Tonight I found the piece of China I knew from childhood stories – a place where power hides itself behind waves of silk rather than within ripples of cement, where dragons breathe fire into people’s hearts, not in factory furnaces.

I traveled all day across industrial netherworlds; I pedaled mindlessly until nightfall, then I found myself between two streams sprinkled with mist, in a townlet where each street is illuminated in its own colour.

It seems deserted, but the place abounds with phantasms slinking through in traditional houses, with whispers behind curtains, whiffs of roasted peanuts, rice brandy and incense sticks.

A phantasmic girl helps me understand that this is a millennium-old village, where people eat a lot of fish and live to be a hundred years.

I pedal onwards and I’m no longer looking at the skyscrapers that spring up from rice fields, at the monstrous viaducts treading on crab farms, at the dozens of trucks that carry away entire trees, with roots and all, during the night.

Don’t look at anything anymore. Tonight we’re enveloped in silk.

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Chasing Demons

The widower, it strikes him, has to get up from the Mahjong game table, and make haste to the coffin to pray. He kneels down next to two old men, all of them dressed in white, with vests made out of seaweed and a crown of paper and wire on their heads. The coffin, with its glass cover and flickering light chains, could serve as a fridge in a beach bar.

While the fireworks crack and gambling at the other Mahjong tables continues, the men bow down to the ground three times, a flute is being played, drums and a gong shatter through the room like war fog.

We got invited to this funeral and it is startling to see that, right next to the coffin, they play like the devil is sitting on their shoulders. All the men are chain smoking, one cigarette in the mouth, one behind the ear.

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A girl wants to take selfies with me, giggling, waving a double victory sign. Aren’t you sad?, I wonder. And if not, shouldn’t you pretend to be, at least a little?

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The widower comes back and sits next to me; he is a farmer, a wiry and upright sitting man. He smiles almost all of the time; that’s because the demon of grief mustn’t take over his soul. For if you look sad, it’s a sign that he has the upper hand. And after all, who wants to leave this world crying? After the funeral there’s enough time to weep.

I ask the selfie-girl about a man who is reading from a textbook while keeping a rhythm on a little block of wood. She turns to an older woman and then explains to me: The man is reading prayers.

Buddhist prayers?

Again, she asks the older woman. What she says doesn’t need translation. What the fuck, of course buddhist prayers!

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In the backyard there are stacks of firework containers, and food is prepared in six huge woks, placed on top of metal barrels under which there’s a fire. Dozens of kilos of meat are sizzling in oil and you can feel the pleasant anticipation of the feast in the evening, the boyish joy of men standing around fire places, flirting with the women who chop the vegetables.

In Germany, death has become a taboo; we want to die riding a bicycle, not be reminded of the finiteness of life. We put our deceased in closed coffins as quick as possible, to be remembered “as we knew them”. When my grandparents died, I looked at boxes being put in the ground. I hadn’t seen them for weeks or months before that, and my eyes and heart were in different movies.

Here, they sit in this colorful, sinister casino and gamble, drink, smoke, pray and make noise to keep the demons away. For four days – until the deceased, a 87-year-old mother of two, gets cremated.

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For the last time we want to provide good company for the old mother, the widower says.

Don’t you want to stay for dinner?

The groom got scared of the crackers and dropped his bride in the mud.

Then he lit up a cigarette and got in the fancy car to drive the dowry to the city.

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In a village in central China, close to where Mao Zedong was born, two foreigners interrupt a wedding. The singer stops singing. The guests gather around us as if we came with gifts. They grab us and seat us at a table. Come, eat, drink. It’s a sign of luck if a foreigner drops by your wedding, but only if he’s a good man and he’s well taken care of.

From one rice brandy to another, we notice that the wedding traditions are surprisingly similar to ours, even though, for 4000 years, Chinese culture developed in isolation from Europe.

Drinking is a manhood competition. Dancing is a power game between the two clans. The bride gets stolen by the groom himself, who’s joined by his bros and wrestles with her family until he gets in the house and carries their girl off. Following a parade through the village and many fireworks, the dowry of pillows, bedspreads, TV sets and audio systems gets loaded into expensive cars and is delivered with the bride and all at the boy’s home.

It seems that regardless of the continent, I feel like a foreigner at any wedding.

Într-un sat din miezul Chinei, aproape de locurile natale ale lui Mao Zedong, o nuntă este întreruptă de doi străini. Câ…

Posted by Casa Jurnalistului on Tuesday, November 1, 2016

A Wedding To Go

Dressed in a white wedding gown and a red cape, the bride stands at the window of a small cold room like a swan on the shore of a frozen lake. She is by herself at the second floor of her mother’s house. The walls are covered in mold and little glittery hearts.

Ten minutes earlier, upon the groom’s arrival, a dozen friends and relatives had packed the place with laughter and confetti. Outside, the palm trees sway in the wind and the members of a marching band in red jackets frantically bang on their drums. The bride is watching them silently, with a grayish morning light encircling her like a corona.

 

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Yesterday afternoon we came across a group of people dancing between a truck and a tent with tables. We stopped to find out what they are celebrating and they treated us to a seven-course-meal and a frenzy of rice wine while having children on our laps who wanted us to take photos with them.

“I want you to come back for the wedding, at 8 or 9”, the bride’s mom says, a fragile 53 year-old woman who smiles with sad eyes.

We have no place to stay for the night.

She lays the palm of her hand on her breast. “My son takes you to a hotel.” She tries to hide from us that she gives him money for the room. I feel bad that she is spending money for us. On the other hand, it feels like she is booking us as another part of the wedding party’s program: take selfies and drink with the white men.

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Before we’re taken to the hotel, though, the wedding MC, a tomboyish woman in her forties, is approaching our table. She is talking into the microphone while the rest of the people look at us and laugh.

“Come, come!”

We’re led to a sound system with inbuilt karaoke software. Vlad is clutching to his camera and giving me a Ha Ha!-look for which I hope he will serve some extra baking, should there ever be a Day of Justice.

The MC is shoving the microphone in my hand. Although I have a very low threshold of making a fool of myself, I thankfully deny the possibility of fantasinging along to a Chinese pop song. Attempts to plug in my phone and play Kings of Leon fail. So, after a quick inspection of my limited entertainment abilities, I decide to read a poem.

With more goodwill than talent, I recite something I had scribbled a few years ago. In front of me, people start filming. This stirred up in me the painful memories of those endless moments when I had to recite something to my grandma in order to get my birthday present. I was more than happy with getting the warm round of applause I got and being released in order to down some more rice wine.

After a quick nap and a shower in the hotel, eager to deliver on our contract, we return to the party site at 9, only to find out that they meant the other 9 – tomorrow morning.

The next day, the couple burns rice paper, kneeling in front of a photo of the bride’s dead father and a bundle of incense. The women in the room are crying, wiping their faces with tissues.

Then the groom carries the bride into the courtyard. Fireworks crack. A motorcade vrooms. The marching band plays. The whole wedding society sets off in a procession towards the frontier of the town.

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To get married in China, you don’t need a priest or any official ceremony. You do have to get registered, but other than that “you only need the approval of your family and friends”, a guy tells me.

He is a hairdresser, 31 years old, and got married five years ago. He lives with his parents, wife, kid and two siblings. He says his parents picked his wife for him because “they know better about these things.”

The pressure to get married in China is big. If you’re single and not married by the age of 30 you’re branded as an unappetizing leftover. The parents’ approval is essential and status is a more important prerequisite for an engagement than love.

This is also because kids are supposed to provide for their parents when they’re old. Not doing so can even put you in prison according to the law, although this is rarely ever enforced. Still, social pressure to obey your parents’ will is immense. And it is only since 2003 that it’s possible to get married without permission from your work unit.

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And the wedding market is, like everything in China, a competitive one. Men are expected to provide the future home for the couple. In the past, especially in the countryside, this usually meant that the bride moved in with her in-laws.

But now, as young people are expected to move into the cities to find jobs and contribute to the circle of production and consumption that shall drive China’s growth, it is often seen as a precondition for the wedding that the groom’s family buys an apartment. Since a one-bedroom-apartment averages at 80.000 Euro in the city, this becomes a huge burden for the potential groom.

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At the outskirts of the town, the newly-weds get into an Audi Q7 decorated with red ribbons and drive to Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, where they work.

In the rain we walk back, passing the burned out firework containers. Then we sit under the tent in the courtyard again to have lunch.

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As we’re eating and drinking, being taken care of like orphans, I start to feel tremendously grateful about being here. What kind and warm people they are to treat us like this.

With the food still being warm, the tent gets dismantled and we’re told that the party is over. It’s noon, we’re drunk. There’s no time to immerse in sentimental issues now. Back to business.

We’re spending the night on the shore of the Yangtze river, under a bridge that hums like a spaceship.

We have an apple each for dinner and talk about the Chinese people who try to centralize everything a citizen does and then assign them a ”social score” based on their level of compliance.

It won’t be difficult, because this is how social control is already been happening within communities.

Now it’s more transparent – you can be sitting under a bridge and the state would know where you are and what you’re doing.

Usually, this happens because you tell them yourself.

Every country is raising a monster that feeds on information. You can’t stop it, because anything you’d do is information, and any information makes it fatter. But you can use the same tools to collaborate with other people, and to defend yourself when the monster turns its gaze towards you.

Good night, citizen, wherever you are.

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”What’s your job?”, we ask several people who are smoking at the end of the train wagon.

Each of them answers by pulling out their smartphone and pointing towards a component.

We’re in Guangdong province, where a good chunk of the world’s electronic devices are made.

You can move across China in a few hours with high-speed trains, but workers commute at night on the fast train, because it costs half as much.

When I was a kid, taking the train was reason for a continuous panic to not miss it or to not be robbed. As I grew up and traveled through several countries by train, I developed a railway zen that is now turning against me.

Every city has several train stations that have very similar names, and I’m not sure how it happens, but we always happen on the wrong one. We figure this out about half an hour before departure and scuttle calmly. We argue calmly with the scamming taxi drivers, find an old man that fires off the rattletrap engine, and for $2 he keeps on honking and flashing until he gets us to the right train station five minutes before the train leaves. We run with our tongues stuck out contemplatively through the giant terminal and hop nonchalantly on the train two minutes after the scheduled hour, soaked in sweat and happy that we are nonetheless in China, not in Japan, and there’s still evidence of solidarity with the human condition.  

It’s much easier by bike!  

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Wohoo, we extended our visas for another month. We’re going back to China.

We were anxious, because in Bucharest we had spent dozens of hours on the sidewalk behind the embassy, as if they were giving meat away.

But in Hong Kong they outsourced bureaucracy to a private firm, which makes money only if they obtain the visa for you.

So we went to their office, we left our passports, and the next day we picked them up stamped with visas. We didn’t even need to fill in any form, we just payed $50 each.

Tonight, on our way back to central China, we’ll say a prayer for capitalism 😀14670721_10153806520781890_5401550331852507673_n

Club Tropicana

So, are you more of a Karl-Heinz Riedle or a Karl-Heinz Rummenigge?, I get asked by an English lawyer who’s lived in Hong Kong since he was 20. He coaches the amateur football club Tropicana FC and they’re letting me play today in their match against a club called Spartans.

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Tropicana FC, whose players are dominantly English expats, had lost the first five matches and is currently on the last place in Hong Kong’s Legal League 1. So I guess they’re just open for an experiment at this point. Or is it the British sense of sarcasm giving me the No. 10 jersey just one day after Bayern’s president, Rummenigge, accused English football clubs of „kidnapping“ young talents from other countries?

However, as a German, talking football with an English guy is always a bit like walking through a mine field. Riedle, for example, an excellent forward, scored in the penalty shootout against England in the World Cup ’90. Exactly how much this defeat in the semifinals shook England is beyond any understanding.

Like the double decker buses, the drive-on-the-left-thing and the omnipresence of rules for everything but the economy, it is also a legacy of the British occupation that football is the most popular sport in Hong Kong (which is also the hometown of Kung Fu legend Bruce Lee).

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The first football club was founded in 1886, competitions are being held since 1889. And, although the former colony is a part of China again since 1997, Hong Kong continues to have its own national team, according to the „One country-two systems“ principle. It never qualified for a World Cup. Its biggest success is deemed to be a 2-1 victory against China in 1985.

The club Eastern AA won the national championship this year with players from Brazil, Croatia, Serbia and England, the former German pro Andreas Nägelein and a woman as a coach, Chan Yuen-Ting. She is the first female coach to win a title with a professional men’s football team.

All over the city you can find beautiful astro-turf pits and small stadiums for football. Our pit is just fabulous. It’s surrounded by skyscrapers and palm trees, you can watch jumping fish in the nearby Shing Mun river, the metro runs above our head and the janitor is burning incense in front of a buddhist shrine.

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A half hour after kickoff, the coach sends me on the field. I haven’t played in ages, the temperature is 30 degrees Celsius and I’m much too slow for this level. But it feels great to play and I get few chances. In the 65th minute the coach takes me off again. Five minutes later we lead with 1-0. „Come on, lads!“ In the last minutes of the match we score again and Tropicana FC wins its first match of the season.

“Good game”, everyone says, but I think more out of politeness. Well, at least this German brought them some luck ?.

I’m at the 18th floor of a skyscraper that is tilting and shaking. The wind crashes against the windows at 100 km/h. I’m sitting on the windowsill, drinking wine from a cup. What can you do, the typhoon caught me in Hong Kong.

We’re here to extend our visas to continue our bike journey through Chinese villages.

A British teacher commented casually on one of our posts that if we get to Hong Kong, we should stop by at his place, and that’s all we needed to hear – ok boss, we’ll get there on whateverday.

And here we all are, stuck on the 18th floor, between mountains and skyscrapers, with a beer pack and five bottles of wine. We’re talking about the school where our host is teaching.

It seems that students in Hong Kong are among the brightest in the world — smart, cute, hard-working, compliant… too compliant.

They don’t seem to reflect that je ne sais quoi, that flicker of rebellion that sometimes leads to great ideas. And they don’t know how to socialize.

It’s for this reason that, from 9th grade on, they are being taught how human interaction works, how social structures are shaped, how knowledge is acquired…

Things that used to be common sense now need to be taught, debated and reconstructed. At kindergarten they need to be taught how to play!

My first reaction was of disbelief; my goodness, what is going on with humanity?

Then I remembered that humanity was shaped this way, by abandoning things that were common sense, and building newer and better ones.

That tradition is a set of learned things which are debated and negotiated.

That the world has never been stable, just that so far it’s been turning too slowly for us to realize it.

When I see people panicking about what’s going on with our children, I feel like saying as Alexandru Lăpușneanu did towards princess Ruxandra: Instead of rejoicing, she’s all frightened.

The typhoon has passed, we’re still here.

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