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.