Friday, January 30, 2009

春节快乐! Happy Spring Festival!

January 26th marked the beginning of Spring Festival (also known as Chinese New Year). It also marked the point where we left the old year of the pig behind and entered the year of the ox. As you may know, it being a lunar calendar, the date of the Spring Festival changes every year, starting with the second new moon after the Winter solstice and festivities lasting until the 15th day, with a Full Moon. Although it would seem the Chinese are celebrating the beginning of year 4707 (or 4706, I've found both online), the average person does not seem to be even aware of the existence of a different year-counting system, as China has been using the Gregorian calendar for a while.

So, what's to do during Spring Festival? Well, there's:

Watching and hearing fireworks, of all colours, shapes, speeds and effects, day and night, day after day! (even from my study room the show was spectacular) Among their many obvious uses, they're useful for chasing away evil spirits, lest they spoil the coming year.

Going to a Temple Fair! (Miào Huì, 庙会) This time we went to the Temple Fair of the Temple of Earth (Dì Tán, 地坛). Even though Temple Fairs have existed for about 1000 years, in the 1950's they ceased to exist (superstitious and religious events were big no-no's back then), only having a (then timid) come-back in the 1980's, after a whole generation had forgotten what they were all about. Nevertheless, and whether a deeper sense is lacking altogether or not (the karaoke singing right atop the altar where only the emperor could pray is telling), they're colourful and, since they happen only once a year, not to be missed.

Eating. And Eating. And Eating some more. With family, with friends, alone. Dumplings, noodles and (my favorite), yuánxiāo (元宵), which are round, soft dumplings filled with black sesame paste (there are other fillings, but I'm a devout fan of the black sesame ones). Or Beijing snacks (left) or Uighur sweets (right, sold by a man from Kashgar with whom I had a fun exchange in Mandarin, Russian and Arabic) to ensure a sweet year!

Or becoming one year older, along with everybody else, on the 7th day of the new year! For, as you may (or may not) know, in China your age is calculated just on your year of birth. Everyone who was born in 1973, for example, will turn 36 this February 1st. And everyone born in 1973, and all those born in 12 year cycles before and after that, is celebrating THEIR year, the year of the Ox! If you're an ox, remember to wear something red year-round, no matter how small, to bring some luck (or at least to use as a conversation starter, should you not be so superstitiously inclined).

No matter how you celebrate (or don't), happy Spring Festival! may 10,000 things be as you imagine them (wàn shì rú yì, 万事如意)! and congratulations and become prosperous (gōngxǐ fācái, 恭喜发财)!

Monday, January 26, 2009

بكين الإسلامية (The Muslim Beijing)

This is not what you'd call an exciting post, and it's probably one of my shorter ones, but it's about an interesting place we visited, and so I though I should still include it. A couple of weeks ago we decided to go and explore a bit of a rather little known side of Beijing: its Muslim side.

According to some, Beijing is home to about a quarter of a million Muslims, with Islam having a history of some 1400 years in China. Most of Beijing's Muslims belong to the Huí (回) minority, although there are considerable numbers of Uyghurs (ئويغور) too, from the distant province of Xinjiang. Although the Huí are practically indistinguishable physically and linguistically from the Hàn (汉, the dominating ethnicity), the Uyghurs are Turkic in origin, which is reflected both in appearance and language.

So, we set off for the Niújiē Mosque (牛街礼拜寺), a Mosque with a 1000 year history, the biggest in Beijing, and the centre of Muslim life in the city. Mind you, urban Chinese are not too inclined towards devotion, and the mosque's lack of activity (granted, it wasn't Friday nor prayer time, but it still felt a bit empty) seemed to confirm that.

The experience was fascinating nevertheless, as (like you can appreciate in the photos) the style is decidedly Chinese, with Islamic touches here and there, mostly decorative Arabic writing which, when placed in a distinctive Chinese surrounding, resulted in a most interesting effect:

So there, just a tiny glimpse into one of Beijing's less known sides, بكين الإسلامية (Bakīn al-Islāmiyyah,), the Muslim Beijing.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

happy belated gregorian new year 2009! (part II)

And having celebrated Christmas home, what better than to celebrate New Year's Eve along with hundreds of thousands at Times Square in New York? But, wait! I'll leave that bit for last. ;-)

New York offers so much (and we had the luck of staying at the cosiest and best-located of apartments, courtesy of a good friend and colleague) that we decided to take it easy and enjoy whatever came our way. And what did we enjoy? (in no chronological order)

Pretzels by Central Park! Why, it was really cold, with a bit of a drizzle and, after a long walk along Central Park, nothing could make us happier than eating warm, salty pretzels!

Anywherespace at The Guggenheim! I loved this "non-exhibition". The spaces of the Guggenheim museum became the "Anywherespace Exhibition" itself: there were words and phrases printed on walls, the roof became a starry night sky, next to the stairs in the ground-floor Pinocchio was floating face-down murder-scene style... One of the best, for me at least, was to realise that the ground floor had a phrase, which could only be read from high above and when the flow of people unveiled it: " WE ARE EVIL". And on top of that there was an exhibition by an American Photographer, Catherine Opie, with some amazing photographs touching on gender-bending and masochism; in one room, some 4 incredible full-sized challenging photographs were accompanied by an out-of-this-world singing by Juliana Snapper; you HAD to be there, HEAR IT, SEE IT, no words would do that justice. Needless to say, the whole Guggenheim experience was immensely refreshing.

The Museum of Sex! and the Gershwin Hotel! As for the Gershwin hotel, which we were not looking for but fortunately happened to be right next to the Museum of Sex (which we WERE looking for), it's a gorgeous, red, funky budget hotel smack in the middle of Manhattan. As for the Sex Museum... well, this was another refreshing experience, like the Guggenheim. They had an exhibition on animal sex (not sex by wild people, mind you, but by wild animals). All I can say is that anyone that says that masturbation, group sex, sex toys, oral sex and homosexuality are not natural, should visit that exhibition (you wouldn't believe what some dolphins do with their blowholes, and you'd certainly redefine your ideas about lions...)

Food! Bookstores! In the right proportions: BIG. Both. Great food, huge portions. Great bookstores, endless aisles. Food from all over the world. Books on all subjects, about all languages, on countless fascinating subjects. Including tons of things that can't be talked about or written about in China. Truely wonderful.

Naked Boys Singing! Literally. It's an off-Broadway musical where 10 men perform totally in the nude (except for ONE song). Totally, absolutely and undeniably naked. It's not the best musical you can find, it doesn't last long enough, it was cheeky, and the performances were OK but not mind blowing, BUT, BUT... in how many cities can you go and see 10 naked men performing in a musical? It was simply fun to go watch this kind of show just because we could, and because we caught an offer that included a DVD of the show and a drink at the theatre's bar, Time Out! (by the way, I had a delicious dirty Martini with the biggest olives ever! the pic was taken by my habib, since I left my camera home)

Last, but not least (and, technically, this wasn't last, this took place the day after we arrived, but it made more sense to leave it for last in this post), we attained our goal: to welcome 2009 at Times Square! It wasn't easy, as we were not the only ones with that goal in mind, and so we had to try to reach Times Square like... 5-6 hours early? And so, armed with our best winter gear and with chocolate bars (good for calories and to fight the cold!), we braved the freezing streets, along with 200,000+ people, for no less than FIVE HOURS, so we could participate in the quintessential US New Year tradition: seeing the ball drop at Times Square. I kid you not, that was one tough wait, but when the ball dropped and 2008 came to an end, celebrating along with a quarter of a million strangers who have been intensely waiting for that moment is madness, totally unique.  Alas, I had no video camera with me, so all I can share here is a photo.  But believe me, that was mad!

And so, without further ado, happy belated 2009! May you have peace of mind to enjoy and face everything this year throws at you, and may you have the joy of seeing all you strive for become true.

Monday, January 12, 2009

East Palace, West Palace

It's not often that we go to the theatre in China. First of all, there's the language barrier. No matter how much I learn, it never seems to be enough. And the habib hasn't had the advantage of many years of practice like me, so he's in no better position to follow a play in Mandarin. 

But that was not going to deter us from going to a play where one of our friends was performing, and where a friend of my habib's was directing. And that also ran the risk of heavy Chinese censorship. For "East Palace, West Palace" (东宫西宫) is a Chinese play. About a gay guy detained for interrogation by a policeman. Who's fighting his own (gay) demons. And it makes reference to public washrooms by the Forbidden City where gay people used to congregate at. Everything to make the censors' alarms go off, right? Chinese gays, homosexuality, dissidence... 

So, just in case, the decision was made to opt for using a made up alternative title for the play, visibly displayed at the theatre's lobby: "Where is the train taking me?" (火车带我去哪里).  Of course, at first, when we arrived to the theatre, we had no idea and thought we were at the wrong place! Until we were discreetly explained what was going on (mainly, preventing the police from abruptly cancelling the play that night). Ah, the pleasures of turning a simple theatre going into an act of radicalism and resistance... 

Nevertheless, despite the risk of a courtesy visit from the police and even the possibility of some arrests - or who knows, maybe not despite of, but thanks to? - there was a full house.

And so we watched (and enjoyed! and mostly understood!) the whole play, about someone doing something allegedly "unchinese", detained and interrogated by police, while wondering if the authorities would stop this very "unchinese" representation of two Beijing citizens.

Kudos to the director and the actors who had the courage to do art, to do what they believed in, to share it with all of us, and to do it professionally.

Friday, January 09, 2009

happy belated gregorian new year 2009! (part I)

Since we left for Mexico on December 20th and just came back from New York on January 4th, I hadn't had the time for the New Year's Post. And I must hurry, as there's another new year coming very soon, the Chinese Niu Year (as it'll be the year of the Ox, or niú 牛 in Chinese, LOL)!

Even though it was a somewhat short trip, and that I was bogged down by the worst flu I had had in years, it was intense, and good.

First, and foremost, I closed a cycle. Last time I went to Mexico it was February, just in time for my mother’s birthday, a month before she passed away. I guess that, in the end, I did go through my own mourning process even while away from home, because during this visit I felt a lot less sad than I feared, surrounded by good memories, family, friends, and my habib, of course. I did feel pain when we arrived home from the airport and I almost yelled “we’re home!” before the reality of her absence cut me short. And I couldn’t help crying when looking at old photos one evening, photos spanning almost 70 years, photos bringing forth a surge of memories. But, like I said, I had had time to mourn, and so had my family, and that was good.

And so, given how full of life my mother was, and how full of life the rest of my family still is, I could not but follow suit, and enjoyed, among many things:

...the colours, handcrafts, smells and sounds of Coyoacán, a charming part of Mexico City and my home. I was taken aback by the sheer variety of handicrafts at the Mercado de Coyoacán (Coyoacán Market): piñatas, angels, glasses, clay figures, and a long, long list. And not just local handcrafts, but also quite a few made by Mexican Indians, like the Chamulas, who were selling delightful and colourful toys, necklaces, masks...

And this, in turn, reminded me of another fascinating side of Mexico: its indigenous cultures. In Coyoacán I had the chance to hear a number of native Indian languages, of which I couldn't understand a single word. And when, really inspired by this encounter with this oft forgotten side of Mexico, I decided to ask for books to learn native languages at FOUR of the biggest and best stocked bookshops in the city, I was confronted by a harsh reality, which sadly reflects the low status those invaluable linguistic treasures hold: none had any courses. For any native language. NONE. Two had dictionaries (small and old ones). ONE had something slightly resembling a course, written THIRTY years ago and which, by my standards (and I can say I've had extensive experience learning languages), was very lacking. I was honestly shocked...

Of course, no Christmas visit could be called such without a Christmas dinner! Which included four wonderful things necessary for my complete happiness:

- a vegan version of romeritos. Courtesy of my wonderful sister. I must admit romeritos are something others might find exotic verging on disgusting, but I LOVE them. They're made with the twigs of a sort of rosemary, potatoes and mole, which is a typical Mexican sauce made from seeds, chillies (well, of course!) and... cacao! Delicious, with a capital D. And I don't need you to believe me (of course, if you're Mexican, you're definitely believing me!) LOL

- Tortillas. MAIZE tortillas. Recently made. What else could I eat my romeritos with!

- Cider. Cold, refreshing cider. Childhood memories cider. The kind of drink we would only have at Christmas, and which I eagerly awaited every year.

- And Christmas gifts. Actually, in my family, we don't usually exchange gifts at Christmas. At home, it was the Three Wise Men (the "tres reyes magos") who brought gits on January 6th. But, since I wasn't going to be around, I had to settle for giving (un)artfully wrapped gifts at Christmas. And was gladly surprised by my sister giving us some too! (well, I guess that, being siblings, we had to come up with similar ideas, hey?)

- The "recalentado"! What do you do with all the leftovers from Christmas dinner? You save them for the "recalentado" ("re-heated") next day and have more family and friends coming over! A chance for those who couldn't make it to your place because of their own Christmas dinners to see how good YOUR dinner really was. ;-)

Being back home, spending time with family, seeing old friends (what few I managed to see) and knowing that after such a long time away from home they're still there for me, revisiting old places both physically and emotionally, it was good. It really was. I was... at peace.

So, loaded with peace, happiness and my still lingering flu, we left for New York, with a very specific goal in mind: to celebrate the New Year at Times Square! Of course, that'll have to wait until my next post.