Silence and invisibility

The first thing I’ve noticed back in Nottingham is the silence. It has taken a year in China to make me realise just how quiet Nottingham surburbia really is. No one slamming car doors or impatiently hooting at 5am, no one collecting garbage at 4.30am on a creaky bicycle, tipping out the bags of bottles and cans to find plastic or cardboard for recycling, no one bawling out their child in aggressive Ningbo-hua. The effects of jet lag are gradually fading and anyway it is pleasurable to wake early on a June day and look out on my slightly overgrown, weedy but lusciously green garden. I missed my garden very much and while Chinese people seem to grow vegetables in any available container or spare space, I couldn’t imagine discussing the pleasure of growing flowers for their own sake with people who have to live permanently in such an intensely urban environment. On the other hand, nearly every shrub and flower I have in the garden as an individual specimen, features in Chinese parks and large scale municipal planting schemes. This is just one example of the way in which China is present yet somehow invisible in everyday life in Britain.

My patient readers may remember that in my last posting I described the fate of my bra, which fell onto the washing railings below our flat. It remains there and so yesterday I set out for Marks and Spencer to buy some more underwear. Every piece of clothing I picked up was made in China. I found myself thinking of Peter Hessler’s description of factory life in Zhejiang. His main focus is on the factory which makes large bra rings for 90% of the bras in Russia and I smiled to myself as I noticed that small but crucial feature for adjusting the straps. It’s not that I didn’t know before that most things I buy were ‘made in China’, but now I have experienced the intense urbanisation and transformation of Chinese society on which this fact depends. I also know that any item which is branded, from high end to low end, is far more expensive in China than in Britain. This explains the empty mall shops in Ningbo and the flocking of Chinese tourists to Europe to buy up the branded goods that are manufactured in their own country. It seems that Paris is easily the most popular destination as visa requirements are simpler.

My last two weeks in China were spent mediating Beijing, Shanghai and Ningbo to my sons. This was a repeat of the visit Fintan and I made in May 2012 before we moved to Ningbo. We visited the tourist trail – the Forbidden City, a duck restaurant, the Temple of Heaven, the Wall, the Bund, Pudong, Shanghai Museum etc. But just as for us a year ago, I think it was the glimpses of the life of ordinary Chinese people – sometimes shocking, sometimes surprising, but always fascinating – which made the most impact, partly because these are not represented in the Western media. My younger son shared my enthusiasm for our local market, although he was bemused by the frequent and obvious comments about his height from the rather short Ningbo locals! It helped me learn the word for tall – gau – also the word for high, and the first part of happy. Chinese people have no inhibitions about making personal comments about your appearance. The Chinese student who generously took my class to her village in April, came and met us in East Lake Starbucks. She and her friend are off to UCL next autumn. Despite being set up by an interfering adult, conversation flowed and the boys gained a tiny insight into their lives.

Great Wall at Mutianyu

Great Wall at Mutianyu

WordPress is blocked in China, so it is a relief to be able to write this blog without a VPN and even use the photograph function. In China police presence and surveillance is usually obvious – sites are unavailable or suddenly go down. This is annoying, as are other aspects of the Chinese authorities’ constant desire to know your whereabouts when in China, but at least everyone knows the rules.  It is ironic to return to Britain in the midst of the storm over the secret surveillance of all our communications by the NSA and GCHQ.  A different kind of invisibility?

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Appropriate language and behaviour

I remember we were very shocked when our eldest son, aged about 6, came home and told us a rhyme he had just learned in the playground of Bourneville Infants School:
Ooh ahh, I lost my bra, I left it in my boyfriend’s car!
Well, I have actually lost my bra – not, I hasten to add in anybody’s car, but over the edge of our balcony window, down on to the drying railings of the flat two storeys below. This is one of the hazards of living in a high(ish) rise apartment. We have all sorts of hanging mechanisms for drying the washing on the balcony, but with the better weather I tend to hand out smaller items on a twirly device with lots of pegs, and hook this to the concertina-like railings which come with every apartment. Unfortunately, one mistake and an item can be lost below. On other occasions, a falling small has reached the ground and I’ve rushed down in the lift to retrieve it. But not this time.
Now, as several of my kind readers have remarked, my Mandarin has advanced considerably. I can go to the bank to pay the electricity bill, I can buy vegetables, I can discuss the weather, I can place the supermarket south of the bookshop, I can talk about my family and my age. However, I haven’t yet learned to say, ‘Please could you give me back my bra, as it’s fallen on your clothes line.’
I put my little problem to my Mandarin teacher when she came here last week. She suggested a simple sentence would definitely do the trick. It translated roughly as: ‘My clothing has fallen on your family.’ The word for clothing is a lot easier to remember than bra, while the word for family is also the word for house. The character of the latter is interesting – it combines two basic shapes or radicals, for roof and pig. If you have both of these in Chinese you have a family or indeed a house.
My teacher even came downstairs with me to knock on the door of 203. No luck – no answer. And so it has been for the last few days. My blue, Marks and Spencer bra remains suspended on the drying rack of flat 203, although it has been, somewhat disparagingly I feel, pushed to the very end of the rail. So if I ever got them to open the door and talk to me, I don’t know how they would fish back my bra. But anyway, I’ve lost heart and no longer have the chutzpah to try out my new sentence.
But this week I have had other linguistic triumphs. During one of my lessons, my teacher shut herself in one of our spare rooms while I telephoned her and we practised some possible conversations – reserving a table in a restaurant, asking about a hotel reservation and ordering drinking water. I have a terror of using the phone here. I’m happy to prepare what to say, but the problem is that the person at the other end answers and what if I don’t understand them? With no other indicators – gestures, body language etc – I fear I would be left sweating and helpless. Anyway, my teacher’s strategy has been a good one and yesterday I rang our water shop and asked for a delivery of two barrels of water. No problem! Mrs Watershop recognised my voice instantly (probably showing how terrible my accent is) and knew exactly where to deliver the water. I was very pleased with myself, although when Mr Watershop arrived he wanted to engage in conversation, and I was disappointed that I didn’t understand him.
I realise I just have to acquire more vocabulary – and as quickly as possible. So, on Saturday I took action. We were out and about in downtown Ningbo getting a free service for our bikes before we go back to the UK. We spent a couple of hours in the centre of the city reflecting on how quickly our first year had passed and considering how long it had taken us to overcome our initial culture shock. Walking back to the bicycle shop we passed a bookstore with a window full of children’s books. I could read a few characters and it struck me this could be a way to learn more words, fairly painlessly. I am now the owner of ‘Kitten goes fishing’ (Grade 1) and ‘Three Little Pigs’ (Grade 2).
Sunday was spent on the first 6 pages of ‘Kitten goes fishing.’ Each page has two sentences of about 12 characters. By the end of the day I had indeed acquired some new words. These included: cat, river, dragonfly, butterfly, fish, fishing rod, chase and bring. Probably not all of these will be useful in my everyday life, nor will they help with conversations with shopkeepers, but I feel I’m continuing to make progress. I’ve also gained some insight into the moral messages that the PRC imparts to first graders. You don’t catch a big fish (symbol of prosperity, by the way) unless you sit down on the river bank, concentrate, ignore any distractions offered by your friends and do what your mother tells you…….