Just a quick shout to let you know I’m still alive, despite living drastically below the breadline. I have 3RMB (30p) in my purse and no idea when my next payday will be. The finance department has been busy processing freshmen subs so our wages have been benched until that’s sorted. Until then, I’m getting inventive with my stocks of rice and flour, and also with my excuses as to why I can’t meet people for dinner. It’s too cold, I tell them, but I can’t justify putting thermals on yet. I’m just so busy right now, I tell them, despite my classes having not yet begun. I’m teaching freshmen, which means both my wages and my classes are suspended until they’re all settled in and ready to learn. I have actually been told we’ll be paid this week, but please allow me some dramatic license.
In the meantime, I’ve been catching up with friends, which at only 1RMB per bus journey is a pleasure I’ve been able to stretch to. I’ve also been casually mentoring one of my students from last year, in the run up to his IELTS English exam. This, in exchange for hot drinks at campus’s hottest new coffee shop, Dumb Starbucks. Everyone knows there’s a lot of fakery in China – from DVDs to watches to Chanel bags (a beautiful one of which will be mine shortly after payday) to iPhones. In fact, go to any brand store, and you’ll find items for all budgets. If you can’t afford that top price Apple product, worry not – just turn your attention to the other side of the little kiosk and there you’ll find its doppelgänger – proudly boasting its shiny apple badge – for a fraction of the price. It’s known and it’s accepted. China is an absolute machine at the moment, and whilst ancient culture, tradition and morals run through its veins, the fuel of choice for many are the products of Western capitalism.
So it’s not a great surprise that an entire coffee shop can be ripped off. What is novel about this one is that it knows it’s not Starbucks. The customers know it’s not Starbucks. Even the drinks know they’re not Starbucks drinks (‘dumb latte’, ‘dumb mocha’, ‘dumb Chrysanthemum tea’). Sadly someone forgot to tell the price list, which is on par with actual Starbucks and thus out of most of the student’s meagre budgets. However, it does have free WiFi so swings and roundabouts.
As previously documented, my foray into the world of pet ownership hasn’t been an overwhelming success story (two whole batches / schools of fish have died at the hand of my selfish need to nurture. Read about it here). A safer option now is to stick to the houseplants. When one of my fellow teachers left last year, I lovingly adopted Persephone, a tree-like creation with teeny tiny leaves which moult more than my dog in a heatwave. But she’s bold and beautiful and I can practically see the O2 radiating out of her and into my lungs. Whilst I was home for the summer, the woman who works downstairs as one of the two guardians-of-the-foreigners would come up to maintain my potted ecosystem. Never had I seen such luscious green leaves, such perfectly moist soil, such contented, happy flowers, as I did upon my return. I don’t know how often she would come to water them, but I have a notepad of mathematical equations in an attempt to try and figure out exactly how much sunlight, heat, fresh(ish) air and water they would’ve been receiving at any given time. Something must have gone wrong in my calculations because slowly, slowly, they’re regressing. I see a few dry leaves on the fern, so I water a bit more. Soggy limbs start to come away from the spider plant, so I water less. Edges crinkle and become papery, so I flake them off. Leaves turn yellow so I turn them towards the sun. For the second time in as many hours this morning I’ve swept away Persephone’s carelessly scattered ricelike leaves from the desk she dominates, cursing my plants for being such a burden to me. It’s times like this you realise you’re probably not quite ready for things like motherhood. I feel like I’m treading water with one sad specimen in particular, and I reckon as soon as Northern China’s municipal heating is switched on, it’ll be a quick spiral towards certain death. Don’t misunderstand me – it’s with a heavy heart that I type these words. I hate failing and I definitely hate being the reason that a living thing dies. I am being a bit melo(meaning ‘melodramatic’, an abbreviation commonly found in Korean TV subtitles… I’ll explain another time) and I know my neighbours all have the same first-world-in-developing-world problems when it comes to maintaining a perfect equilibrium of conditions for the sake of our plants. I’m in love with green though, and with dogged determination I’ll get my guys through this winter or so help me.
So, in a moment of madness I ate an entire bag of Jelly Babies last night, and in one session, depleted my stash by a full half. Oh the regret this morning was worse than any hangover I’ve ever experienced, as I gazed upon that barren yellow bag lying helplessly on top of the potato peelings. Women are known to be driven to such hysteria in certain times of need. In a rare moment of rationality for this time of month, and knowing what mad demons will posses me in the wee hours, I’ve prepared a sponge-free, whipped cream-free trifle for later. It’s currently working that ‘deconstructed’ look that’s big in the culinary world, jelly in one bowl and custard in another. But after English Corner tonight the jelly will be set and ready for that golden goodness. How delighted I am at my past self, what marvellous forethought in bringing custard powder and jelly powder in my suitcase. Heather from 2 months ago, you are wonderful!