A Man’s Best Friend

Day 75 (9th of May, 2016) – Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

Mondays offer my only chance at a sleep in, and so despite being a bit overloaded with work, I decided to sleep until midday. It’s a poor habit to accumulate lots of sleep debt and then purge it all in one big rest, and I’m certainly healthier when I avoid that lifestyle, but sometimes it just becomes too easy to slip into that routine.

When I eventually did wake up, I checked my phone to see that during my sleep a class had been rescheduled to the morning which I was expected to attend. I didn’t raise the issue at all until I was confronted about it, at which point I was sure that they’d understand my situation. But no, I was yelled at, because I “should have woken up earlier”. Since when did lecturers become in charge of when you wake up on a regular morning when you don’t have class? But, it’s something I have to accept and adapt to rather than push against, because you can’t fight such an established university culture.

I ended up spending double as much time tutoring today as I did in class. I’d definitely be counted amongst the seasonally unemployed – my tutoring shifts are suspiciously aligned with the exam blocks back at Riverview.

In the evening, I went to a café to study. I find the clinical lighting of my room to be a bit too artificial for my liking, and so I’ve started to grow into the habit of finding places with proper candescent lights to relax.

Studying at cafés is always a bit of a risk, because you inevitably get approached by students wanting to practice English with you. I love being able to help, but when you’ve done hours of it and you need a moment to finish your own work, you need to find a way to say “no”.

In this particular instance, when asked if I could practice English with someone, I replied, “Sorry, I’m Ukrainian”.

I thought this was particularly believable considering the multitude of Ukrainians and Russians at the university.

Suddenly, I was confronted with a babble of Russian, which I could only assume translated to something along the lines of “Oh that’s perfect, I study Russian too”.

With the only word I know in Russian being “privet” (hello), I knew I was caught out.

I awkwardly stared at my computer screen and replied in Chinese saying, “I’m really sorry, but I’ve got an exam tomorrow and I don’t have time to practice.”

The shame I felt just looking at her disappointed expression was unbearable, but I was paying the cost of thinking that I could get away with the lie.

Day 76 (10th of May, 2016) – Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

I was launched straight back into a full day of classes early this morning. One of the lessons was an 80 minute presentation on ‘stroke order’. For those who are unaware, stroke order refers to the order in which you should draw each part of a Chinese character.

Being a language with a history spanning millennia, Chinese and its writing system is steeped in these sorts of traditions. I appreciate the fine art of these practices when watching artists doing calligraphy and natives writing essays, but for my own purposes, I see no need to laboriously study something which ultimately won’t show in my final product. When I write the character ‘我’, you wouldn’t know whether I drew the top-left or the top-right stroke first.

But, it seems as if I have no choice. We have a quiz on stroke order next class. It’s these sorts of situations where I’m torn between doing something more useful with my time and conforming to the course which I’ve accepted doing. Too often, including this time, I veer to the latter.

Following the morning’s classes, I went with my Korean friend Wally to a small food joint near the 1st Refectory. It’s a restaurant which serves Shandong cuisine (the province where Mt Tai is), and it is without a doubt my favourite food on campus. My ability to describe good food is limited, but if you could imagine classic Chinese dishes with the texture of Thai food and the addiction of KFC, you’ve got Shandong cuisine.

To continue the streak of good food, I invited Taff out for dinner tonight. I caught wind that there was a pizza restaurant close to the university. Sure enough, it was tucked in a hidden street on the top floor of a small building. The restaurant was empty, which concerned me at first, but it ended up being a good meal. We ordered a corn (yes, a corn) pizza, and a Peking duck pizza. The Peking duck pizza was one of the best pizzas I have ever had the privilege of eating. I have no idea why I haven’t seen this in Australia.

Day 77 (11th of May, 2016) – Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

In speaking class this morning, I engaged in a conversation with the teacher before the lesson. He started the conversation by asking me why I first started studying Chinese, and I told him that it was because Dad had told me that it was the language of the future back in Year 4.

“你爸爸的眼光很长 (your Dad has great foresight)” he remarked.

While at the Australian Culture Week tent last week, a crowd had gathered around me recognising that I was the token Aussie. While looking through some postcards at the stand, I noticed one of the harbour bridge from the East side. With the angle, you could see just a small fraction of Balmain. I pointed it out to the people standing around me to their astonishment. Word must have filtered through to my teacher, because he said that he had heard that I lived near the harbour bridge.

“Have you been there?” I excitedly asked.

“Yes, I went to the University of Sydney for a week-long conference. I love the big sandstone building.” he replied briefly, before turning around to start the class.

It’s very strange to think that this one line made my day. Just knowing that there was at least one person on campus who had been to Sydney filled me with so much comfort.

I’ve been thinking for some time about why something small like this would mean so much. I think it has a lot to do with the feeling that someone understands you much more when they don’t just know where you’re from, but have some understanding of your culture and people. Even a small observation such as “I love the big sandstone building” reminds me that there’s something common in both of our experiences, and it’s significantly easier to relate to people with similar lives. I don’t think you necessarily need to have travelled to someone’s hometown to suddenly unlock the ability to enter into a closer relationship with them. I think it has a lot more to do with aspiring to know even just one thing about the background of every person you meet, and making sure to raise that in conversation. Even the line, “oh, I love kangaroos!” makes me feel more comfortable with the person I’m conversing with.

As I say that, it hard to ignore the fact that I don’t think there’s too many “oh, I love pandas!” being thrown around to Chinese visitors back home. I think that something as basic as that points to a flaw in the way that some Australians carry themselves with international visitors.

I’m a proud subscriber of the belief that when visiting another society, you should make an effort to fit in with that people’s culture. But, after being an international student myself, I think that too many Australians take that belief too far. “Fit in or f-off” or “we speak English here!” mentalities are so, so damaging. If I needed to communicate a sentence but didn’t know it’s Chinese equivalent, and had “we speak Chinese here!” yelled at me, I genuinely think I’d be on the verge of tears. When you’re further out of your comfort zone than you’ve ever been, you hardly need a bigot there to tell you to try harder. Incidents like David Worner’s “SPEAK ENGLISH, SPEAK ENGLISH, SPEAK ENGLISH” to an Indian batsman stand out as prime examples that these sorts of attitudes are rife in our country. Or the classic “it’s so rude how all the people in my nail salon speak Chinese”. I’m not going to put myself on a pedestal and say that I wouldn’t have said something like that before this trip (but then again, I don’t go to nail salons). But by God, those people have every right to speak WHATEVER language they want, WHEREVER they want. When I’m working at the school here in Xuzhou, speaking to my fellow British teacher in English is my one opportunity in the week to feel more at home. If I had Chinese parents gossiping “can he stop speaking English”, I plainly don’t know if I could handle it.

Which brings me to another rant, if I may. Yes, people should make a good attempt to learn about the values upholding a society which they enter, but they shouldn’t be expected to do that at the expense of abandoning their own culture. For example, if I were to follow the age-old “you’re in [insert country here], we don’t do it that way here”, then I wouldn’t be writing this blog. Well, I might be, but it’d be written in Chinese and posted on 微博. I wish the people in Australia who picket outside mosques demanding that they not be built in their suburb could have the mental capacity to imagine if they were in another country themselves. If I chose to go to Sunday mass in Xuzhou (yes, there’s a church nearby), and I had people yelling at me at the entrance saying “We’re a country built on Atheist values! No churches in Xuzhou!”, I would be rightfully offended. Replace the words ‘Atheist’ with ‘Catholic’, ‘churches’ with ‘mosques’ and Xuzhou with ‘Bendigo’, ‘Buchanan’, ‘Melton’ or an array of other places in Australia, and you’ve got very real situations.

Just like I have the right to uphold every practice I was raised with (contingent on them not breaking any laws), internationals in a Australia have the right to continue speaking their languages and practicing their religions.

Thankfully, the people who perpetuate these attitudes are very few in number, and often they’re inflated by excessive media coverage. I just write this to ask that next time you meet an international, you at least mention something which you love about their country or culture. It will make them feel much better amidst what is in many cases a world of loneliness.

Hopefully that one doesn’t stir too many people up.

Speaking of fitting into other cultures without compromising your own core values, I decided on a whim to travel to Peixian today. If you have a dog, are a vegetarian or have a compassionate heart, I would suggest that you read no further.

Thankfully, I only fall into one of those categories. I have a dog. But that didn’t stop me.

Everything about this trip was unplanned and done purely on word of mouth from Chinese friends. No English travel sites existed for the town, and to be honest, it became plainly obvious as to why when I arrived. I was tempted to give up the whole journey at multiple points, but I decided to give it my best shot and if worst came to worst, I could find a hotel for the night. But even that plan turned out to be an inadequate safety net, since as I’ve recently found out, lots of hotels in China (particularly in the less globalised areas) still don’t allow Western guests. A hotel need to have a license from the government to host foreigners.

My journey began at the Xuzhou East Bus Terminal.

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The facility was kitted out with some innovative features. There was a whole seating area reserved exclusively for people who wanted to focus on other people. If you spot a pretty lady from afar, this is the area for you.

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There was even a room set aside for loving mothers and infants. The room for scornful mothers and infants was elsewhere.

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What I came across after the hour-and-a-half bus ride was a pleasant district centre.

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Just a few streets away from this area, though, the town quickly became quite run-down. A tumbleweed wouldn’t have been out of place. I hailed a small taxi (an e-bike with a cover, actually), and asked them to bring me to an area known for its dog.

The taxi itself was a unique experience.

The driver dropped me off outside a butcher and told me that inside was the town’s finest dog meat. I thanked her and went inside to the bellowing laugh of the store owner and his wife.

“老外!” (foreigner) he yelled.

“You know why I’m here,” I replied.

Without saying another word, the butcher drew back the cloth from his precious pooches.

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Now, it’s at this point that I should probably clarify my ethics surrounding the issue of eating dog. I’ve never seen a particular problem with it (contingent on the dog having been reared humanely on a farm). I don’t think that being cute is a sufficient excuse for escaping  your position on the food chain. I see no difference in accepting that it is OK to eat beef, and accepting that it is also OK to eat dog. The typical argument against eating dog is “but dogs are man’s best friend… people have them as pets”. That’s very true, and that’s why I wouldn’t advocate for eating my own dog. If someone had an emotional attachment to a particular animal, it would be wrong to eat that animal not because it’s an animal (I’m assuming that my readers aren’t vegetarian, by the way), but because it is loved and cared for by a human. Luckily, dog served in China comes straight from farms where hundreds of dogs are bred for their meat. They are distinctly different from a household pet.

So, with that said, I looked the butcher straight in the eye and said: “Let me taste it.”

With a rotten smirk, he sold me a fistful of dog rump in a plastic bag.

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I thought that if I were to be eating dog, I may as well do it right. So, I kept my dog meat cooling against a bottle of ice in my bag while I wound my way through the alleyways looking for more breeds and cuts of dog.

I dropped into restaurants which looked exactly like this:

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You can tell if a place is selling dog meat because like the one above, it has the characters ‘狗肉’ (dog meat) printed on the front. Each time I spied these symbols, I would go in and ask to see their range of dog. I didn’t come across the hanging carcasses I’ve seen in the past. The most graphic thing I saw was this dog’s head.

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Since it wasn’t dinner time, I was only able to buy the meat standalone. Normally, it is served on rolls or as part of a ‘dog hot dog’. Typically, though, dog meat is torn and shredded rather than cut like a normal stake, making it incredibly convenient to snack on.

I videoed my first taste for you all.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fOjMHDGliCA

Frankie’s next.

Upon returning back to Xuzhou in the evening, I had dinner with the woman who sold me my bus ticket. After learning from the Maddy incident, I weaved into the conversation the fact that I had a girlfriend to actively avoid any unexpected date, and soon enough I found myself at a local noodle restaurant. The meal was superb.

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For desert we went to Starbucks to buy some ‘icy dumplings’.

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As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, it’s very much Chinese culture to be upfront with your observations. Often, these observations would be considered offensive in English. One such example is people taking note of my acne and making sure to tell me that they think it’s bad. This particular girl took note of it tonight, and said that she thought it pointed to my bad lifestyle choices.

I thought I’d hear her out.

“Take these,” she said, handing me a handful of packets.

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Needless to say, I looked like this later that evening:

Day 78 (12th of May, 2016) – Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

I tutored for three hours and was in class for four today. That doesn’t make for good blogging. The reality is that I’m acutely aware of needing to do things which are worthy enough for blog entry, and so I try to push myself to do more ‘out-there’ things (within reason) to give you all some good reading material. I really appreciate this pressure, because it drives me to discover more of this place.

So, in the interests of the blog, I organised to have lunch with some friends from the Australian Culture Week today. I always make sure to weigh myself on the refectory scales after meals to check the size of my food baby.

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I met some new people during lunch too. Through this particular friend, I discovered another method which young Chinese girls use to cover their face in photos – the face mask (the other kind, this time).

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The intensity of the day required a lot of coffee to keep me going after a few late nights in a row. I’ve realised that I’m hooked into the same pattern of drinking more coffee as the week goes on before restarting the cycle. So, I brought myself to the supermarket to buy a thermos. The Chinese students always have these on hand for their green tea, so I thought I might join the trend.

The only bottle sold in a slightly normal-looking colour had the most horrific paradox labelled along its side.

“China good reputation”

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After just a few hours of use, it was ironic that the label began to peel.

While walking to dinner, I passed a Ukrainian girl named Lisa. We always exchange friendly glances in the hallways, but I assumed that she, like the other Ukrainians, had very limited English. She started talking to me, and to my surprise, she had the English of a seasoned speaker. It was the way she opened the conversation that broke my heart the most, though:

“Why are you always alone?”

I was pretty stuck on how to respond. She was absolutely right, I’m never walking with anyone and I sit on my own in the class. As much as I’d like to think that’s as a natural result of language barriers, I also think that it’s completely as a result of my own choice.

I came on this gap year chasing the very isolation I always craved during school. That’s why I’m alone.

It’s comforting to know that there’s another English speaker in the dormitory if I ever have a question, but despite that knowledge, I don’t think I’ll be changing my habit of being alone so much of the time. ‘Alone’, just like it’s Chinese equivalent ‘孤独’, has a lot of negative connotations attached to it. When someone uses the word ‘solitude’, though, we feel a much more positive and warm feeling. Why is that? The definition of ‘solitude’ in the dictionary is literally ‘the state or situation of being ALONE’. It uses a negative word in its description of something positive. Our own language recognises that there’s a value to solitariness, and sometimes, I think that its helpful for us to recognise that in our own lives too. As you can probably tell, I think that I’m one of those people who’ll take the occasional trip by myself to a far away place well past the stage of having an established family and career. I’m already recognising the value of such an experience now, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the full benefits won’t be reaped until starting university next year with a plethora of unique experience under my belt.

Earlier this week I received word that a good friend of mine from Brisbane will be in China during my week-long stint in Guilin (and surrounding towns), Suzhou and Nanjing. It’s rare that you get these opportunities, so I spent much of the night rearranging travel to fit in a quick visit to Shanghai. It ended up working out quite nicely. I have cut a day from Guilin without compromising the rural town visits (they are my main purpose of heading to the region).

I also received a message from my head teacher today that registration for the June HSK has opened. Had I been notified from the start that there was a June HSK, I definitely would have opted for that exam over the May alternative. An extra month to prepare would have done wonders for my mark. Either way, I’m not too concerned since I will likely sit another one when I study in Shanghai later in the year. At least doing some exams in May will get pressure out of the way early.

Day 79 (13th of May, 2016) – Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

Today was a sweltering hot day. To combat the heat, I tried to buy a 1.5RMB bottle of water from the vending machine outside my classroom. I inserted a 10RMB note and selected the water. 1RMB of change was ejected, and I reeled back in despair as I listened to the booming sound of six bottles of water tumbling down the interior of the machine. To make things worse, the amount of water bottles clogged up the collection space at the bottom of the machine, and I couldn’t get a single one out. Being so hot, there was a line of students behind me waiting to get their drinks. After a few minutes of desperately trying to fit my hand in the machine and dislodge my six waters, I resigned to the fact that I had wrecked the vendo. I hung my head in shame and walked past my frustrated peers to my seat in class.

Class today was much more interesting than usual. The topic was ‘perceptions of beauty’. We learned about which Chinese dynasties considered what sort of people the most attractive. Once we moved onto modern-day perceptions of beauty, the teacher explained the commonly known fact that in China, pale white girls are considered to be the most beautiful. That is why almost everyone uses an umbrella when the sun is out. As the token Westerner, I was asked to explain what a stereotypically beautiful Australian woman looks like.

“Well,” I said, “Most magazine covers show girls with tanned skin.”

The teacher agreed.

She added to my description, “Westerners like wheat-coloured people.”

“They like what?” I replied.

“Wheat-coloured people. And the Chinese like rice-coloured people.”

I’m not sure if she was trying to infer a superior grain, but I looked past it.

There’s recently been a lot of advertising around the university about an international basketball tournament which is taking part in the sports centre. I had never been to the sports centre since it is closed through the Winter, so I hurriedly rushed over after class. The competition was a pretty impressive event. It was fought between Mexican, Chinese, Brazilian and Tunisian teams. The Chinese team was the Jiangsu Lions, so I can only speculate that the other country’s teams were either of provincial or national levels.

The one downside of the event was the atmosphere. I felt intimidating just muttering a word in the stadium. Even the players themselves were unusually silent. The only sound was the occasional squeak of basketball shoes on the hardwood.

Day 80 (14th of May, 2016) – Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

I woke up to the muffled sound of my phone’s alarm, and it took me a good few minutes to find it. To my bewilderment, the phone was in the fridge. I don’t know how long it was in there for, but it was freezing cold. Luckily, it still works fine (I don’t know if those sorts of temperatures would necessarily damage phones). I’m still confused as to why it was there, but I’m guessing that I put it in there while sleepwalking. It couldn’t have been Il Kwon because he’s travelling at the moment. I’ve done odd things like that before during my occasional sleepwalk. I have vivid memorise of waking up in my mid-teens to a cold morning without a blanket. After trying unsuccessfully to continue sleeping without one, I went into the bathroom to see it heaped into the bathtub. All at once, a heap of vague memories flooded into my mind of dragging it there the night before.

After a quick morning tutoring session, I caught the bus out to the school for teaching. I’ve been scheduled an unusually large amount of work this weekend (I’m payed on a fixed daily rate, so unfortunately it doesn’t lead to any more pocket money). I think that this is largely as a result of having asked for a lot of leave for travel. They’re realising that I’ve only got six or so weekends left to teach, and they may as well overwork me before I go. Fair enough – I don’t blame them.

During one of the classes I witnessed the most disgusting form of reward handed out by a teacher, and it suddenly clicked as to why the students in this particular class always get progressively more crazy throughout the lesson. Normally during the introduction of the class I ask each student a basic question. In ascending order of difficulty, the typical ones are: “what is your name?”, “how are you?”, “how do you feel?” and “introduce yourself (name, age, gender, like/dislikes)”. In this particular class, I was asking the students how they were feeling today. The more theatrical you are in these classes, the better. I started by demonstrating all the options for how you may be feeling: happy (do an exaggerated happy face and thumbs up), sad (pretend to cry), angry (scare one of the kids by raising your fist at them), tired (pretend to fall asleep and don’t wake up until one of the students shouts “wake up!”), or hungry (rub your stomach). I was moving down the line of students, asking each person the same question and hi-fiving them when they gave me a well pronounced answer.

Only this time, I looked behind me to see that the teacher’s assistant doing the most abhorrent thing…

She was holding a plastic cup full of sugar with a straw in her mouth. After each student answered the question correctly, the teacher would suck up some of the sugar (maybe a centimetre up the straw), and then the student would open their mouth. Then, to my shock, she would blow the contents of the straw into the student’s mouth.

I thought that was bad enough, but it got worse. As the student end of the straw began to get moist with a few sloppy toddlers accidentally putting their mouth on it, the teacher simply started dipping the bottom of the straw in the sugar and having the students lick it off. My jaw dropped and I stared at the unfolding situation for a good twenty seconds before questioning whether it was really right of me to continue asking the students how they were feeling.

No wonder China has such a high rate of hepatitis B! Everyone says it’s because of using personal chopsticks to take from community meals, but this has to play a part!

As the class continued, the kids became so hyper that even my angry voice and naughty corner couldn’t contain them. My moral opposition to corporal punishment was tested, but I stayed firm while my teacher’s assistant walloped anyone who spoke out of line.

After work, I went to get a haircut. Shortly after beginning the haircut, I noticed the hairdresser take a small bunch of my hair and bring it over to her colleagues. I started getting concerned that maybe I had nits or serious dandruff, but when I asked what was wrong, they just said that they were “fascinated by the colour of my hair”.

“Most of us have only ever cut black hair, so we’re arguing over who should get the chance to try cutting a different colour,” one of them said.

I watched on in delight as the a group of strangers debated over who most deserving of styling the sacred head of hair before them.

I ended the day by writing my blog in a café over a dinner of mushroom spaghetti.

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Day 81 (15th of May, 2016) – Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

Today was a relatively unexciting day. I decided to wear white pants to work. I accepted the risk of stain from the little kids and their messy lunches, and I payed the price within the first hour.

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During my lunch break, I walked to the usual spot to buy Sichuan chicken and chilli bean sprouts. On the way there, I passed someone who had a squirrel on his shoulder held by a leash. I tried to get a photo in time, but unfortunately I couldn’t.

Between classes I was able to finish an HSK 5 practice paper. With a touch of help (I occasionally repeated listening extracts because of a lack of focus in the first listen-through), I scored 55%. The pass mark is 60%. This is what I expected from the start, and it cements my feeling that it is a good exercise for me to sit the exam on Saturday regardless of my chances of passing. It would mean that I gain experience and get to play the odds in gaining HSK 5 certification at the end.

At work, one of the teachers in the staffroom had done their internet stalking and found a picture of Aimee and I together in Shanghai. She had sent it around to all of the other teachers who were excitedly asking me questions about the relationship.

“她住在哪儿?” (where does she live?), Cici asked.

“在悉尼“ (in Sydney), I respond.

The now sizeable crowd of teachers all squealed with delight.

“真可爱,真可爱” (very cute), they called in unison.

I couldn’t understand why such a response would be considered cute. For the next five minutes, I witnessed the teachers moving through the school telling others what I had just said. It was at that point I realised that surely they had misinterpreted me.

“在悉尼,在悉尼” (in Sydney, in Sydney) I repeated.

“在悉尼吗?我觉得你说了 ‘心里’ 啊!“ (in Sydney? I thought you said that she resides in your heart!) the teacher quipped back.

I had realised my mistake. ‘Sydney’ is pronounced ‘xi-ni’, whereas ‘in my heart’ is pronounced ‘xin-li’. Such a slight difference in pronunciation accidentally led to be becoming the biggest romantic in Xuzhou.

It’s all part of the learning process I guess.

Until next time,
Xavier.

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One thought on “A Man’s Best Friend

  1. Xave,
    Cant wait to have a serious P to GS discussion with you about Day 77. I am forever telling the E’s in our Country (i.e.) ” The Pommies,
    Kiwi’s,Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Taiwanese, what a beautifull country they have back home. Regardless of this they prefer to stay here??.
    Cant believe your experience dining on dog. Poor Frankie will never look at you the same. Just be carefull of how much you consume and the frequency of it. I had a good friend who returned to the Gold Coast after spending 6 months in China frequently dining out on canine, was having trouble adjusting to our normal way of living, on occasions lifting his right leg to a 90 Degree angle at the urinal, much to the digust of his mates immediately to his right, however worst still he was only back home for a month when he died, as a result of his chinese canine consumption according to the coroner, when he was in the middle of the road scratching behind his right ear when a car hit him. Just a warning.
    Love
    G & P

    Like

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