Authenticity

A week ago we cycled down to the campus to check out rumours of carpets for sale. Apparently a man from Kashgar, in the very north west of China, arrives every year at UNNC to sell his wares. To our delight we found two friendly Uighar men with a range of small to medium sized rugs spread out on the shiny marble tiles of the Staff Hotel foyer. The rugs were tufted and woven and brightly coloured. Every book about living in China has told us to bargain, so we chose two rugs and offered about half the asking price. After some minor dramas – incredulity, displeasure, pleading by the younger man about how far they had travelled – we agreed on a price around 2/3rds of the original. Handshakes and smiles all round. While we went off to the bank on High Street to bring back a pile of cash, our salesmen rolled up the rugs into neat parcels which we could put on our bikes. Within half an hour, we had cycled back in the winter sunshine and were enjoying our new purchases and feeling our home was a lot warmer and more comfortable.

Our complacency was soon destroyed. On Monday morning Fintan’s PA received a call from our cleaner to say that the air con was leaking and water was creeping over the sitting room floor. Panic stations! Fintan rushed home, with PA by taxi to be joined by Landlady’s Dad. Our wonderful cleaner had rolled up the rug and put it in a place of safety. It turned out that the water was coming from outside due to a blocked drain on an adjoining balcony. Landlady’s Dad contacted the compound management, who sent round a plumber. A row ensued about who should pay for his services. Landlady’s Dad refused to pay more than half and stormed off. It turned out they were arguing over 10 yuan or £1 – Fintan had left by this time, but Alice paid the balance.

We were convinced we had bought something that was ‘authentic’ in the sense that the rugs seem to be hand made. In China this is an experience which is very hard to achieve; everything is factory made and mass produced. No clothing is made from natural materials – I know this from inspecting the clothes for sale in Metro and looking at my neighbours’ washing, hanging out on the balconies all around us! The last rug I bought in a furniture store has a label saying it is ‘manmade silk’. Our flooring is a kind of light ‘wood’ veneer – although I doubt that many trees have been involved in its manufacture. Fintan has rather grand new office furniture, as befits a Dean, covered in black ‘pleather’. This is a word I learned from Peter Hessler’s brilliant description of the factory culture of our province, Zhejiang, which is the manufacturing capital of East China. Pleather is particulary toxic to make it seems, but is everywhere – car seats, handbags, jackets – and furniture. I realise I’m sitting on some now on my office chair.

Studying domestic tourism in China has taught me that Chinese attitudes to authenticity are very different from Westerners’. During our recent visit to Hangzhou, one of the most famous tourist cities in south east China, we had struggled to come to terms with both the huge numbers of tourist groups and the apparent manipulation of their experience. Visitors are led to enjoy particular ‘scenic spots’, which on the one hand are connected with poets and artists of the distant past and on the other have clearly been rebuilt in the last 10 years. The whole experience is completely staged, but what matters is taking part with lots of other people and confirming one’s Chineseness. Because of this different attitude to tourism and what it’s for, we’ve begun to realise that Western guidebooks often don’t include many places that Chinese people consider the key sites/sights, while favourite spots for Westerners (especially backpackers seeking solitude and experiences unmediated by the Chinese tourist authorities) included in our guidebooks are considered uncivilised, backward and not worth visiting by the Chinese.

In China the one area of every day life where authenticity really, really matters is food. Ingredients must be 100% fresh and people will travel a long way to find or make them. Out of the window I can seen large, shallow baskets of seeds drying on balconies, and fish strung up to dry. Sometimes this is bit difficult for us to take. I don’t think I’ll ever come to terms with the live turtles and tortoises in Metro, waiting to be turned into soup, although hypocritically, I’m not bothered by the hundreds of live crabs, doomed to a similar fate. Our own food consumption is decidedly Chinglish/Chitalian and therefore more fusion than authentic. We make pasta with Chinese aubergines, fried rice with eggs and the local delicacy of salty dried shrimp, but we add in Casa Modena brand ‘german’ sausage. We like our ‘cleaned eggs’ soft, poached or in an omelette. We haven’t acquired a taste for salted or preserved duck eggs (1,000 year-old eggs) – the latter are a startling black and dark green colour, although we have come to like the many different kinds of preserved vegetables available at the market and in Metro. These add a salty, vinegary kick to noodles and soups. We have learned to cook garlic stems with Chinese ham, and tofu in many manifestations – spiced, firm, smoked and dried. I have discovered that the best flavoured steam buns are tofu ones – delicate, warm doughy buns filled with soft but chilli-spiced tofu. And the great thing about tofu is that the Mandarin is a breeze to pronounce – do fu.

Now it’s time for a trip to the market – allows me to put off yet more revision for the Mandarin oral exam on Wednesday. I will don my fingerless gloves, bought on Inis Mór (the Aran islands) a couple of years ago. They look authentic – handknitted, with a traditional Aran pattern – just the thing for an English tourist. But when I asked the vendor about them, she told me they were knitted with wool from New Zealand, as there aren’t any sheep on Aran. But at least they weren’t made in Zhejiang.

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Communication

Last Thursday I experienced my first Mandarin listening exam. This was the first of three assessments for Mandarin 10 credits 01 – the lowest of the low in the teaching hierarchy, but nevertheless challenging enough for the victims. The test involved sitting in a tepid room, listening to a recording broadcast to all 6 of us. Most of it was only semi-comprehensible, but we tried our best to choose the right answer from our multiple choice lists. Did Ling Yue teach in Beijing, Shanghai or Ningbo? Did Annie’s older brother teach, work for a company or in a bank? Did Martin’s French class start at 7.45am, 8.00 or 8.15am? On the map, is the bank south of the dormitory, next to the school or behind the book store? Does David have a table, chair or wardrobe in his room? And so on.

On Thursday evening my morale was low. On Friday, however, I had to negotiate some ‘real’ conversation, when Landlady sent round Young Plumber to fix our leaky toilet. We had grown tired of the intermittent puddle that kept accumulating on the floor of our bathroom. Young Plumber talked away animatedly to me, and to my surprise I understood most of what he said. Basically, he couldn’t fix it and would need to come back tomorrow (ming tian). I asked him what time (ji dian?) and did he mean the afternoon (xia wu). Yes he did.

Sure enough, at one o’clock today our door bell rang and in came Young Plumber, Landlady’s Dad and another man – let’s call him Toilet Delivery Man. It seemed that fresh sealant was not enough, and a new toilet was called for. This is somewhat typical of Chinese modernity – why mend something when you can get a new one? My language skills were not up to joining in the animated conversation that ensued in our little bathroom, and having refused Toilet Delivery Man’s offer of a cigarette (probably we should have accepted I ruminated afterwards – he wanted to be friendly) Fintan and I retreated to our computer screens. After 30 minutes, Young Plumber emerged triumphantly, and once again I could get the gist of what he told me – i.e. don’t use the toilet for 24 hours until the sealant is dry.

My confidence riding high, I went off to the local fruit store and engaged in ‘conversation’ with the owner and her son, even asking him his name (learned in lesson 1). I didn’t understand much of what they said to me about the various fruits I was invited to buy – cherries, strawberries, kumquats, passion fruit – but we all clearly felt we had communicated in some way. This led me to ponder the usefulness of a language test undertaken in sterile exam conditions – context, gesture and body language are all when you actually speak to someone. Of course, just some of the reasons talking on the phone in a foreign language is so terrifying and not something I’ve tried here yet.

Fintan had a wonderful communication experience on Friday. He took part in an international conference call at 7am, representing the university on the U21 exchange programme. There were about 20 people from around the world, including Ireland. After the phone call he cycled off to work as usual. When he got there, he opened up his email. First note from one of the U21 reps. ‘Are you the Fintan who used to be in UCD Dram Soc in 1973?’ Of course he was, and he had a happy few hours remembering the time spent in the student productions so many years ago. When you live in a country as we do now with 1.3 billion people, you often think longingly of the intimate friendliness of Ireland – less than 4 million I believe. However, when we lived there, despite apparently speaking the same language, I frequently made linguistic faux pas – or just didn’t quite understand what was going on. As we have learned from new friends here, there are many Englishes – Canadian, American, Australian, Scottish and Irish – just to name a few. And the Chinese students have to navigate many of them, listening to teachers from all over the world, as well as write their essays in a difficult second language. As I’m busy reading for my latest paper on contemporary Chinese tourism, devouring new books with speed and enthusiasm I realise what a huge advantage I have. I’m slightly less worried about the Chinese oral exam next week and the written one in January, but I still hope I don’t have to resit that listening test.

Acclimatization: nothing much to report

We have been here exactly 3 months, enough time to reflect on our experiences of living in China. Today’s trip to Metro gives a good idea of how far we have come. We no longer tremble when we have to cross the road – in fact we rarely wait for the 8 seconds of green man, but weave our way in and out of the ebikes, cars and pedestrians along with everyone else. A good technique is to follow someone with a child on the basis that they probably know what they’re doing. We’ve stopped noticing the poor traffic police, standing in the rain in the rush hour, attempting to control the wilder Ningbo drivers. Sometimes the policeman blows his whistle in outrage and storms up to an ebiker crossing the traffic stream on the red light, probably on the wrong side of the road.  All to no avail of course. It’s an interesting gloss on the contradictory nature of Chinese society – in essence a police state yet the home of people who are incredibly disorderly and anti-authoritarian.

We’ve adopted local dress to some degree – I’ve tried out my huge plastic yellow poncho on the bike and decided it’s a pretty good way to avoid getting soaked in the ‘soft’ but persistent rain – as the Irish say. It has a design fault, in that the rain collects in a big pool over the handle bars, as on slack canvas when you’re camping – but by and large it does the trick.

I’ve also realised that Chinese ebikers do have helmets – it’s just that they are worn to keep warm, and not for safety purposes. Now that the weather has turned damp and chilly, the roundshaped, shiny helmets are in evidence. We seem to get less stares for wearing ours now – or perhaps I just don’t notice or care anymore.

Today we went the whole hog in Metro and bought padded pyjamas for me and a padded dressing gown for Fintan – something between a gentleman’s smoking jacket and one of those robes the swimmers wore before their races at the Olympics. My pyjamas are made of a kind of fleecy towelling and are covered in a design of pink and blue reindeers and snow flakes. Bad taste notwithstanding they are incredibly warm – I’m sitting in the jacket now as I write. I’ll let you know when I start wearing them outside, for example to go to Metro.

Wearing Padded Pink Pyjamas

Wearing Padded Pink Pyjamas

It was a particularly productive visit to Metro, not just because of the purchases, which also included a small HP printer, but because we got about 10 stamps to put on our collectors’ card towards getting a free knife block or cleaver. This reminds me of collecting Green Shield stamps as a child. Much more fun than Tesco or Sainsbury virtual points! We sometimes have to convince the woman on the check-out that despite being ‘waigoren’ (outsiders) we are collecting too.

We have ceased to be bothered by things that we found overwhelming in the first few weeks – particularly the noise. We no longer wake at 6am because of the insistent hooting of cars that have got blocked in by other irrationally parked cars in the compound. I’m sure the hooting is just the same, but we have learned to zone it out. The same goes for the building site, although it may be that the colder weather has dampened enthusiasm for all night construction.

The dirt, rubbish and general squalor has also ceased to shock us to the same extent. Last week, I went to the market at 2pm and found that it had almost closed up. This meant that most of the farmers had gone home and the fish stalls were covered in quilted blankets, presumably to keep the fish ‘fresh’. I was taken aback, especially when a large rat ran across my path. For a few days I didn’t return, but I realise this is irrational – the reason I like the market is because it is ‘authentic’ in some way. I just go earlier now! As stall holders have got to know us they sometimes pull out newer boxes of veg or tofu from behind the counter – clearly the locals demand what is really fresh and we need to cultivate the same savvy.

This will take considerably better language skills that we have, of course. I am still busy learning Mandarin and have occasional triumphs of understanding when we’re out shopping, although numbers are still difficult to catch at speed. I am now able to write and say many useful phrases learned from my text book, such as ‘My dormitory is south of the bank,’ and ‘I have a map of China on my wall.’ The latter is a true statement, much to the surprise of my lovely Mandarin teacher.

The map has helped us increase exponentially our geographical knowledge of China – which was pretty minimal before we came – and my Chinese friends have gradually helped me pronounce the provinces a bit more convincingly, including the one where we live, Zhezhiang. I am currently preparing an essay on tourism in China, a topic in which I’ve become increasingly fascinated both as a participant and as an observer.

Before we leave, I hope I can persuade Fintan that he’d like to visit the ‘Splendid Chinese Miniature Scenic Spots’ theme park in Shenzhen, China’s newest megacity just outside Hong Kong. This is a kind of lego land with 100 of the most famous Chinese beauty spots and monuments in miniature. It attracts 3 million visitors annually, 85% of whom are Chinese. Even more popular is the Chinese Folk Culture Villages theme park, which attracts 4.3 million visitors each year. I think I should stop there – all these figures  – I’m sounding like a tourist website – many facts and not much insight.