Publication: Missing my privacy

Missing my personal privacy

By now, most of you are trying to recover from the excesses of the Chinese New Year holiday and are perhaps setting ambitious fitness goals to regain a slim waistline lost to a week of excessive eating, popping pills to get over a lingering cold brought on by the stress of travel or reeling from the utter loss of privacy and dignity suffered at the hands of visiting too many relatives.

Of the trials and tribulations that come with Chinese New Year gatherings, I find the latter the most difficult, especially in a small city where your business is everybody’s business. And the most important business in the life of a young Chinese woman (and to some extent, a young man) is love, of course.

Missing my personal privacy

Here in Beijing, like everywhere else, singles suffer the obsessive matchmaking efforts and prying questions of their parents, parents’ friends, and elderly neighbors all year round. But in a small city – like the one where I spent the New Year – the pressure to fall in love, marry and procreate is truly unbearable.

In the big city, my friends (in their late 20s) are quite good catches, but in a rural setting, they would be called shengnv (leftovers). Last week, I watched with helplessness as a younger cousin sat through the onslaught of criticism about her “situation” with every wave of visitors arriving in our home:

“You can’t be too picky at this age. A so-so candidate is good enough.”

“What happened to that policeman you were dating last year? You never even brought him home for us to meet.”

“Do you have any prospects now? There’s a single in my work unit. He’s a little short, but who cares about height? As long as he’s a good man.”

Those who are romantically involved aren’t spared scrutiny either.

Before the masses left their work in Beijing to head to remote hometowns, I watched another cousin deftly handle the delicate issue of what to do with her boyfriend. Bring him home for the holidays? Accept his invitation to visit his folks? In the end, she took the most prudent option, stayed in the city and spent the holiday alone.

It seemed like a harsh choice, but it was for the best. Going home together – to either home – would’ve set off a firestorm of small town gossip (“Did you see so and so’s boyfriend? A Henan man!”). It also would’ve spurred overeager parents into pressing for a wedding date.

I thought the presence of my still-single cousins and a wedding ring on my hand this year would deflect attention from me. Alas, I learned that even the married don’t have it easy. My female relatives used any male-free occasion to remind me of the deteriorating state of my uterus.

While peeling potatoes: “Don’t wait too long. The longer you wait, the harder the pregnancy.”

When washing fruit: “Women aren’t like men. A man can have a child when he’s 60, but you, you have to hurry.” Setting the table: “I don’t understand young people these days. How much money do you need to save up? A child hardly costs anything in the first few years.”

Faced with all this talk, my single female cousins and I resorted to the only politically correct response. We hung our heads low and muttered vague syllables of agreement while shoveling food into our mouths. Boy, I am glad to be back in Beijing where my business is still my business and even the nosy grandmas know when to stop chattering.


Letters to the future at 798

Remember making time capsules in grade school? Writing a letter to yourself and putting it in a box, along with sentimental objects, and sealing it with a label “Open in 2012.” I wish I could find my old time capsule.

In Beijing, there’s now a place where you can make a time capsule of sorts and be guaranteed to not forget to open it when the future is here. “Panda Slow Post” at the 798 art district is a cozy little store where you can pick out cards bearing the cute Mandy Panda mascot, think for a quiet hour, and write a letter to whoever for whenever.

The store keeps your letter and mails it on or before your specified date. Their business is letters but Panda Slow Post’s employees (and many fans) think of it as a storage house for sentiments. Newlyweds come here to send themselves letters on their 60th anniversary. Grandparents write to the grandchildren they may never see. College students post hopes for “What I’ll be doing in ten years’ time.” Some even come just to take something off their mind — a letter to an ex with no forwarding address — and put it in Panda Slow Post’s safe box.

I spent an hour and a half sitting at the long white tables, remembering how to write a letter by hand. Can you guess who will receive my surprise letters in the future?

(Great photos accompanying this post will come soon, when I’m in Singapore where my blog won’t be so darned hard to access! Oh internet censorship…)

China Quirks: Spring Festival Tele-Extravaganza

In China, Chun Wan, the four-hour variety show that CCTV broadcasts on lunar new year eve, is as essential a part of spring festival celebrations as home-made dumplings. Nearly every household tunes in to see which famous performers will show their chops in the biggest televised extravaganza of the year. People who don’t own TV sets, or those unlucky ones who didn’t make it home for the occasion, crowd around any public place where a tube is flickering. This show is the Super Bowl and Academy Awards rolled into one.

But it’s more than just entertainment. It’s a once yearly chance for the leadership to amuse, cajole, and subtly – or not so subtly – set the tone for us common folks in the coming year.

Keeping the programming under wraps is an obsessive task for Chun Wan producers, performers, and propagandists. Furthermore, keeping viewers happy is a mission impossible. For as long as I can remember, people have lambasted the un-funniness of the skits, the un-cheerfulness of song and dance numbers, and the not-so-special guest appearances. Every year people complained that the show is getting less entertaining, yet every year they faithfully tune in.

Whenever I lived in a place where I could catch the Chun Wan broadcast I’ve watched it, and I rarely complained. I thought the programming was good and complaining was just part of our culture. This year, I had the rare chance to actually be in China for the lunar new year so I got to watch the program live and savor a few reruns. And my verdict is decidedly – the show must not go on.

Back in the day, mass TV audiences were easy to please, despite their negative opining. Producers would throw in some folk arts, like “xiang sheng” (traditional two-person stand-up comedy) and “jing ju” (Peking opera); a few traditional dances; everybody’s favorite revolutionary songs; and low-brow humor delivered through “xiao pin” (small skits). Voilà, the show was complete.

Nowadays, tastes have diverged with the luxury of choice available to the average Chinese. In an effort to please all, Chun Wan has become a mishmash of acts that aren’t hitting any of the chords. The folk arts have been diluted to appear more modern. Gone from this year’s show were the stand-up comedians’ display of traditional oratory skills – the 100 words a minute verbal dexterity. Instead, famous comic duos stood around touting random facts about famous people and ripping slapstick jokes.

The once humorous skits, usually dedicated to topics concerning the nation’s core population of farm-dwellers, are now infused with trendy topics, like plastic surgery and web surfing. In an attempt to upgrade tried and true village themes, this year’s skits lost their wholesome appeal, leaving viewers pondering the lack of an ending to the night’s grand finale by Zhao Benshan (China’s biggest folk star who made his name on a “country bumpkin” persona).

This year’s Chun Wan also saw an injection of new talent. Decidedly younger performers, in or under their 30’s (compared to the older stars that traditionally get invited to perform), took the stage to display dubious talent. I didn’t know any of them (granted, I’m out of date on Chinese pop culture) but the only reason they seem to have been asked to join the show at all was that they could shout loudly and weren’t embarrassed about thrusting their bodies around awkwardly.

The constant in this year’s show, like in any year, was the underlying political messages. As the entertainment content in Chun Wan came down this year, the political component took up the space. Some of the themes were mild and to be expected – a barely disguised skit meant to educate people on counterfeit currency; some nudge nudge wink wink jokes about speculative real estate investments; and a lavish showcasing of China’s first batch of female fighter pilots (sixteen identically-sized and similar-aged girls picked out of 250,000 applicants).

There were also other, stronger messages. To emphasize ethnic harmony, many show slots were given to showing minorities dancing and singing with glee. The expat friends I invited home to watch the show exclaimed their surprise as a large group of Uighurs cheered to a jolly beat on stage, shouting “Yakshi! Yakshi!” (“Great! Great!”). Anyone who watched the news in 2009 knows that it wasn’t such a “Yakshi” year.

A closer look at the subtitles revealed that the elderly gentleman singer – also an ethnic Uighur – was hardly singing lyrics. He was reciting a roster of political accomplishments in 2009: “the government gave us housing subsidies”, “our children never went to school but now elementary and middle schools are free”, “we have medical care”, and so on.

I used to think that only old fogies joined in on Chun Wan bashing. Either this year’s show was truly sub-par, or it’s time I retired from my spot in front of the TV set on new year’s eve.

China Quirks: Forgive, Forget, and Make Merry

Leslie Chang writes in “Factory Girls” – a fascinating book about migrant workers pursuing the “Chinese dream” – of Chinese people’s tendency to gloss over history. As she interviewed subjects for her book she constantly came against a kind of national amnesia. People made light of their past suffering or resorted to, “I don’t remember much.”

Her sentiment resonated with me when I read the book, for how many times have I heard my elders retell the hardship of the 1950’s through a few small anecdotes that sweep over countless details?

“When there was no food grandma made pancakes out of rough grains, stuff that would’ve been animal feed in other times. She always made a cornmeal cake for your uncle because he had horrible stomachaches. The rest of us stared at that golden cake on the stove, imagining how it tasted.”

“With inflation, the sacks of bills that great-grandma’s family stashed away became worthless overnight. They started to wipe the kids’ bums with the useless notes.”

While traveling through Ningxia last fall, I also witnessed a kind of heartless forgetfulness. At the China West Film Studio, I walked through a period set – “Cultural Revolution Street” – where tourists cheered on a mock denunciation meeting. Children ran around wielding prop rifles. Some visitors even paid money to don era costumes and film their own antics.

My American friend quietly commented, “Imagine Germans staging a reenactment of the Holocaust.”

I was reminded of this forgetfulness (or is it a collective coping mechanism?) last week, when I went home to Harbin to celebrate Chinese new year with my family. My cousin was entertaining visitors from afar and invited me to dinner with them at “Xiang Cun Da Yuan” (Big Village Yard). The Yard is a sort of dinner plus show venue specializing in “er ren zhuan” (bawdy folk duets).

An "er ren zhuan" performer, dressed in requisite gawdy garb

I had seen enough retro – some might even be called retro chic – restaurants to know that I should expect homespun kitsch at the Yard. Walls plastered with newspapers, flowery table cloths, and servers sporting pigtails and simple country garb – these are the essentials. But this particular “village yard” took the nostalgia to a whole new level.

I walked into the three-storey Village Yard and felt like I was in a replica of a China West Film Studio lot. Servers wearing khaki green uniforms with red epaulets, red star caps, and red arm bands bearing “Serve the people” slogans roamed the floors. I took in the bamboo tables and thatched roofs over every “yard” (private table), strings of peppers and corn hanging out to dry, and posters of Chairman Mao on the walls and realized that this wasn’t just a retro folk-themed restaurant. It was a 1960’s themed restaurant, heavily draped in the politics of the era.

The food was authentic hometown fare, but I was engrossed in the show. “Er ren zhuan” itself was but a tiny portion of the program. The majority of the evening centered on uniformed “guards” singing revolutionary songs and reliving the glory days when poor farmers lauded the arrival of communist liberation soldiers.

Communist soldier and villager sing of their mutual admiration

The theatrics were impressively detailed. The performers were fresh-faced and eager, their costumes varied and real. An older actor marched through the crowd a few times in different ensembles to evoke the actions of 60’s revolutionaries: armed with a bayonet for fighting, a sickle for farm work, and the full regalia of a Korean War combatant, complete with a heavy duty field radio.

The irony beneath this curious entertainment and the revival-like atmosphere it had created among the diners didn’t escape me. The entrepreneur behind the Yard employed every capitalist business tactic at his disposal to reap profits from selling communism. With more than a hundred people in captive (and inebriated) audience, the restaurant staff sold folk paintings in a live auction, took orders for personalized greetings, and solicited song requests. One enthusiast even paid to belt out his favorite tune on stage. Fortunately, the band terminated every song after just a few verses. All around the “yards”, costumed servers hawked baskets full of popcorn, candies, and other consumables table to table.

Drunken diners storm the stage to pose with the Korean War-era soldier

I was enthralled and snapped away with my camera. But I also felt guilty at partaking in such revelry. How could I wholeheartedly enjoy an evening that showcased only the good stuff of history and left out all the bad? What were my fellow diners thinking as they drunkenly swayed to the music?

Like Leslie Chang, I’ve often wondered if people here simply don’t remember the past, or if it’s just easier to cope with tragedies by focusing only on the good memories? Or could it be that life in our changing society is so complex now that people long for the simplicity of a time when they had a swelling of pure hope?

As I silently analyzed the evening’s proceedings, I also noticed that I was the only one who wasn’t fun. Red-faced diners, most of them tourists, ran around trying to get pictures taken with the performers. A group of rowdy men even jumped on stage to pick up props and pose for photos while the singers tried to carry on.

I was indeed alone in my worry and sadness, sadness for the bad things that came after the idealism of the early revolutionary days. I think this is the same loneliness that Leslie Chang felt when she travelled from north to south, researching the history of her family and the pursuit of the modern Chinese dream.

Travel: Harbin Ice Festival

Published on Feb 11

Winter Wonderland

When snow birds flock for warmer climes in Hainan, bolder travelers head for the spectacular Harbin Ice and Snow Festival.

Think Beijing is cold? Think again. There is a place where not blinking fast enough makes one’s eyelashes seal together with frost. There, people don ski masks not to rob a bank, but to keep the tips of their noses and the apples of their cheeks warm.

The place is Harbin, where the infamously harsh winters fortuitously produce the right conditions for an annual Ice and Snow Festival. Now in its eleventh year as a grand affair (the original festival was a smaller production set in city parks), the festival offers magnificent exhibitions of colossal sculptures made of, yes, ice, snow, and lights. Here, brave visitors are rewarded with wondrous experiences of walking through icy Japanese palaces, praying at frozen Indonesian temple ruins, and scaling up mini slopes resembling the Hollywood hills.

A shopper gets cozy with a promo doll at Central St

Travelers arriving by plane (a mere ninety-minute flight from Beijing) or by the comfortable “Z” overnight train can start acclimating themselves to the cold with a daytime stroll down Central Street. East meets West along these cobblestone pedestrian walks where shoppers browse a vast array of trendy goods housed in century-old Russian buildings. Harbiners are known as much for their exuberant hospitality as for excessive drinking and extreme fashion forwardness.

The Ren He underground mall and Sofia Golden Sun shopping center showcase diverse clothing and accessories ranging from basement bargain prices to upscale Korean imports.

The square at Sofia Church restored to its old glory

When in downtown, the Kremlin-style pointy domes of Sofia Church dominate the landscape. In recent years, the city has cleared the church’s adjoining areas of bleak modern buildings, restoring the glamour of a wide open European square. Inside the church is one of the better-curated museum displays to be found in China, including gilded chandeliers and an extensive collection of photographs depicting Harbin’s Sino-Russo past.

A trip to the Central Street area is incomplete without a stop at Modern Ice Creamery. Locals pack the narrow dining hall and can’t seem to get enough of its secret ice cream recipe, regardless of the season. For a more substantial (and warmer) meal, go for “chun bing” – vegetable and meat dishes wrapped up in pancakes – at Lao Chang Chun Bing.

Magnificent ice sculptures at the Ice and Snow World

When night falls, the winter wonderland comes to life. The main attraction in Harbin this time of year is the Ice and Snow World, where ice sculptures are set across a large park area just north of the Songhua River. Giant blocks of ice (visible on the drive across the bridge from the city) are farmed from the river, hauled to the site, and built into world landmarks familiar to the frequent traveler. Lights placed inside the ice blocks illuminate the artwork and the entire park glistens with the brilliance of artificial and icy sparkle. Wandering around the Ice and Snow World, one feels like a Siberian Alice in Wonderland. When visitors tire of gaping at sculptures with awe, or of rubbing hands and stomping feet to stay warm, there are chances for respite inside the many igloo tea shops scattered around the park. Other attractions include ice slides several stories tall, dance and music shows, and cheesy photo ops with snow foxes.

An hour in the Ice and Snow World has most travelers chilled to the bone. A dinner of hot pot comes as a most welcome change. Cai Zhen Ji hot pot restaurant serves up the style and selection of Ding Ding Xiang in Beijing, but at second-tier city prices. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. So, when in Harbin, remember to order plenty of Harbin Beer and “baijiu” for endless rounds of toasts with friends.

Following a day exploring icy man-made wonders, a nature expedition of sorts makes for an interesting diversion. The Siberian Tiger Park was once a dinghy little zoo where morbid tourists could purchase live cows and watch the feeding frenzy from the safety of an iron-barred bus.

Siberian tigers greedily eye a ranger’s van

Now, the park has developed into a respectable facility where Siberian tigers of the orange and white varieties, panthers, cheetahs, and even a few ligers reside under the care of zoologists.

The bus tour through the snow-covered grounds is thrilling, as packs of tigers surround the vehicle looking for feed, but the best view are up high. The viewing platform gives visitors the perfect vantage point to take in the stunning scene of a white landscape dotted with tigers at play.

Around mid-afternoon, an altogether different breed of animal can be observed in its rather unnatural habitat. Winter swimming has been a long-standing Harbin tradition, drawing many enthusiasts who rave about the health benefits of polar plunging into -30°C waters. The less adventurous can stand on the sidelines and watch as middle-aged swimmers strut their stuff on the frozen surface of Songhua River before diving off a platform made of, you guessed it, blocks of ice.

Winter swimmers take the polar plunge

A panoply of less extreme diversions can be found on the banks of the Songhua River, just outside the polar swimming hole – dog sledding, horse carts, and tops spun with long whips. The strangest contraption here, which attracts a surprising number of customers, is a chair set atop sharp blades, which a rider can propel using short ski poles.

Snow pagoda

The last hurrah of an ice and snow-themed trip would be the Snow Exposition at Sun Island. Here, the snowy counterparts of the icy sculptures seen earlier are dispersed around a large park that is, in the summer time, all sun and water. The structures here are mostly of Chinese subjects – a traditional village house, pagodas, outlandishly big children rolling a snowball (quite a whimsical sight).

To celebrate the bravado of two days of traipsing through ice and snow, finish with a meal at Da Quan Shao Kao, where everything from enoki mushrooms to larvae, as well as the more conventional lamb chunks, comes on a barbequed skewer. A few more rounds of “ganbei” and you might start to think that the cold isn’t all that bad for a winter voyage!

Hello, Tiger!

Last January, the year of the Ox opened with the meltdown of Iceland. Figuratively, of course. On “chu yi” (January 26), the government of Iceland resigned amidst the crushing chaos of Icelandic fishermen losing way too much money on investment products they knew way too little about. Oh, global financial crisis!

Following a dramatic start, the rest of the year unfolded in similar fashion. Germany celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Obama made multiple pledges regarding the fate of US troops overseas. North Korea continued to irk the international community by launching rockets and boycotting talks. The Japanese government went through yet another reshuffle. In BeijingFrom the, we also saw our share of social triumphs and falls taking place around the country.

As we prepare to send off the temperamental Ox, how do we feel about the coming of the Tiger? I imagine a lot of people are relieved. Perhaps some are hopeful. There are others yet who are probably entering lunar 2010 with trepidation about the curse of the “widow year.”

Taking stock of major events in my life this past year, I would sum up my personal feelings about the Ox thus: we have had a “mostly love, a little bit of hate” relationship.

Last year, I rang in the lunar new year rather unconventionally, by going on a weeklong fast and meditation retreat. This disturbed my mother greatly, for there is no worse fate in the eyes of Chinese than to be starving and alone on new year’s eve. After all, I was supposed to dine on a sumptuous “nian fan” with family, to ensure that the coming year would be plentiful and filled with reunions.

Fortunately, the fears of my older relations didn’t come true. My bizarre new year’s eve didn’t bring me poverty and solitude in the year of the Ox. Quite to the contrary, I passed the year with great pleasure, making time to do the things I wanted to do, instead of parking myself in front of a computer poring over Excel spreadsheets and blinking stock tickers for twelve whole months.

I stashed my worldly possessions in a warehouse, taking only a small suitcase as I boarded planes, trains, and automobiles. I wandered from the Roman aqueducts of Provence to the impoverished desert towns of Western China. While traveling, I saw more of my family and friends than ever in the last ten years. I developed a new hobby and I pursued a long dormant passion. During those nomadic adventures, I felt truly happy. The Ox was treating me well.

Yet, through the year I also came to occasionally hate the Ox. The flip side of free-spirited exploration is unbearable uncertainty. Accustomed all my life to following a well-planned academic and professional path, I finally learned how difficult decision making can be. I had taken myself out of the proverbial box and suddenly faced the problem of figuring out what exactly I should do in this wide boundless world.

That’s a question I will keep searching for an answer to in the year of the Tiger. In Beijing and beyond, there may be millions of people, young and old, doing the same soul-searching as me. One thing is for certain though: my crossover into this year will be much more to my mother’s liking. I will be eating dumplings at home, followed by a marathon viewing of the annual CCTV extravaganza.

Leaving my love-hate relationship with the year of the Ox behind, I look forward to welcoming the year of the Tiger. I wish everyone good health, happiness, and the daring to do something utterly, incomprehensibly new this year!

Publication: Split pants were invented for a reason

With the Lunar New Year just around the corner, Beijing’s modern facades have undergone yet another transformation. Glass-paneled doors are pasted over with red paper cut-outs of the word fu (“happiness”). Rhyming couplets auguring good fortune are hung around doorways. These festive adornments hark back to a time before skyscrapers, when more of Beijing looked like the last remaining “hutong” inside the Second Ring Road.

As we enter the season of tradition, I’m remembering another iconic image from bygone days: the kai dang ku. Not nearly as ubiquitous as before, the “split pants” are still frequently sighted in warmer seasons, much to the dismay of some Beijing residents. Last August, my friend announced she was leaving Beijing for good with this message on her Facebook homepage: “Farewell to publicly urinating babies!”

She’s certainly not the first person to complain about the phenomenon. Despite the waning popularity of crotchless pants, there are still plenty of baby bottoms peeking out at unaccustomed expats. In the older neighborhoods, attentive mothers dot the sidewalk, holding their overexposed toddlers with legs wide open, whistling xuxu.

Whistle down wind with split pants

“What’s up with all this?” foreign friends ask me. To satisfy their curiosity and my nostalgia for the traditions of yesteryear, I cobbled together some lesser known facts about split pants.

The idea behind this garment is to give young children the convenience of “going” anywhere, any time, without soiling their clothes, while avoiding diaper rashes. The pants and their accompanying traditional cloth diapers were an economic solution, suitable for virtually every Chinese child. That is until the 1980s brought additional wealth and Pampers to China.

Nowadays, Western and domestic diaper brands line our supermarket shelves. As parents increasingly favor “modern” ways to raise children, the split pant is rapidly disappearing. This change may make for more aesthetic sidewalks, but it also has negative environmental implications.

The cloth to disposable diaper transition took place in developed markets decades earlier. In America, Pampers started selling disposable diapers in 1961 and the product grew hugely popular despite complaints from “greenies”.

After learning about the 200,000 trees sacrificed annually to supply the American disposable diaper market, I’m viewing split pants more favorably. Another startling fact I learned is that children raised in this traditional garment complete toilet training years ahead of their Pampers-clad peers.

As developing countries eagerly cast aside their grandmother’s ways in favor of store-bought solutions, segments of developed societies are going back to “natural living” methods. Ingrid Bauer, a Western toilet training guru, coined the term “elimination communication” to describe age-old practices she discovered from India to Italy. Her son has been diaper-free (toilet trained) since he was four months old, an experience echoed by many mothers following her advice.

Next time I see a split pant-wearing baby, I’ll think twice before wrinkling my nose in disgust. This dying tradition in China is not only affordable but also carries environmental and developmental benefits. Here’s hoping that some traditions can last a little longer.