Reflections from a Seattle layover
For the third summer in a row, I am flying back to Beijing after two months of traveling. This year, the holidays have taken us to Europe and to the US and I realise that alas, my usual enthusiasm and excitement to reunite with Beijing has faded. I cannot help but to like the thought of the countdown that has already started in my mind. 10 more months and we're leaving China. I almost feel guilty about feeling this way. The strongest advocate for enjoying life and embracing China with all its quirkiness, loudness and craziness is having a liiiitle bit of a hard time right now.
I know it’s temporary. But just give me a minute to get that negativity out of my system.
I’m thinking about that moment when the plane touches down in Beijing. The air is likely to be polluted, I’ll step out of the plane switch on my phone and remember that everything is blocked in China – so I have to switch on my VPN in order to access Google, Instagram, Facebook, several news outlets – including the Hong Kong paper I write for and my own blog. Bye freedom of press – I’ve thoroughly enjoyed you the past 2 months.
After we get our luggage, we’ll get into a smelly taxi where the driver won’t help me get the suitcases into the trunk (which, by the way, will likely be full of his own junk). I’ll try to find the words again “wŏmen qu Chaoyang Gōng Yuán Xī lu 17 hao” (our address). I’ll be thinking about how I need to do some grocery shopping when we get home. Jenny Lou. One of two options where they stock western goods. One basket of the essentials such as milk, cheese and cereal will cost me a small fortune. As we approach Chaoyang Gōng Yuán Xī lu, the driver will be lost and I’ll say “xiàyīge hóng lu dēng yòu zhuăn – ránhòu zou zhuăn” (turn right at the next traffic light, then left) – at least that’s my, perhaps simplified, way of saying it.
Finally home. And the moment we step out of the taxi is when I trust that things will start to look up. Our super friendly reception staff will greet me. “Nĭ hăo Mòlì” (Mòlì is my Chinese name – it means Jasmine). We’ll take the elevator to the 7th floor and as we open the door to our apartment, our beautiful black cat Pumba will be waiting for us. 8 weeks is a really long time to be away from her. She might even be up for a little cuddle although that’s normally not her style. The apartment will be spotless, Our ayi (househelp) has taken care of that. I’ll be happy that we have a base again. After weeks of living out of a suitcase, we’ll unpack.
I’m lucky to have several friends in the building where we live. We’ve been in touch over the summer and have agreed to meet up as soon as we’re all back – and have a toast to a great (school) year and lots of fun moments together. I’ll also be rushing to see my darling friends (and Chinese class mates) Rebecca and Egle as well as my wonderful Danish friends! I’ll be anxious for it to be Thursday. Rehearsal with Jing Sing! Our a cappella group.
Next week the Cugnini family from Brussels will be arriving. They are doing a trip around China and will stay with us for a week. And our two kids who still live at home are excited about going back to school for their highschool freshman and senior years.
I’ll soon be busy. Have articles to pitch and to write. I want to work on the look of my blog (currently so boring) and I’m on the team of organizers for a big party for journalists in September where we expect over 250 people.
But most of all, I’ll be busy enjoying the last year in China. New trips, new experiences, a new process of discovering where we go next and who knows – that Chinese exam I said I’d take.
I’m smiling now.
One weekend in Qinghai
Qinghai offers so much to see and do and one could easily spend a month traveling from place to place - but if you only have a weekend at your disposal, here is what I recommend that you do
It's easy to fly from Beijing to the capital Xining. Have a wander around the lively muslim quarter and see the Dongguan Mosque (one of the biggest in China). Head to Nanchan temple or Tulou temple which both offer a nice view over the city and the mountains in the background. The Tibetan Culture and Medicine Museum is also worth a visit! It boasts, among other things. a 617 metre long thangka scroll (hand painted artwork) which tells the story of Tibet. It took 400 artists 4 years to complete it!
Take a one-day trip (we booked a driver through the hotel) to Kumbum Monastery - one of the two most important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries outside Tibet itself. There are around 600 monks living there.
Drive further west to Qinghai lake. We fell right into a tourist trap and paid 90 RMB just to walk down to the lake shore from a big parking lot/hotel. We were not very lucky with the weather but it was easy to imagine how spectacular the lake must be on a clear day with the snow clad mountains in the background. Apparently, we missed the "must-see" on the lake - namely a vast area with sand dunes.
The city of Tongren is also supposed to be worth a visit! We were, however, discouraged by the 4 hr bus ride (each way) from Xining - even though the landscape during those 4 hours is said to be breathtaking!
“Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere.”
Apologies in advance, dear reader. Here I go again. Another "ups and downs of learning Chinese" post. But this time, I have an important decision to announce.
But first, let's have a look at my Chinese studies "history".
I had my first lesson in February of 2016. 2 months after I arrived in China. At the time, learning Chinese was my most important project. I had the time, I'm passionate about languages, I like a challenge, I had classmates and last but not least, I was keen to be "integrated" into the Chinese community.
Despite changing schools, then teacher and classmates, l maintained the enthusiasm the first year. I was eager to learn and would actually find pleasure in doing my homework.
I ended up with the most wonderful teacher and my new classmates meant (and still mean) everything to me. We were all on a roll. We shared the passion and had fun inside as well as outside the classroom.
All good things must come to an end
Yes, it sound a bit dramatic but I suppose I somehow knew that it wouldn't last. I got busy with other things. Got a part-time job, started to do more and more freelance writing and every time I took on something new, Chinese became much less of a priority for me. As a result, I failed my last exam about a year ago (HSK 3 exam). Last summer, our beloved classmate Elisabete moved to Indonesia, Egle decided to stop and there has have been lots of changes in the group. This has caused some instability - but that instability is not to blame for my current demotivation. I have simply gotten lazy, sloppy and too busy with other things.
There are 6 HSK levels in total and I'm currently studying level 4. I hope to do the exam in August or September and last week, I told my dear teacher Xin that I will be stopping after level 4. That was not part of the plan. I naïvely thought that reaching (and finishing) level 6 was feasible within the 4 1/2 years we'll have in China altogether. Reaching level 6 WOULD have been possible IF I had chosen to study full-time at the university (or at least 4-5 hours per day). I started off with 4 hours per week, then 9 and now I'm back to 6. Xin told me "HSK 四级真的不错“ (HSK 4 is not bad at all) - and she fully supported my decision to stop after the summer.
What do you know after 3 years?
I think the easiest way of telling you where HSK 4 gets you is by telling you what I can do - and what I can't - in Chinese:
Talk to taxi drivers and give directions: yes
Introduce myself and tell people where I come from, how long I've been in China: yes
Talk to our house help: yes
Get the essence of a radio programme (understanding roughly every 9-10 words): yes
Watch a movie in Chinese: no
Participate in a conversation about something that goes beyond small-talk: no
Interview sources in Chinese: no
Depressing innit? I mean three years.
On the other hand, I believe in always looking on the bright side of things. Had I not given it a try, my level would have been zero. I would have saved myself a lot of frustrations but also missed out on a lot of fun - and lifelong friendships! I would have relied on always having an English speaking person around me when trying to communicate - or gotten my translation app out every single day. I could beat myself up for letting go of something that was so important to me - but as you know
冰冻三尺，非一日之寒 “Three feet of ice is not the result of one cold day.” (Rome wasn't built in a day) - and what I've learnt from the past 3 years, is that Mandarin is an incredibly difficult language and it requires so much dedication and patience to become a fluent speaker. But trying to grasp it has been rewarding enough for me. I intend to spend this last year in China practising as much as possible with the man in the street.
Time is ticking. I have set myself the goal to visit all of China’s provinces before we leave China in the summer of 2020. Any excuse is goof and in the case of Jiangsu province , it was a marathon that brought me there - as a spectator that is!
Jiangsu province is located in Eastern China, roughly 130 kilometers from Shanghai - and the city of Wuxi lies on the northern shore of Taihu lake while the northern part of the city lies right by the Yangze River.
My husband had signed up for his third Wuxi Marathon but I decided to leave for Wuxi one day before him in order to have more time to explore the city. When I told a friend about my plan, he laughed and said “explore Wuxi – well maybe there’s a culture street or something but I would’t get my expectations up”. He was somehow right – but still, I believe that a city, in many cases, is what you make of it.
I landed in Wuxi on a chilly March morning and immediately regretted not having checked the weather forecast and hence assuming that it would be nice and warm. I checked into my hotel (strategically chosen due to its vicinity to the finish line of the Marathon) and there was nothing to do there so I pretty much dropped off my bags in the room and decided to take a taxi to the city centre. In the meantime, however, the hotel reception told me that there was an “ancient town” only 500 meters away. I certainly couldn’t miss out on that so after a brisk 10-minute walk, I found myself in the middle of the “ancient town” of Xuntang. With all signs being in Chinese and no guidebook at hand, I gave up on trying to find out if there was anything authentic about this place – or whether it had just been built for tourists. But it was cute and quaint – and took about 15 minutes to visit.
Being in China, I made use of our fabulous Didi App (similar to Uber) and got a car to the city centre. A friend had recommended to get off at the luxurious Nikko hotel and get walk around the area of (mostly western) restaurant and to the culture street on the opposite side of the hotel. Here it was. The culture street. Something every respectable Chinese has. New and old mixed together, new that pretends to be old, old that is actually old but you’re not quite sure – and of course snacks and souvenirs galore.
I only arrived in the city centre at 3 pm so almost all the restaurants were closed – and of all the places I could choose to go, I decided to go to a small mall with a Carrefour supermarket inside. Simply because I was cold and wanted to buy a sweater. I got a bit of take-away food from Carrefour and went back to the hotel.
I woke up bright and early to welcome my husband who landed with the first flight from Beijing. First stop today was the exhibition centre across the street from the hotel. The centre was transformed into a buzzing Marathon-fair and the atmosphere was incredible. Wuxi Marathon is, in fact one of the most important and most well-organized road marathons in China with roughly xx participants. After having picked up the bib number and browsed the vendor stalls at the exhibition centre, we walked up to the little “old village” again. We then took at taxi to a lakeside spot called Taihu Tou and after a stroll by the lake, we went back to the city centre for another stroll in the Culture Street – but this time we discovered the beautiful parallel street which was really quaint and actually old! And that was not the only positive discovery of the day. We realized that, behind hotel Nikko, there was a huge, live street food market which was packed with people. It made Beijing’s Wanfujing Snack Street look like a joke! Despite the wide array of delicious street food, we opted for a very non-chinese sit-down dinner at the Mamma Mia Pizzeria. Hands down the best pizza I’ve ever had in China (though I was probably biased since I hadn’t had bread or pizza in 3 months due to my Keto diet).
Race day for Francesco. I got up late and went to the finish line at around 11 am. As always, the atmosphere at the finish line was amazing and one could hear hundreds of people shouting Jia you, jia you (add oil) from miles away to encourage the runners.
We had planned to go and see the giant Buddha at Ling Shan that afternoon but after the race, neither of us was really in the mood for sightseeing so we checked out and chilled at the hotel lobby until it was time to go to the airport.
Wuxi was actually a nice place to visit though hardly on my must-see China list. My project is about visiting the Provinces of China and Wuxi is clearly only one city in Jiangsu province. But if go and visit the famous water town of Suzhou at some stage, can we make it count please?
It's hard to believe but we have already been in China over 3 years. I remember that smoggy, freezing December day in 2015 when we arrived as if it were yesterday. And here we are - looking towards our "life after China" already.
The decision has been made. It was a tough one - but we have chosen not to apply for an extension of my husband's contract in China which ends in the summer of 2020.
There were many things to be taken into consideration - such as the timing of the kids' education, finances, me being on leave from my job - and of course how we feel about living in Beijing.
But despite some amazing opportunities here, a wonderful lifestyle and our lovely, lovely friends, it all came down to being ready for a new chapter. We're not ready yet - but we reckon we will be by the summer of 2020. By then, we'll have been in China 4 1/2 years.
I've always said that I love the unknown. We still don't know what will happen next but we know this much: There will be opportunities for my husband (and for myself) to apply for other EU delegations around the world and we'll certainly apply. Should it not work out, then we go back to Brussels. But we won't know for sure until early 2020.
The bucket list
My project for the next 16 months is all about China. I would like to enjoy life as much as I can in China. I want my life to be full of China, over the top-China, trying-to-crack-the-code-to-learning-mandarin-China, cultural China, historical China and not least the traveler's China. In other words, I don't want to look back at this experience thinking "I wish I had..."
I have a crazy project of traveling to all 30 something provinces in China before we move - and so far I've only visited around 10 of them. To be frank, I don't know if it's realistic and I certainly don't want to stress about it - but boy would it be cool. I will post more about my project over the next few weeks.
Thank you for your support dear readers and followers! I just had a look at the site statistics and I'm ever so grateful! I promise to post more regularly!
I’m not a huge fan of new year’s resolutions because I can’t keep them anyway – but I know that this year I have to make an effort when it comes to studying Chinese. The number of hours I physically spend in the classroom every week (currently 9) is not the issue. But reviewing, doing all my homework and memorising the characters need to start happening.
It’s been a year full of changes. There were 4 of us for about a year, then Amanda joined. Then Elisabete moved to Indonesia and Amanda moved to the States. Then Jesper Joined, Nadine stopped, DaXie moved up to level 5, Egle took a break and Henrique went onto study in Germany. There are only 3 of us left in class now. Jesper, Rebecca and I. Of the 3, I am by far the least studious and the most distracted by other activities. As a result of my poor preparation, I failed the last exam (HSK 3).
Where are we at?
We follow the HSK system. "The Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (汉语水平考试 translated as the Chinese Proficiency Test or the Chinese Standard Exam, is the standardized test of Standard Chinese language proficiency of China for non-native speakers such as foreign students and overseas Chinese". There are 6 levels in total and and we’re about halfway through level 4 – meaning that we’re likely to take the Level 4 exam this summer if everything goes well. On this level, pinyin is a thing of the past and we only read characters. When it comes to spoken Chinese, there are some days where I feel I’m not able to say anything and some days where I’m quite proud of the progress we've made. I’m able to get by in Beijing. I can speak to our Ayi (housekeeper) – and when I can’t, we use WeChat translate. I can introduce myself and say how long I’ve been in China, why we’re here and so on – and I can explain to taxi drivers where I need to go and ask for directions. However, when it comes to “deeper” conversations, I simply don’t have the necessary vocabulary yet. And I don’t practise enough!
Hopes for the future
I’ve been in China 3 years now and I came here with the intention of making learning Chinese one of my top priorities. If it hadn't been for my amazing classmates and our wonderful teacher Xin, I would most likely have given up ages ago. I hope 2019 will be the year where I give myself a kick up the backside and dedicate more time to learning Chinese. I am a linguist after all. 加油！
On Sunday we woke up to thick, polluted air. The app showed an Air Quality Index of 217 - which is in the "very unhealthy" category. My son and his friend had signed up for a 10 K run in Chaoyang park right where we live and I was wrong in assuming that the race would be cancelled due to smog.
As we entered Chaoyang park at 7 am, it was buzzing with life just like every morning. Elderly people flying their kites, doing tai qi, playing ping-pong, dancing - and hundreds of runners were making their way to the start line.
I have written about how pollution generally doesn't affect people's daily lives in Beijing. Going on as if it were the most beautiful day is very common. And probably very heathy for the mental sanity of Beijingers. At the same time. studies show that physical activity generally outweighs the harm of bad air pollution and I hope to write more about that soon. Apologies for this very short post. More coming up very soon - promise ;-)
"Doctor, my back hurts!" "Auricular acupuncture might be the answer!" My recent home-visit by a TCM doctor
My sitting bone has been hurting for quite a while and when I travelled from the States to China in mid-September, I was in total agony. I could basically not sit down. Upon my return to China, I went to see my doctor who suggested I start physiotherapy. After each session, I would feel better for 24 hours – and then the pain would come back. At 1250 RMB per session (almost 200 euros – of which roughly half is covered by my medical insurance) I decided it was worth-while ty try other forms of treatment. My pilates teacher Sabina told me about a TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) doctor who does house visits and after a quick exchange of messages on WeChat, I made an appointment that same afternoon.
He started off by looking at my ears for about 5 minutes. Not inside my ears – but outside and explained that a lot can be understood from the ears. Then he asked me a number of questions about things like my sleep pattern, digestion etc.
He did not touch or massage my back at any stage – and I admit that I was dying for some magical cracking – but I kept an open mind as he suggested that we do cupping (placement of small, heated glass jars that create suction in order to relieve muscle tension, promote blood and lymph circulation and detoxify). Although I had had good results with cupping in the past, I kindly declined this time – simply because it leaves big red/blue marks on your back for about a week – and I was leaving for a beach holiday the next day. Vanity won – again.
Doctor Qu decided to use acupuncture first. He placed 2 needles in each leg and one needle in each arm. When acupuncture needles go in, you do not feel any pain. But when the doctor moves and twists them to detect the nerve pain, it hurts!
Next thing he took out a package of tiny metal spheres (also called auricular seeds) and started pressing them one by one into the cartilag of my ears. It wasn’t too painful – although my ears became burning hot and red once he had pressed all 22 spheres into my ears. He told me they would stimulate various points of my body and particularly my spleen. He then instructed me to touch the pearls as much as I could over the next few days in order to stimulate further.
You can check out this youtube link to see how the spheres work https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=72sQktS9RiU
Once the acupuncture needles were out, he placed a sticky herbal patch on my lower back. The patch needs to be heated up with a hairdryer in order to become soft and sticky. You need to take it off before showering – and then it can be reused three times.
Finally, I was given some herbal painkillers (Tong zheng capsules). I was instructed to take 4 tablets twice a day.
Did it help?
I suppose I was hoping for a miracle but the doctor did warn me that I might not see any improvement after one treatment. I must be honest: I did not feel any improvement at all and I did not follow doctor’s orders – something I am not proud to admit.
It was too uncomfortable to sleep on the side (as I usually do) with all the magnetic seeds in my ears. So I took them out after 24 hours. I also took off the patch – and again I forgot one important instruction: Bring tape so that you can get the residue off your back! I forgot so I ruined a new bikini completely after I had tried to scrub the sticky, dark brown mass off my back.
Finally, I just took the tablets twice – simply because I forgot.
I’m already in contact with Dr. Qu for a new appointment. I want to see if cupping will help me. I think one needs to be in the right mood when trying TCM. You need to believe in it, bear in mind that it's not a quick fix - and try to understand the culture behind it. I am ready for take two - with an open mind.
At the South-Western corner of Chaoyang park lies Park Apartments. A compound* like so many others in Beijing - but different. Many of Park Apartments' residents (including myself) chose this compound because of its location and great facilities (which I've described before on my blog) but it turned our that it came with the added bonus of a tight knit community. As residents we come together to lend a helping hand (or a pound of sugar), network, exchange DIY tips, look for playdates for our kids, advertise events, share our frustrations about the somewhat famous Chinese Chabuduo maintenance-style - and last but not least, we party together.
We're lucky to have a bar area in the lobby and we hold regular "come-and-meet your neighbours" potlucks for the grown-ups - but the kids also get their fair share of fun at the annual trick or treating at Halloween and egg hunt at Easter.
The glue that holds our community together is... (you guessed it) WeChat!
I'd like to show you some snippets from our conversations.
* a compound can be anything from a gated community to a high-rise building. Often with a high concentration of expat residents.
As you may know, I don’t go shopping a lot in China. And by that I mean I don’t physically walk into shops (despite having a gazilion shopping malls at my disposal). I’ve told you about my taobao addiction before so I thought you might want to have a look at my latest online purchases. The news is that I am now also using Baopals which is Taobao BUT IN ENGLISH! Absolutely brilliant!