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.

Dūjiāngyàn irrigation project

I have already posted about my fascination with China’s amazing history. This includes the more than two thousand year old irrigation system in Dūjiāngyàn, about an hour train ride from Chéngdū. This engineering feat was key to the Sìchuān region in which we live becoming the food basket of China and consequently important in China’s history.

As shown in the animation below, during the ‘Warring States’ period (453-221BC), the Qín province gradually took over the rest of China, unifying it for the first time and creating the short-lived Qín dynasty (221-207BC). The Emperor of this dynasty was the one with the ego massive enough to conquer the whole country and employ millions of people to create the terracotta army to look after him in the next life. It doesn’t seem that he was a very pleasant man. For example, when visiting the terracotta soldiers in Xīān, we heard that the advanced chrome plating technology died when he did because he made sure that the technical experts were buried alive in his tomb. However, he clearly encouraged and drew upon technological advances and we can thank his ego for contributing to our present understanding of the sophistication of Chinese culture and technology at that time.

Towards the end of this Warring States period, around 256 BC, the state of Qín, which by this time was large and aggressive, created the Dūjiāngyàn irrigation system to conserve water in the dry season and manage floods in the wet season.

Originally, each spring as the snow melted, the Mínjiāng (‘jiāng’ means river) rushed down from the Mínshān (shān means mountains) flooding the Chéngdū Plains, once it hit the silt filled flatlands. Traditionally, the solution would have been to build a dam, but the river needed to stay open to allow boats to take food to the troops conquering more lands in the east. The irrigation project harnessed the river for growing food, using a new method of channeling and dividing the water rather than simply following the old way of dam building. It took four years to build an embankment to divert the water, using stone filled bamboo baskets held in place with tripods. It took a further eight years to gouge out a 20 meter wide channel through the mountain. The Chinese had not yet invented gunpowder – they waited about a thousand years to do that. So, once they discovered how hard the rock was, the 256 BC engineers had to invent a way to split the rock. They used a combination of fire and water to heat and cool the rocks until they cracked and could be removed. It also took thousands of people to do the work. Lí Bīng, the governor of the time, was the master mind behind the whole thing, and is commemorated by a statue at the top of the hill. (I did not take a photo of his statue so you will have to make do with my photo of the plaque nearby, taken because I was struck by the quote saying this was more inspiring than the Great Wall.)

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The system is still in use today and irrigates over 5,300 square kilometers of land in the region. It is one of “three great hydraulic engineering projects” of the Qin Dynasty.

This project enabled the Qín region to produce three crops a year to feed its massive armies, and allow them to keep transporting the food to those armies, thus changing the history of China. The abundance of food the system enabled is also credited with leading to more free time and the subsequent laid back rich culture for which Sichuanese are now famous – and we have experienced and continue to enjoy.

As well as being historically interesting, we had heard it is beautiful, so it was on our list of things to do while here. A couple of weekends ago we, and a couple of friends, traveled to check it out. We enjoyed ourselves for several reasons:

  • it was nice to get out of the city and walk in a beautiful, interesting place – so different to a New Zealand experience because China’s beauty spots have been inhabited for thousands of years
  • we were getting to know friends better – making friends continues to be important to us – having arrived in a new country where the only person either of us know is each other
  • we were encouraged by being more skilled, and therefore more relaxed, travelers than our first time using public transport.

We caught the train. The general rule here is to buy tickets at least one day early to be sure you get a seat, and one of our friends did that for us – one way it was more relaxing. We got up early and traveled the 15 stops from our nearest metro station to the North Railway Station where our train would leave from. This was a new venue for us but we know the time to walk to our station, know where to look to see how long the metro would take, and were confident we could find our way to the boarding gate if we arrived a bit early – which proved to be the case. Last time, I checked out the bus station route beforehand to be sure.

The train was very pleasant. We almost missed our stop because we were so busy chatting – but I noticed it just in time. We followed the crowds to the bus stop, caught a bus into Dūjiāngyàn town, got off where it looked familiar to our friends who had been here once before, but didn’t remember details, and explored. It was a lovely mixture of historical buildings, traditional looking shops, street food and bush walking. We climbed up the hill, took the escalator to the very top, climbed up the high pagoda, enjoying the stunning views, then walked down the hill, across the swinging bridge, through the manicured gardens, and back to the quaint shopping area. We enjoyed drinks by the river and walked back to find somewhere for dinner by the river and bridge that was just being lit up, before heading back to catch the train.

It is an indicator of how much more relaxed we are becoming, that we nearly missed the train. To be safe we would have foregone dinner, but we wanted it. We thought we were fine, but the bus took longer than we predicted (all the time not being 100% sure that we were on the right one, despite my having asked the driver in Chinese if it went to the railway station and having been encouraged by his seeming to understand me and me him). We ran the short distance from the bus stop to the station, went straight through check in because by then nobody else was there, scrambled onto the train at the first open door, walked through a couple of carriages, and sat down in our seats literally one minute before the train pulled away. We had to ask a woman to move from our seats. She had reasonably assumed nobody would be using those four seats. Once I calmed down, I felt decidedly local!

Okay not local yet, but we feel we are on the way.

 

Some of the tea in China

I am an avid tea drinker. I have more cups of tea a day than I have cups of coffee a year. And, I am fascinated by the history and culture of China, which has to include understanding tea – 茶 (chá). So, when the Chéngdū Foreign Affairs Office, Chéngdū Education Bureau and PŭJiāng County Government invited teachers from Raymond’s school to a tea picking event, I (and therefore we) jumped at the chance.

There are Chinese records of tea consumption dating back to the 10th century, and the world’s earliest physical record indicates that Hàn Dynasty emperors were drinking tea for medicinal purposes in 2nd century BC. A popular Chinese tale takes it further, saying that in 2737 BC the legendary Emperor of China was drinking a bowl of just boiled water (interestingly, having decreed that his subjects must boil water before drinking it) and leaves from a nearby tree blew into his water. He took a sip, liked the flavour and tea was born. The first record of cultivation of tea, also from the 10th century, shows tea being cultivated on Méng Mountain (蒙山) near our beloved Chéngdū .

Tea spread to the rest of Asia from 6th century BC, was introduced from China to Portuguese priests and merchants in the 16th century and made it to Britain (and my ancestors) during the 17th century. Then the British, as they tended to do, actively changed the order of things, by introducing tea production, as well as tea consumption, to India, in order to compete with China’s monopoly on tea.

Last Saturday, at 7.50am, with some of  Raymond’s colleagues and their family members, we hopped on a bus the school provided, and traveled 1.5 hours from Chéngdū to PŭJiāng. I had that kiwi assumption thing going on – visiting tea plantations would mean a  rural environment. So when the bus stopped in an urban environment, I was quite surprised. We were ushered to a registration table with people everywhere, then into a nearby room with long log tables and two women performing a synchronised tea ceremony. We were given cups of tea in not-so-traditional paper cups, and some interesting looking biscuits that tasted very nice. A Chinese gentleman siting nearby told us, in broken English, that we were drinking the sparrow tongue tea famous in this region. It didn’t look like it was made from real sparrow tongues.

Next we were led out to a large number of seats and taken to those with the school’s name on. We were quite bemused by all of this because we had only skimmed the invitation email and had missed the fact that we were being invited to the opening ceremony for the annual Pu Jiang Tea Picking Festival. Luckily, we are getting used to going with the flow. We had translation headsets so could understand what was happening. We watched the Festival officially opened, the best tea pickers given their awards, a couple of contracts signed, and a number of dances.

Then we followed the crowd to the restaurant where we had an amazing lunch. We must have only eaten half of what was crammed onto our table. There were the usual local dishes, with our usual coping strategies. Avoid the dishes with the reddest sauce, pick out the chillies where necessary, only take the vegetables when unsure of the animal part in the meat dishes, and enjoy the dumplings and plain vegetables. The four foreigners at our table enjoyed the meatballs, which we have not seen here before. They tasted like I might have made (a few herbs, no spice, gravy rather than oily sauce) and the locals did not touch them. Maybe the chef made them specially.

After lunch, we followed the crowd again, donned our hats and tied on our tea picking baskets. Then we went behind the manicured gardens around the restaurant and there was a tea plantation – hiding behind all the buildings. We picked our way past the basketball court, through the mud and to the bushes. We were with Raymond’s colleague who speaks Chinese and his Chinese wife, so we found out exactly which bits to pick – take the sparrow tongue shaped bud in the centre and leave the outer leaves. When we reconvened others had not been so well trained. Most had picked the leaves and the centre, and one guy had only taken the leaves, leaving the central bud so the plant could survive. We laugh a lot here.

We handed in our leaves and traveled in the bus to a local school where they teach tea craft. We learned a bit of theory from sculptures depicting the eight steps of tea making. I remember three things. Traditionally, only young virgins were allowed to pick tea thanks to their purity. The leaves were rolled in bags using feet and hands – now they use machines. And, the text by the sculptures linked tea making and approaches to education – but I don’t remember the details – sorry.

Then we went into the school’s small factory, and saw the machines they use. We had a go at drying leaves in large electric heating bowls – wearing gloves to protect our hands. Fascinating, but luckily, we did not have to wait until our tea was dry enough to use. It got very repetitive after a short time. It must have been even more so for those doing it by hand over fires years ago.Then we were taken to try our hands at calligraphy and watch school children perform a short tàijí session.

Our last stop was a classroom set up to train students in tea ceremony. We were taken through a ceremony in all its detail. I don’t think we managed such graceful flourishes as our teacher, although I tried – and got rewarded by the official photographer grabbing his camera to capture the moment. I hope they got a good laugh from it later. And I am sure we spilled more tea into the tray below the beautiful wooden stand. However, we did glimpse the tradition and sense of occasion that a tea ceremony brings. We must appear boorish with our quick jiggle of a tea bag in our massive cups, and even more so if they saw my system in our kitchen for reusing tea bags. Even I think this looks unseemly – but it is practical in a world of limited tea bag access.

 

As we left, we were given a beautiful box with four types of tea in it.I tend to be set in my ways with tea. In our apartment, I usually use Liptons or Twinings English Breakfast, Early Grey or ‘gumboot’ teabags, just like back in New Zealand. We did buy some barley tea after enjoying it during our trip north east, and we occasionally drink that – but need to be in the mood. When I first started at work, my business partner gave me some Chinese black tea (hóng chá, literally red tea – it is as red as it is black if you think about it). I have branched out enough to drink this like a Chinese person – putting my leaves in a cup each morning and topping it up with water all through the day. One day I tried another colleague’s chrysanthemum tea – literally dried chrysanthemums in hot water. Mine was too weak for me to taste anything, but now I know what those things are that I see floating in others’ plastic bottles.

I have almost finished my box of black tea at work, so will take our new ones in and see if I can become more adventurous as well as more informed.

Visitors in our own country

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

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

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

And it was weird and wonderful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

The great wedding outfit hunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We never did find the original shop. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our first Spring Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rooster