BBC World: China’s last women to have their feet bound

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Decades after foot-binding was outlawed in China, a British photographer has met some of the last women subjected to the practice.

It was with a sense of pride that Su Xi Rong revealed her feet to British photographer Jo Farrell.

Her feet, bound from the age of seven, were so small that she had been renowned for their beauty.

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BBC China: My experience as a bridesmaid in China

特写:BBC 记者体验中国式婚礼

维佳和新郎

新郎和新娘向新娘父母敬茶鞠躬

我七年前在上海居住的时候就认识了维佳,没想到我今年能有幸参加她的婚礼,还有份成为伴娘团的一员,一同折磨维佳的丈夫-来自英国韦尔斯的约翰.伍德伯里。

在王维佳出嫁当天, 我穿着一袭乳白色的长裙, 站在新娘家中的阳台上,看到三位西装笔挺、外表英俊的男士站在距离阳台一百米的地方。这无疑是一幕非常浪漫的画面。但是不久后就听到像机关枪一样的一阵响声,原来几百个炮仗投向了前来接新娘的新郎和他的伴郎们,作为欢迎他们的到来。而新娘、伴娘和新娘的家人在等待新郎来的时候,就像出战前的战士一样。

在中国的婚宴,新郎和新娘都需要向每一桌的宾客敬酒。

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In English:

Had we maimed them? Three smart-looking men in suits had appeared 100m from the balcony where I was standing in a full length cream gown. It was a romantic scene. But moments later hundreds of small explosions had gone off sounding like a machine gun. Big red wheels of poppers suspended on a clothes drier greeted the groom and his best men as they tried to approach the apartment where my friend, the bride Wang Wei Jia 王维佳, us – her bridesmaids (阿姨) and her entire family lay in wait like combatants.

But had we gone too far and hurt them or even killed them, blowing them up with the traditional wedding day fireworks? It was impossible to see anyone outside any more because of all the smoke from the gunpowder.  “They have a strange way of treating the wedding party in China” I thought to myself.

A knock at the front door proved the groom had survived but if he was after a warm welcome he had come to the wrong place. The other bridesmaid, Li Yong Jiao 李永姣 leapt to the peep hole and demanded: “Who is it!?”

We knew full well who it was. We had been preparing for his arrival for two hours, but we were going to make him suffer before he could collect his bride. This was my introduction to a Chinese wedding.

I felt privileged to be asked to be maid of honour for my friend Wei Jia whom I met in Shanghai in 2007 when I was working for China Daily.

I didn’t know then that seven years later I would be demanding her boyfriend, John Woodberry from Wales, sing the words of the nursery rhyme Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to the tune of the Chinese national anthem, before I would let him across the threshold to fetch her for their wedding day.

Wei Jia told me to be tough. He had to be put through his paces and made to prove his love, she said.

I had been a bridesmaid three times before at British weddings but I could tell this was going to be unlike anything I had experienced. Testing the groom with press ups, Maths tests, and demands for declarations of love marked the first major difference of what I knew would be an incredible day.

For all the teasing of the beleaguered groom, the love and respect shown to Wei Jia’s parents was awe-inspiring. The mother of the bride has no role in a western wedding ceremony, unlike the bride’s father who is permitted to give his daughter away, escorting her down the aisle. So it was touching to witness the bride and groom bowing and thanking both parents for raising Wei Jia in a tea ceremony. Wei Jia had the chance to formally say goodbye to her mother as she left her old, unmarried life behind. I pitied western mothers who are denied this.

During the ceremony, the symbolic removal of the seed from the lychee in the sweet soup was the first of many reminders through the day of the children expected through the union. Another big difference, I thought. British people are too reserved to say something like “zao sheng gui zi”.

The bride changing dresses five times was another major difference to western weddings. As part of my role I became a doorman – forcing the changing room door shut at the hotel where the wedding took place so that enthusiastic friends and relatives did not barge in and see the bride undressed and then stand chatting to her, delaying proceedings.

I had been told another important task would be to stop the bride and groom drinking too much when they went to each table at the wedding banquet to be toasted by friends and family. I tried to make sure there was more “Gong xi!” than “Gan bei!” but it was a losing battle. And as the bride stormed around each of the 20 or so tables getting merrier and faster, my biggest challenge was keeping up with her to hold the train of her beautiful red and gold embroidered dress. Babies were picked up and kissed, frail, elderly relatives were leant down to and hugged with their shaky hands clutching glasses to clink with the bride and groom’s. Slowly the differences between East and West were evaporating. Two people in love were being celebrated by the people who loved them most.

As I practised the speech I would give later, I looked out of the window of the room in the Ritz Carlton in Shanghai’s financial district of Lujiazui where the bride and groom would sleep. I could see the Oriental Pearl Tower, built in 1994 as a symbol of the new China. Yet glancing over at the bed with its red sheets left covered with eggs, dates and nuts to symbolise fertility, and the characters for double happiness, it was a good reminder that China is taking its traditions into the future. One day, perhaps John and Wei Jia’s future son-in-law will disappear in smoke as he comes to collect his bride, but now when that happens I’ll be able to assure the bridesmaids – “Don’t worry, the groom will survive. In fact it will be the best day of his life”.

My lesson in Chinese wisdom appears on photography website

Someone once told me ‘What you see is what you are’, taken in London’s Chinatown by Mario Cacciottolo

In the summer I had the privilege of meeting a student from Taiwan studying Shakespeare in London called Juan Hung Yu.

We spent a lot of time discussing the experiences we had had as foreigners in each other’s countries. Her impressions of England were of a place where everybody is very polite. Like me in China, she had been shown terrific kindness by strangers.

She loved the variety of historical and cultural pursuits on offer and spent her time dashing between debates, recitals, museums and performances.

In short, as I had been in China, she was hooked on England. It was under her skin. But I pointed out that few in England appreciate how lucky they are, and most, in fact, moan about their lot.

“Xiang you xin shen,” she said.(It should be ‘xin’, not ‘xing’ as I wrote it down in pinyin). She explained it means ‘image from heart born’, that what you see is what you are. If you see the world and think it is fabulous, with many opportunities, it’s because you are.

When I was asked if I had something that someone once told me that I would like to add to Mario Cacciatollo’s beautiful photography website, it came to me straight away.

See the Someone Once Told Me page here.

Expat life: I had a farm in Africa…

  • The expat ‘holiday lives’ kept under wraps

“Is that you when you were on holiday?” someone asked me last week at work when I let Shanghai out of the bag for a moment and discretely shared a picture of my life in China taken before I returned to London just under a year ago.

“No, that was my life,” I answered as I reflected on the image of me on my precious scooter I had had to leave behind.

In the picture I am happily coasting down the backstreets of Shanghai, taking in the sights of chickens being cooked alive by the roadside. It was an afternoon when washing was being maneuvered up high onto overhead telegraph cables, the gas man was doing his rounds cycling with a gas bottle on each side of his back wheel, a couple in pyjamas were chatting at a kiosk.

It was all so blissfully everyday to me. Not something to just write a postcard about or pack away in my suitcase with my souvenir chopsticks and suntan after two weeks.

It got me wondering how my friends in England can fully know me, without a grasp of the life I lived for four years.

The majority of new friends I’ve made since returning have a cursory understanding. Jo lived in China. She learnt Mandarin, or was it Cantonese?

But how often do ex-expats really let their life stories out of the bag? How often do they sit down and begin their tale, a la Karen Blixen’s, “I had a farm in Africa…”? Rarely, I would say.

Soon after returning to England, I was standing in a bar, in a circle of people comparing stories of eccentric behaviour they had recently witnessed. “A guy I sat behind at the cinema last weekend brought nachos in with him and ate them really loudly. Who does that?”, one girl said half-complaining, half relieved to have been exposed to such crazy shenanigans to bemoan in assemblies like this. Everyone laughed and shook their heads. Those crazy cinema-goers.

But she’d lost me. My mind had drifted back to a performance of Swan Lake I’d been to in Shanghai where the woman next to me was on her mobile phone the whole way through, describing in detail what was happening on stage to a friend at home.

I didn’t share my story. You have to ration your China. When I start a sentence “In China,” people’s eyes tend to glaze over. They’d much rather hear a funny anecdote from Cheltenham.

So when an expat friend visits London from Shanghai, it’s a chance to talk easily about our ‘holiday lives’. In the last month, three visitors have popped by regaling stories of international flights taken with emergency passports, TV shoots in remote parts of southern China, weekends wreck-diving in the Philippines – familiar currency.

With each of them, I have experienced things my friends at home would probably struggle to. But they will no doubt leave China one day and mothball their stories.

The stories will dwell in the Ngong Hills of the mind, only allowed out when in the company of other China expats or when we’re packed off mumbling to old people’s home.

“I had a flat in Shanghai, on the banks of Suzhou Creek,” I will tell a woman changing my bed pan one day as I busy myself applying lipstick to my eyebrows.

Josephine wrote a blog about her expat life for the Daily Telegraph for two years called Chelsea Girl in China.

My Beijing Olympics working for the Chinese media: Eye exercises, lip-synching and squatter loos

On top of the world: Josephine at Beijing's 'Bird's Nest' stadium in 2008

I remember thinking on my first day at the newspaper office where I was going to be for the Beijing Olympics, that I never imagined I would encounter the risk of peeing on myself at work.

For there in the new China Daily website office with its break-out zones, potted plants and brightly coloured ergonomic furniture, traditional squatter loos had been installed in the Ladies.

We may have been forging ahead with web pages, text alerts, and online broadcasting at our desks, but in the loos we were only a few porcelain steps up the evolutionary ladder from hitching up our skirts and going by the side of the road, or so it felt.

For the Beijing Games in 2008 I was called up from the Shanghai bureau to live and work at the main office of China’s state-run English national newspaper. I was to help edit stories for the China Daily website. It was a dream gig. Every expat living in China was trying to get themselves to the capital for the big event.

In the tradition of Communist work units, my accommodation was in a block of workers’ flats within the office compound. It took a bit of getting used to bumping into my boss in the lift when I was hungover on a Sunday morning. Three subsidised meals a day were served in the canteen.

Continue reading here.

What’s Chinese for Colposcopy?

 

When you take a job in China, you don’t think about the day you’ll find your feet in Chinese stirrups. Guest expat blogger, Violet Tame, shares her trip to the gynaecologist in China. 

 

This week I had to go for a follow-up appointment at the OBGYN. I had a couple of pap smears come back irregular so it was time to go under the scope. I arrived a little nervous with the word biopsy ringing in my head. I checked in and sat down next to a middle-aged man coming from work. I wished in a way that I was sitting next to him to chew the fat to at least take my mind off the looming exam. I did not make a move as figured I would definitely put my foot in my mouth and rather than discussing the up and coming US election, I would discuss blood clots and the risk we women take with every birth control pill we take.

"A tune-up is just a different dipstick away from a colposcopy"

I waited and waited and finally was called by the nurse after waiting over 40 minutes. She took my blood pressure and then asked me to sit in another waiting room where I could gaze for 20 minutes at a wall of baby photographs. I sometimes think that the OBGYN offices should have pictures of females with their great accomplishments and inspirational quotes including the strange species of the single independent woman, or just any random person from the non-procreating race. Is it not enough that I do not have anyone besides my OBGYN doing anything down there, I have to be reminded every six months “No, you do not have kids, and you are doing maintenance on an organ that only bleeds”.

 

As I am sitting there staring at the baby pictures with happy couples, thinking about my inactive vagina and fallopian tubes that are still in training I remind myself of past OBGYN appointments where one gynaecologist told me that I had a beautiful womb. This in a strange way is comforting. Then a line swoops in like a stork from the play For Whom the Southern Bell Tolls, “I have a womb, a womb for went, as Elmer Fudd would say”. What do I do with this beautiful womb? Will I ever be able to rent it out for nine months, or will I continue to carry the vacancy sign on my forehead to each dinner, Christmas or OBGYN appointment?

 

A dear friend rang me to check in and I immediately lost it making a puddle of tears on my baby yellow skirt. The nurse called me into the office before the conversation even started. Walking into the appointment I messaged two friends saying that I was having a meltdown and would like someone there when I was done.

 

The doctor had diagrams of women with see through legs so I could see where the microscope would be put. I was warned that it might hurt and given a packet that outlined what I needed to be aware of and activities that I needed to stay away from for the next 24 hours…. A girl could be so lucky to have the option to stay away from one of the three letter words.

 

Through the whole process massive drops were catapulting from my eyes. I was taken through an office to a room with a massive chair with stir-ups. I put on a backless blue gown that brought out my swollen eyes and lay on the table. The doctor was Chinese and so was her assistant. There were four lights above me, which meant I could see the reflection of the different tools she was putting into me. After that the doctor said “I tell you about this later, I have to clean off your cervix first”. Seriously, there has to be a technical term for that, though now I know why they name cars after women: a tune-up is just a different dipstick away from a colposcopy.

 

The exam continued and I was still unsure if I was passing or failing. The doctor and the assistant were speaking to each other in Chinese and all I could pick up was “Chinese, Chinese, Chinese, biopsy. Chinese, Chinese, Chinese, biopsy”…. Now for China claiming to be one of the oldest cultures and Mandarin being a difficult language with an extensive vocabulary, they honestly could not come up with their own word for biopsy? That was the one word that I could have waited to hear until the tune-up was finished and I was sitting respectably in a chair fully clothed on all sides.

 

After who knows how many swabs, metal dipsticks and hearing “Chinese, Chinese Chinese, biopsy. Chinese, Chinese, Chinese, biopsy,” they left me to change and closed a steel sliding door, which I later would not be able to open, and resorted to banging on like a captive mental patient. The doctor explained everything shortly after telling me that she was retiring… Upon leaving the office I found my friends that responded to my distress signal to enjoy a cold four-letter word that thankfully was not on the list of things I could not enjoy post tune-up.

Pretty vacant

 

“You sound more British. It’s nice,” said my French friend with whom I was flatmates in Shanghai, when I met with her last week.

 

Until then, no-one had pointed out any change that had occurred in me since returning to the UK after four years in Shanghai.

 

To me, I have always had an unmistakably standard southern British accent, which if anything, tended to sound ridiculously plummy around Kiwis, Americans, South Africans and Australians in Shanghai.

 

But then, it is easy to pick up an Australian twang in the Asia Pacific region, and this can make you adopt a cockney sound to boot. I discovered this when I first watched myself presenting on the TV programme, Shanghai Live. I sounded like a cross between Jo Brand and Sid James.

 

When you are used to speaking English to people for whom English is a second or third language, you learn to speak slowly and use fewer Britishisms  too. Once I described someone as “stocky” to a Chilean friend and she burst out laughing, saying how much she loved British terms. My parting gift to her was a list of more words we are fond of in England, including lanky, chavvy, nippy and of course the best of all, dodgy.

 

But if anything, I am struck by little habits that I have not yet shrugged off from Shanghai life (not that I want to).

 

For one, I still look both ways when crossing a one-way street. This is a life-saving reflex you develop early on in China because you never know where a scooterist on a silent electric bike ( a ‘silent assassin’) will be coming from.

 

But the main quirk is that I always open the doors of public loo cubicles (more on Chinese loos here and here) extremely cautiously. I suppose it is natural since I have been conditioned to expect to walk in to a supposedly vacant loo only to find a woman sitting on the loo, or even worse hovering over a squatter.

Walking into Chinese cubicles that are occupied, despite appearing vacant has scarred me for life

I never did get down to the bottom (ahem) of why Chinese ladies so often use loos without locking them. I would often walk in on colleagues having been given the green light of the ‘vacant’ sign, only to wish they had taken the time to save me the sight and the embarrassment. I imagine it comes down to the very flimsy concept of privacy in China.

But the mental damage has clearly been considerable as, even though I’m back in the UK, I cannot  trust a loo that says it’s vacant.

 

What counts for weird these days?

 

One of the best things about living abroad is the constant element of surprise.

Living in a culture that is not your own, throws up constant questions and wonders.

I suspect it’s one of the main reasons people stay abroad. It certainly was for me.

 

Amanda Riske breaking hearts and hips in Fuxing Park

When you return home, one of the problems is that your definition of “weird” has irrevocably changed.

For a good deal of people back home a shop changing its opening hours or a bus route altering is the height of irregularity.

When you’re an expat it’s not.

 

Spotted in Shanghai, by Amanda Riske

A reader in Saudi Arabia, for example, wrote to say that he recently encountered a situation where a colleague was jailed for two nights in Jedda because he was caught in a tea shop with a girl he was neither married nor related to. Now that’s bizarre, if you’re a westerner.

 “I had Google-translated ‘I like your exercises, can I do them with you?’ into Chinese, but I do not think he can read.”

Luckily, an American expat in Shanghai is keeping a video log of the weird and wonderful things she encounters every morning in her last seven months before leaving.

So far they include doing the ‘twist’ in Fuxing Park, hula hooping on the Bund and doing eye-catching exercises on Panyu Lu.

Amanda Riske, a Maths teacher at the Western International School of Shanghai, has lived in Shanghai for two-and-a-half years. She began running at 5am a few weeks ago in preparation for a half marathon in Xiamen this weekend.

 

Amanda Riske tries out unconventional exercises

She said: “When running that early you see such cool things and a very different side of Shanghai. It really makes me love the city even more.”

She was partly prompted to make videos so that she could share them with expat friends  who have left the city, giving them their daily dose of Shanghai crazy.

Her most popular video shows Amanda and a Shanghai local doing their exercises together in the street- vigorous hip rotations. 

She had seen him doing his morning exercise on her way to work for a year and a half and decided one day to join him. She said: “I had Google-translated ‘I like your exercises, can I do them with you?’ into Chinese, but I do not think he can read. So I just started in on his routine with him and he played it so cool.”

Asked what she is hoping to achieve, she said: “I am hoping to show people some of the beauty in this city, and have some fun doing it all.

“Running early in the morning I have seen such a different character of the people here- sweet, friendly, honest and just peculiar in their daily routines.”

You can watch Amanda’s morning “silliness” in Shanghai here.

 

Homecoming

It’s now been nearly two months since I got back from China where I lived for four years.

And the best thing is that with the combination of delivery times and Christmas there are various elements of my Shanghai life migrating to London at the moment. British friends are coming home for Christmas and I have now received four of the five green plastic China Post boxes I posted, containing clothes and household items, before I left.

Despite one horror story from a friend who lost all of his belongings in the post from China and my misgivings when the postal worker on Nanjing Road insisted on cramming the flimsy- looking boxes with my belongings until they looked fit to burst, everything has arrived in tact.

The much maligned trunk I bought and shipped has also made the distance.

Best of all, today I also received a box containing a felt rug I bought in Kashgar, Xinjiang, north-west China. Back at the end of October when I left the two Uighur rug-sellers I befriended with my money, I have to admit I wondered for a moment if they would take the trouble to take my purchase to the post office for me and carefully write out the foreign address in English. But I needn’t have questioned their integrity. The combination of the biro scrawl on the box saying ‘Xinjiang,China’ and the postman who delivered it wearing a ‘London’ cap with a union jack emblem, delighted me.

The rug I bought was lovingly bundled up and posted from Xinjiang, China...

But while I’m pleased to have my Shanghai life catching up with me I’m also a little sad that when the last box arrives it will be the last physical connection I have with the city that was my home.

... and delivered to my door in London

As the months go on I am sure I will start to question the relevance of the electronic reminders in my day to day life- the desktop clock on my laptop still set to Shanghai time, the newsletters emailed to me from Shanghai Expat, Time Out Shanghai, Time Out Beijing and the British embassy. Occasionally I read the weekly Time Out Shanghai newsletter to kid myself I can keep up with the various bars and clubs that open and close on what seems like a weekly basis. I tell myself it’s worth it so that when Shanghai friends talk about a bar they’ve been to I’ll still know where they are talking about. It’s hard to let go.

But, above all, I’m pleased that I carried out the most traumatic transportation process- getting myself on a plane for London. The enjoyment of being at home at this time of year, in particular, vindicates my decision to leave.