Ghost Festival Drama: The Time We Attracted Ghosts

September, 5th 2017 was a warm autumn night, and my roomie and I decided to go on a food item hunt at 11.15pm. What began as a little adventure around the block to five different convenient stores turned into another classical case of too little cultural knowledge clashing with too much of it.

The minute we stepped outside, we saw the fires. We had unwittingly made our way into a minefield. It was China’s Ghost Festival, or Hungry Ghost Festival, the day on which people honour their dead by burning paper money, houses, cars or even iPhones.

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I learnt very early on from Mr Li that the white circles that people draw onto the sidewalk with chalk, and in which they place the items to burn, need to be avoided at all costs, since this is where the ghosts lurk to pick up their offerings. Walking over their circle is tantamount to walking across their grave. It can only end one way: you will be haunted by a pretty pissed off ghost. My roomie knew even better than me to stay away from the white circles.

However, as well as our intentions might have been, this proved a lot more tricky than we initially thought. With half of the lanterns not working, spotting the circles was incredibly difficult and once you found one, there tended to be a whole cluster, so we started hopping in between this supernatural minefield, half wondering if anyone was filming the crazy foreigners jumping around chalk circles and giggling manically (out of fear of lingering ghosts, more than anything).

In the end, we decided to walk on the street, choosing rather to be run over by a speeding car than risk the wrath of Beijing’s deceased. We made it all the way to our final store, and upon having discovered the items we were after, euphorically made our way home.

“WAAAAAAAHHHHH, SHIT!”, my roomie screamed.

In our celebratory mood, we had started babbling about random things and…walked straight into the biggest minefield of white chalk circles with grey and white ash heaps in the middle. Four years ago, I would have laughed about it and walked off, but four years in China and I found myself cursing. It seems the superstitions I always made fun of had come back to haunt me after all.

Luckily, my switched-on roomie had the solution – when we got home, we would throw salt over our shoulder.

“A Western solution for a Chinese ghost problem. It’ll work”, I decided.

When we did return, it was straight to work, though we couldn’t decide which shoulder to throw the salt over. We started with left for Communism, and then did the right for good measure. Let’s hope our failure to pay attention won’t, in the end, come full chalk circle.

Addendum: As I was researching for this piece, after I had returned from a stroll past midnight, having complained about the circles being everywhere and taken photos of the food items I purchased (luckily not of myself), hung up my wet clothes and combed my hair in front of a mirror, I found this helpful slideshow that only made matters worse. It was nice knowing you, everyone!

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Rediscovering Germany

Disclaimer: This is a post I wrote about my last return to Germany, almost one year ago. I finally decided to post it, despite its rather negative tone. 

Selective memory is a dangerous thing, isn’t it? Having left my native country Germany nine years ago, and not having had spent a longer amount of time there in almost three years, I had myself convinced that it would be a great idea to move back “home” in the near future.
Yes, I had read all the reports about problems with both right wing radicals and supposed migrants and soaked in the fear mongering, always telling myself it’s the media, no point in taking it seriously.
But take it seriously I probably should have. That is the conclusion I have drawn from my latest visit to the Land of Pretzels, Cars and Kebabs. The day of my arrival, fresh off the airplane, resembled a bucket of ice water being tipped over my head; and not in a “I’m helping raise awareness” kind of way.

In just a short trip that took me through three cities to my final destination, I witnessed fights, altercations or a feeling of being under threat – sometimes all three at once.

Encounters in the Public Space

First off a shouting match between what from their appearance can only be described as probable PEGIDA marchers and the poor conductor, who had pointed out that smoking was not allowed on the platform. In response, a veritable thunderstorm of foul language was unleashed with the conclusion that these specimens announced they could do “whatever the heck they want” to put it mildly. This, so I have been told by a number of old friends during my stay, has become Germany’s new normal. Returning from China in the past usually meant a relaxing and pleasurable experience, with people being rather polite and considerate of others in the public space. It seems incidents such as the above are now not uncommon as the behavior towards other people has changed for the worse.

Cologne New Years’ Aftermath

Next stop Cologne. One hardly has to repeat the events of New Years 2016 that have made the city’s main station infamous. The after effects though are as tangible as they could ever be. There was police everywhere on the premises; you could have cut the tension with a knife. After I asked one lovely policeman for directions to my following destination, he immediately warned me to be on my guard since “there are a lot of thieves especially in the station, and a bag such as yours is particularly easy to grab.”

So I found myself skulking up and down Cologne train station feeling doubly exposed not only due to the easy-to-steal handbag but with a massive and glowing red suitcase that screamed tourist at anyone in a 100m radius. The black one then, next time.

Beggars, Junkies, Alcoholics 

Upon arrival in Bonn, I was about to attempt to purchase an underground ticket, an unnecessarily complex process in the former capital, when something moved at my right elbow. Not registering what was about to happen, I turned to the young man with snake tattoos on his arm and a shaved head with a quizzical look on my face about to ask for help. Now, I cannot say for sure whether this was actually a junky, though he definitely would have fit the description. What surprised me about myself is that such people begging for money was completely normal even when I was growing up in Germany. This is also why train station toilets have blue lights, so said junkies can’t find their veins and shoot up in there; a fact of which I was painfully reminded when I set foot in the local “blue loo”.

At the sight of this stranger however, I was totally thrown. He did then very kindly help me out, but within seconds station security walked up to tell him to stop “harassing” me. He did ask for some money to buy a slice of pizza, even suggesting I can come with him to check he is truly buying food not alcohol. I gave him some change and sent him on his way, musing about how hard it is to fight stereotypical thoughts from entering your mind.

The grand finale to my disconcerting welcome in Germany was the last trip of the day on the underground, where a man in his fifties was barely able to remain slouched upon the platform seating with once again six police men and women gathered around him. Clearly drunk out of his mind, upon being told to get up and leave the station, the man stumbled around so violently he almost ended up on the tracks. After putting on a pair of gloves, one of the police men gingerly tried to lift and steer him, an attempt that desperately failed.

Alcoholism in China

Again, this is not in itself a terribly uncommon sight; especially at German cities’ main stations. But for some reason, it is rare to see a run-down alcoholic on his own in such a state in China. The inebriated might violently stumble around but there will always be friends to support them and get them home – since drinking is such a sociable activity. Generally speaking, it is rare to see an alcoholic homeless man out in the open. Beggars, yes. But these people, most Chinese I spoke to have claimed, are often part of an intricate network, trying to make money, in many cases playing emotional music as they drag themselves through underground carriages trying to look as desperate as possible (which to be honest they often truly are). Alcoholics, on the other hand, often hide in their own homes and are socially sanctioned through a traditional drinking culture closely tied to doing business.

In the end, this was not at all the welcome back I had expected. And it was just the beginning of a row of discussions and revelations in relation to safety, society and employment in Germany, that have given me a lot to think about.

I haven’t been lazy, I swear!

Hello, hello dear OCW friends,

Again it has been very quiet on the site for a while but that doesn’t mean that I have been lazy…well, a little bit maybe, and enjoying the first rays of sunshine this year. Those special days, when Beijing isn’t destroyed by yet another sandstorm-smog airpocalypse blown our way from Inner Mongolia. As I say to my husband “All the good things come from Inner Mongolia, don’t they.” He doesn’t find that funny. No idea why…

But I’ve also actually been writing quite a bit, just not on this blog. Which why I thought in the name of shameless self-promotion, I will put together a post to advertise some highlights of the breathtakingly amazing writing I’ve been doing, and also announce that I’ve won the Jay Z award for Modesty. Call me Humbledore. Ok, this is turning quite strange now, back on track, please.

Beijing Kids

I’ve been doing some writing for Beijing Kids, on multicultural relationships mostly, which is why I’ve maybe been not so good at putting topics up on here. Some of my grand bouts of inspiration have included musings on how living in your partner’s home country can make you more dependent on them – and it’s all about saving 5 Kuai. Another one I’d like to recommend is my Mother-in-Law Checklist, a tongue-in-cheek listicle or a very serious warning on which you should base your life choices? You decide! And finally, one of my favouritee ranty topics – marriage pressure. In this post, I talk a little bit about where marriage pressure comes from, how it is reflected in society and most importantly how I used my cultural background to shut down any form of marriage pressure.

WWAM BAM!

The other website that has been taking up quite a bit of my attention is the WWAM BAM! Blogging collective that we launched at the beginning of the year. More info about that here. Aside from being a super strict Time Nazi (wait, am I allowed to make that joke? I guess I am part German…let me know in the comments, if that was non-PC) and making a very impressive spreadsheet to schedule all of the fabulous posts by our amazing writers every month, I do get my hands dirty with the occasional post on the site. I have been writing a lot for our Where’s Wang column, which looks at media representation of Asian men. Here is a very long piece, in which I looked at the Oscar-winning movies from that perspective – quick hint, it’s a bit like trying to find the Asian needle in a very, very large Caucasian haystack. My post on cross-cultural divorce, where I reflect on the issues that I have learned about from friends, is also quite somber. So, I better finish off with something a little more uplifting: I did a profile of the very cool, very talented Kristel, a Canadian who runs an art school next to a monastery in the Tibetan area of Gansu, and as I like to tell everyone who will listen, hers is the first piece of grown-up art I own.

Group Posts

Also, in the interest of partial self-promotion I got to contribute to some very cool group posts that our great writers have put together over the past few months. There’s the one where we all showed off our stunning engagement photos, then there’s the one where we reviewed some of our favourite movies starring Western women and Asian men in love – a tip my choice get’s quite steamy and racially biased, it’s a confusing combination. And finally, we all compared how we spend Chinese New Year with our husbands.

Aside from that, I am hoping to get a super-secret project off the ground, but more on that later (got to hype it up, ey) and I do have a couple of topics I do need to write about on this blog. In the meantime, I’m sure you will be eagerly reading every single article I linked to *coughcough* There will be a test!

 

 

Celebrating International Women’s Day: My Role Models

Dear Readers,

Happy, happy International Women’s Day! In order to appropriately mark this day, I’ve decided to spread some girl love, or should I say woman love, by listing the women that I find most inspiring. This is by no means an exhaustive list and it changes constantly. Without much ado, here are (in no particular order) the outstanding women I look up to and who give me hope for a more equal world:

Emma Watson

She has grown from Hermione in Harry Potter to an outspoken women’s rights activist, addressing the UN and most importantly handing an epic comeback to the people trying to police her body.

Her response to the criticism of her partially exposed breasts in Vanity Fair is both eloquent and hilariously blunt at the same time.

“Feminism is about giving women choice. Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women with. It’s about freedom. It’s about liberation. It’s about equality. I really don’t know what my tits have to do with it.”

Thanks, Emma. You rule.

Miranda Hart

Oh, where to start with Miranda Hart? She is one of the most singularly funny women I know, one of the rare, but growing breed of female comedians that are taking on this world. Her awkwardness in social situations and her struggle to fit into the narrow mold of what society considers “one of those women”, the ones with trinkets, who always know the laugh of the season and the appropriate appetizer for each social occasion is so relatable. She will have you spewing your beverage all over the room with laughter as she farts, gallops and falls off chairs. If ever you need cheering up, Miranda’s comedic talent will certainly save the day.

Carrie Gracie

If you are an avid follower of the BBC, especially with a focus on China, you would have come across Carrie Gracie. She is my favourite journalist of all time. She was out reporting on China when China wasn’t the place to be yet; in the mid-90s she does a series on White Horse Village, where the villagers are affected by urbanization. Then, last year, her documentary the Xi Factor takes on China’s Big Papa, culminating in a visit to the very same dumpling place he had blessed with his presence, where the “presidential set” fails to impress the seasoned China expert Gracie. And in her latest coup, she is attempting to untangle the web of a certain Chinese politician, his wife and the murder of a British business man in 2011. The woman is fearless. And, incidentally, also was married to a Chinese man at one point in her life if memory serves. If I ever meet her, I might end up stammering “I want to be you when I grow up.” Too weird? Yeah, I thought so.

Okay, before I run on for too long, I think I’ll have to stop here. But not before giving a shout out to a couple of other amazing women and their achievements:

Elizabeth Warren, succesful politician taking on Trump and his administration in a serious & viral way

J.K. Rowling, who gave us Harry Potter and one of the best feeds in the Twitterverse

Superwoman, a.k.a. Lilly Singh, Youtube Mega-star, bawse and girl power advocate

Oh, and one surprise woman you can find right here

And finally my Mum, tomboy in her own right, who taught me there’s no need to fit the mould

Who are your female role models? Let me know in the comments!

Happy Women’s Day 2017!

 

 

Mangjing Village; A Disappearing Way of Life

Life recently took me to a rather unexpected place. It’s called Jingmaishan (or Jingmai Mountain) and is made up of 14 small villages that are colourd with ethnic minorities, mainly Bulang and Dai. 


A three-hour car drive from Xishuangbanna, I thought I knew what to expect – palm trees, sun and unique architecture. I’d actually even forgotten about fog, a starry sky and the scent of fresh, wet grass. The memories that Manjing brought to mind after years in dry and dusty urban giants were melancholic and bitter-sweet. However, what I didn’t expect to find were the people. 

Sure, everywhere in the world there tends to be a difference between big urban centers and small rural villages in the way people carry themselves and the way they behave towards each other. It’s common to greet people in smaller placer irrespective of whether you know them or not. 
But particularly Mangjing village, the base from which I explored this stunning area, absolutely turned my preconceptions on their head. 

Without fail every person we encountered would offer tea – this region’s main source of income – but not in the way that many tourist places in China do, where their ulterior motive is always to sell their product after. Rather the people here just socialize in this way. While I was waiting for my group, one of the locals, whose toilet I was standing next to, kept offering for me to use it if I needed. Another ran off to return with a branch from his ancient tea tree as a present. 


There is just genuine affection, warmth and a sense of community here that I have never seen in quite this way anywhere else, even less so in the big metropolises of China.

This attitude towards life and relationships is visible in the local architecture. The ground floor of their buildings is entirely open; there are only wooden beams that keep the whole structure standing up – and so it’s common for people to take a short-cut right through your house. While there is a second floor that is a closed-off room, the doors in this village aren’t locked and it isn’t uncommon to just pop into anybody’s house. Of course it has to be said that most people in the village are actually related and few outsiders have made this their permanent home. 


The contrast with Beijing couldn’t be more obvious. The bemoaning of how cold and isolated people are in big urban centers is nothing new of course. However, I think this is even worse in China than in any other country I’ve been in. Part of it is certainly the sheer size of cities. Beijingers can only muster a weak smile when they hear that London hit a record high in terms of population – totaling 8.6 million people. Try 21.7 million. 

The social isolation that comes with big cities seems to go hand-in-hand with some of the social developments bemoaned in recent years. Particularly the lack of empathy and unwillingness to help people in traffic accidents or facing violence in public for fear of ending up branded as a perpetrator. There is a lot of mistrust, a lot of apathy, and sheer loneliness. 

One of the people in my group told me that when they were growing up in Chongqing, the community felt much more like the one in Mangjing village. 
But this lifestyle too is under threat. As projects to increase tourism are expanding and the locals strive for a more materialistic, city-like lifestyle, not knowing the cost it holds. 

It is clear this will have a considerable impact on people’s lives and attitudes. For one, if the number of tourists increases, it will become inevitable for locals to start putting locks on their doors. As soon as they start shutting people out out of necessity, this will inevitably erode the incredible closeness that is the essence of Mangjing’s community. Development is, of course, unstoppable; but the loss it will entail is very costly indeed.

Pre-CNY To-Do List

Every year before the Spring Festival there are a couple of tasks that need to be completed. Here are the three main things we have to do before returning to Mr Li’s hometown. 

Buy new clothes 
It is a fairly typical CNY tradition to start out the new year with new clothes to mark the new beginning. In the past, as China was not yet as economically developed as it is now, this would be the only time of the year that children got new clothes and so in the past it was incredibly exciting and meaningful. As consumerism has taken hold and incomes have increased buying clothes is no longer just a once per year activity and so it’s completely lost its excitement. I did buy two new winter qipaos, however delivery was slowed down and so by the time I got them all the tailors in the area had already shut down for CNY, and of course with my pear-shaped figure they look more like lumpy sacks than anything else. Mr Li couldn’t even be bothered to get new clothes since there is nothing he hates more than being forced to shop for clothing. We walked into a store and within 10 minutes he was complaining that he didn’t want to buy anything after all. We will definitely be getting a scolding when we show up without new clothes for him.

Get a haircut 
It’s said that you’re not allowed to get a haircut in the first month after the new year in his family, otherwise your uncle dies. And so the night before we fly up into frosty Inner Mongolia mr li has to get a haircut, otherwise he would look like a crazy professor by the end of the month. Since we tend to not remember to get this done until the last minute by now half of Beijing’s hairdressers have closed and the other half have more than doubled their prices. Maybe we will learn next time.


Buy Famous Beijing Cakes
Beijing has a nationally famous bakery called Daoxiangcun (fragrant paddy village). They have so called Chinese cakes, which are the only Chinese bakery items I will actually happily stuff my face with. Since they are so famous, they are also the traditional gift for us to bring home to close family members since we have moved to Beijing. The photo shows their smallest size box, and because we have such exclusive tastes they are choc-full of very heavy (and therefore not inexpensive) cakes stuffed with paste made from coconut, hawthorne, winter pear, lotus seed and plum. The cakes a very carefully crafted with beautiful ornaments – my faves this year are the monkey and the rooster, marking both the year that is ending and the coming one. Because I have no discipline when it comes to cakes, it’ll be mostly me stuffing my face with these for the week to come. And then having trouble fitting in my trousers. That’s CNY for you! Happy holiday! 

Signing Off For Chinese New Year w/ a Nugget of Chinese Humour

My dear friends,

Chinese New Year has almost arrived and so before I retire into a week or two of holiday bliss, I wanted to leave you with this little New Year’s joke circulating on the internet:

Our neighbour, Mr Wang, met a girl online and kept happily chatting with her for a few days. All of a sudden, she suggested he go over to hers. “What if your husband suddenly comes back?”, he asked her. She said: “Not a problem, he usually doesn’t come back unannounced. And if he does, we will just say I called you in to clean the windows*. Chinese New Year is approaching after all! He won’t suspect a thing.”

So he went. But only minutes after he arrived, the husband returned, and so Mr Wang did pretend to be the window cleaner. He spent the whole afternoon wiping the windows down. On his way home, the realisation started to dawn on him, that something about this whole encounter wasn’t quite right…that’s city life for you. CNY is approaching, watch out you won’t be called in to clean someone else’s windows.

In case you have an urgent desire to practice Chinese, or want to pick apart my translation (I dare you, you nitpicker…JK…or am I?), here’s the original:

隔壁老王网上约了个妹纸,聊了几天相谈甚欢。突然约老王去她家,老王说那你老公突然回来咋办,她说没事,一般不会突然回来,万一要回来了你就说你是我雇来擦玻璃的,快过年了,我老公也不会怀疑。结果,在她家没呆几分钟,她老公就回来了,为了装的逼真老王擦了一下午玻璃。
回家的路上老王越想越不对劲…城市套路深 😀 😀 😀 快过年了,注意啊别被叫去给擦玻璃了!!!

And with that, I leave you to clean your windows, buy some new clothes and stuff yourselves with dumplings, fish or whichever CNY foods land on your strained table. I won’t be posting much on OCW in the coming week or two (depending how busy and/or inspiring the New Year proves), but my interview with Mr Li (in which he reveals that he almost died a few times during CNY) did recently get published on beijingKids; and there are two posts, I contributed to, scheduled to go up on WWAM BAM! In the coming days. So watch those spaces, rather than this one, if you are keen to read my musings, which I’m certain you cannot live without 😉 Yeah, modesty, it’s my strong suit.

I wish you all a very happy Chinese New Year and I’ll be seeing you all again in the Year of the Rooster (or rather Cock as some colleagues proclaimed…naughty!)

万事如意,新年快乐and a hearty恭喜发财!

Laura

 

*In Chinese tradition, there will be a spring clean before the Spring Festival, which must include wiping down the windows, a tradition I certainly observe very closely *coughcough*

The Chinese New Year’s Office Party – Decadence, Sexism and Serious Drinking

Annual office party? Sure, that’s where you get unreasonably pissed, embarrass yourself in front of your colleagues and bosses by a) stripping to your undies (mostly men) or b) singing Karaoke really badly (all genders, especially one Bridget Jones) and generally have a fun day/night on the town sponsored by accounting. Especially in the UK, it can get pretty wild, with ample booze involved.

But nothing I ever experienced in Europe had me prepared for the crazy bonanza that is the Chinese New Year Office Party. The ones I have witnessed do, interestingly, seem to have a lot in common with a Chinese wedding. Here are a few things I learned from attending Mr Li’s company bash a few years ago and the one or other viral post that gives a rare glimpse into a world of decadence and serious sexism.

*Note that these parties are nowadays much more common in private companies; after the crackdown on corruption most state-owned companies have had to tone it down considerably and I believe many of them don’t hold any celebration anymore.

didi chuxing annual party
The annual party of taxi app Didi saw performances of major Chinese superstars; employees allegedly received up to 1000 RMB in virtual red envelopes on WeChat

The Venue

Because of the whole concept of face, you can be pretty certain that any company worth their salt is going to pull out the big guns when hosting a CNY party. It will be a five-star hotel with at least 100 tables and there will be a massive stage, if the company can afford it. The more I think about it, the more it really is very similar to a Chinese wedding extravaganza. Except with fewer flowers and random decorative elements.

At the event in question, there was even a large screen showing videos and speeches and even offering the opportunity for people to send a Wechat message that would then flash across the screen. It quickly descended into a slightly childish game of people calling each other silly names, which let’s face it, is the whole point of such a function.

CNY party screen wechat
Little Zhang loves Cherry – what else do you use a massive WeChat screen for?

The Show

Tencent got some rather embarrassing and unwanted attention after photos of their recent CNY bash were leaked showing female employees being forced to mimic blow-jobs on stage on a bottle tucked between male colleague’s nether-regions. This sounds pretty bad, and sadly, it’s not one extreme example but rather the norm. Since the CNY gala is the opportunity for Crystal in Marketing to get the big bosses’ attention, every employee will work seriously hard to put on a good show. My husband’s work group rehearsed their dance for two or three weeks, I kid you not.

However, grabbing the bosses attention as a woman in China, and the big boss almost inevitably will be male, still mostly equates to one classic mantra: sex sells. In addition, the concept of “professionalism” as it exists in the west, doesn’t really exist in China. And so Crystal will inevitably strap on her way-too-mini skirt and twerk as if her career depended on it (which it ultimately does) up on a stage in front of hundreds of employees and, yes, that big boss who might just be enchanted by her butt.

But then Cherry in Admin emerges as a dark horse and brings it home – those hours of professional dance class just for the purpose of this one moment are finally paying off.

img_1693
Twerk as if your career depended on it…

The only redeeming quality that this circus of sexism had was that one of the work groups didn’t take it all quite that serious (or rather they did), and had a group of male employees run around dressed up in sexy women’s attire and twerk their way across the stage. It seemed like an ironic commentary, and so I enjoyed it. I do hope that at some point the girls will do a dance in a suit though. Gimme some of that woman power!

The Drinking

This was the most fascinating part of the evening. As with weddings, the big bosses of course had to go from table to table and cheers every single employee. For Mr Li it was an opportunity to show off his foreign wife; as the only Western person at the event, I did stick out like a sore thumb and as usual got some awkward attention. Though it did seem to help him gain some brownie points, which I guess is a good thing for him.

The junior table I was sitting at had maybe bitten off a bit more than they could chew. Or rather chugged a bit more than they could stomach. And not been eating enough of the grand banquet that was being served up. Aside from Baijiu and red wine, they had smuggled in some stronger liquor, Korean Soju if memory serves, and were egging each other on to drink as much as possible. It didn’t help, I reckon, that they were curious to see how much I could drink, and Soju and wine are my fortes. Whereas the young stallions were knocked out pretty quickly by the mixture and so, all of the sudden there were two or three young men spewing up on the carpet of this five-star hotel. That was probably the most surreal moment I have ever experienced in China, especially since no one really seemed that bothered about it.

Torn between disbelief and empathy, I felt for the young lads, since had I entered a Baijiu competition I wouldn’t have made it very far either. Though when I ended up tipping my insides out during my last office party in the UK, at least I managed to do so outside on the pavement, rather than on the expensive carpet of an exclusive hotel.

Have you ever been to a CNY Office Party in China? What has your experience been? Wishing you a happy New Year!

Marks and Spencer Fails in China and So My World Ends

Okay, that is maybe an ever so slightly overdramatic title…those delicate millenials and their FWPs (first world problems). But let’s get real for a minute here. When the news hit that Marks & Spencer will, in the near future, be closing down ALL of their China branches, it was as if my heart had shattered into a thousand Mince-Pie-shaped pieces, and here’s why:

My previous traumatic M&S experiences

Ah, I remember it well. I must have been about 13 and in that phase when holy England was the be all and end all. I was yet to become jaded by the experience of actually having lived in England, its rent prices, food prices or just prices of any kind, and of course… Brexit. Our regular visits to my English family in Harrogate and London had instilled in me the impression that England truly was all about Afternoon Tea at Betty’s, lengthy trips to the ever so slightly nippy beach and fancy barbies with the neighbours, you know, the white garden fence, splendid backyard, sophisticated kind of mingling associated with the British middle and upper class. In short, I grew up under the impression that all of England was posh. It was like a Disney movie sprung to life. Oh, the joy.

Okay, well, wot’s any of this got to do with M&S, you’re surely wondering, for I have once again wandered off on a tangent. M&S represented all this poshness (poshity? poshure?) and when I was around 13, it actually opened in my German hometown of Frankfurt/Main. Right on the main shopping street. There it was in all its middle-aged clothing range and egg-salad sani glory. Oh, goodie! It was the treat of treats for my mum and me, when we were out on a weekend day shopping, to pop into M&S (because as Brits, you pop, don’t you? Such sophistication) and browse the underground food section, settling most of time on ginger snaps and shortbread. And then, a year or so later, guess what? It closed. Turns out that in cool, eco-aware and money-saving Germany, posh was about as out of place as, say, durian. Though much less offensive to the nose, M&S just didn’t make it in Germany. It took me quite a while to get over the heartbreak.

Rediscovering M&S in the UK

And then just like that, a decade later I found myself in golly old England, as a student. Now, I must admit from my previous comments, it might seem that I did not enjoy my life in England. I’d like to assure you that I did love many aspects about it. But I came away with a much more grounded, balanced view of the nation. Especially after a year in Newcastle, which was bonkers as da yoot like to say nowadays. There’s only so many toppled over drunk womens’ nickers you can see, before you decide it’s time to call it a day. But for all the things there were about life in the UK that weren’t as Victoria Beckham as I initially thought – the binge drinking, the weather and the cost of alcohol to binge drink away the depression brought on by shitty weather – M&S was always there, my steadfast companion that reminded me that somewhere in the United Kingdom, there were still people upholding regal Britain. Mr Li and I once managed to spend 100£ after a particularly enthusiastic M&S shopping spree. Hey, there were cherries, don’t blame us. Not conducive to weight or spending control, but all the more fun for a bit of nostalgia of the posh days of old, M&S just was all that’s British. Living in Britain meant, I had access anytime I wanted. And just like that, said access that had been feeding my addiction to overpriced but ever so fancy nuts with Chilean chili and Peruvian pepper coating, and other exclusive spices combined with regular items to suddenly make them a “must-have”, was cut short by my return to China.

Shanghai = M&S Paradise

Once I’d moved to Nanjing, it quickly became apparent that getting my M&S fix wasn’t going to be easy, but there was hope. Shanghai, just an hour on the high-speed train, was proud home to not only the shop and an imported food section, but an actual M&S café, where they’d whip up frozen quiches and fish & chips. It was the bees knees. Now every trip to Shanghai would be accompanied by a massive stock-up on teas, freshly baked bread, and anything on offer that particular day. One work trip, just around Single’s Day, I went crazy in the clothes’ section and returned home with an almost entirely new wardrobe. I ended up in Shanghai just often enough to make the binge shopping last until the next time. And so, every visit was really special, to be treasured to the max.

There and Gone in a Flash – The M&S Beijing Story

So, then I moved to Beijing. No M&S. The notion! Scandalous! But the good news was on its way – 2016 saw the opening of our very own Marks and Sparks. And not far from my office either. Half the time, I would pop in there (popping again, see, see, I AM posh!), not to actually purchase anything – god no, have you seen the prices?! Especially when you’ve been to M&S Hong Kong… – but simply for the M&S feeling. That warm feeling of my British side, that envelops me whenever I set foot in there. No M&S café in Beijing either, to my utter disappointment, but beggars can’t be choosers and so I found myself more often than not headed straight for the “about-to-expire-and-therefore-actually-cheap” section.

Once I had just gotten used to being able to buy Mince Pies and fancy chocs, though, the terrible news came: M&S will be shutting down all of their China branches in the foreseeable future. ALL OF THEM? For the next few months my British friends and I would mourn our future loss over lunch frequently, and speculate when the big shut down will be, and proclaim that we will clear the damn thing out – but only once the final sales are on. And then we’d giggle and acknowledge that maybe always buying from the “about-to-expire” section was part of the reason they are shutting down.

And there you have it – my grand M&S love story – can you believe you read it all. Every word. I’m certain you did 😉 It’s taken me a 1000 words to very non-succinctly state a simple but sad truth: M&S was, is and always will be a little piece of my “other” home, and without it, wherever will I get terribly posh and overpriced flatbreads? It’s a real issue…

Here’s to M&S, just too posh for the harsh world out there…I love you.

M&S marks and spencer uk british england china

Airpocalypse Now: Life in Smog 

When you live in Beijing, or in fact a majority of cities in China, you will inevitably be brought face to face with the unpleasant reality of smog. The terrible air quality across the nation of the past days is not uncommon particularly in winter, when the burning coals used for heating come together with the increased use of cars and the factories’ regular output to create a perfect storm. As a result, smog, its effects and your coping mechanisms become a big part of your daily life. Here are a couple of impressions and realities of a life in smog.

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Before and after

How do you know the air’s really bad?

My personal measurement of whether the smog is bad is whether I can see it in the underground. If I descend on the escalators and see that it’s all a bit hazy, I know it’s time to go home and stay home. In addition, when there’s an official red alert, as there has been these past days, there is an announcement in the underground reminding passengers to “take the necessary precautions”.

The aqi readings are of course an indicator, however you need to make sure to check on the right website, because the measurements differ massively. The US embassy one is usually pretty accurate because they measure in Beijing’s CBD, and other regions of the city, which they clearly indicate. The official Beijing city one’s on the other hand, I hear, are done atop one of Beijings hills (I think it’s Jingshan, overlooking the Forbidden City, but can’t say for sure), and so readings tend to be on average around 30% lower.

What can you do against smog?

We have four air filters and still it was over 130 in our flat the day before yesterday. I don’t have the laser egg that most expats have because I’m aware of the fact that this can make you obsessed with air quality as you check out every single inch of the flat. You might end up cowered in the corner farthest from the window between your air filter and your TV as you try to find the one spot in your flat with breathable air.

I’m pretty bad with remembering to carry masks but we were given some by our employer so at least I have one in my bag constantly now. There is a massive collection of masks available online, from the inexpensive, most basic, to the pimped up, luxury model. However, the cost will add up. After all your 5 air filters already set you back by around 10,000 RMB and you need to replace their filters every couple of months. Smog is bloody expensive.

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A filter in every room #datsmoglife

What are the effects of smog on your body? 
For me it tends to be dizziness, feeling short of breath, sore throats but most importantly my head starts to hurt and my sinuses become tender, so my nose blocks easily. I have heard some worrying stories recently about people who are sensitive, especially people with asthma, just keeling over from the smog. So if you are a sensitive person or suffer from asthma, just stay away. It’s not worth putting your life at risk.

After a while it becomes more of an emotional issue (you decide to ignore the real health effects, otherwise you’d run screaming to the airport to get the next plane out of here; but wait, they’ve canceled all flights because of smog, so you’re stuck). Not seeing blue sky for days and feeling constantly sick when you know you needn’t really affects my mood. I get so depressed. To the point that I simply feel grateful for blue skies. Being stuck inside for most of the day doesn’t help either. I recently realized that in the last three months since we moved to this new flat, I have had the windows open to let in fresh air once. That’s right, you read correctly. Once.

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Being able to open the window is now an Insta-worthy event…

What about Chinese attitudes to smog?

While most of the people in my immediate surrounding are aware of pollution and its effects, there are still some areas of China, usually more rural, where people still think smog doesn’t really affect you in a negative way. I have even heard that in some areas employers threatened people’s jobs if they decided not to come into work due to the red alert, although not going to work or school on such days is fairly common, and technically the law.

Netizens tend to deal with it with sarcasm and black humor, frequently taking pictures of the smog and drawing the outline of the building that is usually visible in it. There is also a Wechat post that tends to circulate whenever the smog hits, talking about the smog in London in the 60s and how they took care of the problem. A local friend of mine ironically remarked that this means that China is “on the right track, catching up with the leading economies of the world.”

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Didn’t there used to be a building there?

What about children?

I don’t have children, so this is a huge worry off my mind. The fact that smog reportedly has the worst effects on little children’s developing lungs means to me that I have decided I won’t be procreating in China. I don’t envy the parents here who do have to deal with it, as it’s a huge headache. Finding masks for small children is almost impossible and for newborns there are none, I believe. Also it’s really frustrating for the children to be locked up at home and not be able to go okay outside on these days.

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Too much choice for comfort

To be fair, not every day is as terrible as the past few days have been. But increasingly I find, that too many are below the acceptable threshold. Europe’s skies are calling.

Or The Unofficial Fiancé; A German Girl and a Chinese Guy get married

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