Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! by joe with a camera
Happy New Year!, a photo by joe with a camera on Flickr.

In case you think we're really behind the times, it is of course Chinese New Year. the buses are empty, there are charred scraps of red paper blowing in the gutters, and Lucy's currently working on the laptop while snuggled up in bed - Ah, the good old Nanjing winter!

This year falls under the Dragon's influence in the Chinese Zodiac, which is strangely appropriate, as we both do as well. Lucy's close to being a rabbit, it must be said, but you only see that side if you offer her a carrot. Apparently dragons are very independent, and work best on their own (oh dear); they prefer to live on their own terms and not be ruled by others, while they go about their creative things, eccentric experiments, or whatever. While this might sound strangely familiar, I've always had some problems with the concept that everyone born in that year operates the same way. Every twelve years it would be total anarchy... but then, perhaps that's why the school year doesn't coincide with the Chinese year, but is almost six months out - a schoolyard filled with an even mix of rabbits and dragons does more-or-less fit my memories...

Anyway, what I hadn't realised was that the Chinese Zodiac also goes through a cycle of the five elements. This is the year of the Water Dragon, who is by all accounts a very reasonable sort of beast. Apparently they counteract the blazing emotions and recklessness of fire dragons (guess what we are... reckless? really? Well, I guess we did decide to come out here in the first place). You've got to say, though that the prospect of schoolrooms filled with a year's worth of fire dragons is rather a terrifying prospect.

Anyway, enough of this silliness. the festivities went off in true Chinese style (as always, click on the photo to get to Flickr, where in this case there's a little video of the fireworks from our window). We were hoping to find lots of photogenic, noble-looking dragon statuary and ornaments, but there are almost none to be seen. The official dragon is a strange deer-like thing that's always depicted as a cartoon or a fluffy toy. Someone hasn't read the stereotype... either that, or everything is aimed at children, which is quite likely. After all, go to the UK at Christmas, and how often do you see a non-stereotypical, jolly Santa? I guess these celebrations are not really about the meaning any more, here or back home. It's the occasion that matters nowadays, the giving of huge boxes of oranges (very nice ones, but we'll be eating them for weeks), and the chance to go join the crowds at the fair and win a stuffed Garfield.

Having said all that, guess where the biggest crowds we saw were? Not at the parks, but at the entrance to the local Jiming buddhist temple. Yes, there were loads of balloons with Winnie-the-Pooh and similar local characters, but in an officially non-religious country, this mass attendance suggests that at least some of the traditions are deeper-seated than just enjoying the festivities...

Thursday, 19 January 2012

News from the canine fashion world

dressed-up dog by joe with a camera
dressed-up dog, a photo by joe with a camera on Flickr.

We've now been here a year (wow... I can't decide whether it feels much shorter or much longer...), and the time seems right for a few balanced impressions about this strange, confusing and strangely endearing country we've ended up in. Perhaps slightly oddly, I can't help thinking that this poodle sums a lot of it up rather nicely.

Never before, anywhere, ever, have I seen a dog wearing trainers. Eating them, yes, but not wearing them. Add to this the rather natty coat and headwear, and you have one very smart-looking pooch. It's surreal. It's utterly daft, and in the UK hardly anyone, I dare say, would have the nerve to be seen out with such a sophisticated companion. Aside from the jeers and laughter, such an owner would doubtless be worried about being upstaged - and we couldn't have that, now, could we?

In China, the bizarre (by our standards) is commonplace. No-one bats an eyelid at young women wearing what can only be described as wedding dresses (or the ultimate in ball gowns) while out shopping. Nor do people seem to notice someone pausing in their walk through the woods in order to let out an immense, ear-splitting yell. Well, of course you wouldn't notice, would you? It's just someone out doing some exercises.

I get the impression that people here generally do not care about irrelevant appearances all that much (how else to explain the spectacularly noisome dustbins just outside the front door of a swish restaurant?). What matters is whether something works, and whether it happens to be what you have.

There is a huge gap between rich and poor here, but the great majority are in the poor end. I'm sure there's envy, but on the other hand, the rich are clearly distinct and not really relevant to most people. Among the normal townsfolk, everyone seems remarkably equal. Whether dressed in ragged robes or a natty coat and four matching trainers, you're just as worthy of a seat on a bus, or being served in a restaurant. Perhaps someone has very little money; that's just the way it is. Perhaps someone wants to dress up to be completely over the top; that's fine too - it's their choice entirely, and they're not going to get laughed at because of it.

On the other hand, there are the apparent paradoxes. This acceptance of other people's behaviour (within reason, if not *reason*) is not a lack of interest; the Chinese people in general are intensely sociable, and very interested in what other people are doing. They seem to manage this without being judgemental, though, which for westerners like us is a beautiful novelty. Although we get a lot of attention [It's the beard - Lucy], it's always amicable or simply curious. We get people staring at us, wanting to have their photos taken with us, and so on, but it seems to be a genuine interest. Never once have we felt the hostility that many overseas pioneers have met with in the UK. It's just not part of the culture.

I think perhaps that this openness to new ideas or surprising discoveries is what explains that self-satisfied poodle. It's like the cake shops, you see. They've taken the idea of a cake (completely alien a few decades back, I'm guessing) and taken it to extremes. There are dozens of little patisseries around now that have an extraordinary selection of startling creations, smothered in icing and little creamy parapets. Bored with plain cake? Then go for one of the ones with a layer of ice-cream instead. Why not? Like everything else that goes on in China, it works.

And so, back to the poodle. It looks ridiculous? Fair enough, but it's warm, and its feet aren't cold and wet. And nobody they walk past seems to care... but I bet they do, really. I bet half of them are thinking about doing the same, if they've got a dog. If they can't afford it, they're probably thinking about sewing up little booties themselves. Because, you see... it works.

And that's why they can complete the biggest engineering project in the world ahead of schedule and under budget - and why they're rapidly taking over the world's economy. They take whatever works and improve on it, without worrying too much about whether it sounds silly or might be embarassing. And that is one of many reasons why the country is so beguiling for those who get to spend some time here. Let's hope we can unravel some more facets over the coming year. After all, we're probably completely wrong, and anyone Chinese reading this will probably be laughing uproariously. But we'd like to think they won't mind our misconceptions, and will take them in the spirit in which they're meant. If you're reading this: perhaps we'll never understand this extraordinary country, but we're going to have fun trying. :)

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Happy New Year!

Penguin by hallucygenia
Penguin, a photo by hallucygenia on Flickr.

Happy New Year (the first New Year of the year) to all our readers!

We’ve been in the UK for a few weeks, visiting two museums, two universities, one library, one dentist and eleven relatives, as well as doing conference presentations. Internet access has been extremely limited lately, hence the lack of blog posts. We’re now about to fly back to China, and hope to be updating the blog more regularly this year.

In the meantime, here’s a nice picture of the penguin I made with the turmeric-dyed yarn I blogged about a few months ago. As you can see, the dye worked very well. The penguin complained of being cold (I thought they were supposed to like that, but apparently not) so I had to make a little hat and scarf too.