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Lights On And Bell Rings

Four weeks after arriving in Shenzhen, I just about got the hang my subway journey to work. Just as I had to leave.

It wasn't so much that it was complicated - it wasn't; but it did involve a change of lines, and what made it seem tricky to me, was the counter-intuitive nature of the layout: each change involved going round and back on yourself, up or down escalators, sometimes even going to a different level for the same line. I found this particularly challenging when I went to Hong Kong for the weekend last week: my lovely interpreter patiently drew a coloured map for me, marking each change in a different pen to match the relevant line, and with the name of each station in both English and Chinese. Not that I can read Chinese of course; but just so that in the all too likely event that I got lost, then I could brandish the instructions at someone and hope for salvation.

I managed the trip fine - you can go by high speed train from Shenzhen to Hong Kong; but for reasons of needing to pre-book the trip, which I hadn't done, I opted for the four-change metro journey. It's a strange business going across the border, because you have to fill out departure cards and arrival cards both ways on both sides, which means that it takes a long time. Coming back into China, you have to brandish your visa (of course) and also your fingerprints and thumbprints for both hands. I became quietly and inwardly hysterical when my prints wouldn't do their stuff as I tried to effect re-entry into China last Sunday. What seemed like hours of border control officers barking orders at me (which of course I couldn't understand) ensued, and then one particularly officious chap produced antibacterial fluid for me to clean my hands with. Happily this worked; but the sweat quotient went up by about four litres during this time, and I could sense the irritation of those stuck in the queue behind me. A queue marked 'Foreigners' in large letters, just so everyone would know exactly who the incompetent fingerprinters were.

It was fascinating to get out of China and into Hong Kong for the weekend, because it reminded me powerfully of the differences between the two places: as the local representative who hosted me in Shenzhen pointed out, China is still a developing country, and Hong Kong isn't. It's evident in the fact that Hong Kong is multi-cultural, whereas China isn't; and it's also clear in the different language capabilities in the two places. I'm told that you don't have to go far in Hong Kong to be out of the English speaking remit; but in Shenzhen, you have to try really hard to find English spoken at all in shops or local businesses.

The whole matter of translation remained an issue for me right to the end of my stay: the sign on the metro saying 'Watch Out For Pinching' could mean anything really; and I'm unclear why there is a sign saying 'Lights On And Bell Rings' - ambiguous to say the least..does this reaction occur spontaneously after some particularly amusing event on the metro? Or is it like some Russian Roulette thing, whereby you are alerted to the next move in some strange game by lights and bells?

The biscuit called 'Lactobacillus Sandwich Crackers' somehow never appealed to me; and in a why it revealed the whole problem in a nutshell: transliteration, rather than translation, is where it all goes wrong. And being literal, rather than finding a linguistic 'mirror', is what the Chinese seem to do. It's rather like down the list of ingredients on the back of a packet of crisps and calling the crisps 'E 36 Crisps'. There are also the unfortunate but unintended word follies; Dungg Biscuits for example; which turned out to be delicious by the way, for those brave enough to try them.

In case it sounds as though I'm being patronising about all this, it's worth pointing out that I'm totally aware of the fact that I have no capacity to speak Mandarin or Cantonese myself; and even looking at the complexity of the written characters makes me feel inadequate. At the rate China is developing, we may all have to learn the language pretty soon...

My last few days of work much the same as the first three weeks had been; but the subtle change in mentality on a tour like this, is that you start to disengage from your surroundings in the final days: the Christmas carols at breakfast, the mislabelled breakfast foods - I nearly died of shock the first time I opened the porridge dish: it was a steaming black, malodorous mess...but of course the label for 'Korean Black Bean Curd Soup' had been put in front of the porridge, and vice versa. I'm not even going to consider why anyone would want bean soup at breakfast, but having seen it, I won't be trying in the near future.

I was no longer hugely amused at being asked if I wanted 'edible ice' in my drinks; rather, concerned as to when I might inadvertently consume inedible ice.

My journey home was not without incident: that border thing again, only this time getting to Hong Kong airport via ferry from Shenzhen: for reasons I'm not clear about, the ferry authorities changed the ferry departure gate four times, which involved two floor changes and several miles of corridors. No English announcements, so the only reason I knew what was happening was because a Good Samaritan who did speak English, came up to tell me that I was about to be marooned in Shekou port unless I followed him. He was a passenger, not an official, but had clearly realised that I had no idea what was happening. Initially, this seemed like a lovely gesture, but when we got on the boat, he offered me a mint. I took it gratefully; and he then asked if I knew that eating mint is associated with priapism in men.

Our friendship was short-lived.

Back home now, and already feeling as though I've never been away. China is challenging, and the very unfamiliar social norms do make me perplexed at times - the very frank way in which people will ask you things, or, tell you things: 'you are a beautiful lady in a bohemian way', being one example of a proffered comment. This, apart from being pretty remarkable linguistically, surprised me by its candour. Or, being told in detail about someone's medical conditions, when you have known them for all of ten minutes, can be very disconcerting.

However, the warmth and friendliness of the people I worked with was utterly beguiling, and the children I met daily were mostly enchanting - who could possibly fail to be captivated by a child in a frothing lace and net dress, or a mini tail coat, bowing to the floor and intoning 'good morning professor/teacher/madam/sir...' - I've had all four. It will be quite a shock to go back to my teaching next week and be greeted with the usual grunts and gurgles of the adolescent cellist. There were a couple of little horrors - some of the children clearly had a distorted view that they might acquire more marks if they answered me in English; so they would cut across the interpreter in a manner that relegated her to the position of servant. I became expert at insisting that they should observe politeness and protocol by addressing their comments to the interpreter first. I did this by employing the method christened by my children when they were small as 'cross mummy face'. It seemed to work better in China than it did in Tonbridge...

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