It has been a dramatic final week for us here; first there was the Shanghai stock market crash and then there was, according to some reports, the strongest typhoon since ‘the communists took power in 1949’. I can’t help wondering if there is some connection between the two events. Perhaps the typhoon is supernatural punishment for the encouragement of unbridled speculation, 80% of which is the result of millions of individuals buying shares. Of course, because of its terror of social instability, the Chinese government has intervened to stop further falls on the stock market. However, even the might of the PRC was unable to stop Typhoon Chan-hom.

There has been at least 10 days of stifling, humid weather in Ningbo, sometimes accompanied by rain. The sky has been overcast and the temperature fell by about 10 degrees from highs in the mid- 30s. It was quite chilly at night, which was annoying as we have sent all our warm clothes away in the shipping crate, expecting only intense hot weather. On Friday there was a sense of foreboding, and locals told us that this was typical pre-typhoon weather – only about one month earlier than usual. As we have never been in Ningbo in August, we had not experienced the usual run of tropical storms.

We don’t watch television, except the sports channel, as the spoken Chinese is too fast to follow, so we are usually out of touch with local news. Of course, the Chinese staff on campus knows exactly what is happening and last week, as he was responsible for a student summer school at UNNC, Fintan began to get weather bulletins from administrators warning of a severe typhoon coming in from Taiwan.

I began to ask my Chinese teacher about typhoon etiquette. She was calm and unconcerned, saying that you basically get enough food and water in stock, stay indoors and don’t drive anywhere because of potential flooding. Sure enough, on Friday evening about 9pm, a text message arrived on my phone in Chinese. It was a typhoon red alert and reiterated Yona’s common sense advice. I was delighted with myself, as after three years of study I could read the warning, including the injunction not ‘to go towards dangerous places.’

On the estate, the tall ranks of apartment buildings seem to create wind tunnels and a way of judging the growing strength of the wind was to look down at the trees bowing and straining in the gardens either side of our flat. The gusty wind and heavy downpours made for a noisy night, and all day Saturday we felt we were in the middle of the storm. From looking at English language websites and responding to concern from friends in the UK I realised that the typhoon actually hit the coast near hear on Saturday afternoon, but we couldn’t really say when the peak came.

Bored in our empty flat, Fintan ventured out in the afternoon, but soon returned soaked, having abandoned his broken umbrella after a few minutes. He reported on debris and leaves spread on the road and in the late afternoon we listened as a group of men in orange hard hats gathered downstairs with a chain-saw to clear large branches that had fallen on a car. There was much shouting of ‘Yi, er, san’ – ‘One, two, three’ – and characteristically loud and animated discussion of how to proceed.

This morning, the weather calm and the storm having passed, I went down to have a look at the damage. As well as two days’ worth of household rubbish, there are small branches and leaves everywhere, and the displaced peasant farmers who look after the estate are out in force patiently clearing it all up with their sticky brushes. There is a pile of sawn branches near where the hard-hats conferred yesterday, but no sign of any dented cars.

People are emerging, with a few runners in shorts trying to throw off cabin fever. Grandmas are putting out washing in the light breeze and the estate is returning to normal. I don’t know how other places have been affected, but I assume we got off lightly, seeing that the government evacuated 800,000 people along the coast. My Chinese teacher’s in-laws were more in the path of the storm and I asked her how they had fared. ‘Oh, they were fine, they just had some flooding to deal with,’ she said, as usual downplaying any drama. I look forward to hearing a bit more detail tomorrow.

Coda: bringing up baby in China

Although I didn’t think I would write any more blogs, recent conversations about children, childbirth and childrearing have proved so revealing about ‘new’ China, that I feel compelled to record them. Both of the two young women we know best are pregnant. They married recently and convention dictates that a child must follow soon after the wedding.

Chinese society, at least in a third tier city like Ningbo, is stiflingly conservative. Traditions seem to apply with extraordinary rigidity in the context of pregnancy and childbirth. My language teacher, Yona first announced she was pregnant when she arrived for a lesson and refused my usual offering of green tea. She hadn’t yet told her mother. The doctor told her she must only drink hot water from now on. Fintan’s assistant Alice is also pregnant, and for the first few weeks, her mother arrived in her office at lunchtime with hot food for her.

Yona attends regular check-ups at one of Ningbo’s hospitals. I asked her the other day if she had access to any classes about childbirth or childcare, or a peer-group of young parents-to-be. She looked surprised at my question, although she said there were one or two ‘lectures’ at the hospital. ‘We do what our mothers tell us’, she said.

In China, for the first month after childbirth the mother ‘rests’ while traditionally the father’s mother looks after her and the baby. Neither mother nor baby leaves the house for 28 days. However, urbanisation has meant that nowadays many young couples have moved away and mother-in-law may not be available. Sometimes there is a tussle between the two grandmothers as to who will get this important role. Alice’s mother-in-law is sick, so her own mother will move in for at least a month to take care of her and the baby, along with a live-in ayi or nanny. Another couple we know have a house in the UK, to which they recently returned to have their second child. The mother is Chinese and her parents went back to the UK with them to ensure the month’s rest.

Fintan recorded an amusing conversation with Alice. She asked him what help we had when our children were born. She looked bemused when he explained that we didn’t have or expect any, other than a loving grandmother in the same city who occasionally gave advice if asked. The fact that, as a man, he provided all the necessary care and attention I needed, was met with stunned surprise. He casually described a useful piece of kit he’d recommend, a ‘bouncy’ chair for the baby, which kept the baby happy with a few toys, while he cooked or did housework. After 10 minutes he gave up trying to explain about the chair. Why would you need such a thing when you always have one or two grandmothers to hold the baby?

Yona is far more ambivalent about the mother-in-law/mother tradition. She realises that she cannot fight against the one month’s rest rule, although she draws the line at some parts of it. For example, she intends to wash her hair during the 28 days, a rebellious act in itself. It will be her mother who moves in, as her mother-in-law lives a couple of hours’ drive away.

But despite the distance, her in-laws have certain expectations. As they don’t see so much of his parents, her husband feels it is necessary to go to his village for New Year, which next year falls when their baby will be about three weeks old. They should then be able to celebrate the baby’s first milestone – reaching one month – with his family.

This leaves Yona in a difficult position. Is it safe or desirable to travel with such a tiny baby she wonders? How will her mother react? How will her mother-in-law react if they don’t go? She has already told her mother that she, Yona, is planning to take care of the baby herself after the first month, and not go back to work full-time. To her parents and grandmother this is incomprehensible, and I imagine difficult to accept emotionally. There is a strong expectation that grandmothers will take care of the child for the years before kindergarten. But Yona now lives in a completely different world from her semi-literate parents. She has knowledge of child development, especially in terms of language, and realises the importance of early years’ education. She realises that the old ways of doing things in rural China are not necessarily the safest or the most desirable. She has aspirations to teach her child English as early as possible.

Recently, my Chinese lessons have been taken up with these and similar problems. For example, yesterday we discussed where the baby should sleep – in traditional China, the baby sleeps in bed with its parents. We start in Chinese, but often revert to English as Yona desperately wants some answers to help her chart a course through her dilemmas. Although I am a foreigner from a very different culture, she clearly feels that I have more understanding of her aspirations for her child and knowledge of the kind of world in which he/she will grow up in than her own mother could possibly have. In a way it is flattering, but I feel both frightened by the responsibility and a pang of sadness for her mother.

Some final thoughts about our time in China

Our first visit to China took place exactly three years ago and included a trip to Beijing to see my nephew and his partner, by then old China hands. By coincidence, a couple of weeks ago we again travelled to the capital, on business for Fintan and for leisure for me. It was our last journey within China before we leave and it was an opportunity to reflect on our China adventure.

Roses grow in profusion in Beijing, often and counter-intuitively trained along metal fences in the middle of the multi-lane highways, and they were once again at their best in the middle of May. Despite my fears of heavy pollution, the air was clear and blue sky was in evidence. Apparently a few coal-fired power stations have been closed down in response to concerns about the environment, and the effect has been significant.

I had plenty of time to myself, and arranged to meet a fellow student from my MA course, now living in Beijing and taking an intensive Mandarin language course before starting work at the Beijing office of the FT. A simple idea to meet up with someone, but something I could not have contemplated when we first came. Then, I was a passive recipient of our hosts’ kindness and knowledge of the city. I remember the awe I felt when my nephew’s girlfriend spoke Chinese to the driver, and the feeling of helplessness as we gazed at the gigantic monuments and seething crowds in Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City. The idea of being able to navigate comfortably around such a vast place seemed a pipe dream.

Yet there I was, Beijing Metro card in hand, confidently planning a couple of days of sightseeing on my own, looking for a small café in a hutong (small street) to meet my friend, occasionally asking locals for directions and thoroughly at ease.

I focused on a small area north of the city centre which I hadn’t seen on my previous trips. I wanted to see the Tibetan Lama Temple, the Confucius Temple and the Imperial College. Fintan has since been reading about the looting of Tibet for cultural artefacts by British soldiers and colonists in the 19th century. During the Opium Wars the Lama Temple was a convenient base for reaching the Summer Palace, further out of Beijing to the northwest, from whence more stuff was stolen. However, this dark past was not in evidence on a sunny May morning and I simply enjoyed the gold encrusted complex of buildings central to Tibetan Buddhism, and refreshed my visual memory of the distinctive colours of Beijing’s religious and imperial buildings – turquoise, blue, terracotta, amber and gold.

After lunch I found the Confucius Temple and the adjoining Imperial College, a series of buildings set in quiet gardens with fish-filled ponds and big, graceful cypress trees. Rows of about 200 grey, imposing stone tablets listed the names of all the men who had passed the fiendishly difficult imperial exams which allowed them to become administrators – or mandarins. The Hall of Discipline displayed the stocks, handcuffs and ropes used to punish young men who were not studying to the required levels. The entire known works of Confucius were carved on another set of stele – now forming an awe inspiring corridor of stone.

In the middle of its rapacious embrace of capitalism, China seems to be undergoing a revival of reverence for Confucius, as could be seen by the bus loads of tourists in identical orange caps making their way to the statue of the great man. They followed young tour leaders who gave their spiel through amplified loudspeakers, destroying any tranquillity one might have been hoping for.

The most striking element of the whole complex was the late 18th century triple arch that marked the entrance, decorated in imperial colours with ceramic tiles, reliefs of the imperial dragon and inscriptions written in the Emperor Qianlong’s calligraphy. Visitors filmed each other jumping through each arch, leaping and whooping with excitement. The purpose of the arch is to glorify an educational institution – the Imperial College.

It is easy to become disillusioned with China and to focus on its downsides – the crowds, the traffic, the spitting, pollution, not to say the infantilising of the population by the government. But, like those exuberant visitors, somehow my spirit was lifted by the notion of building a triumphal arch, not to celebrate the suppression of other nations in the Roman style, but to champion the importance of learning. And for me the last three years have been about learning, in particular learning a difficult language, but also learning about a new culture. It’s all been voluntary of course – I haven’t faced painful punishments when my grammar has been substandard, and it’s not been about proving myself to a watchful parent as a callow youth, rather I’ve tried to show that even the over 60s can enjoy new intellectual challenges.

Our belongings are pretty much packed and the shipping company’s agent has been to size up our goods. We will soon be gone and our China ‘gap’ years will be over. I think this will probably be my last blog, so thank you for reading it and for the comments you have posted. The interaction has been hugely encouraging and I hope I have been able to share something of our experience here.

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.

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.

Number 2 Market

For the last 10 days we have declared chemical war on the cockroaches. We have abandoned the academic approach to killing them with books and have turned, instead, to products called RAID. The RAID aerosol is particularly satisfying as one sniff of its noxious white foam turns the roaches on their backs with their legs waving in the air. But best of all are the RAID Roach Motels. We are told that these are promoted in the USA with the strapline, ‘You check ‘em in, we check ‘em out.’ They are certainly equally popular in China, as Metro had sold out and we had to get Alice to order our supply online from Taobao. Although online ordering is still a bit beyond me, I did at least learn the Mandarin for cockroach, and can have a limited conversation about them in Chinese.

A roach motel is a small black plastic rectangle, with a raised centre pierced with several openings. Imagine a small, sinister version of Tracey Island. The roach is tempted inside by the delicious smell of the poisonous bait and then returns to its nest, where its loved ones eat it and then die. It has the advantage over the spray in that in theory you don’t have to dispose of the bodies, although we still seem to find quite a few – admittedly much smaller – roaches lying around on our kitchen and bathroom floor. But in principle I think we have solved the problem.

Yesterday I went with the friend who had recommended the motel solution, to explore Ningbo Number 2 market. This is a somewhat ramshackle affair on the outskirts of the city centre, near a huge hospital. It is essentially a big warehouse full of a dizzying array of cheap stuff – mostly made of plastic. You can find here very souvenir and trinket you have ever seen in any place in the world – from Eiffel Tower key rings to stuffed giant teddy bears. Piles of hair slides and false nails jostle with novelties and toys. I found it very depressing. It was evidence of how China has been lured into ruining its environment to make junk products – mostly for the west, but also to stimulate its own consumer market.

There were chinks of light. In contrast to the more useless items, was a whole alley of stalls selling bulk quantities of unwrapped teas – green , chrysanthemum, jasmine and so on –with teapots and cups. There was another section dedicated to calligraphic materials, and there you could buy calligraphy brushes, pencils and inks of every conceivable size and colour.

It was lunchtime when we arrived and I was heartened by the sight of the Chinese vendors who mostly ignored us because they were busy gathering in little groups around rice steamers and small stoves to prepare fresh crab and stir-fried vegetables. As I’ve so often noticed, generally the authenticity and quality of food is rarely compromised.

Leaving the market, I walked on into the city centre to meet a representative of a group of children’s arts clubs who wanted to talk to me about my experience of arts education and arts accreditation. It was a somewhat surreal experience to be discussing the importance of self-expression and the need for children to explore the creative process, after the experience of the market. On the other hand, nothing could better epitomise two sides of China and the desire of some people to move to a culture of ‘created in China’ away from the current default position of simply ‘made in China’.

Progress? Towards consumerism

I’m back in Ningbo, starting on my third and final year in China. How fast the time has gone! Only 10 months remain before we must dismantle our life here and vacate our flat. On my return everything seems much as it was, although entrance areas to the compound are now decorated with red lanterns to celebrate the mid-autumn festival this week.

The weather is grey and sullen, with storms threatening, very high humidity and temperatures around 30 degrees. Such conditions make the jet lag even more difficult to deal with, as do the cockroaches which seem to have taken hold. About two inches long, they squat unafraid in the middle of the floor when I wander into the sitting room, sleepless in the small hours. Fintan has developed a unique academic’s method of killing them. He drops a book from a great height on to the unsuspecting roach, which squashes it. Unfortunately it leaves a streak of blood on the back of the book, but in the tropics sacrifices have to be made.

The contrasts between rich and poor, old and new always strike me when I come back into China, because they are so extreme. They are exemplified by life outside two gates of our compound. On my first morning back I walked out of the east gate to the market and was relieved to find it still thriving, despite the inconvenience of crossing the now very busy new dual carriageway. Even Bicycle Man was still working away at his pitch on the corner of the new crossroads. Peasants squatted on the roadside selling fruit and vegetables, and there was the usual array of fish in bowls, freshly slaughtered pork or soon-to-be slaughtered chickens.

The view outside the south gate is very different. This is where there are two huge construction sites that epitomise new China. They are both surrounded by giant billboards which screen off the building works and cover up the temporary accommodation for the migrants who work on the sites. One site, opposite the gate is going to be another residential compound. The architects’ plan on display shows there will be three 20 storey blocks, one of which has begun to emerge from the foundations. Straplines in Chinglish and Mandarin in gold writing on the brown bill boards promote the delights of what will be ‘Kingsplace’, where you will be ‘leaving a mansion to live in the palace’. This seems to be an attempt to suggest that the new compound will have something of Versailles about it. Perhaps an odd aspiration for the People’s Republic of China, but urban chic in China is about emulating French history and fashion. Often advertisements for luxury goods carry images of the Eiffel Tower and France is the foreign country Chinese people would most like to visit.

On the other side of the road, the second site is still at the foundations stage and no superstructures have emerged as yet. Its façade of white billboards is a series of advertisements for clothing, as usual using western models. Chinese women almost never feature in fashion ads. The translations of the advertising copy are bizarre: ‘I wish my hug would be the warmest one among your various clothes’ is a typical example. It seems that the presence of English language and the western models are enough to sell the commercial concept of the ‘Smart Plaza’ as it will be called.

I don’t think we will be here long enough to see the completed delights of Kingsplace or Smart Plaza, but will have to make do with ‘In City’, the shopping mall which opened in December 2012, just 100 metres away. We went back there yesterday and it is fascinating to see how the mall is being used. The food outlets are still the most popular, but the fashion retailers and household stores such as Muji and Zara Home are attracting more customers, although very few seem to actually buy anything in the store. The outlets are shop windows which give new Chinese consumers the experience of unfamiliar products. They then go home and order stuff cheaply on line. The flotation of Alibaba, the online platform for e-commerce in China, is set to be the biggest stock market flotation in history. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-29119121 Outside the south gate we watch how aspiration is sparked, to oil the wheels of global capitalism. Meanwhile, outside the east gate, traditional rural exchange and food distribution through a low income economy continues much as it must have done for decades.

Breaking through the ethnographic barriers

On my last visit to Zhongshan Park I was greeted like an old friend by some of the visitors. I’ve turned up often enough now for them to recognize me and my interpreter. At the main opera spot last week, the lead er hu player stopped playing, waved and then turned to his companions and whispered, loud enough for us to hear ‘Ningbo Nottingham Da Xue’ – Ningbo Nottingham University. We had interviewed the er hu player the week before and discovered that his son had been to both Cambridge and Nottingham universities in the UK, and now ran a business in Shanghai. This is just one example of the rapid social changes experienced by the park goers within one generation.

The er hu player gestured to us to sit down at the front of the audience, and blue plastic stools were duly supplied. Then suddenly one of the singers brought over the microphone to us and indicated that I should sing. The gap between Yue Ju opera and any song I might have been able to sing was just too great and I’m afraid to say I was not up to the challenge. But from the ethnographic point of view I felt that an invisible barrier had been crossed and that I was now accepted by the group.

Indeed, some more interesting conversations ensued when we chatted to some of the singers. Two women we spoke to had not learned Yue Ju opera at the adult college but had simply listened to CDs and DVDs. I found this surprising, given the complexity of the music and the strange – to my ears – vocal sound, but they clearly thought nothing of it. The women were retired and now had time to enjoy themselves.

We have continued to talk to the elderly audience, who sit under the pavilions at the edge of the performance zone. A man of 81 tried out his few words of English on me, and talked to my interpreter about England’s colonial past, which he seemed to view with some amusement. He admired my (rather ordinary) watch – and wanted to know how much it cost, something that happens regularly to me. Watches seem to be the ultimate sign of wealth. He comes to the park every day with his wife to meet friends, because they don’t want to watch television all day and fall asleep. It’s important to keep your brain ticking over, he told us. He and his group have created a kind of sitting room feel to their section of the pavilion and provide sheets of magazines to sit on, against the cold and to protect their clothes I suppose.

On my last visit I was able to discover more about the Zhiqing, or ‘sent down’ youth. These people are in their 60s – considerably younger than some of the people we have met so far. We came across one man sitting on his own in the far end of the park listening to two people singing ‘Red’ songs from the Mao era. The park accommodates many different musical styles. When we asked him, he told us how he liked this music better than anything he heard today because it reminded him of the happy time he’d spent in the forests of north east China. The Cultural Revolution is officially known as the 10 years of chaos and holocaust, so it must be tricky for people who look back on that time with nostalgia. However, it seems that in Ningbo, like many cities in China, there are thriving clubs for Zhiqing, who organise trips back to their farms and exhibitions about their experiences. They have even put up money for a privately run Zhiqing Museum; I’m going to visit this tomorrow and hope to interview the curator.

One group I haven’t penetrated yet is the crowd of elderly male debaters, who gather, especially at the weekend, to talk animatedly under the eaves of the old teahouse. But today I read a long post on a Ningbo forum for the elderly, from a man in his 70s who had visited the park in 2010 and listened in to the conversations, which he described in vivid detail. Topics included recent natural disasters, riots in Tibet and Xinjiang, house prices, corruption and the growing gap between rich and poor. He used words such as ‘human rights’ (ren quan) and ‘democracy’ (min zhu) to express what he thought these open conversations were all about. Sadly, he didn’t feel able to join in himself. Instead, he was reminded of the terror of the Cultural Revolution when he had been paraded in a tall dunce’s hat and beaten. He said he still couldn’t quite trust others enough to express an opinion.

I don’t know the exact connection between either of these experiences of the Cultural Revolution – the nostalgic and the humiliating terror –and Zhongshan Park, but I will try hard to find out. I hope my new found acceptance by the park goers will help me get to the bottom of these complex and sensitive issues.

Voices of Ningbo

Voices of Ningbo
A metro line is currently under construction in Ningbo and the first line, out to the port at Beilun, is due to open imminently. An email was sent to students last week asking if anyone would like to compete to become the English language voice-of-Ningbo-metro. This is in keeping with every metro line we have been on in China (Shanghai, Beijing, Hangzhou, Nanjing) where stations are announced in both Chinese and English. It turned out that a man in my class does a party piece as Ian McKellen, and he decided to volunteer. We wished him well, although our tutor thought that it was more likely that the city authorities would prefer an American accent.

My research is progressing and I’ve begun to hear some of the voices of visitors to Zhongshan park, albeit through my interpreter. My assumptions have been dispelled on several occasions. For example, because the park is surrounded by both old courtyard style houses and newer apartment blocks, I had assumed that most of the elderly visitors would be from the immediate locality. This hasn’t turned out to be completely true. My interpreter and I talked to an 88 year old man who told us that every day, rain or shine, he takes two buses to come to the park, where he meets three friends. He used to live nearby, but has been rehoused some way away. They have lunch and then later in the afternoon he goes home. He lives with his son, but finds they no longer have much to talk about. Our interview was curtailed when the group toddled off into the nearby restaurant district at 11am for lunch. I imagine they’d been up since 5am or earlier.
Although I’m with an interpreter, I’m still the subject of many comments and curious looks. I am often asked my age, and the answer is met with incredulity. It is refreshing to be in an environment where I am the youngest and not the oldest. I look young to them – partly because they have had a much harder life than me. If you are in your 50s or 60s or older in China you have experienced famine or chronic food shortages, especially if you lived in the countryside. If you were a baby or young girl you would be least likely to have got enough to eat. Many of the old women in the park are distinctly short in height as a result of early malnutrition. My teeth are remarked on – they look good – and last week my nose received attention. It’s ‘gau’ – high or prominent to a Chinese person. I think this was a compliment, but maybe not! ‘Big nose’ can apparently also simply mean ‘foreigner’.
The old man who comes by bus every day enjoys the lively atmosphere in the park, especially the opera. I’ve begun to find out a bit more about who performs the opera and how they have acquired their skill. To my surprise, it turns out that there is a Ningbo Old People’s University – an adult college. Three different types of opera are on the curriculum and after three years of study, students can join the college troupe. It seems that the singers in the park are practising the songs they have learned in the college. Again, this is partly assumption, and I’m hoping to interview a teacher from the college to find out more about the link with the park. Meanwhile, we have managed to talk to a man who has been coming Zhongshan every day for 15 years since he was made redundant. He brings seats and refreshments for the singers. Coming to the park seems to be his main occupation.

A further source of information has been the internet, which has newspaper articles with the history of the park and a forum for ‘zhiqing’ or educated youth who were ‘sent down’ to the country to help with farming during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. I had assumed that this was an essentially negative experience, which interrupted the young people’s education and ruined their lives. The forum would suggest that this is not necessarily the case. Postings are nostalgic for the camaraderie of time spent in the country. There seems to be some kind of connection between the sent down youth and Zhongshan Park, but I don’t yet know quite what that is. I’m busily reading about the Cultural Revolution, different memories of it and how it is constructed by contemporary elites in new China.

Like all research, it seems that the more I find out the more unanswered questions I uncover. I have sparked memories for my interpreter and for her mother, who I have also interviewed. She remembers the square next to the park when it was a stadium and when there was an air raid shelter underneath it for use during the Sino-Japanese war. My interpreter remembers Zhongshan Park as a place for exhibitions, festivals and fun – it has only become the ‘place of the old’ in the last 15 years. So perhaps my theory that it is some kind of substitute for the intimacy of the courtyard house has some legitimacy. I hope to find more evidence to substantiate it.

Fieldwork in Ningbo: getting beyond observation

The moment has arrived when I can no longer shelter in the library, deep in theory, but must venture forth to my chosen fieldwork site and attempt to find out what is happening there and why. I have decided to focus my research on Zhongshan Park, the very first park that I visited in central Ningbo in September 2012.
I realise now that in many ways it isn’t really a park at all, in the European sense. It is a traditional private Chinese scholar’s garden that has somehow survived for at least the last hundred years, and since the late 1920s has been opened to the public. This in itself is remarkable, given the approach to modernization in many Chinese cities, where old areas are flattened and replaced by high rise blocks, shopping malls and huge, windswept plazas. After Reform and Opening in the 1980s, hundreds of city mayors went to the West on Grand Tours to study urban development. What they liked were the paved spaces with grandiose central axes and rather featureless planting regimes to be found in some European and American cities.
Indeed, Zhongshan Park is immediately next to Zhongshan Square, which is just such a plaza. It is a huge open space, complete with a European modernist metal sculpture on its central axis and comprehensible in one view. It is paved and surrounded by grass and trees, but none of the small pavilions, rockeries, ponds and zigzag bridges and pathways that you can find in Zhongshan Park and every scholar’s garden.
What interests me is what people do in these spaces – in the Square, but more particularly the Park. I have begun a programme of observation, spending two hours or more on different days just watching what happens. I first walk through the Square, and on a sunny weekend afternoon linger to watch the kite-flying, roller skating and dancercise that is usually going on. In amongst the lithe young men showing off their skating, are elderly men with large sponge brushes using water from the fountains (not in operation so far) to write beautiful characters on the paving stones. On one visit I noticed characters had been ‘engraved’ into the silt that has collected on the bottom of the fountain basins. A novel and creative use of dirt!
The Square has a sunken arena towards one end and this is used from about 12.30pm for what we would think of as ballroom dancing. A large amplifier arrives on someone’s ebike and is set up to blare nostalgic dance music. Gradually couples arrive, and by 1.30pm at least 20 couples are waltzing or quickstepping. Sometimes I spot single men dancing alone, imagining they have a partner, or very elderly couples shuffling around in slippers, barely in time to the music, but evidently enjoying themselves.

But the noise of the dance music is nothing to what awaits me in Zhongshan Park. The most popular activity there is performing and listening to a local opera form called yue ju, derived from the neighbouring city of Shaoxing, also famous for its rice wine. At busy times (the afternoon) five or six groups perform. This means that men play the er hu – a traditional two-stringed instrument accompanied by a percussionist while women and men sing the operatic songs. There are no costumes or makeup, but the singers certainly act out the roles, much to the delight of the audience that gradually gathers from the neighbouring dwellings. Many people bring their own folding chairs and stools. Flasks of tea are much in evidence. The groups set up close to each other and each one has its own amplifier, powered by large portable batteries. The din is extraordinary.

Opera is not the only activity. In different areas of the garden, people play cards or Chinese chess. In the mornings small groups of women sit on the rocks beside the ponds, knitting and chatting. The daily newspaper is displayed, page by page on a notice board under glass. Elderly men gather to read and discuss the news. Under the covered walkways groups of old people gather to talk, drink tea and eat snacks. A building that was once a teahouse seems to attract a kind of debating society; crowds of men gesticulate and talk animatedly.

What does it all mean? Why does all this happen in this place and in this way? My thoughts so far are that it is partly about trying to recreate the intimate communities and spaces lost to modernization. Observation can only take me so far though, and I plan to talk to anyone willing to communicate with me. The locals in the park mostly speak Ningbo dialect and have limited Mandarin (although somewhat better than mine!) So far, I’ve managed two extensive conversations with old people who have clearly been intrigued by seeing a middle-aged white woman staring at them. I’ve found out that they live nearby, they are in their eighties, that they like the park, they like meeting their friends and enjoy the opera. After a few minutes, however, the conversation turns to me. Who am I? What am I doing there? Where do I live? What does my husband do? How many children do I have and so on.

Tomorrow I’m going back, but with a Ningbo dialect speaker. I’ve explained my research ideas and we have prepared a list of questions. I’m hoping that I will be less of a distraction and that we can do some proper ‘interviewing’. But I’m realistic about what I might be able to achieve. Reflection about the past or even the reasons for doing things now, may not be part of the culture, for many reasons. Fieldwork is clearly going to be very challenging in China.