Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Songpan pony trek May 1-6

Zhongdian, Yunnan late May 2006 ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

Sorry no blogging until I'm back from our pony trek in Songpan. Keep your fingers crossed that it doesn't rain all the time! We're planning on camping out for three days then heading up to Huanglong before we return back to Chengdu. Hopefully I will have lot's of nice pictures and info to post next week. For those of you in Sweden: Glad Valborg! China: Happy First of May to you! 

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Incense burner and huā 花 niǎo 鸟 chóng 虫 yú 鱼

Incense burner from Hua Niao Chong Yu ©IBM

Hua niao yu chong ("flower, bird, fish and insect") is a common expression for a special kind of Chinese culture where the practitioner indulges in raising and growing small plants and animals, recreating a simile of nature in an urban environment. Crickets, birds, turtle, goldfish and ornamental carp are the typical animals and the flowers, of course, are endless, although leaning towards ones that have symbolic meaning like peonies, orchids, narcissus etc. Without knowing it I have been trying to create my own little hua niao yu chong world on our apartment terrace. I have a pond for my eight koi carp, flowers and plants galore and numerous trinkets to play with when drinking tea (usually coffee for me). I perfectly understand the need to retreat from the maddening crowd and spend time surrounded by beautiful things. This ideal life was of course reserved only for the rich in the China of the past, but today anyone with a few yuan can put a goldfish in a bowl of water and watch it swim around in circles. 

As I mentioned yesterday I have found a wonderful shop in one of Jinli Street's newly opened back alleys where I can buy all sorts of delightful ceramics from Jǐngzhèn in Jiāngxī Province. The name of the shop is appropriately called Niao Hua Chong Yu and they have created a wonderful logo from the characters, painting them to look like what they represent (bird, flower and fish are originally pictographic representations. I don't know about worm/chong though, here is how it is written in traditional chinese ). There is a very Japanese feel to this little shop, and I have to force myself to stay away. Latest purchase (actually my mother bought it for me as an early birthday present) is the incense burner above (xiāng lú 香炉). On the way home it only took a second to buy sandalwood incense (tán xiāng 香) in one of the many Tibetan stores on Wuhou Hengjie. 

huà niǎo chóng yú 鱼.

Check out their website:

Lumpy laile!

090428 ©IBM

Our neighbors left for the states this morning and yesterday we inherited a bunch of down and out plants and a goldfish named Lumpy. Lumpy came in a glass bowl in as bad a state as the plants so to make "her" feel better I moved her into a new home and blinged it with a few trinkets I bought on Jinli Street. Jinli has recently expanded and there is a new shop that I am absolutely crazy about selling artisan ceramics of all kinds from China's porcelain capital Jǐngdézhèn 景德镇. So Lumpy has a ceramic lotus seed pod, blue and white floating balls and a ceramic fish in whose mouth you can anchor the plant roots. She's got so much furniture now that she can hardly swim around, tomorrow she will be upgraded to a larger bowl. But for now, like it or lump it, Lumpy!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Hemorrhoid cushion anyone?

Hemorrhoid rings for sale outside Huaxi Hospital, Chengdu 090427 ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

You know you are near a Chinese hospital when you notice the sidewalks full of people walking outside in the open-air in their pyjamas with movable IV-drips or catheter bags in tow. Chinese hospital patient-garb is striped jammies for men and pink floral for women. Women are not so often seen outside but men are because they’re trying to catch a smoke before the nurses shoo them back in again.

I went to our local Huaxi Hospital (Huaxi: West China) yesterday to have a check-up and waded through the usual mix of hundreds of people, cars, taxis and rickshaws before entering the hospital grounds. (How an ambulance can get through this mess is beyond me.) All around the main gates are numerous small businesses that cater to staff, patients and their families. Thus the apothecaries selling medicine and vitamins, the small shops vending scores of donut shaped hemorrhoid rings (labeled “anti-decubitas cushions”, tiffen carriers, spoons, bed pans, and wash basins; florists with their huge floral arrangements; candy, drink and cigarettes kiosks and small restaurants serving food to the hundreds and hundreds of relatives that seem to accompany every patient to the hospital, be it just a regular check-up or a near-death recovery. The hospital itself is massive with numerous floors, departments (with odd English monikers like the “Nuclear Dept”, which I assume is radiology) and even a special Gold Card VIP building for well-to-do Chinese and foreigners who want to fast-track their health-care and avoid the plebes (me included).

I have an acquaintance who works at this hospital and she explained that Chinese hospitals appear extremely crowded but that for every patient there are at least 5-6 relatives in tow. You notice them all jammed up in the elevators, transporting bedding, equipment, extra food, basins and vitamins back and forth, tagging along to examinations, keeping granny company, interpreting a doctor’s advice, listening in for an elderly deaf ear, pushing wheelchairs, giving emotional support or just doing their filial duty.

She feels that Chinese hospitals and hospital care, although appearing chaotic and inefficient on the surface, is much cosier and more personal than Western hospitals. There’s always someone to keep you company, run after a prescription for you or wait in line when you yourself, the sick person, clearly isn’t quite up to it. She related how patients who shared the same diagnosis grouped together and willingly gave each other advice, went off to examinations together and comforted each other, sharing the misery and trying to make it a little less.

Herself a smoker she enjoyed visiting the area where the surgeons hung out to smoke, their ashtrays overflowing with piled up butts. She related how doctors’ in general are very abrupt, curt and matter-of-fact, totally lacking bedside manner and how they could easily tell a patient in front of an entire room of other patients that their diagnosis was cancer. Sometimes the sheer immensity of human beings in China deadens one's sensitivities. 

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Jiàn zi 毽子 Chinese shuttlecock

Wuhou Hengjie 090425 ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

Right after I made the posting below with a picture of a man playing Chinese featherball in Beijing I met this sweet old lady on the street here in Chengdu. She makes handmade featherballs at home and sold me two for 4 yuan a piece. 

Friday, April 24, 2009

Only in China...

Met a friend of mine today and we started talking about our mothers and their ages. He asked how old my mother was and he said his own mother was a "dog". I answered "Wow, my mother's a dog too!"

Took my mother to the doctor yesterday to examine her knee that is giving her lot's of pain. She thought that she might have strained the knee-joint on the flight over from Europe. The doctor looked at her knee X-rays and burst out happily: "Good news! No problem! Your knee is so bad because you're so old! Nothing to do!"

Seen embroidered in big letters on a girl's pants bottom today: Teenie Weenie.
Learnt a new expression which means "being cold and hungry": 

"Drink the Northwest Wind".   běifēng 喝西北風

My friend from the first entry above said his mother used to always yell at him when he was young:

"You're so lazy you'll end up drinking the Northwest Wind!"

Another telling expression about bad times and starvation is "painting a cake to allay one's hunger": huà bǐng chōng jī 充饥.

Ze Puppies Rocked the Worm!

Chengdu Bookworm April 24, 2009 ©IBM

ZePuppies blew away the crowd yesterday at the Chengdu Bookworm, even the old neighborhood ladies, passersbys, rickshaw drivers and parking attendants were packed in the doorway hoping to catch a glimpse of Chengdu's latest music phenomenon! Playing everything from The Ramones to AC/DC they totally bombarded the Du with their ultimate SWEETNESS! Those who want to see Harley Fagan, Charles Dupont, Romain Rabany and Burton Booz perform again will hopefully catch them next time at the Bookworm's May 12th earthquake commemorative benefit event organized by Sichuan Quake Relief. Huanying guanglin!

Temple of Heaven Park 3

Old folks "baby gym" 
Jiàn zi 毽子 - Chinese featherball or shuttlecock
Leg exercisers.

Qigong April 2009 all photos ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

We've recently been discussing "health issues", so here are more images from the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Exercise machines like those featured above are soon going to be introduced outdoors in at least one Swedish city to encourage adults (not just children) to exercise. The featherball game pictured above is called jiànzi 毽子 and is one of the most common exercise games in China. (It is also called jiànqiú (毽球) among many other names). It is common in other parts of Asia as well (seems its the national sport in Vietnam, da cau) and is a cheap sport - you only need enthusiasm and the featherball which costs 3-4 yuan. The feathercock is heavily weighted on the bottom with a small number of metal or plastic discs. The point is to keep it up in the air for as long as possible, either passing it back and forth to fellow players or by yourself - all the while never using the hands. The more elegant and tricky the better! Jianzi has existed in some form in China for at least 2,000 years and is now played competitively in many countries around the world. 

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Viagra in China

Wan ai ge! Chengdu 090424 ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

Many Westerner's believe that China and the Chinese are shy and squeamish about sex. Not so I think, they have a much more healthy attitude towards sex and the body than say that prudish and many times hypocritical of all nations the United States. Sex shops can be found all over China, staffed by matter-of-fact grannies in drab-gray doctor's coats willing to explain every sex aid in excrutiating detail, never blinking an eyelash. The body and its natural functions and ailments are treated quite matter-of-factly and a good example is this quite large advertisement for Viagra at the front of a drugstore on the First Ring Road in Chengdu. (The young man in the picture is selling cosmetics and has nothing to do with this story ;-). 

Viagra is well-known all over China and can even be bought over the counter in bus stations and airports. Fake Viagra exists of course and a Chinese equivalent is also produced (much cheaper but clinical tests...who knows? ). On tours some of my Swedish travelers ask for it, thinking it would perhaps be much cheaper to buy in China than in Sweden, but the cost is about the same and I would be very careful about recommending anyone to use the fake pills, who knows what the Chinese put into those! Even though millions and millions of Chinese men supposedly use Viagra today (Pfizer must be raking in the dough) since it is still so expensive most men here can't afford it. Traditional medicines exist aplenty but seemingly don't do the trick like Viagra - Chinese scientists even feed it to pandas (they also let them watch x-rated movies). Besides putting the tickle back in your pickle it can also be used to prevent flowers from wilting and a more recent discovery is that it works well combating high altitude pulmonary edema associated with altitude sickness. Hey, if that's true I'm on! 

The ad above offers a 145 yuan reduction/savings on the standard price and the three large characters are its official Chinese name (chosen I guess because it sounds roughly like "Viagra"): Wàn ài  万艾可 roughly translates as "10,000 - beautiful (or more commonly - mugwort (Artemisia vulgris) - possibilities", Below this in red is its more popular colloquial name wěi  哥 ("great elder brother", or even better "Mighty Brother"), Supposedly in Taiwan Viagra is known as wei er gang, "fierce and strong". All right already, strong is fine, drop the fierce! 

In traditional Chinese thinking "like is cured with like", thus you can find snake skin in Chinese apothecaries used for curing skin conditions and unfortunately all those rhino horns, dried penises and tiger bones, causing the eminent extinction of many animal species. The poor little seahorse is racing on its way to complete elimination because of the belief that eating it in a wine or rice porridge can cure impotency. In Beijing there is even a restaurant that serves penis of all shapes and sizes from almost any animal (with a penis) you can imagine.  (Paddy's comment: "Did you know that there's a worm whose reproductive organ is half his body length?")

Sad that all this isn't as easily fixed as flicking a light switch!

At anytime of the day or night  this lamp will "rise to the occasion" and wake you. "Viagra" blue lampshade included!


Chengdu April 24, 2009 ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

Today's flower purchase, five bunches of cornflowers for 20 yuan (22 SEK) from a farmer lady walking the streets with a basket backpack. The color combination is incredibly beautiful with different shades of blue, pink, purple and vermillion. They are just too beautiful!

Cool girls

Click on image to make larger! Wuhou Hengjie April 23, 2009 Chengdu ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

Met these wild girls on the way to dinner today. They were just too irresistible to not photograph. Reconfirms what I have said so many times before: I live on the cooooooolest street in Chengdu!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Mu Guiying and Chinese names


I've been reading in the New York Times (article here) how the Chinese government is trying to push through a name reform. Chinese families have of late been choosing more and more names which utilize unusual and uncommon Chinese characters. This has resulted in problems when issuing ID cards. Computers can not recognize these unusual characters and thus the government wants to issue a list of characters that future parents will be allowed to use when giving their child a name. This might sound strange to Western ears but in China the family surname, xìng性 comes first followed by one or two given names, míng . Surnames in China are quite limited as compared to say the United States where 70,000 surnames cover 90 percent of Americans. In China 85 percent of the population share only around 100 family names. Thus the importance put on the given name, which is created by the parents and has virtually endless possibilities. The government wants to limit the number of characters parents are allowed to use to around 8,500. Parents are just not having it though so nothing definite has happened yet.

My Chinese name is  Guìyīng 穆桂英. Whenever I tell this name to a native Chinese they burst out laughing and ask me if I know who Mu Guiying was. After all these years I do know of course, she was a famous female warrior and general and heroine of the Yang Saga, a popular fiction from the Northern Song, depicting the heroic Yang family  of warriors. Mu Guiying is often depicted in Chinese opera and she is as famous as Hua Mulan which is more well known in the West because of the Disney movies loosely depicting her  life. Brave and clever Mu Guiying is described like this by poet Du Fu in "Viewing a Student of Madame Kung Sun": “Her swinging sword flashes like nine falling suns shot by Yet the legendary bowman; she moves with the force of a team of Dragons driven by the gods through the sky; her strokes and attacks are like those of terrible thunder; and when she stops all is still as water reflecting the clear moonlight.”
Why do I have this name? It was given to me in 1991 by Chinese friends here in Chengdu. They thought that it both sounded like my real name (Ingrid/Guiying (or Yinggui in reverse) and  Morejohn/Mu) and that it of course reflected my personality. Can't argue with either and it's a name that has been very easy to use all these years. Once heard no one ever forgets me or my name!

You can read more here about the popular opera Mu Guiying Takes Command.

Walking slowly and eating doufu

There are many wonderful Chinese expressions that I enjoy hearing and using. A simple, very common one that you hear everyday is 走 mànmàn zǒu! Literally "go or walk slowly" but the actual meaning is Please stay! What could be nicer? Writer/artist Rabih Alameddine expressed delight in this expression at the Bookworm Literally Festival and his impish comment made me think how right he was, why rush through life when every little second is so interesting that if you don't walk slowly you might miss its many colors, shades and nuances?

There is another similar expression, used at the beginning of a meal, when a Chinese host asks you to start eating: 慢慢吃 màn màn chī = lit. "eat slowly". The thought here is not for you to be a good girl and chew every morsel carefully but to "enjoy your meal", in other words " bon appetit!"

When I'm on the subject of Chinese expressions it makes me think of another one that I learnt the other day. (An aside to fellow "Skåningar": Why do I hear HippHipp in my head -  "Expressions, uuuttryck"??) 

Let me explain:

Next week my family and I and a bunch of friends are going up to the mountains around Songpan in northern Sichuan to ride horses on a three day "horse trek". Over twenty years ago I did this once before, at a time when it was very new and there were few tourists in the area. The bus from Chengdu to Songpan took two days, stopping either in Maoxian or Wenchuan on the way up and the road was horrendous. I met another foreigner on the bus and we decided to do the trek together. We rented horses with a horse handler. (The horse handler is what I'm eventually leading up to.) The other day here in Chengdu a Chinese friend explained to me how you say "goose someone" (actually "tease or flirt with someone") in Chinese slang: Eat their tofu (吃豆腐chī dòu fu). Back to the horseman: every time I wanted to get back up into the saddle he was there as fast as an oiled weasel ready to "help me" by giving me a firm crotch hoist into the saddle, all the while with a wily Tibetan grin on his face. Upon hearing my telling of this memory (after recounting her own trials and tribs on her trip to Songpan) she burst out laughing: Tā zhēnde chī  de dòu fu le! He really ate your tofu!! 你的豆腐了!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

# 59 Today's picture Garlic Man

Shanghai Garden, Chengdu 090419 ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

This afternoon I came across this man chopping large cloves of garlic in a plastic box in front of a restaurant behind Shanghai Garden. The garlic was about eight inches deep and he was deftly wielding two large Chinese cleavers, preparing finely chopped and minced garlic for the restaurant's evening session. That he was sitting outside on the curb doing this, chatting with the kitchen staff who were taking a break and catching up on their smokes, seemed perfectly natural.

Ze Puppies Bookworm Friday April 24

Charles Dupont 090419 ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

Ze Puppies (Burton Booz, Charles Dupont, Romain Rabany and new member bass player Harley Fagan Jr) will be playing this Friday (April 24) at the Bookworm, 8.30 pm. Please: friends, family and friendly strangers, come and listen and give them encouragement. They have a few new rocking songs in their repertoire and if all goes well they will play again on May 12th at the earthquake benefit. Better come early if you want to sit down, see you there!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Thai, Chinese and learning a foreign language

My Swedish friend photographer Susanna in Bangkok wrote this week on her blog "Bangkok Life" about how she has gone about learning Thai. She went to a language school where the students weren't allowed to speak! (Paddy's comment: "very Zen"). The students were expected to learn the language by listening like small children on their parent's laps, imitating the sounds and eventually getting it right. Sounds like a kind of "Suzuki" method of language comprehension to me. But it seemed to work fine for Susanna and others.

Susanna's teachers were very clever at acting out everything they were saying in Thai and this made me think about my own Chinese lessons at "Chinese Corner" here in Chengdu. Chinese people in general are not very good at using their bodies and physical gestures to convey thoughts. Their body language is virtually silent which can often be frustrating when I myself am trying to convey something in broken Chinese and use gestures and pictures in the air - most people just don't get it. Their trust in the verbal language is so great it can sometimes be very frustrating. I have to repeat myself over and over, more and more exaggerating my movements each time, in the end resorting to drawings etc until my need is conveyed. Even pictures and especially maps and "directional, spatial, abstract thinking" seems to be something that Chinese lack general training in. When shown a city map it is often held upside down, a picture is scrutinized in laborious detail, as if hunting for a hidden clue unlocking its secrets. I have found though that as more and more Chinese travel outside of their own "comfort zone" of regional and cultural  familiarity, their ability to communicate and think abstractly develops. Perfectly understandable.  

On the other hand they are usually extremely forgiving of a foreigner's idiotic attempts at speaking the language. They listen very patiently, offer umpteen loud suggestions as to what on earth you are trying to say, the volume of their suggestion increasing with each sentence, and generally end the entire inane conversation with a positive compliment of  "My, you really speak fantastic Chinese!" Even when what has just come out of your mouth were more like the insane incoherent ramblings of someone with their tongue cut off having an epileptic fit with their arms flying about in the air like a windmill that has lost a few screws and threatens to decapitate the audience........(Something like what Paddy calls an "illogical fit".)

I have two teachers at Chinese Corner, one is better at acting out the language than the other and it is also reflected in her personality. I enjoy these lessons immensely and because the classes are almost all "one on one" we are encouraged to speak as much as possible, of course only in Chinese and never in our native tongue. One day a week I share a lesson in "conversational Chinese" with a Spanish friend B. from Barcelona. We get to talk about whatever we want and being two ladies with a latin background we never lack for anything to babble on about. Usually we are screaming with laughter, the teacher too who loves to teach us lot's of slang and colloquial sayings. Last Friday she commented that I was good at "tooting my own horn" and taught me two ways to say this in Chinese:

I.e. "pay myself a complement", (svenska: en riktig skrytmoster med andra ord).

B. from Barcelona commented that in Mexico where she grew up they say it like this:

"My, aren't you putting a lot of sour cream in your tacos!"