April 22nd, 2012
This week I got my students to tell me stories about mysteries. Two separate students in two separate classes on two separate days both whipped out their cellphones and Baidu’ed them up an old story they obviously knew about, but couldn’t remember all the details of. Here it is, based on my memory of what these two students told me:
One night back in 1995, the last bus of the night left Yuanmingyuan bus station bound for Xiangshan. It picked up a few people, including an elderly couple and a young man. It was an unusually quiet night with very few people around. Then three people were seen waiting for the bus, but the elderly couple noticed something odd – these three people had no feet, they were floating there. So they told the young man, “Hey, those are three ghosts waiting for the bus, let’s get out of here”, and they and the young man got off the bus. The bus went on its way.
The next morning the bus was found in the Miyun Reservoir with three people dead on board. Nobody could figure out how it got from its bus route from Yuanmingyuan to Xiangshan on the northwestern fringe of Beijing to the Miyun Reservoir in the far northeastern rural exurbs.
Now, I suppose I could get on Baidu and rustle up some more details and figure out how much factual basis there is to this – was there really a bus in 1995 that was fished out of a reservoir far from where it was supposed to be? Is the mystery really unsolved? But my daughter is probably going to wake up soon and we’re home alone, so I thought I’d just put it out there, let whoever reads it make their own decision.
January 20th, 2012
1: I just had Firefox eat my language bar. That was weird. I’m pretty sure it was a Firefox problem, because I opened up Maxthon, logged in to Weibo, and the language bar worked. But in Firefox, the language bar vanished and I could not switch to Chinese. Well, I could type all I liked, but only in English-style diacritical free Latin script. I closed Firefox, reopened, problem gone, language bar back and functional, proper toned pīnyīn and 汉字 allowed again.
In one recent study, Anat Prior and Tamar Gollan compared Mandarin-English bilinguals, Spanish-English bilinguals, and monolingual English speakers living in San Diego. As you might expect, the Spanish-English speakers flipped between their languages on a daily basis. Mandarin-English speakers, on the other hand, kept their language use more compartmentalized. (Incidentally, Asian immigrants to the U.S. are among the fastest to lose their heritage languages.) All three groups were given a test in which they had to switch between sorting visual images either by their color or by their shape. Only the Spanish-English bilinguals showed a relative advantage when confronted with a sudden category shift; the Mandarin-English speakers were no different on this score than the monolinguals.
If we take “flipped between their languages on a daily basis” to mean frequent code switching and “kept their language use more compartmentalized” to mean less frequent code switching, which is what the linked abstract seems to suggest (“By contrast, Mandarin–English bilinguals, who reported switching languages less frequently than Spanish–English bilinguals”), and assume there’s some social reason for Spanish-English bilinguals in San Diego to code switch more often than Mandarin-English bilinguals (proximity to Mexico? larger hispanophone community?), then it would seem on the face of it to make sense that that particular Mandarin-English community shows no advantage over monolinguals. Now, my daughter gets English from me and Mandarin from her mum, so when she learns to speak, will that frequency of code switching be enough for my daughter to reap the benefits of growing up bilingual? I passed that article on to my wife, whose response was:
“When we go back to New Zealand, you’ll still speak Chinese with me, hehe.” But of course. Our relationship has always happened almost exclusively in Chinese. And it’s not just climate that has us aiming at Auckland, but also the large Chinese community.
[tangent, but yes, that does mean one day the 'ex' in this blog's title will have to be replaced with a 're']
3: Omniglot found a good article in the NY Times questioning the USA’s reputation for monolingualism – and also the rest of the world’s assumed multilingualism. It throws out some interesting stats. 20% of Americans speak a language other than English at home – and yes, it does point out that that’s the wrong questions:
But a moment’s reflection reveals that the bureau’s question about what you speak at home is not equivalent to asking whether you speak more than one language. I have some proficiency in Spanish and was fluent in Mandarin 20 years ago. But when the American Community Survey (an ongoing survey from the Census Bureau) arrived in my mailbox last month, posing that question, I had to answer no, because we speak only English in my home.
And is Europe really so fabulously multilingual when only 56% of Europeans say they can carry on a conversation in a second language? But wait, I see a red flag here: Self-reporting, which is not the most reliable evidence when it comes to matters linguistic. For example, in Norway I knew a guy who could carry on a conversation in English, but only when he was drunk. When he was sober he was too nervous to attempt any more than the most basic communication in English, and then only when necessary (i.e. no translator to help). But perhaps the stats in this paragraph help firm things up:
But the statistics tell a murkier story. Recently, the Stockholm University linguist Mikael Parkvall sought out data on global bilingualism and ran into problems. The reliable numbers that do exist cover only 15 percent of the world’s 190-odd countries, and less than one-third of the world’s population. In those countries, Mr. Parkvall calculated (in a study not yet published), the average number of languages spoken either natively or non-natively per person is 1.58. Piecing together the available data for the rest of the world as best he could, he estimated that 80 percent of people on the planet speak 1.69 languages — not high enough to conclude that the average person is bilingual.
Given the world’s massive linguistic diversity and the sheer number of countries where more than one language is in common use – particularly in Europe, Asia, Africa and Melanesia – it just seems so obvious that most of the world’s kids grow up bilingual. I remember never being able to understand why Southeast Asian friends were surprised at me studying three languages at university when they’d all grown up with at least two, if not three or even four languages. But then again, what’s obvious is not necessarily true.
And it reminds me: I’ve met plenty of bilingual Americans. Mandarin-English is a pretty common mix where I live, Spanish-English also seems common, both for reasons that should be obvious (what did i just say about obvious?). On the other hand, the only people I’ve ever met who’ve boasted about how long they’ve lived in China without learning a word of Chinese (apart from the names of places they often go and their favourite beer and cigarette brands, of course) have been my fellow Kiwis. And yes, I do mean ‘boasted’, as in their tone of voice suggested they found their stubborn monolingualism in a country whose official language is not English and where English is only commonly used in the expat community and their hangouts was somehow a source of pride.
December 17th, 2011
I don’t know why, it’s a Saturday morning, my wife has gone off to inform Father Christmas of what gifts to bring my daughter, my daughter is taking a nap (life is simple when you’re not yet nine months old), I’m feeling a bit ragged in that ‘almost the end of semester’ kind of way, I’m still caffeinating and had just started reading this when I suddenly thought, wouldn’t the relative sparseness and general lack of pollysyllabic words make Classical Chinese ideal for microblogging?
Now, that’s not even close to hypothesis quality. Not even a random thought, barely makes it to random thot level. Really, it’s just a thotikin. But how to test this wee thotikin? Being the least diligent student of Chinese in all of recorded history, legend and myth, I’m certainly not going to embarrass myself by attempting to actually write anything in Classical Chinese. But glancing at the shelf above me, I see a few bilingual – Classical and Modern Chinese – editions of a few of the Chinese classics. Surely the obvious method would be to find one or two passages of about microbloggable length and compare the original Classical text with the Modern translation for length. A glance in the Hanfeizi reveals a lot of rather long passages, not really microbloggable. Ah, but the Shanhai Jing – surely there’s a book that should have been published on Weibo! So here it is:
And putting that into Weibo, including the title and a colon to distinguish it from the text, leaves me 72 characters spare, so I only used 68.
Now, the modern Chinese translation by, er, somebody not me. Can’t find the translator’s name in the book:
And that, with the same 3 character title and colon, leaves me with only 26 characters, so that’s 114 characters all up. So the Classical Chinese uses only 60% of the characters of the Modern Chinese version.
So how does it compare with English? I’m not the only one to have gotten the impression that one can squeeze a lot more information into 140 Chinese characters than 140 English characters – although it must be said that’s not necessarily true. I was sure I had a trilingual (Classical and Modern Chinese and English) copy of the Daode Jing lying around, but I guess it must be helping clutter up my parents’ house in New Zealand. And in any case, like the Hanfeizi it’s not really a microbloggable book. I do have a similarly trilingual copy of the Zhuangzi with me, but again, not really microbloggable. But I do have a bilingual Classical Chinese and English copy of the Analects. So let’s try some randomly chosen passage.
Book 2, 1:
A mere 24 characters, punctuation included.
Arthur Waley’s translation:
The Master said, He who rules by moral force is like the pole-star, which remains in its place while all the lesser stars do homage to it.
75 69 (I misread my own handwriting, would you believe. Thanks, Jean, for catching that error) characters, and that’s with the little translators note (te) removed. The original needs only 32 35% of the number of characters of the translation.
So there you go, through what is obviously two super rigorous experiments of great scientific virtue I have proved that in fact, one could, by using Classical Chinese, squeeze into one’s microblog of choice almost twice as much information than by using Modern Chinese and over three times as much information than by using English. Therefore, because verbosity is a virtue, we must all rebel against the character limits imposed on us by the likes of Weibo and Twitter and do all our microblogging in Classical Chinese.
November 24th, 2011
There’s something that jumps out at me every time I read of the expat denizens of China of the pre-1949, International Settlements era, and that I occasionally find myself pondering in moments of idle speculation. And this morning I decided to get the students’ view and put it on the blackboard in this form:
In the 1920s and 1930s expats in China would visit their homelands only every few years and their holidays would last several months.
Now, most expats I know go home once each year and their visits are only for a few weeks.
And I emphasised what I saw as two key differences between those two situations:
- “every few years” vs. “every year” and “several months” vs. “a few weeks”.
- “visit their homelands” vs. “go home”.
The second of those two was my deliberate choice of wording, but that’s really what I see. I don’t think terribly many expats here these days put down roots or get themselves established to the point of considering China ‘home’. Maybe it’s the field I work in – the foreign teacher system certainly does not encourage people to settle down – but most expats I’ve known over these dozen years have definitely seen China as a very temporary way station, even to the point of referring to the world outside China as “the real world”. And the homeland, the country they migrated from, is still definitely home. But way back then, it seems to me, although expats were definitely seen by Chinese as foreigners in China, expats here were putting down roots and making homes.
Now, one key difference, of course, lies in technology. Back then by sea or overland. International air travel fell into the neo-natal category of industry, and it’s existence was still precarious. Trips back to the homeland, even by plane, could take weeks or even months instead of a day or two.
But I do wonder about that apparent difference in attitude, and I wonder if technology really has changed that much. And I also wonder if the combination of global warming and peak oil will see a return to international travel primarily being by slow ship, train and bus rather than rapid plane. And I wonder: If expats 100-odd years hence are travelling between New Zealand, America and China by ship, will their attitudes to ‘home’ and frequency and duration of trips to their homeland resemble more those of modern expats or those of the expats of the 1920s and 1930s?
November 7th, 2011
My mum was here for a month, went home on Saturday. It’s always interesting watching newcomers and how they react to China (well, relative newcomer in this case. Mum did spend 10 days here four years ago), even more so when the prime motive for the trip is childcare. But none of that is the point of this post.
Trouble is I seem to have gone and misplaced the point of this post. Or at least, all the ideas I had to write about have gone and gotten all jumbled up or gone AWOL or have otherwise eluded me.
So I’ll start with the airport. Mum’s flights were on China Southern, which seems to have learnt the magic trick of leaving late but arriving early. But that meant Terminal 2, which I have to admit these days I approach with a certain apprehension… or perhaps the kind of quiet dread one experiences inserting a horror film into the DVD player. But no, the evidence presented by my five senses assures me nothing has changed there. Well, a KFC seems to have gone missing, but otherwise, it’s the same trusty old terminal it always was. Getting out to the airport to pick her up would’ve been easy, but it was the National Day holiday and the traffic restrictions didn’t apply. So I left an hour early for a trip that should only take half an hour, and the combo of holiday traffic and China Southern’s new leave late/arrive early magic meant that I’m pretty sure – about as sure as a mere pleb in a bare basics Suzuki trying to rush up the highway as fast as possible can be – that I saw Mum’s plane fly over just as I left the tollgate. The arrivals board confirmed that the plane landed a few minutes before I’d parked the car. It was the time taken to get from the plane to the baggage claim that allowed me to catch my breath, and the time taken for the baggage to make the same journey that allowed me to get really bored waiting.
Taking Mum to the airport on Saturday was much easier. Just an ordinary weekend – no traffic restrictions, of course, but no holiday traffic. But on the way out we saw the traffic trying to head back in to the city was jammed almost solid from the 5th Ring Road most of the way back to the airport. So having sent Mum through the security check, we piled back in the car, and off we went. An electronic sign informed us – not that these signs are always entirely accurate, but never mind – that the traffic was still jammed up ahead. So I took the turn off for the Jingping Expressway and my wife and I collectively had one of those “Are we still in China?” moments. Three lanes stretching out in front of us, and almost entirely empty. On either side fields and trees stretched into the distance. Somewhere in the haze to the south what looked like the edge of a city rose.
But, having been not terribly familiar with the place names on the signs for the ramp heading in the other direction, but recognising the names on the sign for the ramp I had taken, I’d made a mistake. And it wasn’t just an “Oops, I took a slightly longer route” mistake, either. I had taken the offramp for the G101 to head back into the city, but the G101 as it passes under the Jingping reminded me too much of the roads around the western edge of Taiyuan when I lived there, so I got back on the expressway. That meant joining the Jingcheng Expressway at Huanggang.
“Where’s your receipt?” said the woman at the gate.
“Well, where have you come from?”
And she gave me a ticket and we went on our merry way. Two kilometres down the track we met the main tollgate.
15 kuai to drive a measly 2km down the Jingcheng?! On a weekday it’s 45 kuai to take the Jingcheng to the North 6th Ring, thence to the G6, thence all the way out to Kangzhuang. That’s the better part of 100km. The Airport Expressway these days only charges 5 kuai, and that’s only on the way out. And for a measly 2km of the Jingcheng I was charged 15 kuai.
So the signs (as trustworthy as they aren’t) said the 3rd and 4th Rings were jammed, so I took the 5th Ring. It was a bit slow in places, but ok. Just before the interchange with the Jingtong Expressway there’s a sign saying citybound traffic can also take Guangqu Lu, and although I’d noticed that odd little wallflower of an offramp sitting there all quiet and unassuming in the shade of a quarter-finished set of bridges and ramps, I’d never used it before. But that is a more direct route than going all the way down to the G1 then doubling back. So I tried it.
And so this quiet little ramp led us down the side of an interchange whose construction started some time ago, but has since stalled, past rather healthy crops of weeds, between a powerstation that’s been there some years and what looks like a powerstation under construction, and onto one of those odd roads east of the 4th Ring which is still partly industrial grime and old housing, and fancy new real estate developments. Except that this road has the standard construction site steel blue fencing all the way down its median strip and in several patches along the side and what look like the pylons for future overbridges poking up from the middle. So who knows? Maybe to complement all the fancy new apartment blocks Guangqu Lu east of the 4th Ring will turn into a fancy expressway and that abandoned baby of an interchange on the 5th Ring just south of the Jingtong Expressway will be revived and completed?
Now, in a note completely unrelated to my adventures in the wilds of Beijing’s road network, and as I may perhaps have hinted already, it’s been interesting watching how my mum has reacted to certain Chinese baby-raising practices. Cross-cultural baby-raising is not something I really want to write about, at least not yet, but one of the biggest problems I have found is that coming from a small country makes it especially hard to get my own culture equal time and space. And one advantage of having a parent come over to visit, other than the extra cultural support, is that she can bring stuff. Like books, for example. Kiwi books, in particular.
See, if you go searching on sites like Dangdang and other Chinese online shopping sites, it’s easy to find the likes of Dr Seuss, Richard Scarry, Beatrix Potter, and so on. But I don’t necessarily want my daughter to grow up speaking Yank or Pom, or thinking that Christmas is actually supposed to be in winter, or other such nonsense. So shop on New Zealand sites! Well, sure, but that requires the means to get money from me to them, and all that we can do in that respect for the time being limits us to China. The internet is good and useful, of course, but babies grabbing a hold of computer screens is just not as much fun as babies grabbing a hold of books. Trust me on that. My baby loves playing with Daddy’s computer. The results can be interesting.
Does anybody else remember that rather morose and morbid old children’s song that revolved around the charming lines:
There was an old woman who swallowed a fly.
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly.
Perhaps she’ll die.
Yeah, lovely. Just makes me want to listen to Radiohead.
Well, anyways, in that fine old Kiwi tradition of reworking northern hemisphere stuff to suit our purposes, it has become:
There was an old woman who swallowed a weta.
I don’t know why she swallowed a weta.
She’s never felt better!
And it ends:
There was an old woman who swallowed a Kiwi.
Now she’s in jail, silly!
How’s that? None of this melancholic warbling about some silly old bat who swallows a bunch of animals until finally it’s a horse that kills her. Nope. Instead, a lot of good, clean fun – well, and smearing kiwifruit jam on a jandal freshly torn off some poor kid’s foot to whack the bat. And tuatara marinara. But certainly none of this morbid Canadian bollocks.
And you know what? This time I’m going to limit the randomness. There’s a couple of other things I want to write about, but I’m actually going to try and unjumble them first and save them for other posts.
October 5th, 2011
I like to read to my daughter. I like telling her nursery rhymes and stories. Especially stories, and especially when I’m telling them from memory and therefore have my hands free to add in actions and gestures to liven things up, and have a lot more freedom to adjust emphasis and tone of voice, and so on. She’s only six months old, so it’s highly doubtful she understands any of the words or the stories or anything beyond what would be “Daddy’s being funny again” if she had the language to express that thought. But it’s a lot of fun.
But I’ve been kind of working off the assumption that language input, no matter whether she understands it or not, is going to get language neurons firing and building up connections and setting up a base for later on when she does start speaking. Well, people all over the world talk to their babies, right? And the babies respond, even when that response is limited to facial expressions, gestures and a few random sounds. And eventually they start learning words, then stringing those words into simple sentences, then language… So it seems like a pretty solid hypothesis to me.
October 24th, 2010
A few days ago, after I’d escaped work, the damp chill that has settled over Beijing for a week now not being overly conducive to sitting in the garden with a book as I usually prefer, I sat down to watch a couple of films. What I really appreciated about these two films is that they had a certain quality that seems to have vanished from Hollywood.
Hollywood no longer tugs at the heartstrings. It takes a heavy duty chain, ties one end firmly to the heartstrings and hooks the other up to a high-powered winch, and tears the heartstrings out with extreme violence. Hollywood no longer trusts our intelligence to read between the lines or correctly interpret understatment. Instead it takes all the gory details, heats them up white hot, and sears them into our eyeballs, you know, just to make sure we don’t miss anything.
But subtlelty makes for a vastly more powerful film. What gives Shooting Dogs its force is that the horror and violence of the Rwandan genocide happens mostly off-screen, and appears on-screen only from a distance or behind a conveniently-placed bush. Most of Apocalypse Now is a quiet boat ride up a river, allowing time to properly develop the psychological play. I would argue that the battle scenes in Platoon are almost purely incidental and the real action, Charlie Sheen’s character’s psychological journey, happens in the quiet moments. Each of these films could’ve been Just Another Flick About Some Big Historic Event We’re All Conflicted About. Instead, they tell their stories not through events on the screen, but through allowing the characters to present themselves and develop as the story unfolds, and allowing the development of the characters to unfold the story. In other words, they engage the mind and the true, deeper emotions. We want to smash the French captain to a bloody pulp not because the soundtrack or his black hat tell us he’s a Bad Guy, nor because he does anything in particular (indeed, very little is actually done in Shooting Dogs), but because the film has brought us in to the refugees’ situation and gotten us emotionally involved. We feel the full range of emotions all the characters caught in the mission school feel not because the soundtrack tells us “You must feel despair now!” or “You must feel rage now!”, but because when we watch Shooting Dogs, on an emotional level we are in the mission school with the Belgian peacekeepers, priests, students and refugees.
Such films are rare.
And the two I watched the other day that sparked off this little ramble? The first was Casablanca, and the second was Roman Polanski’s Ghost Writer.
What I loved most about Casablanca is that apart from a brief introduction to the time, place and general situation and a flashback to Paris just before the German invasion, the characters are simply presented as they are, where they are, when they are. There is no melodrama, no cliché, and the soundtrack is possessed of considerably more subtlety and tact than your average sledgehammer. The characters are not grossly oversimplified Good Guys, Bad Guys and The Love Interest. Instead they are presented as highly complex people, and it is left to us to try and make sense of their personalities and motivations through their actions and interactions. Indeed, of all the main characters, I think about the only one whose motivations are entirely clear is Major Strasser, and even he is not some simple stereotype of the evil Nazi. But about the only thing I find clear about Bogart’s Rick Blaine and Rains’ Louis Renault are that they are both playing roles. But why? Partly to help them survive and navigate a rather chaotic situation, partly, in Blaine’s case, as an emotional defense. But then the ending raises still more questions. These two who could not be described as friends so much as rival players who merely cooperate when they need each other or the services the other can provide ride off into the sunset together with a common objective. How did that happen? Force of circumstance is not enough of an explanation.
And Roman Polanski. He can make some really good films (The Pianist) and some absolute rubbish (Macbeth). Ghost Writer belongs in the really good category. Like Casablanca the characters are presented simply as they are, where they are, when they are, and no judgements are made. A lot of background information is necessary to understand the story, but that is slowly fed in through conversations between the characters, and done so in a way that gradually increases the tension. Like Shooting Dogs, most of the action takes place off-screen and is revealed indirectly through the actions and reactions of the characters. And the ending, I felt, quite nicely left everything but the ghost writer’s life wide open. And one thing I found to be quite a nice little touch is that Ewan McGregor’s ghost writer remains unnamed throughout the film.
So why do so few films take this quiet approach of engaging the viewers’ mind and deeper emotions? Am I the only one who feels insulted by such nonsense as Avatar? Can we please get some more intelligent film-making, or am I asking too much?
July 17th, 2010
It’s an odd little article, this, desperately short on detail. When I read this:
The Gold Coast Bulletin reported today that Smeltz had decided it would be impossible for wife Nikki and his two children to settle in Jinan, 400km south of Beijing.
I’m wondering, well, why? What’s the problem? Although I could certainly understand that from the point of view of maintaining good relations, not unnecessarily burning any bridges, and just generally being polite, the Smeltz family would not necessarily want to announce to the world exactly why they decided they couldn’t settle in Jinan.
And then I got to wondering how Chinese media reports would frame this (if they even reported it). First result in a Baidu sports news search was this, which starts out with:
After completing the signing of the contract between New Zealand striker Smeltz and Shandong Luneng, on the morning of July 17 local time, Australia’s Gold Coast Bulletin suddenly revealed that because Smeltz couldn’t adapt to life in China, he wanted to go back to his old boss Gold Coast.
And later adds this:
The report said that Smeltz’s wife Nikki and two children were not very satisfied with China’s living conditions and had no confidence in their future lives in Jinan. This is the basic reason bringing Smeltz to change his mind.
A tiny little bit more detail, but nothing we couldn’t have inferred from the Stuff article I linked to first. So what does the original Gold Coast Bulletin article say? Baidu can’t find it and Google is behaving suspiciously again, and neither Stuff nor Netease seems to have the courtesy to link to the original, so I’ll have to try some other way to find it…. Yahoo! Australia, perhaps…. Ah, here we are:
The New Zealand international decided after just five days in China that it would be impossible for wife Nikki and his two children to settle in Jinan, a sprawling metropolis 400km south of Beijing.
And that’s it. Rather sparse compared to Netease’s extra (although still rather vague) detail.
In any case, it seems there’s nothing Shandong Luneng can do about it, as although a contract had been signed and money had changed hands, a certain piece of paperwork had not been filed, and so the transfer had not been completed.
And the next question, of course, is: Five days?! Is that all? Is Jinan that rough? Or perhaps more likely: Was the shock that big? Oh well, as a person I knew way back in Taiyuan put it: China’s not for everybody. The Smeltz family are hardly the only foreigners who have been unable to adapt to life in China.
And it’s not all bad for Shandong Luneng. Netease adds in its report that they’ve also signed the South African defender Matthew Booth. Let’s hope for their sake that transfer goes a little more smoothly.
Apparently Smeltz’s time at Shandong Luneng could be the shortest transfer in football history. But I’m wondering, if the paperwork was not completed, does it count? Did the transfer ever occur?
It’s also interesting that Netease adds that Smeltz, who set an A-League record of 19 goals last season, received many offers, but mostly from clubs in lesser leagues in Asia and Europe. That detail seems to be missing from the Stuff and Gold Coast Bulletin reports.
It would seem that this is the first time ever I’ve written anything about football. I don’t normally pay too much attention to sport, but I do generally watch as much of the football World Cup as possible. That’s the only way I recognised the name Smeltz in the headline.
April 5th, 2010
I’d finished my lesson prep so far as I could – one of those frustrating ones where you know what you want to do with the class, but you’re struggling to figure out how to put it all together – and I was sitting there, fidgeting, nameless, directionless, frustrated energy bubbling away just beneath the surface. I decided to get up and go for a walk and burn some of it off.
Get outside, bump into a colleague, chat for a bit. The sky was grey, the sun was sinking, nothing unusual. A few raindrops fell, and I said, well, I better go, meaning I’ve got to get some fresh air before the weather turns nasty and night falls. Out the gate, down the road, I was crossing the next intersection, a quarter of the way out into the road, looked back, and
Big, black, ugly, menacing cloud bearing down, the kind you see on one of those really disturbed summer days, days when the air is filled with tension that snaps into a violent squall that scours the city then disappears as quickly as it came, leaving the place beaten about, but calm. A slightly over-the-top description, perhaps, but if you remember the summers in Beijing between, say, 5 and 8 years ago, you’ll have seen more than a few of the squalls I’m referring to, and you’ll know that they can be as violent as they are sudden.
And so I crossed the road and continued on the route I had planned, thinking, I’ve got to get some exercise, and I’ve got to figure out what to do about this weather. And so I, zipped up my jacket, flipped on my hood, and continued, one eye on the weather, one eye on hazards, like our friendly, local high-tension powerline and on places to shelter should that cloud’s threat turn into reality. People were zipping around with extra urgency, hawkers quickly packing up their fruit and veges, everybody keen for shelter.
I stopped in the little Jingkelong about halfway along the weather-shortened version of my stroll (I had been thinking of adding another loop into the route, but that didn’t look like the best idea, having less potential shelter along the way), but they had no Yanjings in the fridge as they have for the last couple of weeks. So I walked to the shelf, and settled on splashing out on a couple of cans of Tiger – it’s no different from the rest, just a cooler-looking can and higher price, but might as well. I opened one can and put the other in my pocket, sipped and watched the weather. Wind and a bit of rain, not too bad, looks like we’re only copping the edge of the squall this time, might as well head for home.
A nothing story, but a reminder of the weather that is likely to come in the next few months. Last week I saw the first blossoms of the spring – ‘first’ meaning the first I’ve seen so far. It hasn’t quite sprung yet, but it’s certainly on its way.
Friday afternoon (Good Friday, it seems. I completely forgot) we jumped on the bus for Yanqing, came back yesterday evening. We had pretty sweet luck with the transport both ways, beating the holiday crowds both times. We got off the bus at Nancaiyuan close to six on Friday evening and got in a taxi straight away – for the first time ever, not needing to negotiate the price, the driver giving us the right price straight away. We headed up to where the road crosses the Gui River into the county town proper. There was still ice on the water. Patchy, thin, dangerous-looking, but still ice. And, of course, no blossoms that side of the Jundu Mountains.
Change of a different kind: The old cinema west of the bridge on the south bank where the main road crosses into the county town, a cinema that had been gutted for renovation last time I saw it, was standing there rebuilt in a style largely reminiscent of that of the new church on the north bank at the eastern end of the county town, a red brick modern style one would expect of perhaps the mid-90s where I come from, but with an odd dome poking out the top seeming to stubbornly keep the style of the old cinema. I don’t know what this building has become, but as we zipped past in the battered, old Xiali, it certainly looked like a church. Still, maybe it’s just a renovated cinema. Or something else.
The ice disappeared as we headed west, and the river was completely thawed by the time we reached the next bridge, less than a kilometre down the road, and crossed over to the north bank. A couple of blinks of the eye and we were back into countryside, and some farmers still finishing off the day’s work in the fields, some burning off stubble, others turning the earth over, others, maybe judging from the aroma, spreading manure, all preparing for the planting. In response to a question from my wife, our driver said, nah, won’t be planting corn till about the 20th. Preparing, at least, then.
So, yeah, it’s still cool up there. Not uncomfortably cold, even quite comfortably warm during the day if you’re out in the sun, but certainly still cool. Even had my brother in law not claimed the bed in the other room, we would still have been sleeping on the kang for the warmth, I’m sure. In fact, my brother in law still had an electric blanket on that bed.
Early starts, that means, earlier than if we’d managed to claim the bed. Sleeping on the kang means there’s no way you could roll over and go back to sleep. But it’s warm, and in the winter when the coal stove is going, warm enough it can have you sweating in even the coldest weather – so long as, of course, you stay on the kang and under the covers. That can make getting up in the morning a delicate negotiation between drying off and staying warm. But it’s warm.
February 9th, 2010
There’s a simple, tactile, olfactory pleasure in spending a morning in bed with a good book unaware of the passage of time except by the turning of pages. There’s a comforting surprise in seeing just how many hours have slipped by.
Equally to strolling with no greater aim than to burn off a little energy and get a little exercise and fresh air.
And to the exploration of things new, even if it’s nothing more new than the new quarters of a long-standing neighbourhood market.
I’ve watched that new market being built from our loungeroom window and balcony for the last couple of months, it being 20 metres south of our place as the crow flies (but of course, there’s an inconvenient wall in between), occasionally wondering what this new structure would become. It gradually came to look more and more like a new indoor market, but I couldn’t be sure. Eventually, bright yellow, almost but not quite orange, wall panels were fixed to the steel frame, windows were inserted, a roof put on, and work shifted to the interior with the sole exception of two signs announcing that this, indeed, would be a new market. The market it would replace, whose name it had taken, which sits diagonally across the road about 50 metres away, the one that had been threatened with being replaced by a hospital. This time around they had the new market almost completed before the old one was closed.
I don’t know what this presages for the old market. When I walked past it today, as last time, the gates were firmly locked and peeking through the gaps revealed a wasteland. The old structures, those thin, steel frames that supported the thin, steel rooves that sheltered the stalls from the sun, rain and snow, were gone, leaving an empty, forlorn space strewn with rubbish and the little bits of rubble not worth removing. There was no indication that I could see of what this wasteland would become.
But the new market looked good. Nothing fancy, but functional and clean. At one end was a gate with two middle-aged men bearing red armbands proclaiming them to be safety inspectors, or something like that, who formed the nuclei of nebulous and ever-changing groups of friends and acquaintances stopping for a chat. Inside, a paved courtyard expanding to the left, where a bicycle park had been establised, with the market building and its entrances to the right. Along the southern wall of the courtyard immediately left of the gate was a small building in three compartments: A women’s toilet, men’s toilet, and the “standard scale” (公平秤). Inside, the building felt either spacious or as if they’d spaced the stalls out wider than normal, I’m not sure which. It’s not a large building, but the spacing of the rows of stalls made it feel somewhat Tardis-like.
The northern and southern walls were lined by mostly butcher, seafood and delicatessen stalls, with a few selling various assortments of spices, sauces, nuts, beans, grains, sweets, and one selling various alcohols I won’t even venture to name (that being far too deep into traditional Chinese alcohol culture for my mediocre knowledge) out of large earthenware vats, interspersed mostly at corners and in odd niches. The centre was widely-spaced rows of stalls selling mostly fresh fruit and vegetables. Tall stalks of sugarcane stood at one stall, and….
….was that taro I saw sitting on that counter?! Taro I have not seen for many a long year.
Upstairs was clothing, shoes, and all the various odds and ends required to run a household. Up there quite a few of the stalls were closed – the owners having gone home for the holiday, perhaps? – and two or three were still unoccupied. Clothing seemed to dominate, but there were more than a few stalls set up to cater to the neighbourhood’s Spring Festival needs – all but the fireworks – and several ranging from brushes and brooms and those other little necessities up to hardware like tools, low-end electrical goods like lightbulbs, plugs, cables, multiboxes, various plumbing necessities like taps and their components, and even one selling rangehoods and the various bits of pipe, duct, and tubing needed to get the smoke and grease of a Chinese kitchen outside.
In other words, it was exactly the old market shifted into a new building. And yet it seems somehow smaller. Did all of the market shift, or did some give up and move elsewhere?