Well, as I said in the last post, last week was a very busy Christmas weekend. It was a late lie-in and a gentle stroll compared to this weeks round of hectic socialising. One thing that is clear about living in China is that Chinese hospitality is very hard to refuse. People invite you to things, expect the answer to always be "yes" and insist on paying for virtually everything.
Let's start at the beginning and take the New Year weekend in order.
I had to teach on Friday but it was my normal Friday schedule of two lessons of forty five minutes each in the afternoon so it wasn't exactly an onerous task. The classes were a bit of a nightmare. It was their final lesson before two weeks of exams followed by the long spring break and they were not in the mood for learning. They were uncooperative, misbehaved and noisy. Nevertheless it was only for ninety minutes so I got through it, albeit in a frustrated fashion.
It was in the evening when the social whirl started.
Jane, our administrator is responsible for schools in the city of Baiyin itself. She has a counterpart – Jane Li – who is responsible for other schools in the district of Baiyin. We have recently met her and taught some demonstration lessons for her and helped set up some primary school exams and she had asked Mike and I to dinner with her and her teenaged niece to say thank you. She took us off to a very nice restaurant and we had an excellent meal (even if the rendered gelatinous pork fat was pretty horrible.) and a couple of beers. She was a good hostess, quizzing us – me in particular because of my greater teaching experience – about western teaching methods and how we thought they could improve the Chinese teaching methods and exam regimes. Her niece, though understandably shy in the presence of three teachers (one of whom was her aunt) tried valiantly to practice her English and the meal was a great success.
As we were about to leave Jane Li reminded us that tomorrow we were going to a wedding. She would pick us up at about ten for a long drive into the countryside to the village where the wedding was happening.
She was as good as her word and at ten O'clock we were heading off to a village somewhere in the hills that surround the city. At this time of year the drive is fairly bleak – through a dry and barren-looking series of hills along a twisting highway. We passed through a number of villages but anyone who has in mind a quaint English village or perhaps a small rural American community will be thinking along the wrong lines.
These rural Chinese village serve the same function in that they are agricultural centres for the province but they bear no physical resemblance. They are clusters of brick and concrete buildings, squat low and ugly. When I think of a village I think of quaint thatched roofs, black and white exterior walls, perhaps a pleasant village pub, a green with a pond and ducks. These "villages" were none of that. They looked very unpleasant places to live.
The village that we eventually arrived at was a little larger – small town sized – with a school and shops and businesses as well as the agricultural trappings. We turned off the dusty main street into a narrow side road where the bride's house was and it was pretty obvious which one we heading to as, at our approach, a stream of loud bangs and bright flashes from a roll of firecrackers, went off.
The house was a series of single storey buildings. In front of it was a large stack of bamboo poles leaning against one of the walls and a yard full of scaffolding. In between them the party was going on. There were dozens of people standing around or sitting at the round tables that had been set up. Children, in clothes considerably brighter than the warm overcoats most adults wore, dodged between their legs, running around and playing. The cooks, a group of women under a tent that looked as if it should have come out of an episode of M*A*S*H shooed them repeatedly away from the cauldrons of bubbling liquid.
We were greeted by Amanda, the bride-to-be and her brother James and ushered into a room where a dozen or so men sat around smoking and drinking baijo. The bride was an English teacher and so there were other English teachers among the guests for us to speak to. None of them spoke English as well as James who sat talking with us. I couldn't really stand the smoky atmosphere so I went back outside.
James and Mike followed and we were quickly asked to sit down at one of the tables with other guests where we were served bowls of pork noodles. Before either of us had finished we were being asked to take a second bowl. Apparently it is not uncommon to finish off four bowls at a sitting. James picked up one of the many extra bowls from the table and poured it into my half empty one. It was, he explained, bad luck to change your bowl as it means a change in your fortunes and specifically, at a wedding, means a change of wife.
When I had eaten to the hosts satisfaction I was allowed to leave the table with another of the guests taking my place immediately.
Today wasn't, in fact, the wedding. It was a pre-wedding feast for the villagers and the brides friends. Looking around I went into another room. This was where most of the brides friends, the other female English teachers, were gathered. Being an all female gathering no one was smoking so I decided to stay and chat there. Chinese apartments often do not distinguish between living room and bedroom and this was no exception. The small room was furnished as both. I sat on the edge of the bed and looked through the wedding album. This was also typical of what many couples in China do. They have very elaborate wedding albums created with photography in many different places before the wedding takes place. Here there were two albums with posed photographs in impressive buildings, walking in the woods or on the beach, or in the photographer's studio. It would be damning with faint praise to say that they were professional standard. They were easily of gallery standard.
The teachers were all eager to practice their English with us and it was almost an hour later when Jane Li announced unexpectedly that we could have a trip out to the island. The three of us, along with another teacher and James, drove off to take a look.
It was the island that we visited once before but now there was no building work going on and no people around and it was extremely peaceful.
The river between the island and the shore was frozen and the oil-drum bridge caused the ice to creak and crack as we crossed.
We walked across to the other shore where the edge of the water was frozen in among the pebbles and stones of the beach. It was a beautiful sunny day, cold and crisp but perfect for a walk. Even here in the country the pollution haze was visible though, turning the opposite shore into a blurred shimmer instead of a crisp line.
We walked around, rested in the tranquility and then went back to the wedding where we arrived just in time for the main meal – the noodles having served merely as a traditional appetiser.
This time there were many different dishes, steamed and boiled vegetables, fish, noodles, duck, mutton. The table was soon covered and everyone was tucking in, reaching across with chopsticks to grab whatever food appealed and taking it straight from the dishes to their mouths without an intervening plate. A boiled chicken was brought out in a tureen full of thin chicken soup. A plate piled high with a mound of sweet sticky rice and fruit came next.
Conversation was lively and animated. Beer and baijo flowed in mind boggling quantities. The bride and groom made a circuit of all the guests with a tray on which two small cups stood. At each guest they were filled with baijo and the guest drank both to symbolise the union.
The party was clearly set to continue for much longer but we had to go. We had another event to attend in the evening (and by the evening I mean starting at four O'clock) the teachers' end of term/New Year's Eve party. Reluctantly we climbed back into the car and headed back to the city.