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Early or lifelong identity problems?

8 Mar

Children are an emotional double-edged sword. They have the capacity, or rather power, to put you on top of the world when they show you their affection or attachment and to break your heart, even if unwillingly when very young. Around the time my daughter S. turned one, she split my heart in two. She woke up one morning, around 8:00 am, which is the time when her nanny H. arrives. I got into S.’s room first and H. came in right after me. As I was reaching for S. in her cot, she saw her nanny and raised her arms to her without even looking at me. A bit stubborn and in total denial, I lifted S. from her bed thinking she would realise it was me and stay with me at least for a quick morning cuddle. Instead she used her infamous terrorising technique of screeching screams and leaned unequivocally towards her nanny, making it clear whom her preference was for. This deeply upset me for some time. I complained to J. with a teary voice that S. didn’t love me anymore and I kept getting painful reminders of this by S. more or less every day throughout that week.

You get it, S. really loves her nanny which I guess, in spite of me feeling rejected by my own baby, is a good problem to have. She greets her with a big smile every morning. When we came back from Lebanon in September, after a 5-week stay, it was as if they had never left one another. To be fair, H. has earned this love. Not only does she take excellent care of S., she also spends a lot of time playing with and speaking to her. She is amazingly patient and converses with S. all day long in Mandarin mostly, with a few expressions of Shanghainese. She is twice as talkative as J. and I combined. So much so that S.’s first intonations sound Chinese and so are her first words (except for Papa). We hadn’t realised that until a trip to Europe where we were told that S.’s first noises weren’t the same as those of French, British or Lebanese toddlers.

While I was complaining about S.’s rejection to my cousins, it dawned on me that S. is probably going through a phase of thinking, or rather believing, that she too is Chinese. Although physically it couldn’t possibly be the case (she’s blond with blue eyes), she’s not conscious of what she looks like yet and I think she truly identifies with Chinese and, by default, Asian people. Think of it, she spends more time awake with her Chinese nanny than with us. Going out on the streets, she sees essentially Chinese faces who, due to her foreign features, blondness and – let’s face it – cuteness, are rarely indifferent to her. Her little buddies in our residential compound are a mix of Chinese and foreign kids, who are mostly looked after by Chinese nannies. She is therefore very much immersed in Chinese culture and language.

That S. may believe that she is Chinese and that only her parents are bizarre is actually something that J. and I have witnessed with our friends and neighbours’ daughter. The mum is Lebanese too and the dad Italian. We used to babysit their daughter regularly from the age of 4 months until S. was born. She is now four. Around the time she was 18 months, she would run around our place speaking Chinese to us, although she could clearly see we don’t have Chinese faces. She would run around our place shouting “wo lai le, wo lai le!” instead of saying: “I’m coming, I’m coming!” So much so that we would occasionally reply back in Chinese when we really wanted to make sure she understood us. However, with her parents she would speak her mum’s language, occasionally punctuated by Chinese words. Like S., she would be super friendly with Chinese people and really be attracted to Asian faces when abroad.

I still need to do my own little investigation and ask parents of other kids growing up in China, but I generally suspect that this is a common phenomenon amongst foreign children of a certain age who are looked after by Chinese ayis. These kids, if they spend a significant part of their childhood and teen age in a country which is not their parents’, will end up what is called “third-culture kids”, i.e. children who grow up immersed in cultures and languages different from those of their parents. These children, and later adults, are generally very good at navigating different cultures but the downside is that they also may not feel any sense of belonging in their parents’ country and culture of origin, or anywhere in particular for that matter.

3rd culture kids diagram

So here’s how our sense of self is supposed to work. Source: http://laurakeeney.weebly.com/third-cutlure-kids.html

 

I left Lebanon nearly 15 years ago now and, while I do feel it is still the home of my heart, until about a year ago (around the time ISIS came about) I always felt that, God forbids, should shit hit the fan in my life, I could always go back to Beirut. I often wonder how S. and her eventual sibling will relate to their “home” country Lebanon in the long run; whether, in spite of our efforts and regular visits, they’ll enjoy going there, appreciate its history, culture and uniqueness and melt in the warmth of its light or sight of the sea. I am all in favour for S.’s immersion in Chinese culture; in fact she has just joined a Chinese kindergarten. At the same time, I worry that Lebanon may just be another country for her and that she may not be able to develop any attachment to it or, worse, end up feeling rootless, with no sense of home for her multi-cultural self.

Where's my home

Source: melbourneriffraff.com.au

 

Year of the Horse – Part 2: Dinner with my Chinese teacher’s family

3 Feb

The day after our Chinese new year baptism, last Friday, we, along with our friends L. and M., were invited to have dinner at my Chinese teacher S. and her husband K.’s house with their family (his side of the family to be precise – Spring Festival is celebrated with the husband’s family). This is the equivalent of being invited to spend Christmas at your friend’s place, so a real token of friendship (by my standards at least). Just for information, as K.’s was explaining to me, the first day of Chinese new year, Chinese people do fireworks but also stay at home and usually watch the national show of the Spring Festival on national television during which celebrities sing and entertain. This year, wearing a red dress for good luck, French actress Sophie Marceau, apparently a real celebrity in this country, was part of the show and sang “La Vie en Rose” in French with Liu Huan (singer and song writer) for the good people of the People’s Republic of China. See it on YouTube here.

But back to our evening.

We had already been invited to dinner at S. and K’s place some time before Christmas. J. and I had arrived about 10-15 minutes late and found all the guests already sitting at the table and waiting for us to start. There was no small talk or drinks before sitting on the dining table. It was a little bit embarrassing that everyone waited for us to start eating. This time, I insisted that we get there on time, especially that K.’s whole family would be around. We got there only five minutes late and thankfully, although many dishes were already laid on the two tables, we were not the last ones to arrive and nobody was sitting at the dining tables yet.

We were introduced to the family and were very warmly welcomed by everyone. There were four generations, with the grandmother, two of the mum’s brothers and their children and grand-children. One of the uncles was particularly talkative and we chatted with him for a while. He commented on our understanding of Chinese and encouraged J. to be more “nǔlì” i.e. hardworking at studying Chinese. He asked us about our drinking capabilities (how many cans of beer) and showed us the báijiǔ (Chinese white alcohol distilled from sorghum or maize, a traditional and VERY strong drink reputed to be absolutely vile), a very old one in small bottles, they had selected for the occasion. I was a bit nervous at the idea of tasting it. It is a much-dreaded drink amongst the lǎowài* community of China as it is a very acquired taste for us. Somehow I managed to escape it after over two years but tonight, clearly there was nowhere to hide.

The evening was lovely. Surprisingly, I liked (this) báijiǔ! Then again it was a very special one. We had fun conversation with K’s cousins at our table, tons of great food, with K.’s mum and other uncle tirelessly cooking as the rest of us were eating. The friendly uncle went back and forth between the two rooms to do “gān bēi” (bottoms up) with us and make sure we were eating well.

As other Chinese occasions, things tend to end up fairly abruptly. So around two hours after we had arrived, when we started to feel stuffed, some members of the family started to leave. We lingered an extra 20 minutes or so and then started to make our way out. We were the last ones to leave. I guess the sudden end shocks us less (after attending S. and K.’s wedding and having already had dinner at their place) but we probably still need some time to get our act together and actually leave.

Just as we were putting on our coats and L. and M. getting their son I. ready to go, K.’s mum gave us bags filled with a huge bags of home-made crisps (with white and black sesame seeds), two different (and big) pieces of beef (one cold-cut and another salted and dried one), as well as a full lotus root stuffed with rice (sweet and chewy).

What else to say… We were very moved to be so well and so generously received by a very special friend and her lovely family on the most familial celebration in Chinese culture. Good times!

* lǎowài: respectful word for foreigner

The Year of the Horse – Part 1: Celebrating with noise!

2 Feb

On Thursday and Friday, China and a few countries around celebrated the Chinese new year and the forthcoming year of the horse. After the year of the dragon and that of the snake, it is our third lunar new year – or Spring Festival –  since we moved to Shanghai. For the first time, we decided to stay around, first because we took too long to buy our plane tickets to Cambodia and second because we thought that we ought to spend a Chinese new year in China at least once. We had been told or warned by a few foreign veterans that spending Chinese new year in Shanghai was great, was terrible, was a bad idea, was a “special” experience, etc. etc. etc. The most precise information I got though was from a colleague who told me that she loved it because, overall, Shanghai is very quiet because most people head back to their hometowns. At the same time of course, one should expect a lot of fireworks. Not the pretty kind done by professionals in a wide open space for everyone to see. The small, noisy, non-visual type that anyone can buy and blow on the street. She also said that the only way to enjoy it was to take part to the hype. So I decided that we should embrace the whole idea. This year the holiday started on the day of Chinese new year (that was Thursday 30th of January). Those of us who didn’t flee the country went to work on that day. The city had already considerably emptied up and, after a short day at work, I ran a few errands before going for dinner with friends. At 5:30ish, the normal rush hour, streets were empty. Commercial activity, which never ever stops in Shanghai, was practically non-existent. Eight if not nine out of ten shops were shut, anywhere you looked. In addition, the very high pollution levels and consequent low haze and glaring light gave the city a pre-apocalyptic atmosphere,  intensified by the either distant or closer sound of fireworks interrupting the general, heavy silent. Truly an apocalyptic atmosphere suited for movies…

The AQI levels on that day

The AQI levels on that day

All shops closed on Kangding Lu, near home

All shops closed on Kangding Lu, near home

Normally due to all sorts of activities, you avoid walking on this side of Kangding Lu

Normally due to all sorts of activities, you avoid walking on this side of Kangding Lu

At the corner of Kangding Lu and Changhua Lu

At the corner of Kangding Lu and Changhua Lu

Jiangning Lu, normally really busy at this time of the day

Jiangning Lu, normally really busy at this time of the day

Oddly our friends managed to find the restaurant they wanted to go to open – Di Shui Dong (very good incidentally) on Maoming Lu. The restaurant itself is quite a warm place in terms of its décor and relaxed atmosphere. It was quite full and lively and therefore a welcome contrast to the outside vibe. There we met other friends, a group of six boys arriving with their stash of fireworks. Although J. was not keen about the whole fireworks thing, I insisted that we join them later as part of my embrace-the-event plan. And so after dinner, I asked a friend where we should actually pop the stuff (I might’ve spent too many years in France and the UK, being so mindful about health and safety issues) and was a bit disturbed when he found the question a bit stupid and replied “Just here… anywhere… on the street…” I didn’t quite have the time or space to tell him that we should perhaps look for a suitable place, we were already out of the restaurant and one of his mates was already lining firecrackers just at the entrance of the building. The guy wouldn’t listen to anyone telling him to do it elsewhere and just lit it here and there, causing more noise and smoke than anything else.

At the entrance of Di Shui Dong

At the entrance of Di Shui Dong

We then headed to a nearby (small residential) street close to another group of lǎowài (turned out it was my colleague, her family and friends) who had already started their festivities with their young kids and who were greeting one another with “Xin nian kuai le!” – happy new year in Mandarin. Our stock lasted half an hour I guess. It was fun, convivial, noisy, unconscious, slightly dangerous, spontaneous, childish, traditional, not very mindful of local residents or traffic, smoky, scary, not environmentally friendly at all and brought back childhood memories of celebrations of Eid el Saydeh (the Virgin Mary’s Day) in Lebanon… J. and I then headed back home while the others split to continue their evening. At midnight, all hell broke loose with noise levels truly high and fireworks reaching us all the way to the 18th floor and lighting up our flat with their colours. It lasted for a while into the night. But since then (3 days now), I can’t say that there have been more fireworks than the usual. I liked the whole experience and I will remember it fondly. We may not be locals and never will be but after the third one, Chinese new year is now part of our calendar and the lunar signs of the dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, etc. siding next to the scorpio, taurus, pisces, virgin, balance, etc. * lǎowài: respectful word for foreigner

Beyond Index!

6 Dec

As I am writing this, I am trying not to give in to panic. As I mentioned in my last post, we have had very high pollution levels in Shanghai during the past month. Before that, I was in Beijing on the fateful 22nd of October, during which the AQI (air quality index*) was so bad that foreign media spoke about it. Further north in Harbin, people couldn’t see further than 3 metres and the airport had to cancel all incoming and outgoing flights on that day. Whenever this has happened up north, I kept saying to myself good we live in Shanghai instead of Beijing.

Yet somehow, it seems that the tables have turned. Today in Shanghai we have a whopping 503 AQI which is simply described as “Beyond Index”… It’s far off from the 900+ that north eastern China has experienced earlier this year but still it is beyond “hazardous” and poses risks for absolutely everyone. According to the American Embassy, it is recommended that “Everyone should avoid all outdoor exertion.”

The US Consulate AQI reading today

The US Consulate AQI reading today

At work and amongst friends, we have been commenting on the pollution levels but we also seem to be in permanent and increasing state of shock as the AQI levels have been going up and as our health has been declining. One of my colleagues has had serious respiratory problems, another one currently has bronchitis, a friend has chronic lung problems too and I have inflamed lymphoma below my jaw.

Two weeks ago, I was able to work from home for a full week but since then I have had no excuse not to get out. So I have finally bulged in and started to wear a mask when going out. I first wore the one that my colleague bought for everyone in the office, then have upgraded to one with a valve which enables you to breath more comfortably but leaves two horizontal marks on my face by the time I get to work. For the past two weeks, I have been waking up every morning with the hope that the situation would improve but it’s been getting worse, so much so that today you can actually SEE it. The white smog has been getting thicker and thicker, significantly affecting visibility and, in spite of the mask, giving me a very mild but present sore throat. (For sake of comparison see pictures below of the view from today and on a clear day)

The colour of the sky today near home

The colour of the sky around 1:30 pm today near home

My first and second masks

My first and second masks

On the street, while I admire Chinese people’s stoicism, I wonder how most of them as well as a few foreigners still don’t wear a mask and let their kids out. I’ve been asking if the local media have been mentioning anything but it appears that there’s little coverage, let alone outrage. The only explanation proposed has been that people north of the Yangtze (about 100 km north of Shanghai) have been using coal to warm their houses and it’s therefore affecting us. I find it very unlikely given that it’s not even that cold (around 15 degrees Celsius during the day) and during the worst days of winter in the past two years we have never had that. So, I don’t know… Is it because it’s Christmas soon in other parts of the world and factories are working double shifts to supply Christian people with gifts?

In the meantime, I have cancelled my plans for tonight and I intend to limit outings to the strictest minimum. One thing is sure, if things don’t improve, anyone usually receiving a Christmas gift from me shouldn’t expect anything from China this year. What I really wish for right now is a massive storm with lots of rain to clean up the atmosphere and hope things will get better soon because I actually like Shanghai and would like to stay here for a few more years.

*For more explanations on AQI and measures of pollution levels, see my post Giving In.

Post-scriptum: It’s just 2 hours after writing the post above and I saw that Le Monde has an article on the unusual levels of pollution. Apparently, the Municipality of Shanghai has recommended people not to leave their houses, construction and factories to stop all work (although I did hear works from home). Apparently, the high levels are due to industrial activities combined with unusual weather conditions. The article doesn’t mention what conditions but I suspect it’s the lack of rain.

Today around 2pm

Today around 2pm – from home

On a clear day

On a clear day

Today

Today 2pm also – other view from home

...and on a clear day.

…and on a clear day.

Mooncakes

18 Sep

Those who know me and with whom I have discussed living in China know how enthusiastic and in what state of salivation I can get when speaking about some Chinese cuisines. Not that I have become an expert at it, but after nearly two years I have come to looooooove parts of it. I say parts of it as, I may have mentioned it before in this blog or at least in conversations, when you arrive to China you quickly realise that there is no such thing as Chinese food. China is so wide and diverse (geographically, topographically, climactically, linguistically, etc.) that it is absurd to assume that it is homogeneous in any way – it is after all as big as Europe! This is a common mistake, and one which I was certainly a culprit of before and when arriving here. Thankfully, I’ve realised a few things since then.

So far, I have liked or loved most dishes I have tasted, particularly dishes from the Sichuan (super spicy), Hunan and Yunnan provinces. Fortunately I guess, I can’t say I have been pushed to my relative or absolute limits in terms of tasting bizarre foods. With J., we are regular jellyfish eaters, but we haven’t yet tasted chicken feet or, to address the common and somewhat lame joke, dog, cat, rat, snake, monkey and the likes. Those harsher dishes are not common in Shanghai and known to be more the speciality of the Guangdong province or, in other words, of Cantonese people.

Nonetheless, one common and national, if punctual, pastry I have to admit I do not enjoy are mooncakes. As their name indicates, they are small cakes which are round or square and which look very pretty on the outside. They are generally produced and consumed around this time of the year, in September and October, as part of the Mid-Autumn Festival (literally zhōng qiū jié) honouring the moon goddess of immortality and celebrated on the day of the full moon. During this time, families are meant to come together and eat round foods, such as (round) mooncakes or grapes. In the corporate world, any self-respecting company also usually offers mooncakes to its employees and sometimes clients. So far, J. has received two boxes, one from his own company and one from a supplier. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a third one.

Corporate mooncakes always come in fancy boxes.

Corporate mooncakes always come in fancy boxes. You can barely see it, but the top of this one is embossed.

Mooncake 1

This is our third Mid-Autumn Festival. I have tasted mooncakes when we settled in Shanghai and, since then, I have stayed clear from them. The reason I do not enjoy them is because they are Forrest Gump’s chocolate box, but with far more surprises. First, mooncakes can be savoury or sweet. However, from their shape or colour, there is no way (for us at least) to know what you’re gonna get. Second, you can be in for a big surprise. The mild version comes filled with some sort of bean paste which is either neutral in taste or vaguely sweet. But there are mooncakes filled with cooked egg yolk, maybe even duck egg yolk which can be extremely salty, or worse: fish. The trouble is that when you are expecting bean paste, you taste buds are in for a wild ride if you get fish or egg. J. is far more courageous than me and goes for it with the risks it entails. That’s how I know what’s in them. He did insist that I taste one yesterday, which was filled with sweet coconut paste and was therefore very nice. But it’s the first mooncake bite I had since I got here.

Most likely, egg yolk filling.

Most likely, egg yolk filling.

As in other countries, the year is punctuated by delicacies, dishes and foods that announce the time of a season or some festivities. Next in line in November are the hairy crabs which, unlike the mooncakes, do announce the real arrival of autumn in Shanghai as they coincide with a drop in temperature and, incidentally, are far more appreciated by my palate.

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

From home 2 - bad day_small

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

Air purifier 2_small

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.

2012 in review by WordPress

15 Jan

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for my blog. Have a look by clicking on the link at the end of this post.

Thank you to all of you who follow or read me regularly and anyone who has ever liked or commented on my blog. I’ll strive to keep posting relevant stories about life in China in 2013.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 2,500 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 4 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

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