Aelfthryth Gittings 1939-2012

China and Tibet

SCPR 1978-2000


After retiring from SCPR, Aelfthryth joined John to set up the new Guardian office in Shanghai (2001-03). She taught business English at Jiaotong University, volunteered at the Shanghai Children's Orphanage, and travelled with me frequently, watching out for the police when I was not supposed to be "news gathering" in a particular place. These included the birthplace of the Dalai Lama at Taktser, Qinghai province (2003). Previously, Aelfthryth had stayed in Beijing in summer 1987, visited the Li River and Guilin (1993), Tibet (1994, we returned in 2002), Xi'an and Yan'an (1997) and the Three Gorges (1998).

FieldLink, June 2001 (National Centre for Social Research)

I little thought when I retired last August that 6 months later I would be teaching "Business English" to MBA students at Shanghai Jiaotong University. I have a class of 44 students - and I used to grumble that training courses of 15 were too large. The students, who all have responsible positions in business and industry, are a pleasure to teach and keen to improve their English, though it is already very good. It has been a learning experience; we have a textbook of business case studies and my "Business English" stays one jump ahead. Though my experience of training at the National Centre helped get the job what counted most is not just being a native speaker, but speaking British English.

Attempting to learn Chinese is not nearly so pleasurable - it must be one of the world's most difficult languages. Not only are there characters which have to be individually learnt instead of a written alphabet, and tones which mean that the same word can have several different meanings depending on the tone, but the grammatical concepts are very strange to people used to European languages. I found it difficult to come to terms with a language that has no words for yes and no, verbs that do not change for past and future tenses and no difference between singular and plural nouns. All this means that even when you have learnt some vocabulary and struggled to master the tones, sentence construction is still very difficult. But I am struggling on with it - going to classes twice a week and hoping that it will slowly become easier.
We have moved into a lane in the French concession - the area that gave Shanghai the name ''Paris of the East" in the 1930s. It's a house with style - tall ceilings and long narrow windows, with touches of art nouveau in the detail. Sitting on the veranda seems a world away from the bustle and dust of China - and then you look behind to see more and more tower blocks rising as the new Shanghai reaches towards its goal of being the financial capital of Asia. The lane is full of activity: in the morning pensioners do their tai chi exercises with musical accompaniment outside our bedroom window. And all day long there are hand bells ringing. Some are hawkers selling lychees, chickens feet or other delicacies the exact nature of which I shall not know till my Chinese has progressed rather further - though I am relieved that in the year of the snake it is not considered good form to eat snake. Other bell ringers are collecting cardboard and scrap that can be sold and recycled and we have been told that one of the morning bells tells you it is time to open your windows and there is another in the evening when it is time to close them.
There are about 1,500 members of the British Community in Shanghai and an active social life centred round an Irish pub called O'Malleys and a club which holds regular coffee mornings - a great help with practical information about things like shopping and water delivery while settling in. They also organise voluntary work at the local orphanage and I have just started helping there one day a week - a great incentive to try and improve my spoken Chinese. However I hope before too long, through the students and teachers at the University, to have a social life which breaks free of the expatriate mould.
The National Centre still feels very close. I keep its website as the home page on my computer and thanks to e-mail I can correspond speedily with former colleagues and old friends, but it is particularly good to see a few on my visits back home.






1994: Sera Monastery, Lhasa

2002: View of Potala from the Jokhang, with pilgrims crossing the square.

2001: |Shanghai Children's Orphanage

2001: Wuzhen canal village, opera stage

20003: No. 8, 1006 Huashan Road, Shanghai

2003: Shanghai synagogue, former Jewish quarter

2001: Panda snoozing at Wolong

2000: The Great Wall at Simaitai

Visits to Tibet 

2002: Jokhang, Lhasa

2003: Dalai Lama's birthplace, with his nephew, Taktser, Qinghai