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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.

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It’s official! – The Proposal

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Okay, so Mr. Li finally pulled it off; just when I was beginning to give up hope. For the last three months I have been waiting for the proposal, and yet when it happened I was entirely caught by surprise.

Mr. Li had spent the last months coming up with every possible excuse why he shouldn’t have to propose to me, including

“You want to take my name, so I think it is your duty to propose.”

He even had me so convinced, I got all irritated until I received a WeChat message promising me, he had something in store. Of course, it wouldn’t be us, if there had not been a few quirky moments.

First of all, he planned on surprising me, which was incredibly sweet but went slightly wrong for two reasons; one, he tried to get me back to the flat on time by telling me he wanted a Skype date at exactly 5.30 right after work. Thickhead that I am, I of course did not get the hint, and so 5.30 came and went and I was still at the office.

“Oh, he can just skype my phone”

, I thought and since said device was being almost eerily calm, I assumed that meant he was busy or stuck at work.

I strolled up to my flat an hour later. As I walked to the door, a delicious smell of curry wafted up my nostrils and I felt a pang of regret.

“One of the neighbours is cooking, it smells delicious. How I wish someone were cooking for me.”

I did feel a little suspicious when I noticed the mouth-watering smell seemed to be coming out of my own flat; but only for an instant, then the thought passed.

I opened the door and suddenly a figure jumped out from behind the bed. I screeched like a banshee with shock, which earned me a concerned look from the neighbours just unlocking their own door.

“Oh my god, I am being burgled!”

That was the first thought that shot through my head. (I now see how illogical it would be for a burglar to be cooking a curry in the flat of his victim…although at the time it seemed to make sense.) The next thought that followed was

“That burglar looks awfully familiar.”

You guessed it, it was Mr. Li; “burglar of my heart” (a title he later bestowed upon himself).
As I stepped into my flat, the first thing that caught my eye was the cleanliness.

You see, that was the second problem about Mr. Li’s unannounced visit; the pre-boyfriend flat clean, which I usually frantically complete the evening before his arrival, had not taken place. To make matters worse, this was a Friday with a filming appointment, and so I had spent the morning going through numerous outfit changes, discarding the rejects haphazardly on my bed and floor and leaving an array of make-up utensils strewn across the bathroom sink top as I rushed to work. To call the state of my flat chaos incarnated would be to flatter it. And so, around 1pm, Mr. Li stepped into this bombshell.

He later confessed,

“My initial reaction was ‘Oh my, a bomb went off in this place!’ For a short moment, all I could think was, this is the girl I want to marry. Am I sure about that? But then I thought of her pretty face and nice character and thought ‘What the heck’ and started cleaning.”

One of my constant complaints is that Mr. Li is terrible at making compliments and saying romantic stuff, but it seems he has recently stepped up his game.

And so he cleaned and cooked all afternoon, bless him. I have to admit, there is nothing sexier than a man who does housework. And yes, I am saying that partly because I hate doing housework. But mainly coz it’s true.

Engagement

After welcoming me and complaining about my lateness, he directed me towards the cake. He had purchased a cream cake from HPC bakery, one of my favourite chains in Nanjing. Yummy! As Mr. Li later stated:

“Whenever I am being romantic, there is food.”

While I was unpacking the dessert, Mr. Li announced he needed the loo. At this point I had a hunch what was happening; clean flat, curry and cake, and then I noticed the pad was propped up in a suspicious fashion, i.e. he was filming this whole procedure.

“Strange moment to be going to the loo,”

I thought to myself.

Next thing I know, he marches out of the toilet with a humungous batch of roses. At some point I had informed him that there need to be hundreds of roses during a proposal; he “only” got 99. This example was, without a doubt, proof of how I have a big gob and forget half the nonsense I say, but it was incredibly touching to know he listens to my ramblings.

After handing me a bucket full of roses almost as big as myself, he started rummaging around in them. As I found out later, he was desperately looking for the ring box, which he had hidden in the roses.

The poor thing was slightly nervous, mainly because I had further announced that I did not want him to propose to me in my flat, because that was boring. However, for a Chinese man, who is not prone to excessive displays of affection, especially not in public due to cultural convention, that was asking a bit too much. In the end, I am glad he did not change his plans, since everything was perfect.

He did skip a slightly important part of the whole proposing, though…the actual proposal.

“So, I kneel down…and then put this on your finger, right?”

he asked.

“Didn’t you forget to ask me a question?”

I replied. And there we go.

He had to then rescue the curry, which had burned in the pot ever so slightly in the meantime; but to me was the most perfect tasting curry in the whole wide world, after that he proceeded in his cooking marathon to make my favourite dish, aubergine, potato and green peppers in a garlic-soy sauce. For this dish alone, I would marry him.

Then he presented me with another gift; an engagement iPhone. This might sound really silly, but the fact that he used his once in a lifetime opportunity to pre-book the iPhone 6 and then hand it over to me, that is true love. I always thought, that if he could marry Apple, he would. Luckily, he chose me!

As a sidebar, due to its extreme popularity in China, the iPhone is almost impossible to get, especially in smaller cities. Even in Beijing Mr. Li had to go to the store, where he had pre-booked the phone, and queue up for ages to get it. The “huangniu” illegal sellers were lining up to offer those who managed to purchase the iPhone to buy it off of them for RMB 300 extra. A number of people were caught trying to smuggle the phones from Hong Kong on to the mainland. China and the iPhone – an epic lovestory. Well, as I said, this illustrates the troubles and pains Mr. Li went through to get me the phone, I am truly spoiled!

The final, and in my personal opinion, best surprise was when he confessed he had not only recorded the proposal on the pad, but also a few messages in the morning and afternoon for me. At this point I was so touched I started to cry, what the roses, the food and even the phone had failed to do; the fact that Mr. Li recorded himself on camera, something he really does not enjoy, just because he knew I would love it; that was the moment right there, that I will never forget.

So, to sum it up, although I was convinced that our pre-proposal engagement had taken the surprise out of things, Mr. Li actually managed to give me the loveliest surprise on a great date (14/11/14).

“You didn’t think I was going to prepare on our three-year anniversary, did you?! That’s so predictable!”

he informed me later, and he was right. After a weekend of feasting on delicious home-cooked food and cake, and drinks and lunches with friends, I had to once again send him off to Beijing; maybe next time, he will get a surprise visit from me.

Engagement nanjing

The Rings (Part 2)

So, my parents arrived safe and sound from Germany and brought with them a certain engagement ring. With China’s reputation and the additional factor that my parents had recently watched an episode of a German TV show, where a reporter managed to get the hotel staff to open the safe door simply by asking, they felt unsafe about leaving the ring in the room. After all, it would be pretty annoying to put it lightly, if it got lost now.

I am very easily swayed into mild paranoia when it comes to theft, even more so in China, where petty crimes are incredibly common and no one is safe. According to official numbers issued by the Chinese People’s Court in 2012, 22 2078 cases or an equivalent of 22.51 percent of their total case number, were related to theft crimes. In actual fact, the petty theft crime rate is infinitely higher as many cases do not even make it into court for a number of reasons. A substantial factor is that in smaller cities, where corruption is rampant, the police and thieves actually know each other and often cooperate, the “man of the law” receiving a little sum from the lowly criminal as protection money, and hence there is often no point in contacting the police if your things were stolen.

Sometimes, this can lead to interesting situations, such as in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia in 2010, when we were traveling with a large group of students from our university (I had not met Mr. Li at this point yet). On what was meant to be a short break at a certain fast food chain with golden arches, one of the girls hung her handbag from the chair behind her, a rookie mistake to which many foreigners new to these realms fall victim… Long story short, her bag including Iphone, wallet but most importantly passport, were stolen. The police were called and after a four-hour wait, the bag miraculously appeared in a bin in the vicinity and was brought into the police. While all material valuables had been removed, the passport was still there.

After telling this story to Mr. Li a few years later (I often teased him with the fact that my main memory from his home city was the bag theft and our being stranded at Macci’s for four hours before embarking on what would turn into a 24-hour bus trip back to Beijing; but that is another story), he informed me that obviously the police and the thief were in cohorts, explaining that the policemen had probably informed their contacts to return the passport as this case involved a foreigner. Now, I do not want to be cynical, but one thing one has to admit in China is that no good deed goes unpunished and hence many Chinese people are not very willing to help strangers.

The classic example are the many cases where people run over by a car received help from a third party, but would suddenly turn on their helper, accusing them of being the one who ran them over in the first place; otherwise, why would they be helping them? According to reports some of the “victims” even got away with this shameless strategy; as a result an innocent person, who only wanted to help, could find themselves paying damages for an accident they never caused. These incidents are the reason many Chinese have a fear of altruistically helping people, since it might cause them suffering and in the worst case financial loss. The most tragic example was the death of the Chinese toddler a few years ago, who was killed in a hit and run, because for 20 minutes people walked by the dying two-year old pretending not to see her.

The point I am making is that the story that someone found the bag with the passport in the trash and then decided to bring it to the police sounds rather unlikely, as sad and cynical as that might be, and with Mr. Li’s local knowledge and explanation, it seems rather likely that the bag was handed over by the thief to a police officer instead. Admittedly, though, at least the girl got her passport back; a true silver lining, since getting a new passport and visa while in China is sheer hell.

So, in conclusion, this experience has scarred me into paranoia when it comes to theft in the Middle Kingdom. My father’s suggestion was that I simply wear the engagement ring although there had been no proposal. As we all know, better safe than sorry!

“Don’t be so superstitious! It is the safest option”,

he said when he saw my mum and my exasperated faces. While I agree with him on that particular point, I did decide to wear the ring on my right hand ring finger instead of my left (the customary engagement ring finger in Germany since it runs along the love vein). After all, despite the fact that I shake my head at most Chinese superstitions, I am in truth a rather superstitious person myself.

Upon arrival back in Nanjing, the circular piece of jewelry returned to its little red box and was picked up by Mr.Li. Now it has traveled to Beijing with him, waiting for the big moment. Let’s hope it needn’t wait too long!

The Rings

So, we had finally made the decision on where to get married and how many times. I had also managed to gently impose on Mr. Li the necessity of a proposal. Next question; the rings.

First of all, Chinese women traditionally wear a wedding ring, yet with the custom of the proposal not existing until recently, neither did the concept of an engagement ring. Furthermore, it is up to this day not very common for Chinese men to wear wedding rings, as opposed to the West. Cynics might blame the high number of affairs among married people partly on the fact that by escaping the public declaration of ones status temptation might increase as the commitment is more easily ignored without a physical reminder, but luckily we are not cynics (or are we?)

Anyway, this cultural difference created the next confusion, as we faced decisions such as two rings or one for me, one ring or none for him, and which ring was to be used when? My future Chinese mother-in-law and Mr. Li both were incredibly understanding of our custom, agreeing to an engagement ring and wedding rings for the both of us.

So, now we had decided upon the number of rings, the dates of using them had to be considered. Sure, the engagement ring was easy, as it would be used at the engagement. But would we start wearing the wedding rings after we had gotten our Chinese wedding certificate, or during the Chinese wedding ceremony (which are separate occasions in local culture) or wait until the day of the German wedding?

Since the exchanging of the rings is an integral part of the German ceremony and wearing them beforehand feels like cheating to me, plus the fact that it is culturally acceptable for Mr. Li not to be wearing a wedding ring, I believe the best solution in this case is for me to use my engagement ring as the Chinese wedding ring and wait until the German ceremony for us to slip the “actual” wedding rings onto each other’s fingers. I say “actual” since really it is just a metal object to which we ascribe a certain meaning and in fact any and every ring could be a wedding ring in my personal opinion.

Phew, one issue sorted. Next up, the ring purchase dilemma. In China, diamonds are incredibly rare, ludicrously expensive and according to my boss (who got married in China and therefore knows what he is talking about) disappointingly small. Mr. Li and his mother’s immediate suggestion was to purchase the ring in Europe instead.

This is not surprising as Europe has become one of the top destinations for Chinese nouveau riche to go on a jewelry-shopping spree of unimaginable proportions to spending-conservative Europeans. When my mother-in-law arrived in the UK for a visit she almost bought up an entire store of jewelry on Oxford Street; as like most other Chinese tourists she did not know when she would be back and it was, in her eyes, an irresistible bargain. The Chinese shopping mania abroad has actually become a little bit of a running gag amongst those of us with Chinese in-laws and on occasion “war stories” are traded of how much money was spent and how many hours were shopped on what was essentially a trip through Europe’s shopping malls, culture and tourist attractions being not even slightly interesting to the purchase pros.

Returning to the ring dilemma. The rings were an eight-hour flight away in good old Europe, and sending such an expensive object via DHL or worse, the Chinese Post (who, I might add, do not even think Wales is a country and that it is the same as sending the letter to Scotland or Ireland; and not the Northern part) did not sound like a very promising undertaking, As luck would have it, my parents were due to arrive in China only a month later at the time. And so, with a little help from the internet, a ring was selected, pre-ordered and finally picked up by my parents in person, who will bring it over with them in a few weeks. I actually like the idea of having an engagement ring, which has traveled as far as I have; my German ring in China.