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.

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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.

Death and marriage: rituals in China

Our quality of life has improved considerably since the foundations for the newest mall next to the compound were completed about two weeks ago. No longer are we woken seven days a week by pounding pneumatic drilling around 6.30am. But mornings still have their surprises.

Last Wednesday at 5.10am our sleep was broken by an extremely loud explosion, as if a bomb had been set off outside our bedroom window. Car alarms whined but nothing else happened and we drifted back asleep, and thought no more about it. Unexpected noises are par for the course in China. Then on Friday my Chinese teacher listened by the apartment door to some chanting coming from a flat a couple of floors below. ‘Someone has died,’ she told me. Monks come around to the abode of the dead person and lead ritual chanting for two or three days.

Fireworks seem to mark the rituals of life in China, and it occurred to me that maybe the startling explosion somehow linked to the death. Yona explained that indeed, traditionally, a death is announced by the family lighting a single firework early in the morning. Young friends of hers live on a compound in Ningbo where quite a few old people live and they are frequently woken by the dawn ‘bombs!’ In Yona’s village, the body is carried to the community hall where she had her wedding breakfast, so that local people can pay their respects. The body would then have been carried in procession to the hillside for burial. Nowadays, burial is no longer allowed and everyone has to be cremated, although people still want to put the ashes into the family hillside tombs, where they can be honoured and remembered at Qing Ming, the annual tomb sweeping ceremony in April.

I’ve recently been exposed to the significance of burial customs as a way of tracing my own family history, as my son has discovered a photo of a tombstone that appears to belong to one of my paternal ancestors–Isaac Jacobs, my three greats grandfather. He belonged to the Jewish community in Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. The inscription is written in Hebrew and sadly I can’t read it. Despite my Jewish heritage, I know some Mandarin and no Hebrew!

Death rituals have changed in China with urbanisation and the advent of capitalism, and the trip to the crematorium is now usually carried out in a fleet of expensive hire cars – according to Yona and other people I’ve talked to, far more money is spent on them than for weddings. The traditional procession on foot, with people swathed in white mourning and pulling the body on a cart, still survives in some places; a friend showed me photos of one he’d witnessed in Dali in deepest south west Yunnan.

Wedding fireworks of course continue unabated and this morning – a Saturday – we were woken at 6.30 by a series of firecracker explosions, the usual signal of a wedding. I’ve noticed quite a few in the last few days and this is apparently because many people are hurrying to get married before the Spring Festival or Chinese New Year, which will take place in mid-February. It will be the year of the sheep – Yang – next year and it seems that nobody wants important life events to take place in a Sheep Year. Even though new government regulations mean that many more families can have two children, pregnancies are being delayed so that the child will not be born as a sheep.
We will be in Australia during Chinese New Year and our Melbourne hotel is right next to China Town. It will be fascinating to observe the CNY rituals there and without any language barrier maybe understand them a little more.

More on food: Hom versus Dunlop

One of our Christmas presents was Ken Hom’s ‘Complete Chinese Cookbook’. This has stimulated me to try out a whole new set of Chinese dishes, generally with good results. I haven’t given up my first love – Fuchsia Dunlop’ s ‘Every Grain of Rice’, but I needed some fresh inspiration. I always find with cookbooks – and we have a considerable library of them in Nottingham – that I perfect about six recipes and then stop exploring. With just the one book on Chinese cooking, this had meant a certain amount of repetition. We probably eat about 10 recipes from ‘Every Grain of Rice’ regularly, but still needed some new input.

Ken Hom is an American Chinese, whose family came from Taishan, in Guangdong (Canton), just west of Hong Kong. Wikipedia tells me that this area is famous for its high percentage of celebrities in the entertainment industry, and Ken Hom certainly seems to fall into this category as a TV personality. My cookery book has at least 20 photographs of the man himself – portraits of his head and of his hands with chopsticks. It is a shiny, lavish production and very well adapted to the western market.

Many recipes focus on adapting Cantonese flavours and cooking methods to ingredients available in British and American supermarkets, and not necessarily in Ningbo. Fish is an example. There are many appetising recipes for ‘firm, white fish fillets’ which I’d like to try. Unfortunately, fresh, firm white fish is not obviously available in our market or even in supermarkets, except in its frozen form, which looks somewhat unappetising. Small oily fish, with many bones predominate. One success has been steamed salmon with black beans, as both are readily available in Metro. Ken Hom says that salmon is ‘growing in popularity in cosmopolitan cities’ in China; this was not my experience when I cooked it in plain western style for guests at my graduation party. Perhaps my Chinese friends would have preferred it with the help of the spicy and salty preserved black soya beans.

Fuchsia Dunlop’s book is very different. There are no photographs of the author and the food takes first place. It oozes with the author’s enthusiasm about China and her passion for and profound knowledge of the country’s food. It strives for authenticity, and only makes occasional concessions to western taste. There are few recipes for white fish, and quite a lot for fatty meat. If Chinese people don’t eat something, it’s not in the book.

Both authors patiently describe and explain the main ingredients of Chinese cooking, many of which were unknown to me before we came to Ningbo. What has been a great help is that Fuchsia Dunlop gives the pinyin (Romanised script) and the characters for most ingredients and for the names of dishes. This has been invaluable in restaurants and when I’ve been trying to find vegetables or sauces in supermarkets or in the market. At first, as I struggled to learn the language, I copied out the names and took them with me to the shop; later I’ve been able to ask for them and anyway have learned to recognize more products. In my early, often painful Chinese lessons, my teacher taught me to say simple recipes from Fuchsia Dunlop in Chinese and then learn and repeat them to her. This not only improved my Mandarin, but led to some interesting discussions about cooking and different tastes.

Before we came here, I had no understanding of the regional differences between Chinese cooking. What passes for Chinese cuisine in England is predominantly Cantonese, which is the southern school. In any case, it is often not much like the authentic Cantonese food available say in Hong Kong, and full marks to Ken Hom for trying to help British and American cooks understand how to make real dim sum, spring rolls and won ton. Fucshia Dunlop was extraordinary in being the first British woman to train as a chef in Sichuan province, in south west China. Her recipes are an introduction to the fiery tastes of this school of cooking, which uses large amounts of fresh, dried and pickled chillies.

Of course, with the movement of the population from the countryside to the cities, it is easy to try all the main types of regional cuisine in the big cities. For example, we’ve eaten wonderful ‘dong bei’ or north eastern food from Shandong peninsula, in Shanghai. The signature dish is roast pork served on the bone with thin pancakes, hoisin sauce and spring onions, similar to Beijing duck, but much less fatty.

Despite Fuchsia Dunlop’s best efforts, I still long for a book written in English which would help me do more with the wonderful fresh ingredients I see around me, but don’t know how to prepare. As well as the fish and the seafood, not to say the live turtles, there is a plethora of vegetables that I’m sure would taste wonderful if I knew what to do with them. For the moment, I will continue with my exploration of Ken Hom’s book, but I think it will come into its own more fully when we return to the UK.

Mobility and change

Looking back at the last blog I wrote more than a month ago, before our trip to the UK for Christmas, I noticed my description of Invoice Stamp Man at Metro. By mid-January 2015, HR at Metro has realised that the person on the checkout can stamp the invoice for the customer after they’ve paid, and that this doesn’t really need an additional job. Now you might think this would mean that ISM had been made redundant, but fear not, he is still standing by the exit, only now he just watches the customers leave and seems to have no function other than ‘security’. One can only imagine the cultural clash between the German based management of Metro, keen to enact ‘efficiency savings’ and the Chinese default position of over-employment.

Change remains the major topic of conversation with my Chinese teacher, in both Chinese and English. Yesterday we had an interesting interchange about travel, the internet and mobile phones. This all began because of our frustration with the website set up to manage the HSK Chinese language exams. Apparently lots of money has been spent on improving the site, but it still doesn’t function well. Yona wants me to practise some online tests for HSK 3, before my exam at the beginning of February, as characters may appear smaller on screen and take me more time to read than in the printed version I usually use. To our annoyance, the practice tests won’t open and I will just have to hope for the best.

While it intermittently blocks Google and the BBC, the Chinese government is investing heavily or allowing investment in websites that enable customers to buy things. An example is the site for purchasing train tickets. This is fast becoming the only way to buy tickets in advance, something that is essential for train travel in China. If you turn up at the station to buy a ticket on the day, you usually have to wait many hours for a train with an available seat. This system becomes particularly critical at the Spring Festival, when millions of people in the cities return home to their village. On line purchasing of train tickets is controlled through the use of Chinese identity cards; you don’t even print out your ticket but can use your identity card at the computerised barrier. This is meant to cut down on fraud and the circulation of black market tickets by ticket touts. It also provides a massive database of the movement of the population in a way that western governments can only dream of.

We have not engaged with the online system as of course we don’t have Chinese identity cards, but like most foreigners, use a travel agent to purchase our train tickets. I’ve always felt this was a bit of a cop out, but Yona tells me that we are far more adventurous travellers than her parents. They have very limited Mandarin and rarely venture outside the Ningbo area where they speak the local dialect. Her mother only had 3 years of schooling so reads with difficulty. While we have sometimes got lost or confused when travelling – getting on the wrong ferry in Xiamen, for example – Yona wouldn’t allow her parents even to attempt to go so far afield on their own.

In China, modernity arrives without much introduction and in many situations you are aware of people doing things or operating potentially dangerous machinery for the first time without safeguards – driving is a case in point. While internet access in the west has come predominantly through computer ownership, in China far more people use mobile phones to get online and have never bought a laptop or desktop. I struggled to adapt to a touch screen phone three years ago when we arrived here, but at least I’d been introduced to modern communication systems all my life – landline phone, television, computer, various keyboard based phones and then an iPhone. Yona’s grandmother has never had a phone at all until recently, when the family installed a landline. She still can’t dial, and only intermittently remembers to answer if someone rings. A better system is to call the mobile of a younger person in the village and get them to go round and see if she’s OK.

Yona, in her late 20s, remains upbeat. Like so many young Chinese I have met, she is optimistic about the future, sees changes in China nearly always as positive and is confident in the government’s attempts to manage the development which has made her life experience already so different from that of her parents and grandparents.

Keeping clean: rural and urban perspectives

Following our trip to Yona, my Chinese teacher’s, village wedding, I’ve engaged in more conversations with her about what life was like there as a young girl growing up. Yona is unreservedly positive about her childhood, despite its hardships. She enjoyed the freedom of playing in the stream and the forests, even if she had to cycle to primary school in a neighbouring village, starting out in winter in the dark before 7am and sometimes crashing into the bamboo at the side of the road. Her grandmother’s house of course had no heating, but Yona remembers the portable bucket fires still prevalent in rural China with nostalgia. She described something like a hot water bottle which she assured me kept her warm all night.

Personal hygiene was a whole other story. Once a week she also cycled to another village for a shower in the public bathhouse. The public toilets which I’d found difficult because of their lack of privacy – no individual cubicles – are apparently a great improvement on ten years ago. Then the toilet block opened straight onto the street, and passers-by greeted you while you excreted or urinated. At least now the entrance faces away from the street. But what fascinated me was the fact that Yona’s grandmother still doesn’t have a bathroom in her house. She could have one, but prefers to use the public toilets. In the same way she has not installed a bottled-gas hob, preferring to cook using an open fire. She doesn’t want to live in Ningbo with her son, as is the custom, and considers city life to be utterly boring. Nevertheless, she may soon have to move as the authorities have deemed the village unsafe and have decided to close it down.

Another reason for not wanting to live in the city is the deteriorating environment, caused by the relentless construction of new buildings and the plethora of local factories. Although we have two bathrooms, access to hot water, electric heaters and other home comforts, the air we breathe is dirty, and I can quite understand why Yona’s grandmother might like to stay in her mountain village.

When I was in the sixth form back in the 1960s I remember my geography teacher describing how she used to sweep the soot off her front step in Sheffield, before the 1956 Clean Air Act. I don’t remember the word ‘pollution’ ever being used, and I certainly couldn’t have known that 45 years later I’d be experiencing a similar phenomenon.

I’ve never thought so much about cleaning as I do here. It is a daily battle to fight off the fine layer of grey brown dirt which coats every surface. The contents of our small vacuum cleaner look as though we actually live in the nearby construction site and we’ve already had to ask Alice to buy new filters for the vacuum from Taobao. Our windows always look dirty, despite regular cleaning, and the expandable bars for hanging out washing need to be wiped down repeatedly. I’ve begun to doubt the wisdom of hanging washing outside as clothes must come in dirtier than they went out.

We have recently been overtaken by fits of violent sneezing and coughing, especially at night or in the early morning. The symptoms are close to hayfever. It seems that after two and a half years our systems no longer have any resistance to the relentlessly dirty air and I’d begun to fear that I would permanently damage my eyes. So last weekend we decided to buy one of the many types of domestic electric air purifiers available in Metro.

One of the many non-jobs to be found in Ningbo is carried out by the man in uniform who waits by the exit of Metro, ready to stamp the invoice issued at the checkout. The man is invariably friendly and looking for a chat and we provided amusement for him when we tested our newly bought air purifier, just near the exit. Metro provides a ‘test platform’ to allow you to make sure that electrical appliances operate before you take them out of the shop.

‘What is this?’ asked Invoice Stamp Man, as we struggled with the box. One of the first words I learned in Chinese was ‘pollution’ and I was able to construct some kind of explanation along the lines of ‘make the air clean’. ISM looked sceptical to put it mildly and if he’d seen the price – around 2,500 RMB or £250 (probably around one third of his annual salary) he would doubtless have thought foreigners were truly mad. But perhaps he too remembered his village childhood where conditions may have been harsh, but at least you didn’t need to worry about the air you breathed.

Village wedding

Towards the end of the feast, the father of Yona, the bride, cigarette in mouth, gave out big red party bags for every guest. These contained a large box of Ferrero Rocher chocolates and two round ‘double happiness’ sesame cakes, offering 100 years of happiness. This gesture summed up the mixture of new and old embedded in the village wedding celebration.

The lunch we attended was in a small village, high up in the mountains about 40 miles south of Ningbo. To reach it we drove past rice fields and the seemingly endless edge-of-development mess which is to be found outside the city and around the nearest town, Fenghua. While east coast cities and towns are showered with infrastructure and connected by new highways, rural villages receive little investment. Young people leave in droves, and only the elderly or the very young remain.

The village has one main street, running beside a small, but deep river valley, crossed by a picturesque covered wooden bridge. Some of the houses are brick built, but most are wooden, gathered around courtyards with small, neat vegetable gardens adjacent to the street. If the public toilets are anything to go by, plumbing is primitive. By the time we arrived, the main street was already incongruously lined with gleaming black BMWs, including the bridal SUV complete with a heart-shaped design of red roses on the bonnet.

The lunch was the traditional feast given by the bride’s family before the groom takes her off to his village – in this case some two or three hours away. Most of the local inhabitants were at the meal, which began around 11am, and neither they nor the bride’s family would attend the evening banquet arranged by the groom’s family.
Yona had spent the night in her paternal grandmother’s house at the bottom of the village, reached across an ancient arched stone bridge. She had been brought up here by her grandmother and lived in the village until she was 16.

Once the groom answered riddles and passed tests set by friends, he led her to the ancestral community hall, further up the street. This was a cement floored, wooden shelter, open on one side, with stone wood-burning stoves for cooking. About ten tables accommodated 100 guests, all seated on wooden stools. We sat on the foreigners table along with eight or nine other of Yona’s students, the focus of much friendly staring from the locals.

Although it wasn’t cold by the standards of a Chinese winter in the mountains, as is usual in south China, everyone kept their coats on, except, that is for the poor bride, who wore a sleeveless, white dress of tuile. Yona, who is my Chinese teacher, had been telling me for weeks that she was afraid of the cold and we had come up with various plans for keeping her warm. She was reluctant to wear the western style wedding dress, reflecting that it was out of keeping with the rustic setting of the lunch, but she told me that her parents wanted it, along with the photo shoot which had happened a few weeks before. In the evening she would wear a somewhat warmer, traditional red costume, which was more to her liking.

In addition to the status of the wedding cars and the wedding dress, there was clearly much ‘face’ in the sheer quantity of the food served at the lunch. Cold starters of jellyfish, nuts, pickled bamboo shoots, hairy crab and crayfish, were followed by steaming bowls of pork knuckle, mushroom and pork mince soups, steamed fish, fried fish and chilli, duck, and steamed greens. I sensed that the foreigners table was deemed to have not done the food sufficient justice as a few old locals kept asking us why we hadn’t eaten more. We had all learned to say ‘I’m full’ in Chinese courtesy of Yona, but I think this was seen as a feeble excuse for only eating about one third of the food, and as the villagers spoke local dialect, and not ‘standard’ Chinese, they may not have understood anything we said.

About 12.45pm it was all over. The bride and groom had visited and drunk a toast at each table (there was plentiful wine and ‘baijiu’ or white spirit for those that wanted it) and collected the traditional ‘hong bao’ or red envelopes of money proffered by their guests and containing yuan in multiples of lucky numbers 6 or 8.
The bride gathered up her skirts, revealing strong ankle boots, thoroughly practical given the environment, and quite rebellious in the circumstances, and marched down the main street back to her grandmother’s house and thence the wedding car, ready to drive for three hours to the second feast. Some guests on our table were going to take the train to the next venue, for apparently only one hour.

As older guests, we summoned our driver by phone and sank exhausted into the back or our hire car. We were home before 2pm. It was the third wedding we’d been to since coming to China, and perhaps the most memorable. The rural setting made the contrasts between old and new China especially stark and once again underlined the extraordinary personal journeys of change undertaken within one or two generations.

Food notes: west and east

Tonight I’m cooking roast chicken for dinner. The raw bird I bought earlier in Metro says ‘Roast Chicken’ in English on the packaging which means that it comes without its head, neck and feet, in other words, specially prepared for westerners who can’t face the full animal. After 18 months of surviving with only the two fiercesome gas rings on our hob, we gave in and bought a table top electric oven, (Red Tomato brand) so that we could occasionally indulge in those foods we miss, roast meats among them.

Last weekend I prepared another western style meal for the dozen or so friends who came round to celebrate my graduation. The main event was steamed salmon and I was amused to watch the reaction of the Chinese people who were among the guests. They ate a small piece politely, but I could tell they didn’t think much of it. I asked my Chinese teacher a couple of days later what she thought of it. It’s expensive, she remarked, and we find it a bit ‘dan’淡. The word she used translates as weak, insipid or bland. Another problem is that the lack of bones which makes salmon so appealing to the western palate is exactly why Chinese people find it so boring. It lacks ‘mouthfeel’ (i.e. bones and crunchiness). Still, she said, encouragingly, it’s always good to try out different foods. (She had only just survived the shock of tasting gorgonzola, a bit of an ask for someone who has never eaten cheese before I suppose). I think another problem was that as my teacher comes to our flat three times a week she had observed the preparations for the party and was secretly horrified that the salmon was cooked a day in advance. Freshness is all in Chinese cuisine and everything is cooked pretty much just before it is eaten.

We have been invited to my Chinese teacher’s wedding next weekend and I will be very interested to see what we are given to eat. We are only attending the first lunch party at the bride’s family’s village, about 90 minutes away in the mountains outside Ningbo. The meal will be in the ancestral hall and we have been warned to wear warm clothing as there will be no heating.

On the other hand my friend from the Faroe Islands was very pleased with the party menu as the salmon came from her native land. I know this because as a cash and carry Metro sells whole salmon which lie on their bed of ice with a ticket through their gills which proclaims their origin. Apparently, the export of Faroe Islands salmon has much increased since the Chinese fell out with the Norwegians over the awarding of the Nobel prize to a Chinese dissident.

Straight after my graduation ceremony, and the ritual of the group photograph outside in the sunshine, complete with throwing our mortarboards into the air, we went to have lunch in the student canteen on campus. Our friend, another Dean, joined us. Although also a secondee from Nottingham, he is a fluent Chinese speaker and his job is to read out the names at the ceremony, something from which Fintan is exempt. My name didn’t cause him much trouble, he told us. Although every Chinese student has an English name which they use every day at UNNC, come graduation their parents want to hear their child’s Chinese name. This means the person reading them out must practise hundreds of different names, each with three characters. Each character could have one of four tones.

I have to admit that this was the first time I’d ever ventured into a student canteen (there are three). The serried ranks of electric steamers which sterilised the chopsticks especially intrigued me. Any time I’d wanted a snack or coffee over the last two years I’d always gone to Aroma, the café set up in the basement of the main admin building for westerners (staff and students) desperate for a cappuccino and a sandwich. The food on offer in the canteen was apparently better than usual, the more to impress visiting parents, and a huge buffet was on offer. Lots of mouthfeel, especially from the different kinds of fish, but my chopstick skills still haven’t improved sufficiently for me to relish filleting a small flat fish and managing to get most of the flesh into my mouth without embarrassment. I much prefer salmon.