A fire on Shanghai’s streetside

Arriving at my street in a taxi, we drove past a large fire with a group of a dozen people surrounding it. After paying I walked back to the fireplace to see and ask what was going on. I assumed they were simply burning trash and people surrounded it because fire has something attractive to it. I couldn’t have been further from the truth. Asking, I was told the people were burning the clothes of a dead man. To be precise, I was asking his son. 


China has different cultural events and festivities surrounding the theme of death and ancestry. For example on QingMing Festival (清明节) people offer food to the deceased and burn fake money on the streets as a gift to their ancestors; most of them also return to their ‘hometown’ (家乡) where their family originates from and sweep the tombs of their ancestors. Tonight, watching this fireplace circled by white chalk and fed clothes and bed sheets by the son of the passed, I saw another side of the mourning. I don’t know if it’s only Shanghainese people that do this, but the lady that helped her son explain, possibly the widow, said it was something typical of here. 

I was asked by a lady what we do with our family members’ ‘ordinary’ belongings, and I had to admit that I didn’t know but assumed we either throw it all away, donate it, or keep it stored, for whatever reason. I own a pullover of my grandfather’s, but don’t know what was done with the rest of his clothes. They may be in a box stored in a cellar, and if they are, I think I would enjoy watching them burn in company of my family, as we remember him and, for that moment, bring him back to our present, all warmed up by the fire until only ashes of what he once wore remain.

Another bowl of rice

After spending a Summer eating boiled eggs and reaching the ends of my pockets at restaurant tables, I have decided to come to Shanghai for another bowl of rice, a few mouth-watering dumplings, and some more serious work too.

I left Beijing in mid June, after finishing a Chinese course at Peking University. The air was dry and peeping hot; but 35 degrees Celcius or more isn’t the problem, the problem is that there are no ways for the people of Beijing to escape the heat. No Morroccan courtyard fountains, no Greek Mediterrenean breeze, and as I delightfully realised when jumping in the Rhein river once back in Basel, no presence of important bodies of water. Sure, some people adventure themselves in the BeiHai and HouHai Lakes, but unless one is absolutely oblivious to the dirty water or it’s sunrise and a dive in would be the perfect ending to  a fantastic night out, there isn’t a reason I can come up with to do so myself.

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The Rhine banks close to the Roman bridge of Basel
Between relaxed sunny afternoons sitting by the banks of the Rhein and doing several small travels in Europe, my Summer quickly went by. I also applied for a couple of master’s and jobs, among which was an internship opportunity in which I could spend 6 months in Shanghai, working for a company that tries to link its European clients to Chinese producers, being a bridge between markets, and also taking private business Chinese lessons in the morning. I thought the chance to work alongside Chinese people within a European company would be interesting and perhaps even a taster into what a business career in China could look like, so I accepted the offer.

I had a conversation with a Dutch ‘young professional’ yesterday evening who had done a similar internship in which he told me to “Expect everything you thought could go wrong to go wrong at some point”. Chinese business people have a reputation to be more ‘relative’ when it comes to contracts, payment terms, etc., so I’ll take his words as a caution and an introduction into a work culture in which one succeeds by asking for everything and expecting nothing, by improving on mistakes, not concealing them.

It was an interesting evening, yesterday’s. I didn’t want to arrange anything as I had just landed and found my Airbnb apartment, so I went out to grab dinner somewhere and return home early to have a rest. I went into a Hunan restaurant (spicy Chinese cuisine) and looked at the menu. I saw a table of foreigners next to me, with quickly-vanishing dishes and giving the place a good atmosphere. As I asked for recommendations, I was asked where I was from, and was invited to join them. The Qingdao beers we had there didn’t satisfy them so we all went to the Shanghai brewery closeby and had a few more there. “Better is the enemy of good” they say in French, and when asked if I wanted to go see a Techno act, the jetlag reminded me of my day, so I declined and indeed I felt I was beginning to drowse on my way home.

I don’t know exactly what the work I’ll be doing will look like on a day-to-day basis, but I received an e-mail asking me to start work on Sunday (of course, an exception due to the current holiday), so that we could go to a factory on Monday. I’m not usually someone stirred by future events I don’t have any control over, but I am excited to be on a business trip and use the Chinese that I’ve learned as means to a productive end.

So far so good, Shanghai, you shiny Pearl of the East.

 

 

Luoyang: 10000 Buddhas stood here

Last week, I spent two days in Luoyang with my father, who’s come to visit me for the third time in China. He really likes it here, has become a bit of a connoisseur of the Beijing alleys and just like me, finds the growth and construction boom China has gone through truly staggering. 

As we dash past smaller cities of 1/2million inhabitants at 300km an hour, he points at the planned infrastructure, the big lanes to soon be filled by cars and connecting the grey/pink mass-built apartment buildings reminiscent of France’s banlieue’s HLM built together in groups of 6 or 8, and remarks that detail in construction is not given value here but the shared value is, the fact that so many people now get to live in relative comfort, unlike 20/30 years ago. More than 60 high-speed trains travel the Beijing – Xian route on a daily basis, and every train station we stop at is of gargantuan size.  The mushrooming cities are still grey, regardless of how many trees are planted in between their towers. 

Luoyang, the old Tang Dinasty capital, and ‘birthplace’ of the Chinese civilization is where we traveled to. Arriving, we made our way to the Dong Shan 东山 hotel, with its pools, high ceilings, sport courts, waterfalls, bowing employees and all the things one might expect from a high-end hotel built to host government officials and other VIPs. The pools were closed, the spaces seemed comically big for the three of four families present, and in the dining halls echoed the clinks of our Baijiu glasses (rice – wine my father despises).  

peak time

On the next day we visited the famous
grottoes from the 5th century AD, where 10.000 Buddhas were once carved into the facade of a big rock. The Indian monks carried Buddhist wisdom to China as early as the 1st century AD, and when the dynasty changed, all of that was declared banal, and many relics were destroyed. Then, another couple hundreds were lost when the Americans and their allies looking for ‘trade’ with the Chinese stole many of them, and lastly when Mao & Co. had a go at defacing most of what was remaining during the Cultural Revolution
cultural relic, or lack thereof
Today, however, it remains an impressive sight to see, particularly because of therenown gigantic figures and the detailed stone carvings of poetry, old medical prescriptions, etc.


 I found it interesting to see 500 year old dices next to ancient coins, evidence of how luck or fortune runs deep within this culture. The old coins have a hole in the middle which allows for easy storage by simply passing a lace or fabric through them. I could use a system like that one, seeing how organized I am with my smaller money. 

In the later afternoon we strolled around the old town and consumed all kinds of sweets and tempting snacks on display. Unlike other places I have been to, Luoyang didn’t fall into the trap of renovating the old until it looks like a plasticky, Disney version of what was there once before. The old has kept its style, even if it’s a street away from the hustle and bustle of a 2m people city, and I found the alleys around the main street to be quite picturesque. 


I went on to ask several people on the street where they’d recommend us to have dinner. Chosen at random, more than 3 refered to the same restaurant. As we then saw, the local specialties are soup-based dishes, which is more like a dish inside a ‘soup’ or hot water, than a soup in itself. Just like the place, the food wasn’t made to be photographed, but who cares, it tasted great and here’s a photo.  

Culture is..

April went by as quickly as the Spring here and was replaced by a hot, busy Summer. What kept me busy was my preparation for the Chinese HSK 5 exam  and my attempt at hosting a competition at Peking University in a formal news-anchor-style Chinese.

For the competition, one is asked to remember a set of dialogues and introductions by heart, coached by very strict teachers who will make you repeat a word until it sounds as 标准 (standard) as possible. All in all, it was a challenging experience that was a chance to make something a bit different during the semester. 


 It was also a chance to look ‘like a cardboard’ as my friend Valentin described, a cardboard which he employed most creatively: 

In terms of the HSK5, which goes up to level 6, and is the ‘ultimate’ reference of Chinese language level, my performance was average at best. A highlight was forgetting how to write pregnant (怀孕)when having to describe a picture of a pregnant woman getting a medical checkup. Regardless, if I do pass I can claim to know how to read and write thousands of characters, which isn’t  too bad of an achievement. 

I’ve also spent a few afternoons walking around different areas of Beijing. I spent some afternoons in different hutongs (old traditional streets of beijing with low houses that are structured around courtyards). Food is cheap, the areas aren’t very commercial (south west of Qianmen 前门 for example) and it’s a nice way of looking at what some of the traditional Beijing looks like. People playing cards, majiang 麻将, Chinese chess, street markets. Said briefly, normal life for these people, and an interesting walk for me.


Although a window into something else than big apartment buildings, this isn’t therefore a window into the ‘real’ Beijing.  There is no ‘original’ Beijing, or an ‘authentic’ culture. Culture is constantly changing and believing soap operas and ivory towers aren’t as real as run-down alleys with people drinking tea and playing cards is naïve.  The real Beijing is the bustling city that has some of these areas remaining, which unless they become major shopping attractions (like the hutongs around Gulou 南锣鼓巷) are most likely destined to be slowly replaced by concrete towers. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in many ways it is seen as a needed and effective usage of space. 

Tonight, I have been invited by two ‘old’ Beijingers, as they are called here (meaning their grandparents were from beijing too), to have dinner at an ‘authentic’ Beijing restaurant. I’m very curious to speak to them about what they think of their own local culturein the midst of rapid changes, to know better what they define as that culture, and most importantly, to have a good meal.

Familiar places (2): Jazz and marriage markets in Shanghai  

Read the first part of my weekend in Shanghai in the Qipao and cherry blossoms post 

On the next day, I met up with my friend Lele again to have coffee and walk around Shanghai. 

We crossed a park that was as crowded as a marketplace. In fact, it was a marketplace. Many older people were standing in groups, others behind umbrellas with signs on them. I read “Girl, born in 1987, height of 168cm, owns a car (…) looks for: Man, born between 1982 and 1987, 175cm or taller, Bachelor or higher…”  

    

    
Parents of children between 26-40 years old gather around this park to find a match for their daughter or son. It’s mostly daughters though, as more women are getting into university and have better qualifications than their men equivalents. To not fight alone in this arena, the parents of single children of marrying age join forces and sit by this plaza, doing background family work while their children are at work. The dating market (on and offline) has boomed in China, but this marketplace, which exists only in Shanghai, remains. I talked with some parents, and a photo of the child would only be shown if one was a real matching candidate. Some parents helping children working abroad (USA, Japan) were also to be seen in a specific part of the plaza.

We then had a very enjoyable coffee and chat, after which I went for a Korean BBQ with Meg. With different meats with seasoning, wrapped in a lettuce leaf with mushroom, spicy sauce, rice and kimchi, and mixing beer with soju (Korean rice wine), Korean BBQ is one of my favorite types of dinner. 

We then went to the Bund for a walk and entered different old, beautiful hotels. The boom that Shanghai went through in the 1920s is still very present as it gave ‘the pearl of the East’ a remarkable British-influenced architecture. We entered a jazz bar and it was there I felt one of the marking differences between Beijing and Shanghai. Beijing has a lot Chinese history, but nowhere else than Shanghai will you find a richer mixture of East and West. Shanghai was ‘colonized’ by Western forces at the beginning of the 20th century, and what ensued during the few pre-Maoist years was a cultural adaptation like it was never seen before. The local population would dance in ballrooms, wear suits and go to bars. Jazz was listened to. Sipping on a whisky sour, looking at young Chinese people enjoying the piano accompanying the singer’s crystal clear voice, I soaked it all in, and the atmosphere permeates my memories. 

    

  

Before leaving Shanghai, I took a walk  and sat by the plum blossoms of People’s Square. I will come back to this city, and perhaps for much longer than a weekend…

  

 
  
    

Familiar places (1): Qipao under cherry blossoms

There is something liberating about being far from the last place one called ‘home’, meeting old friends and being aware that one is only there to share a moment with them, and that, after a last embrace, one will be on the road back home again. 

When I started this post I was sitting in café in central Shanghai, by a branch of the Huangpu river, drinking arguably one of the best cappuccinos I’ve had in China, with Fromm’s ‘To have or to be’ patiently waiting to be opened <leave the phone aside, Yannick>. I had just said goodbye to Meg, a friend from Warwick I was very happy to see is inspired by the time she has spent in China. My old friend Lele, who I shared an apartment with in 2014 during the semester I spent in Shanghai, came to pick me up for us to go eat lunch and head towards the parks where we would walk among cherry blossoms and magnolias. With sunny Spring weather, it was the perfect weekend to come to Shanghai and appreciate these flowers’ ephemeral beauty. 

An early riser of wise eyes and relaxed presence, Lele has always been a friend I am very fond of and I was very happy to spend time with him again. The parks were very crowded, as on that very day a Qipao (traditional woman’s silk dress) appreciation festival was taking place. These scenes of elegant women holding bamboo and paper parasols under cherry blossoms seemed to come straight out of another epoch, and i did my best to melt in. 

   
   
Lele saw the entrance to another park that seemed far quieter, and after entering it we saw a small pond with an ‘open’ building that had both elements of   Chinese and of cold concrete that must have been part of an unfinished project. The sound of saxophone became more pronounced as we approached and we could see one person reading, another one closing its eyes and at the end of this unfinished construction sat a man practicing his instrument. With the passing of time, trees have started to ‘take over’ the concrete, but the nature/architecture presence gave this place a certain harmony that we very much enjoyed.

   

   
  

An older man was demonstrating tai-chi movements to two women who imitated him. Smoothly flowing from one movement to the other, the practicer’s moves fill the space that is cleared by a tranquil mind. He doesn’t ‘push’ his moves, he lets go and gives direction to the movement that follows, or so a friend of mine who practices once told me. 

 

Part 2 of ‘Familiar Places’  follows, with Jazz and marriage markets.  

The road to Chinese

As I’m reading lesson 4 of the Boya Intermediate textbook, and the vocabulary introduced contains words such as ‘nuclear warhead’ (核弹头), and ‘bones of the dead’ (尸骨), I ask myself how it is I got here and in what direction I am heading with Mandarin Chinese. 

It’s not that these topics aren’t interesting, all in the contrary, but it’s more that, as one progresses with Chinese, as with any language, one deals more and more with very specific topics that may or may not be used in the future, and it makes one question oneself for what purpose one is studying for. What am I studying Chinese for? 

When I first got to Beijing on my exchange year in 2013, learning Chinese seemed like a good use of my free time, so as to speak the basics, to order food, ask for the toilet’s location and mumbling half-sober words to the taximen in early Saturday hours. 

As my Chinese vocabulary grew and pronunciation progressed, particularly during my travels in the Southern province of Yunnan and during my time living with Chinese people in Shanghai, my new purpose was to become comfortable with general conversations. I was able to speak a fluent self-introduction but didn’t want it to stop there. I wanted to be able to express my feelings, general thoughts and so on. 

Now that I’m doing a semester in ‘only’ Chinese in Beijing, my goal still is that of reading and talking about topics I’m interested in, such as politics, history, culture and philosophy, but I feel like even though I am able to do so on a superficial basis, my goal keeps moving forward and upward. 

I spend my ‘Chinese’ time in class, sometimes striking up conversations at the cantines, the outdoor sports fields, in cafés, on campus, meeting up with friends. Here a few photos of the aforementioned places.

   

  

    

  
I am taking three types of lessons, Chinese intermediate (汉语), where we analyze texts with a literary tone, Spoken Chinese (口语) where we look at more casual dialogues, in a more relaxed and playful way, and an elective I chose called ‘Seeing, Listening, Speaking’ (视听说), where we watch a funny TV series on repeat, improving our listening skills and learning  more vocabulary. The series is called ‘Home has a girl and boys’ (家有儿女), and through the quarrels of a household I get to learn how close people communicate among each other. 

 
What’s very interesting to me is how the members of a family relate to each other, how the notions of respect, attitudes towards modern life (in contrast with traditional values) and relationships are displayed. As one learns more Chinese, as many friends have told me, a door to Oriental philosophies and values, to a deeper understanding China’s culture, is opened. 
Should I continue learning this language I love and give it a central importance in my life? Find a master’s in China, a job in China and so on, so as to continue learning it? It’s possible to find a harmony between my different interests and Chinese, but the long road towards conversational fluency may be one that takes longer than I thought, particularly if I pack Chinese among other ‘tools’ I have and end up refering to it whilst daydreaming of my days here. Oh how much I enjoyed speaking Chinese… how beautiful the naïveté when it is met with a stranger’s smile.