Tianjin was on my China bucket list. Not because it's famous for anything - but more because it's a big city that's really close to Beijing. It took me (and my beloved class mates) over 2 years to finally take that 35 minute train ride to Tianjin. We were in for a pleasant surprise.
Before I let the pictures (and the captions) do the talking, here are some facts about Tianjin:
Sources: Chinatoday.com, Wikipedia
Each cup of tea represents an imaginary voyage. - Catherine Douze
I've always said that China is all about seizing opportunities for me - so what do you do when you absolutely love tea and a Chinese tea enthusiast offers to take you to discover the world of tea at the tea market? You say yes thank you!
Around three weeks ago, my great Italian friend Alessia had organised for a group of us to go to a tea market located on the north third ring road. Chinese teacher and tea enthusiast Lucy was going to meet us there. Lucy is a larger than life character. Always super elegant, this time dressed in red from top to toe, speaks perfect English and is extremely knowledgable. Lucy took us to one of the many small tea shops where a lovely young woman was waiting for us. She is the daughter of tea producers from southern China and was proud to let us sample various types of tea - both from the family farm and other producers.
Lucy had prepared a booklet for each of us with basic information about the different types of Chinese tea. We were introduced to green tea, yellow tea, white tea, Wulong tea, black tea (called red tea - hongcha - in Chinese) and dark tea.
Here are a few of the interesting facts we learned:
Shop til you drop
I decided to buy two of the teas we tasted:
Off she goes. I've just said goodbye to our Ayi (househelp). She is going back to the Henan province where her three children live with her parents-in-law. She is ecstatic as she hasn't seen her kids (aged 5, 7 and 18) since the beginning of October. She'll be gone for almost two weeks (needless to say our house will be a mess by the time she gets back) and I wish her a happy new year with a hong bao (red envelope) containing a month's salary. It is "standard procedure" to pay Ayi's double salary for Chinese new year but the twinkle in her eye tells me she never took it for granted.
This year, the Chinese New year's eve falls on the 15th of February (this coming Thursday) . By then, over one billion Chinese will have reached their home towns for what Forbes calls the world's largest human migration. On Thursday, the Chinese will be gathering around the table for a family feast. There will most certainly be 鱼 Yú (fish) 饺子 Jiǎozi (dumplings), 春卷 Chūnjuǎn (spring rolls) 汤圆 Tāngyuán (sweet rice balls) and other dishes that are believed to bring good luck.
Staying in Beijing: don't expect dragons
For our first Chinese new year in 2016, we decided to stay in Beijing. Although we could see and hear fireworks almost non-stop for 10 days, we were somehow disappointed. The city seemed empty (as empty as a city of 25 million people can be) and a far cry from the carnival atmosphere I had somehow expected. There was no drumming in the streets and red dragons were nowhere to be seen. It turns out that dragon dance is not really a Beijing tradition and that the silence was due to said largest human migration. The journey home has begun for most and, already last week, it became difficult to get taxis, many deliveries are postponed until after new year, many shops and restaurants are either operating with new year opening hours or closed (although most shopping malls remain open as normal).
But those who choose a staycation, are still in for a treat - because this is China and it's never boring. Many of the city's parks and temples Temple welcome Beijingers to their temple fairs and that is certainly a fun day out! During the fairs, parks are beautifully decorated and boosting with entertainment, vendors of different kinds, food stalls and also religious rituals.
I'm outta here - popular destinations
Chinese new year is (alongside the national day in October) the busiest period for travelling in China. Popular cities and sights tend to be completely overcrowded hence many foreigners prefer to travel elsewhere for Chinese new year. Admittedly also to escape from the cold weather.
I've asked around and here is where 10 of my Beijing friends are going this new year:
Amy: Sri Lanka
Rose: New Zealand
Can you see a trend? South East Asia is indeed a very popular holiday destination for CNY.
What about us?
This Chinese new year is going to be a special one for the Floris family. Partly because of a very exciting project - partly because - for the first time- we're going our separate ways (thankfully only for 10 days).
My daughter Rebecca and I are flying to Nicaragua tomorrow, Wednesday. Our family has, since 2011, supported the Charity "Carita Feliz" - a centre for Children and youngsters of very little means situated in Granada, Nicaragua. The organisation was founded by my countryman Peder Kolind who sadly passed away in 2015. This will be my third trip to Nicaragua but Rebecca was only 6 years old when she visited the country (where her dear Uncle Diego also happens to live). She is super excited about our trip and has been very active in sourcing donations (both clothes, electronics and money) for the children who are less fortunate than her. I will be posting some reflections from our trip on my website www.lisefloris.com.
As for our dad and brothers, they are off to South Korea for 4 days. They will be staying in Seoul and will also go to visit the border with North Korea.
Exciting times. We're counting our blessings again.
Happy new year and see you in the year of the Dog.
Beijing is a city that offers a high quality of life. Even with its 25 million inhabitants, it's a rather easy city to live in. We have wide avenues, parks, shopping malls galore, plenty of historical sights, a huge, clean and well-functioning subway system, an uncountable number of restaurants and finally, Beijing also happens to be a cyclist-friendly city!
Cycling plays an important role in the Chinese culture and society - and being able to go everywhere by bike was one of the things I was really excited about we moved here. However, my enthusiasm faded slightly as I started to notice that I mostly got surpassed on the bike lane by electric scooters (boy are they silent and easy to crash into!). But it turned out that the come-back of the old-fashioned bicycle was just around the corner. In the summer of 2016, the city became coloured in orange. Sharing bike company Mobike put their first bikes on the pavements of Shanghai in April of 2016 and Beijing followed suit a couple of months later. Mobike still seems to have the biggest market share but there are dozens of other companies (characterised by different colours of bikes). Shared bikes are a major hit in China - and by the end of 2017 there were 50 million users across the country. So what's the problem?
Scan, pedal, ditch
Common for the providers is that the bikes don't have docking stations. Users simply scan the QR code that is stuck behind the saddle and the bike unlocks. After you use a shared bike, you just leave it where ever you want. 非常方便 - very convenient. But this convenience is causing a major problem, not only in Beijing but all over China. Shared bikes are everywhere! On the pavement, in the streets, in open parking lots and even on the highway. They block the pedestrian crossings and absurdly enough, it is becoming more and more difficult to find a parking space for my normal, old-fashioned Dutch bike.
The shared bike companies are doing what they can to keep the streets neat and free from layers, even mountains of shared bikes. Several times a day, I see lorries that pick up, re-arrange or add shared bikes. I took this picture down the road from us yesterday.
But what happens to the bikes that are removed from the streets? Despite being so young, shared bikes in China are already being put to rest in massgraves around the county. This is a picture of a pile of shared bikes in Xiamen in the Fujian Province.
While one must not forget the benefits of shared bikes (such as less pollution and congestion and more physical exercise) it seems like authorities have lost control of the situation and manufacturers are failing to realise that the market is already saturated.
We arrived in Beijing two years and ten days ago. It somehow feels like a lifetime and a heartbeat ago at the same time.
We landed on a gloomy December morning in 2015. The pollution was through the roof that day and in true newbie style, we had brought masks in our hand luggage and were barely inside the airport terminal before we all had them on. Boy has our attitude changed since then!
I still remember the feeling of checking into our temporary accommodation (the fancy Oakwood residence). We stood there in the middle of the small apartment, overwhelmed by everything, looking at our 15 suitcases, three sad children and our utterly confused cat. All I could think was right! you wanted it. This is our new life – get on with it now.
When I think back, there were three major challenges that characterized the first 6 months in Beijing:
Homesickness: While we’ve lived away from our families for many years, not having our friends close by really took a lot of getting used to! For the kids, going to a new school and not seeing their old friends was really tough in the beginning.
Language barrier: Not only had we already been to Beijing once, we had also been warned. Yet, for some strange reason, we still didn’t think that language would really be an issue. I have written about the language barrier quite a lot on my blog and I've reached the same conclusion every time: hardly anyone speaks English in Beijing and the frustration of not understanding and not making yourself understood is constant.
Not knowing anyone: A week after we moved to Brussels back in 2002 I locked myself out of the apartment. I had my then 3- year-old and my 6-month old baby with me. It was freezing cold and I couldn’t get into neither the apartment nor the car. I had no choice but to knock on a random door. Our upstairs neighbors lent me their telephone so I could contact my husband. I found that not knowing a soul in Beijing was one of the toughest things in the beginning. Not so much for practical reasons but more from a human perspective. However, at the same time, I believe it brought our family closer together. We only had each other.
That was then – and this is now
China is treating us well. We’ve been very lucky with the way things have turned out – and although it’s difficult to speak on behalf of all five of us, it is safe to say that we’re happy in Beijing.
We found a home. After some house hunting set-backs, we finally moved into our apartment at the end of March 2015. We chose a lovely compound called Park Apartments and finally having a base (and our container from Belgium) became the start of something great.
The School – best decision. Enrolling the kids at Western Academy of Beijing was probably the best and most important decision we made. There is a vast choice of international schools in Beijing and we didn’t have time to do a thorough market research. Yes, I admit it; we based our decision almost entirely on the amazing campus and the very friendly people at WAB's admissions office (one of whom – Elke- has become one of my very good friends in China).
Work and non-work: The very reason we came to China was my husband’s work. And the very reason I’m blogging right now is probably that I’m not working at the moment. Both situations took some getting used to. There were new colleagues, new assignments, new work methods and new intercultural challenges for my husband – and new considerations about self-reinvention for me. It is working out very well for both of us.
Discovering Beijing and the rest of China: We had agreed before moving to Beijing that we were going to make the most of these 4-5 years and that we would explore our new city and this grand country whenever possible. Not long after we arrived, I figured that it would be nice to have a concrete plan so I promised myself that I would travel to all of China’s provinces and autonomous regions before we leave. So far, I have been to Sichuan, Inner Mongolia, Hong Kong, Shaanxi, Hebei, Guangdong, Xinjiang, Taiwan, Shanghai and Beijing. In other words, 10 down, 24 to go. I’d better get planning!
Learning Chinese: We didn’t give our kids a choice. They had to learn Chinese at school. Luckily, the Western Academy of Beijing strongly encourages students to learn Chinese. After all, it is the language of our host country. Knowing that I would be on leave from my job, I had made it one of my personal projects to learn Chinese so I had my first lesson almost two years ago. Since then, I have changed schools, changed class mates, done myself proud, cried tears of frustration, almost given up and passed an exam with a pretty good score. My level is still not high but if I plan to soldier on, I owe it to my amazing teacher and my classmates – who are so much more than classmates to me.
The all-important hobbies: We’ve always been an active family and both the kids and my husband and I have had hobbies that were very important to us. After checking out various different facilities (and again failing to explain what we were looking for) we managed to find a gymnastics team for our daughter and a chess club for our youngest son. In the summer of 2016, my husband and I managed to find exactly what we were looking for too. Being passionate about marathons and (ultra) trail running, “Hey Running” was exactly the group he needed. As for me, when I was given the chance to audition for Jing Sing a cappella group, I couldn’t even imagine how much joy that free soprano spot would bring me. More importantly, our hobbies have led to close friendships.
Family bonding: Moving to another (far-away) country is a family affair. Your family’s happiness becomes your main goal and time spent together as a family becomes even more crucial when you live abroad. We still struggle to get everyone together for family movie nights and outings. But ultimately, that is a good thing. It normally means the kids prefer to hang out with friends. Friends they’ve made in China.
We will be in China for at least another 2 ½ years and I can’t help but to wonder what’s next?
From a professional point of view, I do not see myself looking for a job – or rather looking for a full-time job. I plan to continue writing and blogging and I hope to further develop some of my ideas related to writing. I look forward to singing and performing more and am super excited that Jing Sing is in the process of recording an album. My next Chinese exam (HSK 3) is coming up in March and I hope to pass it. There are six levels of HSK and while I believe that reaching level 6 before we leave China could be a good, tangible goal, I just don’t know if it’s realistic.
We will of course keep on exploring China and I cannot wait to book the next trip. On the top of my list right now are the Yunnan and Fujian provinces.
It is no secret that I get a kick out of China. Both my family and I try to make the most of the opportunities that come our way. My dream is to leave China in a few years with the feeing that I managed to fully grasp China and the Chinese . I am completely aware that there is only one way to make that dream come true: keep exploring and crack on with learning Chinese.
(no big drama - I'm just talking about learning Chinese)
Yesterday was our last Chinese class before the Christmas break and it's safe to say that I wasn't in a studying mood. As a matter of fact, I childishly begged my class mates to distract our teacher as much as possible with conversations in English and questions about next semester. But alas. It's kind of hard to keep the smalltalk going for 3 hours. Especially not with our Laoshi Xin. So there was no way out of finishing chapter 27.
All of chapter 27 is based on the grammatical structure ba (把). I wouldn't really know how to explain this structure in English but if we imagine for a moment that we use ba in English, a sentence would sound like this:
I ba bicycle put downstairs bicycle shed inside (Wǒ bǎ zìxíngchē fàng zài lóu xià de chēpéng lǐ le -我把自行车放在楼下的车棚里了) - Or please ba cup put table upon (Qǐng nǐ bǎ bēizi fàng zài zhuōzi shàng 请你把杯子放在桌子上). In other words, it clarifies what happened to the object.
The ba structure has been following (or should I say haunting?) us for over a year now. It is a commonly and frequently used structure and I do not doubt its usefulness - just like I don't doubt the frustration it is causing me. But last week I felt that I had finally cracked the code. Even the more complicated ba structures were starting to make sense to me. Like when you use it for "I mistook something for something else" or "I'm changing that into that" and so on. Towards the end of yesterday's lesson, while I still had an ounce of confidence left in my ability to read and comprehend sentences, it was time to read the transcript of chapter 27's listening exercises. On page 181, I lost my confidence again.
The first 3-4 sentences were rather easy. An old man goes to visit his son in Paris and bla bla bla. Then it was my turn to read - just when it all went grammatically pear shaped. The old man (who went to see his son in Paris) wrote down the street name where his son lived on a piece of paper so he could find his way home. Then gave the piece of paper to a taxi driver but when the taxi driver read it, it said "no way through". Get it? The street signs were in French and he mistook the name of the street for "No way through". But nono. Of course it was not the mistook I had already mastered (kan chéng). I must have read the sentence 7-8 times. Huílái shí, tā bǎ zhè zhāng zhǐ jiāo gěi sījī, sījī kàn dào shàngbian xiězhe cǐ lù bùtōng. I read it in a robotic way. As only someone who doesn't have a clue what she's reading would read. All I could think was "teacher, please put me out of my misery". Or someone ring the non-existing bell so we can be dismissed. A classic example of a Chinese learning curve; flying high one day and falling low the next.
I've described the language barrier in China before - and the linguistic babysteps we're making in an attempt to hopefully conquer it one day.
If I haven't given up on learning Chinese yet, I owe it to my amazing 同学们 - classmates. And to our one-of-a-kind teacher Xīn. My class mates and I spend six hours a week in the class room at Qiáo xuéxiào (the Bridge School) together - and a whole lot of time outside the classroom.
We laugh, share our frustrations, go out together, make fun of ourselves and talk about whatever life throws at us.
What's the secret to such a well-functioning group? I believe it comes down to what we have in common. To mention but a few, we are all mothers, we originally came to China as accompanying spouses (although some of us now work either full-time, part-time or freelance) and we all thought that learning Chinese would be beneficial to our stay in China or to our lives in general.
Want to meet my classmates and teacher and see what we're up to together?
Here we go...
(from left to right in the first picture):
Egle (Lithuania) : Our no-nonsense funny Baltic beauty.
Rebecca (UK): Super smart and lifts us up with her great sense of humor.
Elisabete (Portugal): Has a heart of gold and is super disciplined.
Lăoshī Xin: A truly special Beijing ren who is doing her very best to motivate us and transmit her love for Mandarin.
Amanda (US): Learns characters at an incredible pace and has been amazing at settling in with us crazy ladies as the latest addition to the group.
Welcome to China's far Western region of Xinjiang. A place we were lucky enough to visit last week during the October holiday. It is safe to say that this is like no other place I've seen in China and I hope you learn something too and get inspired to visit this truly fascinating region.
Sightseeing. You're in for a treat!
Despite having only visited a tiny fraction of Xinjiang, my family and I were struck by its beauty and diversity. You can visit Swiss-like alpine lakes one day and feel like you're in the midst of an Indiana Jones movie set the next day. You can enjoy Chinese noodles at lunch and a lamb kebab with freshly baked naan for dinner.
The city of Kashgar in the far west is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Xinjiang. It is known for its old town, the hustle and bustle of its bazaars and livestock markets, and for various sights outside the city (such as the Mor buddhist pagoda). After this description, it may come as a surprise to you that we opted for the eastern past of Xinjiang. We decided to stay in the capital Urumqi mainly because of travel time and airfares - but also because I had my eyes set on two particular sights I wanted to visit:
Heavenly lake - or Tian chi - is an alpine lake. At 2200 metres above sea level, it is classified as the highest level scenic area in China. The site has undergone a recent multi-million restoration (providing, among other things, comfortable walking paths around the lake) and this place is the perfect spot for a day trip if you're staying in Urumqi. We found the Regional museum in Urumqi interesting and had a very nice, traditional Uyghyr dinner at "Miraj". But apart from that, we were not that impressed with the capital of Xinjiang. The area around Turpan was a whole different story. On our third day in Xinjiang, we set off on a day trip with a local Uygur guide and a (han Chinese) driver. It quickly became apparent that our programme was a bit too ambitious and we ended up feeling sorry for our exhausted driver - though he did not complain, Our "dream team" took us to some spectacular places - namely the Bezaklik Thousand Buddha Caves, the charming old village of Tuyoq, the majestic Flaming Mountains and the ancient city of Jiaohe. Should you decide to explore the Turpan area, I recommend that you stay at least one night in Turpan,
We only had 5 days in Xinjiang and I am sure I could have listed plenty of other famous sights if we had had time to explore them. Imagine how much time one would need to see all of France, Spain, Germany and Great Britain? Until next time. I am not done with Xinjiang.
Finally: enjoy some pictures
Inspiration and sources: Farwestchina.com, The Atlantic, South China Morning Post, Aljazeera.com,