Happy new year

Home visits me

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.

Happy new year everybody, 新年快乐.

Amsterdam fireworks
Amsterdam fireworks

 

Single, Chinese and awesome: the leftover women

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.

tantan adonis
tantan adonis

 

 

​Traditional Chinese Medicine: Qi and the art of physical maintenance

About 10 days ago I picked up a typical autumn cold. I likely picked it up from my sneezing and snotty students after a week of rain and cold. It quickly developed into a raging throat infection. I was off work for a week because I completely lost my voice, followed by a barking cough. Finally I’m recovering, and happily typing away in my sunny living room. This afternoon I go back to work. Here are a couple of observations about traditional Chinese medicine versus Western medicine. Or rather Chinese AND Western medicine. Because you don’t have to choose, you can use both.

I quickly self-diagnosed as suffering a common virus, which is best treated by lots of rest and drinking plenty of fluids. I took to bed and drank liters of hot ginger lime and honey tea.  In order to qualify for sick pay I had to go to the hospital to get a doctors note. At a nearby laowai hospital the American doctor confirmed my self-diagnosis and prescribed the same. Sleep and fluids, and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to ease the scratchy throat. A common cold or flu can take up to two weeks to clear up.

Antibiotics: just say no (when you don’t need them)

When I told this to my management and colleagues I was shocked by how eagerly they all were to suggest antibiotics. If one teacher is ill it means that the other ones have to take over. So, I completely understand that they wanted me to be better and back at work asap. But, you cannot force an illness. And antibiotics are often more harmful than not.

One, antibiotics only work for bacterial infections. These only account for about 10% of throat infections. Two, if you take antibiotics often you will develop resistance and it won’t work when you really need it. Say, when you need an operation. Three, antibiotics not only wipe out the bad bacteria but also the good ones, meaning there are some serious side effects. Your system will need time to recover and your resistance against other illnesses will be lower. Lastly, antibiotic resistance is a very worrying growing global problem. The only way we can prevent worldwide antibiotics resistance is to stop eating them like candy. It is not a cure-all and the consequences of misuse are severe.

As it is I felt I had to defend myself for not wanting to take antibiotics. As if I wasn’t trying hard enough to get better. A very unpleasant situation, largely based on a dangerous ignorance about antibiotics. I felt too wiped out to really get into it with my colleagues but I want to share it here and hopefully increase understanding.

Traditional Chinese Medicine

One upside of being ill in China is that you have an ancient medical science at your disposal. Traditional Chinese Medicine has some great benefits but is fundamentally different from Western Medicine. Luckily it is not either or: they can coexist and complement each other.

Western medicine has the benefit of modern inventions such as antibiotics, state of the art operation technology, chemo therapy etc. Ultimately it operates by treating specific symptoms as they occur.

TCM has been practiced for at least 2500 years. This means that there is a lot of empirical evidence for its efficacy, even if modern science doesn’t support the theory behind it. Wikipedia offers some valid misgivings such as the use of endangered species, potentially toxic plants and the lack of research into the effectiveness.

TCM is based on the classical Chinese concepts of qi, yin and yang and the five phases theory. Qi is the vital life force circulating through meridians, channels that branch out through the body connecting bodily organs and functions.

Yin and yang are two opposing abstract aspects that can be ascribed to every aspect of the universe, so not just the body but also city planning for instance (feng shui is based on this). Yin represents the moon, female, interior, cold, downward and damp energy. Yang is the sun, male, outside, hot, upward and dry.

The five phases theory presumes that all natural phenomena consist of a combination of the elemental qualities of wood, fire, earth, metal and water, corresponding with directions, foods, climates, tastes, organs, senses and facial parts.

These concepts have some similarities with European mediaeval medical practices based on four humours (bodily fluids)  and the four temperaments (phlegmatic, choleric, sanguine and melancholic) that influence health. When the qi flow, the yin and yang balance and the five phases are not functioning well it can be treated with herbal medicine, massage, acupuncture, excercise and dietary therapy.

What I really like is the holistic approach, meaning the whole physical and mental system is taken into account when diagnosing and prescribing medication, not merely targeting a specific symptom as is common in Western medicine. Another aspect I really value is the focus on preventing illness. Chinese medicine is ultimately about balancing qi (vital life force) which will keep your system functioning well and illnesses away.

And the packaging is really pretty:

On the mend

So, instead of antibiotics I have been taking various TCM medicines. Syrups made of throat-cooling loquat fruit, herbal pellets to melt in the mouth and of course the quintessential Chinese doctors prescription of ‘drink hot water’, which will cure any illness. Today I’m feeling a lot better and I know a bit more about TCM.

The last thing that finally helped me a lot to get better was three warmshowers guests. I hosted Claire (UK), Perry (AUS) and Mike (USA) and they were great at buying me food, helping out around the house and generally being lovely company so I never felt sad and lonely. The qi energy of my house has been optimal with them around ☺