Taking Stock

Upper Neighbours have finally triumphed in the war of attrition over our old air conditioning unit. A few weeks ago we found a letter in English stuck to our door once more complaining about the noise from the outside motor. We detailed Alice to reply in Mandarin and stuck her letter to their door. Basically, the message was that we were innocent foreign tenants powerless to do anything, and they should contact Landlady with their complaints, phone number supplied. Landlady’s Dad appeared after a few days with Air Conditioner Man and tinkered with the motor. They seemed to think they had solved the problem.
Then yesterday we heard that a new unit was to be installed. Landlady had ascertained that we intended to say another two years and therefore felt it was worth buying a new unit. We have been turning on the A/C of late to combat the growing heat and humidity as summer gets under way. Of course we have no way of knowing how many more complaints have been made by Upper Neighbours, but saving face is important in China and clearly Landlady, who is a tough business woman, needed a reason for forking out on new a A/C unit – other than giving in to bullying.
This morning Landlady’s Dad arrived at 9am with Air Conditioner Man, the latter bearing a huge box on his back – the fan for our sitting room – and dragging a smaller box containing the outside processor. The first question to me was about which neighbour had been complaining – upper or lower – which rather confirmed my theory about the reason for our good fortune.
While A/C Man went off to fetch the right widget to do the installation, Landlady’s Dad and I sat down for a chat. He was clearly astonished that I was now able to string a couple of sentences together, as of course 10 months ago I had only been able to point at things and nod or put him straight onto the phone with Alice. We talked about what I’m doing in Ningbo, our trips to Beijing and Shanghai, the upcoming visit by our sons and when we will be going back to the UK over the summer. LD told me he had travelled to Thailand and Malaysia and also volunteered that he is 56. I showed him the pieces of writing (My Weekend; My Timetable) I’m doing to prepare for my Mandarin exam and he read them back to me. I realised then how strong his local accent is – but we were both pleased and excited by the exercise. He admired our newly purchased plants and asked me if the new TV was working OK and where I sourced our DVDs – England or the US.
This is the first such conversation I’ve had with a Chinese person of my own age about personal and domestic issues. The very ordinariness of it underlined what modernisation in a global context means in China. I imagine from the look of him – stocky and bronzed – that LD is the first generation of his family to move to the city and he is enjoying the benefits of a suburban lifestyle. He would have been in his 20s when ‘reform and opening’ was established by Deng after Mao’s death. He has most of the things we take for granted in the west – a car, an apartment (or several), access to Hollywood-based culture and travel abroad. Within an astonishingly short period – around 30 years – the PRC has delivered these things to many of its citizens.
But there are down sides as we have also learned in our first 10 months. Destruction of the environment is the most obvious and a tendency to build too quickly and shoddily. New buildings are not expected to last more than about 15 years before they too are knocked down and replaced. Although 90% of the trees planted in the winter in front of the new shopping centre have taken and are now in full leaf, parts of the pavement in front of it are already broken and dislodged. Many appliances in our flat, including the new A/C unit, have the environmental impact labels familiar at home. All of them show that the appliances will have the most negative impact! Somehow I don’t think this is a criterion which Landlady or her father consider when she purchases them.
This doesn’t mean to say that there is no concern about the environment. There are frequent media reports of protests all over China about new polluting factories and the misuse of chemicals in the food chain. A young Chinese friend recently lectured me very seriously about the presence of fertiliser in milk and urged me to stop buying it. I haven’t done so. I feel – probably irrationally – resistant to these and similar scare stories. I regret the loss of chicken from our diet due to avian flu.
Soon we will take a break from our new life in China and go back to the UK over the summer. It has been an intense and sometimes exhausting first year, but we have never regretted our decision to come here. For me, the local market, the food and learning the language have been the highlights. The foundations have been laid for the second massive shopping centre next to East Lake Gardens. Maybe by September we will be able to do our shopping in Tesco and believe we are not in China at all. This seems to be an important aim of reform and opening, but not a goal I share. I shall be back at the market as soon as the jetlag abates.

New Perspectives

A piece on the BBC website caught my eye this week. It was all about Chinese tourists abroad in Europe and the USA and focused on their perceived bad behaviour, such as not queuing. But the tourist destinations are in something of a bind, as Chinese tourism is now the biggest in the world in financial terms. Has the stereo-type of the large, brash, camera-wielding American tourist been replaced with that of the small, Chinese tourist, probably part of a jostling group all wearing identical sun hats?
When I’ve talked to Chinese students who are contemplating their one or two years of study abroad they are concerned about the discrimination they think they will face. They have heard that Chinese people are treated badly in Europe, and often their parents, who have probably never left China, are very worried about letting them travel. I’ve tried to describe to one student who is going to UCL next year, that the ethnic variety along the Euston Road or down Gower Street will mean that no one will even notice her. She remains unconvinced. After all, despite the internationalism of the university campus, Ningbo is very homogeneous and it is rare to see anyone here who is not Chinese. Hence the amount of stares we receive.
My concerns in Ningbo are somewhat different, as I have to learn to behave properly as a Westerner in Chinese society – something that is not as easy as it might appear. China and the Chinese language are high context, which means that very little is actually directly stated and almost everything has to be gleaned from circumstances. In Mandarin there are no tenses and no cases – nuances from these useful linguistic mechanisms are implied and not spelled out. You don’t know how many people did anything, to whom and when except from participating in the conversation and hoping for the best.
Last Friday we were invited to a wedding party by a student in one of my classes. I carried out detailed research about what we should wear and what gift we should bring. The issue of apparel was easily understood – smart casual – but the present was more complex. Money is the only gift expected, unless you are the groom’s parents, in which case you have to cough up for an apartment.
We asked around about the amount of money we should offer, and were given three ‘quotes’. As usual, Alice’s answer was the most helpful. The amount is less important than the fact that it has 6 or 8 in it – the lucky numbers – for example 60, 80, 600, or 680 yuan. (I’ve since noticed that most car registrations have these numbers, as do many business telephone numbers. None contain the unlucky 4). The money has to be presented in a red envelope. I had some spare ones left over from Chinese New Year, but my Chinese teacher pointed out to me that the message on these was not appropriate to a wedding, so armed with her sketch of the right characters, I tracked down the correct type in the supermarket.
The next problem was when to hand over the envelope. There were again three likely scenarios: when you arrive at the party, if the bride and groom are there to greet you; during the rounds of toasts when the happy couple visit each table; or at a separate table set up for this purpose and looked after by a relative. Watch what everyone else does, suggested my teacher pragmatically. We arrived a little late, so couldn’t learn by example, but after some nervous hesitation, we went for the first option. It seemed to be the right one.
At this kind of occasion in Ningbo connected with the university there are always a number of expats, and after the serious business of eating from the buffet is over, we usually gather to chat and check out our mutual experiences. Given the range of nationalities here, this nearly always provides some new perspectives on many issues. An Egyptian gave me his pessimistic views on his own country and on Iraq. Before the invasion it had at least been a functioning society and a country you could visit – not like now. Baghdad was once a beautiful city. At the wedding I sat next to someone from Prague. He’d been about 30 during the Velvet Revolution. He recalled the excitement in people’s eyes. They saw paradise, he said. But not everyone’s dreams have since been realised. A friend born in Britain to parents from Hong Kong reminisced about the handover. In the end it hadn’t meant much to his parents as they had left 20 years before, but his Chinese wife had a different view. She was still at school in China and had been swept up in the joyous celebrations.
One of my upcoming exams will require a discussion of the uses and abuses of oral history, including reminiscence. There are lots of theoretical problems with this way of gathering evidence, particularly as the teller knows how things turned out and inevitably adapts their story in retrospect. Nevertheless, asking people to describe their personal memories and experience of world events makes for good dinner conversation.


Yesterday our class trip (covering general topics about Ningbo and social history) was to Tiantong Temple, about 15 miles east of the city. This is a complex with living quarters for Buddhist monks, a temple, halls and altars, and a pair of large pools full of golden carp and turtles. The approach to the temple is lined with stalls selling paraphernalia to help the visitor – incense, food, and various souvenirs, including lucky charm pictures of Mao to hang from your driving mirror – a snip at 2 yuan. You can buy small live turtles to release into the pools, to show your compassion and commitment to peace. White doves flutter over the temple gateway.
Like so much of China’s built heritage, Tiantong was ravaged in the Cultural Revolution. On the way in the taxi I chatted to a fellow student about what she had researched for her course essay. The Socialist Education Campaign of the early 1960s had interested her because her grandfather, a native of our province, Zhejiang, had been ‘sent down’ for education into the countryside. He had been lucky, however. Many young people, straight out of school, had been sent to farming communities, where they had to stay without further education for 15 years or more. My friend’s grandfather had been given a government job in Urumqi, way out west in Xinjiang, about 500 kilometres from the border with Kazakhstan. He stayed there and this is her home town. It takes her 6 hours to fly home.
While the lives of many who were ‘sent down’ could only be partially rebuilt, Tiantong has now been restored as a tourist spot. The local peasantry has been uprooted and their fields landscaped and turned into gardens, nestling at the bottom of the surrounding hills, which are covered by lush jungle. They looked particularly green as we are in the middle of the Ningbo rainy season – warm days of light rain, interspersed with bright sunshine. An umbrella’s a must – half the time to protect you from rain, and the other half to serve as a parasol. Chinese women like to maintain pale skin.
The temple was busy. Groups seemed to be divided by gender, with women in the majority. We saw one group of men from a local Geeley car factory, identifiable from their company overalls. Most people carried packs of incense sticks, which they lit from flames provided for the purpose by attendant monks in saffron and brown robes and then placed in a large metal trough. There was little sign of reverence, although there were notices exhorting good behaviour, including an instruction not to let off firecrackers. Praying in the temple is a transaction – you buy your incense, burn it, pray and expect a return. The activity is individualised with no collective experience.
It’s near the time for the gaokao – the make-or-break college entrance exam at the end of secondary school which is used to allocate places at university. Traditionally, grandmothers and mothers are despatched to pray for their child’s success, and there certainly seemed to be women who could have been carrying out this duty. From what I’ve been told, the Chinese education regime is brutal. At an early age parents make their children understand that they are aiming to get a good score in the gaokao and the final years at secondary school are totally focused on this goal. Students have told me how they rose at 6am for classes and studied until 10pm at night, six or seven days a week. Many board at secondary school to avoid any distractions.
I’ve also met Chinese people who have decided to take their children out of this system by educating them abroad. For example, I had lunch this week with a Chinese professional who had sent their child to Vancouver at age 14 and expected them to go to university in Canada. Vancouver has one of the largest Chinese populations in the world. This was a strange coincidence as Fintan was in Vancouver this week at a U21 conference, meeting with university managers from all over the world, including the old student friend from UCD Dram Soc who had identified him during a phone conference a few months ago.
Taking your child out of the education system is of course an exception. Other people in Ningbo express their individuality in more mundane ways, particularly through their driving. A favourite place for doing this is at a major junction on our way to the university. The cycle path is wide and has an opening from the main carriageway about 200 yards back from the junction. The temptation to sneak into the cycle path and turn right without waiting for the green light is too much for many drivers. Recently, Ningbo traffic police have decided to bring some order to the anarchy on the roads. A couple of police have been stationed at the junction, with batons-cum-light-sabres to direct the traffic. They are only visible to the errant drivers once they are trapped in the cycle path. Imagine our excitement when a young man in a car bearing the window sticker ‘Bruce Lee inside’ was stopped by a policewoman. Yes, she was serious. Yes, he needed to step out and show his licence. No, he shouldn’t be in the cycle lane. Perhaps he thought the Mao charm dangling from his driving mirror would protect him. Needless to say, it didn’t.

The Puncture

Our new shopping centre is flourishing, or at least the many restaurants are packing in the punters. Starbucks is usually heaving with people and the Parisien Bakery (actually Korean owned) is very popular. The clothes shops – H & M, Gap, Uniqlo – are all open but they lack customers other than window-shoppers. We appear to be the only regular customers in Muji.
The many small shops and businesses all around East Lake Garden don’t appear to be adversely affected by the new shopping malls with their fancy stores and supermarkets. The old China goes on much as it must have done for decades, with family-run grocery and water stores, fruit shops, massage shops, shoe shiners, dry cleaners and restaurants. I have got to know one family that runs a grocery-cum-water shop; either the father or son delivers our fortnightly supply of two barrels of water by e-bike. Another couple run a fruit shop and have painstakingly initiated me into buying fruit Chinese style. They teach me the names of unfamiliar fruit and the young man shaves and cuts pineapple into a beautiful spiralling helter-skelter shape – ready to eat.
This week I discovered another local small business. Fintan’s cycle to work was interrupted on Monday morning by a severe puncture, probably acquired from glass on a rough patch of concrete outside the building site. This is always hazardous on our bikes; it’s like cycling over a solid ploughed field – the concrete wasn’t allowed to set before e-bikes went over it. Fintan limped back home and left his bike in our cellar-garage and went to work by taxi. His PA texted me later to say that she thought there was a bicycle repair shop across the road from East Lake Garden third gate.
I set out for the third gate with the bike in search of the repair shop. First, a word about gates. Gates are a very important part of Chinese culture. Being safely locked in or effectively kept out seems to be a key element in the organisation of society. In communist times the work unit must have been a gated community. Most tourist sites are marked by gates. Now we must open electronic gates to get out of our apartment building and the compound or negotiate the barriers that control access to East Lake for cars.
Outside the third gate is a wide cross roads, with streets lined with small shops and traders, some doing business from vans and trucks, others squatting beside produce brought in from local small-holdings. You can buy fish, vegetables, fruit, dumplings, steamed buns, nuts, sponge cakes, eggs, ginger – even live animals from a pet shop.
I cross the road, turn right and push the bike along past a large, glass fronted restaurant. It’s after 11am and people have started to gather for lunch. I can’t see anything remotely like a bike shop. Suddenly, a group of men talk to me loudly and point in the opposite direction. They can see the flat tyre and surmise what I’m looking for. I need to go back towards the gate. I can’t understand much of what they say, but I get the gist. I turn around and retrace my steps.
Back at the cross roads, I see the ‘shop’. It is a big red umbrella next to a wooden cart pulled by a tricycle. The cart has been opened up to reveal tools and rubber tubes. A man squats in front of it mending bicycles. Local pedi-cab drivers come by to have their tyres pumped up. A metal bowl of water helps identify punctures. I point to my tyre. With the help of a tyre lever, the man smartly gets to work. He doesn’t even need the water – when he pumps up the inner tube, dusty air spurts out of a couple of holes. He attempts to mend it, but we soon realise that the inner tube has had it. At first I think he can’t help me and I attempt to take the bike away, but then I understand a few words – ‘three o’clock’ – and realise that I am to come back in the afternoon. A few people have gathered to witness the spectacle of the foreign woman negotiating with the bicycle man. They smile and laugh when I understand what I’m meant to do.
That afternoon I return and, sure enough, the tyre is repaired. ‘How much?’ I ask. I misunderstand the response, thinking it is 8 yuan, not 80. I show Bicycle Repair man my purse – I only have 5 or 50 yuan notes. He takes offence and thinks I won’t pay him enough. He gives a long speech. I suppose it is all about how he has had to go a long way to get the inner tube. Then I realise my mistake and press 100 yuan into his hands. All smiles and we are friends again.
Of course, I enjoy recounting the tale to Fintan that evening. We talk about how we like the local supermarkets and enjoy the restaurants and shops in the malls, but it is the local businesses that have engaged our interest and given us a more vivid and personal insight into China. The next day, Fintan realises the repair has loosened his front brakes. There is another bicycle repair shop on campus. Alice offers to take the bike round to get the brakes fixed. She returns, triumphant – all done – and it only cost 1 yuan – 10p.