Archive for February, 2010

In someone elses hands.

February 26, 2010

If there’s one thing synonymous with China it’s massage. Is there anyone out there who actually doesn’t like massage? If so, I have yet to find them. Myself, I think I have a borderline addiction to it; finding it increasingly difficult to walk past the numerous massage outlets that inhabit each and every Australian shopping centre these days.

Historically I have developed issues with my neck – no doubt as a side-effect from spending too much time in front of computers. There have always been massage parlours, but never so accessible as these Chinese places that have sprung up everywhere. They all have fairly standardised pricing, are quick, convenient and are basically like the massage equivalent of a fast-food outlet.

These tiny stores used to inhabit the central walkways of the larger centres and have in recent years begun to appear in their own stores – where I figure they’re doing enough turn-over to easily support their rent. It’s rare to see these places quiet, and I highly doubt the wages being paid to the staff are anything worth writing home about. In fact I would be very interested to know exactly how much they are paid – as the people working them are predominantly (if not all) Chinese students.

The whole fact that they are students also raises the issue as to whether or not they are actually qualified to provide a proper massage. While I normally go for the neck, shoulders and back option, I have had more than a few where I have pulled up excessively sore for the next few days after it – the sign I think of a poorly trained masseur. Likewise, there is nothing worse than a ‘butterfly dancing on your shoulder’, where the pressure is so weak you can barely feel them.

The other thing to be wary of are the people who use excessive amounts of what I call ‘filler moves.’ Generally this involves rubbing your shoulder blade with their elbow for what feels like ridiculously long periods of time – a move which uses little energy or strength, and to me is a sign of laziness. You can pick a proper masseur almost instantly, as they pick their way up and down your back, paying attention to each and every relevant muscle as they go.

A definite tip I have picked up along the way is to hold on to the good masseurs you find along the way. Ask their name and they will happily give you their card which often tells you which days they actually work. Some places actually consider this a VIP option, and one particular guy I was seeing regularly would always give me a 60 minute massage when I was only paying for 40 minutes – a definite bonus in my book.

The flip side of asking their name is that they are actually benefit from it also. I went to see a young girl who I had seen the week previous who was actually very good. I am noticing a trend that the girls tend to give better massages than the older men – who previously I would have assumed to be the ‘masters’, but more often than not turn out to be the ‘fillers.’ Anyhow, she employs a ‘step on back’ technique where she stands on my back, and I have to say, the combination of the extra width and strength of the pressure throughout the entire back is fantastic.

I asked this girl last night as she was working on my arm whether or not they benefitted from being asked for by name and she confirmed that they in fact did. She said that the Boss often recognised it, and would reward them by providing them with more working hours in what I assumed was quite high competition for shifts considering how many different students work in each individual place. I am more than happy to ask for someone by name if it benefits them – because obviously, it benefits me also.

Fireworks -1, Ancient gate – 0

February 23, 2010

If you’ll look back through the months you’ll notice that I always seem to enjoy a good fireworks related incident – and well, I suppose it’s largely true. While of course I don’t take pleasure at other people’s misfortune, I can honestly say that mishaps using the largely uncontrolled fireworks never seem to disappoint – or possibly surprise would be more accurate way to describe it.

In downtown Zhengding County, Hebei Province, an ancient gate known as Changlemen has been burned to the ground in what the government says was fireworks or perhaps lantern related. Regardless of the cause, five officials have been held accountable, with three being insta-fired, another two receiving official warnings.

Thanks to Chinese New Year, this time of year is most definitely fireworks season, with large parts of the country sounding like a warzone for several weeks straight. While I understand the need to scare away evil spirits – the whole lack of control around fireworks is getting a little bit beyond a joke.

In Australia, they’re effectively illegal everywhere beyond our nation’s capital – a fact I still can’t completely comprehend. Only recently, someone blew most of his face off by setting them off in their backyard, proving that humans + hand held explosive entertainment devices simply do not mix. Multiple this by an absolutely massive scale, and it’s inevitable things (or people) are going to burn.

Unfortunately in this case, the poor historic gate Changlemen, was the victim. Having been originally built in the fifth century, it had only just recently been vigorously restored at a cost of 4 million Yuan. These gates are erected atop city walls used in ancient times to protect the cities they surround. The only question is, what protects the poor gates?

A China away from China.

February 14, 2010

So from today begins the year of Metal Tiger, and here’s hoping that some of that monetary luck is coming my way. We went into Box Hill which was thriving with masses of Chinese – Box Hill being home to a massive Chinese population. While Melbourne has its own Chinatown, which is effectively just a very Chinesey street, Box Hill in many ways is close to the real deal. So many Chinese have made this particular suburb of Melbourne (and surrounding areas) their home that it is starting to reflect the culture they have come from.

Last night was no different. The spring festival had begun, the first day of the new Chinese lunar year ticked over. While the weather was patchy, with a few brief (and thankfully light) showers, it didn’t deter the multitude of Chinese who headed into the town centre to do what Chinese do best; eat and shop.

Unlike many western festivals – and I noticed lots of this in China, the rows of tents were not so much novelty, but commercial. While there was the occasional face painting, calligraphy and various others selling holiday related goods – most were promotional offerings from banks, religious groups and pirate DVD sellers – the latter having DVD’s playing at such high volume that I was positive I actually was back in China.

Part of the main road had been closed down and a long row of food tents were set up. We set out searching for particular Chinese treats – and found them. We have spoken many times of the fabled skewered meat which we ate across China which involved pieces of random beef skewered and dusted in chilli powder – absolutely delicious. There were no shortage of these and we bee-lined for the store, ordering 7 – 4 for me, 3 for Courtney. Handing over a $20 we got a mere $2.50 change!
“How much are they each?” Courtney asked the girl.

“$2.50,” she replied, looking somewhat bored.

$2.50 each! In China, you would pick them up for 1 rmb a pop. For $17.50 (or 106 Chinese Yuan) we get 7 – back in China, we could have gotten around 80+!! Likewise, the old strawberries on a stick – which I have since found out are called tang hu lu – $5.00 each! While there are things I definitely don’t miss, the cheap street food is definite in my top 5 of things I do miss.

We walked around for a while, enjoying the atmosphere, while the Chinese excitedly looking at displays of pillows for sale, bought masks, and generally ate the whole time. We decided to go home for an hour or two and return to catch the fireworks/firecrackers/dancing lions/dragons etc – and while we did this, were horribly disappointed to find that beyond a very small set of crackers and a brief dragon dance show, the night didn’t eventuate into much else.

It was an enjoyable night, and one we’re glad we made the effort to participate in. There was a casual, family atmosphere which underpinned everything, which is largely due to the fact that the majority of people present were Chinese. Had you replaced everyone with your typical Australian’s, then it would have been infested with bogan’s and drunks.

Happy Chinese New Year!

Tang hu lu, hao chi!

Festival related goodies for sale

A plethora of people and things to see

Seeing the dragon over the wall of onlookers was a feat

Spring festival 2010 – Year of the Metal Tiger

February 11, 2010

This coming Sunday marks Chinese New Year, or spring festival for 2010, which will last for 15 days until the next full moon arrives and the Lantern Festival begins. In addition to all the celebrations, fire-works, dancing dragons and delicious food, every Chinese person will age by one year, in what is the world’s biggest (and possibly most unknown) birthday party.

My current town of Box Hill has a huge Chinese population – which I have mentioned numerous times before as being one of the main reasons we chose to live there. Some of the main streets will be closed and the town centre promises to be full of interesting things to explore. While there will be masses of people, I expect copious amounts of fireworks, dragons and food – and basically cant wait to get up there and to take some photos.

Come midnight, the noise will be extreme as the locals make every effort to scare away the evil spirits and herald in the coming of the year of the Tiger – which in fact happens to be my year.

This year actually happens to be the year of the Metal Tiger – because while each year there is a different animal sign, there is also a cycle of 5 elements, each lasting for two years – those being fire, earth, metal, water and wood. Metal Tiger is a positive sign for good luck with money – and damned if I am not hoping something comes from that! It is also a symbol for power and authority, yet inflexibility and destruction.

Sometimes when I read about these festivals, and their associated celebrations – all very precise and practiced, I cannot help but feel that my own culture is lacking. Sure, we celebrate Christmas and Easter and the like, yet for most of us it’s just about giving and receiving presents, while eating a big meal with our families. What particularly amuses me about our own holiday ‘festivals’ is that most of us who celebrate them are not in fact religious in the least?

The Chinese festivals in particular are elaborate and interesting and reflect on a history which stretches back into the ancient. While it is of course not my own culture, I often feel envious, and when I walk by stalls decked with offerings and symbolic meanings, I can’t help but feel like an outsider – a feeling that I hate.

Will you be my Alba?

February 10, 2010

While many of us consider ourselves normal, there’s a distinctly freaky element out there – and seemingly no country is immune. Recently, a 21 year old Chinese girl named Xiaoqing has declared she is going to undertake plastic surgery in order to make her face as near as possible to that of American actress Jessica Alba. Why you ask? To get back her ex-boyfriend of course…duh!

See if you can spot which look is based on Jessica Alba!

Xiaoqing’s ex was openly obsessed with Jessica Alba and posters and photos in his phone were simply not cutting it. For Christmas he purchased Xiaoqing a blonde wig, and along with fake eye-lashes, had her looking as Alba’esque as possible – but it wasn’t enough. One day as she was strolling through Shanghai – decked out in her Alba gear, Xiaoqing noticed people pointing and laughing at her, and that was the final straw. With the wig and eye-lashes discarded on the ground, she reverted to her former, Asian self. That was too much for her ex however, who called off the relationship and returned to the warmth of his poster collection.

Unfortunately for Xiaoqing, her heart yearned for this strapping young man, and she announced that she would do whatever it took to get him back – in this case, having eyebrow lifting, eyelid reshaping and a nose reconstruction – all modelled on Jessica Alba herself.

When Jessica Alba herself heard of this, she was not impressed.

 “I think you should never have to change yourself like that. If somebody loves you, they’ll love you no matter what,” she said.

I guess some people believe in love more than the rest of us…and here I was thinking Octomom’s Angelina Jolie replication efforts were bizarre…

The nature of monkey is irrepressible!

February 7, 2010

Hands up if you didn’t happen to watch Monkey Magic when you were a child? Hell, even just thinking about the fantastic old show sent a wave of goose bumps down my arm. The particularly dinky yet ridiculously awesome old Japanese show was based on the epic Chinese tale; Journey to the West, written by Wu Cheng’en in 16th Century China.

Recently I read the Penguin translation of the title, named simply, ‘Monkey.’ Here we have an abridged English version of Wu Cheng’en’s classic tale, and whilst it is quite brief, it is highly enjoyable from start to finish.

It tells of the tale of a particularly devout Buddhist priest by the name of Tripitaka, who along with his three disciples must travel on foot from China to India in order to collect a series of scriptures from Buddha, thus also finding enlightenment.

Whilst initially starting out with a handful of mortal disciples, Tripitaka is soon captured by a band of ogres and his disciples are promptly eaten. As he progresses, with a little divine intervention, he is soon joined by Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy, three heavenly beings who are doing penance for various mis-deeds in their past – most notably of these, Monkey, who is by far and away one of the most enjoyable characters you will come across.

The nature of monkey is irrepressible they say, and it is precisely true. Much of the first half of the book details Monkey’s rise to power and then his insane misbehaviour in the realms of heaven. Monkey, or ‘The Great Sage Equal of Heaven’ – a title in which he forces the Jade Emperor to bestow on him at the risk of further mischief, is a hilarious character. As violent and playful as he is intelligent, like his real life counter-parts, he is unpredictable and amusing.

Monkey’s counter-part Pigsy, is likewise a joy to behold, whose main value is his strength and ability to almost eat without pause, and is constantly feeling injustice at the hands of Monkey, and always looking for ways to play pranks on him. The bantering that goes on between these two is wonderful, and if anything, I wish there was more of it.

While the book is a pleasant read, it is only really a taster of the real story to which I now plan on hunting down a copy in all its glorious detail. It’s a light read and purely fable and if you’re going to remotely enjoy it, leave your realities at the door. One of the things I enjoyed most about the story was the description of all the heavenly beings; which cover everything from the Dragon King who has a palace at the bottom of a well, to the little boy responsible for making wind, to the fact that death can be negated by negotiating with the King of the dead. Everything you can think of has some divine being associated with it, and the level of detail and seriousness in which they are described is endearingly fun.

If you watched the old TV show, you owe it to yourself to rekindle those old memories and pick up a copy of this book. If you have no idea what any of this is about and even a mote of interest in a famous Chinese story, then I highly recommend it.

The chains of love

February 5, 2010

In what can only be described as Chinese Child Care, father Chen Chuanliu; an unlicensed Beijing rickshaw rider, must chain his two year old son, Lao Lu, to a pole, each time he sets out on a fare for fear of losing him. Making a mere few dollars per day, and with a disabled wife who is forced to roam the streets for recyclable rubbish, Chen is a migrant worker from Sichuan province, and has few options to protect his son from child stealers; an issue that is rampant throughout China. It was only recently that his four year old daughter Ling was stolen, and without even a photograph of her, he has no way of even putting up lost child posters.

This kind of story is humorous at a glance, but when you dig deeper into the specifics, it tells of the hardship that affects literally millions of Chinese every day – particularly those migrant workers who have come into the cities from the countryside. While to Chen and his family it is simply life and must be dealt with as it comes, for him, looking after his family is the most important thing.

Child stealing is a massive issue in China, with children being sold to those people who cannot have their own – or worse, as cheap labour in remote mines. Thousands of children are stolen each year, with most of them never being seen again by their original families. With both mother and father working, what options are left? Once concerned individuals noticed the chained child, authorities ordered the chains to be removed, but is leaving a two year old, alone in a 9 ft single room apartment any better?

China is a fascinating country, where explosive growth is taking it into an unknown future, but despite all the glitz and glamour of the modern business centre’s and high-rises’, at the core is often extreme poverty – a problem that is not going to resolve itself anytime soon.

Mandarin Chinese – Frustrating fulfillment

February 2, 2010

I am trying my hardest to learn Mandarin. Years ago when I was in school, I studied French for over three years, and now, some fifteen years later, I can barely speak a handful of words in that particular language. With Mandarin however, I would say I have been learning now for at least two years, and while my progress has increased, I am still very much a beginner.

Unlike my French tuition; which were proper classes, my Chinese study has been purely based on my own initiative. I haven’t had to feel the need to endure classes and to do homework – and probably as a result have learnt a lot less. Though I know a range of different things, I feel that the all important conversation is still frustratingly elusive in that, every time I learn a few more phrases, they don’t seem particularly conversational. It is my goal to achieve a small degree of fluency – at least enough that I can hold a proper conversation and stumble on through it, rather than comprehending next to nothing.

My original incentive to learn Chinese was because of the fact we were going to live in China – hell, it doesn’t get much more logical than that. During the process of learning, both myself and Courtney developed a keen interest in the language itself, which has continued until present – some 12+ months after returning home. While we live in a suburb that has a particularly large Chinese population (one of the things that drew us here), and hear people speaking Chinese practically every day, we still feel too shy to actually use it.

The main problem is, we do not know enough to actually respond. While I might be able to surprise a Chinese person with my good accent and pronunciation with the initial question – when they actually respond they are rewarded with a blank look – not unlike a stunned mullet.

The bulk of my learning has been done via audio courses, where I will listen and learn in places like the car or train. We have also attended various classes – even some in China – though I find other students to be particularly annoying, as with Chinese it is critical to pronounce things properly, and when the whole class is saying it at once, you can hardly tell if you’re even close. It’s hard enough to pronounce most Chinese words even solo.

We also paid a local Chinese woman some money to teach us for a few weeks, though she moved away which took that particular aspect away. We sorely wanted someone to hear us speak, to help us speak, and to give us feedback. Recently I have discovered via a webpage a great online community which is full to the brim of people looking for language partners. Here people use Skype to communicate with each other, and you can practically pick any language and find someone to practice with. I have tried this multiple times now and while it is immensely satisfying to converse in Chinese, it also shows me precisely how little I actually know. Nothing clears the head faster than being presented with a real live native speaker! I am developing a knack for forgetting precisely everything I have learned each time I attempt it.

Regardless of all of the above, I absolutely love learning this language. If anything, I wish I had started years ago, so that now I would be at a much higher level. It is challenging, and feels like an unscaleable mountain, but with each little chip away at its side, I make small amounts of progress.

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