Reuse, recycle, repair

When we found our apartment back in September, I remember we eagerly asked our landlady when we should put out our rubbish. Our paradigm was English suburbia – we pay our council tax and the bin men come around once a week to collect the black bag of rubbish from our grey bin. Like good citizens, we separate out our recyclable materials into another bin. I remember that after Alice had translated our question, the landlady stared at us, uncomprehendingly. ‘You just put your rubbish there when you want to,’ she said, pointing to a grubby green bin in amongst the shrubs in the parking lot.

What we now realise is that ‘rubbish’ has a completely different meaning in China. Every morning you can see people cycling around the parking lot between the flats towing small blue carts which they fill with different categories of detritus. There is the cardboard woman, the plastic bottles man, the tin cans woman and the everything-else-man. Often their carts are piled high, with small bags of rubbish perched precariously on top or tied down with frayed rope. Sometimes they call out – I don’t know exactly what they are saying, although it reminds me of the rag-and-bones man of my childhood. They don’t expect the residents to do any sorting of the rubbish, but pick over it themselves, to separate out their particular speciality.

We quickly discovered that if we left a bag of rubbish on the landing outside our flat door as likely as not it would have disappeared within a few hours. In the early days we bought many household items that came packed in cardboard – sometimes within minutes of putting it beside the aforementioned green bin, the packing had disappeared. This is the most efficient rubbish collection we have ever experienced. I doubt very much if there is much landfill in China. On the contrary, I imagine a large amount of rubbish is recycled or reused. Certainly in our part of Ningbo, there are no large bin lorries or mechanical road-sweepers. And it seems that the process of separation, collection and delivery of each category provides a living for many individuals – probably rural people dispossessed of their previous life as farmers.

About two weeks ago in the middle of an episode of ‘The Wire’ (series 3), our TV screen went black. At first, Alice couldn’t make any progress with the landlady, who insisted that we get in an engineer to check there wasn’t a simple problem linked to the cable TV box. I imagine she thinks we may be technically challenged, and we certainly are when it comes to reading Mandarin on a TV remote. A very young and rather grumpy TV man arrived last week early one morning. He marched in, tried the remote and, like us, was unable to get any joy at all from the screen. He stomped off. A few minutes later Alice phoned to say that Landlady had agreed that she would pay for a new TV.

This Sunday was new TV delivery day. We got up early as Landlady’s Dad has a habit of appearing at our door around 7.30am. This time he didn’t come until 9.30am, but with TV delivery man in tow. Alice had cycled from home in the pouring rain to come and help us with translation. A large box was placed in front of the old TV screen and loud words were exchanged. It seemed that the man was just delivering the goods and had no intention of installing the machine. Landlady’s Dad was not best pleased, but told Alice he’d arrange for installation in the afternoon.

As it was now 11.30am, Alice had to go home to lunch – Ningbo people eat lunch very early – certainly before 12.30pm. I reassured her we could manage to negotiate with the TV installation man ourselves. A young, affable TV engineer arrived soon after and fixed up the new screen with amazing speed. He was even patient enough to show me what buttons to press on the incomprehensible TV remote, and to sell us a new lead so that we would no longer have to scrabble about and swap wires between the cable TV box and the DVD player. The experience cost us 200 RMB – about £20 – which I didn’t expect to see again.

I was wrong – that afternoon we had a final visit from Landlady’s Dad, summoned by Alice from her home. I was able to explain to him why I’d spent 200 RMB, and without a murmur he reimbursed me. Then a new character joined the drama. Another young man appeared at the door and an altercation took place. I knew money was involved, and at one stage the young man walked away. Clearly, Landlady’s Dad was attempting to sell the old TV to him, and wasn’t happy with the price offered. But then 100 RMB was agreed and the young man took away the old screen – complete with power lead and remote.

This morning I decided to practise some newly acquired vegetable vocabulary down at the market. I was delighted with my new words and had a bit of a chat with my market man, who had changed the position of his stall. He now had a much better pitch nearer the front of the market hall. He seemed very pleased with himself, was patient with my faltering Mandarin and very generous with the extras – chillies, mushrooms and spring onions. On the way back I saw a small, ramshackle electrical shop I hadn’t noticed before. On the pavement were about five large TV screens, stacked up like cards, backs facing out onto the street. Although I couldn’t identify it there, it was nice to know that probably our old TV was being repaired or recycled either by that small business, or another one like it.


Authenticity in Beijing

We spent last weekend in Beijing. This was 10 months since our first nervous visit last May, which had formed part of our introduction to China before coming to live here. In those early days we waited like frightened rabbits to be collected from the airport, and watched in wonder as our hosts spoke Mandarin and navigated their way around the city. Now we were able to negotiate public transport for ourselves, find our own way about and even speak a little bit of Mandarin.

The same slogans greeted us everywhere – Patriotism, Innovation, Inclusiveness and Virtue. I remember them particularly from a visit to the Olympic Stadium last year. This time I could view them with a little more knowledge and a lot more cynicism. They were probably invented by a scared Communist Party after the 1989 debacle; the government decided that the best way to get the population back on side was to stir up nationalism and increase wealth, and has been mainly successful in this, despite creating huge wealth gaps between the rich and poor.

We pursued the Patriotic agenda ourselves by spending our first afternoon in the National Museum on Tian’an Men Square. The interior must be the biggest in the world, and probably the most empty. The museum is all about shock and awe, rather than bringing the visitor close to a plethora of beautiful objects. This is partly because the Nationalists took most of the good stuff with them to Taiwan in 1947, so there isn’t that much to display. Many labels show that objects were dug up in the 1950s, presumably in an attempt to build up a new and comparable collection. A kind of ‘there’s plenty more where that came from’ attitude.

Like good patriotic tourists, we found an excellent duck restaurant in the evening in an old hutong house. Hutongs are traditional single storey dwellings, built around courtyards and housing several extended families. Most have been destroyed as high rises have been built, some remain, and some have been reconstructed once their tourist potential was realised. The experience included seeing the ducks roasted over open flames in an ancient oven and then the master chef slicing up the meat before it was brought to our table.

Unfortunately, the most inclusive aspect of Beijing is the pollution – you can’t escape it. The view from the aeroplane is misty, while in the city the sun never seems to penetrate the haze. After a few hours walking the streets your hair and skin feel dry and dirty. On Saturday we travelled out to the famous imperial Summer Palace and although we could sense the sun, the grey sky never turned blue. We experienced the scenic spots, in the true Chinese way, gazing at temples and bridges, citing Song Dynasty poetry and even eating lunch in the reconstructed stage set of Suzhou Street. This is an artificial water town built to amuse the Dowager Empress Cixi during her summer sojourns away from the city. Nowadays, ‘real’ water towns often seem equally inauthentic – very confusing to the western tourist.

We showed Virtue in a limited way through some of our choices. These were also linked to our innate desire for authenticity as western tourists. For example, we selected a Chinese hotel located in an old hutong courtyard. Theoretically, this meant we were using less water (Beijing suffers from water shortages) and power. The hotel had a certain charm and was brilliantly located. However, after two nights in the creakiest bed imaginable and showering under a trickle of water we rather regretted our choice. We did mostly stick to using the subway and the airport train; using taxis felt like unneccessarily adding to the pollution caused by too many cars. Already residents can only drive into the city on certain days, in a government attempt to reduce pollution. But the subway is not well adapted to tourists with suitcases. (Apparently it is partly built in tunnels the Communist Party made in the 1950s to give themselves a rapid means of escape in the event of a nuclear attack). There are long walks between lines at interchanges and not many escalators.

Our way of contributing to the exhortation to innovate was simply to be independent tourists. Tourism in China assumes that you travel in a group, and there were many in evidence at the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven complex, usually following a leader with a flag, and wearing identical baseball caps. Travelling on your own can be difficult. There are few helpful signs in English or other pointers, such as suggestions as to which bus will take you to the scenic spot. We managed, partly because of the few words of Mandarin I’ve acquired. In my last private Mandarin lesson, I had learned the words for subway and airport. Nevertheless, my limited grasp of tones let me down and in a restaurant I couldn’t get the waitress to understand my request for green tea.

Yesterday, it was back to the university and a two hour Mandarin class. We are on to the final chapter of our text book and I was delighted to discover this was called ‘We visit the Summer Palace by bicycle’. We hadn’t been quite virtuous, patriotic or innovative enough to use this mode of transport – I imagine you might choke to death from the fumes if you tried it in reality.

Money and marriage

Never having lived in a sub-tropical climate before, I’m amazed at the speed of change from one season to another. Spring seems to have come and gone in two or three days. Magnolia blossom lasts a matter of hours before falling. And with spring a young person’s fancy turns to love, as the poets say. During the week I’ve had several conversations with young Chinese about their plans for getting married. The pressure is on for young women to be married by the time they are 26 or 27, otherwise they are considered to be ‘left behind’ – too old to find a partner. Of course, no such time limit appears to be applied to men. Although the young women will leave UNNC exceptionally well educated, some cynical colleagues suggest this is so that they will be more likely to find better husbands. The convention is that women ‘marry up’.

We have recently been told a fascinating statistic by an economist no less – 70% of the foreign (i.e. non-Chinese) teaching staff at UNNC are married to Chinese women. The reverse does not seem to hold – foreign women do not appear to pick Chinese partners. The feminist in me fears the worse; Western men choose Chinese wives because they think they will be submissive and attentive to their every whim. It may also be that Chinese women want to marry foreigners because this will enable them to travel and/or live outside China and have more than one child. And they think it likely that Western men will be rich.

I’ve recently started having private Mandarin lessons – an extra 3 hours one-to-one tuition a week. This has made all the difference to my speaking and listening skills and I can now actually say and hear the four tones. My vocabulary has grown exponentially. The lessons have also given me the chance to get to know a feisty, young Chinese woman in her mid 20s. She runs the language teaching as a small business with one other person in an office in Laowaitan, in central Ningbo. Her parents aren’t pressurising her to get married – she’s 27 – but she has a boy friend and expects to marry soon. But first they must buy an apartment in Ningbo. Chinese parents expect their daughters to be taken care of, and renting a flat is not good enough. The man must have bought the apartment before the wedding.

In a car on the way to the archive this week I listened in to a conversation between two young men – one a teacher and part-time student and already married, and one a PhD student. For my benefit they spoke in English some of the time. The married man (it was his car) had bought a flat and his friend quizzed him about how much it had cost. Chinese people have no inhibitions about speaking about money and will ask you upfront about how much you have spent on something in a way that Westerners can find uncomfortable. Property costs less in Ningbo than Shanghai, but is already expensive; the one bedroom flat had set him back £120,000.

On the way back another, younger undergraduate joined us for a lift back to UNNC. She was one of the most confident young women I’ve met so far, with near perfect English. She told me she’d gained a place at UCL for her Masters and was looking forward to living in London next year. She also described her experience of middle and high school, where she was a boarder – the norm in China. Her school days had started at 6am and finished at 10pm because of the amount of lessons and self-study expected. At UNNC she had felt ‘reborn’ – for the first time she could study what she wanted in a more individual style. Then, once again the conversation turned to wealth, property and marriage. She had a wealthy, and benevolent father. He had already bought her a flat in Ningbo, so it wouldn’t matter if her husband-to-be could afford to buy one or not. She felt she was unusual to have such freedom.

I didn’t think of it at the time, but I could have told her that I owned a flat when I married – 25 years ago – or at least had a mortgage, acquired with help from my father. Fintan’s PA seems slightly bemused by our intention of celebrating the occasion (the marriage rather than the property, I hope). Although she has helped us with the arrangements, we get the impression that she finds our planned trip to spend the weekend in Suzhou, a water town with famous gardens, surprisingly romantic at our age.

Forgetting the past?

My education about Ningbo and China in general has continued this week through different sources. Our second seminar trip was to the City Library, up in the north west part of the city on the Yuyao River front. Ningbo is built at the confluence of two rivers – the Yong and the Yuyao – and there are still many interconnecting waterways and lakes. Old photos show how local transportation until comparatively recently was water based – before the car took over. To the north east, just a few miles away on the coast is Beilun, where you can find a huge container port, amongst the two or three largest in the world. Access to the deep and sheltered harbour is the reason why Ningbo (then Ningpo) was one of the first five Treaty Ports to be opened up to the west in 1842. With its rivers and proximity to the famous tea-growing area of Hangzhou, Ningbo was an ideal trading spot. The British brought in opium from India and exchanged it for tea and silk to sell back in England.

Before we went into the City Library, we walked along the riverside to the site of Ningbo Hospital Number 2, which I’d learned about last week. To my surprise, the current building is a reconstruction of the late 19th century missionary one – a cross between a fortress and a traditional Chinese temple, complete with curly eaves and carvings. Indeed, the city council is waking up to the commercial potential of reconstructing traditional buildings. One of the favoured night spots in the city is Laowaitan – literally ‘outsiders’ area’. This sits exactly where the two rivers join, and has lowrise buildings, cobbled streets, cafes, pubs, a church, and many restaurants – mostly non-Chinese.

There is great ambivalence about the past here. Many old villages and small towns are being obliterated by the drive for urbanisation, while people are reluctant to talk about their own heritage. In class our tutor asked the six Chinese students to find out how their grandparents had been categorised in 1949 and report back. Most said that the grandparents were ‘middle’ or ‘poor’ peasants. This was a safe label, as far as the Communists were concerned – being a ‘rich’ peasant was dangerous as it had connotations of land-owning. It was important to have ‘lost’ land by this stage. Many people from Ningbo apparently moved back and forth between Shanghai at salient points to avoid falling foul of the authorities. Moving to Shanghai is now the recognised route to greater opportunity, although Ningbo people maintain a reputation for being good at making money.

The City Library boasts a collection of a Shanghai newspaper – Shenbao – set up in the 1890s, and this was what we looked at during the visit. There was no officious security and in the tradition of public libraries we were left in peace to browse the dusty, bound volumes of back numbers. I was hunting for advertisements from the 1920s and 30s, with the help of a Chinese PhD student. These showed the overwhelming dominance of western products, especially cigarettes, toiletries and electrical goods, all then new to China but finding a ready market. Many were made by companies still familiar today – Everyready, Palmolive, Philips. But every so often we came across an ad for a Chinese-made product – all part of the National Products Movement which aimed to persuade people to buy products made in China, of Chinese materials, by Chinese people, with Chinese capital. This was motivated by a desire to repel the foreign imperialists and build the Chinese economy. Ironically, many of these capitalists suffered after 1949. Of course one can’t help but contrast this with today’s world, where the foreign imperialists are now overwhelmed by cheap Chinese imports of every conceivable type – probably mostly shipped through Ningbo’s massive port.

Last week I consulted another Ningbo resident about some planned trips to various places within China. He is a UNNC graduate who we met in Beijing last November. He has set up as a travel agent specialising in bespoke travel. As I’ve now learned a bit about tourism in China I was interested to chat to him and he was very generous with his time and advice. We looked at internal flights and innumerable hotels in Guilin, Yangshou and Xi’an. I asked him about what I should be doing in these places, but as time went on I realised I knew rather more than him. I had studied my Lonely Planet guidebook carefully. When we were discussing how to get out of Xi’an to see the terracotta army he admitted to me he had never been there and had no interest in doing so. Heritage was not for him. He liked action-packed holidays – bungee jumping for example. Yes, he had had a go at it, and the thrill was indescribeable. He thought it so important to do these things when you were young. I didn’t attempt to explain my excitement at looking at old documents about Ningbo history. I don’t think we shared the same view of the past.