Archive for the ‘Life in China’ Category

Head over heels for luck

Monday, January 31st, 2011

It’s the time of the year again. While back at home people struggle to get past the dreadfully long weeks to Easter and Springtime, the Chinese are as excited as can be: It’s time for their New Year!

And again it’s a wild mix of left-over Christmas trees, Santa Claus posters and blinking light strings, mixed with never-ending fireworks and the visible symbols of the changing of the lunar year.

The hanging fish, Chinese knots, “bowing couple” hangers and pictures are ever-present. Not going into the details of those, today we want to focus on another interesting and very Chinese symbol, the “福”, or “Fu dao” as it is called.

The character Fu means luck, which in the Western mind would be good enough to put onto a piece of cardboard and hang up onto a wall. A glass of sparkling stuff and off we go with the holiday feeling!

Mister Li and his gang though have another level of cleverness.
When you look at the picture you might notice a slight difference to the character I wrote down earlier-yes, indeed, the sign is hanging upside down!
‘Well, Mister Li must have had one or two bottles of Baijiu’ when decorating the house you may think. But no-this is actually done on purpose and there’s some quite interesting thinking behind it.

This is where “Dao” comes into play. It means upside down, and so it very accurately describes our little sign. But as another character with the same pronunciation, it also means ‘arrive’.
So, the headstanding lucky symbol “Fu dao” means “may luck arrive here”!

Let’s just hope it works. I’m sure somebody forgot to put a Fu Dao sign onto the Mandarin Oriental hotel two years ago. And subsequently it burned down and became the BBQ building of the city.
Although, it would certainly deserve a bit of luck these days with its ripped-apart look, now that they have started to really work on it. Noone knows yet what the refurbished building will look like, but here’s a proposal: just build it the same way as before, only upside down. That should do for a prosper future.

Hoppy bunny year everyone!

Long line to relaxation

Monday, July 26th, 2010

It is a bit spooky: lined up in long winding curves, small flickering lights are hanging over Beijing.

UFOs? Frozen shooting stars? Morse lightning? When you’re one or two blocks away from it, and you haven’t run into this before – you might not be able to find an explanation for it until you get closer.

Eventually though you will be standing in front of a square, usually a larger one, to which those light columns seem to be coming down on. And then you suddenly realize: Mister Li is having his leashed-up night beer.

When taking the time to sit down with him, something very rare and interesting happens: you relax.

At first the mind tries to confront the situation with logic: What on Earth is a grown-up man doing at this time of the night (9 p.m.) on the street, fiddling with kids’ toys?

And then you witness Mister Li clipping small LEDs onto the rope. And in a very skilled manner he places them almost exactly at even distance. Very seldom only does he have to get up. And then it’s usually not because he needs to correct the trajectory of his kite, but rather because he needs to help young aspirants master the first few meters into the air. And that, as it becomes apparent soon, needs quite a bit of practice.

Two hours later the total kite count above Beijing is substantially larger. It’s a windy night and Mister Li and his line-gang are well prepared. With their professional-looking reels they appear more like open sea fishermen than guys with toys.

Those very smooth-running wheels have nothing in common with the rope-around-a-piece-of-cardboard memories of Western childhoods. By the way – the line itself doesn’t either: An ultra thin, remarkably tough synthetic fibre piece which weighs almost nothing. This allows the kite to go up into the air much higher than it would be allowed in London or Berlin. But Beijing has no helicopters and therefore it’s no problem to fly a kite a few hundred meters above ground.

Being asked for the reason of sitting here, Mister Li says that this kind of evening requires kiting. A dragon night so-to-speak. And then he nods very meaningfully. Without context this sounds a little strange.

What Mister Li wants to say, is that you can play Xiang Qi (a Chinese form of chess) at any given evening. But when it has wind and it’s warm and – on top of it – a night without much smog, you just have to to go and fly a kite! How shameful to let an opportunity like this pass by.

As I gather my things to return home, Mister Li is still comfy on his folding chair, directing the kite traffic with his mates as if there were no tomorrow.

For the same time I was sitting next to him, I could have watched a movie at home on the couch. But somehow you’re not half as relaxed after a Hollywood flick as you are after flying kites with Mister Li. And it’s not the Chinese beer that’s responsible for this. Rather, it’s the down-to-earth and calm atmosphere. Sometimes even in Li country less is more

The order of things

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

A is before B. And U before me. Cz is pronounced “tsh”, but you’ll still find it under C.

The alphabet is great. Not only does it allow us the verbal and written communication – it also gives us the possibility to create completely new word-creations.
However, one talent of the alphabet is completely under-rated until you arrive on the other side of this planet: it’s ability to bring order.

Whether it’s sorting the file cabinet, the CD- or the book shelf – lot’s of people would have a hard time without that alphabet. It eases the checking of the attendance list in class and provides for a clear structure in the mobile phone’s address book.

Want to sort according to the first or the last name? One click and you know where to look for – and find – your friend’s numbers.

But what if you’re not about to sort Tamara and Aaron into some list, but need to deal with 静 and 建国? (let’s ignore for the moment that in China you wouldn’t sort by the first name, but rather by the last name – well, if we can call it “last name” anyway)

Looking for answers we firstly run into the usual Chinese traps: one asks a direct question like, let’s say: “how do you sort things in China?” and wakes up about an hour later, being stuck in an exhausting and hot tempered discussion. A discussion without any foreseeable end or a definite answer.

Still, I’ll give it a try to summarize it from a European point of view:

Luckily, the old times (about 50 years or so ago) are over. Back then pretty much anyone had their own way of sorting. And you don’t want to try and put logic to that. Nowadays two main systems have survived: sorting by pronunciation and by the number of line strokes.

The former is easy to understand: 静 will be sorted under J, because it’s pronounced “Jing”. 建国 will also be found under J, because he he will hear his name being called “Jian Guo”. Unfortunately though, my research was not able to uncover whether Jian Guo would be sorted IN FRONT of Jing, just like we would do it according to our alphabetical understanding. You never know – after the first letter everything could be Chinese-like chaotic…
By the way – most computer systems also sort files this way and therefore, surprisingly, they follow the alphabet. At least phonetically. Except when they don’t, which also happens sometimes. And you guessed it – nobody knows why that is.

Stacking variation #2 refers to the line-count of the Chinese characters. By this system we will find 静 under 14 and 建国 under 8. From a European point of view this is quite weird. Chinese, however, are used to the proximity of letters and numbers. It’s how they look up unknown characters in the dictionary.

China developed a counting system, because of the fact that naturally nobody is able to pronounce a character they have never seen before in their life: So they count the line strokes in the main part of the character (somehow Mister Li and his bunch are able to determine this). And with this information they quite quickly can find the character in the dictionary, which has a look-up table for this purpose. That’s quite a handy thing.

Only our structure-loving Mister Meyer is wondering about two different systems existing in parallel: “But that would mean having to always first check which kind of system is used!” Exactly, Mister Meyer, you got it! And Mister Li casually adds “….so?” and keeps chewing his chicken foot.

If your last name is “Li”, order and regulation are not exactly the main purpose of life. And it doesn’t matter either, people still survive. Our bureaucratic Mister Meyer on the other hand is still startled and orders another beer.
By the way: just like in the West, beer in China is sorted into the belly. Ah, we’re not so different after all. Ganbei!

Main dish on the side

Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

“Ok, so we’d like the fried something-fish, those spicy little chicken pieces in the basket, the green beans with tiny minced meat, those pinkygreen cold cucumber slices and the pork with green pepper strips. Honey, what was it that you wanted?”

Mister Meyer raises his head from the menu. His wife however is terribly busy talking with Miss Johnson about the pros and cons of buying fake handbags. “Oh, right”, he remembers, ” we definitely need this potato mountain. You know, the dwarfy fries if you will. Those are just to die for”.

The waiter, a distant brother-in-lawish cousin of second degree to Mister Li’s aunt in the mother side of the family, is duly noting down the order and then returns to look at Mister Meyer with great attention. Mister Meyer, being done with his order, just sits there and looks back at him, not showing any signs of adding something. The waiter is obviously confused. But the reply he gives not only confuses Mister Meyer. It has the same effect on Mister Johnson and would even confuse the ladies, if only they were less busy with their topic.

“And for main course”?

Mister Meyer is slightly helpless. Well aware that an uncomfortable pause is beginning to build up, he quickly tries to find a solution for a problem he doesn’t even understand.

“Ehm, well, so we’d also like the lamb with coriander.” It almost rather sounded like a question than another order. As Mister Meyer looks at the waiter again, his confusion is quite tangible. How many dishes would he need to order until it’s acknowledged as a valid meal?

The waiter on the other hand is just as helpless. But he eventually heads off to the kitchen. Another one of these weird foreigner orders…

Here we were able to witness a scene which every day takes place in this country in one way or the other. Our culinary quartet from the West will shake their heads upon leaving the restaurant. They don’t understand why in China people need to order so many main dishes that it’s impossible to finish the plates. The clearing waiter on the other hand is also shaking his head. And it’s because of the foreigners who always order so many side dishes while forgetting so many other important parts of a meal.

The yummy tummy reader probably guessed it: once again everything is different in Li country.

In the West we have gotten used to a very clear food order: Steak with fries, chicken with rice, lamb with sauteed veggies, red snapper with salat on the side. Neatly following formular t as in tasty we call the dish by the meat part and treat the herbal part as secondary level. It’s on the side any way and therefore not too important. But noone cares too much about this, because at the end of the day, in the West we are served a pre-arranged meal all on one plate for a single person.

You may order a starter prior to the main course and that could be anything: hot, cold, meaty or veggie. Being a starter, it has no further description like, let’s say, side-dish-starter or main-hors d’œvre. And nobody cares should you not order any starter at all.

In China people expect you to be able to compse a dinner. You don’t get your all-on-one-plate servings, but need to order every food category yourself. Oh, and of course not only for yourself, but for the whole group. The plates will be gathered on the turntable in the middle and everybody enjoys everything. If it’s tasty. And if it’s composed with sense.

There should be a soup in order to warm up the stomach. A cold starter (there aren’t really any warm starters) should be on the table and of course a number of dishes, covering at least two meat categories. And certainly some veggie plates as well. After all that we turn to the main course. This is usually constituted by a bowl of rice, Baozi (a dough ball with filling) or noodles. Something with starch. Being a foreigner, this can certainly mess up your sense for what terms to use for food. A small bowl of plain rice….and that’s supposed to be a main course? You’d never guess if noone tells you.

Tea is also a must on the table. Or beer for that matter. A clear choice. And with both there is a single principle: The host (we’ll learn who that is in a minute) refills. And refilling means to watch out closely that no cup or glass is ever less than half way full. That constitutes a problem for the peace-loving European who likes to empty the glass or is looking forward to the drinkable temperature of the tea. It’s like consumption stress: much too often will he drink and also way too much, because the glass is always full.

The person to refill the glasses also has to watch out for one more thing: never to place the tea can facing any of the guests. That’s rude, will bring heaps of bad luck and constitutes the beginning of the end of the world. The only strange thing: this seems to be limited to the guests on the refiller’s own table. Nobody gives a chicken foot, should it point directly towards 120 other people in the room.

The host in the role of the refiller needs to be very much up to speed. Should he fail to fulfill the filling, he will be perceived as being stingy and inhospitable. Optionally this arguable fame falls to the younger generation who are required to take care of the oder ones. Regardless of who is the host.

And that brings us to the topic of “who is the host?”. Let’s assume that Mister and Misses Meyer have called up Mister and Misses Johnson to go and have dinner with them. In the Chinese mind, everything is set from that very moment. Mister Meyer is expected to book the restaurant, choose the dishes (at least 2 more than anyone can eat), watch over the drink supply and at the end of the day to pay the bill. Mister Johnson’s task on the other hand is to act like he wanted to take on the check. After that, both should fight for a short moment, only to have Mister Meyer prevail. This enables Mister Johnson to express a friendly “next time it’s on me”.

Subsequently that’s something he should do. And everything starts over from the beginning. With or without main course.

Olé gack gack

Saturday, June 19th, 2010

Ah, the best time of the year! Football, a chilled beer on the table and…eh-cold chicken feet!

There are other posters as well-advertising fried fish, duck neck, pig intestines and river crabs. Gosh, Mister Li, what happened yo good old potato chips?

Anyway, time to spin the ball. “Waiter…!?”

A Walk in the Park

Saturday, May 8th, 2010

Fresh green leaves overhead, chirping birds, the occasional tickering of a bicycle rolling by and maybe the faint sound of a water fountain.
The feet either on plain earth or light gravel, the nose is delighted by the smell of trees, blossoms and rich soil.

Walking in a park is magical. It’s one of the few things that almost everyone loves. It heals the wounds of stress, it nourishes the senses and calms the mind, preparing it for the next tough week of life ahead.

It’s a piece of freedom of the cake of space around you. Geez, that’s heavy stuff.


Match Mama

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

Mister Li has really spruced up today. Shirt and trousers are neatly ironed, the shoes are shiny and his hair resembles a perfect maoistic replica. His jacket casually resides on his shoulder. It doesn’t fit right now – a large pile of fresh 100RMB bills provides his wallet with a considerable belly which would make wearing the jacket look rather awkward. But the precious stuffing is of great importance. Because today Mister Li has a date.

And a date in China is paid for by the man. There’s no political correct fiddling with the bill. Who was drinking more wine, but had less 18 on the 23 and who had the sweeter tooth during desert? You can never really split a bill in half, and so East of Berlin nobody even tries. The man very manly proves his strength. He picks the restaurant, after that the food and eventually also the bills from his wallet.

Madam Wonderful on the other hand is expected to be styled-up to covergirl standard. Her job is to flirtatiously but in a slightly shy way wave her long eye lashes at the person on the other side of the table. And she’s expected to be in awe to anything Mister Li acquaints. Very clear areas of accountability. That’s not too bad after all.

Only, Mister Li doesn’t really know WHO he is about to spend the evening with. Short, tall, thin, clever, funny oder fond of tiny handbag doggies? He doesn’t have the slightest clue and his wondering mind puts more and more wrinkles on his forehead as the evening comes closer and closer.

Europeans who go on a blind date are considered rather daring. And while this very direct kind of thing is usually arranged for via web or through any other classifieds, the majority of the blind dates are actually done in disguise. Beth and Andrew might think for instance that Michelle and Steve could work out quite well together. And so they will do their hidden magic: “We’re going for dinner on Friday. Wanna join? Great. Oh, by the way, there’s also going to be one of Andy’s colleagues. I don’t know him, but he’s supposed to be rather fun to be around, so it should be alright. And it’s all very casual, we just want to have a nice time out.”
Well, but sure! Michelle and Steve anyway will chat around over pasta and have heaps of easy fun, because they don’t even know they have just been blind-dated.

When Mister Li and Miss Wonderful meet up, they will similarly not be the ones who have arranged for it. They will know however, that it’s a date and they’re even going to be all by themselves. And they definitely will go. They have no choice.

So, while these two strangers are making their polite hellos in the restaurant of choice, we will leave the scene for a moment. Let’s go and take a look at how this actually came about. And for that we need to turn back the clock a whole week.

Mother Li is getting out of the cab. It’s a sunny Sunday morning, the air smells like success. She resolutely closes the cab door and turns toward the Yuyuantan park in front of her. She loses no time, knows exactly where she wants to go and elegantly bypasses any obstacles and sights on the way.

It’s perfect timing as she reaches the cattle market. The choice is substantial, the competition sparse. Mother Li opens her handbag to grab hold of a pile of paper – documents and photos. Today it’s going to work out wonderfully. She can feel that. One last deep breath and off she goes with the astuteness of a hunter. She approaches a pack of chattering women and throws a cheerful “Good morning, ladies”.
The game begins.

For the next hours mother Li and all the other mommies and daddies are going to be busy bees, exchanging lots of information. “My daughter is stunningly beautiful!” “My son has a house!” “Mine does too AND he has a car!” “Does your daughter cook well?” “Sure, at least 30 dishes. And she’s really good at sowing.” “What are her school grades like?” “Can you show me some bank statements of your son?” “Tell me something about your family’s history”…
This is future in the making. It’s a mercyless business. And it’s one that bears a high numerus clausus.

The Chinese, as we all know, believe in lots of superstitions and they have legends for just about anything. At the time of the Tang dynastiy for instance there was a god who was responsible for the love between man and woman. Yue Lao, the “old man in the moon” possessed the book of fate. Written in it were all the people’s marriages. Furthermore he owned a red strand. It was said that once he tied two people together with it, they were bound to fall in love. regardless of how much sympathy they had for one another beforehand.

We don’t know whether the most beloved hobbyhorse of the Chinese, the matchmaking, started back then. But this hobby does belong to them the way baguette bread belongs to the French.

Today, however, Yue Lao is not needed. Mother Li has already gathered 5 promising telephone numbers.
Having done one hour of negotiations, this is quite normal for her. After all, she represents a son and that makes the game a slight bit more easy. Almost 90% of the tendering community is offering daughters. Mother Li is used to having the choice. But still it’s a kind of an art. It is considered impolite to refuse an offer for a date and so mother Li has to go upon it in a very tactical way. Don’t reveal too much information to soon. The daughter mob is lairy. Rapidly and unconsiderate is it lusting for contact.

Matchmaking is all that counts. The clock is a-ticking. Those whose female offsprings have passed 25 years of age look as relaxed as a trout in the desert. After 28 they are considered old. The daughters that is, not the trouts.
Furthermore, the grandchildren need to see the light of day before the lovely daughter turns 30. Anything later than that sheds an aweful light on the family and makes for some losing-face situation. Nobody wants neighbors and friends to think something’s fishy with their young ones…

And make no mistake – when a date gets arranged for on this market, it has a sole purpose: the two candidates are expected to decide for marriage no later than between main course and dessert. So that’s why mother Li is being very serious about the whole thing. Serious and, well, motherly.
She even has a trick that keeps any obstrusive candidates at distance. She invents alternative realities. Something that works really well is the story of her son being divorced and looking for a second wife. That usually does the job. The market doesn’t like return items.
Luckily she has the possibility of doing so. Men don’t have a best-before-date on this market. For them there merely is a financial hurdle. And you’re all safe should your collective possessions make you pass this one.

Mister Li is very safe. Not only does he have a decent job, he also owns an appartment. That’s why he already outlived several motherly procured dates and still keeps both feet on the ground instead of hectically putting down one knee in a rush.

Besides him, every week in China there are countless other daughters and sons who find themselves confronted with dating schedules they didn’t see coming. It’s pure stress. Even worse, at the end of the night there’s always the debriefing with the parents who want to know whether they can finally call the banns. And that is pure pressure. So every meet with every candidate becomes a test. If you don’t immediately hear violins play or see angels dance, your fear of being difficult to place just keeps growing another bit.

But do you really have to use mediators to meet the love of your life? The uncountable number of agencies for just that matter speaks for itself. Sure, the Europeans have them too, but on this side of the planet they are much more realistic. And that can be quite uncomfy. In Europe people like to pretend they care about nothing but the moral courage and the philosophical world views of other people. But in China facts are what matters. You might not even be accepted to an online platform for instance, should you choose to keep your salary a secret. You even find platforms which won’t accept anyone below a certain level of financial strength.

Should you strive to know about the reasons behind all this matchmaking action, you just need to ask mother Li: “Our kids don’t have enough time. They work too much and much too long. Their friend circle is either far away or comprise only colleagues. How on Earth are they supposed to meet somebody new?”

The logic is ravishing. And even the very individual and enlightened European has to admit that this problem isn’t anything unusual. The means may differ, but the goal is the same. And the Chinese don’t have the Westeners’ possibilities of running into someone in a bar or a club. Those establishments are still considered slightly shady amoungst a surprisingly large group of Chinese people, regardless of age. It’s an ancient misbelief, which (no longer) bears any truth.
The remaining choices are office and friends. Or one of the previously mentioned agencies and mom and dad.

Luckily the Chinese method is with quite some success. Lots of parents have sufficient time at their disposal to go out and hunt. And they have no fear of contact. Besides: Who else would know their kids this well? And that’s the best prerequisite for matchmaking. Whether the kids like it or not.

Mister Li really had fun tonight. It’s not always likt that, so he really is upbeat. He sends the young lady off in a cab and watches the car disappear in the traffic. A smile runs around his face. It really was nice. Mister Li would love to see her again. Best tomorrow. But unfortunately that’s not possible. Tomorrow is Saturday and as usual mother Li has appointed two new dates to attend.
Mister Li sighs and calls a taxi to take him home. It really isn’t easy being single in Beijing.

Lighten up with alien glibber!

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

On the last day of February it was time. Time for anniversary. Needless to say, it wasn’t a pretty one, but you just can’t overlook it.

Rustily the fallen ogre raises towards the heavens, stained like the fur of a scabiesious mutt. The metal skin is pervious and bust open at countless places. Steel struts from every corner join to form a crumbled monument. Like begging hands they dramatically raise their silent “why”?

You guessed it – we’re talking about the Mandarin Oriental. It was destined to become the new talk-of-the-town hotel inside the glorious CCTV complex, right at the heart of Beijing. And we all know how that turned out.

Authorities managed to blame 20 wild jumping jacks for the whole premature deconstruction during the course of the past year. Ignoring police advice they indulged in their explosive needs at the time in question and in the courtyard of the CCTV. From now forth they may indulge in splitting that extensively large piece of paper that resembles the bill. A few millions in length. Talking about explosive!

However, the clever reader certainly has already detected a flaw with the date. The five-star fireworks of last year took place on the 10th of February. So, how come the anniversary is this late?

The answer, mind you, lays within the calendar system. 15 days after the Chinese New Year is the lantern festival. On this day the Chinese dig up their last cracker reserves and celebrate the final day of the New Year’s festivities. Not a good day for devotees of peace and quiet. And not a good day for new buildings either as it seems.

So on the 28th it was lantern festival again. And this time it should be well prepared. Nobody wanted another major BBQ event. And so a truckload of signs were erected, cautioning everyone that fireworks wouldn’t be allowed in the city center. Neither close to buildings, places of public interest and best of all would be not to have any fireworks at all. You could call it the “No bang” parole.

But frankly, what do you think that billions of Chinese will do when there are countless sales tents in every larger street, just tempting everybody’s explosive desires?

Well, certainly – they buy. And they do it by the dozen.

This year the country has seen 676 fires accompanying the New Year festivities. Bottom line of damages? 2 Million Yuan. Approximately. Strange enough you can hear the authorities being proud that the death toll was reduced by a staggering 66,7 percent compared to the year before. However, they pre-cautiously don’t publish any total numbers.

Maybe that’s not such a bad idea, given the fact that just in Guangdong 21 people were swiped off the face of this earth in a single explosion due to exaggerated use of fireworks. We better don’t project that to country-wide numbers.

The odd truth is that the lantern festival originated from the will to keep suffering and death away from the country rather than attracting it. To intimidate the evil with red light like from fire and the noise of exploding firecrackers and to embrace the good into your home – this was designed to harvest heaps of luck and fortune for the coming year.

Catering to my endeavor to make the readers of this blog the best-informed on the planet I tried to gather as much information as possible about this special day. Every spot of this country was decorated with red lanterns and so it looked promising. Mister Li’s ancestors, however, have been happy travelers. And so I learned that all the historical rites and customs of the countless regional cultures have been blended into an altogether-now-smoothie.

It’s tasty in a way, but nobody really knows what’s in it or where certain traditions originate from. There was this dragon they had killed. And now the god was in a bad mood. So the Chinese had thought up the clever plan to spoof the almighty mate and thus created a certain theatrical masterpiece. By making the Earth look like it’s already doomed, they had hoped the god would refrain from his revenging plan. Why bother? The humans are already killing one another as it seems. You must wonder though why nobody thought about this possibility: What if that god got up the next day and saw this very Earth calm and in order while looking out of the window and having a godly morning coffee? Wouldn’t Lord Thunder just pick up his revenging plans again on that day? The mumbled answer to this question is a simple: “don’t ask ‘why’ all the time”!

Yes, the Chinese don’t like to ask “why”, they just do as they are told! Not going to the hairdresser until March 17, because this could make your uncle suffer? Well, there’s half an explanation, but no-one really is too sure. Still they obey that rule. Eating dumplings for the New Year, trying to find a coin in them? Come on – we always did this, what’s with all the questioning?

I have to admit – in Europe people on the streets would have trouble explaining why there are eggs for Easter and what the deal is with the special biological feature that these are delivered by a bunny. And the turkey for American Thanksgiving? Yea, well, there were these pilgrims and they kinda didn’t find the drive-in….ah, gee, don’t ask so much!

So in Beijing, anyway, at lantern festival they eat this …eh…stuff. For clear identification and to make things easier I dubbed them as “alien glibber”. Those who fancy a more disgusting description may very well refer to them as ‘something like soft-boiled cow eyeballs’. That would be very related to their texture. But it doesn’t help the will to bite into them.

Frankly, this dish carries another thousand years old history full of dragons, agony and valiant virgins. But this tale shall be told another time. For now let’s focus on the taste. It only took a very short year to get used to them (you simply don’t really eat them at any other time in the year) and they are not that bad. Really. Strangely similar to a Squash ball you push the top surface almost all the way down to the bottom, before the laws of physics allow a tearing of the ball and reveal the inside. And that’s where the color contrast awaits the nosy one: a dark black substance oozes out and over the innocently white edges.

“Indiana Jones part 2″ is the first thing that comes to mind. Memories of a childhood, staring at the TV screen. The rental VHS tape in the squeeling player. Harrison Ford, fitted with hat and lash, sitting at the table of horror. Monkey brain, bugs and snakes offer themselves as the utmost delicacies. The first impression is indeed related. How disappointing and boring the truth! There’s no busting chitin armor and no horrible bitter substances are attacking the taste buds. Instead it’s total relief: they are nothing but sticky rice balls filled with a sesame cream. And that’s just how harmless they get acquainted with the senses. A nice dessert. Unfamiliar but not untasty.

When sitting among the happily smacking and chatting family circle, shouting “ganbei” more often than not, there’s a single thing one can constitute at the end: Not even the Western foreigner needs a “why” for cosiness, peace and comfort. The only question coming to mind may be “why not more often”?

Note on the side:

We were able to make use of our private artillery without any unplanned incidences or blazing cultural possessions.

But then again – we only had two very tiny crackers….


Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

My dear Mister Li. Today I guess I’m going to have to apologize to you. You know, kinda like on behalf of lots of others.

I know – Your are a single person only and you have a name. But despite that you are constantly and unjustly being labeled and referred to as “they”.

THEY are simply incapable.
THEY have no clue and THEY horribly stress one’s nerves. THEY just plainly can’t do anything right and couldn’t survive a single day without US.

Sometimes it’s bluntly impossible to avoid what is men’s most beloved ritual of fraternization: pigeonhole thinking. Frankly, you don’t have to flea to far-away-land to experience it. You can very well find it right in front of your own doorstep. But still, a lot of us tend to generalize things far more constantly and extensibly when being very distant from home.

THEY have blocked the whole road again. How is it possible that THEY are completely incompetent of driving whatsoever?

And you guessed it: the word THEY usually is synonymous with “the stupid” and WE gloriously represents “the very clever”. And here comes the fabulous clue: Since he who talks is always part of the WE, he thereby is also safely on the sunny side of smart. Now isn’t that convenient?

So, if THEY are cramping up just about any junction on a green light, because THEY give a damn about the way of right, then the inversion of the argument is that WE are the heroes of the yellow brick road. And that’s certainly a nice insight to live with.

There’s only one very dumb thing about the label THEY – it prevents absolutely any differentiation. And so by using THEY, we quickly turn every single Chinese into a parking monster. Not just that sole Jetta-king in front of us who makes us detour for 2.5 yards.

Going to a foreign country inevitably means being part of a minority. Maybe that can explain why we are not shy in raising our huge social stamp to happily start playing post office with everyone around us. But one needs to wonder: if your ink dries out too quickly, maybe you’re not exactly the best choice for being part of the jury.

On the other hand, taking traffic as an example here is quite stupid in itself. They really don’t know how to park their ride. None of them does. And they’ve never heard of the combination of way-of-right and common sense. Instead they make extensible use of the car’s horn and squeeze in. It’s madness – none of them should ever have passed the driver’s license test!


Remembering the future

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

“One World, One Dream” – The local patriotic motto of the olympic games 2008.

This posy sounds like a 60degree-elevated daydreamer look into the future and it might very well be almost unknown in the West. In Beijing however, where almost exactly a year and a half ago athletes from around the globe were fighting for medals, the phrase is known to any child.

You can still see it in every day’s life. Some fading construction fence is wearing it. There are buildings whose walls are still costly decorated with the colors of the event. They stubbornly cling to the plea. The Western eye sees but a sad picture. It’s apparent that they don’t really serve any purpose these days. There’s not a lot which can de-spur as intensively as yesterday’s dreams.

We live in times where the globe’s larges search engine company and both the Chinese and the American government fight for digital leadership. Who, with impunity, may be allowed to install the largest thinking filters to whom? And who may collect the most data? The liberal mouse-clicking lad is scratching his head. Not only is there no mutual dream – even the beginning of the olympic sentence is out of line: Currently it doesn’t much look like “one” world to begin with.

Herr Meyer believes that the pre-olympic dreams have not only not come true, but that the dream has turned slightly nightmarish on top. Where is the rapprochement of the Chinese which the world has hoped for so desperately? What about being more open to lifestyles, which are widely accepted by the West? Sir Johnson adds, that it actually looks like the situation is much more desolate now than it was prior to the games. He fretfully orders another beer.

And Mister Li? Did we ever think about questioning Mister Li for this two cents on this matter?

Mister Li pleasurably chews down the last dumpling and queryingly looks at Herr Meyer and Sir Johnson. He wants to know what they mean by “desolate”. But before any of them can kick off an answer, heavily filled with words like ‘human rights’ and ‘freedom’, Mister Li finishes the meal. He then gives his thoughts while looking for a toothpick:

The intention was to bring the Olympics to China. And didn’t that work out indeed? Proving to the world, what a great athletic nation resides on this side of the cultural equator – this turned out to be an absolute success: China took the number one spot on the medal ranking. The games in this country – one could compare it to the football world cup in Germany. An indescribable feeling of unity. Patriotic to the fullest and arm in arm, the Chinese for once didn’t have to feel like a shabby third world country on the brink. Who would want to deny them this experience?

In 2006 the Germans learned that it’s OK to disclose their nationality in public. And suddenly their nation’s flag didn’t look all that ugly any more. It was a sudden liberation.

For Mister Li, this olympic games thing was just the same. And cross your heart – who really cares which girl is singing which song and how much fireworks are genuine or fake? Hollywood repeatedly decides to blow up Washington D.C. or New York, and in reality not a single brick is going loose. Still, everyone is feeling fabulously entertained. What really counts is the effect. For two weeks the Chinese were allowed to experience themselves as a grand part of the “One World”. This and the provable athletic success was the “One Dream”. And everything has come true. So, Mister Li really doesn’t understand how the word “desolate” fits into this picture.

Herr Meyer and sir Johnson are glimpsing at one another with huge questionmarks on their faces. It’s dawning upon them that they might have to check about the origin of the their interprettion of “One World, One Dream”. But still, they push up their mental sleeves and for the next hour they will fight on the terrain of inter-cultural arguments.

The sun is starting to set over the capital. With a slow pan, the camera retracts from the small restaurant’s table on which our little group is heavily discussing their important points of view. After moving backwards out of the window, it curves to reveal the little hutong alley. Typical sounds reach our ear: the whispering of the wind, a distant car horn on the main street, two laughing kids and the murmuring of the neighbors. Captivatively they are checking out the camera crane which elevates at this very moment. We catch a short glimps of a piece of cartboard. It was scantily squeezed into a hole in the wall.

A few yards down the road we spot five colorful rings. Their best days have long passed and they keep paying their tariff to time.

We overlook a city that has changed tremendously because of the olympic games. The IOC relics disappear bit by bit. But the life of the people we see has mostly been changed in one single way: their ego is strengthened and their confidence into the future is much stronger now. And THIS change is long lasting.

Further into the distance we can spot the birdsnest. It features an artificial outdoor skiing track these days as well as the World Chocolate Wonderland exhibition. Visitors may marvel at Easter eggs, Santa Clauses and lots more strange foreign treasure made from chocolate.

Both attractions imply mainly two things: On one hand the continuous attempt to familiarize the Western and Eastern cultures. On the other hand it proofs the amazing fact that this city’s government is still pursuing the goal of not letting the games’ facilities go to waste. A goal which lots of other nations have given up rather quickly after they held the ‘games’.

Our camera elevates and near the horizon we can see a piece of the Chinese Wall. A testimony of the country’s 5000 year old history. According to Mister Li, at one time in its shadow Confucius said “Those who strive for longlasting happiness must change often”. Change however, comes from the inside and so does its direction. And who honestly believes that this direction would be exactly the same as it is expected from the outside?

Geez, Mister Li – I must say you’re awefully right about that. Cheers, you yellow scoundrel! And now let’s go and sing a few.

(Deutsch) Authentisch!

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

“Da musst Du UNBEDINGT mal hin”!

Wenn einem in China dieser Satz über den Weg läuft, kommt er mit an Sicherheit grenzender Wahrscheinlichkeit aus dem Mund eines Ausländers. Dieser dürfte sich dann mit verschwörerisch verklärtem Blick in eine Schilderung verleidenschaftlichen, die der folgenden ähnelt:

“Das ist das beste, was Du je gegessen hast. Irre. Einfach irre. Der Laden liegt ganz versteckt, den findet nicht jeder. Ist so ein ziemlich herunter gekommener Schuppen, die haben auch nur vier oder fünf Tische. Also, aufs Klo willst Du da nicht unbedingt gehen, das sag ich Dir. Aber es ist halt einfach völlig authentisch. Wir konnten gar nicht genug bekommen.”

Vom Lexikon als “echt” und “original” bezeichnet, bekommt die kleine lustige Vokabel “authentisch” in China ein schizophrenes Eigenleben, das seine eigene Bedeutung verlebt.
Als Neuling weiß man das noch nicht. Und so pilgern unablässig Frischlinge zu den authentischsten Plätzen der Umgebung und verbreiten anschließend in gutem Glauben die Sawyer’sche Theaterbegeisterung.

Wer etwas länger im Land ist, dürfte einer als authentisch beschriebenen Location relativ wenig Interesse entgegenbringen. Er weiß: Authentisch bedeutet in diesem Zusammenhang hoffnungslos alt, zerfallen und besorgniserregend hygienefrei. Mehr nicht. Es ist erstaunlich, aber es stimmt: mehr nicht!

Aber wer nach China kommt, ist praktisch zwangsläufig auf der Suche nach Unterschieden, dürstet nach Kulturschock und bejubelt jeglichen Kontrast. Sonst hätte man schliesslich auch nach Mallorca fliegen können.
Nein, wenn man schon den weiten Weg auf sich nimmt, dann soll es auch was bringen. Immerhin warten Freunde und Kollegen zuhause auf haareraufende Geschichten. Die Skandalsau in uns allen grunzt nach Futter. Und zur Not wird dem Kontrastregler halt einfach ein wenig nachgeholfen.

Nach einer Weile Aufenthalt sind schließlich alle offensichtlichen Differenzen zwischen hier und daheim abgefeiert. Und was läge also näher, als zum Experten des “echten alten” Chinas zu werden? Dann würde man auch den hier ansässigen Kollegen tolles erzählen können.

Wie wunderbar also, wenn man wieder einen Laden gefunden hat, dessen Interieur von Maos Urgrossvater gestaltet worden sein könnte! Meist ist es auch von diesem das letzte Mal gereinigt worden. Aber das macht die Sache eher noch interessanter und eben erst recht so richtig authentisch.

Man bestellt quer durch die Karte und probiert was das Zeug hält vermeintlich geheimtippsige Getränke ohne Aufdruck von Haltbarkeitsdatum. Keine Sorge – wenn es authentisch ist, dann kann es nicht schädlich sein. Ach wie schön – das ist das echte China! Und das kann man nur finden, wenn man die ganz versteckten Plätze auftreibt.

Komisch eigentlich, dass dann dort abgesehen vom Personal keine Chinesen sind. Der Tipp zu dem Restaurant kam auch nicht von Herrn Li, sondern Herrn Meyer.

Inhaber und Angestellte jener Etablissements haben sich längst mit der wunderlichen Tatsache abgefunden, dass die komischen Ausländer es so haben wollen. Wenn man sie (auf Chinesisch) fragt, geben sie recht schnell und offen zu, dass sie es nicht verstehen und selbst eher woanders dinnieren würden. Aber wenn sich damit ein Geschäft machen lässt, dann bitte sehr. Und die Geschäfte laufen gut.

Die echten Chinesen sitzen dann derweil unweit der Bruchbude in moderner ausgestatteten Restaurants.
Deren Küchengeschichte reicht jedoch Generationen zurück, wie man mit wenig Aufwand erfahren kann. Im Laufe der Dekaden ist man nur in größere und komfortablere Immobilien gezogen, um dem Ansturm der Gäste gerecht zu werden. Dennoch sind jeden Abend alle der unzähligen Tische mehrfach belegt.

Erinnern wir uns an eine bekannte Weisheit: wer im Ausland gute Küche sucht, sollte dort essen, wo die Einheimischen essen.
In die Eingänge dieser Restaurants verirrt sich aber fast nie ein Laowei (spöttisch für “Ausländer”). Viel zu unscheinbar und viel zu wenig authentisch.

Ironischer Weise ist das Restaurant damit das besser versteckte. Und den Herrn Meyers und Johnsons entgeht so das beste Essen. Und das müssten sie WIRKLICH mal probieren!

(Deutsch) Am Anschlag (Update)

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

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(Deutsch) Meckern, Tischkante und das K im TV

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

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(Deutsch) Wo ist denn das jetzt?

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

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(Deutsch) Breadkrümels

Saturday, November 21st, 2009

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