A lot of people know and love vintage Chinese revolution propaganda posters. Possibly the best collection can be found here in Shanghai. Such as this beautiful Red Guard girl:
Or this handsome worker:
And of course Chairman Mao, an almost god-like figure in this woodcut print:
Today there are still many colourful propaganda posters everywhere, and I’ve started sharing them via my Chinese Propaganda Instagram account.
I am fascinated by the utopian idea of a communist society, with the promise of a good life for all citizens. The China of today is hyper capitalist and its inhabitants far from equal, the state is only communist in name. The beautiful posters however remind us of the original ideals behind the foundation of the People’s Republic of China. Today’s posters show less marching and little red book waving, more children playing with their grandparents and happy minority people dancing together as one. One can dream..
In October my parents visited China. They are around 70 and have never travelled outside of Europe, apart from a trip to Canada to visit relatives. So, this is a big thing. I put a best-of-Yunnan programme together and get to experience China through the eyes of first-timers.
They had many preconceptions, some of them undoubtedly quite negative. Because they are old enough to remember Mao’s Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the Cold War. This combined with current news about China being half and half about either human rights activists disappearing or serious environmental issues. Imagine their surprise at finding a hospitable and mostly quite cheerful people who are more than happy to show them around and help them during their journey through Yunnan. After three weeks of backpacking from Kunming to Dali, Xizhou, Jianshuan, Shaxi, Lijiang, Shangri-la and Beijing they go home with lots of stories but alas still not able to eat with chopsticks. I travel with them for a few days and enjoy the Autumn festival moon watching at Linden Centre. We even see a comet crashing to earth, surely an auspicious sign for the year ahead.
Another highlight is staying in Jianshuan. The owner is a friend who I met during a previous trip. She runs a boutique hotel in a beautifully restored historical Bai mansion. She makes my parents feel extra welcome by taking them along to a sky lantern event. Furthermore she surprises us by landing us in the middle of a huge dinner party at a woodcarving masters house and finally by inviting all of her family over to the hotel for beers. It is great to see my parents again after a year and a half away.
I visit home
In December I went to The Netherlands, a year and nine months after I left. I was excited but also a bit apprehensive about going home. Would it be very emotional? Would it be super cold? Would the Amsterdammers be extremely rude to me in traffic? All of my worries evaporate as soon as I am on the plane. I spend a week and a half catching up with friends in Amsterdam. Nothing much has changed, only my friends’ and siblings’ fast-growing children show that time doesn’t stand still. Everybody is busy with work, kids, projects.
In China I like looking at the West with Chinese binoculars. While I am in Amsterdam I enjoy the distance to reflect on China, and on my life in China. As happy as I am to be in Amsterdam I am just as happy to return ‘home’, to go back to China. I missed the excellent food and weather, I missed the friendly and curious smiles, I missed the social life on the street, I missed how cheap everything is, I missed the challenge and the daily discoveries of an exotic language and culture, I missed my emerging friendships with like-minded people. I liked talking about China to friends and family, and especially Yunnan and Kunming, which I am proud to call my home now.
Happy new year
I leave 2017 and enter the new year feeling grateful and optimistic. I am glad I decided to take this year-long time-out in China, instead of going straight home to my old life in Amsterdam. Today I feel a lot more positive about returning to Amsterdam than I did half a year ago when I was in deep emotional turmoil. The dust has settled, I am happy and focused and I see a lot of professional and personal possibilities, in The Netherlands and in China. I don’t know where ‘home’ will be a year from now, but whether it is in Kunming or in Amsterdam, it will be a good place for me.
Since giving a lecture about bike touring at a jam-packed Nordica gallery two weeks ago my social life here in Kunming has really taken off. I met two fellow tea nerds and together we are exploring tea culture and learning as much as we can on what is hopefully going to be a weekly excursion. More about that in a later blog post. I also met a lot of cool ladies, so the last week I have been meeting up with them for bike rides, a glass of wine, dinner great conversation.
S. is 32, works in finance, rides a bike and wants to train for an Iron Man race. K. is a glamorous 25 year old who has recently returned to China after a stint in the South of France and is currently in between jobs. D. is 34, has studied in France and is a freelance curator of cultural projects. L. is 30, has studied in Beijing and the UK and has a challenging job in tourism. All of them are either single or have a more or less steady boyfriend who is abroad. All of them are super nice, ambitious, funny as hell and trying to juggle the many expectations that a fast-changing urban Chinese society has of them.
In China, when you are over 25 and not married with children you are considered a left over woman. Even now, when urban society seems to be accelerating at a breakneck speed, this is still the norm. Their generation grew up without siblings, because of the one child policy. Therefore the pressure to have children is enormous: parents and grandparents expect offspring. As K. put it, when I asked her if she wanted to have children:”I am not even sure if this is what I want it or if it is what my culture expects of me”. L. wanted to meet up with me because she says meeting a foreigner with a different take on this can be a breath of fresh air in stifling surroundings. She spent 10 years in Beijing, 2 in the UK and as she says, she can not go back to being the obedient Chinese daughter.
Now, I am also single (not by choice) and childless (by choice, although a very proud aunt of my niece and two nephews), and making my own plans for the future. Since I am foreigner I am often perceived as a paragon of wild and free western values, where apparently anything is acceptable. My new Chinese lady friends were quite surprised when I told them that my life choices were really quite unusual, especially in the small village where I grew up, but also compared to my more settled friends in Amsterdam. Most of my primary school friends got married in or close to the village and had kids. So have most of my Amsterdam friends, if a bit later and not necessarily married. This is the norm in much of the Netherlands. Amsterdam is, like most capital cities, an island of liberalism in an otherwise quite middle-of-the-road society and not representative of the social norms in the whole country. My parents and lots of wider family members are cool with my choices but there are also people who think my life is off the rails. Now, the people who ‘escape’ this traditional life and go on to travel or carve out an otherwise alternative kind of life project a different picture of their society in the countries that they visit. The image of The Netherlands abroad is defined by people like me, by news about euthanasia laws, the tolerance to soft drugs and the yearly gay parade in Amsterdam. This is all true, but it doesn’t take into the account the vast and somewhat boring conservative majority who live in the countryside. In my village pot smoking is definitely not tolerated, and neither is being a flamboyant cross-dressing gay man particularly welcome.
Still, I am well aware I have it much easier than women in China. The (mostly middle class) women who have studied do have lots of opportunities to be financially independent. But the pressure to adhere to the social norm is much higher than in The Netherlands, where being single and childless is an acceptable alternative. I have one Chinese friend whose parents have accepted she doesn’t want to have kids. I hope the rest can find a way to be happy with their choices.
On a funny side note, I do try to date here. I have used tantan, the Chinese tinder. But this is what men my age look like, so I gave up after three days. Most of them post pictures with a cigarette in one hand, a mobile in the other, a beer belly spilling over and a stern expression on their face. I did receive about 600 likes in those three days so I guess I am not that left over just yet.