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.
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?