Daily Anecdote: The Party (Pant) Line

You see this image often. A televised press conference, two heads of state shaking hands and making nice for the cameras. Lets say it’s Tony Blair and Jiang Zemin. Now, how many differences can you spot between the dashing figure of the British statesman compared to his severe Chinese counterpart? I can pinpoint at least two – at eye level and at the waistline. Almost inevitably, the Chinese politician will have his pants hiked up a good eight inches above that of the Westerner, and his eyewear will cover at least 60% of his facial area.

Many foreign friends have asked me in bemused perplexity about the Chinese male “uniform.” For those of you who don’t yet know, the outfit of choice for grown Chinese men (over the age of twenty-five) is a Western suit, black leather dress shoes, and a dress shirt. There are personal variations to be sure. Sometimes the suit is worn without the jacket, or the dress shoes worn with a pair of shorts, or often a proper shirt is substituted for a short-sleeved one. But for the most part, any male leaving the house wanting to look “respectable” will don some version of this uniform.

It’s not always a practical or functional outfit. I’ve seen this attire in use at business lunches (seems appropriate enough), on physical laborers at a construction site, and even on idlers squatting by the roadside.

Nor is it a normally a fashionable choice. For the most part the suits you see around China are ill-fitting, slouching at the shoulders and held up to an artificially high waist with stretched belts (or even pieces of cloth or rope). The shoe styles haven’t been updated in the near three decades that I’ve been living.

So why then do people low as the farm hand and high as our Party Secretaries go in public looking like this? And why do the latter make a bad thing worse by pulling the pant line higher than high and topping the look off with retro eyewear?

It all comes down to some rigidly held ideas of what a serious adult male “ought” to look like. Among the many unspoken rules are:
– A real man doesn’t leave the house wearing shorts
– A low waistline is unbecoming of doers of serious business. Leave the hip-level fashionable waists to hoodlums and gangsters.
– Shirts without buttons and collars are for children, or for sleeping in
– Slippers and sneakers are abominably casual, and traditional cloth flats are for retirees
– Anything trendy, especially worn on the face, detracts your social standing
– Basically, when it come to dressing, the bottom line is that Chinese men want to look anything BUT fashionable. Serious and somber is what we’re going for.

My personal hypothesis for the popularity of the Chinese male uniform is that from the 1940’s our Great Leader Mao wiped out variety in clothing his all-purpose military khaki suits (also unisex). After Mao’s passing, Chinese men, never in history known for sartorial creativity, didn’t know what to do with the vast amount of choice they faced in the dressing room. So they reverted to the last real trend they remembered – in the early 1900’s wealthy, progressive men adopted the Western suit as a sign of their worldly education. For better or worse, the suited up look became ubiquitous in modern China.

If I could do just one thing for my country I would hold a Fashion 101 seminar for our top leaders so that the next time they go on TV with something important to say, the world will be listening to their words instead of freaking out over the sight of a Communist dinosaur talking head on the screen.

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Daily Anecdote: Bending the Rules, the Nouveau Riche, and Meatmarket Grannies

** I’m starting a new series called Daily Anecdote. Everyday I post an amusing or peculiar little tale about life in China. There are so many particularities and cultural quirks here, why not share them with people who have never been or may not have noticed the small things while sightseeing?

My weekend is off to an early start. Tomorrow early morning I’ll take the train to Chengde Summer Resort, old hunting grounds of the emperors. So here’s three Daily Anecdotes to get yours and my weekend started.

Thursday: The Rules Don’t Apply To Us

People who haven’t been to China probably imagine an Orwellian society of rule followers. But anyone who has spent a day here knows that the classic Chinese attitude is one of, “The rules don’t apply to me.” After thousands of years of political turmoil (dynasty after dynasty, revolution upon revolution), we know that the only way to get anything done is to bend the rules. There are so many ways to circumvent the standard procedure that there’s a whole vocabulary dedicated to these practices – “walking the back door” (going in the unofficial way), “finding people” (contacting someone you know to get your child into college, or progress to the next round of job interviews), “giving gifts” (buying off anyone from minor clerks to powerful officials).

The big things in life are most often achieved with some sort of “back door” aid, but even in daily small things you see this rule-bending in action. I once confronted a man who cut in front of me in line at immigration at the Xiamen airport. “Hey, you have to line up,” I protested. He turned to me and with a face of sincere beleif, he said, “Oh, I don’t have to line up.” I was convinced but minutes later realized, “What do you mean YOU don’t have to line up?” We’re all SUPPOSED to line up here.

Yesterday I was at the train station early to pick up my cousin who has just come to Beijing to begin his freshman year. I dutifully bought a platform ticket so I could help him unload his bags as soon as the train pulls up, instead of waiting outside the station. But once I got close to the train tracks I saw uniformed station attendants keeping people back with velvet ropes. Through the shouts and muttered complaints I gathered that a “VIP” was on the same train as my cousin and the attendants were clearing the platform for his comfort.

This didn’t fly with people and there was a lot of disgruntled platform ticketholders trying to sneak around the velvet ropes. As the train pulled up, the crowd turned righteous and simply burst through the barricades. It began with someone kicking over the velvet rope, then another stepped on it, and finally everyone decided that it was ok to disobey. We ran as one unruly crowd towards the train and as more attendants approached to ward us off, a few angry mothers got into a minor shoving match with the uniformed enforcers. In a matter of minutes I was happily jumping into the open train door to greet my cousin. And to think, I broke the rules without even having to do anything. I just followed the “rules don’t apply to us” tide!

Friday: The Nouveau Riche

The part of China that I come from, the forbiddingly cold Northeast, is known for its annual ice sculpture festival, heavy drinking, and conspicuous consumption. Something about the hearty disposition of the northerners makes them especially susceptible to the pitfalls of newfound wealth. It is not uncommon to hear of people spending ludicrous sums of money on heavily logoed clothing and jewelry, just for show. The locals often joke, “If Old Li makes $10 he’s bound to wear $12 of it around his neck (in a gawdy gold chain).” The retailers know it and play into it – China’s first Lane Crawford opened up in Harbin years ago when a piece of underclothing from its racks would’ve been multiple times the average resident’s monthly salary.

Last week my cousin called from Harbin to tell me the latest. Louis Vuitton had set up shop in Harbin earlier this year and that outlet became one of the best performing boutiques for the global luxury emporium. One day he was in there browsing out of curiosity when behind him a booming, heavily northern accented male voice commanded a salesgirl, “Bring me the most expensive bag in here!” Unflustered, the seasoned employee (probably used to this kind of showy shopping) replied, “Sir, we have a whole range of bags, priced from RMB10,000 to the RMB200,000’s. What kind would you like?” Sticker shocked and humbled, the man retracted and quietly said, “Oh, is that right. I’ll just take a RMB10,000 bag then. No need to spend too much.” What a guy! My cousin wanted to laugh out loud, but also felt mildly sorry for the guy. Not knowing what Louis Vuitton was but merely knowing that it was an expensive status symbol he barged in to the store hoping to impress everyone there, and later all his friends, with his ability to buy an impossibly expensive bag (without knowing what it looks like). But it seems, even his audacious spending habits couldn’t keep up with the large price tags at LV!

Saturday: Chinese People Love Their Parks

For thousands of years, Chinese people have built pavilions, lakes, and elaborate rock-scapes in profusion. Even today, no Chinese week is complete without a family trip to a nearby park and millions of retirees would be put out to roaming the streets should their beloved parks shut down. Alongside restaurants and homes, public parks are at the heart of social gatherings.
In any park you’ll observe a host of amusing activity. Hundreds of spontaneous hobby groups gather at unspoken but agreed upon times. Sports make up the most normal stuff — Qigong and Taichi practitioners moving en masse, silently and fluidly; badminton, Ping Pong, and basketball lovers dart around their respective courts noisily; even social dancers strut their stuff in public.

Organized sport is one thing, but quite a few retirees adhere to calisthenics of their own bizarre invention. I often chuckle at groups of three or four old women brutally pounding their fists against their thighs, each convinced that this routine keeps the muscles limber. Elderly men bending from the waist to reach down, then up, all in rigid and rapid succession. Some even beat their heads with grenade-shaped dumb-bells, to keep the brains supple?

Music is a big part of park life and most often it consists of people over the age of forty gathering under shady trees to rigorously belt out revolutionary songs. Usually someone acts as unofficial conductor, holding up a sheet of music and waving his arms enthusiastically to elicit vocal harmony. Newcomers to China may be a bit taken aback by this public outpouring of Communist sentiment, but realize that revolutionary music is the basically the only music (the “pop” music you might say) that this age group had access to when they were growing up. When people are loudly singing “The East is Red” or “Socialism is Good” they aren’t expressing the lyrics literally, but rather just indulging in a shared nostalgia.

Calligraphy is another favorite and the more skilled writers wield broom-sized brushes dipped in water to cover concrete paths with artful characters. The beautiful shapes last but a while before they evaporate into the hot summer air.

My favorite of all time is the “meatmarket grandparents.” Every grown Chinese man or woman has a quartet of parents and grandparents eagerly awaiting their marriage to a suitable partner. To hasten the process, concerned grannies gather in parks holding up wooden signboards advertising their “goods” – “My grandson, 25-yr old Bachelor Degree holder, Beijing resident, honest, hard working, employed at a foreign company” or “Granddaughter, high school graduate, good job, down to earth girl.” The gramps and grams mingle, exchange signboards, and when a suitable match is found, the parties collude to set their grandchildren up on a blind date. This is even better than going on a dating show!

Meet the Family

[Excerpt from travel log, an account of my summer of meeting the in-law’s from Lyon to Buffalo]

We took the TGV from Paris to Lyon. For two hours I looked out the window at rolling fields of golden wheat and barley, at green patches of corn leaves, and at the intensely white and fluffy clouds floating against an azure sky.

When Uncle Paul finally emerged from the crowd at the train station, he wasn’t quite “a dude who looked like Sue” (my mother-in-law), as Geoff had foretold. There was some Prozeller family resemblance in the face and he shared Sue’s coloring, but mostly I was just surprised to see a man who had chosen to make his life in France dressed exactly like a summering American tourist. Tevas, a t-shirt with some kind of cowboy logo, jean shorts, and a hat advertising his favorite sports team. I had expected him to be more assimilated to France’s style of dress, as he had married a French woman and settled down in a small rural town.

In the car, Paul and Geoff talked like a pair of business associates about jobs, property prices, and tax regimes. I shared the backseat with the smiling and lanky Matt, Paul’s middle child. Matt was at first shy, hiding behind his dad’s broad frame at the train station. But in the car he soon opened up. He offered me sour candies and we chatted in French about subjects that I hoped were of interest to eleven-year-olds. When I was at a loss for French teenage words I would throw in some English, which he mostly understood but couldn’t speak as well.

It was a half hour drive, past Lyon and into an area of interconnected villages. We drove through a village called Frontonas in a matter of minutes and I remarked at its small size. Matt informed me that Veysillieu, where they lived, was even more cozy. And true enough, it was.

Once in Veyssillieu, we first stopped at the town square where Paul ran an errand. There, I took photos of the mayor’s office (a two-storey house), the town’s WWII memorial (honoring its ten or so sons who had gone off to the war), and the modest schoolhouse (where Matt sits in a 24-student class that covers all the primary school levels). In front of the church I snapped a photo of Geoff with his little cousin. Neither of the boys took to each other immediately and in the viewfinder of the camera I saw two people behaving like strangers awkwardly shoved together. When I pressed the button, Matt was still standing shyly off to the side and Geoff was making little effort to bring him closer with a hug or gesture.

The mile of road from “downtown” to the Prozeller home was lined with quite a few sunflower fields. The family lives in a typical old French stone house. Paul had lovingly restored and expanded their home over the years. Now, it sports spring green shutters, a sprawling yard filled with boys’ toys and gadgets, a swing fashioned to hang from a tree branch, and a work shed where Paul once brewed his own beer. The house faces a neighbor’s large sunflower field in the front and the back yard opens up to a sloping hilltop. It was a beautiful home, made more beautiful by the bright Provencal sun and the fields of yellow all around.

Once we stepped out of the car and into the home, a frenzy of domestic activity burst forth. Paul was in and out, driving off again with a carload of things he had to drop off somewhere. Matt, in a flash, had shimmied into his swimming trunks and invited me to the blow-up pool. While we were splashing around, Brian, the eldest boy, arrived home and immediately started stomping around the yard doing maintenance work like a real man of the house. Though only two years older than Matt, Brian was a full-fledged teenager, looking and acting like a grown-up. Around the house he adopted a serious, occupied manner and ordered his little brothers around to their chores rather authoritatively. (Here he called Matt out of the pool to hose off some floating toys that had rolled out onto the grass). Soon, Paul’s wife Nadia also arrived home with their youngest boy, Maury. Nadia had been out all day painting their new apartment, which was to be rented the following week. As she walked into the yard she still had a spot of white paint on her nose. Maury wore only his usual sweet smile on his small face.

After a bit, I got used to the household bustle and began to notice the subtle gestures and warm sentiments being exchanged around me. What struck me most was how very in love Paul and Nadia looked, even as they cooked, cleaned, and scolded their three children. As soon as Nadia had come home bearing an armload of apartment paperwork Paul set down his beer and rose up to relieve her of this small burden. He pulled up a chair in the yard for her and asked if he could make her a drink. Later, during dinner, Nadia congratulated me on my marriage and in very simple English toasted, “I hope you will be as happy as me.” Over the course of the long dinner I saw more and more of Nadia and Paul’s care for each other: a Valentine’s Day t-shirt with “I love you” written in fifteen different languages with colorful pens, which Paul proudly wears; the pet names they use on each other (“chou chou”); and how they each claim the other was responsible for the good genes that gave the boys their handsome looks.

Much later, as we got into a heavy discussion about the long Prozeller family history, Nadia tells me that at one point she and Paul were on the verge of breaking up because of Paul’s reluctance to have children. I couldn’t believe that from those days they had moved on to build this incredible familial atmosphere.

We had a jovial dinner. Paul had marinated Jamaican jerk chicken the night before and while he prepared drinks, Geoff and I tried to barbeque. We were such city slickers and when the chicken began to burn we had to ask for help from Brian. He wielded the pitchfork expertly and with somber attention. Everyone pitched in to set the table, cut the bread, lay out the excessively generous spread of desserts and cheese. Even little Maury, with childish concentration on his face, contributed by bringing out the plates.

After much eating and drinking, Paul began to tell me the Prozeller family history. Like Sue and Grandpa Paul, whom I’ll meet later in the summer, Paul junior is fond of storytelling. The story began in 1949…

Paul was a detailed narrator and by the time he arrived at the 1970’s the sleepy bug had hit me. Even the après-repas tea couldn’t make me stay up any longer. We called it a night and promised to take up the family story again the next time we meet.

Early the next day, Geoff and I left to catch the train for Avignon where our friends would soon arrive from Singapore. With the hurried goodbyes I felt a real sense of regret, as if I were leaving my own family. In the short time we had spent together, I had grown attached to the happy clan. I loved the children for their easy manners and for behaving like little French gentlemen. I adored Nadia for making her home so warm, often without the help her traveling husband, and for doing it uncomplainingly. And I admired Paul, this man who looks and acts so much like my husband, for overcoming the confusion of his early childhood years and growing up to build a beautiful family of his own.

After we left Veyssilieu, we would eventually make our way to Grand Island in West New York where I would meet Uncle Dave and his wife Anne. We would stay in their stylish home, enjoy their tremendous hospitality, and have similarly long and elucidating conversations about the Prozeller history…Even later, I would meet the family patriarch, Grandpa Paul, and sit in his old living room going over ancient family portraits…

I felt an incredible sense of comfort meeting each of the Prozeller men this summer…I took delight in identifying the family traits, which were as evident in the 1900’s sepia-toned photographs in Grandpa Paul’s sitting room as on the aging faces of Sue and Paul, and in the still youthful face of Geoff. The slightly protruding nose, mouth, and chin area that gives Geoff the look of an affectionate small animal comes from this line of German blood. I was glad to know that Geoff’s tendency to scratch his head and start looking for displaced items just as he is headed out the door is also a source of amused annoyance for Nadia. I had a chuckle at learning that the men also shared a stubborn preference for sleeping with the shutters open, forcing their wives to wear eye shades…

It was a wonderful summer as we trailed from Europe to the US and back to Asia. Along the way we got to know ourselves and we also got to know our now shared family much, much better.

Saturday Night Fear Factor

Last night, in between imbibing pretty cocktails at Q-bar and thumping to the DJ’s European beats at Punk, I scored a major gastronomical triumph. I managed to persuade some very foreign friends to sample that “frightening but irresistible” stew I mentioned in my previous post.

“Mao Xue Wang” quite literally means “hair, blood, vigorous,” a rather precise description of this spicy, oily concoction of tripe (I think that’s what the “hair” refers to, cilia), blood tofu (just like blood sausage, but square-shaped), intestines, arterial walls (or is it esophagus?), spam, and some harmless vegetables (wood ears, or in last night’s case, thick vermicelli noodles).

The night had started out with very tame food and beverage choices. A large group assembled at Q-bar for a friend’s going away party. After two years in Beijing as a sometimes-frustrated journalist, A was headed to London for a coveted internship with the Financial Times and gathered her friends for one last shebang.

Having been away for a few years I was a complete nightlife newbie. I had no idea what the visually arresting array of new mega-malls, glitzy restaurants, and darkly promising clubs had to offer. I looked up Q-bar on the internet before I set out and was pleased to find it had its own website, but then promptly displeased (yet not at all surprised) to find the web link broken. Google Maps told me it was in the middle of the San Li Tun bar district and I copied down the phone number, which saved me from giving bad directions to our cabby.

Q-bar was a bit of a hidden gem. To get to the rooftop spread we had to enter through the sparse- and stern-looking reception area of a 1980’s state-run hotel, take the lift to the top, then walk past rooms 502 and 503 and go up a flight of stairs. I was surprised to find such a budget and thoroughly Chinese-looking hotel set in the epicenter of Western activity in Beijing. San Li Tun has many retail and entertainment outlets that don’t even have Chinese names. The bar was impressive – large, faintly glowing red from beneath the floorboards, and partitioned into cozy lounging areas.

The weather, either as a result of the day’s rain or as an early harbinger of the cool autumn that’s to come (oh how I’ve waited for it), was perfect for a few drinks en plein-air. I ordered a ginger martini, which sounded promising but was actually exceptionally spicy and low-grade alcohol tasting.

The friends arrived. I had invited T, my new Swedish friend whose buxom blond good looks unfortunately get her confused for a high-class Russian escort sometimes. P was my husband’s friend from Boston, with an accent so thick that I feel like I’m on the set of “Good Will Hunting” if I close my eyes and listen.

After a few rounds of drinks – I later went with safer choices, like chardonnay – and amusedly flipping through P’s pocket phrasebook, a small laminated filofax that allows him to point to the address of any destination in Beijing, I got the late night hunger bug. I started raving to my friends about Mao Xue Wang, half joking that it’d be the perfect grub to warm me up pre-clubbing, but not believing for a second that anyone would join me in partaking of this “blood stew.”

T, bless her heart and palate, was game for it, as long as I promised I’d go dancing afterwards. The rest of our group took some persuading, but soon I was out on the street dialing directory assistance on 114 to find out if two of the posher spicy food restaurant chains had an outlet nearby. Neither one answered and we gave up on the idea, taking to the street to search for anything to fill us up. We stopped at the closest open restaurant, sat down, and voila! There it was – Mao Xue Wang -prominently advertised on menu page one.

With this stroke of luck it seemed we were destined to have a bit of organ soup. The waitress gave me a strange look when, without looking through the menu, I straight up ordered one Mao Xue Wang, a beer, and a few bottles of water.

When the stew was brought out it was in one of those oversized serving bowls and just looked like a big vessel of chilies and oil. I prefaced to my friends that this was not the best-looking Mao Xue Wang I’ve seen, maybe a bit too oily and lacking fresh chilies.

We picked up our chopsticks, or at least T and I did, and I pointed out the various constituents of this murky stew much as a weatherman would indicate oncoming storms on a blue screen. I served each a piece of spam, the least suspicious “meat” in this dish, to my Caucasian friends and husband.

T took a bite and proclaimed it good, then plunged her chopsticks to get at the better stuff. Apparently in Sweden there is a similarly frightening dish – large chunks of fried blood – so she was no novice at eating hemoglobin. P looked at his spam disinterestedly, but after seeing the girls heartily partake he asked me one more time whether it was “really just spam” and proceeded to eat. Meanwhile, T was going in for a sampling of each of the parts, affirming that the arterial walls (or was it esophagus?) were indeed “crunchy.” P got increasingly adventurous as he downed his Yanjing Pure beer and even snipped a small corner off a piece of blood tofu and popped it into his mouth. Only G remained unmoved by the spicy bits I laid on his plate.

I’m happy to report that the stew was generally a hit and it did power us “vigorously” to 4am as we danced to creative mixes at Punk (a small club located in a very high-ceilinged, glass-paneled, airy building). As I teeter tottered across the cobbled pavement on my way home I teased G gently about his refusal to try the blood stew to which I am so partial. He promised he’d try a “very small” piece next time, and we shook pinkies on it.

Beijing, As I Like It

Sunday to Sunday, it’s been a week since I arrived. It’s been a happy time, a busy time, and a reflective time.

Every time I come to Beijing after being away it takes me a while to get my bearings. Fresh off the plane, I never know where to eat, how to meet up with friends, or navigate my way to the best quality fake DVDs. Life in China happens at a 100-meter dash pace. It’s a big change from my recent life in Paris where, twelve years after my first visit, my pocket maps are still current and my favorite restaurants haven’t even changed the upholstery on their chairs.

At the start of this week, I had no idea where to go to eat mao xue wang (a frightening but irresistible spicy stew of tripe, blood, and other animal parts), how to buy a new SIM card for my phone, or what price to pay for a good foot rub. With a bit of help from friends, old and new, I’ve now worked out my basic needs. I’ve managed to overcome internet censorship (thanks to Witopia), settle into a comfy couch to read and drink smoothies (Bookworm), and get my daily dose of yoga (Yoga Yard).

Basics aside, on the whole I find Beijing a much more pleasant (and more foreign-husband-friendly) city this time around. The infrastructure that was built up to welcome millions of Olympics tourists in 2008 still functions and now serves the needs of Beijingers well. Instead of rickety and sweltering hot 1980’s era buses I can hop onto a still-shiny vehicle, swipe my city transportation card, and sit in relatively cool comfort to wait for my stop.

Even more significant than the physical infrastructure is the “cultural infrastructure.” Leading up to the Olympics I saw the impressive public campaign to make Beijingers tourist-ready – at every bus station government workers wearing the ubiquitous and authoritative red armbands waved small flags to herd commuters into queues. Everywhere I turned, some celebrity was smiling from a TV screen or colored poster and reminding people not to spit in public or push in a crowd. A year after the Olympics, people are still lining up, of their own accord and without the aid of armbanded enforcers. It’s easier than ever to love Beijing.

In my week here I’ve also been reminded of the vibrancy of the city. China is really its own universe. From London to New York, everywhere I went this summer my acquaintances were talking in dull tones about the recession, losing their jobs, or cutting back on shopping. Here, locals and expats alike are optimistic about the opportunities out there.

It’s not that they’ve all drunk the government Cool-Aid and believe in the mighty Chinese foreign reserves. It’s just that people who have chosen to make their life here seem to be bigger risk-takers, more creative, and somewhat relaxed about what shape their “success” can take. Instead of the usual two-year stint at an investment bank or consultancy, followed by business school, then followed by I-don’t-know-what (eternal happiness?), the people I meet here mostly got here by packing a bag and getting on a plane. Many arrived without significant Chinese language skills nor a job lined up. But over time they’ve found interesting gigs, started small companies, and developed amazing fluency in Mandarin.

I’m a believer in “do what makes you happy” and can’t judge anyone’s life choices beyond my own (HBS friends should take no offence at my above observation). All I want to say is that being here has made me extremely happy and wonderfully inspired. For now, it’s the perfect place to reconnect with my past and think about my choices for the future.

A True Family Story

I’d like to share a piece of writing that’s not mine. I had been looking for a copy of a short story my mom wrote about her younger brother more than ten years ago during an English writing course. Here in Beijing, in boxes upon boxes of old things (my notebooks from 1st grade, my high school graduation speech, my parents’ wedding photo), I found a hard copy this morning. I’ve typed it up to share here, keeping mom’s original grammatical errors but omitting a small paragraph about the political environment in the 1950’s.

This story always made me tear up, even more so reading it today because my uncle passed away in the summer of 2007.

My Younger Brother
By Li Gui Rong

I was six years old by the Chinese way. When we Chinese count ages, we always include the year when we were in our mothers’ womb. I remember, it was an early summer morning. My brothers and I woke up and found a mid-wife in my mother’s room. My father was not home on that day. In those days, he always attended those useless and endless political meetings somewhere outside our town. But my father, a fervent communist, always thought the meetings were very important. The mid-wife told us to prepare some hot water. We knew a younger brother or sister would come to the world soon.

That year was the year my country just experienced “Da Yue Jin”, a big, senseless political movement started by Mao Ze Dong. Western society translated the term “Da Yue Jin” into “A Great Leap Forward!” Before people could take a breath from this, the natural disaster followed right away. Some places had drought and some places were flooded all over China…[xxx]…

My hometown is located in Northeast China; across the border is Russia. People even saw trains and trains loaded with pig’s tails going to the other side, too. But inside our country there was a big shortage of everything. The famine already started and soon spread across our country. Many of my countrymen sacrificed their lives because of “Da Yue Jin.” …[xxx]…My younger brother decided to come to the world and join us now.

My mother called me to her room. She was pale, weak and sweating all over. She was struggling with the pain about to give birth. Mom told me to go to Uncle Li’s place to get some rice (food distribution at the time was controlled by the street committee). Uncle Li was the person who was in charge of all the food distribution. I left my house with a little cotton bag in my hand. It was still very dark outside because the sky was covered by clouds. The thunder and flash of lightning was on and off. I was so scared. All the ghost stories came to my mind. I wished I could go home. I did not want to go to Uncle Li’s place any more. But mom’s pale face also came to my mind. My family was waiting for whatever I could get back for breakfast and my mother needed to eat something so she could give the new baby some milk. I had no choice but to go.

I knocked on the door hard. It took very long before Uncle Li answered the door. He came, opened the door without scything anything. I tried so hard to collect all the sweet words to please Uncle Li. Uncle Li, the whole time he even did not look at me, he slowly walked to the yellow rice counter, picked up a container, gathered some rice and put it on the scale. Still no words. I opened my bag and he poured the rice into it and said in a hardly heard voice, “Be careful, not to spill it.”

I carried the rice on my back. I moved it to my front; I put it on my shoulder. I kept changing my posture for carrying it. The rice was so heavy for me. I also stopped a couple of times to take a deep breath. Finally I got home. I was so delighted and ran to my mom’s room. “Mom! I got a lot of rice back!” My mom closed her eyes and answered nothing. I did not figure out until years later, when I was bigger, why my mom did not say anything to praise me. It was not because she did not appreciate what I had accomplished. Mom didn’t say anything because she knew the rice I brought home would not last for very long. How could a six-year-old child know that?

My little brother, the new baby, was born already. He was on the side of the “kang.” “Kang” is a unique thing in northern China, centuries old. It is normally built of bricks with holes under the surface. The holes were connected to the stove. You burned the wood inside the stove. The fire in the stove traveled around the holes. The bricks on the surface become hot. The brick also preserved the heat for quite a few hours, so you could sleep on a warm place.

I did not think so much about my mother’s reaction toward my trip back with the rice. My focus turned to my younger brother right away. Wow! The baby, he was so thin, I could see the bones, the veins. Because he was still adjusting to the temperature, he was cold. His body was a deep, dark purple color, as if his blood was freezing. “He is cold mom,” I said. “Never mind,” Mom answered. Mom was so tired and depressed by the hardship we had. It was very difficult already for Mom and Dad to raise five of us. Now, another one.

“Even if he is going to survive today, how about tomorrow?,” Mom continued to murmur to herself. I quickly gathered some clothes around the room and put them on his body. He was so quiet, he didn’t even cry, as if he knew he came to us at the wrong time. Days went on so slow. We all tried our best to manage some special food for my little brother. We were always looking forward to the next day, hoping we could get more and better food.

My little brother was growing. He was quiet, humble, sensitive, and seldom asked for anything, even if he was hungry. Everybody in my family tried our best to protect him. The way he reacted to our help made us feel we never did enough for him. One picture about him when he was two and a half years old has been in my mind ever since. My eldest brother went to a school, which was fifty kilometers away; he came home only on Sundays. One Sunday he came back with some sausages as a gift for my little brother. My little brother got a piece of sausage in his hand, but he didn’t eat. He walked slowly to everybody in the family, insisting on each of us having a bite. At first we all pretended to bite the sausage, but we could not fool him. He was still very quiet, but stubborn. He wouldn’t move until we really took a little bite of the sausage. This was my little brother. More than thirty years have gone by. He has married, has two children, and he remains the same as when he was first born. He is quiet, humble, sensitive, and cares about others. He will never asks for anything.

He is the brother I miss a lot no matter where I go. He is the brother I am happy and anxious to meet no matter how many thousands of miles I have to fly. He is the brother, one day I will tell him, that he didn’t need to be so humble, so sensitive. He didn’t do anything wrong. I am so happy to be his sister in this life. I am willing to be his sister in our next life. I promise I’ll be a better sister; I will do a better job to protect him.

Old Luxury: Vintage Shopping in Paris

When I think of “vintage” my nose crinkles at the remembrance of musty smells and my arms itch as if I’ve already dug through piles of fraying fabric. I’m a city girl, I like a polished look, and quite simply, I don’t “do” vintage.

But there was something irresistible about vintage in Paris. Here “vintage” doesn’t mean overpriced Salvation Army goods or your grandmother’s discarded house dress. In Paris, vintage is for real collectors and for those who want haute couture at bargain prices.

Many times on random walks through the neighborhoods I came upon little stalls, shops, and even sprawling markets that sell everything old. In this vintage enthusiast’s dream world I’ve seen and petted a real stuffed zebra (for taxidermy fans), I’ve touched lace so old and airy that I feared it would dissolve in a puff of magic dust on my fingertip, and I’ve tried carrying many, MANY crocodile frame handbags in the crook of my arm.

After a few fun but accidental drop-in’s at Parisian “friperies,” I decided to do a proper vintage (window-) shopping excursion. First, I had to do my research. I went to WH Smith, one of the biggest English bookstores in Paris, and shamelessly copied pages of a vintage shopping guidebook into my Moleskin. I then circled each of the stores I wanted to check out in my pocket city map-book. Lastly, I talked G into navigating me around the city to find these stores on bikes (easier than the Metro for some of the locations and far faster than walking).

The tony neighborhoods had plenty of ultra high-end vintage stores that required appointments. I skipped these and concentrated my fieldtrip around the younger, hipper, and cheaper neighborhoods in the Marais and Bastille areas. My favorite shopping experience was at Come On Eileen, which has turned me onto vintage for life.

Come On Eileen sits on a quiet side street off Rue de la Roquette. Outside, a pair of plastic mannequins stands underneath a pink neon sign (very 80’s) spelling out the store name. Once inside, shoppers immediately see just how deceptive the narrow storefront is – this is a three-level emporium stacked floor-to-ceiling with old fashion fare.

On the first floor is an impressive collection of dresses, handbags, eyewear, and shoes. I had to contain my excitement — genuine crocodile leather handbags from the 1960’s on sale for as little as 50 euros (compare to the thousands you’d have to spend on this season’s styles)! One floor down is a denim haven stocked with jeans of every age and variety. Most of these Levi’s are easily older than I am. Finally, in the lowest basement level, also the biggest showroom in the store, is a wild collection of outer wear (Burberry trench coats), boots, and the requisite wigs and knick knacks.

The abundance of goods is enough to make any fashionista drool, but what most appeals to me about Come On Eileen is how organized it is. The décor is bohemian and goods are carelessly draped on a chair here, a table there, but over all everything is accessible. No rifling through boxes of callously tossed clothing or wrestling with five hangers tangled together. Everything is also impeccably clean – the buyers have obviously taken the time to pick their goods and restore them to useable condition before putting them on the racks.

I chatted with the salesgirls a bit, Fabienne and Silvia, and learn from them that the owner, Daniel, has been a serious collector for decades. The store has been around for ten years, before “friperies” became all the rage in Paris, or New York and London for that matter. Daniel picks his pieces carefully and prices for what he thinks the goods are worth, not more, not less. Having visited the store, I now shared some kind of tenuous connection with a host of celebrities who are regular customers – Lou Doillon, Kylie Minogue, Chloe Sevigny, Tory Burch, to name a few. Wow, seems I randomly found the cream of the “brocante” crop here at Come On Eileen!

Being a total novice at vintage, I wanted to see what a seasoned eye would pick out of the store. I asked Silvia to show me a few of her favorite pieces. She protests a little, in her charming Slovakian accented French, but then obliges. Silva shows me a grey wool Hermes jacket from the 1960’s, trimmed with tan leather and in almost-new condition (500 euros); a Courreges ivory dress from the 1950’s, which also looks hardly worn (1300 euros); and a signature Pucci print dress.

Despite promising to myself in advance that I wouldn’t buy anything, I couldn’t resist taking just a small souvenir away with me. I focused on accessories for their generally smaller price tags. I spent a long time choosing from a few favorites – brown / orange python Mary Janes from Prada 2007 (150 euros); glossy black croc purse (100 euros); brown knee high boots (painfully chic and so very Parisian, 70 euros). With a little help from G, I finally settled on a deep scarlet leather sling-across purse from Cartier. It had a classic pillbox shape and looks new, probably easier to fit into my as yet non-vintage wardrobe back in Singapore. And it was only 30 euros! I’d recommend anyone lucky enough to find themselves in Paris next to swing by this amazing treasure trove.

Before I left I had just one question, what’s with the name? Turns out Daniel doesn’t only know his fashion well, he also is a fan of 80’s pop. He named his store after the British hit song and his daughter, Eileen.