Happy Valentine’s Day from a believer

Valentine’s Day gets a bad rap. Dubbed as the “Hallmark holiday,” anti-Valentine’s day activists (yes, there are such a thing) say that the hoopla surrounding February 14th is merely a product of mass marketing efforts from commercialized businesses and the propensity of consumer culture to buy into it every year. The large profits made from the mass buying of cards, chocolates, flowers, balloons and stuffed animals detract from the true meaning and significance of Valentine’s Day, which is the annual celebration of “love and affection between intimate companions,” (according to Wikipedia.com). Haters also point out that Valentine’s Day is a forced observation of romantic love, when no such tradition exists for those that are single.

But look into the historical origins of Valentine’s Day, and its real connection to the celebration of love, romance or companions remain a bit murky. In the earliest ontological records, Saint Valentine was a man who was brutally executed for his religious beliefs by a Roman pagan Emperor. Oh, but wait. He also performed a miracle by healing the blind daughter of his persecutor before his execution.

Hmmm. So maybe eschewing commercialism in the spirit of preserving the “true origins” of this holiday isn’t exactly right either.

Being a sucker for ALL holidays (hello, Martin Luther King’s day!), I particularly enjoy this day of Hallmark penned sentiments, over-priced roses and heart-shaped boxes of chocolates. Long before I appreciated the holiday as a romantic one, I still broke out the red turtleneck sweater to wear to school, spent the afternoon poring over my homemade cards and ate spaghetti with red sauce for dinner with my family. The day wasn’t about mass consumption, or focusing on a romantic partner or lack thereof, or even about the martyrdom of that Saint who was executed thousands of years ago. It was simply about the excitement of being loved and having love to give; the positive imagery of red hearts and white lace; the sweet respite of eating chocolate throughout the day; and the appreciation of my family as we all happily ate our “red-themed” meal.

So whether you’re a V-day hater or enthusiast; single or attached; avid consumer or anti-commercialism, be happy today solely for the fact that you are loved and have love to give. And what’s so bad about a holiday that reminds us of that? Here is a neat photo slide show by the Wall Street Journal that depicts Valentine’s Day across Asia, illustrating that today’s celebration of love transcends cultures, traditions and religions.  The Pakistani balloon vendor is my favourite.

As for me: my Valentine and I will be heading to Pulau Macan this weekend for a tropical getaway. Located only an hour and half away from Jakarta (via speedboat), the tiny island offers an eco-friendly resort and spa, with plenty of snorkelling, boating and hammock napping to boot. Check the video below.

Sheep and Cows and Goats on Scooters…

My daily commute to work started to get quite interesting this week, as I began to notice hundreds of cows, sheep and goats lazily milling about on the side of major roads within the city. But being a newcomer to this often confusing place, I’ve learned to accept cultural puzzles such as these as part of my everyday experiences in navigating this new terrain. So random livestock popping up beside my cab while stuck in traffic on the way home from work yesterday seemed pretty par for the course. And I barely even batted an eye when motor scooters racing by me had animal passengers slung precariously over the sides like the photo above.

But it turns out that these animals crowding the roads this week are in town for a particular reason: a sacrifice, or rather, to be sacrificed.

Today is the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, or “Festival of Sacrifice”–a time in which Muslim families slaughter these animals in a ritual to commemorate the annual holiday. What’s New Jakarta has the details:

For those new to Jakarta, you may be befuddled by the increasing appearance of goats and cattle along the roadsides […]. This is a yearly sight in the lead up to the Muslim celebration of Idul Adha, also known as the ‘day of sacrifice’. Practiced throughout the Muslim world, it commemorates Prophet Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice everything for God, including the life of his son Ishmael. God apparently intervened though, and substituted Ishmael with a sheep instead. Muslims therefore commemorate this by sacrificing an animal and distributing its meat amongst family, friends and as an act of charity, to those underprivileged.  This allows many poor Indonesians the opportunity, once a year, to eat meat, a commodity they can rarely afford. Many expatriates in Jakarta also participate by buying a goat or a cow and donating it to their local mosque to be sacrificed and distributed in the local community. Goats typically are sold for between Rp 800,000 to Rp 3 million and cows Rp 6-16 million. So Selamat Iduh Adha everyone!

Shamrocks in Shanghai

Tonight I’m tossing the chopsticks aside and going out Irish style. But in a city where there is about a  1 in 500,000 chance of spotting a ginger (let alone any real Irish folk), this might seem like a bit of a challenge. To this I say…Pashaw. There is nothing impossible in Shanghai…a city where I lunched on homemade apple pie and jambalaya yesterday from a restaurant that called itself the Southern Belle (emulating the home cookin’ of America’s South…and seriously, not bad food considering the cooks were two Chinese guys that didn’t speak a lick of English).

Okay, so granted the Huangpu River isn’t dyed green today….and there is a total lack of paper shamrocks adorning windows…and about a 99.9% chance that my local watering hole has never heard of Guinness.  But shamrock-coloured beer, 1/2 priced pours and free-shots for green wearing patrons? Yes, indeedy! Because holiday related drink deals are universal, my friends…whether that’s a “Píjiǔ” you’re drinking or an American bur.

Last year my St. Patrick’s Day was spent in London, a city that celebrates this holiday almost as hard as the Irish (and arguably, just as crazy as Chicago-ans, minus the river dyeing, but definitely inclusive of the street puking). But embarrassingly enough…my St. Pat’s was spent in the, um…library. Seeing how I blew it last year, I feel that my St. Patrick’s Day in Shanghai must somehow serve as vindication for the 2.5% Irish blood coursin’ thru me veins. So bottom’s up…luck of the Irish to ya…and remember to tip your bartenders, folks…wherever you may be.

BIĀN PÀO!

The Chinese really celebrate the New Year with a BANG and a POW and various other ear deafening sounds that are reminiscent of bombs dropping and impending Armageddon.

Fireworks are the most popular way to ring in the New Year and, according to ancient Chinese tradition, the way to scare off evil spirits lurking around.  And, by God, did they scare the hell out of me, as I found myself crouching behind chairs and running for cover every time another launch was made…which on New Year’s Eve is about every 5 minutes from morning until the wee hours.

Unlike other places in the world, in China, these pyrotechnic devices  are both legal and cheap…which means just about everyone and their mother puts on their own deafening display (and seriously, I saw mothers with children in their arms setting these suckers off).

Perhaps it’s due to the fact that fireworks were invented in China and therefore have always been a major component of the culture, but the locals seriously have no fear of these accidents waiting to happen. We witnessed rockets being launched from people’s bare fists, men with cigarettes dangling from their mouths kneeling inches from a wick and children running barefoot under a rainfall of hot sparks.

(above photos from Cultural China)

But nothing can compare to the actual sounds and sights when the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve and tens of thousands of people light off their crackers in a simultaneous barrage of explosions that fill the sky.

I caught the scene with some friends from the outside balcony of Glamour Bar. In front of us was the old clock tower of the Customs House, and at the turn of the Lunar year, a million sparkling lights rained down on it. Everywhere you looked the sky was lit up like a Christmas tree and the sound was like nothing I’ve experienced before (nor do I wish to without a helmet and a gun). The locals call the intense explosions “warm noise” (re nao), but for a newbie like myself the only thing “warm” about it was the intense searing sparks threatening to drop on our heads.

Below is a video which was taken a few minutes after midnight. The major fireworks in front of us have dissipated at this point, but it’s a great example of the general level of noise that continued as everyone around the city was still setting off their own show. (P.S. that noise continued until 6am).

As I write this post today, a full 4 days after New Year’s Eve, there are still blasts, pops, fizzes and lights outside my window as the pyromaniacs locals just can’t get enough of these loud, sparkly combustibles. It certainly makes one feel all warm and fuzzy as it’s truly a symbol of holiday-time in Shanghai…that or “duck and cover man we’re being invaded!”

UPDATE: As I sat here writing this post, the explosion of fireworks outside grew to such a level that a quick Google search ensued. Turns out that tonight at midnight (which is an hour from now), Shanghai will erupt into a “24-hour cacophony of fireworks” as the town ushers in the “God of Wealth.” This article states: “Forget about sleeping. Only the loudest bangs are said to get this lucky god’s attention.”

Welp. Who needs sleep when you have a “God of Wealth” on the way and your very own light show from the balcony? Bring on the bang, Shanghai. 🙂

Chinese New Year 2010 – Tiger Time!

This New Year blew in on an ocean breeze… knocked me out with a bout of mystery sickness… and then suddenly dropped 2 wonderful job opportunities into my lap.** As I’m still reeling from the roller coaster that’s been 2010, I’m starting to realize that perhaps these new changes are just part and parcel of the “Year of the Tiger,”  which according to the Chinese zodiac is symbolic of intensity, change, drama, and new opportunities.

I’m smiling as I write this since “change,” “drama” and “opportunity” are definitely a part of every year, in every country, despite particular zodiac alignments. But out of sheer curiosity into this intensely (and loudly) celebrated holiday,  I thought I’d devote this post to the current hubbub that is the Chinese New Year, 2010 “Year of the Tiger”… Rawr!

Chinese New Year, also called “Spring Festival,” is the most celebrated and important holiday within Chinese cultures. Based on the Lunar calendar, the New Year usually falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice and thus differs from the Gregorian New Year date of January 1st. So while the rest of you are recovering from that big New Year’s bash by making grandiose resolutions, the Chinese approach January 1st as just the first day of a really cold month.

This year, the CNY falls on February 14th…which we also know in the West as “Hallmark Day” or “Buy Me Flowers Day” or “I’m Going to Stay Home and Drink a Bottle of Wine Alone Day.” Since the Chinese celebrate both holidays commercially, it looks like this Sunday is going to be the cupid versus the dragon…and something tells me that the dragon has more clout.

Viewing this special holiday through a pair of expat eyes, it is easy to compare the big event to Christmas/Hanukkah celebrations in the West. Bright decorations of red paper lanterns and ornamental scripts adorn homes, people are bustling around buying gifts, food and alcohol to consume and exchange, and all businesses, schools and government institutions are closed for the next 7 days.

Tomorrow (Saturday) is the “Eve” of the CNY,  a time in which everyone travels home for reunion feasts with their extended family. In fact, this period is actually the largest human migration period in the world, as more trips are taken during this holiday than the total population of China all together (in 2008, the number of trips taken during the month of the CNY totaled 2.26 billion!)

So…this is why the boyfriend and I are spending this particular holiday on a  “stay-cation.” Battling the largest human migration in the world for a seat on that train? No thanks.

Hopefully, in between eating, watching fireworks and drinking some New Year’s libations, I’ll also get to put up some posts regarding  this festive time  in Shanghai. Because isn’t it about time we read about a more noble and honorable Tiger other than that creep in the news? I think so. Stay tuned and Xinnian Kuai Le!  新年快乐!

PS: Click here to find out what zodiac sign represents your birth year according to the Lunar calendar. I’m a rooster.

** I’ve started work as an assistant editor for the Shanghai International Channel’s evening news program “The Spotlight” and am now blogging over at the Shanghaiist.com—ranting about life as an expat and Shanghai happenings.

“Beauty is Pain” OR “the Subjugation of Women for Ridiculous Reasons”

I recently wrote an academic paper on a rather ugly side of Chinese history: the custom of footbinding (Or as it should rightly be called, the custom of foot binding WOMEN’s feet, since females were the only gender subjected to this painful practice).

Bound feet in silk slippers

The origins of footbinding within Chinese history remain part fact, part fiction. Some scholars trace its inception to the ruler Li Yu (970 A. D.), who was smitten with a prized concubine that danced a seductive, yet elegant dance with tightly bound feet. Not unlike a modern ballerina’s toe shoes, the tightly bound feet created a unique swaying movement that was later dubbed the “Golden Lotus” dance.

As is such with cultural phenomena, the practice of wrapping the feet to achieve this desired “lotus” gait took hold with vigor amongst the royal court and so was born a new cultural trend. As more women tried to achieve these “lotus feet”, the practice went beyond a mere fashion trend and became the new measuring stick of determining a woman’s status and overall sex appeal (sex manuals from the Qing Dynasty listed “48 different ways” of playing with women’s bound feet). Thus a widespread ideology manifested that emphasized a woman’s worth by the shape of her feet.

As the concept of “lotus feet” was spreading like wildfire amongst the upper class, it soon trickled down to the masses of China’s rural and agrarian community. In an attempt to emulate the upper echelon of society (similar to today’s celeb-obsessed culture),  these hard-working citizens literally cut their work force in half by insisting that all females have their feet bound starting from a young age.

Again, much of the origins of this practice (particularly the Lotus dancin’ concubine) are most likely based in fiction. What is fact, however, is that this practice existed for over 10 centuries, with 80% of the women population binding their feet during its height. Despite its painful process and resulting deformity, footbinding was encouraged by men and women alike as the ticket to a better life.

And so…the ugly ensued. Under the tutelage of a mother or a female elder, the girls—aged as young as 3 or as old as 11—had their feet systematically broken, contorted and physically shaped into deformity to achieve a specific “Lotus Foot,”or more precisely, a foot that measured no more than 3 inches long.

A foot no bigger than 3 inches could fit into these once popular shoes

The obvious reaction is ouch and gross and um,…how?

Please note that the below procedure is done without the use of modern anesthetics, or for that matter, even the common pain pills that we pop today.

  • After soaking the feet in warm water and herbs (as if this would actually relieve the excruciating pain that is yet to come) each toe but the biggest is swiftly broken and pushed under the ball of the foot.
  • The toes are then tightly bound in this position by winding long pieces of cloth around the foot in a figure eight pattern, creating the ball of the foot and the heel to almost meet.
  • With the broken toes pressed firmly to the heel, the arch of the foot is also forcibly broken.
  • After months of painful binding and re-binding the cloth to make it tighter and tighter, the arch completely folds over and causes the foot to no longer grow.
  • Although the toes are broken, the toenails continue to grow and must be meticulously tended to lest they grow into the skin and create severe infection.
  • Bound feet often smelled of rotting flesh and gangrene disease and thus were rarely unwrapped and certainly never exposed to male husbands, family members or friends.

broken toes pushed under feet

And there you have it. The desired 3-inch feet were created, and with it, a disability for life. Coupled with the physical and emotional scars of having both their feet broken at a very young age, these girls grew into women who could not properly walk, stand for long periods of time or effectively do household chores or field work without crippling pain. Consequently, women were confined to the home, dependent on their husbands/families and drastically limited in their mobility.

The desired "Golden Lotus" effect

With this gruesome practice revealed, one can appreciate the completely messed-up, backasswards irony that bound feet represent. Deformed and rotting flesh are  placed into delicate, embroidered silk slippers in an effort to appeal to men and meet the status quo of a woman’s supposed sex appeal. Paradoxically, the practice that initially began as a way to achieve an elegant, womanly dance, had become a practice in which women could barely walk normally, let alone dance freely. Teetering on mangled 3-inch stubs that were slipped into fine silk, women propagated the fantasy of beauty and elegance, and men chose to see this fantasy rather than the  the unpleasant reality veiled by its superficial exterior.

Another ironic point is the rapid pace at which this thousand year tradition quickly fell from grace throughout China.  As China began to awake to foreign influences at the turn of the century, the majority of middle and upper class society labeled footbinding as barbaric and turned its back on the practice almost as fast as they had once embraced it.

Thus as cultural tides and perceptions continue to change with the ebb and flow of society, what was once today’s status symbol might be tomorrow’s ritual of subjugation.  So the next time I squeeze my feet into those 3-inch heels or burn my hair with a flat iron, or refrain from punching the girl that stupidly states, “beauty IS pain girlfriend!” I’ll keep this phenomena in mind.

Obama’s Visit to China Countdown: The Good, The Bad, and …The “Oba-Mao?”

obama in chinaChina’s a-flutter with Obama buzz

U.S. President Barack Obama will make his first state visit to China on November 15th  until the 18th.  After a 2-day stay in Tokyo, a 1-day stint in Singapore (meeting with both Singapore president Lee Hsien Loong and the 10 ladies and gents of ASEAN), Barack and First Lady Michelle arrive Monday, November 15th in mainland China (for full itinerary details, click here).

Their first stop?

SHANGHAI!

Starting the morning off with a meet-and-greet with Shanghai mayor Han Zheng, Obama will hold one of his famous “town hall” styled forums with a select group of Chinese students to discuss current and future affairs in China . A focal point of the president’s brief stay in Shanghai, the question-and-answer forum strives to bring an open dialogue between the American President and Chinese youth.

Well, the Chinese government just ain’t having that.

All over this one like the white on sticky rice, the government has stepped in to make major changes in the forum in an overwhelming desire for censorship and control. Changes include: 1) the 1,500 students expected to participate in the forum has been whittled down to a measly 600; 2)  all media is banned, excluding, of course, CCTV–the state run broadcast television station); 3) as of now, the event will not be broadcast live on television or the Internet.

These ramifications leave some sources questioning if the Q & A will happen at all.  But in the meantime, let’s hope this story takes a turn for the better as administrators work out the major, but initial kinks. After all, during his 1998 visit  both live radio and TV airwaves carried President Clinton’s candid talk with Jiang Zemin regarding  human rights, religion and the ever elusive Tienanmen square debate. Let’s hope the Party realizes that stifling the almighty Obama from its own fresh-faced youth will majorly put a damper (and negative Western media spin) on the prez’s first visit to 中国.

Speaking of the “almighty” Obama…the mainland’s got much love for America’s new President and there’s nothing like the power of Chinese love to proliferate the mass production of cheap commodified goods. Welcome consumers to the Oba-Mao!

Oba MAo close up

Obama comes in Revolutionary Red & Green!

This new trend capitalizes off the recent resurgence of Mao memorabilia within Chinese society (which in itself is definitely strange and a bit confusing — think mass produced pins, hats, bags and t-shirts propagating an  intensely deified but hotly hated (and, um, dead) ruler. Politically insensitive? Funny? Or just plain creepy? Who knows, but it’s all over stores in urban Beijing).  Now mash this Mao paraphernalia with Obama’s goofy grin and you got  Oba-Mao!

Git your Oba-Mao Tee!!!

First appearing in Beijing tourist shops at the close of summer ’09, Oba-Mao swag has sold like hot cakes to visitors and foreign tourists alike.  But you won’t see any citizens sporting these tee’s and caps while the President is in town. This week the Beijing Municipal Government has issued that all Oba-Mao goods be strictly off the market while the Chief Executive makes his visit.

China Digital Times reports:

To Welcome Obama: T-Shirt with Obama in Red Guard Uniform Taken Off the Shelf

According to some business owners, they got calls last week from Beijing Municipal Government demanding them to stop the sale of this kind of T-shirt immediately. And inspection officers even came to stores to make sure the T-shirts are off the shelf.

Business owners have been notified that after Obama ends his visit to China, they can resume the sale.

Well, sadly, Barack can’t join in the fun and sport a shirt with his own face mashed with Mao. But maybe his Interim White House Communications Director, Anita Dunn, can! According to Glenn Beck she’s a die-hard Maoist and another tyrant in Obama’s  inner circle. (insert sarcastic tone here).

So far we’ve had the bad, the weird and the ugly side of this edition of the Obama’s visit to China countdown. What about the good, you ask?

Well let’s turn back to my personal favorite stop on the China trail: Shanghai!

Official reports have confirmed that Barack and First Lady will be staying at the Portman Ritz-Carlton for their brief stint in Shanghai. (I bet they booked the “Presidential Suite” :-)) The hotel will be shut-down from November 14th – 16th for the occasion and security will be tight with a capital “T”.

Lastly, Obama will not be stopping by the sight of the Shanghai Expo 2010, but he will be surprised by a very special “gift” from the government upon arrival.

China Daily reports:

In addition to having hundreds of schoolchildren wave vivid red flowers to welcome United States President Barack Obama at the airport for his first state visit in mid-November, the Chinese government has also prepared a huge gift for this very special friend — a $3.6 billion Disney theme park contract.

Mickey Mouse in Shanghai: “Huge gift” or “Creepy Image.” You decide.

I leave you now with a great video of the Obama buzz (and crazy-ness) that’s flitting around the mainland. Courtesy of Reuters, the video has everything from a $15,000 Obama statue engulfed in flames at the push of a button, to Obama inspired haircuts at just 2 bucks a pop.

More updates as the Obama-mania Chinese Edition continues…

obaMAO