Daily lives


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.

Yin and Yang

2015-05-12 20.29.58It is a mysterious fact that in China beer can be had warm or cold. Once The Family found that her beer was cool but not cold. She asked the waiter to give her a colder beer. A long confused interval later the waiter went away with the offending bottle and brought back a warm beer. Now when The Family insisted that she did not want this but a cold beer, there was utter consternation. Other waiters were called in to resolve the issue. A few of the patrons got involved and eventually we got back the cool beer and a jug of ice. Now I have learnt to write and say cold (lerng in Mandarin) and live with luke-cold beer.

There is a similar cultural confusion about water. Plain water in restaurants is always served piping hot. When you ask for water (shui in Mandarin) it comes steaming in glasses. Tea is not always served freshly infused and hot. In fast food places (read lunch-time noodle restaurants) tea will be sweet and canned. If you think you can get away by asking for it hot (tang in Mandarin), prepare to be surprised: you will get the same can at room temperature.

2015-05-19 19.48.51I realized this one afternoon when we went out for a quick lunch with one of our hosts. We ordered tea and got cans of sweet and cold green tea. Our hosts said she wanted a warm can because this is not good for us. My colleague, also a foreigner, said he’s had it without facing problems. Then our host said "This is because you are male. Males are yang, and they have heat. For a woman it is not good to have cold, because women are Yin". None of us had an appropriate reply for this.

Beliefs in traditional ways of thinking about health and medicines runs deep, and is strongly tied to how you eat and drink. We were offered medicines which would keep our liver from getting "fatty". I asked whether diet would help, but I was told that for liver there is no diet. It will take us long to understand this aspect of Chinese living.