This week I have been glued to CCTV Channel 5. This is the Chinese sports channel. There has been extensive coverage of the Australian Open tennis tournament because of the success of Li Na – the first Asian woman player to win a Grand Slam, the French Open in 2011. Sadly, she lost today to Azarenka, having fallen over twice, twisted her ankle and banged her head, but watching her play, and more especially hearing her give TV interviews has been fascinating.
On the one hand, she has not sold out completely to the Western style of most of her opponents, in that she doesn’t combine fashion modelling with playing tennis, but sticks to a ‘sensible’ shirt and tennis skirt. She has one discreet logo for her sponsor, Mercedes – very ‘new China’ given the extraordinary interest in buying luxury cars. On the other hand, she has developed a relaxed and media-friendly personality that has become a hit with TV interviewers and the Melbourne crowd, especially the large and vocal Chinese population. Instead of talking about her pride in her country and the importance of serving it – the usual reponse of most Chinese sports people – she tells us all about her personal life, especially her husband, who has to be banished from the bedroom before matches because he snores. Li Na is playing tennis for herself and for individual achievement – not for the collective, and it’s this that makes her without doubt representative of the new China of reform and opening. Her husband, however, looks entirely conventional – in that he looks like any number of young men we see around Ningbo any day of the week. He keeps his emotions to himself, occasionally looking pleased when his wife makes a brilliant shot. What a contrast with the ex-dancer boyfriend of Azarenka – lots of hair, huge sunglasses, leopardskin jacket, pink teeshirt – and forever jumping up and clapping and whooping with excitement.
While waiting for the tennis coverage, I’ve also watched table tennis on Channel 5 – of course a Chinese passion. There is quite a contrast with the tennis. The arena is very small and unglamorous and the young women players have their team mates and coaches close by. Sharp looks are exchanged after poor shots, coaches shout instructions and encouragement in the breaks. When the game is over, there is no handshake, but the winning team dances in a circle of joy and excitement with the victorious player. I don’t imagine the post-match interviews include anecdotes about partners – but then I don’t know as they are in Mandarin.
Part of the fun of watching the tennis has been to listen out for the few words I can understand. Like all sports commentary, a few words are frequently repeated. ‘Beautiful’ (piaoliang) for example – everytime Li Na hits the line. It’s good for practising my numbers under 7, as sets usually finish at 6! I can pick up ‘this evening’ and my favourite – the untranslatable ‘waaw’ – an expletive for a really good shot. I think perhaps it means the same as that immortal line of the BBC’s Dan Maskell, ‘Oh I say! (Sorry, one for the oldies).
We have extended our knowledge of Chinese New Year customs. Alice and her mum were appreciative of the large selection of nuts we gave her last week, and today we received a similar large parcel of biscuits from our lunch guests. Wrapping is not part of the protocol as the gifts are supplied in shiny red packaging and wrapping paper doesn’t seem to be on sale. New Year is a time for settling debts – a notice appeared on the front door of our apartment block recently. It was demanding the repayment of a large amount of outstanding rent – not ours I hasten to add.
Our friends told us that in families older relatives give younger ones red envelopes filled with money – quite considerable sums it seems. They are travelling to north China to visit family over the New Year and have already bought a dozen or so envelopes. They will take advice from their parents on how much to give. The 10 days or so over the holiday will be spent visiting a different branch of the family each day to feast.
Meanwhile, we are preparing for a holiday away from Ningbo – first stop Hong Kong. My Mandarin had improved enough to allow me to understand Fruit Shop Lady asking if I was going to the UK for Chinese New Year, but was not good enough to make her understand where I was going. I naively thought Hong Kong was Chinese, but in fact in Mandarin it is Xianggang – Fragrant Port. As well as guide books, I have been reading a history of the colony and now realise how much of what I think of as ‘Chinese’ as a Westerner, has been mediated via Hong Kong, and therefore Cantonese culture. Many brands of Chinese foods and condiments are exported from Hong Kong, for example. Cantonese speakers cannot understand Mandarin, which can be difficult if you live here, look Chinese, but only speak Cantonese – as is the case for our lunch guest. The son of our friends is a toddler who will soon be tri-lingual. Could be useful if he grows up to be a tennis player.