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).

Airpocalypse

A decade ago, footloose and fancy free, I followed my husband on a posting to Beijing. I figured that as a well-travelled anthropologist, adjusting would be a doddle. Turns out I was woefully underprepared and suffered a severe case of culture shock. I was a terrible China basher and couldn’t understand the love Sinophiles had for the country. To me, it was dusty, barren, ugly, unforgiving, brutal and incomprehensible.

Beijing is one of the world’s megacities and boy do you feel it — the heaving mass of people, the congested highways, the asphalt, the skyline crammed with cranes, the retail mania. And worst of all, the pollution. We arrived in this insane city in the run-up to the Olympics. Construction was in overdrive, choking the already filthy air with dust particles, making it difficult to breathe.

When we lived there I seldom bothered to check the pollution index –  just by looking out the window I’d know it was through the roof. Breathing the air was so toxic, many of the international schools had sealed outdoor domes where kids could play sport. And those face masks that people wear? Apparently useless at keeping out the really nasty particles.

Pollution - mini rant
A daily ritual in Beijing. Pull back the curtains and suss out the air quality. This is a bad, though far too common day
Pollution - mini rant
A good day
Pollution - mini rant
A (very rare) pristine day

It all felt very post-apocalyptic. I’ve never felt the disconnect between man and nature as much as when I lived in Beijing. Everything felt artificial, even the rain – which, sometimes, it was. After particularly dry spells, the government would shoot chemicals into the sky to make it rain – it’s called cloud seeding and it’s a thing.

During international conferences (when foreigners would stream in) factories would be shut down and the change in the environment would be almost immediate – you’d see the bluest skies, and actual clouds. The international delegates would leave, the factories would power up, and you’d be enveloped in a soupy smog within a day. It was super depressing – and very disconcerting how governments play God with the weather.

Living under perpetually leaden skies was by far the toughest part of our China stint. Tougher than the culture shock and the language barrier. I was in a slightly more forgiving space by the time we left, having made many wonderful friends and learnt so much. Bereft of any natural beauty, I was forced to seek it out elsewhere – to scratch below the surface and uncover some of the idiosyncracies of life in the Middle Kingdom. And, although I didn’t need much convincing, Beijing reminded me of the rare beauty of home. In Cape Town we’re blessed with the most exquisite blue skies almost daily. You do notice a yellow band of pollution when the Cape Doctor stops blowing and air gets trapped by the mountains. But everything being relative, I still like to gulp it in.