I still make many mistakes in Chinese, and only yesterday managed to confuse a Shanghai taxi driver by asking for the railway station as opposed to a subway station, but I am now generally able to ask Chinese people for help when getting from A to B. I also have a better chance of interpreting their answers, although it has to be said understanding directions remains a challenge (‘direction right go’ is the word order). Yesterday in Shanghai I was looking for Metro Line 10 to get back to the main railway station, having said goodbye to my visitors. The interchange station at South Shaanxi Road is being refurbished and the normal Line 10 entrance was hidden behind hoardings.
After walking around bewildered for a few minutes, I overheard a young woman asking a policeman how to get to Line 10 and asked her if I could tag along. She was delighted and we struck up a conversation. She steered me to the station and helped me find the right train to Hongqiao. It turned out she was in the navy and often visited military establishments in Ningbo. Our conversation stumbled occasionally, for example when I didn’t know if she was asking me about the weather or the food in England, but we managed somehow.
Emboldened by my success, once on the high speed train back to Ningbo I started chatting to the woman sitting next to me. My initial excuse was to alert her that her mobile was ringing – she couldn’t hear because she was watching a movie on her tablet. She was intrigued that I could speak some Chinese, but at first wanted to speak English and indeed her English was near perfect, with a slight Dutch accent. She was in international trade – import-export – like so many young business people in Ningbo and one of her clients was in Amsterdam. She had perfected her English by going to the Netherlands regularly.
After a while she looked at me and said, ‘Ok, now let’s talk in Chinese. It will be good for you.’ I told her a bit about why I had been in Shanghai and what I’d been doing there with my visitors. I explained that they had come back to China after almost 30 years and were astonished by the changes. China had been a rural country back in the mid-1980s – ‘Where are all the bicycles?’ was a constant refrain, in addition to their amazement at the unceasing urban sprawl over the 250 kms between Shanghai and Ningbo.
On an unusually clear day, we had ascended the Shanghai World Trade and Financial Centre tower – it famously looks like a bottle opener and has a framed void of about three storeys before you get to the very top floor. You can look out on the Bund, over the full extent of the Shanghai suburbs and to the airport and the Huangpu estuary to the north east, or down through the glass to the streets below – stomach-churning! But already it is dwarfed by a new tower; my friend didn’t know of this and we looked it up on her tablet – it is called the Shanghai Tower.
I was able to ascertain that my travelling companion was from the far north east of China, near the Russian border, 10 hours beyond Harbin. She spoke very clear, standard Mandarin was far easier for me to understand as compared to the Ningboese, who are not native Mandarin speakers and have a different accent. Her mother lived with her in Ningbo and helped her and her policeman husband to take care of their daughter, now a teenager.
‘So why did you come to live in Ningbo,’ I asked and her answer was for me the most fascinating part of the conversation. ‘Have you heard of Mao Zedong?’ she answered. I assured I had, although I didn’t mention that I’d spent the afternoon in the wonderful Shanghai Chinese Propaganda Poster Museum, which vividly tells the story of Mao in pictures. Her father had been a victim of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. He had been born in Ningbo in 1955 and had been sent as a ‘zhi qing’ youth to the far north east of Heilongjiang to work on the land. He had met and married a local girl – her mother – and she had been born. But then, as the Cultural Revolution ended, her grandfather had given his son a job back in Ningbo in a bank, and her father had left her aged three and her mother up in the north east. Dad didn’t come back, divorced her mother and remarried. When she was about 10, my companion and her mother had also come to Ningbo, although they didn’t live with her father.
My research in Ningbo Zhongshan Park had familiarised me with this history and its consequences, but my new friend was surprised that I understood the context of her experiences. I told her about the ‘zhi qing’ museum I’d discovered outside Ningbo and how many people of her father’s age go to the park to sing Red songs and socialise with others sent off to Heilongjiang. It was all news to her as far as I could tell and not an era she cared to dwell on.
I have to admit we had by now lapsed back into English, but I had still had my longest conversation ever in Chinese with someone other than my teacher. As we got off the train at Ningbo, I was euphoric and didn’t mind waiting in the pouring rain for my ride home. We took yet another new highway that has just opened between our flat and the station, and the driver, a Ningbo man, admitted he liked the road but didn’t really know where it went. As the woman on the train and I had agreed, the Chinese always look forward optimistically.