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The Cult of the Míngpiàn

6 Jul

There are lots of things to unravel about Chinese culture and not least of them is how to do business and how to interact with your Chinese co-workers. There’s a very delicate balance to respect and much of it can be quite opaque for those of us foreigners coming from a Judeo-Christian background. In the latter culture, borders between yes and no, right and wrong tend to be quite well defined and we generally struggle with the grey areas. In Chinese culture, there’s a lot of grey. To start with, there are no words for “yes” and “no” in Mandarin. It feels like a truism to say this now, after having lived a year and a half in China. If you are asked a question, you would reply using the main verb to signify the equivalent of a yes or a no. For example: – “Are you Lebanese?” – “I am.” Yes and no questions are often asked in a positive/negative mode: “You want you don’t want…?”, “Is there isn’t there…?” but then again, because of the lack of single words for yes or no, you answer: “I want” or “I don’t want”, “There is” or “There isn’t”.

To add to this, Chinese people rarely ever refuse to do something or admit that they don’t know how to do it. Fear of losing face I suppose. So they rush into agreeing or saying ok, ok, ok or kěyī, kěyī, kěyī (i.e. I can, I can, I can) and you have to read between the lines to understand that it’s a no. Many foreigners who have worked here will testify to this. I can see it on my students’ faces. I’d ask them if they’ve understood something and they would always say it’s fine even though I can clearly see their faces decomposing.

We were once explained by our French friend S., whose parents are Chinese, that Chinese attitude and interaction are a question of harmony and maintaining an equilibrium amongst all things present or at stake. Therefore, yes and no positions can be a bit brutal for the contextual balance. (S. please feel free to correct me on this.) After having spent over 5 years in Shanghai, he said he was getting better at navigating within this fragile equilibrium and that got him a lot of satisfaction, as he was being able to draw the best out of his team at work.

All this restraint however blows away when it comes to networking. Then Chinese people can become rather forthcoming whereas we first engage in a bit of small talk before getting into the business side of things. At various events, I have noticed that they spot the slightest opportunity to talk to you and immediately ask who you work for and tell you what it is that they do, without much preliminaries. Essential to this process is the exchange of míngpiàn* or business cards. Some of them have those ready in their hands as they start speaking to you. I say hands because manners here require that you exchange business cards with both hands and that the text on the card is oriented towards the recipient. In turn, the latter should receive the card with both hands and read it duly and respectfully before putting it away. Mingpian are so important that everyone should have one and foreigners have in turn started to refer to them as “name cards” – the literal translation of mingpian – instead of the more correct “business card”.

So next time you do business with Chinese people, make sure both your hands are free and never, ever throw your business card nonchalantly across the meeting table.

* To be pronounced mingpyen

Shanghai Flâneur: the Old Town

5 Mar

Some time last October, I discovered a “walking think tank” called Shanghai Flâneur. It promotes the art, you may say, of walking in the city and, one thing leading to another, I have now started to collaborate with the consultancy attached to it, called Constellations. Shanghai Flâneur organises thematic walks to the wider public, generally urban amateurs or professionals, or more corporate clients as part of a wider programme.

To date, I have been on one walk, which focused on the old city of Shanghai. I was particularly curious as I had previously been with a friend to the old city and, much to my dismay, couldn’t find it! We wandered in-between vast construction sites and tall residential buildings. One or two streets were quite popular and picturesque but that was about it.

The Flâneur talk-walk – twalk is probably the best term for it – was led by Katya Knyazeva, a Russian resident of Shanghai, who became passionate with this part of the city and researched it to the point of becoming an expert and now working on a book dedicated to it. There was a whole lot of fantastic information, historical, urban and human, and the discovery of unsuspected treasures. I have tried to filter some of it here in a comprehensible and palatable way, but excuse me in advance for the length of this post – and this is just a part of Katya’s talk.

The first thing to know is that the origins of Shanghai are actually very modest. As its name indicates, the old city is where it all started. However, it used to be a small fishing town built on wetlands, where some of the streets of today were actually a network of canals leading to the far larger Huangpu river and linked to the hinterland. This is why most of the streets in the old town are winding and curvy, following the geology of the land rather than a set plan. The old city was also fortified and, although the wall is no longer, you can guess its trace in the circular road going around what used to be all of the old town.

Adapted from Google Maps

Adapted from Google Maps

Not all that was part of the old town remains today. As I mentioned above, there is a lot of new and prospective development around. However, life in the older neighbourhoods is certainly buzzing and full of artefacts witnessing Shanghai’s history. We started off at Penglai Road and got straight into a daily street market. The street was packed with all sorts of products from fresh and ready made foods to clothing. It was difficult to keep your cool with so many curious things going on and the pedestrian traffic in all directions. We started off with some of those winding streets with very modest buildings, some of which are very very old but, due to various alterations and extensions, bear few marks of their historical importance. If I recall correctly, one of the buildings dates as far back as the early 19th century, but you could never ever tell by its appearance as it’s been mended practically everywhere.

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The high rises looming in the horizon like a threat

The high rises looming in the horizon like a threat

Hand-made pork dumplings

Hand-made pork dumplings

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Mending and mending one's house

Mending and mending one’s house

Incidentally, this was pyjama land (read this post for more info)

Incidentally, this was pyjama land (read this post for more info)

After crossing the market, we carried on to slightly wider streets where more imposing, European-inspired houses fronted the street. Some prominent people lived in this area and their presence is indicated by weird plates to the front of the house, written in Chinese only, which sadly limits the appreciation of their importance. We went through the gates of some of the housing blocks, where we discovered beautiful ornamental details and where Katya told us a little bit about the past and current inhabitants and their misfortunes during the hard core Communist times. Like this 70 year-old lady who was the daughter of a poet’s butler and, just for the mere association of her family with a more bourgeois one, was sent to do forced labour for 17 years in the Xinjiang province (the westernmost province in China where conditions are harsh today and were harsher then).

Curving street

Curving street

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Entrance into a Shikumen

Entrance into a Shikumen

We then carried on into another neighbourhood, passing on the way by three small trees fenced off from the passage. The reason for this is that these trees are officially listed for being something like a 100 or a 150 years old. This neighbourhood was yet a different world. The various houses and occasional restaurant can be accessed by a network of narrow lanes, where cars cannot circulate. Before we reached our destination, we were shown by our guide these wooden pots/boxes, just lying there.

Guess what these are!

Guess what these are!

Just as I was thinking that they looked quite nice and was wondering whether it would be nice to get one or were used for rice, we were told that they are actually toilet pots! Shanghai may be the wealthiest city of China with an amazing concentration of billionnaires, yet some people still live in houses with no toilets and therefore use these pots, drop them on the street the following day for the “pot cleaning” service to come, empty them, give them a quick rinse and put them back for the owners to use again.

After about an hour and a half of walking, we knocked on a door set in a blank wall and got into what is Shanghai’s best kept secret and the city’s oldest known house. The lady who lives in it is its owner and direct descendent of the original owner, a highly learned ex-bureaucrat, who commissioned the building of the house. Because the owner and Katya know each other, we were able to visit the house, which is in absolute shambles as the owner and her family do not have the means to restore it and the government is lingering on the matter, not seeing the many values of such a house and probably having “grander” plans for the area. The house is organised in three courtyards and throughout the different indoor areas, you can clearly see the remnants of the grandeur of this house, the amazing craftsmanship and how important this family once was. This was further attested by the presence of a “Golden Stone”.

The very fine and detailed sculpted top of the gate to the second courtyard

The very fine and detailed sculpted top of the gate to the second courtyard

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This “stone” looks like a table with a thick top tile on top of it. In reality, it’s everything but that. A “Golden Stone” is a tile similar to the ones found in the paving of the Forbidden City in Beijing. They were produced in special workshops in Suzhou and the process of their fabrication used to be (and maybe still is) a very well guarded secret. Those who owned one were particularly lucky and wealthy. It’s meant to just stand and never ever be used as a table. The lady told Katya that when the Red Guards came to pillage the house during the Cultural Revolution and heard about the Golden Stone, harassed her father to give them the stone, thinking it was literally made of gold. Being 15-16 year old uneducated boys, they failed to see any value in a large piece of ceramics and that’s how it still remains in the property of the family.

The Golden Stone

The Golden Stone

The stamp of the factory in Suzhou

The stamp of the factory in Suzhou

The state of the house and courtyard was obviously very sad to see. What was worse was the fact that a Danish practice had managed to solve the puzzle so to say, by looking at every single beam and piece of wood and understand which piece goes where in the overall structure. They proposed to restore the house and found funds for it but the Shanghai Municipality didn’t let them proceed with it for sheer national pride. They argued that such a project could only be undertaken by a Chinese firm…

Equally sad and weird was to see in what conditions the owner lived, especially coming from such a learned family and whose mother is, we were told, a most refined and well-mannered woman. See for yourselves…

The room where the owner lives

The room where the owner lives

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In spite of the enlightenment and wonderful discoveries made on this day, the end of the walk had a bit of a bitter taste. It comforted my theory that Communism is responsible for China and Chinese people losing millennia of culture, manners and finesse, which can be seen in the way they live and sometimes act…

The owner with a drawing from her father who re-organised Yu Garden (Yu Yuan), probably the only historic site to see in Shanghai

The owner with a drawing from her father who re-organised Yu Garden (Yu Yuan), probably the only historic site to see in Shanghai

Giving in

3 Feb

If you have been vaguely following the news lately, you may have seen that China has been featuring regularly in the headlines. Not so much because of the unexpected growth in January, contrary to 2012 anxieties and predictions, but because of the terrible pollution that has blighted first and foremost Beijing and, to a lesser degree, Shanghai. (Although distinct, I don’t think the two issues are entirely unrelated.)

A healthy air quality index (AQI) is between 0 and 50, which has probably not happened in Chinese cities in the last 30 years. You may also know that the American Embassy in Beijing has been independently monitoring the air quality in Beijing and, more recently, in Shanghai. According to their website, an AQI above 200 is considered “very unhealthy” and above 300 “hazardous”. About two weeks ago, Beijing reached a terrible 993!!! for which there is simply no descriptive term. One of the reasons, besides the number of cars and factories, is because coal is still heavily relied on in power stations and to heat houses. A lot of coal mines or mining cities surround Beijing and obviously make the situation worse.

From what we know, Shanghai has never reached such toxic levels as Beijing has. Its periphery is still heavily industrialised and so are many of the cities surrounding it, like Hangzhou, Suzhou etc. However, we are far from healthy air quality levels. There are a few mobile apps, which tell you what the daily AQI is hour by hour. I have a few friends who have downloaded it but I refuse to. We all know the air quality is shit so why know precisely how bad it is. On bad days I can see it from home, which is on the 18th floor. Even on those days, life goes on as usual. J. goes to work and so does anyone who has to go out of the house, for whatever reason. You may have seen in the press this picture of people doing their taiji in Fuyang (about 3 hours on the train from Shanghai).

In Fuyang

In Fuyang (Source: http://totallycoolpix.com)

In Beijing

In Beijing (Source: http://totallycoolpix.com)

Shanghai some time in the past two weeks (Source: http://totallycoolpix.com)

Shanghai probably some time in the past two weeks (Source: http://totallycoolpix.com)

One of our views on one of the clearest days recently

One of our views on one of the clearest days recently

The other side - also on that clear day

The other side with Suzhou Creek – also on that clear day

The same on a bad day, coupled with a bit of drizzle

The same on a bad day, coupled with a bit of drizzle

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The Suzhou Creek side

So we, or to be more accurate, I have given in. Unlike two of our friends, I still have not bought the face masks, but as of today we are equipped with this:

Spot the odd looking object

Spot the odd looking object

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This is an air purifier that we’ve just bought. J. doesn’t really believe in it but I do because I think it can’t do any harm and we should put chances on our side. Doctors recommend that you should have one if you have kids at home, so why not adults?

The poor transparency and apparently lack of or few improvement measures about all things health related are definitely the most worrying aspect of living in China. There’s no easy way around it. One has to hope that, as my father says, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Shanghai Randoms #3

28 Dec

Merry Christmas everyone, friends or random readers! Hope you’re all having a fabulous time off. I’m too busy spending quality time with family and friends to write anything lengthy but here are a few totally random pictures of Shanghai mostly, which I’ve been collecting for a while. Hope you’ll enjoy them and happy new year to all!

In summer, there are street dancing classes. This one is next to our house.

In summer, there are street dancing classes. This one is next to our house.

Vendeuse lotus Pudong

In the subway

In the subway

Waiting for the train to arrive

Waiting for the train to arrive

On summer holiday

On summer holiday

In Sanya

In Sanya

The method of those who can't afford pampers

The method of those who can’t afford pampers (it took me a year to finally get this shot).

Crazy laundry

Crazy laundry

On how to combine a loft and Graeco-Roman temple and miss a column out of two

On how to combine a loft and a Graeco-Roman temple and miss a column out of two (Shaanxi Bei Lu).

Global city, major attraction. Still I'm always amazed when I walk on the Bund.

Global city, major tourist attraction. Still I’m always amazed when I walk on the Bund.

I just can't get enough...

I just can’t get enough…

Prosecco at the Peninsula

Prosecco at the Peninsula

The ashtray I intend to steal some day

The ashtray I intend to steal some day.

Promoting appropriate behaviours

27 Nov

We’ve all had unpleasant experiences on public transportation, in any city anywhere in the world. Somebody speaking too loudly on their mobile phone, somebody pushing you or stepping on your foot and not apologising, someone throwing something on the floor and leaving it there, etc.

A lot of people who live in China or who have visited some of China’s big cities will tell you Chinese people are rude. It’s hard and unfair to generalise of course, but it is also fair to say that some of their habits are different from ours and therefore some things, which are frowned upon elsewhere, are accepted here. Examples are: spitting loudly on the streets, making noise when you eat or not refraining a burp afterwards instead getting it out discreetly. Of course, like everywhere else, rude people exist here as well and I have seen spits in our elevator or, worse, one of my students spitting in class. Obviously, as an intolerant lǎowài*, I was so shocked that I yelled at him instantly. It is also fair to say that some Chinese people are particularly uninhibited, like the man taking off his shirt and casually lying on his side at Beijing Airport (see this post: Shanghai Randoms #1).

In new situations or settings, it can be argued, some people do not know what is acceptable behaviour from what isn’t and it may take some time to adapt. The subway or underground network in Chinese cities is not old at all. I would say about 10 years at most. When you take the underground in Shanghai (and probably in other cities – it certainly was the case when I was in Beijing in 2004), what you will notice first is that people on the platform certainly don’t wait for people to get off the train before getting in. So if you are unfortunate enough to commute during rush hour every day (thankfully I don’t), it can be an extremely violent experience at every station. Likewise, when there are free seats, people will rush like mad and push you around to put their asses down. No courtesy to be seen here. And there are far worse behaviours, which shock Chinese and foreigners equally – this China Smack link probably tops it all. So that’s why, I assume, the underground company has decided to put these videos (taken it seems from the CCTV cameras inside coaches) of people behaving inappropriately, such as picking their toes, and to point out what’s acceptable and what’s not during your daily or occasional commute.

* lǎowài: respectful word for foreigner

On mid-term exams and anger

24 Nov

Last week was exam week and so I am left with about 80 copies to correct. It’s really no fun for 90% of what I read and definitely the bit of the job that I hate, especially when I see zero efforts put into the answers. I have to say that some students also do not understand anything that I say, when I say anything I mean absolutely nothing. I knew that before, I may have not grasped to what extent their knowledge of English was non-existent from week 1, but by the mid-term exam it was crystal clear.

Of course, when I try to speak to these specific students in class and try to get them to understand something or get an answer from them, all I get is: “Tā shuō shénme?” (What is she saying?), “jiù shì, jiù shì …” (it’s just that, it’s just that…). Yet, when it comes to the exam and they realise they can’t do it at all, one idiot somehow manages to muster a few words to try and bribe me… It drove me absolutely crazy!!! All I’m tempted to do is write a nice big “Fuck off you *@!?/&@%^&*^%!” as an answer and get out all the frustration pent up from teaching these spoilt brats and from the university’s ill-adapted curriculum.

I spy a wedding

21 Nov

A little while ago, on a weekday, while I was at home minding my own business, I was bothered by an extremely loud sound of fireworks. Fireworks are extremely common in China; you can hear them anywhere and especially at anytime of the day rather than the night. They use them for absolutely any occasion, the opening of a new shop, the birth of a baby, etc. The principle goes that noise scares the bad spirits, while the good spirits stay around. So they happen all the time, but you just never see them… noise but no spectacle.

These fireworks however I was able to see. Not that they were any interesting but I could see where they were coming from and why they were being lit: a wedding. More precisely, the bride car procession, announced by the fireworks and then slowly making its way to the entrance of the building where a red carpet was rolled down to welcome her in.

Obviously the bride is almost always more easily recognisable than the groom. In China, brides traditionally wear red, but globalisation has made the white gown more fashionable. So I can’t really tell you who was accompanying her. It could have been the newly weds going into their conjugal home or the bride and her parents going to the in-laws. It was in broad daylight, so it may be a bit early to end the party, especially that weddings are a big deal in this country

I shall ask my Chinese teacher and let you know…

At this stage, I was still wondering what was going on and kept my windows firmly closed.

Then I noticed this car with the little heart to the front.

 

The paparazzi are aligned!

And there she is!

My mum taking a picture of a more traditional bride in Beijing

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