Monday, September 16, 2013

C'est la rentrée! The next chapter: My relocation and return to blogging

Bless me, it has been over a couple of months since my last blog entry. So what's happened since posting about the blue skies of Inner Mongolia? I nearly got killed from food poisoning and rabies (only messing), I adopted a stray dog who kept me warm at night and was a huge source of happiness - she is now somewhere out in the steppes mixing with dogs and wolves and god knows what! My Dad came to take me home and we went out to the grasslands to sleep in yurts and ride on horseback, visited hanging temples, haggled our way around Beijing and rode in rickshaws.

 Girly with her old and new owners
 Me and Dad horse-riding on grasslands
It was lovely being home - had a family rendezvous at the airport and driving through the countryside, everything looked so green and lush compared to the sandy plains and concrete mess of Hohhot. Then it was a busy few weeks over and back to Paris, trying to find a job, secure interviews, scout out an apartment. And it all came to a head these last few days, where I have finally found a lovely apartment in Boulogne (just escaping the 75 Paris postcode but still on the Metro line) and today, after 5 or 6 interviews, with a few different companies and different rounds, I got offered a job where training starts tomorrow. Yay! So now I can go out and indulge in a café crème and enjoy Paris a bit more, my new place of residence. I will hopefully will have lots more to share in the weeks to follow! :)

Monday, June 10, 2013

Today's Skies in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia

Yesterday, I couldn't stop taking pictures of the skies. They changed from day to evening to night with a lingering red delight at night. The word Hohhot itself means "Blue City" in Mongolian in reference to the blue open skies over the grasslands and deserts.

"Warm, moist spring winds caressed the Olonbulag: massive, blindingly white clouds hung low in the sky. The somnolent grassland sprang to life, transformed into an alternating bright and dark, yellow and white slideshow."

Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong is a novel I'm reading at the moment on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, the Mongolian people and their sacred connection with their land and nature - the people respect wolves for the fundamental role they play in protecting the grassland's eco-system.

As I walked around with my own dog, I thanked the skies for these wonderful moments and the times I've had living in Inner Mongolia.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Ancient Culture of China: No Nappies & Toilet Breaks Anywhere

Anyone who has been in China will probably have noticed most babies' lack of nappies - disposable or otherwise. Instead they have a big slit in their baby jumpsuit.  I'm not going to go into too much detail but it exposes everything! And the idea is they can do their business anywhere! I have not seen young babies do it, but I've seen toddlers to ten year olds pee at the roadside, in the city and the worse one, in the Summer Palace in Beijing, a tourist spot, with teams of foreigners and a hefty entrance fee to get in. It's not just the plebs who do it!

Being More With Less: My Feelings on Minimalism

Minimalism. Living more simply. It's a trend that is seeing many forms and there are countless blogs out there (some of which I've read and followed) and books on the subject. Since the Global Recession, and with the general hectic pace of 21st century living in the West, it makes sense for more people to live a slower, more simple life which is can be more fruitful and meaningful.

A Tibetan Buddhist Monk at Da Zhou Temple, Hohhot

I am a girl in her mid 20's who likes pretty things and like many women, appreciates and likes to buy nicely crafted items, fashion, books and cosmetics. But I also don't own a house, don't have a car - what I like most is to travel and see things, to experience things. As I've grown up, I've realised that I don't hold on to the things I buy, but I hold on to the experiences - arguably I do hold on to the experience of having some possessions (that's why presents can be so nice - my Tiffany bracelet I got from my godmother is a prized possession and I have a story about it, the same with presents from my boyfriend, family and friends). Last year, my parents bought me a place at a 3 day Freelance Journalism Course at the Listowel Writer's Festival in Kerry. I went down by myself and had a fabulous weekend in the company of likeminded writers, readers, dreamers, learned new skills, met some celebrities and famous writers and made new friends. It was a worthwhile and memorable weekend and I gained so much from it that not a single possession could buy. 

So, in the last few years, I've become more and more detached from my many items. I've realised that there are only a few dresses, one or two handbags and pairs of shoes that I really cherish. I move around a lot and haven't spent one year in a place for 4 years now. It has made me initially accumulate a lot of stuff but I've done many clear outs, giving to charity shops, selling books and selling clothes on ebay. My biggest joy has been giving away stuff I don't need or want to friends I think would enjoy them and in return swapping and borrowing books, bags and clothes from friends. Someone's throwaways are another one's treasures, right?

It's ironic that on a post on minimalism, I seem to be writing an awful lot, but it turns out I have a lot to say about it. I believe a level of minimalism is for everyone, from the young to the old. Here is a breakdown of some aspects of minimalism and some examples.

1. The 333 Challenge: Confining your wardrobe to 33 key pieces for 3 months at a time

The idea is simple. Limit your wardrobe to 33 key items for 3 months (a season). This includes dresses, tops, trousers, coats, shoes, bags and jewellery. It does not include underwear, gym or sport wear. I have done this somewhat while in China. I tried to pack minimally and over winter, I mainly wore one dress, one skirt and one top and one pair of trousers, changing it around with accessories etc. It really made lots of sense - I was totally comfortable with what I wore and didn't have any style crises. For summer, I wear 3 or 4 different dresses and 1 trousers and top. Maybe it sounds boring but it's anything but. I've realised that a signature look is fashion forward, it helps a lot with packing and it gives me space to bring home presents and souvenirs from China. Being hampered with lots of luggage is not cool - it's a hassle getting from place to place, it's a burden and excess baggage for a flight is expensive. For further information on this challenge, which many people are trying and blogging about, go to

2. Buying less but spending more on quality items which will last

The recent Bangladesh factory disaster highlighted the conditions of workers in the clothing industry, the type of workers who make most of the clothes we buy on the highstreet. Disposable fashion - shopping cheaply on the highstreet - is not only unethical but damaging on the environment and these low quality items are not even valued highly by charity shops. I've started to cut down on buying nice dresses, shoes and bags that I see and shopping more consciously, for high-quality, ethical items. I have bought 2 dresses from, a fairtrade fashion store. And if you think these clothes will be hemp type, undyed or bright hippie coloured styles, think again. Look at some of these very elegant, classic dresses. Another great way of buying less is doing clothes swaps with friends and shopping at vintage shops and charity shops - you are reusing an item of clothing and at least not consuming a new product.

Spending more money on something of a higher quality that won't break or give way is usually worth the investment. For more reading on ethical fashion, try this book, I've enjoyed reading it on my Kindle and I've become more aware of the value of clothes and materials.

3. Consuming less, Reducing Use of Packaging & Reusing

Recycling is not the first option - recycling is costly and not always necessary. The first R of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle is Reduce. So Reduce your consumption of convenience food products, buy in bulk and cook from scratch as much as possible or eat at canteens or restaurants. Buying in bulk will reduce the amount of packaging consumed. But there are many ways of Reusing some of the packaging that come with products. Here's a few ideas.

 During some sunny days here in China, my friends and I had a few tubs of icecream. But instead of throwing them away, I asked them for their tubs, I cleaned them out and found all sorts of uses for them. With the lids, I used them for putting used teabags on and also I used it as a soap tray. No need to buy any! I have lots of bits of jewellery, small earrings especially and hairclips so the tubs were ideal for this! Also the yellow paper cup came in handy to store pens, chopsticks etc.

It's the paradox: parents spend a fortune buying toys for their children and then the child will choose to spend hours having fun with a cardboard box! When I was an au pair for a 4 year old little girl in Paris, she had all toys imaginable. But what she loved most was arts and crafts (as well as singing and dancing after her bath). We had great fun making snowflakes out of scraps of paper, drawing and colouring. One day, the family's weekly shopping came on delivery in lots of strong cardboard boxes. I had a brainwave and started cutting one of the boxes and making a roof. We played around with this house for  nearly 2 weeks. We even made paper people. She loved showing it off to her parents. At Christmas, we made angels out of toilet rolls. I put one on the Christmas tree one evening and it was gone the following week. I was disappointed that the parents had thrown it out but then when I met the mother, she told me that they had given it to her sick granddad in hospital. Cute! That was the best present for me! And it was priceless :)

4. Live With 100 Items. Or Be A Nomad And Live with the Bag on Your Back.
Monks only own 8 items but many modern working people are taking up the challenge of living with  a restricted number of things in order to live a richer life (financially and spiritually). Dave Bruno is the man behind living with 100 items and many people have followed him There are also many digital nomads and 'permanent' backpackers out there who live with just the clothes and items in their rucksack! This enables them to live a footloose lifestyle and they have more money to enjoy experiences while travelling. A digital nomad is someone who can work at any location - i.e. online, which enables them to travel freely. This UK couple are quite inspiring in what they do and I envy their lifestyle - they have jammed in many countries, such as Cuba and Mexico this year.

5. Moneyless
If minimalism really takes your fancy, maybe you're meant to join a religious order. But if you want to remain a layman, Irish man Mark Boyle (Moneyless Mark) lived without money for 1-2 years. Read his manifesto here 

Finally, living a minimalist lifestyle doesn't mean you have to forgo your creature comforts - living more minimally
is making do with what you have, customising, upcycling and finding other uses for things. I'd love to know your 
opinions or ideas in the comments section.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Chinese Children Are Cute: Happy Children's Day!

It was Children's Day in China last Saturday, June 1st, a special day of celebration for children and one of my students' favourite festival throughout the year. I worked at the amusement park that day, where a lot of children and families filled the park from 8 in the morning - we did some activities with the children and their families, mainly to promote the English school I work at. 

A side effect of China's One Child Policy is that children are cherished to no ends by their parents. All money and ambition is invested on their one little Emperor. Sadly, many babies are abandoned and worse due to tough government measures and traditional views. It was lovely to see parents and their children out celebrating on what was a totally child-centred day. And in a week where a newborn baby's rescue from a sewage pipe in China made worldwide news, celebrating children in China and everywhere seemed even more poignant. 

Friday, May 31, 2013

Conversations on a Little Red Book

After a long day marvelling at the Forbidden City, we went to Jingshan Park, for a walk, some icecream and some panoramic views of the Forbidden City as well as the rest of Beijing.

Of course, I had to stop by the stall that sold English (and French), as well as Mandarin copies, of Chairman Mao's Book of Quotations and I couldn't help but haggle a copy for my own pleasurable reading. Once I bought it, I quickly stuffed it into my bag, remarking "I don't want to be seen with it. I don't want to look like I'm supporting the cause!"

Chairman Mao's Book of Quotations or also known as "The Little Red Book" was prescribed reading for all Chinese people during the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960's and 1970's. Each Chinese household was required to own a copy, along with volumes of Mao's Selected Works and school children and workers were forced to recite its content during their working day. Here are some quotes from Mao's Book: 
"Reactionaries are Paper Tigers." 
"Power grows out of the barrel of a gun."
 "People of the world, unite and defeat the U.S. aggressors and all the running dogs...Monsters of all kinds shall be destroyed." 

We got to the top of the hill and sat on a bench in front of the pavilion, overlooking the city. I took out the Little Red Book. And then a man in his late 50's walked by and remarked in English, ah "our great leader's book." He began talking to us, asking us the usual multitude of questions that Chinese people like to ask foreigners. Where are you from, what do you do, how much do you earn. He told us that he was a businessman in the clothing business, as he pointed proudly to his jersey shirt.

And so began the man-man talk with my boyfriend, as I looked on. "Oh computers. He is very intelligent. You must be proud of him," he cackled to me. "You have a very elegant girl. She will serve you well," he said back to my boyfriend. "She can just stay at home and won't have to work. You can take care of her." This infuriated me. But he meant well. After all the days of Mao have passed and the hardhitting communist policies have eased. During the Cultural Revolution, women and men were expected to do the same amount of labour, often very intense, working in the countryside or in industry. Even being heavily pregnant or severely sick was no excuse not to work. Now, China 'dances' between a communist and capitalist economic model and everything seems a contradiction. There are still huge gaps between rich and poor and inequalities between the sexes, as well as racial and tribal prejudices.

 China may be ready to take on the world as a superpower, but is the rest of the world willing to receive it?

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Food Glorious Food: Eating in China

Food is the ultimate comfort. When one feels homesick, one often thinks of your "mam's mashed potatoes" or your little sister's knack for a "good, strong cup of sugary tea." Food is love - it brings family and friends together and connects us all. And this is true in China - eating together is their main social activity. 

I've mainly eaten out here, only skipping the MSGs a number of times to make some sauteed potatoes with olive oil and salt. I've done pretty well considering I'm a pescetarian (I don't eat any meat or poultry but I eat fish and dairy products). I thought it would be worse considering I'm living in Inner Mongolia, where they're famous for being meat lovers - the Mongols anyway, but there's enough Chinese influence here to nourish me on aubergine, tomato and egg dishes and fried rice. But having that all the time? Well it does get a little boring and god, do I miss so many things. Really my diet has changed drastically over here and there are so many things that I'm used to at home that I can't have here. Let me give you a list:

RICE/BREAD/DESSERTS: The main staple here is rice, rice and more rice. I do like rice though. They also eat lots of noodles up north which are nice enough - quite thick though. The bread here is not nice - it's all sweet. There is no proper savoury bread, so no baguettes and no nice cakes. No desserts at all! The Chinese are not famous for baking and for desserts. I really, really miss that (I have such a sweet tooth)!

A typical meal at college canteen - all this costs less than 1 euro!

VEGETABLES: In fairness, I've got to eat lots of nice vegetables - plenty of aubergine and nice greens, nice soups with vegetables and unusual mushrooms.

FRUIT: I've eaten some lovely fruit here: great bananas, pineapple, mangoes, mulberries, apricots, peaches, nectarines, strawberries, watermelon, really fresh and bought from street sellers.

DAIRY: I don't bother with the milk - it's all UHT. That just won't do for an Irish girl!

No cheese either except Mongolian cheese I've tried once, which is hard, like eating a sweet.

I eat plenty of eggs. I need the protein! I don't care if there was a Bird Flu epidemic!

FISH: I don't bother with the fish here. It's limited anyway and we are thousands of miles from the sea so it's not fresh.

TOFU: I thought tofu would be my saving grace here, but the sauces are usually really potent and not to my taste in the restaurants in Hohhot. Did have some lovely tofu dishes in Beijing though.

SUGAR: I have just finished a 300g bag of sugar and that's all the sugar I've used the whole time I've been here. In the same length of time at home, I would probably have gone through 1-2 kg of sugar for drinking with Barry's tea and milk. It's something I'd like to cut out altogether but I like it too much when I drink black tea. Also I've been drinking lots of other tea like green tea, mint tea, barley tea.

ALCOHOL: They drink beer at dinner - it is very weak and I don't enjoy it. I drink it a bit sometimes when I'm out for a special dinner just for the sake of it. If we go out, it's whiskey and iced tea - I haven't drank a lot of that - don't really like whiskey. The baijiu (Chinese liquor) is like paint stripper and it's drunk just for the hell of it. All in all, I don't really drink that much because I don't enjoy it. I miss nice wine with dinner or for going out and also nice cocktails (hope I don't sound like a fancy pants) - I was so happy to have a bottle of wine from France for my birthday and nice Chinese style mojitos.

Of course, I have had my little indulgences, including one trip across town to the new Carrefour where I bought 2 boxes of cereal and fresh Australian milk (oh the luxury) and I did get some sneaky packages of chocolate sent from France.

When in Beijing last week, it was heaven on earth, foodwise. The best two meals were the sushi restaurant, Hatsune, in the Sanlitun/Chaoyang District and the Yunnan food in the Dali Courtyard Restaurant. Although it certainly wasn't home food, it satiated all my senses, pleasing my eyes as well as my tastebuds. And that's something important, which I've missed.

Irish food can be quite basic and wholesome, maybe not as stylish as French or Italian cuisine, but it's familiar and comforting. I'd give anything for some of my dad's smoked salmon, fish and chips, beans on toast, mashed potatoes, seafood chowder in Dunmore East, some scones, butter, jam and a pot of tea. I also miss French food as I've lived there so much recently, a little part of me is there. I miss baguettes, pain au raisin, moules frites, some nice fish at a brasserie, wine, patisseries... I miss other European food like Italian and Spanish - I even miss Indian and South East Asian food - very exotic in North China. Hohhot feels very Chinese to me even though it consists of minorities like Mongols and Hui Muslims. In general it's quite monocultural - it's definitely not a melting pot. In a way, that's intriguing in itself and a challenge to live in but it's difficult being a "foreigner" - if you're black or white, you'll always feel a bit of an outsider.

Chinese people don't understand that sometimes you just want to have lunch alone, while reading a book. Or have dinner and linger for ages afterwards, like the French do. And a cafe culture does not seem to exist - not in Hohhot anyway. I miss going for tea somewhere, reading, peoplewatching, staying for an hour or two. Instead, when you go for dinner, they expect you to order instantly, your food is brought out in hickledypickledy fashion (to our Western ways anyway) - meat first, then vegetables and last rice. As a foreigner you are the fodder for peoplewatching especially if you go to a hole in the wall restaurant, like we usually do. One evening, I was having a quick dan chao fan (fried rice) across the road on my own and 2 men could not stop looking over at me every few minutes. They said something to me and I "ting bu dong-ed" them - they sniggered. We're always the butt end of the joke. I find it quite amusing though. Another time, myself and one of the guys had dinner, when a gaggle of women came in with a few old geezers. An old man came and stopped at our table to peer at us.

I like how my boyfriend put it best. We were out at in the old town - I was taking some pictures, when an old man came, stopped and examined me "like I was a plant." I guess I was just as bad - taking pictures of the things and people around me as a tourist.

Sometimes I wonder what it must have been like for both Christopher Columbus and the natives. They must both have thought of each other as fascinating species.

To conclude, here's a little equation:
Home is where the heart is. The way to a (human's) heart is through their stomach.
Home=Heart; Stomach=Heart
Therefore my heart, my passion, my love is for home and my stomach!

Hatsume Sushi Restaurant, Sanlitun/Chaoyang District, Beijing

 Dali Courtyard Restaurant (Yunnan Province Cuisine)