How to do your wedding photos in Inner Mongolia.

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As most of you dear readers probably know, Mr Wang and I got married last year. However, since we just did the government-document-y marriage license stuff, most of the folks here in Inner Mongolia don’t consider us to be “properly” married yet. We’re having a wedding this July, which means there are roughly nine hundred billion things to plan and organise, and one of the most important of those things is getting our wedding photos taken.

In China, wedding photos are a Big Deal, you see.

First of all because you get to be literally plastered in makeup and then get to prance around in ridiculous clothes for an entire day. Boys too. And second of all because the photos are then shown as a cheesy slideshow on a ginormous LED screen throughout your wedding (just like in the olden days! Or not).

Plus you’ll have all those precious memories immortalised on a USB stick to show the grandchildren/the neighbours/Facebook.

Today Mr Wang and I got our wedding photos taken, and so now that I’m home and my false eyelashes have been peeled off, I’m going to explain how we did it, and how you, dearest readers, can do it too.

Firstly, you’ll need to find a wedding photo studio and book a day to do your shoot. If you live in a Chinese city this won’t be difficult as there are at least twelve photo studios on every street. If your Chinese husband happens to have a coffee shop which happens to have a wedding photo studio opposite, you can probably negotiate some kind of discount by smiling sweetly at the reception lady and saying something vague about free coffee.

When you’ve booked the day and that day arrives you should go to the studio and have a look at the example photos they have, and choose the styles you want. You might decide on three sets of photos: “Ye Olde Chinese Emperor-Type-Thing/Rock ‘N’ Roll Sunglasses and Alcohol”, “Extremely Serious Giant-Hideous-White-Wedding Dress and Snazzy Tuxedo with Pointy Shoes” and “Proper Authentic Mongolians in the Proper Authentic “Grasslands””.

Once you’ve decided, you can go and have a look at all the amazing clothes you can wear. Although you will initially be amazed at how indescribably hideous some of them are, don’t worry – by the end of the day you will have completely lost sense of what is tasteful and what isn’t. In Inner Mongolia, this attitude towards fashion isn’t just accepted; it’s encouraged.

The next step is to get your face done. If you are a girl, you’ll probably have to sit there for at least an hour while a lady applies foundation and pressed powder to your face with hundreds of different brushes and sponge things. And after a while your husband, overcome with boredom, might wander off and you’ll be left to make awkward Chinese chitchat with the makeup lady.

When you’ve exhausted all your Chinese vocabulary you might be just sitting there listening to the background music, and then you might find yourself singing along to a particularly catchy song. You might then think to yourself, “Hang on, isn’t this Denmark’s entry from the Eurovision Song Contest? Why are they playing this in a wedding photo studio in Inner Mongolia?” As you ponder this, you might then hear your husband’s voice on the tannoy system.

“HELLO SUSANNA!” The voice might shout. “THIS SONG IS FOR YOU BECAUSE YOU ARE SO BEAUTIFUL!”

Your makeup lady (and all the other makeup ladies) might start giggling and tell you that they wish they could understand English, because they want to know exactly what your husband is saying. Interestingly, they probably won’t seem the slightest bit concerned that your husband has hijacked the studio’s online music player and tannoy system.

And then the voice might continue. “YOU ARE SO BEAUTIFUL AND SO WEIRD AND I LOVE YOU SO MUCH. BUT DON’T CRY. AND BY THE WAY THEY HAVE A CAMERA AND I AM WATCHING YOU.”

And you might kind of want to cry a little bit but then you’ll start worrying that the tears might mix with the false eyelash glue and fuse your eyelids together forever. So you keep listening to Denmark’s Cliché Love Song and feel glad that you married a guy who appreciates Eurovision.

Finally your makeup will be finished, and then your husband will also get plastered with foundation, eyebrow pencil and a teensy bit of mascara. You will watch his face in the mirror and secretly laugh when you realise how excited he is by all this.

Then you’ll be helped into your Ye Olde Chinese Emperor clothes (complete with red silk platform shoes and loads of sparkly, dangly hair accessories) and escorted to a room with a red backdrop and lots of spotlights. A photographer with a very fashionable haircut will give you all kinds of bizarre props, like a gigantic red bow, a fancy cane, some 90s mirrored sunglasses and some bottles of Bacardi Breezer, and position you and your husband into all kinds of bizarre poses. Sometimes he will shout SMILE in English, and other times he will shout NO SMILE. BE COOL.

You will have so much fun.

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Then it will be time to change. Your husband will go into a mysterious tuxedo cupboard and return looking ridiculously handsome. You will be taken behind a curtain and helped into your massive-hideous-white-wedding dress. If your hideous dress is strapless (which it really should be), you’ll have to first attach a very strange piece of apparatus to your body. It resembles two raw chicken breasts, with a little plastic clip to connect them, and it’s self-adhesive. Try not to be alarmed if the makeup lady removes your bra without warning and enthusiastically sticks the raw chicken to your chest. Repeat the mantra: This Is Inner Mongolia, and This Is Normal.

This time the photos will be very serious and “romantic”. You and your husband will have to stand very close to each other and gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes. You’ll also have to do some cheek-kissing and face-stroking. When you get the final photos back you’ll probably have forgotten how agonising it was for these “spontaneous” moments to be created. The photographer will instruct you to bend back a bit, lower your head, turn a little to the right, raise your left hand a tenth-of-an-inch. Then, finally, when you look perfectly spontaneous, he’ll shout GOOD! DON’T MOVE! And take some photos. Your entire body will be aching when this is over.

At this point, dear readers, you will probably want to eat, you may want to sleep, and you will definitely need to pee. However you must remember that right now absolutely none of these things are possible. The shoot must go on. Your lipstick will be re-applied, your husband’s drawn-on eyebrows touched up, and your Mongolian clothes taken out of their plastic bags, ready to be put on.

You’ll have a burst of fresh energy once you see how amazing you look in your extremely over-the-top Mongolian gear, especially the ridiculous beaded headdress thing. Your husband will look pretty good too.

The makeup lady and the photographer and you will wait outside the studio while your husband goes to fetch his best friend’s car to drive you to the “Grasslands”. While you’re waiting, approximately fifty passers by will stop and stare at you and try to subtly take photos of you on their phones. The makeup lady will hang onto your arm and gush about how beautiful you are for the nine millionth time.

When you arrive at the “Grasslands” (i.e. a very big park in the city), you’ll get out the car and immediately be surrounded by more random people who want to look and you and tell you that you’re beautiful. You should fight your urge to punch them and just smile. The day is nearly over.

The photographer will find a nice spot of grass and trees and direct some more arty poses, this time including “looking off into the distance pensively” and “pointing enthusiastically at nothing in particular”. He might ask your exhausted husband to pick you up, and your husband will oblige but almost pass out afterwards from hunger (and probably also the need to sleep and pee).

Finally, you will drive back to the photo studio, put your normal clothes back on and say goodbye to all the staff. Before you go, the staff might insist on taking loads of group photos because you’re just so damn beautiful. You’ll be told to come back after a few days to get the finished, edited pictures.

Then you and your husband will be free to pee to your heart’s content and then have dinner. You will be so excited when the food arrives that you probably won’t talk at all.

Then, later, your husband might ask if you noticed the other husbands having photos taken at the studio.

“Not really…” you might say. “Why?”

“Because they were ALL staring at you the whole time. And their wives were staring at you too, but the wives looked really angry! Hahahahaha!” Your husband will reply.

“Hahahaha!” You will laugh too, and feel almost proud in a weird, mean kind of way. Because you did feel quite beautiful today. But as strange and as fun as it was, you’re much happier now you’re at home, makeup-free, in your pyjamas. In fact, after this, you might think you kind of just want to have your wedding ceremony in your pyjamas. Would that be okay?

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Western women versus Asian men versus all the other humans.

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Since I started this new blog, two interesting things have happened. Firstly, I’ve been followed (not literally, that would be creepy) by loads of other blog-writing folk who also live in China or who also have a Chinese husband or boyfriend-type-thing. And some of these people have left nice comments or sent me nice emails and made me feel all Springtime-cherry-blossomy inside. Some of the people, in their nice emails, expressed how happy they were to know that there’s someone else like them, someone who’s also signed up for a lifetime supply of Oriental chopstick-wielding love.

The thing is, in a few of these messages, I noticed a strange OH THANK GOD I AM NOT ALONE kind of vibe going on.

Alone? That’s a bit weird, isn’t it? I mean, if you’ve been lucky enough to meet someone with whom you’re actually prepared to throw yourself into full-on qipao-wearing wedlock, should you really be telling people (especially total strangers like me) that you feel alone?

This girl who I kind of know, a foreigner, has a Chinese husband. And one day last year she told me that her Chinese husband wanted to become friends with my Chinese husband. “Why?” I said. And she told me it was because he wanted someone to talk to, to make him feel less isolated. “Talk to about what?” I thought. Are us yangxifus really so different to Chinese women? This guy has a wife who loves him, who is a human, never mind from which part of the planet. He’s just like his friends who also have human wives. Why should he feel any different?

I don’t really get why being married to someone from a different country would make you feel isolated. If anything it should make your life more full! You have a new country, new language, new culture, new style of cooking to add to your own. And you have a new person and a family who love you and want to teach you about all of it. To me that’s a pretty non-lonely life.

Of course, sometimes this whole intercultural thing can be a tad annoying, like when you want your husband to buy a replacement ink cartridge for the printer and he JUST CANNOT UNDERSTAND what you’re talking about and you JUST CANNOT EXPRESS “replacement ink cartridge” in Chinese. And sometimes it can be totally hilarious, like when your American friend Rhian asks him where she can buy chamomile tea and he says “Camel tea?! Why would anyone want to drink camel tea?!” And sometimes you’ll learn something weird from your exotic other half, like the Chinese superstition about how you hold your chopsticks. Hold them in the middle and you’ll marry someone from your hometown, apparently. Hold them at the end and you’ll marry someone from far, far away. I bet you can guess how Mr Wang and I hold ours.

Anyway, the point is that if a culturally mixed-up life is what’s thrown at you, you’re probably best to embrace it. But at the same time, don’t keep telling yourself that you’re different from everybody else. That’s just making the choice to isolate yourself. We’re not some kind of minority or subculture here – we’re humans in love with other humans. Just like everybody else.

Which brings me to the other thing.

A couple of people also asked me to write some guest blog posts for their “Asian Male / Western Female” websites, and one of them was a dating site specialising in matching up ladies and menfolk from the aforementioned parts of Planet Earth. Now please note, dear readers, that while I have nothing against internet dating (although I’ve never done it myself because I prefer to creepily stalk people in real life), I do feel a little bit weird about the idea of narrowing down your soulmate-search to a chosen ethnicity. Would that not limit your options, for a start?

Whenever I considered the possibility of finding a “plus one”, I imagined he’d be someone with a face; with some eyes and a nose and a mouth. Maybe a couple of arms and legs. I didn’t decide in advance that he should be Scottish or French or Indian or Inner Mongolian. Or tall or short or skinny or chubby or obsessed with playing videogames or a Nobel Prizewinner, for that matter. I just figured he’d be someone good, and hopefully someone as crazy as me.

The dating website sold Tshirts with I LOVE MY ASIAN BOYFRIEND screen-printed across the front. And I thought, “Am I missing something?” This whole time should I have been wearing a MY HUSBAND IS AN INNER MONGOLIAN AND THAT’S WHY I LIKE HIM Tshirt? And should Mr Wang be wearing one that says MY WIFE HAS BLUE EYES, YELLOW HAIR AND WHITE SKIN AND ISN’T THAT, LIKE, THE BEST THING EVERRR?

Maybe it’s nice to be proud of your SO’s ethnicity. I don’t know. And I get that there’s a “community” of people who, for some reason or other, enjoy spending most of their time cuddling their Asian guy or their western girl. But I sort of hope that these people chose each other for reasons other than their mysterious dark eyes or their sparkly golden locks or their [insert stereotype here].

I suppose I just never thought that by starting this blog I’d automatically become part of a community. It’s been lovely to have such a warm welcome, but I hope nobody’s reading this and thinking AT LAST! SOMEONE ELSE LIKE ME! NOW I’M NOT ALONE! Because you were never alone in the first place, and I’m sure you don’t really need someone else just like you anyway. Least of all this Scottish-Chinese-Mongolian weirdo. Just see yourself as a person, and see the boy or the girl you love as another person. That should be all there is to it.

Now, who knows where can I get a Tshirt that says I ❤ MY HUMAN BOYFRIENDDD?

How to take a taxi in Inner Mongolia.

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If you live in a city in Inner Mongolia and you want to get from A (for example, your home) to B (for example, the rollerskating disco), you have several options. One option is you can ask your Chinese husband if he can “borrow” his uncle’s BMW. Another possibility is to travel by bicycle. This is of course a very traditional and authentic mode of transport in China (although these days in Baotou it’s more traditional to have a BMW) but when temperatures are as low as -20, cycling is about as pleasurable as having a pneumatic drill smashed into your face.

That then leaves you with the bus (cheap, but also kind of like an Oriental sardine convention) and the taxi.

And so this week, my dear readers, I am going to teach you how to travel by taxi in Inner Mongolia.

The first thing you’ll need to do is be able to recognise an Inner Mongolian taxi. In Baotou this is very easy. There are the old taxis, which are turquoise-coloured and a bit bashed-up, and there are the new ones, which are yellow and shiny and mostly dent-free. Both charge the same amount, which is roughly ten yuan for a journey of roughly ten minutes. Not bad. If the taxi is vacant, it will have a little red light flashing on the dashboard.

Fascinating…

Once you hail a taxi and get in, the driver will switch on the meter, a strange automatic robot voice will welcome you, and you will have to explain where you want to go. This means you will have to say something in Chinese.

If you really, really can’t speak Chinese, you can ask a Chinese friend to text you the name of the place where you’re going, and you can show the text to the taxi driver. For extra confirmation, you can point enthusiastically at the text message and shout “ZHE GE!” which means “THIS!” and is probably the most lifesaving thing you will ever learn in China, ever.

Once you have learned some more Chinese, however, taking taxis becomes much more fun. This is because during your journey the driver will almost certainly want to give you an in-depth interview about your life.

The typical interview begins like this:

Driver: “Your Chinese is very good!”

You: “It’s really not, I can only speak a little bit.”

Driver: “Which country are you from?”

You: “Scotland.”

Driver: “Scot… Land. Is that like Britain?”

You: “Um. Well. Yes.”

Driver: “How many years have you been in China?”

You: “About a year and a half.”

Driver: “Only a year and a half?!!! And already you’re fluent in Chinese!”

You: “…”

The driver will then ask you a further selection of questions from this list:

“So you’re a teacher, then?”

“How much do you make in a month?”

“Does your school give you a free apartment?”

“Does your school give you free meals?”

“Do you like your country or China more?”

“Is your country as cold as China?”

“What do you think about Chinese people?”

“Are you married?”

“How old are you?”

“Foreigners are really tall. How tall are you?”

“Will you stay in China forever?”

If the driver is a woman, as many in Baotou are, she will also probably tell you that you’re beautiful and that she likes your white skin, blue eyes and yellow hair.

Although answering your driver’s questions can be enjoyable (you should try to ask your driver some questions too), it often feels a bit like you’re in the taxi version of the film “Groundhog Day”. So to make your journeys more interesting you will need to find a slightly mad American co-passenger. Ideally one called Rhian.

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(Now I’m not sure where you will find your Rhian, but I found mine in a hostel dormitory in Japan last year and somehow convinced her to move to Inner Mongolia. You can attempt to find your own Rhian using a method of your choice.)

Once you’ve hailed your Inner Mongolian taxi, you should encourage Rhian to sit in the front seat, as that is the best place to begin a conversation with the driver. You should make sure that the driver knows where he’s taking you, and then you can let Rhian take the lead.

Rhian will begin by asking the driver, in Chinese, if he likes menmian (the amazing Mongolian noodles cooked in a massive iron pot).

Sometimes the driver will be confused and terrified and will try to avoid conversation, but other times the driver will reply cheerfully.

If he says, “I don’t really like menmian”, Rhian will gasp in horror and say, “WHAT?! You don’t like menmian?!!! I like menmian. I LOVE menmian.”

Then Rhian will ask the driver if he likes milk tea. Sometimes he will say yes, sometimes he will say no, and other times he will be paralysed with terror and just try to drive you to your destination as quickly as possible.

Next, Rhian will ask the driver if he likes drinking coffee. Most of the time he will say no. Coffee is strange and only Americans drink it.

But when Rhian asks if he likes drinking beer, the driver will become very excited and say, “BEER! YES! GOOD!”

Rhian: “And baijiu?”

Driver: “YES! I LIKE IT!”

Rhian: “I don’t like baijiu… nooooo. Very bad…” (mimes vomiting)

This is all very entertaining for all involved, and makes for a wonderful taxi experience. But if you want to have the best Inner Mongolian taxi ride ever, you need to look out for a driver who’s quite short, 40-something and semi-bald, because he will be amazing. 

Amazing Driver: “FOREIGNERS!”

You: “Yes!”

Amazing Driver: “Are you teachers?”

You: “Yes!”

Amazing Driver: “Are you on holiday now?”

You: “Yes!”

Amazing Driver: “GREAT!”

Rhian: “Do you like menmian?”

Amazing Driver: “Hahahahahaha!”

Rhian: “I LOVE menmian!

Amazing Driver: “I also love menmian! Hahahahahaha!”

Rhian: “Do you like milk tea?”

Amazing Driver: “Milk tea? If you want to drink REAL milk tea you have to go to the GRASSLANDS! Hahahahahaha!”

Rhian: “I LOVE milk tea!”

Amazing Driver: “Do you like mutton?”

Rhian: “Hahahahahaha!”

Amazing Driver: “Real mutton comes from the GRASSLANDS!”

Rhian: “I love you!”

Amazing Driver: “Hahahahahaha! I love you!”

Rhian: “Do you like beer? Or baijiu?”

Amazing Driver: “No, I drive so I don’t drink.”

Rhian: “I don’t like baijiu… Very bad…” (mimes vomiting)

Amazing Driver: “Hahahahahaha!”

Finally, after much hilarity your amazing driver will drop you at your destination, although none of you will be able to stop laughing. You will give him eleven yuan and he will wave ecstatically as he drives away. You will miss him immediately.

And so, dear readers, you have learned that taking a taxi in an Inner Mongolian city is quite easy and lots of fun. It’s also a very good way to practise your Chinese. It’s also much cheaper than a BMW.

A strange interview.

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It’s a normal weekday morning in Inner Mongolia and I am lying on the faux leather sofa complaining about having cramps, and about being tired because I had to get up at 6:45 to go to my class (which actually just involved showing up at the classroom, putting on an end-of-term Christmas film and drinking nescafe), and about being cold because it’s -12 outside. Life is so haaaaard, I say, before picking up my gigantic mug of tea and turning my head to the exact angle where I can drink and use my laptop AND watch Doraemon: The Movie on TV.

I am lying on the sofa and Mr Wang is in the kitchen (his natural habitat) making lunch, pretending to listen to my complaints but actually fully absorbed in Doraemon: The Movie.

Meanwhile my BFF, Brandi, is sitting on her sofa in America and messaging me on Facebook. I think she’s happy that I have finally started writing stuff again because she is suggesting things I should write about.

“You should interview Mr Wang about your love story!!!!!” she types, with fewer exclamation points. “Hahahahahaha.” I reply. “Ok. What should I ask him?”

Just as I start to think about it, Brandi fires me a list of ten questions. She’s very proactive.

“K. Thx. Kewl. G2G, L8Rz, TTFN!!!!” I say. (Actually I don’t, because nobody has said anything like that since 2002.) And then Mr Wang and I eat lunch.

When I tell him that my American BFF and I have prepared a list of questions for him to answer he doesn’t seem particularly surprised. Since we started living together I have made much stranger requests, like asking him to help me when I get stuck doing a headstand against the bedroom wall. Or when I want him to pretend that the corridor in our apartment building is a catwalk and we are supermodels. Or when I insist that we only talk to each other in “fake Mongolian”. He’s admitted that I’m a bit weird, but is glad because he’ll never get bored of living with me.

I resume my horizontal position on the faux leather sofa and begin the interview. “Question one: What did you think the instant you first saw me for the first time?”

Mr Wang thinks for a moment and says, “Sooo beautiful.”

I burst out laughing. “Beautiful?! And…?”

“And… foreign,” he says. Of course. It’s difficult to overlook that.

I continue. “Question two: Did you have any hesitations about marrying a British woman?”

This time he doesn’t waste a nanosecond. “No.”

“What? Really?” I say. “You mean you weren’t even a teensy weensy bit worried about being stuck with a mad foreigner your whole life?”

“Nope.”

Ah, that’s nice.

“Ok… Question three: What is your favourite thing we have ever eaten together?”

“I really, really like it when you eat A LOT OF FOOOOOOD!” He shouts. “Because then I know you’re happy!”

“But what’s your favourite food to eat together? How about when we were in Yunnan and I forced you to eat bugs with me?”

“No!” He screams, and shudders. (The bug-eating incident was actually really funny, I thought. Oh well.)

“I think menmian,” he says, which is a Mongolian dish of amazing noodles with potatoes and green beans and meat cooked in a massive iron pot. Most people get about halfway through the pot before announcing defeat and getting the rest to take away. We, on the other hand, can scrape the pot clean. The first time we did this the restaurant lady screeched with delight and shouted through to the kitchen, “Oh my god! They actually finished it!”. We are becoming local celebrities just for the vast amount of food we can shovel down.

“You’re definitely fatter than before,” says Mr Wang, before skillfully adding, “but also more beautiful.” He then reaches over and grabs a handful of my newly acquired stomach flab to properly show his appreciation.

“Question four: What do you say most often now that you never used to say before you knew me?”

“What?” He says. I repeat the question.

“I love you,” he answers. “Because I didn’t use to say it in English before! Ha ha ha!” Then he thinks for a minute and tells me that he never really said it in Chinese either, because that’s not the culture. Chinese people show love through actions rather than words. “So when I cook for you it means… WO AI NI!!!!!!” he shouts so loudly that I’m sure all our neighbours are jolted out of their post-lunch naptime.

“Question five: What is your favourite memory of the two of us?”

Mr Wang grins and says, “When you gave me your QQ number!”

This was ages ago when I used to go to his coffee shop and pretend to be doing work and he used to come over and give me free cake and start awkward conversations. Finally I wrote my QQ number (I suppose that’s like your WhatsApp ID or whatever you lot use in your countries) on a piece of paper and gave it to him and then ran away as fast as I could before I had a panic attack.

“And you drew a picture of a strawberry with a face on it next to the number,” he says. “Girls never give their numbers first.”

I told him that was because I knew he was so shy that he would never have asked for mine, and then I would have had to keep going back to the coffee shop again and again.

“And actually pay for your coffee!” he laughs.

“Ok, moving on. Question six: If you could add any one thing to our relationship, what would it be?”

“Nothing. I don’t think. Our life is really good. Oh but when we get our new sofa it will be even better. So the answer is ‘a new sofa’.”

Easily pleased.

“Question seven: If you and I were both animals, what animals would each of us be, and why?”

“We would both be dogs, like Ido.”

Ido is Mr Wang’s gigantic poodle that I’m pretty sure has the dog version of ADHD.

“And why?” I ask.

“Because I love dogs. I would be a black one, and you would be white, like Ido, because you are better-looking.”

“Question eight: What do you think will happen when you meet my parents?”

This time he thinks for a while and then says, “I’ll be happy and excited and a bit scared – together. But I will love them.”

“Question nine: Was there anything surprising to you about the way I live?”

“Nothing surprising,” he replies.

I ask why and he says it’s because when he met me he knew I was a “good girl” and so when he saw my apartment he wasn’t surprised that it was “clean and nice”.

“And you have all this stuff,” he points at my red Tibetan yak shawl thingy and my fairy lights and my purple alphabet fridge magnets. “Like an artist. I always knew you were an artist. How many more questions are there?”

I tell him there’s only one more and it’s a good one.

“Question ten: What is the strangest thing you have ever heard someone say in Chinese about the two of us?”

Immediately he assumes the voice of a typical Chinese passer-by and yells, “NI LAOPO SHI LAOWAI!” – ‘your wife is a foreigner!’

I roll my eyes. “Yes, but that’s not strange because everyone says that!”

Then we remember the time we were in a taxi and the driver said to Mr Wang in Chinese, “Are you the foreigner’s translator?”

We start laughing as we remember.

Mr Wang had replied, “Yes” and the taxi driver had followed up with the most obvious question, “How much does she pay you each month?”

“Nothing!” Mr Wang had said in pretend frustration. “In fact, I always have to give her money!”

The taxi driver was totally mystified. “Why?!” he cried.

“Because she’s my wife!” Mr Wang said.

After that the taxi driver went very quiet and just kept his eyes on the road. When we reached our destination he politely took the fare and told us to have a nice day.

“Hahahahahahaha,” says Mr Wang.

“Hahahahahahaha,” I agree.

Then he leaves to go and open up the coffee shop and I fall asleep on the faux leather sofa for a bit. I’ve got to gather my strength because I’m showing another end-of-term Christmas film to my students at 2:30. Life is pretty good.

***

PS: I wrote this last week, and since then the new sofa we ordered has arrived. So life is literally perfect now. 

Merry Mongolian Christmas.

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This year I celebrated my second Inner Mongolian Christmas. Although, since I had three classes to “teach” this time last year (I made my students watch and analyse Wham’s “Last Christmas” video) I don’t think that really counts as celebrating. So really, this was my first proper Inner Mongolian Christmas. And it was fabulous.

I woke up at the crack of dawn (8:46) and prepared a breakfast of coffee and green tea ice cream flavoured Oreos, then Mr Wang and I put on our seventeen layers of thermals and cycled to the park.

Local parks are perhaps my favourite thing about China. In Scotland, parks are just for dog walking, football playing, drug abusing and, for one or two afternoons of the year, sunbathing. But here in China you can do absolutely anything in your local park and nobody bats an eyelid. Some of the best Chinese park activities include walking backwards, ballroom dancing, karaoke, throwing yourself against a tree repeatedly, tai chi, and loud screaming. Sometimes I attempt all of these at the same time.

(The dancing and singing are just nice social activities for old people, but the others are popular because of their supposed health benefits. The tree thing is a kind of budget self-service back massage, and the loud screaming, according to Mr Wang, is excellent for your throat and also stops you from getting wrinkles in your forehead.)

Our local park is a particularly fancy one – it has a lake. In the summer you can hire pedal boats shaped like swans and pagoda-type-things, but in the winter the lake freezes over with several thick layers of ice, which means it’s perfectly “safe” to walk on. So we did some backwards walking, tai chi, ballroom dancing and loud screaming on the lake and gave up when the frostbite started to kick in.

Then we took Mrs Stallone (the bicycle) home, and my friend Rhian came over and we made weird Mongolian pancakes (with meat) and watched a ridiculously long Bollywood film and then passed out for the afternoon. Just like Christmas back in Scotland. Kind of.

In the evening the coffee shop was mega-ultra-busy with Christmas-celebrating, young, hip Chinese people. To ease the stress I wore a Christmas tree hat and played Wham’s “Last Christmas” on repeat, which finally drove all the customers out. We got a taxi home and walked the last bit, backwards.

So that’s Christmas over for another year, but nobody here really cares because they’re too excited about Chinese New Year next month. This will be my first Inner Mongolian New Year, AND to make things even more interesting, my parents are coming from Scotland to celebrate with us. In less than five weeks the intercultural mutton-eating, baijiu-drinking, mahjong-playing, red-envelope-giving madness begins!

Inner… peace.

yogacat

Inner Mongolia’s not all yurts and hotpot, sunshine and rainbows, y’know. It’s busy, and tiring and sometimes stressful. Every day is packed full of activity, from getting up in the pitch-dark at 6:30am, to trying desperately to get my students to stop staring blankly at me and say something in English, to elbowing my way through herds of old ladies at the supermarket vegetable-weighing counter, to my Chinese classes… and then I have to factor in the time spent procrastinating, noodle-eating, scarf-knitting, gossiping and walking backwards in the park. It’s a hectic life, dear readers.

And now I have a Chinese husband to take care of too. I mean, who else is going to pick his old socks up off the floor? (Joke! I never pick up his socks, I leave them there for the magical sock fairies to magically wash and magically put back in the drawer!)

It’s almost the end of term, again, which means as usual I’m about 91.6% burnt out and drinking about 9.16 cups of coffee a day (I can forgive the stupid socks since my “barista” husband is the best caffeine drug dealer a girl could wish for). I realise this isn’t particularly healthy, so instead I have decided to cut down on the cappuccinos, sleep more, and get myself some real, actual inner peace. Try not to laugh, dear readers – I’ve re-joined the Inner Mongolian yoga class.

I know, I know, I know. More than two years in India and not even an attempt at a suryanamaskar. But in Delhi all I had to do was drink chai, saunter off to my Hindi class, saunter back and drink more chai. Not exactly a taxing existence, and so I didn’t feel that cultivating my inner garden of tranquility was really a high priority.

So here I am in Inner Mongolia, becoming a yogi.

(Note: you observant types might have noticed that I said “re-joined” yoga class. Way back in February I returned to Baotou after two months of pure, unadulterated food tourism in Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong. No longer being able to fit into my thermals, I panicked and joined the gym and threw in a few yoga classes for good measure. However, the day I got my gym membership also happened to be the day I met my husband, so before long I was much too busy counting his nose freckles to do any exercise, and so, like anyone else in my situation would have done, I quit.)

Anyway, this time I’m doing yoga for the inner peace. Everyone knows that married people get fat (if you don’t believe me, ask science) so there’s not a lot I can do there. Maybe I’ll be flabby ‘n’ flexible. But I’ll also be reeeeally chillaxed.

So yeah, I’m an Inner Mongolian yogi. How many of those do you think exist? Well, dear readers, you may be surprised to hear this but yoga is actually all the rage here in Baotou. Every class, loads of ladies show up in their shmancy lycra yoga costumes and unroll their shmancy rubber yoga mats and sit cross-legged, gossiping until the teacher arrives.

Our teacher always shows up in her lycra yoga gear and a pair of thigh-high black leather stilettoes (which she always removes, to my disappointment). She gossips a bit with the ladies and then puts on some soothing yoga music. Her favourite yoga CDs are “Simon and Garfunkel à la pan pipes”, and “Now That’s What I Call Weird Rainforest Background Noises”. Also, ocassionally, Chariots of Fire will come on at a perfectly timed moment, like when we all have to do a headstand. I’m terrible at headstands, but with that tune playing I automatically get into the mindset of COME ON, you can DO this! YEAH!!!

And then I fall over.

I am getting better, though. I can bend over and put my hands flat on the floor. And I can just about do that thing where you have to hook your legs over your shoulders and lift yourself off the ground.

The other yoga ladies are amazing though, like some kind of teenage mutant ninja human noodles, bending into all kinds of strange shapes without even breaking a sweat. And they’re all petite and toned with dainty little feet. I, on the other hand, am like a pink, flabby, incredible hulk.

Which meant it was especially awkward in yesterday’s class when the teacher told us to pair up to do some exercises. My partner just happened to be the best yogi in the class, and about half my height. What followed was an excruciating  (physically and emotionally) hour of lying on top of each other, holding each other’s legs up at very unnatural angles and, the worst part, lifting each other up. I could lift her easily because she weighed about the same as a box of cereal, but when she attempted to pick me up off the ground I had never been so painfully aware of my gigantic-foreignerness. She did it though! And of course the rest of the class stopped to watch, and then congratulated her heartily.

Anyway, what will be an uncomfortable memory for me will, I’m sure, become that lady’s new favourite story. Whenever she’s at an office party or chatting to her hairdresser she’ll be able to wow everyone with her incredible tale of “That Time I Got To Lift Up A Massive Foreigner In Yoga Class”.

What’s important, though, is that I actually enjoy the yoga, mostly. It is calming. And I do feel healthier. And when I’m older and trying to cope with my three Scottish-Mongolian teenage children I expect it’ll be useful to be a bit fitter and bendier.

As for now, this newfound inner peace will get me through until the winter holidays begin, and then, who knows, I’ll have so much free time I might take up Tai Chi as well.

How to get married in Inner Mongolia.

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Hello dear readers, and welcome to the first of my “How to do stuff in Inner Mongolia” series. Today, you are going to learn all about getting legally/officially/government-document-ly married here. And it’s not really so difficult.

First of all you’ll need to find yourself a Chinese boyfriend and convince him to propose to you. This can be quite time-consuming, and you’ll probably first have to become best friends with his grandmother and attempt to learn some Chinese so you can tell her how much you enjoy eating her homemade dumplings. You might also need to agree to walk your Chinese boyfriend’s gigantic white poodle in the mornings because your Chinese boyfriend takes so long in the shower that he doesn’t have enough time to wash and walk the dog without being late for work. It might also turn out that the giant white poodle has ADHD, so you should remember to keep it on a lead at all times unless you want to run all over the park trying to catch it and bring it home.

When your Chinese boyfriend finally proposes you should make sure you steal the iphone that his best friend was using to secretly film the entire event and delete all the footage before it makes its way onto the internet (because nobody needs to see the bit where you said, “Er… What are you doing? Why are you dressed so nicely? What’s with all the roses?”).

After you’ve got a very sparkly diamond on your finger, it’s time to start thinking about getting your Chinese marriage certificate. If you’re a foreigner, you first need to go to your Embassy and give your “Notice of Marriage” and apply for a thing called a Certificate of No Impediment, which means you’ll need to travel from Inner Mongolia to Beijing.

You might want to check flight prices before booking your train tickets, because otherwise you might find out that you could have flown there (in one hour) for less than it cost to travel by train (in twelve hours). Oh well.

On arriving at Beijing railway station you’ll probably be feeling exhausted because you were awake all night listening to the National Chinese Snoring Championships. That means your first stop will probably be Starbucks. Fortunately there is a Starbucks downstairs from the British Embassy, where all the baristas wear little bowler hats and waistcoats. You might try to encourage your fiancé to instate a bowler-hat-and-waistcoat uniform policy in his own coffee shop in Inner Mongolia, but sadly he will probably assume you’re joking, laugh politely and change the subject.

When you go to the Embassy you might be a little shocked at how kind and polite all the staff are. Try to remain calm. There is a massive stack of forms to fill out and you need as much energy for this as possible. After filling out all eleven zillion forms, you’ll have to pay an exorbitant fee, and wait for the Vice Consul to sign and put some official-looking stamps on some of the forms.

While you’re waiting for the Vice Consul to finish her tea break, you might want to pass the time by reading the other Notices of Marriage on the notice board. You might roll your eyes and snigger when you see that ALL the notices are for foreign men engaged to Chinese girls – there’s not even one notice for a Chinese man marrying a foreign girl.

Before leaving Beijing you might want to visit Starbucks again, do some shopping in Xidan and then decide that you should probably do something vaguely cultured before your train home. And so you might end up at the Temple of Heaven. While you’re there, you might even want to dress up in some ye olde Emperor gear and have your photo taken. If the girl with the camera tries to charge you 120 yuan, you might want to ask your fiancé to smile at her and remind her how beautiful and kind she is, causing her to blush profusely, giggle, and agree to 50 yuan.

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When you arrive back in Inner Mongolia, you’ll have to wait about three-and-a-half weeks for your Certificate of No Impediment to come in the post. You can spend this time doing normal things like going to work, sleeping and eating dumplings. You’ll also need to go to a photography studio and have your marriage certificate photo taken. You should try to look 50% serious and 50% happy in your photo.

After your certificate arrives in the post from Beijing, you should collect your Chinese fiancé and every form of ID you and he have ever owned and go to the Civil Affairs Bureau. You might arrive there at 2:26pm and be told by the security guard that the office doesn’t open until 2:30pm. The security guard might look at you, see that you’re foreign, then look at your Chinese fiancé and ask what you’re going to the office for. When your fiancé tells the security guard that you’re getting married, the security guard might become overwhelmed with joy and insist on taking you to the door of the marriage registration office. Try not to be alarmed by his lack of teeth.

The marriage registration bloke will ask for all fifty million pieces of identification you’ve brought with you, and make photocopies of them all. He’ll then tell you to fill out some forms. As you’re writing, the security guard might return and begin to gush about how thrilled he is for you and your fiancé, and how he wishes you a lifetime of happiness. You should smile and say thank you and try not to look at his teeth.

The marriage registration bloke will eventually print your details inside two little red booklets and glue in your semi-serious, semi-happy photos. He’ll hand the books to you, and you’ll pay him a fee of 9 yuan. Your fiancé might make an awkward joke about how expensive your certificate from the Embassy was and how cheap actually getting married is in comparison.

And then you will be married. You and your Chinese husband will leave the office feeling a bit strange. You might look at your husband and think, “Oh. That’s my husband” and your husband might ask you why you’re staring at him. You might notice how sunny the weather is and how you can see your breath come out in little white clouds. The whole world might suddenly look a bit more beautiful.

And then your Chinese husband might ask, “What should we do now?” and you might reply, “Ummmmm. Oh! I know! Let’s eat an entire cheesecake!” If you’ve married the right guy, then your husband should grin at you and say, “Good idea!” and take your hand and walk with you to the nearest bakery.