Living in China - first steps and first impressions
Things that happened since we arrived in China:
- Police welcome: on our very first day in Laixi we needed to go register with the local police. On the back of our immigration card it said that we needed to do it within the first 24 hours of arrival in China, or 72 hours if our destination was in a rural area. Well, turns out the actual amount of hours will still depend on the person you are dealing with. Since it took us around 24 hours to arrive in Laixi by train, in total we were in our 36th hour when we arrived at the small local police station. The young girl there, who looked like a cool progressive person, must have soaked in too much of the bureaucratic air and too little job experience: she told us that according to the shit sheet of paper she had in front of her we were supposed to have registered within 24 hours so now she couldn't help us. Never mind, Rengiang (our awesome teacher) took us to the main police station of Laixi. There we found a not so young and not so progressive looking guy who at the same time had enough decision-making authority and most importantly - work experience. In half an hour we were registered.
- Hutong: When we arrived in Laixi, we started living with Rengiang's sister in a picturesque area in the style of Chinese hutongs (or courtyards - square living areas brought into the country by mongol invaders a few centuries ago). Every day on our way to the morning and afternoon training we would bike along the neat rows of yellow-blue houses. Women and old men (these are the age/sex groups you see in the streets during the day) would look at us with curiosity and occasionally say "Ni hao".
- Kungfu: We started learning kungfu, with two training sessions a day (9:00 - 11:00 and 14:00 - 16:00). During the training sessions we do ya tui (stretching), (re shen huo dong) warm-up, ti tui (sanda kicks and punches), basic kungfu technique (a practice of using the power of the whole body for any block/attack) and learn Chen Taijiquan Laojia Yilu - the sequence of 75 movements of the original Tai Ji Quan (which it turns out is a martial art practice as opposed to popular belief that it's a slow and funny exercise for old Chinese people).
- Kids: On Saturdays we train with Chinese kids (8 to 14 years old). It's a real delight to watch them. For most of them it's just a fun weekend activity (I mean who would expect a normal, not a Shaolin, kid to take it seriously anyway). It's really funny how sometimes during the training the "cool kids" will do Michael Jackson (one of the kids is pretty good at moon walk and the legendary toes-to-knees roll).
- Eating: We ate a lot of Chinese food (almost all of it - stir-fried vegetable/meat dishes) and participated in some family dinners (which means even more tasty food).
- Moving: Worried about all this eating :-), we decided to move from Rengiang's sister's place to a rented flat. We now live in a really huge fully furbished flat with three bedrooms and dining room (there's plenty of space so anyone who wants to visit us as part of visiting China is really welcome!) Btw, this flat costs only 800 RMB (about 100 euro) a month!
- My birthday: According to an established tradition, Rengiang organized a dinner with almost the whole family participating in it and a multitude of great Chinese dishes. Everything was delicious, we had a huge cake, there was the "Sheng ri kuai le" (Happy birthday) song and the "candle flower" (in China instead of many candles they put a plastic flower on the cake - as the candles inside it burn the tiny cord, it opens up automatically and plays the "Happy birthday" melody). It was really cool!
Things that we learnt about China since we arrived in China:
- One-child policy: The tentacles of the governmental octopus still reach into the areas of life of Chinese people that anywhere else in the world are purely 'private business'. We all know about the one-child policy in China. What we didn't know was the punishment for disobeying this regulation: if you happen to have a second child you have to pay the government 35 thousand RMB (about 4 thousand euro). There are also curious stipulations of this law that stem from the old "I want a boy!" tradition: if your first child happens to be a girl, then the punishment for having a second child is less severe: you need to pay the government only 17 thousand RMB (or half of what you pay if your first child is "luckily" a boy). Or... you wait for 7 years for free (gratis!) and you can try again.
- Fireworks: The guys who own the fireworks supply business in China must be somewhere in the Forbes list (or moving that way) as fireworks is a really big thing here. They use them for weddings, they use them for festivals, and most importantly - to announce the opening of new businesses. As it turns out, new businesses come into life almost every day (at least here in Laixi), therefore we hear the sometimes joyful, sometimes scary sound of firecrackers almost every day! (I looked it up and turns out, one Chinese company - Liuyang - currently produces about 65% of the world's fireworks... At the rate they are using them here, I don't think any of those fireworks ever make it out of China :-)
- Internet: is based on the WIPIWYG principle (what I permit is what you get) :-). The censorship doesn't stop at Facebook, Blogspot and BBC - there are many more domains that are blocked. Sometimes they block on the level of hosting company! For example, there was a time (around the Olympics) when all the domains hosted by Godaddy got blocked for a couple of years, possibly, to prevent people from registering Olympic winners' names, or in the hope that Chinese users will register domains in China. (At that time China's sport authority has banned the issuing of Internet domain names based on the country's Olympic gold medal-winning athletes to anyone but the medalists themselves and those who had already registered before this order could not keep the the domain names anymore; they were forced to give it to the medalist "as a gift").
As to our "browsing freedom", we discovered a curious pattern: when we started browsing during our first days in China, in the beginning we were not able to access some usual .com (or a few .ru) domains, but after a couple of days we would try again and it would work. This was happening for many websites we were trying to access: first there would be a couple of days "freeze", then "de-freeze". What it looks like is that there is a team of guys sitting out there in some office monitoring any access to any "non .cn" domains: once they check that the content presents no threat, they "de-freeze" those domains for that access point. Sounds too paranoic, I know, but how else would you explain this "freeze-defreeze" pattern?! Oh, btw, if you guys, out there, in that office, are reading this webpage right now, hope you have a great day and we are great fans, and please don't block our website again (as you did in the first two days)! All the best, Olga and Jordi! And btw, we love China!
- Information: And while we are still on censorship, here is another couple of curious facts. If you want to send a DVD abroad, you first need to get "clearance" from a governmental office. Once you got an official paper confirming that the video you want to send doesn't present China in an unfavourable light, you can go to the post office to ship it. And as you are carefully wrapping that DVD, make sure not to use a Chinese newspaper: nobody abroad is supposed to read those!
- Fixing stuff: In China things get arranged or fixed pretty fast. What we noticed is that people have a kind of "lets fix it here and now" mentality. Procrastination is definitely not part of Chinese DNA. This mentality permeates all areas of life, from arranging internet for a rented apartment to fixing a broken pipe. Sometimes the approach to fixing the problem would astound a non-Chinese person, like in the example of that broken pipe: we had a small flooding in our kitchen the very first days we moved into our apartment, so we called the owners. A couple of hours later we had a plumber checking it. When he diagnosed that the problem was with the central pipe and not the small part of it in our apartment, he decided to make a private pipe for us! So he brought a drilling device and dug out an impressive trench in our street. After an afternoon of all these drilling and patching activities, we got a private pipe! Unbelievable! If you cannot believe it either, check out the pictures of the drilling!
- Driving: it's truly horrible in China! You know how there are some countries where people drive in a scary way as they follow un-written rules based on human nature and the size of the vehicle, but then at least they are all very skilled drivers (these are countries like Egypt or Nepal). In China on the other hand, nobody follows either official or unofficial rules (they just drive), but on top of that most people are horrible drivers. When we ride the bike to the center of Laixi, we make sure to stop before every crossing to let the Chinese drivers of 4WD's complete their turning maneuvers (while we are driving on the straight road) - this seems better than dying.
- TV: there are absolutely no movies, only soaps, programs and cartoons. As to soaps, half of them are based on historical plot, with long-haired kung-fu fighters and beautiful women waiting for those fighters to come home, and the other half - modern dramas where a young girl is always going abroad to study and leaves the guy broken-hearted, and both the young girl and guy argue a lot with their parents. In both categories there is a lot of shouting, crying and fighting, so in general it's quite stressful to watch those soaps but we do it anyway as the Chinese is relatively easy (compared to the other programs). As to programs, there is of course the "Take me out" and the "Wipeout", but this latter one is a little bit different from its original version in the sense that the contestants are exclusively young hot women is swimming suits. Our TV favourites so far are the local National Geographic (CCTV9) - it has some breathtaking videos about various nature wonders, and what we call Yang Yang (full name is "喜羊羊与灰太狼 = Xi Yang Yang yu Hui Tai Lang" = "Happy sheep and big grey wolf") - the cartoon about the never-ending war between the smart happy sheep and the not-so-smart unhappy wolves (the sheep are smart because they go to school and have a really cool teacher who can build all sorts of high-technology stuff to defeat the wolves - even a spacecraft if necessary). The Chinese kids adore this cartoon - actually in the beginning we were simply watching it along, but now we are really hooked :-).
- Social activities: people in China seem to love all sorts of group activities. We already knew it from our first trip as very often we would see big groups of people practising Tai Ji Quan in city squares. But now we are finding more examples of such socializing, like weekly dancing (every Monday and Friday there are women dancing in the park while men accompany them with instruments that sound a bit like a bagpipe) or daily games (in our neighbourhood there are two main "game points" - it's chess at one crossing and cards at the next one).
- Family: is big and united, and the word itself refers to the extended family, not just immediate members. There is a word for virtually every member of such extended family, and it depends on whether you are refering to mum's or dad's side, whether it's the older or younger brother/sister etc. etc. (you get the idea). This language phenomenon reflects family relationships that run deeper than their "in-law" counterparts in Europe. And family being so important, so is family name. When Chinese people introduce themselves, they use the family name as the main name, and it turns out you never call anyone by their given name, not even kids. You always use the family name, but depending on the age and situation (formal/informal) it gets prefixed by one of those family member words (even for strangers). Knowing your ancestors is also important: Renqiang, for example, knows his family tree for 7 generations back! And one more curious fact about family: if you have a boy, he is part of your family; girls on the other hand are not (they become family members of the husband's family).
- Calenders: show both the international and Chinese date format. Maybe not all Chinese people, but at least Renqiang uses the local format. The year count is based on 60-year cycles (there's a name for each one) and each dynasty had an individual "set of years".
- Laundry: for reasons we haven't found out yet, many Chinese people seem to prefer to do their laundry outside their houses or apartments, either at the bank of the Laixi river or at the numerous water pumps just outside their apartment blocks. Maybe they are saving on the water bill?..
- The music staff: in China it has only 4 lines (apparently, four lines is enough for the melodical preferences of the locals)!
- The tones: Chinese people are not aware of the tones they use, they use it hundred percent unconscious. So when you ask them to write down the pinyin (a system for transliterating Chinese hieroglyphs into the Roman alphabet) for some new word, they have to make a mental effort to figure out which tone it is :-)
- White wedding: Chinese girls seem to love this latest fashion, so traditional red gowns are gradually giving way to the white ones. The only thing is - the white dresses they rent are not so white, but rather some shade of grey. Also, this wedding can be performed in "batch mode", with dozens of couples flocking to the square of a Catholic church and queueing to take their turn of photo sessions (check out the photos below).
- Shower: Almost all the houses and flats are equipped with a solar installation to heat up the shower water. Pretty cool for the environment, but we were warned that our shower is going to also be pretty cool in winter (for this reason they have the "public" showers throughout the city - for a few yuan not-so-enduring people can have a hot electric shower at their disposal).
- Chocolate: fans beware! There is hardly any in China! You can find some of it in the shelves of big supermarkets but the choice is really miserable. There is also the locally produced synthetic chocolate but that one would appall the chocolate devotees even further.
- Horoscope: since it's the year of the rabbit, there are rabbit posters all around our apartment (we took some of them down but had to leave a few not to have so many white walls, so the place still looks invaded by bunnies).
- Confucianist respect: old traditions seem to be gradually giving way to the new (relaxed) norms and habits, but you can still see some vestiges of how it used to be in old days. Rengiang told us that his father when he was small still had to go to his grandpa twice a day to pay respects and could only leave when officially dismissed. And every day at our training there is this old guy (who used to sing Beijing opera when he was young) who stops by the gym - since we greet him every time, he is really pleased and keeps telling Rengiang that our manners are much better than those of Rengiang (I guess because we greet him faster :-). Anyway, he is a really nice old man, with really bright eyes. One time he even came into the gym, put his leg up and started stretching (pretty amazing for such an old person)! And a couple of times he sang some of the opera (he gets really pleased when Rengiang asks him to sing).
- Prices: are really low! Accomodation and food are really cheap, and as to food, we buy most of our supplies at the street market (right next to our gym), where local farmers sell the vegetables and fruit that they grow in their villages around Laixi. An average price for a kilo of vegetables or fruit is around half a euro, and about a euro for imported bananas. Locally grown fruits, apart from apples and pears, include really delicious persimmon, peaches and dates. In general, it's a real vegetarian paradise here :-)! Apart from this market, there are a few big supermarkets in the city, where you can buy everything else (our personal favourite so far is a 10-euro steam cooker that makes truly amazing steamed rice). We love our trips to both the market and supermarket as here is where we can practice those small dialogues from our textbooks, in this style: "- How much are these apples? - 2.5 kuai for yi jin (= prices are always quoted for half a kilo). And as we are choosing the apples: - Where are you from? - Spain, Belarus. - Ah, Spain! (They usually repeat the Chinese name of this country "Xibanya" slowly savouring every syllable). So you prepare food yourselves? - Yes, we do! - Here is your change! Thank you! - Bye, bye!
- Hospitality: people are really friendly and hospitable. They normally smile and greet us in the street. They are helpful in the shops. They are really hospitable in their homes. One example to illustrate this hospitality: when we went to visit Qingdao during our first weekend here, we needed to figure out how to go from the bus station to the city centre but we didn't have a clear idea what that centre was and what we wanted to see. We asked some people for directions and ended up talking to a guy with a kid. When he learnt that we wanted to see Qingdao but only had a few hours before the return bus to do so, he bought us a city map and took us by taxi to the city landmark at the Olympic part of Qingdao, explaining how to make a nice day tour. Then he waved "bye" to us and walked away with his kid like he was planing to make this detour on his Sunday stroll with his kid all along :-)
That's it for our observations so far. We'll do the next post about our reasons for coming here to learn kungfu. And as usual below is the manga version of our post - pictures with text bubbles :-)
Our day trip to Qingdao:
This sculpture is the landmark of the city (that's where the Chinese guy brought us). It's located in the Olympic part of the city, at the coast:
It was Sunday and there were many Chinese families at the coast running kites.
Do I know this melody? Let me try to sing it...
Qingdao is the city where they produce all that beer (you might have heard of it as Tsingtao) - on our day trip we tried it, together with some baozi:
100 weddings and no funerals:
Brides and grooms were changing into rented wedding outfits at the square in front of the Catholic church - sometimes leaving jeans and flipflops on:
Big, united and hospitable Ren family:
Renqiang's son - Ren Zhi Chu (it means The Beginning):
From left to right Ren He (Renqiang's older brother), Renqiang (our amazing teacher), Robert (has been living in Laixi and learning kungfu for 3 years) and Jordi (doesn't need introduction) around food - lots and lots of food:
Noodles made by Renqiang's mum on the left, and tiny ducklings that were born that day on the right:
Jordi on the left, and the younger daughter of Ren He on the right:
This is the street we take every day from our flat to the gym. In the afternoon it turns into a market and gets really busy:
People of Laixi:
Every day we see people who live in blocks of flats do laundry at such water pumps in front of the houses (no idea why they don't do it in the comfort of their apartments):
Before and after lunch you can see a lot of elderly people peddling bikes with little carts attached behind the bike. In such a way they bring their grandchildren to and from school:
A view of Laixi:
"Hmmm...what is this? So many hieroglyphs I don't know... It could be tea. We need tea. Lets get some!" And at home we find out it's sunflower seeds :-) Luckily, only a few of our purchases were like that :-)
Living room and bedroom of our rented apartment - on top of that we have two more bedrooms, dining room, and relatively big kitchen and bathroom. All this for 100 euro a month.
Our private pipe being born: