Tag Archives: Beijing

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.

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Bookworm ’16: “Buy Me the Sky: The Remarkable Truth of China’s One-Child Generations” 

This post is part of my review of the Bookworm Literary Festival 2016.

So, Xinran’s track record is pretty impressive. Not least because she started out as a reporter in Nanjing, just like myself, I felt instantly drawn to her. I have to admit that only after my colleague was in awe when we discussed she was going to give a Bookworm talk, I picked up my first Xinran book, and now I will have to read them all.

Her stories give a voice to the marginalized in Chinese society and she manages to unlock secrets most of us journalists only ever imagine they could find; stories of the hardships of Tibetan women and those mothers who had to give up their baby girls or worse; and her latest book, a look at the one child generation, or the Little Emperors, as they are often half mockingly, half critically referred to.

The event was eye-opening and inspiring in many ways. Xinran’s outlook on life, or the one she presents to the public in any event, is incredibly positive and derived, according to her, from a Tibetan woman’s anecdote on how to view the world.

The story she tells is that the Tibetan woman explained in their culture if a young boy stubs his toe on a rock, rather than saying “poor boy”, the mother would tell him he should be honoured that the rock chose to cross his path; based on the practice of Buddhism.

I do think this sunny disposition and her incredible charm is how this charismatic woman has managed to dig up some of the most secret and tragic stories of China’s past, of abuse, neglect and even murder.

During her talk she touched upon a point that honestly brought me to tears. “Those German soldiers who murdered in the name of Hitler. They weren’t all believers. Some of them just needed to feed their families.” As a German with a heap of Nazi guilt hearing someone express this simple truth just really got to me. I cannot say that I face a lot of heat for being German nowadays at all; I really don’t. But somehow the way in which we talk about the Reich in Germany is very simplistic in that anything remotely related is bad, bad, bad. To have someone from the outside offer such a multifaceted and sympathetic view was incredibly unexpected.

Mr Li got to learn a little bit about himself as well. Both of us never really understood why he is, quite frankly, terrible at reading out loud. He is incredibly intelligent and speaks English fluently, but no matter in which language he will switch out entire verbs while reading. It was not until Xinran explained that his generation were never allowed to read out loud in class that he had an utter “aha” moment. He told me afterwards that when he was at home also, his mother would tell him to not read out loud because she couldn’t hear the TV if he did. I will bite my tongue about parenting at this point; she didn’t know any better.

But this is the power of Xinran, she manages to touch the people she speaks to in these profound ways. With a few simple words. She has a clarity paired with a compassion I have rarely seen in people.

She is not much about the figures but all about the heart. Personal stories of real people. And there is a place for that. It makes for an incredibly powerful narrative.

As much as she is an inspiring person; this review should really be about the event. Since “Buy me the Sky -The Remarkable Truth of China’s One-Child Generations” was the name of the event, I did expect the focus to be on her latest book and on the one-child topic; instead it was more of a tour of Xinran’s entire bibliography. This was interesting, yes, but I still would have preferred to learn more about the one-child generation; partly for very selfish reasons – I want to gain an insight into my husband.

The other slight criticism I had was regarding the following panel discussion. While I do agree with many of the narratives Xinran presents, her main argument is that the Chinese people have spiritually not yet caught up with their economic development. And for some reason, this seemed to be her answer to every single question paused by the audience, including whether the two-child policy will reverse the gains Chinese women have made in education under the one child policy as they didn’t lose out against male siblings, and a question by an actual Chinese orphan adopted by Americans about whether there is a place for her in China. Every answer seemed to be almost the same; probably in part a move of caution.

Overall it was a great event with some very interesting insights and truly touching.

 

I award this talk 4 out of 5 Aubergines.

Reads for this talk: Xinran’s entire body of work, mainly “Buy Me The Sky”, “Messages from an Unknown Chinese Mother”, “Sky Burial”.

Bookworm Literary Festival 2016 Review

Anyone who has spent a longer time in Beijing will probably have heard of the Bookworm Literary Festival. It has been running now for over a decade, providing insightful talks by authors and free thinkers in the English language. Thumbs up to the administration for allowing that such a talk take place especially considering the often sensitive issues that were touched upon spanning everything from Hong Kong to the One-Child Policy to LGBT rights. There was no shying away here as the panelists freely shared views both positive and negative of current Chinese and global issues. 

Now that the festival is over I would like to spend the next couple of days taking stock. I did go to eight events in total; big thanks at this point to Mr Li for one of my top two Valentine’s gifts ever! (It’s a tie between this and last year’s trip to Yangzhou).

It was a lot of talking on some very serious and important topics. Of course any review would be incomplete without a review system and so I have decided to give out aubergines instead of stars, simply because I can. And also because not having an Aubergine Award is a massive oversight of humanity. Each talk can get a maximum of five aubergines – that’s a lot of 地三鲜 (I’ll let you figure this one out for yourself).

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The Future of Hong Kong

I adore Hong Kong. My first trip took me to the glimmering, multi-cultural metropolis in 2010 and I have been back many times since. Even with my parents; and just like me, they thought it is one of the most stunning cities they have ever seen. That being said, the problems that are bubbling less and less under the surface and more and more like a volcano about to explode into angry fountains of lava are no secret.

Since the British handed the country to China almost 20 years ago, the situation has been progressively deteriorating as Cantonese-speaking locals feel their cultural identity and liberties are being threatened and curtailed. Countless incidents of people being identified as mainlanders behaving in a crude manner in public, often related to public urinating and defecating, have gone viral online as a method for some Hong Kongers to demonstrate how “uncivilized the mainlanders” are. The rift is only getting worse when mainland media have a field day with the bad, bad Hong Kongers who protest against and look down upon their “brothers and sisters” from across the border.

The situation is so bad, I literally had to drag Mr. Li to Hong Kong the first time around since he was convinced an army of angry Hong Kongers was going to lynch him and his mother and hang them out to roast like a Yong Kee goose. To his surprise and my utter relief, the trip was entirely uneventful and when I took him back to Hong Kong the second time round (for my long-awaited Disney trip), he had calmed down considerably.

That being said, recent events such as the Umbrella protests and the disappearing booksellers plus the revelation that the ¨free elections¨ promised to residents by 2017 are in fact not free at all give cause for worry. The talk on the future of HK, one of the first events during the Bookworm Literary Festival, did little to dispel those worries. It was however an absolutely fascinating talk.

I won´t quote the guest speakers, since it was made abundantly clear that they considered this a private event, but the overall atmosphere was rather of a doomsday nature, leaving one to conclude that the Matrix is a holiday at the beach compared to the possible future of the area. Especially the shock and realisation in light of the booksellers’ removal to the mainland (though there have been reports some of them have since returned home) that certain freedoms promised in the treaty of 97 were not being respected was a chilling wind amongst democratic thinkers in the city.

One interesting issue pointed out by an audience member was the increasing ¨politisation¨ of the academic environment. According to what they saw upon returning to Hg, the entire academia of the island has been swallowed up in the debate. They didn´t necessarily think this was a good thing but were shot down by the panelist at whom the question was directed. What I do find interesting though is the underlying question: if someone did not want to be involved in all these politics, they might find the academic environment taken over by political discourse to be a frustrating thing. Much like I remember a few acquaintances actually complaining about the Umbrella Movement on social media, deploring Joshua Wang to just stop bringing unrest to their society. It is a valid point I think in that the society has been divided – into those who fear the loss of human rights and democracy, those who support the Chinese government and those who just want to get the frick on with their lives and not be caught up in ¨politics¨. If you want no part of any anti-mainland movement, what do you do, if its everywhere you go? Especially when, if you ever dare voice any disagreement, you are so utterly shot down by both sides of the conflict.

 

I award this talk five out of five Aubergines.

Read for this event: Umbrellas in Bloom by Jasong Ng

Knocked-Up Abroad

The ¨Knocked-Up Abroad” talk was held as part of the Bookworm Literary Festival 2016 and came with an array of four fascinating panelists; three of which where married to locals just like myself. I actually dragged Mr. Li to the talk, making him one of a very few guys along a sea of women interesting in the experiences of reproducing and going through the Chinese medical system.

The women shared fascinating tales of cultural differences; the multi-talented author Ember Swift sharing excerpts from a new book to which she contributed and which was the namesake of the event, plus three more bloggers who have all been through bringing children into this world either in China or in their home countries.

There were at times entertaining, at times harrowing tales of cultural differences, of MILs tweaking nipples, of Chinese medical staff finding it difficult to deal with sorrow and, naturally, of split pants.

For me personally it was very inspiring to hear these women talk, a majority of which have similar cross-cultural relationships, in a way that it can prepare you – or maybe also scare you off entirely – for what it means to bring a child into a Chinese family.

I absolutely admire these women, even more so because two of them actually live in very remote Chinese locations, compared to which Hohhot would seem the height of internationalisation. I was saved from a grilling by Mr Li about why they can live in those places but I won’t agree to spend my life in glamorous Hohhot by the admission of one panelist that living in such a removed area did caused her to go into depression. That’s why, Mr. Li.

The final panelist presented a shocking story, which by now should have been posted online, about how she had to give birth to her dead twins in a Chinese hospital and the traumatic experience this was for her not only due to the tragic event but also due to the way medical professionals dealt with the situation.

I received some feedback from another audience member who was incidentally pregnant that she would have liked to be made aware of this content, as rather unsurprisingly, these are not the kind of stories an expecting mother really wants to hear, even less so if it is just sprung on her without prior warning. So, I guess a little feedback there for the Bookworm organizers to maybe check and make available any content that could be emotionally disturbing to listeners.

Overall though it was a very powerful event, that did exactly what it should in that it helped people gain an understanding of this most important of issues, carrying a child in a country that is not your own and how this affects the experience.

 

Knocked-Up Abroad gets 4 out of 5 Aubergines.

Read for this event: Knocked Up Abroad: Stories of Pregnancy, Birth, and Raising a Family in a Foreign Country

Jet-Set Wedding

Beijing cctv Tower

Wow, so I have not written in a while and now I need to try and catch up! A lot has happened in the last weeks; in fact so much I have barely had time to digest it all.

It’s the typical long-distance relationship syndrome! Getting used to your boring life and as soon as you meet up with your partner you feel the need to squeeze all the excitement you missed out on into a couple of days; in our case combined with Chinese New Year and Valentines Day this has equalled trekking to seven different cities in three weeks. I still have a week to go and already feel exhausted. Even more so, because in our case the squeezing in part included getting married.

YAY, we did it, isn’t that unbelievable?!

Of course it took another couple of runs to offices of any form and description and a lot of grey hairs appearing from nowhere until we managed to beat the system. Buckle up and get ready for a long ride!

I will not go into detail on the exact route the documents we needed to get my single certificate took, as I hope to provide a detailed infographic at some point. Suffice it to say it took three attempts for the documents to be verified, since the German’s followed the official Chinese standards which the notary translator in Hohhot did not.

Luckily, the town in Germany I am registered in is so small that the registry office know us well enough now to allow for me to submit my documents while I was in Germany and to hand in Mr. Li’s later, once the Chinese and German embassy in China finally managed to sort out their s..tuff.

This all happened with amazing efficiency. We got the documents approved in the way the Germans required, they in turn issued my single certificate, which my mother, after saying good bye to another €80, quickly sent to Beijing.

Once the documents arrived, I boarded the next possible high-speed railway to Beijing in order to get the final document issued by the German embassy. This went as smoothly as I could have ever wished for, as I popped in and back out and then as a reward went on a little spree at the international supermarket down the street. After moving to China, visiting supermarkets that sell cheeses, sausages and German bread becomes as exciting as front-row tickets to the Backstreet Boys to my 12-year old self (yes, I admit it and no, I am not ashamed).

After a Chinese New Year’s Party and an enjoyable weekend in Beijing, we then jetted off to Hohhot on Sunday evening in order to attempt to get married the following Monday. And with that, stay tuned!

Happy Birthday, Mr. Li

25th birthday Beijing After mr Li surprised me with his proposal three weeks ago (time flies when you’re having fun), it is finally time for me to repay the favour. Today is his 25th birthday, and while he knows that I am coming to Beijing to visit him, he believes I will arrive as usual around 9.40pm. In fact it is 1.45pm and I am already halfway to Beijing, as I plan to surprise him at the office. To make sure that he will stay at the office if I can’t be there on time I have told him a Kuaidai 快递 delivery guy will be arriving with a “little present”, although I wouldn’t call myself little.

This plan might go very well, or it might descend into chaos, as life usually does when I am involved. So far, Mr. Li called me to tell me that we had gotten a 10,000 word translation project from his old company, which will make us a nice batch of money for our honeymoon. That being said, it needs to be done by Monday and so, instead of a relaxed weekend, we are now looking at a full blown translation session.

Of course he called me on the train and so the announcements were blasting away in the background while I frantically tried to hold my hand over the microphone, making growling noises of acknowledgement and attempts at conversation and making up stories about where I am and what I am working on at this particular time. Especially since he already said to me this morning

“I hope you are not arriving any earlier than you said, as my flat is a mess and I still need to clean it.”

I am quite sure he suspects my not so masterful master plan. Ah, well. But it’s the thought that counts.

Chaos Incarnate – Beijing Traffic

The whole plan went very well overall, as I stormed out of the train station and hopped on the metro with my Baidu maps in hand and an hour to spare before he got off work. Up until I exited the station everything was fine. I arrived at the Shuangjing stop with almost half an hour left. I was doing good, I thought, and that is the exact moment when all hell broke loose. First I managed to jump on the right bus, but in the wrong direction. Since I had already given the driver a stern look to let me on the bus although it had already pulled one meter out of the stop and was stuck in traffic, I did feel worried that after he bent the rules to let me on, he might descend into a rage if I now demanded he let me off again. Of course, this was at Shuangjing Bridge, one of the most busy intersections in the area; although to be fair everywhere is busy in Beijing on a Friday at rush hour. So for the next 10 minutes we were stuck in traffic at the crossing as each green light period for all the other cars went on and on and on. Jumping off the bus at the next stop and storming onto the other sided of the street via the footbridge (in most large Chinese cities a majority of roads will have footbridges probably to save the lives of pedestrians who would otherwise be run over by the crazy drivers China is infamous for – most of them cabbies).

Luckily, I managed to get a taxi, however the moment I was getting in to the car, Mr Li called.

“Can I call you back? I am just going through the security check at the train station” I announced.

After telling the driver where I wanted to go and him setting off Mr. Li asked for the phone number of the delivery guy (I had told him that the delivery would arrive at the office at 5.30). Now I was out of excuses and frantically trying to think of a valid reason as to why I couldn’t give him the non-existent phone number of an even less existent delivery guy. When he called me back all I could come up with was

“The delivery guy is stuck at Shuangjing. He will be there in 5 mins.”

Of course at this point he put two and two together as for one Chinese delivery guys usually only deliver packages in the morning, but of course my exact knowledge of Mr Delivery Guy’s whereabouts ultimately gave me away. Next I had to use my phone to navigate the taxi driver, who as it turns out had no clue whatsoever where the address was I had given him (a very common occurrence amongst Chinese taxi drivers, especially since few have navigational systems in their cars).

I did manage to find the offices though and “surprised” Mr Li, after which we went for a lovely hotspot meal at Xiapu Xiapu 呷浦呷浦火锅 with his colleagues. This hotspot restaurant, while delicious, is very representative of how much Chinese love noise. At the entrance a woman with a microphone-headset greets you, after which all the staff in the entire restaurant shout out

“Welcome to Xiapu Xiapu!!!”

But wait, there’s more. Once you pay by card, the lady at the entrance screams into her mic for the whole restaurant to hear that

“One person is on the way to the cashier to pay by card!”

If she is sending guests down into the latter part of the restaurant she will shout instructions as to how many people await their table. Finally, when one leaves she screams this information into her device, so the entire restaurant can once again chant in unison

“Thank you for visiting our restaurant, see you again next time!!!”

The combination of one of this nation’s favorite foods with inexpensive prices makes it incredibly popular and so guests will arrive, be seated, pay or leave approximately every 3 minutes. To add to that we had only managed to get a seat right by the entrance, and so were in full blast range of the “greeting lady’s” sonorous announcements. Well, after having spent over two years in China, I have developed an effective coping mechanism for the country’s often terribly noisy environment – simply ignore it. And so I munched away at my delicious hotspot, which I had been hoping I would be enjoying this weekend, as there is definitely a reason it is so popular here. It is simply fantastic after all.

呷浦呷浦火锅 xiapu Xiapu hotpot Beijing
The Cake Conundrum

Afterwards we took home the birthday cake Mr.Li’s colleagues had bought him, since he never likes to make a public spectacle of himself, as opposed to myself. He didn’t even want us to sing Happy Birthday in public and so we trudged home with a far too large cake just for the two of us. Strangely, it was a Black Forest cake, which is where my parents live and where I will be going in a few weeks time.

Cakes are a very interesting subject when you live in China. Because milk, butter and cream are not part of traditional Chinese diet, the cake culture here used be extremely limited. At some point in the past, the Chinese did decide it was time to imitate the sweet deliciousness that can be found in most of the rest of the world and the results looked stunningly beautiful. That was however were the similarities with real cake stopped, as the Chinese cakes were filled with what has been nicknamed by most as “fake cream”. It tastes even worse than it sounds, but the meanest part is it looks exactly the same as real whipped cream. Many a foreigner will go through a serious case of disappointment upon purchasing what looks like a delicious cream torte but tastes a bit like what you imagine decorative spray foam must (not that I ever intend to find out whether that is a appropriate comparison).

Thank god for China’s opening up and the South Koreans. With the former having started importing more and more food over the last decades, nowadays one can get cakes that are splendid not only by looks but also by taste. The latter, having been exposed to US culture for decades, are well-versed in the art of cake making and have therefore opened countless bakeries with French names (just to make things more confusing) such as Tous Les Jours and Paris Baguette, that sell delicious baked goods in any city that is second tier and above. Sadly, I am afraid that my dear Hohhot probably does not qualify yet, and so I do not believe it will be possible to get our hands on a great cake. This means that the decision whether or not to have a wedding cake at the Chinese wedding was made for us; but then that is healthier anyway.

Having received the big big translation job, which needed to be finished by Sunday evening, we spent the entire rest of the weekend working on translation and formatting of power points and proof reading. I was more disappointed about this than Mr Li, who never makes a big deal out of his birthday. According to him, Chinese do not celebrate their birthday the way we do, after all how is being born an achievement on your part? What I do find worthy of applause is a comment his cousin made: “Have you already called your mum and thanked her for bringing you into this world?” I actually like the idea that the mother is given credit for giving birth to a child on a person’s birthday. The Chinese saying to go with this (I maintain there is always an appropriate Chinese saying for any situation) is

“A child’s birthday is a hard day for a mother.”

So, after a rather busy weekend stuck behind the computer, I am back on the high-speed train to Nanjing, feeling a little sad that the weekend was over so quickly. While most of the time I am fine about being in a long-distance relationship, sometimes – and today is one of those times – it really sucks. I was cooking pasta for Mr. Li earlier today while he was helping me format the translation and he remarked “I miss the times when we lived together just like this” and I have to agree. I look forward to the day we will be in one city again, with a bit of luck that day is not too far off.