WHO MOVED MY RICE?
Copyright 2004, Michael LaRocca
Published September 30, 2004 by Books Unbound
First Impressions of Hangzhou
February 6, 2002
The short version can be stated in four words: I love it here!
Some of you may have read what I wrote about our Guilin honeymoon
in a previous book. Many of those things that I loved so much
about Guilin were immediately evident in my new home. Some I'd
Beautiful scenery, no skyscrapers, and so much quieter than Hong
Kong. Nicer people, and I don't really mean to insult Hong Kong
with that statement. But folks in Hong Kong tend to be close to
their families, obsessed with doing their jobs and accumulating
wealth, and willfully ignorant of anything else about their
surroundings. Hangzhou is different. Same thing I noticed in
Guilin. Here, people like talking to other people.
A common vehicle in Guilin is the Volkswagen Santana. They're
also common here, and now I know why. They're the result of the
first successful joint venture between Shanghai and the Germans.
Every taxi (and every police car) I've seen here is a Volkswagen
Santana. I love that name, even though it probably has nothing to
do with the musician.
Here we also have the bicycles that have been converted via chain
or belt drive into three-wheelers and covered with sheet metal to
act as mini-trucks. Some have seats back there. They're called
pedicabs. And there are also the motorcycles that have been
likewise converted, the motorized pedicabs.
The bicycles. Remember that little rack across the back fender for
carrying things? People sit on them sideways here. Folks with kids
strap chairs back there, and the tiniest little dudes can hang on
without any trouble. I've seen a new modification. Now those
chairs are covered in case of bad weather, usually with flashy
plastic things that have cartoon characters on them.
Another new thing to me. Bicycle lanes. In Guilin, I saw all
Kinds of vehicles sharing the road in harmony. Here, if you stand
in front of a building, you see the sidewalk. Beyond that, the
bicycle lane. Beyond that, a barrier. Beyond that, the road.
Beyond that, another barrier, another bicycle lane, another
sidewalk, and then more buildings.
Another new thing here is the buses running via wires strung up
high like cable car wires. Talk about innovation in
I love our flat. Standing in the sunroom, looking out the window
and just watching traffic. Folks can ride their bicycles side by
side and carry on a conversation. Plus, the flat's much roomier
than what I'd gotten used to in Hong Kong. The tallest buildings
I've seen are about six stories, not the glass and steel
monstrosity that is Hong Kong.
You know how some places preserve the old buildings in a historic
district, and elsewhere they just tear down everything and build
new skyscrapers? I prefer the Hangzhou approach. If the old
building works, leave it. If you need a new one, pop it in. So I
can see old concrete and new glass-steel side by side.
It took me at least five minutes to realize we were driving on the
right side of the road. Just like back home in the US. Opposite
from Hong Kong. Not that it's really a big deal. I haven't driven
in over two years anyway.
Hangzhou, incidentally, has six million people. Three million in
the city, three million in the suburbs. That's a long way from
where I lived before traveling to Asia. Watha, North Carolina,
Back in Guilin, my tour guide told me it was a very small city.
Only 200,000 people. Very small. I whipped out Watha's population
and watched his eyes bug out. I will do that to someone in
Our plane landed, and we hauled out the luggage, in the
ridiculously large weight of 90 kg. About 200 lb, I think. I want
to kiss the man who thought of putting wheels on suitcases.
We were met by our future employer, "Harry" Huang Haijun. Our
Foreign Affairs Officer. The man most responsible for determin-
ing whether our lives in China would be heaven or hell. I didn't
know it when I arrived, but he may be the best there is. He
genuinely cares about people. His name is known by many Western-
ers who have never taught at this school. Most schools have less
than six Westerners, and most FAOs have at least two assistants.
Harry was working with eight Westerners and no assistant, and he
still met us at the airport personally.
Harry also brought a driver. Three bags, three men. No problem.
Into the van, then through the city.
My first sight was of some beautiful homes mixed in with much
farmland. When I say beautiful, think dollhouse. It's the best
analogy I can come up with. Four stories high, not exactly
large, decorated as if there were wallpaper running along them.
Many colors, many with polka dots and such. No two alike. Laundry
drying on the bushes and trees.
Then, the suspension bridge. Then the busy city, and finally our
That's where I met my first non-English speaker. Right at the
entrance to my apartment is a locksmith's stand. He does almost
no business that I've seen, but he has a comfortable leather chair
and people come visit him all day long just to talk.
I was finally able to say "Ni hao." I learned that phrase three
years ago when a coworker went to Beijing. But that's Mandarin,
and the folks in Hong Kong speak Cantonese, so I couldn't use it
When we arrived, four or five security guards joined us to haul up
the luggage. They didn't want me to help, but I did anyway. Gotta
be a redneck, you know.
One hour later, we had unpacked all that stuff and were going out
for dinner. My wife and I, another Western couple who teaches
here, and Harry. At the restaurant we met the head of the Foreign
Languages Department. That's our department, as English is a
foreign language here.
We were a great mix, incidentally. By nature, my wife and I aren't
big talkers. Neither are Harry and his associate. But that was
fine, because the other Western couple loves to take over a social
We were escorted past the public dining area and into a private
room. Total privacy to talk about the job, the fact that four
countries were represented by the six people at the table, snow,
or whatever. Yup, it may snow here. I haven't seen snow in about
25 years, back when I used to see it every year at Christmastime.
In the center of the round table was a rotating gizmo, where the
servers regularly placed different dishes. Hangzhou is known for
its country cooking. As I've written elsewhere, my favorite
Chinese food is country cooking.
I had to shake the rust off my chopstick skills again, and then I
ate many foods I can't name but which were wonderful. I even tried
the Mountain Frog, brought to the table on a steaming plate and
with a dramatic flourish. Excellent. I chose not to eat the skins,
though. Likewise on the fish.
On my third bowl of soup, when I picked out the bird head, I
simply put it to the side and ate the soup it had been in. Yummy.
Seriously, it took me two years of living in Hong Kong (China
Lite) before I got up the courage to do what I should've been
doing all along, which is trying new things.
That's one thing I love about living in Asia. You know how you do
stuff the same way you've always done it, just because that's how
you've always done it? Nothing wrong with that, but one should try
looking at that stuff from a different point of view sometimes.
It's also great fun to look at building after building, sidewalk
stand after sidewalk stand, bustle of activity after bustle of
activity, and have absolutely no clue what any of it is.
At one point, Harry asked his colleague (in Chinese) where one
could buy cat food. Actually, he said dog food. His colleague
misunderstood the question, and told me (in English), "Yes, you
can get dog meat at this restaurant."
Yes, our cat was definitely the center of attention long before
her arrival. The other Western couple asked us, "Is she a special
breed?" She's not, but she's still quite special.
Culturally, China's not so far from Hong Kong. The only adjustment
for me is that almost nobody speaks English and the signs aren't
bilingual. But for the other Western couple, all is new and
Chinese toilets seem to be a big deal. They're a hole in the
ground that one must squat over. Also, one always carries tissues
because there is no toilet paper in them. The lady has no
kneecaps, thus she can't squat. Instead, she has to take off her
pants and aim at the hole standing. But that's only in public
and on one of the campuses. In all our flats are Western toilets.
I can use either type just fine.
As for the language, Mandarin is one I can learn. I'm picking it
up slowly although I usually get the tones wrong, I've got my
phrase books, and Harry was kind enough to give us a printed list
of places we might want to go with the names in both languages so
we can point for the taxi drivers.
Many years ago, I found myself working on an all-Mexican hog farm.
As I taught my coworkers English -- they were quite eager to learn
-- they taught me Spanish. I've forgotten it since then, except
for the profanity. But I can see myself learning Mandarin as
quickly as I once learned Spanish, so I know I'll be fine.
The next morning, we piled into a van along with Harry, the other
Western couple, a driver, and a professor from the IT department.
We were told it was to go to a supermarket. This is another joint
venture between the Chinese and the Germans.
It's not a supermarket, folks. It's a massive venture that makes
Sam's Club back in the US look small. I kid you not, it sells
anything and everything known to man. So now, when Harry pops off
for his vacation, nobody will die of starvation while he's gone.
Before we left for that supermarket, a lovely old lady grabbed my
arm and spoke to my wife and me in Mandarin. She pointed at our
flat and at the campus. Just that fast, she knew where we lived
and where we worked. She's wonderful. I must learn her language
simply to talk to her.
Since then, I've been to another large supermarket. Three stories.
Clothes on the first floor. Then up to the third for hardware,
bedding, bathroom and more clothes. Then down to the second for
food and checkout lanes. Utter chaos. They shop like they drive.
They're loud. People with bullhorns advertising their wares. My
legs are bruised and my ears are ringing.
We were given many apologies about the condition of the flat. No
microwave or shower curtain yet, for example, and the TV didn't
have cable yet. This is because we arrived in the middle of the
Lunar New Year celebration. Many of our co-workers are on holiday.
As is everybody. But we knew that before we got here. We just
wanted to get out of Hong Kong.
Harry was obviously afraid that we'd be left alone wandering the
streets or something. But guess what? We like it that way. That's
why we're here now and not in three weeks when the job starts.
Time to play tourist! Oh yeah, and settle in and such.
The flat is larger than what we were renting in Hong Kong. The
school is providing it to us. They have on-campus housing and
off-campus housing. We chose off. Meaning, right next door to the
campus where we can watch guards marching or kids playing and
such. There is always something interesting to watch out the
windows. Who needs cable anyway?
The flat has a large bedroom, a kitchen with dining room, a shower
and laundry room, a small bathroom with Western toilet, and an
office/workroom almost as large as the bedroom. Leading from there
is an enclosed balcony with windows all around. We call it the
sunroom. Also known as the cat's room.
I saw that we had a brand new washing machine, but no dryer. Did
you ever wonder why you use an electric dryer when air-drying
works just as well?
So I looked up at the ceiling of my sunroom and saw a metal thing
on each end that looked something like an inverted, five-pronged
pitchfork. Aha! I walked around the corner and bought some rope
for 50 cents US, then tied it up there to make a clothesline.
In the corner, on the floor, was a metal, pronged thing that I'd
originally thought was a barbecue tong. Which made no sense, as
nobody would barbecue there. Not so. It's for grabbing hangers and
slapping those wet clothes up onto the line.
And that's something else I missed when I was in Hong Kong. I'm a
builder and a handyman, a totally useless skill in Hong Kong. Now
if we'd moved in here after the holiday, that line would've been
ready for us. But it wouldn't have been nearly as much fun.
I'm a celebrity here, by the way. I go out and walk for about an
hour every day, partly to shop and partly just to see the place.
People regularly yell at me. "Hello!" One shoeshine man yelled
"Hello! You are very cute!" Soon after, I let him shine my boots.
Is it my hair, which is a bit long and therefore curly? Is it my
new beard, which is red? Or is it just that I'm a Westerner, and
there aren't a whole lot of us here? Probably all of that.
When my wife and I go out together, it's a toss-up who's more
worthy of stares. I've got this hair, and I'm taller than most
southern Chinese. My wife is tall and blondish, with broad
shoulders and lots of freckles. We're a traveling freak show.
I often see people riding their bicycles without looking at where
they are going because I'm more interesting to look at. One
person actually stopped and stared. And when my wife and I were
standing on the sidewalk with the other Western couple, one
fellow couldn't help but stare at us, his head at a 135-degree
angle from his body. We all waved at him.
I can't help but wonder what would happen if Big Jim ever came to
Hangzhou. That's my daddy. He's 6'4", maybe 280 pounds, almost
triangular in shape. Nobody in the world has a chest as big as
Daddy, certainly not in Hangzhou. And if they think I've got a
hairy face, they ain't seen nuthin' yet. Probably bicycles would
be crashing all over the place. Maybe even a car or two.
I've been teaching for a week. The kids are wonderful. Okay, not
kids--this is tertiary education. But I'm gonna call them kids
anyway, and I mean it in a nice way. We're still getting to know
each other, of course, so it's too soon to write about them. But
I'm loving it.
My wife, needless to say, is doing just fine. She's teaching.
That's what she does. She's been doing it for fifteen years, I
think. She spent three of those in Hong Kong, but really that's
not teaching. That's rote memorization and regurgitation for
exams. Here in Hangzhou, we teach. I'm also learning.
So it's possible I'll write about my students next month. It's
even possible that they'll all meet Picasso.
I've also seen that they have basketball courts, and I bought a
basketball. No doubt I'll join my kids for a game and tell them
that I went to school with Michael Jordan. It's the truth.
However, I guarantee you that I will not slam-dunk.
This newsletter is copyright (c) 2004 Michael LaRocca. It may be
reprinted freely, in whole or in part, but only if a credit to
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