China; the end of the journey

Four weeks on and my Chinese adventures are fading. The folder of digi-pix on my laptop and shared memories with friends are all that reminds me of my amazing journey. I saw and heard the China of my imagination and childhood dreams; the traditional music, stick puppetry, Sichuan opera and a changing faces display with real fire where masks  and clothes were switched in a blink of an eye – in less than a breath. Too quick to photograph.

I loved the calligraphy, the visual style of writing with images instead of letters, and the art of paper cutting, a simple idea made complex. It makes 19th century English silhouettes look primitive.

I saw China as it is today; a rapidly developing country with massive construction projects, overcrowding, air pollution, limited sanitation and bad water.

The colour green surprised me; it was green in the parks and gardens, paddy fields, bamboo forests and tea plantations. Traditionally the Chinese have always lived in harmony with nature. It was Mao who said nature was there to be dominated and controlled. Today the Chinese say Mao was 60% right. They are renewing their relationship with the natural world. New cities incorporate public parks and gardens. Chengdu, which has adopted relaxation as its mantra, promotes recycling and green attitudes.

The Yangtze river was 57 shades of green, reflecting the sides of the wooded gorges, which used to be the tops of mountains.A stark white water line was a permanent reminder of how the Three Gorges Dam represents one aspect of nature still very much under control.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned the pandas yet.

My closest previous encounter was Chi Chi who lived at London Zoo. By the time I saw her she was stuffed behind glass in the Natural History Museum. In China I saw my first living pandas at the Breeding Centre outside Chengdu.

Pandas get up, eat bamboo, then sleep. You have to be there early. Bamboo is hard as rock, and so tough it’s used as scaffolding poles. Their powerful teeth and jaws crunch it like sugar. You hear the panda before you see it.

Pan Da translates at Fat Big and generations of emperors killed pandas for their pelts. In 1949 the Panda was put under protection. A 2014 census found 1864 giant pandas in the wild. The WWF claims this is an increase of 17% from the late 1970s. The black and white panda is from the bear family; the red panda from the racoons. At the breeding centre we were surprised by a red panda which dropped from the trees onto the platform, staring at us intently before turning its back and walking away.

Another traditional symbol of Chinese culture is the dragon. They are everywhere. Old and new. Past and present. Dragons are the heart of myth and legend. Like great floods and creation stories, they exist across countries and cultures, each with their own version, The dragon is the only mythical animal in Chinese horoscopes. It’s the sign of rulers and leaders. Everyone wants to be a dragon.

We all left something of ourselves in China.  My new panama hat was accidentally abandoned  in Beijing. One friend mislaid her raincoat in Chongqing while another put her valuables in the hotel safe in Chengdu and left them there. At least they were secure and retrievable. Not like the fellow traveller who lost his passport and had no idea where it might be. He also lost several days of his trip applying for the essential paperwork for our internal flights – which was manageable – and to leave the country – which was not. At the end we left him behind, still waiting for the replacement visa and papers needed for a temporary passport, hoping to transfer his tickets to a different flight. Losing your passport is never advisable but losing it in China is probably the worst place of all.

My credit card was hacked. 48 hours after Xian, its details were being used in Saudi Arabia. The NatWest fraud squad sent texts asking if this was legitimate and blocked the card. Pin codes on transactions were uncommon. Most places asked for signatures. It showed the value of taking a backup card and keeping your phone switched on.

Two people got lost. Unable to read the signs or speak any Chinese, they couldn’t find their way back to the meeting point. We understood then why the guide was so insistent we had her phone number at all times. It emphasised the vulnerability created by our lack of linguistic skills.

I returned home with renewed respect for our Chinese students dealing with the complexity of English language and custom.  I realised the difference some Chinese signage around the university would make, and recalling fellow travellers carrying forks in their backpacks, I wondered why there were no chopsticks in the Atrium. I felt I gained a better understanding of the potential for confusion with our self-service style food and how easy it was to misunderstand the difference between gravy and custard. While I was away the Quad Diner opened a King Asia Noodle bar; its menu including noodle broth, Szechuan beef, Char Siu pork, Gyoza and Wantons.It reminded me how strange it is when food is unfamiliar.

All I knew about China was through books and films but this type of knowledge is only ever based on simulation. Anderson (1983) and Baudrillard (1994) have much to say about the nature of reality. In times east and west collided. One restaurant served us a plate of pale limp chips, a concession to dietary expectations. It looked out of place but was pounced on with cries and sighs of relief. The reality of travel is to leave behind the familiar and step out into the strange but sometimes the strange is dealt with badly. We can’t always help it. I’ve been asked several times if I would go back and I think I would – but there are other countries to visit first!

Anderson, B. (1983) Imagined Communities.  Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism,  London and New York, Verso

Baudrillard, J. (1994) Simulacra and Simulation, translated by sheila Faria Glaser, Ann Arbor The University of Michigan Press

Reflections on China: gastronomy

Without a common language, food can be a challenge. You can’t be sure what you’re eating. In the restaurants meals were served on lazy susan style glass circles. Plates of vegetables and meat would arrive with no indication of what they were. Some were easily recognisable like pakchoi or green beans while others were often unguessable. It was food but not as we knew it. Except for the rice, which was always white, sticky and rapidly cooling down.

Local diners had heaters under their dishes to keep them hot. Our food arrived mostly warm but by the second spin of the circle it would be cold. Meat was cooked on the bone and served in small pieces with the bone still attached. Necks and heads remained on the ducks and chickens. Rabbit heads were served as snacks.

We regularly had huge dishes of wobbly egg custard sprinkled with peas and corn kernels. Most meals included giant tureens of lettuce soup which tasted like warm water. As the circle turned so sticking out serving spoons knocked over anything they passed – meals included at least one spilt drink – and the expectation we’d use chopsticks led to some surreptitious sneaking in of forks.  Some found it difficult to adapt to the difference, but it was fundamentally healthy eating. A chunky spoon of rice went in the bottom of a small white bowl then small pieces of meat with vegetables on top. Eating with chopsticks is slow and mindful. You could fill your bowl as often as you wanted but the process is more drawn out. You eat less because physiologically, you feel full quicker.

Everything was cooked from scratch and appeared to be sugar, salt and fat free. Puddings were rare. Chunks of water melon ended meals. Where there were ‘sweet’ dishes in some hotels, they looked pretty but were mostly bland or unpleasant. Breakfast was the same as other meals – rice, noodles, fish and meat with steamed or stir fried vegetables and hot dumplings; filled or empty, the texture of rubber and tasteless. There were cartons of natural yoghurt but no spoons; the expectation was to drink through a straw. Coffee and tea came in many varieties but never tasted as expected and the only milk available was soy.

Out on the street, food was fast and furious. White slabs of curd simmered in large steel pans over gas flames while the accompanying fish still swam in plastic bowls on the floor. Noodle dough was bashed through sieves, caught, cut and cooked instantly in pots of boiling water. The colours and smells were weird and wonderful.  I was shy about taking pictures. It felt like being judgemental which in a way it was. Seahorses and scorpions on sticks is a shock. Not knowing your food brings out primeval instincts while social conditioning plays its part too. Dogs are bred for food in the same way we breed chickens and turkeys but dog brain soup is not part of my world. The Chinese say they eat anything with legs except a table and use every part of the animal except its voice. Maybe we are too fussy – and privileged.

We were given warnings about not drinking the water and avoiding street food but mistakes could still be made in the restaurants where the our lack of language skills was part of the problem – although not insurmountable. Menus with pictures helped as did fingers for numbers. We smiled a lot and were sometimes rescued by customers who spoke English, but still managed to get it wrong, in particular with quantities. It was so easy to misunderstand the different Chinese ways of being and eating. Your own cultural references are stronger than you realise. Just once we got it right. The Mongolian  clay pot of beef and rice arrived with a flourish; it was big enough for a party and a case of phew, at least this time we’d only ordered one to share!

Reflections on China; language and loos

Chinese is a dangerous language. It’s the tone which matters. There are four of them with the power to change meaning – get the tone wrong and you could be in trouble. China and England are so culturally different their translations can be problematic too.   Before Mao’s policy of controlling the natural world, traditional Chinese philosophy had been to live in harmony with nature. This often shows in the language.  For examples, after their wedding young couples retire to the bedroom. Where the English say love or sex, in China it’s ‘two ducks playing in the water enjoying the spring time.‘  Ducks have a special significance in China. They are considered a symbol of freedom with Mandarin ducks representing love and life long devotion. (Peking ducks are a variety specially bred to be eaten!)

The chinese greeting Ni Hao (Nee How) translates literally as You Good which seems to ask and answer at the same time. Thank you is Xie Xie  (Shay Shay) and needs a smile to catch the correct tone. This  gives a lovely nuance to the phrase.  Chinese calligraphy, the transfer of spoken to written language, is an art as well as an industry.  Street calligraphers use water to write poems in public places or sell messages of good luck and blessings with brushes ranging from miniscule to enormous. The script seems a mystery until you realise the images are pictures not letters and then you can begin to recognise individual  symbols like person and country.

Another cultural difference was around nature calling. Toilets were a challenge on every level with the chinese euphemism of happy hour being a source of much amusement with local guides who knew too well how our toilet trips were more often than not unhappy occasions.  Also known as ‘singing a song’, the experience was a great leveller. It separated the stoic from those who hadn’t done their homework. Cubicle choice was the first challenge and here the visual was often more useful than attempts at English. Once inside there were no hooks for bags or coats, no andrex (labrador puppies dancing in the water?) and no helpful (for westerners) instructions like ‘face this way’. Door or wall became a debating point as not all squatties were equally spaced and positioned although a good sense of balance was always essential.

Finding the public toilets was never a problem. You just breathed and followed your nose. It was particularly easy on the road. People don’t travel from place to place unless their work involves transportation and motorway services were basic to say the least. Directions to the public conveniences were unnecessary and privacy wasn’t highly rated either.  In the cities, there was sometimes a western toilet which was identified by the queue. First off the coach developed a new significance. Occasionally the sit-on loos had an additional arm to one side. Toilet bidet combo’s with multiple options. These included spray, massage and oscillation, with a choice of hot or cold shower-pressure and air temperature. Ideal Standard have a lot to learn. Maybe this is where ‘happy hour’ comes from?

Conversion from Chinese to English was less a case of ‘lost in translation’ and more about enhancement. Praise for arriving on time at an agreed place was greeted with ‘thank you for your excellent cooperations’, to stop talking was ‘keeping your silence’ and any sadness caused ‘my tears to come out’.   Our only point of linguistic disagreement was environmental. We called it smog. The Chinese called it mist. Explanations for the haze included being in a valley, being between two rivers and ‘at night the lights shine right through so you know it’s clean.’ Whatever the cause, a smoky cloud covered the cities and countryside. It was like wearing dirty glasses and having the onset of a chest infection. West and east, the landscape was permanently blurred which in itself was a language of a different kind.

Favourite translations included the elevation of railings to cultural relics,  signs on escalators which warned against frolicking and instructions for not potting tap water. More seriously, an explanation for the flooding of the three gorges valleys, in spite of its errors, was a chilling reminder of the loss of life and lifestyles.

In places there were suggestions something more was going on for example the single word Quiet required four main characters and twenty subsequent ones!  Overall, I liked best the translations with a more philosophical message. As well as my photographs and a renewed appreciation for western sanitation systems, these pieces of public advice were well worth bringing home.

Florence Face; a 21st century version of Stendhal’s Syndrome

David outside Palazzio Vecchio  David outside Palazzio Vecchio

I thought Italy didn’t get better than Venice or Rome but I was wrong. Florence tops them. Anyone with a passion for art and history will feel at home walking in the footsteps of Donatello, Leonardo, Michelangelo. Galileo, Rossini, Brunelleschi worked there. The piazzas are unchanged. The same church bells ring the hours and call for mass. Cobblestones are original. If ever you wanted to kiss the ground, go to Florence where the essence of the renaissance spirit is alive and well. Although the practice of attribution makes me nervous, I risk suggesting people unaffected by Florence have no soul.

The 19th century author Stendhal, pseudonym of Henri-Marie Beyle,wrote the travelogue ‘Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio’ in 1817. Stendhal described his emotional reaction following a visit to Santa Croce, where highlights include frescos by Gaddi and Giotti dating from the early 1300’s. The frescos did it for Henrie-Marie.  I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty… I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations… Everything spoke so vividly to my soul…I had palpitations of the heart..Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.  In the 1970s, Dr. Graziella Magherini at the Santa Maria Novella hospital, observed tourists overcome with physical and cognitive responses to the Florentine experience and named this Stendhal’s syndrome.

I didn’t suffer SS but did contract my own version. Now known as Florence Face, FF is to be open mouthed while lost for words. It was sensory overload. Accustomed to a world of digital simulations, which can dilute the impact of a ‘first-time’ experience, standing in the Uffizzi, inches from Botticelli’s Venus, or seeing Michelangelo’s David in the Academia, were useful reminders of the power of authentic objects. Iconic imagery fails to capture the essence of the original. The Other is not the same as the Real. For someone who lives too much life online, where anything is available in digital format, being in Florence was to experience the impact of reality.

The virtual experience of teaching and learning can never be the same as a one-to-one tutorial or small  group seminar. We have to accept the limitations. The rhetoric  of the 1990’s was over ambitious and doomed to disappoint. Technology can’t smile but has definite advantages.  Content can be accurately repeated. It doesn’t get tired. Links open new doors. Make unexpected connections. Reflective journals can be as comprehensive as necessary while remaining private. Cut/copy/paste commands make it easy to edit. Tools like blogs, wikis and discussion forums support online discussion and collaboration. Online assessment is neat and tidy. Online feedback legible. 24/7 access across traditional boundaries of time and distance widens participation.  There are lots of positives to offset the downsides of mechanisation. While the virtual can never have the impact of the real, this doesn’t mean we should dismiss it. I still have my photographs and postcards of Florence. They are permanent reminders of what can only ever be a transitory experience.

Ponte Vecchio from the Uffizi Gallery  Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore from Giotti's Camponile