Language and illiteracy

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.

Breaking through the ethnographic barriers

On my last visit to Zhongshan Park I was greeted like an old friend by some of the visitors. I’ve turned up often enough now for them to recognize me and my interpreter. At the main opera spot last week, the lead er hu player stopped playing, waved and then turned to his companions and whispered, loud enough for us to hear ‘Ningbo Nottingham Da Xue’ – Ningbo Nottingham University. We had interviewed the er hu player the week before and discovered that his son had been to both Cambridge and Nottingham universities in the UK, and now ran a business in Shanghai. This is just one example of the rapid social changes experienced by the park goers within one generation.

The er hu player gestured to us to sit down at the front of the audience, and blue plastic stools were duly supplied. Then suddenly one of the singers brought over the microphone to us and indicated that I should sing. The gap between Yue Ju opera and any song I might have been able to sing was just too great and I’m afraid to say I was not up to the challenge. But from the ethnographic point of view I felt that an invisible barrier had been crossed and that I was now accepted by the group.

Indeed, some more interesting conversations ensued when we chatted to some of the singers. Two women we spoke to had not learned Yue Ju opera at the adult college but had simply listened to CDs and DVDs. I found this surprising, given the complexity of the music and the strange – to my ears – vocal sound, but they clearly thought nothing of it. The women were retired and now had time to enjoy themselves.

We have continued to talk to the elderly audience, who sit under the pavilions at the edge of the performance zone. A man of 81 tried out his few words of English on me, and talked to my interpreter about England’s colonial past, which he seemed to view with some amusement. He admired my (rather ordinary) watch – and wanted to know how much it cost, something that happens regularly to me. Watches seem to be the ultimate sign of wealth. He comes to the park every day with his wife to meet friends, because they don’t want to watch television all day and fall asleep. It’s important to keep your brain ticking over, he told us. He and his group have created a kind of sitting room feel to their section of the pavilion and provide sheets of magazines to sit on, against the cold and to protect their clothes I suppose.

On my last visit I was able to discover more about the Zhiqing, or ‘sent down’ youth. These people are in their 60s – considerably younger than some of the people we have met so far. We came across one man sitting on his own in the far end of the park listening to two people singing ‘Red’ songs from the Mao era. The park accommodates many different musical styles. When we asked him, he told us how he liked this music better than anything he heard today because it reminded him of the happy time he’d spent in the forests of north east China. The Cultural Revolution is officially known as the 10 years of chaos and holocaust, so it must be tricky for people who look back on that time with nostalgia. However, it seems that in Ningbo, like many cities in China, there are thriving clubs for Zhiqing, who organise trips back to their farms and exhibitions about their experiences. They have even put up money for a privately run Zhiqing Museum; I’m going to visit this tomorrow and hope to interview the curator.

One group I haven’t penetrated yet is the crowd of elderly male debaters, who gather, especially at the weekend, to talk animatedly under the eaves of the old teahouse. But today I read a long post on a Ningbo forum for the elderly, from a man in his 70s who had visited the park in 2010 and listened in to the conversations, which he described in vivid detail. Topics included recent natural disasters, riots in Tibet and Xinjiang, house prices, corruption and the growing gap between rich and poor. He used words such as ‘human rights’ (ren quan) and ‘democracy’ (min zhu) to express what he thought these open conversations were all about. Sadly, he didn’t feel able to join in himself. Instead, he was reminded of the terror of the Cultural Revolution when he had been paraded in a tall dunce’s hat and beaten. He said he still couldn’t quite trust others enough to express an opinion.

I don’t know the exact connection between either of these experiences of the Cultural Revolution – the nostalgic and the humiliating terror –and Zhongshan Park, but I will try hard to find out. I hope my new found acceptance by the park goers will help me get to the bottom of these complex and sensitive issues.

Voices of Ningbo

Voices of Ningbo
A metro line is currently under construction in Ningbo and the first line, out to the port at Beilun, is due to open imminently. An email was sent to students last week asking if anyone would like to compete to become the English language voice-of-Ningbo-metro. This is in keeping with every metro line we have been on in China (Shanghai, Beijing, Hangzhou, Nanjing) where stations are announced in both Chinese and English. It turned out that a man in my class does a party piece as Ian McKellen, and he decided to volunteer. We wished him well, although our tutor thought that it was more likely that the city authorities would prefer an American accent.

My research is progressing and I’ve begun to hear some of the voices of visitors to Zhongshan park, albeit through my interpreter. My assumptions have been dispelled on several occasions. For example, because the park is surrounded by both old courtyard style houses and newer apartment blocks, I had assumed that most of the elderly visitors would be from the immediate locality. This hasn’t turned out to be completely true. My interpreter and I talked to an 88 year old man who told us that every day, rain or shine, he takes two buses to come to the park, where he meets three friends. He used to live nearby, but has been rehoused some way away. They have lunch and then later in the afternoon he goes home. He lives with his son, but finds they no longer have much to talk about. Our interview was curtailed when the group toddled off into the nearby restaurant district at 11am for lunch. I imagine they’d been up since 5am or earlier.
Although I’m with an interpreter, I’m still the subject of many comments and curious looks. I am often asked my age, and the answer is met with incredulity. It is refreshing to be in an environment where I am the youngest and not the oldest. I look young to them – partly because they have had a much harder life than me. If you are in your 50s or 60s or older in China you have experienced famine or chronic food shortages, especially if you lived in the countryside. If you were a baby or young girl you would be least likely to have got enough to eat. Many of the old women in the park are distinctly short in height as a result of early malnutrition. My teeth are remarked on – they look good – and last week my nose received attention. It’s ‘gau’ – high or prominent to a Chinese person. I think this was a compliment, but maybe not! ‘Big nose’ can apparently also simply mean ‘foreigner’.
The old man who comes by bus every day enjoys the lively atmosphere in the park, especially the opera. I’ve begun to find out a bit more about who performs the opera and how they have acquired their skill. To my surprise, it turns out that there is a Ningbo Old People’s University – an adult college. Three different types of opera are on the curriculum and after three years of study, students can join the college troupe. It seems that the singers in the park are practising the songs they have learned in the college. Again, this is partly assumption, and I’m hoping to interview a teacher from the college to find out more about the link with the park. Meanwhile, we have managed to talk to a man who has been coming Zhongshan every day for 15 years since he was made redundant. He brings seats and refreshments for the singers. Coming to the park seems to be his main occupation.

A further source of information has been the internet, which has newspaper articles with the history of the park and a forum for ‘zhiqing’ or educated youth who were ‘sent down’ to the country to help with farming during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. I had assumed that this was an essentially negative experience, which interrupted the young people’s education and ruined their lives. The forum would suggest that this is not necessarily the case. Postings are nostalgic for the camaraderie of time spent in the country. There seems to be some kind of connection between the sent down youth and Zhongshan Park, but I don’t yet know quite what that is. I’m busily reading about the Cultural Revolution, different memories of it and how it is constructed by contemporary elites in new China.

Like all research, it seems that the more I find out the more unanswered questions I uncover. I have sparked memories for my interpreter and for her mother, who I have also interviewed. She remembers the square next to the park when it was a stadium and when there was an air raid shelter underneath it for use during the Sino-Japanese war. My interpreter remembers Zhongshan Park as a place for exhibitions, festivals and fun – it has only become the ‘place of the old’ in the last 15 years. So perhaps my theory that it is some kind of substitute for the intimacy of the courtyard house has some legitimacy. I hope to find more evidence to substantiate it.