Bĕijīng – a mixed bag

We have just spent a week in Bĕijīng.  It started badly with disempowering and scamming, then improved greatly, to be pleasantly surprising and wowing.

Disempowered

Our first activity in Bĕijīng was to apply for our Russian visas. In my experience, applying for a visa is one of the world’s more disempowering activities, and the Russian visa process took this to a whole new level. Disempowering factor 1 – we live in Chéngdū where there is no visa office, but we have to turn up in person, so we had to arrange our travel to include a week in Bĕijīng – fortunately not too difficult because we wanted to visit anyway. Disempowering factor 2 – we have to have booked flights and accommodation to get the visa, but if they don’t give us the visa, we can’t use any of it. Disempowering factor 3 – we filled in the online form, and turned up with all our documents as outlined on the website, but felt that the rules about what was and was not okay were being made up as we sat there. Our photos were not on shiny photographic paper so we had to have them redone. New Zealanders don’t need insurance so my person wanted me to change my online form to say that I did not have any. But, I do, I said. I don’t want to lie. I do not understand why we cannot leave it there. Eventually her manager noticed the stroppy woman querying her staff member, came over, and said that while it was not mandatory, I could leave it there. The manager also said, when I insisted that my person go and ask her, that I did not have to redo my online form because the system had added a space in the middle of the six digit postcode on the printed version of my application. Disempowering factor 4 – the prices for New Zealanders are higher than for Chinese people – ‘don’t take any notice of those prices, they are defined by country, yours are higher’. Disempowering factor 5 – ‘we only take cash, and because you didn’t know the price for you is greater, you don’t have enough cash on you. So, off we went to find the nearest ATM. Disempowering factor 6 – because of disempowering factor 1, we can only find out a day before we leave whether or not we have the visas.

Fortunately, we got them yay!

Scammed

After the visa office, we headed off to the Forbidden City and Tiānānmén Square. When we got there, a charming man came up to us and let us know that the Forbidden City is closed on Mondays for repairs. He invited us to go and see an art exhibition’ for free’. We followed him and saw some Chinese art – which he invited us to purchase. Raymond was tempted, but I said no, we already have to much. He showed us ones he had drawn as a ‘student of art at the university’. He then picked up a brush and drew my Chinese name on a piece of paper, suggested I could have it hung on a silk background. I declined, but paid him for my hand written name – more than it was worth, but not so much that we really minded.

We then continued walking, thinking we would get a sense of the lie of the land for our visit the next day. A friendly voice called out hello and we started talking to a couple of teachers from Xiān – one teaching English and one teaching Chines literature – who were in Bĕijīng for training. A friend who was studying Chinese medicine was also with them. They suggested we have a cup of tea together, and we walked to a tea house. They ordered a few different sorts of tea and we had a lovely time conversing about China and New Zealand. They then suggested we have a glass of wine together for Christmas so we did that – with me starting to feel a little uncomfortable. They suggested a second, but by this time, I was starting to feel quite uncomfortable. I had mentioned to Raymond as we traveled on the subway about our friend Rachel’s Bĕijīng story that she had told us last year when we were in London. She and her friends had been scammed by a tea house thing. I started to think maybe we had fallen for it as well – but how could I think that – they were so nice and interesting, and interested, and they were teachers, and they weren’t from Beijjing, so how could they be ripping us off – or were they?

I was starting to do sums in my head of what might be reasonable, while Raymond was blissfully chatting away in we are all friends mode. We were in a separate room, just us, and we had never seen a menu. They suggested we pay half each, and asked for the bill. It was five, or maybe ten, times the going rate! I queried the amount. They brought out the menu with the exorbitant prices on. As they presented the bill , one of them, continuing the friends’ ambience that had sucked us in in the first place, even suggested we exchange emails.

I was gearing up to resist, but Raymond’s ‘we pay bills’ and ‘they are so friendly’ attitudes were in full swing, so he had paid by the time I decided it was exactly the scam Rachel had warned us of. They then had the gall to suggest we go to the Square together, I told them they had ripped us off and stomped off down the road – more annoyed at myself for being so gullible and slow thinking. It is hard to describe how we were so slow to react because of the clever way they treated us like friends, throwing in a bit of flattery. I also think we foreigners (well Raymond and me anyway) can be a little arrogant and assume people want to talk to us, especially because we have English. So, they played on that too.

By the time we were half way down the road, we had worked out what we should have done – but it was too late. It took all my self-control not to go over and over it in my mind for the rest of that day, and some of the next. Two things helped me – ‘it is only money’, and ‘between the four of them they were not making that much money each’. I moved to feeling compassion for how hard up they must be to have to earn their money that way. But, it hurt for a while – how could we fall for it when I had been warning Raymond as we traveled in on the subway, and feeling betrayed by ‘friends’.

It was so different to our experience with the art guy. He clearly wanted to take our money, but in exchange for something, and it was clear what was going on the whole time. He was charming, but not pretending to want to be our friend.

As soon as we got back to our hotel, Raymond checked with his Chinese colleague and friend from school whether or not we could cancel the payment. We couldn’t. But Damon made us laugh when he said ‘I have told you to be careful., and not trust any Chinese, not even me’. Actually, we are grateful for the many positive experiences we have had in Chéngdū, and our friends like Damon.

Here is Raymond still innocent, walking across the bridge, through the archway onto the walkway where we met our ‘friends’, and, the next day, outside the fateful tea house.

Pleasantly surprised

We were pleasantly surprised by Bĕijīng’s air quality. The government, in its new five year plan, is determined to deal with the pollution in Chinese cities, starting with the capital. An example of how quickly things can happen once a decision is made to change things, they recently turned off the coal fires warming Bĕijīng, and switched to natural gas. It certainly worked. Every day was beautiful sunshine and clear blue skies. Although, we heard that the natural gas supply did not quite meet the heating needs of the wider population, so some rural people in this region suffered in cold houses to achieve the environmental targets.  Another interesting example of socialism, north of a certain latitude (Chéngdū is south of this, Bĕijīng is north of this), the Chinese government provides heating free of charge for everybody during the winter months.

We also found the city very easy to get around on the subway. And, like Chéngdū, it has many interesting places and buildings. I think we are turning into big city folk – we like crowds who you can follow to tourist spots, and the convenience of restaurants, shops and transport being close to everywhere you go.

Wowed

Finally, we were wowed by experiencing more of China’s amazing history.

The terrain where the Great Wall stands today was first used about 500BC, and further developed a few hundred years later . Its present form was developed about 700 years ago. Iis so impressive seeing it wind up and down over the hills, and to walk on it thinking how long it has been used to defend this empire. And what an engineering feat it was when it was built. Like other great structures from earlier times, I would not want to have been the manual labour, but it is still mind blowing in its achievement.

Then, the history of the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace fascinated us – especially because we both recently read of the Empress Dowager Cixi who influenced China in the second half of the 19th century and the first quarter of the twentieth. She and her sons lived in these two palaces so we walked around the Summer Palace lake picturing her having walked the same path. It was sad to read of how the Europeans destroyed some of the grandeur of both of these buildings in the mid 1800s. Empress Cixi really wanted to restore the grandeur of the Summer Palace – allegedly stealing money from the Chinese navy to do it.

It was moving to stand in Tiānānmén Square. It was quite empty and cold, but we reflected on that moment in history that we westerners remember. The National Museum on the edge of the Square was not so impressive. The building is amazing, but the building’s design seemed to make it hard to find exhibits, and those we did find were not as informative, or national, as others we have seen elsewhere.

We also went to an acrobatic show. It was traditional Chinese acrobatics, such as I remember from circuses coming to Auckland in the early 70s. But, it is always great to see what people can do with their bodies, the total trust these teams have to have of their fellow acrobats – such as when they had seven motorbikes riding around in a relatively small metal sphere, or nine women riding on one bicycle. I was reminded that China is where many of those traditional forms of entertainment began.

So, a mixed experience – a day of humility followed by three days of wonder.

 

Advertisements

You know China is changing you when …

A little while ago, I read a blog ’50 ways a foreigner becomes more Chinese’. I identified with nearly half of them (I didn’t do so well on the Chinese spouse, son fluent in Chinese, or ones to do with China’s drinking culture). I also had some more of my own to add.

First, those I identified with from his blog are (using italics to show the bits from his blog):

  1. While mystified the first time I was served a glass of hot water, I now like it, especially in winter. I can go a step further and share my work tea habit. I put half a packet of green tea in my cup and add hot water from the shared water stand throughout the day until, at the end of the day, it is almost hot water.
  2. I know the Chinese zodiac sign I was born under – (rat).
  3. Seldom worry about personal safety, even walking in big cities at night.
  4. Have a Chinese keyboard on my phone – now I use this to input place names into the Chinese maps app, to practice ‘spelling’ words on my flashcards, and to write messages in Chinese to my language partner.
  5. Grocery shop using my bicycle – the bike sharing apps that have taken China by storm since we arrived are brilliant for travelling the distance to our nearest big supermarket.
  6. Have to remember to tip when I am traveling abroad – well as a kiwi, I was like that anyway, but I love that we don’t have to tip here either.
  7. Wonder why public spaces there look so empty – this really resonated. On my recent trip to New Zealand, I couldn’t believe how empty Queen St in the centre of Auckland looked
  8. Smile automatically when I see a small child, and may ask a baby’s age or name – I have just started saying hello to children, more for their parents who tend to be so delighted their child can practice English with a native speaker, and it is just nice to connect.
  9. Consider vendor’s prices only a reference point for haggling – at the shops around our food market. But, we are not very good at it, mainly because we feel so wealthy in comparison. We have learned that if we pay full price, they feel obliged to give us a gift or a bit of a discount anyway.
  10. Use the China Union Pay card: I never leave home without it – this is only different because this is the dominant ATM system here, which I had never heard of before. More than that, we have become a couple who hardly ever use a card or cash. Our most common form of payment now is Alipay using our phones and QR codes.
  11. Love tearjerker Chinese history dramas on TV – I started watching my first one to help my language learning. I watch it when Raymond is away and am about 15 episodes in. I don’t understand much of the Chinese, but can pick up enough to become engrossed in the story. I cried when the heroine threw herself into the grave of the hero who died rather suddenly (it is alright, they dragged her back out). I think he was poisoned on the orders of the guy who always looks smugly evil and keeps a falcon in a cage – no idea why he wanted him dead. I love the costumes and the dramatization of ancient China – think Downton Abbey set in China. I recently found out that the kick ass heroine is based on a real person – even better.
  12. Calculate, automatically, yuan equivalents of dollar prices in my head – we now switch between both worlds, earning in yuan and using yuan daily for over a year, but still using NZD as the definitive reference for cheap or expensive, it helps that multiplying and dividing by five is so easy.
  13. Am amazed at how much stuff costs in Western countries – well food anyway. I am sometimes surprised by how cheap other stuff is, and sometimes surprised by how expensive things can be, like that beautiful NZD2,000 dress I tried on when hunting for a dress for Aaron and Sally’s wedding. There is the full range of stuff here, but food is very cheap, except when going to a western restaurant, which we seldom do.
  14. Make fun of western ‘Chinese food’ back home – and wonder what Chinese people make of it – they probably feel how I felt when I couldn’t even eat the burger at Lìjiāng airport.
  15. Keep transit card on me at all times – I am going to miss the public transport so much when I return to New Zealand.
  16. Check air pollution conditions several times a day –as a Bĕijīnger this guy has to do this all year round (although this seems to have changed recently) – in Chéngdū we only do this for the three winter months.
  17. Check Wechat throughout the day, make phone calls on Wechat – my lifeblood here, crucial for work and social connections, used ahead of email by locals. Most days I discipline myself to look at Facebook in the morning in case someone has said something important.
  18. Love candied crabapples – tart on the inside and sweet on the outside
  19. Have no problem with squat toilets, which actually are more natural – in fact, now I choose to use the squat toilet at work because it is a form of regular exercise, and I think being able to squat to rest in your old age would be amazing.
  20. Surprised and dismayed by how little the world knows about China – and how ignorant and wrong I used to be. Somehow I absorbed an image in the 1970s of it as backward, boring and miserable, supported by images of everyone wearing drab blue matching outfits. How wrong can one be!
  21. Stare briefly at anyone who doesn’t appear to be Chinese on buses, subways or aeroplanes – because we are usually the only westerners somewhere, and we can’t see ourselves, so looking at a westerner seems increasingly weird.

My additions are

  1. China is my reference point when travelingduring my recent trips to Vietnam and New Zealand, I observed myself comparing what I was seeing to Chengdu and China. I was fascinated by Vietnam’s link to China through the centuries, including seeing Chinese characters in its temples. As for Europe, it is obvious that there have been changing borders and various invasions and resisting those invasions. But, I was so unaware of it, with my view of Vietnamese history being limited to the Eurocentric French colonising and American meddling, only a tenth of the just under 1,000 years that China ruled Vietnam.
  1. See New Zealand with new eyeseven on my last trip to New Zealand, I viewed Auckland, Rotorua and Palmerston North through Chinese eyes – not so much Wellington because it is so familiar after living there for 30 years that my ‘I feel so at home’ process kicked in. I was surprised how unsophisticated I felt these places were. I was especially struck by Queen St, the centre of our biggest city, having hardly any high buildings, virtually no shops and looking so deserted. So many people were wearing black, and track pants and running shoes were more common than smart casual in the middle of town. I think I was particularly sensitive to this because I am advising potential students and many want to go to Auckland because they like big cities. I will have to work on managing their expectations. If anything, Wellington was more bustling in its city centre. Of course, New Zealand is also stunningly beautiful everywhere, and has clear blue skies, real wind and rain.
  1. Feel defensive on China’s behalfwhen our dear friends from New Zealand visited, I observed another thing about myself. I want people to like our new home and be interested in it – even if they are not as fascinated as we are. But, they weren’t. They were just here to visit us and understand our lives here, which is of course nice in its own way. And, when we were on the bus coming down from Éméi Shān traveling beside the longest traffic jam I have ever seen winding its way up the two lane highway, Lawrie quite reasonably suggested a wider road would be desirable. I found myself feeling quite defensive on China’s behalf. China is actually big enough to look after itself, and like New Zealand is imperfect. But, in the way that I love New Zealand and want people to see how amazing it is, I have similarly become emotionally attached to China as my second home.
  1. Fascinated by ChinaI continue to be an avid student of all things China. Most of my spare time is spent learning the language. I keenly observe everything around me and try to talk to others to find out more and more. It can be exhausting, but is also rewarding.

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.

 

 

 

 

Things I learned in Vietnam

In July, we spent three weeks traveling in Vietnam with four of our special kiwi friends. It was an amazing, wonderful, fun, informative time. Traveling is always eye-opening, but I think Raymond’s and my learning antennae are sharper because of our permanent state of being different. Also, we six friends all enjoy reflecting on similarities and differences, and we had a lot of time to do this together. So, I came away with a number of lessons learned.

Enoughness

We went on a number of tours with local guides who all talked about how much is enough to live on – loosely translated as ‘you can feed and house your family and look after your parents’. I think New Zealanders tend to be more content than other western cultures, because most of us grow up with enough, we tend to prioritise lifestyle and family over things within our environment of having enough, and many amazing experiences are affordable for the majority. However, our group discussed how enoughness is not a conversation one has in New Zealand, even though we tend to have much more than the Vietnamese we saw around us. We thought it is probably a consequence of a history of not having enough, followed by relatively recent equal distribution of things under the communist government. Given recent moves by the communist government to have a system where individual effort brings rewards and there is equality but not sameness, it will be interesting to see if enoughness continues within this more free market environment.

Some things are worth fighting for

Visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels outside Ho Chi Minh made me reflect on how I might have responded to the same situation. For 20 years, the locals resisted the US forces and their fellow countrymen fighting with them. Over this time, men and women lived in a claustrophobic network of underground tunnels. I could hardly handle being in there for 10 minutes.  They would have been in perpetual heightened awareness from continually being at risk of their lives. And they had to keep evolving new ways of resisting, attacking and surviving to keep their country. And it must have been discouraging seeing so much of the countryside you know and love destroyed by Agent Orange etc. For 20 years! I am not sure I would have been able to do it. But, it worked, it was worth it, and now both sides are rebuilding their country together.

Some things are worth forgiving

Given the relatively recent history of north fighting south, you might expect hints of lingering resentment.  But it was not apparent – when in the north or the south. Our guides were younger and would not have fought themselves, but relatives would still be alive who fought on either side. Maybe guides tend to toe the party line, or people who are resentful don’t become guides. It seemed that ethnicity was a stronger factor in peoples’ identities than which side you were on in the American War. Our guides tended to be Kinh, Vietnam’s dominant ethnicity, and genuine in seeming proud of Vietnam as one great country. We also visited Sapa in the far north where various other ethnicities live together. Our Hmong guide focused on explaining local culture, and didn’t communicate any resentment.

Winners eventually become losers

I have a smattering of European history and tend to be quite ignorant of Asian history, having been primarily exposed to European history through school and readily available books. But traveling helps embed things for me. For example, when we were in a museum in Vienna last Christmas, I truly understood for the first time why killing an Austrian ruler started World War 1. Being surrounded by evidence of the power of the Austro-Hungarian empire at that time, I finally got it.

Our guide to the My Son Sanctuary , out from Hoi An, showed us an infographic map of the area when this amazing building was built. The map changed to show how the situation changed when they were conquered (I did search for it to share here, but to no avail.).  I had one of those epiphany moments where I thought – of course, the borders kept changing here just like in Europe. Duh!

And I hadn’t realised that the Chinese ruled Vietnam for just over 1,000 years – from 111BC to 938AD. That explains the Chinese characters on the older buildings. Chinese characters were used until the 19th Century when the French changed everyone over to a phonetic system using the Roman alphabet – the change being accelerated by education becoming more prevalent. And I recognised several words, for example, when my dressmaker told her colleague to ask Ros to come and give me advice on the dress I was getting made, I understood her say ‘friend’ because it is the same as Chinese. Given my small Chinese vocabulary, I was surprised to know any, but it turns out over a third of modern Vietnamese has naturalised word borrowings from Chinese.

This Champa kingdom of My Son, which I had never heard of, ruled for about 1200 years, before being forced off their land and into the hill country by north Vietnamese who came down and invaded.  The collection of buildings at My Son was built over a 1,000 year period – 4th to 14th centuries AD, rediscovered in an almost pristine state in the early 1900’s, and then almost destroyed by a week of US bombing in the War.

And then the French control of Vietnam, the bit I already knew about, was such a blip in Vietnam’s history – 1885 to mid 1900s – not even 100 years in a country with 5,000 years of chronicled history.

This lesson seems particularly poignant now, as we seem to have a changing of the guard globally with the balance of power shifting from the West where I grew up, to the East where I am living now.

Age alone is not an excuse

One of the highlights of the trip for me was canyoning in Da Lat. When I read about it, I thought at least five of us would want to do it, so was surprised when only Christine and I did. I was standing with Raymond when I told the guy behind the counter that only two of our group would do the trip. He looked at Raymond and asked if it was him. I said ‘No, me and that woman’, pointing to Christine. He didn’t bat an eyelid (and I know because I was looking closely at them).

The day after the canyoning trip, we had the same person as our guide for the weasel coffee, cricket and silkworm eating, cycling trip. I asked him if he had been concerned when he understood who was going to do the canyoning trip. He confessed ‘yes’. But he hastened to add that when his colleague returned, his colleague had told him that we had been fine and had been better at walking through the bush than the younger people in our group. He then asked me how old I was and, when I told him, said that my age made me the oldest woman to do the trip with his company. I felt pleased, but also glad I had not told myself that I might be too old for it, because I toyed with thinking that.

I am similarly pleased that I did not listen to the voice in my head that says I might be too old to live in China, or to learn Chinese. Research is coming out saying that voices like that might contribute to people getting dementia because we stop learning and laying down new neural pathways to give our brains a better chance of finding an alternative route to damaged pathways. And I think learning and doing new stuff is much more fun.

My good friend Trish sent me an article about a female astronaut our age who holds a number of records and just broke another one earlier this month. And Julian, our friend here who is a fount of all knowledge, said that the guy who is presently winning veteran marathons didn’t start running marathons until he was in his 60s.

There will be things I can’t do as I get older. For example, I decided not to enter a fun run next month because my achilles tendons started to hurt when I was training. But I want to be a person who does not listen to any voice in my head where the only reason not to do something is ‘my age’.

Special friends are … well … special

In one way it was a bit risky deciding to travel for three weeks with our four friends.  We have counted Christine and Lawrie as special friends for nearly 30 years. We raised our children together, including our families holidaying together over Labour Weekend for many of those years. We have known Ros and Colin for half that time but also count them as two of our most special friends.

We only introduced the four of them to one another a couple of years ago and the longest we had holidayed together was for one weekend. But, yes we could trust our instincts. It was so lovely to see them again after being away from New Zealand for a year, and we had one of the best holidays of our lives.

We only had one tense moment – when I had not checked my emails, and our flight to Da Lat turned out to be changed to an hour earlier (who does that?), so we only just made it onto the plane, and Lawrie lost his Swiss army knife because we couldn’t take it on to the plane as carry on. I apologised, and he forgave me. It was not helped by the fact that I had also not booked extra luggage for that flight so had to go off to pay extra when we had so little time, and when we got to our hotel it turned out that I had misunderstood another email and not paid a 50% deposit to hold the rooms. So we had nowhere to stay – and it was raining. We soon found somewhere up the road but three ‘fails’ in the space of a few hours was definitely the lowest point of the trip for me – but my special friends forgave me, made me a cup of tea, joked, left Raymond and me alone to solve it, and mentioned it over the rest of the trip just enough times to still be funny.

I remember my mum, after she was retired, talking about her travels with her special friends – in New Zealand and overseas. We are not quite retired, but we do have more discretionary time and independent children. While we still love holidaying with our children, it is a different experience traveling with others our age and stage. Having  had such a marvelous time, I am thrilled to know that we also have four special people with whom we can build memories – for up to at least four weeks at a time anyway.

So, an eclectic bunch of new insights – some personal and could be learned anywhere, others Vietnam specific, I continue to learn and grow. What a privilege!

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.

 

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.

roller-coaster

Symptoms

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.

Reasons

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.

Solutions

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!

Post-script

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.