Yesterday I came home to find a small notice stuck to the door of the flat. I can now read enough characters, especially with the help of the Pleco App, to know a bill when I see one, and I could make out that we had been served a final demand for our water supply; payment had been due in early March. Probably, we had received an earlier invoice in our post box, down on the street, but when you are more or less illiterate you don’t really distinguish between the important mail and the piles of adverts and local newspapers which usually fill up the box. In some ways this is good, in that it cuts down on anxiety – I don’t really know what to worry about – but on the other hand it can mean you can’t judge when something is urgent and you miss things that are important.
This morning I walked round to the East Lake Community Office to pay the bill. I’ve discovered where and what this is from the last ‘emergency’, when we came down to find that the padlock had been changed on our bicycle garage. My cleaner took me around to the office on the back of her e-bike and showed me where to get a new key. The rather shabby office building seems to be a combination of community rooms, a library, Party offices and the room for bill payments.
A week or so ago the last chapter we studied in class was about renting a flat, so my vocabulary for apartment-related goods and activities has increased. The text in the Beijing Language University textbook is about comparing the advantages and disadvantages of living on or off campus, with a strong bias towards living on campus, so that you can get to classes quicker and take part in more activities such as calligraphy, tai qi and gong fu. There seems to be something inherently subversive about living off campus.
Anyway, in the East Lake office although I presented my bill and showed my money, it took some time to get served as the woman in front of me was arguing passionately and in great detail about why her bill (identical to mine) was far too high. Her small fluffy miniature dog waited patiently on a high stool next to her on one side, as did I on the other. When it was my turn, I proudly tried out my new sentences – I’m not the landlord, I rent flat 403, etc., etc. on the cashier. Maybe I was also being overcharged, but that was way beyond my language competence to even consider. For me, just to complete one of these interactions is a triumph and I can’t really worry about whether I’m being cheated or not.
The experience was morale-raising, especially after the slight trauma of this week’s listening exam at the university. Last semester’s exam was considered too easy (we all got very high marks), so the level was raised this time. This meant that what we heard was spoken at, what seemed to us, breakneck speed. Even if you listen three times, deciding whether the cash desk is north west or north east of the bookstore (whoever says that?), or working out how high the rent is if it is reduced by 20% this year, as opposed to last year because you are now living on your own, is pretty challenging.
Learning Mandarin is indeed a roller coaster ride. One day things seem to be going well – I passed HSK 2 with flying colours – but the next day you don’t think you are making any progress at all. Now I have to prepare some scripts to show off my grasp of complex sentence structures to impress the examiners in the oral exam at the beginning of May. Our topics include comparing food in Ningbo with food in our home towns, travel in China and life at the university. I shall say that my home town is London, as it has more ‘scenic spots’ as the Chinese like to call them. I’ve asked my private language teacher to help me say ‘Big Ben’, ‘Buckingham Palace’, ‘Houses of Parliament’ and the ‘Tower of London’ in Mandarin. I was interested that she had only heard of Big Ben – some interesting political agendas there I can’t help feeling. We’ve also come up with some sentences about both Ningbo and London having public bicycle schemes and I can now explain – in my best Chinese – that the bikes in London are called Boris bikes. I doubt if the Mayor of Ningbo has a similar claim to fame.