Chinese in Australia

A difficulty of learning Chinese is the speed with which I forget it. Like physical fitness, after a fortnight away from daily exercise – or writing and reading characters and talking Mandarin – my knowledge of the language quickly seeps away. We are away for CNY in Australia for three weeks on a trip combining business with pleasure and I felt sure that my Chinese would take many steps backwards.

I needn’t have worried. While I had read quite a lot about the end of the ‘White Australia’ policy and the continent’s embracing of its location in South East Asia and the Pacific rim, I was still surprised by the presence of many Asians and the intent to welcome tourists from China in particular.

Of course we travelled with many Chinese people from Shanghai as it was CNY. This in itself is an interesting phenomenon as it shows the gradual acceptance of travel abroad during the period traditionally reserved for going back to the family village. The Chinese on the plane may have been travelling to Australia purely for pleasure, visiting younger relatives who had emigrated or have been students beginning a semester or longer of study abroad.

Australian airports adopt bilingual signage in English and Mandarin, so I was instantly able to practise reading the airport vocabulary that I had recently been learning. Melbourne airport expects large numbers of Chinese students who come to study at their universities, especially the University of Melbourne. A welcome desk was set up in the terminal. More Chinese to read and to hear spoken.

In Sydney, our first port of call, references to China were everywhere, in addition to the Chinatown area. These were both positive and negative. Posters and banners about CNY celebrations were everywhere. In Sydney this is the year of the sheep, and the Harbour Bridge is wittily stretched between the sheep’s ears.

While we were there and enjoying the luxury of watching TV in English, a story broke about contaminated fruit that was being exported from China to Australia. An all too familiar food scare story coming out of China. The Australian newspaper also had an article about the amount of property being bought by Chinese people in Sydney. Some suburbs are now over 50% Chinese. Property is bought both as an investment by rich Chinese still in China and for residential purposes by Australian Chinese living in Sydney. There was the same ambivalence about this as one reads about foreign investment in say, London.

We had some interesting conversations about the impact of Chinese young people now being educated in Sydney. Apparently, a large percentage of places at top city private schools are taken by Chinese Australians. Those tiger mothers make sure their offspring are crammed and ready to succeed in the entrance exams. Again there were different opinions about this. Some people bemoaned the competition, others believed that such application and will to succeed would ‘save’ Australia’s economy.

Our hotel in Melbourne was adjacent to the city’s famous Chinatown. There it is the year of the goat. We arrived on Chinese New Year’s Eve, and while we rushed to the nearest and best Italian restaurant, we were assured that there is fabulous Chinese food to eat in the city. We walked around and watched local Chinese Australians carrying out traditional lion dances to bless local businesses. The lion stands up (one man on the shoulders of another) and ‘eats’ a cabbage or lettuce hung up by the business owner, and finds a red envelope of money. A long, long string of firecrackers is lit and the business will be prosperous for the whole year.

While Fintan worked the next day at the University of Melbourne, I went to the privately run Chinese Museum in Chinatown, curious to see what would be selected to represent the community. One level commemorated Chinese Australians who had fought in the First War – Australia is in the thick of First War centenary fever, including a TV series about Gallipoli (it doesn’t feature any Chinese).

The top floor told the story of the Chinese in Melbourne; in the 1850s many arrived in the Gold Rush. Most were from Guangdong (Canton). Soon after a sorry tale of discrimination unfolded, and the Chinese population fell dramatically. The White Australia policy adopted from 1901 of course limited immigration.

But all this has now changed, and the museum is run by local volunteers, immensely proud of their heritage and their place in Melbourne society. The whole of the ground floor was occupied by a huge lion which is operated by over 100 people at a CNY procession.

My necessarily superficial impression is that in the cities at least Australia has integrated its Chinese population very successfully. Politically this is interesting in that in China we often hear the democracy ‘wouldn’t work’, as if somehow Chinese people would not be able to understand the idea of voting and accountability. Why is it, I ask myself, the large Chinese community is perfectly able to vote in Australia, where participation in elections is compulsory?

We are now in a small rural ‘city’ of 25,000 people in rural NSW, visiting the delightful university of New England at Armidale. The first cafe we visited in the town had a table full of Chinese – all speaking Mandarin. I don’t think I will be forgetting the language just yet.

Getting ready for Chinese New Year

East Lake Garden is in holiday mode. School’s out and from the large number of cars still parked in the mornings it looks as though many offices have also stopped working. The spring festival, as it is also known, isn’t until next Thursday and Friday, but preparations are much in evidence. Bedding isn’t so much washed as aired, and quilts and garish fleece blankets flap precariously from balconies and railings. Padded pyjamas and thermals dance in the wind, their owners (including me) perhaps hopeful that they won’t be needed again after the spring festival.

Quite a few balconies and windows have bamboo poles from which are suspended long, thin fish, home-made sausages and pork rind to dry in the sunshine alongside socks and underwear. In place of washing, some drying racks have large woven bamboo baskets full of seeds, vegetables and bamboo shoots. It is mostly older people who we see tending these foodstuffs and is another example of the survival of country ways in the big city. My Chinese teacher turned her nose up at the pork, crinkling and browning in the polluted air. ‘It’s very unhygienic,’ she said. You can buy the same in the supermarket, and it doesn’t look very different.

Metro and Vanguard supermarkets are stuffed full of New Year goods – as well as pork products and dried fish, piles of boxes of nuts, pyramids of chocolates, and cases of wine and spirits. Metro has various promotions on at the moment – buy three of anything and get a 5% reduction, collect stamps and purchase a set of German made knives for only 25% of their value – and so on. We only venture there in the mornings before the crowds come and, if possible, not at the weekend. Visiting the supermarket is a family sport, and jovial groups – grandparents, parents and child – laugh and chat at the checkout, before the forensic examination of their invoice.

Yesterday in Metro we observed many people buying copious amounts of cooking oil – five litre barrels of light golden peanut or sunflower seed oil or large bottles of green olive oil. On the way home we speculated about why people were buying so much oil just now. My theory was that they must be planning to fry lots of fish for the New Year celebratory meal.

Today, after my last Chinese lesson before our holiday, we asked Yona about the oil. It seems that it is very common to give cooking oil as a present when visiting relatives over the festival period. It isn’t anything to do with the menu, but is just a common gift, along with baijou (literally, white alcohol) and cigarettes. Yona’s theory was that giving oil is a specifically Ningbo custom, because of the taste for oily food. She has already bought her supply, ready for distribution at the different houses she must visit.

Chinese New Year is a bit of a trial for newly-wed twenty somethings. The bride must be taken to the house of the groom for at least one day of the festival. To Yona’s horror, the custom at her husband’s family’s village is to stay indoors for four days, eating and drinking and playing mahjong. She is having none of it and has negotiated a compromise. They will visit his family for new year’s eve dinner and then leave the next day for lunch with her family at her grandmother’s village. There things are a bit more relaxed, and they are not restricted to the house. They will then return to her husband’s family after three days, for the final celebrations.

We have experienced the year of the snake, the horse and the sheep – or is the goat? The word for this year, ‘yang’ 羊 can mean sheep or goat and the many manifestations of the beast as sculptures in municipal displays, models in malls, on cards, as soft toys or in red paper cut outs are extremely ambiguous. To avoid the danger of walking into the glass sliding door out onto our balcony, we have stuck up a ‘yang’ paper cut. It is fearsome creature, with an elaborately stylised furry coat and curly horns. I hope it will keep us safe during the year. Happy New Year! 祝你们春节快乐。

HSK 3: a Sunday afternoon in Ningbo

On Sunday afternoon I sat for my level 3 HSK exam. HSK stands for Hanyu shuiping kaoshi, which translates roughly as Chinese Level Exam. The Confucius Institute has designed the exams for foreigners. My exam took place in a small office on the sixth floor of an anonymous office block in downtown Ningbo. I had checked out the location three weeks ago, not wanting to be in a panic on the day of the exam. The staff at the desk of what seemed to be an education centre, spoke no English and were clearly perplexed by a slightly twitchy, older foreign woman asking in halting Chinese about an exam in three weeks’ time. On that occasion I scarpered as soon as I realised I’d found the right place.

HSK exams go from the simplest to the most difficult levels (1 to 6) but all have the majority of their instructions about where to go, what to do and how to use the equipment, in Mandarin. Long messages arrive by email exhorting you not to forget your admission ticket and your passport, not to cheat and not to send someone else to take the exam for you. Some are translated into English, some are not. This is pretty challenging for those of us who have limited language knowledge. It is also quite intimidating in the exam itself to be faced with a screen of Chinese which you don’t understand but have a feeling might be important.

The only other candidate yesterday was a young Japanese woman who responded nervously to my attempts at polite conversation in English before the exam began. I realised that she didn’t want to switch to English when she was concentrating on yet another foreign language and I soon shut up, although not before establishing that she was aiming for the heady heights of level 5. Nevertheless, she, like me struggled to get through the first few screens before the test began – entering your 20 digit test code, checking the sound levels and so on.

Then we sat in silence for 15 minutes, watching the red figures on our screens counting down to the start of the test. Everyone taking the tests in China would be behaving in the same way as the whole system is centrally controlled from Beijing. This was only the second time I have ever sat for a computer based exam and I was more nervous about the technology than the content of the test. This was especially so because the practice tests on the HSK websites haven’t been working.

All went well for the first hour – the sound was loud enough for the 40 listening questions, and the type face was large enough for the next 30 reading and comprehension questions. However, the last 15 minutes was a bit of disaster. These are 10 ‘writing’ questions. The first five are a Chinese favourite – put the characters in the correct order. This meant clicking and dragging characters into a sensible position in a short sentence. I couldn’t turn off the example – presumably there were instructions but I couldn’t read them – and was distracted by coloured blobs sliding about the screen while I tried to do my own slithering at the bottom of the screen. By the way, word order is the most difficult aspect of learning Chinese.

And finally there was a section of inserting the correct character into a sentence. How to get the keyboard to work? Panic stations. I got up and called to the invigilator – 3 minutes to go. She showed me for each one, obviously thinking I was beyond insane. And then suddenly it was all over. Time was up and the screen automatically changed to a closing message. Kaoshi jieshu, the test is over, the invigilator said to me as I stared, bewildered, at the blue background.

I staggered out of the test centre into the centre of Ningbo, seething with people doing their shopping for the Chinese New Year. I managed some retail therapy of my own in Olé, the best European supermarket in Ningbo, and then I found a taxi to take me home. The driver was a friendly young man, keen to talk to me. To my surprise, I quickly recovered from the trauma of the afternoon and was able to chat away to him. He was amused I’d been taking an exam, but impressed I was learning Mandarin. He was from Hebei and had come to seek his fortune in Ningbo, which he now found too crowded. We discovered we both had two sons. They are expensive, he moaned, not like daughters. You have to buy sons an apartment, he said, looking at one of the many new blocks in construction, before they can get married. Flats cost too much in Ningbo. Such gloom didn’t stop him from showing me a picture of a cute little boy of five or six on his mobile.

The human contact of the conversation reminded me why I’m putting myself through the stress of learning the language and why the exam score won’t really matter.