Category Archives: China Life

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!

 

 

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!!!

Wouldn't want to be cleaning those windows
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.

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.

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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!

An Ode to Inner Mongolia

As the Chinese New Year approaches fast, so does my typically longest visit of the year to Mr Li’s hometown, Hohhot in Inner Mongolia. Since the beginning of time, there’s been a bit of animosity between the two of us caused by our differing perceptions and opinions of the place. I, as a person who enjoys tropical weather, humidity, multicultural society and distinct architecture, have had quite a hard time embracing this city that is characterized by a desert-induced dryness that will make the skin peel off your hands (true fact), -20 C° degree winters, and fairly homogenous, Han style construction with hardly more than 10 buildings to be found in a city of  that have any kind of architecturally distinct or fascinating character; and that in a city of over 2.8 million people. I realize it’s a tad snobbish to reject a city based on it’s architecture, but to me buildings have always been a major part in creating the feel of a city, and when you’ve lived in cities like Vienna, London or Nanjing, I guess your expectations as to architecture tend to be a little bit on the high side.

Anyway, because Mr Li has this base urge to spend every CNY back home in Hohhot (though partly I cannot blame him, seen as ticket and hotel prices are horrendous at this particular time of year), he has been trying very hard to show me that there are also some pretty fun things about his place of birth. And I have to admit that through his efforts, the city has been slowly growing on me. Not so much, I’d ever consider living there, I grant you, but we do manage to have a good time.

So, I thought it was time for me to admit to some of the cool aspects about Hohhot. Enjoy!

Number One: Food in Inner Mongolia is Da Bomb

Vegetarians, you’re going to want to run for cover. But for meat-eaters with a preference for lamb, ohhh, you’re in for a treat. My personal fave are Chinese dumplings filled with lamb and carrot, a CNY treat that I could gorge myself on until I keel over.

The other massive favourite is Huicai, which I reckon you’d best compare to a stew. Just a few minuted walk from Mr Li is his local Huicai joint, where they stew green beans, tofu, potato and fentiao (thick glass noodles made from potato starch) into carb-overloaded, mushy goodness, of course with a bit of pork for flavouring – sorry, vegetarians, you really will struggle to find anything edible on the local menu.

 

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Lamb Dumplings yumm, yumm, yumm
Super Fun Inner Mongolian-Western Fusion Restaurant

While I might have turned my nose up at Hohhot for its lack of international cultural in the past, it has started to cultivate a more global restaurant scene. One of my personal faves, introduced by Mr Li’s cousin, a young, vivacious girl who knows all the best haunts, is a Mongolian-Western fusion restaurant. I never imagined myself slurping some Spaghetti Carbonara and then turning to a huge pile of stewed Sauerkraut, beans and tofu to wash it down. It totally works and has become one of my must-visits whenever I’m up there!

Number Two: Watching the Fireworks from our Balcony

Beijing has banned fireworks due to such minor considerations as, you know, environment 😉 But out in Inner Mongolia, the Wild, Wild North of China, try as you might, people will turn Chinese New Year into a festival of fireworks. When the clock strikes 12 on New Year’s Eve the racket starts and usually I will be standing on the balcony of my MIL’s flat on the 11th floor enjoying the view of fireworks everywhere. Most year’s Mr Li will have already passed out by this point, which has been a major irritation, let’s see if I can keep him awake this time around. Might have to give him some coding exercise – that’ll keep him awake till 3am.

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Spring Festival Fireworks as viewed from the balcony – love it!
Number Three: Inner Mongolia, A Great Place for Winter Sports

To me the major advantage of snot-freezing temperatures are the accompanying winter sports. As a former ice skater, going to the local park for a spin on the lake is a must. Ironically, I had never skated on a lake before coming to Inner Mongolia, only ever on man-made rinks. I love being outdoors without a roof above my head and some, albeit leafless, trees framing my view.

Look at meeeeeeeee
Look at meeeeeeeee
As I mentioned in the year-end review, IM is also the place where I learnt to ski for the first time. While it doesn’t necessarily house Swiss Alp style slopes, for an absolute beginner the man-made slopes are a very good place to wet your feet, or rather your backside when you tumble.

Number Four: Inexpensive Entertainment

Once you dig deeper, Hohhot actually has quite a lot of fun things to do. Such as pleasantly affordable Laser Tag, such fun, and a “cinema” that has private rooms for groups of around five people and uses streaming services, the legality of which I have decided not to think too much about. It’s a comfy fun way to relax on an afternoon.

Number Five: The Air, the Air, the Air. Did I mention the AIR?

Oh, yes, Hohhot’s number one selling point still is the air. While in recent years, pollution has slowly been starting to take hold, overall Hohhot, whose name in Mongolian means Blue City, is much better off air-wise than the capital of recurring airpocalypse, Beijing. This means that every visit is a much needed opportunity for your lungs to get some rest.

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Would you look at that AIR – Blue City, indeed!
Number Six: THE Blind Massage Parlour to END ALL BMPs

As a victim of desk jobs and terrible, terrible posture, I am one of those people whose neck and shoulders tend to be as a hard as brick. Seriously, you could injure your head should you for some weird reason smash it into my upper back. As locals, of course, Mr Li and his mother know exactly where the best massage parlours are, and so I was introduced to my favourite – back-crushing central. Yes, I will have bruises and feel tender for days to come post-massage, but I love it. Sadly, they usually aren’t open for CNY, and even more devastatingly I’ve heard rumours they’ve entirely shut down. But they’ll always be in my heart…and knotted shoulders.

Number Seven: Some Seriously Cool Local Architecture

Once I got over myself, I found that there’s actually quite a few interesting buildings to be discovered in Hohhot, a pagoda here, a temple there, but most interestingly the Hui Muslim district, which has a beautiful mosque and some very interesting architecture reminiscent of Arabic countries. Last time around, we even discovered a Christian church! And all it took, was for me to just get off my high horse and open my eyes.

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Hohhot’s Stunning Mosque ❤
And there you have it, my Ode to Inner Mongolia in seven neatly packaged reasons. Wishing you all a very happy Chinese New Year of the Rooster! Where will you be spending yours?

 

 

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

New Year, New WWAM Project

Hello My Dears,

And a wonderful New Year to you!

As we are getting settled into the fact that it is no longer last year, we realise that the world is still very much the same. Except for one little detail: the launch of our new WWAM BAM! website, a page about Western Women dating or married to Asian Men.

I am super excited to be part of this blogging collective among a stunning group of talented bloggers (or should it be bloggerettes?) and authors, including Susan Blumberg-Kason (author of Good Chinese Wife), Jocelyn from Speaking of China, Becky of BeckyAnces.net, Ruth of China Elevator Stories, Kimberly of Nama Mama, and Susie of the Daily Susily.

Here’s a quick idea, what it’s all about:

We are a group of women from a Western background who are dating or married to men from an Asian culture. AMWF (Asian Male Western Female) couples, or WWAMs (Western Women Asian Men) as we prefer to call them, have in the past been few and far between but in this increasingly globalized world are becoming more common every day. Still, there are cultural differences that such couples will face and our site is here to help you navigate them. At the same time, we make it our mission to weed through the racism and stereotypes about Asian men and culture out there. We all know the truth is never just black and white (or yellow for that matter).

Aside from gripping personal experiences of relationships with Asian men and their families, and of raising AMWF children, this site takes a look at the portrayal of Asian men in Western media and reviews AMWF related productions. We furthermore will spotlight the amazing women out there who have made Asia their family; past and present.

We’re on the lookout for Western women who love Asian men and writing. You could be a regular contributor or even just a one-time guest poster. If you’d like to be a part of our new group blog, email us at contact@wwambam.com.

We look forward to seeing you on the WWAM side!

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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.

A Love Letter to my Chinese Mother-In-Law

Looking back at some of my posts, I realise that most the quirky anecdotes and the weird stuff tends to involve her, my MIL. That might give the impression that we don’t get along but that’s actually not the fact at all. The main reason that most of my funny and weird China stories, such as rearranging wardrobes, happen with her, is simply because she is the Chinese person I am closest to and spend the most time with. Mr Li doesn’t count, as his long time in the West and my terrible influence have turned him into as much a confused culturally non-identifiable mashed potato as I am. After five years of having him in my life, and thus her by association, I have come to learn a few things about her in relation to other Chinese mothers-in-law that make me thank my lucky star that she is indeed the MIL I ended up with. So, here we are. My love letter to my MIL:

Being Supportive of us Dating

To start off, I have to say cudos to my MIL for never once suggesting to my husband that dating a foreigner was something bad. I know a few other WWAMs, such as Jocelyn, whose potential parents-in-law had misgivings about their son dating a Western woman, since we stereotypically tend to be seen as “loose” and heartless monsters who will abandon their duty to look after their parents. My MIL was never anything but welcoming to me, even when I could be a total bitch when I was struggling with culture shock.

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The day we got our certificate

A Strong Woman to Look Up To

I think one of the things that I really appreciate about her is the fact that she is a business woman, who owns her own kindergarten. In a country, where still the ideal role of a woman is to take care of the family members, young and old, it is rare to find a woman who has such a successful career, and a family. Actually, being a divorced woman in rural China in the 90s – that’s some pretty tough stuff –  and she has been through some really intense shit in her life. But she came out of the other end a strong and successful woman, a total trail blazer. I have only two words for that: Absolute Awesomeness.

Giving us Space

I find one of the common worries of dating Chinese men can be the fact that many Chinese family members, particularly the mother, struggle with the concept of personal space in the way we Westerners think of it. Most Chinese parents expect their sons to live in the same city as them, many even on the same street or (scary thought) under the same roof. However, this, from what I hear and experience myself, can lead to conflict very quickly, as two strong headed women from two different cultures often tend to have clashing opinions. Our husbands, the poor sods stuck in the middle, are often not outstanding at managing these cross-cultural issues either. I’m therefore incredibly glad that my MIL is accepting of the fact that we won’t be moving to Inner Mongolia and have our own lives.

Not Pressing Us on Children

While the rest of the family is a different story, I am incredibly lucky since my MIL doesn’t put pressure on me to have child. This is very uncommon in China, and I think it has to do with the fact that my husband’s parents are divorced. Maybe she wants to see if we can make it last? Who knows. All I know is that all I get from her in terms of procreational pressure is the occasional “Doesn’t your husband look cute with his little niece.” Thanks MIL, I really do appreciate it.

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After marriage pressure comes…baby pressure!

Being OK with Us Moving Back to Europe

This is a big one. Many Chinese parents I know of, and more so those with sons, are heavily opposed to the idea of their child moving to another continent, because “who will take care of me in old age?” So the fact that my MIL is totally on board with the idea of us returning to Europe at some stage (mainly for breathable air) is not a given. She went to Germany for the first time this summer and overall seemed to quite enjoy it. There is of course a possibility that she would like to join us in Europe but we will cross that bridge when we come to it.

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Home sweet home.

Almost Always Picking My Side in Fights

This is a really interesting one. From the beginning, when Mr. Li and I tend to go at each other, I’d say 90% of the time my MIL would be the one to talk him down and who picks my side. Especially in the beginning of our relationship she was the reason we didn’t break up many, many times. I have actually had to force myself not to call her to knock some sense into him when we have had the occasional fight. This has been a massive help to me, since I am aware that especially when it comes to cultural conflict, it’s an easy thing for the Chinese relatives to gang up on the foreign partner. It’s probably the same the other way around. So her being able to see my side is something I really appreciate about her.

Spoiling Me

Yeah, I have to say, my MIL tends to spoil me rotten. She will always buy things that I don’t ask for and often even feels the need, when she buys endless stuff for Mr Li, to buy me something too so I don’t feel left out. She will go out of her way to make me comfortable and constantly feed me food, if I let her. When you are in a country far away from your own mum, it does feel nice every now and then to be showered by such affection.

Being Pretty Cool to Travel With

I think this is the funniest one in a way. After Mr Li and I got married in China last year, I went on a 2-week honeymoon not with him but with my MIL. He was working as usual, the workaholic. And it was actually pretty awesome. She never travelled much in the past but is now in a phase of her life where she is really enjoying exploring the world. And so I know that if I ever want to travel to a cool place and my hubs is busy, I can just ask her if she wants to go. And actually, she is as active as I am, so she is totally down for a busy schedule and looking at loads of places, as opposed to my little couch potato of a husband ;P

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Our MIL-DIL Honeymoon at Qinghai Lake

So, yes, while at times certain elements about Chinese culture drive me insane, I have to admit that overall I have been incredibly lucky with my MIL. She’s definitely not what you’d call a traditional Chinese mother-in-law!