端午节 Dragon Boat Festival

It is now four weeks since Dragon Boat Festival and I finally have a chance to blog about it, before the memories fade completely.

端午节 means ‘double fifth festival’ and is so called because it falls on the fifth day of the fifth month. However, the date follows the moon driven Chinese calendar so this year it fell on 30 May. Raymond had four days off school – Sat 27 May to Tues 30 May.

Saturday we blobbed as for any weekend, went out for dinner with a couple of kiwis from one of  Brightsparks’ partner schools, and packed for our first ever camping expedition.

Raymond is on holiday in New Zealand as I write, but has promised to blog next week, before we both go to Vietnam, about his work experiences in China. However (spoiler alert), I can tell you that he is finding new opportunities for professional development stimulating and enjoyable. One of those new things is being part of the team introducing the Duke of Edinburgh (D of E) award to Lemàn.

Raymond and the other two members of the D of E team had organised this camping trip to check out a possible location to which to take the students. I along with sundry other camping-interested staff and various significant others tagged along for the experience.  As always, not speaking the language introduces challenges and the teachers need to go with a local guide for ease and safety, so she also was being checked out. This is about taking 20 students away overnight, with the aim of stretching and developing but still bringing them back alive.

So we got up early Sunday morning and headed in on the metro to where we were all meeting the van, setting off from town about 8am, aiming to stop for lunch on the way and, based on it being a four hour trip, arrive early afternoon. Lesson #1, do not travel during a national holiday. Our 4+1 hour trip doubled to ten hours.

Initially, we made good progress, but the first clue things would take longer was when the off ramp we wanted to take was closed because of work being done in a tunnel on that road. So, we, along with all the other people who would have preferred to go that way, inched forward, eventually coming to a stand still. We played cards, talked, joked together, and people watched. Some people got out and stretched their legs, or took their children for a stroll. One elderly woman found the wait too long, and climbed over the metal railing beside the road to relieve herself behind her daughter’s strategically held umbrella. It turned out we were merging from one lane to two, to go through another tunnel which was also being worked on – not while we were going through, but the big earth moving equipment sat there meaning no vehicles could go in the right hand lane.

After we were through the tunnel, the traffic moved well. Our next delay, close to our final destination was when a couple of guards stopped us to check our tickets for the tourist area we were heading into. Our guide, a petite young woman, who much of the way had been snoozing up the front by our driver, was very impressive the way she stood up to the three men in uniform. She insisted that we were not going as far as the area for which you need tickets, so should not pay for them. The stand off continued for a while, ending with a compromise where she bought some tickets that we did not need, and they did not insist that we purchase the full number.


So, we arrived about 6pm. We explored down by the river, then all chose flattish spaces without rocks to put up our tents, and gathered firewood for our campfire. We drove in the van back to the nearby village to eat dinner in a small local restaurant, with meat hanging overhead and the warmth of the big wood oven heating the room. Back to our campsite and toasting marshmallows over the fire, before all heading to our tents to sleep. It was surprisingly comfortable with just a thin bed roll between us and the ground. The grassish plant was quite spongy and added softness, and we managed to avoid the stones – and snakes! Coming from a country without snakes, Raymond was a bit startled when a student found, and shared, a massive snake at school. It made him rethink camping in China – but so far so good.


Raymond and I were first up (mainly because he felt a bit nauseous and started the day throwing up – we never did work out why, as everyone else was ok), and we enjoyed a brisk morning walk along the road before the others got up. Then we all packed up our overnight homes and returned to the village for breakfast. Afterwards, our hosts brought our horses and we set off up the mountain, some walking and some riding. Raymond still wasn’t feeling 100%, so he walked the whole way, and I was feeling lazy so I rode the whole way. At the top, I still got enough opportunity to exercise to enjoy the stunning views of the valley and snow covered mountains. We relaxed up the top for a while, then meandered down the hill before rejoining the horses for the final flat section, and back to the village.


Lunch was Sìchuān Hotpot – a mild version for we westerners at one table and a spicier version for locals at the other table. Hotpot is very popular over here in the south west, and the ultimate in Sìchuān food. It is like a spicy fondue. You have hot oil and chillies in a large centrally heated container on the table. The restaurant brings finely sliced meat and vegetables, which you pick up with your chopsticks and put in the shared vat until they are cooked, then pick them out and eat them. As you might imagine, we novice chopstick users sometimes lose our treasures or cook them for longer than we need to while we fish around for where they might have gone. One of our group does not like any spiciness. Our guide said that she could do what locals do with children – have a bowl of hot water by her plate and wash the spicy oil off the meat and vegetables. She did this until her water turned red, replacing it with clear water as required. I asked when locals introduce their children to the hot spicy food. “At least by four years old, because they need to eat in the cafeteria when they start school.” When eating with locals, we have learned to say that we don’t like hot food. If we say, as we did at the beginning, that we like a bit of heat, they provide food that we think is really hot. If we say, we don’t like it hot, we get food that we think has a nice kick to it.

(To give an idea of hotpot’s popularity, I recently took a kiwi visitor to the Tibetan Quarter. We wanted to try Tibetan food for dinner. However, all we could find were hotpot restaurants full of people. We finally found a Tibetan restaurant with a couple of customers but nobody appeared to serve us. Eventually, we made do with steak, and fish and chips, in a restaurant that turned out to be less Tibetan than it looked from the outside.)

Back in the van and a six hour trip back. The same tunnel was a bit of a bottle neck and we slowed down as we got near the city, but it was not nearly as long as our journey there.

Tuesday was the official holiday. Like me, you might have thought that this festival would include seeing dragon boating. Possibly there was some happening, but we never heard of it. Our only festival specific activity was eating 粽子(zòngzi) – pyramid-shaped dumplings made of glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves. We had both been given them from our workplaces, in their not so traditional vacuum sealed plastic wrapping. We looked on the internet to see how to cook them, using our steamer that we bought for making steamed dumplings with the dumpling casings we see at our local market. Zòngzi were okay – glad we tried them, but won’t rush to buy them. I did wonder if little children remember them fondly because they are little parcels tied up with string and have different fillings so you don’t know what will be inside them – like my memory of my grandmother’s Christmas pudding.


Raymond’s school also gave us a salted duck egg, another festival delicacy. Our egg was salted by being packed in damp, salted charcoal, which we had to chip off. We read online that salting it not only preserves it, but is a way to disguise the strong duck egg smell – not in our experience! I nearly threw up when I breathed just after the charcoal came off, and Raymond, who is usually more willing to give things a go, rejected it immediately.


So, our first dragon boat festival was interesting and pleasant, but did not remotely resemble the images, based on our daughter’s dragon boating in New Zealand, that my mind conjured up when I read the words on Raymond’s school calendar.

We have been here almost a year. It has gone so quickly. We have experienced the full cycle of festivals, seasons, and events. So much seems normal, so much still to learn. What surprises are in store for us in our second year?


Roller coaster low

Last week on Wednesday, about ten months in to our adventure, I hit a low and I don’t fully understand why. It came out of the blue and this blog is written on Thursday  – me processing what was happening inside me as part of helping myself through it. I needed to wait a couple of days to post it.  I wanted to provide the context of my Working in China #1 post, which I was part way through writing. And  it seemed prudent to check I had not written things I would later regret when I felt more positive – but no editing, this is how it was.



The last few days I have been fragile and getting weepy at everything – Sally sending a link to their beautiful wedding photos from February, mothers day messages from my children, a messaging conversation with my son, my business partners postponing a meeting, the air conditioning not working at work and struggling to find a fan, a Chinese colleague not able to understand my English then telling me not to use my Chinese to talk to him, being alone in my office because my colleague is away, Raymond being caring, Raymond not being caring, my Chinese friend postponing lunch, still working on Brightsparks marketing materials after six months.


I think it is harder than I admit to myself to navigate the various things I am having to navigate while we are here. My strength is that I relish taking on new things, attack them with vigour, am quite self-motivated, and persevere when they get difficult. My weakness is that I am not good at reading signs of stress in myself or being honest with myself when things are difficult. Weepiness is the only way I realise it is happening.

I had already admitted to myself a couple of things were a bit tricky for me at work – working across cultures and language, and starting a business from scratch.  Last time I set up a company, I had a partner with similar expertise who was also a good friend, a few big jobs to start us off, and a wide support network, some of whom were also starting out on their own. And I knew the language and all the rules, so I could work quickly and efficiently on my own or with others. This time, I am the only one with the specialist knowledge of New Zealand education, so I need to work at a level of detail that I find emotionally draining. I am still building my network here, so my fewer connections are not so able to offer ‘help, I am struggling’ support in the way my New Zealand colleagues who were also friends could. Some of my colleagues do not have good English, and understandably, they have other priorities. And I don’t know the language or rules.

However, I have different support here. I have two great business partners with expertise that I can never have to help me navigate China, an amazing colleague who is working for love like I am while we have no revenue, a wonderful graphic designer who is also my daughter to develop our website, and my business partners’ wider team who are researching, translating, applying, and designing, as well as giving me a business roof over my head and standard office support.

I think the straw that has broken the camels’ back is moving office space to be just the two of us, rather than in a larger office with all the other ex-pats chatting around me, followed by my colleague going back to the US for a few weeks. I find people energising, and writing marketing materials de-energising. And, my closest people connections, the conversations through the wall, are in Chinese so I can’t even sneak some energy through eaves-dropping. Above a certain volume, it becomes irritating noise distracting me from my writing.

So I am feeling lonely during the week. Raymond and I are in the groove of arranging social activities each weekend.  These friendships are at the new and exciting stage, which is nice, but different to the comfortable, we have known you guys for years, friendships we enjoy in New Zealand and Australia.

Post weepiness reflection, I think my ‘but I love new things and puzzles’ brain might be a bit worn out too. I am spending every spare moment trying to learn Chinese on top of my work challenges and my ‘moving to a very different country’ challenges. Sometimes driving along on the bus, I say to my brain ‘stop, just relax, don’t keep trying to work out those characters, or what she (the automated woman voice, not the woman in the next seat) is saying’. But, with all the stimuli, it seems hard to turn my brain off.  (Although, generally Chinese language learning is quite energising for me – I have always liked doing puzzles to relax.) Maybe not knowing what is going on is more what is taking its toll. I do like to know what is going on.

And, things are more normal. We have our weekly routine, we are traveling regularly, but spend weekends just blobbing here as we would anywhere. It is good and important to do this, but it might mean less adrenaline to keep me going.

And I miss my special people – say no more.


Blog – to help me analyse what is happening, listen to my body, accept I am who I am, remember what really matters to me, and act to achieve that. (Been very therapeutic.)

Use my support network, be honest and ask for help. I have the best husband I could hope for, friends and family here and across the world to call on, others here who are going, or have gone, through similar things – and my belief in a God who is always with me, cares and will listen.

Remind myself most of the work stuff is temporary. My colleague will be back in a week or two, the marketing materials are almost done, the next stage is much more relational, we might be moving offices soon.

Remember what I have achieved, and set realistic goals. Obviously, the timelines for having the materials done, and for being able to relate effectively to others in Chinese were unrealistic. I am making progress.

Embrace the learning – that is a big part of why we are here!


By Friday I was much better – blogging, talking to my friend in NZ for over two hours (mixture of laughing and crying), good progress on our partners booklet, lunch and a positive meeting about a new opportunity with my business partners, and Raymond’s support, all did the trick.

Working in China #1 (Terry)

One of the reasons we chose China ahead of Turkey and Malawi, where Raymond also got job offers, was that we believed there would be better work opportunities for me.

I had worked in vocational education for nearly 20 years, including international business development, and consulting – off shore and virtually in New Zealand. International education is New Zealand’s fourth largest export earner, and Chinese students choosing to study in New Zealand is the largest contributor to that. I thought I might be able to work in China, work virtually for a New Zealand company, or consult in the broader Asian region. I had had conversations back in New Zealand that made me feel optimistic about this.

Yes and no.

Once we got a bit settled I started networking and concluded that

  • I could work in China but a local job would be relatively poorly paid and mean I could not travel with Raymond in his many holidays, or have much time for learning Chinese
  • the New Zealand Consulate values my skills and experience but there were no NZ government opportunities in the short term
  • consulting might be an option, but again nothing immediately.

However, one opportunity popped up. I sought job hunting advice from a kiwi who has lived here for 25 years. He and his Chinese wife bring a wealth of experience, having run a business here for many years, and having helped many kiwi and other western companies enter the Chinese market.

After I shared my CV, and we met a couple of times, they invited me to go into business with them. It turns out that just before I arrived they had been approached by a group of New Zealand education providers to represent them in south west China. They were already seriously interested in this opportunity, and then I arrived with complementary skills to complete the leadership team. It appealed to me because I

  • would be working semi-locally with the chance to grow cross-culturally while not being fully immersed
  • could learn from two experienced mentors
  • could work flexibly i.e. still study Chinese, travel with Raymond, and consider small consulting opportunities if they arose.

The only downside was working for nothing initially (length of time still to be confirmed).

Brightsparks was born!

How have I found it? Long term readers of my blog will be able to predict the answer – a roller coaster.


  • having people to interact with during the day (I got lonely being a lady of leisure, even though I was initiating social connections as much as I could)
  • the stimulation of working and using my brain to work out stuff as one does in any job
  • the chance to problem solve and innovate,  and create something of quality from scratch
  • meeting interesting people and feeling more interesting myself
  • growing understanding of international education and the global world in which graduates will be working
  • growing understanding of doing business here, particularly as I work with my business partners
  • working on our website with my daughter, and seeing that she is not just amazing personally, but professionally as well
  • working with my volunteering colleague, without whom I might have gone crazy during the set-up phase of the work – she is bilingual, competent, unphased by China, and fun company
  • being flexible and autonomous in my work.

Lows –

  • challenges of starting from scratch, and always having to push myself, never being pulled
  • not having the language
  • working across cultural differences.

Every day it would be easier if I could speak Chinese. Work communication can be challenging enough in your own language. My first big success was asking in Chinese ‘Please give me the logo. Do you have my ’email’?’. Wahoo! I have tended to work through my bilingual colleague to get IT issues sorted, although recently she has been away and IT guy and I have had to cope on our own. Me starting with ‘please help me’ in Chinese, and seeing if he can work it out from there before bringing in the reinforcements, has worked surprisingly well.

Working cross-culturally is harder than in your own culture, which, again, can be challenging enough at work. I can’t trust what comes naturally, I don’t even know the rules well enough to consciously decide to work within them, and sometimes I have to accept things that from my perspective are not good.

A good example of all this was developing the Brightsparks brochure. The local graphic designer was working on it, guided by the branding on our new website, which my daughter Bek had developed. I worked closely with her by distance and loved the final result, although we have things we want to add to make it even better in phase two.

By contrast, to my eye, the first version of the brochure looked terrible – bright yellow with red writing, purple circle graphics to communicate about our process, crowded rather than simply elegant, and nothing that matched the website branding built on lovely New Zealand natural colours. I tried to think of something positive to say.

Quick checking with other young staff in the office confirmed the graphic designer’s view that young Chinese think bright yellow is much cooler than elegant blue. He stuck to his guns about some other elements too.

Over the next week, through my bilingual colleagues we discussed options, but relying on Chinese whispers I was never sure what was getting through about vision, messaging or branding – all things that it is easier to have iterative conversations about over a period of time. I am having to work out what I think on my own more than I used to. My natural style is bouncing ideas around.

We finally arrived at a halfway house that we are all happy with. The graphic designer added the two tone blue and kite imagery from the website, and some pictures of New Zealand apart from the Auckland sky tower. The trendy cartoon purple circles and red writing remain, ‘sandy’ yellow replaces sunset orange in the logo and will be added where possible to the website, and the front of the brochure is less cluttered.

And I am still not 100% sure what it says.

It was an interesting experience. What do I insist on, and what do I let go? As a non-Chinese older person developing a brochure for a young Chinese audience, I have to listen to others. But I decided good practice anywhere in the world means consistent branding.  And all the time, I need to depend on conversations happening in another language around me.

No wonder things take longer.

The good news is that late last week, the same graphic designer shared his first version of the front and back covers and first four pages of our present project – our partners booklet. I was prepared to have a similar experience as with the brochure. But we are all learning. I looked at it and was able to say what I had just learned in my Chinese lesson that morning – 完美 (wánmĕi – perfect)! He and my bilingual helper both smiled.

My only suggestion – let’s add a little bit of bright yellow!


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.






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!


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).

Generous spirit

When we first arrived in China, I was concerned that we would be ripped off by locals. We had traveled in Asia enough to know that westerners can be seen as fair game/are not good at negotiating, so assumed this would be our experience in China. However, it has been the opposite. Last week, we enjoyed a series of generous gestures from local friends and strangers and it made quite an impression on us both.

Firstly, Raymond arrived at work on Monday morning to a small gift from Damon, his Chinese friend who is the IT guy at Raymond’s school – a few extras for both our cellphones – including screen covers because he knew that Raymond had recently paid to get his cracked screen fixed (turns out your screen cracks when your phone falls from the bed onto the floor up Mt Everest, at over 5,000 meters). It was unexpected, thoughtful, and we were both very touched.

Secondly, we needed to replace the battery for our scooter after the battery stealing incident. Raymond found one in a motorbike shop near our friends who live down south, but realised, when he lifted one of the six cells, how heavy they are and decided he needed a vehicle to transport them. So he contacted Joe, the driver we use, who I have also mentioned in an earlier blog.  Joe researched places near us to purchase batteries, picked Raymond up, drove him to the shop he had found, negotiated with the shop owner to have his technician come back to our place to help install the battery, worked with Raymond and the technician to install it, took the technician back to the shop, and later picked up the temporary charger the shop had given us until the new one was available (don’t ask), took it back to the shop and went out to the school to give Raymond our new one. And Raymond had to fight him to pay extra for all his time helping, and Joe simply refused to be paid the second time.

Thirdly, last Saturday at our local markets over the river, we had several experiences of strangers being generous.

I have already shared that in the market people are honest, returning extra money that we accidentally give them – because of still getting 50 and 5 kuài notes confused, or mishearing the amount. They also round down rather than up for sub- kuài amounts and can insist on returning change that we try to give back to them. Last Saturday, I had quite a tussle with the banana seller trying to get her to keep the equivalent of NZD10c, before deciding it was not worth the effort fighting.  Last night, I asked a fluent Chinese speaking friend how to say ‘keep the change’. I will see how that goes next weekend.

We usually buy meat, fruit and vegetables. However, last weekend, we also wanted to find nails and wire so that we could hang up our impulse buy painting from the fundraiser bazaar silent auction a few weekends ago.


So, we wandered through the many small specialist shops around the food market. Here, you can buy all sorts of clothing, all sorts of things for inside a house, such as pots and pans, cutlery, crockery, cooking utensils, and all sorts of things to make a house, such as tiles, wood, toilets – and nails and wire.

While searching for hardware shops, I noticed a cute baby’s outfit that made me think of our first, yet-to-be-born grandchild. We stopped to look, the charming shop assistant came up to help, and ten minutes later we were buying it. She took our money, ducked to the back of her shop and returned with a little pair of socks for no extra charge. We did wonder if others bargain and she was filled with such remorse that we had just paid the asking price. Either way, it was not necessary, it had been a very pleasant exchange, and we were all happy.

We then refocused and found a shop that looked like it might have nails, I looked up the word for nails, and asked if they had any. No, but he pointed to another shop over the road/dirt track, and we went in there. They had them, but they were too big. Raymond mimed screwing in a screw and they produced a box of screws just the right size. I said we would like 20, because it seemed unfortunate to only buy two when they were being so helpful, and we may need a few more as we want to rearrange our other paintings. Both our friendly assistants laughed at such a small order, tipped the box, poured a handful into Raymond’s hand, and mimed that we did not need to pay anything.

We then went around the corner and found a shop selling wire. As I started in Chinglish, a woman appeared who could speak English and offered to help us communicate. She told one of the men sitting out the front of the shop that we wanted a couple of meters from the coil of the skinniest wire. He picked up that coil out of the bunch beside him on the dirt at the front of the shop and pulled out a pre-cut length. We decided that was too short, he cut a new longer bit, and said a few words to her. She said, ‘he said it is fine in English’, so no money exchanged hands there either.

Finally, last Sunday, we made the most of our new battery, and rode our scooter out to our friends half an hour south of here. We had been unable to find a place to buy helmets here, so returned to the shop close to our friends. The brakes were not working too well, so I asked them to help us, leading them out in front of the shop where the bike was parked to point to the brakes. Both assistants grabbed screwdrivers, took the front of the bike off with the air of two who knew exactly what they were doing, squirted brake fluid in the right places and fixed it right then and there. When I came to pay for the helmets (NZD10 each), he made it clear that there was no extra cost for fixing the bike.


Each of these things is relatively small, but by the end of the one week, we were feeling quite overwhelmed. On Sunday, I shared these stories with another kiwi who has lived here for a couple of years, but lived in Bĕijīng for a number of years previously. He said that this is more of a Sìchuān attitude, and we might not find the same generosity over on the east coast.

So, we are very glad to have ended up over here on the west, and have had another lesson in not making assumptions about others, particularly those from other cultures, thinking the best of people until you have reason not to, forming views based on your own experience, and celebrating the Godness in all of us.