Half a month

Half the month of Ramazan is over. Those who fast now begin to look forward to the end, and the festival of Id. How do the rest of us know? The signs of the approaching festival are visible on the street. A season of shopping has begun. The night food market near the Minara Masjid in Mumbai is now surrounded by stalls selling clothes and shoes. The shops are so crowded that it is difficult to take photos. I got to take the photo above only because the police started clearing the crowd as I stood there.

attar

Then there are the specialty shops, the extreme end of which is this stall selling attar. The bottles are as much of a collector’s item as the perfume itself. Most of the items on display here are simpler flower extracts. One would have to buy only a small amount because they are highly concentrated. The main shop will have more exotic perfumes; I remember a subtle one extracted from a fungus. This stall was manned by two young boys who decided to play hide-and-seek with my camera. As you can see, I did manage to get one them eventually.

A monsoon Ramazan

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The Muslim calendar follows the moon, and therefore is 11 days shorter than the solar year. As a result, the month of Ramazan shifts over a person’s lifetime. In a couple of years it will have moved out of the monsoon into the heat of May. Then it will be almost 30 years before it coincides with the monsoon again.

For some Muslims, the month of Ramazan is a month of day-long. For those among the rest of us, who are fortunate enough to live in a city with a large Muslim population, this month can be quite the opposite: a month in which every night can be a special feast. The night market around Mumbai’s Minara Masjid is alive these days with "pop-up restaurants" serving wonderful spiced meats with a variety of breads and nans. Over the last decade the area has become more generally known, and a good fraction of Mumbai seems to have passed through the restaurants.

After a heavy meal of spicy meats and fried breads one can press through the crowds to the shops with their special sweets. Last year, while seeking shelter from a sudden shower, we discovered this little shop tucked away in a corner which sells amazing mawa jalebis. The shopkeeper has the look of a sweet-shop owner from a hundred books and movies – sour-tempered and with a waistline which is escaping control. This year we went back for more, even though it didn’t rain.

Chinese things which put a smile on our faces

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This is my last post from China, so I’ll list the things which I think will stay longest in my memory.

Selfies is definitely the highest on the list. Interestingly, while youngsters take selfies left, right, and on a stick, somewhat older people don’t. I saw a young couple at the Summer Palace in Beijing taking photos of each other. When I offered to take their photo as a couple on one of their phones, they seemed very happy. They never thought of taking a selfie with both.

Enjoy Dental Clinic may be the next on the list. We saw this from a taxi stuck on Beijing’s 4th ring road. I thought I would go back to take a photo, but agreed with The Family when she said there was no reason to believe that we would get stuck in traffic right there again.

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Couples with matched T-shirts are smile inducing always, but especially when they wear a pair of well-designed black heart on off-white with her heart saying "No", and his saying "Yes". Closely related to this are families in matched clothes: papa, mama and pre-teen daughter wearing white trousers and fluorescent green shirts with grey trim, for example.

Architectural marvels which stay in my memory are not only the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, but also the experience in Shanghai of standing near the top of one of the tallest buildings on earth and looking at several others among the ten tallest.

The crowds at Badaling on the Great Wall and in the Forbidden City gave us a sense of how many people there are in China. When you are in India, you get this sense only in railway stations. In China the railway stations are relatively more quiet, at least in May.

The variety of food was something we both expected and didn’t. Chinese food is not unfamiliar anywhere in the world, but eating it in China is an experience. I’ve never sought out vegetables so willingly before. There was only one road in Beijing which served insects and snakes for dinner, so that seems pretty exotic also for the Chinese.

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But most of all, the overwhelming helpfulness. The Family and I remember the worst day of our trip, caught in a thunderstorm in West Lake in Hangzhou, totally drenched, unable to find a taxi, not knowing which bus to take, since we had not planned to take one, and without a single useful word of Putonghua. A completely unknown young couple shared their taxi with us, and directed the taxi driver to our hotel after dropping off enroute. On another occasion I asked a security guard to help me with something, a passing student stopped to translate, and then took the guard’s place so that he could come with me. The most populous country in the world, and so many kind and helpful people!

Beijing fathers

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Beijing seems to have many fathers actively doing their part in bringing up children. Here are two who are involved in taking care of their child while the wife takes the grandparents into a temple to pray. It is impossible to compose the photo when you take shots like this, because you do not want to distract the people from what they are already doing. As you can see, both fathers noticed me.

What China has more than any other country in the world is people, and it pays as a tourist to concentrate on them.

Daily lives

lecturer

In ancient China the emperor was the ultimate teacher. Next to the old Confucius temple in Yonghegong is the Imperial college, where the emperor would teach ethics to monks from the throne in the photo above. However, even earlier, in Marco Polo’s time a traveler could learn from anyone. I find that is even more true today.

Friday was the last day at work in China, and there was a relaxed sense of winding down. We went for lunch in little groups. I was in a knot of people with two of our hosts, in a very relaxed mood. Talk came round to children and their education. One of our hosts had a boy and the other had two girls.

The one with the boy was concerned about the future: she had to put aside 100,000 RMB a year for his education. But isn’t education free in China? Only if you send children to school in your own neighbourhood. She wanted a good education, so the school she’d chosen was in the university area. She could either move there, which would be more expensive, or pay for the school.

Moreover, as we had discovered some time earlier, it was common for the boy, or his parents, to pay for the wedding. Talking to my colleague I had the impression that there was more to it: the parents of the boy were supposed to set up house for the new couple. I joked about buying a flat outside the 6th ring road, currently the limit of the city, because the city would probably have an 8th ring road by the time the boy was old enough to marry. It turned out that this was not a joke, she had already done that. Were they far-sighted parents of a two-year old boy? No, this was common in middle class China.

My other host told us a modern Chinese saying: parents of boys were supposed to be construction bankers, parents of girls were investment bankers. The sex-ratio in China is heavily is skewed towards boys, so both of them agreed that this expense was inevitable, the market correcting social imbalances. They were aware that India also had significantly less girls than boys, although not as bad as China. So they were puzzled why in India the parents of the girls still had to pay for the wedding. I did not talk of the wide-spread violence against women in India; I had not seen or read much like this in China, but my experience is short and the news in China is never complete.

We talked about expenses in general, and both my hosts stated that life is not as comfortable as in the west, and that China is still a poor country. I could agree, but from my Indian perspective I thought that the middle class was quite comfortable. Their arguments centered around the huge costs of buying houses and cars. I see construction all around me even as I go from the hotel to work. The roads are choked with cars: on the road I see Volkswagen, Honda, Chevrolet, BMW, Hyundai, Mazda, Mercedes around me in traffic jams. In our trip to the 798 art district we saw local people buying art all around us. If my host’s complaints were correct, then there is incredible income inequality building in China.

This was confirmed when I challenged their statement about poverty by saying that costs of things I saw in supermarkets were double that in India. The answer they gave is that normal people cannot afford to buy these things. Maybe that is the reason why there are so many fake handbags in China. But China remains different from India, even among fakes there is a clear gradation of quality, with some good-quality fakes called AAA quality being very well made. In India you can often pay good money and get completely shoddy work. I used to put this down to the lack of a legal system, but China also lacks these laws, and they do better.

We talked mostly about China, but I sensed an immense curiosity about India. At one point I said I knew the names of only two animals in Chinese: the dragon (lung) and the elephant (xiang). The two laughed and said these are China and India, which was more powerful? I tried to be diplomatic saying that they never meet. This was an answer they liked, it was repeated a couple of times in agreement. But even so, every explanation about life in China was followed by a question about what it is like in India.

China and India are not direct rivals: the dragon and the elephant are not in a struggle. But both know that there is another power nearby. There are hostile voices in both countries. The struggle of the future will be to figure out how to avoid confrontation. Travel and mutual understanding may eventually help.

Hairstyle

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I’d seen a lot of young boys with very closely cropped hair and thought that was the standard. In comparison, this little guy’s haircut looked pretty funky. Then I began to see advertisement pictures where this haircut seemed to be the standard. Anyway, I still think it looks funky. Teenaged boys in Beijing seem to have a wider variety of hair styles than I’ve noticed in most countries.

Headgear

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The Family first drew my attention to the elaborate headgear which young girls in China wore. One very common thing was a ring of pink synthetic roses worn like a crown. The other was this elaborate hat which we occassionally saw. In Xi’an I managed to photograph the young girl, whose photo you see above, wearing this beautiful hat. Eventually, when we visited the Summer Palace in Beijing we saw the Peking Opera and its costumes, and realized that this lovely hat comes from there. Another mystery unravelled.

Square peg, round hole

I’m beginning to understand a little of Chinese celestial architecture. Heaven (tian) is a circle, so the moon doors and round windows which you see in Chinese architecture are auspicious, since they have something to do with heaven. The bell is the sound of heaven. Every town worth its name has a bell tower, and a bell which tolls the beginning of the day.

The earth (di) is square, and the sound of a drum is the sound of the earth. No self-respecting town would be without a drum tower to mark the end of the day. The two words together (tiandi) mean everything, the universe. So what does the window in the photo below symbolize?

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The tombs of emperors are laid out with the entrance and the buildings in it arranged within a manicured square. The burial mound will be a hill which is round in shape. The place where the two touch contains a Tower of the Soul. The entrance will face south, and there will be water in front. At the back will be mountains or a tortoise. All laid out according to the mystical principles of Fengshui.

Money money money

It is an interesting fact that the oldest of Chinese religions have a different concept of the universe and our place in it. This confused all early visitors from other cultures. Marco Polo was completely at sea when he wrote: “these people are Idolaters, and as regards their gods, each has a tablet fixed high up on the wall of his chamber, on which is inscribed a name which represents the Most High and Heavenly God; and before this they pay daily worship, offering incense from a thurible, raising their hands aloft, and gnashing their teeth three times, praying him to grant them health of mind and body; but of him they ask nought else.”

With no gods to grant daily gifts, how does one deal with the randomness of real life? The Chinese dealt with it by accepting luck as major force in living, and developing techniques to deal with luck. The practice of Fengshui is one such. The other is the offering of money which is everywhere in China. Anything which could bring you luck is worth bribing with a little money.

moneyball

The offering of money becomes a game. The photo above is taken in Shanghai’s Jing’an Su where you have to throw your money into a high pot to get luck. If your money is rejected, then you don’t get lucky. It is interesting that this happens in a Buddhist temple: this Indian export comes with a baroque set of gods who can also be prayed to in the way that other cultures are familiar with. Nevertheless, this is China, and people are not going to tempt luck by not making offerings of money. If you fall off a cliff tomorrow you are surely going to regret not changing your luck by donating a little money.

In the Confucius Temple of Beijing, every statue is awash in money. I do not understand the ritual meaning of these goats and pigs, or roosters and ducks which are scattered around the temple. Since they are animals which are eaten, could they be offerings? In any case, they are drowning in the money which people leave. There is also the money-eating dragon, Pisou, whose mouth is stuffed with coins and notes. I suppose these temples have earnings similar to those which some Indian temples have from offerings.

moneykingYou don’t need to be in a temple to see this aspect of the culture. In the tombs of the Ming emperors there is a recent statue of Yongle, the third emperor, and the one who brought the capital back to Beijing. The emperor can also bring you luck, it seems, because there is money thrown in front of him. I saw a goldfish bowl in front of a restaurant which was full of coins, and goldfish are not even divine animals. Perhaps the fact that they were imperial favourites is enough to make them channels of luck.

Perhaps one should not be surprised. In India people donate money to temples. In the West people throw coins into the Trevi fountain, and put locks on bridges.

China and the lotus

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The Chinese believe the lotus to be a symbol of purity: rising unmarked from the dark depths of ponds and rivers to flower in the sun. Interestingly, this is the exact symbolism that Indians use. Two neighbouring cultures with the same symbol, completely in the dark about the other!

The use of the lotus in Chinese landscape gardening seems to be much better developed. Perhaps because water is such an important element in Fengshui, palace architecture contains ponds, in which the lotus is cultivated in profusion. The photo above is from the Summer Palace in Beijing, where three kinds of lotus and pond moss are harmonized.