Chinese families, baby boy or baby girl?

The Great Wall of China
During Chinese class our laoshi (teacher), along with teaching us the mysteries of her ancient language, gives us also little pearls of oriental wisdom and precious information about China's culture and society.

Last week we studied how to approach people, introduce ourselves and ask for others' names. In China there is the unspoken rule that you cannot ask directly for the personal name if a person is older than you or in a higher position: in this case, you will need to politely ask for the family name.

At this juncture, laoshi told us about the controversial topic of Chinese people preferring to have a baby boy instead of a girl.

As in most countries, also in China the new-born takes his/her father's family name, so in order to keep the name alive through the future generations, when women learnt they were expecting a baby girl, they would have an abortion.

Truth be said, in the (recent) past also in Italy having a baby boy was much preferred, to the extent that when I was born and my grandmother learnt I was a girl, with a hint of disappointment, told my mother just recovering from the birth: "'s ok too...".

While in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai this practice has disappeared, in other parts of China, especially rural areas in the 1970s and 1980s when the country faced the biggest poverty of modern times, it had started becoming too common.

This has led the Chinese government to come up with a drastic plan: it is now illegal for new parents to check on the sex of the baby. This way women won't get an abortion and the awkward situation of having a nation made only of men will be avoided.

In addition, due to the boom that made China's population reach the figure of 1.3 billion people, the government has adopted the two-child policy, meaning that a family can only have two children, after that the mother can be sterilised or, in case of a third child, the parents would get fined.

This applies only for Chinese people: the law, in fact, exempts from this rule the minorities such as Mongolian and Tibetan that, *because* minorities, have the right to have as many children as they wish.

I was pleased to learn that in China women keep their own family name and don't take their husband's one, as it happens for example in the UK. "We must thank Mao for giving us this power," told us our laoshi in a burst of national pride. I have to agree, in addition to avoiding all the hassle of changing the name in ID papers, I wouldn't be very willing to give up the name my father gave me.

My first (unwanted) experience with Chinese medicine

I know, I always say I want to fully experience the country I'm visiting, and this is why I usually stay longer than a normal holiday. Of course this applies to China too, being the Giant Dragon a fascinating society and boasting one of the richest cultures in human history.

But let's face it, I would have gladly avoided experiencing Chinese medicine so early. Or at least in these conditions.

I believe this time the ever-present air conditioning is to blame. Although we are nearing the end of September, the weather in Shanghai was still humid and stifling hot. To put it mildly. Apparently, to please users and customers in China is very trendy to have the air conditioning at its maximum, and this has been lethal for me.

Shifting quickly and repeatedly between hot and humid to the dramatically low temperatures of the metro stations has caused my first Chinese flu.

The initial symptoms were the usual sore throat, cough, shivers and weakness, so I asked my Chinese teacher to write something to show the chemist in order to get the proper medicine. All good, except that by the time I got to the pharmacy I was also boiling with fever.

Due to an excessive weakness, I avoided new medicines and immediately opted for a common aspirin to make the temperature drop, but for throat and cough, I was still at the mercy of Chinese natural remedies.

Following my teacher's guidelines and some of my best gestures (in these cases being Italian, and able to talk with hands, helps), the chemist gave me a flowery box containing the herbs that will make my cough and sore throat go away.

The medicine is called Sangju Ganmao Keli, and is a mix of mulberry leaf, chrysanthemum, weeping forsythia, mint, bitter apricot seed, balloon flower root, licorice roots, reed rhizome. I've been taking one sachet in hot water three times a day and results are good so far: my throat is getting better, my voice has got back to normal, I'm not constantly blowing my nose, which is re-assuming its natural colour and abandoning that ridiculous red-ish look. In a nutshell, I'm breathing again.

What I have learnt, a little doing some research before coming to China, then listening to my teacher's anedoctes and being in touch with Chinese people, is that their philosophy is to prevent rather than treating, so they maintain a very healthy lifestyle and natural remedies are part of their daily routine.

Apparently I wasn't the only one who caught the flu despite the heat. My teacher came to class yesterday with weird red signs on her throat and forehead, and even before we could ask what had happened to her, she explained that it is Chinese medicine against the fever. Our puzzled look prodded her to explain further: basically when we start having fever, by pinching on our forehead and our throat, we make the temperature drop.

I'm not suggesting anyone to do it, as I believe there is a special way to pinch effectively and not just randomly to only cause awkward redness. I don't think I'll try that either nex time I have the flu, but I found it fascinating as an introduction to alternative medicine.

Finally today the weather has changed and is much cooler, a completely different season from yesterday, quite pleasant and certainly more appropriate to the end of September.

I was told Shanghai's coldest temperatures are around 10-8°C, but it feels colder as it's always very humid. This might be an incentive for me to start looking at different remedies in order to prevent a potential next flu.

Settling in Shanghai, easier said than done

After a couple of posts covering the quirky aspects of my stay in Shanghai, time has come to release the truth: it's not all that fun.

First of all, ni hao everybody, as this is one of the very few Chinese words I managed to grasp before starting the course.

When I've arrived in China, end of July, I took all August as a holiday-adjustment to the new reality, and although it's been great traveling to Beijing and Qingdao and exploring Shanghai itself, the first signs of what I was going to face shortly had started showing up.

First and foremost, the biggest barrier was (and is) the language. Not just because Chinese is very difficult, but also because nobody speaks English. Or French, or Italian, or Spanish, or Portuguese, for that matter.

I agree that I am the foreigner, meaning that I have to adapt, and locals don't have to feel compelled to study another language just to make tourists or expats feel at home. Also true is that in Italy is not that common to find locals with a proficient level of English either, except in very touristy areas, but this applies to Shanghai too. 

What is the problem of not being confident in Chinese? For a Westerner like me, used to completely different writing characters, is impossible even to look up in the dictionary when in need to translate Chinese to English.

Going shopping for food is still a disaster: there is literally everything on sale, some things I have never seen before, and names and descriptions are only in Chinese, making it impossible for me to buy them. Admittedly, with my great regret as I'm quite open-minded food-wise and I love trying anything new. Well, almost anything.

If you are wondering about the public transport, yes, the metro (very well organised, 13 lines that reach pretty much every corner of the city) is bilingual, meaning that the stops are written also with English characters, but the workers are still monolingual.

The linguistic hindrance entails much more than just grocery shopping, of course. A couple of examples? Getting the mail, understanding the bills, reading building announcements and block rules. Or answering to the lady who came to read the business gas metres and ask for the money missing from last bill.

All these difficulties notwithstanding, I have always had the impression that life in China is made very easy, little hassle and relaxed.

I am now on my third day of Chinese class, tomorrow will be the fourth one, and I already know several words, I can make sentences just swaping the terms and changing their order and, most of all, I can do all this also by writing with Chinese characters.

This does require every-day after-class review and studying at home, but it's way less difficult than I had ever thought. After a month and a half of China, and almost two weeks living by myself in my own place, the initial frustration is gradually giving way to a greater appreciation of a totally new lifestyle (it is what I was looking for, isn't it?), discovering unknown social mores and small idiosyncrasies that make the Sleeping Dragon an invaluable mix of tradition and modernity.

Wandering about Jordan treasures

I went to Shanghai International Expo with the aim to visit the pavilions of the countries that captivate me. So I found myself on the lookout of the nations I'm curious to visit.

Admittedly, they are a lot and due to the many queues standing in front of each pavilion, I realised I wasn't going to see them in only one afternoon.

I had to make a choice and this didn't take me long: Middle East.

Just off Shibo Avenue lied all "my" countries, and for my greater convenience the Asia Joint Pavilion II gathered most nations I had in mind. This is how I made my way to discover the ancient wonders of charming Jordan.

Jordan is renowned for its timeless beauty, and travelers are bedazzled by its evocative landscapes and heritage, but getting under the skin of place is always a challenge, and dawdling about Jordan pavilion felt like taking a crash course in digging deeper into a foreign society and sharing cultural norms with its people.

Goes without saying that the welcoming of the visitors was prerogative of the overwhelming landscape of Petra, and after walking past the initial posters I was met by Jordanian products, styles and atmosphere. Looking about me, I realised that Jordanians have all the good reasons to be proud of their country.

What was on display were the typical products coming from Jordan, from food, to pots, to textiles, all oozing the flavours and ochre colours that belong to the Middle Eastern region and represent much of its identity. Since I've been to the United Arab Emirates, I've fallen in love with those countries where the desert plays a major role, both geographical and social.

Visiting Jordan vicariously through its pavilion has proved as inspiring as I had predicted, and the neighbouring nations-pavilions, Syria, Afghanistan and Palestine, managed to keep high my enthusiasm and make me promise I will come back next time I visit the Expo, in the wait to experience the real country.
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