If only I were a duck

8 Oct


October’s Golden Holiday drew to a close yesterday and this morning many parts of Ningbo were flooded. I had a sneaky suspicion this would be the case. With the exception of the odd half-hour break, it pretty much rained non-stop yesterday.  Where exactly is all that water going to go? Welcome typhoon Fitow. Well, almost. Luckily, Fitow’s eye never met us and we were spared the crazy wind speeds.


I spent yesterday admiring the rain. Who’d have thought water could do that? One moment it’s drizzling, which reminded me of good old London, then the next it’s proper torrential. At one point, I could have sworn it sounded like it was raining marbles, the type of rain that could skin you alive.


After spending two years in the dry city of Handan, I had started to miss rain – what with me coming from London and all. In Handan last year there was a period of six months without a speck of rain. Whereas in Ningbo yesterday the sky dumped between 342mm and 702mm of rain. I can’t really complain. I’d rather be in Ningbo with the rainwater instead of Handan, which seems to be under yet another cloud of pollution this week. Progress, wonderful isn’t it?


Going AWOL

6 Feb

My pet project is taking over.

Be back soon.

Bad Feng and Dangerous Shui

14 Jan

On the last day of 2012, I found myself struggling to breathe through a spot of flu and bronchitis. Home alone with a pack of tissues and a hot water bottle, the highlight of my day was being able to breathe through a nostril. The fella was in another town, which was good for him as I kept waking in the night to cough and blow my nose in lame bids to breathe. A few days later, the drugs started to kick in and things were looking up. Or so I thought.

On the fifth day of 2013, I returned home from work to find the taps spitting air. My boss texted everyone saying that the city’s water supply will be stopped for two days. No reason why. Even though I had only bought five gallons of drinking water that afternoon, I still headed out to buy water. No luck. The corner shop was sold out of bottled water and the nearest supermarket only had bottles of designer water at haute couture prices.

On my way home, I noticed people carrying buckets and pots of water. I summoned my limited powers of Mandarin and asked them where they got their precious cargo from. They pointed out a queue of people hiding in the dark. I thanked them and ran home to grab a bucket. In fact, I grabbed two buckets.

People had buckets, pots, kettles, bottles and anything else that could hold water. The water we were queuing up for was not fit for drinking but would be fine for flushing toilets. When I returned home with my two beautiful buckets of water, the first thing I did was turn on the television and hit the local channel. There was a special announcement playing on loop. It explained, to the confused citizens of Handan, that the water had to be cut because a chemical spill in the province of Shanxi had affected one of the city’s main water supplies.

I hit the internet and found out that the chemical in question was aniline and the accident was allegedly reported on the 31st December. It took Shanxi officials five days to make the announcement to Handan and other cities and provinces effected by the spill. So now, everyone is preparing for some major heads to roll. A local colleague informed me that

“this has never happened in China before, an entire city without water.”

Even top dogs from Beijing came to town as part of the investigation into what the funk went on. “Maybe some good will come from this” I thought to myself. The logic being that China will be more careful with it’s chemicals and water supplies. Again, I was terribly wrong.

Only a few days after word of Handan’s water problem hit national news, there was another water cut caused by shoddy handling of chemicals. This time it was in Shanghai. I couldn’t believe my ears. In the same sitting of evening news, there was a piece on terrible air pollution in Beijing. Again, I took to the internet. I found out that it wasn’t just Beijing that was having air trouble, it was quite a large slice of China – including Handan. Things were most definitely not looking up.

On my web quest for information I found a neat little website http://www.aqicn.info that shows the real time air quality index of cities in China, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, and a few parts of Singapore and India. I’ve even downloaded the widget onto my mobile phone.

So now, even though I can breath comfortably through both nostrils, I have low hopes for China and 2013. My new year’s resolution? Stay alive and healthy.

Good stuff

13 Oct

My nostrils had died and gone to heaven. Sumptuous chrysanthemum embraced me as I approached the shop where dried flowers sat in open cardboard boxes. The entire store was stacked high with beautifully scented specimens all destined for the teapot.

We had taken a wrong turn and were stumbling down a side street in Guangzhou’s infamous Qing Ping Chinese Herbal Medicine Market (清平中药材市场). After being bombarded by fish scales and giblets, I was glad to find refuge in a tiny shop full of herbal tea. While my husband haggled with the owner, I filled my lungs to the hilt with this glorious perfume.

“You know what this is?” He was obviously very excited about his bargain buy.

“Tea?” He flinched in disgust at my reply.

“Not just any tea. It’s wild chrysanthemum tea from the Kunlun Mountains.” He suddenly reminded me of Maurice Moss from Channel 4’s  The IT Crowd.

“Oh, I see.” I raised my eyebrows and nodded slowly as if his words had triggered some profound enlightenment. Content with my response he then smiled rather smugly to himself.

We eventually made it to the main market. Preserved fruits, roots and plant matter were not the only Chinese herbal medicine on sale. Cats, dogs and snakes were among some of the living foodstuffs on display. I heard there’s a dedicated section of the market where you could even witness your meat being prepared. Did I really fancy watching our dinner being skinned (- alive… optional), butchered and gutted? No, not really. Not even remotely.

It’s been twenty-minutes since he started perusing a stall which sold planks of tree bark alongside various mystery items. I was beginning to wonder if one of the butchers had prepared my husband when he finally emerged from the crowd glowing like a child who has just spent all his pennies on fizzy sherbets. I asked him what he’d bought and as he rummaged through the bag trying to construct explanations in his head, he suddenly realized that I wouldn’t understand everything he wanted to say.

“Good stuff!” He grinned at me triumphantly, swinging the carrier bag as if it was the winning lottery ticket. I almost contemplated asking him for a more detailed explanation but then realized that it would entail a crash course in traditional Chinese medicine. Instead, I just raised my eyebrows and nodded. Slowly.

The Big Day

25 Sep

The smell of burning and sandalwood dissolved into the morning air as smoke floated up from the houses below. From his home we could look down into the village and up into the mountains. Wong talked with his mother and made his baby nephew laugh as I finished packing our things.

I met Wong’s mother last year in Shenzhen but we couldn’t speak much because we didn’t share a common tongue and she appeared to have something serious to discuss with her only son. There was still little conversation between us but she seemed softer and lighter this time round, maybe it was the baby’s influence. He was one of those sparkly babies: effervescent with laughter. Wong never seriously talked about us having children until he encountered this beautiful bambino.

The time came for us to leave, there was a long day ahead of us. Bye bye baby, bye bye mother, and off we went. We followed a concrete path through rice paddies and green fields. The day was already heating up and we were only five-minutes into a half-hour trek to the bus station. As we approached the village Wong strolled into a random house where three generations of a family, plus a rather big German Shepherd, were beginning their day. Shrieking laughter put me at ease. Family friends. After much talking and shrieking, the man of the household offered us a bike ride to the bus station, which was much appreciated.

The downhill journey through narrow alleys with oncoming traffic was more nerve wracking than last night’s odyssey, our proximity to walls and moving vehicles troubled me. After a really close encounter with a small van I realized that we just had to surrender our fate to the man at the helm, there was nothing else we could do.

We were dropped off at the bus station, which sat behind a row of shops and resembled a private parking lot. There wasn’t much to see except for a couple of cars, a red bus and a few chickens.

Once we arrived in town we got our passport photos taken (with the pair of us against a red background) and headed straight to the Bureau of Civil Administration (mín zhèng jú 民政局) only to be told that I had to had to get my passport information page translated. I knew I forgot to do something

So off we went, on the back of yet another motorbike, to the Notary Public Office (gōng zhèng chù 公证处). Once we had the translated document and Notarial Certificate (gōng zhèng shū 公证书) everything was pretty straight forward. I already had my Certificate of No Impediment from the British Embassy, which they issued in Chinese and English, and all Wong needed to bring was his identity card (shēn fèn zhèng 身份证) and Household Register (jū mín hù kǒ bù 居民户口簿).

We were the first foreign and Chinese marriage in this area so there was a lot of cross-referencing of sample documents and notes. The rules had only been changed yesterday so that we had to get our marriage certificate from Wong’s hometown. If we had tied the know a few days earlier then we would have got our certificate in Guangzhou, the capital of the province. The local people dealing with our application were very welcoming, plying us with tea and longan berries as we waited for the paperwork to be processed. I doubt we would have received such warm treatment in the capital.

After all the dashing around on two wheels, we finally got our marriage certificate at 5pm. No church bells or confetti. We simply took our backpacks and headed to the coach station. Via motorbike.

Home Time

17 Sep

He sucked on some more preserved mandarin peel as the coach hit a spot of turbulence. He hasn’t been home for a few years. In our time together, neither of us have visited each other’s homes because mine is in London and his is a mission to get to. Both of us were slightly apprehensive. He was concerned that a city dweller like me wouldn’t be used to the Chinese countryside. I was a little concerned about mosquitoes (their bites leave me looking like I’ve got a touch of bubonic plague) but I reassured him that I would be fine. It was only an overnight stay so I wasn’t too worried about creature comforts.

Waiting at the penultimate stop, a small town with wide streets and no taxis, we were informed that the bus we had been waiting for was not going to be running tonight. No reason was given. I guess the driver had better things to do than drive a couple of strangers up a winding mountain road. He (or she) was probably watching one of China’s many TV talent shows, preferably the one with small children screeching Peking Opera classics.

As we stood around pondering about our fate for the night, Wong (my fiancee) suddenly accosted a passer by with a pro wrestling power slap. A “huh?” was immediately followed by big bouts of laughter and warm hugs.
They bubbled together in the local Hakka dialect, which consists of one part Mandarin to nine parts mystery. I had no idea what they were saying. I guessed that they were talking about the good old days or catching up on news about so-and-so. The conversation inevitably moved onto the subject of how we were going to get to Wong’s home and the tone changed to something more serious as his friend ushered the tête-à-tête to the side of the road. After a quick um-dee um-dee, Wong waved me over to where they were standing.

“Ok?” He quizzed as he pointed to an old motorcycle parked next to a shiny red Nissan.

“Ok.” I responded. Night was upon us and we had no other option. Heck, I’ve seen entire families packed onto the back of flimsy electric bikes, I think the three of us should be “ok” on this bad boy. Sandwiched on two wheels between a complete stranger and my fiancee, we set out for Wong’s home. I was immensely tense as we started the journey because this was my first encounter with a motorcycle in China. Every time we went uphill the engine would splutter and threaten to cut out, while every time we went downhill I would see my life flash before me. Despite fearing for my life, I kept finding the words “there were three in the bed and the little one said…” rolling over in my head. I had to stop myself from laughing at the situation: we were supposed to get our marriage certificate in Guangzhou ten hours ago and tonight was supposed to a romantic affair.

The view from the back of the motorcycle was truly breathtaking. Waterlogged rice paddies shimmered in the moonlight while the bamboo covered mountainside undulated in the summer breeze. This was the China I wanted to see, not the KFCs or foreign style coffee houses – although I appreciated them in my moments of weakness. What I really wanted to experience was the China I dreamt of as a child growing up in working class London. Far from the blinding lights and pollution of the metropolis, we could observe the stars and inhale nature’s nocturnal perfume.

We gave the motorcycle a break at a small convenience store which sold pickled bamboo shoots in used cola bottles. The owners kindly let us rest our bones on their blue plastic stools. In front of us sat a pink bucket filled with water. I noticed something dark gray protruding from the water’s surface: a tail. There was a proper hunk of a fish squashed inside the bucket. It wasn’t moving, which was good news for the bucket.

As our escort finished his green tea, a man arrived wielding a meat cleaver. He scooped up the dead fish and plonked it by the hose at the roadside in front of our motorcycle. With cigarette gripped firmly in mouth, he proceeded to descale and gut the fish, using water from the hose to wash away any unwanted parts. He had ninja skills with the blade, not wasting time on unnecessary motions he moved swiftly and with purpose. We all watched him until it was time to get going.

We passed the man and his fish and continued with our journey. The moon was perfectly round and the sky was clear. Wong gently pressed his head against mine and at that moment the thought of a candlelight dinner seemed terribly contrived. Why would anyone want to be cooped up indoors on a night like this? Romantic dinner or otherwise.


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