Christmas Eve… with Chinese characteristics

Christmas Eve, 2008 (written at 4:30pm)
When I parked my bike outside the gym before lunch, “Uncle” Li, who watches the bikes and sometimes feels my pants to see if I’m wearing enough layers, was talking with his taxi driver buddies trying to figure out which comes first: Peaceful Night (平安夜/Christmas Eve) or Christmas. “Christmas Eve is tomorrow, right? And today is Christmas?” he guessed. Less than two hours later I eavesdropped on the same basic conversation in a hole-in-the-wall noodle shop while eating lunch, except this time the chef guessed correctly.

Santa Claus decorations are everywhere, but Christmas isn’t all that meaningful to the average Mainlander; even some Mainland Christians have told me how the holiday doesn’t really mean anything special to them. Everyone still goes to work like any other day, even the English teachers. But this doesn’t mean there isn’t noticeable curiosity in something that many Mainlanders see as exotic. Every year Christmas services in Tianjin are packed, even by Chinese standards (I suspect this might also be due to the relatively small number of churches).

The two main churches in town are “Old Xīkāi” (老西开), a French cathedral in what’s become the most popular and trendy shopping district, and Shānxī Road (山西路), a TSPM church not too far away from Xīkāi Cathedral. Tonight at Shānxī Lù, for example, one of our English teacher friends says her students plan to get there at 4:30 for a Christmas Eve service that starts at 7:00 because they’re afraid they might not all get seats otherwise.

Xīkāi is offering an English-language “foreign passport holders only” service in a building next door to the cathedral at 6:30pm, and a Chinese-language midnight mass that is open to all (I assume, as I’m going). The only Chinese nationals in attendance at the English-language service will be the choir. Part of the rationale for not having the English service in the cathedral, which is beautiful, is because it’s Christmas Eve and it would be difficult to hold the service amidst the hordes of local tourists who will be running around taking pictures. Part of the rationale for forbidding locals to attend an English language church service presided over by a foreigner is… outside the scope of this post. (Photo at left is not from Xīkāi.) You can read Xīkāi’s English introduction for yourself here.

Originally we were getting sent by the magazine to do some PR at a 5-star hotel Christmas banquet, but that fell through at the last minute. Jessica has a miserable cold and is going to bed early, otherwise I’d suggest we take a stab at both churches. Instead, I’ll go alone and meet a friend at the midnight mass. I know, I’m a terrible husband, sneaking off without my wife to go to church on Christmas Eve! In the morning we’ll skype our families.

In Tianjin it’s easy for Christmas to come and go without feeling like it’s come and gone — I want something significant and meaningful to mark the event. Plus I’m curious to see the local Tianjin Christmas curiosity for myself. I wonder if the crowds will be less at a midnight mass this year on account of it being midnight on a weekday. We’ll see! It will be maybe my second time ever to attend any kind of mass.

[*…fast-forward about eight hours…*]

Christmas Morning, 2008 (written at 12:20am)
The banner says (I think):

“Celebrate/congratulate Jesus holy birth”
慶賀耶稣聖誕
qìnghè Yēsū shèngdàn

Legions of police were deployed for crowd control for blocks around the church. I arrived just after 11pm (an hour early). I joined the crowd and was effectively herded in one side door of the church, past the altar, and out the other side door. On the way in some people (who were almost all young people) stopped to light candles. A kid next to me made the sign of the cross while walking past the altar. The seating area, which was packed solid wall to wall with several hundred, maybe over a thousand people, was roped off. I didn’t have time to even think about pulling out the camera and finding a seat was out of the question. Shannon’s English students who went three hours early to the Shānxī Lù church had the right idea. We exited the church grounds through the main gate, where cops with megaphones told us to hurry it up.

The cathedral is in Tianjin’s biggest trendiest outdoor shopping district, and tonight it was literally “people mountain people sea” (人山人海). It was a real festival atmosphere, with lots of street food vendors, balloons, young people, a stage show with clowns, and that special battery-powered bling Chinese love so much (most popular battery-powered headgear: Santa hats with flashing red hearts, devil horns, bunny ears, and carnival masks).

Christmas is seen by many as a lovers’ holiday somewhat akin to Valentine’s Day, and of course, a time to shop. Thousands of midnight shoppers wanted to come take photos of the cathedral and they crowded around the police lines with their cameras. With all the police barricades, it took me 15 minutes to walk from the church back to my bike; normally that’d be a one minute walk. This was the scene facing away from the cathedral’s main gate toward the shopping streets:

I am cold and sleepy and going to bed! Merry Christmas! 圣诞快乐

Shower (洗澡)

Shower (洗澡 / xǐ zǎo) is my current favourite Chinese movie. It’s a funny but sad story about an old bathhouse owner, his two sons, and their bathhouse patrons that plays out amidst the rapid changes and upheaval of contemporary urban China. It’s a personal, family-and-neighbourhood-level look at the way life in China is changing in drastic ways.

The movie is full of fun characters and their mundane problems: the old men and their cricket-fighting squabbles, the middle-aged husband using the bathhouse to hide from his wife, the wannabe primadonna with debilitating stage fright who uses the public shower as his personal practice room…

The bathhouse in the movie looks like a slightly fancier version of the one I visited in Tianjin’s Nanshi hutongs, which has since been bulldozed.

My only (very picky) squabble with this movie is that it seems to unnecessarily over-romanticize the way of life that’s rapidly disappearing from China’s major urban centres. Some scenes, like the evening neighbourhood park scenes, are just a little too colourful, tidy, and well-mannered compared to what I’ve seen here. If the director had allowed a few more ragged edges, it would feel just that much more authentic.

There’s plenty of dialogue that intermediate language students could pick up no problem, and the accents aren’t too thick.

Aside from the occasional mooning (mostly old-man butts) and some offensive language during a humourous yelling match between a married couple, this movie is pretty much family-safe.

Language learning strategies used in Tianjin

Last night at a language learners’ meeting some students — all in our first three years of Mandarin study — were asked to write down on big pieces of paper various techniques and strategies that we personally find helpful in different facets of language learning: Affective/Motivation, Social, Listening, Speaking, Reading & Writing, and Vocab & Grammar. It was interesting to see different personalities and different stages of language learning reflected in the suggestions. Some of them were pretty funny and revealing.

Here’s what we wrote down in the “Affective/Motivation” category:

  • Work for a specific time period and take breaks.
  • Don’t try to study when I’m tired.
  • Celebrate language victories, large and small!
  • Make a weekly schedule for studying in order to feel good about investing enough time.
  • Go to bed.
  • Change study location regularly.
  • COFFEE
  • Use different locations for different types of study.
  • Don’t allow yourself to have a pity party. Find someone who speaks less than you and feel better about yourself.
  • Chocolate
  • Remember how it was when you first came.
  • Morning quiet time and journaling.

Here’s from the “Social” category:

  • Go slowly through neighbourhood.
  • Do homework outside.
  • Having a bike that often breaks down.
  • Learn neighbours’ names.
  • Plan to stop and chat on way to and from regular places.
  • 1 on 1 time with friends.
  • Parties
  • Do an activity with friends (badminton, baking) but prep yourself with vocab first.
  • Class in neighbourhood.
  • Buying fruit and veggies at market instead of supermarket.
  • Learn (and translate yourself) a few songs (Chinese ones) and sing them at karaoke.
  • Live with a Chinese roommate in a xiaoqu [neighbourhood] with no other foreigners.
  • Adjust daily routine to create more social opportunities with the people around you.

A few gems from the other categories:

  • Listen for the words you do understand and try to guess what’s being said… use what you do get to ask clarifying questions.
  • mp3 brainwashing while biking/walking/busing
  • DVDs, TV, CDs, stories, mp3s
  • Sit in places where I can hear lots of people talking – try to figure out what they’re saying.
  • Selective eavesdropping.
  • Tape record someone and copy them.
  • Go to a Chinese church.
  • Read text out loud.
  • Repeat out loud with extra strong emphasis [tones]
  • Get used to and encourage correction.
  • Laugh at yourself.

Good luck, fellow language students! 加油!

Meet Mrs. Shǐ – Striving Hard for a Stable Future

Mrs. Shǐ is December’s Regular Zhou. The magazine seems to share similar feelings with one other critic who doesn’t appreciate having China’s blue collar folks telling their stories in foreigners’ magazines. So I guess from now on they’ll be “above-average Joe’s,” or at least for the next few months while we’re in Canada and I have to interview over e-mail.

As usual, the blog version below has better photos and includes the more interesting content. But I still haven’t included any of the horrific Cultural Revolution stories she told, or her complaints about the Olympics.

Striving Hard for a Stable Future

How one Tianjiner works daily to give her son a better life, one plate of chǎo bǐng at a time.

Mrs. Shǐ is my favourite kind of Tianjiner. She’s warm and engaging, ready for conversation, and patient with language students’ pathetic Mandarin. If you’ve got the time and the ear, she’s willing to share all kinds of stories from her experiences growing up in Tianjin during China’s tumultuous last 50 years. Plus, she makes great chǎo bǐng (炒饼) and dàbǐng jīdàn (大饼鸡蛋), able to warm both the stomach and the heart.

Mrs. Shǐ, whose given name evokes images of mountains with colourful clouds, sells breakfast, lunch, dinner, and the occasional midnight snack from her xiǎomàibù (小卖部), the little shop she’s carved out of a first floor apartment that she shares with her 25-year-old son. She used to sell food from an outdoor stall in a bustling street market for eleven years before the market was cleared away in a nationwide sanitation campaign.

I’m often there at lunchtime, when the tables and stools out on the sidewalk are filled with hungry college students, vegetable market shoppers, and workmen. Inside the walls are lined floor to ceiling with shelves that overflow with snack food, cigarettes, alcohol, and seemingly random items like a large bag full of beer bottle caps. In between the newly-acquired fridge and a small low table with plastic stools there’s just enough room to take three steps to the cooking area, where she single-handledly produces dozens of meals every day.

Daily Routine
She gets up at 5:30 every morning, arranges the displays, tables, and chairs on the sidewalk, and prepares to start serving breakfast at 6am. After breakfast she makes some purchases, cuts up cabbage and cucumber, and gets ready for the lunch rush. After lunch she’ll rest her head in her arms over the freezer and take a nap. She finally closes shop at 11pm, but that doesn’t always stop customers.

At 12:30am they knock on my door and I have to sell: “Ayi! Ayi! I want dàbǐng jīdàn!” I haven’t counted how much I sleep at night. I close shop, eat dinner, shower, drink some water, watch a little TV, then go to sleep at I don’t know what time, maybe 1am or 2am. For twelve years I’ve managed like this.

Growing Up
Her living situation today is better than it was in past decades, when she remembers food rationing and being unable to buy things, even if you had the money. Still, some of her favourite memories are of her childhood in Tianjin’s “South City No-Man’s-Land” (南市三不管儿 / nánshì sānbùguǎnr), which until recently was one of Tianjin’s most well-known historical neighbourhoods, famous for its noisy, packed street markets containing all manner of food and entertainment. Nanshi Food Street (南市食品街 / nánshì shípǐn jiē) now sits near where she grew up as the middle child of seven.

When I was little I was pretty mischievious, even though I was a girl. I was a tomboy. Growing up in Nanshi was good. I could talk about Nanshi from morning ‘til night. It was really rènao (热闹 / loud, bustling, lively), especially in the evenings. There were wrestlers, storytellers, hot rice vendors, soup vendors, all crying out, it was fun to hear. You could buy big snails, five or six for two máo ($0.03). When we were small we couldn’t cook; we’d just go to the food vendors.

I had my son in Nanshi. When he was one-and-a-half, in 1983 on May 26, I moved to our current place. That was when they built Food Street and assigned us housing according to the number of people in our family. Now I have my own house to live in. In the old place I didn’t have my own room, but I like the old place. It was rènao and convenient. Now it’s already gone; it’s all Food Street now. It’s been more than twenty years, but I still cherish the memories of Nanshi.

Future Hopes
The turbulance of the past still impacts her life today, as it does for millions of Mainlanders from her generation. When the Cultural Revolution broke out she was just starting middle school. That means she essentially never had a chance for a real, normal education, but still has to make do in today’s market economy. “Long live Chairman Mao” is the only thing she can say in English. She’s come through hard times, and those life experiences shape her hopes for the future:

I wish my son was able to go abroad, like the way you came to our country. But I can’t be too idealistic. I don’t have desire or hope anything for myself. I just hope my son’s future is able to be good. I don’t hope that in the future he becomes a boss or whatever. Just so long as he doesn’t have to have the kind of difficulties I’ve had it’s fine.

My most important desire is to hurry and make money so my son can buy his own place and get a wife, and have a stable life – a little bit better life. Right now I feel tired, but I can’t stop because life pressures are too great. My son is going to university and working, earning his own tuition.

Foreigners
I can’t resist asking Mrs. Shǐ what she thinks of foreigners:

I’ve had contact with Japanese, Americans – I’m in contact with a lot of foreigners. We get along really good. Aside from nationality, we’re all friends, and also all neighbours, right? It’s just our skin colour is different. I wish foreigners and us would talk and communicate more.

Even in Death I’ll Love — 死了都要爱

If the last song we did on here got 11 out of 10 for cheesiness, this one gets at least that for melodrama. Our teachers sang it last time we went to karaoke.

死了都要爱 / Even in Death I’ll Love / sǐle dōu yào ài

Shin (信乐团) is a popular rock band from Taiwan. “Even in Death I’ll Love” (死了都要爱) is a popular Korean song (“Love Over 1000 Years”) that Shin rewrote in Mandarin, thereby giving young internet-surfing East Asians yet another opportunity to argue about whose culture is derived from whose. The lead singer, A Shin (阿信) — who, as you’ll see in the video, is apparently quite the diva — left the band last year to launch a solo career in which he’s shamelessly selling out to the pretty-fied Asian pop market with syrupy Josh Groban covers. I have two Shin CDs; they sound like Evanescence with an 80’s rocker streak, and list Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin among their musical influences.

Here’s the epic live version (lyrics and guitar chords are below):

And here’s an mp3 of the album version:

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Lyrics & Guitar Chords

Download: SileDouYaoAi.pdf (lyrics & guitar chords with pinyin/English cheatsheet). The guitar chords match the album version; the live version is in a different key.

歌词 / gē cí / Lyrics (the English needs help):

把每天当成是末日来相爱 / bǎ měitiān dàngchéng shì Mòrì lái xiāngài
Take every day like it’s the last day you have to love each other
(“Take every day like Armageddon has come to your love for each other”)

一分一秒都美到泪水掉下来 / yī fēn yī miǎo dōu měi dào lèishuǐ diào xiàlai
Each minute and each second are all so beautiful that tears fall down

不理会别人是看好或看坏 / bùlǐ huì biérén shì kàn hǎo huò kān huài
Ignore whether other people will think good or think bad

只要你勇敢跟我来 / zhǐyào nǐ yǒnggǎn gēn wǒ lái
So long as you’re brave follow me

爱不用刻意安排 / ài búyòng kèyì ānpái
Love doesn’t need a meticulous plan

凭感觉去亲吻相拥就会很愉快 / píng gǎnjué qù qīnwěn xiāng yōng jiù huì hěn yúkuài
Rely on feelings, go kiss and embrace each other, it’ll be delightful

享受现在别一开怀就怕受伤害 / xiǎngshòu xiànzài bié yì kāihuái jiù pà shòushānghài
Enjoy the present, don’t open up your heart and then just be afraid of injury

许多奇迹我们相信才会存在 / xǔduō qíjì wǒmen xiāngxìn cái huì cúnzài
Many miracles we believe there can be

Chorus:

死了都要爱 / sǐle dōu yào ài
Even in death I’ll love

不淋漓尽致不痛快 / bù línlíjìnzhì bú tòngkuài
Not joyful unless totally unrestrained/saturated

感情多深只有这样 / gǎnqíng duō shēn zhǐyǒu zhè yàng
Only deeper affection can in this way

才足够表白 / cái zúgòu biǎobái
be enough to vindicate

死了都要爱 / sǐle dōu yào ài
Even in death I’ll want love

不哭到微笑不痛快 / bù kū dào wēixiào bú tòngkuài
Not joyful unless crying until smiling

宇宙毁灭心还在 / yǔzhòu huǐmiè xīn hái zài
The universe perishes but my heart is still here

End Chorus:

穷途末路都要爱 / qióngtúmòlù dōu yào ài
Even at the end of the road with no way out I’ll love

不极度浪漫不痛快 / bù jídù làngmàn bú tòngkuài
Not joyful unless extremely romantic

发会雪白土会掩埋 / fā huì xuěbái tǔ huì yǎnmái
Hair will turn snow white and dust will bury

思念不腐坏 / sīniàn bù fǔhuài
but longing doesn’t rot

到绝路都要爱 / dào jué lù dōu yào ài
Even at the dead end road I’ll love

不天荒地老不痛快 / bù tiān huāngdì lǎo bú tòngkuài
Not joyful unless heaven and earth pass away

不怕热爱变火海 / búpà rèài biàn huǒ hǎi
Not afraid for passion to become a fiery sea

爱到沸腾才精采 / ài dào fèiténg cái jīng cǎi
After love comes to a boil it’s magnificent

If you didn’t like this one, the last song was much cuter. If you see a problem with the translation (the chorus especially needs help) please point it out in the comments.

More for your karaoke repertoire:

Homework with whisky and singing

Today I had whiskey with dofu chasers.

On the way out to the park to do some homework, I stopped at the bike repair guy’s corner to see if Mr. Lu would tighten my bike seat. Every time I went over a bump the seat would go vertical. He told me to sit down with his buddies for a snack, which turned out to be peanuts, shredded dofu, and whisky, with the dofu as the chaser. We ended up ‘chatting’ for almost an hour (not that I have anywhere near enough Mandarin to sustain a conversation that long).

We’ve read and heard lots about Chinese drinking customs, about how they should be avoided at all costs, and how they’re hard to avoid. At informal occasions like mine today, but especially at banquets, there can be a lot of toasting with strong drinks. It’s mostly the men; apparently it’s a manly-man thing to drink a lot, and there can be lots of goading and pressuring to get reluctant participants to drink more than they should. (Ironically, ethnic Chinese have one of the lowest genetic tolerances for alcohol, meaning that on average they get drunk easier than everyone else. Manly-man indeed…) Our friends that have lived here long enough, especially those that work in some sort of official capacity, have had to face the banquet scene a few times. They told us they just tell people something like, “We’re Christians so we don’t drink,” even if they do drink occasionally, and the rationale was that your only other choice is to get hammered. I never understood why it was apparently so hard to just stop after one drink. Can’t you just tell people no?

Today I got a small taste of how hard it can be. I only had one, but man I had to fight to keep it at one! These guys were persistent, to the point of trying to grab my cup and fill it for me, or trying to fill it when I was holding it and not paying attention for split second, or giving me all kinds of arguments and guilt trips (I imagine… Mr. Lu doesn’t slow down or simplify his speech for foreigners like others sometimes do so I don’t know what he was saying aside from the non-verbals). I wonder if a little bit has to do with you giving them face by accepting their hospitality, and saying no can be a little loss of face or something. Since you have to work so hard to refuse more, to the point of almost making a little scene, I can see how the pressure would be even greater at formal banquets where there’s a lot more face going around.

Still, tough rocks. I’m not going to be your drunk foreigner entertainment, and I’ve got more interesting ways to affirm my masculinity.

But we still had a good time. After the snack, I found a bench in the park and ending up talking with someone else for another hour. Then he saw one of his friends and we sat and talked with him. Jessica found us by then, and he and his friend (an erhu musician) sang us this song:

I’d tell you what it’s about, but, ah… it has something to do with “Who are you?” and the army… I think.

While I was talking in the park, this was going on. I promise you won’t get this stuff back home:

The guy I was chatting with asked me if I liked it. I told him it was interesting.

Tomorrow is May 4th, officially one of the most important holidays in China. Workers get a week off of work. Every gate on every apartment building around us (hundreds) is flying a Chinese flag. Fireworks almost every night. You can click here to see how a government site explains the significance of the May 4th Movement. It would be interesting to compare this to what is written in your history textbooks. From said government site:

Under the influence of the October Revolution in Russia, China’s May 4th Movement arose. During this great anti-imperialist, anti-feudal revolutionary movement led by patriotic students, the Chinese proletariat for the first time mounted the political stage. The May 4th Movement marked the change of the old democratic revolution to the new democratic revolution. It enabled Marxism-Leninism to further spread and link up with the Chinese people’s revolutionary practice, and prepared the ideology as well as the cadres necessary for the founding of the Communist Party of China…

 

Our friends the rock stars

Yesterday we had a school trip to a local museum, the Shi Family Mansion (Shijia Dayuan), which was a preserved old style home like you might see in kung-fu movies. A couple families brought their kids. Oscar and Toby (blond, glasses) have lived in Tianjin for about two years, and I think they’re handling their pseudo-celebrity status rather well:

Poor guy on the left… wonder what he’s thinking.

It can actually be pretty tough for kids when they have to deal with this kind of attention, but these two have come through the woods and are in the process of working this to their advantage. I almost died laughing when a bus load of uniformed school kids, led by a guy in an army uniform, came marching past us and these two suddenly jumped into the middle of it and started dancing around. The museum wasn’t bad, but I think that was the high point for me.

We have a ton of photos that I just haven’t had time to upload yet. We’re busy getting the apartment up to shape (sealing the windows, putting in U-bends so the sewer gas doesn’t flow up the kitchen and bathroom pipes and wake us up… again, etc.) I’ll try to get them up this week so you can see the neighbourhood. April is a really beautiful month in Tianjin.