Tag Archives: Chinese culture

A Love Letter to my Chinese Mother-In-Law

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

Being Supportive of us Dating

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

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The day we got our certificate

A Strong Woman to Look Up To

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

Giving us Space

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

Not Pressing Us on Children

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

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After marriage pressure comes…baby pressure!

Being OK with Us Moving Back to Europe

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

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Home sweet home.

Almost Always Picking My Side in Fights

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

Spoiling Me

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

Being Pretty Cool to Travel With

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

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Our MIL-DIL Honeymoon at Qinghai Lake

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

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What I’ve Learned About Cross-Cultural Weddings 

So, ever since my own wedding last year, I have been so lucky to attend a constantly growing number of international weddings in China. It didn’t take long until I realized certain similarities and themes emerging at these events. So in case you are getting ready for your own cross-cultural wedding in China or with a Chinese groom/bride, here are a few things I’ve learned:
1. Be Prepared for A Culture Clash

I find that we tend to not take the effect of two cultures meeting seriously enough. After observing both myself and Mr Li when we are together, when we are with his family and friends and when we are with my family and friends, I have come to realize one thing. Both of us have very different personas depending on which people we are with and which cultural environment that creates. I behave a lot more brash around foreign friends and Mr Li worries much more about what people think as soon as he is around his Chinese entourage. For a cross-cultural wedding this means there is bound to be conflict as you not only struggle to communicate with and keep both sides entertained; you are also trying to be two people at the same time, while your partner might not be happy about you exhibiting certain behaviour in front of their own culture. It is a stressful time, and it is good to be aware of this fact, as it will creep up on you quite unexpectedly.

In the case of China and a Western culture, I have found that there are two aspects in play that make it even more difficult: culture shock and communication style (peppered of course with a nice dose of jet lag).

No matter which country you are holding your wedding in, inevitably the “other side”, if they chose to come, will experience culture shock. A wedding, an event loaded with new people and full of local traditions, is just extra stress. So chances are some of those relatives and friends might get upset or grumpy at things they usually wouldn’t, and often they don’t even know why. It’s just the stress of being thrown into the deep end of the pool in a new country and a bunch of strangers who do things you might find offensive.

In relation to Western-Chinese weddings in particular, I find another challenge are different communication styles. The Western side will simply express their displeasure at certain things, and while it’s not necessarily pleasant to have to deal with complaints and grumpy-faced Westerners, it isn’t a big deal in itself. However, on the Chinese side, where it is common to swallow your complaints and hide you displeasure in front of strangers in particular, such displays of discontent are incredibly upsetting and serious. And so, I found at the wedding, when Mr Li went into China mode and I went into Western mode, there were all of a sudden plenty of things that he felt offended about where I couldn’t understand what the fuss was all about.

2. Try to be informed and keep informed

I have found in particular the Western side, but also the Chinese if they come to a Western wedding, really struggle with not knowing what’s going on. Very few of us are able to just “go with the flow”, especially the parents of the Western partner. Therefore, it’s a good idea to try and make the whole wedding process as clear to your Western family as possible by doing two things:

1. Get a good interpreter, not just for the wedding ceremony but also to take care of the “foreign” side throughout the day.

You should make sure that the person conducting the wedding (an MC in China and a priest or officiate in the West) has met the interpreter and maybe even practiced the ceremony with them. Since few officiates are used to bilingual ceremonies, they don’t know when to pause so the interpreter can catch up. We didn’t have an interpreter for either of our weddings, and luckily both of our families were fairly relaxed about it, but I do know that to some parents this is a very big deal and not being able to understand can drive them crazy.

2. Try to discuss in advance with your family what exactly is going to happen and when; in the case of Chinese weddings that is next to impossible, but still it is good to give them a run down of the day. In the morning, the groom will pick the bride up, there will be door blocking, and shouting and red envelopes and games, once she is taken to his house, her parents can rest until the ceremony and so on and so forth. Try and get as many details from the family members as possible and let your family know, as it can be really stressful and upsetting for them to not know what’s going on.

3. Accept that it will be chaos anyway

Despite all your best planning and efforts, the fact of the matter is weddings, and especially Chinese ones, are utter chaos. There isn’t one person who knows what’s going exactly but rather each family member knows one or two customs that need to be upheld and rather than telling you before hand you will often get a message on the day saying a group of Chinese people will show up in twenty minutes to hang stuff up in your room. So prepare your family members from abroad for the fact that it will inevitably descend into chaos and pray that they will be able to cope.

4. If you have two weddings, make them local

A small regret I have, though I loved my Chinese wedding, which was terribly grand, is that I kept it in a Western style. We recently visited a traditional Chinese wedding with some Western elements and I really, really enjoyed it and felt that this is a really good idea, especially if you have another wedding in your home country. This way you get to experience two very different ceremonies, so thumbs up!

5. If you have one, make it cross-cultural

If you are having one wedding, then make sure to incorporate elements of both cultures. For example, the same traditional Chinese wedding featured a Scottish dance class for the guests and the bride and groom drinking a mix of Baijiu and Scottish whisky from a Scottish chalice. It’s not only fun to be creative and innovative with your wedding it also ensures that you feel like its yours; and it certainly gives the guests something to talk about.

Most importantly, don’t forget to enjoy yourself on your exciting, tiring and crazy day of cross-cultural union!

What have your experiences been? Do you have any tips for future cross-cultural brides and grooms?

Cultural Customs (1) – Marriage and Babies

Being around the whole big Chinese family over New Years would be a challenge to any sane person; but it just so happens that I grew up most of my life with just my parents and paternal grandparents around. Christmas was the five of us on the night of the 24th and the rest of the holiday was just chillin’ with my peeps – three musketeer style. While I do have a large family in the UK, whom I love visiting, I would only see them on average every two years. The result, I have discovered, is that despite my generally extrovert nature, I actually really struggle with big family reunions. It was the case with my previous boyfriends and unsurprisingly my noisy, passionate and meddling in-laws in Hohhot are just a step up on the torture ladder compared to my past experience with distant and mostly adequately loud German potential in-laws.

Now Chinese New Year is the time of the year when you are forced *cough cough* I meant honoured to sit through at least three or four days of family lunches and dinners in which each and every aunt and uncle will enquire either about if you have a boy/girlfriend, when the two of you are getting married or when you will pop out babies. The pressure is so bad that an entire industry around renting fake boy/girlfriends for CNY has emerged.

If you are a indeed a new couple or a newly-wed couple, you have completed level 1 and 2 respectively in the game that is World of Chinacraft. As you level up, it will rain hongbaos as a reward (sorry, geeking out a little). Hongbaos or red envelopes full of money are traditionally given instead of gifts to children and in the above mentioned two scenarios. Technically, you are meant to go to each relative’s home – and in China’s “Mao generation” there are a lot of aunties and uncles – to pay a new year’s visit and as a sign of respect you need to bring gifts. In our case these were cakes from Beijing’s most famous bakery, for which we stood in line for close to two hours and almost got in a fight with a “dama” 大妈, one of the most fierce and dangerous species to be encountered in China. I am lucky in so far that my Mother in Law arranged for us to go to her mother’s home just when all the aunts and the uncle were there, so we didn’t have to go round to their home anymore. Cheeky, right? But to my family-phobic self a total lifesaver.

While I didn’t get too much heat in the past from my Chinese family in terms of when we are getting married, it seems the wedding night has somehow flipped the baby-craze switch. I knew this would be the case as it’s what I’ve read about on pretty much any Chinese-Western dating blog and heard from every single of my friends in Chinese marriages. And yet, when faced with it I found it quite a challenge. Every single female relative seemed to only wait the five minutes of polite small talk before pouncing on us like baby ninjas asking about our reproductive plans.

Now I was quite content with the coping strategy that we came up with, which included myself simply sitting there in silence staring at the floor, while poor Mr Li was left trying to explain to horrified looking aunties that we plan to wait until our thirties to have children. “No, no, you can’t do that, that’s too late” was the conclusion most of them probably drew in their minds; but of course one of them had to announce this to us with absolute conviction. Again, dealing mechanism of just sitting there keeping my mouth shut went into action – though I couldn’t help but think they should try telling that to my mum who had me, her first and only child, at 36. The fact of the matter is that a considerable number of people in China are genuinely convinced that having a child in your thirties will cause birth defects. I would like to think I am living proof that that’s not the case; though I couldn’t attest to my mental health…I did after all move from one of the most gender equal cultures in to one of the least.

Do you feel the baby heat as well? And what are your coping strategies?

Goodbye 2015, Welcome 2016

I know it is slightly cheesy to do the “last year roundup” post and sort of the obvious choice, but still at this time of the year reflecting on the past 360 odd days is just what you do, right? So here goes my exiting 2015, a crazy year of traveling, moving and marrying.

January – March

The first quarter of the year was definitely travel-heavy. After spending New Year’s Eve in Vienna, we traveled to Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Macao for Chinese New Year, but only after finally tying the knot in Hohhot on Feburary 9th. It was the grand finale of half a year of bureaucratic battle between China and Germany; but we both won in the end. World, welcome Mr. and Mr. Li (well, haven’t really changed our names yet, but just for show, let’s pretend, ey?).

Restaurant Inner Mongolia

April – June

The second quarter of the year took Mr Li to Shenzhen and me with him part-time, as my employer in Nanjing generously allowed me to work remotely for a number of stretches. I really enjoyed Shenzhen, it’s a multicultural city that offers everything that’s great about Hong Kong but at mainland prices. Good food, seaside and fresh air; Shenzhen has since become one of my favourite Chinese cities and I do hope to spend more time there one day. This part of the year also got fairly busy in terms of wedding as Mr. Li and I took our engagement pictures, one of my Top 3 moments of 2015, and I went on a little excursion to Suzhou going crazy on Wedding Dress Street and ending up with not one, not two, but THREE wedding dresses. And just over my 1000RMB budget; you’ve got to love Suzhou.

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July – September

Definitely the busiest and craziest quarter of the year. After landing a job in Beijing, where Mr. Li had returned to after a few months in Shenzhen, I was sad to say goodbye to Nanjing and my job as Executive Editor for Sinoconnexion. The two years I spent in the Southern capital were an amazing ride and there are many things I still miss about my NJ life.

But I had little time to mourn what was gone as August rolled around and so did the crazy wedding. My friends and parents came from all corners of the world, and I cannot tell you how glad I am that they did. The wedding was bombastic and stunning, the wedding planners I had so painstakingly picked out did a fabulous job and while the whole day kind of went by in a haze of nervousness, hunger and Baijiu-incurred drunkenness, it was crazy fun.

But no time to rest yet as two of my best friends stayed on after the wedding and we climbed the unrestored section of the Great Wall, rushed to Nanjing for a dose of Southern Imperialism and spent a day in Shanghai gallivanting on the Bund. Still waiting for my visa transfer, I then embarked on a two week-long trek to Yunnan, Qinghai and Gansu provinces with my mother-in-law, a bonding session that taught me a lot about my husband and myself. I still plan on writing more about this experience in this blog.

October – December

And just like that I had become a Beijinger. We found a ridiculously expensive flat in a fairly central location. It is terribly grand; the decoration reminds me of what Chinese people think the UK looks like, visions of Downton Abbey and high tea. I haven’t felt more at home in years.

I also started my new job and struggled with adapting to my new life and my return to “full-time couple” after two years of long distance. It’s been a rocky first three months in Beijing as I’m still trying to find my place and as the infamous pollution has reached new and pretty intolerable levels.

December was busy with more traveling; a short trip to Shanghai for work and a busy Christmas in Hong Kong, where finally after over 20 years of waiting, I visited Disneyland. It was every bit as fun and incredible as I hoped it would be.

Welcome to 2016 – What does the future hold?

I can honestly say that I have absolutely no clue. I remember spending my New Year in Vienna last year thinking “Wherever will I celebrate next year?” Now more than ever I have nit the faintest idea. Beijing, another Chinese city or back in Europe? It is all possible. The only one thing I know for sure is that in July 2016 I will be in Germany, and visa be well so will Mr.Li, for our German wedding. New year’s resolutions? I don’t have any. Life in China is so changeable, there isn’t really any point. Any resolution you make could be overthrown at any second. But I’ll say this for our China life. It never gets boring.

What were your highlights of 2015? And what are you looking forward to in 2016? Let me know!

The Engagement Pictures (Part 2) – Nipples, Rubber Breasts and Shaved Eyebrows

CAUTION, this post is rather explicit, as you might have surmised from the title.

I can’t believe it we actually made it. We managed to take our wedding pictures. In a word…it was surreal! And also fabulous, but mostly surreal.

We had to be in Jiangning, the most Southern part of the town by 8am. Being used to Chinese punctuality we set of slightly late, I was sure it wouldn’t be a big deal. We arrived at 8:10am to find the employees in a frenzy and the best dresses already picked off by all the other couples in the room – a whole group as it turned out later. I guess I should have listened when they kept saying to be on time.

In a rush, I was told to chose seven dresses for the shoot. Luckily, my hair and make-up stylist was a very lovely and reasonable person, who assisted me without forcing her own opinion on me. She even allowed me try on the qipaos, and luckily so. As I rightly feared, it was not an easy feat to find one of the tight-cut dresses made for slight Chinese figures to fit my pear-shaped body. While I managed to squeeze my backside into one of the shorter dresses, my fat got pushed down and squished out from under the edge of the dress. It was a horror show. In the end, a white, long qipao with 青花瓷 Chinese porcelain jars and jugs was just about acceptable. Great, hurdle one mastered.

After Loulou, the stylist, ran a straightening iron through my hair while the photographer, a stick-thin Dongbei bro with a funky tattoo on his upper arm, picked out seven outfits for Mr.Li, matching, and I lose the term loosely, the dress choices I had made.

Then we were all whisked off even further South, I doubt the place can even rightly call itself Nanjing anymore, to their big photo villa in a van with another happy couple and their stylist and photographer plus countless bags stuffed with clothes, accessories and props.

At the villa, it was time for make-up, as part of which Loulou shaved off a majority of my eyebrows only to paint on ones twice as thick as my natural ones. I assume they will grow back by the time of the wedding, in the meantime I look a little bit like a wannabe-gangster. She further stuck on not two, not three, but FOUR layers of fake eyelashes, the aftereffects of which I would experience for the next few days as the masses of glue with which she attached them kept causing my natural lashes to stick to my upper eyelid once the fake ones had been removed, causing a very uncomfortable sensation.

sticky push-up breasts

After the eyebrow shave came the first outfit. This was the time when the rubber breasts came into play, a sticky, wobbly push-up construct, that is slapped onto your bare breasts and then hooked up in the middle. After relieving myself of my garments in order to undergo the slapping-on, I got which will without a doubt be the strangest compliment of my entire life.

“You have pretty nipples”, says LouLou, my stylist. Well, thank you very much, I wasn’t aware. I love how in China it is not considered strange or rude to make very intimate observations about complete stranger’s bodies. In most cases they are more along the upsetting line of “You are fat”, yet every so often you get the most fascinating compliments. “Thank you, dear stranger who I met an hour ago, for this observation.” Gotta love China.

After squeezing into the first dress, I noticed a rather ugly panty line showing, despite the fact that I had tried to wear one of the non-show ones. In the end, I decided the chance of me toppling over in my way-too-high heels and revealing my lady parts to the Chinese public were slim enough to risk going without. The things we do for a non-panty lined picture. I have to admit it was a new sensation as I usually never go “full freedom” under my dresses, and not one I cared for much. Once again the end justifies the means.

Then Mr.Li marched out in his first outfit and I thought my nightmares had come true. While I was wearing a lovely baby-blue dress of light material, the photographer had selected a bright blue jacket, white pants and a yellow shirt for Mr. Li. Yes, yellow. He looked like a parrot. It was all I could do to remark upon how foreigners and Chinese have a very different feeling for matching colours and pray that the next outfits would be a bit less clown-like. Luckily, they were. Phew.

The final highlight of the day was when Loulou literally sewed me into one of the tighter dresses that I could not fit into. I know for a fact that this is a very common thing with these photo shoots, otherwise I might have been terribly upset and ended up feeling like a whale. As it was, I just accepted my fate and tried not to pass out as I could barely breathe.

white qipao with procelain republic of china style

In total we did seven different outfits, ranging from summery blue evening dress, to Han style, classic white wedding dress and of course the Old Shanghai style I had been obsessing about. The team of two asked me in the morning to show them the style I wanted. After I did, they kept saying in very worried voices that our pictures would not be exactly like that. I have seen this happen a few times, that people offering creative services will get really nervous when you show them examples of what you are looking for. Apparently some local customers get aggravated if the result is not 100% identical to the original photo. I found that idea very strange, after all of course the set is going to be different than the one of the photo studio in another province, which provided the inspiration. If I wanted it to be exactly the same, I would have to go to Sichuan province. It seems Chinese customers have a lot higher expectations than I do.

Overall and to my slight surprise, I was very happy with the whole service. Granted some of the dresses were a little dirty, but what else can you expect when you pay a bargain – as it seems we have managed to get the lowest price in the country at 3700 RMB for 250 pictures (half of which will receive post-tweaking). Our Team of Two, LouLou and the tattoed Dongbei photographer, were incredibly patient and very helpful without being too pushy. This might have once again been down to the Laowai Bonus, as Mr.Li observed that the other photographers were a lot ruder to the other customers.

Mr.Li himself was as good as gold, and despite the fact that both of us were almost toppling over by the end of the day, 11 hours after had arrived in Jiangning, he was in surprisingly high spirits.

The weather could not have been more perfect either, as we managed to get into that tiny spring window. It seems that all the worrying and rescheduling paid off in the end.

Now, all that remains is for me to go and chose the photos I want and hope that the quality is fairly good. Though I got a sneak peek of some of Dongbei dude’s work and it looked promising.

This was probably the most tiring but also the happiest day that I have had in years. So thank you Mr.Li for being so tough and giving me a fabulous day to remember.

Getting Over Bad China Week – Dealing with Cultural Exhaustion

Skating in Nanjing

So, that bad China week was really and truly awful as just about everything seemed to be going wrong. This made me incredibly irritated and in turn meant I felt incapable of dealing with my Chinese surroundings. Many expats experience these types of phases long after they have survived culture shock. It was not until I read this eye-opening post by Linda Living In China that the coin dropped; I was at the time experiencing a phase of cultural exhaustion. Thanks Linda for enlightening me – you might have well saved my marriage before it even started!

Cultural fatigue is a state in which everything becomes too much and you feel so exasperated that every little thing seems to be enforcing your negative view of the situation and your surroundings. You become so angry that you start shouting at the stupid drivers that honk at you while you are crossing a green light. You want to slap the people that just push into the queue in front of you. And you want to throw something in the face of those people who stare at you and then shout “Laowai” in your face.

At some point you will become aware of how deeply unsettled you are. For me it was a situation on the bus, as I was once again trying to get out of my window seat. The guy next to me was a rather bodily man in his fifties, who as pretty much a majority of Chinese people do, only swivelled about an inch to the side to “let me pass” if you dare call it that. I pushed and nothing happened, with both of us being of the fleshier persuasion, there was just not enough room. He swivelled a tiny bit further. In the end I pressed my big bum into his face, though my Chinese friend thinks that this was probably a joy for him rather than a punishment.

However, I was also holding a pair of skates in my hand, which I almost smashed on top of his head as I was trying to drag my arm across the minor space between big man and the seat in front of him. For a moment there I seriously considered hitting him on the head with the skates. That was the second I noticed I really need to deal with my frustration; if only because I do not want to end up in Chinese jail for causing death by skate.

How to deal with cultural exhaustion

On days like these it is really important to try and get back on track emotionally.
The first step is to be aware that this is actually what you are experiencing. In both Linda and my case this cultural exhaustion appeared about 1.5 years after we had moved to China, maybe this is a common time span? The initial culture shock tends to occur approximately six months after you arrive but once you are over that, things slowly start building up again.

Luckily, just being able to put a name to what you are feeling helps. It makes you realise how much you haven’t been yourself but also that this is not just your individual issue.
Linda then suggests that you need to accept and admit that you will never fit into the society of your host country and that this is ok. This will take the pressure off for you to try so hard to do everything right, as that is simply not realistic. This I think is a very important factor why I even got thrown into this cultural exhaustion mode in the first place. Trying to organise a wedding, I was suddenly dealing with businesses in Hohhot, which is still a third tier city. Standards are simply different. Trickery and unprofessional behaviour are more common. It is a reality I just need to learn to accept.

I have also come up with a number of my own coping mechanisms, which in combination and over a bit of time will hopefully help restore your love and passion for China.

Number one is to remind yourself of why you love your host country by doing all the things that make you happy. For me that entailed getting amazing Chinese food from my favourite restaurant, strapping on my skates to whizz along the newly constructed, luxuriously big roads at the Olympic Stadium and going for a relaxing climb at the rock-climbing gym; something I have taken up since moving to Nanjing.

Number two is to surround yourself with the right people. Do not go to tourist hotspots where you will find a lot of people exhibiting the type of behaviour you might find hard to accept such as spitting, peeing in public or staring at you and commenting on the fact that you are a foreigner. Instead, spend time with the Chinese people you have positive associations with, Chinese friends on the one hand but even more so the shop owner who gives you money off for your loyal custom and has a chat with you about your daily life, that security guard who knows your routine and laughs when he see you marching off with your skates in one hand (hopefully not to murder anyone) or the guys at the rock climbing gym who comment on your absence and include you in their delicious group lunch. These are the people who make my day, because in this huge city, they are still so friendly and personal.

DO NOT under any circumstance try and hide away from people in your flat. This will just make you brood and stew in your own depression, a mistake I often make. I know it is difficult to find the motivation to go out there when you are so vulnerable. But you must do it. Or you will end up going home.

Finally, your option is to go the other way and just give yourself a good blast of home by eating at your favourite Western restaurants, binge-watching your favourite TV series from home and talking to all the people back in Europe or whichever part of the world you are from, parents and friends, who love and support you.

Most importantly, always remember that it is likely just a phase and that it will pass and then you will once again be able to marvel at the wonders and the craziness of China.

Bad China Week 3 – The Engagement Pictures, Ghosts and the Fires of Hell

Wedding pictures

Thus concludes my triple blast of Bad China Week moments. After being branded as a lawbreaker of minor import and living through the accidental destruction, perceived repair and ensuing redestruction (wait, is that even a word?) of my engagement ring, the final straw were the engagement pictures.

Aside from the eccentric decoration and theme of my wedding, what I was looking forward to most since this whole wedding fiasco started were the engagement pictures. I just love, love, love the idea of getting all done up and professional photographers having you pose while you look like a fabulous movie star with her handsome hunk of a husband (I’m sure I will suddenly and miraculously transform from klutz to princess through the mere presence of cameras…no, really, I am!).

That describes in a nutshell the engagement pictures. They are also used in the wedding display, and for me personally my opportunity to experience the Old Shanghai style I originally wanted for the wedding but in the end let go.

The very first issue was the decision where to take the pictures. Inner Mongolia had exciting grasslands but would require both of us to fly there just for one weekend, a huge waste of time and money. Next option was Beijing, with a very professional standard of photography yet as is custom for a first tier city horrendous prices. The best deal I could find was still 5 000 RMB for a set of pictures. In addition, the North-South divide once again reared its ugly head; while the company in Beijing said they could do Old Shanghai style, it just wasn’t very convincing, which is when it hit me; Northerners have difficulty doing a convincing Southern style. It seems that if you hear a stereotype often enough, you will actually start to believe it yourself. So the decision was made, Nanjing it was, with added bonus that they are cheaper than the capital.

After lots and lots of research on Dianping, my favourite app in the whole wide world, I found a company in the South of Nanjing that will hopefully be able to meet my requirements of glam but inexpensive. If you can call RMB 3 700 for a photo session inexpensive, that is. Yet, still a lot better than what the competition had to offer and the reviews seemed convincing.

Now we faced the issue of finding a date to take the photos. This is one of those moments when long-distance relationships simply suck, as it has proven an incredible task to get the shoot organised. Were we in one city it would simply be a case of taking a day off on a weekend to get it done; yet now the local climate, traveling and conflicting schedules are making it next to impossible. Oh, and the superstitions of course.

Nanjing is very particular when it comes to seasons. Up until beginning of April it is about 5C°, then you have a two to three-week window with a comfy 20C° and a humane level of humidity, and by the end of the month it has skyrocketed to summer temperatures of 40C° and humidity levels of over 90% (and no, that is not an exaggeration). Therefore it is crucial to find the perfect opportunity between freezing off the tip of your nose or keeling over from heat stroke, when the cherry blossoms are blooming and outside shoots will not potentially render you incapable of attending your actual wedding.

The added problem is that while I love hot and humid, Mr.Li having grown up in dry Inner Mongolia with -20 degrees winters absolutely despises the Southern climate and will start sweating waterfalls once it gets to 25 C°. He also launches into endless moaning about the heat, which on a stressful day such as the wedding shoot, which will include changing outfit and getting make up done seven times, is really not very constructive. So, in order to avoid major drama and possibly death by high heel, we needed to squeeze into the minimal spring window.

I thought I had found the perfect date when I realised beginning of April was a long weekend. Initially, Mr. Li agreed to take the photos then; until he found out that this was actually Tomb-Sweeping Festival, when ghosts walk the earth and Chinese honour their ancestors by cleaning their tombs and burning paper money and paper iPhones so the dead will be comfortable in the afterlife. “NO, NO, NO, we can’t take pictures during the Tomb-Sweeping Festival,” Mr. Li protested vehemently. “That is when all the ghosts come out and they will show up in our pictures and bring us bad luck.”

At this point, my fuse just busted. Here I was trying to align all the atmospheric factors to make this as painless and conflictless as possible, and now ghosts were occupying my perfect picture weekend?! Yet, Mr.Li was insistent, and indeed, when we went to 798 Art district during the festival, there was not one couple taking wedding pictures to be found, an irregularity that Mr. Li saw as proof that Beijingers shared his superstition. When I told all my colleagues down here in Nanjing about this, they all shook their head in disbelief. They had never even heard of such a belief. The good old North-South divide, ruining lives since the beginning of time. It can’t have been the urban rural divide in this case; though often lower tier cities and rural areas are much more superstitious than the big urban centers, Beijing is hardly what you would call rural.

So, back to the planning sheet. Next opportunity was the 18th April, sitting perfectly between our two visits beginning of April and 1st of May weekend, also still in the blossoming Nanjing spring, and far enough from the fires of hell to appear in May.

Again, it was not to be. The company was already fully booked. So, I took the next appointment on the 25th April, knowing full well that there is a big chance that Mr.Li will be moving from Beijing to Shenzhen that weekend, meaning we would have to postpone yet again. Though, with the looming danger of taking pictures in suit and make-up in the scorching heat, he seems rather eager to get it wrapped up before May if at all possible.

The photo fiasco concludes the bad China week, by the end of which I was just about ready to pack my things and hop on a plane back to Europe. I felt like everything I touched in relation to the wedding was just ending in disaster, a feeling that is still quite present in light of my recent wedding company experiences.

Bad China Week 2 – The Engagement Ring

Attachment to material items cultural difference China west
So, aside from my little run-in with the law, another factor that contributed to my Bad China Week (BCW) was my engagement ring.

I explained the history of the ring in a previous post, but in short my parents brought it over from Germany. Mr. Li proposed mid-November. And then, a month ago, after four almost blissful months of wearing it, my hamfisted self somehow managed to get it caught and one of the stones came out of its setting. I have to say, seriously disappointed by the infamous German quality that people in this country so adore. Luckily, the freak accident happened while I was at home and the stone, despite being about the size of a molecule, was found. I taped it to the ring box to make sure it would not get lost and then left it there for a month.

The reason was that I was in two minds as to whether it would be better to send it back home to Germany and get it fixed, or just find a local jeweller, pay a few kuai and not have to worry about an expensive piece of jewellery getting lost in the black hole that calls itself delivery service.

Then this weekend I decided it was time. I packed my ringbox in my back pack and ventured to the “jewellery street” of Nanjing, Taiping Nan Lu, which houses what is truly an army of stores selling everything from diamond rings to jade bracelets. I went there after I had been rock climbing in my sports gear looking like the world’s biggest schlub, a pair of dirty roller blades in tow, which probably explains the looks of disgust as I marched into some of the more glamorous establishments. I was a little tempted to scratch my non-existent testicles just for show.

All the bigger jewellers turned me away because the ring had not been bought at their store. Snobs.

All of the smaller jewellers were out for lunch, and as the staff informed me, might return at any random point in time but they couldn’t really say. Great, thanks for the help.

After an hour of dragging myself from one store to the other I finally walked into the right one, or so I thought. The “Shifu” did not ask any questions, immediately got to work and five minutes later after seemingly expertly have pressed and pushed the stone into place, handed it back to me. He did not even accept payment. I was so elated I asked for his business card and then posted this lovely story on WeChat (China’s number one social media app).

Then, half an hour later I met up with my roller blade date, and dramatically pulled out my hand sporting the engagement ring, just to find that the stone was again not in its casing. I had managed to lose it on the metro, confirming my suspicion that anything that’s free cannot truly be good. Of course the poor jeweller wasn’t to know this was going to happen and in all fairness, other stores had looked at the ring in wonder since the entire set-up seems to be different than they are used to in China.

Still, I was heartbroken. I had set out in the morning with the quest to fix my ring. Now, not only was my ring not fixed, I had also lost the stone. My emotions were on a serious roller coaster.

Calling Mr. Li did not help either, except giving both me and my friend another insight into the differences between our cultures. “Oh it’s just an engagement ring, it doesn’t matter, why even bother getting it fixed” was his reply to my request that he go look for the receipt.
Usually when I get angry I argue a lot. Yet, this time I was so livid, that I barely was able to speak. He sensed it and quickly asked me to put my friend on the phone.

She then had a very productive conversation with him in which she explained that the engagement ring is very important to us and we often wear it our whole lives. Whereas he said that in Chinese culture once you wear the wedding ring, you don’t tend to wear the engagement ring anymore (although I am fairly certain that my married friend is still wearing hers, sometimes I feel Mr. Li, having lived abroad for 6 years, is not very in touch with the China of today).

In a later conversation with another female Chinese, she was also very calm and nonchalant about the ring fiasco, leading me and my roller blade friend to theorise about Chinese and Western people’s different attachment to material items.

For us, it is all about the emotions. If a materialistic possession has an emotional meaning or a fond memory, we might keep it until it is completely destroyed, even if it looks and possibly smells disgusting, simply because it has a meaning attached to it.

In China, people tend to want the newest of the new, as a way of showing status and gaining face. There seems to be less of an emotional attachment with material items than a functionality to display wealth and success. Hence, if a ring breaks, it is not a big deal; you simply buy a new one. This is possibly a healthier attitude insofar as it keeps you from hoarding, in terms of financials though I definitely think the emotionally attached camp clinging on to their 20-year old teddy bear with only one eye and stuffing popping out of his bum, wins.

Long story short, I still am unsure as to what to do with the wedding ring. Mr.Li and MiL both were so kind as to look for the little red bag in which I was convinced the ring receipt was stowed away and while they managed to find the bag, the receipt is currently still successfully hiding away.

Part of me really wants to agree with Mr.Li and simply forget about it, as this ring is turning into just another nuisance adding to my already cramped Things To Do And Freak Out About List for this wedding. In all honesty, each time someone shook my hand the stones in the side would pierce my middle and pinky fingers causing excruciating pain. I guess that’s an argument for the Let It Go camp, isn’t it?

Yet, my German and my sentimental sides just can’t bear the thought of a technically brand new, beautiful and rather pricey ring just sitting on the shelf, gathering dust and mocking me with its gaping hole where once was a stone like a toothless grandma.

The Theme 2 – Out with the Old Shanghai and in with the New

Chinese wedding theme

We had locked down the company I wanted, a major success but still something just did not feel right. I had a conversation with Mr. Li about my idea for an Old Shanghai theme previously and he was not enthusiastic about it. Aside from the argument that Northerners don’t do a Southern theme and it would seem out of place, he further felt that the theme did not have anything to do with us. In actual fact, he even felt uncomfortable with this theme for political reasons. “That time in Shanghai was a time when Western powers colonized Shanghai, it reminds us of a shameful time of submission. It’s not appropriate for a wedding.”

I was genuinely surprised at this but in all honesty maybe just a bit ignorant and naive. I have witnessed first-hand the Chinese anger that still rages within locals whenever the Opium Wars come up; it is, if I may be honest, the reason I often choose to introduce myself as German rather than British. The former will usually result in major enthusiasm, something I was not used to at all back in Europe, while the second will not be met with outright hostility, yet still tends to be a little less warm. Especially if the destruction of the Old Summer Palace, Hong Kong or the Opium Wars come up, the situation quickly turns sour. When I once suggested to one Chinese friend to attend a movie night, at which a film on the war was to be shown, they vehemently refused and got incredibly upset, stating “this is China’s period of shame, I would never watch a film about it.” More incidents along these lines have made it increasingly clear that this is a very touchy subject.

While I made the argument that an Old Shanghai wedding theme is purely an artistic statement and not a political one, and he quickly gave in when he saw how passionate I was about having this theme, I still felt uneasy at the thought of forcing a theme on him that he did not like. Part of me kept rethinking the decision, despite the fact that I was spending many an evening combing through the internet for Republican style wedding dresses and Qipaos for my bridesmaids.

One major concern he kept voicing though was that most Old Shanghai themes are rather dark, and indeed this was one of the issues I had noticed myself. Bordeaux red, dark green or the darkest shade of purple, velvet and other heavy materials made most of the decor I found online look rather dreary and depressing. Not very celebratory at all. Now a dark theme is only as dark as you make it, and so I decided to go with a champagne-white colour scheme that would lighten up the whole thing.

As I mentioned before, MiL had found the “phallic cake company”, and it seemd like a sign from the heavens that Old Shanghai would succeed. The pictures we found of a wedding by this company seemed themed around Paris, in dark purple and white, and was just the right amount of tacky to be fun. The thing that sold me were the penis cakes that were randomly placed among the decoration. I still wonder whose idea those were. Hence, this new wedding company, that I was 100 percent sure I wanted to do my wedding was known as the “penis cake company”. I managed to get in touch with the planner from PCC and she was very helpful and enthusiastic. As many long-termers to China will know, good service is not easy to come by in most parts, unless you pay horrendous amounts of money.

So, PCC girl and I had a chat about possible decoration for my wedding and I was impressed by the fact that she admitted openly to not having done an Old Shanghai wedding before, most other wedding companies would have just downloaded pictures from the web and sold it as their theme design.

However, such splendid service of course comes at a price. PCC girl announced that the wedding I had seen on WeChat cost a ludicrous 120 000 RMB just for the decoration! I always call China a country of extremes because in nothing you find a middle ground, and once again it just went to show you can either have inexpensive and shoddy or fabulous and bankruptingly expensive.

Mr. Li reminded me that in truth the price was probably less than this, since it is very common for Chinese business people to increase the actual price, especially if they are talking to a foreigner. Yet, even so, I already had a feeling that I would have to say good bye to Penis Cake Company. And so it was, after we told her our budget for the wedding, she suggested that we contact the hotel for the big decoration (i.e. big, luxurious cloths that are draped around the hotel and massive cardboard posters with decorative elements and the couple’s “logo”; at most modern Chinese weddings the couple tends to have a logo designed by the planners). PCC girl then said, she could do the small decorations on the table, i.e. the bit that I had originally considered doing myself before I saw her. This then left me with the question, why I should use her at all if I could instead cut the same deal with the hotel directly and save a lot of money in the process.

Back to Taobao it was. Now in the meantime, the theme had also undergone some modification. Since there just seemed to be so many reasons not to do Old Shanghai, the troubles of getting Northern wedding companies to do a Southern wedding, the fact that Mr. Li didn’t like it and the problem of it being rather dark and dreary, I had been thinking of alternatives. The logical conclusion was a UK-themed wedding. I was sure Mr. Li would love it and it was after all where we met, as he said before re Old Shanghai, it had nothing to do with us really. Quick research revealed that the UK theme tended to be too tacky even for me with the glaring red and blue of the Union Jack. However, I was lucky enough to stumble upon the ultimate combo of both themes, UK and Old Shanghai, when I found a “vintage UK” themed wedding that seemed to encompass exactly what I was looking for. In terms of the colours, I felt I wanted to keep the Union Jack colours but with a little twist, a dusty blue and a Bordeaux red to make it look a bit less tacky and a bit more classy. When I sent the pictures to Mr.Li and so finally on the third attempt, the wedding theme was born.

The Venue (Part 1) – Hijackers and Hostages

Inner Mongolia wedding venue
As mentioned earlier, my German self was struggling considerably with the Chinese approach to organising, yet through persistent nagging I finally managed to convince Mr. Li and MiL that we needed to find a wedding venue.

Truth be told, the main holdup was a rather personal issue surrounding the attendance of Mr.Li’s father; since the parents are divorced and Mr.Li’s relationship with Mr. Li senior is frosty to say the least, this was a whole other can of worms. But that is for another post.

Once MiL got down to it, there were three wedding venue contenders, the Shangri-La Chinese luxury hotel chain, the Sheraton Western hotel and the Inner Mongolia hotel (the Chinese concept of face dictates that we have to get married in the most expensive location possible to impress the wife of the boss of the cousin twice removed, or something or other). Mr. Li and I initially both agreed on the Inner Mongolia hotel as our favourite option, since it has character with Mongolian elements in the decoration. We felt that particularly our guests from abroad would enjoy the “local flavour”. Great, wedding venue settled. Or so I thought. I even got so cocky as to design and send out wedding invitations to all and sundry proudly announcing our special day at the Inner Mongolia hotel. What a fool. I never learn.

I had not taken into account that this is a five-star hotel, which obviously feels it is above everyone else and therefore can make its own rules. When my poor MiL went back to book the venue last week, the hotel manager informed her that if we wanted to have the wedding in their hotel, we would HAVE TO use their in-house wedding company. She insisted that we could not bring in an external wedding company.

Now this did not go down well with me at all for two reasons; a) my MiL had through careful WeChat watching of a local wedding photographer’s account found an absolutely fabulous wedding company (their décor was just the right mix of tacky and class in my eyes, but what sold me where the penis cakes that were randomly draped on the middle of the wedding display, oh how I would have loved to seen the guests reaction), so the thought of my being forced to give up said great company was not one I enjoyed, and b) I generally think it is scandalous for a wedding location to hijack someone’s wedding like that. I would like decide on my own what company shall get the task of decorating my wedding, thank you very much. I personally absolutely despise people trying to tell me what to do, ask my Mum or Mr.Li and they will tell you that if you order me to do something I will most probably not do it just out of principle. I’m such a grown up. Hence you can imagine how the Inner Mongolia Hotel’s policy resonated with my anti-authoritarian self.

Now I thought that I should at least give it a try. After all it would be silly to lose the venue if the wedding company was good. So I got in touch with them; and it all just went downhill from there. After repeatedly asking the manager whether they could do an Old Shanghai Theme, which I had my heart set on, he sent me a few images off the internet and I confirmed this was the style I wanted, yet he still did not answer my question. Once more I asked: “So can you do this style?” You will not believe the reply I received.

“I will tell you once you have booked the Inner Mongolia hotel.” This was the response. I was FUMING. Lucky for this man I was talking to him through a virtual channel; had I been in the same room, who knows what would have happened. So, not only is the hotel blackmailing me into using their internal company, now the wedding company is holding my theme hostage? That was the moment I knew the Inner Mongolia hotel had just lost my custom henceforth and until the end of time.

Ironically, I spoke to the wedding company that I liked and told them of my plight, and their immediate response was that this rule was nonsense and that they had already organised weddings in the Inner Mongolia hotel. However, this is another interesting Chinese business model that some high-end hotels including the Shangri-La and now the IM Hotel employ. You can use an external wedding agency, but you have to pay an extra service charge to do so. The wedding company also takes a cut from the fee and so everyone except the happy couple wins. By telling us that we were not allowed to use an external company, the IM Hotel was pushing up the stakes, making sure we would be so desperate as to pay any fee they asked for if we wanted to use an external planner. However, they forgot to consider the fact that I am a thick-headed German who would rather celebrate her wedding in McDonalds before bowing down to such shameful schemes. So the search for a new wedding venue continued…

…and ended the next morning when MiL went to check out the botanical gardens. The location is absolutely stunning, with plants everywhere and glass ceilings for natural lighting. What more could you want in a venue? Even objectively speaking I would have preferred this location to the IM hotel but in light of their behaviour and the fact that the gardens allow external wedding companies without additional fee, this victory is even sweeter.

After deciding on the botanical gardens, I was incredibly elated. I immediately thought of a Chinese motto that Mr. Li often recites in hard times. There is a balance in the universe. If you are experiencing a lot of bad luck, some time in the future you will have a lot of good luck to make up for it, so you can take solace in hard times. When you are experiencing incredibly good luck, you should treasure it and be aware that it won’t last forever, as there is always the balance. I find this saying very encouraging. It sums up the calm that I have experienced among many Chinese people in the face of problems. Where I get upset and very quickly work myself into a frenzy about external circumstances, Mr. Li and MiL are particularly calm and composed, even optimistic. I envy them a lot for that ability. In the meantime though I am enjoying my minor venue victory. Cheers to that!