Category Archives: Beijing

Oh, China!

Daily life in China can be strange, infuriating, illogical and altogether baffling. “Oh, China!” is sometimes the only thing that can be said.

This is the only possible response when there is no obvious feasible explanation for peoples’ behaviour, someone’s choice of outfit, events, plans, constructions, signposts… the list goes on. Essentially, everything is done in a distinctly Chinese way and reflects modern Chinese life. What more can you expect of one of the largest countries in the world?

This utterance is already becoming a stock reaction to things that surprise me; it’s trend reflecting my life in Beijing. I say it almost everyday, and I feel like this is only going to increase as I experience more of this insane city. It’s a way to acknowledge the differences I notice and to appreciate how each piece of the puzzle informs my understanding of the Chinese mindset. Plus it’s the best way of turning something potentially frustrating into something humorous… a sense of humour feels vital for survival in Beijing.

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  1. All foreigners have go through a basic health check early in their stay (required for the residency permit application), which involves queuing for hours, proving your identity, and paying for the privilege before it’s even begun! Once you’ve stated you don’t need extra tests for HIV, malaria and other serious diseases, you queue outside room after room for your tests. They test your sight, blood pressure, height and weight, take a blood sample, a chest x-ray, a cardiogram and an ultrasound of your organs. It’s pretty disconcerting, being herded from one test to the next and not having any communication with the doctors and nurses. They clearly do this same thing every day and have no need to communicate beyond “lie down” or “press” (after taking the blood sample), but it certainly made me feel like I was in some strange sci-fi world where foreigners were treated like cattle.
  1. Though Ikea is essentially the same everywhere, there’s a different cultural significance to it here. An Ikea trip is a social outing for the Chinese, many of whom dress up for the occasion, scouting out ideas for their own homes (nowhere else in China would you find design ideas laid out like this). Others sit or lie down to take long naps on the beds and sofas for as long as they like. One can almost imagine a Chinese couple going to the Ikea cafeteria on a date.
  1. Chinese shops don’t seem to sell ANY fresh milk (in bottles, cartons or bags). I bought two bags of UHT milk the day I arrived (which tastes rather less than desirable in English-style tea). My attempts to replenish the stock with fresh milk resulted in a large stock of 3 types of yoghurt (one huge bottle, several small bags and the yoghurt pots I actually MEANT to buy) and one bottle of flavoured milk. I’ve given up and gone back to UHT.
  1. A lot of men have VERY long nails. Mostly on the little finger and fourth finger, rarely on all five fingers. It’s a status symbol showing that the hands’ owner doesn’t work with their hands. It’s not really popular among Northern Chinese (Beijingers) because it’s not a farming area, nor an area known for it’s factories, but Southerners still grow their nails to reflect their escape from farm work (probably the family business). Many of the images I’ve seen of the imperial family show them with nails about five inches long.
  1. There are public toilets all over the place. A lot of bars and restaurants, particularly those in the Hutongs (old, traditional-style streets with elaborate tiled roofs and walled courtyards) don’t have loos. Public toilets are kept pretty clean and are all squatters for the most part, many don’t have cubicles or even dividers, they often don’t have hand-washing facilities and none have loo paper or soap. If you’re prepared for it (and able to set privacy aside) they’re brilliantly convenient.
  1. There really are bicycles EVERYWHERE, going in both directions, carrying an assortment of people, animals and belongings. I’ve seen some hilarious bike and motorcycle riders thus far, the most memorable being a woman in high heels and a short, tight, shiny silver dress, whose dog was sitting between her feet on the motorbike and poking his head around her leg to get a better view. Cyclists don’t usually ride on the roads – most of the roads are several lanes wide but have a partition between the road and the bus-motorbike-cycle lane. As a cyclist, the only time you come into contact with cars is at the huge junctions, where bikes and motorbikes wait and cross with the pedestrians. Bells and horns are used A LOT, mainly as notifications of “I’m here and coming past” than an aggressive “move out of my way”. Most people don’t lock their bikes when they leave them (hardly anyone locks their bike TO anything – there are no railings actually designed for the purpose), so there are rows and rows of bikes left standing, and thus loads of bike theft.
  1. Every year on October 1st, China takes a holiday for National Day. This year, as part of the attempt to elongate the holiday by as many days as possible, we were required to work the Sunday preceding the holiday and the Saturday after it. This enabled us to have a full 7 days off work, without having to miss a full week’s classes. However, there’s no standard timetabling for weekends, because we don’t usually teach then. As is often the case in China, the announcement (and probably the decision) regarding which day’s classes we’d teach when, was left until the very last minute. When, finally, it was announced, we discovered we’d be teaching Monday classes on Sunday 28th and again on Monday 29th. It was like living the same day two days in a row. And for some reason, I decided to teach Groundhog Day… which meant I watched the film 4 times in 48 hours. Perhaps the Chinese insanity I describe is affecting me more than I thought.

Oh, China!

Beijing Dance / LDTX Studios

A morning at Beijing Dance / LDTX Studios

It’s the first rainy day since my arrival in Beijing. I am met, somewhat sodden, at Dawanglu station by a young Chinese woman named Jade. Clutching our umbrellas, exchange our thoughts about London, the city we’ve both left recently, and Beijing, where we’re both newly living. Jade walks me to the Beijing Dance / LDTX Studio, where rehearsals are just beginning for the day.

Looking up briefly from leading the rehearsal, Willy Tsao smiles and welcomes me with a warm hello before returning his focus to the dozen or so dancers in the room. In Beijing for just a couple of days, Tsao has invited me (at this point, a complete stranger) to watch the group’s morning rehearsal before an early lunch at their studio complex.

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Born and raised in Hong Kong, Tsao is a major figure in contemporary dance across China. In addition to his directorial role at the helm of LDTX, he’s the founder and artistic director of Hong Kong’s City Contemporary Dance Company, managing director of Guangdong Modern Dance Company, and founder of the Guangdong Dance Festival (November) and Beijing Dance Festival (July). He splits his time between the three cities, leading rehearsals with each company whenever he visits, and joining each company on national and international tours. Tsao has just featured in TimeOut Beijing‘s 10th anniversary edition (October 2014) as one of the ten people who will define the next decade in this rapidly developing city. He’s made a huge impact on the Chinese dance scene already, and shows no sign of slowing down. I certainly agree with TimeOut – Tsao will continue to shape the performing arts scene of contemporary China, within and outside the country.

Seventeen dancers fill the space facing Tsao who sits at the front, one hand beating out a rhythm on a drum as he talks them through their movements. Under his instruction, they stretch lithely, moving with an acute awareness of their bodies. I watch without fully understanding; I understand on a physical level – it’s that Artaudian ‘evidence in the realm of pure flesh’ thing again – but less so on the level of reason. I don’t speak enough Chinese.

Jade, ever more welcoming, brings me a glass of water and sits close beside me to translate. Through her, I hear Tsao’s instructions to his dancers:

“The centre should be your focus, should lead all the movement…”

“…don’t think about poses, reaching to a point in space, but leading from the Tan T’ien.”

“Open up the space around you.”

“Always think about the next step, think about rhythm…”

Tsao’s constant return to the Tan T’ien – the sea of qi or energy centre, in Chinese medicine and martial arts like T’ai Chi – is a major indication of his unique approach to contemporary dance. Tsao’s dancers have trained at a range of different institutions in China and internationally, so have relatively varied backgrounds and levels of experience. Many have trained in contemporary or modern dance, some have a stronger knowledge of ballet. They are all strong, precise, graceful dancers, but he wants them to leave their training behind.

Training has conditioned their bodies, given them the strength and awareness necessary for their careers, but that’s just the base from which Tsao and his dancers work. Tsao trains his dancers to focus on moving from their Tan T’ien, and allow the extraneous details to fall away. He doesn’t expect their movements to be identical – he puts little emphasis on perfection and far more upon impetus. It’s all about movement quality that originates in the Tan T’ien.

However unfamiliar this may seem to a western-trained dancer, this focus on the centre, the body’s core of power and movement, seems to me the most logical step for contemporary dance. What’s important is the essence of the movement and the feeling it generates. The intricacies of movement are not imposed by the choreography but radiate from the individual dancer. Their movement is clean and pure. A breath of fresh air, which is a rarity in smoggy Beijing.

Unlike many other dance companies around the world, Tsao’s companies employ dancers full-time as paid professionals, which enables dancers to maintain full fitness and develop their skills rather than having to supplement their performances with other part-time or short-term jobs. This policy was the only clear option for Tsao – how else could one maintain a professional-level performance group, long term? He is devoted to his dancers, to their talent, to their development.

This devotion to his dancers shines through in the rehearsal. He and the group share a special, almost familial bond. There are several moments in which Tsao shares a joke with one or two of the long-standing company dancers, playfully making light of the mistakes they make or mimicking the faces they pull during exercises. Everyone is in on the joke, everyone is involved – even the one or two young dancers who are here for just a few weeks as trials. He is supportive of them, encouraging and praising their hard work.

Over lunch, Tsao engages me in deep and fascinating conversation. He seems so completely in tune with modern China I can’t help thinking that he’s poised to shape its future. He’s certainly shaping the outside view of contemporary China – touring shows to events and festivals worldwide, he’s giving the world a vivid glimpse of the vitality of contemporary Chinese arts.

After encouraging me to visit again soon, and the promise I’ll be welcome at any and all of the three companies’ future performances, Tsao returns to the centre of his influence – he’s only in Beijing for two days, so rehearsals take priority. The dancer’s unrelenting energy is eclipsed only by Tsao’s zeal for his creations.

On Equality

‘Equality is in the eye of the beholder’

– Linda Grant.

For some women, perhaps those of my grandmother’s generation, it must seem like we – the women of generation Y – have got everything women could hope for. That the women’s movement has finished its’ job. That we can do ANYTHING. My grandmother truly believes that EVERYTHING I attempt is a success – that I could be a diplomat, that I will be the next female Prime Minister – that I’ve got it easy because I’ve had an education beyond what she’d ever imagined for herself or her daughter (my mother). And yet. And yet.

I am pretty sure that’s not how most women of my generation feel. I hate to disregard the privileges I’ve had – a wonderful education that’s been delivered fairly, the personal agency to quit a job I dislike, and the opportunity to undergo further training to boost my career…* But should all this be regarded as a ‘privilege’?

I think not. Education and access to education should not be restricted by sex or age or colour ANYWHERE in the world. It’s not something anyone should feel ‘lucky’ to have received. It should be a fact of life for everyone. In my eyes, it’s a basic human right.

The knowledge of this discrepancy causes a problem for me, and for other women of my generation. The knowing and the guilt. That’s one of my worst habits: I feel guilty for my ‘privileges’ but know of no direct way to change the cause.

In truth, we’ve got a lot more power to bring about change than we realise. And tonnes more than previous generations have had. We have tools at our fingertips that enable us to create freely and publish things that go viral almost instantaneously. No previous generation have had that power. But, are we any better at using what’s available?

Perhaps we’ve got so much choice, freedom and creative power available to us that we’re not sure which truly deserving cause we should dedicate our time and energy to. We are stilted by our over-compassion, confused at our need to nurture (albeit from a distance). So we end up doing very little. I feel I’ll end up seeing none of my dreams come true. My dreams about equality.

Maybe we are so concerned about the lack of equality elsewhere in the world – so many of our ‘Why I need #feminism’ slogans compare a Western ideal to some quasi-fictional nation where girls don’t have it so good – that we ignore our local issues with the aim of effecting change on a much larger scale, but – realistically – is this helping anyone?

Sayantani DasGupta speculates that our attempts at ‘saving’ women in other cultures – of fighting a cause on their behalf – actually negates the effect their own work has. It compromises their agency as feminists in their own right, trying to change things in their own culture. I’d never thought of it this way before, but suddenly all this talk of ‘some girls don’t have it so good’ smacks of yet another case of ‘us’ and ‘them’, posing the question of how united a sisterhood feminism really is.

Dr Nawal El Saadawi argues that Western-based feminists’ battle against female genital cutting renders real resistance to the issue by African and Middle Eastern women ineffective.

DasGupta paraphrases El Saadawi’s point thus:

Local feminists had to fight against the perception that their activism was somehow a part of an imperialist Western project rather than a resistance to a cultural practice from within. The best support Western feminists could give their global sisters, she said, was to listen first and speak later, following the lead of and partnering with local feminists, giving economic and other support from a position of “solidarity” rather than “saving”.

If we truly want to spur our sisters on, shouldn’t we be fighting on all frontiers? Shouldn’t we take a closer look at our own corner of the world?

Yes, perhaps to our grandmothers it looks like we’ll get no more juice out of the equality orange, however hard we squeeze. It looks like we’ve made it, if you take the outside view. But from within… the view is not so rosy. We’ve still got SO MUCH to work on – here in the UK, across the pond in the U S of A, and in all the other nations that have slipped out of view because we overlook the sexist hurdles that still prevent true equality. Laura Bate’s, The Everyday Sexism Project, is just one reminder of this.

Change is best fought for from within. I vote we support our fellow women from afar, and fight our own (local) battles first.

*Money and the matter of paying for an education is a different matter (I’m in £30,000 of debt due to my degree, and my parents have generously assisted me with the fees for my most recent course). My personal belief is that education should be free for everyone, and that the ability to pay extra should get our wealthier (or perhaps simply more traditionally-minded) peers no advantages. But of course, that’s not the case.

All references from:
Appignanesi, Lisa, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach (eds.). Fifty Shades of Feminism. London: Virago, 2013. Print.

(Originally published on Aliljoy.com on 8 August 2014)

On Choice, Contraception and Woman Power

What if choosing the contraception that best suits you was not an option?

The Pill revolutionised sex. There’s no denying it. Margaret Sanger probably wouldn’t believe how widespread the oral contraceptive she dreamed of has become. But that’s not to say it’s actually the best or most suitable method out there for you. There are SO many more options available (compared to the 1950s) that allow women to take control of their bodies. There are even some involving no additional hormones, pills, injections or heat-of-the-moment fumbles.

Why should any woman have to put my body through the shit that extra hormones bring on? Why should anyone experience the mood swings, weight gain, bad skin, headaches and other hormonal side effects for sex?

As if there isn’t enough of a power trip going on in the bedroom department already, with the stand-offish attitude that so many guys adopt when it comes to being responsible about contraception. How many men reject the use of a condom because they ‘don’t like using them’?! Yes, the woman would have to deal with the consequences of conception – hopefully not entirely alone – because it’s her body. But that rule applies in advance of the act too – every woman can take charge and in the way SHE wants to.

Stand With Women

Four years ago, I decided to take control of my own body. I’d been through a number of different Pills, being told these were suitable for my body but ultimately not enjoying having to remember to take them everyday. Particularly when I realised I’d have to take this Pill everyday for as long as my sex life continued…

I was just 18 when I got the implant – the same drug as my most recent Pill, released daily into my body by a piece of plastic in my arm. Upshot: no periods. Great (for two years). Then BAM. Two periods a month for six months. The solution? Take a daily Pill for a few months, and maybe things will settle down… A double dose of progesterone into my already imbalanced young body, how would that help?!

I had a tough time persuading the professionals that I’d made the best choice for me, but I’m headstrong and knew what I wanted. Namely an IUD. The NHS don’t like giving them out to women before they’ve had children. Admittedly, it was painful at the time, but I haven’t looked at a pill or worried about my hormones since 2010. And I won’t need to think about a new one until 2020. The last time I saw a GP, she said she was impressed by my choice of the IUD and praised me for taking responsibility for my own body and finding an effective method to suit me.

Intrauterine devices sit in the womb, preventing the fertilisation of an egg or implantation of the egg in the uterus. One type doesn’t involve any hormones and lasts for 10 years. That’s A DECADE without having to even THINK about remembering to take a pill, carry condoms or having to stock up on your chosen contraceptive.

I know that not every woman is likely to react as well to the IUD as I have. Like everything, it does have its downsides; the side effects vary depending on the individual. It goes without saying that what works for one person may not necessarily work for another and that it is always important to fully research the pros and cons of any medical decision, in consultation with a professional. But this was right for me and my body, and I’m so glad I had the power to make this decision for myself.

Yet I speak to friends of mine – all intelligent, independent and responsible young women (and men) – who have never even heard of these devices. Why?! I’m beginning to think that we’re not actually offered the choice we’re supposedly given and are entitled to.

Nonetheless, we women of the UK are pretty damn lucky really. The NHS is a major advantage. Contraception is free, readily available, and comes with advice, support (usually) and, most importantly, choice.

The US Supreme Court says employers with religious objections can refuse to pay for certain types of contraception.

This includes IUDs and female condoms, which are proven to reduce the spread of HIV.

This is the aftermath of the Hobby Lobby case and new Ohio legislature. According to them, the IUD is an abortifacient (a device that induces abortion), which completely contradicts the long-standing definition of abortion. Nonetheless, there are now 82 US companies that have publicly announced their belief – contrary to scientific evidence – that certain forms of birth control are the same as abortion (and many pro-life campaigners believe that abortion is the same as murder).

This is a country where there is no centralised health service, so most people rely on the healthcare plans that their employers provide. A country where women’s contraceptive choices apparently involve their bosses and the conservative religious beliefs of the organisation they work for, regardless of the employee’s own beliefs. How is this anyone’s business but a woman and her doctor’s (and her partner’s, should she wish to share)?

These new rulings set a dangerous precedent.

If one of the world powers begins to discriminate against certain types of contraceptives – particularly female-focused forms that give women agency in their sexual relationships – aren’t we opening the door for excuses that prevent women taking control of something that is (or should be) immutably their own?

Aren’t we denying women power over their own bodies?

My hope in writing this is to share the news (I haven’t even seen this story on any UK news programmes), and that by sharing we can open some minds to the importance of contraceptives, choice, safety and women power.

(Originally published on Aliljoy.com on 18 July 2014)

Where Did You Come From, Where Will You Go?

When I booked tickets to head home for the long Easter weekend, I was looking forward to taking a ‘breather’ – I hadn’t left the big city in over 3 months and missed the countryside. So besides baking, drinking ridiculous amounts of tea and hanging out with my family, I took a long bike ride, went for two woodland walks and did cartwheels on a deserted beach at sunset in front of a stormy North sea.

I was almost surprised to find that the countryside still exists when I’m in London – it’s so easy to get wrapped up in day-to-day triviality. It’s easy, having spent several years living away or at university, to create an idyll around the family home.

For many, the place you grew up has become a safe haven, a place of fun and fewer responsibilities, but it’s also a bit haunted. I fell back in love with the familiar surroundings, but in doing so I risked falling back in love with lifestyle, the boyfriend, the crappy job… It’s a slippery slope and I needed to get my shit together.

Admittedly, I’d begun feeling a little lost. I had reached a point at which I had stopped feeling like I was progressing along the road of life. It’s not hard to lose momentum, to lose the feeling of achievement in day-to-day life.

I do have a long-term plan, but the long-term trajectory is almost too big to see and this is easy to put aside in comparison to the immediate, all-consuming daily grind. You put it off, again and again, and then suddenly your ambitions have evaporated.

I really needed to get my shit together.

Back to my ‘breather’. I trust no-one so much as I do my family, when it comes to helping me make progress. I knew there were things I needed their help with. But, as ever, there was a lot of talking (over cup after cup of tea, no less) and thinking, but I wasn’t geared up and raring to make a change…

Then, I had some gut-wrenching news. Having gone for a quiet pint with an old school friend (the only person I still make the effort to see when I go home), I ran into some friends of my ex. I was quite surprised at how friendly they were, but thankful that he wasn’t there. One of the guys did the whole ‘but, how are you?’ thing… I was brutally honest and I think that’s the reason I got a brutally honest response:

‘He’s very happy with her now’.

WOW. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know my stomach could actually feel like it had dropped through the floor. But it did. I hadn’t a clue what to do except carry on talking and resolve never to return to that particular pub.

When I got home I cried.

The next day, all I really wanted was to get back to London as soon as I could. But that desperation soon transferred to something bigger and better, something that will take a lot more work but benefit me much more in the long-run. With the wondrous advice of my Mother, I soon saw my family home for what it was: my starting point.

Sometimes, however hard it is, you need to remind yourself where you started in order to regain perspective and remember how far you’ve come on your desired path.

I left home (and the boyfriend with it) in order to follow my dream – a dream that is not realised yet and will still be a few more years in the making (at least). I know, and always knew, in my heart of hearts:

If your dream doesn’t reside there, then neither should you.

Since that evening about 3 weeks ago, I’ve turned things around. It was horrible at the time, but exactly what I needed to spur me on, to prevent me giving up and just slipping back into old habits. Now I really feel like I’m getting my shit together.

(Originally posted on Aliljoy.com on 12 May 2014)