03/30/14

“Do the things that scare you but feel right”

The Great Wall of China

Last Friday I headed towards the Guangzhou Library in the modern Zhujiang New Town district to participate in the 3rd Women in Business Forum. I’d just heard about the event the day before at Guangzhou Stuff and decided to go. The event included four inspirational speakers, but the presentation I loved the most was Meera Saujani’s.

Meera graduated from Oxford (only because her high school teacher advised her to apply, she thought it would be impossible to get in), worked in advertising and then decided to travel the world for one year in 2011. After the amazing trip she went back to the UK to work for the BBC, but left again in 2013 to work in Shanghai for the British Council.

The main thought behind her brilliant presentation was to “Do the things that scare you but feel right”. It reminded me of my decision to move to China. Applying for the study exchange was pretty easy, I didn’t even know if I would get in or not. Then the news came and it was suddenly very real that I was going to the Middle Kingdom, at least for one semester.

I started planning and preparing. Put my belongings in the storage, sub-rented my apartment and packed my rucksack. Two weeks before my flight I got scared. Was this really what I wanted to do? Would I end up hating the life in China and lose my interest towards the culture and the language? What fs my expectations were just too big?

In her speech Meera was talking about the same thing, that she was terrified before her one year trip across the world. But in her life, and I think I’ve done the same too, she pursues to do those things that scare her but still feel right to her.

I remember having a lunch with a reader last year that was traveling in Guangzhou. She had this dream of moving to China, but she was afraid to leave her job, apartment, family and friends back home. In other words, she was afraid to leave her comfort zone. I haven’t heard from her since, but if you are reading this right now, I still advice you to make your dreams come true.

Right  now I also have things that I want to do, but are a bit scary to put in action. While listening to Meera’s presentation I realized that doing it really feels right for me, it’s something that I just might be meant to do. I’ve also recently met a new friend who has encouraged me to pursue the dream. Hopefully I can write about it soon to all of you!

Do you have dreams that you want to make true but are afraid to do so? Do they still feel right in your mind and heart? What has kept you from pursuing the dreams or how did you decide to take the first step towards making them true?

03/24/14

Visiting Chaozhou

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Chaozhou is located in the easternmost part of Guangdong province and it has a population of 2.6 million people. It’s easy to reach from Guangzhou or Shenzhen by 高铁 (high-speed rail). The local language, Chaozhou dialect (or Teochew) is very different from Mandarin Chinese and I found it difficult to understand what older people were saying even when they used Mandarin Chinese. According to friends and readers online, eating is the main event when visiting Chaozhou. Especially seafood, meatballs made of beef and different kinds of snacks.

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As are pretty much all smaller cities in China, Chaozhou is a chaotic place with motorcycles everywhere. It seemed like all traffic regulations and laws were unheard of no matter if you took a rickshaw (洋车), taxi or bus. You also never know what you can see on the streets, for example I saw three live goats and their owner selling fresh goat milk right outside the hotel I was staying.

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One of Chaozhou’s tourist destinations is the Guangji Bridge (广济桥). The bridge was originally built as a pontoon bridge in AD 1170 and was built to the current form 200 years later. Tourists have to buy a ticket (50-60RMB) to walk on the bridge, but locals can cross it for free (or 5RMB). It’s closed during the night, but the lights make it a great view after the sun goes down.

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Taking a taxi in Chaozhou wasn’t as easy as in Guangzhou. Taxis were hard to find, especially later hours, and they always refused to use the meter. That’s why I took a rickshaw ride quite a many times during the weekend, which was both fast and cheap. Most of the rickshaws were electric, but I did saw one that required real man power to move.

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When you are a foreigner, that looks like a foreigner, traveling in China, people will always come up to you for a chat. This time I met a group of students working on their Earth Hour project and got to sign my name on their red banner. I was very impressed that these young students were aware of the Earth Hour and interested in environment protection. I was more than happy to take a group photo with them.

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Chaozhou is a city for eating and the best place in town is the 牌坊街 (Paifang street). This memorial archway street can be a bit touristy, but at least no other foreigners in sight. The gates are beautiful and along with the 骑楼 (terrace) building on both sides, is a great place for lunch, dinner or evening tea.

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The man in the photo above creates and sells 糖画 sugar paintings. These sugar painting combine a form of folk art and eatable treat. I saw that his beautiful sugar paintings attracted a lot of people gathering around him and watching the process.

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Chaozhou is one of the cities in China that still has a piece of the old city walls left for us to admire. Used for protection back during the emperors times, the ancient city walls are nowadays used as tourists spots in cities like Xi’an. Luckily no tickets were needed to step up the stairs on top of this old city wall originally from the Ming dynasty.

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Hangzhou’s West lake is well-known in China, but Chaozhou has its West lake as well. Ticket to this historical park from the Tang dynasty cost only 8RMB and it has paths and pavilions to explore for an hour or two.

Visiting Chaozhou reminded me how long it’s been since my last trip which was in August to Jiangxi province with classmates and teachers. Me and my husband have a plan that once our financial situation is better after the renovation and wedding, we want to travel at least twice a year. For our next destination I have proposed hiking in Xishuangbanna, but I have lots of others destinations in mind as well.

If you want to learn more about my travels in China, check all of my travel stories here.

03/13/14

Getting Married in China: Combining the two cultures

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Being in an international relationship is all about making compromises and respecting each others cultures. We wanted to honor our backgrounds on our wedding day,  complemented with our personal tastes. Having both Finnish and Chinese traditions on our big day will also hopefully make our family and guests feel comfortable and happy.

What we personally don’t like about modern Chinese weddings is that how it’s become an occasion to show off your family’s wealth. I don’t want rows of golden bracelets on my wrists or line of expensive cars for transport. Instead we want our wedding to be truly something we like, with some compromises to keep the family satisfied as well.

Our wedding day will begin with worshiping gods and ancestors. Then we will continue to the tea ceremony where we pour tea for our parents and other elders in the family. It is a custom to give golden jewelry to the bride at this point, but as a modern independent woman I wish that not to happen.

As this is an unique opportunity to show Finnish culture to our Chinese family, I want to bring something Finnish to the tea ceremony. My mother-in-law already agreed that we can use a teapot designed by Marimekko, something I fell in love with when I visited Finland this year. It will also be an amazing keepsake for us to use during our tens of years together in the future.

Our Chinese ceremony will end with a lunch banquet at a restaurant near our home. The food will be all Chinese, but perhaps I could find a way to bring something Finnish to the table as well in form of decoration or small gifts for example. I want the Chinese family to experience something new and to bring my own culture to the mix.

Of course at the same time it’s going to be very exciting for my own family to attend a Chinese wedding and see what kind of culture is affecting my life now and onwards. I will have one of my bridesmaids to help interpreting the ceremony for them so everyone knows what happens in each step.

The Finnish, or I should probably say Western, part of the wedding starts afternoon. We originally wanted to have a house party at the old family house, but the renovation might not be ready in time. After thinking of different options, I decided to book a 2-bedroom plus living room apartment at Ascott Guangzhou. I think it’s perfect for our small evening party because it’s beautiful, doesn’t really need decorating and is something totally different than what you usually see in Chinese or Finnish weddings.

At the party apartment we will have a buffet dinner prepared by the restaurant where we first met. We will also have a friend who will be making drinks and cocktails for our guests. Cutting the wedding cake is of course an important part of the Finnish wedding as well as dancing all night long. There will be other Finnish wedding customs as well, but I want to keep those secret for now.

During the party Alan’s family and friends have a chance to experience a totally different kind of wedding. At little sister’s wedding they did cut the cake, but no one ate it. The emotional first dance is also something new to the Chinese.

I wish that our wedding day will successfully combine the best parts of both cultures. I hope that after that day both families have a better understanding of the other culture and that this won’t be the last time for everyone to meet each other.

p.s. An article in a Chinese newspaper Information Times was published today about me and Alan. I hope to translate it to English as well.

03/3/14

Living with Chinese in-laws…or not?

I’ve been now living with my Chinese in-laws for a year and reading Jocelyn’s recent blog post inspired me to write more what it is like to live with your Chinese husband’s parents. Jocelyn writes that she is happy in staying in the family house and the village that surrounds it, but honestly speaking I wouldn’t be able to do that my self.

Of course there are many good reasons for all to live together. You don’t have to pay rent for example that can be very expensive especially if you live in the center of a big city like Guangzhou. Moving to the city would make my husband’s daily commute much much shorter, but it would also mean paying even 3000RMB per month for rent.

It is also a luxury to have my mother-in-law to cook for us day in day out. She makes simple Cantonese dishes which I mostly like and not having to cook also means you don’t have to do grocery shopping either. As I don’t know how to cook Chinese food, I help out with washing the dishes.

Living together with Alan’s parents gives us a sense of safety as we don’t have to worry about not having enough food to live and eat. But on the other hand it makes us feel too safe and living with parents can make you fall back into being a kid again.

So what are the reasons that we are now renovating the old family house for us and wanting a place for just us two?

First of all we want to be grownups and take care of our selves in a way we think is good for us. Having Alan’s mother to peek into our room everyday looking for shirts and socks to wash isn’t good for us, because we should be the ones taking care of that. We should be aware of the costs for eating out versus cooking yourself. Having parents in the same house makes us too carefree and doesn’t allow us to be independent.

Secondly me  and my husband disagree with his parents in many cases. For example the parents think that eating out and going to movies is too expensive, but me and Alan need these date nights to keep our selves happy. Because we live far away from the city center, we also often see our friends in one of the restaurants around Guangzhou.

Thirdly we want a place where our words is the final word. Of course living in the old family house means that the parents live just a few steps away and own the house, but we can still decorate and furnish it the way we like. We can stay up late watching a movie and sleep in on weekends without having the parents blame us on having unhealthy living habits.

As an introvert Finn I also need that mental space for my self to be truly happy. I don’t think it’s very realistic to think I would change into someone who would love to have company all the time, especially company who tells you how to live your life.

Living with the in-laws have been extremely valuable time for me. I have got to known them so much better, including my husband, that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. I’m very grateful of all their help and support as well.

But this Spring it’s time for us to start our independent life. It will be very exciting and new for all of us, but me and Alan believe it’s the right decision to make.

02/17/14

Getting Married In China: Wedding Ceremony

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On February 14th 2014 came the most important day of my life so far, me and my Chinese fiancé got legally married. Alan has been away for business for five days and I was worried if his flight would be on time on Valentine’s Day. I had all these terrible scenarios on my mind of what could go wrong. But you know what? Everything went so perfectly that it’s hard to believe!

My fiancé Alan was the first to arrive at the Guangzhou Foreign Marriage Registration Office and I arrived by taxi just a few minutes later. After that Alan’s parents, sister and brother-in-law arrived as well.

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I will write more about the paperwork side of things on a separate blog post, but in short, it was very easy to get our marriage certificates. You would just get your number and let the staff point you to the right directions for filling out forms, paying, taking photos and for the official ceremony.

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After filling our forms we had about fifteen minutes to take some photos at the decorative hallway. As this is an office that only deals with foreigners marriages, I think they want to make a good impression on us on how smoothly things go and Chinese elements were to been seen everywhere.

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Getting married in this special office was very nice for two other things as well. First of all there was no rush even though it was Valentine’s Day. They did say it was their busiest day of the year, but still the staff had time for us to have a special ceremony, something that Chinese-Chinese couples don’t get. Secondly the staff took many pictures of us and in the end we could buy a cute wedding album with nine photos. The album also has pockets for our marriage certificates (the red booklets) as well.

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Above Alan is demonstrating how there’s no change for me to run now! (Or was that to show how he can’t lift me up?! Which he actually can. )

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After some more cute photos, it was our turn to start the official ceremony. Us and our family members were asked to the ceremony room where we started taking a lot of photos according to the staff member who guided us for different poses.

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I had no idea that the wedding ceremony would be this interesting as I thought it would be more like a “sign the papers and get the booklets”. It was a very nice surprise to see that us Foreign-Chinese couples got some special treatment and attention. After all, at least for me this was the actual wedding day which will later be celebrated on anniversaries. For Chinese it might be just getting the paperwork done and that’s it, the wedding reception is much more important for them.

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After posing for photos the marriage officiant came in and said a few words that I really don’t remember.

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Then we had to read our “vows” from the forms we had already filled and that were printed out. As I had filled mine in Chinese, I also had to read my vow in Chinese! I was super nervous but my dear Alan read quietly along me so I could pronounce all the words. It was the first reading aloud I’ve ever done, but luckily there is no recording of that!

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The vows included things like we vouch that we aren’t relatives by blood, that we are getting married by our own will and that we are clear of each others health situation. After reading we both signed the paper to make it legal.

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Then we exchanged the same rings we bought when we got engaged. We took the rings of at the beginning of the ceremony and now it was time to put them back on our fingers.

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In the photo below you can see as both very touched to receive our official marriage certificates. In that moment it really felt real that we are now husband and wife.

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We of course also had to take a photo with our new red booklets! Alan was surprised that we don’t have marriage certificate in Finland that look like passports, according to my knowledge it’s just a document in black and white. But in China you get these red certificates that includes a photo of you two and your information.

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A kiss to seal the marriage!

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Finally was my time to surprise Alan and we hopped into a taxi without him knowing our destination. He was super surprised to see that we get off at the Westin Pazhou Hotel! It was time to celebrate with excellent food, five-star service, Finnish sauna, swimming and luxurious room.

Even though we are now legally married, there is still a lot to write about getting married in China! Future posts will include the paperwork to be done in China, changes in addressing family members and planning the Finnish-Chinese wedding reception.

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