Stories, Travel

Reflections on China

Prior to the Ninja Turtle’s visit to China, she had certain preconceptions about the place. Having only visited the country once – and this was way back in 1999, on a primary school trip to Beijing – her knowledge of China was vague at best. Sure, she knew the country had made progress in leaps and bounds, but when one is stuck with the memories of a public schooling system with too many hyper-disciplined, super-enthusiastic students crammed into a tiny classroom fighting to answer every single math question, and public toilets in a brand new state library with no doors on the cubicles, it’s hard to know just what to anticipate.

First and foremost, the infrastructure is pretty well established. There are certainly a lot more cars than bicycles on the roads now, which also explains the constant curtain of grey that hangs on the horizon. Let’s just say those aren’t rain clouds.

Since it has been over 10 years since the Ninja Turtle has lived in a Mandarin-speaking environment, her confidence was initially shaky. Sure, she occasionally speaks Mandarin with Mother and Papa Turtle, but mainland Chinese will very quickly point out that the Chinese diaspora speak bastardised versions of proper Mandarin.

This is especially so in Singapore, where the people arguably speak a creole. What some people take pride in as bilingualism is in fact, generally a substandard ability to faintly grasp two languages just enough to get by. To the Singaporean-Chinese ear, mainland Chinese speakers have a very strong accent when speaking in Mandarin.

After a day or two however, the Ninja Turtle got accustomed (thanks perhaps in part to her 4 years of Chinese-school education… yes yes, she went to a Chinese-education school, no need to point and laugh hysterically). She even got complimented on her Mandarin skills by a few people, which is not so different from when the French back in France compliment her for speaking English really well…

Another pre-trip concern was the food. Shameful confession of the week: the Ninja Turtle loves food, but food doesn’t always love the Ninja Turtle. This is especially the case in Singapore, where the Ninja Turtle lives like royalty – she eats a plethora of exciting dishes in food courts, hawker centres, restaurants, and inevitably, spends a lot of time the following day sitting on the throne… So there were questions as to just how well her guts could handle food in China (Mother Turtle could offer no real helpful advice in this area) and also, whether she’d get used to the taste.

A quick word on the standards of service in China: it is AMAZING, and the Turtle isn’t just measuring this against shoddy French service standards. The hotel staff were almost creepily efficient at their job, and it took the Ninja Turtle until the end of her stay to appreciate and get used to it. On day one, she requested a quiet corner, and was given a very comprehensive explanation of how buffet breakfasts worked while shown to her table.

Ironically, when she asked where the coffee machine was, she was told that the coffee would be brought to her table. Now the Turtle likes her coffee in a very particular way, so she said no worries, she could serve herself, it was a buffet after all. The service staff gave her a very injured look, as if the Turtle had challenged her very purpose of existence by cheerily suggesting self-service at a buffet breakfast. A few back-and-forths of insisting who would get the coffee later, the Turtle relented.

Day Two onwards, everyone on the team seemed to know everything. She was greeted warmly each morning, no repeating her room number, automatically shown to a quiet corner, served her coffee and glass of water, and checked upon every 15 minutes to see if the meal was up to standard, and the coffee topped up like magic. As she left, she was waved off by no less than 5 people, wishing her a pleasant day. It felt like these wait staff were customer service angels, and the hotel restaurant Customer Service Heaven.

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There was one thing the Ninja Turtle was looking forward to in China, but sadly, it did not eventuate. Not often does the Turtle visit a new city and not take the opportunity to run in it, exploring the sights. Sadly, the quality of the air was enough to make this asthmatic Turtle think the better of it. After all, running is meant to improve one’s health, not compromise it. And truly, it’s not fun at all when one is wheezing like Darth Vader after 500m.

Fortunately, the hotel where the Ninja Turtle was staying in had a fitness centre, and possibly the best treadmill she's ever used in her life.

Fortunately, the hotel where the Ninja Turtle was staying in had a fitness centre, and possibly the best treadmill she’s ever used in her life.

She even went for a dip in the swimming pool, but got severely told off for not wearing a swimming cap, even though she saw no signs, nor received any instructions about the matter prior to going in the water.

She even went for a dip in the swimming pool, but got severely told off for not wearing a swimming cap, even though she saw no signs, nor received any instructions about the matter prior to going in the water. It was the one and only time on her trip she feigned complete ignorance of the language and pretended she didn’t understand a damn word that was being yelled in her face.

So there you have it, some reflections of China. A vibrant and exciting country that’s straddling two worlds – developing and developed – with most of its ancient history and culture still thankfully preserved despite the Maoist regime, and a culture of keeping up with the Joneses driving its domestic consumer spending (although that is probably still peanuts in the grand scheme of its economic growth). Five days isn’t enough to go by, but this simply means one thing: the Ninja Turtle will definitely be returning to China for more.

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Arts and Culture, Food, Travel

The Ninja Turtle Makes A Pilgrimage

Today was a public holiday in Zhenjiang, China. Rather, it was a “make-up” holiday for 端午节, which fell on Saturday 20 June this year. 端午节 is sometimes also known as Dumpling Festival or Dragon Boat Festival or Double Fifth Festival (because it falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month), and from its various names, one can only guess at the significance of this wondrous day.

This is a holiday to commemorate the poet and politician 屈原 (c. 340–278 BC) who lived back in the Warring States era of the Zhou Dynasty. A quick summary of his story goes as such: patriotic chap served in high offices, his royal leader allied with the enemies, chap gets banished for opposing royal leader’s decision and accused of treason – btw chap gets all emo and writes plenty of poetry during this period – some years later their city is betrayed by allies and in despair, chap flings himself into a river full of piranhas. The local folks panic and race out in boats (hence the Dragon Boat Festival), chucking sticky rice dumplings into the river to feed the fish so they won’t eat his cadaver (hence the Dumpling Festival).

This is the version taught to the Ninja Turtle as a child. There are several other pretty cool legends involving dragon worship or celebrating a female character called 曹娥, both of which are pretty amazing but neither of which are familiar to the Turtle, so she dare not elaborate, but here’s the gist. Coincidentally, the fifth day of the fifth lunar month falls pretty close to the summer solstice (longest day of the year) in the northern hemisphere, so perhaps it was all simply an excuse to party hard?

Anyway, the Ninja Turtle knows it’s a public holiday in Zhenjiang, China this Monday because no surprises, she’s right here. Catching the early morning flight bright and early at 8am from Singapore to Shanghai yesterday, she rode another 4 hours in a car to reach Zhenjiang. Since it was a public holiday, she got to do a spot of sightseeing with her relatives and a new acquaintance at possibly the most famous landmark of Zhenjiang – 金山 (Golden Hill).

Jin Shan Temple in Zhenjiang.

Jin Shan in Zhenjiang.

金山 (Golden Hill) has quite the history to it. Although standing only at 44m tall, it houses 金山寺 (Golden Hill Temple), built some 1600 years ago, and has a pretty cool story attached to it. The legend of the White Snake (白蛇传) in Chinese literature goes as such – some young boy eats some immortality pills and pukes it out; a white snake spirit who’s like, hundreds of years old swallows the pill and takes on a beautiful human form. A tortoise grows jealous of the snake’s immortality. Some years on, the boy grows into a man and meets this beautiful snake-woman and they fall in love, while said tortoise turns into a human monk called Fahai. Man dies of shock when he discovers his wife was a snake, snake-woman revives dead husband with magical herbs, and husband still loves her.

All well and good except the tortoise-monk had a vengeful streak so he imprisons clueless husband in 金山寺; snake-woman tried to free her husband by flooding temple and some innocent folks died as collateral damage, but her powers were limited cos she had a bun in the oven. Tortoise-monk captures snake-woman and imprisons her in some pagoda while her husband was consigned to life as a monk (but later their kid comes back to save them or something… look, it was like the ancient version of Game of Thrones meets The Hobbit plus some Xena/Hercules thrown in for good measure and it all gets rather complicated with animal-people so the Ninja Turtle can’t remember it all OK? But Google will give you more if you’re so inclined.) Apparently this was a story started as an oral tradition and is now one of the four great Chinese folktales. And  金山寺 was the setting of this epic tale, so the Ninja Turtle could only gape like an idiot while wandering around the site the entire morning.

The lotus flowers were only beginning to bloom...

The lotus flowers were only beginning to bloom…

Going in, the first sight was of vendors selling joss sticks, to be burnt as offerings to the gods/spirits/something.

Going in, the first sight was of vendors selling joss sticks, to be burnt as offerings to the gods/spirits/something.

So of course the Ninja Turtle HAD to buy some.

So of course the Ninja Turtle HAD to buy some.

A photo with her 三姑 (auntie on dad's side of the family; his third sister) at the entrance.

A photo with her 三姑 (auntie on dad’s side of the family; his third sister) at the entrance.

Walking in, the Ninja Turtle quickly learnt that there was in fact, more than one temple; in fact there were a cluster of them. She didn’t take any photos out of respect since it was a religious site with people praying and all, but she did spend a good long time gaping at the incredible sculptures of the four sky gods, the eighteen arhats, the various buddhas and the Goddess of Peace. Her new acquaintance taught her how to kneel on the red silk pillows, offer prayers and the proper etiquette to bow.

Here is an idea of the various temples and pagodas at the site. The colour yellow/gold indicates royal endorsement, specifically from some emperor dude called Emperor Kangxi in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Here is an idea of the various temples and pagodas at the site. The colour yellow/gold indicates royal endorsement, specifically from some emperor dude called Emperor Kangxi in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

The writings of the emperor (the Ninja Turtle poses with her 二叔 - uncle on dad's side of the family, second bloke in the family which means Papa Turtle is the oldest male in the family).

The writings of the emperor (the Ninja Turtle poses with her 二叔 – uncle on dad’s side of the family, second bloke in the family which means Papa Turtle is the oldest male in the family).

View from the top of Golden Hill.

View from the top of Golden Hill.

On the way back down, the Ninja Turtle was treated to the sight of people throwing coins (trying anyway) into the mouths of the stone sculptures. Apparently if the coin goes in, the person will get wealthy.

On the way back down, the Ninja Turtle was treated to the sight of people throwing coins (trying anyway) into the mouths of the stone sculptures. Apparently if the coin goes in, the person will get wealthy.

Second Uncle Turtle explained that these were Buddhist scriptures that were conversations between Buddha and the Sky Emperor (think along the lines of Plato's The Republic if you will).

Second Uncle Turtle explained that these were Buddhist scriptures that were conversations between Buddha and the Sky Emperor (think along the lines of Plato’s The Republic if you will).

What Second Uncle Turtle explained to the Ninja Turtle while strolling through the temples was this – that everything is nothing and nothing is everything. What we see around us is all but an illusion, and what is eternal (that is, the soul) is invisible to the eye. What we cannot see remains eternal, and all that surrounds us is transcient and temporary.

To quote John Oliver – Holy Shit. That’s some pretty heavy stuff to be talking about on a public holiday Monday morning. Contemplating Life, the Universe and Everything before wine o’clock gives the Ninja Turtle some serious heebie-jeebies. Fortunately, distraction was at close hand…

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So wraps up the Ninja Turtle’s adventures on her first morning in Zhenjiang, China. It was an emotional morning, and she was left contemplating how despite being of Chinese descent, there was so much of Chinese history and culture she was unaware of. The world is a large place, and in a cosmopolitan globe-trotting generation, there’s a lot we learnt of ourselves by seeing the unknown in new places, but sometimes, the only way we can truly know ourselves is by returning to our roots.

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