at home in... w| Gerald Zhang-Schmidt

Look Closer, Learn More, #GetAtHome In This World

Category: China (Page 3 of 16)

China Circle - On the Mountain

Running in a Circle… in the Heart of China

Three years – has it really been three years already?! – after the first time I visited the place my wife grew up and her parents still (mainly) live, deep in the countryside of Hunan, we returned.

One of the things I returned to was running in a circle.

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Jiubujiang Reservoir Lake Swim

at-home-making/adventuring, In the Heart of China

“My” China is not that of so many a visitor to or expat in that country.

I have not lived there for so long, took quite a long time before I finally went and stayed, but then it was neither the Beijing or Shanghai (or other large city) of most tourists and expats where I found myself.

It was Xiangtan, Hunan, where I lived and worked for three years (with only a month’s each interruption in Beijing and Shanghai and, more recently, another 6 months in Beijing).

With the woman I got to know and love there, and everywhere, I have made it even deeper into the country, to stays with her parents in her home town of Jiubujiang.

Where that is? Here:

It’s the China of old stories in rural settings, a China where a foreigner is still a strange sight – and also the China where many migrants working in coastal factories come from (or have returned to) and where development is also starting to both take its toll and bring improvements.

Jiubujiang Construction

There used to be “only” rice fields here, now it’s meant to become a tourist village…

(If one wants to delve deeper, it is also the China where many revolutionaries and generals came from, not least Mao Zedong himself – and fittingly for my interests, many people like to blame the Hunanese penchant for the chile pepper for all that martial prowess and revolutionary / “red” zeal ;)

So, being there in China is another situation where I am “adventuring”. And making myself at home.

Admittedly, “adventuring” there is different from doing so when in Austria.

I grew up in Austria, after all.

Therefore, it takes somewhat more special things to be thrown out of a routine and into the spirit of “something else” that makes the ordinary less usual and more eye-catching.

In China, just living with the parents-in-law, going for walks, accompanying the mother-in-law on the local market, having fun going for a swim in the local reservoir-lake (which is increasingly being turned into a tourist attraction), is somewhat adventurous.

Jiubujiang Reservoir Lake Swim

Swimming in the reservoir lake of Jiubujiang… This is right below a sign saying “The lake is large, the water is deep… No swimming!” ;)

But, it is also an at-home-making, trying to get to really know the place and live there, not just be the tourist who sees nothing but the most noteworthy and most strongly promoted attractions.

This is easier to realize you need, and to do, when you go somewhere other than “home”.

In fact, I may have noticed that whole problem-we-don’t-know-we-have of our need to make ourselves at home (rather than think that “home” is something we naturally have and get to and then know everything about, merely through our familiarity with it) because I went somewhere else for long enough.

It is only too easy, though, to remain superficially “touristy” both at home and somewhere else.

If you want to become at home in this life, in the places you are, in this world, you’ll have to make yourself at home. Educate yourself, explore, experience.

It’s worth it.

Rural Hunan. Mao Zedong still watches over...

Two Views of China

Said goodbye to Europe shortly after the OutDoor Friedrichshafen 2016, went to the other place that is home for my wife and me, while also always being something of a place for ‘adventuring‘: China.

Wanted to share a few impressions which show something of the very different views…

China West-East, From the Plane

Goodbye to Europe

Goodbye to Europe

Hello Himalayas

Hello Himalayas (between Pakistan and China)

Takla Maklan, probably

Takla Maklan, probably

More Chinese Desert

More Chinese Desert

Settlement, Far West China

Settlement, Far West China

Northern Central China

Northern Central China

Northern Central China

Northern Central China, finally with more water

Mountains before (west of) Beijing

Mountains before (west of) Beijing – and before everything disappeared in cloud cover (and/or haze)

China Intimately, In Rural Hunan

Rural Hunan

Rural Hunan, where the road ends. Seemingly…

Rural Hunan. Grave in the Hillside

And even that far out, graves speak of the millennia of human occupation

Rural Hunan. Tomb

And tombs as well…

Rural Hunan. Mao Zedong still watches over...

Rural Hunan. Mao Zedong still watches over…

Rural Hunan. Butterfly

There is also wildlife, though

Rural Hunan. Dragonfly

Rural Hunan. Trash Burning

Trash is still being treated as if it were all biological material…

Rural Hunan. Farm Workers on Break

…much work is still done by hand…

Rural Hunan. Traffic

… but much transport has long since switched to motorization.

Rural Hunan. Market

The market is as I know it from our visit three years ago, and as it probably has been for centuries (except for the plastic)

Rural Hunan. Village(?) Street

Even in this village (if that’s what one wants to call it), construction has kicked up a notch – but that may be a different story yet.


At-Home-Ness in China and the Miracle of the End

Home, the way I talk about it and want you to make yourself more at home in, is the ecological relations in a life and the connections we tend to overlook because they are so obvious, especially in the actual physical place you are in.

In this world of global trade and global migration, though, everything ends up connected, no place and certainly no life is unaffected by other’s.
Oftentimes, it’s all connected to China (just like my personal life has become).

And China is in a strange position yet again.

From poverty it has gone to economic power, from closedness to openness and on to the current climate that feels like a strong mixture of both, from a miracle to, supposedly, the end of the miracle, and to the beginning of a new and difficult normal.

The Financial Times Features piece on “The end of the Chinese miracle” is a good look into what’s been happening, in China and for individuals, and in the big picture and with influence on the whole world:

There is one caveat: I think they seriously under-used Gerhard Flatz (who I had a chance to meet at the ISPO) and KTC, who are doing just the necessary work to change China’s position in the global economy – and the page title itself is rather better than the headline one quickly gets to see, as it does not proclaim the end of the Chinese miracle, which has been proclaimed pretty much every year since at least 2008, but rather the end of the *migrant* miracle.

The Other

The problem, and the place where “at-home-ness” comes in, is that our view of an other, and especially one as different as China, is skewed from the beginning.

The “miracle” certainly has been a story of success in many a way, whether you want to interpret it as the success of the Chinese Communist Party or the success of the people out of whose way the CCP stepped.

Having started from such a low point as it did, all in the context of a pent-up entrepreneurial drive, however, it has been less miraculous.

It has, and that image is not unpopular, been like the growth spurt of a teenager finally in puberty, and it was rather similar to the economic miracles of Germany and Japan post-WWII (which started from similar low points), as well.

Similarly, now, the end of the miracle may be less of an end than a maturation. Changes will be necessary with it, growth will not be as high as it had been, the difficulties are particularly acute in China – but it will not be the end it is often portrayed as.

China has problems for sure, and international companies counting on nothing but the easy availability of cheap labor and a population profiting from higher incomes and a drive to consume will be in as much of a bind as people expecting that easy times would continue.

That, though, has – except for a small cohort among China’s millennials – never been quite the expectation, and even in the midst of much current moaning about difficulties, most people still seem to find work and get by, if not do even better.

The country is big enough that everything can happen at once, maybe even the miracle of an end: A time of change that, difficult though it may be, leads on to the next phase in China’s development – and perhaps the world’s.

The Fact

Everything cannot all go on based on consumption and growth, same as it had been going on, after all.

The main thing we should remember, especially for our own lives, is that change still continues to be the only constant.

Things will never go on just as they had before.

We keep forgetting this basic fact of life, trying to ignore it – or ignoring it without even trying to – because we become too comfortable with a recent situation rather than at home in the change.

It will happen, though.

Whether we want it or not, whether we get ready for it or refuse to acknowledge it, whether we let it steamroll us or find the niches and leverage points from which we can get through or even influence it: happen it will.

Time to accept and adapt. Which, incidentally, seems a pretty Chinese way of doing things.

Food for Learning

Civilizing China

We are all being told how we are supposed to behave.

First our parents (and teachers and peers) tell and show us what sort of behavior is normal and acceptable; later, advertising and various public and educational campaigns try to push us towards their preferred ways of acting.

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Photography to Get at Home 5: Past and Present in Beijing

One of the great fascinations of photography is the insight into other places and other people’s lives that it gives.

Even in times of seemingly pervasive Photoshop-ing (and even given the long history of photographic fakery), there is a power to the photojournalistic image.

See: Dead Syrian refugee boy on Turkey beach.
But also, if you know of it: “How the Other Half Lives.”

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Ferrari in Cheap Mall on Hainan

Crazy Rich Asians, China Rich Girlfriend, Intercultural Relation(ship)s

Interested in social affairs and intercultural couplings?
Scoffing at “news” about the rich and famous and their ostentatious lifestyles?
Enjoy reading the gossip columns and want to read something of a little more substance?

Check out Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend (the latter of which has only just been released this June 2015, just in time for a beach read).

Just Novels

Hong Kong Night Shopping StreetOn the surface, these novels are merely fictitious accounts of the lives of truly upper-class – and merely “crazy rich” – Asian jet-setters from Hong Kong, Singapore, and increasingly mainland China.

The look at these people’s lives is hilarious.

There are the parties and shopping trips that are to be expected; there is profligate luxury and concern over social rankings; there are games of status, concerns about company performances and portfolios; and worries about the children.

These super rich people’s lives seem so removed from the lives of ordinary people and even of rich from other places, but at closer look, they appear quite similar, too:
concerned about money, not wanting to pay too much, then again paying way too much on luxuries;
concerned about their children for whom they want the best of educations, but who still seem to end up only questionably well-adjusted – and if they are well-adjusted, then still in ways that the parents consider crazy because it’s not what they’d planned for their children;
caring about social status games and gossip and Habsburgian marriage politics, and all in all having issues like everyone else… except when not. And at very different levels, too.

The novels are, if you are at all interested in these issues, a lot of fun to read.

Interracial, Intercultural, Intersocial?…

Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend are also good starting points, if so inclined, for thinking a bit more deeply about not just intercultural relations and relationships (which are quite a popular topic and ‘educational’ theme), but also “inter-social” issues.

Cultural differences are usually noticed only, but easily, when people from different cultures come together. No big surprise.

One big issue there? When a couple is obviously intercultural and/or interracial. Otherwise, we often assume that all people of a group are quite similar; Americans are Americans, or at least so are Caucasian Americans and African-Americans; Chinese certainly are Chinese (supposedly), and so on. For couplings across those lines, we expect trouble.

Couple at Chinese Uni

In talking so much about intercultural and international relations, we often forget that differences already exist between the lifestyles and attitudes – the cultures, if you will – of people who seem to be (or are) of the same national / ethnic / “racial” / cultural background, but have different wealth, status, and pedigree…

Kevin Kwan’s novels are also all about that theme, if you so read them – and where it is relatively easy to remain above the complications of intercultural interaction (or to feel that way, at least – just don’t interact with “them”), such “inter-social” themes can easily arise even more unawares, but hit you even more intimately.

When you marry into another family, and that family has a different cultural background and social pedigree from your own, especially, complications arise, and you cannot stay detached.

Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend is not just about the spending and the scandalous lives of the super-rich that are those novels’ characters, but also about such intercultural and inter-social issues.

One of the main characters, after all, is Rachel Chu, a Chinese-American who ends up thrown into the world of these super-rich and socially distinct.

Ethnically (“racially”), she may be like them, but in other respects, they are worlds apart.

As a “banana” (“yellow on the outside, white on the inside”) Chinese-American, Rachel’s attitudes and ideas just don’t quite mesh with those of the “real” Chinese; but it’s not making things any easier that there is a chasm in net worth and social class and family background between her and her fiancée (and his family, especially).

The issue is all the more noticeable when the novels look at Kitty Pong, a Chinese marrying into a super-rich East Asian/Chinese family – except that she is mainland Chinese and from a, let’s say “challenging” social background, while her husband(-to-be) is from an established uppercrust one.

She would be just the type of person often mocked for the bad taste and ostentatiousness of newly rich like her, but here… Well, things take some unexpected (and some to-be-expected) turns, and one can come to feel for her.

Ferrari in Cheap Mall on Hainan

Nouveau riche, like… having to drive a Ferrari to a cheap mall in Haikou, Hainan

Being Your Other

Almost all the people we learn about are Chinese, would one go by superficial looks, but they all also set themselves apart from each other through their background in different countries and, rather more importantly, from different family lineages.

All the hijinks, the challenges of personal life, the meddling of mothers, and the general acceptance or ostracism by society ladies (and it is noticeable – and not far from the truth, I dare say – that it is women who are much more concerned with status and standing than the men… even if the men are far from immune to it) thus hide a deep question that is straight out of the intercultural education handbook:
How do you remain and/or change yourself in order to fit into a different cultural context? Can you even do so?

Only here, this different context is one that is socially and culturally different not in the way we constantly talk about it, in terms of race/ethnicity or nation-and-culture, but in terms of social standing and the culture that goes with it.

Lamma Island Harbor at Night

And there, it can all look so calm and peaceful…

The way of being that goes with that is just what Bourdieu described as “habitus,” the typical kind of bearing and poise (and then more) that makes one recognizably belong to a certain class even before words need to be spoken … and I bet not many people who start reading Kevin Kwan’s novels expect themselves to end up thinking about such highfalutin concepts from social theory.

Once you get just that little awareness of it, however, you can approach intercultural/”inter-social” affairs with much more clarity, at least when it comes to why, thanks to different contexts, different ways of having grown up, made (or even lost) fortunes, and formed identities, people from different social backgrounds will act and appear so differently.

And of course, you can simply enjoy the whirlwind tour that Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend takes you on.

Taking an interest in how other people live, whether it is through gossip or analysis, in envy about lifestyle or relief not to be living with such issues, is only human, after all. You don’t have to pretend it isn’t, no matter your social/cultural standing ;)

And besides, in the allure of some brands, all people seem equal ;)

And besides, in the allure of some brands, all people seem equal ;)

Yuquanshan Pagoda

Hidden Temples of Beijing

Being somewhere as different as Beijing makes it much easier, of course, to feel a desire to go out and explore.

Having been there several times and seen the main tourist draws, and then arriving for work, however, quickly makes even a city like this just another one of those places seen and accepted and not really seen anymore except when something majorly different happens.

Or, as I always argue, you decide to actively make yourself at home in a place you find yourself by finding something that strikes a chord with you….

Beijing Modern

Beijing Modern

Beijing is developing rapidly, like everything in China seems to be.

People who go to China, who visit Beijing, however, come in large part for the history. The city has been China’s capital for centuries, and consequently holds much of historic value (even with everything that’s been razed).

The Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Yonghegong Lama Temple, the Summer Palace – there is a lot to see.

Forbidden City, Beijing

In fact, there would be a whole lot more to see, as in so many a place, but it goes as it always does: Tourists are like ducks.

Where some start to congregate, more will congregate.
The places where people started to flock are the places where people flock even more.

How not, we are a social species after all.

What, however, of all the other sites, and sights?

In Beijing, in particular, places that are less well known and farther afield tell stories, some of religion re-emerging and overlooked sightseeing treasures (see the story of my visit to Badachu, for example), some of destruction and attempts at shaping historical memory and spiritual practice, some of politics and history having taken over and greeting a potential visitor with nothing but closed doors and signs shooing visitors away.

During and now after my recent half-year stay in Beijing, I embarked on a little project about Beijing’s Buddhist temples – that was something that somehow struck a chord with me.

Here are but two sights close by the Summer Palace, which is on most tourist itineraries, that speak of that hidden history, to give a teaser.

Yuquanshan – Jade Fountain Mountain

Alright, alright, it’s usually translated as “Jade Spring Mountain,” but I can’t resist a rhyme.

Yuquanshan Pagoda

Yuquanshan Pagoda

For someone who has more than just two days to visit Beijing’s sights, the Summer Palace comes up high on the list of must-see places. Look west towards the Xiangshan / Western Hills from there, you will see another one of Beijing’s few hills in between, and one with a nice-looking pagoda on its top.

It’s easy enough to get into the area.

Just walk past the northwestern wall of the Summer Palace, across the canal there, down one of Beijing’s many outer-area roads that look rather more rural than urban, its surface broken open and the car repair shops on the side not looking much more modern.

This already leads you into a rather different Beijing from both the restored-historic or the truly urbanized.

Approach the hill, and the road becomes more modern, the area even more open and somehow cleaned out. Are those villas behind the wall to the north, though? And what’s the temple with the white stupa that becomes visible on a set-off hill just north of the Jade Fountain hill? Is that another religious structure not mentioned on the maps or is it another part of the Jade Mountain ensemble?

Yuquanshan from west

Yuquanshan from the West, with the temple to the north of it on the left, of course

Walk on, and the road starts to circle around the hill, and it turns out that the one source which talked about the area is probably quite right: What the maps mark simply as the “Jade Mountain park” is not the “public garden” that the Chinese word for a park seems to indicate.

High wall all around, wires on top, cameras all around, all gates locked and guard soldiers at every entrance, it obviously is a government/military installation now.

Where normal people had already been giving me the usual puzzled looks a foreigner in unexpected places in China usually gets, the guard soldiers here were, of course, eyeing me even more suspiciously.

My camera stayed in my pocket; no need to get in trouble… especially after having read that this hill may be something like the Cheyenne Mountain of China, hiding the installations meant to keep the government operational in case of a nuclear war.

Not the place one wants to stick out as a curious person snapping shots.

Miaoyun Temple

The half-loop around the hill complete – it is a nice pagoda up there, indeed, and the little that can be seen of all the buildings that would lead up to it along the southern side of the hill look like they could be just as nice as those in Beihai park going up to the White Dagoba up there – the road leads on to the west in a straight shot, and with quite a surprise.

Where the area on the east side feels like it is meant for nothing, to the public, but to pass through in a car, the west side presents a bike or jogging path along the canal there, complete with guideposts to the sights around the area (and yup, including the Jade Mountain park) and guiding maps of the area (which make it look a little as if one could visit that park).

Again, however, there are some low apartment buildings, first some places that could be barracks – and then it is all modern village-like and cleaned out.

Some trees, but only dry soil underneath; some houses, but mainly just either construction or destruction. Old buildings going and having gone down, a few new houses being built, but mainly a lot of empty space that looks like it should be turning into desert any time.

In the midst of all that lies yet another one of Beijing’s “hidden” temples, the Miaoyun Temple.

I almost went right past it.

Sure, there was the usual boxy entrance gate with a red rounded gate in it, but the house right next to it on the left had been half torn down already, the house one further was roofless and marked for teardown, what looked like it used to be a public toilet was right up against the walls of the temple area, and the restaurant on the right of the temple entrance was probably, hopefully, not in operation; it also looked like it may soon be torn down, or perhaps it’s only the paving in front being rebuilt.

Miaoyun Temple

Miaoyun Temple

Anyways, once again, here was a temple that looked like it survived much trouble, still stood in the middle of an area that had never been built up or had been razed again, but it was closed.

A ticket booth still stood to the right of the locked gate, even the usual placard denoting this as a tourist place of interest hung on the wall, yet there was no sign of what was going on.
It sure was closed off but that was the only thing one could say for sure.

The same theme would repeat itself at many of Beijing’s temples.
Some have become tourist sites and are open as such; some are places of worship – and often, tourist sites as well; many are in even more of a limbo, having formerly been open to the public but now being restored, needing restoration but just being open – or closed.

Either way, information about any but the best-known and most-visited temples has been proving hard to come by. It’s been a fascinating issue, actually.

You have the rapidly-developing and (in many places) pretty modern capital of this rising country, with more people on public transit disappearing right into their smartphone screens than I’ve ever seen in Europe.

You have a capital city full of history and with large (if apparently, declining) numbers of tourists coming to see the old and the new.

And you have sites of historical (and potentially, continuing) importance which are hard to find in and of themselves. Getting up-to-date information on them, especially as the expectation would be that this should be easy online, proved even harder…

It made for quite an explorer-like feeling as one could never tell, even (if not especially) after online research, whether a temple would be easy or hard to find, presenting one with shut doors or public displays of piety, monks performing religious ceremonies or tourist visitors wielding selfie sticks.

My full guide to Beijing’s Buddhist Temples is in the works…


Coming ‘at home’ From Afar

I’m back (at?) home in Austria, wondering if I’ve failed with the small (photo and writing) projects I started in and on Beijing because I’m not finished with them… and yet I realize that this is just one of those points where being somewhere else can actually bring you closer to a place.

Wiener Eistraum, RathausIt’s not this dream that “if only I were *there* rather than *here*, I’d be so happy and everything would be so great” that people sometimes fall into that I am talking about.
Yes, I know.
Where you are can be familiar and “at home” just as well as it can be that familiar hellhole you want nothing but to get out of – but so can any other place.

We have a natural tendency to think in such ways.
We get used to what we always see, tell ourselves that somewhere we don’t know would be much better, and end up liking or disliking both here and there based more on what we decide to focus on than all that’s really there.

This process plays out particularly well when it comes to foreigners in China, where a whole other level of exoticism or “going native” or criticism or you-name-it comes into play.

One of the constant debates among “China watchers” circles round and round the (im)possibility of knowing China when you are not living there.

DSC04819It just happens too often that some expert/pundit visits Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen and pronounces the power that China has become. Equally as often, experts or analysts sit in London or Washington and declare China’s impending collapse.

(Sometimes, a columnist even just has to read the China Daily to claim tremendous understanding – fittingly, on April 1.)

Meanwhile, “old China hands” live in the midst of all the chances and changes and challenges in the country and shake their heads over the naiveté of these pronouncements.

You may have noticed something similar when it comes to your own country, or even city or county:
The further someone is away, the simpler their statements about a place, and the more convinced they may often be about them.

At the same time, however, the opposite problem can also apply:
Being in the midst of a place makes one only too aware of all the nitty-gritty details of daily life, but less likely to look down deeply into the history of this place, or up and at longer-term trends and patterns.

When we are in a place we “know” (i.e., we have been for a while and know our essential ways around), we don’t usually even notice any sights that are of note to others from farther away anymore.

In Beijing's National Library

In Beijing’s National Library

This is what has always struck me about my China experiences (especially because it was the same pattern I then noticed about my attitude towards my native Austria):
Living there is great for the direct lived experience, indeed.

But the same direct experience also makes for so much focus on everyday things that happen and that need doing that there is little time and energy for anything else.

Only when I’m back somewhere else do I get to better libraries and more of an interest in understanding more deeply what I had been observing before. Not to mention the critical distance from which to try and see larger patterns, not just everyday problems.

It’s just this kind of a balance that is a back-and-forth between intimacy and distance, engagement and aloofness, that we actually seem to need in many a situation.

Even romantic interest doesn’t work without some degree of separation (at the very least, enough for interesting individuality); variety spices up life; the familiar becomes more interesting (and all the more comforting, often enough) only once it has been the unusual.

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