Visit to a Chinese family

Here’s my long-overdue post about our visit to the home of a Chinese family. I was with Nichole, a student volunteer who wants to be a radio presenter, and we went to her older sister’s flat.

The place was tiny – a kitchen, a living room / bedroom, and a little bathroom adjoining the kitchen. Two people live there, Nichole’s sister and her husband, but on this occasion it was crowded, as in addition to those two there were Nichole, two young women who were either friends or relatives, and three Brits.

We were given ice lollies upon our arrival, and I quickly opted for the safe apple flavour, leaving my fellow English students with pea-flavoured treats. Pea lollies seem to be quite popular in China, as I saw them several times, but never tried one. Other somewhat unusual snacks we were given during the visit included tomatoes, which the Chinese consider to be a fruit like any other, putting it in fruit bowls and on the same plate as watermelon at breakfast, and a salty, smoked plum.

Whilst the snacks weren’t entirely to my taste, the evening meal was wonderful. Nichole’s sister’s husband prepared lots of dishes for us, which I will attempt to describe briefly (I may be wrong about what they were): pork with green beans, chicken with little cucumber chunks, aubergine with tomato and chilli, spring onions, courgette, tofu in an unknown but tasty sauce, strips of a crunchy vegetable which I couldn’t identify, leaf parcels filled with sticky rice, and ‘dumplings made with glutinous rice flour in soup’. This last dish was looked up on the internet before the meal so that they could tell us what it was, and they laughed at the translation and asked to know what the real English word for it was. Of course there is no English term for such an unfamiliar dish; although it appeared savoury the dumplings were filled with an intensely sweet substance described as ‘black sesame’, and the soup was also sweet. Overall the meal was the best I had in China, and Nichole’s sister’s husband clearly enjoys food – both the preparation and the consumption of it! I make the last remark because Nichole’s sister took great delight in calling her husband a ‘fat boy’, although he was certainly no such thing by British standards.

Before the meal Nichole taught us to play mah-jong (ma jiang), which was great fun. For those who don’t know, mah-jong tiles are essentially like cards, and the game is similar to many card games. What sets it apart from card games is the feel, sound and appearance of the tiles. I’ll definitely be buying a set if I can find a relatively cheap one.

After the meal we drank some extremely bitter tea, which is thought to be good for your health (it is apparently one of the things Chairman Mao did to preserve his health, along with swimming in an icy river), and talked for a while. I was told that my eyes looked very similar to those of a little black girl in a tiger costume (on a bizarre poster behind me), and all our eyes were deemed ‘beautiful’. We were taught how to write one or two characters, and husband and wife disagreed at one point about the correct order of strokes. It’s a shame that our Chinese wasn’t good enough to hold conversations in, but several of them spoke quite good English, and with the help of a dictionary at times we were able to communicate fine.

Definitely one of my favourite moments of the trip; great food and hospitality, and very friendly people. I hope some day Nichole or her family/friends will visit England and I will be able to return the favour.

Back to England

Just a quick note to say that I’ll be flying home later today, and after a 9-hour wait in Amsterdam airport, should get back home some time tomorrow. It’s been a fantastic experience, and there’ll be a few more blog posts from me when I get back. To Nichole, the Chinese girl whose family I visited: sorry, but you’ll have to wait a couple more days before I write about the visit!

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Hullo. I’m Tomas, Will’s room-mate. He’s ok I guess. We’ve got a pretty swell cohabitation system set up. It mostly involves dozing and watching Super Cooking Boy on the telly. Super Cooking Boy is about a Boy, who does Cooking, in a sort of Super way. Last night he made a prawn dumpling that turned into a giant dragon. That’s pretty standard practice here; most restaurants have open ceilings so that if a plate of Har Gow starts breathing fire and hoarding treasure the maitre de can shoo them out with minimal disruption. For real. Today was our closing ceremony. Suits and sweat. Personally I feel our performance was a smash; 15 people awkwardly mispronouncing a mandarin poem to a Black Rebel Motorcycle Club song whilst Will whistled into a butternut squash. A perfect syncretism. Tomorrow I’m getting an overnight train to Xi’An, the Terracotta Army is enlisting. There’s also a lot of infinitely useless pandas in Xi’An. I’m going to take the film out of my camera when I take pictures of them so they pose for nothing. Idiots.
The most formative experience of my trip happened yesterday. In Cloud 9. It’s a m-a-s-s-i-v-e mall the bus goes from. I took a visit to the gents and parked up at a urinal. So far, so western. Until a cheery faced man beside me leaned over with tai-chi grace. He got to about my stomach level and then took an appraising look at my distinctly European appendage, then he looked up at me and grinned, before walking away. After I frowned at him he started brushing his teeth in the sink. I envied him in that moment; a man who really had his life figured out.

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2nd go class visit

On Sunday I visited Li Tianzhu’s go class again. We arrived back at our hotel from Hangzhou at around 6:30 pm – the time that the class starts – so I hopped straight into a taxi without going to my room. This caused a little trouble on the way back, as I had deodorant in my bag, which isn’t allowed on the subway, but fortunately the official let me take it in the end.

When I arrived, Li Tianzhu asked if I had eaten, and said that I showed great spirit in coming straight to play go when I told her I had not. She then had a quick conversation in Chinese with a 4-dan teacher (called Zhao, if I recall correctly) who had met me when I got out of the taxi. It turned out that she had sent him away to buy me a burger!

Since the kids were playing a simultaneous match against Li Tianzhu, I was paired with the boss’s uncle, who is 2-3 dan. It was a good game, and I think I had the upper hand for most of it, but I blundered and let a corner die as it reached 9 pm and the class was preparing to close. The uncle declared the game a tie, and said he had not won, but the position was winning for him at the end. The game lasted 2 hours, and so was the only one I had time for that evening.

Another very enjoyable evening, but unfortunately I won’t be able to go back again as I’m leaving Shanghai on Friday.

So goes a well-known saying about Hangzhou, the city about 3 hours south of Shanghai which we have just visited. It was the favoured haunt of several emperors, who had the West Lake expanded and various pagodas built to create the beautiful tourist destination we see today. While the saying may be something of an exaggeration, I enjoyed my brief visit there very much and will definitely return some day if I get a chance.

Upon our arrival we were taken to a restaurant for lunch, where we were served chicken feet and various unidentifiable meat dishes. The food did not meet a warm reception, and I was the only one who ate a decent amount on my table. (We went to the same restaurant on the way back, and were served a frog dish, among other things, but this time people were prepared and enjoyed the food more.)

After lunch we proceeded to the West Lake (there is only one lake, named for its location with respect to the county), and had a boat ride out to an island. The weather was very sunny, and the scenery beautiful.

The evening was particularly enjoyable, and if anyone wants to replicate my perfect evening you will need to find yourself the following ingredients: a lake, tandem bicycles and a catapulted-LED-helicopter-thing. We wandered along the side of the lake for a while, and watched a fountain display (an arrangement of fountains in the lake, lit up and with music). There were lots of people firing blue lights into the air, so I decided to buy one from a stall, and found it to be a blue LED fired into the air with an elastic band. A couple of bits of plastic were folded over, which allowed it to come gently back to Earth like a helicopter.

We then hired some tandem bicycles for an hour, after lengthy and difficult negotiations, as they spoke almost no English and we spoke very little Chinese. It was great fun, though pretty difficult at first and terrifying being in the back seat with no brakes. I was on a bike with my room-mate Tom, and the locals were universally amused and surprised to see two white boys riding a tandem. When we were returning the bikes, another couple of students from the Study China trip who I know turned up and hired a tandem. We had been very cautious to start with, cycling slowly on the pavement, but they immediately adopted the Chinese style of road-use. The pedalled straight out onto the road, did a U-turn in the face of oncoming traffic, and then charged off with a cry of ‘Tally ho! Pip pip!’. The evening was ended with a relaxed local beer on a pontoon at the lakeside.

The next morning we visited a bamboo forest. I managed to climb the bamboo plants with some success, but have a little way to go before I can run through the tops as they do in ‘House of Flying Daggers’. There was supposedly a temple at the top of lots of steps, but after climbing for a while it still wasn’t in sight. The others turned back, but, determined not to waste all the climbing I ran on for a while in extreme heat, before being forced to admit defeat and turning back. It may have been just around the corner for all I know, as the dense bamboo made it impossible to see far.

Finally we visited a silk museum, but only had around 20-30 minutes there as we needed to get back to Shanghai. There was a small fashion show, featuring some silk dresses, and a short talk on how to tell real silk from fake silk, which was really just an attempt to get us to buy their products.

You can expect reports on my 2nd trip to the go class, and a visit to a Chinese family in the near future.

Bao Steel

One more quick post before Hangzhou.

Today I visited a factory of the Baoshan Iron and Steel Company. The programme was split into three groups, with the others going to a Coca-Cola factory and an arty street.

We were given a quick talk about Bao Steel by a very smiley man on the coach. It’s one of the biggest steel producers in the world (formerly number 1, currently number 3, IIRC), but I can’t remember exactly how many millions of tonnes it produces per year. The man was particularly smiley when he told us about the 3000 workers they’d had to sack when they downsized. The huge plant we went to is apparently run by only 7 workers in an air-conditioned office, as everything is automated.

The actual building in which the steel sheets were made was incredibly hot. We were told it could reach 70 °C, though where exactly I’m not sure – perhaps right beside the conveyor on which the hot steel travelled. Where we were it was a mere 55 °C, and when a piece of red hot steel passed along the track below the heat increased dramatically, despite the distance.

The steel lumps started out thick and short and hot, and were gradually squashed, stretched and cooled as they travelled along, before finally being coiled into rolls of steel sheet about 2 mm thick.

I mentioned in an earlier post that it is quite a shock going from the hot outside into the fiercely air-conditioned indoors. The experience was the same when passing from the steel plant to outside.

Opera and Acrobatics

Yesterday evening a group of us went to see a Chinese opera. It was quite unlike anything I’ve seen before; colourful costumes, long fake beards and hair, shrill voices, enthusiastic and highly percussive accompaniment from an orchestra composed of traditional Chinese instruments, and impressive singing and dancing. I really enjoyed it, but even so it is difficult to sit through three hours and ten minutes of anything when you understand barely a word. It was made more difficult by the fact that I was so hungry I could have eaten a brace of plump young Chinese children before it started. By the end I was the only one of our group of around fifteen who hadn’t left (though 4 or 5 other Study China students had come separately and stayed to the end). The audience was quite noisy, clapping and shouting at feats such as sustained high notes, fast hair-twirling and high leg-stretching. I’ll upload some poor quality videos from my phone when I get home.

This evening the whole course went to see an acrobatics show. It was quite remarkable, and consisted of lots of varied acts such as tumblers, contortionists, jugglers and a magician. I’ll describe a couple of acts for you.

A group of about ten Chinese girls rode around the stage on unicycles, just in circles at first, but then incorporating sudden stops, turns, and prolonged spins. A few of them then did the same sort of thing on unicycles without seats (i.e. just a wheel with pedals attached to it), which must have required very strong legs. The next stage was two of them jumping off their seatless unicycles, allowing them to roll towards the other girl, who then followed the wheel and jumped on and pedalled away while it was still rolling. This was repeated with the girl jumping from a unicycle to the rolling wheel, and then, in the trick’s final incarnation, leaping over several of the other girls to land on the wheel. Finally they all returned and juggled three skittles each (and passed them to each other) while cycling around.

There were a couple of less technically impressive thrown in for variety, of which one was a comedy knife-thrower. He invited an audience member to come up on stage to have knives thrown at him/her, but despite waving my hand madly in the air I wasn’t chosen. The person who was chosen stood with his back to a board, and his arms out to the sides, held by people to prevent him from moving them. They knife-thrower was then blindfolded, and prepared to throw a knife but stopped at the last minute, and did various other things to ensure the audience member was nice and scared. They then blindfolded the audience member, and instead of throwing the knife, it was stabbed into the board at close range. Because the volunteer couldn’t see, he had no idea that the knife hadn’t been thrown.

I’m off to Hangzhou tomorrow, a city south of Shanghai which is famous for a pretty lake, among other things. I won’t be able to post again until Sunday.

This is the motto of East China Normal University, where we are studying Mandarin most mornings. The teachers are certainly trying their best, but most of us cannot be said to be living up to the name of student.

Chinese is difficult. An English bloke gave us the following estimate in a business talk this afternoon: you can learn a certain amount of a European language which uses the same alphabet as us in an hour; you’d need 5-6 hours to learn the same amount of a language which uses a different alphabet (like Russian); to learn the same amount of Chinese 10-12 hours is necessary.

The first difficulty is the tones. There are 4 of these (5 including neutral), namely high, rising, falling and going down and then up again, and the same syllable can mean completely different things depending on the tone it is said with. The second difficulty is the characters. So far we’ve just been taught with pinyin, which is a way of writing Chinese using our alphabet, but to be able to read and write the language properly you need to be able to recognise a few thousand characters.

All this means that most of my class, which is a beginners’ class, has given up. People are turning up very late, being noisy, and generally not trying. I wish I’d gone into an intermediate class, as I’m actually keen to learn, but it’s probably too late now.

We’ve had three different teachers – two young men who are master’s degree students, and the shouty woman, who is fully qualified. The shouty woman came into our class at the end of our first day’s lesson, and proceeded to quiz us all on the lesson at the top of her shrill voice (asking simple questions like ‘What is your name?’). She took our class the next day, and proved to be an enthusiastic and effective teacher, but unfortunately we won’t be getting her again (I think she’s teaching the more advanced classes). The other two teachers are very nice, but their English isn’t quite as good and they don’t seem to hold the class’s attention as well.

At the end of our lessons we will be given a mark, which is based on attendance, performance in class, quizzes/tests in class, and an exam. We’ve had two little quizzes, the first just being asked to read a few words from the pinyin, and the second being asked to write a few simple sentences. I think the exam is written, and lasts for an hour and a half – quite how anyone will know enough to fill an exam paper for that time I don’t know.

Go in the park

Today a large group of Study China students went to a market area to buy cheap tailored suits (which can be bought for about 35 quid here). I went with them, but soon went off in search of a park where people might be playing go (a board game – see earlier posts).

After a long walk I arrived at Fuxing park. The place was beautiful, with lots of water and plants, and quite big too I think, but I didn’t get very far as one of the first things I saw was two elderly men play go on a tattered old blue travel board. I stood by the board watching them for a while, but then wandered off as they were still in the early middle-game and playing quite slowly. I saw a few groups playing card games, and kids roller-skating and playing on little boats in the water. A bit further into the park a loud argument was underway over a game of Xiangqi (Chinese chess), and I watched that for a while, half-hoping to play one of them when they had finished. However, after I’d been watching for about fifteen minutes one of them gestured away and said something to me which I imagined to be ‘Bugger off’, so I obliged and returned to the go game. I watched this to its conclusion, and when they were scoring pointed at three dead stones which they had forgotten to remove. The older man (about 80 I would guess) smiled and removed the stones, and after they had finished scoring said ‘You play?, in English.

After we had established that I did play, I sat down to play a game. The other man had disappeared, but soon reappeared and helped my opponent with suggestions at critical junctures. I had the upper hand from start to finish, and won by resignation. After this the younger man (perhaps 60), sat down to play me, with the other man again offering suggestions. They would quite often play a move, but then think better of it and take it back. I again had the upper hand in this game, but my opponent always managed to wriggle out of my killing attempts and it went to scoring. In the last few moves I had carelessly allowed a large chunk of my territory to become a seki, which made it quite close, and I didn’t know the result. Since I am used to Japanese scoring I wasn’t able to follow the counting process perfectly, and I’m not sure who won.
Another fantastic, but tiring, experience.

For the last couple of days the weather has been completely different from my initial experience, with clear blue skies and blazing hot sun all day. This means I am completely drenched in sweat after just a few minutes outside, and I have taken to wearing my t-shirt Chinese-style, with the bottom pulled up and tucked into the neck. So far I think I’ve managed to avoid sunburn.

Li Tianzhu

On Saturday evening I arranged to meet up with professional go player Li Tianzhu and go to the class of school kids which she teaches. Go is a traditional Chinese board game which I have played for a few years, for those who don’t know.

I ate quickly before leaving and she rang me when I was nearly at the station we had arranged to meet at. After some difficulty finding each other (we were standing on opposite sides of a pillar for a while, I believe), she took me to a restaurant where her uncle and mother were waiting. I had expected to go straight to the class and was surprised to find that some of her family members had turned up to meet me. The uncle taught Li Tianzhu go when she was young, and so was particularly excited when he heard about the visit of a European who knew how to play go. They had a meal waiting for me, which I was expected to eat before we went to the class. This was a bit of a struggle as I had just eaten, but since the food was delicious I managed.

At the class I was introduced to the boss, the boss’s uncle, and the kids, who were very excited by my visit. Li Tianzhu told me that they ranged in strength from 2 to 4 dan, so as an EGF 6 kyu I was not feeling very confident as I sat down to face the first, despite assurances that KGS 5 kyu was about Chinese 1 dan. The first child I played was 2 dan, and very shy (he was introduced as ‘the shy one’, and it proved to be true). I lost by resignation, but had some winning chances along the way. My second game was against a 3 dan, and I had a big loss in the opening when I fell for a 5-4 point joseki trick play. Li Tianzhu scolded the boy, because she always tells him not to play that move (since the result isn’t good when his opponent answers correctly), and we took back the trick play and played on from there. I lost again by resignation, though I had my chances. As the other games were still in progress, I played one more with the same kid, and again soon felt like I was being beaten. However, Li Tianzhu looked at the board and said ‘I think white (me) is doing very well here’. This encouraged me and after several more moves I was winning a very big capturing race (and with it the game). Unfortunately I blundered at the last moment and lost the capturing race by a move, leading to my resignation once more.

After a few pictures with the kids and Li Tianzhu’s family it was time to go back. I chatted to the uncle for a bit on the train as we were going the same way, before I had to get off. Overall it was a fantastic experience – the family and people at the class were very friendly, and although I didn’t win a game I was told that I was probably 1-2 dan from watching my play. I suspect she was being generous with that assessment, as I didn’t think Chinese ranks were quite so different from European ones. Definitely my most enjoyable moment of the trip so far.