Thor's China Diary

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Letter Home

I've just been out to get some popcorn. There's a lady on the pavement, around the corner in Ba Yi Road who has a primitive sort of gadget that makes it fresh. She knows me now and we exchange ear wiggles, then she gives me a big plastic bag of warm popcorn for about twenty cents. Lately she's been putting in a bit extra with a conspirational little smile. Just after Chinese New Year though, every popcorn seller in Wuhan disappeared for a month. We have a theory that they went on an all-expenses-paid holiday to Paris or Rio.

This is supposed to be spring, although nobody has told the avenues of deciduous trees which are still bare. Most of the winter wasn't very cold, but now we've had some bitterly cold days, drizzle and even wind. I'm wearing a balaclava when I go out to run - keeps that jaw warm. My face is getting a bit better every day, but that wisdom tooth thing was awful. Had to go on a penicillin drip every day for three weeks. Eventually I had it x-rayed, and paid for a professor of dentistry to promise me that I wasn't going to get gangrene just yet. He reckons it will take another month for the hole inside my mouth to heal properly.

Within a couple of weeks I'll probably have to take some definite action about where to work next semester. The administration in WTUSM  is hopeless, and the Chinese teaching staff mostly treat overseas staff like lepers (fear of losing face with bad English etc.), but the students are very good and I'm having quite an enjoyable time, as life goes. There are lots of other universities where I could work, in Wuhan or other cities.

Chinese language is an enormously difficult thing to get hold of, especially if you spend your day doing other things. My mangled tones are barbaric. I struggle on, and have a little collection of  stock phrases to flourish now -- zhe4 ge4 (this! frantically pointing at something you want); bu zhe dao (don't know!); duo1 shao3 qian2(how much); yao4 dai4 zi3(need a bag); keyi (OK); xie xie (thanks) .... and so on. It is rather a long way from discussing the meaning of life, the universe and everything. At first the idea of learning hanzi (characters) seemed just too daunting, but I've gotten fed up with being completely illiterate and have memorized about 70 or so. They say that when I've mastered around 500 I can begin to do something useful. There are 6000 to 8000 characters in use, but they combine (usually in pairs) to make lots of other words. Although a large percentage of single Chinese characters are theoretically equivalent to a word (i.e. free morphemes), they tend to sound like many other words. That is, they are homophones. The sound /zhi/ for example, with its different tones, has over eighty meanings, although each of those meanings will have its own written character set. Chinese has a far smaller set of sounds (phonemes) to work with than English, so the sound set is worked very hard, and there is a great risk of ambiguity when utterances are minimized. This seems to have had interesting cultural consequences. For example, the Chinese method of collecting military intelligence has been called a junk mail approach -- accumulating trivia until a pattern is perceived -- but this also applies to communication in general. Chinese often seem to arrive at a conviction of truth less by logical argument, than by letting lots of words wash up against their ears and eyeballs, until a general impression is formed. Anyway, this is a huge topic ...

You had never heard of Guangzhou or Shenzen, where I went in the New Year break! Guangzhou is the  proper name for Canton. From what I've seen of the place, it is a jungle of concrete canyons full of exhaust smoke, and dirty, crumbling backstreets. Maybe the good bits are hidden away somewhere. Shenzen was a village fifteen years ago, and was built from the ground up in the first of the Special Economic Zones (tax free for foreign companies). Today it is maybe the most modern city in China . The centre is not huge, and reminds me a bit of Canberra (being planned), but unlike Canberra, hustling for business is the local religion.

Chinese cities are quite unlike Australian ones in lots of ways. For example, there is nowhere in Wuhan that you could call upper class or working class. This is still the land of Big Brother, which means that almost everyone gets their housing from their employer, either by rent or low-interest loan. Every factory, university or school has a monstrous attachment of high rise flats, a clinic or hospital, often an in-house school, and small shops. This will all be housed behind an encircling two metre brick wall with a guard on the gate. You can't really go for a Sunday drive to gawk at the neighbours, though you might get away with looking purposeful and riding your bicycle through the gate. The Han Kou sector of Wuhan does have a sort of downtown centre, and a couple of imposing avenues lined with skyscrapers. Best to view the skyscrapers from a distance though because 90% of them are unfinished shells, half-built with unsecured loans from the state banks. I suspect that many of them might never become more than high-rise cubby holes for shoe-shine ladies and rats.

The Hubei government is inviting foreign teachers on a three day trip to a mountain village and the Three Gorges at the beginning of May. In earlier years I've heard such trips were a kind of bonus for the low salaries, but we have a suspicion that this time around there might be a sting involved. If so, a lot of us will give it a miss. By about 20 June the academic year here should be pretty well wrapped up, and won't start again until August. This will be time to do some travel around China -- the weather will be warmer. It will also bring the tourists out like locusts, making accommodation harder for find, particularly in Beijing. I can come back to Australia for a bit either at the end or beginning of that period. Probably the end, mid-winter in the Southern Hemisphere. Brrr! We've just gotten over that....

"Letter Home" copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 30 March 1999
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