Facing down the lions

Last Christmas I gave a beautifully illustrated children’s book to one of my nieces. It was the story of the little stone lion. For centuries he has been guarding the entrance to a village. This lion is small and benevolent, kindly observing the generations coming and going in the village. He is sending out a message about not forgetting traditional values and family ties.

The Little Stone Lion
The Little Stone Lion

Most people will be familiar with these stone lions. Chinese businesses all over the world have these two guardians at the entrance. One is a male lion, with one paw on a ball, symbolizing imperial supremacy over the world. The other one is female and playing with a cub, symbolizing nurture. I’ve written a little bit about symbolism surrounding entry and exit in China and in gated communities before. Right now I am once again face to face with the lions that guard the entrance to China.

Guarding the Empire
Guarding the Empire

Chinese bureaucracy

After a long summer holiday in Europe I returned to China. To the same town where I lived before, but to a new apartment and a new and exciting job. Before I could return to China I had to jump through some bureaucratic hoops to secure a temporary business visa. It will be another few months, lots and lots of paperwork and burning through quite a bit of money before I will have more or less permanent residency and an indefinite and legal right to work. I am very lucky that my employer is doing everything possible to help me through this.

Every foreigner who wants to live and work in China has to go through this (sometimes months or years long) process that is riddled with uncertainty, vagaries, changing rules and sometimes outright rudeness. It is a rite of passage, a hazing, and it is comforting to talk to people who have been through this already. I have heard horror stories of people narrowly avoiding being blacklisted forever during their journeys through the byzantine regulations. Kafkaesque is an understatement here. They assure me that everything will work out in the end, that there always is a way. Which is nice to hear if you feel at times as if you are in a trench warfare with the faceless, nameless giant that is Chinese bureaucracy. If you don’t have a 100% conviction that you want to be here, this is where you want to give up.

Coming from a western country it’s a bit hard to imagine just how intimidating Chinese bureaucracy can be. We generally have the expectation that government bodies are there to support us, that the game is played according to the rules and that if they don’t they can be held accountable. We also have a certain arrogance that I wasn’t aware of before: as westerners we assume that doors will generally open for us, that we will be welcomed. No such thing is a given in China, and especially not if you are a foreigner.

The first couple of weeks back in China it felt as if my existence here was extremely precarious, and I wasn’t sleeping well. The Chinese colleague who was dealing with the local government offices wasn’t very good at finding out the correct information. Neither was she thinking creatively about how to deal with hurdles such as the looming end date on my current visa. I am a bit of control freak and it is highly unsettling to feel your life is in the hands of an incompetent, uncommunicative and inscrutable person. To not be able to find out and fix things for yourself, to have to relinquish control is any project managers worst nightmare. In theory I have a house and a life to go back to back home, but I don’t want to. I really want to be here. So, I have to grit my teeth and hope for the best. To be fair, my colleague had to deal with government officials who would hang up on her if she called them with a question they couldn’t answer. Often the only way to get a conclusive answer is to go down to the offices in person and talk face to face. This only works after you have established who the responsible official is. China does after all still function along the lines of guanxi (social networks of influence), and it matters a lot more who you know in the right place than knowing how to interpret the latest change in government visa policy.

Woof!

Where are we now in this whole process? I am still on a business visa. This I obtained by visiting a Chinese restaurant on the outskirts of Rotterdam and handing over some cash to a very jovial Chinese man. I didn’t get a receipt. End of September I will have to do a border run. This also gives me the opportunity for two days of hiking in the Vietnamese mountains around Sapa, yay! And, gain another 60 days on my current visa. Meanwhile my employer is working hard at making me and two Italians the owners of another company. This is a process that can take a couple of months and mountains of paperwork with red stamps on them. The company was once a cocktail bar with live sharks swimming in a gigantic aquarium wall. I’m afraid the business will be a little bit more mundane after me and the two Italians take ownership. A Chinese wine importer who speaks seven languages is currently working on ensuring all of this will move smoothly through the government bureaus involved. After the ownership transfer is finalized I should be able to get a work permit as an employee in my own company. Which should then be easily renewable every year, without any further need for border runs. This construction is called WFOE (pronounced ‘woofie’) or Wholly Foreign Owned Enterprise. It is a common way for foreigners to establish themselves in China for the longer term. Another way is to get married, but then you are not allowed to work.

For now the lions are staring me down real hard, and I am facing up to them. Wish me luck, and hopefully they will let me through. But not before they have played with me for a bit, like a cat with a mouse. Or rather, a Chinese stone lion with a ball.

They were kung fu drinking

A week ago I returned to Kunming after two months of cycling and catching up with friends and family in Europe. I cycle back into town from the airport, exhilarated by the jetlag, the rainy season mud, the noise, the big city skyscraper vistas and the people.

I dive right back in. I make an appointment for a new series of Chinese classes with my teacher, I slurp noodles and have my usual Chinese conversation in a mi xian place around the corner from my brand new job (Where are you from? Do you like spice food? You can eat very well with chop sticks). I am in desperate need of a mindful exercise routine to clear my busy head after absorbing tons of new information at work, so I make an appointment with a renowned kung fu teacher who has been recommended to me by a Dutch friend. I need some Zen after all the initial excitement.

Searching for zen

The teacher exchanges a few messages with me on wechat before we meet. His wechat photo says he is a young Leonardo DiCaprio, and his name is something that I can not yet read and with a bear emoji in the middle. I explain to him that I have years of experience with yoga, I know a little bit about balance and about breathing, and that I am very keen to learn about Chinese culture.

I am excited to learn more about the different forms and philosophies of wushu, after my brief forays into tai chi and qing chi chuan last year. We will meet up tonight, so when I come home from work I change into loose fitting trousers and a t-shirt and tie my hair back into a pony tail, ready to go kung fu fighting and hoping to roll into bed with a sore body and an empty head.

Outdoor kung fu
Outdoor kung fu

Meeting the master

Fifteen minutes before the appointed time he starts sending me messages. Are you here yet? Where are you? I reply that I am going to be there at the appointed time, and leisurely walk the 3km from my house to his kung fu studio. First through my new neighbourhood, then along a busy four lane road lined by trees, and finally finding my way through the alleys of an older neighbourhood full of little shops and food stalls.

At the appointed time I am outside his studio. He sends me a message: wait, I am eating! No problem. It is a warm and muggy evening and I am happy to have a moment to myself to unwind from the first few hectic days in my new job.

Suddenly I get lightly punched in the shoulder. It is my teacher, who turns out to be indeed the Chinese version of a young and handsome Leo DiCaprio, and with him is a somewhat bug-eyed girl. Both are wearing sweat pants and white tank tops. Her eyes are huge dark pools and she is swaying a little bit. As she broadly smiles at me I can smell a whiff of beer coming my way. She speaks some English, my kung fu teacher doesn’t.

Together we go into the studio, where we sit down in a deep and comfortable leather and wood settee, surrounded by boxes of kung fu clothes. In front of me is the dojo, with a huge mirrored wall at the end. Beers appear on the table, and cigarettes are being handed around.

Kung fu drinking

Cheers! How do you say cheers in Dutch? What kind of kung fu do you want to learn? I had a baby 14 days ago. When can you come here? Can you come 5 days a week? Are you working? That’s too bad. What days can you come here? Your friend Bart didn’t speak Chinese when he started training here, but now he is very good. Just a little bit more beer, don’t worry. By bicycle? You are my hero! More beer, come on, we have to celebrate you came to China. You are our new friend. Proost, is that how you say it? Let’s call Bart! Bart, your Dutch friend is here! Proost! More beer, come on, it’s only a little bit. A cigarette. Why do you not smoke? Not even when you drink? Have more beer! Look, this is the video from when I was in the kung fu championships. You must come with me to my hometown and eat the food there with me. Next week I go, come with me. What do you mean you want to sleep? Have more beer. When you toast you have to hold your cup lower than the teacher. See, you are learning about Chinese culture already. Maybe you should learn boxing first. Kung fu is very difficult.

A Pole, a Brit and a Dutchie enter a Chinese tea shop…

Recommended tea for this post: a cup of cooked pu’erh in an unglazed gaiwan from Xishuangbanna. Recommended listening: Sensation of China – 100 classics of Chinese traditional music. 

A Polish Swede, a Brit and a Dutchie enter a Chinese tea shop…

Now, this could be the start of a geeky joke. It can also be the beginning of a fantastical adventure. A trio of unwitting adventurers is thrown together by fate, in a weird land full of strange customs. As they step across the threshold of a tea shop they are hurtled into another dimension. An ever-expanding universe of history, tastes and smells and exquisite highs envelops them, a veritable Narnia of tea. Together they navigate this magical world and learn many things. It is, like so many fantasy adventures, also a tale of friendship.

Nordica friends

Let’s start at the beginning. A while ago I gave a lecture about bike travel at Nordica gallery. Afterwards, I have a couple of drinks with Kaj and Sean. Me and Sean stick with beer, but Kaj drinks tea. we notice he is really quite particular about the tea he orders. It transpires that he knows quite a lot about tea, Sean and me are curious to learn more. Thus our tea exploration club is born. A bit more about Kaj: his full name is Kajetan Mazurkiewicz. He is Polish but grew up in Sweden and speaks a beautiful British English. Apart from knowledgeable about tea he is also the inventor of a whole new language for his LARPing world. He also introduces Sean and me to his tailor. She ends up being quite busy with making lots of classical Chinese and LARPing outfits for Kaj, and one or two for me and Sean.

The tea horse road

Now, no history of Yunnan can be told without talking about tea, since tea production was likely invented here, some 100 years BCE. So this is not just about tea; it is also about China, and especially about Yunnan. Part of what is called the southern silk road runs through Yunnan. Another name for this route is the tea horse road, as horses transported tea from China to Tibet. The southernmost stop on this route is Jinghong, the capital of Xishuangbanna. The name Xishuangbanna refers to an ancient Dai kingdom which even today feels more like Thailand than China. This area is also home of the unique pu’erh teas.

Tea porters in Sichuan (Ernest H. Wilson, 1908)
Tea porters in Sichuan (Ernest H. Wilson, 1908)

The tea horse road is also part of the future of China. The government uses the legacy of the old trade route to promote a new railway line between Chengdu and Lhasa.

The tea markets of Kunming

Over the next few months, Sean and I follow our tea guru Kaj to tea markets around town. We spend a few leisurely afternoons wandering around different tea districts, peering into tea shops, poking at pottery and of course drinking lots and lots of tea while listening to Kaj explain the myriad aspects of tea culture. We try to speak Chinese with friendly tea shop owners, we spend insane amounts of money on tiny little teapots and associated accessories and yes, we get high on tea. Or rather, we get drunk: ‘tea drunk’ (cha zui, 茶醉) is the Chinese expression for feeling a bit wired but also very content and happy after slurping endless tiny cups of tea. It is much better than being high on coffee caffeine although it can keep you awake at night as well.

Perfection
Perfection

It’s a family affair

Drinking tea in Chinese tea shops is something that I would recommend to all travellers to China, as a great way to experience Chinese friendliness and some quintessential aspects of Chinese history and culture. There are many different kinds of tea shops, and if you don’t speak the language it can be somewhat intimidating to step inside and sit down for a tasting. Some are very sleek, others are charmingly messy and full of knick-knacks. It is however always perfectly acceptable to walk in, to sit down at the huge wooden tea table that is at the centre of the shop and to start tasting. There is no obligation to buy anything, although I have bought tea in almost every shop where I sat down to taste. A lot of tea shops are part of a family business so it can feel like sitting down with a family: kids are doing homework nearby, grandma is starting to cook dinner outside, mum and dad are running the business and pouring tea for the three laowai that have rocked up to their shop. The true family businesses sometimes own tea plantations further south in Yunnan and they are most happy and proud to explain about their special tea varieties.

Kaj with a lovely Chinese tea shop owner
Kaj with a lovely Chinese tea shop owner

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Tea

I could try and explain about these varieties but of course Kaj, the master of our tea trio, does this much better than I ever could. As part of a year-long cultural exchange project between Scandinavia and China, organized by Nordica gallery, he compiled a small compendium of tea: here is his Hitchhiker’s Guide to Tea.  He presented this last week at the gallery, to wrap up his year in China. This, sadly, also means that we have to say goodbye to our tea master, who was not just a teacher but also became a friend. Luckily these fantasy stories usually have sequels. So, I can see us meeting again at some time in the future, getting pleasantly drunk on an exquisite pu’erh.

Thank you Kaj! For teaching us so much about China, and for the lovely moments spent enjoying tea.