Posted by: andrewcockerham | March 10, 2010

Old and New

Wednesday March 10, 2010 Hangzhou, China  10:34 am

He found the shoes!

“So did you eat anything normal?”

McDonald’s Debate

Illogical Toilets

Back Stories

China’s Birthday

A Traditional Chinese Wedding

“So did you eat anything normal?”

The other day we had a pot luck at work to celebrate a few people’s birthdays.  It was pretty fun to have different foods from different places and all share together, although many people just bought some Chinese food and brought it.  Some of the other Americans made some macaroni and cheese, and it was a big hit.  As my cooking skills are certainly nonexistent, I brought peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  Although I knew it would be the first time the Chinese staff had eaten one, actually I learned that most of the Europeans and Australians had never eaten one before either.  Turns out the Chinese staff loved them!  It was one of those classic cultural moments I will never forget when I looked over and saw several of them eating a PB&J sandwich with chopsticks!!

McDonald’s Debate

While McDonald’s is mostly the same everywhere you go, there are actually large differences in the menu depending on the tastes of the local customers.  But another thing has surprised me in my experiences at McDonald’s in China.  When in line to order (there are no drive thru’s) many people will often have a several minute discussion/debate with the person behind the counter trying to decide their order.  Now don’t get me wrong, the menu is still set up the same way.  You can choose from a set number 1-10, or just get single things from the list.  I have no idea how you can be that confused on what you want at McDonald’s.  The menu doesn’t change.  You can decide what you want before you get there.  Why do you need a 5 minute explanation of the menu when it’s all in pictures in front of you?  Another China thing I haven’t figured out yet.

Illogical Toilets

I’m sure many of you have heard about the Asian squatty pottys.  I’m not going to get into that here.  Actually something about the urinals has confused me. I have noticed it at many many locations all over China.  So back home I know everyone has seen the automatic flush toilets that are becoming ubiquitous.  Well the urinals are that way many places here, with one small, but I think significant, difference.  Here they flush as soon as you walk up to the urinal – before not after you have done your business.  Explain how that makes sense?  It can’t be a technological problem because they can just copy/buy it from the same company we do.  And I’ve noticed it just about everywhere.  Any explanations are welcome.

Back Stories

China’s Birthday

A Traditional Chinese Wedding

(written October 1, 2009)

Today is the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.  Chinese are very superstitious about numbers, and ‘6’ seems to represent eternity or longevity. Hence the importance placed on the 60th anniversary.

A side note about Chinese and numbers.  Perhaps you didn’t realize that the Beijing Olympics started on 8/8/2008 at 8:08 pm.  I didn’t either until discussing it with some locals.  This was intentional and extremely significant to Chinese people because the number 8 represents prosperity.  Four is extremely unlucky because in Chinese the pronunciation is the same as the word for death.  Many buildings don’t even label a 4th floor, but go straight from 3rd to 5th.  When I checked into my hotel, my Chinese friend made them change my room from 904 – very unlucky, to 906 – lucky.

The government put on a massive military parade in Tiananmen Square in Beijing today to show off its prowess and successful ‘rise’ in stature and wealth.  Since I’m in Lanzhou for my friends wedding, I watched the parade at Tracy’s parents house.  They seemed interested, although not overly so.  But they did say they felt proud to be Chinese and were proud of China’s display of power.  The thought struck me that we don’t really do military parades, which begs the interesting question why.  I’ll leave that debate for your own discussion.  It appears that none of the military equipment in the parade was really that special, its unique factor being that it was domestically designed and produced, not bought from abroad.  (Although there is some debate as to how much of is was ‘designed’ domestically or reverse engineered) I was a bit disappointed that I couldn’t watch the parade with English commentary, but it was interesting to watch my Chinese friends’ reactions.  Most of them said they were proud to be Chinese and felt that China was very strong.  I did notice that in the civilian part of the parade, where 100,000 Chinese civilians marched and danced, that when they gave a float to each province, Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan all got to have a float.  I didn’t notice a Tibetan float, but there was one.  (side note added March 10, 2010: I ended up seeing the float from Shaanxi Province when I went to Xi’an last month, really cool) Even more interesting though was later I overheard some of my Chinese friends discussing it, and one asked that exact question, did Taiwan and Hong Kong have a float?  That night there was a massive Gala in Tiananmen Square which was a beautiful spectacle to watch.  At first I wanted to go to Beijing to see it, but then heard that the security was so tight they weren’t even letting any local Chinese within miles of the Square, much less foreigners.  My Chinese friends didn’t seem too bothered about watching it, as we were at dinner during most of it.  But all they have been showing on TV since is reruns and highlights of the parade.  I caught the last bit of the Gala in the English station and it was actually a bit moving to see a country so excited and proud of itself and its heritage.  The whole thing resembled a closing ceremony of the Olympics.  However, as someone in the English speaking news noted, it was a propaganda parade put on by the government, albeit spectacularly, that seemed to show that everything in China is just wonderful, at least if you are in the government or upper classes.  I couldn’t help but grin at shots of the Chinese president and politburo on the streets of Tiananmen dancing with Chinese ‘commoners’ dressed up in the different traditional clothes of the 56 ethnic minorities in China.  Later, I did watch some of the commentary on the English Chinese news station, but I could only take the oozing of China love for so long.  It was endless commentary about the ‘miracle’ of China’s rapid development and improvements since the Communist takeover in 1949, and particular since Deng Xiao Ping’s opening and reforming of the economic policies in the 1970’s.

Did a bit of sightseeing in Lanzhou today with one of Tracy’s cousins. We went to see a temple on the mountain and the Chinese waterwheels.  It made me wonder, “who invented the water wheel?”  They really have signs in Chinese that call the Yellow river the Mother River of China.  We could see from the mountains how bad the air was, and even my local Chinese friends commented how dirty their city was, both the air, and the Yellow river (which is brown) and the streets.  I tried to make the joke that the Yellow River wasn’t yellow, but it didn’t seem to translate well I guess.

(October 2, 2009 – written March 10, 2010)

A Traditional Chinese Wedding

Chinese weddings are an all day affair.  The bride gets up at like 4 in the morning to get all dolled up and dressed in all her wedding dress glory to be ready for the arrival of the groom at 7am to her parents house.  I was supposed to be at her house before then since I was ‘with the bride’, but I overslept and was a little late.  As I was walking the half mile from my hotel to her parents house I notice a huge caravan of cars with a bright red convertible all decorated in the front.  “Wow another wedding today” I thought, before I realized that the man in the front car was Tracy’s fiancée!  So I sprinted past them just as they were pulling into her apartment.  The reason it was so critical that I arrive before him is that the bride locks herself in her parents house with some of her male cousins or brothers. So I had to make it in before the locked the door.  I made it with about 15 seconds to spare!  Once the groom has arrives, he and his groomsmen pound on the door shouting and screaming to persuade them to open. (all in good fun) They must say things to persuade the bride’s family to let him in. Often times this includes ‘bribes’ of red envelopes (called hong bao) filled with money (usually a relatively insignificant amount ~ 5 – 10 RMB, or ~1 USD. These are considered payment to the bride’s family to let him in, and to show he has the financial means to take care of her. As I was part of the posse protecting the bride, they gave me my share of the red envelopes too.)  After maybe half an hour of poking fun, jesting, bribing with hong bao, and asking the groom to do ridiculous things like sing love songs to his beloved, the bride will finally give the okay and allow the groom to burst in.  He gets down on one knee with some flowers and says a few words to her.  But he’s not finished yet.  She is not wearing any shoes. One shoe is next to her on the bed, and the other is hidden somewhere in the room. The groom and his ‘goons’ must find it and place both shoes on her feet Cinderella style before she will leave with him to the wedding.  In Tracy’s case, the shoes were hidden in the washing machine.  The couple then comes out to the living room and must eat a porridge and noodle type dish that the mother of the bride prepares.  However the tradition is that she puts something in the grooms bowl to make it terribly disgusting.  Tracy’s husband almost fell on the floor after the first bite, but was required to finish it before he could leave with his new bride. Everyone piles into the caravan of expensive cars rented for the occasion, and the bride and groom enjoy a ride around town in the convertible before heading to the hotel.

The whole affair took about an hour, and was full of shouting, laughing, singing, banging, noise, pictures, video, and a whole lot of fun.

Then it was off to the hotel for the actual wedding.  Here weddings are always done in hotels, not churches. They don’t seem to be tied to religion at all, just a ceremony with family.  The ceremony is performed by some sort of hired emcee. Their clothes were the same as us back home: white dress and suit.  They did a sort of walk down the aisle thing, but it was together arm in arm, not the bride alone.  But it did include throwing of rice – somehow that seemed much more relevant and poignant here than at home.  Once at the front, both sets of parents were called up and sat in front of the couple.  Here the emcee instructed them to say a few words of blessing to the new couple, and also give them each another hong bao, however these I’m sure are filled with quite a significant amount of money.  Then the couple says their vows, however I don’t believe it’s a standard set – it seemed more as if they wrote their own.  The rings are put on fingers, then the couple pours champagne on a tower of glasses, and cuts the cake – which involves some exploding candle/firecrackers.  Then all the family heads upstairs to our reserved tables, as the bride and groom make the rounds with the ‘less close’ attendees, who have already eaten.

Lunch was long and drawn out – a couple of hours, and included lots of drinking by all the males.  It seemed that the tradition was the males from each family had to drink together competitively to seal their new family ties.  The bride and groom as well as both sets of parents made the rounds pouring shots of ‘bai jiu’ (Chinese liquor) to everyone. Each person had to take the shots (the usual number was 4) and give a toast or a blessing to the new couple.  I managed to escape only drinking the minimum required to be respectful.  Despite all of the young males desperately wanting to play drinking games with the only foreigner at the wedding, I declined.  But they all were very respectful of me and seemed quite honored that I was there.  Even though we couldn’t speak much, they all kept calling me their ‘hao peng you’ – good friend.  It was an enjoyable time.

After the hours of drinking and eating were complete, everyone retired home to change clothes, then head where else, but to KTV.  This was at about 6pm and we didn’t leave until after 2am.  Eight hours of blaring Chinese pop songs, chain smoking, binge drinking, all in an enclosed room.  Needless to say I felt nauseous even though I was sober.  I say a few English songs at their request.  We had food brought in and of course had more obligatory toasts, stories, and laughs.  All in all is was quite a fun and fascinating cultural day.

(originally written October 3, 2009)

Today I went with Tracy’s cousin Jia jia to another mountain temple.  Apparently the one we went to on October 1st was a Taoist temple, and today we went to a Buddhist temple, though not being of either religion, I couldn’t really notice the difference.  She said Buddhist monks are more friendly.  There was some sort of ceremony going on when we arrived, which was really cool.  Some monks were chanting and banging a drum, while a crowd of people, about 90% women and all over 40, chanted along with them for almost 20 minutes or so.  It wasn’t’ Chinese, but apparently some language they use only in the temples.  I think she called it ‘nian jing’ or something like that.  Reminded me of times before the Protestant Reformation when all churches in Europe were in Latin, even though no one spoke as their own language.  She said there are many different kind of Buddhas, so depending on your problem you can pray to different ones.  She said she is a believer, and she knelt and said her prayers while we were there.  I wanted to say something, but I wasn’t really sure what to say.  Later I asked her if she knew about Christianity, and she said her father is a Christian.  Although he doesn’t go to the one Christian church in Lanzhou, apparently he often reads the Bible.  The rest of her family is Buddhist, particularly her brother.  Apparently he always comes to the temple on Christmas, which I thought was quite interesting, but she said it was more lucky to come then.  She said she felt all religions were true.  I tried to say they can’t all be true, but left it at that.  We also saw a statue of Confucius, and she told me that apparently many people pray to Confucius.  I brought up the fact that he is dead, but she said some people think he can still answer prayers.  Outside the temple was a shop where you can ‘buy’ a Buddha and other paraphernalia for your house.   She said they don’t use the word ‘buy’ because you can’t ‘own’ Buddha.   She almost bought some bracelet bead things that are apparently somewhat similar to Catholic rosary beads.  Later we went to another temple that is now converted into a market of old Chinese things.  She said to be careful because many people lie saying ‘This bowl was used by Emperor So and So’ and therefore they charge an arm and a leg for it.  But this is all inside an old temple.  The story of Jesus and the money changers couldn’t help but come to mind.  She bought me some old coins used in some dynasty long ago as a gift.  I was touched.

We had dinner w/ Tracy and her new husbands family.  Apparently Tracy couldn’t come with us today because it is custom that she spends the entire day after her wedding at her new in-laws house.  It was fun, and we laughed a lot over cross cultural and cross language things.  Towards the end of the meal, suddenly Tracy’s husband jumped up and bolted from the table.  I was surprised, then at the same time Tracy’s dad got up and tried to follow.  It took Tracy and her husband’s father’s physical restraint of her dad to drag him bag to the table.  Apparently this was the traditional fight over the ‘honor’ of paying for the bill.  I had heard about this, but was surprised at its vigor.

Tracy’s parents are musicians and have their own little band.  So before I left they played a bit for me.  He said “I’ll play an American song for you” and proceeded to play Jingle Bells on his saxophone.  I really enjoy Tracy, her family, and her new husband.  I talked to him in Chinese some after dinner.  They are a great couple – good people.


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