.

There is a good reason for that – Apple products cost even more in china than if you bought them in Australia (which is already hyper-inflated over the US prices). And that’s a direct AUD->CNY comparison. Given that 1CNY can take a budget-conscious Chinese shopper twice or three times as far as 1AUD would an Australian, the apparent cost of a 1200AUD macbook is something more like 15000-23000AUD.

Compare that to the equivalent PCs, which seem to be about 30% cheaper than Australian prices, and it becomes apparent that Apple (“Designed in Cupertino, Assembled in China“) is being elitist because it can.

Food

Is cheap. In this country you can actually live on a shoestring. Or at least plastic bottles (but I’ll get to that later). You can comfortably survive on 1-2 AUD / meal (including a drink). 7 dumplings will set you back 2.5元 or 50 for 16元. A plate of something with rice or noodles will generally be around 6-10元, and it’s all really tasty. There are also the street vendors who will generally feed you for 3-6元. The ones I have tried have been great, but I’m not brave enough to try all of them because the weather’s still hot and there is a very casual attitude to refrigeration. But when the weather gets colder I’ll give them a go.

On the other end of the scale, all western fast food is really expensive. A normal meal from KFC will cost 25-30元, I haven’t been to maccas or Pizza Hut, but apparently they’re about the same or more.

Raw ingredients are all ridiculously cheap as well. If you are cooking for yourself you can sate any appetite for 10元 / day.

If you actually want to spend some money, you can find plenty of places that will lighten your burden by 30元 or more, but while you will get more variety from a single restaurant at the more expensive places, your meal won’t be any tastier than one found in your local hole-in-the-wall dumpling or noodle shop.

Water on the other hand is a different story altogether. I never appreciated how privileged we are able to drink from a convenient tap / bubbler / hose whenever we feel like it. In Wuhan, there are heavy metals in the water supply, as well as the reasonable chance of some nasties like Giardia and Cryptosporidium (remember the crisis in Sydney 10ish years ago when a few people got sick so everyone started boiling their water for a week? Yeah, those nasties).

Still, after a few hours Wuhan heat straight after winter, I would have probably drunk anything from anywhere.

But fortunately Robby took me to her favourite teashop and introduced me to Tina, 泡泡茶的老板 (the boss of Popotea and my first friend in Wuhan) and the 芒果奶昔 (mango milkshake, and yes Tina, I now remember: nǎi xī not nǎichá). This and a few other drinks picked mostly at random kept me alive until I had organised myself a reliable water supply. I admit, After I discovered a supply of delicious bubble teas that range from 0.6-0.9AUD, I was in no great hurry.

Oh, and on the subject of tea – the free tea served in Sydney Chinese restaurants appears to be a Sydney thing, or at least not a Wuhanese thing. I was sorely disappointed to discover that the only restaurant with those familiar white teapots actually used them to pour vinegar.

In the process of finding something to drink, I discovered the Wuhanese (or maybe Chinese) love of sugar. It actually took quite some time to find a drink that both wasn’t water and had no added sugar. And that was a juice, so it already contains the sugars from the fruit. For a sweet tooth like me I don’t have a huge problem with it, but when you’re parched it’s quite a shock!

A Darker Side, A Lighter Side

With any large city you have to deal with rubbish. There are two main ways to do this: Education and good logistics, or brute force. Singapore is a great example of education and logistics. Sydney is also a pretty good example (with notable exceptions like sporting events or New Year’s Eve).

Wuhan is a good example of brute force. In the household, you don’t have to worry about whether it’s greens or recycling this week because there is no weekly garbage truck.

All rubbish goes in one bin. When that bin gets full, You take the contents and throw it in one of the many similar-looking garbage piles around the city. These will fill and empty over the course of one day, and in the process get picked over by a handful of people collecting plastic bottles and any raw materials such as metals to sell back. This is how Wuhan recycles.

You will also see similar people wandering past the few bins around the city again looking for plastic bottles.

But these people aren’t homeless like you would expect in Sydney. It is actually possible to keep a roof above your head through money earned trading in recyclables. It’s not a great life, but it could be worse.

Another facet of the recycling culture makes me a lot happier: When something breaks in this country, you don’t throw it out.

Not long ago in Australia, we used to fix things too. The TV Repair Guy was a very profitable livelihood. Now, as the cost of new components plummets compared to the cost of Australian labour, anything that isn’t trivial to repair is replaced with new. This consumerism of Australia does make me sad,  but that’s a different discussion altogether.

Back to my point, China fixes everything. In every group of shops you will find an artisan repairer of one kind or another. Bikes, mechanical and metalwork you go here. Tailoring repairs go to the shop next door.

Somehow in the time between when I left Sydney and when I settled in Wuhan, I managed to damage the USB port on my phone and it wouldn’t charge. Fortunately, with the help of one of Robby’s friends and the persuading power of 80元, within half an hour my phone woke bleary-eyed from surgery.

That night, Robby and her friends organised a part welcome / part reunion dinner at an all-you-can-eat barbecue restaurant, where you can pick all of the meats, veggies and drinks you like, and cook them up on your own grill. This is fairly similar to the various asian bbq places in Sydney, except one tiny detail: The variety is HUGE! I have never seen so many foods that I didn’t recognise in one place.

Needless to say that many ended up on my plate for Science. Most were delicious. A++ would buy again.

At 63元 / head, it was quite expensive for local fare, but considering all of my RMB was bought with AUD, $10 for a mighty dinner felt great!

So my circle of friends now inculded Ryan, an American masters student; Marc, an Antiguan masters student, Zhu Lǎoshi, a teacher that Robby had travelled and become fast friends with; and a rough acquaintance with a Tibetan monk that speaks no English and very little Mandarin.

A full belly made for a sound night’s sleep, and by this stage, despite mild intrepid feelings of dread as shopkeepers yell words that mean nothing at me, I begin to realise it’s all going to be alright.

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