Bravo, Brahms!

My brain does not let me down often in Nanjing. I manage to memorise names of colleagues – names like Kojima, Kaylan, Kelsey; and that’s just the letter K. Then there is the Academy itself with its floors and plazas and wings and staircases. There’s the new schedule, with classes during school hours, classes during lunch break, and evening classes. Finally, the new workload includes weekly plans, lesson plans, PPTs, exam prep sessions and ad hoc meetings called at a moment’s notice; in the auditorium, the library, the staff room, or elsewhere. So when I come home, I keel over and sleep, save for the odd combat session with an intrusive cockroach.

I eat at the school canteen twice a day and now, after two weeks, I really crave for cheese and crackers and milk and wine. When my flight refund arrives, I buy a bright red bike – now it’s only 5 minutes to work and not a 25 minutes’ trudge. So, on my first day off, I will shop in the centre of Pukou, the area where I live, on the left bank of the Yangtse (with the other bank housing Nanjing proper). It is over 30 °C and a film of sweat covers every part of me even before I start pedalling.

Google Maps is banned and paper maps are extinct in China, so I have to use the Baidu navigation app. My co-teacher enters the location of the Bravo, an upscale supermarket that may just have real Red Bull (it didn’t), Gouda or at least Edam cheese (it didn’t), genuine pasta (forget it) and pasteurised milk (no). The app says 38 minutes for the 7km, but I pedal it in 30 after getting lost twice on building sites. Baidu lacks the roads newly put in, and also has not updated many former thoroughfares now closed off, interrupted by colossal building projects.

In fact, all around my flat, huge fields are dug up. Night and day, motorcades of trucks remove the earth, while others drive in the concrete. An average project will produce 20 to 30 tower blocks, changing the cityscape from year to year. Every area here looks like the next, but I have my phone to navigate, and, sure, 52% power should be enough for a little shopping trip. Right?

I have always felt ageless on a bike, from when I was 8 onwards; an immortal superman in his element. Whizzing past the bright LED facades of down-town Pukou is a VR survival game. Traffic comes at me from all directions, at varying speeds. Red light, green light; it makes no difference to the Chinese: pedestrians, e-scooters, skateboards, SUVs – they all change direction, swerve, practically dance on the road. I am no saint either; the traffic lights have time indicators, and when it’s red and counting down from 160, I will cheat and cut through the perpendicular traffic stream if I think I have a decent chance of making it alive.

I shop for two hours in the Bravo, marvelling at products different from the fish spines, chicken bone marrow, and hairy mushrooms spread out on the stalls around my apartment block. I have to get wine glasses, mais oui, and jars of pasta sauce, and a frying pan. “Buy a heavy one,” Doro said, „they are durable.”

The shopping does not fit in my rucksack so I must loosen the straps to fit it on my back, and also dangle a plastic bag from my handle bars as I head home. Oh, right, so it’s gone dark all of a sudden. Moon navigation was never my strong suit; I’ll have to stop at every major crossroads to find my digital bearings. 31% juice, no problem, I am getting closer. Am I? I take a coke break along a hard shoulder. At least, I muse, if I have to sleep rough tonight, I’ll have plenty of food and drink – laughing to myself; I am just so bloody witty tonight.

The flyovers and other roads-on-stilts make it hard to turn, and when my route curves away and goes steeply up, I realise I haven’t been here before. But the blue arrow on the app leads me back. Back where though? I had asked my colleagues to type in my new address as the ‘home’ location, but they were unable to – Chinese people don’t move around much I guess, and now the app thinks I’m still in Yueyang, where I installed it a year ago. The time needed to cycle home is indicated as 62 hours. Just so funny.

More roads pass under my wheels as I push on in my Trance of Pain. Man, the shopping on my back is a tiresome burden. “Get a heavy one,” she said, “it will heat your food evenly.” The major road leading up to the route I took on the way in, is blocked with rows of cranes and builder’s barracks. I try to go around, but the path gets narrower and steeper as it winds and winds and then I hit sand and whip out my Samsung Galaxy once more. 13% – shall I call a colleague and beg for help? I can send out my precise location through the Wechat app. No, I have my pride; I dim the screen to save the battery and soldier on past huge campuses and across bridges and office blocks. None of it looks familiar, and at the same time, all of it does. I may never make it, not for all the T-junctions in China, as I find my road walled up again, and push my Taiwanese two-wheeler through a tarpaulin-covered hellscape, shoulders aching. “Get a big pan,” she said, “You’ll fit everything in – you may have guests over.” Ha, they’ll never find me.

As always when I’m in a scram, the finale of Brahms’ First Symphony takes up residence inside my head, and I only become aware of it after I’ve been humming its main theme and variations for 200 nervous pedal turns. If I ever happen to suffer a stressful death, it will no doubt be the last music I hear, this slight rip-off of Land of Hope and Glory. Danke, Johannes.

I feel like I’m halfway to Tibet. I take out the phone again; 1%, and with the Samsung logo, my smart phone goes AWOL. Now a lot of options have suddenly vanished: I can’t phone, I can’t book a Didi (the Chinese Uber), and I have no map. I used to carry my home address with me in simplified Chinese on a piece of paper, but then stupidly emptied my rucksack before I set out today, readying it for all the shopping. “Get a big one,” she said, “with a glass lid – quality is key.”

Pedalling straight on, uphill; legs burning, bum numb, my back feels like I’ve had eight consecutive massages by Thai MMA fighters. I reach a major road where bikes are banned. I turn around to try another way through, soon marvelling at the timeless Feng Shit of more dusty, cordoned-off building sites. The Great Wall may be splendid, but it’s these smaller ones that are really starting to piss me off. Even in September at this hour, it is a humid 28 degrees under the full moon and I am leaking sweat like an addict in withdrawal mode. Now I understand why this part of China does not have any greenhouses: no tomato wouldn’t notice the difference. Trucks rumble past as I begin to despair in earnest. This was supposed to be a shopping trip, okay? Not the Beijing Olympics.

A young man struggling with a dying e-scooter stalls next to me, and I perform my best harmless&helpless foreigner routine. We instinctively bond over our empty battery problems. His English is largely fictitious, but he gives me his power bank; of course with a plug that won’t fit – industry standards are for sissies don’t you know. I take his device and type in my school: Hankai Academy, but the Chinese keyboard setting transforms it into Pinyin (the Chinese way of dealing with our alphabet). Mao only knows what that produces, and Scooter Man’s stunned expression betrays that not much of the meaning has remained. Perhaps it now reads „Sexy Lab Rabbit”, or „Soft Yellow Orb”. He is a darling and tries to phone his girl, who has once heard six more English words than he, but she won’t answer pick up. He points to where I came from and says: „Go! Go – are little people.”

„There are Little People??” Stunned, I gesture below the hip.

-”No, oh, no, lottle people.”

„Ah, a lot of people! You’re sending me back to the centre.”

He’s been as useful as a giant panda. I greet him cordially, curse and turn around to where I came from, Brahms’ deafening crescendos bouncing around my battered brain in my private, personal China Syndrome. It strikes me as beyond irony that I should be utterly lost, not in the Serengeti or on the Mongolian steppes, but in a city of eight million. After twenty minutes of plodding misery, I enter central Pukou – again. Nobody here speaks English, so all these lottle people might as well be yaks, or a terracotta army for all I care. Just when I want to start screaming randomly, a pedestrian calls out to me invitingly. „Hello!” I squeeze the brakes to swerve around and ask him, „Hello! Can you help me?” But alas, „hello” was the full extent of his ESL – he really only called out on behalf of his son, who has English in school, and to whom he now points. So I smile and bend over, putting my life in the hands of this 10-year-old, and say

„Hello! I am LOST!”

-”Hello,” he replies cheerfully, „I am Kevin!”

I groan and grit my teeth, turn around again and randomly enter a restaurant with fifteen customers. I promise myself, if I survive this, to study Sun Tzu’s lesser-known second book, The Art of Where? My back is now the most painful thing in China since foot-binding was abolished. Hallucinating freely, I grab the owner’s pen from a box on the counter and write on the tab „Hankai Academy, Wuhua Road, Pukou” which is all I know (my own home address is still unmemorisable to me).

It is the Kindness of Strangers I am drawing on here. The waiter is clueless and I feel like a fool in a china shop, but then, one of the eaters stands up and speaks some Chinglish, typing away on her knock-off iPhone clone. She finds my school online – the breakthrough I needed. I ask her to write it down in the local scribble script, almost kiss her, and run out to get a taxi. I tie my bike to a post – at least my second bike lock came in the mail this morning, so there is a reasonable chance that it will be recoverable tomorrow.

Taxis in China have a red or a green light in their windscreen, which means absolutely nothing. The green ones could be driving someone around ‘off the meter’, having negotiated a better deal. The red ones could still stop and pick you up if you are going in the same direction as the person already in the cab. So I wave at all of them, invariably getting gestures and looks thrown back that range from „can’t you read the light, you tall, foreign thicko?”, to „don’t you see there are already three passengers here, you alien dork?”

On this evening before a holiday, many people need taxi rides. Inconspicuously, staring at their phones, Chinese pedestrians come to loiter ten yards up the road from me, to suddenly flag down the taxi that I was so happy to see slow down for me. This means I have to keep overtaking those scroungers, to stand to the left of them, all the time carrying my bursting rucksack and shopping bag ever further in the wrong direction along the street. “Get a heavy one,” she said, “They stabilise the temperature.”

My bed (God knows where it is) is the Yang I am so longing for, but for now I’m firmly stuck in the Yin. Time for assertive action, then. I prey at the crossroads for the next taxi that halts at the red light, and it is going to be mine. I open its door and confidently plant myself next to the driver. “No,” he yells in Mandarin, “you can’t DO that.”

“Oh, but I just did, didn’t you see?” I grin back. Had I phoned him, he asks, to book his taxi? No, but I simply need a taxi. He calls a number and a lady confirms she is standing ten paces away from us, waiting. He gestures me out but I smile and refuse. He starts the car and then brakes, to give a physical signal that my short ride is over. I ignore this. He puts his manager on, who tells me the bare facts in decent English. I stay put. I am banking on a lovely national trait that I’ve exploited before: when the Chinese are presented with a truly tricky situation, Taoism kicks in and they accommodate.

First, the lady is brought to her destination, and then I get my ride. It is in the other direction I would have gone, through a Gesamtkunstwerk of scaffolding and netted trenches. China’s land surface must be 80% concrete high-rise shells, with the other 20% made up of blocked roads. I would indeed never have made it back on my own, let’s face it. I’d be this grizzled, wandering freak in the surrounding hills that anthropologists would come to film using drones, watching me clutch my fists at the camera.

At the school, I have to insist the driver drives on, to my flat – I certainly know this stretch and I am buggered if I am going to walk the 25 minutes home. Now he laughs and we get there quickly. Chinese people are never grumpy – I admire that. I walk from the gate of my estate to my block, still cursing the dead weight crushing my shoulders. “Get a heavy one,” she said, “the teflon will last longer.” The odyssey back from the Bravo has lasted over four hours, and I fall asleep under the shower before hauling myself to bed, still wet, feeling like I’m on Rohypnol.

The next morning I take a Didi to central Pukou to walk around for half the afternoon in the never-familiar heat, looking for my bike. I remember leaving it near a Huawei shop, but it turns out there are at least seven Huawei shops in Pukou. My phone has charged all night; a power bank is attached to it at all times. Then, suddenly, I recognise the restaurant, and enter it to thank the owner through my translation app. Right outside, the bike is there and I ride it home, exalted.

Yes, I got out of that one; bravo, Mark. But I have a feeling I’ll be humming a lot more Brahms before the year is out

Translating and interpreting Mandarin: a piece of cake these days?

Will modern China travellers ever need to learn Mandarin? Well, as a language teacher who speaks five, I am quite biased, yet would still say “No, not really”. My family and I have solved quite complex problems here, without any Mandarin skills to speak of.

Baidu Translate is a phone app that I speak into, in English, and within two seconds the Mandarin appears in script and through the loudspeaker.

phone translation

Using just this interpreting app, I have retrieved my bank card that the cash point ate, restored water and gas supply, bought funky Chinese pears (the best in the world), and enjoyed discussing many topics with my neighbours, despite, no – because of, hilarious errors at every digital turn. The excitement of suddenly getting through to Chinese people who never bothered to learn English is fantastic. Nobody is safe anymore – communication cannot be avoided by anyone.

The reverse translation is also possible, and when I mix that up, surreal mishaps occur. Once, discussing the size of my fries order in McDonald’s, my app expected Chinese input but caught my spoken English, and then out came Li Zunquit stinky brother. I took a screenshot after I came round from pissing myself:


In light of of this, I would caution against conducting high-level nuclear negotiations this way, for now.Yet only 25 years ago, I giggled through Douglas Adams’ books with the concept of a translating „Babel fish” you put in your ear, which then guides you through any language in the galaxy, and nothing more than wonder and merriment filled my head. But today I can anticipate tiny earbuds connected to smartphones to automatically pick out the language spoken, translating it instantly: Adams’ idea will soon have been realised in its essence.

Baidu Translate and similar apps also allow capturing a picture or text; from menus, books, or facades, and they then superimpose the translated text onto the original image. This is simply magical, and will no doubt soon be possible in real time, superimposed through smart glasses for instance, so that I can walk around in Smøddårsfeien and forget that all the writing in front of me is in a language other than English. But for now, thankfully, guesswork and imagination cannot be left at home just yet.

Facade Translation

I feel privileged and pleasantly tickled that I am enjoying these marvels now, when they are fresh and still deliciously plagued by glitches. They keep the mystery of travelling alive.

History of China, part 2: Last Emperors and Mao

Mao and modern China

The last two emperor dynasties preceding modern China, Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1636-1912), each lasted exactly 276 years, and then the country had had enough of emperors, and they went for communism instead, which had been dreamt up by a German Jew in London and first put into large-scale practice by the Russians, with brutal results. And whatever you feel about it, the Chinese have enjoyed seventy-five years of peace since then, although their economic successes came only decades after those of democratic systems in the west.

Mao Zedong was of course China’s Twentieth-Century Man. He was born in Hunan, where I am writing these words, on the second day of Christmas in the same year as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Hermann Göring, but I’m quite sure the three never met. He was a Renaissance Man: an accomplished poet, political thinker, super organiser, and military strategist. His portrait still adorns many buildings, dashboards, and living rooms today, as I’ve noticed during my evening walks and taxi rides. You can find his iconic features on sale at my local market, woven into carpets, slickly printed on gilded wood, and cast as busts.

His strict dad had made it from poor peasant to wealthy landowner, and beat him a lot as a child. The young Mao tried his mum’s Buddhism for a while but fell out of faith as a teenager. First, he admired George Washington and loved the idea of democracy for China. A regional famine caused hungry peasants to seize his father’s grain and, at 16, his loyalties were torn. By then, he’d already been married for four years in order to unite two landowning families. He hated his wife, who was four years older, but still a teenager, too, and left her, after which she died, disgraced. What respect Mao still had for the old ways of China, died then as well.

Soon he cut off his long, braided pig tail, the hairstyle that showed loyalty to the emperor. Sun Yat-sen, a local, British-educated Christian rebel thinker, became his idol and Mao joined a rebellious army, but before he got a chance to fight, they had won and the monarchy was abolished. Then 18 years old, Mao stumbled upon socialism and loved it even more than Buddha, democracy, and Christ.


He tried, and dropped out of, five schools in a row, but started reading the political section at his local library, devouring Spencer, Mill, Rousseau, and even Darwin, and toyed with the tenets of liberalism. His dad hated Mao’s reading appetite and cut his allowance so he had to move to the poorhouse, where he decided to become a teacher and writer, and his first article stressed how a person’s physical strength needed training to help China onward. He loved showing off his own strength, and finished the teachers’ academy at the age of 26 and very fit. In an interesting parallel with other nationalist leaders like Napoleon, Stalin, and Hitler, Mao was bullied and snubbed by the elites and intellectuals at university for his rural accent, which surely helped to ally himself with the common people.

Mao went to Beijing to work as a library assistant, living in a single room-apartment with seven other men from his home province. His parents died a few months apart, but Mao did not go back home for the funerals, instead moving to Shanghai. The big spark under his revolutionary movement was, surprisingly, the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which really has a lot to answer for, historically speaking. Under its provisions, the Chinese territories that Germany was forced to give up, were given to Japan. Mao blamed China’s social and cultural backwardness for this debacle, and his lifelong obsession with cultural reform had started in earnest.

Advocating trade unions, feminism, aid for the poor, and well-organised strikes: back in his old province Hunan, now as a teacher, Mao just couldn’t sit still. During a visit in Beijing, he discovered that his early writings had become quite famous there; he also picked up a fresh translation of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto and there was no stopping him from then on. In the post-dynastic power vacuum, many governors were really just warlords, so he had easy targets. Opening a revolutionary bookshop was the first step.

A nationalist Chinese group led by Chiang Kai Shek was now slowly taken over by communists like Mao, and this proved a potent cocktail for change, strengthened when he revisited his old home town and its peasantry. This resulted in his wonderfully-penned Regulations for the Repression of Local Bullies and Bad Gentry, where everybody who owned more than four acres of land was automatically the enemy of the revolution, and which encouraged farmers to stop paying rent altogether.

Chiang Kai Shek, a Japanese-educated leader, was in charge of China at the time and started to come down hard on the communists, executing tens of thousands of them. In desperation, Mao turned to poetry and penned his first famous verses, entitled Changsha:

I see a thousand hills

crimsoned through

By their serried woods deep-dyed

And a hundred barges vying

Over crystal blue waters.

Eagles cleave the air

Fish glide in the limpid deep

Under freezing skies a million creatures contend in freedom.

Brooding over this immensity

I ask, on this boundless land

Who rules over man’s destiny?

That would be Mao himself of course, that ruler, but not for a while. In 1930, his wife and his sister were beheaded by the nationalists, and he suffered from tuberculosis after several military setbacks.

He Zizhen

But Mao married a lovely, firy 18-year-old who gave him five children and he was clearly on the way up this time. The biggest battle dramas took place, as if by fate, in his home province of Hunan. From there, he fought himself slowly north, for years, in the marshes, crossing rivers and mountains with dwindling forces that succumbed to famine and disease, struggling against everything the Beijing powers could throw at him – things like Islamic cavalry militia. With barely 7,000 survivors, his Long March ended not far from Beijing. He Zizhen, his firebrand wife, got some shrapnel stuck in her head and travelled to Moscow for treatment, which must have been a welcome respite for Mao, because he divorced her immediately and replaced her with a younger one, an actress this time, before taking a well-deserved study break, living in a cave and tending his garden.

Pragmatically, Mao teamed up with his foe, Chiang Kai Shek, but they could not prevent the atrocities of the Nanking Massacre, of which Mao never spoke a word in his lifetime. However, that Japanese barbarity caused an outrage that made the Chinese resistance army swell tenfold in size, and together they won some impressive battles against the Japanese. Although the Americans were much more impressed with Mao’s faction because of his tight organisation’s relative lack of corruption, they sided with Chiang Kai Shek’s forces because, well, these weren’t communist.

Nevertheless, Mao won out after another ten bloody years of civil war and Chiang Kai Shek fled to Taiwan, causing a split that is still playing out today.

It is hard for a later generations to hold nuanced views of their national uniter hero, as can be seen with the myth-building around brilliant yet flawed strongmen such as Augustus, Napoleon, Atatürk, Bolívar, Piłsudski, and Lenin. The first sixty years of Mao were really rather mythically glorious. But during the next twenty-two, he often lost the plot with nightmarish results.

Mao took up residence next door to the Forbidden City and conducted his office either from his bed, or poolside, and in leisurewear if possible. This business included organising the execution of millions of landowners and rich peasants during mass beatings all over rural China. Some policies, such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, initiated waves of several million suicides, when many people realised what was coming and took the merciful way out. In 1950s Shanghai, so many people would jump from tall buildings that pedestrians avoided the pavements near skyscrapers for fear of being hit by a jumper.

Unquestionably, Mao’s darkest hour was his industrial revolution programme that pulled millions of farmers into steel factories, the Great Leap Forward, which saw agricultural production plummet, resulting in the starvation of 52 million Chinese in the late 1950s, a trauma still felt and remembered by older residents all over the country.

Many lower-level bureaucrats had wildly exaggerated the amount of farm produce in their areas to raise their personal profiles, and now it turned out that the food wasn’t there. Amazingly, Mao’s government kept exporting foods during the famine. He was not told the extent of the disaster – nobody close to him was brave enough to own up to the truth. When he finally found out, he stopped eating meat. The programme also failed its primary objective because the scrap metal, often melted down from household items, was of such low quality that much steel proved useless.

Some of his enduring achievements included the eradication of opium use (by forcing cold turkey and counselling on ten million addicts), and ceasing all poppy production in the 1950s. He pushed simplified Chinese writing and later Pinyin, (which is Chinese written in the Latin alphabet). Literacy more than tripled during his reign, education became mandatory for all, satellites were sent into space as early as 1970, healthcare was free, and Mao wildly propagated the mango as the wonderful fruit that it clearly is. And if you survived his programmes, life expectancy was twice what it was before, so that despite the many avoidable deaths, China’s population doubled during Mao’s time in power. Also, he was the first Chinese leader in three millennia who did not want his son to take over, instead opting for a system of merit that has definitely worked for China since then.


Finally, we cannot leave out his eponymous hairstyle, the telephone receiver sitting askance the skull. He’d already tried mullets and quiffs in all sizes by the time he’d purged his own hairdresser, when his fourth wife came up with the idea of the ill-fitting headphones, and it stuck.

Mao only left China twice, both times to Russia, and the world may have been grateful for that. He felt looked down upon by his hosts, first Stalin and then Khrushchev, and planned his sweet revenge by hosting the latter in Beijing for high-level strategic talks in his swimming pool. Short, clumsy Nikita could not swim and had to enter the water with inflatable water wings around his arms, flapping about nervously for hours while Mao confidently whizzed through the water, extrapolating his doctrine.

mao-swim copy

At 68, he took in a 14-year-old concubine and stayed with her for 10 years. All in all, he fathered ten kids with four wives. He loved pork belly with caramel sugar and he never brushed his teeth, because, as he asked, “does a tiger brush his teeth?” No, but tigers don’t eat caramelised pork either, and the chain-smoking didn’t help, so he was a smelly chairman indeed. His long-time doctor published brutal memoirs in the 1990s, stating that Mao downed dozens of sleeping pills every day, suffered from horrendous constipation all his life, and relished in his personality cult. Mao still lived into his eighties and now lies in quartz crystal coffin in his mausoleum, looking just like he did when he died in 1976, all preserved and waxed up – even though he wanted to be cremated. By far his coolest widow, He Zizhen, was only allowed to see him there once, after she promised not to cry or speak.


His last smart move had been to throw his support behind Deng Xiaoping, with whom he’d disagreed for decades, but somehow always respected, and who would lead China out of communism, economically speaking.

Will modern China also last 276 years, like the previous two dynasties? History proves that it will always be a force to be reckoned with. For the next few decades, it does not take a clairvoyant to see that the growing middle classes, and the world-savvy youngsters, travelling and working abroad, will expect more of a say in how their country is run. Several big cities already publish their budgets online for all to see and judge. Here in Yueyang, the city invites 100 people every year to contribute ideas on how to improve their city. Having a stake in one’s society can only be a force for the good, and it is already happening. Soon, China will be the leader of the world once more.

Mark’s History of China, part 1: from the Paleolithic to the last emperors

Beginnings and unification 

The word ‘China’ is not used by the Chinese themselves, but was coined by the Indians. The Chinese call their country Zhōngguó (中国), meaning “central state”). Close to a million years ago, Peking man lived and used fire near today’s Beijing. Then Homo Sapiens moved in by 100,000 years ago, and started writing things down around 7,000 years ago, when Europeans could just about manage a spear point from antlers. At 2,000 BC, the Chinese had a feudal national culture that gradually united. During the worst wars, the brightest thinkers lived, wrote blistering poetry and founded Confucianism and Daoism.

In 221 BC, 38-year-old Ying Zheng became the first emperor of a united China, and founder of the Qin Dynasty as the wars ended for a while. Ying standardised measurements, weights, writing, and created the Great Wall of China as a unified concept. He built a lot of roads and burnt a lot of books. He buried 460 scholars alive for hanging on to old books which he’d wanted destroyed. He then had a vanity terracotta army of almost 10,000 life-size men and horses built to help him out after his death (at 50). He stamped out coup plotters by executing them, and their families, ‘to the third degree’, which sounds ominous indeed. He had a weakness for musicians, though; when they changed allegiance, he just had their eyes gouged out. One angry blind lute player tried to kill the emperor with his instrument, made more deadly with lead in the fretboard. But, being blind, he missed of course, and the emperor made an exception and had him flayed alive.

The first emperor became obsessed with immortality and sent hundreds of elixir hunters to find him the magic drink. None of them came back, so his court alchemists had a go and started feeding him mercury. That swiftly killed him, and by then, the people had got quite enough of all the laborious building projects and executions, so the empire was taken over by the Han dynasty just three years after Ying Zheng died, and they have been in charge for most of the time since then. Today the Han Chinese make up about 92% of the population. Back in the day, they were the Romans of the Orient, ruling an empire of about the same size and population as the Caesars did.


Everybody knows how inventive the Chinese have been: paper, ink, printing, gunpowder, bombard weapons, porcelain, lacquer, bricks, banknotes, brandy, the umbrella, the toothbrush, the compass, civil servant exams, crossbows, footballs, tofu, oils wells, pipelines, sunglasses, tea, toilet paper, and envelopes were all thought up in China, alongside a global wish list of agricultural innovations. The Chinese already had gaslight around 500 BC, and internal-combustion rocket propulsion was up and working in 1264! 

Two interesting emperors 

Since Ying Zheng unified the country, a dozen dynasties have led us to the current day. 7th-century Wu Zetian, an ex-concubine, was the only female emperor China ever had, and she had to execute the queen, the queen-mum, and massacre fifteen branches of the imperial family to eliminate rivals to her throne. Running China from her mid-thirties onward, she strangled her own infant daughter, framing a rival for her death. Throughout Chinese history, enforced suicide has been the standard way of removing opponents. Wu Zetian had these suicides take place in front of her, just to be absolutely sure. China expanded and thrived under her rule, and she held on to the throne until she was 79.

Often, the last emperor of a dynasty would be the savage brute, obsessed with concubines, booze, and cruelty. Before his fifteen-year reign of misery, third-century Sun Hao had already driven just about everyone close to him to suicide. After that, he had people he did not like punished by gouging out their eyes and peeling off their facial skin. Others he beheaded with a red-hot saw, and he organised entire execution festivals where his opponents and their extended families were painfully dispatched. When his faithful senior minister suffered a stroke and became paralysed, Sun did not believe him and had him whipped, burnt, and cut into pieces, and then exiled his entire clan. When any man in his surroundings wanted to marry, he inspected the bride-to-be first and if he liked her enough, she would be his concubine instead.

He was deeply into prophecies and moved his capital, as well as his court, over 500 km to another city and back again, just to outwit omens. Yet he was totally deaf to competent advice. When millions of wood shavings floated down the Yangtze, his generals understood that somebody was building a war fleet upstream, but Sun wanted none of it and focused on nude dancers instead. When the hostile navy indeed came, he was captured by the first emperor of the next dynasty, and, despite his atrocious past, pardoned and left to drink and party for six more years until his liver gave out, still only 41 years old. 


Most of the plagues that decimated Europe originated in China, and in the thirteenth century, the bubonic plague killed off 70 million Chinese, about half of the population at the time. This disease is still very much with us: even today, every so often, someone along the former Silk Route contacts the plague in China; one such case was in 2014, one of thousands globally every year.

Almost 500 emperors ruled China over the years, 20% of them overthrowing the previous dynasty to get to the throne. Many of them were brilliant organisers who facilitated China’s stable rise up until the Industrial revolution. But the last three were no match for the many foreign interventions, and this cast their divine right to govern in a questionable light. In these wars, the Chinese armies were beaten ten times  in succession, by Burma (1769), Vietnam (1789), the British (1842), the British, French, and Americans (1860), the Uzbekis (1870), the French again (1885), and the Japanese (1895). Then, more defeat came at the hands of Japan, Russia, Britain, France, the United States, Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary together (1900), followed by Japan once more (1931-1945).

These disasters were bad enough, but there were also many civil wars, where whoever won it; China lost. By far the deadliest conflict in all of world history was one of these; the bloodiest war of all time: forty million dead in the third century AD during the Three Kingdom Wars. That meant that an insane 70% of all Chinese died  a reliable number since censuses were carried out several times per dynasty to get the taxation right. Later, twenty-five million perished between 1618 and 1683. Another national disaster, the Taiping Rebellion, sparked by American Christian missionaries’ leaflets, caused the deaths of twenty million Chinese between 1850-1864. Finally, bookending WWII, eight million gave up the ghost during the last civil war from 1927 until 1952, from which Mao emerged triumphant. So, I can understand that in 1978, Deng Xiaoping decided to concentrate his entire 155 cm on the economy instead, for a change, and this has been China’s focus ever since.

(In the second and final part of Mark’s History of China I will get into Mao and beyond.)

Chinese proverbs 2: “If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys”

Cultural transmitters: oral and printed proverbs

How to deal with adversity, how to get success, and the funniest Chinese proverbs all feature in this post.

William Scarborough collected, translated, and published 2720 Chinese proverbs in 1875. Some of these old ones are included here in this, my second installment of oriental nuggets of life advice. The classic short proverbs are called Chéngyǔ, each consisting of only four characters which form tout axioms like:

If you love me, you have to love my dog too.

Longer ones, also dating back centuries, are Xiēhòuyǔ, like this one:

When the wind of change blows, some build walls, while others build windmills.

There are many thousands to savour, and they are still used in education and conversation today, so we can safely call them ‘culture transmitters’. Setbacks and opposition feature heavily among the thousands I have read. Here are my favourites:

Defeat isn’t bitter if you don’t swallow it.

You cannot prevent the birds of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from building nests in your hair.

Unless there is opposing wind, a kite cannot rise.

No matter how tall the mountain is, it cannot block the sun.

To know the road ahead, ask those coming back.

Even the tallest tower started from the ground.

A hundred no’s are less agonizing than one insincere yes.

Don’t listen to what they say – go see.

Rich men accumulate money; the poor accumulate years.

Tips for success and happiness make up another numerous group, drenched in the same wry humanism I have come to admire in these proverbs:

Wealth is like shit: useful only when spread around.

If you want to get along, let the old respect the young.

You won’t help shoots grow by pulling them up higher.

Do not anxiously expect what is not yet come; do not vainly regret what is already past.

Don’t build a new ship out of old wood.

A man who chases two rabbits catches neither.

A clumsy bird that flies first will get to the forest earlier.

If you stand straight, do not fear a crooked shadow.

He who will not economize will have to agonize.

A little impatience will spoil great plans.

Do not believe that you will reach your destination without leaving the shore.

If you want to avoid being cheated, ask for prices at three different stores.

Men trip not on mountains; they trip on molehills.

Man is heaven and earth in miniature.

And finally, here are some humourous sage adages:

A man who keeps his feet firmly on the ground has trouble putting on his trousers.

There is only one pretty child in the world, and every mother has it.

A red-nosed man may be a teetotaller, but no one will believe him.

Experience is a comb that we receive just when we are going bald.

There are always ears on the other side of the wall.

There are two kinds of perfect people: those who are dead, and those who have not been born yet.

The way you cut your meat reflects the way you live.

It is not economical to go to bed early to save the candles if the result is twins.

Do not employ handsome servants.

Want a thing long enough and you don’t.

And in this vein, here is a more recent, nationally known saying:

If you love your children, send them to New York. If you hate your children, also send them to New York.

Chinese proverbs 1: “All things are difficult before they are easy”

For Chinese New year, also known as the Spring Holiday, I trawled through hundreds of Chinese proverbs, so you don’t have to. Most seem lifted straight from humanism; there are almost none that mention a father fairy in the sky. There isn’t anything about inescapable fate, either; what karma is mentioned, is brought by people on themselves. There are many about shops, which is no surprise with China’s millions of small-shopkeepers:

A man without a smiling face must not open a shop.

It is easy to open a shop – the hard part is keeping it open.

The main two topics of Chinese proverbs will be covered in this blog post. Albert Einstein, himself no mean coiner of aphorisms, did not want his diaries published. Of course they were, and so now we know why he was ashamed of them. He visited Shanghai in 1922, and, as he disembarked, he got confirmation that he’d won the Nobel Prize. In great spirits, he sampled the Chinese, writing that for “European visitors like us, comical mutual staring” happened all the time – mirroring my experiences in twenty-first century Yueyang. Just like today, “In the air, there is a stench of never-ending manifold variety,”  and everywhere, “there are loud open workshops and shops, making a great noise, but nowhere is there any quarrelling. […] Even those reduced to working like horses never give the impression of conscious suffering. A peculiar herd-like nation … often more like automatons than people.” Einstein frowned at the Asian squat just like I did the first few months here, surprised at seeing hundreds of people sitting around comfortably in a position “like Europeans do when they relieve themselves out in the leafy woods. All this occurs quietly and demurely.”

Other observations, about the apathy of children, luckily do no longer match mine, and it his clear that he did not have a high opinion of what he saw in 1922. Yet, his “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new,” could be lifted straight from the Confucian tradition, regardless of how strangely they squat in China. As with Einstein’s maxims, the number 1 topic among Chinese proverbs concerns learning, and the right attitude to it. Unchanged today, in China, there has always been a deep respect for teachers, and for books and experience and the tenacity to keep developing. Here is a sample of the best ones on education:

Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

After three days without reading, talk becomes flavourless.

If a son is uneducated, his dad is to blame.

Do not confine your children to your own learning, for they were born in another time.

A nation’s treasure is in its scholars.

Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still.

Teachers open the door but you must walk through it yourself.

He who asks is a fool for five minutes, but he who does not ask stays a fool forever.

And finally, the classic:

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

That one has been claimed for every major religion, and stapled onto many philosophers – I have even seen it attributed to Einstein, imagine that! But it is the Chinese of old who came up with that one. Now, for the following selection, attitude and character concern the second most numerous group of Chinese proverbs:

No wind, no waves.

If you don’t want anyone to know, don’t do it.

The journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.

Respond intelligently even to unintelligent treatment.

To believe in one’s dreams is to spend all of one’s life asleep.

Dig the well before you are thirsty.

Be the first to the field and the last to the couch.

Ripe fruit falls by itself – but it doesn’t fall in your mouth.

Patience is a bitter plant, but its fruit is sweet.

I have read and enjoyed the proverbs of many cultures, and I do think a kind of national essence is caught in them, and their continued use proves a cultural continuity. They are old and yet ready for modern use, rather like the Century Egg featured below, which I tried and sort-of kinda almost somewhat enjoyed. The Century Egg is a Chinese delicacy with its own Wikipedia page, and a specialty of Hunan (‘my’ province): For reasons unknown, one takes a raw chicken, quail, or duck egg and wraps it in clay and ash and salt and then forgets about it for months. After digging it up again, it has transformed: inside the dark, transparent, gelatinesque goo around the amber & black yolk, a mysterious kind of leaf patterns grow. It now has taken on a  most peculiar, concentrated, ancient, powerful, medicinal taste – I’ve tried it and lived.

Chinese proverbs are just that: most peculiar, concentrated, ancient, powerful, medicinal. My favourite one so far goes:

He who thinks too much about every step he takes, will always stand on one leg.

Offerings and funerals in Hunan: long live the dead

Offerings to the dead

The first Chinese emperor had 8,000 life-size terracotta soldiers (and 520 horses) made and then buried to help him out in the afterlife, alongside a river he had dug and then filled with mercury. As in ancient Egypt, a belief existed in China that the dead need their daily comfort and wealth just like the living do. They want sweaters, shoes, toys, status symbols, money, and the odd mercury river, apparently. Destroying these things in a fire (so they could transcend to the hereafter and make the dead people’s death easier), was also a costly sacrifice for the family to prove, not least to their neighbours and friends, how much their deceased relative still meant to them, and just how much stuff they could afford to burn if they put their minds to it.

It was an archaic custom of the silliness you find in all the great religions. Yet since then, most Asians have modified the practice: now they sacrifice symbolic paper (called joss paper, as in fake money and valuables) rather than the real items themselves. Sure, this is even sillier, but much less wasteful and costly, and perhaps the dead never notice the difference.

Today, it is not uncommon to set fire to a photo of the iPhone or the car that the deceased wanted, but could not afford. To the modern Chinese, it’s a personal, well-meant sign of ongoing affection that stretches beyond the grave. Chinese Taoists, atheists, and Confucianists are all fine with it, and the atmosphere around such offerings is often loose and jovial. The more creative people fashion their own models of pets, houses – even private jets, and yell “This is for you, Ma,” as they incinerate a large cardboard Mazda roadster.

You may conclude that the Chinese just really enjoy burning paper. They feed those flames during the Chinese New Year, at funerals, during the Hungry Ghost Festival and the Tomb-sweeping Festival, in temples, and at random family get-togethers, to secure the dead a steady income in their underworld. They offered them food, too, and smoulder through kilos of incense (which denotes prosperity).

During the Chinese New Year, another blaze bonanza that would make Nero jealous, the offerings take on ridiculous proportions: on the ‘ghost money’ alone, easily more than a billion yuan is spent each year (€125 million). You can buy banknotes from the Bank of Hell, or as gold paper which folds in the shape of ingots. (Taiwan, which publishes financial figures on the custom, sees $400 million spent annually on these fake valuables.)For the semi-professional arsonist, there are popular box sets of printed goodies containing a watch, two bracelets, a lighter, a necklace and a ring (for a dead woman – the dead man’s package includes prints of a credit card, glasses, and a belt).

At the Hungry Ghost Festival, during the seventh month of the lunar calendar, the doors of hell open and that’s a classic excuse for another paper burning frenzy – the Great Fire of London has nothing on this event. As part of this festival, many outdoor concerts and shows are performed, always with the first row of seats kept empty so that the spirits of the ancestors can enjoy the good seats. The creatures that then visit the living for food and entertainment, are sorry, neglected souls, depicted with long and spiky necks, unable to swallow, not fed enough by their families after they died. They now reside in the dìyù or ‘underworld prison’, and monks throw rice in the air, in all directions, to feed them. The poor souls get to feast a good while and in some places, burlesque comedies are performed to cheer them up a bit, but two weeks after the festival, which is quite literally a holiday from hell, they must return. Then, all over Asia, pretty red water lanterns are lit on paper boats to guide the hungry ghosts safely back, across the waters, to middle earth. With Chinese opera still the festival music of choice, most spirits will have sped back to the underworld by then anyway. During this year’s festival, I will burn some paper earplugs.

Funeral customs

In a largely atheist society, rituals and traditions do not disappear. And superstitions can even flourish. Funeral practices vary enormously within China’s many ethnic regions. About ten million people die in China each year, and almost half of them are cremated these days – a big break with older traditions which prescribed burial (sometimes by suspending wooden coffins off cliffs, a practice known as xuanguan which has to be seen to be believed).

In olden days, the afterlife was firmly believed in, with 12,800 separate hells occupied under the earth; some hot, some cold. At least, Chinese hell wasn’t eternal, but, in stages, led to reincarnation after earthly sins were atoned. At some point, the number was brought down to just ten hells – a nice round number, they must have thought. The accent was placed on helping one’s ancestors who were there, and on the sacrificial infernos, of course. Since Confucius, that hellish belief has slowly receded, and the respect for and memories of the ancestors has become the focus – a view that gels nicely with today’s atheism and humanism of course. Yet even modern funerals are still a superstitious minefield of bad luck with one ritual not heeded perfectly and one’s life can go balls-up for good. Here is a people that manages to fly a rover to the dark side of the moon, but stick your chopsticks vertically in your rice and they recoil in horror because it looks like the incense they burn for the dead.

Out walking around Hunan, I regularly run into large inflatable edifices with white or blue swans on top. Poorer versions are made up of army tent material. Inside, local people gather to spend the evening and the whole night together. There is traditional Chinese music with big drums and flutes or trumpets; people gamble, drink together, and warm themselves around buckets of fire. Incense burns around the place – all in this big tent, which is erected close to the house of the deceased in an alleyway or a backyard. Many relatives are dressed in white, the colour for these occasions; others must wear black, blue, or green (all this is determined by the relationship with the deceased). Other colours are deemed too cheerful, though pink is allowed around people who died older than 80.

The coffin will stand in the courtyard, too, if the departed died while out and about. If he died at home, the wake is taking place around the casket there. Preparations started a week earlier. If possible, the coffin is ordered while the dying person is still breathing. In the house, the family covers or removes all the mirrors (because if someone sees the casket’s reflection, even by accident, another death will follow) and drapes all religious statues in red paper (the lucky colour now needed). Upon the news of the death, those concerned stop speaking for 24 hours as their thoughts go out to their dear uncle or grandfather who has passed on. More preparations are made; white cloth is hung in the doorway, a large gong is erected, and the funeral date is determined by a blind soothsayer, or by the Chinese almanac with its lucky and unlucky dates.

When the day draws near, the people gather in the home or tent, or funeral parlour for wealthier families, and stay awake throughout the night, having yet another go at a controlled family blaze. They have all left a bowl of water and pomegranate juice at home to ward off evil spirits there, while pregnant or engaged people avoid funerals altogether, the latter postponing their weddings by a year at least just to be on the safe side. The group of mourners can count 700 people and the wake can last several days. Latecomers must crawl on their knees to the coffin, where the corpse is lying in their best outfit. All other clothes that the expired person once possessed have already been incinerated earlier; because who would pass up the chance to see how polyester sweaters ignite? A reciting monk is rented. As part of the vigil, many walk slowly around the coffin for three hours in the middle of the night, carrying flags, with only two ten-minute breaks. They must also spend an hour kneeling on the floor. When someone dies in winter, the family is lucky if there aren’t any follow-up funerals shortly after. Understandably, the day after this ordeal is usually free from work.

The Chinese are comb fetishists; everyone has his or her one and only, private comb, which is now broken in two; half of it to be taken into the grave, the other half kept by the family. A white candle is lit and the family starts to sob. Professional mourners can be rented. They are pros who can really squeeze out the tears and the smothered cries at will, these days often wailing into karaoke equipment while dramatically rolling about on the floor. In today’s China, the hired mourners may break into an entertaining belly dance or perform hiphop moves. The bereaved donate money towards the funeral costs, making sure it is an odd amount of yuan, and the bawling intensifies. Finally, the coffin is hammered shut, but nobody is allowed to see it being closed since this would bring catastrophic luck.

Carrying the coffin during the final procession to the crematorium or grave brings good fortune, but if the processions happens to cross water, the deceased, carried head first, has to be verbally informed of this fact. If a slow-moving hearse is used, the pallbearers press their foreheads against the car window. Others carry joss paper and more objects to set fire to later. Exactly a week after the funeral, the deceased will travel to his house as a ghost, for one last look around. The family stays indoors for the day, but have put a red sign up to help their loved one find his way. The whole set of rituals can last from three days for poor people to seven weeks for the Deluxe Buddhist experience.

For the neurotically superstitious, the bad luck risks never wane. After the funeral, envelopes with some coins, and a piece of candy, are supplied to all attendees, who must spend it and eat it before they reach home. They also get a red piece of string which they tie to their finger, warding off any leftover evil shit. Then, still, any night when they dream of snow, or teeth, or when a dog howls, or if they foolishly clip their nails at night, they can still be struck by death personally, or have their family die on them.

Confucian and Buddhist ethics in China rely heavily on the practice of filial piety, outlined in an almost 2500-year-old book of dialogues that obsess about relative age. Under its rules, seniority is important also in funerals, with only younger people than the deceased allowed to pay their respects. Therefore, even today, a young bachelor who dies without younger siblings or cousins, as well as a child, will be buried in silence, and their body will not even leave the funeral home before cremation since no one can initiate the rituals of the vigil. If you want to die young, don’t do it in China.

There; I’ve counted 34 superstitions related to funerals alone. Death must be mightily feared in China. All madness aside, stumbling into these vigil tents with my photo camera, an ignorant alien, I found the mourners friendly, accommodating, and not overly sad. They were eating, drinking, chatting, playing games. The music seemed otherworldly enough, but then, so does most traditional Chinese music. I admired the large circular floral arrangements, displayed like bull’s eyes on easels, with wishes and family names on long, flowing ribbons. To witness these all this right here in the ‘favela’ neighbourhoods, in plain sight, almost welcoming passers-by, placed this ancient custom very much in daily life, of which death is a part of course. That touched me, coming from the West where death is tucked away in all possible ways.

For now, I am looking forward to a lot of paper burning next month when the Year of the Pig starts. Yes, a year of good luck!

Mindfulness and efficacy in education

One of my go-to threat constructions was always: “Listen! You can […] from here to China all you want, but […]”

It’s useless now.


The school often tries to give me a sixth or even seventh hour in my day, usually with some staff emergency to justify it, and it’s tough.

A six-hour day can be 90 minutes each at two kindergartens from 9 in the morning (four groups in a row), then more local offspring in the afternoon, and then two evening hours on the trot at the school, also with little kids, until 20:30. These are very long days and it is a depressing mistake to think along the lines of “Oh, I will only be free nine hours from now”. Yet such thoughts are shared by many in the world – not only teachers. In Bavaria, in the offices of Siemens and Osram where I worked, most spoke like that: “Um Gotteswillen, still three hours till my next break, then five hours until I go home. The weekend is four days away, with my nine-day holiday in Mallorca coming up in March”. And on they typed and phoned with death in their eyes.

Before it was hip to call it mindfulness, millions had discovered the way to avoid this trap without a self-help book. So my solution is not original, but it works like it always has: only do the job and think about nothing else during it. We give attention to each student individually, we look them in the face, straight in their eyes, and react and interact. Groups of 22 kindergarten children, all 5 years old, are great to deal with, with direct, reciprocated kindness and enthusiasm bouncing around the room. After such a class a glow of warmth and satisfaction is an extra reward.

Little Witchlet
Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still – Chinese proverb

So our future-obsessed minds, in many daily situations, are as useful as pink camouflage. Yet we all have a talent for learning new things so we can overcome our hardwired deficiencies – a true tragedy of our species is that we are so bloody smart and aware that we really have no excuses for anything we cock up.

Middle School students during unorthodox class

Methodology and the science of learning have produced many papers and doctorates over the years, and I’ve read a few. TED talks have added some measure of popularity to the latest findings. TPR (total physical response) is a technique whereby the students mimic what they are taught to speak, in real-time. Let’s say that cooking vocabulary is on the menu and while the teacher chants wash, wash, wash, peel, peel, peel, chop, chop, chop, the whole groups mimes these actions along with her. This is wonderful – up to a point. Self-conscious students (over 13 years of age) can feel silly doing TPR. It won’t work when the words cannot be mimed, like truth, honesty, conscientiousness, or silver, copper, bronze. So here is my little contribution to education techniques:

Why do we sit our little students on chairs, in neat rows, with desks, evenly spaced, filling up the room? Would kids themselves have come up with this arrangement? I’ve now noticed during hundreds of kindergarten and primary school classes that such rows of students can switch off, mentally, and they don’t reproduce the Words of the Day well at all. But when I let them walk around the room, or take them into the hall, to read something to each other in pairs, spread out, that this makes the experience somehow memorable and the words ‘stick’ better.

Primary School Kids

I did a comparative test: one by one I passed each 4-year-old child in front of me, holding up the flashcard and making the kid speak after me ‘Christmas tree, Christmas tree’. It mostly came out half-baked and was forgotten by half of them four minutes later. Then, with the next group in the same kindergarten, of the same age, I had my assistant line them up in front of a large wooden playtunnel, and they crawled through the wrong way round, first struggling up the slide at the far end, then squeezing towards me, to the stairs down. As they came towards me, I repeated, like a mantra, ‘Christmas tree, Christmas tree;, and while they were busy doing a physical thing, they spoke the word perfectly. They even remembered the word better at the end of class.

Halloween Girl 1

This rather puts the whole thing on its head, right? Whenever I see a Chinese teacher briskly press each hand of a student on their knees, telling them to sit up straight, to stop looking sideways, I see the resistance in the child, and I doubt that it achieves anything. Related to this, over the years, with restless and fidgety private students, I have sometimes taken to walking about town with them while speaking English. And now, when my son’s English is finally taking off grammatically, is exactly when we have walks every evening through the tight Chinese inner-city alleyways, heavily distracted by what we see and hear, interrupted by locals who want to touch our hair or take selfies with us. All the while, his multi-tasking brain storms and races through English vocal and grammar, and he improves by the week.

In his great European contribution to education, Aristotle was already aware of this when he founded the Peripatetic school (meaning: school given to walking about) over 2,350 years ago.

2018 New School Opening

To know the road ahead, ask those coming back – Chinese proverb

Unsettling: Five Notes on Emigration

Chinese Lady on the Bus

1) Trauma Points

There are lists drawn up by smart psychologist that correlate a trauma scale to life’s stress events. The top three, for a karmic jackpot of close to 100 points, is a terminal illness, loss of smartphone and then death of spouse or kids. Quickly, the graph slopes down, past ‘younger people being put in charge of you’ (75), a third divorce (50 points), ‘losing one’s sense of irony’ (25), to the bottom end, with ‘sleeping on a very soft bed’ (10), and, finally, 5 points for the three-day-pain after ripping out those bits of skin that grow vertically from the sides of one’s fingernails (aka hangnails).

Street Market

Well, no surprise that emigration is up there, high up there, even above ‘death of hairdresser’. I don’t doubt it one bit. The first time I emigrated I did not last a summer, and I even told myself (and everyone else) that this had been, in fact, the plan. The second time I reversed my strategy and announced it to everyone a year in advance to put the pressure on, and I did go, alone, with nobody to shout at, so I sucked it all up and found myself enjoying the incremental improvements in how I was coping. Of course, simply being a tall white male Western-European has always been the main reason for my successes abroad – it was never as uphill a battle as it is for so many others in this world.

The love for my family is unconditional, and easy, and matter-of-fact. But to these people I love unconditionally, my happiness is tied conditionally. And having to teach kids with full-on cheerfulness is tough to pull off when I’d rather scream into a void for an hour. This was the effect my wife’s culture shock and jet lag had on me the first ten days. She came during a relentless three-day downpour with our son after my five weeks alone in Yueyang, and she hit walls of impenetrable ethnicity, and pits of homesickness that, on me, had got no further than an easily treatable psychosomatic skin rash on my right leg. Through such a prism of instant depression brought on by culture shock, any pleasure is unenjoyable, and increasing autonomy, and pride in coping, goes unnoticed – is even regarded as irritatingly slow.

I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything.” Bill Bryson

Motorists' Shop

The excitement I feel at every successful day here is therefore not yet shared by my wife, but things are slightly better now than they were ten days ago, thanks to many small factors. Finding a nice restaurant in our street was a factor. Walking somewhere else than to work and to bed was a factor – the park and the lake boulevards are sweet surroundings for a family stroll. Her instant success as a teacher was a factor: the realisation that Chinese kids are first of all kids, and only then Chinese; so teaching them is possible when done with care and skill, and the direct and honest appreciation and fun emanating from children can lift the grumpiest souls.

2) The Destination is the Journey

The journey is the destination.” Dan Eldon

For the tragic and restless Dan Eldon, the journey to Mogadishu became his final destination at the age of 22. His maxim has a cool, Wattsian faux-Buddhist ring to it, but I feel that ‘the destination is the journey’ is more accurate. Every passing week in this exotic Chinese metropolis has been quite different from the last, psychologically, as a world is unveiled one day at a time, bowling over past assumptions and laying bare masked prejudices. I tread unsteadily the whole time, as if thigh-deep in strong currents on a pebbled river bed, and as my feet slide and my legs are pushed apart I have to re-balance all the time to keep moving forward slowly. My stance had been quite solid these last few years so this is unsettling, literally. The journey here took only 24 hours – that was the easy part. Since then, a continuous new journey of the mind has been unfolding. The destination, this city, will not change for quite a while I expect. Therefore, this destination is my journey.

Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”

Gustave Flaubert

3) Daily front door emigration

Straight from Mao Times

Recognize yourself in he and she who are not like you and me.” Carlos Fuentes

Mentally I am not in China all the time – on leaving the house, it hits me again, the visual cacophony of crazy facade lights and the throngs of three-wheeled scooter trucks, hordes of schoolkids, and a mini-shock engulfs me: “Oh, yes, I’m in China”. The immigrants around me during my youth in Holland were Turks. In their living-rooms, everything was as Turkish as they could possibly reconstruct, including the prayer mats and the imported grandmothers who could not speak a word of Dutch. Clustered together in the cheaper blocks in town, these immigrants had never really emigrated at all; they ran shops and businesses servicing their own communities, and worked together in Turkish crews in Dutch factories, where I joined them on night shifts for a student’s temping job. Mentally, they were still in Anatolia, it just came with an awful climate and streets full of foreigners these days.

Of course, their children grew up to embrace Dutchness even as the Dutch did not embrace them much, and that tension has needed careful management on both sides until the embracing did begin, fifty years after their fathers’ and grandmothers’ initial exodus.

Scooter Knight

The mental comfort these first Turks had, of those thousands of countrymen around them, going through the same shared collective experience, is not here for my family. Our solitary struggles to deal with the Asian toilet and Asian traffic, the lack of lemons and cotton pads and decent fribrous bread – it can be shared only with a tiny rag-tag bunch of other immigrants in this huge city; the International Aisle in the local Walmart our only other ally from the West.

Having lived abroad for half of my life, I am still happy at the mental distance I can summon when things go over the top. When this morning at 7:30, across the street, a PA system the size of Luxembourg started blasting the Chinese National Anthem 78 consecutive times, in honour of some vague, but very loud, school sporting event, I simply swore in Dutch and rolled my eyes. This is a society in which I have no ethnic, historical, or democratic stake, so these mad excesses fall in the mental category of a day-long downpour or a slight toothache: can’t be helped, so grit through it, boy!

4) The Arrogance of the First World

Nobody in lovely, wealthy, UNESCO-listed Regensburg, Bavaria, ever asked me why I moved there during my four years in it. It was obvious to the locals that their town is a desirable immigration spot – who wouldn’t want to live there? My pretty solid German was never praised, either: it was surely only natürlich that I delved deeply into German grammar to fit in better with these wonderful specimens.

While at university, I never asked the Utrecht Turks why they had come to my city – it seemed obvious that life in Holland was a lot better than in Ankara; I never pondered on the trade-offs, tough decisions, and sacrifices these settlers had made to get there.

Downtown, Very Downtown

But the lesser hubs in Poland, and now in China, where all resident foreigners can meet for Saturday dinner and fit around two tables, are populated with bemused citizens enquiring all the time why the hell I moved there, to theirs of all places. Today an older couple stopped me in the park: “Why you come Yueyang?” I explained that I was teaching their grandkids English. The man held my hand between his. Welcome to Yueyang,” he said solemnly and they smiled.

Immigration is the sincerest form of flattery.” ― Jack Paar

I have always felt a local patriot. I would not call myself a Pole or a Chinese, nor a Bavarian or Briton, but I have identified myself strongly with Utrechters, Torunians, Regensburghers, and Mancunians, and now I am already beginning to feel a bond with the Yueyangers even as they cut me up in traffic, spit in my elevator, and slaughter chickens on the pavement. A city without its inhabitants is no more than a Czernobylian husk. The sum of its citizens makes a town; the people are the continuous factor that established the local diet, the local customs, the local industries, dances, dialect, and all public behaviour. These people make up all the culture in which I soak every outdoor step I take; and I’m in the same boat now, even though I had not even heard of Yueyang six months ago.

Styrofoam Transport

5) Refresh your screen

I almost feel good at the approach of death. […] As you live many years, things take on a repeat. You keep seeing the same thing over and over again.” Charles Bukowski

Nice talking, Charles, but when you stay in California for 90% of your life, things are bound to repeat, right? Still, his remark resonates in me deeply. One cause for my urge to relocate periodically is to break that repeat, to kill the rut, to freshen up my day-to-day life. Even long holidays just don’t quite cut it for me – it has to be drastic to be fantastic.

What makes emigration so appealing is obvious but it bears pointing out because it makes all the difference. There is no return ticket, no date to count down to. There are no appointments back home waiting, which always used to spoil my holidays a bit, of Oh, and two days after I’m back, I must phone the plumber, and not forget to confirm the dentist.” These six weeks in Yueyang, I’ve had no thoughts at all about my beloved home in Toruń where I return to it and do stuff there again. The blue ocean lies in front of me and no tide will take me back to shore again any time soon. My sole focus lies in the now. Even the immediate future is vague – I know my schedule tomorrow, but I have no idea what a subtropical winter feels like even though it’s on its way apparently. And next month, towards New Year, there is no outline either, no annual tradition to follow.

Corn Tube Producer

But I am no masochist. I do not lack comfort or funds. My apartment is swanky, its view stunning, my salary three times the local average in Chinese education. So this feeling of being unsettled is purely due to the novelty and unfamiliarity, and the challenges of coping in a city of five million which lies 8,550 km from where I was born. I pinch myself most often on the bus, sitting in the back, on the elevated seats, leaning out the open window, around dusk, when I commute back from some outlying school to the centre where I live. The lights, the bustle, the smells, the sounds… it is almost as if it’s happening to someone other than myself, and I am magically able to experience that other person’s sensations with the perfect VR system. But when I finally take off the goggles and the headphones, will I be back in my European armchair, a stroll away from my friends and my favourite pizzeria? Let’s not find out; let’s not spoil the day dream, but stay in the moment, in the intensity of this Asian behemoth and its cheerful, even-tempered, welcoming citizens.

Street Barber Scene

Of Girls and Ghouls

There’s a kindergarten where I’ve taught three times now. The first time I came in, the kids broke into a collective minute of inhaling, in utter amazement that someone of such altitude and with such a big nose could even exist outside of cartoons. One girl stiffened in paralytic terror, and turned her head around faster than a fidget spinner. She had to be carried out.

The second week, some of the brats had half-forgotten what I looked like, while others had dreamed of me in the small hours of every night. They now mainly jeered and stamped their feet. The little girl projectile-cried tears at me and had to be carried out. You’d think I was a golem.

By the third week, my goofing about, falling off my little chair at every high-five with the kids, had disarmed them, though a few were still too stunned to speak. The little girl, carefully held on her teacher’s arms this time, and carried only a yard or so into the room, halfway through my class, again screamed her lungs out and had to be rushed away with legs kicking wildly in the air as something out of The Exorcist.

My theory is that she must have been exposed, at her tender age, to a Schwarzenegger film, against all common sense, and will now always have Caucasianophobia. This was a common and justified condition in colonial times of course, but today it serves nobody.

My slightly older female students are to be found in primary school, where I teach six huge classes of eleven-year-olds two days a week. Typically, the taller girls are better at English than the other girls, and they all outperform the boys. They tell me I am funny and want to touch my hair; they blow me kisses and take selfies with me, while I turn their school day into English language chanting and grammar competitions. They like me a lot and vice versa.

And, finally, there’s the Girl’s College.

Hungry college girls
College girls shuffle to the brains buffet in their canteen

I come to this new weekly job at the end of a month of living on my own, in which I have watched too many B-films, and so I suffer from Movie Cliché Syndrome (MCS). The Girls’ College, on the outskirts of this metropolis of five millions souls, consists of a dozen huge buildings where thousands and thousands of girls, all around eighteen years of age, live and study for three years. Where were these places when I was eighteen? Not in Yueyang as it happens, because this huge complex is brand-new, and every wall I lean against whitens my sleeves with builder’s dust.

I am already nervous for this first class as I board the Didi (China’s answer to Uber). “We’ll never make it in time,” I tell the driver in my Urgent Voice, just for the heck of it. He knows no English. I pass him the address on a piece of paper. Every town has an Elm Street.

The college girls, like most women in China, are obsessed with being pale, so they plaster their faces in whitening cream to achieve that extreme contrast with their eyes and hair. When it’s too hot for long sleeves, their arms get it, too. They don’t just smear, but literally beat the stuff into their arms with their hands in a collective, masochistic ritual. I’ve witnessed this all over Yueyang already. The Street Sweeping Witches who swarm out over the city in the mornings are extreme examples; compared to these hags, the college girls are amateurs merely dabbling in the occult.

Street sweeping lady

Street Sweeping Witch: one of the Undead roaming Yueyang.

In the rain they run under umbrellas; in the sunshine they run under parasols. Like vampires they scurry out of daylight, into their enormous canteens, dormitories, and lecture halls. In this part of China, women do not wear makeup or perfume, and now, for my early morning classes, they turn up with long and unkempt black hair, in whiteface, all one hundred and fifty of them. They cram themselves in this faraway auditorium, somewhere in the city’s outlying wetlands. I have a bad feeling about this. It’s like the casting day for an Asian horror film and I find it most intimidating. I’m getting too old for this shit.

They greet me by slow-stamping and whistling and shouting “SING US A SONG” and I almost freak out. “WHO LEADS YOUR COVEN?” I want to shout back but there would be no answer; this is a communist country where Power comes from the collective. “Why are you doing this to me?” I whisper. Margaret Atwood said it best: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” And I sympathise with the men as it hurts to have a large group of strangers roll over with merriment just at the sight and sound of me. It hurts. But with Lawrence of Arabia, I tell myself, softly, “the point is not minding that it hurts” and this, together with other classic movie lines, gets me through the day without obvious mental damage.

I introduce myself as Chucky. Wanna play?

Girls' College Canteen

Lunch, delicious, tasty Chinese lunch, takes place in a canteen the size of Heathrow. Here, all the girls eat brains and then walk off somewhere to have a collective nap, no doubt suspended from ceilings, their backs arched and elbows bent backward. I use the repose to prepare the next powerpoint and then make my way back to the auditorium for the afternoon session. It’s quiet. Too quiet. Nervously, I rush inside, and order my teaching assistant: “Stay here! She sticks beautifully to the genre: No way, I’m coming with you.

Are they all dead? Not anymore!

In they stroll, the ghouls; shuffling, sleepy, slowly, their college uniforms the colour of oxygen-rich blood. “Now… where were we?” I ask them, avoiding eye contact, trying not to summon any demons on my first day. “We can do this the easy way, or the hard way.” I have prepared a class of mimicry vocabulary and coupled it to even facial skills useful for young women everywhere: I teach them to glare, sigh slowly, roll their eyes, grin disparagingly, and frown. They’ll thank me once these join their passive-aggressive arsenal. They banshees seem to enjoy the class but one can never be sure. I’m just doing my job, ma’ams.

I Teach Dead People.

I’m knackered when the fifth group scuffles in; they sit there, very still, with glowing black eyes set wide in their white heads, and with their long, loose black hair down their faces like an Asian zombie apocalypse. I have brought my Nikon, as I always do, to take photos of them, but I fear that when I get home, it will have only registered blurry apparitions. They repeat my vocab chants and grammar drills with the steady drive of an incantation and I’m only slightly relieved that the door is locked and the windows closed. Next week, with a proper script and a film camera, I could sit them around a gigantic Chinese Ouija board with just the 2,600 basic characters, while their bony hands slowly drag upturned wine glasses for a séance that will never end.*

Chinese Ouija Board

The travel version of a Chinese Ouija Board with only the most basic 2,600 characters. Just exchanging niceties with a quiet, deceased uncle can take days.

But today, my job is done and I am going home, and there’s nothing you or anyone else can do to stop me. Follow that car!” I tell my cab driver, just for the heck of it. He knows no English.

The First Blond Boy Here

The college girls, having never laid eyes on a blond kid before, are laying eyes on my son. 

(*Weirdly, the Ouija board is actually a thousand-year-old Chinese invention, used for necromancy under the Song Dynasty.)