Sunday, February 25, 2018

A slice of life

I'm standing on the second floor of my family-in-law's home looking out the window. I happen to be peeing into a Chinese toilet, a detail which you might think I should omit but it took more skill at that moment because I was mildly inebriated (more about that later). As I look, I spot my grandfather-in-law, A-Gung, feeding the chickens. He's 95 years old but is still the perfection of how old people should live, keeping active and in routine. Just ten minutes before, I'd completed a near one hour conversation with him, which is lengthy by my standards. I tire at that length in Cantonese. He's really tough to understand, not just because he speaks even Qingyuan dialect as his second language (he actually speaks dialect Hakka as his mother tongue) and has missing teeth etc. but also because he's old and grew up in a hugely different cultural context.

We talked about of all things: sport, and then golf which is a prestige, expensive sport in China but is much more accessible in New Zealand. From there the conversation gravitated to the Chinese obsessive topic of money, who has it and who doesn't, before talking about houses. First the family over the road, then my younger brother-in-law's new home and then back to history with Chairman Mao. I can follow Waangleng accent of my family-in-law well, even when drunk, but that isn't the reason why I'm mildly inebriated talking in the yard. The reason lies in Saamgok accented Cantonese. (NB: Waangleng, Saamgok and Gwongtau are all villages in Qingyuan.)

An hour previous I'd been drinking and eating with my wife's Saamgok cousins. These are not the cousins who featured earlier in this blog. I still remember my first encounters with the cousins: It was at my younger brother-in-law's banquet; I'd had one round of food and drink; happily drunk, I went downstairs again to be sociable and caught another round of food and sat down at a table. Fourth uncle and two of the cousins were there and keen to meet me. They immediately asked me to drink and I gleefully agreed. They finished their cups in one go and I, as an afterthought after a first sip, finished mine. Then a wife from another branch of the family swooped around with a two litre mineral water bottle filled with her old man's homebrew and liberally poured everyone at the table with it. They drank and I drank, and I wisely took some time out after that to recover from the sudden dose of strong alcohol. Apart from some time-outs, I managed than banquet well.

These were the same cousins who I was sitting with one hour previous to now. Perhaps I should talk about what happened just four days previous. We went to their mother's hometown of Gwongtau. Gwongtau is a special place for me because I really enjoy the company of Fourth Uncle, my mother-in-law's brother, though I struggle with his Gwongtau accent. We get along because he doesn't hold my struggle against me. Anyway, at this visit four days ago it was his first time back from the hospital. He'd been really sick. And not just rather sick, but very sick and not just one kind of sick, but many kinds of sick. When I heard that news in New Zealand, it was rather upsetting and I was really glad to be seeing him again at my table in Gwongtau, even with the cousins.

The three cousins are individually lovely. Caan-wing, perhaps because of his likeness to Joe Pesci, has always seemed kind and funny. I remember him the most clearly from that first wipe-out at the banquet. Caan-tong has been village chief for many years, all bluster yet with feeling. And then Caan-gan who played with his grandchildren with so much affection that it almost blindsides you to his sneakiness with drink.

It was these three cousins I drank with four days ago and the same that I drank with an hour ago. Four days ago still ranks as an embarrassment. When we went to Gwongtau I first went to Third Uncle's home and was immediately invited to drink. Did I mention he brewed his own spirits? Either way, I enjoyed, sip-by-sip, his masterpiece of brewing, about two shots in total. Then went over to Fourth Uncle's to eat. They gave me the big cup and I didn't fight it. I should have. I drank and enjoyed and there was a little bit of to-and-fro, not helped by the fact that I don't quite understand Saamgok accent and why I had to drink particular rounds. To cut a long story short, I later got into a car to see my brother-in-law-in-law with his head hanging out the window. He was more trolleyed than me. I thought it strange until he started throwing up down the side of the car. It may have been in sympathy, or may have been because I'd drunk as much, if not more than he, that I too started throwing up, at first inside the car, then with my head out of my window with my brother-in-law-in-law. Hence the embarrassment.

That had been four days ago, and unfortunately, bad gossips spreads fast, so on this day everyone was asking me in a sarcastic tone about my desire to drink today. (My brother-in-law-in-law was at work today. Lucky thing, he got to avoid this inquisition!) Anyway, today I faced my bullies. Caan-tong in particular was full of tactics to get me back under the table. To put it simply, he's village chief for a reason. He's drunk more and had more battles (and scars) than I could ever wish. And he positioned himself well. I had control of the bottles early and he had the control later. When I wanted to switch to white wine (made of grapes, lower alcohol) he insisted I drank brandy. Now that brandy happened to be one I bought at Auckland Airport thus not a fake product and had been quite the hit on both occasions it was drunk. But I wanted to vary my alcohol as well as take it easier. He wasn't going to have a bar of it. Twice we comically fought physically to fill my glass. On one occasion he won. Another time I won. Either way, I can be glad to say I got to the end standing proud and able to talk to my grandfather-in-law in a coherent way an hour later.

These kind of battles can be eschewed if you avoid the drinks table altogether. I just wish the drinks table didn't entail Sun-Tzu's Art of War. I like to drink and do not need help getting drunk. But for others it's a game.

Which brings me back to my conversation with A-Gung. I asked him about his knees and he said his right knee needs a rub every morning just to get going. I'm reading Being Mortal right now which talks a lot about the secrets to an enjoyable last phase to life and I must say he really has it. I hope I can see him again.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Doing it for the kids

The cousins came over. Not the direct cousins, but the cousins of the same generation yet a few branches over, perhaps 3rd or 4th cousins in the western terms. It's a rowdy visit. All three, three men, seem quite astonishingly self-confident and haughty in their postures. I can only talk about their postures because they so speak quickly in dialect with references and irony that I follow little of what they're going on about. They come over to the home one by one, number 1 comes in a sits as if he owns the place, smokes and offers me a cigarette, which I refuse. He's the largest of the three and has a gravelly voice. Number 2 strides in afterwards and loudly jokes before sitting, offering me a cigarette, which I refuse. As they are drinkers and the place they're actually meant to be visiting next door has no drinkers at all, our family begin lunch preparations. My father and I and are the most regular drinkers within the 100m radius of the home. Number 3 comes in quietly and offers me a cigarette, which I refuse. He has a few discreet words with my father-in-law, and then the food comes in and the St Remy XO brandy, which I'd brought in Auckland duty free, is poured.

It doesn't take long for it to become apparent that number 3 can't hold his liquor. After the first glass he gets quite emotional especially about the help my father-in-law gave to him in Guangzhou in tough times. He was starving at a point was given food. Hearing about my father-in-law's Guangzhou time is jarring because I only got to know him once he was already in the village, where he was clearly in his element. He worked in construction in Guangzhou for a time and later failed as a paint shop owner in central Qingyuan before returning back to the countryside with debts. But he is a genuinely kind man and I'll reiterate what I have hopefully said many times: I'm very lucky to have such an open-hearted, accepting person as my father-in-law. Number 3 can't keep his voice, arms or tone down. My father-in-law has to almost bring his arms down physically and asks him repeatedly to keep these things in the past. When another cousin from another branch comes in, number 3 still in heightened emotion dresses him down for his lack of support for his father and family (being "unfilial"). This is quite an animated but not atypical new year scene in China. Through all this drama there is a mini-scene that I'd like to focus on which is almost a distraction from this scene of drunken sentimentality.

As number 3 gets into his stride of gratitude, the child of number 2 charge into the room, grab his father's bowl from in front of him and run away. He's tailed by his cousin, the son of number 1. I was shocked by this brazen food robbery, but number 2 puffs his cigarette and his son brings back the bowl. The two children notice me and then get into a pushing match toward me to say something to me. What they would like the other to say is lost on me and likely lost on them, too. I entertain them trying to get them to tell me their names by first teaching them how to say "My name is.." but they run away. I ignore them but later get up to talk to them. One runs into the bathroom to hide so I hold the door shut. He eventually tries to get out but has to say "My name is..." to get out. I'm such an evil teacher. Both run away after that but it is just another refraction of a social trend in China that we see in our classes in Auckland, namely, undisciplined, unfocussed youth.

They're everywhere. There was probably an evolution where the Cultural Revolution did a bit of a moral reset, the One Child policy warped all the attention to a single child who grew up in unprecedented wealth and then that overindulged child was then expected to produce and raise a child, if not two. Any of these "links" in the procreative chain could give birth to a rather uncontrollable child. I went to the number 2 and said that his son was quite bright, and he shook his head and said he was "lazy".

Another tale was an anecdote shared during the "visiting of relatives" yesterday. A young auntie of ours told us how a similar situation brewed. Third Uncle's son had gotten married and had recently had a child. But the son had the best of the good life as an only son and had always had his parents do everything for him. After the child was born, both he and his wife did very little to do any of the hard work care of the child, preferring to play computer games till late, not waking in the morning and getting lunch from KFC. They were there to play with children of course.

These stories travel far over new year as all the people return to home town and each round of "visiting relatives" is a whirlpool of gossip. Children are China's future. It's going to be an interesting ride.

Monday, February 19, 2018


When I was self-employed between 2005 to 2008, most of my students were learning English, but incredibly three were with me to learn Mandarin Chinese. When the possibility of teaching them first was proposed by one of my clients, it seemed rather bizarre. My Chinese, though useful, wasn't anywhere close to fluent. But I had teaching technique, a firm understanding of the basics and nothing better to do with my time (and I fancied giving it a lash). Two were marketing people who had to go to China or Taiwan, while the other, an older gentleman, went to China on occasion but I believe he took the lessons as a benefit of his job to help him fight the ageing process, rather than for work. He wanted to learn to read and write which were the most difficult skills of all.

Two of them had had a long connection with China, both having visited in the 80's. I remember being jealous of them and that they had really gotten to see the speed of development by visiting at different times since. China, to be clear, has been one of the fastest developing societies in the history of the world. At that stage I'd been to the Mainland twice, in 2000 and 2003 and would be going in 2007 and felt I had only a snapshot of this change. One of my students had gone to China exactly in 1980 just a few years after China re-opened its economy. Now I'm the one with a bit of scope especially with my access to the back stories and better understanding of official and unofficial history. My association with the Mainland is almost 18 years old. It does spin the head to reflect on the changes.

Guangzhou was one of the greatest point of references in that. It was my first steps into China from Taiwan in August 2000. Back then, there were no direct flights between Taiwan and the Mainland. We had to fly to Hong Kong to apply for a visa and then cross the border. We disembarked in a dusty, unattractive area. A dirty child approached me with a flower, which I assumed was a "gimmick" for beggars and moved quickly away from her. It didn't really appeal at all as a city. Jump forward ten years and I was living happily in it.

Qingyuan, just 70km up the road, is also developing at breakneck speed. It was a backwater to the metropolis of Guangzhou but is surging, now a third tier city. (China categorises its cities in tiers.) I spent time here in 2015 before we left and had a brief visit in 2016, and now in 2018. In these few years there is a noticeable change. I almost fell over as cars gave way to pedestrians on a huge crossing in the central city. (It was written in big letters but the fact that they actually stopped confused and then moved me.) Bus stops now have detailed information. The bus announcements come in English as well as Mandarin and Cantonese. All priority seats on the bus were filled by priority people (e.g. the elderly, children or the unwell). There are road signs that are helpful in finding places you want to go to. There is another bridge is crossing the Bei River. The dimsum we ate yesterday was almost at Guangzhou's standard. The traffic just felt a little less chaotic. (I almost would feel comfortable driving here.) Some of the small "feeling" changes are the most significant because it reflects an improvement in attitudes and habits.

The villages are where there is the littlest change. The villages themselves get moved around by development after all. My in-laws home, the only home I have known them in is about 10 years old. The previous home, which was apparently much more basic, was moved by a motorway development (which makes getting here all the so much easier). We visited my brother-in-law's abandoned old village which still has most of its buildings still remaining despite all the residents moved to the "new village". The homes are beautiful. But due to a dam project which would make the ground water undrinkable they were moved about 500 metres and rebuild the homes, but in a much more modern way. 

These new homes may be moved too. Two new modern roads have been built either side of the "block" of land that my parents-in-law live in and when the urban area expands again, they'll be moved, either into apartments or have the village move over one more time. That's why things don't change. Why improve the infrastructure to a constantly moving or disappearing village system which mainly is where they old people stay to keep the home fires burning (a bit like ahi kaa). I hope my grandfather-in-law will never have to move again and can keep feeding the chickens till the day he doesn't.

As a result in the villages, the rubbish is still collectively dumped. Roads are narrow and concrete. And the water and power can be iffy. But as nostalgic as we can be about it, it's not the most comfortable place to live for modern people. It's a way of life that might have done it's dash.

I remember watching the movie Dragon Boat which had villagers in Guangzhou being moved out of their villages to make way for the High Education Megacentre (aka University Island). The elderly even when moved to the comfort of air conditioned apartments were often sadder and depressed. It uprooted them from their purpose, habits and rituals.

I hope my in-laws when the day comes can adjust to a new life. I feel lucky to have been able to see and experience it.

Sunday, February 18, 2018


(Quick note: is banned in China as a result, the blogs I write here are "wired" in by a less than ideal method. I believe it went awry last night so I've reposted this in the belief the first one didn't "get out". If there are two copies or a blank in the previous post of the same name, many apologies.)

 I type this from a sofa sitting next to my 94 year old grandfather-in-law. I've mentioned him before on this blog and I must say it's one of the most special things about our return to be able to sit next to him, who I call A-Gung.

He made it through a very turbulent time with a Japanese invasion, civil war, the Cultural Revolution and modernization. He's pretty sharp too even at his age, still discussing and inquiring deeply, still having an active life raising the family's chickens. In his late 80s he had a fall but the fact he bounced back is a tribute to his good habits and general resilience.

He restricts his own diet, wakes early, tries new things (he took up coffee when I started bringing it and had been a coffee drinker ever since). He talks about every speck of news with an NZ tie-in. He's probably more aware than our whole student body...

I'm not sure how long my genes have me likely departing this mortal coil, but I've probably increased the predicted time of death in the last couple of years, running, quitting sugar and adopting a few random habits. I've been pleasantly surprised that my immune system has withstood a series of very stern tests in the last two years. In fact having only one day of sick leave in the last two years is a source of pride. In China I had periods of rather poor health.

One habit with a Chinese tie-in is my consumption of LSA. Though sounding like a drug, this poorly marketed product is just ground Linseed, Sunflower seeds and Almonds, which happens to have omega oils, minerals and protein. I add a tablespoon of it to any cereal I eat in the morning. Chinese people have many habits that influence their health for better or worse, but one of their more obvious habits is eating sunflower seeds. They buy them unhulled but learn the process of hulling them with their teeth at a young age. The whole seed goes in the mouth and only the shell comes out in a simple action. Any traveler on the trains or office reception areas will be familiar with the files if sunflower seed shells. It is certainly a nutritious snack.

Other positives are their preference of fruit, whole food habits and love of tea. Their elderly are also far more active than those in NZ. (There are of course negative habits that are generally held but let's not talk about those.)

On the fitness front, I'm glad to say I'm back running. After my worries after New Year, I had an MRI and X-ray on my knee. The result? No problem with bone or cartilage. Just a strained tendon. Phew! It all happened just days before leaving for China and I got the one piece of advice I needed to hear: Don't stop running! Niggles get so much in your head that sometimes you think it's the end. This problem almost had disappeared for a time last year despite my regular running. It's come back was in spite of my training too. It might have been caused by the level and intensity of the training but training was still the best way out. I've done two gentle runs in China, while doing daily exercise and my knee feels so much better for it. Tomorrow will be another run.

I've taken advantage of this lull by donating blood. I initially intended to donate in Auckland but got turned back until my MRI result came back. But that meant I'd be in China. So I donated in China instead and got a transport card for my contribution.

With that out of the way, I'll build up my running hopefully to run 10km+ on consecutive days. I have a half marathon 2 weeks after returning to NZ, and a marathon 6 weeks after that.

Running will be the way to burn off all the goose and chicken I've been eating and get me back down from the 68kg I'm now.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Treating the Treaty

Part of my job is to make a presentation about something confidently in simplistic language, in a way that should be as engaging as possible to a wide range of people. Usually these things happen at our school assemblies but can also be a celebration. And most usually these things happen with almost no preparation. Oh, what a luxury some preparation time would be! I think I do pretty well, though. 

Last Friday at an assembly, I spoke to students about the Waitangi Day for their awareness (basic information: don't come to school on Tuesday) and also for their education (basic information: New Zealand came about through the Treaty, with Maori chiefs and representatives of the Queen coming together to sign an agreement). I got into it forgetting we did actually have someone with Māori heritage on the team on site. She was leading the preparation for a group-wide event on the following Monday (yesterday) and had been intending to describe the Treaty's significance at that event. She didn't mention anything at the time but on Monday morning asked me to do the same at her event on account of my ability to simplify language. 

My presentation yesterday went something like this: "Welcome, everyone, to our Waitangi Day event. I would like to tell you about what Waitangi Day is and why it is special. I asked a student today if he knew what Waitangi Day is. He said that it is a Māori festival. Many people think this, but actually it isn't. It's a special day for all New Zealand. Waitangi is a place in New Zealand. Does anyone know where it is? (There were guesses.) It's up North, in a place called "The Bay of Islands", a very beautiful place. In 1840, something special happened there. A lot of Māori chiefs went there to meet with a man from England called Captain Hobson. They signed an agreement which made this land become New Zealand and part of the British Empire. It made Māori people British citizens and equal with them. It promised to protect their lands and treasures. Every year many people go to Waitangi to celebrate. Today, Jacinda Ardern went there to speak. Do you know who Jacinda Ardern is? (No-one knew, which was rather disappointing.) She's the Prime Minister, the leader of New Zealand. She's been in the news recently because she has had some good news: She's going to have a baby soon. So Waitangi Day is a special day to remember when Māori and the people from Britain became one people by coming together. Thank you again for coming. There are some fun activities for you to learn about the Māori side of New Zealand culture. I hope you enjoy it."

This isn't going to win any speech competitions, but it's very much fit-for-purpose: Lots of short sentences. Repetition. Simplistic language. Few idioms. Checking understanding of key reference terms. Even the gossip magazine Jacinda news, which I wouldn't usually raise, has a purpose with this kind of audience as it engages as well as informs. The audience also meant that I wasn't going to go into any of the complexities of chopping flagpoles, land wars, injustice, disease, protest, settlements and revitalisation. 

Being said rather extemporaneously, I'm still kicking myself for a few things, such as not starting with a Māori like "Kia ora, koutou!" and ending with "kia ora". But the number one kick was that I really didn't connect the Treaty to them, visitors and immigrants to NZ. Since I've been back I've heard the standard, multiculturalism on the basis of biculturalism many times, and it has always sounded a bit "forced" and not really explained well. I regard myself as being relatively advanced in my understanding of the implications of the Treaty. I also feel so many immigrants feel that the Treaty isn't relevant to them, or perhaps have a touch of the conservative white view of it as something for Māori people to get money and complain about things that don't really matter. And I wanted to think there was a simple sentence or two that might give a chance to understand its relevance.

I guess I would like to have said, and maybe will say on the coming Friday:
"Treaty is the foundation of New Zealand in the past, but also it's the foundation of New Zealand today: After setting up a fair and equal, respectful relationship between Māori people and people from Britain, all people from other countries who come to New Zealand to live also become a person under the Treaty. New Zealand welcomes people here and we do everything to make sure everyone can be treated fairly and with respect." 

I'm not sure if that would have got through but we need something to include all. I believe, even considering the historical injustices since the signing, New Zealanders should be proud of the Treaty and the sincerity since the 80s to try to realise the hope that was in it. The latter came about only after a protest movement. Even today the proportion of New Zealanders who have an understanding of our history and of the Treaty itself is not as high as it should be, for various reasons. I hope I can improve my communication of it both in words and actions.  

Saturday, February 03, 2018

The uncultured, classless revolution

Reading White Swans, despite its riveting narration, felt like torture when the part of the book dedicated to the Cultural Revolution of China started. Every tale, a misery, an injustice, a travesty. As a reader, I couldn't wait to finish off those 300 pages that describe the ordeal endured by the family of the author, Jung Chang (Zhang Rong) during that period of time. You turn the pages just wanting her to cut a long story short and say: "And a few years after that, Mao died; sanity resumed; everyone apologised, hugged and moved on.' It didn't. Every time I picked it up was with some intrepidation. Of course, reading is nothing compared to being there. The actual length of the "revolution" was over 10 years, between 1966 and 1976 and I could not imagine how people bore it in real time.

Any description of it is required reading for anyone interested in human nature under pressure, politics, China or philosophy. A lot of the people I've spoken to with an interest in China often have no idea. Sometimes they know the misleading name, without really getting to grips with the substance.

It wasn't much of a revolution. It was a tool for the top leader, Mao, to get rid of his enemies, with the whole population in the cross-fire. Revolutions by definition is the population, or a group of people, successfully deposing their leaders or the authorities, usually by force. China has had revolutions. Many dynasties started with one, including the Han and Ming. The last dynasty, the Qing, ended with the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, (famously with "the last emperor", Puyi). And then the communists won the Chinese civil war in 1949, which was the Chinese Communist Revolution, when they removed the corrupt capitalists of the KMT (Guomin Dang) from power over the mainland of China.

The Cultural Revolution wasn't very cultural either. It exhorted people to destroy cultural things, stop independent, individual thought and embrace ignorance. While there is still a degree of this lingering even in the China of today in the fields of politics.

If you don't know about this period of history, I'd recommend you reading about it. In China it is talked about with the abbreviation wenge, but it isn't a popular topic. Wild Swans incidentally is a banned book in China. Prior to this I'd read only a couple of pages of hers, the Chinese version of Mao: The Unknown Story, which was part of one of my favourite anecdotes from China. I bought it in a train station book store in China and carried it in my shoulder bag. When I arrived back in Guangzhou, they scanned all of my luggage and I was called over by the customs officer who pointed at my shoulder bag and asked to open it. My heart was in my mouth. He pulled out the book without checking any of my other possessions flicked through it, said: "Bu keyi" (not acceptable), tossed it into a contraband bin. He asked for my passport, flicked through it, gave it back to me and wave me onwards. I was anxious about any "implications" for me but clearly he didn't want to make that kind of trouble.

I've finished Wild Swans now and I'll probably need a "break" from heavy reading for a while. Still not running, I'll pick my travel books carefully.