Talking to the tailor and other reflections on language learning

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.


Piped music in the park

At the weekend, we cycled down to the new park in the business district of Yinzhou, the suburb to the south of Ningbo where we live. The park has always intrigued me because it is so different from the inner city park full of the elderly that I studied for my (now successfully completed) dissertation. It illustrates how Chinese urban planners create leisure zones for different sectors of society, divided not only by age but also by income and aspiration.
Yinzhou Park is definitely for the aspiring young middle class.

It is overlooked by massive new skyscrapers, the office blocks of the CBD, clearly modelled on the Manhattan skyline. There is an area for wedding photographs, complete with scenic backdrops, a children’s playground, a lake with boats for hire, an island with a mechanical dinosaur, two cafes, and open grassy areas. The favourite must-have accessory for the latter is a tent and several of these were on display on Sunday. Small encampments mark out territory for picnics, card-playing, sleeping or reading. While it is not as noisy as Zhongzhan Park in the city, and there is certainly no opera or live-singing, it is not silent.

Every few metres a loud speaker is attached to a lamp standard and all afternoon pleasant, but to my mind, intrusive music is piped into the park. Every ten minutes or so, the music stops and a message is broadcast to the park visitors. As far as I can understand, this welcomes visitors and tells them how to behave so as not to endanger themselves or others. ‘Safety’ (安全 an quan) is the euphemism most often cited to control the population.

In the evenings, a ‘security guard’ drives around our compound on an ebike, similarly broadcasting messages. I can’t understand a word of them because of the sound distortion, but I’m told they are about household ‘safety’ – don’t leave the gas on, flush the toilet, lock the door and so on. The instructions don’t seem to have much effect on some of the wilder behaviour of the drivers, as I reported in my last blog about parking. Since writing that, I have noticed that the parking problem is exacerbated because there are a significant number of cars simply abandoned in parking spaces, presumably when their owners have decided to buy a new car, or have moved apartment. The tell-tale signs are a thicker layer of grime than usual and flat tyres. There appears to be no attempt to remove the cars.

I often discuss differences between China and the UK with my Chinese teacher and noise is one of the topics to which we frequently return. Repetition helps my vocabulary of course, but this gives me a chance to moan about the noise of the construction sites close to our block which is currently extremely unpleasant. It is a combination of grinding generators, turned on at 7am, giant pneumatic drills and heavy metal girders, clashing as they hit the ground apparently dropped from cranes. On Monday, at 5am, about 10 huge lorries arrive with the cement for the week’s work and emit more noise as they unload. The Chinese insistence on a one and a half hour lunch break is a blessing, as this gives us 90 minutes of silence between 11am and 12.30pm.

My teacher is politely sympathetic to my complaints, but she also revealed to me that some Chinese people fear going to Europe because of the sparsity of the population and the lack of noise….. a cultural fear of silence. From this I must conclude that piped music in the park adds to people’s enjoyment.


We often marvel at the outrageous parking within our compound. There are too many cars and not enough spaces and in the evenings there is a competition among the luxury saloons and SUVs for the remaining spots. Often a queue stretches back to the south gate as cars jockey for position. Once the marked spaces are filled up, owners double-park or simply leave their cars in the middle of the road.

In the morning the fight-back begins and from 6am or sometimes earlier, drivers who can’t get their cars out, sit on their horns in anger or desperation, waiting for the owners of the abandoned cars which are blocking in everyone else to get up and come and move their vehicles. The only inconvenience for us is the noise.

We had never experienced first-hand random-parking-syndrome until last weekend, when we returned from Japan to Shanghai Pudong airport. As usual we had booked a car to collect us from the airport for the two and a half hour drive back to Ningbo. At the terminal, we braved hundreds of excited young Chinese tennis groupies who were awaiting the arrival of Roger Federer for the Shanghai Masters tournament.

An unfamiliar young driver was waiting for us. He was a cool dude, with reflective shades, and fashionable jeans. He led us back to the nearby car park. Just as in East Lake Garden, unable to find legitimate parking spaces, four or five drivers had simply left their cars, including a taxi, in a line between the cars parked on either side, effectively blocking them in. Once we were safely stowed in the back of the large people-carrier, Cool Dude realised that it was going to be difficult to drive out. He seemed to be a nervous and inexperienced driver and made only timid attempts to manoeuvre the car. Through sign language we attempted to help him, fairly convinced there was enough space to squeeze out, but it was obvious that he didn’t like the idea of moving the car in such a tight space.

Half an hour passed. Cool Dude phoned the number displayed on the side of the taxi. He phoned the owner of the university car hire company. Maybe he phoned a friend – who knows? All to no avail. Eventually, a police car turned up and two young police men got out. They were amused at our plight and didn’t seem that bothered about doing much about it. Suddenly, the owner of one of the randomly parked cars appeared and drove off smartly, giving us a little bit more space to turn. Maybe he didn’t like the look of the police, although no parking tickets or other sanctions seemed to be forthcoming. Cool Dude returned to the wheel, and following the hand signals of the policeman, managed to advance out of our space. We breathed a sigh of relief.

It was probably the culture shock of re-entry after Japan that made the whole episode somehow seem to epitomise the curious mixture of authoritarianism and anarchy that is China. In Japan, parking is predictably orderly and you often see cars in crowded areas parked in specially designed automated stacks. Taxi drivers wear white gloves and head rests are covered in white lace. I don’t recall seeing any traffic police in Japan, while they are frequently in evidence in China, blowing whistles, waving their arms and shouting at people and car drivers – usually with limited effect. Traffic police sometimes appear after an accident, apparently to adjudicate the damages.

You don’t feel – perhaps unfairly – that police in China would help you; they seem only to be there for control purposes and not to offer civic support. This was brought home to us last year during the floods, when westerners were surprised that no police appeared to check on residents of apartment blocks trapped by flood water. Occasionally I’ve seen ambulances or fire-engines cutting through the traffic, but I don’t have any sense that public emergency services exist and have no idea how to call them. In China there is a culture of total self-reliance; you look out for yourself and your family.

Shanghai and Kyoto: a contrast

Before setting off for our National Day break in Japan, we went to see Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake at the Shanghai Cultural Centre. This is yet another vast new venue in downtown Shanghai, in the heart of the French Concession area. It is cunningly constructed downwards, so that it doesn’t conflict with the generally low height of the concession housing. The theatre is a white, metal oval, revealing its extent only as you penetrate its gleaming, marble interior. It apparently occupies the site of the old dog racing track and a flower market.

The whiteness within contrasts with a giant stained-glass mural of brightly coloured exotic plants, with turquoise predominant. In front is a glassed-in fountain tower, complete with a light display. Was this the usual Chinese hotel-reception style, or something a bit more unusual? We couldn’t quite decide.

The interior was a bit more restrained; wood was the main material with bamboo-like lines etched in metal. Sadly the designer couldn’t quite quell the desire for hotel-chic, and a large part of the ceiling was covered in glittery strings of glass lights.

After the experience of teenage hysteria when watching Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus, I was intrigued to see how the audience would react to Bourne’s all male swans. There was a sprinkling of little girls in pink frocks and I wondered how they would deal with Bourne’s interpretation of Swan Lake, with his angst-ridden prince.

In fact, although there was an audible frisson when the prince and the Swan first touched and danced together, the audience was extremely attentive and thoroughly appreciative of the performance. Their ‘good behaviour’ may have been due to the signs that were carried around by two usherettes before the performance and during the interval telling them not to take photographs and to keep quiet.

Exhortations to behave ‘properly’ are not needed in Japan, where people stand obediently at road crossings with no traffic waiting for the green man. I find myself slightly nostalgic for the chaos of crossing the road at Metro and the creativity of the Chinese as they attempt to outwit the red lights and the traffic police.

Every morning our hotel provides the Japan Times and this morning we read that there is an aspiration to increase Chinese tourism 20 fold, from 1 million visitors per annum to 20 million. From the number of Chinese voices we are hearing already, and Chinese enthusiasm for Japanese food, I’m sure this is not unrealistic. However, I wonder if Japanese sensibilities will be able to cope with coach loads of Chinese tourists.

Today we visited the Katsura Imperial Villa, one of the most famous and influential combinations of architecture and landscape. Getting there involved going to the Imperial Ticket Office in another part of Kyoto, queueing up to get an application form, filling in our passport numbers, queueing up again and being allocated a tour slot two days in advance. We had tried to do this on line over the previous 6 months, but the Imperial Website was impenetrable.

We trailed around, carefully walking on the stepping stones. A palace guard followed behind the tour to make sure no one strayed off the path. We were scolded at one point for standing on the moss. The tour guide spoke in Japanese and the rest of us were given an audio guide in English. The gardens and buildings were exquisite and probably the highlight of our visit to Kyoto. But I couldn’t help wondering about how the Imperial Villa was going to deal with all those Chinese tourists that are about to start invading.