AS A STUDENT of Mandarin at Beijing’s Tsinghua University in 1999, I made almost monthly visits to the home of a retired academic, who would arrange the purchase of books for my university’s library. Visits with Mrs Liang and her husband were always occasioned by pangs of fear; fear that I might mangle my Mandarin or find myself sitting in awkward silence, unaware they were awaiting a reply to a question they’d asked. These visits were lessons for me not only in modern standard Mandarin but in modern Chinese etiquette.
My health and weight would be scrutinised by the pleasantly plump Liang and a seafood dinner would be promised. “You have wonderful seafood in Australia,” she allowed. “But you don’t know how to cook it. You wash it and wash it and wash it until there is no more flavour.” Meanwhile, bowls of individually wrapped snacks would be pushed my way while I’d freeze under the arctic blast of their Fujitsu wall unit and slide off the plastic-covered leather chairs. Liang’s home was, by Western standards, a humble flat. But it was very comfortable and well appointed and Liang was clearly proud of all it represented about herself, her family and what was available in China today. She was an ambassador extraordinaire for the gaige kaifang (reform and opening up) period, launched by Deng Xiaoping in the wake of the Cultural Revolution.
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