Sandi Toksvig

You can listen to Sandi Toksvig every weekday from midday on London's LBC 97.3FM on SKY Channel 927 and on the web at or download Podcasts at ITunes (Now one of the UK's top Podcasts)

Friday, November 25, 2005

Heidi goes to China Town

My Dearest Darling Sandi,

Instead of sending quaint stories about my family, I figured it was about time I got off my Ming vase and got down to the business of telling you about the back and beyond of modern day China.

I live in Qinzhou City, Quangxi Provence, China. This is a city of some 2 million people, slightly northwest of Vietnam and about an hours (perilous) drive north of the Gulf of Tonkin, South China Sea. Qinzhou is certainly not a small town, but in the scheme of things, is certainly not your major hub.

There are very few occidentals here and those that are are, in the main, teachers of English. The Chinese are very curious by nature and think nothing of walking up to your front door and having a good old look around. When I say very few occidentals, I mean running-into-your-house-and-carrying-bed-ridden-granny-out-to-see as you walk by, few. Not many under 16 speak any kind of English and those that do are eager to communicate, but oddly shy in that way.

China is NOISEY. I am told this stands true for the rest of the country, but I can certainly vouch for my little corner of it. Firstly, the people. There is an awful lot of yelling which can be alarming at first, but they usually don't yell at me as I am a foreigner and it is taken as read that I will do stupid things that can't be helped. Sitting on a bus is a rather good example of this though. Foreigners are not allowed to drive between cities and there are numerous other restrictions and expenses which mean taking the bus is the only way to go. At first I wondered why everyone yelled all the time. I have come to the conclusion it is because everywhere is tiled and there is a constant echo. There is very little wood, or fabric to absorb sound and when my daughters were here we were constantly asking each other to repeat things because we simply could not hear properly. Grow up in a world like this and of course you will think nothing of all the yelling. To a person used to soft furnishings and carpets it can be a little wearing. Along with the yelling is the television at full volume and music as loud as it will tweek.

Right now, outside my window is a group of "ladies dancing" as I call them. They meet every evening at 8pm in the disused covered market (and in the summer on the roof of the disused market). This apparently happens all over the city and all over China for all I know. They learn set pieces and dance to the same music night after night. The music is very loud and often I need to grab the head phones if I hope to hear your programme.

In my street and often in the building are chickens. More to the point cockerels. It really does not seem to be an issue for people to have a rooster ten feet from your bed sounding off anywhere for 2:30am. I actually don't have a front door to my apartment. It is a gate with a piece of cloth tied over it for privacy. Doesn't stop people stopping on the stairs and peeking through the gaps. And it Certainly does not stop the sounds (smells is a whole different e-mail) coming through. I have become used to the sounds of my building and really only notice the clanging of the scaffolding most of the time.

Directly across the street from me is a scaffolding yard. This usually gets going about 8am but has been known to start up at 6am if there is a scaffolding emergency. There is much throwing about of poles, on and off trucks and the occasional crane, for interest.

The roads are full of honking and beeping. Again, at first I thought this strange and more than a little rude, but I have come to realize this is a warning to other road users .."I am here" kind of thing rather than a get-out-of-my-way nudge. But a city full of scooters, motorbikes, bicycles and cars all warning each other they are there can make an awful din. There are also the people that travel the streets and alleys making noise for specific reasons. A type of Rag and Bone person will make jangling noises with a kind of bell like drum. One is supposed to sell or give then empty glass bottles, plastic bottles or cardboard. There must be a dozen or more that go past my balcony every day. There are also the rolling billboards. A person on a bicycle will ride up and down all the streets in the neighbourhood with some recorded political slogan playing through a megaphone over and over, like "don't forget to save your cardboard" or "remember to turn your gas off". Very few vendors actually do the streets and the only one to make a noise is the fresh rolls bikes. They have a recorded megaphone that calls out "MINE TOE ....MINE TOE LINE MOE" over and over.

As I said at the beginning, I wanted to begin doing what I said I would rather than regail you will my family tales, but you comments about Mongolia have made me want to tell you about my dad. (His funeral was the last time I saw Mikki Bate with whom I was reunited on your programme). My Dad William C. Penttila was the first and as far as I know only foreigner to be awarded the Polar Star, Mongolia's highest honour for his services to them. He was friend to the first democratically elected President and was equally=20at home eating some boiled mutton and drinking fermented mare's milk in a yurt. He married a very nice Mongolian lady. There you have it my anecdote of the day. There is loads more to tell about this surprising country. Let me know if you are sick of the sight of my e-mails and I will calm down a bit, but as I am a writer..e-mails are a great source of procrastination for me.

Best of Everything to you,
Heidi Penttila


  • At 12:48 PM, Blogger sarah said…

    Heidi, I've been looking for you. If you want to email: (It's me Sarah Audsley)


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