blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Sad to leave Beijing

We're sleeping at the Renaissance Suzhou Hotel tonight, it and its surroundings a far cry from Zhixin Dong Lu (the road in Beijing where we were residing last night) in all respects. Too luxurious by far and a rather lonely and forlorn supper for two. The buffet meal here, costing twenty times as much, was by no means as tasty or such fun as last night's feast in a private room at the neighbourhood restaurant with Sha and George, Sha's parents, her cousin and his wife and Rob and Sally, all of whom we're missing ever so much now that we're on to the next stage of our travels.

One good thing, though, is that I seem to have an easy Internet connection at last.

Our train ride to Suzhou from Beijingnan (Beijing South station) took 10 hours 20 minutes. We sat in our seats for longer than that, as Sha's cousin had driven us to the station in plenty of time, and Sha and George had helped settle us and our luggage in the train after a coffee and croissant on the superbly clean and spacious station concourse.

We followed our route on the map of China we'd bought yesterday. The cabin crew, in smart uniforms with red ties, provided us with bottles of cold water, hot water at the end of the carriage and a "sanitary bag" for our litter. I won my bet with George that the WC would not be a squat one. It was kept clean by a girl apparently employed to do just that job, not easy on such a full train. A snacks trolley kept coming by on which the snacks were none too edible so we ate mostly nuts. Other passengers didn't mind noisily sucking the bones of the meat in the vacuum pack bags and passing the bones around to share with their friends.

On the outskirts of Tianjin the municipality was bulldozing the little old hutongs into piles of rubble to make room for high rise office buildings and flats; it was the same story in all the cities we crossed. Cranes everywhere. The landscape was for the most part industrial, and for the first few hours flat, with dykes, rows of poplars, broad rivers or canals festooned with fishing nets. After the 3rd stop, Dezhou, more trees appeared. We crossed a tidal river with sandy banks, the Huang He. Then on to Jinan. It started to rain with heavy clouds over the rising ground. Red tiled roofs now, in a valley that narrowed, with quarries and stony hillsides, tall thin cypresses growing on them. These are the mountains of Shandong province.

After Taishan, the landscape became less industrial for a while; workers in the fields wore conical straw hats. They had shelters with reed mats on the roof for extra shade; some of these little huts were even thatched. More hills, with terraced fields full of boulders but cultivated anyhow. Few if any animals; we wonder where all that Chinese meat comes from, that's so popular.

By mid afternoon we'd reached Xuzhou, same as the other cities, slums being demolished in heaps of squalor in the midst of modern skyscrapers. A few of our noisy fellow passengers got out here and immediately started smoking on the platform. A cheerful bunch of men, but I couldn't make out a word they'd been saying. They were speaking in some dialect. A gentleman from Singapore told us that he couldn't understand them either.

A flock of white goats on the embankment, thousands more poplar trees, and now we were definitely in the south, with two hours to go: numerous paddy fields and lotus ponds visible as well as the wheat fields, the lotus cultivated for its tasty roots. We crossed wide rivers with scruffy old junks on them and I finally saw buffalos, one with a calf. We travelled at about 160 kph on average. In the cities, the red sun was now visible through a haze of fog and the outdoor air temperature moved into the 30s centigrade. We crossed the great Yangzte River, proper ships on this one, "their St. Lawrence, " said Chris, and had reached Nanjing. After that it began to get dark.

The heat was a shock when we got out of the train and so were the long flights of steps with no escalators working, as Suzhou station's being renovated. Up, down and up again, then down again, but we coped. A gentleman helped me with my heavy little case while Chris was occupied with his two pieces of luggage. The last shock was seeing the queue for taxis round two sides of a square, but the line moved impressively quickly and I successfully used my crib sheet to direct our taxi driver to the hotel. Must stop, am falling asleep at the keyboard.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Wedding!

I can hardly believe it, am in Beijing and my blog access is suddenly working! For the first week here I have been trying to do this without success.

Here's the email I sent to some of our friends and relations last night:

">Our son got married in China, today. It was a happy, noisy day. The volume of noise is a measure of happiness here. Fireworks exploded as we arrived at Sha's parents' home this morning, alerting all the neighbours and passers by, more fireworks spewing confetti as well as gunpowder smoke as our convoy of red cars arrived at the restaurant (a sort of indoor tropical garden with water features and several separate eating areas) and a clash of cymbals as the "lions" and accompanying acrobat began to dance outside the front door. The Master of Ceremonies yelled at the top of his voice into his microphone, welcoming all the guests, about 100 of us. Once at our tables very loud Chinese music was broadcast through the loud speakers, music that incorporated squeaky birdsong, hard to describe. Later on, we did also hear some background music that George had chosen that sounded less foreign, Saint Saens' "Swan" from the Carnival of the Animals, for instance.

Sha wore three dresses. When we first saw her sitting on the red quilt on her bed, the bed head decorated with Chinese "double happiness" characters, in her flouncy white dress, she looked like a flower. She wore roses in her black hair, too. George was obliged to sing to her, but he didn't get very far; he also had to go down on one knee to her. That much we could follow, but when it came to shooting the three arrows, stepping over the bowl of "fire" and the horse's saddle, we were less sure of what it all meant. By this point, George had changed out of his smart suit and was wearing a sumptuous robe decorated with dragons, and an elaborate headdress. Sha was likewise dressed in traditional wedding clothes, with a heavy crown on her head, this covered with a red cloth, so that she couldn't see out. Later in the ceremony, on the dias, George was presented with a ceremonial stick, with which to lift the veil. In the old days, this would have been the first time the young husband saw his wife's face. Chris and I and Sha's parents watched the procedure from our four thrones, two on either side of a table decorated with red flowers, apples and nuts. Also on the table were a pair of candles, which the two fathers lit, and a bowl of sand in which to place the bunch of incense sticks, which it was my job to light. Every new phase of the ceremony was introduced and commented upon by the MC with the very loud voice, shouting into his microphone. He and the best man (George's colleague Xiao Peng) were also dressed in traditional, colourful robes. Xiao Peng was a very necessary member of the wedding party, prompting George in what to do, how many times to bow to the heavens, to the guests and to the families. George had to offer tea to Sha's parents, calling them Baba he Mama for the first time (into the microphone, of course). When Sha's turn came, she offered us tea as well, from cups with lids, likewise calling us Dad and Mum for the first time. As she did so, we handed her a red envelope containing a financial gift, a cheque in pounds stirling rather than Renminbi, but nobody except us knew that. Much applause. The young couple (xiao liang kou, little two-mouth), after bowing profusely to one another, had to feed each other a dumpling with their chopsticks and drink one another's health from spoons held out from linked, crossed arms. Suddenly it was my turn to enter the spotlight and give my speech. I was pushed to the front of the dias and handed the microphone as I began to read from my prepared notes in Chinese. Lucky that I'd printed the speech in a large enough font because I'd forgotten to bring my glasses with me. Anyway, people said they understood what I said and were touched by my willingness to give it a go, and that is the main thing. Mr Du, Sha's father, also gave a speech of similar length thanking the guests and the people who had helped to make the big day run smoothly.

The rest feels like a blur now. We had a huge and delicious feast, with so many dishes on the table that they were piled one on top of the other. Coca cola and sprite, spirits, bottles of beer, a teapot and strong spirits in the middle of each table, bowls of nuts decorated with those little Australian koala bears, piles of cigarettes for the guests. Little children, several of them aged between 2 and 4, ran around with balloons, and Chris made friends with them all. One little boy, encouraged by his parents, said "Hello what is your name where you come from?" with great pride. Chris taught the children the word "balloon." Sha's "nainai" (grandmother on her father's side) came up and held our hands and told us we were the mother and father of George. I said that we were very happy to be Sha's parents in law; Sha's aunt repeated my message by shouting the same very loudly into the little old lady's ear, at which she gave us the thumbs-up sign. George's astronomy colleagues from Australia and North America congratulated us in a more conventional fashion, as bemused as we were by the experience of The Chinese Wedding. Sha meanwhile had changed into her third dress of the day, a strapless, bright orange party frock and George was back in his suit, the two of them doing the rounds of the tables, toasting everyone from their little glasses.

Suddenly, about 2 hours after the very precise start of the ceremonies (11:58, because of the lucky numbers in that time of day) the party was over and people rapidly dispersed. It is not the Chinese habit to linger after feasting. A friend of the family offered us a ride back to the hotel while George, Sha and her parents stayed on to say goodbye to the last of the departing guests. Once in our hotel again, Chris and I spent a while relaxing with Rob, Sally and Daniel in our room, then George and Xiao Peng briefly turned up to collect the luggage they'd left here (they also stayed at the hotel last night) and when everyone had gone I fell into a deep sleep, and so did Chris."

 But much of what we experienced has left us lost for words. Tai bang le. It is all very wonderful.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

We're off!

Boarding passes printed, all packed; we're leaving for Beijing today and I'm thinking of Baudelaire!
"...Nous pourrons espérer et crier: En avant!
De même qu'autrefois nous partions pour la Chine,
Les yeux fixés au large et les cheveux au vent ..."

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Good use of Facebook and Skype

After the tornado disaster in the USA a Facebook page has been created to help the people whose homes and possessions have been blown away. The info. page says:
Please post pictures or pictures of other items that were found as debris after the 4/27/2011 tornadoes. Please leave a brief description of how someone can find you if they identify pictures or items that belong to them. My email is if I can assist someone in anyway with returning items.
This person had found a torn photograph in her garden after the storm, which had given her the idea of launching the link-up. The "wall" is full of messages now, offering help or asking for help, and 87,381 people (and counting) "like this" idea.

I discovered that story on the Weather Network, by the way.

People often complain, and I do too, about the needless complexity and other miseries, but the positive side of modern technology shouldn't be forgotten. Skype and other Internet connexions are a real boon for me at the moment. Not only am I able to research and be able to imagine the details of our movements around China without moving from my desk at home, but am also able to discuss our plans "live" with our son and daughter-in-law while they wait for our arrival in Beijing. The language on Chinese websites is more of a barrier, of course, than our access to them. Meanwhile, I also catch glimpses of our newborn grandson as he gazes up at his mother to learn the expressions on her face. He even turns his head in the direction of the computer screen when he hears my voice speaking from Canada. That, I think, is wonderful. Without Skype, I'd have missed witnessing this first stage of his life altogether.