Dongbei Days

Extracts from a memoir about the ten months I worked as a foreign editor for a Chinese publishing company, located in the foothills of the Changbai Shan or Ever-white Mountains.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Ping Ping!

Although it seemed to me a very difficult language, Chinese was also rewarding and I made an effort in Tonghua to find a teacher, so I could continue with my studies. However, I learned after our new UK colleague joined us that maybe I needn't have tried so hard.

In a way, I envied the attitude adopted by my new UK colleague who arrived at the end of October .
Ed, despite his Italian ancestry, didn’t speak a word of any language other than English, and said  he had no gift for language  learning and no motivation because he could always get  by with gestures. He demonstrated this to hilarious effect one day when he, Katharine and I  went to the 'Bai Huo Da Lou', Hundred Goods Big Shop' , or department store,  to buy rubber  bands.

Whilst I looked  vainly through  my mini-dictionary and Katharine was browsing the shelves, Ed was making stretching motions with his hands at the puzzled salesgirls and repeating ‘Ping! Ping!’ 

Eventually, I found the word for rubber in the dictionary and managed in my halting Chinese to say  ‘used for holding things together’. All at once the assistant  realised what I meant and produced a large bag full of rubber bands. Then she turned round to her friends at the nearby counters, called out something in Chinese and  repeated ‘Ping! Ping!’ They all laughed, and Ed remarked cheerfully that these women at the stationery department were always laughing at him.

 Ed  was obviously a great source of funny stories for them, as he was for us, but,  when it came to important  matters, even Ed made an effort with the language. He  was grateful to me for teaching him ‘mashang ‘, ’immediately’  to add to the one word he already knew - ‘pi-jiu’ or ‘beer’.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Woolshop Mannequins

 Quite soon after we arrived in Tonghua Katharine and I met eighteen year old student Helen, who lived in term time in the city of Changchun but was spending the Summer break at the family home. She could hardly believe her luck at meeting two English-speakers in her home town and appointed herself as our guide as well as introducing us to her family.

Helen’s mother ran a wool shop in the main street, above a handbag emporium, where she was surrounded by ceiling-high shelves and counters full of knitting wool. It took a while for our eyes to adjust to the gloom, the light filtering through a narrow grimy window at the end facing the street.  

A dozen or so alabaster mannequins were standing in front of the window, ghostly white in the dimness, their faces having distinctly western features. They seemed to date from the nineteen forties, judging by their upswept, victory roll, plaster hair-styles. Those not grouped by the window made up a double row down the centre of the room. They gave the sweaters and cardigans they modelled an air of unintended lewdness, as few of the models had skirts or trousers.
The assistants in the downstairs shop had called out ‘Huanying! Huanying!’ in welcome, and congratulated Helen, who insisted we use her ‘English’ name, on having brought in two foreigners.

Helens mother, who looked about 30, a vivacious, slender woman in tight-fitting clothes, with red lip-stick and quick movements, looked more like the hostess of a Shanghai night-club than wool –shop proprietor. At first the shelves of  colourful skeins, convinced me that the locals spent all their time knitting, but I found out later that most customers would choose a pattern in one of the catalogues and then order the garment to be knitted by an out-worker with  a machine. In a city with a six month  winter at twenty below, a wool shop did good business.
She brought us a couple of stools so we could rest a while and looked on as Helen became quite agitated with the excitement of having us in the shop, waving her arms about and repeating, ‘Oh, I am so sorry, but my English is so poor’ She had already told us they lived on the premises; towards the back of the room there was a small partitioned area with a double bed, a TV and a dressing table. The parents owned the whole building, she said, and let off the ground floor and an upper floor to other businesses. This was the slack summer season for her business, but with the first snows, in October, she would move downstairs.

Friday, 31 October 2014

A Barefoot Teacher

Local university student Helen, whom we met by chance during her Summer break in her native city, and who thereafter insisted on showing us all that Tonghua had to offer, insisted that we visited her  uncles.

 One of them was an English Language teacher. We passed through an archway from a back  street into a courtyard flanked by of four-storey pink-washed blocks. It reminded me of  the small Somerstown estate in London, to the East of Euston Station,  but only so far as the layout was concerned. Nothing could be more different from the flowery window-boxes and flapping sheets and the small children running across  the courtyards of this lively compound

At the main entrance arch  a barrier was raised to allow us to pass, under the scrutiny of a young man whose job it was to check on visitors.  We spotted a sign outside one of the flats that announced:  Yingyu Shijie or English Language World’.
As we walked towards the building,  a smiling man in shorts with bare feet came down the stairs to meet us, followed by a brown-haired woman with Eurasian features. They were the English teacher, Henry, and his wife, parents to the hyperactive youth, Helen's cousin, David, whose favourite English expression was 'Let's go!'

With a wave of his arm and a smile the uncle ushered us into a downstairs room furnished with long desks and benches and a blackboard on the wall. Rows of silent children craned to get a better view of the visitors.

The desks and benches had been painted over many-times, as rainbow layers of flakes and patches revealed. The floor was bare cement. Strangely enough, the Chinese believe that the less there is to distract students in a school room the better, because then they are able to concentrate on their studies. There were none of the posters and pictures that adorn Western classrooms. In fact, this room resembled the one where I'd taught Summer School in the Southern Province of Zhejian in 2000. The only difference was that the children sat in pairs instead of rows.

Our host pulled forward  wooden stools which he covered with worn satin cushions.
Henry told us  he usually did extra coaching during his forty-day holiday because he had four children to educate, two of them in university. He said he sometimes had a hundred students in his classroom, which must have been a squash, but I knew enough by now about the Chinese craze for English Language learning not to doubt his word.
On the afternoon of our visit there were thirty or so smiling pupils, aged 9-11.  They were reciting a dialogue Where is Shenzhen? Is it near Beijing? No, it is near Hong Kong. The teacher would call on one student to call the phrases solo and then the others would repeat in unison, then over again with a different student in the solo part.

Katharine was asked to talk to them, which she hated, always shrinking from addressing groups of people. When she complimented them on their English and  exhorted them to continue to study hard you'd have though, from the clapping, that it was the best speech they'd ever heard

Thursday, 30 October 2014

What is the meaning of Life: Discuss

Jian and the Yalu River
 I enjoyed  the  peaceful nature of my work in the office of the publishing house: proof-reading articles for inclusion in student magazines, consulting with the Chinese editors and sometimes contributing  short pieces of my own, by request.
 All the same, the occasional breaks that took me away on company business were welcome, and  in September 2003, when I'd been about a month in China,  I was sent  to Ji'an, a town on the banks of the  Yalu River, between China and North Korea. There, myself and two foreign editors were assigned separate hotel rooms to proof-read important examination papers. 
They would determine  the future careers of Chinese teachers, chosen by their regions to compete in Tonghua for chance to study in the UK.
As the extract illustrates, it wasn't so straightforward as it might seem,  because  we three foreigners brought our own  differences of culture, gender and age to the task.
 'Next day we spent checking the examination papers, breaking off only for meals. Our task was to proofread papers compiled by the Chinese editors for the upcoming national competition. There were written papers with comprehension passages and oral papers with questions to be checked and monitored for suitability.
Joseph and I had been drafted in for the final checking of questions in the oral sections. They would  form the basis of interviews with  teachers, to decide which of them should be rewarded with a spell of study-leave in England. The questions were mainly concerned with what the candidates knew already about life in England, although others were more controversial.
One or two questions in the ‘general conversation’ section didn't survive our scrutiny. One of these was ‘What is the meaning of life?’, which Katharine thought was perfectly OK.
‘Ah, the confidence of youth’, commented Joseph.
‘What do you think of ladies’ window-shopping?’ earned my veto. Political correctness had not gained much of a toe-hold in China, as far as I could see, but I seized the  chance to make my  own small contribution. ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­
Joseph baulked at ‘Would you like to have a sex-change?’ because he thought it might embarrass the candidates. Given his status, as a member of a Franciscan Order, it might well have embarrassed him, although he was, like Chaucer's example, a very wordly monk.
I became very curious to meet the teachers and ask questions about their experiences of teaching English in China. Could it still be true that Middle schools, the equivalent of our UK Secondary schools had classes of around sixty pupils?'

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Ice statues in Harbin

In January, when snow was a permanent fixture on the hills surrounding  the company house and the river was frozen to the depth of a metre, we were sent to an even colder place. Every year the company hosted a 'Summer Camp' , at a different location. Students were invited from all over China to take part in an English debating  and speaking competition held over five days.

Because of the SARS epidemic, it hadn't taken place in 2003 but now was to be held in Harbin, famous for its Winter Ice Festival. As usual a group was dispatched by coach, loaded with electrical equipment. My five fellow English-speaking editors and I were to act as judges, as well as take part in activities.

‘ Ooh, look at those transparent  plastic traffic bollards!’ I rubbed  at the windows of the coach, scarcely able to contain my excitement at arriving in Harbin, China’s northernmost city.  My UK colleague Katharine gave me a withering look and I remembered that Harbin, was famous for its January Ice Festival. The bollards were carved from ice, as were various oversized street statues. The subjects ranged from the  Buddhas of all sizes to a pair of drinkers in Tudor dress, sitting either side of a beer barrel­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­---. All glittered in the -30C temperatures under the city lights.
We reached Harbin around 5.30pm, surprised at the unexpected glamour of the city, with its wide highways, brightly lit hotels and high-class restaurants. Huge square factories and office buildings sprouted Chinese characters in neon in lurid reds, pinks and green that looked as if they were floating in the sky. Windows were outlined in more neon, between illuminated hoardings advertising washing machines, cars, or apartment blocks. Snow lay thick on the ground, and pedestrians and cyclists alike were bundled in thickly-padded coats, men sporting the ubiquitous northern-style deerstalker hat, with fur-lined earflaps flopping over collars, flying out sideways in the breeze or tied on top, like  tea-cosies .
The city glamour and the wide streets, however, were soon left behind; our lodgings were on the outskirts.  In a few minutes the company coach  bowled through  a run-down residential area, a complete contrast with the city centre. It was a whole district of shed-like buildings separated by narrow lanes or ‘hutongs’ piled with rubbish. The shortage of the usual Chinese street scavengers with their sacks was evident from  litter piled up on the pavements, alongside ten foot heaps of coal, apparently for sale on a takeaway basis. The dark dwellings, of brick or tin, all had iron chimneys belching smoke. It was a depressing scene, enlivened only by the street traders’ stalls with steaming yams and noodles, tiny shops, and hutch-like eating houses.
The newly-opened campus of the Harbin Number 3 Middle School was like an outpost on the moon, with its mix of silvery cylindrical shapes and domes. We climbed down from the coach and the first icy blast of cold sent us scurrying and sliding towards the porch steps of the visitors’ accommodation. The air in Tonghua had been cold, but not actually painful; here it felt as  if a  a thousand little daggers were attacking one’s cheeks.
‘Report after dinner to collect coats,’ said Mrs. Chang, the department head in charge of keeping an eye on us. She was equipped with a mobile phone for instant contact with her management superiors. All the ‘extras’ from the coach, including plastic- wrapped bottles of mineral water and transparent bags, split open and spilling down-filled jackets, had been piled into a downstairs room off the lobby.  We had already seen these heaped  at the back of the aisles in the coach which brought us from Tonghua, bright blue ski-style jackets lined with yellow, with ‘National Speaking and Debating Competition, Harbin 2004’ printed in yellow across the backs.'





Monday, 27 October 2014

Trouble at the Border

Ji'an on the Yalu River

Every year,  teachers from all over China converged on the publishing company, to compete  for  all-expenses-paid study courses in the UK. The examination papers were prepared in great secrecy, and for this reason a contingent of Chinese employees were sent to Ji'an, a town on the Yalu river, which forms the border between Northeast China and North Korea. At short notice, my English colleague Katharine had been despatched a week before and I followed with another colleague, elderly American Joseph, a few days later.  
I'd felt sorry for Katharine having been told only the night before that she was to go to Ji'an. Joseph and I received half an hour's notice. It was the first chance I'd had to get to know him. After the flurry of leaving, it didn't occur to me that anything untoward would happen on the journey.

'Driver Wang was still smarting from the sudden decision and impromptu departure  Having been told to go to Ji'an earlier in the day, he had driven an hour along the road until somebody thought to ring him to ask if he had collected the ‘cargo’: Joseph and myself. He hadn’t, so he'd come back, none too pleased, especially when he had to wait while we packed.
The sunny two-hour hour drive passed pleasantly enough, Joseph entertaining me with stories of events that had occurred the previous year.  We were travelling deeper into the mountains along a wide, winding road with banks of yellow and purple flowers on either side. The area seemed  uninhabited and we saw only an occasional truck coming in the opposite direction. I discovered Joseph was an ‘Old China Hand’, having been in the country for five years.
After an hour or so we reached a place with an arch over the road, similar to the one at Tonghua.  Chinese character proclaimed ‘Welcome to Ji’an’. As the car slowed to pass a roadside chalet however, two soldiers stepped out, and waved their rifles.
I suddenly remembered an entry in the sole guide book I found that mentioned Tonghua. It said the city was a ‘jumping off point’ for a journey to a sacred mountain in disputed border territory between China and Korea. Tourists were specifically warned not to wander about near the border, as the guards were ‘twitchy’ enough to arrest people who had strayed too far. Although fifty miles from the foothills surrounding Tonghua, surely we were nowhere near the sacred mountain?
After the initial alarm and flurry of climbing from the car and being directed to stand inside the chalet, everything slowed down. We were sheltered from the sun under the roof of the chalet, which was open on three sides, and contained a desk and chair.
The guards began an earnest discussion with the  driver, about the purpose of our visit. The three fresh-faced youths were not at all threatening, despite their serious expressions. What little natural authority they had, derived mainly from the rifles, was undermined by their crumpled, ill-fitting clothing and rosy cheeks. The baggy green uniforms seemed to be standard issue for members of what is still known as the PLA, or Peoples’ Liberation Army.  I suspected the looseness was partly intended to make them look bigger, as they were all of the typical Dongbei  spindly build. I suppose, too, there was a policy of ‘one size fits all’ , on the ground of economy. '
Later, after we'd been released to join the other  employees at the hotel in town,  we learned why  the guards were so  jumpy : ancient relics had been discovered in local caves. The ownership of the territory was in dispute, and the guards were on special alert in case of border raids.
'I hear you had some trouble at the border,' said Katharine.  But we'd enjoyed warm hospitality and even been treated to a lunch of local  river fish  in a little  house (the guards had their own chef) when it was realised that there'd be a delay in checking our credentials. Our  boss was having his early afternoon nap and couldn't be disturbed.  

Saturday, 25 October 2014

A Chinese Photographers

Katharine and I had been warned before we left London that we should be sure to apply promptly for our residence and work permits as soon as possible after arriving in China. After three weeks we would be illegal workers and likely to be imprisoned.
When a month had gone by and nobody in the company had mentioned it, I decided to make enquiries. There were three main areas of formalities to complete : setting up a bank account; getting a medical check-up and registering as a 'foreign expert'.The extract below is about getting a photo in  a hurry.
 'A phone call  came through  to the office. What was to be a rocky relationship with the boss's second-in-command  got off to a bad start.
 ‘Oh, hello Sheila, this is Jimmy Chai. Please excuse me for not contacting you sooner, but now it seems urgent that you  register, and I must go to Beijing the day after tomorrow. Please report to my office with your passport and two photographs’ He didn’t apologise for previous neglect, which I was to discover was normal in the circumstances; to apologise for that would have admitted an error in procedure.  He became  irritated when I told him that I didn’t have a spare photo.
‘If  I'd known, I would have got one’. I was a bit annoyed myself by this time.
‘In that case, you must downtown at once and have photographs taken – get ‘Express Rate’ He didn’t know the address of a photographers but  it was agreed that I could take one of my colleagues with me.
‘Should I ask Rui Lao Shi for permission?'  My office supervisor might object to my disappearance.  Jimmy picked up the phone and explained there and then to Rui.
This, I discovered, was a regular pattern, which I thought at first may have been just Jimmy Chai’s management style or may have been a feature of the company , but which I eventually came to think of as a Chinese way of doing things. People were very reluctant to take responsibility or to act and tended to delay. Then, when it became apparent that something must be done, it was done in a great hurry, all obstacles brushed aside.   

 I was delivered by one of the company cars to the photographic studio, accompanied by my young Chinese office colleague, Lucy. There were lots of these shops in Tonghua, all well-stocked with costumes so clients could be photographed  as geishas or cowboys against a suitable backdrop. When invited into a Chinese home it was quite usual to be offered a whole album of such photos to admire.
After the sprightly young man in charge got over his surprise at having a foreigner to deal with, we followed him  upstairs to a bare studio. A stool had been placed in front of a screen, with two white umbrellas and spotlights in front. In the dark beyond the umbrellas was a camera on a tripod, but first I had to put on a black sweater and take off my glasses.
‘Wo xiao yi xiao, ma?’ (Should I smile?
‘Bu yong’ (‘Not necessary’)
I came away with eight identical stills of someone who resembled  an extra from ‘Bicycle Thieves’,   listed in the closing credits, perhaps,  as : ‘villain’s widowed mother’. 
The upside was they only cost £2 and I got to stroll round the shops with Lucy for an hour or so whilst they were being developed. Tonghua stores stocked  surprisingly stylish shoes and bags. I also inspected ski-wear-style padded coats of padded down in of varying lengths suitable for the Manchurian Winter, on sale at reduced prices.