inside thoughts on China and beyond

Posts tagged “living abroad

The Ideal State

Did you know –and you could have known, if you follow the news- that Singapore is Utopia? But let me specify. With ‘if you follow the news’, I meant Murdoch’s news. As we now know, he has his own ways of getting information, so when he says that Singapore is The Ideal State, I’m sure he knows where he is talking about. It is quite ironical, if you think about it: the boss of thousands of journalists and many broadcasting companies and other news clubs, basically the boss of everything that represents freedom of speech, the symbol of Western democratic liberty; this boss admires a state that imprisons journalists who write beyond their cup of teh tarik. Murdoch reasoning, by the way, is that Singapore’s leaders get paid so much that it lifts them above corruption. It seems then that not all news reaches him or his papers.

It just makes you wonder how free our reporters and news researchers have truly been all this time, when we entrusted this so important aspect of our society to the likes as Murdoch with his power to make and break politicians in benches or in bed, not to mention journalists. God entrusting the devil to safeguard his creation. China chuckles about this -quietly. “Is this not the free press so holy and dear to the free world?” “Is this not the media that criticizes China for curbing journalists, unjust reporting and hacking computers?”

Not that Murdock has ever worried much about this. Since this Aussie married a Chinese factory girl with a Harvard degree, the gates into the Middle Kingdom opened wide for him and his dollars. He found his way and got his way and he knows all too well that business is compromising as good as you can and thus, between the many gan-bei’s of long business lunches, his Sky channel quietly yet quickly removed BBC News from the channel list. But really, who needs the British? China’s CCTV International is now broadcasting across the globe and it is hard to find a hotel that doesn’t have CCTV’s International news. Why worry?

Let’s take an example. The troubles in Xinjiang –the killings in Kashgar and Hotan by Uyghur separatists- has been widely covered in the Chinese media this last week. Terrorists; evil forces trained and financed abroad; Muslim extremists, not unlike the 9/11 boys… according to Chinese press. And who can blame China now for having it’s own Guantanamo prison? In Western media one will pick up different sounds: suppressed people seeking liberty; a folk with deep wounds of mistreatment and deceit. Horrible! But what is the difference – to you? The commercials are  the same and isn’t that all we remember before we turn of the light and worry about tomorrow morning’s meeting while we have no hard time falling asleep?

What then? Is openness the measure of trustworthiness? It is so much common knowledge that the Chinese media is largely the government’s mouth piece, that it can be considered as transparent: we know who it represents. Call it journalism with Chinese characteristics. Western media is different. It is independent and gifted with the highest moral standards and practices, and Murdock is their boss. Where does that leave us?

The first smiles here in the local tea house just around the corner came after the economic collapse of many democratic European state and the hijacking of Obama’s government by a Tea Party, juggling with a budget of about the size similar to Steve Job’s Apple Inc’s reserves – or less then that. Freely chosen leaders, all unable to act firm and fast. “So this is your beloved democracy; your holy grail that the rest of the world should follow and adopt??” That’s when the smiles appear. You will not hear loud laughs that would reflect true feelings and thoughts or judgments. Just a smile. “We’ll see; we’ll wait.” (I have to admit that this local tea house is somewhat more of a figurative representation of what I read in between the lines here, not a physical truth. Those who have time for tea tend to be more busy discussing their choice of tomorrow’s cars from today’s newspaper ads rather than yesterday’s politics. Life is hard if you have to choose between Mercedes or Lamborghini. And those who don’t have time for tea, ah well, they just don’t have time.)

But back to my point. (And don’t worry, I’m not exactly sure what my point is either, but it does look good saying that here.) You see, here, leaders have all the time in the world. No need to hurry. China plans its political direction in periods of 15 years. Give it time. “Don’t do today what can be done tomorrow!” seems a widespread Chinese characteristic. (And that’s why my office is still not clean!) Leaders in the West are constantly in a rush and fighting. They -especially US presidents, and feel free to ask them if you don’t believe me!- are fighting for time, since  about half of their 4-year duty is taken up by endless shouting of empty promises and shameless threats in the hope to be granted another 4 years of ruling in what has already been characterized as corprocracy rather than democracy. And they are fighting of attacks of their opponents whose primary mission it is to undermine and corrupt in order to weaken the leader and take over by the next election. Then it is their turn… and the game is on again, but in reverse. And while the West is digging itself deeper and deeper in its own debt-and-never-really-finish-the-job-hole, China’s leaders Hu and Wen can lean back and relax. No need to hurry. No need to show real feelings or intentions. Take your time. Let’s have some more tea and a good nap, another aircraft carrier, some more tea and good naps and then the South Chinese Sea. Way to go!

As Wang Qishan, high ranking Politburo member and vice-premier of some sorts, radiated during a conference in Beijing in 2008 facing a fine selection of the world’s biggest bankers: “You have your way. We have our way. And our way is right!” He didn’t say the last part. But I’m sure he smiled.


Biasha Barber

I don’t know about you, but going to a hairdresser is just not my thing. I don’t know why. I was reminded of that during our recent Guizhou trip. No men in Biasha will ever see a hairdresser. Here in Biasha, a small village-on-stilts high up the mountain and hidden behind thick jungle and endless terraces of rice paddies, the people of an obscure clan of the Miao known for their men in shiny costumes and long guns and bald heads with one long knotted-up tail live their simple lives. And they live it without a hairdresser. Here, heads are shaved with a sickle. Try that.

In my early days in China, I would tour half the city in search for a barber that does not have orange hair and looks older than 16. And that’s not easy. So each time I would end up just around the corner, at the same dump barely half a garage box in size, where, last time I left it, I vowed not to come again. But at least no orange hair.

“Ni Yao sheme?”  What do you want? And together we would stare in the same mirror with a desperate look in our eyes. He, because of the hopeless state of whatever was on top of my head, surely different from a typical Chinaman-black-and-straight. Me, because it wouldn’t matter what I say, he wouldn’t understand but even when he did, it wouldn’t make a difference for the final product. Fatalism rules. And so, we would start the ritual  conversation that suggests that I have free choice, always ending up with a haircut I had not asked for. Once I even brought a picture of myself with a coup perfect. That was when I still had hope.

But what can you expect for 5 RMB? Fifty euro cents (at least with the currency rate of that time, before the Mediterranean balloon started to burst). This wouldn’t even get me the done-in-5-minutes dry haircut I used to have each half year, back in Holland, back in the previous century. All I would get is an astonishing look and a kick in the butt. My small Chengdu corner shop was clearly a good bargain.

Included in the price was a warming-up of washing of hair, massaging of head, drying of hair, scratching of head. Not bad a first time, but then this would be repeated 3 or 4 times, and could last up to several hours long. Several hours! And not a single hair had yet left my head. With growing desperation, I would think of the many good things I could have done with all that time.

This starter was usually done by some young lady with fingertips that could break your skull with one snap of her fingers. She would massage with one hand and SMS with the other. Sometimes I could feel that she got mixed up and I got coded messages meant  for her mother. The last time I went, they added a new service –free of charge; like it or not: a vibrating machine. Placed under my back, full power, I felt my back bones break one after the other.

Broken and with no strength to resist, I was moved to the barbers chair and the cutting would start. Hair was falling -always much more than I had thought possible- and I knew I’d lost a part of me. Looking at my hair laying all around me on the floor, I found it difficult to part from it.  And believe me, I’m not that emotional. I never have a problem leaving my things behind coming from the toilet, just to proof my point.

And then, when his final judgment comes, spoken after mustering as much courage as is in him, building self confidence obviously not based on competence, a hopeful “hao ba!” (“Good -finished!”) invites me to look in the mirror and face my future. And each time I wish I hadn’t. Next time, ah, next time I might just use a sickle.

Micro Worries

“Next year I will not be in elementary school anymore!” my son exclaimed with a mix of pride and scare, one evening last week.  I don’t think he did it on purpose, but it surely hit me hard and evaporated my youthful feelings in one breath. And as if to add salt on the wound, my daughter announced she had a party, a high school party. One of those with tuxedos and gala dresses and 4 hours at the beautician shop for 2 hours dancing. But despite being suddenly reduced to an emotionally troubled and quickly aging, worried daddy that knows the horror stories all too well, I was glad to learn that no alcohol would be poured and that there would be more chaperons than students, so that’s OK. But when we saw her the next morning, or more precisely, the next day, because by the time she managed to stumble out of bed the rest of the family just finished a late lunch, the surprise came. “Who are you?” I wanted to say but of course I didn’t. Her little brother simply exclaimed, “Wow” and I wasn’t sure it was in admiration or terror. “What happened to your eyes?” “They burned it”. “Aach! They burned it?” If there was any admiration earlier, this now definitely changed to horror.  “No, they heat up your eyelashes so they curl up.” “And what about your hair …?”

As a father who sometimes worries about the inevitable –and yes I know: no use, waste of time, but what can I say?- , it can be worse. What would you think of your daughter on auction? China Daily presented it proudly. It was a public display. Ladies were lined up. All with numbers in their hands. They were on auction. No, they were not visitors to the auction; they were the items auctioned. This was not the old Roman empire of 2000 years ago or the Song Dynasty of 1000 years ago, where slaves and concubines could be bought on public markets. This is Beijing 2011 – today. Nannies for sale. Their teeth are checked, their strength tested, their smiles measured and perhaps their cup sizes too, in silence. Six of the 10 changed laoban (boss), the remaining 4, well, we will never know, the paper didn’t say.

But let me assure you: I’m not the only parent in China worrying about his kids. Chinese are worriers. You wouldn’t say it, but it is a fact. Great warriors in the past, great worriers now. And modern Chinese parents beat them all. With all those grandpas and grandmas stumbling after their one and only abusively spoiled grandchild filling in for the forever absent parents; with all the private boarding schools popping up and piling out, you may think the opposite. Not so. It’s just that Chinese parents worry from a distance while multitasking. And it’s a booming market.

Last month, an experiment started in Beijing with irremovable GPS armbands for kindergarteners. So mum and Big Brother can track them 24-7. Everyone is excited! Kids think it’s cool. Mums think it’s safe. Big Brother thinks it is a good practice to get used to. So no future Nobel Price winner will object to it when his time comes.

But the latest invention catering to these worriers is a system for video monitoring of classes so that parents can see their kid all through the day on their iPhone while lining up for the hard-to-get iPad 4G second edition. How fun! Watching your child color his paper; watching him write the Chinese character for yi (one) wrong -by now mum is making a mental note (or an iPhone note) to get her son a tutor as soon as possible; no, better still: get her son his own phone so she can SMS him if he needs help. Oh, see, he’s pinching his neighbor and throwing erasers at the teacher…How cute! Now, while playing cards or flipping through flashy fashion magazines in one of the many new Starbucks that  are popping up everywhere, mum can constantly check whether the teacher is treating her little darling appropriately, which practically means that the kid needs to be treated better than all others. One wrong move and the teacher has her phone ringing. And with a student population from anywhere between 20 to 40 in her class, that phone will be ringing nonstop. Surprise, surprise, the teachers are not happy. Already they need at least one assistant with that many spoiled brats in class, now they need one more, just to deal with all those mummies on the phone. But, it’s a real hit and more cities will soon start implementing it. That the teacher doesn’t like the idea only adds fuel to suspecting them of ill intent. What do you have to hide, teacher? For kids it is their first real tool to blackmail their teacher. Soon, we’ll be able to follow the fights on micro blog….

You see, in this progressive society where people are born with phones on their ear, constant and instant information is the key. Because for decade the traditional news providers are mouthpieces of the Party and thus per definition not really trusted, citizens and netizens turn to other means to get informed. Their new medium: micro blog.

See it as a Chinese version of Facebook. (But what do I know about Facebook, since here it is unreachable on the other side of China’s Great Cyber Wall.) With it’s millions of ‘friends’ it has caused more than one rumor to grow out to a nation-wide panic. One of those was shortly after the nuclear disaster in Japan. People started buying all the salt they could get, just in case the Japanese radiation cloud would invade China. Salt absorbs radiation, but only if taken in quantities that turn your blood vessels into pillars, but then, when has panic ever lead to good reasoning? The rumor was spread and the people full of fear. Worry. Within days, a small message that started somewhere on a Shanghai micro blog effectively spread to 600 million fellow Chinese, the other 600 must have heard it in the supermarket. We haven’t heard from this blogger again, but each week, we are updated by micro bloggers of their latest discovery of deadly habits or products and they freely provide the remedy that goes with it. And each time, it causes shortages in the stores triggering more panic and worries. The self-fulfilling prophecies of micro blog worriers. But micro blog is not only spreading news, it is also making it. And that, well, that is Beijing’s greatest worry.

Power Struggle

China is cut in two. No, not another revolution or uproar, not here, most Chinese are far too busy to think about their rights. Although there was a call for protest earlier this week via internet and the location chosen for this ‘Jasmine’ march in Beijing was very symbolic: by McDonalds. Only one visitor showed up: the US ambassador. He still claims it was just a toilet stop. Being photographed without a hamburger in his hand, what else could he say?

No, China is cut in two, but rather than ensnaring myself politically, I prefer to keep it plain and simple and talk logically; geologically; climatologically; anthropologically. You see, it’s the big Yangtze river we can blame for this. Starting high up in the Tibetan Plateau, then rushing through high cliffs on its way down to the wide delta by Shanghai. This river has caused division for centuries. Beifang and nanfang. North and south. It has blocked armies going from north to south. (Although the hordes of Genghis Khan did make it to the south but soon got homesick and rushed back to their steppes.) It has stopped the good and tasty food from the south going north. Wheat in the north; rice in the south. Large baozi (bread buns) filled with tasty, sweet meat south; tasteless steamed buns of dough called mantou in the north. Somehow the Northerners keep forgetting to fill it. Giants in the north; midgets in the south. Ruling happens in the north business in the south. Bureaucrats in the north; merchants in the south. It has always been like this. Chinese in the north find the southerners wild and uncontrolled; you can imagine what southerners think of those in the north…

The cold is in the north, and thus, many years ago, it was decided to give central heating to all cities and towns in the northern half. Rulers need to be warm. And because the government determines temperature  and timing, everyone is suffering frostbite during the first 2 cold weeks. But that seems fine with everyone since no one is heard complaining about it; “doesn’t the party know what is best for us?” It was not long ago that couples needed the party’s approval  to get married, which they often got because it was the party that had coupled them  in the first place. But what is more; go to any cold northern city after the heating is turned on and you will see people in their homes wearing only T-shirts, sweating away, often opening windows to let some of the heat out. That’s why it is called ‘city heating’.

The south never got any heating at all. We do open our windows though. Here, even with temperatures just above freezing point, windows are opened to let warmer outside air in while even inside still wearing 5 layers of clothes.

When I came to China with my family, we decided to live as our Chinese neighbors: no air-condition heating, just here and there a mobile electric or gas heater and our 5 layers. Each winter my family practically lives on 1 square meter around that small heater. We have become very close. But if we really want to warm up, we go for a ride. In the early years on our bikes, but now in the car. Nice and warm in the traffic jam. That’s where we would often see our neighbors. But most of our Chinese neighbors have long since moved along with time and are all enjoying air-condition heat in their homes and so has most of Chengdu, as long as there is power.

And I was just about to type away when the power went off. Not that this never happened before, but we haven’t experience a power-cut for quite a while in our part of town. Now, on a cold and dark day like this, they cut the power. No light, no heat, no wifi. Back to the car!

But this is nothing compared with what officials did in a small city (only 2.3 million people) up in the north of China. Because the central government had set spectacular environmental goals and a new power plant was not in operation yet, the old coal power plant was ordered to close down for the rest of this winter. It literally left 1000’s of families in the cold, but so be it. China’s history is drenched with examples where it was OK that people suffer and die if it benefits the progress of the community as a whole. Or just the progress of the leaders, for that matter. As true patriots and servants of the people, they don’t mind suffering, as long as it is done by others. This I learned, when I asked why the power was never cut in the previous complex I used to live: it so happened that we had some powerful neighbors back then. Unfortunately, they didn’t come with our new apartment. China is clearly cut in two: those with power and those without. And we, we are without…

Chunjie Rush

When I was young, my father refused to buy fireworks. I’ve never understood it and surely didn’t like it -all my friends had their pockets filled with it!- but then, it wasn’t something we talked about. Looking back, I do remember that it had to do with safety, and knowing my father’s technical skills, I understand his decision. But we were allowed to sneak out on the early morning of each New Year’s day, and that compensated fully. We would roam around the wide area and skim every street and Chinese restaurant parking lots for firecrackers leftovers. Back then, many didn’t explode and we took care of them. I can’t say this was without danger, but because we can all still clearly see our ten fingers, I treasure these memories.

And so, with a somewhat childish enthusiasm, I thought Chinese New Year would be heaven-on-earth. Count it as one of the advantages of living in China: you get to celebrate new year twice. Fireworks twice, setting new good intentions twice. As to the latter, there really isn’t enough time in between the two new-years to mess it up, so that’s encouraging.

Just like Christmas and New Year’ eve in Europe and Thanksgiving in the US, with its compulsory trips to the family and overload of presents; for the Chinese, Chunjie (Chinese New Year) is the big thing: money is spent, presents are bought, trips back to family and hometown are arranged. The great migration. For the lower and middle class, this event can cost up to 2 months income and many days of camping out at the station to secure a train ticket home. With the supermarkets and malls virtually plundered of all it has to sell and everyone left town, shops close and China practically shuts down. For most foreigners, this always comes as a surprise. We somehow miss the notifications and end up with an empty fridge and not enough heating gas. With rumbling bellies we hit the streets in search for food and warmth only to find all streets deserted except for a sweeper here-and-there. It makes you wonder; with all these millions on the move, somewhere it must be very busy.

Yearly thorough cleaning is done just days before. And trust me, it is needed: all that is done the rest of the year is sweeping. Meat is prepared and balcony washing lines are full of drying chicken, ducks, dogs and sausages. The world turns red with paper lanterns in trees, upside-down banners on doors and gates and firework litter covering streets and sidewalks. Incense candles and fake money are burned to ensure grandpa’s good afterlife. Chickens are sacrificed. Its blood, decorated with feathers, is smeared on doorposts and cars and wherever else good luck is needed. A bloody mess, but better the chicken’s blood than your own, is the idea. This tradition is slowly disappearing though, and I really hope this is due to an improvement of driving skills.

Schools  close for a full 4 weeks and kids will humbly but with untamed expectations sing to you: “Gong xi fa cai, hong bao na lai!” which means as much as “I wish you prosperity; now give me the red money bag!” The younger generation then receives a small red envelop with money from parents, older relatives and their friends, always hoping that the content is reflecting China’s economical growth. This is fun until you are married with a Chinese and have kids of your own. Then it’s gonna cost you! Especially when you lose track of all those cousins, all those whom you otherwise never see and more-often-than-not don’t really want to see, belonging to family members you only vaguely remember from previous new year ‘collections’. Without my wife carefully keeping records of our spending and our family, with a calculator in her left hand and the family-tree in her right, I would have to file for bankruptcy each year.

The Red LantarnWhat disappointed me most was that until two years ago, firework was banned in our city. For safety reason. I am sure the bureaucrat who thought of this must have had a really bad day, unless of course, he was pocketing profits from growing countryside firework sales. Thanks to him, everyone had to buy their supply of highly explosive boxes from small back-alley shops in obscure little villages and bring it into the city by themselves. Cars and old shaky tricycles were loaded with fireworks and disappeared in the traffic. Chengdu traffic; so much for safety. But now this has changed. Orange tents -the firework tents- are set up on each street corner, and often one or two extra in-between. And so we are cordoned by a dozen potential bombs just beneath our complex. Each night, deafening crackers are lit only meters away from the tents and I see the salesman happily counting his profit while lighting the next cigarette. For safety, they all have a bucket of water beside their tent. I’m not sure yet how this can help with an explosion, but at least the cigarettes can be extinguished properly.

Anyway, we are on the sixth floor… and thus thinking that we are relatively safe, we can enjoy a spectacular view of the millions of fireworks, worth even more millions of RMB, thundering and flashing above the Chengdu skyline after the final countdown on all 49 Chinese TV channels, without spending one penny.  My son begged me to buy our own firework, but I decided not to -not this year. We haven’t talked about it since, but I’m sure, one day, he will understand. The next morning, we went out early to roam the streets in search for last night’s remnants. All we found under the settling smog were deserted streets, cleaner than ever before, and here-and-there, a sweeper.

Quality Time

My wife and daughter had taken the afternoon and evening off. Recognition flights. Recognition flights for mum and daughter surveying personalities and shops, developing character and taste, and previewing which future paths to take and which latest movies to skip. I usually receive a full report upon return. From both. My wife will reflect on the topics discussed; My daughter on the items not bought. Nonetheless, a good time, not the least because they’re leaving the men to themselves.

It is during these imposed men’ s nights that my son Asher and I drive around -with Asher behind the wheel, be it on my lap; that we go for a walk in the neighborhood; that we photograph the man on his bike, the ducks hanging head-down from the tree, the small red butt sticking out the split in the baby’s trousers, or that we play chess. Later on in the evening we get our huge Chinese chopping knives out and fix our favorite dishes while sweating away in our too small kitchen. For reason no one has ever been able to explain, kitchen counters in Chengdu are very low, even for the Chinese. They keep forgetting to build drawers. I have to stand legs wide when I do the dish wash like a giraffe drinking water from a well. I convinced my wife that this is not healthy for me and we agreed to delegate the dish washing duty to our kids. The kids were for obvious reasons not in on this meeting.

It was during an orange chopping session that Asher dropped the question: “Dad, what does the F-word mean? Some kids in my class know it but I don’t…” There are those questions you know will come at some point in time, but when they come you feel desperately ill prepared. Here hidden away under the shadows of the most eastern Tibetan hills, sex, drugs and rock’n roll are still centuries away. Though HIV and drugs aren’t unknown in China, it isn’t on people’s radar as much as in The West and teenage-moms are virtually unheard of.  Kids here seem to stick to their innocence and do their homework a bit longer and are not worried about boyfriends or condoms or clean needles. I guess you can call it one of the blessings of a family-oriented society where two parents, a handful of grandparents and a busload of uncles and aunts pressure the one and only child to perform and eventually provide. Or is it the blessings of an internet policy that prevents half the ‘morally corrupting’ sites available in to be seen? Maybe it is just due to lack of catchy TV stations to watch.

But it wasn’t so much the sexual aspect of the topic that troubled me. I’ve worked enough with kids as well as parents who habitually used these words in every sentence -for as far as they were able to speak complete sentences anyway- explaining to them the origin and the meaning and the use of this abbreviation and the word. No, it wasn’t so much the meaning that troubled me as much as the time it would take to do so. As a hard working dad, I needed some personal wind-down time. So I planned an escape.

“You mean the S-word?”

“No dad, I don’t know any S-word. I mean the F-word.”

“Sure you know the S-word; you’re teacher uses that every day in class! Doesn’t she always say: ‘as soon as I say the S-word, you can start’?”

“That’s not the S-word, that’s the G-word, dad.”

“Aha, I see.”

“Yes, the G-word, and it stands for ‘go’.”

A thoughtful silence followed. I desperately needed some time to think. All I wanted was to quietly read my book. For a moment I flirted with the idea to delegate this question. “Why don’t you ask your teacher tomorrow?!” but I couldn’t. Wasn’t this our men’s night? Wasn’t this the ideal stereotype question fitting an evening as this? Still, I needed time. “I’ll shower first, we’ll discuss this later -go and play after you’re done here.”

I found him playing in the living room with his favorite cars; causing traffic jams and accidents on the Cheng Guan Kuai Kong Road. I was just about to feel relieved when he looked up to me – and I knew: the question would come again. And so over dinner that evening, father and son were talking about eggs, seeds, stems and testicles, slowly painting a simplified picture of the complexity called reproduction that even scientists have not yet fully unraveled, just because of the F-word. Before we reached the heart of the matter though, Asher had lost interest and turned to more urgent and pressing issues: how to solve his traffic jam and what chess piece to move. I suppose it had been sufficient enough for a ten year old. Just as I sat back and picked up my book, the doorbell rang; mum and daughter had returned.