Tag Archives: family

Deeply disturbed

23 May

The demographic issue in China is fascinating. The single child policy was set up in 1978 (and enacted in 1980) for the obvious reason of curbing the birth rate of the country. So (at least if I think of myself as still being young) it is not that old. In 2004 during my very first visit here, it had already struck me how convinced Chinese people are of this very drastic measure, how conscious they are too of their demographic “problem” and even that some of them feel a sense of responsibility to contribute to changing their country’s demographic profile. Coming from a tiny country (Lebanon) where the whole population (5 millions, including the current 1 million refugee population) is the equivalent of that of a third tier city in China, on a number of occasions I’ve had remarks such as: “It’s very good to have such a small population. In China, there are too many people” – a few times from taxi drivers as well as from people from other walks of life.

Even if it is being progressively loosened due to foreseeable pension funding problems, the single child policy remains a national matter and an individual responsibility. A long time ago now, I read an article that made me laugh. It reported with an unequivocal frown that Zhang Yimou, the famous movie director and mastermind of the Beijing Olympics opening and closing ceremonies, actually has four children! How unpatriotic! At the same time, I have been surprised by the number of Chinese people born post-1980 I met who have siblings. My first Chinese teacher has an older sister and more than a few of my ex-students also have brothers and sisters.

With the recent further loosening of the law*, it has become more acceptable to discuss the possibility of having a second child. I have often put the question to my Chinese friends or colleagues, out of sheer curiosity. While some of them do want a second child, it still surprised me how unused others are to the very concept. It feels that because so many people of my generation (I was born in 1980) and the later one grew up without a sibling that the whole idea is really alien to them and only seen through the lens of the financial “cost” of having a second child – which seems a bit reductive but understandable since you want to be able to afford the best for your offspring. Very recently however, it became clearer that there may actually be a generational damage regarding having a second child.

As I said, Chinese people are so conscious of their population problem and so unused by now to having a brother or a sister that it is even portrayed by media in part but also perhaps by new popular belief to be potentially harmful for the balance of the standard family of three. It was a conversation with two of my colleagues (one my age and the other 12 years younger, whom I consider to be highly educated) that revealed the extent of this damage. Earlier this week, I was asking my pregnant colleague (a singleton) whether she would consider having a second child. She said: “I don’t know… I hear parents cannot love two children in an equal way and will start to love the second child more than the first.” That in itself was a shock to me, the very possibility that generally parents’ love was limited to one child. Of course it can and does happen but it is rare and the family in question would be considered to be dysfunctional. Then my colleague carried on by supporting her statement by giving the example of a young (Chinese) teenage girl who committed suicide because her parents had another child. The worst part was to see how concerned both she and our younger colleague looked! I could see it in their eyes and feel the disapproval and anxiety on their faces of the possibility of having a second kid. I don’t know if it’s propaganda and brainwash or just sheer pragmatism, but either way I am still shocked that they could believe it and that media would portray having a little brother or sister to be so potentially harmful in the relationship between parents and their elder child. The mere idea of a brother or sister has not just become alien it has become inconceivable. I later found out that my younger colleague has a younger brother and has in fact really suffered from the son-preference culture that still prevails in some families in China (she also once shared that she really admired her grand-father for treating everyone, regardless of age, gender, etc. equally).

I may be a bit harsh here but I think what shocks me perhaps equally than this fear of bringing another kid into the family is how Sino-centred both my colleagues (and probably a whole lot of other, less educated people) are on this issue, how they couldn’t question this unfounded media or propaganda-generated theory or stretch their mind to all other countries of the world where the vast majority of people have one or more siblings and where the elder children are as loved by their parents as the younger ones.

*Until about two years ago, if both spouses were single children they were allowed to have two kids without paying any tax or penalty, however you want to call it. More recently, if just one of the spouses is a single child, then the couple is “allowed” to have two kids.

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

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.

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