Mighty Middle Kingdom

Vipassana
In Feng Shui, the door is the mouth of the home, allowing chi to be drawn inside. Red doors, very common in China, symbolise good luck and happiness.

I’ve written about the severe culture shock I experienced when I packed up my life and moved to Beijing with my husband. I hated it at first, probably because I knew so little about it; I arrived with very little knowledge and a truck load of misconceptions. Here’s some of what I learnt after three years of muddling through:

  • Culturally, China is very heterogenous. Though the majority of people, about 90%, are Han Chinese, there are about 56 different ethnicities.  A friend gave me the most beautiful book called ‘China: Portrait of a People’ by photojournalist Tom Carter, and I never tire of paging through it, enraptured by the faces.  From the Islamic Uighurs to the matriarchal Miao to the Yi and (depending on where you stand politically), the Tibetans and Taiwanese, the diversity is truly astounding.  People always talk about ‘the Chinese’ as if they’re a homogenous mass, and when I’d try imagine China before living there, I’d picture a sea of indistinguishable faces.  Such a huge misconception. What’s interesting is that my Chinese colleagues would tell me that – to them – all westerners looked the same. I guess cultural reductionism works both ways.
  • The food is mind-blowingly delicious and completely diverse – it’s certainly not all chow mein and chop suey. Different parts of the country have very different cuisines. During our time there my husband would attend elaborate Chinese banquets where he sampled delicacies like sea cucumber, jellyfish, camel’s hump, camel’s paw and live lobster shashimi.  He always said the food he liked most was the ‘peasant food’ – the wholesome simple food that ordinary Chinese people ate. The fancier the banquet and the more the hosts tried to impress, the more unpalatable the food – and I totally agree.  I still salivate thinking of hotpot in the winter, spicy sichuan fish with its tongue-numbing pepper, Xinjiang kebabs, dofu, refried beans.
  • It’s not all zen and yin and yang. I was bumped and pushed and shoved and queue jumped. I was surprised that ancient Chinese practices like feng shui and traditional Chinese medicine didn’t seem very prevalent, not on the surface anyway. I learnt this is a legacy of the Cultural Revolution, when Mao was hell-bent on eradicating all traces of traditional Chinese beliefs — he regarded them as backward and a threat to progress.  If you look hard enough, you can find corners of peace and tranquility and the quaint China you imagine, but on the face of it it’s noisy and in your face and dog-eat-dog.  In competing with a billion other people in the race to modernise, I get why it’s like this; still –  I always took it as a personal affront when someone pushed in front of me or into me.
  • The incredible ethnic diversity has resulted in different dialects – linguists say somewhere between 7 and 14. Most expats tackling Chinese are not brave enough to learn Chinese characters, and opt for pinyin instead.  Pinyin is the romanisation of Chinese characters, using punctuation to denote the tones. And tones are very important. The example always given to beginners is that of ma – which, depending on which tone you use (first tone maaa or fourth tone mah), can mean either ‘mother’ or ‘horse’ (a faux pas waiting to happen basically).
  • The government may have loosed its grip somewhat, but when we lived there censorship was alive and well. Our first experience of it was while watching BBC – a segment on China had just begun when the TV screen went blank. Social media sites are blocked and unblocked randomly and don’t even try and google Tiananmen Square or Tibet. I once managed to find a copy of National Geographic from a tucked away kiosk in a mall that stocked foreign language magazines (English magazines were always a treat!). It was the run up to the Olympics so China was getting lots of coverage. Inside was an article on China and every reference to Tiananmen had been manually crossed out with a black marker pen. The diligence of the censorship police seemed to know no bounds. The few times I did try engage my colleagues on the leadership of the country I was met with blank stares and stony silences.
  • The geographical diversity is huge. China has mountains, rivers, lakes, plateaus, karsts, snow and sunshine. It’s like a dozen countries in one, though with just one time zone! The winters in the north are subarctic and the summers in the south are tropical. A vivid Beijing memory is of streets jam-packed with bodies wearing full-length padded jackets, not unlike duvets. With temperatures of -10 not uncommon, warmth definitely trumps fashion. A trip to see the famous Snow and Ice Festival in Harbin (a town in the very north of China, close to Russia) was a highlight, admiring the giant ice sculptures, in below thirty temperatures, with frozen nostril hairs and layer upon layer of thermal wear.
  • The Great Wall, I was surprised to learn, is not one long wall but rather a series of connecting walls built over centuries and – contrary to local belief – I don’t think you can see if from outer space.  It’s a truly spectacular sight though and if you’re ever in that part of the world, try and do a weekend trip with William Lindesay.  He’s a Great Wall researcher whose claim to fame is being the first foreigner to walk the entire length of the wall.  His knowledge is incredible and he’ll take you to some remote sections of the wall miles away from the crowds. www.wildwall.com

 

There it is, my version of China for Dummies. Years ago, I remember reading in the Lonely Planet that India is a complete assault on the senses and I found that to be true. I also found the same to be true of China. It’s hard to be indifferent about it – you love it, then hate it, then both at the same time. It’s just completely impossible to ignore.

(*This post was written years ago. Even though we’re now happily ensconced in the suburbs of Cape Town, putting down some roots, sometimes, in and amongst all the domesticity, I still get an itch, to pack it all up, move somewhere new and be presented with that wonderfully exciting clean slate. For now, the closest I’ll get to that are flashbacks to our expat days).

The morality of meat

I still chuckle when I think of my husband watching me tuck into a rack of ribs and remark, not unkindly, ‘Oh, how the mighty have fallen’. Heavily pregnant, I’d finally, and wholeheartedly, succumbed to the meat cravings I’d been having for the past decade.

I was a smug vegetarian, I think  because I was conflicted about it. I believed (still do) vegetarianism to be an admirable (and increasingly necessary) choice, but eating meat made – still makes – me feel good. My ideals and my desires – couldn’t marry the two.

Some of the greatest thinkers of our time, men of science and of religion, rejected meat, usually on moral grounds. This inherent morality –  where you can point to peoples’ compassion, or lack thereof, makes the flesh eating debate tricky territory to navigate as it invites judgement; it leaves space for right and wrong, kind and cruel, virtuous and evil. How can you be an evolved soul and still eat animals? Or be privy to how animals are farmed and not take a stance?

Even if you manage to manoeuvre your way round the cruelty, by just not thinking about it, as most of us do, our meat consumption is seriously bad news for the planet — something that’s harder to ignore with environmental issues so high on the agenda.

Those who’d espouse a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle have a powerful case. To skim the list of reasons to ditch meat:

  • Factory farming is pretty grim: cruelly confined spaces, growth hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, artificial fattening of animals, the heartbreaking mother-calf separation hours after birth.
  • Meat farming gobbles up resources. It’s estimated about 30% of our  (ice-free) land is now used for meat production. Huge swathes of rainforest are being cleared to make space for livestock farming.
  • The cows themselves are huge polluters, releasing toxic methane into the environment.
  • One stat from Cowspiracy that’ll scream out at you: it takes more than 2000 litres of water to make one hamburger. I still can’t wrap my head around that stat; it’s so grossly disproportionate it almost defies belief.

My kids are complete carnivores, so it’ll be a while before we embrace vegetarianism. But it is time to cut back – way, way back. Abstinence didn’t work for me, I’d cave then beat myself up about it, so I’m trying a different approach. To flip things around so that meat is an occasional treat rather than a staple. And to be more mindful about where and what meat we buy – though just thinking about that minefield gives me a slight headache. Free range, organic, pasture fed, ethically sourced – what does it all mean, really?

Part of weaning off meat is having accessible, tasty vegetarian recipes up your sleeve. Check back soon for some of our favourites that can be made in a jiffy with minimal ingredients. Meantime the hunt for slightly more sophisticated, hearty vegetarian recipes continues; I know they’re out there. Anyone got great recipes to share?

Famous vegetarians
-Einstein
-Pythagoras
-Plutarch
-Leonardo da Vinci
-Leo Tolstoy
-Gandhi
-Charles Darwin
-Voltaire*
-Jane Goodall
-Pamela Anderson
-Natalie Portman
-Paul and Linda McCartney
-Steve Jobs
Mike Tyson
Bill Clinton
Hitler**

*(Gender skew. The patriarchy was strong in the time of our early thinkers).

**The Nazis apparently introduced animal protection rights that still exist today; the fine for hurting an animal was two years. If that’s not a study in the complexity of morality and the human psyche.

buddha quoterwe quote

einstein quote

Babylonstoren

The first time I visited Babylonstoren, two years ago, I was blown away. Having just gone back, with a newfound passion for growing food — oh.my.word. My husband said he could hear my ovaries singing.

All those beautiful strong plants, that soil teeming with microlife, the nooks and crannies amongst the giant sunflowers, prickly pear forests and quince trees. And the blue and white tiled decor. Maybe that’s where its magic lies. It stirs both the grower and the aesthete in you.

The Dude can’t abide

The detrimental impact of single-use plastic on our oceans seems to be gaining currency in the media — or maybe it’s been there a while and I haven’t been paying enough attention. The statistic that there’ll be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050 is still ringing in my ears.

If you’re mobilised into action by stats here are some to horrify you:
— This Guardian article on plastic in our foodchain
— This newly released documentary – A Plastic Planet
— The 5 Gyres Institute. The numbers are alarming – but thankfully balanced out with tons of tips on ways to take action and stem the tide (see ‘Take Action’).

If reading stats makes you glaze over, perhaps The Dude can convince you to start weaning off single-use plastics in this video on behalf of the Plastic Pollution Coalition.

Confronting the issue head-on can be overwhelming so we’re tackling it in increments. We’ve ditched the plastic bags and bottles, and next on our hit list — straws. An endeavour that will, I’m sure, like much of our sustainability journey, happen in fits and starts. Still.

live in the sunshine
swim in the sea
drink the wild air
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

Our patch – an update

We’re forging ahead with our veggie garden despite the relentless heat. In retrospect, planting during a drought may have been unwise – but the seasons are turning; the days are crisper and there are traces of dew in the mornings. And, most crucially, our well point is up and running.

garden-helpers
My helpers hard at work prepping the soil with a nice thick layer of compost.

We’ve started small, sticking to veggies that were already in the patch or that we’ve had luck with before. Though today, on a whim, I snuck past the nursery and couldn’t resist picking up borage and echinacea.

Borage, much-loved by experienced gardeners, is said to have all kinds of benefits – it adds trace minerals to the soil, self seeds, is edible (one has to wonder how edible with those prickly leaves), and is a magnet for bees and other pollinators. So I’m giving it a whirl. Echinacea – who can resist those gorgeous flowers?

garden1
After removing the trampoline, we left the tomato plant, pomegranate bush and lemon tree where they were; they seemed happy. The chilli bush in the box on the right was grown from seed by my husband – it has not loved the transplant. You’ll spot rocket, kale and lettuce seedlings and our granadilla plant leaning against the wall on the left (begging for a trellis). And a pop of pink in the corner.
fig
Planting this fig tree was a big moment in my life. Love everything about them and have longed for one in my garden. Now just need to learn how to grow them! Tips anyone?
green-pepper
Raw green peppers are one of the few veggies my boys eat so had to include these. And kale for us!

Gardening is an active participation in the deepest mysteries of the universe.
– Thomas Berry

Girl crush

I’m totally crushing on two powerhouses of the zero waste movement. Gorgeous beyond, twenty-something New Yorker Lauren Singer is the brainchild behind Trash is for Tossers. Uber stylish Bea Johnson of Zero Waste Home is often dubbed the founder of the zero waste movement. She’s been living waste free with her family in LA since 2008.

Beyond the ridiculous amounts of cool they exude is a powerful message – our planet is in trouble and there is a whole lot we can do about it. Bea Johnson uses beetroot juice as lipstick. She’s that extreme. And while many of us are stuck on the 3R’s she’s expanded hers to 5 – Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot.  On the sites of these two zero wasters you’ll find images of their years worth of waste in a single glass jar (that’s as much waste as I come back with after a kids birthday party!).

Much of what they (and other zero wasters for that matter) do and propose seems, at this juncture in my life, unattainable. But it’s good to have role models right? Every now and then, scrolling through their feeds, something sticks and small tweaks are made.

*Bea Johnson might be touring South Africa in May! Watch this space!

Mindful Monday

VipassanaEvery so often you come across a blog that is so compelling it sucks you right in. This happened when I stumbled upon Raptitude; I wanted to devour every post. I love how the writer, David Cain, slices through the bunk and unearths so much of what lies hidden in our conditioned minds.

A few days after writing my first Newsletter – a mindfulness themed one –  the latest Raptitude post landed in my inbox titled ‘Why Mindfulness Seems Annoying’. It made me squirm in my seat just a little, even though the writer is himself a proponent of mindfulness and meditation (though he suggests doing it in manageable chunks).

His post did lead me to another brilliant article on mindfulness – by someone clearly not a proponent. Though cynical, it was a hilarious and refreshing piece which made me think of this meme (it gets me every time):

Never in the history of calming down has anyone ever calmed down by being told to calm down.

Mindfulness might be pop culture woo woo, but I’m sticking with it. As a compulsive thinker, slowing down for just a few seconds (literally), to catch my breath and surrender to what is has been wonderfully soothing.