Tag Archives: New Year

Dumplings, Shock and Awe, and Jimmy Tarbuck

Chinese New Year

We moved into our new flat in Fuxingmen in February. It’s pronounced Fooshingmun, and ‘men’ means gate, or door.  Metro Line 2 is like London’s circle line, and nearly all of its stops end in ‘men’. Next stop is Fuchengmen. Viz readers should live around line 2. These ‘men’ are the old gates to the city. In the middle you have Tiananmen, which roughly translates as Gate of Heavenly Peacemaking, although its a slightly different meaning to the literal gates around the Viz line. Of course Beijing has grown far beyond this old border now, but the road layout and place names still show the history.

Our new home is on the 18th floor, and we were just in time: Chinese New Year arrived, with shock and awe resembling Baghdad ’03. I’d been here the year before for New Year, and I knew how much the Chinese like to let off fireworks. But I was low down in the Hutongs then – this time I had a great view across the city. The fireworks lasted for two days without a single letup, and then on and off for the rest of the week. The night time sky was orange, and the noise was incredible. Some were going off nightly and daily (why???) right outside our window. The Great Worrier thought the glass was going to give in at any moment.

Chinese Dumplings

Traditional new year food is Chinese Dumplings. Along with Hot-Pot (too good, needs a book written about it) these really should make an appearance in the UK, and kill the image of Chinese food as nothing but greasy noodles, egg fried rice and prawn crackers. I don’t know where that UK Chinese takeaway food comes from. Not had anything remotely like it here yet, that’s for sure.

The Chinese 'Tarby' (Zhao Ben Shan - not really anything like Tarby at all)

The dumplings are not English style dumplings, they are more like large Italian Ravioli I guess, with a multitude of excellent fillings. You stand around a table covered in flour, making them together, talking about the weather or the price of tofu, pinching the sides to seal them up like little cornish pasties. Then they are fried or steamed, and you dip them in soy sauce, chilli and vinegar. Or ketchup and brown sauce if that’s your thing. Then you just keep eating. When you finish eating, you cook some more and eat them. When they are done well, they’re addictive. Tried to buy frozen ones. No good.
When the day’s eating is finally over, like all good family festivals, you sit round the telly for some good wholesome entertainment. In the evening there are huge variety gala shows live on TV, featuring comedy sitcoms performed on stage, with singing, dancing and magicians. Not really my thing, and not just ‘cos I can’t speak Chinese. It all looked a bit dated to me, but the staging is impressive, the numbers of performers make it some operation.  Its very popular. I am assured that it is required viewing, a tradition just like Xmas Wizard of Oz once was. Maybe Saturday night with Jim Tarbybruce and the London Paladium is a more apt comparison, although I’m sure the jokes are better.

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Apologies and Tiger Parts

A bit of retrospective blogging again…. Back in January we were still living in Tongzhou, and my first 90 day visit visa was about to expire.  Alongside your visa, once you enter China, you are supposed to register at your local Police station as a foreigner. It’s called a registration of temporary residence. It runs concurrent to the visa, and therefore expires at the same time. So while I was out of China sorting out my second visa, my police registration expired. When I returned, there had been a phone call asking my wife whether I was still here. She was told we should go to get a new one when I arrived back.
You’re supposed to do this within 24 hours of arrival, although a lot of people let it slip. We went a couple of days after I landed – I was sleepy and it was cold! We were told that there was normally a fine for missing the renewal date, but if I wrote an apology to the Tongzhou Police Chief – “here – in this part of the form” – they would let me off.

This I did, in blue pen and best handwriting. I wish I had taken a picture. A number of thoughts went through my head then and since:
Could I have written anything? Such as “piss off, wanker”; or “IN the west, we DON’T allow you coppers to take power trips like THIS.” Certainly not much English was spoken in those parts. And does the Police Chief really sit back with his feet up at the end of a hard day, with his brandy and cigar, reading through the apologies?

At the time, I felt annoyed – “I am truly sorry Sir I will not do it again” were I believe, my very words. I smirked and huffed as I wrote.

Further reflections (and discussions with people here) have slightly, though not totally changed my angle. For a start, as a local police chief, he probably doesn’t earn much. He’s probably not had much access to the luxuries I’ve enjoyed in my life. It’s easy to forget these details when you are surrounded by what looks like a modern Western city (a theme I keep banging on about). This would not happen in the UK. Or would it? Would there be any flexibility? I havn’t had the experience of being a foreigner in the UK, so I’m not sure, but I reckon you might just get the fine slapped on you, threatened with deportation, or maybe even bullied by some bored officials. Whatever, I’m sure it couldn’t be waved off with a discretionary written apology that no one will read. Secondly, this highlights a major difference in culture. If you try to ditch the anger over writing a pointless apology to someone who’s never going to read it, try to think outside the box, you can possibly view this as quite sweet and quaint, quite a pleasant way of doing things. Maybe? The Chinese mostly accept this as a valid process. You make a mistake, or break a minor rule, you say sorry to the man in charge. What’s worse – saying sorry in 20 seconds, or paying a fine to some faceless system? Most importantly (and very important to the Chinese), you havn’t lost any money, or much time.

But the bowing to hierarchy thing, the requirement to show shame, does nonetheless feel alien and uncomfortable to me, especially as someone who’s attended one or two demonstrations in my time. I’ve seen it in other situations too, such as job applications which I’ve helped translate.

The non-religious concept of ‘shame’ here is similar-but-different to the religious concept of ‘sin’ in the west. It makes me sure that Christian values of sin, confession, repentance, and forgiveness were social control factors bolted onto religion, rather than theological teachings. Bla-de blah.

Around the same time as all this, I was in Guomao, one of the main transport hubs in South East Beijing, and home to a skyline of international finance, and many an expat. There are a lot of street sellers, usually tourist stuff and jewellery. It was the run up to Chinese New Year, year of the Tiger. Straight off the bus, I walked past an African man, speaking perfect Chinese, selling genuine bits of real tiger, all laid out on a cloth in front of him. I had the urge to kick up a fuss (again), I really wanted to remonstrate with him. Or maybe take the coward’s way out, and find a policeman, who would have no doubt done nothing about it at all. It is illegal to sell these things here, but it sadly still goes on due to popular demand. The pace and push of modernisation is phenomenal, and this kind of thing will gradually go away, as it becomes seen as old fashioned, superstitious and pointless (it already is by the young generation).
I compromised and stared the guy out with my most scornful of stares. Did he know why I was staring? Probably…. He stared back, while continuing to mutter his sales patter, and I stayed out of his reach – one of the paws he was holding had rather sharp claws.

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