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.
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!
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:
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！
*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*
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
US Embassy AQI
Beijing City Gov AQI
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
So, as the last couple of weeks of this crazy year are whizzing past, I figured it was time to take stock in my annual review.
Let’s start with the not so pleasing aspects of this year.
Not very content with my blogging this year. Couldn’t say why exactly but I have been much less active and need and want to get back on track. There are a few new projects in the works for 2017, so I’m hoping to write and create much more content in the coming year.
I have to say 2016 has been absolute horror for my personal possessions. I am a clumsy person in general but never ever have I lost items on the scale that I have this past year. I am very much considering getting my head checked since I have been losing items literally every single week, from my metro card, which was linked to a public bike account, and caused a lot of hassle, to quite a few personal items of mine that I am still upset about and haven’t been able to admit to the people involved. I won’t recount here which they were because a) too painful and b) too embarrassing. Getting my scatter brain under control is a major project for next year.
So let’s move on to the more pleasurable parts of 2016.
First Time Skiing
Yes, CNY of 2016 has been the first time in my life that I went skiing. The same goes for Mr Li. And that from a former ice skater, I hang my head in shame, and secretly kick myself for waiting this long to try it. It. Is. So. Much. Fun. Even Mr Li, who is seldom over enthused with anything besides computer code (yepp, I’m an IT widow), couldn’t get enough.
Weekly WWAM Lunch
Following on from a few fun group activities with WWAMs (AMWF) in Beijing, I met two great women who incidentally work in the same area as me. As a result we started a weekly lunch routine, which has become the highlight of most of my weeks, especially the more arduous ones. Thanks to you two ladies for constantly putting up with my big gob.
I need to say a massive, massive thank you to my awesome mummy, who single handedly organized the German wedding, including email instructions that could have been a strategic army action plan. All I had to do for my wedding really was pick a location, a colour, the food (most important of all!!) and show up. I’m so glad we had the German wedding since it was an opportunity to show Mr Li (and MIL) what a real Western wedding looks like. It was small and I loved every second! Big fat fank you mum for organizing my favourite day of 2016! And of course huge thanks to all the friends and family who made the trek into the hidden depths of the Black Forest to be with us on this occasion!
More Work Travel
I definitely traveled more for work as the year progressed and got to go to some pretty cool places such as the Tibetan plateau of Sichuan, as well as a short trip back to Nanjing. I got to work on some amazing topics from China’s space programme to marriage pressure and pandas. It’s not always easy, but at the end of the day I’m so grateful for the people I get to meet and the places I get to see.
FINALLY, after 4.5 years of begging and moaning and complaining I managed to drag Mr Li to Xiamen, my absolute favourite city in all of China. I am happy to report that at least on the topic of this beautiful island we agree – it’s the best place ever!
Oh yes, one of the big changes this year was our move from the Northern part of Beijing to a slightly more Southern area. It was bitter sweet since I had to say good bye to our cat army, a group of wild cats who moved into our garden as we started feeding them and soon multiplied to about 10 little rascals. Just staring at them eat was such a stress reliever and it broke my heart to leave them. Only binge cat-watching on Insta keeps me sane now. But we exchanged our over priced slightly tuhao (garishly luxurious) but tiny flat in the north to a two bedroom in an older compound down south and I couldn’t be happier. Mainly because of the walk-in wardrobe, that I now call my own.
We haz catz
Weddings, Weddings, Weddings
2016 truly has been a year of weddings, and funny enough majorly WWAM weddings. Three of them in total, and I loved every single one of them. Most people don’t enjoy weddings in China since it means giving Hongbao (red envelopes) and spending money, but for me there just is nothing like a good wedding. Especially cross-cultural ones, where you tend to get the best out of both worlds. They can be pretty stressful, as I found out, but they are so worth it!
So overall, while the world around my seems to be going to shambles, looking at this past year I think it’s been a pretty good run. How has yours been?
Wishing you a merry Christmas and a happy new year and the best of luck in 2017. I hope I’ll see you there!
Winter in China; how can this even be a topic you might wonder, but believe me when I tell you, it can. The reason for that is the North-South divide that exists in China with regards to heating and climate. Anything south of the Qinling Mountains and along the Yellow River does not have central heating in winter, a policy enacted 60 years ago by Zhou Enlai. While in some of the country’s most Southern provinces, where temperatures rarely drop below 15, this is kind of understandable, in regions closer to the heating border such as Anhui or my previous home of Nanjing, where 0 degrees and snow can be fairly common, it is not necessarily what you would call a pleasure. Though of course there is still air con available to heat up a room to a certain extent.
Having experienced two winters in the South and let’s say one and a half in Beijing, I thought it was time for a comparison. Winter Down South – Wet and Tough
Before moving to Nanjing I had heard the Chinese expression that the Southern cold 进骨头里 goes right to the bone, because the climate is much more humid than in the North. I never really knew what people were on about; until that first winter in Nanjing. It was, in short, four months of constantly frozen toes and weirdly enough the tip of my nose. That’s what I get for being a big-nosed foreigner…
In my first year, when I was living in a rather old flat, I ended up actually sleeping in one of those skiing hats, you know the ones that pull over your nose.
During my second year, I quickly learned that when the aircon was on in my little studio flat, I had to sit in the hot air stream and not move an inch. Any attempt to stick my arm outside of the hot air range would have been accompanied with icicles dangling off my extremities (had we been in a cartoon movie…oh how I wish we were).
After a while though, I got used to the constant cold and the limited mobility in my own flat. Which was of course when, as it happened, I made my move to Beijing.
Winter Up North – Lip-splitting Dryness and New Levels of Cold
My first Beijing winter wasn’t good. Sure, our flat had floor heating and so you would often find me looking like a passed-out drunk as I lay sprawled across our living room floor, soaking up the warmth. And yes, I loved walking around without slippers and having toasty feet, to Mr. Li’s utter dismay, but the dryness of the Northern winter brought with it two terrible, terrible side effects. Every single inch of my skin became mind-numbingly itchy (and if you know me you know I’m a terrible scratcher). No matter how much cream I applied, after a while my legs and weirdly areas on my lower back were so raw from the scratching I could hardly put on my layers of clothes. But even worse was the fact that my lips dried out and split to an extent I wasn’t even aware was possible. They doubled in size and were as painful as they were unpleasant to look at. Again, no amount of balm could salvage the situation.
A work trip to Shanghai turned into an unexpected relief as my crumbly skin soaked up every inch of bone-freezing humidity it could find. The Beijing winter reminded me of the German winters of my youth, and not in a good way.
A Question of Adapting?
Fast forward a year and it is the end of November. While there has been a spot of itchiness, my clown lips have yet to surface (*touch wood*). It almost seems like I am on the verge of getting used to the harsh Beijing winter.
The thing, however, that surprised me most, was our recent trip to Changsha, again South of the warm and toasty centrally heated lifeline. When it hit 0 degrees and we were filming outside, I just wanted to jump into the Xiang river. When we were in a public hospital I just couldn’t fathom why on earth some of their hallways were actually open so the ice cold air could stream in and the wind could cut into my shivering body like a knife. Even while lying fully clothed with five layers underneath the duvet in my hotel room, my frosty toes simply refused to thaw. Imagine getting up in the mornings after 8 hours of your body generating just enough heat for even that little toe to defrost and then being forced to throw off the covers and instantly turn into a rather unappetising human ice lolly. Yeah, I think I’ll just stay under these covers till April, thanks. (Oh yes, I forgot, Nanjing for one typically doesn’t warm up until well into the fourth month of the year).
I have been quick to profess my love for the Southern climate on many occasions; my body, it seems, has other plans. It couldn’t wait to get back to lip-splitting, itch-inducing dry Beijing and its toasty indoor heating.
What has your experience been? Have you gotten used to the Chinese winter where you are?