Stories #4: The Sacred Bonds of Marriage

Here comes the 4th episode of my series of translated old travel posts.

September 9th, 2011

The hotel’s clerk is 24 years old.

A bit like my first Japanese friend did, she started by talking to me for hours every evening, while totally aware that I could only understand a fraction of what she told me. When I finally picked up enough vocabulary and got used to her accent (and her to mine), we started having simple exchanges. At last, sitting with her behind the reception desk 2 hours at the same time every a day, I became part of the background just like the plants and the cat.

I feel somewhat like a pet. Clients make me speak a little (“Oh wow, she talks? Where did you find her? What’s her name? Come on, say something!”). I keep an eye on the lobby when nobody is here to do it, and like a good pet, I do tricks for treats. “Look, I brought you a watermelon!* Come on, say something in French for us!”

Like the majority of this city’s inhabitants, the clerk is not from here. Yes, people in Shenzhen come from everywhere in China, looking for a better life and social status. They are factory workers, salespersons, engineers; their parents are moto-taxi drivers, mom and pop restaurant owners.
Here more than elsewhere people ask about each other’s province of origin. “Do you eat noodles?” one inquires to make sure that you come from the North. If you have a Southern accent, people will rather ask: “Do you eat rice?” — Southerners eat rice-based products, and Northerners wheat-based products, as everyone knows.
“Your Mandarin is beautiful. You come from the North, don’t you?”
“You add chili peppers to everything you eat. A Southerner, eh?”

To these questions, one answers simply: “Yes, we people from Hunan like our food spicy” or “Yes, I come from Hubei, we speak Mandarin almost without an accent.”

The clerk arrived here 3 months ago. She ran away from home, fleeing an arranged marriage.
Arranged marriages are not necessarily forced marriages: her parents know where she is, they call her on the phone sometimes, but they did not tell her ex-future husband. They wanted to find her a husband because at 24, she should already have started her own family. I think she ran away because she was heartbroken.
Here is what I understood of her story, with my unreliable Chinese skills:

She used to have a boyfriend.
A rather well-off, older man, not really handsome. But he was nice and sweet to her, always there when she needed help. And so she fell in love. It was not for his money that she loved him: she is young and pretty, and because of the current gender imbalance in China she had her share of admirers. Here, girls don’t really have to torture themselves into ideal beauties. It is the law of supply and demand: there will not be enough wives for everyone and everyone knows it.
It is guys who have to look their best, spend hours at the hairdresser, wear colorful accessories, be unique and remarkable. Just like in Japan, it is in the workers social class that you will find the most extravagant fashion fads.

One day, the young clerk’s parents told her about their plan to marry her to a man she did not know. On hearing the news, she probably met with her rich lover to convince him to marry her.
It was killing two birds with one stone: reassuring her parents about her future and avoiding the arranged marriage. But her lover was not the angel he appeared to be: as it turns out, he was married, even had children. Her romantic dreams evaporated and her heart broken, no one left to save her from her unknown future husband, she fled and arrived here.

“You know, often men will propose to offer me presents, to treat me to dinner. Lots of women get seduced like that. But not me. I’m a good girl, not someone you can buy, I don’t want to benefit from strangers’ money.

You know, my lover, he said he wanted to marry me. He said he would divorce his wife, abandon his children and save me from the arranged marriage. But I’m not that kind of person. I won’t steal the husband of a pregnant woman who doesn’t even have a job, and has little kids, can you imagine! Now he wants to marry me, but later he’ll find an even younger woman, and I too will end up alone with my kids. But I love him, what should I do?

– You are right, but I don’t know what to say.

– Of course you don’t know! You are but a child.”

Seen from here, you are not much less of a child than I am.

* Watermelon does not have racist connotations for most people in the world, except in the US. I did not even know about that US watermelon-thing at the time… I did not think anything special about the watermelon, except maybe that an entire watermelon was a big present for just a few words of French.

Looking back on this story, I am even more speechless. I wonder what happened to the young, heartbroken girl.
I praise her moral strength and sympathize with her distress and confusion.
“Time heals everything”, hopefully broken hearts too.


Stories #3: Fishing Party

Here comes the 3rd episode of my series of translated travel posts. We’re halfway, guys! Please remember, these are old. My mind changed on some points since, and the one-child policy has been relaxed a bit, I believe.

September 8th, 2011

A few days ago, I went fishing with Sandra and a colleague. We had only one fishing rod for 3 persons, but I still caught 5 fishes in one hour! And that’s not counting the smallest ones.

We were fishing from the “poor people’s” river bank, but I took a picture of the rich people’s place:

When we went back at Sandra’s, she cooked us a magnificent lunch: dried bamboo shoots, cured pork, celery and paprika;

Some greens, and my fishes with garlic shoots;

Some cured fish in a spicy sauce;

Duck eggs cooked in rice;

It was freakin’ delicious!

Sandra is a good cook: she’s been cooking for her siblings since she was little. Sunny, on the other hand, pretty much never cooked at all: she’s the youngest of 6 kids. Her brand new husband doesn’t know how to cook either, so they always eat outside – restaurants are not much more expensive than cooking at home. The “one-child policy” isn’t a reality outside of well-off families, living in big cities where the government might perform controls. This was the case for most of my Chinese classmates in college, all single children. Really rich families simply pay the tax that grants them the right to have a second child. Anyway, once an illegal second child is born, what can the government do except fine you?

But when you look further than big cities and go to the countryside, and even as close than the ever-growing suburbs, the one-child policy is everything but a reality. I don’t think I’m exaggerating if I say that most Chinese families have 2 to 3 children.  None of the friends I made in 3 trips to China is a single child. Yet China has managed to keep its birth rate under control in the last years.

Here is a last picture. It is a dorm like the one Sandra lives in. It is quite better than the factory dorms, which don’t have doors or windows except for big bare holes in the walls. Sandra makes about 120$ a month. It’s a misery, even here where the cost of life is so low. The mold industry is facing a crisis. Sandra’s a salesperson but she has no formation or experience; this is simply the only possible job for people with good spoken English skills. Some do well; as for Sandra, she’s only got 2 orders in a year. She must ask money to her husband every month, or she couldn’t live a decent life. She made more money when she couldn’t speak English, she was in industrial design and was financially independent. But it’s hard to admit that you had a better life when you had no qualifications and that all your efforts and money invested in a language school just made you poorer… In a few months, she’ll quit, and become a housewife (at the great joy of her husband who lives in a different city at the moment; and certainly for her own happiness too). She’s in her 30s and she thinks it’s more than time she had kids. Here women have their first kid when they’re about 20 or 21, and while life expectancy in China is over 70 years old, I haven’t seen anyone over 50 in this city. Yet every morning, thousands of teenagers rush to the factory lines.

French food: Dame Tartine

Today’s shocking news: there is no Wikipedia page for the French song “Dame Tartine”!

Dame Tartine is a kid’s song, very famous in French folklore, and probably quite old too (apparently around the 19th century). I couldn’t even find an history of it!

I was initially looking for statistics about the contents of the song, so I made mine and I’ll share them in this post. You may wonder why so much fuss for a little song, but Dame Tartine is not any little song! It is a song entirely about food and sweets. You can find an English version here.

Here is a small excerpt:

[Lady Slice-of-Bread] married Mister Ring-cookie
His hair was beautiful cottage cheese,
His hat was a flat French cake,
His suit was made of canapés:
Pants of nougat,
Vest of chocolate,
Stockings of caramel
And shoes of honey.

Their daughter, the beautiful Charlotte
Had a nose of marzipan,
Very beautiful teeth of compote,
Ears of crackers,
I see her garnish
Her leisure dress
With a roll
Of apricot paste.

You bet it’s popular with children! Although some of the dishes named in Dame Tartine are so old that they have virtually disappeared from French kitchens.

So here are some numbers about Dame Tartine (Lady Tartine/ Lady Slice-of-Bread) :

36 different foods, drinks or dishes are cited in the song; they rhyme two by two but none is cited twice. That is 42 out of 240 words, 17.5% of the total length of the song!

Among these, 26 are sweets, 7 are savory dishes, and 3 are neutral (Tartine, Butter and Cottage Cheese) . About half are still very common in French homes. Some have completely disappeared.

4 main characters have food-related names: Lady Tartine, Sir Gimblette (almond flavored cake / ring-cookie), their daughter Charlotte (big cake made from fruit custard in a biscuit crust), her husband Prince Lemonade. The 5th one is the bad witch Carabosse (not food!).

Only 2 fruits are cited (dried grapes/raisins, and apricots), versus 4 vegetables: potatoes, capers, pickles and onion. All the vegetables appear only in the description of the Frightful Guard of the mighty Prince Lemonade… Booh, frightful vegetables!

There is only so much one can say about a kiddies song, but tomorrow if I have time I might add pictures of the food appearing in Dame Tartine. And don’t forget, as pleads the song in its last sentence:

Give at leisure,
Give, good parents,
Sugar to the children!

Stories #2 – Nail Polish and Liver Soup

Here comes the second episode of my series of translated travel posts. Initially I was planning to summarize them in only 4 parts, but it takes me more time than expected to translate so there’ll be 6 of them: Crossing Gazes, Nail Polish and Liver Soup, Fishing Party, The Sacred Bond of Marriage, There’s Worse Than Being a Foreigner, Tomorrow the Way Home Will Last Three Days.
The “TN” are notes that I added afterwards.

September 2nd, 2011

Today I finally could check my emails, and I also caught a cold the other day \o/

These days I feel like a mix between Tintin and an intern (TN: Tintin is an adventurer-reporter in a Belgian comics series). Every morning I go to the factory where Sandra is employed: she works in the international sales department. I sit down at my very own desk and surf on the web waiting for something fun to happen, which occurs about every two hours: an invitation to eat together, someone to help, or just a stranger who wants to have a chat… That’s for the “intern” part.

But there is also a feeling of self-education. I spend my days in a Chinese factory in a part of the city where there is literally no other foreigner. I explore a bit and realize that they use the same 3D modeling software that we have at my engineering school. I discover the hard life of the workers – those who make a living thanks to globalization.
I’m not here to play the sensationalist reporter, be horrified at the living conditions, play disgusted and criticize everything. I’m here because a young woman wanted to share her lunch with me, made me a liver soup to cure my cold and invited me to sit at her table. It touches me that people who don’t even know me propose to cook me a meal and invite me inside their houses without a sign of hesitation.

Just like the hotel’s reception clerk.
Sandra literally confided me to her, saying that she should take good care of me and help me improve my Mandarin skills. The clerk takes it very seriously, and sometimes reminds me of Chihiro (TN: a Japanese girl that I met while working in a factory in Japan, and who took care of me in pretty much the same way). She forces me to wear nail polish, criticizes my boyish pants, tells me about her not always happy life, and says that she “wouldn’t talk as freely to a fellow Chinese person, but since I’m a foreigner she doesn’t have to censor her thoughts”.
Today she got really angry because I got an access of fever, and instead of calling for her I stayed sweating in my bed. What the heck are you doing?! Take this medicine and drink hot water! Put the air conditioning on and eat something! And next time you call me, do you hear?! We’ll go to the hospital if it’s necessary!

She looked mortified (“Kids these days!”) but that was just my normal “caught a cold” state. Knocked out by the fever, runny nose and stupid with exhaustion: a cold! I just wanted to sleep forever but she looked so angry that I did everything she told me to. Apparently she even called Sandra, who brought me dinner in my bed (noodles and soup), as well as a stock of medicine and breakfast for the following day. Actually, it’s not so bad to be a kid…

In the next episode, even shorter than this one, there will be quite a lot delicious-looking pictures. I will also talk a bit more about Sandra’s present and future life. The episode after that will tell the story of how the hotel’s clerk arrived in Shenzhen; if you don’t already, after that you’ll want to give her a big hug. Bear with me.

Stories #1 – Crossing Gazes

Hello everyone.
Today I start a mini-series of 4 short posts, translated from French to English. These are posts form my older blog and my French readers already know about them.
But I chose to translate them today, because they are among the rare texts that I don’t feel ashamed of, even years after I wrote them. They speak to my heart and make me melancholic at the same time.

This series is about a short part of my 3rd trip to China, in summer 2011. I went to visit some friends, Sandra and Sunny (not their real names), near to the bustling giant industrial city of Shenzhen. At the time I could speak Mandarin, and spent some days in unofficial immersion in a plastic molds factory.

Some explanations: Except in some specific cases, all dialogues reported here happened in Mandarin. Also, I am a girl but I look (looked?) like a boy, and most people naturally assumed I was one. I usually do nothing to clear the misunderstanding. So don’t be confused by the pronouns: people in the text can talk about me with “he” or “she” depending on the situation.

Let us start softly with my arrival in Shenzhen, and progress in the future posts to the more serious talk. This is about people. This is about their stories, as they told it to me. But this is also about a black girl going to a place where foreigners don’t go. Don’t look for objectivity: this story is as biased as it comes.

September 1st, 2011

My 2 weeks long trip in China started with a 4 hour plane delay. The Tokyo-Beijing plane landed in the middle of the night on August 28th. It was so dark I couldn’t possibly find my way to the hotel, so I stopped a taxi. The driver was an old man. I showed him the printed address:

Me – Do you know this place?
Him – I can’t read these small wiggly lines (latin alphabet), little guy! How about you read it to me!

I read it, but it was a long time before we finally found the right place: there were no numbers on the houses. The hotel had received my train ticket for Shenzhen, courtesy of my friend Sandra. After resting for a full day, I left for the Beijing West train station. Those who know me will have guessed it: I got lost almost immediately. At some point, a strange looking bare-chested guy approached me. As a foreigner with the experience of visiting Vietnam’s biggest cities alone, I couldn’t help seeing everything with two wheels or two feet and asking too many questions as a potential enemy. Since I was stuck at a red light, I decided to play “stupid tourist”, hoping to be quickly left alone.

Barechest – Hey! Hey! Where are you going? Heyyyy!
Me – *Smiles stupidly, shrugs*
Barechest – Where are you from?
Me – *shakes head*
Barechest – *turns towards a guy sitting on the ground nearby with a beer* Do you see that? This boy travels abroad, he can’t speak Mandarin AND he’s mute!
Beer guy – Hey you! Do you speak English?
Me – *Signs “a little” with hand*
Barechest – He’s mute I tell you!
Beer guy – *Hails a passing student-looking kid with a backpack* Hey little one, you study English at school, don’t you? Talk to this foreigner!
Kid – Errr! Hellow! Where you go?

At that point I decided to talk, because I didn’t want to wait for every passing person to be called by Barechested Guy, and why so much insistence towards a foreigner stupid and mute? In Mandarin, I said:

Me – West Station.
Kid – Train? You… Train?
Me – Yes.
Kid – It’s in the opposite direction, you’re going the wrong way…
Me – Er, really?
Kid – Yup, it’s *that* way.
Me – Oh… Thanks…
Kid – Bye bye!

And that’s how I noticed that my trip to Vietnam had made me paranoid, to the point of refusing to talk to people who were just genuinely trying to help me. Me and my big luggage that I was obstinately dragging in the wrong direction. I felt truly ashamed that I didn’t make the effort to speak in Mandarin to the guy who first talked to me. The young student really did his best to help me, even if he wasn’t confident in his spoken English. This is not an episode I am proud of. All of this to say, don’t be like me, don’t judge Beijing inhabitants on bad experiences that you’ve had elsewhere.

After that I rode the train for 38 hours nonstop, with two 8 years old kids as bed-neighbours. Everyone was so exasperated by the bratty behaviour of the two kids that we just gave up hope of getting to know each other and spent most of our time wide awake in bed. When the little family finally got off, after 32 hours, people exchanged a few polite banalities and we all fell into a deep, well deserved slumber.

On my arrival at Shenzhen, I met Sandra (“let’s eat something! You don’t eat enough, that’s why you’re so skinny!”) and we took the bus to my hotel, next to the town she lives in. It’s a “factory-town”: all the people who live here work in the little factories nearby, and most of them had never seen a foreigner.
There was a shy young man, hiding behind the bus curtains, who was too bashful to ask me directly if “I was born with my hair naturally like that (curly), or if I had it done by a hairdresser?”. It was a cute question that got me smiling all the way (but if your hairdresser does your hair like mine, please change to a different hairdresser).
There was an old man with very tan skin and small shiny teeth, who smiled to me almost without blinking for 10 min before I dared talk to him. He had a very soft voice, a huge smile, and seemed delighted to simply look at me. I told him I came from France, but I felt as if I could as well have said that I came straight from Mars.

It’s strange, nobody seemed to notice me when I was in the Chinese countryside or in the big cities, just like no one noticed cripples and homeless people. It was just normal that I was there and that I spoke Mandarin. But here, in this place stuck between a giant city and a deserted countryside, I wouldn’t look more bizarre if I suddenly grew horns and started hopping on my head.

At the hotel, the reception clerk (a young woman) asked me the usual questions then inquired about my age.
Clerk – What? 21 years old?! You are but a little child! A baby! 21 years old, oh gosh!
Sandra – Do you hear that Lana, she says you’re a little child! Hahaha, a baby! Ho ho ho!

Yes, I heard, Sandra. This is something that never changes, wherever I go…

Me – Do you know Sandra, there were 2 little kids in my train and…
Sandra – How nice. Did you talk to them?
Me – Well, no, they really were kids, 7 or 8 years old I guess, and…
Sandra – Good, you could have practiced your Mandarin!
Me – …

This post was meant as an introduction to the main characters. In the next, shorter episode, “Nail Polish and Liver Soup”, I get a feeling of the town and the factory. In the 3rd and 4th episodes, we get to the core of things: Chinese lives in the big city as told by Chinese people.


Un tres court post pour vous annoncer ma venue sur Twitter.

Est-ce une bonne idee de me disperser dans les social media alors que le blog est presque mort ? Je n’en sais rien, mais ce qui est sur c’est que j’ai plein de trucs a vous raconter sur le Japon, et pas vraiment de temps… Je sors donc de ma grotte anti-facebook-twitter-googleplus pour tester ce nouveau format: les tweets avec photos dedans. (mais vraiment que ca, donc ne vous attendez pas a une reactivite d’enfer si vous me hashtaggez/twittez/messagez, les reseaux sociaux c’est vraiment pas mon truc…)

Ce sera principalement en anglais, mais je developperai les truc les plus interessants en francais ici meme (si j’arrive a prendre mon courage a deux mains). Toutes mes excuses aux non-twittereux et non-anglishpones en avance, et pour les autres suivez-moi @cyber_octopus (pas besoin d’etre inscrit sur Twitter, mes tweets sont publics: ) !

Oncle Picsou

Wow ! Il y a tellement de nouvelles choses a raconter mais j’ai tellement peu de temps libre…
Dois-je commencer par la glace aux spaghetti, par comment j’ai par erreur fini dans un love hotel d’où m’a sauvée mon super-tuteur ? Par le chouette debut de mon stage, et ma nuit dans le mythique Sunrise Seto ? Et dire que tout ca c’est passe en globalement 2 semaines !

Bref, je crois que je vais commencer par la porsche, parce que comme ca c’est presque chronologique. Comment ca, “quelle porsche” ? Ne vous ai-je pas raconte comment j’ai gagne 5mn dans une porsche decapotable, juste en sifflant le conducteur ? Non non, ce n’est pas du tout ce que vous vous imaginez. N’allez pas me faire un reputation bizarre a cause de ces histoires de love hotel…

Or donc, je suis actuellement en stage a l’universite de Tokyo, mais avant ca il a fallu que je boucle tout mon programme a l’unversite de Tohoku. Ce qui signifie qu’en deux semaines j’ai prepare 2 exposes, ecrit un article scientifique et prepare un dossier de bourse de 10 pages, sans oublier de faire les demarches de stage et de nettoyer mon appart a Sendai, tout en participant a deux reunions franco-japonaises. Autant dire que dormir 7h en 5 jours est devenu une obligation.

C’est dans ces conditions qu’un beau matin a 11h, j’ai recu un mail qui disait: “Salut Lana-chan. Je serai a Sendai ce midi, ca te dit d’aller boire un the ?”
C’etait Usami-san, mon role-modele japonais (pour faire court, un type qui a fait la meilleure universite du japon tout en faisant des courses/rallies de moto/voitures et a traversé l’asie du sud-est en voiture en solitaire avant de se faire embaucher par Honda). Bien qu’on ait echange quelques mails, je ne l’avais pas vu depuis 3 ans: autant dire que je pouvais difficilement refuser.
Alors que je marchais vers le point de rendez-vous, qui donc me dépasse en faisant vrombir sa Porsche Boxter  S décapotable ? Usami-san of course, sauf que sans la voiture je ne l’aurais pas remarqué: locks rasta de 30cm de long, lunettes de mouche et chaine en or pour completer le tableau. Bref rien a voir avec le look permanente décolorée bouclée de mes souvenirs… Lui non plus ne m’avait pas vue et partait en direction inverse du point de rendez-vous, donc j’ai du siffler entre mes doigts pour qu’il s’arrête et me laisse monter (une scène certainement très bizarrement interprétée par les badauds…)

... rutilante

… rutilante



En fait Usami-san a eu un parcours qui ressemble vaguement au mien, mais un peu a l’envers: il a été à l’université de Tohoku puis a fait son master a l’université de Tokyo, a pris 1 an de repos puis est entré chez Honda. Moi j’ai fait Honda pendant mon année de repos, puis Tohoku, et j’aimerais bien rentrer à Tokyo. Et pourquoi pas après revenir à Honda, puisque c’est là qu’apparemment Usami-san est devenu riche… Car oui, la porsche et la chaine en or, c’est parce qu’en deux ans a bosser à la cool chez Honda il est passé d’étudiant fauché qui peut pas se payer un hotel quand il vadrouille, à plutôt bien riche si j’ai compris. Et quand je dis qu’il bosse a la cool, c’est que le nombre d’heures obligatoires au bureau est de 30… par mois. Thème de recherche libre, pas d’obligation d’écrire des articles, et il n’écrit pas une ligne de code de la journée (pour info son thème de recherche c’est les voitures autonomes qui se conduisent toutes seules, donc normalement il faut quand meme savoir programmer). Bref je suppose qu’il a du obtenir des hyper super resultats pour se retrouver là !

Bref, après avoir fait un tour dans sa frimante voiture et discuté un moment, on est allé voir son ancien directeur de labo, qui a insité lourdement pour que je sois africaine mais fait du très bon café, et s’est finalement exclamé: “Quoi ! Tu vas travailler tous les jours habillé comme *ça* ?!”

*Ca* faisant réference aux locks évidemment, mais aussi au piercing géant et chaine en or avec pendentif rutilant, sans oublier le sarouel bizarre (personne ne s’habille comme ça au Japon, si vous en doutiez) dans une entreprise où le costard cravate est censé être la norme.

Après avoir choqué son ancien prof avec des noirs qui sont pas africains (“mais tes parents, ils SONT africains avoue ?”) et des salariés sarouelés, Usami-san est reparti dans sa chouette voiture dreadlocks au vent, et moi je suis retournée dans mon labo pour 20h supplémentaires de labeur solitaire.
Cela dit c’est aussi lui qui m’a suggéré d’aller démarcher des labos de Tokyo pour voir si je ne pouvais pas m’enfuir de Tohoku, et donc c’est un peu (beaucoup) grace à lui que je fais en ce moment même un stage dans un labo vraiment génial*. Alors je me sens un peu obligée de considérer son offre de sauter la case “doctorat” et d’essayer de me faire directement embaucher par HRI. Hé, moi aussi je veux être riche !

*Quand une collègue fait tomber son parapluie, mon supérieur shoote fort dedans d’un air triomphant (sa collègue est un peu comme ça aussi, alors ils sont copains comme cochons). Il chante dans le train, et est pris d’envies subites de danser dans les musées. Il dit des mensonges gros comme une maison sans ciller, et répond une fois “Oui!” une fois “Non!” si on lui pose 2 fois la meme question a une minute d’intervalle. Il interrompt sa présentation devant 40 personnes pour apostropher un pauvre collègue d’un retentissant: “Hé ! Ce slide je l’ai mis juste pour contredire ton papier de l’an dernier. Qu’est ce que t’en penses ?”, le slide en question étant un scan de notes manuscrites illisibles. Mon prof a une figure un peu terrifiante, mais en vrai il est hilarant… dans un style un peu spécial. Il a 53 ans, et exactement 2 cheveux blancs.

PS: je n’oublie pas la glace aux pates.