Unexpected acts of kindness

On Friday we experienced our first civic banquet. We were invited to celebrate the 63rd Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China. A small bus took us from the university campus to a spanking new downtown hotel – the Pan Pacific, where we were escorted to our UNNC table in the Grand Ballroom – the largest space for corporate entertainment I’ve ever seen. There were about 25 tables in a plush space the size of a football pitch. The style of decoration – well imagine Las Vegas meets Strictly Come Dancing. Glitzy doesn’t really do it justice. The ceiling, about 30 foot above us, dripped crystal lighting strips and the walls were shiny with wood laminate.

Two men from Ningbo local government were assigned to our table as our hosts. I sat next to one, who was from the education department, and Fintan sat next to the other – perhaps more important, but as he almost never stopped looking at his mobile phone it was difficult to tell. Neither spoke English, but luckily there were some Mandarin speakers among us – one the doctor from the campus, and the others colleagues who had enough language to make polite conversation. I could just about manage my name and nationality (that’s all I’ve learned so far – but I tried hard). My host was unfailingly polite and gracious throughout the hour and a half we sat there – helping me to the best morsels of food and toasting me at every opportunity.

We listened to a stirring speech from the Mayor of Ningbo City, Mr Liu Qi, translated into English. It included a list of recent achievements by the PRC – such as the expanded space programme, road and rail building and the many medals at the Olympic games. We then stood for the national anthem. The pride felt by the Chinese people there was palpable. Easy to be cynical, but as my recent reading of Chinese history shows me, such achievements are in a way miraculous, given the distance the country has travelled in the relatively short space of time since Reform and Opening in the late 1970s.

After the speeches, everything went dark and a light show started to take place – spotlights overlaying the flashing crystal lights above us. A procession of waitresses advanced into the room, each carrying a dish with an ice lantern, one for each table. This turned out to be the most delicious pork and signalled that the serious eating could begin. Many dishes followed – fish, shellfish, soup, pork, beef, vegetables and finally rice. It is polite to only take a small dish of rice and to leave some in your bowl, to show you are satisfied.Rice is only served at the end of the meal. Eating rice with chopsticks is an art I still have to master, so leaving some grains is pretty easy! Slippery fish is also a challenge, and as I got tired, my chopstick control waned. I was secretly pleased to see that my host found it difficult to use a knife and fork to tackle the piece of beef on the bone presented to us about half way through.

Through a Mandarin speaker, I asked my host if he knew lots of other people at the banquet. He replied that he did, but tonight he wanted to look after me and the other guests at the table – that was his priority. I was touched – it must have been a tedious evening for him in many ways.

Many other companies and businesses from Ningbo had taken tables at the banquet and each was hosted by a Ningbo official. Most of the people there were men – perhaps like any business gathering in the West. However, sexism is rife here. When we are out together at any function it is often only Fintan that receives any attention. Quite difficult to deal with! Part of the male culture is that of toasting, usually with a strong spirit, but at our banquet with red wine (Australian it turned out). A small amount of liquor is always in your glass (although often it is assumed women will not drink) and you don’t usually drink it at your own pace – you can only take a sip when you have toasted someone on the table. This involves getting up and clinking glasses all round. Some of the hosts went round other tables to do this – we were toasted by the deputy mayor at some stage. Banquets are carefully choreographed rituals.

Suddenly, an announcement from the podium told us that the evening was now over. Home time – at about 7.45pm. Our party rose and made for the exit, where our slightly aged bus joustled among the black, dark-tinted limos for the important Party members and government officials.

Yesterday we began our Mid-Autumn holiday. This is a celebration linked to the harvest moon and is second in importance only to the Spring Festival. Some people go home – a reversal of the mass migration from countryside to city – but apparently this is also a big shopping week – the equivalent of the January sales. As good capitalists we will of course join in. It’s payday, and we now have money in our Chinese bank account and can use plastic instead of cash.

We started our spending spree by buying a rice steamer and two top of the range bikes with accessories. I think we will probably be the only two people wearing safety helmets in Ningbo – but eccentricity is allowable in foreigners. We experienced more random acts of kindness as we attempted to find the bicyle shop – Giant. Fintan’s PA had written the address down for us and we showed it to the bemused taxi driver. He couldn’t find it at first – and drove up and down the busy street several times before finally asking some passers by, who located the store on their iPhones. He delivered us triumphantly. All for about £1.50 – no tipping here.

At the shop we met Fintan’s wonderful PA who had given up her Saturday morning to help us buy bikes – which she did with great good humour, although the amount we spent – not much for us – must have seemed extravagant to her. She also gave us our bus tickets for Shanghai, which her mother had queued up to buy for us at the bus station the day before. And finally, she led us on her bike back to where we live – we cycled uncertainly behind on our new steeds, experiencing the madness of Ningbo traffic from street level for the first time – but that’s another story.

A fishy tale

Yesterday I took time off from my intensive study of Chinese characters – 16 had to be learned for my class today – to go to the market to buy the dinner. We had decided that the time had come to buy some fish and I inspected the many tanks of live ones. Of course, I had no idea what I was buying, but I pointed at a large, dark, lively looking creature (the fish) and a bemused women deftly lifted it from the tank, gave it a wallop and then cleaned and gutted it. I moved on to get my fix of green vegetables from a friendly stall holder who recognised me from the last foray. Suddenly, I felt movement in my rucksack and turned around, suspecting a pickpocket – then realised that it was the fish – not so dead after all.

The poor animal expired on the way home – and there was no more twitching. I ventured into a tiny noodle shop and bought some meat dumplings – jiaozi – for a mid morning snack. My Mandarin was not really up to it, so I couldn’t prevent myself buying 12 rather than 6 – I’ll have to work on the numbers – but they tasted so good it didn’t matter. The cost of the dumplings (and the fish and vegetables) compared to that of the coffee bought from the supermarket with which I ate them more or less sums up China today. The imported Italian coffee cost more than three times all the other purchases put together. Sadly, it is clear which style of consumerism is going to thrive – the run down area which is home to the noodle shop and market looks ripe for development. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if one day we set out and found they had been knocked down and a new block of flats was already taking shape where they used to be, such is the speed of urbanisation here. Anyway, we will continue to enjoy the old shops and traders for as long as we can.

Cooking the fish was generally successful, although it had too many bones. We steamed it using our new bamboo steamer in our number 2 wok. Ms Dunlop of course has a method and recipe which I followed slavishly, although I doubt if she’d have rated my cutting and chopping. Her book shows the different shapes and names for cutting ginger, garlic and spring onions (horse ears, discs, slices etc.) and we have yet to buy a cleaver, which is the essential tool of the Chinese kitchen. But I think we are making progress.

And today we have a new triumph. We have hot water at the kitchen sink. Landlady’s dad came with a plumber and fixed a miniature immersion heater under the sink which seems to do the business for us weak westerners. We’ve also discovered that we had hot water in the bathroom basins all along – it was just that it was turned off at the supply. Why would anyone want to wash with hot water?

Saturday is the start of the national autumn holiday and we have a week off work. The Chinese students have already started to depart in droves. We have been given moon cakes by the university (modified rapture) to help us get in the spirit. Cakes and desserts are not really a forte of Chinese cuisine. We hope to rest, relax, get to know the neighbourhood a bit more (especially its restaurants), buy bikes and maybe a few more plates and other useful things. We are planning a trip to Shanghai for the second weekend.

Learning to cook in the Chinese style

The photo just uploaded shows some of the ingredients we have recently purchased in the market and elsewhere to help us start cooking some Chinese meals. We have been consulting Fuchsia Dunlop’s pictures and, more importantly, using the Pinyin to ensure we can pronounce the names of things. And bingo! Last Saturday I was able to buy sesame oil, dried chillis, rice wine, vinegar and corn starch (well in fairness I wanted to buy potato flour – but it didn’t quite work out). Along with some other essential spices. I’m now starting to learn to write Chinese characters so soon I’ll be able to check out the packet/bottle with a bit more confidence. I have to learn 16 characters by Thursday for my first dictation.

We looked out for plump, juicy ginger root  – not the dried out, fibrous version found at home. We added in Shanghai green pak choy, abundant spring onions, mushrooms, the most wonderfully fragant star anise and cinnamon bark and ventured to the meat stall, where a local farmer sold us a bit of her recently slaughtered pig. This enabled me to cook red-braised pork (hong shao rou) and pak choy with fresh shitake (xiang gu xiou bai cai). The rice left a bit to be desired, but our next Metro supermarket purchase must be a rice steamer – my friend from Singapore tells me this is an essential part of the Chinese kitchen. And I have evidence of this as I can look down into the kitchen in a lower flat and see one in use.

Mushrooms in particular are a revelation here. I’ve tried at least 4 different kinds – thin needle like stems with tiny caps, shitake, chestnut, oyster and some more familiar white caps akin to our button mushrooms. I’ve started to eat them at every available meal – fried for breakfast, added to noodles for supper and raw with lunch. I’m hoping I’m getting towards understanding Fuchsia’s emphasis on the importance of different textures in Chinese cooking – some of which explains the more bizarre end of the cuisine – sea cucumbers and duck’s tongue for example. We haven’t indulged in these as yet, but we are going to our first civic banquet on Friday, so perhaps our time will come.

The sheer variety of food we’ve eaten is unusual, partly because of the international nature of staff at the university. At the weekend we were entertained by a colleague from Egypt who cooked beautiful Middle Eastern food for us – aubergines, rice with chicken livers, hummous, lamb, kebabs and so on. Mmm! We have started to think about what food we will cook when it is our turn to have guests. I hope we can make a good attempt at some Chinese dishes by then. And the mystery ingredient in the photo may help – did you spot it? Part of one of the fastest growing exports to China. We are also supporting the Irish economy by buying Kerrygold butter and cheese.

More about East Lake Garden

Last weekend we were shown around East Lake Garden by a Canadian colleague and his family. His eight year old son was an excellent guide – helping us out in the fruit shop, demonstrating how to sample dumplings and steamed buns (delicious), and showing us where to get the best meat and vegetables in the local covered market. Everything is fresh – a Chinese obsession – compared to some of the rather tired fruit and veg in Metro, our local supermarket – more of a cash and carry really.

Jamie’s Chinese is very impressive – like many of the academics’ children he attends Ningbo International school and learns English and Mandarin. We were duly humbled and agreed with him that we needed to sharpen up our own language skills without delay. I’ve now attended my first 2 hour Mandarin class, and I’m afraid it will be some time before I come up to Jamie’s standard. I can just about say my name, my nationality and that I’m a student. I doubt if any Chinese person would understand my pronounciation though – the 4 tones are somewhat elusive so far.

Our estate has walkways and playgrounds, canals and pools, bamboo screens and willows, seats and shelters from the sun. It’s all a bit tumbledown – building new things is a priority – maintaining them doesn’t seem to be on the agenda. Nevertheless, we like the slightly down at heel feel of the place. There are many low rise buildings – even some houses as opposed to apartment blocks – and thus the scale is human and not too intimidating. Local people gather at 5am for Tai Chi in an open space just below our kitchen window.

Living in a Chinese apartment has its challenges. For example, none of the three basins or sinks has hot running water. When we questioned this, our landlady told us severely that Chinese women are strong and only need cold water to wash up! Further enquiry from other ‘outsiders’ revealed that you can buy an electric tap fitting in B and Q (yes, the same one) which makes hot water, and we have put in a request for one. Landlady’s Dad comes on Tuesday to fit one for the weak foreigners. We also weren’t so keen on the en suite bathroom with completely see through glass doors – notions of privacy are different here. Landlady’s Dad has attached frosted sticky paper to the doors.

There is no oven – only a curious electric plate drier – and two fierce gas burners on the hob to set your wok afire. Drinking water comes in large plastic barrels which you order from the local water supplier. The undercounter metal contraption we thought was a bin turns out to be a rice storage device. Other things are reassuringly familiar. Socket for ethernet cable, showers with hot water and a huge flat screen TV. The latter has cable, but we can only find one English language channel – CCTV. This is what the Chinese government wants to tell outsiders and fascinating it is too. A lot about the current dispute with Japan over islands in the South China sea. The international sports news is global. Surprising amount about the English Premier League, but lots about badminton, basketball, triathlon and women’s golf. Eat your heart out Clare Balding. And we look forward to the reports from Fintan Monaghan, who is sent by CCTV to places such as Kazahstan to report on settlement programmes for nomadic peoples. Yesterday he reported on the growing Chinese wine industry. We like to think he comes from Dublin 6 and love the sound of his voice!

TIC (This is China)

It’s only a few days since I last wrote, but it feels like weeks. I have experienced the health check – and now I know what the neck test is – moved into our flat, met lots of international students, become a bona fide paid up postgrad myself, and learned some Mandarin.

While I write this, I’m looking out towards the next 8 storey (positively low rise by Chinese standards) block in East Lake Garden, phase 2, or Donghu Hua Yuan. Not a beautiful view, but full of life – no one has net curtains and you can see into kitchens and living rooms and observe early evening activities. We can also see trees and a small park with a lake and playground, and I can hear someone practising the violin – western classical style  – at an impressive standard. Silence falls about 10pm, and there is no noise until 5am – when there is a gradual crescendo of voices and cars honking as people go to work. There are too many cars on the huge compound (40 – 50,000 inhabitants?) and no tolerance of other drivers.

First the health check. This was a curious experience for us ‘outsiders’ as we were called. We were driven for 30 minutes to a clinic for international health checkups and joined an assembly line of some 8 examinations. The important thing was to get a signature for each one – blood, urine, ECG, ears, nose and throat, chest x ray, ultrasound, and neck and spine. The latter consisted of an unsmiling practitioner twisting your neck, feeling your throat and spine and peering down your waistband. After 2 hours we emerged – hungry as it was 10.30am and we had not been allowed to eat breakfast – hoping we’d passed. We need a clean bill of health in order to get our residence permits.

You may be wondering about the title of the blog – the health check is just one example of how you can sometimes feel when faced by impenetrable bureaucracy and the culture of the group. On the one hand, why should the People’s Republic of China allow any diseases into their country – on the other, us westerners (outsiders) are so unused to being treated without regard to our individual dignity and personhood.

Anyway, Old China Hands, tell us that there are occasional experiences such as the health check, when you must shrug and say – This is China – and move on. And out of the last 10 days – is it really such a short time? – there have been very few such occasions.

Meanwhile, during my student induction week, I have been happily exploring the university library – especially the languages section. I have memorised and can write about 15 Mandarin characters (only 1,985 to go before I can read a newspaper) and I can say where I live in Chinese. I have met students from Kazakstan, USA, UK, Czech Republic, Kuwait, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Russia, Italy and of course China. Although I feel like a granny and probably talk too much about my own children, it is fascinating to watch and chat to young people from so many different cultures – mobile phones, Playstations and computer games are sure-fire topics of conversation.  

Tomorrow I have a day in the flat and will venture to our local megastore, which rejoices in the name of Metro, and attempt to add to our meagre stock of necessaries. It will be good to get more than two plates, cups and pillows, and who knows, I may even choose some live fish to bring home for dinner.


Sunday afternoon in Zhongshan Square

Yesterday I ventured in to the centre of Ningbo for the first time. The day started at 7am to the sound of young people from the local school marching in uniform along Taikang Road chanting and singing patriotic (I assume) songs. These are boarders apparently – as is common at the best Chinese schools.

Too timid to get the bus, I took one of Mr Wu’s taxis from the university campus. Even if you’re not driving, it’s best to shut your eyes or look away from the oncoming traffic  – there are no rules of the road, except ‘he who arrives first goes first.’

My friendly guide –  a working rather than trailing spouse – took me along the river bank (the Yuyao river). Ningbo was once a port, but now the riverside is a mixture of flash new shopping centres, business and government buildings and gardens. Spying a Starbucks, I suddenly felt a longing for coffee – funny what  you miss! I never imagined I’d want to linger over a weak latte in Starbucks.

We walked through Zhongshan Square and watched crowds of people in small clusters, singing and playing traditional instruments (see photos previously published). Parks are for the elderly here – not an adolescent in sight.

Lunch was the best meal I’ve had so far – crab and tofu, squid and vegetables, aubergine and rice with pineapple – eaten in a Yunnan restaurant in a hutong courtyard – the traditional style of communal housing before the skycrapers came. Our introduction to Chinese cookery has come from Fuchsia Dunlop’s ‘Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper’ – highly recommended. The Yunnan food was mild compared to fiery Sichuan cuisine, but still distinctive.

Back to base on the bus – the 353 – having braved a monsoon-style downpour and pushed and shoved our way on in the Chinese style. Easy really – and the 40 minute journey cost 2Yuan – about 20p. Communism has its advantages, even if bands of marching children at 7am on a Sunday is not one of them.

Adventure Not Dementia

Standing in line while in transit at Hong Kong we noticed that a man ahead of us – of a certain age – had the luggage tag ‘Adventure Not Dementia’. We’ve decided to adopt it as our mantra – although certain aspects of living in China could easily tip you towards dementia. One such has been discovering that not only Facebook but all blogging sites are blocked. With a bit of advice from an Old China Hand (she’ll know who she is) I’ve today managed to sign up to a proxy server  – I think – and here I am – blogging away.

University of Nottingham Ningbo is much as we remember it from May – except that it is a lot hotter and more humid – well monsoon like to be honest – and there are lots of eager freshers about – following earnest volunteers around the campus. My turn will come next week (a follower not a volunteer) when induction and registration for postgrads begin. Meanwhile, I’m sticking to the trailing spouse role as this means my police registration and health check are free. The latter – including x-ray and blood and neck test – will happen at 8am on Monday. I’m actually more of a reclining spouse as I seem to fall asleep in the day at frequent intervals as my body adjusts to the new time zone. Fintan has to work though – so far this means asking Alice his PA to do all sorts of stuff for us – negotiate with the rental agent, visit flats with us, help me buy a mobile phone etc etc – and then occasionally attend to university management.

We have found a pleasant 3 bedroomed flat about 20 minutes from the campus in an established residential area called East Lake Garden, and managed to sign a contract for a year’s lease. This was quite a complicated ordeal – although I think we missed most of the salient points of the negotiations – is cable TV included? Is property tax included? What about the management fee? How do we actually pay? etc etc. The deal is not yet finished because the estate agent couldn’t bring his seal to the contract signing!  It seems to be a mostly cash economy and we’ve found ourselves carrying around large amounts of RMB – large red notes with Mao on them. Of course Lloyds stopped our card at the crucial moment – and today the bank ran out of cash so I couldn’t buy my iPhone after Alice’s patient support in the mobile phone shop here on the ‘High Street’. I tried to explain to her that young men in mobile phone shops are the same the world over (incomprehensible at best) -and taught her a new word – geek -I wonder what she thought that meant?

This weekend Fintan has to speak for 10 minutes at another freshers’ event in Beijing at a famous university there that works in partnership with Nottingham. This is because our Provost is unavailable as he is cycling from John O Groats to Dover.  I hope to fully recover from the jetlag and get ready for my new role as a student.