Monday, 1 July 2013

Developing Cultural Understanding: Portsmouth and Ping Xiang

by Louise Wilson

What images are evoked when you think of China?

  For me these formed a confusing kaleidoscope. I envisaged the bicycles, terrible grey poverty and paddy fields of China following the bookless (apart from works by Chairman Mao) cultural revolution of the 1970s, contrasting with the vibrant and cosmopolitan city of Hong Kong where I lived 30 years ago, when that pearl was still a British territory, secured from the Qing dynasty in China for over 150 years, as a trophy from the Opium Wars. I could still smell the rich odours of Cantonese food and see squirming live eels, chopped and dished out to shoppers on the street, great mounds of ‘thousand year old’ raw eggs preserved in soil and slimy sea cucumbers served up – all too exotic for my twelve year old taste buds.
I imagined Chinese cities of choking pollution, with masked pedestrians bustling along packed roads of every vehicle, except bicycles, rushing to work in factories, built to serve a now-ailing Western economy while the People’s Republic of China booms (for the time being) on plentiful minerals, cheap labour and limited health and safety restrictions.
I have just returned from a week in the city of Ping Xiang, in southern China, bringing home an agreement between PGS and Ping Xiang Middle School (for 15-18 year-olds) to develop a mutual understanding of British and Chinese cultures. PGS may host one or two students from Ping Xiang in our Sixth Form; we hope to have a pupil exchange programme and benefit from a teacher from Ping Xiang working at PGS for a short time.
Our ‘sister’ agreement was met with great excitement in the Middle School – hundreds of fire crackers were let off in a 15-minute explosion of sound that had me and my Chinese counterpart cowering in the security guard’s office and then emerging to a sea of red paper, smouldering and burning at the entrance to the school.
Should we feel the same degree of excitement for our side of the deal? Absolutely. Those members of PGS who are fortunate to visit Ping Xiang in future will have a life-changing experience. You will visit a thriving city of 2 million people, living in high-rise apartment blocks in family units of three generations, each conforming to the government’s one-child policy.  It is a place of rampant consumerism nestling under towering monuments to the Republic’s revered former communist leader, Chairman Mao.

Coal-fired power stations and tiny businesses produce everything the capitalist world thinks it needs, with little thought for health or safety; however, the level of air pollution feels nowhere approaching that of London. The people are relaxed and friendly – particularly to Westerners, and mine was the only Western face I saw in a week. Your hosts will do everything to make you feel welcome and enjoy your stay, and want to learn everything about your home.
In a region two thirds the size of the UK, there is much to see outside Ping Xiang. This is a lush, semi-tropical area, with lotus flower meadows, freshwater and thermal springs, paddy fields, orchards of Chinese strawberries and mangosteen fruit and steep, bamboo-covered hills and mountains.
Good use is made of the fertile land to make delicious dishes. Meals always include chilli but there are also gentle flavours from soups made with hibiscus or day lily and lots of green vegetables. My tastebuds have become much less risk-averse since my childhood in Hong Kong and I enjoyed nearly everything that was offered. I re-encountered black, preserved eggs and avoided those. I also declined duck’s tongues, served on the bone.

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