Our lives in Ningbo inevitably now conform to a well-trodden pattern, but one of the benefits of doing the same things repeatedly is that I can chart my progress in learning the language. For example, each time I return to the local bank to check the deposit account which pays our electricity and gas bill, I have evidence that I have learned one more word or one more sentence. I have progressed from holding up the bank book to someone on the street to find out where the bank might be (year one, week one) to being able to ask one of the many bank assistants (over-employment in banks is widespread) how much is in my account and telling the cashier how much I want to deposit (year three, week nine).
I find that I can now often understand exchanges between parents or grandparents and children. The way adults speak slowly and often repeat themselves suits me just fine. On a train the other day I sat next to a mother with a small boy on her knee. He told his mum perhaps 15 times: Baba hui you yong (爸爸会游泳) and she patiently agreed. This simply means ‘Daddy knows how to swim’, but I was as pleased as punch that I could follow the ‘conversation’, which moved onto what the little fellow wanted to eat and how tired he was.
Last week I returned twice to the fabric market in Ningbo to choose material and then commission another jacket, but this time for someone else. My first visit last summer involved quite a lot of pointing and nodding; this time I knew just a little bit more vocabulary and knowing what to expect, could state my requirements more clearly. I explained I needed to photograph the array of brocades in order for my friend in England to choose and was left to my own devices while the tailor went off and had her lunch.
A few days later I returned. The tailor was busy with another group of women all vociferously explaining what they wanted. ‘Don’t worry, I can wait’, I said. These are simple phrases learned in year one, but I’ve found it is only recently that I can get my brain in gear to say them reliably in the right context at the right moment. A rubicon has been passed, my anxieties have lessened and I now sometimes believe that I can speak Chinese, or will at least be able to get by in most situations.
I was armed with a photograph of the jacket my friend wanted copied. I had written measurements on it in centimetres, thinking this would be helpful. Two different tape measures and a yardstick were produced. It became obvious that Chinese units of measurement are different. One tape measure seemed to have something like inches. These were bigger than the ones I am used to, but appeared to be the ones usually used by the tailor. We turned to the ‘foreign’ tape measure which had centimetres and agreed that these were the same in China as in Europe. Then the tailor inspected the measurements I had supplied, somewhat incredulously. The shoulder width was surely too wide, the sleeves too long. She had a very fixed idea of the range they should fall into and mine were a couple of centimetres out. Although I remonstrated that European women are generally bigger than Chinese, I was told to go back and ask for the measurements again.
We exchanged phone numbers and I agreed to check the sizes. Using the phone in Chinese is still a bit outside my comfort zone. I have one set call in my repertoire, used to order bottles of water, so this was certainly breaking new ground. To my relief, the tailor suggested I text her with the numbers and carefully explained and wrote down the order in which she wanted these (shoulders, hips and sleeves). On the whole, I prefer writing in characters to talking. I’ve learned how to change the language setting on my phone and with enough time I can send simple messages. I paid my deposit and left – triumphant!
The text interchange duly took place, although the tailor pointed out that the measurements I sent were the same as on the photo. With the help of my dictionary I learned that she therefore thought they were ‘authentic’. I’ve heard nothing more, so I’m hoping that in a week or so I will be able to collect the finished garment. And that it will fit.