Watching Tennis

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.


Neighbours and the neighbourhood

There is a flurry of activity at East Lake Garden as the community gets ready for Chinese New Year. Recent mild temperatures have led to an orgy of washing – every available space is filled with bedlinen, curtains, and winter clothing drying or airing in the early spring sunshine. You can see long-johns, vests and padded pyjama suits hung from low tree branches and bed quilts laid out over the hedging and shrubs. Makeshift clothes lines have been strung between trees to give extra space. Balconies are crammed with washing. While we make do with four bars in the ceiling of our balcony from which to hand our washing, other families have elaborate pulley systems and extra contraptions to extend their drying facilities.

The supermarkets are full of gifts and decorations for New Year – red dominates. Packs of nuts, seeds and chocolates fill the shelves, with elaborate parcels with spirits and Chinese wines. We have yet to establish the protocol of New Year gift giving – should we present something to Alice, and if so what? Like almost all the Chinese women we have met so far, she doesn’t drink, although she has a penchant for chocolate.

On the way back from Metro yesterday, we passed a man with a green box. Suddenly, a live chicken popped out of it, like magic. The man struggled for a while and then safely trapped it – was this also a New Year gift that nearly got away?

New Year preparations have stimulated house improvements and there is more drilling and hammering than usual. A flat two floors below us is undergoing the full refurbishment, including proper central heating, glimpsed as we go down the stairs, while above us there is intermittent banging – usually very early in the morning or late at night. Late at night by Chinese standards is after 9pm. Here, people rise around 5am, eat lunch at 11.30am and dinner at 5pm. Most lights are out in the flats around us by 8.30pm. I feel rather decadent putting my washing out later than 11am; everyone else’s has been drying since 8am.

A few days ago our neighbours from the flat above came knocking at my door. A young woman and her mother spoke at length to me about something. But what? Were they in trouble? Robbers? Upset? The intonation of Mandarin is always midly hysterical so mood is difficult to ascertain. I had a sudden brainwave and phoned Alice and pushed the phone into their hands. It turned out that they were complaining about the ‘noise’ of our heater-cum-airconditioner, which was disturbing their baby in the day time. Alice was having none of it. She gave them Landlady’s number but told me that this was Chinese neighbourly behaviour – an excuse for a good poke about disguised as a complaint. Nothing has happened since, but we find the incessant noise of DIY from their flat a bit hard to take. Maybe it’s revenge! The shower fitting in our bathroom fell off the wall today, so maybe a visit from Landlady’s Dad will ensue and we will find out if a complaint was actually made. Somehow I doubt it. I met Upper Neighbour’s Mum in the carpark yesterday and she avoided eye-contact. I hope she is well embarrassed, as they say in Nottingham.

The warmer weather has encouraged us to get on our bikes and explore more of Yingzhou, the southern part of Ningbo where we live. Yingzhou is undergoing rapid urbanisation. It now includes shopping malls, apartment blocks, a business district, a government precinct, a new (award winning) museum and at least three huge parks. The speed of the transformation is extraordinary. It must be akin to living in Birmingham or Manchester in the 19th century or London after the blitz. Today we visited Ningbo Museum, a massive modernist structure built of bricks and the debris from the old houses destroyed in its construction, a huge plaza in front of the government building, which looks like a mini-People’s Palace a la Tiananmen Square, and a park that is a green buffer in front of the new business district.

In the plaza we watched a display of water art – an array of fountains spurting forth in different formations apparently accompanied by a postmodern medley of every classical pop tune you have ever heard – broadcast out over the square – Wagner, Schubert, Beethoven, Dvorak – all the boys. This only seemed to happen once – perhaps it was a 10 minute rehearsal for New Year, or perhaps it takes place every few hours – who knows?

Because of their newness and relative inaccessibility, the square and the museum are rather deserted at the moment. About 40 people were trouping dutifully around a beautiful exhibition of ancient Chinese musical instruments and another one on the origins of Chinese writing. Frustrated by the lack of English language information, we preferred to wander around the displays about the history of Ningbo, gaining more of an idea of the attractive water city that has been demolished in the construction of modern Ningbo.

Rather more people were in the new park across the road from the museum. Some were enjoying pedalo rides on the lake while a big group were engaged in wedding photography – a gaggle of giggling girls in white satin and fur and embarrassed young men more casually dressed trying to look cool for the photographer. Families enjoyed the playground area, while grandparents exercised on the ubiquitous outdoor gym equipment. All were engaging in what is called ‘healthy’ and civilising leisure activity in official government literature, which urges the populace to improve its cultural capital and avoid ‘unhealthy’ leisure, such as visiting internet cafes or karaoke bars or watching DVDs. As we left the park we walked past a rocky construction, replete with a model dinosaur, all part of the ‘karst grotto’ area of the park.

Last weekend we visited Tianyi Library, one of the oldest private libraries in the world, in the centre of Ningbo. Although it is promoted as a library, and indeed has some splendid traditional buildings, the real joy is its hidden series of extensive gardens, with exquisite planting and many interlinked pools. Mostly reconstructed, of course, but with some genuine old bits I like to think – and rather more to our taste than faux dinosaurs.


When we returned from the UK last week we found that the shopping mall about 10 minutes away from our apartment at the nearest major intersection had been opened. ‘In City’ is about the size of the Victoria Centre in Nottingham and is set to be one of four similar malls, one on each corner of the crossroads. These will promote ‘civilisation and harmony’ in Yingzhou – our district of Ningbo – according to the billboards surrounding the areas still being built. They will certainly transform our neighbourhood, providing an attraction in a previously non-descript suburb. Already colleagues from the university are venturing northwards up Qian Hu Lu (the main road between us and the campus) to see what is on offer.

The speed of construction is breathtaking. We first came to live in Donghu in early September and could glimpse the three-storey high brick and glass walls hidden behind a 6 foot fence, covered in adverts for various Western brands – Calvin Klein, Zara, Ecco, Levi, Uniqlo – and more. Now the fence is down, a paved forecourt is in place and as of Thursday, 40 trees have been ‘planted’ along with green and red shrubs, standard lights and some stone decorations. Starbucks is open, and although the door doesn’t quite fit and it’s very draughty inside, it is doing a roaring trade. Global tax dodging isn’t really an issue in China. Young people are just hungry for comfortable, fashionable places to meet and chat.

Of course, once we had gathered our wits after the worst of the jetlag had subsided we too set out to explore our new playground. We skated along the shiny marble flooring (about 10 migrant workers are employed just to keep them sparkling) and took the escalators to each of the four floors. The basement is crammed with restaurants and a Hong Kong- based supermarket – Vanguard. We have found a new love and thrown over Metro. Although the imported goods section cannot compete with Metro, this is more than made up for by the array of fresh vegetables, meat, fish and dried goods. It’s not a cash and carry, so you can buy small quantities, it’s clean with tiled flooring and altogether offers a more pleasurable shopping experience, although I miss the forklift trucks in the aisles, lifting boxes from ground level to the storage spaces 25 feet above, so much a feature of Metro.

Observing shoppers in the new shopping mall gives considerable insight into Chinese life. On a Saturday the supermarket, restaurants, takeaways and juice bars are crowded. The high end designer shops are deserted. I bought a shirt in Uniqlo on our first visit and the shop assistants nearly died of excitement. Chinese people, I’m told, have a look at what is available and then buy it for half the price on Taobao – the Chinese equivalent of Ebay or Amazon. Only foreigners like us are daft enough to pay the exorbitant prices asked by the shops. My Mandarin isn’t yet up to opening a Taobao account!

Meanwhile, in Vanguard, Chinese shoppers pick through the produce – prodding, smelling, checking for absolute freshness and discussing the pros and cons of what they can see. People are very friendly and on a couple of occasions have advised me to buy – or indeed not to buy. Buying meat is quite an experience. For example, chicken and duck are laid out systematically by body part – heads, gizzards, wings, feet, legs, thighs. Breast meat doesn’t really feature as it is boneless and therefore lacking in crunch, a key part of the pleasure of meat eating for the Chinese. The array of fish is spectactular – half the display is alive in tanks, and the other half lined up on ice. All are unfamiliar to me, although I’ve had an informative trip around the fish section with my friend from Singapore who knows at least some of the species and can advise on taste and cooking methods. Today we bought a kilo of clams, which looked fresh enough as they were clearly alive in their tank with running water. However, despite careful cleaning they tasted gritty and had to be abandoned.

The vegetable section has provided us with some more discoveries – vegetables pictured in our cookbook that we hadn’t been able to identify in the market or Metro. We’ve now bought and prepared delicate, crisp, lacy, lotus root salad (really the underwater stem of the water lily) and will next try silk gourd, a beautiful long green column, which looks to be a cross between a courgette and a cucumber. We have bought bags of dried shitake and woodear mushrooms. The latter seem so unpromising in their dry state – small and shrivelled, but soaked in water for 30 minutes expand tenfold into a spongy, brown, seaweed like fungus, delicious eaten with cucumber and a vinegar dressing.

Walking back home, we pass the noisy construction site on the corner opposite that will form the next shopping experience. We wonder how long it will take to transform this muddy wasteland, filled with drilling machines and diggers into the a shopping mall. Six months? A year?

Meanwhile, what looks like annual pruning is taking place on our compound. Lorry loads of leaves and branches are cut from the acers, palms, camellias, bamboos and willows all around the flats. Perhaps this is all part of sprucing up the compound ready for Chinese New Year, which is now less than a month away. Vanguard and Metro are full of decorations, nuts and sweetmeats to help people celebrate the onset of the Year of the Snake. It is a year of significance for us too – our 25th wedding anniversary falls in April and my father and Fintan’s mother were born exactly 100 years ago in 1913. I wonder what they would have made of their offspring celebrating 2013 in China.

Language Learning

I emerged this morning from my Mandarin writing exam tired but triumphant. I had managed to overcome the extreme effects of chronic jetlag – I don’t think we have slept properly for 72 hours – and get through the two hour exam – creditably, I believe. It was the first exam in my life that I have taken while wearing a hat. The heating system has failed due to the cold…..the air-conditioning that pumps out hot air has frozen in the snow, so all the classrooms and offices are pretty much unheated, although the snow has more or less disappeared. The crucial new part will take a week to arrive – the university should have contacted Landlady’s Dad, in my opinion. Everyone sits around in their coats, hats and gloves while trying to study, work or take exams. While I drew the line at wearing the padded furry suit on my bike and to the exam, I made sure I had the puffa jacket for added warmth on my knees, supplemented by a big pink cardigan (very clean). The Aran fingerless gloves were available as back up, but in the event I didn’t wear them. Adrenalin must have kept my circulation going.

Preparing for the Mandarin exams has made me reflect on language learning styles that I have experienced from age 11 onwards. I still remember vividly my first French lesson at Twickenham County Grammar School for Girls in 1965. I loved it! The first sentence I learned was “Voici le facteur, qui frappe a la porte.” The postman was knocking on the door of the family of Raoul who starred in our textbook (a boy of course, despite us being all girls). We learned serious amounts of French grammar; gender, tenses, irregular verbs, the subjunctive! When I went to stay with a French family in Lyons at 16, however, I found that I couldn’t actually say anything useful. Despite my impeccable grasp of grammar (and I still remember most of it), I didn’t know any words for stuff around the house – and certainly no slang or common conversational phrases. Ca va? was news to me. Reading Racine and Corneille, while uplifting, wasn’t tremendously practical when you wanted to get from A to B, or ask for the salt.

Thirty years later my sons started to learn German at school. The style was now ‘communicative’, as Oranna, the Director of the Language Centre here has explained to me. (She is German, but her English is so perfect, no one believes she is not a native English speaker). This meant that the boys learned lots of useful phrases and everyday vocabulary, but little grammar. Tension mounted when I mentioned the dative or accusative, or suggested learning some irregular verbs. My eldest son has since told me that it was only a year or so ago when studying German as part of his Masters degree in European History that he really understood cases.

Learning Mandarin has been a bit of a half way house. It helps that there is very little grammar to worry about – there are no cases, no genders, no plurals, no tenses and few prepositions. Meaning is gleaned from context. There are of course plenty of other challenges – there is no alphabet, so you have few clues to help with pronounciation. ‘Radicals’ – simplified pictograms – give pointers about meaning and can appear in many different characters, but they don’t necessarily have sounds. Word order is important, and our teacher has drilled us with the rules. Time words first. Adverb before the verb. Position before object and so on. While our text book, published by Beijing University Language Institute, is colourless in the literal and metaphorical sense, our teacher supplements our learning with survival vocabulary and some amusements. The Mandarin equivalent of ‘so-so’, for example, is ‘horse-horse, tiger-tiger’. Useful when someone asks how you are feeling. (‘Was it cold in the exam room? Oh, horse-horse, tiger-tiger…’)

When preparing for the exam, as a former Director of Qualifications, I had a look at some AQA GCSE Mandarin past papers, mostly out of curiosity to see what level we seem to have achieved. I think that Mandarin 10 credits at UNNC is the equivalent of GCSE foundation – so up to about Grade C. Presumably after another 3 months we will get to GCSE A or B. I’m hopeful! But what was more interesting was the difference in style of the exam paper, aimed of course primarily at British adolescents. While the sentence constructions were all familiar, there was lots of vocabulary I didn’t know – TV, DVD, swimming, football, playing on the computer, pets, hobbies etc. Nothing about your dormitory being south of the bank, or the east gate being next to the book shop. Or father being a teacher, mother staying at home, and big brother working at the bank – all favourites of our text book. There were also many enticing pictures and speech bubbles – a far cry from the austere text-only paper I encountered today.

I once showed my Mandarin teacher a lovely, bright Dorling Kindersley introduction to the language – Easy, Peasy Chinese – highly recommended. I pointed out the large print style, the photographs, the colourful pages. She looked blank – why would you need those incentives to learn? I can only conclude that the communicative style hasn’t caught on in China, a country where rote learning, hard work, stoicism in the face of freezing temperatures and respect for one’s teacher are de rigeur – to use a French phrase!

Sheng ri kuaile! Happy Birthday

We flew back to China after Christmas in Nottingham on the Dean’s birthday. Unfortunately, this meant that he only got 16 hours of the 24 – the rest were lost somewhere in transit. Still, he made up for it with a breakfast – or was it dinner? – of smoked salmon and caviar in the curious environment that is Dubai airport. Unless you are travelling business class and can access the Emirates lounge, there is nothing to do there while you wait for your plane except to eat, drink, shop and drift about as seats-only-for-sitting-on are – presumably intentionally – somewhat limited.

But this did not detract from our restful, stress-free break back in Blighty, where we enjoyed central heating, drinking water from the tap and the experience of only wearing one or two layers of clothing at any one time and absolutely no thermal underwear. As well as seeing our children and friends and eating the usual Christmas fare, exchanging gifts and watching TV, we washed the grime out of our jumpers and generally luxuriated in the cleanliness and quietness of our home.

We knew China was approaching as soon as we went down to the departure lounge for the Shanghai flight. In contrast to the orderly embarkation at Birmingham, we found ourselves jockeying for position to get through the barrier. The ground staff gave up the unequal fight as the many Chinese passengers instinctively elbowed their way to the front and the ‘queue’ collapsed into a free for all.

We knew we wouldn’t have to negotiate a Chinese ‘queue’ for taxis at the other end, as we had arranged to be collected by Mr Wu’s taxi service in Shanghai. Our comfort was shortlived though, as the first email Fintan found when he turned on his phone in China was from PA Alice to tell us that there had been heavy snow in Ningbo, and Mr Wu might not be able to send a car. She had a booked a hotel in case we needed to stay.

While Fintan dealt with the practicalities I positively revelled in getting through immigration. How different I felt from our first visit to the same marble hall in May last year, when we emerged from the plane in a state of considerable trepidation. Now I could read several signs in Mandarin – especially the three characters up everywhere under the word ‘FOREIGNERS’. These say ‘Wai gor ren’ – literally, outside people. Entertainment in the orderly queue (no messing here) included a film about the friendly immigration service. It seems that visitors will be reassured by pictures of the militarily precise immigration officers marching in a line to their desks in the airport, stamping passports and keeping out undesirables at remote outposts of the country.

Shanghai Arrivals was crowded as we walked through, swelled by gaggles of giggling young girls with signs saying ‘I love you Fin Jun’. Clearly, this reception party wasn’t to celebrate the Dean’s birthday. We weren’t too disappointed though, as in fewer than five minutes a breathless driver arrived to meet us. He was late because of the snow, but had made it.

Snow is unusual in Ningbo, and presumably never experienced by Mao or he would not have declared that houses south of the Yangtse don’t need heating. We began to receive texts and emails preparing us for a ‘winter wonderland’, along with exhortations to dress warmly and warnings that the ‘heatings’ [sic] are not working in the main student, library and admin buildings on campus.

The drive back was somewhat hairier than usual, although we only saw one accident caused by the snow – a lorry splayed across the high way – and our young driver took great care in the blizzard conditions. That is to say he only talked for a few minutes on his phone, sometimes ignored calls, and kept to the speed limits that flashed up on the carriageway. The road was down to one lane by the time we entered the outskirts of Ningbo after three hours.

Things seemed different at Dong Hu and at first we couldn’t quite work out why. There was very little traffic and snow covered the palm trees, willows and camelias. It was only once we were back inside our freezing cold apartment that we realised what was new. Silence! The snow had defeated most drivers and, more significantly, the construction site, and for the first time since our arrival in September, there were no car horns, no shouting and no whining machinery.

We turned on all the heating appliances we have, and instantly fused everything. We adopted a more modest approach, accepting that we could only attain warmth slowly. I changed rapidly into thermals and the reindeer suit and Fintan donned his Christmas Aran jumper – ordered by internet and delivered by Santa. (It came with a booklet assuring us it was an example of ‘authentic Aran craft’, though it is clearly machine made.) We made a hot toddy with our Dubai-bought whiskey – a new Feicity Cloake recipe in the G2, brought as a last luxury from home.

We settled down to our first meal back in China – our favourite – spaghetti and tomato sauce. I don’t think Fintan realised, but it is traditional to serve noodles at birthdays in China as they symbolise longevity. Alice had meanwhile emailed to say that Fintan should collect his birthday cake coupons from her. These can be redeemed at a cake shop in Wanda Plaza. Many Chinese people now prefer cakes to noodles for birthday celebrations, and UNNC of course promotes the Western tradition for its staff.

Next January will be one of those big birthdays with a nought and I hope we will celebrate it for the full 24 hours and somewhere a lot warmer. Current thoughts are Thailand.

Happy New Year!