I think it's safe to say that no one will be getting a Christmas card from me. It's nothing personal. It's just that today I had to send an important, single-page letter to my pension company in England. The weight of the letter itself was too light to register on the Chinese scales. It cost 230 ¥ - that's £23. At that kind of price it would be cheaper to fly home and deliver Christmas cards in person.
And that wasn't even the most annoying thing about the process. The most annoying thing was how long it took. In an empty post office the bureaucracy of filling in forms in English, waiting while they checked the computer, getting someone to fill in forms in Chinese, waiting while they retyped the Chinese into their computer, waiting while they telephoned someone to find the price and so on took almost an hour.
I passed the time explaining to my Chinese friend that to send a letter the other way costs a tenth of the price and takes about two minutes. She was amazed as it hadn't occurred to her that our mailing experience was anything other than perfectly commonplace.
Chinese bureaucracy is just one of those things that you have to live with over here.
Like Chinese road works. If there is a single road within five miles of my apartment that isn't dug up along the entire length of it I haven't found it. Getting into and out of apartments becomes a random assault course of ditches six feet deep, mounds of earth ten feet high, concrete slab "bridges" a foot wide, mountains of pipes waiting to be laid, weeks-old piles of rubbish that no one can collect or clear because of the other obstacles. It is, I am told, a program of civic improvements, though even the local people who see this kind of thing all the time can be heard grumbling about how bad it is and how the improvements only ever make things worse.
Another street, another trench,
another overpowering stench.
The trenches do not cause the smell
though they're a bloody pest as well.
It's obvious we'll never know
who'll clear the bins that overflow.
Those who earn their daily bread
in that task just scratch their head.
"With all these holes," you hear them say
"How can we take the trash away?"
Trenches deepen, rubbish piles.
I walk the streets for miles and miles
and everywhere is just the same.
Someone, somewhere is to blame
for another day, another trench
and another overpowering stench.
It's surprising how very small things can make me happy. This week, as I mentioned before, I found a shop that sells baked beans. Last week it was sardines. Last night I went over to my friend's apartment because she had just come back from a trip to Shanghai and had bought me half a pound of mature cheddar cheese. Little things but significant to me.
Or to put it another way, as I did in an idle moment between classes
It's great to get a moment's bliss
discovering something I miss.
Last week it was a can of beans.
The week before it was sardines.
Such little things – how well they please.
I'd be in Heaven if I found cheese.
Last week was a school holiday and most of the teachers here went away to different destinations in China. As the only foreign teacher staying in the city it fell to me to look after my friend Ben's three month old puppy.
There's pee in one corner and poo in the next.
He does it to vex me. Consider me vexed..
Turns his nose up at food, laps at his water,
takes bites out of things that he shouldn't oughta,
like chair legs and tables, my ankles, my hand.
Does as he pleases at every command.
As I clean up his mess with a mop and a pail.
He sits there so innocent, wagging his tail.
And when I sit down he jumps in my lap,
curls into a ball, settles down for a nap.
He's tiny and cute – I forgive him his sins,
and as he lies dreaming, I'm sure that he grins.