Published: April 18th 2012April 18th 2012
I really must apologise for taking such a long break from this blog. The problem is that I am having so much fun living in Beijing. I never imagined that there would be so much to do year-round.
I have a weekly two-hour one-to-one Mandarin class, plus a taije class once or twice a week. Almost every week, sometimes even twice, I go to Chinese films in one of three or four venues that play films made by Chines directors, not Hollywood-style, with subtitles in Mandarin and English and often a Q/A afterwards with the director. On the weekends when I’m not travelling I go hiking to the mountains and villages outside Beijing with the Beijing Hikers or the Culture Yard. I’ve also made a real effort to visit some of the popular tourist sites – the Forbidden City, the Confuscius Temple, Bai Hai Lake and various parks. In an effort not to put on too much weight from this fabulous Chinese cooking, I go swimming about five evenings a week. Then there are the Irish Network China dinners with speakers and Viva Women’s Network monthly gatherings. All this has to fit in around my day job!
I’ve been keeping notes and will be writing about these activities for you.
But first - Spring has sprung in China! The magnolia trees are in white bloom and the yellow forsythia are brightening up our parks and gardens.
This can only mean that it is time for our National Holiday - Ancestors' Tomb Sweeping Day!
As this is my second year to experience this annual event I now know a bit more about it. The idea is that you send your ancestors gifts of things you think they might need, like food or rice wine. You burn money is the belief that that they can use it in the afterlife.
What you do is make a small fire of fake money and place these things into it - meat pieces, oranges, (empty) rice wine bottles, etc. But you can also get more extravagant and send them a Ferrari, a house or an iPad. Don't worry, you don't have to burn the real thing, you just cut photos from magazines and burn them, along with the fake money. The business of making this false money is worth a lot, apparently. I took a photo of
a stand in the local market.
I happened to find a colourful picture on the ground when I was walking to work a few months ago. I asked my Chinese colleagues what it was and they said it was the fake money. Lin, who has a Masters in Science from a Canadian university, suggested that I burn it, "You'd want to be careful what you do with that." Imagine, when he is so educated he still has superstitions.
What you do is draw a circle on the sidewalk in chalk with a sort of gateway opening facing in the direction of your ancestral home. It looks a bit like a key. Then you burn your gifts - warm clothes and new mobile phones are always popular. If the smoke drifts out the opening of the circle then you know that your ancestors will get your gifts because the smoke is bringing them toward their burial place.
There were far fewer piles of ashes on the canal bank this year compared to last year and almost no incense sticks. Recession? No. Apparently you aren't allowed to burn fires or set off firecrackers within the 2nd Ring Road and
there are far more inspectors around this year as compared to last year, so I suppose relatives have had to be more careful.
This ceremony is so important in Chinese tradition that it is a national holiday. In fact this has only been designated a national holiday since 2008 when the Chinese Government became concerned that Chinese people were losing their traditional moral values. They thought that this emphasis on respect for ancestors would improve the country's moral fibre. So they created the National Holiday and a lot of talk about Chinese customs and ancient traditions.
Most people feel it is their duty to travel home to their ancestors' burial place during the week to show respect. Now that many Chinese people have moved far away from home, to Ireland and Canada, for example, they can hire someone to weep at their ancestors' grave, which must be very handy.
Around this time they tend to talk more about death on the radio than usual. I heard that more than 20 million soldiers died in the "Anti-Japanese War", the setting up of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949 and the Korean War, but only 1.8 million are listed in Government records. The rest just disappeared so their descendants have nowhere to mourn them.
On the other hand, land is at a premium. I think the statistic is that one-sixth of land in China is habitable and about 1/25th is arable. Cemetery plots in Beijing are selling for €20,000 per square metre. Many Chinese don't agree with cremation so the Government are encouraging people to agree to burial at sea. ( Cheer up, it may never happen!)
I love living in China and you never know when something may interest and amuse you.
One evening last week I went to The Hutong (another great place to check out in Bjg) for a talk by Dominic Johnson-Hill who won British Entrepreneur of the Year for his business, Plastered T-shirts. Dominic told us he had been advised to leave public school in England after he failed his A-levels. He was/is dyslexic and has ADD and his teachers said he was hopeless at studies. So he went travelling at 17, landed in Beijing when he was 20 and has been here ever since. In 2006 he founded Plastered T-shirts which is now a huge success. Here’s a piece from their website:
Plastered T-shirts takes iconic imagery from China’s streets and celebrates it. Everyday design is inspiration – from neon signs framing steaming karaoke halls, to delicate acrobatic twists and towers – Plastered puts these images on t-shirts in a celebration of everything beautiful about China. Plastered's flagship store is located in Beijing on Nanluoguxiang, and the t-shirts are available online at www.plasteredtshirts.com
Dominic is now about 40, married, has 4 daughters and is still is a bit hyper. He says proudly that he has turned his "disabilities" into super-powers. A very interesting fellow.
But before the talk, when I arrived a young woman at a table was checking names off a list of reservations. I had money out because I forgot if we had to pay an entrance fee. The girl had excellent English and said to me, "You don't have to pay, and help yourself to a drink of beer or wine." So I said, "I'll have beer, please." She opened a bottle and said, apologetically, "You have to pay 20RMB ($2) for it." Fine, I knew I'd have to pay for something.
Then she said, "I am so nervous tonight because this is my first time to do this. Thank you for being so patient and understanding."
"That's OK." Then she asked, "Where are you from?" and I said, "Ireland."
She said, "Oh, I love Irish music!" I thought I had better not mention traditional music and confuse her, better to talk about a rock band, so I said, "Yes, I like U2."
Then she smiled widely and said, "Oh, thank you, thank you!"
Er….I left it at that. I still smile when I think of it.
It was lovely to walk home in the fresh, warm spring air. That’s one thing about Beijing – I always feel safe in the streets after dark. I mean when I’m walking on the sidewalk. Crossing the street is death-defying, especially with buzz-bombers coming at you from the shadows in their quiet, battery-powered bikes with no headlights. But on the sidewalks you are very safe. No one will make rude comments or mug you.
By the way - more fun in China - the Chinese women from swimming have invited me to join them for a drive to the countryside to see and photograph the spring flowers and trees. They have about 10 words of English and I'm not much better at Mandarin, but every evening as we are changing we chat and try to communicate. A daytrip will be a real challenge but I'll sit in the back seat with my phrase book in hand. If all goes well it could give my Mandarin a much-needed boost.
Watch this space - I'm off to Shanghai for a few days!