Second winter in Chéngdū

This winter is very different to our first one a year ago. Back then, everything was still new and different and we were getting used to winter versus summer Chéngdū. This time around, things seem so much more normal.

We have our regular weekday routine:

  • Raymond wakes early, does a bit of work, showers and breakfasts, then brings me a cup of tea before going to catch the school bus at 7.20am
  • I revise Chinese characters, shower and breakfast, and have my online Chinese lesson at 8.30am, then head to work to start about 10am. I may catch a public bus or bike using one of our two bike sharing options.
  • The school bus brings Raymond home about 5pm. I have tended to catch the bus or bike home from work to meet him at this time. However, as work gets busier, I may not get home til after 6pm.
  • Then our standard evening routine is to cook dinner, watch TV, and head to bed.

Apart from the Chinese learning, this could have described our life in New Zealand. Of course, the work stuff is a little different in its details!

Our weekends are more different – increasingly familiar in their routine – market, friends, shopping – maybe a bit of exploring and still usually something to make us laugh at the unexpected and test our problem solving skills.

However, over the last month a few things, specific to winter here, struck me afresh:

  • Covers on the handles of our apartment doors – we assume these are there so that the metal handles will not be so cold to our touch when we open and shut the doors. It only gets down to about 4 degrees Celsius – not that cold. We even got a tiny one, with our apartment name embroidered on it, surreptitiously put on the handle of the door to our apartment
  • Beautiful reds and yellows of the trees’ leaves changing colours
  • Gardeners in our apartment covering plants with plastic bed covers to protect them from the cold
  • Our morning routine of looking at our air quality indicator (AQI) app to see if we need to wear masks – we don’t if it is green, yellow or orange, but if the AQI gets to red ‘affects everybody’, we put on our masks. We have both had colds, and noticed the air quality affecting us, so decided we should be more risk averse than last year. Chengdu only gets mask-bad air quality for a few months and doesn’t get to brown or purple, so it could be worse.

 

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Dipping my toe into politics

Last month was an interesting time to be a kiwi living in China.

Back in New Zealand, there was an election in which no party had a clear majority. New Zealand First (or was it Winston Peters?) held the balance of power, to decide whether New Zealand would have a centre left or centre right government for the next three years. He/they leaned left and now there are going to be all sorts of policy changes after nine years of centre right government. My heart and mind is more left than right and has a greenish hue, so I support many of the new directions planned by this three party coalition.

But I am left wondering if there isn’t a better way to choose leaders and run a country.

At much the same time, China held its 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China – a five yearly event. More than 2,200 representatives met in Beijing to approve the Party plan for the next five years. These representatives were selected throughout the year before the Congress. Apparently, for this Congress, they worked to increase the number of ethnic minorities, women and peasants attending – laudable, but it suggests under representation of these groups previously.

I am not sure how much the delegates can influence the outcomes. I think their role is more to take it back home and extol its virtues. But, I am impressed by how each plan is developed. A drafting committee works with investigative research teams to develop a ‘report’. The draft report is then reviewed by party groups, government institutions, the Army, various large organisations, retired party elders, various forums, leading specialists and other political parties. (Yes, China actually has nine parties, not just one as I thought. The Communist Party is by far the largest, with 85 million members. The next biggest party has half a million and the smallest has only about 30,000.)

President Xi Jinping’s more than three hours long opening speech for the Congress was titled “Secure a decisive victory in building a moderately prosperous society in all respects and strive for the great success of socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era”. TV commentators on our Chinese English-language TV channel unpicked the speech and discussed terms such as ‘moderate prosperity’ and ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. I don’t know exactly what is in it, but the descriptions on our English news channel, and related discussion with Western and Chinese commentators, suggested policies that support what matters to me, and seemed both forward thinking and common sense.

As we watched the news, we were struck by the ability of the Chinese government to plan long term and make things happen. In the last thirty years, they have lifted 800 million people out of poverty – yes, 800 million! Okay, things were pretty dire, and definitions of poverty vary. But it is still 70% of the world’s poverty reduction over that period of time. And they know there are 70 million still to be lifted out – part of the next plan.

Living here, one cannot help but be struck by how rapidly China is moving from being a developing to developed country – in some ways already more developed than New Zealand. China’s long term plans for poverty alleviation, education, health, environment, economic growth, infrastructure building etc are transforming China so quickly. They do not rely on market forces, or individuals making wise choices, and don’t need to convince everyone what a great idea it is, so they can make rapid progress on many fronts. For example, on environmental issues, they are mandating electric vehicles, rapidly moving to use solar and wind power, and reducing deserts at the rate at which they used to be increasing.  Similarly, the government can act quickly to hinder property speculation to ensure affordable housing, and prioritise investment in agricultural innovation to be able to feed its people – 21% of the world’s population, with only 9% of the world’s land. Even in the 15 months, we have lived here, we have seen mind-blowing infrastructure development in our ‘tier 2’ city.

In his speech, the President also positioned China, as a strong, rich nation (now with the world’s second largest economy, on track to become the number one economy) as a responsible global power committed to tackling shared dangers such as climate change.

It is easy, as a westerner to feel nervous of China seeking growing international influence. But our TV commentators – two Westerners and one Chinese – commented that we are nervous of China being like the US or the European countries when they were the most powerful countries in the world. In my lifetime, the US has dominated using a bully model, and insisted on countries being like them. As the ex-Australian ambassador interviewed said, that works well for countries like Australia that already think like the US, but it hasn’t worked so well for others. The Chinese guy interviewed quoted a Malaysian leader saying that Malaysia is not nervous of China. Six hundred years ago, when China was powerful, they forged a relationship with Malaysia ‘based on mutual respect and trust’, unlike Great Britain. They trust them to do the same this time.

 

Of course, I know we do not have the whole story. The news in China is controlled, and tends to catch people being good. So we see examples of policies working, innovation and success. It has made me realise how much New Zealand’s news is trivial or focuses on negative and sensational things – catching people being bad. Neither approach is ideal, whether needing to be ‘interesting’ to sell news and increase ratings, or limiting news to a sanitised selection of things that are going well.

Living here has really challenged my assumption that democracy is best. Democracy now seems so inefficient. Every time a new government comes to power it has to undo some of what the last regime put in place, and return to priorities from the last time it was in power. And, so much time and energy is devoted to convincing the country that one’s ideas are best. I wouldn’t mind if I felt we were all voting based on a solid evidence base, a deep understanding of each party’s policies and selfless consideration for what is best for New Zealand. But, none of us do. Living outside New Zealand for the recent election, I wanted to understand what each party’s policy was. I found a good site that pulled together what each party said about its own policies. But, I confess I found it too much to digest. And I have a relatively high capacity for reading lots of text, and had more time than usual to research because I was not busy looking after children, or parents, or working full time. Instead, most of what people think politically, comes from preconceived ideas and sound bites shared through various media.

During New Zealand’s hiatus waiting to see who would lead the country for the next three years, one commentator suggested that National, the centre right party, and Labour, the centre left party, could consider forming a coalition. I thought, wouldn’t that be amazing? Imagine if they could work together to research what works well and then negotiate solutions that New Zealand could follow for decades and implement really well.

But, they can’t because they have a brand to maintain – what I now think of as the biggest weakness of democracy.

Brand development and maintenance, and the associated marketing, determines the outcomes of elections. Parties cannot afford to agree with other parties even if it makes sense. Next election they will lose support. The Maori Party in New Zealand seems to have been a victim of brand erosion. They opted to work with the centre right party to achieve something, and, in the recent election, lost the support of their traditional voters who saw them as giving up on their ‘brand’.

I have never really understood how the Westminster system, in which an opposition party’s main job seems to be to find fault with everything the other party does, can be a good thing. If we worked like that in families, organisations or business, nothing would ever be agreed or get done. Negotiating until we find win-win solutions makes it possible to work with others. I think select committees are supposed to help achieve this, but I don’t know enough of what really goes on in them to know if this ends up happening. If it does, it is certainly not obvious to the average person voting by brand.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the openness and transparency of New Zealand, and the freedom to say what you think. Those adjectives do not describe China, even with anti-corruption initiatives underway. And China is particularly vulnerable to ‘problems with leaders’.

It seems to me that everyone wants similar things, whether in New Zealand or China, left or right leaning. We want respect and valuing of all human beings, the ability to work and provide for ourselves and those we love, a safety net for whoever who is in need, a healthy economy, an environment that we would want our grandchildren to live in, education that empowers people and prepares us all for the future, a health system that means we are all looked after, affordable housing etc. Our differences are more about how we believe it is possible to achieve them.

In a brand free world, it seems more possible to take the time to work out solutions together that could last. I wonder if, as the pace of change accelerates, it is more or less important to think long term. In one sense, it seems less important because things will change in ways we can’t predict anyway. But in another sense, I suspect we lack the luxury of having time to take cheap shots at others to score political points, and the inefficiency of changing back and forth may matter more.

Now that I am challenging my assumptions, I dream that New Zealand could apply global (or is it western?) social science research about what works well in businesses, organisations and families and replace its 1800s designed Westminster system with a 21st century political environment focused on win-win, evidence-based solutions.

‘Chinese characteristics’ – mutual respect, being fair and balanced, and win-win co-operation – combined with the innovation, pragmatism, openness and transparency on which we New Zealanders pride ourselves, might help us get there – but, alas, probably not in my lifetime.

 

 

 

 

Ten things I love/hate about you

Recently we passed our one year anniversary of being in China. It has been interesting to welcome the new teachers to Raymond’s school and realise how different it is to be returning rather than arriving.

So it seems a good time to summarise the year with a list of ten things I like and ten things I do not like about living here. In no particular order:

I like:

  1. various transport options. I like having buses, metro and rental bikes to choose form for any route. It is wonderful not having to know the timetable for, or having to run to catch, the bus or metro, because I know another one will arrive within five minutes, if not sooner. Some locals run, which fascinates me and shows that we are all products of what we experience as normal. They should never move to New Zealand.
  2. living in such a technology rich environment. Chinese have apps for everything. Our favourite apps that make such a difference to our lives here are:
    • Alipay, to scan a barcode with our phone and pay for everything however big or small
    • Pandabus, uses GPS to works out where in the city or country we are and then tell us what buses are nearby and their routes
    • Beaver Home, means I can book and pay for beauticians to come and offer a wide range of beauty treatments in my apartment
    • Mobike, enables us to unlock one of the bikes dotted all over the city, ride it for as long as we want, automatically pay a small fee (20-60c), and stop paying as soon as we lock it.
  3. shopping at the market where fruit and vegetables are seasonal, and we interact with human beings each purchase. After a year, we are still to settle on regular places to buy our pork and vegetables. For other things, our regular suppliers, primarily selected because of their friendliness to struggling foreigners, are
    • hardware store couple
    • potatoes and kumara man
    • several fruit women – none of them have everything we like
    • walnuts and fruit woman
    • the chicken lady, and the duck man
    • peanuts and oatmeal young woman
    • biscuit and cake couple who bake our Saturday morning tea on site.
  4. our slower pace of life. Most evenings, Raymond and I sit out on our balcony, in sleeping bags in the cool months, enjoy our beautiful  view over the (man-made)lake and river, people watching in the park and talking. I am working part-time, and he has small classes and doesn’t manage lots of football teams. And apartment living doesn’t take much time.
  5. learning Chinese. I have always wanted to learn a language. I was good at languages at school and have sometimes regretted that I did not continue with that part of my academic study. So I am loving tapping into this side of me and it is so obviously useful. I am particularly enjoying learning the Chinese characters, which, at the beginning, I assumed I would not do.
  6. making new friends. We have met some lovely people, both local, kiwi and from other parts of the world. As in New Zealand, we click better with a subset of those, and have forged some fun, deep connections. The transient nature of ex-pat lives means they tend to be open to socialize with us, but locals are harder to get to know well, With both ex-pats and locals, there are cross-cultural aspects to navigate, and it is always nice to meet up with kiwis.
  7. being half way between the two places where our children live. With two daughters in London and two sons in Wellington, it is nice to be able to travel north or south to meet up with them. Last Christmas, we met the girls and their partners in Germany, and this Christmas plan to meet them in Russia. We couldn’t do that if we were still in New Zealand. At the same time, we have been able to go back to New Zealand twice. Raymond’s school gives us one trip, and we have made the most of the new super cheap flights direct to Auckland.
  8. being able to travel. As well as being half way to Europe, China in particular, and Asia generally, fascinate us. We enjoyed going to Laos and Vietnam this year, and are loving traveling in China. As my Chinese language grows, and we build our knowledge of how things work, we can travel more like locals, on trains and buses, and selecting accommodation on price for quality rather than having an English speaker. This then helps keep prices down. I have planned out our next two longer holidays with fascinating trips and there is still so much more to see in China.
  9. new experiences every day. After a year, we feel like we have only just begun. Just this week, I have been out with a colleague twice for lunch and had two types of food I have not had before – one was some Korean dish, and the other a very fine pancake with egg swirled on it, and a chicken, lettuce and crunchy things filling. Even when we do things we have done before, they can be new experiences, like taking our kiwi friends to have hot pot and being the experts rather than the trainees, or going to the large shops in town and taking a different route which means we discovered a lovely tranquil temple environment.
  10. feeling so alive. Linked to number 9, we are continually being surprised, amused, challenged, or a mixture of all three. Just as a day in Wellington can include four seasons, a day here often includes a full range of emotions.

I don’t like:

  1. struggling to communicate at work and play. As my Chinese improves, the play part is becoming less frustrating. Now I can usually say enough to shop and travel. However, at work, my language is woefully inadequate. After 12 months, I tend to sit in a meeting where Chinese is being spoken (entirely reasonable given where we are) and only understand pronouns and conjunctions – “We … but she can … New Zealand … and they … so … .Yes.” This is solid progress compared to a year ago, but does not give me much more information.
  2. being so dependent on others at work. Right now this is my biggest ‘hate’. When Brightsparks began, I could work relatively independently, and only relied on my business partners with their good English – strategizing, developing our services, writing marketing materials in English, working with the English speaking web designer, and connecting with NZ institutions. Our next steps involve working with local staff to translate and do graphic design of print materials, researching the Chinese market, and communicating with Chinese partners and customers. I cannot do this because I do not read, understand or speak the language. My partners and staff in their other company are there to help but I have to wait for them to fit it in between their paying work. I am used to being able to solve problems myself and really struggle with this one.
  3. not earning money yet. When I decided to start Brightsparks, I did not think everything would take so long, but it has – see above. We have set ourselves a financial target for the middle of next year, so it is early days yet. Raymond and I have food on the table and a roof over our heads, and can still travel. But, our anniversary of being here has amplified this aspect, and I am still working it through.
  4. missing friends and family. I miss our special people, especially not being there for our granddaughter’s milestones. Although, technology really helps. I feel like we are keeping up with family developments, and it can mean that we all share thoughts and pictures with one another that we might not know about if we lived in the same city.
  5. grey skies and pollution in winter. People who leave Chengdu often say they are leaving because of the cold, damp, grey winters where your first activity in the morning is to look at the air pollution level on your phone. I was relatively protected from this last winter because I ended up being away for eight weeks. But it does affect you emotionally. At the moment, the sky is often blue which is a frequent topic of conversation.
  6. taking half an hour to find something to watch on TV. We haven’t really mastered movie watching here. We have cable option which is very cheap and ahs one English news cahnnel, one English move channel with titles in Chinese so it has toahve started to know what it is, and many back channels which change their content regularly. A decision to ‘watch TV’ means clicking through these back channels to try to find a movie that we might want to watch. Our pattern is that we decide we want to watch TV, I start clicking while Raymond cooks dinner and hopefully I have found something by the time he is finished. Sometimes, we then start watching only to find 20 minutes in that we need to pay to watch it. We have just worked out how to do this on Alipay which is very simple, and nto that expensive.
  7. vpn and slow internet. Our internet speed in our apartment is not that bad, but once we use vpn it slows right down. And western countries tend to be so Google, Facebook and YouTube dependent. Quite a few websites are Google based in how they work. In the west, you don’t notice because they just work. I have learned that if the circle keeps spinning, the site probably uses some Google system as part of its functionality. We tend not to miss the actual apps because now we use Chinese alternatives. But sometimes we can’t, such as watching our children’s ultimate games live streamed or recorded, from Europe and Australia. Watching our boys play in the Australian Nationals, I coud see the comments about the end of the game when I still had ten minutes left to watch. While Raymond was in New Zealand, to view Marah’s recorded games, I watched a minute, reviewed Chinese for ten minutes while the next minute downloaded, then repeated. And slowness over vpn makes it difficult to use sites like Netflix. Luckily, we like sitting on our balcony too.
  8. things can be so far away. We have shops, restaurants and our market nearby and friends in the same apartment block. However, anything else tends to be ‘miles away’, as you would expect in a city of 18 million people. We have two responses to this – ridiculous optimism, where we underestimate the travel time by about an hour; and reluctance, where we wonder if it is worth it, and consider sitting on the balcony instead. We have a few routes that we know well and can predict accurately, but off those routes, we can still get hopelessly lost and double the time. And even when we map it out well and go straight there, an hour can have flown by because it is just a long way away.
  9. crowded metro and buses. We live half way between the centre of the city and the southern extremity,  next to a park. So, most of the time, it doesn’t feel like we are in a city with four times the population of New Zealand. However, when we catch the metro, it does. Most times of the day or night, it is crowded, often claustrophobically so. I have no idea where all the people are going, but it can be hard to handle for a Wellingtonian. We often take the bus because it tends to be emptier, but occasionally buses get incredibly crowded too. I  think the bus is full and then ten more people squeeze on.
  10. only being able to think of nine things I don’t like – not such a bad thing.

 

Visitors in our own country

Many of Raymond’s ex-pat colleagues call the country from which they come ‘home’. I can understand this because they have taught and lived in multiple countries and return to their houses/homes for several months each year. They want one base, and want their children to identify with that country.

However, for now, we are choosing to call Chéngdū ‘home’. China is the only country apart from New Zealand in which either of us has lived, and we want to be as present here as we can be. We are renting our New Zealand house out, have adult children dotted over the world, and plan to make the most of empty nest adventure opportunities during our holidays by visiting other places as well as New Zealand.

So, last month, we didn’t ‘go home’ for our son Aaron’s wedding, we went ‘back to New Zealand’.

And it was weird and wonderful.

It was weird because everything was so familiar and comfortable, but we felt like visitors.

We spoke the language. For example, immediately after getting off the plane, we talked to an airline staff member about what to do given that our flight from Guangzhou had been delayed. He understood us perfectly and we understood his answer. It only took a few minutes. What a contrast with checking in at Chengdu and trying to understand how full the plane was and our seating options.

We recognised most things. We were able to drive again (still remembered how) and the streets of Wellington were just the same, except for orange netting or barriers everywhere to protect the public while repairing earthquake damage. We had a map in our heads of where we were, even when I traveled out of Wellington for work. By contrast, apart from a few well-worn routes, most of Chengdu remains unrecognisable.

But we felt like visitors because we moved around like you do on holiday. The first week, we stayed at my brother’s in Wellington, Raymond’s brother’s in Blenheim, and rooms at a motor camp for the wedding. The groomsmen, our kids and partners (except the bride), my family, and most of Aaron and Sally’s friends from out of town stayed at the motor camp too, so it felt like a fun holiday.

Immediately after the wedding, Raymond flew back to China because it was during term time. I stayed on for two more weeks to do some work visits, catch up with friends and family, and learn the art of grandmothering. My second week, I stayed at my brother’s again, and with friends in Christchurch for a couple of nights. The third week I was to stay with friends in Wellington. Ros was unwell when I first planned to be there, so I changed to stay for a couple of nights with our granddaughter Hazel, her parents, and her other grandmother, before going back to the original plan. In some ways the change was a bonus, but it made me feel very ‘of no fixed abode’.

And we no longer felt totally normal (yes, we used to). We have changed. We have had all these experiences which friends and family were kindly interested in (to a degree – but don’t go on about it too much). It was weird, while still feeling close and connected to our special people, to realise their understanding of our present lives has to be second hand and removed. It was more obvious face to face than communicating over technology, and made me feel closer to our new China friends than I had previously felt.

And, that feeling that living in China is unusual. This was exemplified when we went into our old local supermarket (who had moved the lollies from where they had been for twenty years). We put our bags of pineapple lumps and Whittakers chocolate on the conveyor belt and the checkout operator said, ‘Are you taking these to your children overseas?’. Raymond said, ‘No they are for us. We are living in China.’. ‘China!’, she shrieked. We both commented as we walked out that it is so normal for us and everyone in China with whom we interact, that it is easy to forget that it is not normal for everybody.

I was able to prepare for the wedding in familiar places. I got my hair done by my hairdresser of more than 20 years with whom I could have a long conversation – and she understood me. I got my upper lip and chin waxed at my old haunt in Porirua. I have been unable to find anyone to do this in Chéngdū . When I asked at a couple of nearby beauty places, one young woman was unable to hide her horror that anyone might wax one’s face. This is understandable, given that they tend to be much less hirsute here – many of the men hardly need to remove hair from their faces.

And it seemed weird and wonderful that clothes fitted. In New Zealand, I went into three clothing shops, tried on about ten items of clothing and bought five- a pair of shorts, a pair of trousers and three tops. I went into two shoe shops, tried on two pairs of shoes and bought them both. And these were all bargains in the summer sales. I love New Zealand’s ‘wide’ clothes and shoes!

And it was wonderful because we got to enjoy New Zealand’s particular brand of beauty that feeds our kiwi souls. As we flew into Auckland, I looked out the window, saw the sea sparkling in the sunlight with patches of (NZ) green and tears came to my eyes. It was so lovely to be by the sea again – walk around Wellington with the sunlight sparkling over the water, see people swimming, sunbathing or playing by the beach, and drive past the Porirua Harbour and Petone Foreshore.

It was wonderful because we saw so many of our special people, supported our first child to get married, and held our first grandchild. Intense times for anyone. As soon as we arrived in Wellington, Andrew, our older son, picked us up and took us to cuddle our beautiful granddaughter. We had seen so many photos, but it was very emotional to hold her (more tears), see her in three dimensions, and get to know the particular ways she likes to be held and comforted. Over the next few days, we met both our daughters and one of their partners at the airport when they arrived from London, and caught up with family and friends. The wedding weekend was beautiful, intense, fun and emotional (a few more tears, but mainly laughter and smiles). I expected to enjoy it but not as much as I did.

Raymond squashed this all into one week. My next two weeks were similar but less intense, and I felt more like a visitor. After the wedding, things were less planned, and others were back into their normal lives. I had the challenge of organising many work meetings in a finite period of time, which reminded me more of previous business trips to India than being ‘home’. And trying to fit in all our friends was more like visiting friends overseas – organise to meet, catch up, and move on to the next one. My brother, who lived overseas for quite a while, said they had learned that during return trips the best way to catch up with friends was to say they were going to be at a bar at a certain time and let friends self-select to be there. And that was before Facebook – might give that a go next time.

For both of us, leaving New Zealand was emotional, particularly not being able to see Hazel and close family for a while, but also missing the rich tapestry of relationships that we have built up over more than 100 collective years.

And we weren’t sure how we would feel arriving back in China. The good news is that we were both glad to return. Being back in China felt like home. In a perverse way, to feel at home we now need to see Chinese characters that we cannot read, be surrounded by a language that we recognise but do not understand, have cloudy rather than blue skies,  have skyscrapers not the beach, and be the only Westerners in a crowd.

At the same time, it has made it harder for both of us be here – realising what it is costing us in terms of our loved ones. It is an unintended consequence that we did not think through, that, for the short term at least, we cannot be truly at home in either place.

And all this reflecting makes me realise this need (or maybe only strong desire) to feel at home. It is only a couple of months ago that I blogged on ‘Feeling at home’, and here I am angsting about it again.

And, standing back from just thinking about me, this theme of ‘where is my home?’ is being played out around the world all the time.

And for many it must be so much harder. For many people things have got so bad, they are choosing to leave the countries they love and in which they feel truly comfortable forever. And with nothing. How much harder this would be without Raymond’s school’s support team to look after us at all times, a good income that turns it into an adventure, money to pay for language lessons, the security of our lives back in New Zealand waiting for us, our family safe and sound, and most of all, knowing that we can return whenever we choose. I am so filled with compassion and admiration for those lumped under the term ‘refugees’.

Then there are people like Lee, Hazels’ other grandmother. Over 30 years ago, she left Malaysia to travel to New Zealand for better education opportunities for her husband. And they never returned, instead having and raising three kiwi children. All this time later, she lives in New Zealand like I am living in China – has limited fluency in the local language but survives, mainly socialises with expats that speak the same language, has a few less deep connections with some locals, still prefers the food she grew up with and shops where she needs to so she can prepare this sort of food, doesn’t drive but has other transport solutions that work for her, and feels neither truly at home in New Zealand or Malaysia. And now her daughter has fallen in love with my son and we share a granddaughter who will enjoy the richness of two very different grandmothers.

And my own mother did this and I never thought about how it felt for her. She fell in love with my colonial dad while he was in England for two years, left her home to marry him, and didn’t return for 20 years. She adopted New Zealand as her country, and, with the same language, was able to assimilate – almost. I never thought of her as anything but assimilated until a few years ago, when I went to a play about immigrants. I identified with the portrayal of the British characters’ lack of buy in to kiwi values about the need to entertain with a homemade cake, rather than a bought packet of biscuits. I thought Mum was being feminist, not British. I wish she was still here to talk to about this.

So, others have been traveling similar roads for generations, often without the time to navel gaze because they were too busy surviving. My friend who set up the Cultural Intelligence Collective, which helps people like me as they adapt to new countries, recently sent me an email. It made me feel understood and part of a larger group experiencing similar things, and reminded me that my intermittent discomfort and the associated personal growth is worth it – now and in the future.

Recognising the gains you have made from this experience can help you to face the discomfort of feeling like you don’t belong. New skills, new experiences and amazing memories are all positive gains that help build that sense of belonging. A less obvious gain might be the ability to fit in and adapt to different groups and situations. Flexibility and adaptation are skills that you may not have needed or appreciated at home, but they are skills that will reap benefits in future interactions.

 

 

 

 

 

The great wedding outfit hunt

Next time I move to China shortly after my son gets engaged and it is the northern hemisphere summer, I will immediately look for a dress to wear to the wedding. Unfortunately, last July, I was a bit busy coping with all that China threw at me. 

After years of buying at end of season sales, I was planning to look before the summer stock disappeared. However, this is yet another thing one has to learn in a new country – when do they change stock? It still seemed very warm to me when I noticed that summer dresses were gone and clothing shops were full of winter coats of every possible colour. 

We did have a bit of a look once I spotted the difference, but didn’t know where to shop and couldn’t work out discounts (or ask for clarification). No percent signs. Signs with numbers between 1 and 8, followed by a Chinese character popped up everywhere. It was only after my Chinese lesson on shopping for clothes that I understood ‘3折’ means pay 30% or in my kiwi way of thinking, take 70% off. 1.5 and 2 are quite common, so you can understand that initially we assumed it meant a 15 or 20%, rather than 85 or 80%, discount. Now that we know, it can be great. 

Too late for end of season bargain hunting. Oh well, plenty of time, I will just have to pay full price next spring.
So, we ignored the issue, and, mid-Jan, when we returned from our Christmas holiday, we decided we would go looking for a dress for me and a suit for Raymond. 

Our first port of call was the shops within walking distance of our apartment. One dress shop in particular has beautiful clothes. I tried on several sleeveless winter weight dresses that could work in Marlborough on a bad day, but, as, the shop assistant pointed out, my hips are too 宽 (wide). I later mentioned to my Chinese teacher that in New Zealand it would be considered rude to tell a customer her hips are wide. Apparently it is in China too!

We found a nice suit for Raymond for about NZD400, but, because we knew we could easily pop back later, we decided to check out the big shopping centre near us first.

So the next weekend (our only one before our Laos holiday) we set off. We had both downloaded Mobike, one of the bike sharing apps taking China by storm. Cycling is perfect for us to go to the Global Centre, the world’s largest shopping centre by square meters of shopping. From our apartment, it is a bit too far to walk, if we take the scooter we have the hassle of parking it, the metro stops right there but is a reasonable trek from our place, and none of our four buses go right there. Plus biking would be a new adventure and some exercise.

The system is that you open the Mobike app, which use GPS to show all the bikes near you. You walk to the nearest bike, scan the barcode, the lock on the back wheel magically unlocks, you hop on, ride it wherever you want to go, hop off, put it up on its stand on the footpath, lock it and walk off. It means you don’t have to return to where you left it later, or even bike back. And with the population here, there are bikes everywhere.

But, as you can probably guess, our first trip was ‘interesting’. 

We walked out our front gate, found a couple of bikes, and scanned the codes. Mine worked instantly. Raymond’s didn’t. He had been having trouble with data on his phone, so we locked mine and walked to our nearby China Mobile shop. There we found two particularly unhelpful staff, and, fortunately, one particularly helpful bilingual customer. He listened, translated, gave up on the two unhelpful staff, and found a more technical staff member to solve the mystery. Not sure what he did, but it works now. 

Back outside, two more bikes right there, scans worked brilliantly, and off we went.

One of the nice things about biking to the Global Centre from our place, is that we live on one side of the green belt of Chengdu and the Centre is on the other, so we can cycle through a nice park. First, we headed towards the river, over the pedestrian crossing, and up onto the footpath by the park. Well, one of us did. That image in my mind of lifting my front wheel up and over the kerb turned out to be purely fictional. My bike stopped, I didn’t. I flew over the handlebars and landed, winded, on the footpath. Initially, only my dignity was hurt. I picked myself up, and off we went, the rest of the ride proving uneventful, and costing us about 20c each.

Later that evening my ribs started hurting, and it took about six weeks to come right. On reflection, I am not sure I could ever do that trick with a bike

The Centre is pretty amazing – bling on steroids, and an overwhelming number of shops, especially clothing shops. However, once I was systematic in working through them, I found ‘the millions’ dropped to five shops offering more elegant dresses, with some initial spring stock. In Vero Moda I tried on a few. Fortunately a Chinese colleague of Raymond’s happened to walk in part way through this process and helped explain the occasion, but still no success. Oh well, maybe in Laos over New Year. 

Or not. I tried, but those wide hips really are my downfall across Asia.

We then had one more weekend in Chengdu before flying to New Zealand. We headed into Taikooli, a large shopping complex near the city centre. First shop, I spotted a beautiful dress, tried it on, perfect! How much? 10,380. What is that in real money? NZD2,000! Mental note to self ‘avoid all shops where someone opens the door for you, and several staff are hovering to anticipate your every need’.

Back to looking. Too short, too expensive, too unlikely to fit those hips, too glittery, too wintery. Three hours later, we gave up and went to the lantern show.

Then we caught the metro to Tianfu Square, got off to transfer to our bus home, and walked past some shops. I popped in and saw a possible dress – it flares out over hips. I tried it on, Raymond loved it (objective as he is), I liked it enough, and we bought it. From Vero Moda! And yes, I had noticed it three weeks earlier, but I thought it was too plain.

Bonus at home – the pink was a perfect match to snazzy shoes I already owned, it went ok with my existing jacket for unpredictable NZ weather, and a friend had a matching hand bag.

While looking for me, we had also checked out suits for Raymond, and concluded one of our local shops had the best option – looked good, reasonable price. So, the following Monday, less than a week before we were to fly out, straight after work, we headed back to purchase his suit.

We walked the five minutes from our apartment block to the shops. ‘Was it this shop?’ ‘I don’t think so.’ ‘Or this one?’ ‘It is not how I remember it.’ ‘Me neither.’ ‘It must be here somewhere.’ ‘This is crazy.”Let’s try this one instead.’ ‘Ok.’

We never did find the original shop. 

However, in a new shop (we are both 99% sure it is not the same one), I had my most encouraging ‘conversation’ in Chinese yet. The woman understood me asking if it came with trousers, checking the price, and seeking her view on length. 

Raymond tried on a 2,000元 suit, then I noticed a pink thread going through the fabric. He popped on his glasses, decided he didn’t want to match my dress, and tried on another one. Perfect.

We assumed the price would be similar. When we came to pay, she typed 656 into the calculator. I said to Raymond ‘The trousers must be extra after all.’ Then she entered 3,280.

I said ‘Oh no, this is more expensive. The total will be about 4,000 (NZD800). But we have left it so late (four days til we fly out, still need to hem the trousers, and shops disappear), let’s just buy it.’ She could tell we were confused. So she entered 3,280 x 0.2 = 656.

Then we understood. With an 80% discount the suit would now cost us just over NZD120. A bargain, and a good illustration of how we live in an ongoing state of not quite knowing what is going on.

Of course, it didn’t really matter what we looked like. All eyes were on our beautiful daughter-in-law, handsome son and gorgeous granddaughter.

Our first Spring Festival

Spring Festival or Chinese New Year is the nearest thing China has to Christmas. It is the longest national holiday, everyone goes home to spend time together as a family, and there is special food and gift giving. However, it is very different too.

Spring Festival traditions stem from the belief that Nián, a scary monster or dragon, (and the Chinese word for year) appeared at the end of each year and could be scared away by bright lights, such as red and gold and the lights of fireworks, and by loud noises, such as firecrackers.

We chose to travel to Laos, for the ten day holiday, as we had heard that over a billion people travelling to be with family puts quite a strain on internal travel systems, and can be overwhelming for people from less densely populated countries.

As a neighbouring country, with shared ethnicity at the border, Laos has some cultural overlap with China. We saw groups of young men dressed up as Nián and wandering the streets or riding on the back of trucks. One evening a group came into our restaurant, several young men holding the dragon costume winding between the tables, and a greater number tagging along behind hoping to benefit from patrons who gave them money. We heard that restaurant owners like them to come in as they bring luck for the next year.

In Chéngdū, special Spring Festival red and gold decorations and landscaping sprang up everywhere. For example, our apartment gardeners, who have still not removed the reindeer and Santa Claus with his parasol, hung up red lanterns with gold tassels, and draped the bottom of the large trees in gold. In the central garden bed, they planted red tulips, timing their full bloom for New Years day (28 January), circled by light yellow plants. In the walkway to the convenience store, they placed pots with yellow orchids surrounded by pots with deep pink cyclamen. And around the fountains, they also continued the red and yellow flowers in pots theme. My Chinese language company offered a free deal for a red and gold door decoration, which I said yes to, but it never turned up. (Or if it did, I couldn’t read the text saying it was here.)

Firecrackers are an important part of Spring Festival. There did not seem to be just one time that they are lit, but different times through the season. Some were let off before we left Chéngdū. In Laos, firecrackers were being let off on New Years Eve and into the wee hours of New Years Day. Then, we were treated to a nice fireworks display out our window soon after we returned nearly a week later. And my Chinese teacher explained that the first Monday when people return to work they light firecrackers for a lucky start to the work year. During my lesson that day, I could hear them going off in the background in Guăngzhōu and she could hear them going off in the background in Chéngdū, over 1,000 km apart.

And Spring Festival is the time to sell anything and everything. The Exhibition Centre near us had a Spring Festival sale, where crowds of people thronged to pick up bargains to give to family, friends, work colleagues, and anyone else you feel obliged to give to. We did not go, but saw the crowds lugging, or, in some cases, wheeling, their many purchases. Our supermarket, that we view as very busy on an ordinary day, was chaotic. More people navigating extra stock piled up in any spare space between aisles. (We picked up some bargains in the post Spring Festival sales, which don’t seem holiday specific to us.)

Like most workplaces, Raymond’s school had an annual dinner before the holiday. We both wore red, because we understood that was appropriate and we try to fit in. I sat next to the school’s Chinese teacher, who commented on the effort we had put in, even though most locals did not bother. All red outfits belonged to ex-pats.

Two traditional things happened – a performance and a lottery. The lottery process was giving  a ‘red packet’ with money in (NZD20) to those whose names were drawn out of a hat – Raymond included in the lucky ones. I told my Chinese teacher, who is becoming a regular source of information on Chinese culture now that we have moved beyond ‘hello, my name is …’, that we had been to his school dinner. The first question she asked was if they had had a lottery. And when I helped my Chinese colleague translate her speech for my business partners’ other company’s dinner into English, it included introducing the lottery. So, it is obviously standard. As well as this, the teachers gave their bus driver a red packet, and we gave one to our regular driver when he drove us to the airport for our holiday.

And parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles give children red packets. But only children. My work colleague in her mid twenties is too old for red packets or presents from her parents, even though she went back to her village to celebrate with them.  Whereas, Hazel, our brand new granddaughter, got red packets from her Chinese grandmother and great-aunt before she turned a month old. She was not due until after Chinese New Year, but arrived three weeks early – obviously very smart.

The teachers union gave Raymond a parcel. Some things were easy to spot like wine , nuts, rice and red date honey. Other things, less so. We filled in an evening, photographing characters and translating them to work out what they were. Now we have to work out how to cook with them. We gave the jars of dried fungi – (super sized) log, and ordinary – to Raymond’s colleague.

The fifteenth day of the first lunar month of the new year, is Lantern Festival day. Our local Egypt-themed Lantern Festival, set up in the grounds of one of Chéngdū‘s museums, ran for a few weeks leading up to the 12 Feb. We were back in time to be able to visit during last weekend. The Festival was stunning, during the day and then as night fell lighting up the dark.

We snacked on savoury and sweet dumplings, listening to a recorded voice trying to sell what we were eating – to our ears it sounded like ‘Go Billy Bowser’. So, then I wanted to understand what she was saying. I recognised enough of the characters over the stall to know translating those would give the answer, much to the amusement of the woman wiping down the tables. She stood for quite a while behind me, studying my laborious attempts to work it out on my phone. Once Raymond had pointed her out, I invited her to write the final character which had been proving a challenge for me. ‘Heavenly saliva dog ignore dumplings’. Later, my Chinese teacher pointed out the inadequacy of direct translations, which was quite reassuring given that we ate before translating.

As we walked back to the metro, through the crowds and beautiful lights, we commented on how these  fragile silk-encased frames would never work in a windy environment. We were both quite amused picturing them slowly disintegrating in the Wellington winds before the three weeks was up, parts floating in the Wellington harbour and the rest strewn all over the city .

So, we feel that we caught intermittent glimpses of what Spring Festival or Chinese New Year means to everyone in our adopted home, but that we did not experience it fully. However, I am not sure how realistic full experience will ever be, given its deep significance and associated tradition for locals.

Anyway, it is over now – let’s see what this year of the rooster brings!

rooster

Four Christmases

For both of us, this was our first ever Christmas out of New Zealand. It has been a mixture of weird and familiar best described by four Christmases in two countries.

1. Invisible Christmas

Most of Chengdu ignores Christmas, as it should. It is not part of China’s rich, sophisticated 5,000 year history from which they have plenty of special celebrations of their own. So our weekend market, local shops, hairdresser, and my office did nothing.

Although, our hairdresser inadvertently gave us a Christmas gift. When we visited just before we left for Germany, they had added a NZ flag to the wall of flags which contributes to their funky decor. Each time we go there, we significantly increase the average age in the room, but I chose them because I thought a young, funky salon would bring experience of using non-black dye. You can see that my local hairdresser is young, petite, beautiful and uses dye herself.

2. Incongruous Christmas

Then Chengdu has pockets of Christmasness – each to me seeming a little out of place in its wider surroundings. Early December, large, flash shopping malls and hotels put up enormous Christmas trees or present making scenes from the north pole, often quite zany.

Then, just before we left, on 14 December (I assume because of the 12 days of Christmas), at my office and our apartment, Christmas decorations sprung up. Santa with parasol in our own front yard won our ‘sums up Christmas in China’ prize.


Leman, Raymond’s school takes Christmas seriously, with a major music production with modern Christmas songs. I have struggled over the years, as New Zealand has moved from Christmas carols, which were meaningful to me, even though I know many don’t believe in them, to songs about Santa and reindeer that we are all sure are not true, and snow, holly, mistletoe etc which are not part of a kiwi experience. So, when I relieved for the music teacher and spent a day watching groups of five to eight year olds of mainly Asian descent playing, singing, and dancing to, these songs, I found it incredibly cute with a level of discomfort. What does this mean to these young sponges? Is this the most important part of Western culture to pass on? Was this what their parents hoped for in sending them to the school?

And the last bit of incongruity – as I said goodbye at the office, a young Chinese colleague, whose English level is similar to my Chinese, turned, with a big smile on his face, saying, in that deliberate ‘I have worked this out ahead of time’ way that I now recognise, ‘Merry Christmas’. I was surprised and touched, which shows I strongly identify with some Christmas stuff.

3. Magic Christmas

Then, a week before Christmas, Raymond and I flew to Germany. As many kiwis before us have discovered, we found that Christmas in Europe is magic. Cold iciness, early dark, lights everywhere, manger scenes, Christmas markets, mulled wine, and did I say lights everywhere?

And I like that Germany is more about stars, candles, trees and the occasional manger scene, than Santa, elves, reindeer and presents/things. This is a mixture of identifying more with the Christmas imagery that I grew up with, preferring the Christian Christmas message of a Creator’s selfless love in taking on human form to save the world, and reacting to a growing emphasis on Santa et al in New Zealand (which in my mind at worst links to rampant materialism and US colonialism (you may ask why that is worse than earlier British or European colonialism) and at best links to a schmaltzy message to which I don’t relate).

4. Meaningful Christmas
As it does in other parts of my life, our life in China and cross-cultural experience raises the question ‘what does Christmas mean for me?’

My answer is family, love, the beach.

Family, because as a kiwi, Christmas has always been about family time, on the day itself, followed by a long summer holiday together. Over time ‘family’ has changed, starting with my parents and siblings, broadening to include Raymond’s family, growing as we added each of our children, extending as our siblings added partners and children, and most recently increasing as our children choose partners. (And now, just after this Christmas, we celebrate the arrival of our first grandchild which will change it again.)

Love, because as a child I felt particularly loved receiving gifts, in the wider family context on Christmas day, and during our annual beach holiday afterwards. Then, as a teen, when I embraced the Christian message, I found Christmas a time to understand God’s love. Now I blend these two loves at Christmas, and focus on giving more than receiving through the gift-giving process.

Beach. I was surprised to realise this, but when I asked myself what Christmas means to me, the image of a pohutukawa in full bloom with sand and blue sparkling water behind kept popping into my head. This is a consequence of more than 50 years of beach holidays immediately after Christmas. I like the growing trend for kiwis to create Christmas cards and songs that reflect our Christmas reality, such as this year’s Summer Wonderland song.

It was very special, after nearly six months of separation, on Christmas Eve, a day later than planned thanks to aeroplane engine troubles, to have the London-based half of our family join us in Munich. And Christmas morning, we skyped the other half of our family as they finished their Christmas days in Wellington and Blenheim.

We had the Christmas Eve ham dinner I have had ever since I can remember (although I don’t soak the ham for days in the laundry sink like mum did). We did usual things like watching Christmas movies (including a santaish one because our children are a different generation), opening presents and cooking a roast meal, and the unusual thing of popping into Munich city centre for a quick look around – the kids’ only chance given flight delays.

Then we had a week holidaying in Germany and Austria together. Not a beach in sight, but Austrian lakes and mountains make great substitutes.

And, Raymond and I continue to be grateful that our children love us enough to want to holiday with us, including organising most of it and insisting on spkitting costs evenly, make time to skype us, and give us thoughtful presents.
Being exposed to these different Christmases has caused me to reflect on Christmas in a way that I have never done before. In the process, I have discovered I have firmer views than I realised I had, felt more kiwi than I usually do, presumably because of tapping into more than 50 years of positive memories, and understood a bit of how Christmas is evolving across countries and generations.

I will be interested to see what I think in a year’s time and what we all think in 30 years, when our new granddaughter is her dad’s age (any excuse to share a picture).