Tuesday, January 24, 2012

2012 - The Year of the Dragon

The Chinese New Year began January 23, 2012. Thus begins the "Year of the Dragon" according to the Chinese Lunar Calendar. The last time it was the "Year of the Dragon" was in 2000 and the world kept right on spinning into an awesome new millennium. Through the years back home we've patronized many Chinese-American restaurants.  Often the table is set with paper place mats indicating the 12 Chinese Horoscope animals which correspond with birth years.  It was always innocent fun for our crew to discover the correct animal for their birthday and chat about it's significance between the early egg roll arrival and the appearance of several domed stainless dishes.  Our immediate family has a Tiger, Monkey, Rooster, Rat and Dragon among us.  I was born in the Year of the Dragon, so this, I'm told is going to be my year! The dragon signifies change and reform and is quite powerful.  I'm to wear something red that is visible all year long to bring me good fortune and happiness. Scarf? Coat? Bracelet? Ring?  I haven't decided what it will be, any suggestions?  [The Big Guy did suggest stocking up on red undies...]

I'm not superstitious at all and I do think it ridiculous that everyone born within a certain lunar month or year would all have similar personality traits but I'll play along this year for grins and chuckles.  However, I will stick my dragon-like neck out there and make a grand and general statement:

Chinese people are quite superstitious.  

They avoid the "unlucky" number four.  They don't want it to show up in their cell phone number, their address or license plate.  I've learned that you should NEVER give someone 4, 40 or 400 of something as a gift. Since the Mandarin pronunciation of the number four (si) is similar to the word "death" - (si),  "4" isn't a number you want to get close to. In some parts of China a buildings 4th floor is designated as Floor "F."   

 A "lucky" number is eight , (which is funny because that has been our lucky number since we were married on the 8th day of May-in a previous century.)  The number eight is highly sought after and I'm told that people pay extra to have more "8's" show up in those items I mention above. The pronunciation of the number eight is "ba" and similar to "ba-ba" which is father and elders are respected, therefore....well you get the point.  A simple enough superstition.  It's fun to be on the lookout around Nanjing for number "8's" and the lack of number "4's" in license plates and such as we tool through the town.

We have been regaled by the sound of firecrackers in Nanjing ever since we moved here at the end of March 2011. This is not just a childish sport as grown adult people purchase and heavily participate in setting them off.  Sometimes they are lit by construction workers on a rainy day in great hope that the loud noises will scare away the rain. Other times they signify a wedding or family-focused celebration.  And sometimes, well, we don't know WHY they are lighting them!  I asked our Mandarin instructor, Stefanie, about this tradition.  She told me to expect ALOT of fireworks on the eve of the Spring Festival/New Year. She also told me a Chinese fable about this tradition's origin. It goes something like this:

# # # # #
Once upon a time there lived a very awful people-eating monster named Nián. He terrorized villagers on the last night of every year. Needless to say, all the people feared him. They didn't want him near their village. As the New Year approached the villagers anticipated Nián's unwelcome arrival. The Spring Festival and New Year should be a time of celebration but the fear of Nián was very strong. The villagers sought a solution each year but nothing worked. Each year he would return to eat more people!   With all the home fires producing tasty dishes for that year's fabulous feast, one house caught fire. The flames were red hot and the timbers popped and crackled.   The villagers near the fire were safe from Nián, but outside the ring of fire the remaining villagers were not. 

 A man with great wisdom said, "Nián is afraid of fire and noise!  This is one way we can scare him away every year! Let's use red hot fire to keep bad things, like Nián, away from our village and our people."  And so from that year forward they did just that.  This is is why the Chinese use fireworks, firecrackers and display the color red.  They adorn their doors and windows with red symbols to keep evil off of their doorstep and invite good fortune and happiness into their homes for the New Year, instead.

# # # # #

In anticipation of all the noise and hoopla many of our expatriate friends have left China to vacation elsewhere for the holiday week. We stayed put mostly because we had just returned from Harbin, China's Ice Festival the weekend before <see post entitled "Cold, but it's a Dry Cold"> but also to say we've experienced a REAL Chinese New Year celebration.  I was quite surprised that the air was particularly still and quiet the week leading up to New Year's Eve.  What's the Big Deal?  Is this all there is?     
And then midnight of the New Year approached.

Here's a clip from the Big Guy's cell phone looking East out our third story balcony at 12 midnight. I wanted to dash and get the Nikon, but did NOT want to miss the show!

The sights and sounds went on non-stop at this intensity for well over 30 minutes! The sky was also on "fire" in the North, South and West quadrants of our skyline.  Thick air stung our noses with the acrid smell of gun powder and the streets were littered with red cardboard casings and boxes the following morning.  What we experienced rivaled any grand finale firework display we have ever seen.  We were awe-struck and glad we stayed in our jammies in Nanjing for this year's show right outside our door. Little did I know that within my lifetime I'd experience a Chinese New Year up close and personal while residing in mainland China.
Nián, thankfully, was nowhere to be found!  

Xīn nián kuài lè! 
Happy Chinese New Year, Everyone!
Wishing you a Prosperous, Healthy Year with Good Fortune!

Thanks for Reading,

p.s. the fireworks and noise continue.....day three.  Apparently Nián is still a threat to some of our villagers. This "Year of the Dragon" may 'drag -on' for awhile...Pop! Pop! Pop!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Cold, but it's a DRY Cold...

Off we went for two "Ice solid" days of touring the most amazing man-made winter experience ever.  The 13th Harbin Ice & Snow World exhibits became a backdrop for our weekend trip in January.  Seven of us lugged luggage to the Lukou Airport in Nanjing and flew for 2.5 hours north to the Harbin Taiping International Airport -  the largest most northern airport in all of China. 

Here's a brief overview of our bone-chilling adventure and lots of photos:

But, it's a DRY Cold!     -13 C or 7F

Harbin, China is strongly influenced by it's Northern and Eastern neighbors, Siberia and Russia. Being further north than the frigid land of North Korea, to say it's Cold is an understatement.

Harbin City Street
Many of the buildings are capped with Russian-like domes unlike the China we experience in the South. Menus hawk more Vodka and Beer than Tea and Wine. The region is known for their hearty dumplings. More protein, less vegetables. But we didn't come for the food. 

 The two largest venues during this month of Winter activities in Harbin are the Ice Festival and the Snow Festival. 

Day # 1 - Ice World

The first night we boarded the bus from  "H -E - Double Hockey Sticks" to experience the Ice Festival. The crippled bus gassed along and stopped at every Hotel it could find to pick up more unsuspecting passengers.  Each passenger jumped aboard merrily until the fumes, stops and starts either lulled them to sleep or caused severe jaw pain from the tension. After "90 - 100 gazillion minutes" (per Angie,) we were ready to experience some ICE! 

Everything, and I mean everything, was sculpted of ice or constructed of ice blocks. Colorful lights were painstakingly embedded in the ice blocks. They cast bright hues against Harbin's midnight blue sky. Many structures were multiple stories high. Utterly- awe-strikingly-MAGICAL.
The entrance is a wall of Ice

Hard Packed Snow Groaned and Squeaked Underfoot

"Y" is for Yak

Angie and Me

The temperature that evening was -13 C / 7F.  We lasted about 2.5  hours in the frigid splendor. There were stops in warming houses and alot of jumping up and down to keep our warm-blooded frames tempered enough to explore every corner of the expansive park. Appropriate attire necessitated 3-layers of clothing to enjoy our visit.   And enjoy it, we did! 

We waited in line on a spiral staircase (constructed of ice, of course) for a 'demon-drop'-like ice luge experience. Arriving at the top there were two ice slides, side by side.  I chose one slide and the Big Guy chose the other.  An attendant plopped down a small molded one piece plastic sled at the top of the run and motioned for me to sit down. There was NO turning back at this point. Sitting down he directed my legs straight out and mimicked that I should NOT move them from that position.  As I began to cross my arms in front of my lengthened body he shook his head and pulled my arms straight down atop my thighs, again indicating NOT to move them from that position.  I looked at him, he looked at me and he said, in perfect English..."Go!"  And "Go!" I did.  The sled began it's plastic clacking on the hard ice chute, with me in it.  The loss of control was manageable about one third of the way down until the speed doubled.  Clack, Clack, Clack. The sled sped out of it's straight path and began to wobble side to side..still clacking but more quickly. My body wanted to resist this tumble-speed and brace against it if possible. This would mean putting my elbows & legs out. Because the attendant told me NOT to, I forced my legs to remain straight.  My elbows poked out a bit and hit both sides of the chute, but only ONCE before I drew them in tight again. At the end of the run was a wall of powdery snow into which I plunged in and under. I layed completely motionless amid the laughter of those who had conquered this moments before me. Then the attendant barked at me to get up and out of the way before the next helpless sledder arrived.  Two people helped me up and off the chute lane. 

Was it over?            Yes!
Was I injured?         Nope! 
Was I grateful?        Yes! 

My friend, Ky, captured his luge plunge with his Nikon camera - brave soul that he is. Here's actual and accurate footage of the ride that all six of us conquered:  
Please allow time to Load

In retrospect, this 15-second run ranks up there with "One of the Stupidest Things I've EVER Done in my Life."  I'll spare revealing other Stupidest Things for now.

<The following day I received an email that stated because of my age and 'AARP - (American Association of Retired Persons') status, that I surely qualified for a battery-powered wheelchair or scooter.  Now, I could take that one of two ways; the Good Lord telling me, "Slow down, Fool and don't ever go on a luge run again!"  or  "Hell No, We won't Go!" to the aging process deleting the rude email as SPAM and go on living the dream.  "Fiddle-dee-dee," I say.>

Day #2 - Snow World

In an entirely different location was Snow World for Day #2's excitement.  These are sculptures made not of ice, but of tightly packed and sculpted snow.  Mountainous in scale and scope.  We saw them in the late afternoon as the sun was setting.

"One of these things is NOT like the others..."

It's the Year of the Dragon

Everyone has a Job in China

and I mean...


Big Guy - Ky- Matthew

Pete - Golon

First Alto and Second Soprano at the Chinese Opera

China - it's where we LIVE!

Russian Feast and Back out into the Crisp Night Air
There you have our latest travel update.  We enjoyed the sights of Harbin, China as seven expatriates.  Four of us thawed out, shucked the extra heavy winter gear, crammed it all back into our Samsonites and headed back home to Nanjing. Three brave souls decided to stay on for one more day and snow ski even further north.  They report that it was an awesome sun-filled experience.  Sure, it's doubtful that I'll use that Russian-style hat again here in Nanjing, but maybe when we return to Michigan and visit family in the upper peninsula I will venture out into the cold and reminisce about January 2012's adventure to Harbin, China!  I think we earned our bragging rights on this one!
It's ALL about the Maozi! -(Hat)

Thanks for reading,


(Dedicated to my long gone father-in-law who described weather like this as:  "Colder than a witches T#T in a brass brassiere!")

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Fun and Names

It's crucial to put oneself "out there," as an expatriate living in China. This three year assignment can go one of two ways - We can live day to day lives, recoil and avoid the newness of these experiences or we can embrace it ALL and put ourselves "out there." Our personal goal is to force that needle to the right of the "out there" gauge.  We find ourselves saying "Yes!" to outings and invitations far more often than we would have previously. We try new activities and meet new people ALOT. Keeping everyone's names straight has been a wee bit of a challenge since many Chinese nationals have a family name and an English name. Weekly, we meet new expatriates from all over the world. I use the tried and true tactic of repeating an introduction out loud to try and burn it into my brain...sometimes it works. Either way I've always found names fascinating.

As a young girl I wanted my name to be "Mary."   Three doors down on Vassar Street lived Mary, a young, white-capped and bright-white-stockinged nurse who would pull into her parents' driveway each day at 4pm, exit her FORD and float up the stoop. Her halo of importance kind of sealed it for me. When we played 'pretend,' I always chose to be "Mary."

In elementary school the upper grades had an half-hour weekly French lesson. An army of TV carts rumbled down the hallway guided by each classroom's audio-visual captain of the month and crash-banged through the doors of each 4th, 5th and 6th grade classroom. Voila! - Monsieur Essayan appeared for a thirty minute broadcast from the local Detroit public television station. In black and white splendor he regaled us with some very basic phrases and asked us to repeat them, pretending he could hear our responses. He always feigned that we were really doing well, which made me giggle at the ridiculousness. Monsieur Essayan visited our 5th grade classroom one fine day in his shiny silver/gray suit and skinny black tie. His fancy schmancy dress outweighed his balding head in my pre-teen eyes and we were all pretty excited to see that he really was a 3-Dimensional person after all. By this point we each had our own French name and mine was "Simone." Because of his celebrity status and the fact that he read my freshly fashioned name plate & said "Bonjour, Simone!"...well that memory and my French name have stuck - solid.

I flat out LOVE to hear the significance of why a person was given their name - either real or imagined. I'm intrigued with the provenance and story line. Most people can tell you a story about their name, albeit a given name, nickname or like that above, a "pretend" one.

Not everyone loves their name. Legally changing a name in the USA is doable and acceptable - for a fee.  The Big Guy tells me that in India, one can change their name whenever the mood strikes.  On Monday morning, they announce their new name to their coworkers and life goes on.  Anyone who has changed their name always has good solid reasons for doing so and surely a story to go along with it.

Upon arriving in China the Big Guy was informed that it would be necessary for him to have a Chinese name in order to have printed business cards. One side should be in Chinese and the other should be in English. Such a sensible approach to working in the Asia Pacific region.

But, how to begin?

Our friend Angie's native-speaking Chinese mother, a Michigander, and the Big Guy's Nanjing co-worker Julia, were willing to give their expert opinion.

The contemporary trend is to "echo" the sound of one's American name so it sounds similar, relayed Angie's Mom. For example, Matthew Brown might be Ma Chu Wuan; sounding pretty close to the English version. Sensible approach, indeed.

Julia preferred a more traditional approach to name selection. She thought it more significant to fashion a name with an underlying meaning, which of course had it's own appeal - especially to me, the storyteller.

So.....since Julia sits one arms length away from the Big Guy and Angie's Mom lives 7137 miles away, he bowed to his co-worker's judgement and went the old-fashioned traditional route. (With no lack of respect to Mrs. Hsu, by the way.)

The Chinese "noodling" commenced as Julia came up with some choices that required a vote by the Big Guy's FORD work section. It was quickly apparent that this is a Big Serious Deal. No "eeny-meeny-miney-mo" selection would do this task it's rightful justice.

Here are the choices with the number of votes indicated:

高智和 Gao (1) Zhi (4) He(2) 智慧,和睦 Tall, wise and harmonious -  2
高鹤轩 Gao (1) He (4) Xuan (1) Tall, Crane, Broad and wide ranging - 5
怀逸Gao (1) Huai (2) Yi (1) 取自李白千古名句:俱怀逸兴壮思飞,欲上青天揽明月 Tall, embrace leisure - 0

高志远Gao (1)Zhi (4)Yuan(3) 出自诸葛亮的《诫子书》“非淡泊无以明志,非宁静无以Tall, Ideal, Far -1                 

高贤博Gao (1) Xian(2) Bo(2) 出自仲春相约石桥村,弄墨高贤博古今Tall, virtuous and blessed - 4

高俊谦 Gao (1) Jun (4) Qian (1) Tall, Handsome, Modest - 1

With the votes tallied the Big Guy became:

Gāo Hé Xuān
Tall, Crane, Broad and wide ranging

"Gāo"  [ for short :-) ] 

A few months later in one of our Xian tourist stops we entered the stall of a pen and ink artist. His artistic brush strokes penned effortlessly across parchment with stunning results.

"Do you have any sketches of cranes?" I asked. 

With one chosen, the artist's English speaking assistant inquired if we would like our names placed alongside the artist's signature.

The Big Guy proudly whipped out his business card and showed them that he had a Chinese name and would that be okay?  Impressed with the card, and the name that included the reference to the revered crane, the artist's assistant said she could give me a Chinese name, too.

"No thanks," I replied.

"No problem, I give you name," she helpfully insisted.

The Big Guy looked at me, shrugged and said, "Go ahead, if you want."

"No, I want Julia to choose it!" I whined back.

After all, I felt that Julia knew me and would choose something significant and why should HE get all the attention, right?

So upon returning home we asked Julia to put her naming skills and guidance to work.
She asked me if I wanted one of the Big Guy's names to appear within my name and what I wanted to portray with it. I gave her a couple mini-wishes and she set about to find me a Chinese name.

About 3 weeks later she emerged (I'm calling to mind the puff of smoke rising from the Vatican once a new Pope is chosen) with my Chinese name.

She said it came to her in a dream and that sounded romantic enough to seal it pretty much right there.  (Sometimes I'm just WAY too girlie.)

< Be grateful that she didn't name me after one of my dreams.  I could possibly be named Wrinkled Woman of Song who Spitteth Out All Her Teeth - which I'm guessing you agree doesn't sound very Asian. >

And now for the "reveal."

My Chinese name is:

Sū Yǒng Lín

Sū - for the Jiangsu province that we live in.

Yǒng - for song - as in a carol

Lín - the nurturing rain in the forest

Thank-you, Julia!   Wo hen xihuan - "I like very much."

Along with putting ourselves "out there" socially, we now have Chinese names to banter about and portray that we sort of fit in somehow among the millions of people way over here in China. It doesn't take a craned neck or a trained eye to see that we -Gao He Xuan and Su Yong Lin - are much more Wonder Bread than dim sun...but heck...we're making a grand effort and having a BLAST in the process.

I may refer to myself as Cricket, Mary, Simone, Mrs. Johnson, Su Yong Lin or just plain old Carol. And yes, there is a story behind each one of those names. However you refer to me, let it be known that the Big Guy and I are doing our utmost to push that needle to the "out there" side of the gauge.  We approach new experiences, learn new things about the Asian culture, meet new people and learn their names one by one, everyday. 

Gāo Hé Xuān is working hard to make a difference in the FORD Asia Pacific market. And yes, we undoubtedly feel it's a privilege to call this city named Nanjing our HOME.

Happy New Year - 2012

Thanks for Reading,


FACT: Nanjing was once the capitol of China and at that time it was called Nanking. The prefix "nan" refers to the South, as opposed to "bei" which means North - as in the current capitol city of Beijing.