Saturday, August 1, 2015

Weight Preoccupation in China: On-Going Culture Shock

The issue of weight has been driving me a bit crazy lately. While everywhere I have lived has had a cultural preoccupation with weight, especially for teenage girls and women, it has been particularly painful to witness here. I know it is nothing compared to, say, Korea, but my patience is wearing thin as I am exposed daily to the pressure to be thin for Chinese women.

The average Chinese woman is already thin, even though Chinese people are getting bigger overall. All of my Chinese colleagues are female and all are thin. Despite this, many if not most of them are trying to lose weight, are told by relatives that they look fat, and weigh in (...) on each other's sizes.  

A few months ago, I was eating lunch with a few colleagues, three Chinese and one Canadian. One of the Chinese women commented that she was doing a lot of yoga in order to lose weight. This woman is thin, even by Chinese standards. The other two Chinese colleagues jumped in to explain her decision to me and the fellow foreigner as we asked, in all seriousness, where she expected to lose weight from. "Her body..." they said, looking at us quizzically. No matter how thin you already are, they explained, you can always lose weight, especially since she has an upcoming wedding.

Families certainly don't help the situation. One teeny colleague's mother told her that she looked 3 months pregnant. She is considering doing an all liquid diet, inspired by a colleague who recently completed the 10 day regime of water, lemon juice, cayenne pepper, and maple syrup.

That colleague "successfully" completed this self-inflicted torture. She was tired and miserable. The reactions of the staff were very divided on cultural lines. I pointed out that I weigh 50% more than her (although I probably seem gigantic to her) in a futile effort to get her to stop.

There is some really stupid stuff floating around Chinese social media. Women are told they should aim to be able to wrap their arms around their backs and touch their belly buttons. The collarbone challenge is another bizarre body image ruiner that has popped up on social media lately, the goal being to stack as many coins as possible in the hollow of one's collarbones.

The way I would ask someone how their child's concert last week went in order to show that I am interested in that person, Chinese people mention to someone that they have gained or lost even the smallest amount of weight. Commenting on someone's weight change is the opposite of rude; it shows you have been paying attention.

Since my wedding where I had to lose weight to squeeze into my mama's wedding dress (more a matter of cheapness than vanity, I can assure you), I have had the joy of being able to weigh whatever I want. No outfits or standards to squeeze into for photoshoots any more, hallelujah. I have relished in exercising because I want to, eating what makes me feel good, and wearing make up when I'm in the mood for it. Quick aside: Make up is not as popular in China as it is in a lot of places and not wearing it, at least in the circles and sector I am in, is not out of the ordinary. What a blessing, in contrast to the weight issue.

And, graciously, Westerners are given some leeway in the weight department. People are generous with what they deem "thin" for us, relatively speaking.

That being said, the Irishman and I (in separate incidents) have each been poked in the belly with comments about the extra junk in our trunks. No one even went that far back in my modeling days ("I CAN'T SUCK IT IN ANYMORE THAN I'M ALREADY SUCKING IT IN!" is a direct quote from me, but at least no one touched me when they told me pull in my tummy).

It has been hard to maintain a healthy attitude about weight when I feel like I need to preempt comments. After Chinese New Year, I heard so many women reflect, getting in before anyone else could, that they had gained weight over the holiday. Hearing women point out that they had gained 1-2 kilos (2-4 lbs) or having people point out similar weight gain/loss on others makes it very difficult to ignore these regular, normal fluctuations in my own body. For crying out loud, women retain 2 kilos of water monthly due to menstruation anyway.

At a work lunch the other day, in response to all the talk of liquid diets, the other foreigners and I went on a bit of a rant about how healthy bodies come in many shapes and sizes. While we risk sounding like xenophobes, lecturing people in a country where we are guests, I can't help but feel compelled to try to get my friends/colleagues to stop feeling bad about how they look. And maybe help me to not feel the need to reflect on my body shape and size so often when it doesn't matter. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

On living in a land of "bad tourists"

It's easier to think about living here after being away. We were in Ireland last week for my sister-in-law's wedding and answered questions over and over again about what it's like to live in China. In nutshell, our answer was always ,"We love it, but it is very different from here". The following is a big part of what we meant by "different".

Chinese people do not have the best reputations when it comes to tourism. They tend to congregate in gigantic tour groups and wreak havoc -defacing artefacts, publicly relieving themselves, and generally being rude in the eyes of locals.

This has been in the news even more lately as China claims it is creating a national blacklist for poorly behaved tourists to try to limit international embarrassment.

Unlike tourists I have met from other countries, Chinese tourists are not [typically] acting this way because of racism, classism, or thrill of anonymity away from home. People act the same way they would at home. Defacing artefacts, publicly relieving themselves, and generally being rude in the eyes of foreigners.

For example, this video taken at a Korean airport is quite representative of a lot of queuing (or not) situations in China.

I think if I watched this before I moved here I would think it was exceptional but I can attest that transportation hubs, markets, and major tourist areas can regularly be like this. When my bestie Tiana tried to get our Chinese visas for our No Plan Plans trip in 2010, it took her hours to get to the front of the line because she wasn't used to queuing as a contact sport.

The lack of consideration for others in public hit me, literally, at the airport coming back from Ireland last week. After 1.5 weeks of having a ton of personal space and people being extremely friendly, making an effort to ensure my comfort, I, completely stationary in a logical waiting place, was run into twice within a five minute span by people pushing their luggage carts. Jolted back into my China-brain, I didn't react as one traveller noticed my foreign-ness and mumbled "sorry" while the other looked wide-eyed at me as if to say, "Where did you come from?". You get used to this look in China.

The thing is, most local people wouldn't mind.

And I think this is something that many foreigners in China forget. What we perceive as rudeness and carelessness just doesn't bother people a lot of the time here. Of course, no one likes to get pushed out of the way to get into the Metro but the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" mentality is more pervasive than the "publicly shame people into changing" (see video above) attitude.

In my nearly two years here, time and time again, I see Chinese people completely confused by foreigners' reactions to their behaviour.

For example, it's illegal to smoke indoors. But people do it anyway, practically everywhere. If you throw a fit (especially if you aren't speaking Mandarin), the person smoking likely has no idea what the problem is.

And another: My laidback husband had a bit of a freak out at a local museum last year, pushed one too many times. To be fair, we had been pushed and shoved by hundreds of people at this stage and seen pretty much nothing in the several floors of the museum we travelled through. He lost his temper, shouting in English, at a child and the child stared at him like he had two heads. The kid had no clue that shoving my husband was rude. Nearly every adult around him was doing exactly the same thing.

Only a few steps away, we saw a grandmother climb up the side of an aquarium, a few feet off the ground, to knock as hard as she could to get the fishes' attention. (It didn't work and no one stopped her or batted an eye.)

I often wish people would queue, not spit, speak quietly on the phone, bring their child to a more private place to urinate than the middle of a sidewalk, queue, not block sidewalks walking in groups, not hit me with their umbrellas, not stand still at the tops of escalators, hold open doors, queue, not smoke inside, not pick their noses, wash their hands, not take photos without permission, and queue.

However, I choose to live here. I am the outsider here. I don't get to decide how things work.

Of course, as foreigners, we don't have to jump into the local culture to the point of cutting our nails on the metro or growing our fingernails long to pick our ears (yes, that's a thing). But realize when you call people out on what is normal behaviour for many millions of people, you're the rude one.

Take deep breaths, laugh about it with your friends and family, and know that it's perfectly fine to openly take a photo of the pushcart of watermelons blocking a massive intersection or videotape the girl blocking the crowded metro door taking dozens of selfies.

And be patient. Things are changing, slowly, and this might be the main area where foreigners cheer "face saving culture".

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Chinese New Year Staycation: Round 2

As the avid reader/listener to a year of whining will recall, we swore last year that we would not stay in Shanghai this year. I was actually quite subdued about it on my Chinese New Year blog post, but overall we were bored and sick of listening to fireworks/firecrackers.
I strongly discouraged newcomers to Shanghai from sticking around. We are in an amazing location to fly to Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, Japan, to name a few places friends of ours travelled to this year.

But a combination of waiting too late and wanting to save some money led us to stick around, yet again. I was pretty confident I could do better this time around.

My mindset was one of anti-boredom. I had something planned one way or another almost every day of the break and a list of activities we could do when the mood struck. I knew from last year that museums and small shops aren't consistently open around Chinese New Year and just avoided them altogether. I knew from last year that most Western places would be open and that the fireworks on the New Year Eve (February 18th-19th this year) and the Fourth/Fifth Day would be epic.

Despite the lessons of last year, I discovered I had more to learn.

Failing at Firework Viewing

We were lucky that several of our friends were also in town for Chinese New Year this year. I organized a group to rent rooms at the Oriental Bund Riverside Hotel, a highly reviewed 5-star hotel in Puxi that overlooks the river. Or, wait, was it the Oriental Bund Hotel?

Great location! Just not for fireworks...

Yes, after hours of research, I managed to book the wrong hotel. Our hotel was located in Pudong, the wrong side of the river for the best views, and in Lujiazui at that, above a curve in the Huangpu River that prevented us from seeing pretty much anything at all.

So 9 of us all missed the fireworks on Chinese New Year thanks to my hotel booking fail. We still had a blast, singing and dancing until the wee hours.


Thankfully, due to my experience in 2014, I knew that I had a chance to redeem myself: The Fourth/Fifth Day.

My friend Solay has a sweet apartment downtown with a perfect view for fireworks. At my behest, she hosted a group of us for drinks and food and firework watching.

Everyone was pretty tired at this stage. People at the party had either been working or partying (or, in the my and the Irishman's case, getting foot massages) and were too tired to put up much of a partying effort. By 11 pm, having seen very few fireworks, we decided to call it a night.

30 minutes later, in a taxi on our way back to Pudong, they started. Epic, fantastic fireworks that everyone except yours truly got to experience. Yes, I crawled into bed in our 2nd floor apartment, while the Irishman walked Charlie, videoing the beautiful, colourful displays going off all over the neighbourhood. The other partygoers, who all live on higher floors, sent videos via chat app.


And now we all know that 11:30pm-ish is when to expect the Fourth Day show. Go figure.

T, my Toronto-based bestie, reminded me that I will not want for opportunities to see fireworks while living in China but it is still a bit sad that my two efforts at the biggest firework days of the year were thwarted by my own stupidity.

Lessons learned!

Succeeding at Staycationing

Not to toot my own horn, but we are now staycation pros.

Foot massage addicts


We got the lazy part sorted. Watch the Oscars in bed for 3 hours? Massages? House of Cards marathon? More massages? Streaming NHL games? Why not 'eh? I have never eaten so many nachos in a 12 day period.


We were even a bit productive. We both got a bit of work done, which might seem depressing, but will make it much easier to get back into the swing of things tomorrow *cries*. We worked out, despite the Irishman's gym being closed for 1 month with no notice (remember what I said about stuff not being open randomly?). IKEA and shopping for bike supplies counts as productive, too, right?

Chillin with Fili


Despite being in Shanghai, we even put the pup in boarding for 2 nights so we could go to our hotel party and chill out the next day without stressing about him. We had also taken in two buddies to babysit over the break: a colleague's daughter's hamster and a volunteer's guinea pig. I love animals and had a great time snuggling some extra four-legged friends!


Being at home (well, all but one night), we managed to save cash, despite eating out, drinking quite a bit, and getting our fair share of spa time in. We aren't tired from travel or sick from being cooped up in airplanes. There is no jetlag. I was stressed before the break that we would regret it but I think it worked out perfectly.


Plus, we're not handing in our expat cards yet --we'll be off somewhere tropical for Qing Ming holiday in four weeks anyway! Life in Shanghai is hard.


Year on Year

Last year felt very different. Some of it was due to us having friends around and me needing a break (vs being unemployed and bored) but it was an objectively different time.


Partly because of rain, there weren't nearly as many fireworks/crackers going off day and night.


It was very easy to get a taxi or Uber car in the weeks leading up to and including the break.


Next year, I mean it, we will not be here! We are planning to meet up with my cousin and her family. But even if we didn't, I feel much more positive about sticking around now that I think I do really have Chinese New Year in Shanghai down. The next time we are here over the break, fireworks or bust!!





Sunday, January 25, 2015

The difference a year makes: On being changed

Well, it's a bit embarrassing how long it has been since I have posted. I just paid for another year of and an iPad app to update this thing. Let's see if I get any better at this.

Christmas morning family photo
How cute are we 'eh?

We had our first Christmas in Canada in 3 years. We lucked out and our week in Ottawa was crazy warm. Above zero almost the whole time! Jackpot!

Last year, we went to Ireland and France over Christmas. We noticed the obvious, superficial differences: people didn't drive like their arrival at their destination as quickly as possible at all costs was crucial to life as we know it, they queued, they didn't spit, they didn't urinate in public (sober), ditto for spitting.

Funnily enough, I did encounter a squat toilet at a gas station in France. The public washrooms in Paris were pretty gross, so I was quite thankful for the squatter where I didn't actually need to actively try to avoid touching a scary looking toilet seat. If you told me 5 years ago when I encountered my first squat toilet that I would one day prefer them, I wouldn't have believed you.

Anyway, this year was a special Christmas, not only because it was my first Christmas back in Canada in 3 years but also because it was the first time I/we really saw how China had changed us.

When we left China, we were definitely in need of a vacation. We had both been swamped at work and had been experiencing more than a few "China days" recently. As you can imagine, "China days" are days when a combination of local behaviours and a lack of patience/humour/energy combine to putting you in a bad mood. There's a big risk when these happen of becoming negative about China and living here, rather than chalking it up to a bad day.

There is a big issue currently in Shanghai (and other big cities) with taxi availability. This is made even worse by Chinese taxi apps that give Chinese literate folks the opportunity to find taxis on their phones and lure drivers there way with the promise of a tip (very uncommon in Chinese culture previously). Waiting for taxis wasn't so much of an issue in our first year here. Now, it's common to wait 30 minutes where you used to wait 3. In central waiting areas, it can be ruthless trying to flag down a taxi, especially since queuing is not standard.

The week before we left China, I was waiting for a taxi to go meet the Irishman and some colleagues for dinner. I watched a grandmother and young child (maybe 4 years old) get pushed out of the way again and again by people snagging their taxi. I was livid, shouting mostly in English, but being completely ignored by the men and women who violently pushed their way into taxis while this elderly woman tried to keep her grandson safe. It was insane. I ranted via Whatsapp to the Irishman about how badly I needed a break from Shanghai.

For my first few days in Ottawa, I'm embarrassed to say, I ranted quite a bit to friends and family. I complained about slow and cersored internet, bureaucracy, lack of queuing, spitting, belching, slurping, peeing in public, and the annoyance of "face saving culture".

But by day 4 or so, I was calm enough to talk about all of the good things, not least of which are the jobs and standard of living we have been able to enjoy here. Even the stress of pollution isn't very serious for us with our air filters, face masks, and filtered water.


By the time we arrived in Vancouver a week later, greeted by signs in Chinese and an airport full of people more likely to speak Mandarin than French, we were almost missing it.

Embarrasingly enough, after all our ranting about Chinese internet, we ended up using our VPN service to put us on a Chinese server so we could stream Homeland easily when we woke up early on our first day in Vancouver.

Coming "home" wasn't as easy as you might think. I had to continually remind myself to apologize if I accidentally touched someone, a practice that I now find a bit ridiculous. The Irishman and I panicked a bit in restaurants, unsure of how aggressive we could be when flagging down a server to ask for the bill. I had to take money off the table as my husband, unsure of how to tip, left crazy 50% gratituities (sorry, servers). We were ID'd all the time and it took training to remember to bring our passports with us --while this was a bit annoying, I'm quite pleased we pass for 25 and under with a minute chance that we are under 19.

We revelled in the short lines, small talk with cashiers, familiar brands at the stores. I said sorry, please, and thank you hundreds of times. I drove and enjoyed it.

It became most clear one afternoon in Vancouver how China had changed us. One of my vacation goals was to fill up on fresh, delicious sushi. Not a tall order in Vancouver but, we learned, at a highly rated restaurant on New Year's Eve, it pays to have a reservation. While we waited to get the hostess's attention, a man tried to get around us. On cue, the Irishman and I both threw our elbows up and made a human wall between the man and the hostess desk. I think my cousin Shawna was mortified as we both called out "we were here first" when a woman came up behind us on the other side, trying to sneak by. We were nice about it, smiling and just making sure that people didn't think that we had already checked in with the hostess.

We were all turned away in the end, anyway, because they were full. We got our cardio in finding an open sushi restaurant down the street.

My spoiled husband isn't a sushi fan and my breastfeeding cuz was up for a food-heavy afternoon, so we headed to the Mexican restaurant next door to the Japanese place for Round 2. The lights were on and door was unlocked; I walked in to see if we could get a table. There was no one around. From the safety of the patio, Shawna whispered to the Irishman that she was sure I'd be murdered as they watched me wander down a hallway into the kitchen to investigate. Turned out they were open and happy to serve us. Once we had been seated, other people came into the restaurant, as well.

Family photo at home
Staying in was probably safer for us...

In both of those instances, our non-confrontational, polite Canadian and Irish sensibilities would have left us uncomfortable as we watched other (presumably Chinese) patrons slide around us while we looked on in silence. Perhaps, once the others had spoken to the hostess, we would have, with many apologies, piped up that we had been there first. Perhaps not. We certainly wouldn't have defaulted to our "Chinese crowd" response of taking up space and asserting our position. One year ago, I probably wouldn't have wandered into the kitchen of an unfamilar restaurant.

In China, asserting yourself is the only way to not get run over, literally and figuratively. There are over a billion other people trying to get things done with varying levels of decorum. In life, modified to be less intimidating or (depending on the culture) rude, it can make you a better advocate for yourself. Being timid and defaulting to avoiding even the most polite "confrontation" isn't doing anyone a favour. The people who were trying to get the hostess's attention weren't necessarily trying to get ahead of us but trying to make sure they didn't get caught in the shuffle. And that's okay.

Don't get me wrong, I will never advocate for butting in line. But it's nice to see how needing to assert myself every day, whether it's on my bike, at the shop trying to pay, or getting on the Metro, has changed me and the Irishman to not shy away from basic encounters.

If you do ever see us pushing a granny aside, it is time for an intervention.