China is noisy and China is fun. In the evening people dance together, and at any time of day you will sometimes see someone sweetly singing a high-pitched song into their phone. A street cleaner will sit perched on her heels on the pavement, taking a break from swiping the streets. She will smile at her phone, listening to a song. It all adds to the relaxed and exotic atmosphere of this city. I really like the minority music and the stories they tell. Yang Liping is a choreographer who has made a fantastic theatrical dance show based on the songs and dances of the different minority people in Yunnan. (Click on the photo below for a video of the show). The photo is from my favourite part of the show. A huge group of girls performs the Flowery Waist song, which starts as a very innocent and dreamy flirtation but ends with a firecracker of a girl dragging the boy she likes back to her home, after he has become exhausted by the drinking and the dancing. Yunnan girls are no shy wallflowers!
The other day I was out for lunch with a Chinese colleague, and we walked by someone who was singing into her phone. My colleague explains to me what the singing means.
Mountain songs (山歌 shan ge) are songs that lovers sing to each other, calling out to each other over the mountain that separates them. It’s a call and answer song, an ancient way to flirt. My colleague tells me that now there is a wechat group called Mountain Song. A girl will sing a part of a Mountain Song and send it to the group, and a boy will answer her.
Here are two of the mountain songs: 山歌一 and 山歌二 (by the Wuyinshan village troupe).
I find this really touching and it really made my day yesterday. Sometimes it can feel as if culture and traditions are disappearing fast in the onslaught of social media and consumerism. Then you find an instance where the culture has adapted and is alive and well in a new form, with new technology.
You all know how much I like China, but yesterday I fell in love with the country all over again. I’m also falling in love with another being: Ding Ding is a small black and white cat who arrived at my home two weeks ago. When I come home she starts singing to me and I sing back, performing our own mountain songs by meowing back and forth. Happiness!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Like many laowai I have come to China to work. I have also come here to have a closer look at this fascinating country of natural wonders, ancient traditions, ultramodern technology and rapid economic rise. China is exhilarating and never boring. I could stay here and study forever and not know everything there is to know about it, and not see everything there is to see. It is too big to ever fully grasp. The sheer size is just one of the many aspects that I find fascinating. China can never be painted with a broad brush.
Yet, this is exactly what many of my fellow laowai do. I hear a lot of foreigners complaining. About the hacking and spitting, about letting small children pee in the street, and even about curious Chinese people who approach them for a friendly chat. I don’t understand how this can ever be offensive? This is just people going about their everyday business. I never feel as if someone is deliberately trying to be annoying. If anything people go out of their way to be helpful and friendly. The sociability is actually one of the things I will miss when I leave.
There are of course some things I also find deeply annoying. For one I will never get used to the traffic. Big SUV’s have the right of way over smaller fry. They will cut me off on my bicycle when they turn a corner, without indicating and while talking on their phone. This is infuriating. Another thing I find hard to swallow is the lack of strategy and management in my company, which I suspect is common in other Chinese businesses as well. This means I receive different orders every week and they don’t always make sense. It is hard to have a conversation about this with the management. But even in these cases, where it is definitely inconvenient for me, I do try to understand this is not because China is out to get me. My Chinese colleagues and fellow road users suffer from this as much as me.
China is challenging at times. However I never feel the need to blame China for my struggles to understand the language, the people and their customs. If I have a difficult time it’s not because China is wrong, it’s because I don’t understand enough. It’s not you China, it’s me.
As it is I understand so little it is hard to build meaningful friendships outside of the usual expat circle (which I am not really interested in, see the previous mention of moaning). So, I have made a tentative plan. The idea is I will keep studying Chinese until the end of my contract June next year. Then I will cycle home in about 3 or 4 months, visiting friends in Georgia, the Balkans and the rest of Europe on the way. I will settle back in Amsterdam, to reconnect with friends, family, and work. I will keep up my study of the Chinese language, and later hopefully return. By that time I should be able to connect better and have better job prospects, for instance with the wonderful Linden Centre. Because despite our differences, I do love you China.
The last few weeks I have reconnected with friends and family. This has also made me long for home more than ever before. My parents came to visit which was great, and I am glad they got to see how and why I live here. They were happily surprised by the modernity and friendliness of contemporary China. I am pulled between my home in Amsterdam and my new life here. Time will tell how this will balance out. For now it is back to my Chinese study and my books about Chinese culture. The best company any occasionally lonely laowai could ever wish for.