Winter preparations part II – 酸菜 edition

Just after I published my last post about the preparations for winter here in Dalian, I realised I forgot to cover what’s been going on here the last few weeks. Namely, I’ve seen a lot of cabbage. And I mean A LOT. One day we arrived at my parents-in-law’s home to see over 50 big 大白菜 cabbages laid out on the floor. Then there’s the cabbage truck which has been arriving in our 小区 compound with a whole truck full of cabbages, and leaving with them all gone. I think everyone except us must have bought some, and most people bought almost as many as my mother-in-law.

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My MiL’s cabbage haul

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One of our neighbours has stored their haul at the bottom of our stairwell

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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And here’s another few neighbours’ cabbage piles

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And here’s a line of cabbages

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So why?

Well I’ve been lead to believe that all the cabbages are in fact to make 酸菜 suancai, or pickled/preserved cabbage. Chinese sauerkraut it’s referred to on Wikipedia. It’s a big deal in the 东北 North East of China. I suppose in days gone by, when fruit and vegetables were very much seasonal, vegetables were much scarcer in winter, and preserving the vegetables was necessary to have some green on your plate during the cold winter months.

As my mother-in-law told me, in this region, it’s made from soaking the cabbage leaves in salt water for a month or so, using a large clay barrel. In other regions, chillis and spices are involved too. It’s not the only vegetable that’s preserved, I’ve seen quite a lot of people drying out their Chinese radishes to be pickled too.

Traditionally it is then used in pork dishes, to make warming winter pork stew (冻豆腐 frozen tofu for me), often with 粉条 vermicelli. Having seen how much my mother-in-law has made, no doubt quite a bit will come our way when it’s ready. I just hope I like it!

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Typical North East pork and cabbage stew 酸菜炖肉

Have you seen this phenomenon where you are? Will I like Chinese sauerkraut?

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Winter preparations

This is the first autumn I’ve been in Dalian, after our time in Guilin, so it’s all new for me. The autumn passed by in a flash because, while my family were reporting use of electric blankets and turning the heating on from early September, we still had 20 plus temperatures into October. Yet come the beginning of November, it’s time for the winter preparations. Making autumn in Dalian approximately one month.

I have always considered Chinese people to be the most resourceful on earth, and I think when it comes to hot and cold they’ve thought of everything. In most parts of China they really have to too, because they experience really hot summers and really cold winters.

So here’s a list of some of our winter preparations consist of:

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1. Slippers 拖鞋

The flip-flops go away, and the snuggly warm slippers come out. Not just for the two of us who live here, but enough for a few guests, should they come round!

 

 

 

20151111_0944552. Hot water flask 暖瓶

Because hot water could be needed at any moment – one cannot wait for the kettle to be boiled!

It’s actually pretty useful in the night, as you really don’t want to wait for the kettle to boil and risk waking the baby.

 

 

 

 

20151111_0947163. Undergarments 秋衣/秋裤

The Chinese mother-in-law buys you funny sets of matching leggings and long sleeve tops, which are to be worn under your usual clothes at all times.

I’m really not in this habit. Back at home I may have worn extra thick tights, or tights under trousers and an extra vest top, but these matching sets are something else. I’m not really a fan, but I love them on my husband 😀

 

 

 

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4. Central heating 暖气

We are lucky enough to live in the chilly north, so our homes are installed with central heating, which comes on at a day of the local government’s choosing. This day has already come, so our home is lovely and toasty (but we now have a condensation problem)

It means we don’t really need electric blankets or very thick pyjamas (yet!). But my in-laws actually decided not to pay the fee to have central heating installed, so they do need all these other things.

Outside meanwhile, shops and businesses are making their own preparations. Many replace the hanging plastic door strips, which I think are to help keep the mosquitos out, with thick duvet-type hangings, too keep the warmth in.

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*** If you happen to be below the North/South divide, you better check out Lost Panda‘s blog, for a bit more technical advice about keeping warm without central heating ***

 

My recent China reads II

Baby Z is growing, as is the numbers of books ticked off my ‘to read’ list, most recently the following.

Year of the Fire Dragons by Shannon Young
This memoir had been on my to read list for almost a year, since my trip to Hong Kong last Autumn, where I attended a book launch for How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit, of which Shannon is the editor. I love reading about people’s lives here in China (or Hong Kong in Shannon’s case), especially when they are taking place so close in time to now. You can really build a picture of the story. Shannon is pretty much the same age as me, has spent time in the UK studying abroad (I also studied abroad during my degree), lives in Hong Kong, and was in a long distance relationship (which I’ve also experienced), so I feel I have a good grasp for the cultural context of her story.
I enjoyed how she described the city scenes, as I’m a big fan of Hong Kong, and I was really impressed by how she settled in, without the help of her boyfriend. Such an independent woman.

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Gilman
Following My recent China reads I, another blogger recommended this book as one she liked but hadn’t expected to. Susan’s memoir took place in the 1980s, just as China was first opening for travel. The China she found was very different to the China I live in today, and it’s fascinating to hear about what it was like from her similarly Western perspective. Susan faced not only the cultural/linguistic challenges and the challenges of travelling for the first time, but also dealing with her troubled travel partner, and showed immense courage in facing these challenges. I love a happy ending, and returning to Asia to complete her year of travel is certainly that, but it’s a shame she doesn’t know what happened to her travel partner, as it left me very curious.

The Woman who lost China by Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang
This was recommended to me by Amazon and is a historical novel which spans over a century. I liked that it touched on some parts of history that I haven’t read much about, for example before the Chinese revolution in 1912 and what was happening in Hong Kong during the civil war in China. The order of events was a bit confusing as it starts with the main character, Manying’s, movements in 1949, leaving mainland China for Hong Kong, then goes back to 1894 and her family’s experience in imperialist China. What really touched me was the trouble of Manying to feed her baby on the long train ride from Nanjing to Hong Kong, after having used a wet nurse for the baby’s first 4 months, and having very limited water supplies on the train. But what can I say, I’m a very emotional new mother!

“You should have a girl next”

Ever since I returned to China a couple of months ago, baby Z has drawn a lot of attention. Every time we go out we get all sorts of people engaging with us, which is doing wonders for my Chinese. The consensus is that he’s cute, good looking, white, big, chubby, and will be clever. All true 😀 The consensus is also that we should have another baby and that it should be a girl.

We are not considering that yet, but I thought I’d write this post now before I’m actually emotionally involved.

As is widely acknowledged, the pressure to have a baby boy in China is big. Things may have moved on in the last decade or so, but it’s still there. But I also think it’s balanced with an obligatory ‘but if you have a girl, that’s wonderful too’ (with varying degrees of sincerity). I didn’t write about this during my pregnancy with baby Z. We sensed he was a boy from the 3D ultrasound face picture, but I was still verging on anxious about it. My husband may be open-minded about many things, how else would we get on so well, but society had this one ingrained in him. He would have a son. He couldn’t even picture the alternative. Frankly, I was relieved (and thrilled to pieces about my scrumptious baby boy).

Therefore, I think the pressure to have a girl may be bigger, and I can feel it already. From the in-laws, who would now like to have a granddaughter, from neighbours and family friends. And if the 老百姓 on the street are to believed, it should be easy. Because now I’ve got my life’s goal of having a boy out the way, I am now free to have a girl. No worries, have a girl second.

So how to respond to these comments? To most people, including the paediatrician (!) ‘you know we can’t control it, right?’ To my husband, who may sometimes believe things too easily ‘we may one day have two sons’, something he hadn’t imagined. To my mother-in-law, who thought I should have had a girl first because a girl could look after her little brother ‘baby Z may be able to look after a younger sibling someday, who knows what kind of people they will turn out to be’. And to myself ‘I don’t mind, I just hope it’s healthy’.

Wedding planning with my Chinese family

A few months ago I blogged that we’d be having a Chinese wedding banquet in the autumn and that it would mainly be organised by my Chinese mother-in-law. At that point, I’d semi-begrudgingly agreed to the whole thing, a date had been chosen, and a venue booked. When I arrived back in China last month with 4 month old baby Z, progress was as follows: a date had been chosen and a venue had been booked. That’s all. Total progress in those few months was zero.

I was happy that I’d get to help plan and make key decisions, but surprised by the lack of urgency. I remember back to my sisters wedding in 2013, they were busy every weekend for months and months ahead of the big day (granted they did a lot DIY). I was relieved that we’d be getting a wedding package with a wedding planning company 礼仪 and we went to see one with 5 weeks to go, but couldn’t agree on price. So we saw a few more with 4 weeks to go, but couldn’t agree on price. Then with 3 weeks to go we went back to see one we’d seen before, saw a couple more, but couldn’t agree on price. I was getting worried, but evidently I was the only one worrying about time scale and the in-laws were just worried about the price. At 2 weeks to go we finally signed a contract with a wedding planner, even more expensive than the first one we saw. Definitely the best choice, and the choice of R and me, but I do feel maybe if we had gone with the first one we saw we could have saved a lot of hassle!

When I agreed to having the wedding, which I wasn’t that keen on having just had a baby, and not wanting to spend the early months worrying about losing weight and looking presentable, plus the fact that me and R felt perfectly satisfied with our low-key wedding day last year, I had three main requests: no seafood, no host and no smoking. The first one I quickly conceded. I was told that seafood is VERY important in Dalian, and providing I don’t have to eat it, and with the concession that my family’s table have a different menu (they tried sea cucumber 海参 on their last visit and unimpressed might be an understatement), it could be worse. If the guests will like it, then that’s good.

My second request of no host went down ok. We had our own ideas of involving family members to welcome us to the stage and to conduct the vows etc, and said family members were happy to be involved. Until MiL called them, put the fear into them, and then they weren’t happy to be involved. So we felt we had no option but to get ourselves a host. But with firm instructions of no romantic rubbish, no filling gaps with speech, no loud 婚礼现在开始! kind of stuff and no standing on the stage. I forgot to request no sparkles on his clothes… We’ll see how it goes! It’s a compromise anyway. We were met with a few ‘you think you’re so innovative, but not having a host is nothing new’, so I wondered what the big problem was, if it’s nothing new. But we never said we wanted to be innovative, we just want our wedding to reflect us.

My third request of smoking was the most important to me. After all, my 6 month old baby will be in attendance, as will my pregnant sister, and for that matter all my important people. And I know one evening in a smoky restaurant isn’t the end of the world, but surely it’s easy enough to just ask people not to smoke?! Apparently not, and for my in-laws it’s an issue of face. Over the last 5 weeks we’ve gone round and round in circles on this. I know the wedding is more about them than me (after all, me and hubby have a grand total of 2 tables between us, whereas they have the other 16 tables), and I don’t want them to lose face, but I also don’t want to compromise on this. After all, it’s about health. So the no smoking signs have been made, no cigarettes will be served on the tables, the restaurant and wait staff will be told, the host will mention it and we’ll hope for the best. Phew.

Another thing which shouldn’t actually surprise me given the emphasis on conformity here in China, is the disregard for personal choices. I sent our wedding planner some pictures of the kind of bouquet colours I want, and she replied that those colours don’t look good ‘不好看’. However, I do think they look good, that’s why I after doing my research I asked for them. When I tried on my wedding dress, I chose the most simple non-sparkly non-puffy one in the shop (despite MiL’s advice that the more sparkles the better). I also said from the beginning I didn’t need a make-up artist, as from experience Chinese make-up artists don’t really know how to make me look my best, but MiL kept insisting I must have one, and that I must wear these shoes, must do my hair like this. I just want to look like me.

I’ve had a few moments of ‘why won’t they just listen to me? I’m the bride!’. But I’m forgetting this wedding isn’t really about me.

3 things I love about my new apartment

I guess when R’s parents bought a second apartment about 10 years ago, keeping the original one and renting it out as many middle-class Chinese do, they were thinking ahead to when R got married. In China, if a young man does not have a house (read: apartment), then he may be severely disadvantaged on the marriage market. Most young women, or rather their parents, see a house as the main requirement for marriage. As a Western woman, a house was not one of the things I was looking for in a man. However, I am thrilled that we have a place to live and not renting brings its advantages. Here are 3 reasons why I particularly like our house.

1. It’s really modern

Once R’s parents knew we were expecting, they set their plan in action. Get rid of the tenants, gut the apartment and refurbish it for us.  And I have to say, it’s gorgeous. Brand new kitchen, tiled floor to ceiling and shiny new bathroom. Despite some interesting soft furnishings (see below), they did a fantastic job kitting it out and I know we’re going to be really comfortable here.

2. It’s really close to the amenities.

It’s just a 3 minute walk to the supermarket and fresh fruit and vegetable shop, and the Light Railway takes you to the city centre in under 10 minutes. Even better, it’s the closest I’ve ever lived to an IKEA, just one stop on the Light Railway (for replacing all the flowery and patterned soft furnishings).

3. It is directly on Dalian Airport’s flight path

Lying down on the bed, I can see a plane going in to land roughly every 3 minutes. As a keen traveller, I love flying (before I had a child) and have always loved big airports. All those people arriving somewhere new, perhaps for a new adventure, or perhaps returning home, seeing the planes landing gives me a feeling of excitement.  As I currently live away from home, I know well that feeling when the plane is landing and you think to yourself ‘less than 30 minutes till I will see my family again’.

PLUS one extra reason I love my new apartment …… my husband lives here too!

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Our snazzy sofa!

Cultural differences: confidence

After almost two weeks as a mother in China, I’ve received a lot of advice. Some of it good, some of it bad, but most of it just none of the business of the people on the street. (I guess our type of ergonomic baby carrier isn’t used much in China as a lot of it centres around that)

I asked my husband, “How are new parents meant to have any confidence in their abilities if every Tom, Dick and Harry on the street keeps questioning them and advising them to do things differently?” “They’re not” he replied. And here lies the culture difference.

When our little boy was a few days old and the midwife came to my home to visit me, I said to her “What do you think?” to which she replied, “You’re his mum, you know what’s best.” I thought she was crazy, she was the professional, she clearly had a lot more knowledge on the subject. Yet telling me I know best made me think things through and did give me confidence in my decision. Furthermore, any decisions I make about my baby, we will have to live, not the midwife.

Back when Baby Z was a newborn and I was living with my mum, she used to say ‘thank goodness for the internet, you guys know everything these days’: she couldn’t believe the extent of my research on baby topics and she acknowledged that I was much more knowledgeable than her. But here in China, elders know best and I guess it could be considered rude to disregard their advice, so it is largely followed (think zuo yuezi, etc) despite how things have moved on. Well I’m sorry China, I am a new mum and I am fairly young, but I am confident as a mother and I know my son best. I’m fortunate that my husband also has confidence in me and I can see my mother-in-law’s confidence in me also growing.

Baby Z in the baby carrier

Baby Z in the baby carrier

I’ve tried a few different approaches to receiving advice about my baby. Thanking them, reassuring them he’s fine, ignoring the advice or ignoring them completely. I also asked my husband how to say ‘it’s none of your business’ (关你什么事?) and that got some very interesting looks from the group of ayis standing around us, but I don’t think I’ll use that one too much! (I also plan to ask my husband how to say ‘what is the scientific basis for that approach?’)

Comments about how beautiful my baby is though, those I don’t mind so much 🙂

Any other approaches I could try to unsolicited advice?

Bye mum…

“You don’t want your mum”

“Bye bye mum, we’re going”

“Don’t look at your mum”

Of all the things I’ve heard people say to or about my baby in the last week in China, I think this is the weirdest. I totally get that it’s a joke, and that people say all kinds of funny things to babies. You have to say something to this little person who can’t respond. But something so scary? You don’t want your mum, do you? We’re off. I think that’s the last thing I’d say to a tiny little person who’d probably rather just be with his mum.

On the flip side, I’m so pleased that baby Z is finally being spoken to in Chinese, it’s so good for him to hear different languages, and for me too!

Has anyone else heard this? Or anything weirder?

一年

Today £22 has automatically been taken from my bank account by WordPress, which means it has been a whole year since I took the leap to join the ranks and start a blog. So not something I had expected to do. After all, with so many fantastic AMWF blogs out there, what could I possibly have to add??

Well 33 blog posts in, I don’t know if I’ve added anything useful to the internet, but blogging has given me the wonderful gift of connecting with likeminded bloggers and women living in China, and even the chance to chat with bloggers whose blogs I used to (and still do) look forward to reading on my lunchbreak, who I once envied as I read about their exciting lives. I feel honoured to have conversations with these intelligent women from all over the world with valuable experience of China, marriage, motherhood, life. If I ever need advice about this aspect of my life, or just to grumble about the challenges of cultural clashes, I have people to turn to who know exactly what I’m talking about. I have also learnt that however exciting people’s lives may seem, EVERYONE has their ups and downs, and nobody has the perfect life.

I am no longer the person I was one year ago. I was homesick, heartbroken after a miscarriage and a bit lonely.  A year on, I am no longer homesick (as I’m in the UK for a few months, ha!), am married to a wonderful man and am now a mother to a beautiful little boy. My Chinese journey has moved on a year, my Chinese has moved on a bit and my family has gained a cute new member.

So one year on from a very low time, I am celebrating the gift of time in healing, and celebrating a year of blogging. Thanks year-ago-me for starting a blog and thanks to the internet for making it possible.

Here’s to the next year 🙂

 

Cultural differences: praise

In the first year of marriage to my Chinese husband, the cultural difference that has stuck out the most is praise. Or lack of it.

I grew up in the West, where I was praised for my achievements. Where love was vocalised and praise was given freely. My mum used to say that a child needs to be praised 5 times for every 1 criticism, and she was proactive in this. This isn’t to say that I wasn’t criticised or called out on my mistakes. Nor was praise given where it wasn’t due. It was a very positive environment, both at home and at school.

My husband, on the other hand, grew up in China and from what I gather, criticism was used to motivate him to be better. He was a young table tennis player and his dad was his biggest critic. I’ve worked in a Chinese middle school and seen students criticised for not being the best. I’ve read about Tiger Mothers. My husband studied in the Chinese education system until he went to the UK for his Masters degree, so the environment was more negative.

It’s definitely a cultural issue, but these approaches are not confined to these cultures, it depends on the parents’ approach. It’s carrot vs stick.

The issue has arisen multiple times. I guess I’m insecure, as many people are. I guess I need a lot of praise, as well as support and encouragement. My husband doesn’t know to provide this. It’s not what he’s grown up with. When I’ve asked for this, he has expressed frustration with this need. I’m needy. It’s stating the obvious. It doesn’t need to be said.

On the flip side, he has criticised me more than I am used to and this can be hard to take. In my experience of relationships, my own and of others, I have learnt that you must try to accept the flaws of your loved ones. Sure, there are always ground rules and deal-breakers, but we acknowledge that no one is perfect and concentrate on the good points. So to be criticised on my appearance, behaviour and character can be hurtful. Doesn’t he accept me for who I am?

R has also expressed concern that too much praise makes you complacent, or even arrogant. If he calls me beautiful, I may think I don’t need to lose that extra half stone. If he did a good job at table tennis training, he won’t improve for the next tournament. A foreign concept to me.

As touched upon in Speaking of China‘s post, Chinese people don’t often, if ever, say I love you. I had to explain to my husband that our love wasn’t the same as his family’s (eternally unspoken) love and had to be vocalised and nurtured.

I can see that my husband is taking on board what I’ve asked. He tells me he loves me, and since it’s not every day, I usually feel I’ve done something to earn it. When he says it I feel he’s really saying ‘I love you a little bit more today’. And he is starting to praise me too. Not often, but again, I feel every time has been earned. So when he says I’m a good mum, I know he appreciates something I’ve done for baby Z and sees the hard work I am putting in. When something is rare, it feels more special.

The interesting thing is, I see how much praise my husband himself needs. He may have not had that much of it, but I can see that it really helps. I hope I make him feel good about himself. I hope our home is a safe place, full of love and support. I hope he is the happiest he has ever been.

I also hope that I’ve made some changes too. Perhaps not in this sense, but some cultural compromises. Things that though foreign to me, R appreciates. And now that we have a child to raise together, I hope that baby Z gets the best of both worlds. With lots of love.