Friday, November 19, 2010

The differences between China and Germany in pictures.

I have come across a series of pictures which rather cleverly capture the differences between life in China and in Germany. The artist who made them, Yang Liu, was born in Beijing but moved to Germany when she was quite young.

Below are some of the pictures. The blue part represents Germany, and the red part China:

How emotions are expressed

How the weather affect emotions

The position of the Boss

How problems are tackled

Noise level in a restaurant

Relationships between people


Sense of self

Modes of Transport in 1970 and 2006

The life of the elderly

The position of the child



Although the series of pictures is specifically meant to represent the differences between Germany and China, most of them could also be applied to the differences between China and Britain or any other North European country, or the United States for that matter.
Interestingly, some of these pictures could also represent the differences between Germany and Italy, or between North European cultures and Mediterranean ones in general. The ones on punctuality, queueing and the noise level in restaurants certainly could be applied to Germany vs. Italy as well (actually when it comes to punctuality, I think the Chinese are somewhat more punctual than the Italians. However there's no beating the Germans on that one). Other pictures are more specific to China and Eastern cultures, for instance the ones related to expressing your feelings, the sense of self and the role of the boss.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The first case of anti-foreigner hostility directed towards me in China

A few days ago I had the experience of witnessing a case of open hostility directed against me as a foreigner, for the first time since I have started living in China two years ago. The setting was the small city of Chengde (承德) in Hebei province, slightly to the north of Beijing. I went there with a few friends over the holidays for the Chinese national day. Chengde used to be the summer resort of the emperors during the Qing dinasty. The Manchu rulers would come to this place to escape the heat of Beijing, but they would also use Chengde to hold talks with the nomadic groups who lived along China's northern borders, making use of the town's location on the northern fringes of China. Emperor Qianlong (1735-1796) commissioned the building of twelve temples around the town, eight of which survive today. One of the temples is an exact replica of the famous Potala palace in Tibet, once the residence of the Dalai Lamas.

It was outside the entrance to the 避暑山庄 (bishu shanzhuang or literally the "avoid summer town"),the summer resort of the emperors, that the unpleasant incident occured. My friends and I were waiting in a queue to buy the entry tickets, which were ridicolously overpriced (120 yuan each with no student discount!). Our group included two Chinese, a Tibetan girl, a Dutchman and myself. While my Dutch friend was buying the tickets and I was nearby, a Chinese man buying his ticket in a different queue suddenly blurted out in an angry tone in Chinese that he had seen so many television programmes about how the foreigners burned down and looted the Summer Palace in the last few days, that he really couldn't stand foreigners. After that he took his ticket and walked away. The comment was clearly directed at my Dutch friend and probably at me, as we were the only foreigners on the scene at the time.

For those of you who don't know the background: the Summer Palace the man referred to is the Yuanmingyuan complex in Beijing, also know as the old Summer Palace, not to be confused with the new Summer Palace which is still a famous tourist attraction. It was built in the eighteenth century, and it used to be a magnificent complex of palaces and gardens where the Qing emperors resided, until it was looted and destroyed by British and French troops in 1860 during the Second Opium War. This act of wanton destruction is still seen as a potent symbol of Western aggresion and imperialism in China. The 150th anniversary of the looting of Yuanmingyuan falls on October 18th this year, and a series of activities and events will mark the anniversary (all of them under the theme of "peace, cooperation and friendship", including the Sino-French cooperation society donating a statue of Victor Hugo, who wrote about the looting in a book). I suppose that there have been a lot of television programmes talking about the anniversary in the last few days, and this is what set the man off.

To be clear, the destruction of Yuanmingyuan was a barbaric act of destruction which deserves all our revulsion. It was theoretically done as retaliation for the torture and execution of twenty foreign prisoners by the Chinese (in the context of a war of aggression started by the British and the French). On the other hand, when the British troops finally burned down the palace, 300 eunuchs, maids and workers were unable to escape because the gates were locked, and they were burned to death. However, all this happened 150 years ago. It is clearly not a good reason to go abusing Westerners one meets nowadays. Not to mention that the man had no way of knowing whether my friend and I were British or French, but clearly in his eyes one white person is worth another.

As I said this was the first instance of open hostility towards me as a foreigner which I have come across in China, and it is certainly not a common occurence. In my estimation it is actually far more common for foreigners to experience hostility directed at them in Britain or in other Western countries. One has to live in China a long time before coming across such a thing. A friendly kind of curiosity is a much more common reaction to foreigners. The man at the center of the incident (which was after all very minor) has most likely never had any interraction with a foreigner throughout his life, which partly explains his attitude and the fact that he sees all foreigners as an undistinguished mass. However, the incident is significant of the fact that the memories of the "century of humiliation", the Opium wars and Western colonialism are still strong in China, and they can still generate a certain resentment of Westerners, which the recent commemoration of the destruction of Yuanmingyuan obviously brought to the surface in the case of this man in Chengde.

Inside the imperial resort in Chengde, there were more reminders of the history of European imperialism in China. The resort turned out to be the place where the emperor was forced to sign the convention of Beijing in 1860, under which the Chinese ceeded to the British part of the Kowloon peninsula which now lies in Hong Kong. Next to the spot where the signing took place, there was a plaque entitled "never forget the national humiliation".

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Cuba's double currency

One unusual fact about Cuba which I had already heard about before going there, but whose significance I didn't realize before arriving, is that the country has two different currencies in use. There is the National Peso and the Convertible Peso. The Convertible Peso (CUC) used to be pegged to the same value as the US dollar, although it is nowadays slightly more valuable. The National Peso is exactly 25 times less valuable than the CUC. This system with two different currencies has basically created two parallel economies within the country. As I understand it, basic goods and services are bought using the national peso, while any luxury items can only be bought with CUC. Items sold in national pesos tend to be extremely cheap by Western standards, while items sold in CUC tend to have similar prices to what you might find in Europe. Basically, the CUC is the currency of the rich, and the national peso is the currency of the poor. Most ordinary Cubans are paid in the national peso, which means that a whole host of goods and services are off-limits to them. Foreign tourists generally only use the CUC during their stay. The result is that Cuba is not a particularly cheap country to travel around in for foreigners, since taxis, hotels and good restaurants have prices in CUC and are no cheaper than they would be in a Western country (although the service is not necessarily as good).

Personally I only used national pesos during the last two days of my stay, and that was only because I and the other foreigner I was with wanted to do things in Havana like taking public transport and going to the cinema, which require the national currency. Both services tunred out to be extremely cheap: the bus cost less than one peso (remember, 25 national pesos make up one dollar), and the cinema cost exactly one peso. When my friend went into a bank in Havana and said he wanted to exchange two CUC for national pesos (that being quite enough for all our needs), the bank clerk gave him quite a surprised look, since very few foreigners ever use the national currency.

The moment when I got a real inkling into what it is like to live in Cuba only using the national peso came when my friend and I went to Coppelia, a famous ice-cream parlour in the middle of Havana. There is a large hall where the ice-cream is sold in national pesos, and a stand outside where it is sold in CUC. On the first day we went to the CUC stand, where there was almost no queue and lots of different flavours, although the price was 1 CUC (in other words one dollar) for a scoop. The next day we went to the section where the prices are in the national peso. We had to wait one hour (literally) in a queue just to get in, since the place is extremely popular with Cubans and there are huge queues to enter the building. When we did finally manage to get in, we sat down in the hall and had to wait quite a while for a bad tempered waitress to come and serve us. When she did we found out that there were only two available flavours (and since one of them was chocolate which I don't eat, I had to settle for one flavour). Apparently, the two flavours vary from day to day. On the other hand, the ice-cream was extremely cheap, with about five scoops costing 5 pesos, or 20 cents.

Basically, when you pay in national pesos the service and the queuing times are reminiscent of the former Soviet Union, while if you pay in CUC you get Western standards and Western prices. Most Cubans' wages are in the national peso, and the average wage amounts to around 400-700 pesos a month. This would translate to only 17-30 CUC or dollars a month. That is why using the CUC is out of reach for many Cubans. It also gives you an idea of how precious tourists' tips are to Cubans. When I was staying in a resort in Playa Jibacoa, I gave a maid a 10 CUC tip to wash my clothes for me (admittedly it was a very large tip). She was extremely grateful and told me "esto me va a ayudar mucho" (this will help me a lot). Later on I realized that I had given her about half her monthly wage just to wash a few clothes.

Que linda es Cuba?

I am back from a two week journey to Cuba. The reason for my trip to Cuba was the fact that the World Esperanto Congress was held in Havana this year, and my parents were also taking part. As a result they invited me to come along and meet them in the Caribbean island, which is literally on the other side of the world from Beijing.

Cuba was certainly an interesting (as well as a relaxing) place to visit, and the contrast between Havana and Beijing couldn't have been greater. I am aware of the fact that two weeks is not nearly enough to come to grips with a country and what it means to live there. However, I have gathered some impressions of Cuba and I have learnt a bit about the country, and my knowledge of Spanish allowed me to chat to people everywhere I went.

My first impression of Havana, to be honest, was one of decay and stagnation. Even the center of the city is full of crumbling old buildings, decaying pavements and ancient US and Soviet cars which are miracolously still running, as well as some shiny new ones. The lack of shops and commercial activity is especially stunning coming from Beijing. Although I found one modern supermarket in Miramar, the fancy embassy neighbourhood, there is a general scarcity of shops and businesses and a total lack of the large shopping malls you can find in most capital cities of the developing world. What shops there are usually only allow purchases in convertible pesos and not in national pesos (more on the double currency system in the next entry).

What the city lacks in shops, it makes up for in political rethoric. The walls are full of posters and slogans invoking Che Guevara, the revolution, defending Cuba from US intereferences etc... (in the photo on top, you can see a mural of the Committees in Defense of the Revolution on a Havana wall, saying "More united and combative in defending socialism"). Immediately ouside the airport, big billboards inform you that one hour of US embargo deprives Cuba of enough electricity to generate I don't know how many power plants, and similar sorts of things. What I didn't notice in the streets are large images of Fidel Castro himself. Perhaps that would seem too dictatorial.

One of the causes embraced with most passion in Cuba seems to be the liberation of the five Cubans who were imprisoned in Florida in the nineties on espionage charges. The five were apparently investigating some of the anti-Cuban terrorist groups who operate in Florida, mainly among Cuban exiles. Some such groups have certainly been responsible for shameful acts of terrorism directed against Cuba, like the bombing of a civilian Cuban flight from Barbados to Jamaica in 1976 which killed 73 people, whose culprits now live happily in the US. These five Cubans are now national heroes, and all over Havana posters demanding the release of "the five heroes prisoners of the empire" are in evidence. The museum of the revolution dedicates a whole floor to them.

As I stayed in Havana, I found that Cubans tend to be laid back, friendly and sociable. If you can speak Spanish it is quite easy to get chatting to people, although in the center of the city you have to avoid the touts who constantly try and start up a conversation with tourists for easily imaginable hidden motives. The city certainly has its charm, especially the historic center with its old colonial houses (in the photo, a street in central Havana). It is also quite safe, unlike most Latin American capitals. The laid back atmosphere is so different from Beijing's mad rush that in the beginning I felt like everyone was moving in slow motion.

I have to say that I feel quite ambiguous about the country's social and political situation, as the Cubans themselves obviously do. On the one hand, it is true that Cuba lacks the terrible slums and extreme poverty which many Latin American countries display, including economic powerhouses like Brazil. Education and health services really are free and accessible for everyone, as the Cuban government loves to remind everyone. As a result, the UN's human development index, which is calculated on the basis of indicators such as illiteracy rates, average life expectancy and average income so as to give a composite picture of human well-being, ranks Cuba 51st out of the 182 countries listed, above most Latin American and third world countries.

This is all undeniable. At the same time, the island is no paradise for most of its people. All the Cubans I spoke to complained about how hard life is, with average wages simply insufficient to support themselves. Most Cubans apparently have to supplement their income in some way, with the lucky ones receiving money from relatives abroad or working in the tourist industry, while others have to take on a second trade or work in the black market. A taxi driver told me how he had a university degree in economics, but he became a taxi driver because it is more profitable to do a job like driving a taxi which involves tourists in some way than to get a proper professional job. Although I doubt that the average person leads an easier life in the neighbouring countries of Central America and the Caribbean, life in Cuba is also no joke.

Of course, the strict US blockade certainly plays a big role in Cuba's troubles and economic stagnation, with the United States effectively making it very difficult even for European companies to trade with Cuba. Then again, the United States are simply unable to accept the idea that a Latin American country might slip out of their control, and their anti-Cuban extremism knows no bounds. It is illegal for US citizens to even visit Cuba (actually, in a typical twist, it is technically illegal only for them to spend money there, not to go there). Ones who do visit have to pass through Mexico or Canada. If they are found out, they have to pay a huge fine. A young man from California came to the esperanto congress in Cuba via Mexico. Before leaving Cuba, he made sure to throw out of his bag anything which might prove he had visited the place.

Another striking fact about Cuba is the extremely limited spread of the internet, which in 2010 is truly surprising. Good hotels in Havana usually have a few computers in the lobby which can be used to access the internet, but the service is slow and expensive, costing about 6 dollars an hour. The vast majority of Cubans apparently don't have an internet connection at home, and neither do they have other opportunities to access the internet. I never saw an internet cafe' in Cuba. I have read that some exist, but they are few and the price is far too high for ordinary Cubans. A young Cuban esperantists who wanted to correspond with me actually asked me for my postal addres, since he didn't have an e-mail. Another one gave me his cousin's e-mail, since he has the opportunity to get online through his university.

As always, the Cuban government blames the US embargo for forcing them to make use of a more expensive and slow satellite connection because they can't connect to the US's internet cables which they would otherwise do. Others blame the government itself for not wanting ordinary Cubans to have access to the internet. I don't have the technical expertise and knowledge to assess these claims, but the basic situation is that Cuba is essentialy an offline society. There is talk of Venezuela, Cuba's new oil-rich ally, helping the country aquire a better internet connection, but up to date this has not happened (in the last photo, young people gathered in a cultural center in Havana).

Monday, May 17, 2010

21 million people go without internet access for 10 months

How many of you often think that you should waste less time on the internet, chatting on MSN to people you haven't met in years (or ever), updating your profile on some social networking site or watching random videos on Youtube?
Well in the marvellous land of China, an entire province of 21.5 million people has been forced to let go of such time wasting habits for almost a year. In the province of Xinjiang, a huge expanse of land in China's North-Western frontier, the internet was entirely cut off across the province since the ethnic riots occured last July. The authorities, claiming that the Muslim separatists were using the internet to organize their activities, decided point blank to block any access to the internet in the entire province, which is around eight times bigger than Great Britain and has about a third of Britain's population. The move was justified with the need to "maintain social stability" and contrast activities harmful to it. This policy was only reversed two days ago, when the internet was finally unblocked in Xinjiang after ten months.
Although in China many rural areas still lack internet access in any case, in cities (including Xinjiang's cities) the internet is a part of people's lives almost as much as it is in the West. The situation in Xinjiang represents a unique sociological experiment, which no university researcher could ever hope to repeat: seeing how a relatively modern society copes without the internet for an extended period of time.
According to a report in yesterday's China Daily, the people who will be most unhappy about the return of the internet are the owners of cinemas, bars, KTV (karaoke) parlours and other entertainment venues. As a result of the lack of internet access, people had been going out to such places far more than usual. DVD sellers were also doing much better than usual, since no one could download films from the internet. The happiest about the return to normal will probably be businessmen, whose operations were obviously seriously disrupted by the ban. I would suppose that people who use the net to speak to relatives who work in other provinces will also find the return most welcome.
It was also reported that a street poll of 100 random people in Xinjiang's capital Urumqi found that only 10 declared themselves "severly affected" by the ban, while 70 declared they could cope comfortably with the situation, and 21 said they didn't miss the internet at all (yes I know, it makes 101 people, go figure). Some people even described the last ten months without the net as a kind of "mental detox". Take this example from the article:

"It was hell for the first couple of months without the Internet, which I think I've been addicted to since 1999," said Luo Liang, 29, an advertising planner in Urumqi. "I didn't know how to entertain myself. I felt so frustrated and helpless.
"But then I started to find alternatives to keep me occupied, such as watching movies and going to KTV with my friends. I later realized that my dependence on the cyber world is actually an addiction," she said.
Luo even started to learn Japanese, which she has always wanted to, by utilizing the time she normally used to surf the Internet.
"My attitude towards the Web has changed. I've learned that there is more to life than Internet," she added.
Sound familiar? If I were unable to access the net for ten months, I might well have similar things to say. Although the Internet is certainly an extremely useful tool, and I am not suggesting that we should get rid of it, I can't help feeling that perhaps there would be some positive sides to doing without it (yes, yes, I am using the internet to share these thoughts with you all, but so what?). The amount of time most young (and even less young) people seem to waste reading, watching and writing inanities on the net far surpasses the amount of time they spend doing anything useful with it, like doing research or communicating with people they actually need to communicate with. As a result, people also seem to me to be reading less novels and books, and perhaps spending less time with real people.
Anyway, it may be that humanity is only just starting to get used to the presence of the net, and as time goes by things will stabilize and people will learn to use it in a more balanced manner. Or maybe not.
(Below, a photo of the skyline of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.)

Monday, May 10, 2010

China's 56 ethnic groups

Anyone who has ever had anything to do with China and the Chinese will immediately be able to tell you that there are 56 ethnic groups in China. Of course, in most countries of the world if you asked the average person how many ethnic groups the country holds you might get confused looks and different answers, however in China everyone knows the exact answer: there are 56 ethnic groups.

The reason for this is of course simple: the Chinese state officially recognizes 56 ethnic groups. A big thing is made of this in much of the government's official propaganda, with slogans like "the 56 peoples are one family" and similar. Whenever the National People's Congress convenes, you will see photos in the papers of representatives from minorities in their traditional costumes, which are actually only worn in daily life in remote rural areas.

In fact, the 56 peoples are by no means equal in size. As most of you will know, the Han form by far the biggest group, comprising over 90% of the population of the People's Republic of China. The remaining 55 ethnic groups are the minority peoples, or 少数民族 (shaosu minzu) in Chinese.

The Han are in many ways identifiable with China as such. The Chinese language is their language (in fact one of the names for it is hanyu or "the Han language" in Chinese), and what is usually considered to be Chinese culture is basically their culture. However, the official line is that the 56 ethnic groups of China are all Chinese, and that being Chinese does not depend on your race. Most of the minority groups conserve at least some of their own customs and their own language. Their languages usually belong to completely different families from the Chinese language.

The 55 minorities can be quite large by European standards. The largest minority are the Zhuang, with around 16 million people. The better known Tibetans are more than five million. At the last count, 18 of the minorities passed the million mark. The smallest minority are the Lhoba of Tibet, who only number a few thousand (however there are far more of them over the border in India apparently). Unsuprisingly, some of the classifications are rather dubious, with some small groups being lumped together with other ethnic groups which they don't necessarily feel part of, and other small ethnic groups still unrecognized (there is even a Chinese term for these unrecognized peoples: 未识别民族, or wei shibie minzu).

To understand why the issue of relations with the minorities is crucial in China, it is necessary to realize one fact: although the minorities constitute less than 10% of China's population, the areas where they are the majority cover over half of China's territory. This is because many of them are concentrated in the scarcely populated but vast Western territories like Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Qinghai, Tibet etc..

The Eastern part of China consitutes the heartland of the Han. Made fertile by the Yellow River and the Yangtze rivers, it is extremely heavily populated, containing about 90% of China's people. The arid and less hospitable Western and Northern reaches, as well as the South-West, are the homeland of most of the minorities. Although most of these areas have been under Chinese control for centuries, the Chinese cultural influence has always mixed with other influences, and the population is a patchwork of different ethnic groups and religions. Particularly over the last centuries, the Western and Southern regions where most of the non-Han groups live have received large numbers of Han settlers from other parts of China, and in many cities the Han are now a majority.

The history of relations between the Han and the surrounding peoples are complicated.The craddle of Han Chinese civilization was the North China plain, but the Han gradually expanded southward to satisfy their growing population and demand for land. In so doing, they came into contact with a variety of ethnic groups, some of which fled, others stayed and were assimilated by the Han, while others retained their distinct identity. At the same time China was often conquered and subjugated by nomadic peoples from the north, most recently by the Mongols and by the Manchu. However all the invaders quickly assimilated the far more advanced Han civilization.The Han used to look down upon the "barbarians" who surrounded their world, and their culture was indeed far more sophisticated by most standards.

The minorities have assimilated Chinese culture to varying degrees. The Manchu, the people from North-Eastern China who took control of the whole country in the seventeenth century and created the infamous Qing dynasty, are now almost totally assimilated, and their language is spoken only by a few elderly people. Another group, the Hui (who the women in the photo on the left belong to), are basically just Hans who practice the Muslim religion, and are therefore given a separate classification. However some minorities, like the Tibetans and the Uyghurs, remain very different from the Han in their lifestyle, language and sense of identity. Resentment against the Han still exists within a few minorities, most notably in the case of the last two peoples mentioned. In the general chaos of nineteenth century China there were various rebellions against Han rule. For instance, the Dungan and Panthay rebellions by the Hui or Chinese Muslims led to a decimation of China's Muslims, with a few million being killed, and many others fleeing to Russia. Nowadays violence still occasionally flares up in Tibet and Xinjiang, something which I'm sure you've all heard about. However in the rest of the country there is generally no violence between different groups.

Every Chinese citizen's ethnic group (or minzu in Chinese) is registered on their identity card. Being a Han or belonging to a minority makes a real difference to a Chinese citizen. Due to a kind of affirmative action policy, the minorities are exempt from the one child policy, and they are given preferential access to university places and government jobs. Although Communist party members are officially not supposed to practice a religion, this rule is relaxed for minorities, since otherwise it would be very difficult to allow people from some of the minorities to become members.

The provinces with the highest prevalence of ethnic minorities are also given the statues of "autonomous regions", with special provisions for the protection of the local language and culture. Tibet, Xinjiang, Ningxia, Yunnan, Guanxi all enjoy this status. Although the governor of these provinces has to be from the local minority, the party secretary who is the real power broker is currently a Han in every single one of them. The languages of the minorities enjoy official status, and any Chinese banknote has the value written in Tibetan, Uyghur, Mongolian and Zhuang as well as in Chinese. This is in contrast to the situation with the different dialects of Chinese spoken in different provinces, which are not recognized and are even discouraged by the state. However, as one might imagine, anyone from a minority who wants to get anywhere in modern China has to learn standard Mandarin Chinese.

In the Western world, where since the French revolution the ideal has been that all the citizens of a country are equal regardless of their ethnic group or religion, the idea of having your ethnic group recorded on your identity card might seem quite strange. However, the system currently followed in China was actually influenced by the practices of the Soviet Union, which followed a similar policy towards minorities. A similar system is also followed in Vietnam, which recognizes 54 groups rather than 56, and in many other countries around the world (in many Middle Eastern countries you are classified by religion rather than by ethnic group).

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Article in the Chinese press praises the "relaxed" Italian lifestyle!

I was amused yesterday to read an article in the English language Chinese newspaper China Daily by someone called Lu Chang, called "Piano, Piano stressed Beijingers". Piano, Piano means "slowly, slowly" in Italian. The article encourages Beijingers to learn from the slow, relaxed Italian mindset.

The author apparently spent some time as an exchange student in Perugia a few years ago. She recounts an episode in which she wanted to buy a dress in a shop on the main street. She started to enter the shop, but the shop assistant stopped her and told her to come back the next day, because she was already off work and closing the store. The author insisted that she was a serious buyer, but the shop assistant was unmovable: it was closing time.

The Chinese woman, naturally for her, assumed that this shop assistant must have something urgent to attend to, but later on she saw her merrily drinking espresso and chatting with her friends in a bar. As the author says, at that point "I realized that for her money is far from everything. She would rather enjoy her coffee and leisure time than do business with me."

This is contrasted with Beijing, where a shop assistant would apparently never turn away a customer, whatever the time. She goes on praising the relaxed pace of life she found in Perugia, where businesses will close for two hours during the day for lunch, and comparing it with stressful, hurried Beijing.

Although comparing Beijing (at least 10 million inhabitants) with Perugia (166,000) seems a bit unfair, it is obviously true that to the Chinese, European life seems very relaxed and slow. Chinese people who come back from holidays in Europe, and not just Italy or Spain but even Germany or Britain, will often tell you how much free time everyone seems to have. I remember a Chinese man who had been to Germany and Italy on holiday, telling me how relaxed people are there, always drinking beer in bars. Another Chinese girl I know who spent a summer in Denmark, told me that she could never get used to such a lazy lifestyle! And it's not just holidaymakers. Chinese people who have lived in Europe also tend to have this impression. If even Germany or Denmark seem slow and relaxed to them, then Italy must really blow their minds.

I do wonder if it doesn't in part boil down to misunderstanding, due to the fact that the Chinese have different ways of spending their free time than Europeans. Perhaps in China it is simply less common to see people drinking coffee or beer in street caffes with their friends, because people tend to spend their leisure time in other, less public ways. In small cities, people certainly seem to find the time to play majiang a lot, and KTV (Karaoke) parlours never lack customers anywhere in China. However, it certainly is the case that Europeans do have more free time and work less hard than the Chinese on average.

Anyway, at least one Beijinger has decided to take life a bit more piano piano.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Chinglish 2

Over a year ago I posted some funny examples of "Chinglish", in other words the funny and mistifying English you find on signs all over China.

Here's some more examples of funny Chinglish which I have encountered during my travels around China.

The first photo was taken in the olympic park in Beijing. The second one is from the famous 798 art district of the capital. It is meant to be something about driving in a civilized fashion perhaps. The third one was taken in a well known park in Guiyang, Guizhou. There are a couple of the park's famous monkeys sitting on the sign. I think it must be some kind of environmental slogan.

The next photo was taken next to the great statue of Buddha in Leshan, Sichuan. The final one was also taken in Leshan, in the same park. It basically means "don't step on the flowers". Isn't it much more poetical to say "take beautiful memory away, and leave pretty spirit"?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Some Reflections on Buddhism

While I was travelling through South-West China during the so-called spring festival (who knows why they call it like that, when it's actually in the middle of winter), I stopped in Leshan, a city in Sichuan province whose main attraction is a massive statue of Buddha, which is the largest carved stone Buddha in the world at 71 metres of height (although not the biggest statue of Buddha in general. This honour goes to the Spring Temple Buddha in Lushan, also in China, which is 128 meters tall).

I actually went to the city because I have a classmate who is from there who invited me to come and show me around. Next to this article you can see some photos of me and the 大佛 (Da Fo or Big Buddha). The statue was completed in 803 AC, and it is truly impressive. Even one toenail could accommodate a seated human. The city of Leshan is also quite pleasant and relaxed like Sichuan towns typically are. The Sichuanese are well known in China for their relaxed lifestyle, especially as compared to the Chinese of the East. The statue and the park around it were of course absolutely packed with Chinese tourists, and I had to wait an hour and a half in a queue before being able to go down the winding staircase at the statue's side which takes you down to the bottom of the statue.

In any case, rather than just bore you with accounts of my journey, I wanted to share some thoughts on Buddhism which visiting the statue inspired. While I was in Chengdu, I managed to find a book in English about Buddhism (one of the "very short introduction" series) and bought it. I thought that since I was going to visit a statue of the Buddha, it would be a good idea to read up on the subject first. Although I already knew a bit about Buddhism, the book gave me a clearer idea about the religion's main principles.

Personally I am an atheist, and I distrust organized religion as a concept. I think that nowadays there is really no reason to believe in the superstitious beliefs which religions promote, and that their main effect is to divide people, control them, discourage rational thinking and reinforce old-fashioned ideas with an irrational basis about sexuality, abortion, euthanasia etc.... However, just like most Westerners, before I came to China my exposure to religion was limited mainly to the Western monotheistic religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Although I grew up in a non-religious family, my father comes from an Italian Catholic background, and my mother from a British Jewish one.

A lot of Western secularists who dislike the monotheistic Religions they are most familiar with have a much more ambivalent attitude towards "Eastern" religions, especially Buddhism. Many contrast "intolerant, expansionist" Christianity or Islam with "peaceful, tolerant" Buddhism. Some claim Buddhism is not even a religion at all, but a philosophy of life which can accommodate other faiths. Many Westerners, even ones who have no use for the religions of their own cultural tradition, feel attracted towards Buddhism, even though their actual understanding of it is often quite limited. Even much of what passes for Buddhism in the West is actually rather different from the Buddhism which can be found in Asia. According to some, most of Western Buddhism is really just the respectable face of new age mysticism. I certainly have a strong suspicion that a lot of the Westerners who consider themselves Buddhists actually turn Buddhism into what they would like it to be, removing the more superstitious, dogmatic and ritualistic sides of the religion which are in evidence if you look at the popular Buddhism of the Far East. Even Richard Dawkins, the champion of the new atheist movement which is taking the Anglo-Saxon intellectual world by storm, seems to think that Buddhism is benign and harmless in comparison to the three Monotheistic faiths, which he believes are actively harmful to humanity.

Buddhism in China

China is not a "heavily" Buddhist country, and never has been. Buddhism came to China from India in the second century BC. However, it has always had to coexist alongside other Chinese religions and belief systems. The traditional Chinese religion of Taoism (the only real religion to be born in China) and the social ideology of Confucianism (which as far as I can see is definitely not a religion) have also had a strong influence on Chinese thought, and Confucianism has usually been the ideology of those in power. Thus, the Chinese are far less influenced by Buddhism than the people of countries like Thailand or Burma, where Buddhism is central to the culture and identity. Buddhism is in fact based around an Indian philosophy, not a Chinese one, and it shows. When Buddhism came to China, it had to give greater prominence to Chinese values such as filial piety and accommodate ancestor worship before it could be accepted by the Chinese. What's more, the Buddhist view of life as suffering does not really fit in with the traditional Chinese view of life as something pleasant which should be enjoyed. In any case, Mahayana Buddhism did eventually flourish in China, and there are still quite a few adherents (although not the majority of the Chinese people by any means).

In sum, living in China I have not really been exposed to Buddhism in the way I imagine I would have been in a place like Thailand, or Sri Lanka. Out of all my Chinese friends, I do not know anyone who is a practicing Buddhist. In fact, most of them don't practice any religion, just like most urban Chinese people.

Buddhist Theology

However, I am still curious about the religion, and whether it is really so "different" from Western monotheistic religious traditions. After having done some research, I can say that first of all, Buddhist theology certainly is very different from Christian or Muslim theology. The most basic difference is that Buddhism does not include any belief about a sentient god who created the universe and cares about us. The fact that Buddhism does not include this belief suggests that it is not such an "obvious" belief for human beings to hold as many Christians and Muslims seem to assume.

However, Buddhist philosophy is still based on the assumption that a certain supernatural, improvable event is a fact, namely reincarnation. As far as I understand, the whole edifice of thought which Buddha constructed is based around the idea that after death we reincarnate into a different being. In his view, human life is inescapably an experience of suffering. The basic cause of suffering is desire, or craving. If a person can manage to extinguish desire by eliminating delusion and achieve enlightenment, they can escape from the endless cycle of death and rebirth and enter nirvana, a state which cannot be understood by the human mind, but sounds very much like a kind of paradise. The four noble truths of Buddhism expose this view of human life, and are the kernel of the Buddhist faith. Enlightenment can be achieved by following the so-called "noble eightfold path", which is supposed to be a guideline for achieving wisdom, ethical conduct and concentration. Some people may find consolation or meaning in the Buddhist view of life. However, to be honest it seems like a very pessimistic and negative one to me. Plus, if one does not believe in reincarnation, which as you would expect I don't, then what exactly is the point of the whole thing? Is it really desirable to live without desire?

These are the basics of the faith, but if you dig deeper, you can find some aspects of Buddhism which are quite reminiscent of the monotheistic faiths of the West. For instance, there are the "five precepts", a basic code of ethical conduct for laypeople, which are basically: "don't kill, don't steal, don't commit sexual misconduct, don't lie and don't take intoxicants". Sound familiar? Then there are the "eight precepts", for laymen who want to be a bit stricter with themselves. They include abstaining from sex, singing, dancing, wearing perfume, eating at the wrong times and a few other petty prohibitions of this kind, as well as the more basic ones. Apparently in some Theravada Buddhist countries like Thailand or Sri Lanka, laypeople will sometimes spend one day a week in a monastery, practicing these precepts. To be fair, all these precepts are not imperatives like the Christian Ten Commandments, but rather rules which laypeople may undertake voluntarily.

Of course, Buddhism has had a long and complex history, with schisms and different interpretations. It later split into at least two distinct schools, the Mahayana school which is the one followed in China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam, and the Theravada school followed in South-East Asia and Sri Lanka. Tibetan Buddhism, followed all over the Himalayas and in Mongolia, is often considered to be another distinct school. Buddhism has also been very mixed up with other religions and practices in the countries it has reached.

Is Buddhism really so peaceful and tolerant?

On another note, is this common perception that Buddhism has been a uniquely tolerant and peaceful religion in practice actually true? Looking at its track record, the answer seems to be rather mixed to me. Yes, it would seem that Buddhists have historically been far less prone on imposing their beliefs on others or discriminating against others than Christians and Muslims. They do not purport to believe in a god who sends you to hell for not believing in him (or her?). However, Buddhists have also been quite able to fight each other for religious reasons. If you look at the history of Tibet, for instance, it is full of cases of different Buddhist sects fighting each other for control, just like Protestants and Catholics in Europe. It is not entirely true that Buddhists always grant total freedom to other religions when they are in power: for instance, in the benighted and isolated Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan (often presented as some kind of "last Shangri-la" in the West) there are currently reports of religious discrimination against the Hindu minority and Christians, and non-Buddhist missionaries are barred from entering the country. Buddhism has also been the inspiration behind some quite bloody actions. To take an excellent example, look at this description of the "Mahayana rebellion" of China in 515 AC, which was called that way in reference to Mahayana Buddhism: "Using drugs to send its members into a killing frenzy, and promoting them to Tenth-Stage Bodhisattva as soon as they killed ten enemies, the Mahayana sect seized a prefecture and murdered all the government officials in it. Their slogan was "A new Buddha has entered the world; eradicate the demons of the former age", and they would kill all monks and nuns in the monasteries that they captured, also burning all the sutras and icons." (Quotation taken from here). The rebellion was eventually overcome, but one can't help be reminded of crusades and holy wars when hearing of people being promoted to the rank of Bodhisattva for killing ten enemies.

Even more to the point, Buddhism has sometimes been useful to those in power for the purpose of legitimizing absolute rule, and convincing the poor and downtrodden not to uprise or demand their rights, just like other religions have been. The idea of reincarnation was used in the past to justify poverty and suffering, since it was popularly believed in Buddhist societies (and maybe still is) that people who are born poor or in unfortunate circumstances are paying for sins committed in their previous lives. A few years ago the coach of the English football team showed how this kind of nonsense can still infect people's minds (see here). And having a religion which teaches people to see craving and desire as the causes of suffering and pushes them not to desire more material comforts could certainly be useful for the purposes of those who oppress them and steal from their pockets. In the history of Asia, there have been various oppressive Buddhist theocracies, the most glaring example of which is the one which use to exist in Tibet under the leadership of the Dalai Lamas (another place which many Westerners naively romanticize).

In spite of all this, it does seem to me that the record of Buddhism is far superior to Christianity or Islam's record of oppression and bloodshed. At least it hasn’t wiped out other religions and practices with the ruthlessness which Christianity displayed in the early middle ages. Moreover, in many ways the Buddhist vision of the world does seem to me more pleasant than the monotheistic one which originated in the Middle East. For one thing it is less guilt-ridden and not so fixated with mandating what people should do in bed. Sexual desire in Buddhism is seen as a hindrance to enlightenment, just like other kinds of desire, and monks are expected to be chaste. However, Buddhist scriptures don't go into detail as to what is acceptable and what is not, and leave it to the layperson to decide. I also find meditation an interesting practice which can apparently lead to some real changes in personality and perception.

All in all however, I think Westerners who are secular and opposed to religious obscurantism should stop giving Buddhism a free ride. Buddhism is essentially a religion, which in its practical application and its effects on society has not been all that different from other religions. It isn't surprising: after all, it was created about the same time as other world religions, in a society with a similar level of development and social structure. Although certain practices of meditation and exercise associated with Buddhism may be genuinely worth learning, the religion as a whole should stop being painted in such a romantic light by people who should know better.

(for a well argued criticism of Buddhism, see here)

Friday, February 26, 2010

The heart of remotest China

During my stay in Guizhou over the spring festival, I had the chance to visit a place which was really incredibly remote even for my standards, and I have already been to quite a few out of the way places in China. In fact I don't think I have ever been to somewhere which felt so remote and out of the world (well my world anyway), at least in China
The place itself was a little village in 织金 (Zhijin) county, which is located deep in the mountains of Western Guizhou. Guizhou is considered to be a bit of a backwater in China, and this county is considered to be a backwater even within Guizhou. I went to the village with my local friend, who happens to know someone who lives there. Otherwise, I am sure nothing in the world would ever have brought me there, and I could never have found the place on my own anyway. I am also pretty certain that I am the first non-Chinese person who ever went there, or at least the first in a very long time.

To get to the village, my friend and I first had to take a bus for four hours from the provincial capital Guiyang. After getting off in a little town in the mountains which reminded me slightly of the Far West, we got on a little mini-bus of the kind where you have to arrange a price with the driver in advance. Unfortunately the first mini-bus we took turned out to be driven by a guy who was either drunk or completely out of his mind, and probably both. I and my friend and the other passenger watched in terror as the driver skidded down little paths through the mountains at breakneck speed, swearing at any groups of children playing on the roadside or other drivers he crossed on the way. We all begged him to slow down, but our pleas seem to have little effect. I suppose that in such remote areas police checks on drivers are not common. As soon as we reached another little town we all got off, badly shaken and happy to be in one piece, and went and looked for another mini-bus with a saner driver. The next driver drove normally, but at one point a completely drunken local man got on and sat next to me, which was also rather unsettling. In any case, the driver finally dropped us off in the main "square" of another little town and drove away. As we stood there waiting for my friend's local contact to come and pick us up, I saw an elderly woman walk by in the traditional costume of the "long-horn Miao", one particular branch of the Miao people who are so called because the women wear animal horns as head ornaments, as this woman was indeed doing (see the photo). I could already see that I was in a very remote area, and my sense of adventure was ticking. Finally my friend's friend and another local man came on motorbikes and picked us up on the backs of their bikes (none of us wore any helmets of course). After riding along little mountain roads for another twenty minutes we reached our final destination: the little village where we were going to spend the night. The place had a feeling of real remoteness to it: just getting to it with ordinary public transport would have been impossible, and it was surrounded by mountains on all sides. There appeared to be only one main road going through the village, with one shop, a police station and a primary school. On a wall there was a large poster with a picture of two policemen, proclaiming: "dealing with social order, bringing safety and happiness for everyone", as if to remind everyone of the long arm of the state. I was taken to the house where we would spend the night. The conditions inside the houses were similar to those I had encountered the previous year in my stay in a village in Guangxi. There was electricity and a television, and also a measure of running water, at least cold water, but no real shower or sink. I had to clean my teeth and my face using a bowl of water in the courtyard. Of course, there was no proper toilet you could flush, and no heating, despite the cold winter weather (on the next day it actually started snowing slightly).
In the evening I ate in the house of some other local relations of our host, who were obviously extremely curious about having a foreigner staying with them. I found the local food quite delicious, even nicer than in other rural areas of China I have visited. Among the dozen people who ate with us, there was a young couple in their twenties. I later found out that they were only back to the village for the spring festival, but they are actually working in Guangdong. This is typical in small villages in China, in which the young people have all gone off to the big cities in the more developed provinces like Guangdong to find jobs, leaving the older people behind. Later in the evening I was taken to about four or five other houses to meet various local people, who were all very happy to entertain me and offer me food and drink. Their warmth and hospitality are genuinely of a kind which you can no longer find in the West, if you ever could.

The next morning, after eating two bowls of Yuan Tang for breakfast, I set off with my friend and our host for a walk through the hills surrounding the village. On the way we stopped at various farmhouses to say hello to various acquaintances of our host. The conditions and the lifestyle I saw were probably similar to what one might have found in many parts of Europe 50 or 60 years ago (in Britain it might be closer to 100 years ago). Some rooms did not even have electric lighting.

After walking for a while, we reached a village belonging to people from the Miao ethnic group (whereas the village where I spent the night was inhabited by Han people). This village has to take the prize for being the most traditional and untouched place I have seen in China. Many of the women still wore the traditional clothes of the Miao, which are extremely colourful and pretty (in the photo you can see a bit of the village). Even some young women wore them. Many of the houses were still in the traditional style, as far as I could tell. There were no roads which could reach this village, but you had to walk from the village for a few minutes to get to a road which cars could use. There were no shops, no schools, no police station, nothing whatsoever. The local children have to walk about half an hour to the village where I stayed overnight (which must seem like a metropolis to them) to go to school. Of course, the village is not completely untouched by the modern world. Electricity, televisions, and various consumer goods are visible in every home. We went into various houses, where the locals were obviously very curious about me. In one home, I asked my friend to ask the two local men we were talking to if they could tell us how to say "hello" in the Miao language. He asked them in Chinese, but they seem to find the question quite confusing, and couldn't come up with an answer. My friend insisted, asking them what they say to each other when they meet in the morning. In the end they came up with an answer, a Miao word which I have now forgotten. I suppose that if no one has ever asked you how to say "hello" in your language, you might find the question confusing.

After walking back to the village where I stayed the night, and eating a large lunch, we left the area. The way we left was as appropriate as possible. A few other local people also had to leave the village, perhaps to go back to work after the spring festival, so we all climbed into the back of a lorry which would take us to the bottom of the mountain. As the lorry left the village, a few firecrackers were set off to mark our departure. The lorry started driving down bumpy mountain paths. Although there were some stalls for us, I found that it was easier to stand then to sit down, since the lorry was jumping up and down so much. It was at that moment that it started snowing a little. Luckily I was wearing heavy clothing, but the wind was still bitingly cold. What made up for the discomfort was the scenery of the mountains rolling by. Although I have seen such sceneries before, looking at them from the open back of a lorry while travelling with a group of local people is rather different from seeing them through the windows of a comfortable tour bus. We passed quite a few villages and farms on the way, but since I was wrapped up in a hat and a scarf, the locals staring at us could probably not make out that I was a foreigner. If they could have done, their reaction would certainly have been one of complete amazement.
At some point we reached the edge of a really high mountain, and we could see a huge distance down below. There was a valley surrounded by mountains, with a river snaking through it, and we were looking at it from the top. The scenery reminded me a bit of the Lord of the Rings. The lorry slowly made its way down the mountain side, while I watched the amazing view down below. After about an hour we finally disembarked at the side of the river I had seen from above, and we took a boat down the river for another hour. After getting off the boat, I had to share a motorbike-taxi with the driver and my Chinese friend (it was the first time I rode a motorbike with two other people at once, although this is a common sight in China. Of course, no helmets to speak of). Then we finally reached a bus station and made our way back by bus to the relative comfort of my friend's home in Qingzhen.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Being woken up at 5 in the morning by a train attendant trying to sell Chairman Mao memorabilia to the passengers

I spent yesterday night in the third class of the Guiyang-Chengdu train, and while in it I had one of the weirdest experiences of all my travels in China: being woken up at 5 in the morning by a member of staff with a microphone trying to sell Mao Zedong memorabilia to the passengers.

I was hoping that this year I would be able to avoid travelling over night in the third class of a Chinese train, in other words in a hard seat. Sleeping in a seat is never comfortable, but in Chinese trains during the spring festival it is made hellish by the incredible overcrowding, with people sleeping on the floor the whole way. I already had such an experience last year, and didn't want to repeat it. However, I was unable to find a ticket for a bed, so I had no choice but to travel this way. This year people are only able to start buying train tickets five days in advance over the spring festival period, to avoid the tickets being sold out ages in advance. However, if one wants to find a ticket for a bed, one probably has to arrive at the ticket station on the morning of the fifth day before they want to travel. I bought my ticket three days before I wanted to go, and a ticket for a seat was all I could get.

I was told that the trains to Chengdu shouldn't be too crowded, because Sichuan is a producer of migrant labour, rather than a receiver, and so after the new year's eve people would be leaving the province, not going to it. My local friend told me I would probably be able to change the ticket and get a bed once I was on the train itself. I was skeptical, and rightly so. The train was perhaps slightly less packed than Chinese trains can be around this time, meaning that getting to the bathroom wasn't actually a feat of acrobatics, however there were still plenty of people sleeping on the floor. I managed to find an attendant, and asked her if I could switch my ticket. She was very helpful and curious about me. She asked me where I had learnt Chinese, offered to teach me her language and asked me whether I thought her putonghua (mandarin Chinese) was good or not (!). She put my chinese name down on a list of people who wanted to switch their tickets, but in the end there were obviously no places available, so I spent the night on a seat.

My attempts to get some sleep were pretty useless. The enviroment was filthy, there were little children hollering everywhere (with their parents doing nothing to stop them) and I was sitting opposite an elderly man who kept drinking shots from a bottle of Chinese spirit and smoking, even though smoking is forbidden. During the evening, I noticed train attendants walking around the carriages selling toys for the children and toothbrushes or other goods. Even though they were dressed in an official uniform, they would pedal their ware and try to get passengers to buy the products, as if they were street pedallers. I found this rather surprising.

At 5 in the morning, while I was trying to nap without much success, a young woman who was clearly working in the train, with a uniform, placed herself right next to my seat with a microphone. To my amazement, she started reading a long text about chairman Mao, and how he established the Chinese railway system (or at least I think so, since my Chinese is still not really good enough to follow what she was saying). After reading the text for about 10 or 20 minutes with her microphone so that the whole carriage would hear, she started to try and get the passengers to buy a series of little effigies of Chairman Mao, going on about their convenient price and their other qualities. Incredibly, no one complained or even grumbled, and some people even bought some of the effigies. Some people even managed to go on sleeping, despite the long speech. The Chinese ability to sleep in any circumstances never fails to amaze me. I on the other hand was not getting much sleep even before the woman came, and by now I was completely awake, and quite fed up too. I could not believe that a person officially working for the train company would start pedalling cheap goods to the passengers at 5 in the morning, waking everyone up. I have never experienced anything remotely like this before in a Chinese train. I didn't know if this was the attendant's own little side business, or part of her job requirements, but Chinese people who I have spoken to since told me that it is probably her own side business. Apparently they are allowed to sell things to the passengers privately. However, they should not be allowed to do this at such an unearthly hour with a microphone.

In the beginning I thought the woman was just making a speech about the achievements of Chairman Mao, and to be honest I would have prefered that. Even though being woken up at 5 to listen to political propaganda is not my favourite pastime, at least there would have been some point to the whole thing. One could even see it as a glimpse of what it was like in China 40 years ago, when if you were woken up at 5 by someone talking about the virtues of chairman Mao, you not only had to put up with it but probably clap enthusiastically too. But being woken up at 5 to listen to the train attendant trying to sell cheap rubbish to you? Why are people working for the state railway service allowed to sell non-essential items to the passengers, and pedal the qualities of what they are selling like television salespeople? It's really weird, and it shows complete disrespect of the right of the paying passengers to get some sleep. Then again, the train was supposed to arrive at 6, so maybe waking people up at 5 is considered to be fair game. On the other hand, I bet the first class passengers were not woken up at all.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy year of the tiger from Qingzhen, Guizhou

The year of the tiger has officially started a few days ago, on the 14th of february 2010. I am currently staying with a friend in Qingzhen, a little town in the province of Guizhou, South-Western China (You can see the town in the photo). I have celebrated the Chinese new year with his family. As expected, the celebrations involved a lot of fireworks, good food, playing majiang and lots of children running around excitedly with the new year gala on television in the background.

The town I am staying in is a relatively small one, quite close to the provincial capital, Guiyang. Guizhou is one of the more remote provinces of China, and it has a reputation as a bit of a backwater. It is usually eschewed by tourists in favour of neighbouring Yunnan. Even so, I find the mountainous landscape to be very beautiful. Although it is meant to be one of the least economically developed provinces of China, I find the conditions in this town to be relatively similar to the ones I have found in other small towns across China.

Guizhou is one of the provinces with the highest proportion of non-Han ethnic minorities, about 37% according to statistics. Being in the remote South-West of China, it is not situated in the heartland of the Han (the major ethnic group of China), which is in the Eastern half of the country. Although the province was already under Chinese control over two thousand years ago, it was only during the Ming dynasty (which started in the thirteenth century) that the Han Chinese started migrating to Guizhou en masse, and the area really came under Chinese domination. My friend's family is Han, and he tells me that they descend from a general who was sent to the area around 500 years ago by the emperor.

As a result of the Han only migrating to the area relatively recently, the local dialect of Chinese is not too distant from Putonghua, the official standard Chinese. However there are still some big differences, both in vocabulary and pronunciation. Although I can usually catch some of what people are saying to each other in Beijing, I find I can't usually catch anything which is said in the pure Guizhou dialect. Most people here can also speak standard Chinese and attempt to speak it to me, however they usually retain a strong local pronunciation. What confuses me most is that, just like in other parts of Southern China, the "l" and the "n" are not distinguished in people's minds, and so they are constantly mixed up.

The weather is warmer here than in Beijing, however some days it can still be around freezing, and just like everywhere in Southern China there is no heating to speak of in the houses. This is perhaps the most uncomfortable side of staying here for me, since I am not used to spending every waking hour in uncomfortably cold temperatures. When I arrived, it was so cold that I could see my own breath inside the room where I was sleeping. The worst thing of all is having a shower. Luckily, every home is equiped with a table with a kind of stove incorporated, and families always eat on it and gather round it in the evenings to keep warm.

Since this is a small town, the main entertainment for the local people seems to be playing majiang. Since I have arrived, I have learnt to play the famous game with the local rules, which are particularly complicated. Local men often gamble large sums of money with the game, but when I am playing the sums are always kept smaller, so that I don't lose too much money (since I obviously can't compete with people who seem to play the game every other day of their lives). Many families here also posses a special majiang table, which automatically shuffles the chips for you and provides you with a new set. I have never seen this anywhere else in China.

I have determined that there are currently two resident foreigners in this town, a New Zealender who has opened an English school, and an American who teaches there (I happened to bump into the Kiwi at the only decent local bar). Otherwise no foreigners ever cross these parts. As always, this means that I am the object of much curiosity and stares. On my first day here, I was taken to the fanciest hairdresser in town to get a haircut. Of course, all the people working there were curious about me and keen to speak to me. My hair colour was the object of much admiration, since the Chinese always have black hair. After I left, the person who accompanied me told me that one of the boys working in the hairdresser asked her a question about me before we left. Apparently, the question was "why is his skin so white?" (In the photos , a view of the street outside my friend's home).