Engagement Photos from Nanjing to Inner Mongolia *FINALLY*

Hello my dears,

very sorry for my prolonged absence, which I cannot excuse. All I have to say for myself is that I have busy with a couple of other projects, but more on that in the next post. In the meantime, Jocelyn’s recent post on WWAM BAM!, which collected some amazing wedding and engagement photos inspired me to set up this long, long overdue post – a best of of the engagement pictures we took in May and August 2015. We basically had two photo sessions, one in Nanjing which had been extensively researched and which I have also written about at length, and a second spontaneous one in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia just three days before our Chinese wedding. So without much ado, here are the pictures, and some tidbits about the shoots, hope you enjoy them!

Round 1: Western Glam and Old Shanghai in Nanjing

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After weeks of research, I decided to book the engagement picture shoot in Nanjing, rather than Beijing, since we would get double the value for half the price. We started at 8am and finished around 6pm, had 7 different sets of clothes and 14 locations – 2 per each costume – 300 pictures taken, half of those retouched, 3 print-out photo albums and more framed pictures and nicknacks than we knew what do with; and all of this for merely 3200 RMB from Bazaar Photography.

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It’s not so obvious in this pic, but my makeup artist/hairdresser was an absolute genius with a brush and comb, she is the only person who has ever managed this elegant hairdo, and I have tried to get it replicated twice – no one else can do it.

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We had two Chinese-style costumes and five Western ones, which was a bit of a shame, because the Hanfu set and the Old Shanghai ones are definitely the highlight of the Nanjing bunch. The picture used in Jocelyn’s group post is probably my favourite out of all of them.

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The indoor pictures were taken at the company’s photography villa – a massive two story mansion that has around 20 to 30 different indoor sets, all of which have varied themes. Street cafe, library, church – you name it, they’ve replicated it in small scale in this human-sized dollhouse.

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This is the masterpiece and the reason I chose to stick with Nanjing rather than the Northern capital. I love old Shanghai style and had seen some stunningly beautiful pictures online of brides-to-be in their Qipaos, with 1930s themed locations that just oozed elegance, history and a mix of Chinese and Western culture – so us, no? Looking at some of the wedding photography in Beijing, I did get the feeling that my Chinese friends’ repeated warning that Northerners can’t do a “Southern style” like Old Shanghai seemed to have at least an ounce of truth to it, as they struggled to make it look as glamorous. This hairdo was another one that no one has been able to replicate in that fashion.

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Our outdoor shots were taken in Lvbo Yuan, the botanical gardens in Nanjing right next to the Yangtze river. It’s definitely a fave for engagement shoots, as I spotted ten to twenty couples just in our immediate vicinity.

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This beauty is the only dress I brought that belonged to me – bring your own also an option in case you’re wondering – and it’s a German dirndl, a nod to my Germanic heritage. Part of this set of pictures was taken in front of the Dutch windmill in Lvbo Yuan, the one sponsored by Eindhoven, so it has a really fun feel to it. But this is probably one of the very few photos that we freestyled – a lot of the shoot was posing very gracefully and glamorously, which was fun but also not really us. So in this final shoot we decided to mess about a bit instead.

Round 2 – Inner Mongolian Grasslands…well, kinda…

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After we showed our engagement pictures to my MIL, she then said we should have done some Mongolian style ones. She didn’t have to tell me that twice! For this shoot, we rented the outfits from a genuine Mongolian dress shop and so they were much more high quality than the slightly tatty ones in Nanjing. Big thanks to my MIL, whose wedding treat this was.

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Absolutely adored the colour of this dress and the pearls used as head decoration, still one of my favourite outfits to this day.

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And then we got a horse…as you do. Feeling so Mongolian princess 😉

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In the background is the Mongolian yurt in which I got to change my outfits while repeatedly banging my head on the beams. It was a new sensation, I’m 1.55m tall, I don’t hit beams often.  This is finally the matching dress to fit Mr Li’s outfit, the poor man didn’t get to change his clothes once (for which he is probably grateful at heart). Oh and btw, we weren’t actually out in the grasslands but rather a patch of grass that belonged to the photo studio.

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And now for the final reveal – my parents joined the fun and so did my MIL. We had such a good time together, it was the best day! I think all of us make fabulous Mongolians, don’t you? Especially my dad. Watch out Genghis Khan, you have competition!

Where did you take your engagement pics? Did you dress up in local costumes?

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!!!

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Wouldn’t want to be cleaning those windows

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Winter Cold in China 

Winter in China; how can this even be a topic you might wonder, but believe me when I tell you, it can. The reason for that is the North-South divide that exists in China with regards to heating and climate. Anything south of the Qinling Mountains and along the Yellow River does not have central heating in winter, a policy enacted 60 years ago by Zhou Enlai. While in some of the country’s most Southern provinces, where temperatures rarely drop below 15, this is kind of understandable, in regions closer to the heating border such as Anhui or my previous home of Nanjing, where 0 degrees and snow can be fairly common, it is not necessarily what you would call a pleasure. Though of course there is still air con available to heat up a room to a certain extent.

Having experienced two winters in the South and let’s say one and a half in Beijing, I thought it was time for a comparison.

Winter Down South – Wet and Tough

Before moving to Nanjing I had heard the Chinese expression that the Southern cold 进骨头里 goes right to the bone, because the climate is much more humid than in the North. I never really knew what people were on about; until that first winter in Nanjing. It was, in short, four months of constantly frozen toes and weirdly enough the tip of my nose. That’s what I get for being a big-nosed foreigner…

In my first year, when I was living in a rather old flat, I ended up actually sleeping in one of those skiing hats, you know the ones that pull over your nose.

During my second year, I quickly learned that when the aircon was on in my little studio flat, I had to sit in the hot air stream and not move an inch. Any attempt to stick my arm outside of the hot air range would have been accompanied with icicles dangling off my extremities (had we been in a cartoon movie…oh how I wish we were).

After a while though, I got used to the constant cold and the limited mobility in my own flat. Which was of course when, as it happened, I made my move to Beijing.


Winter Up North – Lip-splitting Dryness and New Levels of Cold

My first Beijing winter wasn’t good. Sure, our flat had floor heating and so you would often find me looking like a passed-out drunk as I lay sprawled across our living room floor, soaking up the warmth. And yes, I loved walking around without slippers and having toasty feet, to Mr. Li’s utter dismay, but the dryness of the Northern winter brought with it two terrible, terrible side effects. Every single inch of my skin became mind-numbingly itchy (and if you know me you know I’m a terrible scratcher). No matter how much cream I applied, after a while my legs and weirdly areas on my lower back were so raw from the scratching I could hardly put on my layers of clothes. But even worse was the fact that my lips dried out and split to an extent I wasn’t even aware was possible. They doubled in size and were as painful as they were unpleasant to look at. Again, no amount of balm could salvage the situation.

A work trip to Shanghai turned into an unexpected relief as my crumbly skin soaked up every inch of bone-freezing humidity it could find. The Beijing winter reminded me of the German winters of my youth, and not in a good way.

A Question of Adapting?

Fast forward a year and it is the end of November. While there has been a spot of itchiness, my clown lips have yet to surface (*touch wood*). It almost seems like I am on the verge of getting used to the harsh Beijing winter.

The thing, however, that surprised me most, was our recent trip to Changsha, again South of the warm and toasty centrally heated lifeline. When it hit 0 degrees and we were filming outside, I just wanted to jump into the Xiang river. When we were in a public hospital I just couldn’t fathom why on earth some of their hallways were actually open so the ice cold air could stream in and the wind could cut into my shivering body like a knife. Even while lying fully clothed with five layers underneath the duvet in my hotel room, my frosty toes simply refused to thaw. Imagine getting up in the mornings after 8 hours of your body generating just enough heat for even that little toe to defrost and then being forced to throw off the covers and instantly turn into a rather unappetising human ice lolly. Yeah, I think I’ll just stay under these covers till April, thanks. (Oh yes, I forgot, Nanjing for one typically doesn’t warm up until well into the fourth month of the year).

I have been quick to profess my love for the Southern climate on many occasions; my body, it seems, has other plans. It couldn’t wait to get back to lip-splitting, itch-inducing dry Beijing and its toasty indoor heating.

What has your experience been? Have you gotten used to the Chinese winter where you are?

Cultural Differences in AMWF Dating – A Deal Breaker?

 

Cultural differences; they’re such a big deal that we devote entire blogs to them. And often they are responsible for some of those “bang my head against a wall” experiences; but are they truly impossible to overcome?

Recently, when Mr Li was complaining about how I’m a lazy slob, whose idea of cleaning up is gathering all my clothes in a large pile and chucking them into my walk-in wardrobe, I couldn’t help but feel amused at how banal this little spat seemed. In fact, it was very similar to ones I had had with German ex-boyfriends in the past. And that’s when it hit me; Mr Li and I have somehow managed to pass that initial culture shock and have entered the phase where most of our irritations about each other involve our daily routine on the one hand and political disagreements on the other; things that most mono-cultural couples argue about.

A Rocky Start

This wasn’t always the case. In fact, in retrospect I feel like the first year of our relationship we mostly spent arguing due to cultural differences. Whether it was about the fact that I would tell my girlfriends about our fights and thereby “air our dirty laundry in front of everyone”, or that he would say some things that were highly insensitive in my own culture; for the better part of two years there was no shortage of things to fight about.

Then, around the two-year mark we hit a low point and almost broke up. What saved us? Well, as fate would have it, China did. By coming here, I finally learned how utterly clueless I had been in terms of understanding Chinese culture. Here I was, having studied the language for years, having been surrounded by Chinese friends, and still I realised very quickly that in terms of cultural understanding, I had only scratched the surface. And while right in the beginning of our return I really struggled with some of the changes in behaviour Mr Li exhibited, brought on by a Chinese surrounding, after a while we both managed to settle in and become more comfortable.

Then, Mr Li had the glorious idea of getting involved in Couch Surfing, where he met a few “real Germans” for want of a better word, and our relationship once again progressed to a whole new comfort level.

The reason, I would say, is that both of us started to realise that certain behaviours of our partner were actually culturally influenced, and this realisation meant that, if this was not a deal breaker, we could stop fretting about it and accept that if we wanted to date someone from that culture, this was just part of the package deal.

The other reason however was that in the face of people from our partners’ background we actually noticed how much the other had adapted to our own culture and how accepting and culturally sensitive they had become compared to other, less experienced people from their cultural background.

Most importantly as time went on, we figured out how uniquely fitted we were for each other, and that our relationship worked mainly because we were both stuck somewhere in the middle.

So, yes, cultural differences are something that can put a lot of strain on a relationship, if they are not dealt with; but ultimately if you are willing to put in the effort to understand your partners’ culture (and of course they yours!), and meet them half way, then there will come a day when the worst of your fights is who forgot to turn on the washing machine in the morning,…again. (Yeah, it was me.)

That being said, this is coming from the perspective of a childless woman who is not living with her Chinese in-laws; that, my dears, is a whole other story.

 

 

 

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

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