The Red Pa­ja­mas

China Pictorial (English) - - Front Page - Text by Rag­nar Bal­durs­son

Ev­ery vis­i­tor to China forms their own unique opin­ion, and for­eign-born res­i­dents tend to fancy them­selves “China experts” within the space of a cou­ple of months or so. As they stay longer, their au­thor­i­ta­tive claims of un­der­stand­ing China tend to be­come less as­sertive. Ob­ser­va­tions made by for­eign vis­i­tors and even long­time res­i­dents are in­vari­ably tainted by their own ex­pec­ta­tions and cul­tural back­grounds.

I am no ex­cep­tion. I have re­vised my un­der­stand­ing, or rather mis­un­der­stand­ing, of Chi­nese peo­ple, so­ci­ety and cul­ture over and over again. First Im­pres­sion

I en­joyed pon­der­ing the sights pass­ing by the win­dow of the train tak­ing me from Guangzhou to Bei­jing on my first visit to China in Oc­to­ber 1975 as a schol­ar­ship stu­dent.

China was not a rich coun­try. Dried mud sup­ple­mented bricks as build­ing ma­te­rial in vil­lages. The cities were over-crowded with a steady flow of peo­ple on ev­ery street, ei­ther on foot or bi­cy­cles. The only sharp or shin­ing colors to be found were on red flags and ban­ners.

Peo­ple dressed sim­ply. I re­mem­ber think­ing that the green, blue or gray out­fits might be eco­nom­i­cal. They could be masspro­duced and didn’t re­quire any ex­pen­sive ma­te­ri­als.

Ru­ral roads were nar­row and seemed to fa­cil­i­tate more horse­drawn carts than trucks. Some peo­ple rode bi­cy­cles, but not as many as I had ex­pected. Three-wheeled ve­hi­cles and trac­tors were com­mon. That pre­served re­sources, I thought. They didn’t seem very safe, though. Over­crowded buses shut­tled down streets, but hardly any sedans could be found.

I don’t think any­one at that time imag­ined that China’s streets would soon be filled with pri­vate cars. I didn’t ei­ther. The con­cept of pri­vate cars starkly con­trasted with the egal­i­tar­ian ide­ol­ogy of the Mao era be­fore re­form poli­cies were in­tro­duced at the end of the 1970s. Be­sides, I guessed that there were not enough re­sources in China for the waste­ful mass con­sump­tion of the e West­ern world. It was in­con­ceiv­able ble that car traf­fic would ever sup­plant nt the flow of bi­cy­cles in Chi­nese cities. ies.

Have You Eaten?

It took some time to ad­just to the most com­mon greet­ing, which h in­volves ask­ing whether the other per­son has eaten: Chi­fan­lema? Grad­u­ally, I re­al­ized that this kind of greet­ing, which re­mains com­mon on in Bei­jing, is pri­mar­ily re­served for r peo­ple you know.

Peo­ple you don’t know should d be greeted by stat­ing that they are good: od: “Ni­hao,” which lit­er­ally means “you you are good.” It sounds like an an­swer er to the English greet­ing “How do you do?” or “How are you?”

Greet­ing friends does not nec­es­sar­ily have to re­late to eat­ing, , how­ever. Other per­sonal ques­tions s are just as ac­cept­able. If you see a friend com­ing out of a shower room om with wet hair, you can ask if he has as show­ered. Upon meet­ing some­one e ex­it­ing his front door in the morn­ing, ing, you can ask if he just woke up.

It used to be po­lite to tell peo­ple ple that they have put on weight, but with chang­ing life­styles, most would uld prob­a­bly pre­fer to be in­formed that at they have lost weight. The point is s to show per­sonal concern.

Ask­ing about fam­ily is nor­mal. l. Your fam­ily re­la­tions de­fine who you are. In­for­ma­tion about brothers or r sis­ters is in­vari­ably fol­lowed up with th ques­tion about their age: “Are they y older or younger than you?” I am the old­est of four chil­dren in my fam­ily. ily. This fac­tor seemed im­por­tant to my Chi­nese friends.

It took me years to un­der­stand d this ob­ses­sion with age. Grad­u­ally, , I came to re­al­ize that the age or­der r

is cru­cial in Chi­nese cul­ture. Older si­b­lings have the re­spon­si­bil­ity of pro­tect­ing and guid­ing their younger sis­ters and brothers, who in turn should show re­spect for their el­ders and fol­low their ad­vice.

Boiled Wa­ter or Tap Wa­ter

Upon ar­riv­ing at my school, I dis­cov­ered that as a schol­ar­ship stu­dent, I got my own wash basin, wash­ing board, wa­ter cup, ther­mos and bed­ding. Th­ese were valu­able items and I would have to re­turn them af­ter fin­ish­ing my stud­ies.

A Chi­nese stu­dent who had been study­ing English for a year showed me around the premises. I asked him about the drink­ing wa­ter. Would I be able to drink the tap wa­ter at the dor­mi­tory?

My par­ents had not ex­pressed any spe­cific wor­ries about my ad­ven­ture to China to study, ex­cept for the dis­tance and the drink­ing wa­ter. We drink wa­ter di­rectly from the tap in Ice­land. I asked my stu­dent guide if it was okay to drink the tap wa­ter at the school. He took me down to the boil­ing room, where res­i­dents could get boiled wa­ter di­rectly from the boiler 24 hours a day.

But he didn’t un­der­stand my ques­tion. We went up to the wash­ing room and I asked if the wa­ter there was drink­able. He looked puz­zled. Sure, it would be drink­able, but hot wa­ter was only avail­able in the af­ter­noon, and it was still not re­ally hot enough for drink­ing.

I spec­i­fied cold wa­ter and re­peated the ques­tion. Would I be able to drink cold tap wa­ter? My friend was at a loss. Why on earth would I want to drink cold wa­ter? Maybe it was pos­si­ble. He had never tried it, be­cause it was not as good or healthy as hot wa­ter.

It was in­ter­ac­tions like th­ese that helped me un­der­stand that most cul­tural dif­fer­ences had noth­ing to Pa­ja­mas Dilemma

A cou­ple of weeks af­ter ar­riv­ing at Bei­jing Lan­guage In­sti­tute (later re­named Bei­jing Cul­ture and Lan­guage Univer­sity), I got a Chi­nese room­mate, Xiao Zhao, who was study­ing English. We were ex­pected to help each other with our stud­ies. His English was ba­sic and my Chi­nese al­most non-ex­is­tent. In the be­gin­ning, we re­lied on dic­tio­nar­ies for com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

My mother had sent along with me a pair of bright red pa­ja­mas. She in­sisted that she got them for a good price, and that the color had noth­ing to do with pol­i­tics. As I changed into my pa­ja­mas in the evening, I no­ticed my room­mate watch­ing. He didn’t wear pa­ja­mas. He would just put on more clothes if it was cold.

It seemed to me that he was smirk­ing; in fact he was try­ing not to laugh. Fi­nally, I asked why he was laugh­ing. He re­sponded by ask­ing if I was go­ing any­where. If not, why was I chang­ing clothes?

I thought he had a point. There was no need to dress up to sleep. Any­way, my mother was nowhere around to check up on me. So, I stopped chang­ing into pa­ja­mas in the evening.

When I re­viewed this episode in my mind four decades later, I even­tu­ally re­al­ized that I had mis­un­der­stood the mirth of my room­mate. Red is a fes­tive color in Chi­nese cul­ture. My bright red pa­ja­mas had ex­actly the same color as tra­di­tional Chi­nese wed­ding cos­tumes. No won­der my room­mate found it funny.

Rag­ner Bal­durs­son with his Dan­ish friend Verner Worm, as well as their Chi­nese roommates, in Bei­jing dur­ing the win­ter of 1978.

A gro­cery store in a Bei­jing vil­lage decades ago. Back then, to meet vil­lagers’ de­mand for daily com­modi­ties, many sup­ply and mar­ket­ing co­op­er­a­tives were set up on the out­skirts of Bei­jing. CFB

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