It has been a dramatic final week for us here; first there was the Shanghai stock market crash and then there was, according to some reports, the strongest typhoon since ‘the communists took power in 1949’. I can’t help wondering if there is some connection between the two events. Perhaps the typhoon is supernatural punishment for the encouragement of unbridled speculation, 80% of which is the result of millions of individuals buying shares. Of course, because of its terror of social instability, the Chinese government has intervened to stop further falls on the stock market. However, even the might of the PRC was unable to stop Typhoon Chan-hom.

There has been at least 10 days of stifling, humid weather in Ningbo, sometimes accompanied by rain. The sky has been overcast and the temperature fell by about 10 degrees from highs in the mid- 30s. It was quite chilly at night, which was annoying as we have sent all our warm clothes away in the shipping crate, expecting only intense hot weather. On Friday there was a sense of foreboding, and locals told us that this was typical pre-typhoon weather – only about one month earlier than usual. As we have never been in Ningbo in August, we had not experienced the usual run of tropical storms.

We don’t watch television, except the sports channel, as the spoken Chinese is too fast to follow, so we are usually out of touch with local news. Of course, the Chinese staff on campus knows exactly what is happening and last week, as he was responsible for a student summer school at UNNC, Fintan began to get weather bulletins from administrators warning of a severe typhoon coming in from Taiwan.

I began to ask my Chinese teacher about typhoon etiquette. She was calm and unconcerned, saying that you basically get enough food and water in stock, stay indoors and don’t drive anywhere because of potential flooding. Sure enough, on Friday evening about 9pm, a text message arrived on my phone in Chinese. It was a typhoon red alert and reiterated Yona’s common sense advice. I was delighted with myself, as after three years of study I could read the warning, including the injunction not ‘to go towards dangerous places.’

On the estate, the tall ranks of apartment buildings seem to create wind tunnels and a way of judging the growing strength of the wind was to look down at the trees bowing and straining in the gardens either side of our flat. The gusty wind and heavy downpours made for a noisy night, and all day Saturday we felt we were in the middle of the storm. From looking at English language websites and responding to concern from friends in the UK I realised that the typhoon actually hit the coast near hear on Saturday afternoon, but we couldn’t really say when the peak came.

Bored in our empty flat, Fintan ventured out in the afternoon, but soon returned soaked, having abandoned his broken umbrella after a few minutes. He reported on debris and leaves spread on the road and in the late afternoon we listened as a group of men in orange hard hats gathered downstairs with a chain-saw to clear large branches that had fallen on a car. There was much shouting of ‘Yi, er, san’ – ‘One, two, three’ – and characteristically loud and animated discussion of how to proceed.

This morning, the weather calm and the storm having passed, I went down to have a look at the damage. As well as two days’ worth of household rubbish, there are small branches and leaves everywhere, and the displaced peasant farmers who look after the estate are out in force patiently clearing it all up with their sticky brushes. There is a pile of sawn branches near where the hard-hats conferred yesterday, but no sign of any dented cars.

People are emerging, with a few runners in shorts trying to throw off cabin fever. Grandmas are putting out washing in the light breeze and the estate is returning to normal. I don’t know how other places have been affected, but I assume we got off lightly, seeing that the government evacuated 800,000 people along the coast. My Chinese teacher’s in-laws were more in the path of the storm and I asked her how they had fared. ‘Oh, they were fine, they just had some flooding to deal with,’ she said, as usual downplaying any drama. I look forward to hearing a bit more detail tomorrow.

Coda: bringing up baby in China

Although I didn’t think I would write any more blogs, recent conversations about children, childbirth and childrearing have proved so revealing about ‘new’ China, that I feel compelled to record them. Both of the two young women we know best are pregnant. They married recently and convention dictates that a child must follow soon after the wedding.

Chinese society, at least in a third tier city like Ningbo, is stiflingly conservative. Traditions seem to apply with extraordinary rigidity in the context of pregnancy and childbirth. My language teacher, Yona first announced she was pregnant when she arrived for a lesson and refused my usual offering of green tea. She hadn’t yet told her mother. The doctor told her she must only drink hot water from now on. Fintan’s assistant Alice is also pregnant, and for the first few weeks, her mother arrived in her office at lunchtime with hot food for her.

Yona attends regular check-ups at one of Ningbo’s hospitals. I asked her the other day if she had access to any classes about childbirth or childcare, or a peer-group of young parents-to-be. She looked surprised at my question, although she said there were one or two ‘lectures’ at the hospital. ‘We do what our mothers tell us’, she said.

In China, for the first month after childbirth the mother ‘rests’ while traditionally the father’s mother looks after her and the baby. Neither mother nor baby leaves the house for 28 days. However, urbanisation has meant that nowadays many young couples have moved away and mother-in-law may not be available. Sometimes there is a tussle between the two grandmothers as to who will get this important role. Alice’s mother-in-law is sick, so her own mother will move in for at least a month to take care of her and the baby, along with a live-in ayi or nanny. Another couple we know have a house in the UK, to which they recently returned to have their second child. The mother is Chinese and her parents went back to the UK with them to ensure the month’s rest.

Fintan recorded an amusing conversation with Alice. She asked him what help we had when our children were born. She looked bemused when he explained that we didn’t have or expect any, other than a loving grandmother in the same city who occasionally gave advice if asked. The fact that, as a man, he provided all the necessary care and attention I needed, was met with stunned surprise. He casually described a useful piece of kit he’d recommend, a ‘bouncy’ chair for the baby, which kept the baby happy with a few toys, while he cooked or did housework. After 10 minutes he gave up trying to explain about the chair. Why would you need such a thing when you always have one or two grandmothers to hold the baby?

Yona is far more ambivalent about the mother-in-law/mother tradition. She realises that she cannot fight against the one month’s rest rule, although she draws the line at some parts of it. For example, she intends to wash her hair during the 28 days, a rebellious act in itself. It will be her mother who moves in, as her mother-in-law lives a couple of hours’ drive away.

But despite the distance, her in-laws have certain expectations. As they don’t see so much of his parents, her husband feels it is necessary to go to his village for New Year, which next year falls when their baby will be about three weeks old. They should then be able to celebrate the baby’s first milestone – reaching one month – with his family.

This leaves Yona in a difficult position. Is it safe or desirable to travel with such a tiny baby she wonders? How will her mother react? How will her mother-in-law react if they don’t go? She has already told her mother that she, Yona, is planning to take care of the baby herself after the first month, and not go back to work full-time. To her parents and grandmother this is incomprehensible, and I imagine difficult to accept emotionally. There is a strong expectation that grandmothers will take care of the child for the years before kindergarten. But Yona now lives in a completely different world from her semi-literate parents. She has knowledge of child development, especially in terms of language, and realises the importance of early years’ education. She realises that the old ways of doing things in rural China are not necessarily the safest or the most desirable. She has aspirations to teach her child English as early as possible.

Recently, my Chinese lessons have been taken up with these and similar problems. For example, yesterday we discussed where the baby should sleep – in traditional China, the baby sleeps in bed with its parents. We start in Chinese, but often revert to English as Yona desperately wants some answers to help her chart a course through her dilemmas. Although I am a foreigner from a very different culture, she clearly feels that I have more understanding of her aspirations for her child and knowledge of the kind of world in which he/she will grow up in than her own mother could possibly have. In a way it is flattering, but I feel both frightened by the responsibility and a pang of sadness for her mother.

Some final thoughts about our time in China

Our first visit to China took place exactly three years ago and included a trip to Beijing to see my nephew and his partner, by then old China hands. By coincidence, a couple of weeks ago we again travelled to the capital, on business for Fintan and for leisure for me. It was our last journey within China before we leave and it was an opportunity to reflect on our China adventure.

Roses grow in profusion in Beijing, often and counter-intuitively trained along metal fences in the middle of the multi-lane highways, and they were once again at their best in the middle of May. Despite my fears of heavy pollution, the air was clear and blue sky was in evidence. Apparently a few coal-fired power stations have been closed down in response to concerns about the environment, and the effect has been significant.

I had plenty of time to myself, and arranged to meet a fellow student from my MA course, now living in Beijing and taking an intensive Mandarin language course before starting work at the Beijing office of the FT. A simple idea to meet up with someone, but something I could not have contemplated when we first came. Then, I was a passive recipient of our hosts’ kindness and knowledge of the city. I remember the awe I felt when my nephew’s girlfriend spoke Chinese to the driver, and the feeling of helplessness as we gazed at the gigantic monuments and seething crowds in Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City. The idea of being able to navigate comfortably around such a vast place seemed a pipe dream.

Yet there I was, Beijing Metro card in hand, confidently planning a couple of days of sightseeing on my own, looking for a small café in a hutong (small street) to meet my friend, occasionally asking locals for directions and thoroughly at ease.

I focused on a small area north of the city centre which I hadn’t seen on my previous trips. I wanted to see the Tibetan Lama Temple, the Confucius Temple and the Imperial College. Fintan has since been reading about the looting of Tibet for cultural artefacts by British soldiers and colonists in the 19th century. During the Opium Wars the Lama Temple was a convenient base for reaching the Summer Palace, further out of Beijing to the northwest, from whence more stuff was stolen. However, this dark past was not in evidence on a sunny May morning and I simply enjoyed the gold encrusted complex of buildings central to Tibetan Buddhism, and refreshed my visual memory of the distinctive colours of Beijing’s religious and imperial buildings – turquoise, blue, terracotta, amber and gold.

After lunch I found the Confucius Temple and the adjoining Imperial College, a series of buildings set in quiet gardens with fish-filled ponds and big, graceful cypress trees. Rows of about 200 grey, imposing stone tablets listed the names of all the men who had passed the fiendishly difficult imperial exams which allowed them to become administrators – or mandarins. The Hall of Discipline displayed the stocks, handcuffs and ropes used to punish young men who were not studying to the required levels. The entire known works of Confucius were carved on another set of stele – now forming an awe inspiring corridor of stone.

In the middle of its rapacious embrace of capitalism, China seems to be undergoing a revival of reverence for Confucius, as could be seen by the bus loads of tourists in identical orange caps making their way to the statue of the great man. They followed young tour leaders who gave their spiel through amplified loudspeakers, destroying any tranquillity one might have been hoping for.

The most striking element of the whole complex was the late 18th century triple arch that marked the entrance, decorated in imperial colours with ceramic tiles, reliefs of the imperial dragon and inscriptions written in the Emperor Qianlong’s calligraphy. Visitors filmed each other jumping through each arch, leaping and whooping with excitement. The purpose of the arch is to glorify an educational institution – the Imperial College.

It is easy to become disillusioned with China and to focus on its downsides – the crowds, the traffic, the spitting, pollution, not to say the infantilising of the population by the government. But, like those exuberant visitors, somehow my spirit was lifted by the notion of building a triumphal arch, not to celebrate the suppression of other nations in the Roman style, but to champion the importance of learning. And for me the last three years have been about learning, in particular learning a difficult language, but also learning about a new culture. It’s all been voluntary of course – I haven’t faced painful punishments when my grammar has been substandard, and it’s not been about proving myself to a watchful parent as a callow youth, rather I’ve tried to show that even the over 60s can enjoy new intellectual challenges.

Our belongings are pretty much packed and the shipping company’s agent has been to size up our goods. We will soon be gone and our China ‘gap’ years will be over. I think this will probably be my last blog, so thank you for reading it and for the comments you have posted. The interaction has been hugely encouraging and I hope I have been able to share something of our experience here.

Markets and Chinese tourism

I have taken all our visitors to the tailors’ stall in the market in downtown Ningbo. They all seem to have enjoyed the experience, perhaps because it is definitely not on the tourist trail and has its own straightforward authenticity. Inside the shabby, grubby and slightly chaotic old building, local tradespeople cater for Ningboese who don’t want to shop either online or in the expensive shops around Tian Yi Square, just across the road. My last visitors spent over an hour happily rummaging through the brocades and more delicate silks, being measured up behind the flimsy black ‘curtain’ at the counter and showing the two women tailors the styles of dresses, blouses and jackets they would like. At the end of the session the tailors posed for photos with us and we left in high spirits.

The same friends turned out to have a great enthusiasm for markets of all kinds. When we were staying in the south China karst area, one day, en route to our bamboo raft trip, they persuaded me to make a half-mile detour on our bikes along a dusty, partly dug-up road to explore the local market in Baisha, a small town near Yangshou. The bustling market consisted of an open area where farmers and tradesmen showed their wares – vegetables, fruit, clothes, toys, false teeth – from the backs of vans and trucks; from here one progressed to a hangar full of small stalls selling noodles and street food, meat and other raw ingredients and every conceivable kind of useful household item.
We had been on a short cookery course by this time and my friends had been introduced to the quintessentially Chinese skills of cutting and chopping food. Chinese cooks use only one knife – a lethal looking cleaver, with a blade about 3 by 6 inches. Baisha market sported a whole section given over to metal tools, including cast iron cleavers. They proved irresistible – little did the charming bamboo raft men know that the foreign women on their boats were carrying two large and potentially dangerous kitchen knives.

I have always wanted to visit Longsheng (Dragon’s Back), the mountainous region to the north of Guilin, famous for its rice terraces. On our way back from Yangshou, we hired a taxi which drove us the 200 kilometres to Ping’an in Longsheng and then dropped us back at Guilin airport at the end of the day. The rice terraces were indeed picturesque – ancient narrow strips of land cleared for cultivation, winding around seemingly inhospitable mountains. It wasn’t the best time of year to see them, but the landscape was still remarkable.

Longsheng has been heavily marketed as a top tourist destination and has all the hallmarks of Chinese organised tourism. Cars and buses are stopped at a grand gate where money is extracted for each visitor. Finally, tourists are dropped off and must go through yet another barrier and run the gauntlet of a relentless series of retail opportunities – tourist tat as I cynically told my friends. After several visits to such places, I recognised the ‘local products’, all clearly made in the same Zhejiang factories. My heart sank.

Ping’an also has a ‘local’ ethnic minority population who are part of the visitor attraction. These people – mostly older women – sit in distinctive costume to sell the tourist tat and be looked at by the visiting Han Chinese. The village is made up of multi-storey wooden houses, clinging to the hillside and it is possible that the women live in them, although my suspicion was that they, like us, were bussed in everyday to add local colour, but perhaps this is unfair and they really live there.

As usual, the huge crowds of visiting Han Chinese enjoyed themselves immensely. A popular experience was to hire a Qing dynasty imperial costume and pose for a photograph in front of the best views of the terraces. I despaired of ever getting off the main drag and getting nearer to the landscape itself. We eventually got to a higher viewing point and suddenly saw a deserted path going off to one side of a restaurant. Although chased by a be-costumed woman stallholder, we made our escape and in a few minutes were on our own, enjoying the views and the atmosphere in relative isolation. It didn’t last long; a group of western students also found the path and over took us, but our mood had lifted.

On the way down the mountains, our taxi driver came across another essential Chinese experience – the traffic jam. Road works on a hairpin bend had caused mayhem. There were no traffic lights to control the traffic flow and a harassed work man walked up and down begging drivers not to overtake, get stuck on the wrong side of the road and prevent cars and lorries from coming up the mountain – a hopeless task. Our driver was skilful – he seemed instinctively to know when to dodge and weave, and when to get back in line. He probably saved us a couple of hours and we did finally get through. I’d read of traffic jams lasting 11 hours in Beijing and I feared that we would be spending the night on the mountain, rather than catching our flight to Shanghai.

Our slow progress allowed us to see ‘real’ ethnic minority villages on the banks of the river that cut through the valley descending from Longsheng. These rural settlements with their big, hall-like wooden houses seemed untroubled and, as yet, had not become gated communities, parcelled up for tourist consumption, but it may just be a matter of time.

Using Chinese in different situations: from rivers to roads

Although our stay in China is rapidly coming to a conclusion – less than three months to go – I find myself still wanting to learn as much Chinese as possible. Part of my motivation comes from the satisfaction of being able to take visitors around without too much stress and from the sheer enjoyment of being able to engage with Chinese people and find out a bit more about their lives and opinions.

For example, on a burning hot day out in the countryside near Yangshou/Guilin, an elderly man kindly invited us into his very bare and poverty stricken house to shelter from the sun. Probably he didn’t speak a lot more Putonghua (Mandarin) than me, but we managed to converse a little. He talked about his sons and proudly showed us studio portraits of himself and his wife, and they agreed to pose for us to take more photos. His wife grimly kept her mouth shut, so as not to display her broken and missing teeth.

Another day on a bamboo raft, floating down the Yulong river in the glorious karst landscape, I talked to my boatman. He and the older man propelling my friends’ raft chatted in the local dialect and then called out to other passing boatman. ‘This foreign woman can talk Putonghua and she lives in Ningbo’, I heard a few times. Chinese tourists on rafts were manoeuvred closer to me, so that they could observe such an extraordinary phenomenon. More opportunities to pass the time of day and ask them where they were from and if they were having a good time – ‘hao wan’ – having fun, as the Chinese say. Many of our visitors have remarked on the jollity of Chinese people – unremittingly negative press about China back in the West has meant people are surprised to see the very public displays of sociability and relaxation amongst Chinese crowds and tourists.

All the work I put into studying the local menu in our local restaurant back in Ningbo had not been in vain. One night my friends and I chose a small Sichuan restaurant just down the street from our hotel in Suzhou. On the menu there were very limited pictures and no English. It was one of those menus where you have to tick what you want to order – very daunting. I could recognise the characters for black fish (recommended by Yona), spice (chilli), potatoes and cabbage and ticked these. Back came the waitress with a host of questions which I didn’t understand. ‘You decide’, I said. This wasn’t good enough and she showed me on another table what the fish might look like. Light dawned slowly – it was all about presenting the fish in one shallow metal dish with the vegetables, and a small flame underneath. Would we like it like that? I assured her we would.

Sure enough, when the fish came it was delicious – fleshy, with few bones and floating in a sea of spicy sauce with potato and cabbage. My English friends showed impressive chopstick skills and we polished it all off with aplomb, washed down with weak Chinese beer. The meal was such as a success that we all agreed to return to the restaurant on our last evening in Suzhou and eschew the rather formal restaurant in the hotel.

This time I was better prepared. I realized that one question had been about the weight of the fish – how big a fish did we want? (This has been confirmed in a recent conversation class). I agreed to the weight that was suggested. We attempted to choose a different sauce but were firmly told by the waitress that this would be too spicy for us – so once again we did as we were told. We didn’t regret it – a second heavenly meal followed, this time with a sauce of preserved or ‘sour’ vegetables.

Sadly, my improved language skills were only partially successful when dealing with a taxi driver in Shanghai on the final part of our travels. Our plane took off late from Guilin and we arrived in Pudong airport at 11.30pm. ‘No underground’, an official told me firmly. We muttered about the aspiration of Shanghai to be a world city if its major transport link closed down so early, but resigned ourselves to queuing for a taxi.

Unusually, the queue moved quickly and we were ushered into a Shanghai cab. From the first rev of the engine we knew what we were in for. Joining the highway, the driver put his foot down. ‘There is no hurry, please drive slowly’, I said. The driver looked at me for a second. ‘Mei wen ti’, he said scornfully. ‘No problem.’ No way was a foreign woman going to tell him how to drive his taxi. I shut my eyes. Sweat dripped down my face. The journey on a good day takes about 40 minutes. We drew up at our hotel in the centre of the city after 20 minutes. The dial showed 140 kph most of the way. The speed limit was mostly 80 kph.

The fare was 201 yuan and I offered 210, waiting for my change. You don’t tip in China but the driver expected me to give him the extra 9, because he had got us there so fast. For the first time in three years I lost my temper – in Chinese. Words poured out. Forgotten vocabulary jumped into my head. ‘I asked you to go slower. You should have listened to me. We were terrified. You are a terrible driver. No, I won’t give you extra money.’ And so on. My friends stood outside the car looking on in amazement. The driver of course had no idea why I was so cross, took his 200 yuan, slammed the door and drove off. Foreigners!

Crowd control Chinese-style

Most activities in China for tourists involve large crowds. One example was my trip with two friends to see the evening performance, Impression Sanjie Liu, on the River Li in Yangshou, a tourist town nestling among craggy limestone peaks in China’s southern karst scenery. The show, directed by the film director Zhang Yimou, who choreographed the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, is performed on the river by 600 local people, including boatmen on bamboo rafts, dancers, and singers from local ethnic minority groups, not to mention water buffalo and cormorants. Lighting is used to dramatic effect to illuminate the surrounding mountains, bamboo forests, floating scenery and eventually the costumes of the performers themselves. The show is so popular that it runs twice a night every day of the year for 2,000 people at each sitting.

Our guest house organised transport for us to get close to the performance park; the reception area thronged with noisy crowds, like a football ground on a Saturday afternoon, but with less transparent organisation, especially to a foreigner. Our taxi driver led us to a woman who gave us a small post-it note with indecipherable characters. She told us to follow a man holding a placard with 77 written on it. We clung nervously to each other until Mr 77 gave us three rather more official tickets and then marched us into an inner sanctum, where people seemed to be sitting in a large pavilion. Was this the auditorium? Where would our seats be? Where could the performance take place?

We must have looked pretty forlorn, as a young Chinese woman showed us yet another queue on an outer path and told us to wait there. It dawned on us that we were a long way away as yet from the real auditorium and that we still had 20 minutes or so to go. The idea of the crowd surging forward scared me, and I insisted we stood at the edge where we might escape any crush. In fact, about 15 minutes later, the crowd moved forward in a relatively orderly manner, and we soon found ourselves at official looking barriers, which scanned the bar code on our tickets. An usher took one look at us and saw that we had no idea how to find our seats and led us to them. We had made it!

As is so often the case in China, the people watching it proved to be as fascinating as the spectacle itself. The extraordinary light, sound and watery effects dazzled the audience who oohed and aahed appreciatively. There was a rather flimsy narrative but that wasn’t really the point of the show. It presented a nostalgic and satinised vision of the now rapidly disappearing and gruelling rural life on and around the river. If you cycle around the fields and farms you can still find the old way of life, but I doubt if it holds much interest for the newly urban Chinese who prefer the fictional version.

Most of the audience had arrived in coaches and minibuses and about 10 minutes before the end, the row of elderly spectators in front of us, all in identical red baseball caps, clearly began to get nervous about how they were going to avoid the crush to get out and ensure that they found their transport. They stood up, blocked everyone’s view and started to edge towards the aisle. An usher approached and firmly told them to sit down again. There was a backwards shuffle and while some found their chairs again, others slipped and sat on each other’s laps. The real performance seemed to be forgotten in the general merriment.

Eventually the show ended and we were all released into the night. The crowd dispersed without mishap and we were able to retrace our steps past the entrance and on through the rows of coaches and cars until we found our taxi man waiting at the agreed spot. Crowd control is a risky participative art form in China and I’m always relieved when I make it through safely.

Our local Chinese restaurants: learning the language of menus

Despite the presence of the massive Metro supermarket across the road, many small shops and businesses survive at the west gate of our compound. A couple of weeks ago I noticed a bright orange sign had gone up advertising a Dong Bei restaurant, selling ‘jaozi’ (dumplings). Dong Bei (North East) food is well known for being simple, filling and cheap, presumably to satisfy the appetites of the farmers and steel workers who live in the vast, cold wastes that stretch up to the border with Russia.

I duly persuaded Fintan that he would like to have a lunch of ‘jaozi’ and one Saturday we ventured into the small premises. It was a typical one family business – about eight small tables, plastic-wood flooring, rice steamers plugged into dodgy looking sockets on the floor and a tiny kitchen at the back. A woman in her early 20s took the orders, while her husband and father cooked and her mother looked after the grandchild. Each table was provided with cellophane wrapped sets of a plate, bowl and china spoon. Chopsticks in paper stood in a container next to a jar of chilli sauce and a jug of soy. Customers helped themselves to watery Qingdao or Harbin beer from a fridge.

I often used to go to similar restaurants with fellow students, but it was some time since I’d been to one. I had forgotten that the menu is a list of dishes entirely in Chinese. Chinese people seem to walk into a restaurant knowing exactly what they want to eat and don’t mind that the waitress immediately stands at the table expecting an instant order. For a foreigner with limited Chinese, however, this can be challenging.

My Chinese language suddenly deserted me, but I blurted out ‘jaozi’, hoping this would be enough. The waitress pointed to the wall, where a poster-menu showed that there were at least 15 different ones available. ‘What kind of jaozi?’ she smiled. I just about remembered how to say ‘beef’ and ‘pork’ and although the young woman said a lot more, she seemed satisfied. When I looked more calmly at the list I could see that she must have made a number of decisions on my behalf – with chives, with spring onions, with chilli, with greens – and so on.

Our steamed dumplings arrived and we quite enjoyed them. The pictures of food on the other wall looked a lot more appetising, but how to match them to the lists of dishes on the laminated menus that served as placemats? I took a photo on my phone, determined that we would return once I’d worked out what was what.

The following week I enlisted Yona’s help and sent her the photograph. Printed out in large format, the handwritten characters provided the basis for my next three lessons. First we started with methods of cooking, next we tackled the main ingredients and finally got to the names of complete dishes. The Chinese have an unimaginable number of words for ‘fry’ as this is their main way of cooking – quick fry, stir fry, longer fry, deep fry, fry and then braise in soy sauce, not to mention dry fry in a pot brought to the table. Then there is steam, stew, grill and roast, all with further variants.

Ingredients were sometimes difficult to translate, especially when I was more familiar with the Japanese names, such as shitake or enoki (fragrant mushroom and tea tree mushroom respectively in Chinese). Yona sent me about 50 new words and we identified things I would probably not like to eat – duck head, fish head, bull frog – among them. We looked at photos of different fishes on the internet – belt fish, croker, pomfret – usually agreeing that I would find most of them too bony.

I went back to Fuchsia Dunlop’s ‘Every Grain of Rice’, because she names every dish in English, Chinese and pinyin, which helped with cross-checking. She also stimulates my memory through her knowledge and insight; for example she says that the Chinese called newly imported tomatoes ‘barbarian aubergines’ (fan qie), ensuring that I won’t forget the character for aubergine in a hurry. It turns out that sweet potatoes are also barbarian potatoes.

Gradually my vocabulary and confidence grew and we got to the stage where I could read through the menu in halting Chinese (tones nearly correct) and write out a dialogue about going to a restaurant. Finally, after some negotiation with Fintan, I highlighted the dishes we would choose and practised how to say them. We were ready to return.

Yesterday we walked down to the west gate, full of expectation. Alas, the shutters were down and the restaurant was closed! This weekend is a holiday weekend, with Qing Ming or Tomb Sweeping taking place on Monday. Presumably the family had gone back to their Dong Bei home to honour their ancestors.

Determined not to be defeated, we walked across to the establishments on the other side of the gate. At the end is a small restaurant run by a Hui family, serving halal food. The Hui are an Islamic ethnic group living across China. Although there was no pork, in most other ways the restaurant was almost exactly the same. Young woman serving, husband cooking, menu listed on the wall, small tables, packs of china, drinks in the fridge. It served noodles rather than rice, but I found my preparation had not been wasted, as I could now read most of the characters, and many standard Chinese dishes were available here too.

We ordered two bowls of noodles and enjoyed our simple Saturday lunch. We had discovered a new ‘local’ but I hope we will still soon go back to the Dong Bei restaurant.

Shanghai journey: conversations on trains

I still make many mistakes in Chinese, and only yesterday managed to confuse a Shanghai taxi driver by asking for the railway station as opposed to a subway station, but I am now generally able to ask Chinese people for help when getting from A to B. I also have a better chance of interpreting their answers, although it has to be said understanding directions remains a challenge (‘direction right go’ is the word order). Yesterday in Shanghai I was looking for Metro Line 10 to get back to the main railway station, having said goodbye to my visitors. The interchange station at South Shaanxi Road is being refurbished and the normal Line 10 entrance was hidden behind hoardings.

After walking around bewildered for a few minutes, I overheard a young woman asking a policeman how to get to Line 10 and asked her if I could tag along. She was delighted and we struck up a conversation. She steered me to the station and helped me find the right train to Hongqiao. It turned out she was in the navy and often visited military establishments in Ningbo. Our conversation stumbled occasionally, for example when I didn’t know if she was asking me about the weather or the food in England, but we managed somehow.

Emboldened by my success, once on the high speed train back to Ningbo I started chatting to the woman sitting next to me. My initial excuse was to alert her that her mobile was ringing – she couldn’t hear because she was watching a movie on her tablet. She was intrigued that I could speak some Chinese, but at first wanted to speak English and indeed her English was near perfect, with a slight Dutch accent. She was in international trade – import-export – like so many young business people in Ningbo and one of her clients was in Amsterdam. She had perfected her English by going to the Netherlands regularly.

After a while she looked at me and said, ‘Ok, now let’s talk in Chinese. It will be good for you.’ I told her a bit about why I had been in Shanghai and what I’d been doing there with my visitors. I explained that they had come back to China after almost 30 years and were astonished by the changes. China had been a rural country back in the mid-1980s – ‘Where are all the bicycles?’ was a constant refrain, in addition to their amazement at the unceasing urban sprawl over the 250 kms between Shanghai and Ningbo.

On an unusually clear day, we had ascended the Shanghai World Trade and Financial Centre tower – it famously looks like a bottle opener and has a framed void of about three storeys before you get to the very top floor. You can look out on the Bund, over the full extent of the Shanghai suburbs and to the airport and the Huangpu estuary to the north east, or down through the glass to the streets below – stomach-churning! But already it is dwarfed by a new tower; my friend didn’t know of this and we looked it up on her tablet – it is called the Shanghai Tower.

I was able to ascertain that my travelling companion was from the far north east of China, near the Russian border, 10 hours beyond Harbin. She spoke very clear, standard Mandarin was far easier for me to understand as compared to the Ningboese, who are not native Mandarin speakers and have a different accent. Her mother lived with her in Ningbo and helped her and her policeman husband to take care of their daughter, now a teenager.

‘So why did you come to live in Ningbo,’ I asked and her answer was for me the most fascinating part of the conversation. ‘Have you heard of Mao Zedong?’ she answered. I assured I had, although I didn’t mention that I’d spent the afternoon in the wonderful Shanghai Chinese Propaganda Poster Museum, which vividly tells the story of Mao in pictures. Her father had been a victim of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. He had been born in Ningbo in 1955 and had been sent as a ‘zhi qing’ youth to the far north east of Heilongjiang to work on the land. He had met and married a local girl – her mother – and she had been born. But then, as the Cultural Revolution ended, her grandfather had given his son a job back in Ningbo in a bank, and her father had left her aged three and her mother up in the north east. Dad didn’t come back, divorced her mother and remarried. When she was about 10, my companion and her mother had also come to Ningbo, although they didn’t live with her father.

My research in Ningbo Zhongshan Park had familiarised me with this history and its consequences, but my new friend was surprised that I understood the context of her experiences. I told her about the ‘zhi qing’ museum I’d discovered outside Ningbo and how many people of her father’s age go to the park to sing Red songs and socialise with others sent off to Heilongjiang. It was all news to her as far as I could tell and not an era she cared to dwell on.

I have to admit we had by now lapsed back into English, but I had still had my longest conversation ever in Chinese with someone other than my teacher. As we got off the train at Ningbo, I was euphoric and didn’t mind waiting in the pouring rain for my ride home. We took yet another new highway that has just opened between our flat and the station, and the driver, a Ningbo man, admitted he liked the road but didn’t really know where it went. As the woman on the train and I had agreed, the Chinese always look forward optimistically.

Revisiting old haunts: Hangzhou and Shanghai

As we enter our last few months in China, friends and family have realised that this is their last chance to visit us here and we are experiencing a welcome flurry of visitors. My improved Chinese means that the tour guide skills I can offer have hugely improved since our tentative attempts at travel in our first year. Guests sometimes ask me if it is boring to go back to the same places repeatedly, but I can assure them it is not! Most tourist destinations are so huge that each trip offers something fresh, and in addition, it is gratifying at last to be able to navigate places and get to restaurants and ‘scenic spots’ without difficulty, even showing off a bit of conversation in Mandarin on the way.

For example, I’ve been to Hangzhou twice over the last few months; Hangzhou was our first day trip outside Ningbo back in 2012. Since then Ningbo and Hangzhou have become connected by high speed train, both have fancy new stations and Hangzhou has a new metro system. During my first attempt at being a tour guide for friends last September I made the embarrassing mistake of not realising that we’d arrived in a different station and getting us lost on the metro system. This month I was on my mettle and navigated the metro without mishap.

The West Lake is the main attraction of Hangzhou (it has been since at least the 12th century) and a circuit of the lake combined with a traditional lunch of beggar’s chicken and/or lake carp makes a good day’s outing. Especially last week, when the sun shone, the temperature rose to 25 degrees or more and the magnolias were in full bloom. Despite the modernisation of the city, elderly locals still gather to dance and to sing opera at the water’s edge. On our return I read a Guardian article by Anne Karpf about how unfriendly modern British cities are for old people, from struggling to cross wide highways to the lack of places for social interaction. It is generally the same in China of course, but here parks and other public spaces like those in Hangzhou at least seem to be more welcoming to the elderly.

We accompanied our last pair of visitors to Shanghai, where they were embarking on a grand tour of the country. Although we have been to the city many times, there are still surprises. On our very first visit to Shanghai in June 2012 we were told how single men came to People’s Square to look for a wife, but we hadn’t seen how this ‘would like to meet’ ritual actually took place. Last Sunday afternoon while showing our friends the park, we came across a long path dedicated to this purpose. Hand written, laminated A4 sheets, some with photos, but many without, were laid out on the path, showing the birth year, height, income and general prospects of the hopeful groom, although there were a few hopeful brides as well. Round the corner, people (perhaps parents of unmarried children) sat with more ads, but here they were stuck on top of open umbrellas which formed platforms on the pavement. A man approached me and asked me if I had a daughter. For the first time in China, only having sons seemed a disadvantage!

For many months we had been meaning to visit the Shanghai Urban Planning Museum, also on People’s Square. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shanghai_Urban_Planning_Exhibition_Center
This museum has a huge scale model of the entire urban area of Shanghai and new buildings are added as they are completed. You can walk around it on a raised platform. It occurred to me that this would be a brilliant introduction to the city, helping to orientate visitors and show the layout of the old city, the 19th century concession areas and the Bund, so our visitors finally prompted me to go there. Another floor is dedicated to photos of old and new Shanghai and it is fascinating to see pictures side by side of neighbourhoods in say 1980 and 2004, with low rise tumbledown courtyard houses and people on bicycles transformed into high rise blocks and cars on eight lane highways. It has to be said that the photos are all taken on a sunny, clear day, and the terrible pollution that shrouds Shanghai most of the time is not to be seen!

Our next set of visitors will be visiting China for the second time; their previous visit was before ‘reform and opening’ so they will be experiencing the changes recorded in the Shanghai photographs. I’m very interested to find out what they will think of new China.