Tiananmen reflections

I recently asked a Chinese man what the biggest change he has seen in Beijing over the past twenty years in Beijing. This was a kind and gentle man who is soft-spoken, one of those people who has kind eyes. To be honest, before he answered I was expecting him to say one of the following things because I think it’s what I would say if I had lived here for long.

The destruction of the hutongs

The destruction of modern values

more foreigners

more KFC

more traffic

more people

less family time

more international products

more movie theatres

But he replied with, “people smile more.”

This man arrived Beijing in 1988 to attend university. Beijing was the biggest city he had been to and at that time he said it really felt like China’s version of a “college town.” At the time, every student wanted to come to Beijing for university and students were everywhere around the city.

While it was an exciting time for him, he also said it was a tumultuous one as well. He told me that many of his fellow classmates were angry with the government and Beijing was becoming a hotbed for political unrest. Students felt cheated by communism  and were starting to questions communism and its merits.

He said, “I remember being near Tiananmen Square and hearing big tanks rolling into the square. They were everywhere and I was so scared. I wasn’t one of the brave ones that stayed that day, I left and went back to my dorm.”

He was referring to the day that is known around the world as the, Tiananmen Massacre. I honestly am getting chills just writing about it right now because I’m living in the very city where this happened right before I was born a city that looks so different from it did that day. He reflected on the fact that he easily could have been one of those unarmed protestors who were killed but he decided to return to his dorm once he heard the tanks rolling in.

I was truly shocked that he opened up to me about this topic, I would expect some of my younger Chinese friends to be OK discussing this event, but not someone who was in the midst of it all.

He described it as a time when “nobody knew what was true and what wasn’t.” We will never really know how many people died that day.”

He sat there for a minute, half smiling and we were both silent for a split second, but then his face changed into a large grin and he said “but now, it’s amazing! Everyone is smiling.”

Humans are awesome.

China is in a constant state of preservation vs. destruction.The Tiannamen massacre happened because people were wanting change in their government, they wanted a democratic movement. The government fought to preserve its communist values. Now, we see a China that is still communist, but with so many democratic and free-world undertones.  Five star hotels sit next to 500 hundred year old alley ways. Women who are fiercely convinced that hot water is the only temperature of water to drink, talk about their new iPhones. Men and women who experienced the ups and downs of Chairman Mao’s rule, now buy organic food online. I hope you see what I’m getting at.

Now, I know all the above information isn’t unique to China. We see this phenomenon in every corner of the world. However, what makes China so unique is that for thousands of years, this country was fiercely private and valued itself on tradition. It isn’t uncommon to be walking around some hutongs and have elderly men or women tell you that wearing open toed shoes is unhealthy for your body’s “chi”.

It was only in the last one hundred years that common people, and not royalty,  were allowed to eat Peking duck.

The man went on to say, “although so much has changed in Beijing, people are happier than they were before. I’m happier than I was before and I’m happy about that.”

China has experienced the most rapid economic growth than any other country in the history of the world. It’s easy to be overwhelmed with so many changes but I think that getting back to the core of the little things like smiling, is what is really important. While there will continue to be a battle between preservation and destruction in China, at least people are smiling more than ever before.

 

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Chinese put into practice

Straight after my Chinese class with Meng Loashi (Teacher Mang), I headed to the gym just around the corner from my school. Today was a swimming laps kind of day so I suited up and walked up stairs to the lap pool. All four lanes were taken by people and there was a group of middle-aged Chinese women gathered in one corner of the pool taking a break from their laps and talking with each other. I knelt down next to the women and said, “Dui Buqi, Keyi jinlai ma?” Which means: “Excuse me, can I please come in?” I was hoping my meaning would come across as ” Do you mind if i share the swimming lane with you?”The five middle-aged women looked at me in shock and said ,“ Jenda! Ni de Chongwen hen hao!” Which means: “ Wow! Your Chinese is good.” I thanked them profusely and then started to get into the pool. However, all the women began to playfully tell me that i needed a swim cap to get into the pool. I could see in their faces that they thought it  was preposterous that I would get into the pool without a swim cap.

So I asked the pool attendant if I could borrow one and they giggled with each other as I was getting my swim cap. Then upon entering the pool, all of the women surrounded me and began to ask me many questions.

Ni shi na guo ren?”- Which country are you from?”

Ni de gongzuo shi shen me”– What do you do?”

Ni ji sui?”- How old are you?

Ni de jia zai nar?”- Where is your home?”

And the list goes on. I answered all of these questions and they increasingly felt more comfortable with me and they kept telling me how good my Chinese was. So there we all were, five middle-aged Chinese women  in white swim caps plus once waigguoren(foreign person).We were laughing and smiling and I felt as if I had known these women for a long time. After fifteen minutes or so we said our goodbyes because we all had to get back to that exercise thing.

I swear for the next thirty minutes of swimming, I had a huge smile on my face. It was so incredibly gratifying to take everything I have learned in the classroom and put it into practice. It’s always been a joy for me to connect and understand the people I’m around, wherever i am in the world. However, the true understanding is experienced after learning another language because learning a language is learning a culture. So maybe the ladies thought I was crazy for not wearing a swim cap. They might not even like America or Americans. The elderly women in my apartment  may look at me like i’m crazy for wearing a short sleeve t-shirt when it’s 70 degrees outside. Some people may not like that foreigners are living in their apartment building. But there is no denying that once a foreigner opens their mouth and starts speaking in their native language, the mood shifts to one of appreciation from the native speaker.

I constantly read articles and books discussing Chinese culture and to be honest, four or five months ago ,I felt that i had a very broad understanding of Chinese culture. However, seriously studying the  language has helped me better understand why Chinese culture is the way it is on a whole’nother level and it  has given me more insight into how Chinese people express themselves.

The more I study, the more I want to learn! and I’m grateful for the insatiable craving to learn.

 

The most hated organization in China

“They are the most hated organization in China.”- A quote from my Chinese manager. 

 You would think I was talking about the government.

 There is rumor that every hour a new movie theatre is being built in China. And I can see why. Movies are a great way to find common ground among Chinese people. Going to movies is still part of the everyday dating scene. It is still a popular pastime for about every Chinese person I’ve talked too. While it’s arguable that the movie going experience is dying elsewhere in the world, it is still alive and kicking over here in China.

 While there is an insatiable craving for films among the Chinese population, there is still a scarce amount of films being shown in the theatres. There is a large Chinese committee that has control over all of the screenings that are allowed to be shown in China. And while there are several of American movies that come to China throughout the year, there aren’t as many as you would think. This has caused quite a stink among the Chinese community who are demanding  more international films.  If there is an obvious demand for movies, why can only a few are shown?

 Let me paint a picture for you. Everyone knows the American film “Independence Day”. This film is full of action, drama and aliens. It sounds perfect for a Chinese audience. However, there is one scene in which the President gives a speech and says the following:

 And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the world declared in one voice: “We will not go quietly into the night!” We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day!”

It seems that this speech was a big no-no in the eyes of the movie screening committee. Too many political undertones for Chinese history. This organization has gone on to strictly regulate any other films that could be “dangerous” for the mass population because they wouldn’t want a movie giving the average person the wrong idea. While China is increasingly becoming more involved in the world stage, organizations are balancing the demand for more information from its population while at the same time remaining in power.

So this movie was banned with China along with many others that have come out over the years. However, in recent years, as technology has improved, many films have been edited with edited with scenes taken out but the film is still shown in theatres.

So ladies and gentleman, if you’re visiting China in the near future, I can go ahead and tell you that your options will be “The Hobbit” or “The Chinese Monkey King.”

Now, don’t let this information make you think that you can’t pop down to Yashow Market in Sanlitun to buy your copy of Independence Day, but the sales of these copies are technically illegal in China. However,  one day the counterfeit movie store where I buy my DVD’s will be open and the next day it’s closed for “renovation.”

The Schooler’s surprise visit to Zhongguo

To say that I was surprised when I saw my parents in China is an understatement. As I’m writing this, I still can’t believe they managed to pull such a surprise off! I will try to quickly recount everything leading up the surprise.

About a month before my birthday, my parents informed me that they had graciously planned a weekend getaway celebration for us. Billy and my parents were aware of the destination but I was not. I was so anxious as to where we were going! About a week before my birthday, Billy told me that a couple of nights before my birthday we were going to briefly have drinks with  one of his extended family members who was traveling through China. His name was “Randy” and he was an elderly man with a long white beard.

Two days before we were supposed to leave for our trip, we headed to the hotel where we were to meet this “Randy.” Billy informed me that his flight was running late so we were going to have to wait a few minutes. After an hour of waiting I started to get sleepy and after two hours told Billy that it was getting late and we had work tomorrow. My chair was facing the front entrance of the hotel and Billy told me to switch seats with him so Randy wouldn’t see me looking so sleepy. Just when I  was about to throw in the towel and go home, Billy said “oh Randy is here!” so I stood up, brushed myself off and turned around to face the front lobby.

There before me was my mother, brother and father all beaming and laughing. I truly couldn’t process what was happening. I hugged them in disbelief and couldn’t take my hand away from my mouth. They laughed hysterically as I continued to remain speechless. After a couple of minutes I finally embraced them and told them how shocked and surprised I was!

I don’t want this post to be a novel so I will cut to the chase and tell you that my parents planned for us to travel to Shanghai and Hangzhou for four days!

The day after next, we hopped on the fast train to Shanghai. Apparently, this train is one of the fastest in the world and it only took us five hours to get there! Also, traveling by train will always be my favorite form of transportation because there is so much to see out of the window! Please check out Sam relaxing on the train.

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One of the most eye-opening aspects of the train ride was  seeing just how much new construction is happening in China. Although this phenomenon is visible in Beijing, never had I experienced it on this level.  My dad was astonished to see crane after crane as we chugged down to the South of China. We were later informed that more than half of the world’s cranes are in China. Woah.

Upon arrival in Shanghai, we went antiquing. Which, if you know my family, is customary for any Schooler vacation. It was so much fun to explore the markets with my family! My mom found some stellar items such as this one below:

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When we checked into the hotel, there was a lovely cheesecake waiting for me and a personalized birthday card! It was so wonderful. We all had the cheesecake for breakfast the next morning!

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Everyone should have cake for breakfast on their birthday

We had drinks in our hotel and the view was spectacular. I think one of the most incredible aspects of Shanghai is the incredible view you get from both side of the water. We also went to an incredible restaurant called T8 and had a one of the most spectacular dinners I’ve ever had!  Being treated to Fois Gras and Good Wine in China is pure happiness.

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The next day we explored the Bund and went to the old part of Shanghai where we enjoyed traditional southern Chinese architecture and walked around some gardens.

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We then hopped on the train again and headed to Hangzhou. Hangzhou is a city about an hour from Shanghai and it is famed for it’s incredible West Lake. Our hotel was a ways from the city center and built-in traditional Southern Chinese architecture which is characterized by white walls and clay roofs. The rooms were elegant and had a Chinese flair to them. I immediately felt relaxed after walking in.  It was such a nice contrast to the pace of Shanghai and Beijing! I spent my birthday evening lounging and reading in my robe and i couldn’t have asked for a more delightful way to spend it!

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Obviously Sam found his robe

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The next day we took a tour of some ancient medicine shops in the old part of Hangzhou and then visited some of the traditional buildings as well. In the afternoon a guide took us to see some more contemporary architecture at one of the most famous art university’s in China. The whole University was a piece of art in itself! Our guide was an expert on Chinese architecture and it was really interesting to hear how there is a huge push to move away from the uniform, replica like, mega structures around China and more towards a unique Chinese modernity.

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We were starving by lunch time and feasted on a traditional Chinese meal by a tea field and afterwards we spent a few minutes meandering through the tea fields.

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That evening we were planning to go to the night market but we were all so tired that we decided lounging by the indoor pool was better! We rounded out the evening with a traditional Chinese dinner which included Peking duck and a few other traditional Chinese dishes.

The next morning we headed back to Beijing and it was wonderful recounting all the wonderful things we experienced that last few days.My parents spent a few more days in Beijing and I was lucky enough to spend every waking minute that I wans’t working, with them.

Their visit was really special particularly because I wasn’t expecting my parents being able to see my life in China. I had hoped and prayed that they would be able to get a taste of what I’ve been experiencing the past six months!  Parents truly are the most wonderful people in the world!

On Western women dating Chinese men

A few nights ago I went to dinner with one of my students/friends.  After a few appetizers, we broached the topic of foreigners dating in China. My friend leaned in really close, hunched her shoulders and asked me , so “Are you attracted to Chinese men?”

This was a tough question. I interact with Chinese men and women everyday and have really gotten to know some incredible people over the past few months. I know I’m in a bit of a different situation because I came to China with a boyfriend so my blinders are up to some extent. However, do i find Chinese men attractive as a whole? I don’t know. I don’t think so?  I was silent for a while and before i could respond she said, “My other foreign girlfriends don’t either!”

Any expat living in China is aware of this phenomenon. There is a huge gaping hole of Western women dating Chinese men. But, quite the opposite exists for  Western  men and Chinese women. I heard one of my friends say, “Western men go to China and find wives, while Western women go to China and stay single until they die.”

But, honestly. I haven’t heard/seen any of my friends or collegues dating Chinese men. So what’s the deal? What is attributed to this  phenomenon?

When my friend asked me why I wasn’t attracted to Chinese men I had to put my finger on it. After doing much research and talking to both my Western and Chinese friends, I’ve come to a few conclusions.  Hopefully some of my theories will well-represent some of the thoughts of Western women. However, by no means do these ideas mean they are true or it answers everyone questions.

First, we have to think about media. As we all know, media pervades our subconscious. Let’s think, when has the Asian man gotten the girl in a film? Almost never. As this author states, “Asian men can kick butt, but they can’t have the kiss.” I’ve never watched a film and said “damn, look at that hunky Asian.”However i have said, ” Damn, look at that  caucasian, blonde haired, blue-eyed, tan Ryan Gosling.” However, the reality is quite the opposite for Asian women. They have been eroticized and portrayed as exotic . European and South American men are seen as the object of desire, but rarely an Asian man. Honestly, it’s unfortunate that media has created these stereotypes.

Second, Chinese mothers. Traditionally, Chinese men look to their mothers for guidance on everything. I am speaking from the opinion of one of my current Chinese colleagues and good friends. She said that due to the one child policy, so much energy and resources have been invested in one child that sometimes Chinese men can become emotionally dependent on their mothers. They are looked to in order to make the most important decisions. This can lead to a lack of personal opinion when making one’s own personal decisions. As my Chinese colleagues stated, ” Chinese men are looking for a second mom, not a wife.” This point was also mentioned in the recent Beijinger in an article about a Western woman who dated two Chinese men who always looked to their mothers for advice and were consistently interrupting dates in order to answer their mothers.

Third, sarcasm. And this is a big one. Especially for us Americans. Sarcasm is something that doesn’t really exist in Chinese culture. I honestly can’t imagine a life without sarcasm because i use some element of sarcasm almost every day. Teaching sarcasm to my students is something I really enjoy. I can only really use it among my Advanced students because otherwise, students would be lost. One of my Chinese friends  has dated a few Western men and she said that at the time she had issues understanding his sarcasm and it caused some major misunderstanding.

I hope some people resonate with this post in some way. This only stems from my personal experience and  in all interracial relationships there is an element of a learning curve. I would much appreciate any comments on your opinion of this topic!

China’s Hot Water Craze

Any Westerner coming to China will quickly notice the contrast between liquids. In the West, restaurants serve their meals with a tall glass of cold water and in China meals are served with a small cup of hot water.

Hot water not only pervades the restaurant scene, but also other areas of life. Chinese people carry around portable mugs of hot water. When I first arrived in China back in August, this phenomenon really stood out to me. Construction workers were sweating under the hot sun during their breaks whilst drinking cups of hot water. The gym I joined offers complimentary cups of hot tea and water after your sweaty group exercise classes. Even after going to eat Sichuan food, which is some of the most spicy cuisine in the world, the waitresses will give you hot water when you’re sweating bullets.

After much discussion with my students on the Chinese hot water preference, I have been informed as to why the hot water conundrum exists. Many students agree that hot water is settling for the stomach and liquid going into your body should match the temperature of your body. Hot water is also believed to aid in digestion with all of the complex ingredients in Chinese cuisine. Chinese culture is rooted in finding harmony in all areas of life. Think of the ancient Chinese Yin and Yang concept.  I’ve had some students describe cold water as very “unsettling” and “uncomfortable” for the stomach. I was also hearing this from many women. Which brings me to my next point.

During one of my classes yesterday, a student went onto further say that hot water is more suitable for women and cold water can be more suitable for men. In her words “men can handle cold water because it’s stronger and hot water is easier for women to handle.”

Sooo, now the temperature of liquid is prescribed gender roles?

While some students claim  hot water is science based, my belief is that more of the hot water consumption comes from thousands of years of habit in Chinese culture. I mean hot tea did come from this culture, right?

It is interesting to note that some of my students are just as curious as the reason I carry around a large nalgene full of cold water. In my truest of opinions, I said that cold water is refreshing and makes me feel less dehydrated. I told them that I drink warm water/tea when I want to feel comforted or when it’s cold outside. I received nods and blank stares.

Why do you drink hot or cold water?

 

A Chinese home for the holidays

As i mentioned in my previous post, the Chinese New Year is about family and what better way to spend that holiday than with one of my Chinese students and her family. Early yesterday morning we met my student at the subway station and then took a long bus to her hometown in Tianjin. She kept apologizing that we couldn’t take her car because her husband was using it for a business trip and she insisted that she help carry my bag. She also insisted that she buy us breakfast before we hopped on the bus. If a Chinese person invites you anywhere, whether that be to dinner or their home, it is usually custom that they pay for everything-down to the last coca-cola. When we tried to pay for our breakfast , she refused to let us do so. The foreigner and the Chinese person do this little dance where the foreigner  and the Chinese person argue over who foots the bill and then finally the foreigner must throw in the towel and let them pay. Although in my heart of hearts i knew i wasn’t going to pay for anything, it is customary to play the game.  I could tell that our trip was going to be one of pampering.

The city is about 90km from Beijing so it wasn’t too far and when we arrived we hopped in a taxi and headed to her house. My expectations of what Shan Shan’s parents home would look like were far different from the reality. I had expected a small little apartment with Mao paraphernalia and paintings of Chinese blossom trees. However, this home was straight out of American suburbia. Their home was in a recently constructed community of modular homes all built similar to each other. I need to devote a post to the differences between standard Chinese and American homes but for now take a look at the outside of this home.

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We took off our shoes and put on slippers because that is custom in most Chinese homes. Shan Shan told us that we could call her parents “ai” and “shu shu”.  These two references are common when addressing people in China that are significantly older than you. It is a sign of respect and a sign that you are like family. Her parents greeted us with smiles and told us in Chinese that ” their home was our home.” It was really touching and i immediately started to feel like i was in a family’s home.

While the outside was straight out of the West, the inside was very Chinese. There were dark wooden chairs with bright red cushions covered in Chinese characters. There were in fact pictures of Chinese trees hanging on the wall. Right next to the kitchen was a little bowl full of baby coy fish and on the shelves were replicated statues of Mao and past presidents of China. My first ten minutes at the house was a true “East meets West” kind of moment.

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After no less than ten minutes in the house, we were invited to the kitchen table for lunch. What we saw before us was  an absolute Chinese feast. Her father and mother had prepared duck, chicken, vegetables, rice, shrimp and pork. As we were sitting down, Shan Shan’s father pulled out the Baiju. Baiju is a VERY strong alcoholic beverage that is common for Chinese people to drink at large social gatherings or for family celebrations. Think of straight vodka but five times stronger. While Billy was encouraged to drink the Baiju, i was given a small glass of red wine. Shan Shan said, ” Baiju is more for men.” This comment really made me think of the stereotype that are still given to men and women in this culture. Baiju is considerd a man’ drink because it is strong and masculine and wine is considered more dainty.

Shan Shan’s mother and father were keenly watching us eat. They were concerned we wouldn’t like their food because we were foreigners and i assured them that everything was amazing. And it was. I had expected them to be eating with us but they just watched us eat and kept telling us to eat more. So, the first twenty minutes of eating was enjoyable and then it got tough. Eating the food became a marathon and i didn’t want to disappoint them. Thirty minutes in and i was about ready to throw in the towel but then i opted for one cup of soup. Then i threw in the towel and passed the eating burden onto Billy. I give him a gold star for eating as much as he did because truly ,he was full until this morning.

Shan Shan’s husband was away on a business trip but her young son was with us. A couple of months ago Shan Shan showed me pictures of her 2-year-old son learning how to swim. I thought he was cute then but nothing could prepare me for the amount of cuteness i was to experience. The whole afternoon we played with him and admired his curiosity of two foreigners being in the house. Actually , it didn’t take long until he was calling me, “ie” and Billy “Shu Shu”. Both his mother and grandmother told us that this meant he felt very comfortable with us. We spoke to him in Chinese and English which was really fun. He was all smiles the whole afternoon and so were we. Please see the happiest child below.

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That evening we learned how to make dumplings! This is something that I’ve wanted to learn how to for some time because it is one of the most traditional Chinese dishes. Billy and i took turns pinching the dumpling dough together but we were really bad at it in the beginning. Shan Shan and her mother came to our aid, making it look like a flawless art. It was mesmerizing to watch them pinch these very thin pancakes together to make a perfect half-mooned shaped dumpling. Although we were still full from lunch, we soldiered on and ate our homemade dumplings for dinner. I don’t throw around the word food coma too often, but we were truly in a food coma and i felt truly tired from eating that much food. We were asleep within two hours of eating.

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The next morning Shan Shan and her brother took us to a temple fair in town. These fairs are common occurrences during the Chinese New Year. While not all of these fairs are actually surrounding temples, this one was. We spent an hour exploring every nook and cranny of this temple and Shan Shan had her arm linked in mine and told me all the fun facts about the history of Tianjin. We walked into a room of ancient artifacts from the area and a random Chinese man stopped me and said , “Are you a foreigner?” No sir, can’t you tell by my fair skin and round ideas that I’m Chinese? But seriously, sometimes these obvious questions are asked. Shan Shan and i laughed afterwards and continued on our way. The sun was shining so  bright and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It was a perfect winter day.

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An hour later, some older women dressed in ethnic Chinese costume and did a dance. There were several elderly men banging on drums and playing flutes to provide background music. Presumably, these men were the women’s husbands. I stood there for thirty minutes enthralled in their performance. With the temple backdrop, the women dancing and the men playing instruments, i felt the true spirit of the new year.

After a couple of hours, Shan Shan’s brother was gracious enough to drive us all the way back to Beijing and  he invited us to come back to Tianjin in a couple of months to go hiking with him. While i saw so many differences during our time in Tianjin, i saw so many similarities as well. The food, the mannerisms, and the style was totally different but the devout love of family was obviously there. Chinese families are so incredibly close and it emphasizes  the importance of those ties amongst the backdrop of so many other distractions in this world.

The Chinese New Year is coming!

It’s 9:30 in the morning and the sound of fire works can be heard outside my window. That can mean only one thing: It’s almost time for the biggest celebration on the Chinese calendar. The Chinese New Year, otherwise known as the Spring Festival in China,  is one of the most important traditions in Chinese culture. It is a time for family and a time for families to extend their good wishes to all the youngsters in the family.

This special holiday happens at the very end of January and goes on until the beginning of February. I have been told that the holiday used to last two or three weeks but in recent times the working days have gotten longer and the holidays shorter. The Spring Festival of the year 2014 starts from Jan 30 to Feb 5, 2014.  The Chinese government now stipulates people have seven days off for the Chinese Lunar New Year.

Every year the theme of the Spring Festival changes according to the zodiac calendar. This year falls on the year of the horse and everything is centered around that theme. Shopping malls have painted horses on their windows. I have seen a huge influx of horse stuffed animals around Beijing. Grass hedges have been cut into the shape of a horse. Cars are sporting horse decals and painters are selling pictures of horses with Chinese calligraphy. The horse also happens to be my zodiac animal so hooray for 1990 being the year of the horse! It is said that if the Spring Festival falls on your birth year, then you have to wear more red in order to remain lucky throughout the year. Good thing I like red!

Fireworks are also a HUGE part of the new year. If you think shooting off fire works during the 4th of July is a huge deal, then come to China for a whole new ball game. Imagine how many people are in China and then imagine every single extended family shooting of fireworks together. Fireworks are shot off all hours of the night and day during the Festival. I have been told that seeing the fireworks on Chinese New Year’s Eve is truly magical because the whole sky is lit up from dusk until dawn with no less than hundreds of fire works wherever you go in Beijing. However, over the past few years fireworks have been heavily regulated to control the pollution in Beijing. This year they are easing up on the regulations in order to fully celebrate this long-held Chinese tradition.

During the festival, it is custom for family’s to eat lucky jiaozi( dumplings) on the eve of the New Year. It is also custom for elder members of the family to give gifts of money to young children. These gifts are called hongbao which directly translates to” red gift”. It is actually a red envelope with pretty gold writing on the outside. I had dinner with one of my friends last night who also works for EF. He is Canadian but his parents are Chinese and some of his relatives live in Beijing. He was complaining that he had to shell out cash to give to some of his cousins during this holiday. Apparently children really rake in some serious dough from all of the hongbao they receive.

As mentioned previously, this time of year revolves around family and everyone and I mean most EVERYONE travels back to their home towns, if Beijing isn’t their home town, to see their families. This presents an interesting phenomenon of a mass exodus of people leaving Beijing. It is reported that about 1/3 of the Beijing population leaves the city to go back to their home towns. Ok people, that is about 6 million people leaving the city and you know what that means..I can sit on the subway! No, just joking. Sort of. But in all seriousness, the city becomes significantly less crowded and apparently it’s an excellent time to go sightseeing.

What I’m most looking forward to about the festival is visiting one of my student’s home towns. A few weeks ago one of my dear students asked me if I would like to accompany her, her husband and their new-born baby to her home town in TianjinThis city is about 90km from Beijing and apparently it’s a lovely town where many Beijingers come from. Her mother and father and some of her aunts and uncles live there. I will be driving with her family this Saturday to the home town and will stay in her parents home for the evening. I’ve been told by my student that her parents are extremely excited to have a foreigner stay in their home! My student said i will also get to help her father make dumplings! I am so excited.

It’s so wonderful to see my students so excited about returning to their home towns. I love that the true meaning of this holiday is about family reunion. Now I’m off to buy some fire crackers and gifts for my visit to Tianjin!

Happy Spring Festival!

 

Beijing Bling

About a month ago, I got an email from Billy saying that his manager wanted me to be the host for the annual EF end of year party. I was really touched that I was considered to be a host and thought it would be a great opportunity to meet other people within the company.

About a week later I received a call from another  EF center’s manager saying, “Can you meet this Wednesday for our group rehearsal?”Rehearsal? What? Am I going to be dancing or something? I started to wonder what this whole hosting thing really meant.

When I arrived for rehearsal I was given a small thick packet with all the lines to be memorized.   I thought we were going to have a few drinks, some appetizers and call it a night.  I was wrong. This was a black tie sit down evening with a stage and too many LED lights to count.

A few nights prior, I had picked out what I thought would be the perfect dress for a hostess. It was a simple but elegant black and white dress with a gold belt.

When I arrived at the meeting, there was my co-host, Kobe, and two other members of the party planning committee.  At that point it was time to ask exactly what this whole hosting thing entailed. My Chinese co-host replied, “well we are going to be on a stage in front of 600 people.” Oh, ok. Casual. I quickly learned that his party was more like the Oscars and less like a casual cocktail party.

The whole awards ceremony was to be done in English and Chinese with the Chinese co-host saying the Chinese and Matthew and I translating into English. We quickly went through the rehearsal and then the three Chinese women in the room asked me, “WHAT COLOR IS YOUR DRESS?!!” I put that sentence in caps in order to demonstrate how eager they were to see my dress. I nervously pulled out my phone to show them a picture while realizing that my dress probably wasn’t nice enough. I wish there was someone in the room to take a picture of their faces when I showed them the dress. Their smiles turned into concerned looks. There was silence. In typical Chinese fashion, the women didn’t say anything so I finally broke the silence and asked, “Do I need to get a nicer dress?” One of the woman said and I quote, “Your dress needs more bling.” Hearing those words come out of a Chinese person’s mouth is pretty priceless.

So my next task was to find a dress that would be suitable .( little side note, suitable is one of the words Chinese ESL learners use time and time again to describe things so while it may not be funny to you, it is to me.) One of my co-workers suggested going to a wedding studio to rent a dress instead of buying a very expensive one. So I headed to a few studios to try one some dresses and I liked all these dresses until I looked at the price. Renting a dress for 200 USD? No, thank you. After trying on many dresses I settled on a nice Chinese red dress at a little boutique shop. I negotiated the price and the owner through in some bling.Iknew my Chinese co-hosts would be happy.

Fast-forward a week and the day of the party arrived. The hosts were supposed to arrive four hours before the party in order to go through rehearsal. I couldn’t believe how amazing everything looked. There was a huge stage, red carpets everywhere , fresh flowers, LED lights and even make up artists standing on the sidelines. I felt like I was at the Oscars.

While I was very nervous before the awards stared, once it got going I realized how much fun it was! Perhaps the most interesting part of the evening was the view from the stage. And by that I mean I was able to see how different the Westerners looked from the Chinese. It was clear that every single Chinese  employee made this event to be a red carpet one.  Women were wearing gowns and men were wearing tuxedos or very nice suits. It was also clear that every Westerner was not clear that it was a gown/black tie event, (a casualty of indirect Chinese communication.) Whereas the Chinese  employees were decked to the nines and taking lots of picture, the foreign  employees were asking, ” Where is the free alcohol?”

My CGM (Center General Manger) and I often talk about the differences between Chinese and American culture. He spent six years living in the states so he is pretty knowledgable on the topic. A few days after the party we were talking and he said , “Chinese people like a good performance, and that can be applied to many realms of life. They also think of things in terms of money. ” China, and especially large tier  cities like Beijing, are in an era of consumption, glamour and glitz. I’ve realized that much of making an impression has to do with money. While this is a true concept around the world, it seems so much more,” in your face” in China. It isn’t uncommon for Chinese people to directly  ask, “How much money do you make?”.

It might seem strange to reflect on cultural differences at the end of the year staff/Oscar party but  I’m forever grateful for life’s unexpected teaching moments.

Christmas in Beijing

The past few weeks have been fun and festive-filled!   According to my Chinese co-workers, China has really upped its commercialization of Christmas in recent years. A couple of weeks after Thanksgiving, the Christmas lights started going up around Beijing. Walking into any shopping mall you could see many decorations  on the escalators and walls. Our apartment complex even had  a Christmas tree in its lobby a few days before the 25th. Tacky Christmas sweaters were being sold at the counterfeit market. I was still able to get a gingerbread latte with a snowman at Starbucks and holiday sales were being advertised. IMG_6814

gingerbread latte at Starbucks!

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Christmas decorations outside a mall

But perhaps  the most interesting reflection of spending Christmas in China, is realizing that the holiday is about celebrating the birth of a religious figure in a country that has no organized religion. Therefore, Christmas in China is of a very different nature. For the Chinese, the holiday is only attached to gift-giving and party-throwing and singing. I found it incredible how well my students could sing Christmas songs but they had no context as to what “O, holy night” or “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” is really about.  Billy and i were contemplating getting a tree, but found it surprisingly difficult to find an inexpensive one around Beijing. But that didn’t stop us from celebrating the holidays around the apartment. Pandora Christmas radio became my life’s background music for the three weeks leading up to Christmas.  At work, Christmas was being promoted all around and we had a Christmas party for our students over the weekend. Some of our featured classes included learning about some sing-along Christmas songs and learning how to make ginger-bread cookies which really made me feel like it was the holiday season. Our center put up a Christmas tree and had Christmas lights around the center and the party was filled with holiday games and more sing-along songs. Students brought their young children and one of our international teachers dressed up as Santa Clause. I soon discovered that every one of my male-international friends was designated “Santa Claus” at their center, including Billy. Although I wasn’t able to see Billy be Santa Claus during his party, it appeared that all of the children loved him and thought he was the real deal. IMG_6823

office holiday party

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student holiday party

 Luckily, Christmas Eve and Christmas day fell on our days off from work. On December 23rd, Billy and I went to dinner with two of our close friends, Patrick and Claire. We thought an appropriate festive meal would be going out for Hot Pot. Essentially, hot-pot involves a huge pot of boiling water and raw things being dropped inside of the boiling water until they are cooked to deliciousness. It’s perfect for a cold Beijing winter because the dinner involves a lot of heat. Anything from lamb to fish eggs can be dropped in the water and  it’s one of the most fun winter-time outings for Beijingers. IMG_6838

team building hot pot with my collegues

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hot pot with friends

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spicy broth and mild broth

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Never thought I would actually be able to say this but, this man is literally doing a noodle dance at the table next to us.

On December 24th, Billy and I headed to the Peninsula Beijing for a fun night of holiday celebration. My parents graciously gave us the gift of staying at the “Peninsula Hotel” in Beijing for one evening. Staying in a Western hotel that really knows how to celebrate Christmas, made being away from family a bit easier. Inside the hotel were a life-size ginger bread house, a huge Christmas tree and “deck the halls” was playing in the background. Upon checking in, we put on our swim suits and headed to the heated indoor pool and leisurely hung out there for a while. We then headed to the spa and got deep moisture facials. Billy was convinced that the only reason he was getting a facial was because the title was called, “manly facial.” The facials were so wonderful for our dry skin from this Beijing winter! It was such a treat for us! That evening we dressed up and took part in a delicious Christmas buffet with lots of Champagne! IMG_6873

 festive holiday program

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Christmas tree in the lobby

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red champagne

We decided to load up all our presents and bring them to the hotel with us to make it feel more like Christmas. On Christmas day, we played festive music, drank mimosas and leisurely opened our presents from friends and family. I feel so beyond blessed to have people in my life that helped make this day so special! IMG_6908 IMG_6904

East meets West outside of the Peninsula

 On Christmas evening, we headed to a restaurant called, “Grandma’s Kitchen” with a group of our expat friends. I don’t think there is better way to celebrate Christmas than having meat loaf and mashed potatoes! After dinner, we headed to a very, very small bar called “Harry’s minibar.”The name is appropriate because it truly is “mini”. I mean six people can fit inside, which is excellent because that is how many people were in our group. Harry, the owner, is a small Chinese man with a HUGE personality. He was offering us free drinks and asked us if anyone in our party wanted to go to the gay bar with him later that evening. While it was tempting, around 11  we called it a night and headed home. \IMG_6944

friends hanging out with Harry at his mini bar

 Just like any holiday-season, it seems to approach quickly and leave quickly. It’s hard to believe Christmas is over in China but here is  to 2014! Can’t wait to see what’s in store for the  Chinese New Year! God is so good!