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Yours Truly, Finalist in Food Photographer of the Year!

Well, this last week has been certifiably nuts. I had four different magazine deadlines, all on vastly different topics, such that my brain had switched itself permanently to ‘BING!’ even in the middle of the night, which was tiring and inconvenient. 
I would wake up with a brilliant idea about ‘A Weekend in Suzhou’ only to remember that I submitted that particular article the day before, and it would be really super helpful if my brain could now put that to rest and instead, come up with ideas for a funny column about living in Shanghai.
I spent a whole day wet, cold and very muddy photographing the lovely farmers I met in the last post. 
Then on Friday morning, unthinkably, I got an email informing me that I had been seleced as a finalist in an international food photography competition, The Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year. What?? Are they truly really serious?? Only ten minutes before the email arrived I tripped on the stair going into the kitchen while holding an armful of half-full cereal bowls, which all smashed to smithereens and left me bruised and covered in milk and bits of muesli. It was shaping up to be a bad day. And I still didn’t have any funny ideas for a column due in four hours’ time.
But apparently those Pink Lady people were very serious, choosing not one but three of my photos. (Clearly the competition was open to amateurs – me, as well as seasoned professionals, but we all competed together). I’ll say it again – What??! The final awards, and here’s the part where I just about dead dropped over, are in London. England. End of next month. 
Firstly, for those of you who have already heard this news via Twitter and Facebook, I want to say thanks a million trillion for your congratulations, messages of support, and good wishes. You’re all fabulous!
(PS  I’m not permitted to show the images that were chosen until after the finals.)

2012. My Year of Maximum China.

Firstly, a big smiling Happy New Year to every single one of you! My hope is that 2012 will bring all of us a year of good friends, good food, and a lot of laughter! 
2012 will likely be my last year in China, a situation I have very mixed feelings about – I miss home and family, I miss the breathable quality of overseas air, and the Australian wilderness, but I have an extraordinarily interesting and colourful life here in China that will be hard to let go. Not to mention the noodles
There’s no escaping it though – our older daughter begins high school in Australia at the start of 2013, and we promised we would return home before that date, although we never imagined we would be living in China right up until then!
As a way of fending off any imagined future regrets, I plan to pack as much of China – its food, its countryside, its people – into the coming twelve months as possible. The major manifestation of this plan is a crazy scheme that first gripped me some six months ago and I haven’t been able to shake it off since. You know it’s a good idea when it gives you a sick, terrifying feeling in the guts every time you think about it. 
So here it is. We will take a Chinese truck, or a minibus, or some kind of campervan-like vehicle, and transform it into a fully-equipped home on wheels, replete with sleeping, cooking and coffee-making facilities, then spend the last six months of 2012 roaming around the remoter backroads of China. What do you think? 
Personally, I think it’s a bloody crazy idea but you can’t deny it has enormous appeal. Even crazier, the rest of the family has come on board with it, after some initial misgivings about whether there would be Western-style breakfast cereal and the capability of recharging electronic devices on the road.
It will be a hugely HUGE undertaking, mostly because we are breaking relatively new ground – recreational vehicles don’t really exist in China, necessitating making a sort of custom-built home-made frankencampervan of our own, complete with comfortable bedding and privacy curtains. 
Camping of any kind is pretty much unheard of, and the last time I saw anyone in a tent in China, it had been erected by the staff of a three star hotel on the adjacent concrete basketball court, with use of hotel facilities included in the tent price. There are no camping grounds, no trailer parks, and no laybys with nearby toilet facilities. 
So I’m calling 2012 our year of Maximum China, a fully immersive experience of seeing and eating our way through as much of China as possible, with our own twist. As 2012 looms excitingly ahead, instead of looking back on the year in review as I’ve done before, I’m looking to the year ahead and what it might hold, both in the short term and the long term, in travel planning terms. 
Here’s what I predict for the coming year of Maximum China:
1.  I will pass my Chinese exams next week, motivated by the desire to avoid being the first student over forty to fail and the need to speak enough Chinese to cover vehicle breakdowns and other minor emergencies. Although I wish the teachers had given me a lot more warning about the 100 word written essay at the end of the Chinese test, because my essay will consist of twenty characters I can write from memory, and a lot of blank spaces. (But – I have a cunning plan to copy any vocabulary that might be useful from the rest of the exam paper and paste it into my essay, although this may not work out so well:
On my holidays, my family and I visited the…bank to make a credit card application. At the…bank…was a lot of…lovely scenery…and we…completed the application form…while…climbing a mountain.  That day the…weather report predicted rain…but we…waited for the application to be approved.  The End.)
2. The ratio of Chinese:Western meals my family is willing to eat will decrease from 1:3 to 1:10 by year’s end, decreasing exponentially with time spent on the road away from supermarkets full of Western food in Shanghai. I will be forced to resort to making them congee for breakfast when we run out of cereal. They will hate this.
3. I will pass my Chinese driver’s license test without having to bribe any officials, or have a Chinese stand-in named ‘Fay-ah-na’ sit the test on my behalf, for a pre-arranged fee.
4. We will finaly get to visit Tibet, provided there are no more monk self-immolations in 2012.
5. My iphone app, the Shanghai Xiaolongbao Tour for Crimson Bamboo, despite being extremely niche, will go totally viral on release causing the entire Chinese internet to collapse and making me an overnight app millionaire. (The first part of this prediction is entirely true – I’ve been working on this exciting project with Crimson Bamboo, authors of cool travel apps for history lovers, for the launch of a new range of travel apps for food lovers. It’s released in two weeks, and I’ll tell you more closer to the time. The latter part of the prediction? Well, dreaming’s OK, isn’t it?)
6. The hare-brained travelling campervan scheme will take more money, wits, patience and cunning than I currently possess, but because I’m not a quitter I will make everyone’s life hell as I try to source solar-powered portable water heating and a compostible travelling toilet in a country that hasn’t yet heard of camping.
7. Eighteen will be the number of times my husband will tell me we can just hire a car and sleep in hotels with actual beds instead of campervanning our way around the country.
8. Eighteen will be the number of times I reply something along the lines of ‘bugger off’ to his very sensible suggestion. Although sometimes I will really, really want to give in.
9. China will finally get high-speed internet just as I leave the country, and I’ll be really pissed off because I never got to experience the thrill of uploading a photo in under ten minutes.
10. After six months of travelling rough crammed into a home-made campervan my children will probably hate me, but when they’re forty-five they’ll tell their kids it was the best holiday they ever had. I hope. 
There you have it, my 2012 Maximum China predictions. Let’s see how many come true……..

Hospital Jobs…with Free Plastic Surgery

Free plastic surgery?? Most days I read the Shanghai Daily, a regular and predictable mix of stories about food safety scandals, official corruption, and adverse weather somewhere in China. And then, just when I think I’m getting some kind of insubstantial grip on the Shanghai news, they throw in a headline like this one and I discover I am on another planet after all. Planet China, where weird things happen everyday.

Here are a crop of stories reported on one day this week.

Hospital Jobs with Free Plastic Surgery

An unspecified hospital in Shanghai, looking for ‘nursing helpers, cleaners, security guards and receptionists’ is also offering free plastic surgery for those who can stick at the job for at least a month.

A hospital spokesman said “We have 10 positions for students who, after working for a month, will be entitled to free plastic surgery worth up to 5,000 yuan and a 5,000 yuan discount on more expensive services.”

A Fudan University sociologist commented that “cosmetic surgery is an invasive medical practice, and whether students can be treated appropriately on the prices offered is questionable.” 

So….I would also be pretty worried that a discounted 5,000 yuan nose job may not be absolutely top notch – I mean, you get what you pay for. No comment was made, however, on the morally bankrupt practice of offering discounted plastic surgery to the young. “Everyone has the right to look as good as they can” the sociologist added.

Parents Entombed Outside Son’s Apartment

Unable to afford the steep price of a conventional tomb for his parents’ ashes, a man in Baoshan district, Shanghai, has built a tomb for thein the courtyard of his apartment, where it is apparently upsetting the local residents. In addition to the tomb, considered extremely bad luck by his neighbours, he also plays mournful funeral music at all hours. 

Following complaints, authorities have offered him a 48,000 yuan discount on the usual 50,000 yuan price of a tomb in a nearby cemetery if he will agree to move the ashes.

Now, as I see it the issue here is not whether it’s a good idea to house the remains of deceased relatives right outside your home, it’s whether the hefty discounts the authorities offered him will inspire a spate of copycat DIY tombs all over Shanghai. 

“Officials in Bed with Enemy Robber Barons”

What a great headline! The images it conjures up!  It seems the story following this headline was not exciting enough on its own (large trusted pharmaceutical company spewing toxic waste into nearby river for 10 years while local authorities pretend not to notice), so the journalsist has added as many hackneyed catchphrases as possible in a single sentence.

“The company’s reputation took a drubbing over the last week after a media fire storm over its lackadaisical – or criminally feckless, as some might say – handling of the severe pollution leak over a decade..”

Excited to see ‘lackadaisical’ and ‘feckless’ used in the same line.

Exam Papers Marked by Students

In an apparent attempt to save money, a university in Xi’an employed students to mark crucial college entrance exams.  “They had a two and a half hour orientation during which they were told to keep their work a secret” it was reported. One student managed to mark more than 2000 papers in two days, for a payment of 500 yuan. That’s about one every 40 seconds. Guess that lot’s going back for adjudication then.

“Only Show Six Teeth When You Smile”

(photo courtesy Shanghai Daily)

This was the instruction given to attendants who will shortly be working on the new Shanghai-Beijing high speed rail link. As the four hundred lucky young women – chosen from a field of over 3,000 candidates – listened attentively, they were also told to “place a chopstick between the jaws to help attain the perfect smile”. 

“The hardest part is the manners training” said one trainee, who spends two hours each day on basic manners. I wonder how long it takes to learn advanced manners?

And next time you take the high-speed train to Beijing, please don’t ask the attendant any questions, or her chopstick will fall out.