inside thoughts on China and beyond

Superstition and other Luck

Fireworks were shot into the sky -twice, mind you: first on Chinese New Year’s eve and again fifteen days later – and devils and other evil fled from China, to the far ends of the world. Scared. Although I wouldn’t be surprised that they were, more than anything, scared of the polluted air. And I would flee too, if I could, but my plane got stuck in Beijing Airport due to a smog that was pollution induced and reduced visibility to a keep-the-planes-on-the-ground level. I wasn’t the only traveller: this Chunjie, Beijing alone saw an exodus of 9 million people -that’s more than half of the Dutch population all trying to catch the same plane and train. Or all citizens of New York City on the move at once. All eager to go home and celebrate Chinese New Year with extended family and friends. And at this new beginning, the question that is keeping us all busy is this: will it be a good year?

Not so long ago, we were invited by our neighbors to join their family’s garden party. We gladly accepted. For the 11 years that we’ve lived in China and the 4 different neighborhoods we came to call our home, I can count the number of neighbors we really got to know on one hand. Partly, they are just never there. They may be working in Tibet or Xinjiang or some other remote place no one wants to be and send wife and child to live with the in-laws. Leaving an empty apartment as investment. Sometimes, apartments are rented out as offices, causing messy hallways but quiet evenings. If parents have the right guanxi [useful connections] and enough money that can’t see day light, they might be able to send their child to a top school and then rent an apartment in that neighborhood. Although our last neighbor was surely there -his rooftop garden always looked better and greener than mine- we hardly saw him. Our garden was never a success. My wife blamed me; I blamed the soil; but it could, of course, just have been bad feng shui.

This time it is different though. This time, our neighbor has lots of time on his hand. He is in business. Oil business, to be more precise. He hasn’t bothered to get a drivers license and has hired his brother-in-law to drive him around. He wasn’t bothered about the one-child policy and had his wife simply deliver the second baby in Hong Kong.  He was bothered though, but just for a short while. His business wasn’t taking off. He had an idea but not the engineer to make it work, nor the building to do the work in. Basically, all he had was the idea. That would bother me too. The idea he had was ‘borrowed’ from his previous American employer, so quality was guaranteed and with a bit of luck and the right guanxi, good fortune was his. And all his guanxi were invited to the party too.

“Is your house built correctly? How is the feng shui?” the old man asked while chewing on a chicken leg. He is one of my neighbor’s partners, experienced in the offshore oil business. The question caught me off-guard: my house is no different from my neighbor’s; and what do I know about feng shui?

“What do you think?”

“It’s off.” He mumbled and spat out a chipped off piece of chicken bone.

“What? The chicken?”

“No, your house!”

“Oh. Is it bad?”

Dui. First of all, the orientation is wrong.” What followed was a lengthly monolog on feng shui and ying yang that was far beyond my comprehension. Talks about optimum orientation and perfect balance to reach the deeper levels of inner self, to reach ‘It’, only to discover the ‘It’ is nothing but emptiness, have always eluded me. Especially when it is all in Chinese. But out of politeness -and for my neighbor’s sake- I nodded approvals and murmured agreements and proposed multiple toasts of baijiu (strong liquor that for once wasn’t Chinese but Scottish), enough to encourage him to continue his well-meant advice. While trying to keep eye contact to prove my interest in the topic, I couldn’t help my thoughts floating off to a world that seemed so long gone. Back in Holland we followed our own feng shui. It would be more correct to call it the feng taiyang [wind-sun]: the ideal home always has the large living room windows and garden doors facing south. Catching sunlight and warmth is the holy grail of the Dutch.

My neighbor brought me back to the present, back to China and the garden party by topping up my glass, again. This time with cheap Chinese beer though, a sign that the party has reached its next level. I had lost count of how often he had refilled but the numbers of empty bottles was significant. Lifting his glass, he proposed a toast. I had lost count of this too, but his employees and partners happily responded.
Kan bei! [Cheers!]”  and all guests performed the required “bottom-up”. I too lifted my glass, brought it to my lips and pretended to drink. Cigarettes were handed out again. Now by a business partner. My neighbor was offered one, followed by other partners. The employees were ignored. I was offered again and politely rejected again. Had I been Chinese, this would have been the worse of sins; rejecting drinks or cigarettes was equal to killing your guanxi; making the giver lose face and you your business opportunities.

“Ta shi laowai. [He is a foreigner.]” remarked my neighbor, and this was enough to explain and justify my strange behavior. At moments like these, it’s good to be a foreigner. “La guanxi” (build useful connection) is detrimental to obtain happiness-or at least to be successful. Your guanxi, or the lack there of, can make or break you. But for a happy well rounded life, that’s not always enough. And, since it is always better to be safe than sorry, many Chinese also invest in other fortune bringers.

To add to the change of good fortune, our neighbors and their neighbors and all the others in China are writing wishful notes on large, deep red paper strips and hang them on their doorposts. On the door itself they stick a square shaped red sheet with the large Chinese character ( 福 fu; luck) painted in gold in a seemingly careless way: upside down. You would think they would know how to read their own writing not to make such a silly mistake, and they do. But the devil doesn’t. By placing the writings upside down, it misleads the devil and sends him right into the deeps of inner earth. In case there is a devil that cannot read Chinese characters (let’s just say: a foreign devil), the Chinese often place mirrors above their door and behind their bicycle and on the bumper of their car. Sometimes a real one, sometimes the left rearview mirror from the neighbor’s car, sometimes a broken illegally burned DVD. These mirrors do miracles: the devil will see himself, get the shock of his life and flees to wherever he belongs.

Sometimes though, Chinese fear to be visited by an experienced Chinese devil. The solution is simple, though it is more messy. Blood is painted on wherever luck is needed: doorposts, car wheels, stairs. For this, chicken blood is used and its feathers are sticked onto it. And the overly fearful just hang the whole chicken out. Young kids are a problem. They run around too much, often leaving the special protection zones. To mislead the devil and pretend that the child is ugly and not worth snapping away, parents resort to shaving off all hair and talking negative about the child. And thus, “He is stupid!” and “You are so ugly!” is therefore often heard around here, and most kids seem oblivious to it. If it is ever said to you, just see it as an act of random kindness.

In this rapidly modernizing society, old habits die hard. As a matter of fact, they seem to be revitalized with government support. Whatever it takes to keep the lot calm! But China’s rulers make modern plans too. And while I am still suffocating in the Beijing Airport, a solution for the pollution problem has been found: the airoclypse. Rumor has it that high officials are planning to move the capital of China to Xinyang, a small city in Henan Province, far away from any of the top-ten polluted cities and even further removed from the notorious ‘cancer towns’. The idea, of course, is to leave the pollution behind, and thus also the industry with its millions of workers. So, only a happy few will be airlifted to this new Paradise. It should be done by 2016. With a bit of luck, I might catch that flight.

Post script: While I was waiting for my plane, and others were optimistically proclaiming their goals and strategies to achieve happiness, a young couple is videoed jumping off a high bridge into the deep and cold waters of the Yangtze river far below; a monk is filmed burning himself alive in the streets of a Sichuan town. In both videos, fellow citizen can be seen snap-shooting their own happiness, completely ignorant to the hurt and the passing of lives. Now, at this new beginning, aware of the so often unseen and unforeseen realities, that one question is coming back to me: will it be a good year?


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