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One of the most fascinating aspects about living in China is the assortment of wonderfully complex traditions, superstitions and customs, which have lived on for centuries and remain as important today as ever.
Chinese people have a deep devotion to tradition and their families, as well as an enduring respect for their ancestors. Although today's generation of young Chinese have grown up in a country of privilege and mass-consumption, their parents and grandparents have nevertheless raised them to be devoted to the health and happiness of their relatives. Even today, it goes without saying that once the (usually single) child in a family reaches working age, it falls upon him or her to support the elderly members of their families. It is still very common for sons to bring his wife to live with his parents, so that the elders can take care of the couple's baby, while the young couple goes out to work.
The emphasis on filial piety in Chinese society is revealed in the annual Tomb-sweeping holiday. The national holiday, which fell on April 4th to 6th, is a time when people are expected to visit the graves of their ancestors, leave flowers and gifts, and burn paper money as a means of transferring the cash to the 'other side'.
However, in recent years, the kinds of things people offer their ancestors has developed from more than cash, flowers, and food. Now, paper effigies of designer clothing, houses, and even ipods are what families demand for their deceased.
But the effect of the modern age on China's traditional holiday doesn't end there. With Chinese youngsters being possibly some of the most tech-savvy in the world, Chinese authorities have responded by offering a new digital perspective to this longstanding tradition of ancestor worship.
This year, for instance, those marking the holiday may have noticed some younger people waving their smartphones over tombstones. This is because, worshippers are now able to scan the two-dimensional quick response codes (QR codes) affixed to the monuments. When scanned with modern digital gadgets, these small, square images allow mourners to access a virtual obituary where photos and video clips of the deceased can be found.
Information provided by the codes, normally ranging from names and dates of birth and death, to life stories of the deceased, has made memorials more dynamic and interactive. Cemeteries in a number of Chinese cities have seen a growing number of QR code stickers on headstones, which are usually stuck next to their engraved epitaphs.
Surprisingly, Chinese officials have been advocating this style of 'cyber-mourning', out of concern over dwindling burial space, as well as air pollution and fire risks stemming from the tradition of burning paper "money for the dead.
How we British love to moan about the rain. I'm sure once upon a time, I probably moaned about rain, too. Yes, yes, I'm pretty sure I did. With my frizzy hair, a light spattering of water can ruin an hours worth of straightening efforts. But now, how I cherish the odd occasion when rain falls on the arid city of Beijing. You see, rain not only waters the plants and keeps things lusciously green; it also clears the air - adding that wonderful moisture that makes each breath feel like an invigorating flush through your body. It's like Colgate-flavoured oxygen. I miss it. In fact, it's one of the things I look forward to most about going home. After a 12-20 hour flight home, standing outside in the 'fresh' English air is a feeling I cherish
So at this time of the year, while you lucky people back home eagerly await spring time walks in the park and that sort of weather when it's too warm to wear a coat, but too cold to wash the car in your shorts, here in Beijing we are also being treated to a glimpse of springtime. The cherry and plum blossom seasons are upon us, sprinkling blossom onto the streets of the city like confetti. However, with the beautiful and the good, comes the bad and the ugly, as we were reminded last week when Beijing was hit with the first sandstorm of 2013.
I awoke last Thursday morning to see that Beijing had turned sepia overnight. The bleak, yellow-tinged air looked like one of those futuristic movie sets, where man and his love for money had destroyed mother earth, and the remaining humans were going to have to find a new planet to inhabit (and undoubtedly also destroy).
I put my 'overactive' imagination on the back-burner as I did what I'm sure every other foreigner in Beijing did before brushing their teeth that morning - reach for their smartphone and open the Air Quality Index App. Unsurprisingly, the reading was off the charts. With levels of PM 2.5 microns - the stuff that's so small that when breathed it sticks inside your lungs and causes lasting damage, was also dangerously high. So, for this first time since the last Foot & Mouth outbreak, I reached for my facemask. I had the thin, flimsy surgical mask on 5 seconds before I decided that there was no way it was going to make any difference, and pulled my scarf up over my head instead.
By the end of the day, Beijing had also been hit with its first sandstorm of the year. I returned home gasping from lack of oxygen to find my apartment blanketed in a thin sheet of yellow dust - despite having been sure to keep all my windows closed. Its days like these I wonder what I'm doing here.
But as the old saying goes, 'when the world hands you lemons, make lemonade', and I'm guessing that's what the rest of the Beijingers (and their clever designers) were thinking as this latest trend sweeps our polluted city. Love them or hate them, we may have to come to accept that facemasks will become a way of life for us - at least until the Chinese Government manages to bring the pollution issue under control. And so, just because you're wearing a facemask, it doesn't mean you can't be trendy at the same time. Here are just a few of my favourite designs.
But then, just as I'd selected a range of fashionable and fun facemasks to match every outfit and situation, Beijing gave us what may have been the clearest and least polluted day of the year. The very next day after we were ravaged with sandstorms, and lung-bursting air particles, we awoke to an Air Quality reading of 24. Yes, 24! (The previous day the reading had been over 500 - considered very harmful). As I stepped out of my apartment and filled my lungs with what might as well have been air laced with ecstasy, all was forgiven. I love Beijing. I love fresh air too. But then, I suppose nothing and nobody's perfect.
Sunday 24th February marked the official end of the Spring Festival holiday and the official celebrations of the Chinese New Year holiday. On Monday, the many people who took extended holidays to be with their families, as well as school kids, will return the grind. The hedonistic holiday days of limited traffic and minimal smog have come to an end - just as we were starting to get used to the 'calmer' side of Beijing.
I awoke early on Sunday morning, severely dehydrated after a glass too many of vino with friends the night before. I already knew full well that it would be the day that families across the city would be using up the last of their fireworks. Much like your mum tries to get rid of the last died up remains of the Christmas turkey, fireworks will be used up on Lantern Festival Day. And so, I had booked myself on a lovely refreshing hike - away from the head-pounding firecrackers, the impatient bleeps of taxis outside my window, and my neighbours across the hall - who have taken to allowing their toddler free reign of the corridor, resulting in every squeal, tumble, and gargle to echo through my ultra-sensitive, hangover-ridden shell of a body.
Little did I realize that the gentle yet invigorating hike turned out to be a Cliffhanger-come-Rambo, hardcore climb across the Great Wall. I should have guessed when I met the rest of the group at the coach that these people - with their hiking sticks, backpacks, waterproof Berghaus layers, and flasks, meant business. I rolled up wearing skinny jeans and converse high-tops, accessorized with a pair of Raybans and my Grande Americano. Stick a cigarette in my mouth and hang a couple of groupies off my legs, and I could have been Keith Richards. Only i'll bet Keith doesn't hike. Regardless, I had come thus far, i.e. gotten out of bed, and I was going to see this thing through to the end.
Incredibly, the hike was a success. I didn't get lost, I only fell over 11 times (Converse High-tops are brilliant. But if you choose to wear them hiking up a vertical part of a snow covered thousands of years old Great Wall, you may as well be hiking in flip-flops). I also met an interesting fella from Canada, to whom I was informally introduced as I fell backside-first onto him whilst navigating an especially steep hilly part of the hike. Well, that was my excuse, anyway.
If we collected a number of smart phones from a random group of people from around the world and checked which apps were the most popular, I would guess that the BBC app might be a common choice, Facebook...obviously, and perhaps, most annoyingly, Angry Birds. However, if you were to take the smart phones from a random group of people living in Beijing, I would guess that almost all of them would have an app regaling the gory details of China's daily air quality index. It has become a morbid habit of us all. "Have you seen the index today? Off the chart.", "I know, I know. We're screwed."
January has always been one of my favourite months. It marks the beginning of the New Year, when I am excited and hopeful that fresh opportunities are coming my way, and I am still wonderfully deluded into thinking that my New Year's Resolution will last the rest of my days. The beginning of 2013, however, was not so joyful for those of us living in the Chinese capital. Beijing was shrouded for a number of consecutive days in thick smog. So thick in fact, that some days, I felt as though I could have taken a knife and sliced myself a chunk of air (a notion that may or may not have been a result of breathing such air).
We have no choice but to accept a number of compromises when we deciding on a place to live. One may love the tranquility and peacefulness of the countryside, but hate that they have to commute miles and miles to buy a pint of milk. Another may love the heat and humidity of living in a south-east Asian country, but despise the seedy underground world and rabid mosquitoes. For those of us who choose to live in a city like Beijing, we happily fill our inquisitive minds with the wonderful culture and lap up the plentiful opportunities, but 'tut' and eye-roll at the spitting in the streets, the smoking in the elevators, and the relentless pushing and shoving on the subway. But hey, no place is perfect. It's human nature to find annoyance even in the most heavenly of destinations, e.g. "The sand so hit it burns my feet on my tropical island!", "" Ahh, first world issues.
Those of us who have lived in Beijing long-term have come accustomed to taking the good with a dash of the bad. But over the past few weeks, the extreme weather conditions have gotten us all down; with each and every foreigner I know uttering the immortal line, "enough is enough", as we all nod in agreement.
As the world's media showed images of what was being called China's 'worst smog on record', we steered clear of going outdoors - unless essential. A large number of friends called in sick to work, complaining of headaches, nosebleeds, and shortness of breath. Some of us developed the so-called 'Beijing cough'; a nasty chesty cough that's since become a hot topic on China's most popular social networking site, Weibo - a talking point that arguably led the central government to 'take action'.
Air quality again hit dangerous levels at the end of January, with PM2.5 data, a gauge monitoring airborne particles of 2.5 microns or less in diameter which can embed deep in people's lungs, reaching a literally breathtaking 200 to 300 micrograms per cubic meter. The prospect of the coming Chinese New Year holiday, which was celebrated the second week of February, filled us with dread - not because we dislike the colour red, but because we all knew there would be the pre-holiday travel rush - the world's largest annual migration, and of course every family in China would be celebrating the holiday with fireworks. Fireworks + exhaust fumes = More smog. We braced ourselves for the worst.
However, once the travel rush was over, the city of Beijing, although still not a healthy shade of grey, regained some form of peace and quiet, and following limitations of firework sales (although minimal), the smog slowly lifted to reveal something resembling what we think may have been blue sky.
Today, Tuesday 19th February, the index rating for Beijing reads an impressive 89 - more than 400 points lower than the rating at the beginning of January. I can breathe!
I've been living in China for 6 years, and although I have gotten to grips with many of the aspects of Chinese living - navigating my way across busy roads without being flattened by a flock of cyclists, chow-ing down on the vast variety of foods that may not be to my liking - but smiling and making yummy noises anyway, and, although I can't boast to be able to handle the effects of downing shots of China's favourite tipple, 'Baijiu', I have at least learned how to 'keep it down', as it were. But regardless of these many talents/survival techniques, I still find that I am an outsider. Not merely because I look different to a majority of society, but as I get older, my personal life is shining the spotlight on me as the odd one out.
Let me bring you up to speed. During my time in China, I have made the effort to immerse myself into Chinese culture. I have spent hours on end studying the language, I have replaced my western-style diet with Chinese foods and Chinese medicine, and I have a vast collection of close informative Chinese friends. But now I find that many of these friends have settled down and married, some have also had babies and are now basking in new lives of domesticity.
Of course, I am aware that at my age (I'm 30), most people back home in the UK are also thinking of settling down, if they haven't already. In some cases, a 30 year old may even be preparing for his/her second marriage. But at least if I were back home I might be able to find a collection of kindred spirits; that is, career girls who aren't ready for the whole settling down / making babies / moaning about the mortgage kit and caboodle. Here in China, however, hitting 30 without having set a wedding date is considered quite tragic.
Of course attitudes are slooooowly changing. I have a couple of Chinese girl friends who are yet to settle down. Although many of them are content with their lives the way they are, their more traditionally-minded families are at the helm of a vice-like pressure, squeezing them into sealing a deal with any man who ticks the right boxes ('suitable' husband material must have his own apartment, car, come from a respectable family, and earn more than his prospective wife), and thus thwart the increasing possibility of them becoming 'old maids'.
Whereas western women-folk may be able to avoid the likelihood of being tagged an 'old maid' so long as we're snapped up by 40, Chinese women aged 30 are already considered to be pushing it. Much like the term 'old maid', the Chinese have coined the phenomenon, "Sheng nv" - which literally means 'left-behind women'. The term has only become commonly known and popular in the past few years, seeing as in the past, an un-wed woman in her 30's was about as common as a two-headed dog.
As part of Chinese society, it's unsurprising that because of these attitudes, I am also exceedingly conscious of my own single status. I have, after all, spent the best part of my twenties 'growing up' in China, and in some aspects may even be considered quite 'Chinese-minded'. However, having seen the kind of pressures from their families, friends, as well as the rest of society when it comes to finding 'love', I count my blessings that I belong to a country where choosing a fulfilling career over a balding middle-aged husband is quite acceptable, and to a certain degree, even applauded.
It often surprises some people to discover that the majority of the cast at performances such as the Olympic and Paralympic ceremonies are not, in fact, made up entirely of trained, professional performers, but rather hundreds of volunteer amateurs.
As I mentioned in my last blog, the process of creating the show involves choreographing groups of hundreds of performers to create really intricate visual effects, and the challenge increases when you consider the fact that a huge proportion of the people involve do not come from an artistic background.
It's great to see the work that the volunteers have put into preparing this show, and their enthusiasm has made the job much easier. It hasn't been easy for them - many have had to travel a long way to attend rehearsals, and much of the time has been spent working outdoors in less than ideal conditions.
There's a real positive attitude among them that they need to do their rehearsals no matter what, they're giving up their time and their effort, and it's so wonderful to see. It's a very humbling experience.
Something that really touches me is the enthusiasm of the volunteers to make the show as good as it can be. It really motivates you to do your best for them. They are putting in so much effort, and it makes you want to create something that they can be very proud of as well, which raises the bar in a very different way.
The mood at our rehearsals, even though they are difficult and challenging at times, is really, really great, and we all go forward with high spirits as we move ever closer to the big day.
For more information about Kevin Finnan and Motionhouse visit www.motionhouse.co.uk and follow on Twitter @MotionhouseDT
Local entrepreneur Phil Innes is about to open Loki Wines in Great Western Arcade. Having set up Slosh Box, an online retailer, Phil has now decided to go for a more direct approach by setting up Birmingham's first specialist wine tasting venue.
They say that you learn something everyday. While this may be far from true for many people around the world, I can confidently say that for me, it really is true. Everyday I see something in Beijing that fascinates me. From a man cycling a rickshaw with a colossal mountain of plastic bottles on his back; or a lover's squabble on the subway that results in the boyfriend breaking into romantic song - an idea no doubt lifted out of a cheesy boy band music video. Most days I also pick up a new phrase or new word to expand on my growing Chinese mandarin vocabulary. What interests me most about China, however, is the profound difference in culture and way of thought. Chinese people my age often have radically contrasting feelings towards many things, most notably for me, is their priorities in life.
Today I read an article published by the Shanghai Metropolis Daily, which featured a list they called a "Hierarchy of Snobbery". The lists, which cover everything from taste in the opposite sex, to favoured brands, music, and movies, are, what the paper claims, reflect a person's intelligence, class, and even how "international" they are.
Here are a few of my favourites...
6. Sony Ericsson
11. shanzhai mobile phones.
(Original Chinese text) 手机：黑莓>苹果>小米>HTC>三星>索爱>诺基亚>摩托罗拉>联想>中兴>山寨机
1. British TV shows
2. American TV shows
3. Japanese TV shows
4. Korean TV shows
5. Taiwanese TV shows
6. Thai TV shows.
(Original Chinese text) 电视剧：英剧>美剧>日剧>韩剧>港剧>台剧>内地剧>泰剧
3. Left Bank
5. Typhoon Shelter (Tea House)
7. Nescafe Instant
(Original Chinese text) 咖啡：COSTA>星巴克>左岸>上岛>避风塘>麦当劳、肯德基>雀巢速溶
Most desirable Women:
1. Light-skinned, rich, slim, beautiful, and with big boobs
2. light-skinned, rich, slim, and beautiful
3. light-skinned, rich, and beautiful
4. light-skinned and rich
5. light-skinned and beautiful
(Original Chinese text) 女神：白富瘦美挺>白富瘦美>白富美>白富>白美
Second generation Chinese:
1. PLA second generation (children of People's Liberation Army officers)
2. Government official second generation
3. Rich second generation
4. Children of coal mine owners
5. poor second generation
6. children of farmers
(Original chinese text) 二代：军二代>官二代>富二代>煤二代>贫二代>农二代
If there's one thing that unites the Chinese nation, it's a love of food. Upon arrival in any city in China, the air is filled with an aroma of food and exotic scents. Rather than just refueling the body, mealtimes are regarded as the most important times of the day. All work stops for lunch and dinner times, and it is considered highly inappropriate to skip a meal due to work commitments. In China, no business deal is finalized nor relationship formed until you have sat down and shared a meal - more often than not, washed down with a few shots of Baijiu, a paraffin-like tasting strong Chinese liquor. Food is so important to the Chinese people, that conversations are initiated with a casual, "have you eaten?", rather than the western counterpart of "nice weather we're having" or "how's it going?"
With this in mind, it's unsurprising that among the rows and rows of restaurants, a number of entrepreneurs are keen to locate a niche market. Low and behold, the themed restaurant landed. Although the older generations of Chinese prefer to stick to traditional Chinese restaurants, teenagers and young adults, possibly in a bid to rebel from their disciplined school and work lives, are keen to try something new and unusual. So, as disturbed as I was to come across a restaurant that had a chosen the universally-acknowledged unappetizing theme of poo poo as its premise, I nevertheless found myself inside the restaurant, perched upon a toilet seat and browsing the poo-inspired menu.
With dishes such as a beef curry served in a tabletop commode, and mashed potato swirled into a turd-shape and served in a urinal, I had clearly entered some kind of doodoo dream-world. Even my drink came in a curly-poo cup...I was relieved to discover the content was orange juice. Chocolate milkshake may have been too much for my reserved English insides to handle. However, while the food looked very good, the concept of eating out of a commode left me feeling quite uneasy. Nevertheless, the House of Poo Poo restaurant was bustling with potty young Chinese diners enthusiastically licking the toilet bowl clean. However friendly the staff are and no matter how many cuddly poo toys decorate the walls, a walk on the stool-side of dining left me feeling like ****.
Last week, people across China enjoyed a three-day holiday to mark Qingming festival. But rather than enjoying a break somewhere nice, or putting their feet up in front of the TV, many Chinese people will have spent the holiday spending time with family or visiting cemeteries to pay respects to their ancestors.
Qingming Festival, which fell on April 4th this year, is also known as tomb sweeping day. It is a day set aside for Chinese people to remember family members who have passed away. Like most Asian countries, family plays a major role in the lives of the Chinese people. Therefore, it is considered essential that Chinese people of all ages make a special effort to honour the dead.
For those that have the opportunity to visit cemeteries on this day, the standard ritual is to burn incense and offer sacrifices to the dead. It has long been a tradition for families to burn fake money, which is peculiarly printed in the style of dollar bills. As the fire eats away at the money, it is believed that the 'money' is passed over to their family members on the 'other side'.
A Chinese friend of mine once told me that his grandmother, who had passed away a couple of years earlier, visited him in a dream. He noticed that her clothes were shabby and her hair unkempt. So, come Qingming festival, he made sure he bought plenty of paper money to burn for her. The next night he dreamt that she visited him once again; this time wearing her lovely new clothes. Rather than query the belief, with questions such as 'is currency necessary in heaven?' or 'where would one buy clothes in heaven?', I choose to respect the belief. The emphasis and consideration that Chinese people attach to the importance of family is admirable and something I consider to be severely lacking in British society today. However, I can't help but smile at how much emphasis cash has in Chinese society. If Qingming festival proves one thing, it's the belief that even in death, money and possessions are indispensable.
Since China's 'opening up' 34 years ago, the significance of money and status have become even more magnified. It is no longer simply a car, apartment, and job that prove your worth, it's also your partner, where you eat, and of course, your mobile phone, handbag, and a whole host of other materialistic paraphernalia. So it came as no surprise when I discovered that this year, it wasn't just paper money that Chinese families were buying as offerings for their ancestors, but also paper Apple iPads and iPhones.
At 80 US dollars per iPad, and iPhones for around 4 US dollars, these paper offerings do not up at a snip. In an attempt to drum up enthusiasm, sellers on popular Chinese shopping site, Taobao.com, offered discounts to bulk buyers. How many iPads does one's deceased relative require? For those really wanting to splash out and treat their deceased loved ones, then paper villas, cars and even houses are also available.
A majority of Chinese people that I spoke to about Qing Ming festival plans told me that they will not be bulk-buying paper iPads just yet. In recent years, as the Chinese people have become more aware of eco-living, people have been encouraged to commemorate relatives on QingMing festival by planting flowers and trees around gravesites. However, the traditional way of commemorating Qingming festival remains the most popular option.