Using Chinese in different situations: from rivers to roads

Although our stay in China is rapidly coming to a conclusion – less than three months to go – I find myself still wanting to learn as much Chinese as possible. Part of my motivation comes from the satisfaction of being able to take visitors around without too much stress and from the sheer enjoyment of being able to engage with Chinese people and find out a bit more about their lives and opinions.

For example, on a burning hot day out in the countryside near Yangshou/Guilin, an elderly man kindly invited us into his very bare and poverty stricken house to shelter from the sun. Probably he didn’t speak a lot more Putonghua (Mandarin) than me, but we managed to converse a little. He talked about his sons and proudly showed us studio portraits of himself and his wife, and they agreed to pose for us to take more photos. His wife grimly kept her mouth shut, so as not to display her broken and missing teeth.

Another day on a bamboo raft, floating down the Yulong river in the glorious karst landscape, I talked to my boatman. He and the older man propelling my friends’ raft chatted in the local dialect and then called out to other passing boatman. ‘This foreign woman can talk Putonghua and she lives in Ningbo’, I heard a few times. Chinese tourists on rafts were manoeuvred closer to me, so that they could observe such an extraordinary phenomenon. More opportunities to pass the time of day and ask them where they were from and if they were having a good time – ‘hao wan’ – having fun, as the Chinese say. Many of our visitors have remarked on the jollity of Chinese people – unremittingly negative press about China back in the West has meant people are surprised to see the very public displays of sociability and relaxation amongst Chinese crowds and tourists.

All the work I put into studying the local menu in our local restaurant back in Ningbo had not been in vain. One night my friends and I chose a small Sichuan restaurant just down the street from our hotel in Suzhou. On the menu there were very limited pictures and no English. It was one of those menus where you have to tick what you want to order – very daunting. I could recognise the characters for black fish (recommended by Yona), spice (chilli), potatoes and cabbage and ticked these. Back came the waitress with a host of questions which I didn’t understand. ‘You decide’, I said. This wasn’t good enough and she showed me on another table what the fish might look like. Light dawned slowly – it was all about presenting the fish in one shallow metal dish with the vegetables, and a small flame underneath. Would we like it like that? I assured her we would.

Sure enough, when the fish came it was delicious – fleshy, with few bones and floating in a sea of spicy sauce with potato and cabbage. My English friends showed impressive chopstick skills and we polished it all off with aplomb, washed down with weak Chinese beer. The meal was such as a success that we all agreed to return to the restaurant on our last evening in Suzhou and eschew the rather formal restaurant in the hotel.

This time I was better prepared. I realized that one question had been about the weight of the fish – how big a fish did we want? (This has been confirmed in a recent conversation class). I agreed to the weight that was suggested. We attempted to choose a different sauce but were firmly told by the waitress that this would be too spicy for us – so once again we did as we were told. We didn’t regret it – a second heavenly meal followed, this time with a sauce of preserved or ‘sour’ vegetables.

Sadly, my improved language skills were only partially successful when dealing with a taxi driver in Shanghai on the final part of our travels. Our plane took off late from Guilin and we arrived in Pudong airport at 11.30pm. ‘No underground’, an official told me firmly. We muttered about the aspiration of Shanghai to be a world city if its major transport link closed down so early, but resigned ourselves to queuing for a taxi.

Unusually, the queue moved quickly and we were ushered into a Shanghai cab. From the first rev of the engine we knew what we were in for. Joining the highway, the driver put his foot down. ‘There is no hurry, please drive slowly’, I said. The driver looked at me for a second. ‘Mei wen ti’, he said scornfully. ‘No problem.’ No way was a foreign woman going to tell him how to drive his taxi. I shut my eyes. Sweat dripped down my face. The journey on a good day takes about 40 minutes. We drew up at our hotel in the centre of the city after 20 minutes. The dial showed 140 kph most of the way. The speed limit was mostly 80 kph.

The fare was 201 yuan and I offered 210, waiting for my change. You don’t tip in China but the driver expected me to give him the extra 9, because he had got us there so fast. For the first time in three years I lost my temper – in Chinese. Words poured out. Forgotten vocabulary jumped into my head. ‘I asked you to go slower. You should have listened to me. We were terrified. You are a terrible driver. No, I won’t give you extra money.’ And so on. My friends stood outside the car looking on in amazement. The driver of course had no idea why I was so cross, took his 200 yuan, slammed the door and drove off. Foreigners!


Our local Chinese restaurants: learning the language of menus

Despite the presence of the massive Metro supermarket across the road, many small shops and businesses survive at the west gate of our compound. A couple of weeks ago I noticed a bright orange sign had gone up advertising a Dong Bei restaurant, selling ‘jaozi’ (dumplings). Dong Bei (North East) food is well known for being simple, filling and cheap, presumably to satisfy the appetites of the farmers and steel workers who live in the vast, cold wastes that stretch up to the border with Russia.

I duly persuaded Fintan that he would like to have a lunch of ‘jaozi’ and one Saturday we ventured into the small premises. It was a typical one family business – about eight small tables, plastic-wood flooring, rice steamers plugged into dodgy looking sockets on the floor and a tiny kitchen at the back. A woman in her early 20s took the orders, while her husband and father cooked and her mother looked after the grandchild. Each table was provided with cellophane wrapped sets of a plate, bowl and china spoon. Chopsticks in paper stood in a container next to a jar of chilli sauce and a jug of soy. Customers helped themselves to watery Qingdao or Harbin beer from a fridge.

I often used to go to similar restaurants with fellow students, but it was some time since I’d been to one. I had forgotten that the menu is a list of dishes entirely in Chinese. Chinese people seem to walk into a restaurant knowing exactly what they want to eat and don’t mind that the waitress immediately stands at the table expecting an instant order. For a foreigner with limited Chinese, however, this can be challenging.

My Chinese language suddenly deserted me, but I blurted out ‘jaozi’, hoping this would be enough. The waitress pointed to the wall, where a poster-menu showed that there were at least 15 different ones available. ‘What kind of jaozi?’ she smiled. I just about remembered how to say ‘beef’ and ‘pork’ and although the young woman said a lot more, she seemed satisfied. When I looked more calmly at the list I could see that she must have made a number of decisions on my behalf – with chives, with spring onions, with chilli, with greens – and so on.

Our steamed dumplings arrived and we quite enjoyed them. The pictures of food on the other wall looked a lot more appetising, but how to match them to the lists of dishes on the laminated menus that served as placemats? I took a photo on my phone, determined that we would return once I’d worked out what was what.

The following week I enlisted Yona’s help and sent her the photograph. Printed out in large format, the handwritten characters provided the basis for my next three lessons. First we started with methods of cooking, next we tackled the main ingredients and finally got to the names of complete dishes. The Chinese have an unimaginable number of words for ‘fry’ as this is their main way of cooking – quick fry, stir fry, longer fry, deep fry, fry and then braise in soy sauce, not to mention dry fry in a pot brought to the table. Then there is steam, stew, grill and roast, all with further variants.

Ingredients were sometimes difficult to translate, especially when I was more familiar with the Japanese names, such as shitake or enoki (fragrant mushroom and tea tree mushroom respectively in Chinese). Yona sent me about 50 new words and we identified things I would probably not like to eat – duck head, fish head, bull frog – among them. We looked at photos of different fishes on the internet – belt fish, croker, pomfret – usually agreeing that I would find most of them too bony.

I went back to Fuchsia Dunlop’s ‘Every Grain of Rice’, because she names every dish in English, Chinese and pinyin, which helped with cross-checking. She also stimulates my memory through her knowledge and insight; for example she says that the Chinese called newly imported tomatoes ‘barbarian aubergines’ (fan qie), ensuring that I won’t forget the character for aubergine in a hurry. It turns out that sweet potatoes are also barbarian potatoes.

Gradually my vocabulary and confidence grew and we got to the stage where I could read through the menu in halting Chinese (tones nearly correct) and write out a dialogue about going to a restaurant. Finally, after some negotiation with Fintan, I highlighted the dishes we would choose and practised how to say them. We were ready to return.

Yesterday we walked down to the west gate, full of expectation. Alas, the shutters were down and the restaurant was closed! This weekend is a holiday weekend, with Qing Ming or Tomb Sweeping taking place on Monday. Presumably the family had gone back to their Dong Bei home to honour their ancestors.

Determined not to be defeated, we walked across to the establishments on the other side of the gate. At the end is a small restaurant run by a Hui family, serving halal food. The Hui are an Islamic ethnic group living across China. Although there was no pork, in most other ways the restaurant was almost exactly the same. Young woman serving, husband cooking, menu listed on the wall, small tables, packs of china, drinks in the fridge. It served noodles rather than rice, but I found my preparation had not been wasted, as I could now read most of the characters, and many standard Chinese dishes were available here too.

We ordered two bowls of noodles and enjoyed our simple Saturday lunch. We had discovered a new ‘local’ but I hope we will still soon go back to the Dong Bei restaurant.

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.