Sunday, January 23, 2011

When I'm wrong, I admit it (sometimes)

I must confess, I hate being proved wrong. Probably this is quite common, but I have to admit, I really hate it. This being said, sometimes I agree to give up on the last word. This usually happens when insisting on my version would not only further show that I'm wrong, but also that I'm grumpy.

Recently, I've been thinking a lot about my first six months in China, and I have to say, my initial experience in Far East Asia made me draw some hasty wrong conclusions, among which the wrongest one was that I didn't want to stay.

My initial settling in Shanghai hasn't been easy, actually it was a proper shock mainly due to the language barrier. I'm comfortable in five languages, one being widespread English, so I thought I wouldn't have encountered so many difficulties, at least for the most basic things.

I quickly revisited my opinion when I realised I could literally count on one hand the people I met with who spoke a little English. Even at the hotel in Beijing city centre, none of the receptionists spoke English. I'm not a fan of "imposing" my language anywhere, this is why I like studying many different idioms, but admittedly, in China I was truly taken aback.

You don't realise the importance of the language until you absolutely need to make yourself understood by the person you are talking to and you are unavoidably met with a puzzled look of despair. This was my daily routine when I arrived in July until, well, not long ago.

Still now, the most common sentence in my personal vocabulary is "Ting bu dong": it looks like this 听不懂, and it means "I can hear you but I can't understand you". Mandarin Chinese is definitely a difficult language, and by difficult, I mean difficult. It's not words that you can just "pick up", if you don't know it, you are in the dark. It's like learning two languages, for between the spoken and the written there is no relation whatsoever: the written has 5000 characters, and as many years, under its collective belt; the spoken is a tangled web of tones that, although to a clumsy Western pair of ears sound perfectly the same, to Chinese people are totally different.

So, misunderstandings and the awareness of living in a nearly complete darkness, led me to regret my choice of spending six months in China and, as I started to think I will never be fluent, I didn't even want to learn such a difficult language.

All these seemingly impossible-to-overcome difficulties have been haunting me since the beginning but, oddly enough, little by little they are becoming the funny side of my stay in Shanghai. Now, I'm the first one to laugh when I don't understand or I can't express myself, and this is gradually revealing very helpful, firstly because I don't panic anymore and I just throw in all words I can muster, and secondly because people are more willing to give me the time to do such.

Apart from language-related adventures, recently I've been realising I'm slowly falling in love with China, its culture, its philosophy of life, its people.

This is a bit of a problem, and not just because here I can't get married (I know, it's sad, but not much I can do about it), but especially because I had different plans, which involved staying in China for a period between six months to a year and then moving to the Middle East for another six months to a year period.
However, at the moment, I can't see myself leaving China. Six months have already gone, the next half year will fly as fast as the previous one and I'm already thinking about extending my visa (again).

I'm not sure what has cast such a spell on me, probably the very easygoing aspect of pretty much everything in the Chinese lifestyle, or maybe the fact that you can do whatever you want and it will always be ok, or my gradual acknowledging that overcoming the challenge of integrating in such a different society is more rewarding than I thought it would be.

If at the beginning Shanghai was unsettling in a sort of "unwelcoming" terms, now it's the other way around. Feeling more "at home" than in any other destinations I've moved to is a bit scary, but certainly enjoyable.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Hopping on and off the little islands of the One Thousand Island Lake

It was early November, and in Hangzhou I had the first signs of what it would have been the Chinese winter. It's here that I experienced the first cold and had an idea of what to expect.

Although Shanghai's temperatures winter time are usually between 10° and 3°C, this year the city has been hit by an unusual wave of cold, joining the rose of countries slammed by anomalous weather conditions all over the globe, from Australia to the US to Brazil, to Europe. Unlike the past years, however, it's not raining much in Shanghai, nor I'm finding it very humid.

When I went to Hangzhou, it wasn't as cold as it is now, but as we were used to last summer's blazing heat, the sudden dropping of the temperature probably felt colder than it actually was. Additionally, spending most of the time in the upper deck of the boat defying wind and most annoying fine rain in order to catch the best views for photos (I know, very heroic of me), made it even more biting.

Every island has its own peculiarity, be it the recurrence of Chinese zodiac symbols, a ridiculously high concentration of snakes, or picturesque temples. In one of the islands I got on the cableway to further admire the view. Thick clouds, unfortunately, didn't allow a clear view of the landscape which, revealed pretty overwhelming nonetheless.

I'll take this as an excuse to go back during springtime, to devote a sunny weekend uniquely to those little islands, to fully enjoy what the One Thousand Island Lake has to offer and take the shots I missed last time.

More photos of the lake on my Flickr set.

Monday, January 10, 2011

In China, where I won't get married

Recently I have read a post by Kate of Adventurous Kate, about being too late to have a baby, and I was reminded of a funny event that had just happened to me.

Again, I have to thank my laoshi for her enlightening tips on Chinese society. This time, however, I would have probably preferred to stay in the dark.

Whenever she perceives a lack of attention in the class, our teacher throws in some funny bits of oriental etiquette, and this is how I suddenly realised I'm getting too old for having an "ordinary" life.

To be honest, I had already noticed how Chinese people react when I tell them I'm 32, not married and have no children: their head slowly starts leaning on a side, and the movement is usually associated with a compassionate "Aww...". Only when they see my puzzled look, they rush adding: "Oh, but you look 25!"

Probably because I've always lived in Europe, and only traveled out of Europe without really settling, this has come as a surprise. So far, I had never been considered "too old" and most of my friends are neither married or have children. Actually, marry too early is an aspect of Italian life a couple of generations ago.

My grandmother, for example, got married at 19, and at 26 had already to six children. Wisely, she has always advised her daughters not to do so, and instead pursue their personal life goals first. But obviously things had changed since the '40s and '50s, so my mom and aunts had the opportunity to make their own choices independently.

Fortunately, my mother has never put any wedding pressure on me, and has actually always advised to live the life I want, setting my own priorities.

Now, however, I'm gradually accepting the new reality: I won't get hitched in China.

Our laoshi's revealing anecdote was also very funny, telling about a quirky tradition in which desperate parents get to Shanghai city centre to stick their daughters' "CV" on trees or wherever they can in the hope that a Chinese version of Prince Charming can pick his future wife. However, what most has remained impressed in my mind is the very first statement: "Are you over-30? Forget it, you are too ripe to find a husband."

Apart from having already reached the fatal expiration date, I've never felt the need, nor the desire for that matter, to get married.

It's not that I'm totally excluding the possibility, but admittedly, my nomadic lifestyle of changing country (or Continent!) every two years, doesn't help.

Call it "commitment issues", "restless soul", "running away from something", anything might fit the description, but at 32 years of age I haven't thought about marriage yet. Should I?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

In China, a photographer's paradise

Along with studying Mandarin, I'm also enjoying the wonders of the Chinese mainland. Around every corner, there is a breathtaking view, unusual landscapes, quirky buildings, in a nutshell, a photographer's paradise.
View in ZhouZhuang water town, one of the most popular around Shanghai

China is huge, coming from Europe probably I didn't really have the sense of space, or at least not enough for when it comes to such big nations. Here everything is far from everything, to go to "close" cities, most of the time you'll need the plane.

For the period I will spend in Far East Asia, I want to visit as many countries as possible, but also explore China as much as I can.

Bridge in ZhouZhuang
Being studying in Shanghai, I naturally have more opportunities to visit the surroundings of the country's financial capital, and along with great subjects for my pictures, I'm absorbing the ancient culture that has contributed in making China the giant it is today.

One of the aspects I most like in Chinese culture is their close contact with nature. This has made me appreciate the small water towns around Shanghai, their typical gardening style that gives much importance to stones, exhibited in their original shape, with no further carving.

I went to Suzhou, considered the main water town, and visited two of the most important gardens. Everything there is built with the aim of enjoying natural phenomena with all senses.

ZhouZhuang-style "gondolas"
So there is the space for contemplating natural sceneries, the room specifically created to better appreciate the sound of the rain and winding waterways and calm lakes occasionally interrupted by the beloved stones, a gift to men from Nature.

These are some of the shots I took in ZhouZhuang water town, I've uploaded more on a Flickr set I've devoted to Shanghai's neighborhood, with other pictures from ZhouZhuang, Suzhou and ZhuJiaJiao.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Looking back at my travels in 2010

I've been reading to sweetest post about travel memories by Liz Borod Wright of Travelogged and it made me realise how much I've travelled in 2010.

S'Ardia
After having left home in 1998, and spent seven years in Rome, two in Dublin and two in London, I finally made it back to my hometown, Sardinia, for quite a long while. This has given me the invaluable chance to spend some quality time with my parents, visit places I had never seen, carry out some research on the fascinating past of my island, meet interesting people, going down Europe's deepest canyon, participate to some of my favourite local festivals such as S'Ardia in Sedilo and the Mamuthones of Mamoiada, enjoy Sardinia's culinary delicacies and listening to my grandmother's extraordinary story of when she and my grandfather left the island to move to France in the late '50s.

Local getting ready for dune driving in Abu Dhabi desert
During the year I spent in Sardinia, I have also travelled to the Middle East, a region that has always captivated me. So far I've only been to the UAE, but I liked it so much that it won't take me long to go back and explore the rest of that charming corner of the planet. My short, yet unforgettable, stay in the Emirates gave me the chance to spark my passion for the desert, not only for the timeless beauty of its endless stretch of sandy dunes, but also because I could better understand the past and the culture of this young nation.

I thoroughly enjoyed dawdling about Dubai and admired its quirky skyline, but have been captured by the characters I met in Abu Dhabi local markets, the typical places where you can genuinely sense a country's identity.

Gordes, Provence
Before leaving Europe, I somehow felt compelled to make another trip within the Old Continent, and this is how, end of Mars, I ended up in the French region of Provence, where my aunt lives. Here I had the unique opportunity to visit the creepiest dolls' house I had ever seen, be able to picture how was the life of the infamous Marquis De Sade after the Catholic Church banned him and his works from public life, wander the streets of a ghost town, and enjoy a photo-trip in Gordes, picturesque village located right on the edge of a cliff.

After all this traveling around, I finally made it to my new hometown, and last July I landed in China. For who's been following my blog, it's not a mystery that the beginning of my stay in Shanghai has been quite a shock and more than once I thought I couldn't make it.

The Great Wall of China
Fortunately, however, my Sardinian roots provided me with a good deal of stubbornness and made me refuse to admit defeat. Now I'm glad I stuck to my original plan, otherwise I wouldn't have visited so many great places such as the Great Wall or picturesque water towns, I wouldn't have met such beautiful people, I wouldn't have had the chance to explore the fascinating culture of ancient China, and especially I would have missed the chance to challenge myself with studying Mandarin, activity with the unique feature of making me realise that the more I learn the less I understand.

Despite this barrier and my initial shock, I've been gradually collecting little defining moments in the "Country of the middle", conquests that are contributing in shaping my personality, enriching my life experience and opening my mind to a whole new set of priorities. In a nutshell, I'm applying for a visa extension.

2010 has been exciting and challenging, and I wish 2011 will be as constructive and inspiring. Happy New Year everybody!
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