Happy Birthday, China

Today (October 1, 2005–I’m in a different time zone) is the 56h birthday of the People’s Republic of China.  But wait, you say, I thought China was an ancient civilazation with 5000 years of history!  Well, that’s true, but the nation that we know today was founded 49 years ago, when Chairman Mao stood atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace overlooking Tiananmen Square and declared that the the “Chinese people have stood up.”  It was the declaration of victory by the Communist Party over the Nationalist Party in their decades-old civil war for control of China.  I wandered around the old city for awhile this afternoon, and saw this man sitting under the national flag.  It’s quite likely that he was in the Square that day 56 years ago today.

Now it’s a holiday called National Day, or Guoqing Jie (lit. “congratulate nation festival), and it is celebrated with much pomp and patriotism.  In the past, it was always an occasion for a military parade down the Avenue of Eternal Peace, which runs through the heart of Beijing, past Tiananmen Square, and was a valuable tool of instilling pride in both the party and the nation.

In 1999, to celebrate the 50th anniversary, the government decreed (it  an do that here) that henceforth the entire country would get 7 days off instead of 3.  So, starting today, the country essentially closes down for the next 7 days.  We’re talking schools, factories, government offices, and many businesses.

What doesn’t close down, however is retail and travel industry.  In fact, one of the main purposes for this “Golden Week” as the government calls it is to get Chinese consumers to spend money.  It was instituted to stimulate the economy.  It’s a time for shopping and travelling, and a high percentage of China’s 1.3 billion people are on the roads, rails, and planes this week.

When it’s all over, the government newspapers (that’s all of them, by the way) will publish all the statistics on how much money was spent in various economic sectors.  Like so many other Chinese holidays (communist or not), it has morphed into a grand consumer spectacle.



Health Club

I bit the bullet and joined a health club this week.  There’s one across the street from my housing complex (upstairs from the Hypermarket), so it really couldn’t be more convenient. Really, it’s just a gym — a large room with treadmills, torture contraptions that supposedly sculpt muscles, and a room for aerobics.

Over the weekend, I was talking with a Chinese friend about my plans to join the club. She asked me if they were common in the States, and I told her they were, but were much more expensive than here.  (I’m only paying about 10 bucks a month here).  She told me that it was surprising to her that they would be common in the US.  I asked her why.  She said, "well, in America, the environment is so nice that I would think people would go outside and exercise and not need to go to a gym."

I told her that I (and other Americans) have a similar perception about China.  When so many people walk more and use the biciycle as their primary mode of transportation, why would they pay to go inside and exercise? 

It was an interesting reminder that pre-conceived notions go both ways!

Don’t Stand on Ceremony

This morning I attended a ceremony on the campus of Beijing Institute of Technology (BIT).  The ceremony was to celebrate the 65th anniversay of the founding of BIT, one of China’s major universities of science and technology.  Many former and current goverment leaders in China are graduates of this university, so they pulled out all the stops.  In some ways, it was the closest thing that a Chinese university has to "home-coming," as dignitaries and distinguished alumni were invited back for the celebrations.

The main event this morning was the opening ceremonies held on the school’s sports field.  I was in attendance as an official representative of my Institute, which has a partnership with the school.  I and a few colleagues arrived around 9AM, and were first taken to the VIP reception area.  As we were arriving and signing the guest books, we were greeted by a phalanx of photographers who were obviously given the task of producing pictures to go with the obligatory "We have friends from all over the world" caption that must appear in the commemorative book that will be published.  We just smiled and pretended to be important (which, of course, we really aren’t!).  After collecting our bag full of gifts, we were marched to the parade grounds and given seats just in front of the stage. 

The Chinese have a phrase:  "Don’t stand on ceremony."  It is used in a variety of occasions, including as a response to "thank you."  In other words, an exchange might look like this:  "Thanks."  "Don’t stand on ceremony."  When foreigners first arrive here, such an exchange leaves us scratching our heads.  Whatever does that mean, and what does standing on ceremony have to do with expressing thanks? 

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, Chinese culture places a great deal of importance on ritual and ceremony.  Getting the ceremony right, and doing the proper ritual are all ways in which one can demonstrate that they know what it means to be Chinese.  In other words, Chinese phraseology notwithstanding, it is very important to stand on ceremony, and only when standing on ceremony is socio-cultural balance and equilibrium maintained.

This morning was Chinese ceremony at it’s grandest.  I’ve been in China a long time, and have attended countless such ceremonies and they are all exactly alike.  They must be alike.  That’s the point of the ceremony.  This morning’s ceremony included the following:  the reading off of the names of ALL 125 dignitaries seated on the VIP stage; congratulatory speeches by no less than 9 dignitaries, each of which said almost exactly the same thing (creativity in speech-writing is not sought-after).  I won’t decieve and say that it wasn’t a bit (I’m being diplomatic here) tedious.

But what was interesting to note as I watched and listened to not only the speakers, but the several thousand students and guests assembled on the sports field, was that no one seemed to be paying attention.  People were talking.  Students were playing chess.  Men in suits were talking on their cell phones.  At one point, the din of voices from the sports field was almost loud enough to drown out the speaker’s voice wafting out of the 6 foot-high stack of loud-speakers.  Even the 125 dignitaries on the stage weren’t paying attention. 

Closer observation revealed that it didn’t seem to be phasing the speakers that they had lost complete control of the crowd and no one was listening to them.   And quite frankly, it didn’t matter.  What mattered was the ceremony, and it was being performed, regardless of how anyone felt about it or their level of interest in the content.   

We were all standing smack-dab ON ceremony, and as a result, all was right with the world.

Collective Punishment, Chinese Style

This is something I wrote a year ago, but it’s still a good read:

I live in a private housing development on the west side of Beijing.  Private housing developments are a relatively new phenomenon in this "socialist" country, but they are beginning to sprout up around town (like weeds, actually, and with funny names, but that will be the topic of another post another day). This development consists of 18 high-rise towers set in a nicely manicured compound, or campus.  It is definitely up-scale, and the people who live here seem to have a lot of money.  Except for yours truly, of course.  My neighbors come and go in their SUV’s and Mercedes and Land Rovers, but I have my trusty Giant 15 speed bicycle.

In the days before housing was privitized (beginning in 1997), the government was responsible to provide housing for urban Chinese via their work units (places of employment).  Work units built and maintained apartment buildings and distributed them to their workers.  Rent was minimal ( a few dollars per month), and the work unit was responsible to provide heat, water, and electricity at no charge to the residents.  The conditions were barely decent, but the apartments were practically free.  There are still housing developments owned and managed by work units, but even their workers now must purchase them, albeit at subsidized prices. 

Now, with the work units no longer responsible for providing the utilities free of charge, and the proliferation of private developments, new systems of payment have had to be devised. In most cases, the management company of the development collects the fees for heating and water from the apartment owners and turns them over to the water or heating company in one lump sum.  It seems workable, but….

Two days ago, when I entered the lobby of my building I spotted a giant sheet of poster paper glued (yes glued) to the marble wall.  Actually, it reminded me of execution notices that I used to see in Zhengzhou 20 years ago.  A notice announcing the name of a criminal and his crimes would be pasted on the wall outside our school.  Over the person’s name was a giant red checkmark, indicating that the person was to be executed.  Obviously, then, this giant notice in the lobby of my building caught my eye, and I hoped it wasn’t signalling that a neighbor was a serial killer.  I walked over to check it out and was able to get the gist: apparantly many many residents of this complex had not paid their hot water bill, so the management company had not paid the hot water company.  In an attempt to force the home-owners to pay up, the water company had announced that if they didn’t receive payment by the 27th, they were going to turn off all the hot water to the entire complex.  This is the collective punishment!  If some don’t pay their bills, then on one gets the hot water.  It’s that simple.

Sure enough, the next morning when I turned on the hot water, all I got was gurgling!  I called my landlady, Mrs. Li, to verify what was going on.  Yes, she told me, the hot water had been turned off to all 18 towers because some hadn’t paid their bills (she being one of them!). I told her that this was very bad news, especially since I had guests in town for the weekend and it was going to be terribly embarrassing for me to have guests and not have them be able to shower.  Well, that was enough to send the deep-seated sense of Confucian hospitality into high gear, and before I knew what was happening she was at my door with a brand-spanking new water heater (we call them "shower boxes." They’re hot water tanks mounted high on a wall).  The worker set about mounting this monstrosity on the wall of the bathroom and installing a second faucet. Once he had gone, Mrs. Li took me into the bathroom to show me how it worked, whereupon a pipe came loose and started spewing water all over us.  Mr. Installation Man hadn’t tightened the bolts properly!  Meanwhile, my guests are in the living room laughing hysterically at Mrs. Li and I wrestling with the shower box. We finally got the bolts tightened, and she was on her way. 

And now I no longer worry when the hot water goes off (as it has done 2 times since then).

Now, let’s just hope that everyone pays their heating bills…..

The Great Mooncake Exchange

Today is Zhong Qiu Jie, (lit. Mid-Autumn Festival) in China.  In colloquial terms, it’s called the Moon Festival, because it’s celebration coincides with the full moon.  Much like Thanksgiving in American culture, Moon Festival is a time when people want to gather with their family members.  If that isn’t possible, then people gather with classmates, colleagues, and other friends to gaze at the moon and think of their distant family membes who are also gazing at the same moon.  Poets in the Tang Dynasty were prolific in their writing poems about the moon, so there’s always a poem to be recited at a gathering.

Another custom on Moon Festival is the eating of mooncakes.  It’s hard to describe them exactly, but think of small, individually wrapped fruit-cakes.  There is an outer crust with a super sweet filling.  Usually they are very heavy, and laden with sugar and lard.  Not being a fan of them, they sort of remind me of sweet hockey pucks. 

Making and eating and giving mooncakes has always been part of the celebration here, but as China’s level of prosperity has increased in the past number of years, like many other things here, mooncakes have sort of become an excess.  In the weeks preceeding Moon Festival, all the stores fill up with tables selling all manner of beautifully gift-wrapped mooncakes. They are elaborately packaged, and a 6 or 8 mooncakes in a beautiful box can easily cost 40 or 50 US dollars!  The more expensive the mooncakes you give, the more face both the giver and receiver get. 

Mooncakes must be sent to people with whom you do business. Clients send to suppliers, suppliers to clients.  Mooncakes are exchanged among colleagues.  Teachers give them to students; students to teachers.  Friends to friends; family members to family members.  It’s one giant mooncake exchange.

And as foreigners who are trying to live as acceptable outsiders, we join in.  Last night my professor and his family came to my house for dinner.  When they walked in, he gave me a nice gift box of mooncakes.  I said thanks, took them, and set them in the kitchen (it’s not polite to open gifts here in the presence of the giver).  When it was time for them to leave, I gave them a box of mooncakes.  We all  laughed at the fact that we were just exchanging boxes of mooncakes.  I always enjoy my professor because of his ability to see the humor in his own society.  He joked that at the end of the day, mooncakes don’t really get eaten–they just get passed around, sometimes ending up back where they started.  I said never mind, and told him that he was more than welcome to give away the box I was giving them.  He said I could give away the box they gave me (which I plan to do).

Like many other things in a society like this that places a high value on ritual for the sake of ritual, the important thing is NOT the mooncake or the box or the value, but rather that the ritual of giving the mooncake is performed. 

Mooncakes, anyone?

The Mountains are Out!

Most of the time, ‘beautiful” is not a word commonly used to describe the city of Beijing, my adopted home.  It’s overcrowded.  The architecture is out of control– ranging from Stalinist to classical Chinese, and often to some variations of the two. The traffic is terrible, and the sky is normally varying shades of grey or white.  I have a friend in the States who recently bought a new car that is greenish grey.  When I first saw it, I said “Beijing Sky!  That’s the name of that color.”

But every once in awhile a strong wind blows through and drives out the muck and clears the skies.  When that happens, the mountains come out,  (Lots of people live here for a long time and don’t even know that there are mountains around Beijing.), we pleasantly discover that Beijing can actually be quite a lovely city, at least from certain vantage points.

Yesterday was one of those days, and so when we saw the crystal blue skies, a friend and I grabbed our cameras and headed into the middle of the city, to a hill called “Coal Hill.” It’s a man-made hill (all physical features in Beijing – lakes, hills, rivers- are man-made) built just to the north of the Forbidden City, home to Chinese emperors since the 13th century.  It’s not very high, but higher than anything around it, so is a great spot from which to view the city.

This picture is looking to the northwest, toward The Fragrant Hills.  The lake in the foreground is in Beihai Park.  (click on the photo to see the larger version)

Reminder of Other Site

Just a quick reminder that entries posted prior to August 31 can be found at the following address:  http://www.outside-in.blog-city.com

My blog was there until I got trapped behind the Great Firewall of China.  If you are outside of China, then there will be no problem accessing it.  if you are in China, then you must use a proxy server (may I suggest http://proxify.com)

A Strange Phone Conversation

My cell phone rang this afteroon.  I didn’t recognize the number.  The conversation went like this:

Hello.  Is this Joann?


I’m (Chinese name).  My English name is Kitty.

Do I know you?

Yes, I’m from the Institute of Technology.

Where did you meet?

Are you Joann?


Do you live with (Chinese name)?

No.  I don’t live with anyone.

Are you from Australia?

No. I’m from America.

But your name is Joann?

Yes. I think you have me confused with someone else who’s name is Joann.

Bit I have your number.

How do you have my number?

I work for a broadcasting company.  We want to interview Chinese speakers about how they spend Moon Festival.  Will you record an interview?

I’m sorry. I don’t want to do a broadcast.

It won’t be broadcast.  It will be posted on our website.

I’m sorry.  I won’t be able to help you.  Goodbye.


……How I spend my Moon Festival?  I knew I couldn’t do the interview because if I were to be truthful, I’d have to say, "doing everything I possibly can to avoid eating a mooncake."  I can assure you that that would not be the right answer!