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A Letter From China
Image: Jonno: Crossroads; which way to go? - Click to Enlarge Infrequent, irreverent, and irrelevant snapshots of daily life in China
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Image: One of several street cleaners; 6 a.m. outside our apartment - Click to Enlarge

Image: The original, communal, village well - Click to Enlarge

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A Letter From China

The Human Condition

There are only two certainties in life: Things change; we die.

Excluding Death's Dominion (Dylan Thomas), let's look how life changes, changes us; for better or worse as chance may be.

Some insignificant, or mortal changes may take moments, or months, others a lifetime, or generations. Adapting to these changes is what I term 'The Human Condition'.

Life has recently brought us many changes, and whilst minor in many ways, alter our daily lives to greater or lesser degrees. In this missive I continue with Rhiannon's schooling, but as background, and include some shorts that may educate, or make people smile; especially those who are familiar with the curiosity that is China.

Moon Festival

Rhiannon had settled well at school, although the timetable had not. What should have been her sixth week at kindergarten was interrupted by the fixed Golden Week Chinese national holiday, which threw routines into chaos. These routines were hardly recovered from the first of these holidays, as I related previously.

The Festival of the Moon is a lunar festival like Easter, which occurred very early this year, falling on the 8th of September. The festival runs for three days, but only the 15th day of the 8th lunar month marks the celebration with a national holiday. This year (2014) the festival began of the 6th September, concluding on the 8th. If you understand the concept of Roman kalends, ides, and nones, then this should be simple, if slightly different.

You may remember Rhiannon attended her first schooling for twelve days straight, and then had four days off. China is like this, the balance over three-weeks being correct = 15 days school, 6 days off. I consider that a tough beginning, but I remain a guest of this great Country; nothing more.

The Moon festival is an ancient tradition that was revered long before the days of Empire. The original festival was introduced when the Zhao Dynasty came to power in 1046 BC. That's more than three thousand years of continuous history and practice. Originally, it was a celebration by Royalty of the Autumnal Equinox, but this transformed over the passage of centuries, into the celebration of Chang-e (many anglicised spellings), the Lady of/in/on the Moon. I have written about this festival and associated myths and legend in a dedicated page, so will continue here with how this holiday affects ordinary people, today.

One aspect of the feast often comprises a barbeque, to which family and friends flock in light-hearted manner. It is a great social gathering, and we held our small version of it. One of the oddities is that the whole of China goes mad gifting mooncakes. A suitable analogy would be the Western gifts of mince pies at Christmas, and both contain elements of giving the ‘very best’ available or affordable, as ‘Face’.

My mother used to make her own, which remain the best mince pies I ever tasted. I still remember the gallon jars of Robertson's mince + the adorable Golliwog, that I miss. Although she did have other recipes, some using the mass produced product as a base, my mother adapted her own. Adding Brandy was a simple one; although I also remember her marinating selections of choice peel to chop and add to the mass.

China is little different, although I have not yet met any ordinary person that can make their own mooncakes. Mooncakes are between two and three inches round, or square, an inch or more high, and invariably contain a dried egg yolk in the centre. They can contain virtually anything: fruit, nut paste, or meat, and even mixtures of all three. Some I like, some I do not, and generally, I try to avoid them like the plague; they are invariably, frightfully filling.

This year Siu Ying bought several boxes, which were dished out to family and friends, we receiving similar back. Fortunately, Mama came to stay, and ate them all up. In previous years, I have known several disappear into the depths of our refrigerator, only to be thrown out to make way for the next year’s crop.

You will have realised, the egg yolk represents the moon. As I understand things, the yolk is a conditionally dried hen egg yolk, but not from an egg. It is taken from the innards of a chicken pre-production, so to say. You may not realise, but hens have a sort of conveyer system that produces one egg per day, about one week in advance. I came to terms with this when I watched my wife killing a live chicken by slitting its throat, and gutting it for cooking. I love these premature yolks; they are very tasty. However, unlike my family and friends, I have not as yet attempted to eat the egg sack, something they fight over. Each to his or her own, I guess.

About two months before Moon Festival, these small, treated, egg yolks go on sale. I saw piles of them offered by street traders, for about ten days, and then they disappeared; I meant to take a photo—next year I will. With one month to go before the festival, all manner of shops erect stalls outside selling only mooncakes. There are thousands of them; the major supermarkets strip their shelves, and stop selling many products so they could sell mooncakes. My one curse is that they usually removed all the things I would normally wish to buy. Pandemonium ensues the week or so before, and to such a degree, the only comparison I have is Christmas rush. I guess our Western shops do similar with Easter Eggs, so there is your counterpoint—Easter Egg shopping on the scale of Christmas.

School Days

We survived the Moon Festival, and life returned to its normal metre for a week or two. Rhiannon settled into five days school, plus Saturday morning English class from 9 to 11, Sunday off. We practiced when she came home, after rote learning a couple of words and phrases: “Angel, Sleepy head, boy or girl,” I felt relieved and proud, the emphasis was on fun, as well it should be. She loves going, and this was highlighted on the third Saturday morning, when Baba arrived at 8 a.m. to take her to her favourite Aunt’s funeral.

Now the thing is, Baba did not tell us he was coming, he just arrived. I will come back to this later, but this is how China operates on a daily basis; the here and now is of the only importance. We did know that Rhiannon would attend the funeral, which was set for after lunch at their rural village. Baba's arrival threw a spanner in the works, and already dressed for school, Rhiannon was told to change clothes for the funeral. I said my bit, “Why can’t Baba wait for an hour,” or similar. I thought my daughter’s education was more important than hanging around a house full of mourners, all waiting hours before it was time for the interment at the family plot in the hills nearby. Note, I have no problem if the burial was in the morning, but it was in the afternoon, and not something kids generally enjoy; notably, the body would be lying in State within the home, before the funeral cortège departed.

Siu Ying was adamant Nonni must leave with her father, and tried repeatedly to ring the teacher, who did not answer. Baba is a most genial and accommodating man, my pleasure to know him. Whereas I could not effectively voice my concerns, Rhiannon understood me, and could. She did so along the lines of “Baba, I need to go to school for 2-hours. I am learning English.” And so it came to pass; Baba heard Rhiannon, and immediately knew her learning the language I speak was singularly important. He gave me a knowing look, the best form of communication we share.

He had been unaware she was taking these extra-curricular studies, and sent her off to school at once. They departed moments later, and Baba went to enjoy rice porridge across the road. All was well with the world of the living once more.

The world of the Dearly Departed intruded some two hours later, and Nonni left for an overnight stay. Mama returned with our daughter the next day, explaining that Rhiannon was her relative’s favourite niece, and that the two had been very close. I did not know that; Nonni was gifted a small treasure of family heirloom as a keepsake.

This time Mama stayed with us for two nights, before returning to Moh Dor Soi, ‘the village’ to you and I. I noticed over time, Rhiannon was happy, if tired. Her school days were 8 a.m. until 5:30 p.m., although they have a sleep for a couple of hours after lunch. She was ready for bed most evenings around eight o'clock, nine at a push, and I hoped she was not being overly educated. It turns out she is a star of the class, and into everything, so her days are packed full of fun learning.

Golden Week

Our routine was interrupted just a few days ago, as Golden Week was upon us. This is a fixed ten-day holiday to commemorate the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. That is when Mao Zedong officially became Chairman Mao, and China came back into unification after half a decade of wars, atrocities, and famine.

One thing that was different for us is that we are now accorded status of having our own home. Before we rented, and that does not count. Because we now own our home outright, we are accredited Family Unit status, so can do as we please, within reason. No longer must we attend the parental home for celebrations, although often we do. At other times, family may or may not come to us.

The family owns three homes, our own, the parental home, and Dai Lo’s home in neighbouring Hoipeng (Kai Ping) City. Dai Lo has more or less taken over running the family, as Baba is aging, but still retains the final say. Dai Lo has a small mortgage; I do not, and neither does Baba. Chinese families are all about hierarchy, as our new columnist Cynthia tells of so very well. I have never thought to intrude into family politics, family decisions, but I know I could with a very powerful voice. Our deal seems to be that I leave them alone, and they leave me alone. Cool.

Rhiannon broke up for National Holidays, and we had our new routine. So, it was with undue astonishment, when Mama arrived early on the second morning, and I called my wife. She could not comprehend why her mother was now in our apartment, and had brought along Yee Lo (Number 2 brother) and his daughter. Our guests soon made themselves at home, and after welcoming pleasantries, I retreated to my office. Siu Ying arrived some time later, and seemed to bawl her mother out. I could not follow all of the Toisanwah, in fact, I wasn't that interested. They were with us for the duration of whatever, and it was fine by me.

Remember what I mentioned above, about us not needing to go to the parental home anymore … well, the parental home came to us instead. I saw it, but my wife took a tad longer to adjust. With these two incidents, this and Baba above (which are few of many), I do have to ask, “Why don't you call us first to make an arrangement?”

The answer is along the lines of, “I am your mother/father, why do I need to make an appointment to see you?”

This misses the point, the reply being, “So I can be home to welcome you. I do have a life.”

There are hidden issues here foreigners have a hard time of grasping, my wife also to extended degree. In the West, if your mother is coming to visit for a few days, there are usually telephone calls, and dates set to mutual arrangement. Not so in China. The Mother appears, and if you are not home, she waits outside until you return; often giving you a bollocking for not being home when she arrived unexpectedly.

I have talked with fellow Expats about this phenomena, and it holds true across the board of the daily lives of Chinese people; they do not plan ahead, either something happens ‘now’, or it does not. Given Siu Ying’s outburst, I think she was seeing this from a Western point of view; she was really put out when I rang her. She kept say the equivalent of “What? What? My Mother (Mama) is in our home, like now? Why?”

Expat's may link this phenomena in a wider sense, for oriental people tend to only think about themselves, and put themselves first. This goes a long way to explaining the chaos of Chinese roads or queues, and once you add in 'Chinese Face', their culture.

Returning to Golden Week; this was of course Mama’s design for the family to be together for the holidays, and as it was our first time, they came to us. National Day began with a deluge, thunder and lightening, which stopped before most awoke. The following evening we were entertained by the people next door, it was hard to miss the crashing, smashing of plates, and shouting. Even I was interested, but wanted to finish writing, as this was other people’s business, not my own.

The family gathered on the balcony and much talk ensued as the argument raged next door. They are a young couple in their early 30’s, with 3-year old daughter, and mother, who is possibly the true owner of the property. I don't know, and don't rightly care. It turns out the husband missed a family meal, but was seen driving his car with an unknown girl in the passenger seat; most notably, she was a smart twenty something.

After the crashes of porcelain and metal dishes quieted, a female voice was dominant for thirty minutes, I guess 'mother' was a tad hacked-off. I heard odd male protestations, but they were drowned out by the elder female’s invective. No one has been in the apartment for several days now, but the thing I realised, given what has now been broadcast; people aren't so different, no matter the colour of your skin, or the country you live in. I could also call this The Human Condition.

In the event, Mama, Yee Lo, and Loi-Loi stayed for four days, and have just departed. We had a good time and enjoyed each others, and friends company. A plan beforehand would have been nice, but whatever. Here is China! Rhiannon left with Mama to spend a few days in The Village, and in a couple of days time, Siu Ying will go and fetch her, readying her for the first serious school term. Now we have Moon Festival and Golden Week out of the way, there is a long haul through to Chinese New Year.

Rhiannon will have a brief break for New Year, the 1st of January being a national holiday. I also know that the school plans additional fun times, like Halloween and Thanksgiving, Christmas lunch. We paid an extra Y641, or sixty quid, for her to attend a monthly school bash; the first was a visit to the newly opened Pizza Hut. I did not know we had one, but it is part of a new shopping development, and has a western supermarket I am about to try out.

A new word has been added to her vocabulary, "Pizza!" She loves it.She also understands some of the things I say; I tend to speak Cantonese and repeat in English, now she understands simple English without the Chinese reference. Simple stuff: "You OK?"; "How was school"; "Wake up sleepy head."

We have a secret 'Mummy' does not know about, Nonni uses by mobile phone to play games. She can unlock it better than I, and spends hours on it in our bedroom. When Mummy goes looking for her, she hides it under a pillow, and later, secretively returns it to me, pursing her lips with a finger against, "Shush." I love it.

I am sure Mummy knows, or suspects what we are up to, but she leaves us be to our childish intrigues. Siu Ying has already mentioned buying Rhiannon an iPad, whatever, in the near future. I am fine with this, as long as it remains in the home, and under my surveillance = not online. They can be great teaching aides, and Nonni will come swiftly adept within the technological generation we all created. I need her to learn right from wrong, bullying from peer pressure, and ask of others, "Why?"

I want her to know my door is always open, nomatter what shit she gets herself into later in life. That's not to presume I will like it, but I can offer her 'best advice', and mean it from the bottom of my heart. So far, she is adapting well, and the school seems to suit all of us: parents, teachers, and Rhiannon.

The teachers have not as yet homed in on me, but I am sure it is only a matter of time. Ahha! One parent is a foreigner; we must get him to play Father Christmas, or some such. I don't mind giving my time, but occasionally please. I already know the school employs one foreign teacher, if only because I see him cycling his lie-on bicycle home for lunch and dinner; his feet peddling below where the non-existent handlebars should be. The man is at least in his second school year of teaching there; I saw him with his presumed girlfriend during the summer break. I presume he is an American; one I will probably have the pleasure of officially meeting in due course.

The Human Condition is a strange thing; it admits breadth of experience to encompass, to enshroud all of humankind's endeavours, successes and failures—given we remain capable of appreciating them for what, or whom they truly are.

Rhiannon has a long path to tread before she becomes her own person in her own right. I wish her well and support her diligently. So far, I have taught her one thing, to ask the question, “Why?” Long may that mindset continue…


This work including text and associated photographs is Copyright of Jonno Morris (Unless stated otherwise), and may be reproduced for personal and private use under Collective Commons 3 Licence. An email would be appreciated in such circumstances, as would a reference.

You are not allowed to use this information to make money from my work - regardless of how fancy or well paid your lawyers may be.

Some artistic licence has been used arbitrarily in some of these Letters, and whilst most facts are in essence correct, some personal and literary interpretation may have been employed to greater or lesser degrees.
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This Missive
Image: A slice of Mooncake, note the yellow centre - Click to Enlarge

Image: A typical Mooncake presentation box - Click to Enlarge

Image: More Mooncakes, there are thousands of varieties - Click to Enlarge

Image: Chang-e, The Lady in, on, of the Moon. Her day is very special to Chinese people - Click to Enlarge

Image: Chinese venerate the power of The Moon on the 15th lunar day of the 8th lunar month - Click to Enlarge

Image: Siu Ying prepared this feast in her honour - Click to Enlarge

Image: Best fruits are offered for her providence - Click to Enlarge

Image: Rhiannon with a peeled Chinese grapefruit - Click to Enlarge

Image: As are meats, the goo left is hot potaoto mix, tasted excellent! - Click to Enlarge

Image: Chicken and Mooncakes, what a treat - Click to Enlarge

Image: Rhiannon's first day at school - Click to Enlarge

Image: Rhiannon's first moments of her first class - Click to Enlarge

Image: Rhiannon at kindergarten, the first day - Click to Enlarge

Image: Rhiannon has already mastered Mummy's Note 3 - Click to Enlarge
Recent Pictures
Image: Rhiannon's bedroom, view 2 - Click to Enlarge

Image: Rhiannon dressed for housework - Click to Enlarge

Image: Rhiannon party time - Click to Enlarge

Image: Rhiannon interior design - Click to Enlarge

Image: Rhiannon earrings - Click to Enlarge

Image: Rhiannon outside the local shop - Click to Enlarge

Image: Siu Ying's wider shot of our living area - Click to Enlarge

Image: Siu Ying's wider shot of our dining area - Click to Enlarge

Image: The kitchen after refurbishment, view 1 - Click to Enlarge

Image: The kitchen after refurbishment, view 2 - Click to Enlarge
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