As the Chinese National Anthem got into full swing on Monday morning and the students raised the flag, Lesley was pulling on her satin, flesh-coloured pop socks - a sign that she really has been here too long? What is it about this 'look' that's just not quite what we're used to? We've pinned it down to discretion. Aren't pop socks meant to be the cheat's version of tights or stockings? They're a discreet way to cover one's skin but still have a semi-natural look. I'm sure that the band just isn't designed to be showing. Who knows? Podering these cultural idiosyncarcies and our own reactions to things is fun.

We were standing outside Xi'an railway station waiting for the new volunteers to arrive when a police officer walked up and hit Teresita, a volunteer working in Ningxia. The reason? She was holding five umbrellas in her hand and the police officer, here to protect us of course, thought she was an umbrella-seller. There are a few points, however, that he over-looked. Firstly, the umbrella-sellers at the station usually only have one umbrella out at a time, so as not to attract attention. They shuffle up, show you their merchandise with a whisper of the price, then shuffle away if you don't want to buy one. Teresita clearly had too many umbrellas and was standing with us chatting for way too long. Secondly, she had the umbrellas behind her back so, given that we were facing her, we couldn't even have seen what she was selling. Thirdly, all of the foreigners (Teresita is also a 'foreigner' but with dark hair this isn't immediately obvious from behind) that she was apparantly selling umbrellas to were already holding umbrellas up as it was raining. Our one Chinese companion couldn't even understand what the tussle was about, until I piped up to the police officer that we were all together and the umbrellas were for the friends we were meeting from the train. A little bit of thought can go a long way. [photo to follow]
Alleged gang member before the incident.
Xinhua News today reported a Scots-Italian raid on Lanhua Market, in the southern tea city of Pu'er, Yunnan. What first appeared to be an innocent shopping outing from this international gang appears to be more serious, according to local reports. Due to the immediate lock-down of Pu'er by the Public Security Bureau, who earlier this year interrogated one of the gang members for photographing a street demonstration, we are relying on brief reports. A by-stander sent this message to a journalist in Kunming, who forwarded it to Xinhua:

"Hey, you'll never guess what happened at Lanhua market today. These two foreigners walked in and started wandering around looking really weird. Everyone was staring at them and ducking behind their vegetable stands 'coz they looked really suspicious. I've never see anything like it. It gets better. Guess what happens next! The woman walks up to a farmer, has an altercation over the price of the bamboo then buys, shoots and leaves."

On receipt of his friend's text our source immediately alerted the press and local police contacts, who rushed to the scene. By this time the culprits had fled though a County-wide search is now on. Preliminary enquiries suggest the gang is operating from Simao Teachers' College, masquerading as volunteers. Market vendors report having seen at least one of the gang members regularly over the last four years. Previous visits are now thought to have been part of their long-term surveillance before today's attack. Lack of clear evidence or motives is not hindering the authorities' attempts to flush them out. The Bureau is currently spreading rumours of the gang's infection with Swine Flu following a recent visit to the UK. This is hoped to prevent local friends and colleagues harbouring the fugitives. The public have been advised to avoid any direct contact and to alert others if they feel threatened. Mobile phones may be used to report sightings to the authorities, preferably with photos.

Roast vegetable and goat's cheese flan
Meantime Lesley stayed at home with her apron on and continued her obsession with the new oven. You may have guessed by now that this must be about more than just food, or eating. Being able to recreate British homecoooking is very symbolic after four years of living with simple soups, canteen dinners and local noodle bars. We love Yunnan food and our crockery consists of small bowls and chopsticks. The fact is, it never occurred to us until now to make pizzas, flans or fruit loaves, although we have managed the odd biscuit-base banoffee.

Perhaps we're missing Scotland a little. Perhaps we're missing the independence in our lives outside China. Sure there are restrictions in any country, but on a day-to-day basis we were relatively free in the UK. Even a visit to a doctor in China involves roping a friend in for trannegotiation of the convoluted stages and for interpreting - that's if we want any meaningful interaction with the doctor on more technical points. Nor can we drive here and if we leave home for more than 24 hours we are supposed to register with the PSB (Public Security Bureau). Hotels do this for you but staying with friends is (not coincidentally) much harder, if one is to avoid possible trouble. Except from at home, we are either under intense scrutiny  yet, in some ways, even our closest of friends don't really know us; don't know how we live our lives in the UK. How we are (or come across) as people is, to some degree, shaped by the given environment. Eating with chopsticks involves different behaviour than eating with knives and forks. Crossing the road involves more assertiveness, as does bargaining in a shop or going to the post office. It sometimes feels like we are only partly ourselves here and that the other half is boxed away in Scotland. It's not a case of good or bad, better or worse, just different. Hard to explain, although I'm sure it's possible to understand this feeling even without living in China. It's merely a form of isolation and estrangement, which can occur anywhere. Anyway, this oven means more than baked food. It means creativity, challenges to adapt something known to a new context. It means bringing a bit more of our old selves and old lives into being in China, breaking free from the obvious confines  

The most recent experiment was with shortcrust pastry, used for the flan pictured above. Oil was used instead of butter/marg and it seems to have worked. A bit more successful than yesterday's banana and date loaf. The second batch of pastry is being used for tonight's banoffee pie. The first course will be Ali's Dai dish - sour fish and bamboo shoot soup.