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.