Archive for November, 2010


Islands of Familiarity

What do you do at a coffee shop? is a question posed in a blog by “Fighting Reality“. My answer is that we sneak in there to catch a glimpse of a life outside of China. For us, coffee shops have become familiar islands in the sea of foreign culture that surrounds us on a daily basis.

There’s still something surreal about finding oneself in Starbucks in the heart of communist China, but these are spaces that beckon us when we need a more Western moment. In 2003, the Starbucks in the heart of the Forbidden City, Beijing, looked and felt totally out of place, but we forgave the commercial motives that had placed it there because to us it was a haven in the bitter cold of a winter morning.

Don’t get me wrong, the Starbucks (and other) coffee shops across China are still very Chinese: the characters on the menus, the food, some of the flavour combinations and of course the faces of both the attendants and our fellow customers are all definitely Chinese. But there is just enough of a cosmopolitan edge for us to identify with so that for once we are not mere interlopers. We share a common heritage – Starbucks and the culture of drinking coffee and hot chocolate, like ourselves, was also born outside the borders of China and has been transplanted into this nation.

Before we embark on our bi-monthly grocery shopping (Chinese-style) experience at Carrefour, we often fortify ourselves with a morale boosting mug of coffee/chocolate and a (so very not Chinese) sandwich or wrap at either Starbucks or Costa Coffee. This reminder of our Western roots helps to supplement the energy we feel that is needed to tackle the demanding exploits of grocery shopping in a (semi-) Chinese supermarket.

The Shire Hobbiton Coffee ShopThe cosy coffee-shop culture vibe is slightly at odds with the more traditional concept of large restaurants and tea houses, but as you dig below the surface of Chinese society, you discover that there are many other places in Shanghai and other cities across China where a Westerner can find a similar sense of “home”; sometimes in the strangest and most incongruous of places. When we came across the Shire Hobbiton Coffee Shop in Guilin, we could identify 100% with Frodo when he returned to the Shire after his travel adventures sorting out the Ring.

It was like coming home.


Trauma at the Hair Salon

I used to look forward to going to the hair salon – it was “me”-time, a time to sit back and relax and be pampered for a few hours. However since moving to Shanghai, I dread getting my hair done nearly as much as I hate going to the dentist (and I really hate visiting the dentist.)

It is always hard finding a new hairdresser when you move to a different city, but even more so in a foreign context. Going to the hair salon (理发 lǐfà) is a national pastime in China: whether for a haircut, a blow dry, or even just a hair-washing experience, so it shouldn’t have been difficult for me to find somewhere to have my hair coloured and cut – there are at least two salons on most street blocks. However, part of my hesitation in venturing off on my own to find a suitable stylist is that some of the hair salons here are fronts for much “shadier” activities than hairdressing.

I put off having my haircut for a few months when we first arrived here, but eventually asked my language teacher to recommend a hair stylist. She kindly introduced me to the guy who cuts her hair and came with me the first time help me to explain exactly how I wanted my hair cut and coloured. She even wangled a 30% discount for me because I am her student. And then she departed and left me on my own, but not before she slyly told the stylist that it would be good for him to engage me in conversation so that he could help me to practice my Mandarin.

The next 2 ½ hours of my life proceeded to become some of the longest, most stressful hours I have ever experienced.

Not only did I struggle to understand the stylist’s Guangzhou accent, but his quiet and soft-spoken tones were in direct competition with the loud salon music and the general chit-chat of other customers and staff. I bravely battled through the general “starter” conversation questions that I was interrogated with: “how many people in your family”; “are you married?”; “do you have children?”; “what do you do?”; “how long have you been in Shanghai?”; “do you like Chinese food?”; and after that….well, I don’t think we got any further, and if we did, I can’t remember.

I went into brain-freeze mode, where my vocabulary, so carefully prepared and practiced beforehand, just refused to travel from my brain to my mouth. Or maybe it never even got out of my brain. I stammered and stuttered like a 4-year old trying to hold a conversation with a PhD graduate (except that a 4-year old would not have had a fraction of the self-consciousness that I was experiencing.) I mashed up the tones – a key component of speaking Mandarin; my grammar went AWOL; I could barely string three words together and when I did, they were in the wrong order. The longer I sat there, the worse it became: feelings of inadequacy threatened to overwhelm me. Humiliation was total. I had been studying the language off and on for the past few years and the stylist (and everyone else in the salon) must have thought I had the intelligence and speaking level of a village idiot with a close-to-zero IQ. And the worst of it all was that I could not escape – I was pinned to the chair while my hair colouring was still in progress.

I listened desperately with intense concentration until I could decipher a word that I recognised – or thought that I recognised – and then I pounced on it and with a false and pretended confidence tried to put together a sentence around that topic based on any vocab that I could retrieve from my reticent and uncooperative brain. Whether or not it answered the question that he had asked was no longer the issue, I just had to do more than smile and nod – which took up a large proportion of the painfully long time. There was also a limit to the number of times I could resort to 我听不懂 wǒ tīng bú dǒng (the over-used phrase churned out by expats when they “can hear but not understand”.

The haircut was fine, the colour was fine, but I left the salon exhausted, with a splitting headache and totally traumatised.

P.S. I went back to the same salon once more to try to redeem my reputation (and that of my language teacher) but this time I took a book with me that so that I could dissuade anyone from trying to talk to me. After this episode (although it was marginally less painful), the coward in me opted out and decided to find a new hair stylist. The excuse I’ve told myself is that I needed to find one closer to home, but in reality I felt that I had already sunk too low to re-establish any self-respect at the first salon, so the only option would be to go to a different hair salon and try to start again with a clean slate where no one knows me.

P.P.S. I still dread 理发 lǐfà, but hopefully my communication skills have progressed a few degrees beyond the level of a 4-year old.

P.P.P.S. OK – I confess – my next haircut is now overdue by 2 months…Maybe I’ll go next week….


Playing in the traffic

A pedestrian crossing a busy street in Shanghai reminds me of the challenges that Frogger had to face. Frogger was an old computer game where a brave and intrepid frog had to cross a 6 lane motorway dodging trucks and buses and cars to get to his destination: the river. Once he arrived at the river bank he had to hop from log to log catching flies and insects to give him sustenance for his next mission, but before he could reach the river he had to stay alive while bravely negotiating the multi-lane highway.

The idea of the game is simple, help Frogger reach the other side of the road….ALIVE. First of all you have to dodge the cars/trucks/vans zooming past on the busy highway. Then try avoid being splattered by the cyclists and last but not least, jump on to the moving logs, then on to the boats and safely into the bushes on the other side.And to make things even harder you have to do all this before the time expires.

The cars, buses and trucks in China drive on the right hand side of the road. The motorcycles, electric bikes and bicycles also drive/ride on the right, unless they are on the pavement or taking a shortcut on the left hand side of the road or in any direction across a pedestrian crossing. Right turns are “free”, i.e. a driver can turn right even when the traffic light is red, unless there is a red arrow, in which case, they need to wait. In most instances the left turning lane is the far left lane, but sometimes it is the middle lane or even the right-hand lane, in which case the free right turns are made from the middle lane. U-turns are allowed at specific places or wherever is convenient regardless of the inconvenience to others.

Pedestrian crossings at major intersections are co-ordinated by “red and green men” traffic lights and men and women wearing brown or blue uniforms. Brown = pedestrian traffic controller; blue = more important traffic policemen who pay more attention to the vehicles than the people. Both have whistles and both rule their turf very strongly. If you step off the curb before the “green man” traffic light appears – you will be strongly reprimanded, usually by a brown-uniformed pedestrian controller.

“Green man” traffic light means that pedestrians are to proceed (at their own risk): look left to avoid the drivers coming up on your left to take advantage of their “free” right turn, and look left to watch out for those from the oncoming traffic that are also turning right in front of you. Caution, without hesitation, confidence, boldness, and a degree of attitude are required skills, together with a chameleon’s ability to swivel its eyes in different directions at once.

The most important rule – as far as we can understand it – is that the one who gets their first has the right of way – once you understand that, the system works….most of the time. When there are accidents, and we have seen a few and been passengers in taxis that have been involved in some minor bumper bashings, the one who is most guilty tends to protest his/her innocence the loudest. If it is a serious accident, everyone waits for the police and/or ambulance exactly where they are in the middle of the road as the rest of Shanghai manoeuvres around them. If the accident is less serious, after many gestures and vehement protestations of innocence, the acknowledged guilty party reluctantly hands over some cash to deal placate the victim and everyone proceeds on their way.

Anyone want to play in the traffic?


The “morning” people

One of my favourite times of the day in Shanghai is in the early morning. The streets are quiet (relatively speaking!), and on a clear day the rising sun peeks through the buildings bringing a rosy glow to the city. In the months of autumn and spring there is a freshness in the air, a sense of lightness.  Out in the gardens and parks and the streets, the “morning” people are awake and active.

In the narrow streets, the city has already woken up – the members of various households spill out into the streets – cleaning, washing, cooking – the smell of breakfast snacks fills the air. Small stalls and shops are opening up to attract the early morning trade.

The parks are filled with elderly men and women engaging in various forms of exercise – walking, practising tai chi, playing badminton, ballroom dancing. A few people are walking backwards (an acceptable alternative form of exercise), clapping hands and patting the bark of tree trunks (to get the circulation going). There are men sitting on small stools playing cards or mahjong, or just drinking tea and passing the time of day. Hanging in trees are cages containing small song birds that have been  brought to the park to get some fresh air. There are a few joggers, most of them are of the younger generation.

In the gardens of the apartment complex in which we live, we have a few different “morning” people: there are moms with babies in prams – sometimes accompanied by doting grandmothers and grandfathers. Toddlers ride little tricycles and plastic motorbikes – getting in early practice for participating in the traffic in future years. Then there are the “walkers” – who set a brisk pace as they do circuits along the path between the buildings – usually two women and a man, but of late, they seem have cajoled a few others into joining them. Dog-owners are pulled along on leashes by various versions of poodles, terriers, Labradors, and pavement specials. There used to be a group of tai chi practitioners, but as winter draws closer, the group has dwindled to a single elderly lady who moves and glides in stillness. Gardeners are weeding the flower beds, sweeping up the increasing number of leaves out of the pond and walkways.

Today we are not just two foreigners who jog past and wave and smile in mutual greeting and recognition; today we belong to the community of “morning” people”…


Mahjong on a train to Xi’an

A few years ago we caught an overnight train from Beijing to Xi’an, the home of the Terracotta Warriors. We shared a compartment with two Chinese men, probably in their 50’s. I had bought a small mahjong (májiàng, 麻将)  set in one of the markets – more ornamental than practical, but when I took it out to see whether it had any English instructions – which it did – the two guys got seriously animated and set about teaching us how to play! They had zero English and my Mandarin wasn’t very good at that stage and I’m not sure I would have been able to work out their dialects or accents anyway. But language was no barrier as the 4 of us huddled over this set of tiny tiles at the minute table in the train compartment. So with loud and enthusiastic shouts of (鸡) and chī (吃), we spent a memorable couple of hours. Luckily they did not insist on adding money into the process, because I don’t think we would have come away unscathed… At one stage they seemed to become frustrated that we weren’t grasping the intricacies of the game quickly enough so they subtly took over our tiles as well and played on our behalf against themselves!

As the evening progressed, the news spread throughout the train about the lǎowài playing mahjong and we soon had a crowd of interested observers hanging through the compartment doors and windows. Eventually in the early hours of the morning after trying unsuccessfully to hint that we wanted to get some sleep, I had to start packing the tiles away in order to get all the spectators out of our compartment. Every time I look at the mahjong set in our display cabinet it makes me smile to think of this unique train experience – it is definitely one of our treasured China memories.


Please leave your shoes at the door

A row of neatly paired shoes forms a common sight at the entrance to most, if not all, Chinese homes: outdoors, functional shoes for everyday street wear line up side-by-side with slippers and comfortable house shoes for wearing indoors. There’s a very practical reason for this custom – when walking outside along the streets, your shoes get dirty and pick up all sorts of rubbish and filth, and when you enter a home, you don’t want to carry that dirt into the living space.  Tradesmen and temporary visitors often pull on small plastic “socks” to cover their shoes as they enter the house – these are then thrown away when they leave; but more permanent guests are invited to remove their shoes and to pull on a pair of slippers – it is an invitation for them to feel at home, to be comfortable, to be welcomed into someone’s “inside” space.

For me this was an easy custom to adopt. I grew up in Africa: in summer, walking barefoot both indoors and out; and in winter, kicking off boots and sneakers as soon as I got home to wander about in shoe-less, stockinged feet. In retrospect, it is surprising that we didn’t all take our shoes off when coming home – it would have made so much sense not tramp all that dirt into our carpets. It is amusing to watch some of our overseas guests arrive at our apartment; see the line-up of shoes and look puzzled – what am I supposed to do now? Do I need to take my shoes off too? There’s a certain vulnerability about removing that small level of security that the common shoe brings to one’s socked (and possibly smelly!) feet. There are often signs of an internal struggle – I want to to what is expected of me as a visitor in this home, but it doesn’t really fit into my frame of reference, so do I really have to do it? Sometimes there is no deliberation – they either do not see or choose not the see the parade of shoes and bring in whatever bits of the outside world has clung to the soles of their shoes.

In so many ways, when we step into another culture, it would be wise to leave our preconceived ideas and stereotypes at the door, and learn to put on the customs and practices of our hosts; slipping into their way of thinking, and their ways of doing things. When we march in with our perceptions and set of standards and values about what should and should not be, we bring the worst of our own culture into a jarring clash with the culture of our hosts. It is so easy to become critical when we feel insecure and out of our comfort zones – the loneliness and isolation and feelings of inadequacy when we can’t communicate in another language drive us into making unfair comparisons. When we don’t understand this strange environment that we find ourselves in, the natural tendency is to be condescending, to find fault. It says so much more about who we are, than it does about where we have found ourselves.

I’m not saying that any culture is without flaws or complexities, or that we should give up our identities as soon as we move into a foreign place, but if we cannot release some of the perceptions and thinking patterns that we have “brought in from outside”, we are unlikely to ever feel at home and at peace in this new and strange space. It will be like marching though the house in boots and high-heels, scratching polished surfaces and leaving clumps of dirt and grime along the way. We need to find the customs and ways that we can work with and adapt to and use those as a base for becoming immersed in our new culture. It might be the scenery, the food, the friends we make, something, anything, that we can make our own. Once we have taken a step towards “putting on the slippers of our new culture”, we have started the process of making it our home. It’s unlikely to be a totally smooth transition, but it can be done, and I guess it all depends on our attitude (as with most things in life!) and how we deal with the bumps along the way.

So – welcome, come inside, relax, make yourself at home, but please leave your shoes at the door!

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November 2010
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