Category Archives: Culture

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.

Wedding Guests: China vs Europe

Right, so finally it’s time to get back on topic: WEDDINGS! That is after all what this blog is all about, isn’t it? The only excuse I have for not keeping up my writing until after both weddings have happened is that now I have both wedding experiences; the better to compare. This is what I intended all along! *wink wink*

So, this is the first in what I think will be many comparative posts on our two weddings: the wedding guests.

Now, if you’re not already aware, there is a difference between your average Chinese wedding and you average European one (and by average I mean non-celebrity, mere mortals like myself) in terms of the guest list. While in Western media there is an on-going joke about how everyone wants to be invited and how the guest list gets out of hand at a wedding, generally I have found that most weddings of my friends and family have fitted into the reasonable-sized category. Mostly around 40 to 70 guests, I’d say. At our German wedding we only even had 25 guests; and that nothing to do with us wanting to save every Yuan we could and all to do with the fact that we decided to keep it highly exclusive, VVIPs only, you know, like the highly exclusive people we are. (You think they bought it?…No? Damn.)

Now in China, even daring to consider having such a small number of people at your wedding is an irredeemable insult to your ancestors. And you ancestors’ ancestors. And you ancestors’ ancestors’ accountant. Again, it’s all about that face, ‘bout that face, no trouble. Hoping Meghan Trainor won’t throw a copyright lawsuit at me for borrowing her legendary lyrics for inspiration. Anywho, digressing again. At a Chinese wedding, lots of people equals face and so the more people attend the wedding the better. Not only that, there is actually a financial incentive to make it as bloody big as possible.

Let’s have a wedding to make some money!

What on earth, financial incentive?! Yes, indeed. While in the West, we are busy losing hair about whether or not to invite Great Aunt Beryl, because that will mean another 60 or so Euros each to pay for her, and her husband and her two brat kids, in China you’ll be sure as heck hoping that Great Aunt Beryl brings her cousin twice removed and their whole clan. Because of the Chinese tradition of giving red envelopes filled to the brim with cash, rather than another embroidered gold toaster to “start married life together”, a Chinese wedding is seen by many here as a) an opportunity to make rather than spend money and b) earn back the money that they’ve spent on other people’s weddings – as you did with Great Aunt Beryl’s two brats. I have to say, they’re really onto something there and thankfully my mother decided to “go Chinese” in terms of wedding presents in Germany and our 25 exclusive guests generously followed suit. Thank you for that!

Intimate Affair vs. Catwalk Spectacle

Now, if you are more of the type of person who prefers an intimate affair for a wedding with just your closest friends to give it all more weight and meaning, the Chinese way certainly isn’t for you. In China, the parents-in-law will literally invite anyone and their dog (as long as the dog brings its own Hongbao of course), with the big company bosses being particular favourites since they rake in the most money. It means that on average 200 people will show up at your wedding, 90% of which you’ve never met before in your life. Especially from our Western perspective, we can quickly feel like this makes the wedding incredibly impersonal and just doesn’t feel right. Indeed, Mr Li was completely won over by the intimate ceremony idea. To this day he will tell anyone who is willing to listen how he much prefers the intimacy of Western weddings.

On the other hand, if, like me, you enjoy feeling like an A-List celebrity walking down a huge catwalk with 200 pairs of eyes on you, this will probably be one of the best days of your life. Especially considering that people even paid money to look at you, it’s almost like you’re Beyoncé…well, minus the voice of an angel and the sexy dance routine. One thing’s for sure, you’ll never get this much attention again!

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Feeling like Beyoncé – if only I could walk sexy in this dress..

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.

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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!

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?

 

 

What’s in a Name? – Name Change in International Marriages

So, you’ve decided to get married to Mr Li, Zhang or Wang. Congratulations! But, what are you going to do be called from then on?

It’s a big question, and one that can have unexpected repercussions on your life.

Chinese Traditionally Don’t Change Their Surname

It gets all the more confused when the traditions in your native country differ from the ones of your husband. In China for example, it isn’t a thing for the woman to change her surname to her husband’s name at all. Rather, she keeps her own family name, since the most important aspect of getting married in China is it gives you the green light to have a baby, and secure the continuation of the family bloodline. His family bloodline.

That is why usually the child will be named after the father. Only if the father has married into a more powerful/richer family, could there be an insistence from her family to choose their surname. However, this amounts to a serious loss of face, it’s a practical emasculation for said man. In many cases, if a couple gets divorced and the child stays with the mother, it is also not uncommon for her to change the child’s surname to her own. So, in China, while there’s at least no discussion about whose surname to take, there still can be a lot of politics surrounding the child’s name.

I am not a fan of not changing your name at all for a number of reasons. From my Western perspective the keeping of the wife’s surname felt very at odds with the general idea in China that the woman becomes part of her husband’s family upon marriage. It felt to me like a way of making sure the woman knows she has to serve her “new family” while at the same time not even granting her the right to fully become part of the family; even by name. But that might just be my cynical interpretation.

Name Change in Europe – So Many Different Options

In Germany and England, my countries of origin, there is an array of different options of what to do with your name once you get married. Traditionally, of course the woman would take on the man’s name, as she joined his family. However, following the feminist movement and increasing independence of women, some have equated this to a submissive act from the woman’s side, and so it’s now quite common to hyphenate both surnames. In few cases, the man might even take his wife’s name – although I’ve never met anyone who did this – and then there’s of course the option of going “Chinese” and no one changing any of their names at all, in which case you wouldn’t know they were married in the first place. This is becoming more common as people can’t be bothered to deal with the ridiculous paperwork associated with changing one’s name. However, I still prefer the idea of Mr Li and I somehow indicating our not-so-holy union.

My History with a Boringly Common Surname 

In my case, since we got married in China, there was never really any question about whether or not I wanted to change my name. Ironically, I did. Having grown up with both the most common first AND last names you could imagine in Germany, I have always been keen to swap my last name for something more “fancy”. For the longest time, I wanted to take on my mum’s maiden name – Nutchey – which I’m told is connected to our family’s Spanish heritage. That’s way better than being known as the German equivalent of Smith – and therefore instantly identifiable as German as well, I thought.

Anyway, 18 came and went, and I kind of put that wish to the side, thinking that you never know who I’d end up marrying. They might have a seriously cool name, after all!

What Does Taking on an Asian Surname Mean

Enter Mr Li. And with him the question of what to do with our names once we were married. I had a discussion with some fellow WWAM (AMWF) friends about this topic and it brought quite a few interesting and some disturbing truths to light.

If you were, say, to take on just your husband’s name, this could affect you in the workplace and sometimes in a negative way. If a recruiter reads a very Chinese sounding surname on your CV, they might assume that you are Chinese and in some cases, the sad truth is, that might lead them to think you are no native speaker and not up to the job. We like to think that people are wiser than to assume such things, but the sad truth is that this isn’t always the case.

The same goes for Mr Li taking on my surname and then appearing at interviews. I remember the painful story of a friend with African heritage who passed a phone interview stage for a job in a European country, and when she came in for the interview, the surprise of the interviewers that she was able to speak the local language was evident – she had grown up in said country. People are quick to make assumptions, it’s a bitter truth.

Mr Li and his Relationship with his Chinese Surname

In our case, there is actually another layer to the whole name debate. Like me, Mr Li has also been considering whether or not to change his surname irrespective of getting married, since he is the child of a broken home. However, his mother decided not to change his surname to hers, and so he is still named after his father, with whom he has always had a rocky relationship and in the end broke off contact.

His surname is therefore the only reminder of the ties to his paternal family. He even came to a point when he told his grandmother on his father’s side he planned to take on his mum’s surname Feng. She broke out in tears. He hasn’t changed his name yet, mostly I believe due to his attachment to that grandmother, who looked after him until the age of 6.

Coming Together To Create Something New

In light of all these feelings, we had many discussions about what to do about our surnames. Laura Li? I liked the ring to it, (Mr Li thinks it’s sounds like a porn name, harr harr), but for both CV and father-in-law I put that one to rest fairly early. Mr Li played with the idea of taking on my name but that would also mean giving up his Chinese heritage in a way, and I didn’t like that (aside from still wanting to flush a certain common surname down the drain).

The next idea was to return to the Nutchey option. I wasn’t entirely happy though with the idea of just my culture being represented in our surnames. So, a combination was in order. In light of the initial idea of Mr Li to take on his mum’s name, and with Nutchey being my mum’s maiden name, the surname Nutchey-Feng came into existence. Also, when he mentioned to his mother the idea of taking on my mum’s maiden name, she wasn’t what you’d call pleased.

In the end, this is the surname that represents both our origins and very fittingly makes you think of nutter and fengzi (which means crazy in Chinese). Couldn’t think of a more appropriate choice, could you?

So there we have it, Nutchey-Feng, the surname we would like to one day legally take on; and the very lengthy explanation as to how it came about. You know me, words…there’s just so many of them. And they’re fun to use.

Now the only hurdle is to get the authorities in one of my home countries to agree to this name change…yeah, that’ll be easy, I’m sure of it…

What did you do with your surname? Let me know in the comments!

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