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.