Archive for category Daily Life


“Tuut, tuut,tuut”, the repetitive drone of destruction continues day and night. From my office window I can see the enormous metal teeth of the orange prehistoric monsters as they gnaw away at the bricks and mortar of what was once “my village”. (see blog November 2011)  Their appetite is insatiable. In just over two months they have virtually demolished the entire area. The carcasses of a few houses and shops remain, picked clean by scavengers, waiting patiently for the inevitable.

Gone are the narrow, winding streets bustling with life and colour. Gone are my favourite street food stalls of bang-bang mien and tofu. Gone are the fruit and vegetable carts selling what was freshly in season – ginger, dates, melons, walnuts and a variety of teas. Gone are the children busy with their homework on make-shift tables or playing up and down the alleys. Gone are the hundreds of families who lived and worked there.

It all happened with surprising speed. I returned from my Yunnan trip and asked what the blaring loud speakers were saying, hour after hour. Apparently it was the police announcing the closure of the village and informing the public at large that protests were illegal and that the villagers were all in agreement with the order to obliterate their livelihoods.We were assured that they would be compensated and re housed. Guards were posted at all the entrances to the village and looked so menacing that I didn’t dare to take any photos at street level. I have no idea where all the people went, but within a week or two they had cleared out all their belongings, stripped the buildings of any valuable materials and disappeared into thin air.

The whole area has of course been bought by a property developer who will turn it into a huge residential campus similar to so many other construction projects up and down this vast country. I can envisage it in a few years time with ten to twenty identical high rise apartments clustered  around some artificial water features and gardens. Xi’an’s skyline is filled with giant cranes and half finished tower blocks. Since the 1990s, when the construction of housing and offices took off big time, millions of old homes and buildings have been demolished and tens of millions of people have been forcibly removed from their homes to make way for construction projects. There is big money in real estate and in some cities, the prices of apartments are comparable to top-end properties in New York. Most state owned giants and even some CP newspapers have real-estate subsidiaries. The building frenzy does not seem to have subsided, despite fears of the bubble bursting. The recent woes of Western countries has not deterred local government from borrowing money and using “creative” accountancy to hide the true nature of the debt. In 2010 China used 8 times as much cement as the world’s second largest consumer, India. It also leads the world in its consumption of steel and other industrial materials by a wide margin.

It is a difficult dilemma and one I’m glad I don’t have to solve. Where do people live? About 13 to 21 million people migrate from rural areas to the cities each year and they need to live somewhere but the construction bonanza has changed the very social and economic fabric of Chinese society. On a personal level, it has changed the area where I have lived since I came to Xi’an. I no longer have cheap, convenient places to shop and eat. I no longer sit and watch the vitality of street life being played out in front of me. The soul has gone out of the place.

Today is Ghosts’ Day here in China, the 15th day of the 7th month of the lunar calendar.  It’s when the deceased ancestors are believed to be visiting the living.  I gaze down at the site of the village now from my office and there they are, hundreds of them, floating around the rubble and dust, completely disorientated. They are looking for the empty chairs usually placed for them to sit on and the specially prepared food.  One or two hover by a partially destroyed house revealing the inner walls of a once private bedroom.

“Is this where we used to live?” I hear them ask the orange monsters. But they have no regard for decency or sentiment. They have no past memories and nothing must get in their way. There is a commotion down there. Someone must have alerted the guards and they come charging in, wielding their batons and shouting, threatening and ugly. None of the ghosts dare to defy them and they sadly waft over the village for the last time and take their leave.

To view the photos that go with this blog, click the link.



Mandarin,Putonghua or Zhongwen – it’s all Chinese

“Oh, you’ll manage to learn Chinese easily living there.”

“You should be able to learn Chinese, you’ve learnt Welsh.”

“You’re good at languages, you should be able to pick up Chinese in no time.”

These encouraging comments from friends before I left for China, almost seven months ago, haunt me daily as I struggle to make  headway with the language. Admittedly, I haven’t been a dedicated student, so I don’t want to make too many excuses, but it’s hard! I have practised the phrase  “I am a volunteer” over and over again and then tried to use it. As yet, only one person has understood me, the rest just shake their heads even though I think my pronunciation is as perfect as I can make it. So it can be a little disheartening.

With an estimated 885 million Mandarin speakers in the world, why is it that that I’m struggling? The grammar is fairly simple compared to most languages – verbs don’t conjugate, there are no tenses or plural words and numbers are logical. As far as speaking is concerned, the sound is unlike any other language I know. When I look at or listen to French or Spanish, I can recognise several words before I start but Mandarin is tonal and that makes it difficult for Westerners. Many words sound the same but the tones give them a totally different meaning. It’s difficult for me to “hear” the different tones especially when people are speaking fast but without the right tone you might as well be speaking Zulu. Not many Chinese make allowances if you get the tones wrong, they simply don’t understand you or misunderstand you, which can be very embarrassing!

With other foreign languages in the West, the reinforcement of the spoken word comes through reading words. There is no opportunity to reinforce words here. Chinese has no alphabet, only characters. I’d love to learn how to write them but I think I’d need to be here for many more years before I got to that stage. Pinyin, a romanisation system, was adopted in 1958 in mainland China to teach children the sounds of the syllables. In the office, people type in pinyin on the computer which is then converted into Chinese characters. It is a language of pictographs with 90% of the words having a “meaning” element and a “sound” element. The character for “to sit” literally means: people on top of earth 人=person   土= earth which makes  坐  as the character for “to sit”. Man literally means: strength in a field  田= field   力= strength  which makes  男  as the character for “man”.  A well educated person knows around 6000 to 8000 characters and one would need 2000 to 3000 to read a paper. I asked my teacher the other day how she learnt to write when she was young.

“Oh, it’s the same way today,” she replied. “I would have to practise for homework every night from when I was very young. I would have three pages of squared paper to write my characters over and over again. I would have to learn about 30 new ones each week.”

So my progress has been pitifully slow and having a translator in work has made me lazy. Translation is another interesting topic.  I thought I’d be able to keep up with the office QQ messages (Chinese version of MSM) by using Google Translate, but even that service has limited use. This is a Google version of  one day’s conversation:

“Shoes busy got the hall, got under the kitchen, climb a high mountain involved won reservoirs, the system had yogurt weight into the capsule, but also as a weapon, threwRen …”

Little wonder that I’m not always up to speed with what’s going on!

Another amusing side to this business of language learning is Chinglish. Since 1982, English has been the main foreign language in education. There are about 300+ million English learners but I can’t say I’ve met many of them apart from those who’ve studied it at university. I have had a look at some of the English manuals and exam syllabuses though and it’s badly taught and very old fashioned. Hence, the English signs are rather delightful. There are some obvious reasons for this –  the verbs in Chinese don’t conjugate and there’s no definite article but there are also a cultural differences. The best way to show you what I mean is to show you some of my “sign collection”.

Can you imagine what a nightmare it is when I am without my translator?  Taxi drivers shout at me, presuming that I’m old (that’s true) and hard of hearing, in the hope that I’ll understand better. I delete text messages on my phone in Mandarin only to discover that they were letting me know I had run out of phone credit and I can’t read messages on my apartment door warning me that they’re going to cut off the water for a few days!

Now I realise my Mandarin won’t get much better in my remaining four months but I’ll try not to “lose face” over it . As I’m not thinking of returning straight away, it’ll be “long time no see” before I speak to you all again in English or Welsh.

For further amusing signs, follow this link.


Chinese New Year photos

I forgot to add a link to the photos. Here it is.

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Chun jie – Chinese New Year Part 1

It is strangely quiet outside my flat now that the Chinese New Year/Spring Festival has finally come to an end. Officially it lasts 15 days, from new moon to full moon, but it seemed to go on and on. Firstly there were the preparations. The Grand Spring Clean is taken seriously. Not only are peoples’ homes thoroughly cleaned but so are their work places. In our office we hired a cleaning lady for a whole day  who scrubbed and polished and disinfected and even removed and washed  the windows. Someone then tried to walk through one of the big glass doors. This is not usually a hazard because the windows are so dirty. We had to make sure that no rubbish was left in our bins as it might bring bad luck in the New Year. Clear out the old before bringing in the new. Red is the theme colour and there were red lanterns, dragons and canopies of light everywhere. The Chinese are masters of decoration. Then, the day before New Year’s Eve, it snowed. The scene was set for the biggest festival in the Chinese calendar.

Xi’an ground to a halt.  There was a mass migration as millions of people made their way back to their home towns. The “village” where I have lunch and buy my vegetables closed down as the migrant workers returned home. Students also evacuated and they are still on holiday.  The government gives both of these groups reduced fares on buses and trains. I was pleased to be invited to my translator’s grandparents’ home for New Year’s Eve. Not only was it an insight into Chinese family life but everything else was closed.  Beijing and Shanghai have large  public events but else where it’s a family affair.

Ting had been cleaning the flat all day and it looked lovely. She was pleased with the “hongbao” or red envelope that I gave her, with some money inside. This traditional gift for children and unmarried friends or relatives is a way of showing respect and thoughtfulness. Not giving is a sign of disapproval, something I didn’t want to elicit from my trusty companion! In modern China, the tradition is being corrupted and many now give it in return for preferential treatment. So what’s new?

Luckily my Welsh slate key rings, with a red Welsh dragon on them, were perfect gifts for the rest of the family especially as 2012 is Year of the Dragon. Her grandfather showed me the Almanac which is still consulted by the older generation. It gives auspicious advice for the year such as the best time to venture forth on New Year’s Day and which direction to take. He also told me  that at the 5th “watch” after midnight (Shakespearean?), his old body would leave him and his new year’s body would appear. We had a splendid meal in their communal restaurant with many delicacies – lily roots in oil, lightly battered mushrooms and lotus roots with chillies. Immediately after the meal, we were making jiaozi for New Year’s Day breakfast. I am getting a little better at it (see post on Rainbow Night). We rounded off the evening with a modest box of fireworks – one lit fuse and the whole thing exploded. Ting is environmentally sensitive, unlike much of the rest of the population.

I have to confess that I was unaware of when my old body left and the new one appeared. I was in bed by 10.30, having sealed all doors and windows, with ear plugs firmly in place, whilst World War 3 raged outside. I am a little worried however, as the Chinese open all doors and windows at midnight to let out the old year. Maybe that’s why I find it difficult to live in the present.

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Parks in China

China’s public parks are something the government at home might do well to emulate. I enjoy the free theatre and interesting,  quirky  things I see whenever I visit one. The Chinese are justly proud of their public spaces which are meticulously cleaned by armies of workers through out the day. They are usually formally laid out and one is only allowed to walk on the paved paths. Walking on the grass is not permitted!  They are oases in the tower block  jungle.

The parks are  full of people from early morning, ( I sometimes run at 6.30) until they close at about 9.30 at night. People of all ages start the day by exercising in various ways. Some like a gentle jog or to walk backwards, hitting their arms to get the circulation going or rubbing their stomachs. Others stride along, shouting out every now and again to clear the vocal passages – I get quite a fright when  someone decides to give a blood curdling yell just as I’m running past them. There are outside gyms with equipment that looks like it was designed for a children’s playground but it’s for adults and a lot cheaper than David Lloyds! Then of course there are the ever popular ping pong and badminton games. I wouldn’t dare to take anyone on at either of these as they all seem to be semi professional whatever the age.

As the day progresses, groups of people gather for Tai Chi led by practitioners of various schools. They are mainly older people dressed in colourful Chinese costumes. They follow the master who has  recorded music playing  for all to hear. Some judo experts, dressed in black, practise alone or in groups, displaying fearsome combat moves. Women can be seen dancing with fans or scarves while the  younger dancers learn ballroom, tango or jive. Old age pensioners have regular keep fit classes and seem to thoroughly enjoy them. What a good idea for Britain’s army of house-bound and isolated elderly.  Everyone has their space. Some need lots of it too, such as the whip- crackers – just like in the circus – or those doing kick ups with weighted, feathered shuttle cocks.

On Saturdays, in the park near my flat, old men go for a gossip but they bring their caged birds with them. Evidently both species need space to communicate with one another. Musicians also use the park to practise their instruments and at night, whole choirs sing old revolutionary songs.





The freezing winter weather does not deter the hardy Chinese from using their parks from early til late. The only thing that’s changed is that the plants, shrubs and smaller trees have been wrapped up in plastic to save them from the frost and I haven’t been so keen to get out for those early morning jogs!


The “Village”

Although Xi’an’s older, low rise buildings  are relentlessly being pulled down and replaced by  hideous skyscrapers, there are still plenty of “villages” left and long may they last. These are narrow, dark streets bustling with life from early morning until late at night where ordinary people can afford to eat and shop for daily necessities. There is one just near where I live and I love it. The streets are lined with small, open-fronted eating places offering all sorts of culinary delights for no more than 50 to 90 pence. I usually eat lunch here, wrapped in coat and scarf, as none of these places have heating or doors for that matter. Specialities in this area are:

  •  home made noodles, where the cooks skilfully manipulate skeins of fresh dough, banging them onto floured boards and serving them in a spicy soup. This dish has the onomatopoeic name of  “biang biang mian” – bang bang noodles.
  • thick strap-like noodles eaten in a cold sauce
  • crusty rice, served in little wicker baskets and eaten with a long spoon
  • dumplings or jaozi with various fillings and cooked by boiling or steaming
  • cold vegetables like lotus root and shredded potatoes served in a delicious sauce with plenty of chillies

The smoke from the coal fired stoves mixes with the steam from the cooking pots and woks whilst people shout out their orders and take their seats. There’s always something interesting to watch over lunch and when I return at night, I buy smoked tofu from a little cart for 30p and that’s supper.  Outside the food shops are the street traders selling skewers of meat, pancakes and stuffed bread rolls from their stalls. You can eat standing up from these places  in the freezing cold.  Health and Safety wouldn’t know where to begin! Fruit and vegetable stalls sell really good produce which I prefer to the supermarket packaged offerings. Of course there is a lot of talk about over fertilisation of produce but I don’t have any means of growing my own organic veges and just hope that I’m not being slowly poisoned!

In amongst the multitude of food stalls, there are little shops selling cheap everyday items and clothes. You can get printing done quickly, buy electrical goods and have your hair cut for less than a pound. Vendors come and go at different times of the day depending on the season or the latest availability of a new fake product. Whole families live their lives on the streets. In one area there are ancient  pool tables set out on the pavement where teenagers play at lunchtime and younger children do their homework at little improvised cardboard tables, whilst their parents scratch a meagre living from their stalls.

Right click and follow the link to see photos